Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday 2020

April 5, 2020

Mark 11:1-10

“Witness Something Truly Majestic”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today on Palm Sunday is from Mark chapter 11.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Okay, given our current situation with COVID-19 and the whole global pandemic thing going on, this might not be the best way to start a sermon today. That being said, what would you do if you knew when you were going to die either by the Coronavirus or another way? Would you even want to know? Jesus knew that His death was less than one week away on that Palm Sunday, and I am sure that the cross loomed in the shadows of the waving branches. What about you? Would you want to know the day of your death? Many people don’t. But let’s say that you did test positive for COVID-19 and nothing could be done? No, getting the Coronavirus doesn’t mean automatic death, and 7000+ people in the US have died from this virus. But what if – for you – it would be? What would you do if time allowed?

That was the premise of the 2008 film “The Bucket List.” “The Bucket List” is about an auto mechanic and billionaire who meet for the first time in the hospital after both have been diagnosed with cancer. Each man has less than 1 year to live. As he wrestles with his new sense of mortality, the mechanic begins writing a “bucket list,” or things to do before “he kicks the bucket.” The billionaire discovers the list and promises to pay for everything the two want to do. The pair then begins an around-the-world vacation, embarking on everything from race car driving to sky diving to an African safari. In the end neither men survive, but the Bucket List gets completed when both men’s cremated remains are buried overlooking Mount Everest so that they can “witness something truly majestic” – the first item on the list. Even in death, these men were able to witness something truly majestic in a figurative sense.

The same can be said of those who literally witnessed that very first Palm Sunday celebration: that day they witnessed something truly majestic. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is one of the most significant events in Jesus’ public ministry. That fact becomes more and more apparent when a person knows the significance behind the key aspects, that is, the importance of the donkey and the reaction of the crowd.

First, you recognize the truly majestic when you note Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is on a donkey. The donkey was the traditional mount for kings and rulers in the ancient Near East. By riding on a donkey into Jerusalem, Jesus was making an implicit claim to be the king of His people as He fulfills OT prophecy of Zechariah. In addition, Jesus is also making a statement about what kind of King He is. Most kings are associated with war horses and tanks, but Jesus’ statement as He enters Jerusalem majestically that day was one of peaceful humility. That is the kind of King Jesus is – a king of peace and love, not clubs and swords. The people that day truly witnessed something majestic.

Secondly, we know this is a truly majestic event because of the palm branches and the reaction by the crowd. Palms were a long-standing sign of victory in the Greek world; think of it as a 1st century version of “ticker tape.” But more than that, the waving of palm branches has been associated with Psalm 118 for centuries, in particular verse 25: “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!” In Hebrew, the word for “save us” is “Hosanna!” which is what the crowd shouted that day and is indicative of what the crowd wanted from Jesus – salvation and deliverance…from Roman occupation and oppression. Little did they know what kind of form that salvation and deliverance would take by the end of the week. They really misunderstood the situation

But are there not times, especially lately, when we also display misunderstanding? Hailing King Jesus one minute and then turned your back on His goodness and mercy the next? Sure, we want to be like the crowd shouting Hosanna! – “save us, Lord” – but now we’re pinning our hopes on stimulus checks instead. A government check isn’t going to fix this; God in Christ will. Are there times this week when you have been like Peter denying your Lord and His provision in these uncertain times? Have there been times this week you, like Thomas, doubted your God and His ability to get you and your loved ones through this pandemic?

Despite our failures and shortcoming and denials and betrayals, in the events started at Palm Sunday we see the length that our Lord was willing to go for sinners like us. He was willing to be brutally manhandled and cursed at and betrayed and abandoned and shunned and mocked…for us and for our salvation. Every kick, every punch, every lash of the whip, every pound of the nail. Those are your sins doing that….those are my sins doing that to our King. But this is God’s majestic will and His plan for the deliverance of His people. Only the pure and holy Lamb of God was able to bear the load of this world’s sin and pay the price that none of us could ever pay. But He did it. He did it through the blood and agony and anguish and torture. Talk about witnessing something truly majestic; in the events of Holy Week we see something eternally majestic.

So, what does Palm Sunday mean for Christians in 2020? This is certainly not what anyone expected. We all expected to be here – in church – waving our palm branches and majestically singing those great Palm Sunday hymns like “Ride on, Ride On in Majesty,” “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” and “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” But that’s not happening now, is it? It’s hard to think of these times and this situation as “majestic” – empty churches during Holy Week. But this is still every bit majestic. Easter is more than eggs and bunnies and new dresses and filled church pews. Coronavirus didn’t defeat Easter. Easter defeats EVERY virus, especially the virus of sin.

I truly believe we WILL see something majestic as a result. When we are able to be back in worship, I don’t think people will take that for granted anymore. We will appreciate all of God’s blessings and however they’re manifested to us. No, things will never be “the same” again, but is that all bad? Remember what it was like before COVID-19? Maybe we don’t want to go back to that! Maybe our new normal will better reflect God’s majestic presence and purpose in our lives once again.

Today we again witness something truly majestic as Christ comes to us in His Word; NEVER take that for granted! This is how God helps and supports us in this life and in this time of crisis. He comes in His Word to encourage, to give life, to support, to forgive sins, and give hope in a currently increasingly hopeless world. And with that hope…eternal hope…we are prepared for whenever death overtakes us that we may witness something truly majestic – the glory of heaven – which was opened to us because of Jesus’ majestic entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.

Welcome to Holy Week in the year of our Lord 2020.

Amen.

5th Sunday in Lent

5th Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020

John 11:17-27, 38-53

“Resurrection Rewind”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the assigned Gospel lesson from John 11.

My dear friends,

Now that we’ve been “sheltering in place” for a week or so, many of us are becoming more familiar with our TV remotes. I have 2. One remote controls my TV. It has 44 buttons; I use about 3 of them. My other remote controls my Comcast/Xfinity service and I use that one much more. My favorite remote buttons have to be pause and rewind/fast-forward. These buttons on the remote control allow me to pause or replay my favorite moments in sports or movies or even pause a live broadcast and then resume when I come back into the room. Too cool. But what if we could use them on the Bible?

You know today’s Gospel narrative, right? Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus is sick (11:1). He waits a couple of days, then heads for Bethany. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has died. Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters, both hope Jesus will still help. And Jesus does, though not without first weeping. He raises Lazarus back to life, leading Caiaphas and the Jewish religious leadership to begin their plot to kill Jesus.

What’s your favorite part? Pause. Mine would be…Rewind…Jesus words to Martha: (ἐγώ εἰμι)“I am the resurrection and the life” (v 25). Jesus has come to save the day, and not even death can stop him. And what about Martha’s words in reply? Fast forward to verse 27: “Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Who would have thought that poor, “preoccupied with housework” Martha could say something so profound?

Then…Fast Forward…there’s that scene at the tomb. Amazing, right? They were all worried about the smell, and understandably so. When a person breathed the last breath and the heart stopped beating, the eyes of the deceased were reverentially closed, the entire body was washed and anointed with oil, and the hands and feet were then wrapped in linen bands. The body, clothed in a favorite garment, was then wrapped with sheets. Spices of myrrh and aloes were placed in the folds of the garment to perfume the body for as long as possible. The reality is…decaying flesh stinks, so family members did what they could to maintain some air quality by minimizing the lingering odors coming from tombs.

Lazarus was dead. Dead in every way. Body prepared for permanent burial. He had been in the tomb 4 days, 1 more than required for absolute death in people’s eyes and by Jewish legal definition. And to a totally dead man, Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out” (v 43). And he does! Now that’s rewind worthy!

Wait a minute (v 35). Why are there tears on Jesus’ face? Back that up! Rewind. Something’s wrong here. The hero isn’t supposed to be crying (John 11:35). Why is he crying? All along Jesus has been Mister Calm, Cool, and Collected, except for maybe with the money changers in the Temple. And now tears? When did you ever see John Wayne cry? Perhaps they’re for Mary and Martha. He is a compassionate guy, and you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by their heartache, right? But still, he knows what’s about to happen. All of that sadness is about to be replaced with joy! He is the resurrection, planning all along to give life to the newly-dead Lazarus, and yet he cries? Something here still doesn’t add up.

Hit the Pause right there. Use “pause” and advance the scene frame by frame. Check out his eyes! Watch him as if on TV in your mind and see Jesus as he looks at Mary and then over at the crowd. Wow! It’s like he sees them and yet sees past them. It’s almost as though . . .

Did Jesus hit His own fast-forward? Does he cry because maybe he sees another Mary, his mother, weeping, in the company of mourners? Does he hear the accusations: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. (Mat 27:42 ESV)” (Mt 27:42)? Does he feel the pain of a rescue that doesn’t come? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). Does he see another tomb, but this time it’s his body that’s laid inside? Perhaps. On this side of heaven, we’ll never know for certain.

Let’s Fast-Forward too. The tears of Jesus, though very real, are momentary. They pass, and Jesus calls forth Lazarus in a resurrection that not only foreshadows his, but ours also. Jesus raises Lazarus, knowing full well that it will finally mobilize his enemies to get him killed. That, however, has been his plan all along—a plan that, ironically, is left to Jesus’ chief human adversary, Caiaphas, to explain (vv 49–50). Jesus has come to die for his people and, by so doing, gather all God’s children together (vv 51–52) for life that will not die.

It’s pretty obvious maybe this past week I’ve watched a bit too much TV. Maybe we all have. Put down the remote. This is the best weather we have in Florida all year. Go outside; go for a walk. And who knows? Maybe this COVID-19 is just what we needed. This is the first time that many generations have truly been tested by difficulty and doing without. Maybe if we spend some “alone” time, we will have a greater appreciation for what we have and not complain about what we don’t have. Maybe we as a nation will stop being so selfish and self-centered.

Maybe, when we get through this, we’ll have new priorities in life, new perspectives, a new outlook on life. It would seem there’s much more of this story left to tell. And there is…just wait until next week. Whether we gather in church yet remains to be seen, but maybe when we “rewind” this time in our lives, we will realize that the hope we have in Christ is something very real, especially in the face of disease and death knowing that God in Christ overcomes both, and I’d watch that over and over any time.

Amen.

The 4th Sunday in Lent

4th Sunday in Lent

March 22, 2020

John 9:1-41

“All I Need is a Miracle”

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours today in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The sermon today is based on the Gospel lesson from John chapter 9.

My dear friends,

Back in 1985, while I was still studying Mass Communications and working in radio, a hit song came out from the group “Mike and the Mechanics” that was called “All I Need is a Miracle.” It has a very catchy “hook:” “All I need is a miracle. All I neeeeeeeed is you.” The song also has this lyric: “but it’s always the same old story. You never know what you’ve got `til it’s gone.” Boy…this last week has sure proved that right – You never know what you’ve got `til it’s gone.

That truth has been hammered home more than ever this past week. I spent the great majority of the week in Nebraska with my mom and brother Mike. I was there because Mike lost his left foot a little below the left knee. Then he came down with pneumonia and an infection somewhere in his compromised body. Then, just as I arrived, the Coronavirus gripped our nation in fear and dread. People got infected and died. Stores shut down. Bars and restaurants closed. They shut down the beach! Our unique American lifestyle has been significantly interrupted. You never know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

The issues we are dealing with now are more than a lost foot or pneumonia. This is bigger than anything we as Americans have ever faced. Our way of life is on hold for…who knows? You never know what you’ve got `til it’s gone. These are unprecedented and unparalleled times. We’ve faced WWII, the aftermath of 9-11, Y2K, Ebola, and SARS, but the impact of this dreadful Coronavirus is almost unreal. It feels like all we need is a miracle to ever get back to normal.

And how appropriate we have this Gospel lesson from John 9. The lesson is the whole chapter, the healing of a man born blind. Jesus healing the blind is a hallmark of His ministry. Blindness was a major problem in ancient times because of unsanitary conditions, especially water. In the 1″ century there were no cures for eye disease and so blindness was quite common. Along comes a man born blind who was also a well-known beggar. All this man needed was a miracle.

For the man, Jesus makes a mud plaster of saliva and soil and applies it to the man’s eyes. In antiquity, spit was thought to have medicinal power. Jesus then tells the man to go wash in the pool at the southern end of Jerusalem, the Pool of Siloam (which means Sent). The blind man went and washed and came back seeing. And all you-know-what breaks loose in response to this unparalleled event.

The neighbors are concerned about this man. Was he really the same guy who had begged in their midst? Was he really blind after all? The Pharisees are concerned because all of this happened on the Sabbath. The blind man’s parents are concerned that they’ll be expelled from the synagogue if they answer the Pharisees wrong. The blind man is concerned that Jesus is wrongly accused as a sinner. Everyone has their own concerns and their own needs during an unprecedented event. Sound familiar? All they needed was a miracle

Through it all, the darkness lifts and sight is restored. Because of that sight, Jesus is identified very powerfully throughout chapter 9: “Son of Man,” “Lord,” “Prophet,” “Christ,” “from God,” “Rabbi,” and “Light of the World.” The blind man now becomes a model of and for every believer. When we are in need of a miracle — as we are right now in these uncertain times — we also embrace Jesus as

Lord and Christ. We confidently live in His light even in unparalleled and unprecedented times. Light always triumphs over darkness. Always. Every time. My dear friends, in light of these unprecedented times, all we need is a miracle. And guess what? We’ve got one. Two to be precise.

The blind man’s situation was bleak. His day-to-day life enjoyed none of the protection or charitable assistance often given to the blind or impaired today. Forget images of guide dogs and Braille books and resources. This is a man that sat on the roadside and begged. He had no employment, no prospects for marriage, no social honor. This was a guy at the bottom of the barrel physically, socially, financially. He was at the end of the social rope; his future was bleak and he knew it. He needed a miracle in every sense of the word.

Jesus did not just miraculously give the man sight. Jesus gave him life. And Christ Jesus has given you light and life as well. All we need is a miracle, and those miracles have already happened. Jesus going to the cross to forgive our sins and become our sacrificial lamb? That’s a miracle. Jesus shedding His blood to cleanse us of our sin and the punishment for sin that we deserved? That’s a miracle. Jesus rising again from the dead to be the light of the world forever and ever…an ever-living, ever-shining light even in the darkness of these days; giving us hope amid the darkness of death? That’s a miracle. The miracle of Good Friday and Easter morning happened for you and no virus will EVER change that.

It’s true. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. We’ve lost many of our American amenities. We’ve lost a few of our freedoms and conveniences that normally we enjoy. We’ve lost a DOW Jones average over 25,000. We’ve lost the ability to gather in groups of more than 10 people. We’ve lost these things… for now. The miracle is that these things WILL come back. We will persevere. God is still in charge. This is not God’s punishment. That happened at the cross. God’s miraculous, powerful love will not leave us or forsake us. These are uncharted, unprecedented and unparalleled times. You know what? It’s a truth that not just Mike and the Mechanics knew: “it’s always the same old story. You never know what you’ve got ‘tit it’s gone.” True…but it is only temporary.

In John 9 many people were concerned. I know that we’re all concerned and I know you have needs, but this too shall pass. In the meantime, we will pray. We will not panic. We will prepare for God’s miracles which will manifest themselves in our lives at just the right time. We will follow what our nation’s leaders ask us to do trusting that God’s will is being done through them. We will help and love our neighbors. And we will give thanks like the blind man. Even amid the unprecedented times brought by the Coronavirus, we also will boldly and confidently proclaim “Lord, we believe” (9:38). Then we will wait for the miracle that is sure to come.     

Amen.

The Third Sunday in Lent

3rd Sunday in Lent

March 22, 2020

Romans 5:1-8

“Back to the Basics”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Epistle Lesson from Romans 5.

My dear friends,

Sometimes it’s good, maybe especially during unprecedented, uncertain times, to just go back to the basics. No PowerPoint, no moving or over-sized graphics. Back to the basics: pulpit, paper, preaching. That’s what Paul is doing in Romans 5. The Apostle Paul, writing to persecuted Christians – not by virus but by sword – in uncertain times, is assuring them – and us – of a basic hope we have when he says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.1). That’s as basic as it gets.

This sermon is not about what God wants us to do this week. It is not about our understanding some deep and mysterious doctrine. It is not even about how we feel today and how you can feel better. No, this sermon is about being who and what we are…right in the sight of God; we are justified by faith. Basic.

We begin by realizing that although much has changed in 1 week, some things have not. We are in the same situation that we were this time last week: broken, unworthy and undeserving sinners. We begin by admitting that God needs to save us because we cannot justify ourselves before Him. Of course, guilty, sinful, and unworthy is not how we want to see ourselves; many American churches have abandoned confession and absolution for that very reason. If anything, we want to see ourselves as just the opposite. We haven’t done anything wrong; we’ve done everything right. Sure we have.

I read about a school system in Nevada, although I could not verify where it was, that wants to change the grading system so that no one can fail. Instead of A’s or B’s you are described as “extending.” If you are more of a C student, then you are “developing.” And those who should get an F are “emerging.” In this school system, you can only succeed. There is no failure, only varying degrees of success. That’s the way we think of ourselves…everything right, and not guilty of anything.

Everything right, and not guilty of anything. Right. Could you imagine sitting in God’s courtroom and He is the judge? That is scary! The Ten Commandments are printed in huge block letters on the wall behind Him. He reads the second commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” No carelessly using the name of God. At all. Ever. Just the commandment staring you in the face, and God asking “How do you plead?” Guilty as charged.

“Or,” God says, “how about this?” “You shall not commit adultery”? No cheating on your spouse. No lustful thoughts about anyone else. No lingering glances to admire someone else’s looks or body. Just the Commandment staring you in the face saying, and God asking, “How do you plead?” Not good…guilty as charged.

Should I pick another commandment, say, “You shall not steal”? No greed. No anxiety over money. No cheating on taxes or some other financial form. No buying so much stuff that you cannot be generous in giving to those in need. Just the Commandment staring you in the face saying, and God asking, “How do you plead?” Guilty as charged. Still think you haven’t done anything wrong?

No, we do not want to be in God’s courtroom with the Ten Commandments on the wall behind Him. His justice would declare us to be – deserving of God’s punishment. You break one commandment, you’ve broken them ALL eternally. That’s basic. That’s why we confess: I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you and justly deserve your temporal and eternal punishment. And the punishment for sin? Death!

But we are not in His courtroom. We are in His house, His church. We are in the one place where we remember that the greatest injustice of all time has saved us from God’s punishment. Here in the church we do not just stare at God’s Law and wilt under our guilt knowing all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. No, we also see Jesus’ cross and rejoice in our justification – we are right in the sight of God. That’s as basic as it gets.

Remember that dark Thursday night. Jesus has gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. It is quiet and His disciples fall asleep. Then a small group of soldiers and religious leaders surround Jesus. One of His disciples, Judas, steps out and betrays Jesus—with a kiss of all things. Peter wakes up and tries to stop the arrest, but Jesus wants no violence here, no rescue. He is going to trial and nothing will stop Him from being condemned as guilty.

The court is hastily convened. People come forward to make charges, but their testimonies do not agree. Jesus is innocent. Here is the only person in the room truly innocent. No charge can stick against Him except for one that is trumped up. So an injustice is perpetuated – charged with blaspheme (?) and Jesus is sentenced to die.

Yet justice is served when Jesus is nailed to that cross—God’s justice. Our sin could not go unpunished. Our weakness could not be ignored. Our breaking of the Ten Commandments could not be simply excused. No, someone had to die. Someone had to take the eternal punishment, and that someone was Jesus. Because of Christ, on Judgment Day, we will hear “not guilty.” No legal loopholes, no lawyer tricks. Just the blood of Christ. It’s as basic as it gets.

Remember when I said this sermon is not about what we do? When it comes to being justified, saved, at peace with God, we can do nothing. I read about a man named Bill who donated 100 pints of blood (12 ½ gallons). No doubt that was a good thing Bill had done, and many people owe their lives to his kindness. But this is what Bill said, “When that final whistle blows and St. Peter asks, “What did you do?” I’ll just say, “Well, I gave 100 pints of blood.” Bill says with a laugh, “That ought to get me in.” Bill was probably joking. But if he was serious, if Bill is counting on the giving of 100 pints of blood to get him to heaven, he is trusting in the wrong blood.” Our faith is in Jesus, because His blood shed on the cross justifies us. That’s basic to what we believe.

I’ve never seen events of this past week in my lifetime, although there have been similar times: Y2K, SARS, Asian flu, Swine flu, etc. I went to the Farmer’s Market this morning. Shut down. Had tickets for a spring training game yesterday. Cancelled. No NHL, NBA, March Madness. No school. I had never heard the terms “social distancing” and “self quarantine” before this week. People are running out of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes. They are also running short of normalcy and hope. David wrote in Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” Yes…we do. Even during pandemics. Didn’t know that word before last week either. Yes, in these complex, difficult, hand-wringing, hand-washing and uncertain times, it is good to go back to the basics and that brings a peace that no mask or hand sanitizer could ever provide. It may get worse before it gets better, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God, and that brings a hope that never disappoints. Ever. Be safe out there.

Amen.

 

The Second Sunday in Lent

2nd Sunday in Lent

March 8, 2020

John 3:1-17

“Do You Not Understand These Things?”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson which contained perhaps the most well-known Bible passage in the history of mankind: John 3:1-17

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I know what you ‘re thinking! You want me to rush right to John 3:16 and preach a sermon on those well-known words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The temptation is certainly there to do that. They are comfortable words…reassuring words…words we know by heart and treasure. But I must admit that I do not want to preach on John 3:16 because there is so much more for us to discuss and consider from the lesson taken from John 3:1-17.

In this lesson, a man named Nicodemus came at night to speak to Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee (fanatic Jewish law experts) who also happened to be one of the ruling members on the Sanhedrin (the ruling, religious, and judicial council in NT Israel). Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, which seems odd but it could have been that way because (1) Nicodemus didn’t want other Jews to see him confess his belief in Jesus since he was a member of not one but two groups of people who dislike Jesus, and (2) it simply may have been too hard for Nicodemus to get near Jesus during the day because of the crowds. Whatever the case, Nicodemus gets his wish. He is granted a private audience with Jesus who uses this opportunity to teach one of Israel’s teachers.

It is an interesting dialogue these two have. Jesus is trying to speak and teach regarding spiritual truths, and poor Nicodemus remains kind of clueless throughout. Yet their discussion must have had some kind of impact. We will see Nicodemus again in John chapter 7 and again after Jesus has died. Nicodemus is with Joseph of Arimathea as they prepare Jesus’ body for burial according to Jewish custom (John 19:39). But here, in their encounter in the dark, Jesus repeats the same phrase three times: “I tell you the truth” and in verse 10 Jesus asks, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” While none of us are Pharisees and none of us are members of the Sanhedrin, I think that same question applies to us, too. Do you not understand these things?

First of all, do you understand what it means to be born again? Actually, in the Greek, the phrase also means “born from above.” Doesn’t matter if it was English or Greek; Nicodemus didn’t get it because he was thinking strictly in human terms. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4). Seriously? Of course not. Well, okay then, what does that really mean?

This new birth that Jesus is talking about – “water and Spirit,” – is not of the water and of the Spirit as two separate experiences. Water and Spirit work together in the new birth. Jesus was clearly speaking of Baptism. In Baptism, the Spirit works saving faith. Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit connects us with God’s love and grace. He works a new birth, a birth that makes us children of the heavenly Father and a member of God’s kingdom. The apostle Paul said the same thing when he wrote, “(God) saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

Sadly, Baptism gets a bad rap in this modern world. It’s seen as a traditional thing you do to make grandma happy; just go through the motions and she’ll stop bringing it up. Baptism is a low-tech Sacrament in a high tech world. However, the modern misconception does not change what Baptism IS and what it DOES. Water and Spirit, water and Word, working faith, forgiving sins, opening the Kingdom of Heaven to us. Baptism. That’s what Jesus meant by being “born again.”

Secondly, do you understand what it means for God to really love the world as Jesus taught in the so-familiar words of verse 16? Valentine’s Day, which is all about love, came and went last month with an estimated 145 million cards being sent in the US. What did you send or get? Do you still have the card or the candy? The trappings of Valentine’s Day – cards, candy, and flowers – are very much like human love. They come, they go, they’re fun at first but lose luster (and life) over time. But God’s love is totally different.

Such love we do not easily understand because no human can love like God. But we need to know about it. Many Christians like to refer to it by its Greek word, agape. This kind of love is more than a feeling; it’s a resolve. It doesn’t base its actions on how likable or worthy the object of love is; it acts first and foremost in the best interest of its recipient. Verse 16 says God loved the world, a world trapped in sin, and so God had to deal with sin.

God’s love brought results. He offered the ultimate sacrifice for the world he loved. He gave his one and only Son as the necessary sacrifice for the world’s sins. God gave his one and only Son for the butchery of the cross. Jesus repeated what God’s gift meant: “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Faith saves. But not just any faith – faith in the Son of God, who was given as our sacrifice. Those who believe in him “shall not perish.” We enjoy life with Jesus now already, but even after our eventual death, we will still know life in full glory because of our Baptismal faith and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Did Nicodemus understand all of this? The Bible doesn’t say. Does the world understand all of this? It sure doesn’t look like it. Yet we know, we believe, we teach, and we proclaim this truth to a world that badly needs to hear that we DO have a loving God who calls us to repent, receive the birth from above that comes through Baptism, and to trust in him every day of our lives. We can do that because we know what Nicodemus knew: “…God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.

The First Sunday in Lent

1st Sunday in Lent

March 1, 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

“The Battle of Two Words”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is today’s well-known Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 4.

My dear friends,

Words have tremendous power. As Sting, lead singer of “The Police,” once sang, “Poets, priests, and politicians all have words to thank for their positions.” He’s right. Kingdoms have risen and fallen, relationships built and torn down, reputations made and lost simply by the power of words. Encouraging words to people who are down can motivate them to rise up and achieve their goals. Conversely, destructive words to people who are down can have a devastating effect.

C.S. Lewis, a man of many words, once said about the power of words, “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” That’s a good point, and that’s why with a subject as common and basic as the temptation of Jesus, the words opposed to one another are not 6-syllable, multi-layered, complex theological terms. Instead, the two most powerful words in play are two of the most basic words in any language. The temptation of Jesus is a battle of two very basic words: “if” versus “is.”

“If”…what a powerful two letter word. By definition, “if” means “something that is not certain: something that could either happen or not happen.” “If” is a favorite word of Satan. In the temptation of Jesus as found in Matthew 4, that is the word Satan uses in all three temptations: from verse 3, “And the tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread;” from verse 6, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you”; and from verse 9, “(Satan) said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

If, if, if. That is one of Satan’s favorite words. “If” is a doubt word. “If” is a conditional word. Satan and the old sinful Adam inside each of us work a tag-team on your heart and life that is pretty effective through a word like “if”: “but what if,” “if only,” “things would be better if.” Look at the destructive power of “if” in our state and world. We cannot pray in our schools because what IF we offend someone’s sensibilities. We can’t give people off anymore for Good Friday because what IF someone doesn’t celebrate Good Friday. Like prayer in school, Christian voices are being either shouted down or shut out because what IF you offend someone of another faith system.

Or maybe “if” for you is personal. IF only you could quit that sinful obsession, or IF only you could get motivated to attend Bible study and worship more often or IF only you could do better with your money, at work, in your marriage. If, if, if. It’s a very destructive word.

And maybe that’s why it appears a surprisingly few number of times in Scripture. Here’s a fun fact for you. There are 774,746 English words in the Holy Bible; Hey…I didn’t count…a computer did. The word “if” appears 1,678 times. That may seem like a lot, but it isn’t. By comparison, the word “love” and all its various forms appears almost 1000 times.

In Matthew 4, Satan uses the word “if,” but Jesus uses the word “is.” Now “is” appears in the bible 7,123 times! “If” is a conditional word, but “is” – the 3rd person singular present form of “be” – is a definitive word. “Is” is a definite word.

That is why and how Jesus uses it when he quotes Deuteronomy: But (Jesus) answered, “It IS written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4); Jesus said to him, “Again it IS written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7); Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it IS written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (4:10). When it comes to God and the power of His Word, there is no room for doubt and vacillation in a word like “if.” God prefers powerful words, definite words, life words, like “is.”

How do I know “is” is a life word? Well, what is the 1st person singular present form of “to be?” I AM…recognize that? Also, consider the following uses. From the cross as He accomplishes the all-availing sacrifice for our sins, Jesus cries out “It IS finished” (John 19:30). Prior to his crucifixion, on the night when He was betrayed, Jesus took bread and said very clearly and very emphatically, “Take, eat, this IS my body” (Matthew 26:26). In the same way also, Jesus took the cup, gave it to the disciples, and said equally emphatically, “take and drink, for this IS my blood of the new covenant” (26:27-28). To the paralyzed man in Mark 2, Jesus told him, “Your sins ARE (plural form of “is”) forgiven” (2:5). And just in case you needed one further assurance, Jesus said in John 14, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house ARE many rooms…if I go and prepare a place for you, I WILL come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (14:1-3 ESV).

How is the battle of “if” and “is” going in your life right now? This Lent, how many “ifs” do you need to repent of? How many things are up in the air in your life because of “if”? How many of those could be resolved when you remember the power and truth of “is:” God is loving, God is with you, God is watching over you, God is constantly forgiving you in the name of and for the sake of Jesus, God is not done with you yet, God is working all things for good in your life.

Be very aware this week and always of the true power of words. IF you allow Satan to work at will in your heart and life there will be only sadness, despair, and anxiety. Be vigilant at all times! Satan doesn’t come shouting for your soul; it’s more like he touches your shoulder and tells jokes until you give it to him on your own. Know instead the true power of IS – the sin-forgiving, temptation-resisting, hope-restoring power of such a simple 2-letter word. Leave your “ifs” behind today and watch as God makes eternally good on the “is-ness” of your life in Christ Jesus in whom you have redemption, the true and only forgiveness for all your sins, and that IS a powerful truth now and always.

Amen.

The Transfiguration of our Lord

Transfiguration of our Lord

February 23, 2020

Matthew 17:1-9

“The Path to Glory”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that engages us for the celebration of the Transfiguration of our Lord is the Gospel lesson as read from Matthew 17.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

 

You’re going to have to forgive me if I come off as a little giddy or excited, but I cannot help it! I saw the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Edmonton Oilers last week up in Amalie Arena, and this coming week I’m going back to watch the Lightning play the Chicago Blackhawks. I can’t wait! Any hockey fan knows how Tampa Bay completely fell apart last year in the playoffs, but this year the Lightning are playing their best hockey of the season – they are playing amazing and incredible – and at the right time too. The path to Stanley Cup championship glory awaits! Go Bolts!

The path to glory that our Lord Jesus chose was also amazing and incredible, and He never shot a puck into a net (not that we know of; there is no Greek word for “slapshot”). I say that Jesus’ path to glory was incredible for a couple of reasons. First of all, we have to remember that Jesus’ disciples had already seen our Lord do incredible things. They had seen with their own eyes Jesus walk on water, used their own hands to feed thousands of people, and they heard with their ears Jesus take on the Pharisees in theological debate and never once losing. The disciples had already seen some amazing and incredible things during Jesus’ ministry to this point, and it was about to step up even another notch.

Now, on that mountain, the inner circle of the disciples – Peter, James, and John – were given a glimpse into Jesus’ divine nature. They saw Him in the presence of Moses and Elijah; the 2 men who epitomize the Law and the Prophets. They were covered by the cloud. They heard the voice of God in His proclamation about Jesus. And all these glimpses into Jesus’ divine nature scared the wits right out of those poor disciples! They “feared a very great fear,” the Greek text says.

What would you have done if you were there? Would you too have been terrified and fallen face down to the ground? Probably so, but what would you do afterwards? This is another reason why Jesus’ path to glory is so amazing. This tremendous glimpse into the glory of Jesus was kept silent. Can you imagine if you were the only person to watch the Stanley Cup finals or the March Madness basketball games and you knew the outcome, but you were given strict instructions not to tell anyone what happened? Sounds crazy, right? But it had to be that way for an amazing and incredible reason. Why? Because the disciples had to be shown that suffering must come before glory. In order to save us, Jesus will choose the path to glory that leads through the cross that awaits Him in Jerusalem.

But why? Why didn’t Jesus just skip all that suffering stuff? Why not just come down from that mountain, tell everyone who He is, ascend into heaven, and not have to deal with the taunting and the torture and the nails? Why not? Because there was no way around them. The price for the forgiveness of sins is blood. It always had been, and it remained that way until Calvary. Blood had to be shed to achieve God’s forgiveness and that forgiveness has been needed ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin. The ultimate crime of humanity necessitated the perfect sacrifice. In order to save all of us from sin and damnation, Jesus – the perfect Lamb of God – chooses the path to glory that HAS to go through the cross, for there is no other way to pay the price for the forgiveness of sin. It is a path we could never travel.

Yet, there is a path that we all must take…the path of daily life. The first step on our own path to glory is that we, as the very voice of God tells us, listen to Jesus. That doesn’t mean just listen to what Jesus has to say, but listen to what Jesus says and why He said it; to know and understand that the cross is not an option. First comes humble service and self-sacrifice, then the suffering of the cross, then the glory. Being a disciple doesn’t mean you can skip the humble service or suffering and devotion and go right to the glory…it doesn’t work that way. For example, according to FOX, more than 2 million people tuned in to the Super Bowl for just the halftime show; they couldn’t care less about the whole first half of the game; those folks would love to skip the first half and go right to half-time. So also, many modern-day followers of Jesus want to do just that; skip the first half too – not necessarily follow His example of love and service and sacrifice and suffering , and get right to the glory of the risen Christ. It doesn’t work that way.

To be sure there are crosses aplenty that bring suffering for you just waiting out there: health problems, financial and employment woes, struggles in families and relationships, uncertainty, loneliness, grief, and so on. These are our crosses, and we bear them…and bear them we must for that is what Jesus calls us to do. We bear our crosses, all the while being strengthened by the Word of Christ and the promise that He provides that even if we suffer along the path of life, we are still forgiven and loved sinners, and we will ultimately experience the glory that lies waiting for us at the end.

What kind of path lies ahead for you? I have no way of knowing. But for those of us who have already taken tens of thousands of steps along the path and have the scars to show it, we know that there is only one way down the path to true glory and it doesn’t involve going through any arena. The true path of glory leads to and through the cross, and as faithful disciples of Jesus we follow Him every step of the way, as we walk our own life path leading to eternal glory.

Oh, and did I mention…Go Bolts!

Amen.

6th Sunday after the Epiphany

6th Sunday after the Epiphany

February 16, 2020

John 15:9-17

“First Comes Love and Then Comes…Love”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the lesson read earlier from John 15.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

As long as there have been people, there have been bullies and taunting and teasing. The strong have always preyed upon the weak, and our strongest and most effective weapon continues to be our tongues (James 3) and not fists. Kids can be uncommonly cruel to one another; 1 in 7 students in grades K through 12th is either a bully or has been a victim of bullying. Victims of bullying are 2 to 9 times more prone to commit suicide. With that being said, I don’t condone bullying. But I also think that probably everyone here, at one time or another, has either heard or sang the following taunt: “Boy X and girl Y sitting in a tree. K-i-s-s-i-n-g. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes (insert child name reference) in a baby carriage.” It is phraseology right from the “teasing 101” handbook learned on the playground.

But notice one of the main thrusts of that taunt – “first comes love.” First comes love. In today’s lesson the word “love” or its derivation is used 9 times. In the Gospel lesson, “love” is a big deal. Even outside the Church, love is a big deal. Friday was Valentine’s Day and, in 2019, Americans spent more than $20 billion, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). The NRF survey also found that consumers will spend, on average, roughly $162 per person. That’s A LOT of flowers, candy, and cards!

Anyway, we learn a lot about love in John 15. As God the Father has loved Jesus, so also Jesus loves us (v. 9). God loves us not because we are so lovable, but because He IS love. We are also given a “new” commandment as such: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (V. 12). As those whom God loves, we are able to love Him and our neighbors. We also recognize that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (V. 13 ESV). We call this “foreshadowing.” That’s a lot to take in! But wait! It all starts with God’s love…even bullies know that: “First comes love”…“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” Millions and millions of Valentine’s Day cards spoke of “love,” so what do we mean by “love?”

In the Greek New Testament, there are several words for the concept of love. One word is “hedone.” It is a word for love from which we get the English word “hedonism.” This is the physical aspect of love – the unhealthy lust part. This is NOT the kind of love that we show for God or neighbor. In the NT it is often the word used to describe the unholy carnality that works against God and entices people instead towards evil.

Hedone” is Satan’s favorite. He just loves to entice people with what they think they want, then show them a way to temporarily get it. Case in point…do you know how many people visit Las Vegas every year? About 40 million, or almost 770,000 people every week. Why? There is nothing out there but sand! Well, sand and topless bars, strip clubs, and brothels. People flock to Las Vegas by the millions because this is their way of getting, buying, and showing love; we even say things like “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” It’s a love too embarrassing to talk about. All it takes is a trip to the wedding chapel (Elvis, Star Trek, Harley, and Camelot themes all available) or to any of the numerous casinos to watch the dazed faces staring intently into the video gaming machine as they feed it their worked-for money for a chance to win money and you’ll find plenty of “hedone.” But that’s not what we’re talking about today.

Another word for “love” in the New Testament is “Philos.” “Philos” is a love shown between friends, hence the name “Philadelphia” or the “city of brotherly love.” I didn’t find much “philos” in Philadelphia, but that’s beside the point. “Philos” is a camaraderie love between people and/or healthy activities. If you “just love to golf,” that’s “philos.” This is an enjoyable type of connection, but it isn’t necessarily long lasting. It is a bond that can be broken by circumstances: time, distance, disagreements, anger, and so on. But that’s not what we’re talking about today.

What we are talking about today – “First comes love” – and the kind of love that Jesus uses in every instance in John 15, is the most special Greek word for love “agape.” This is the ultimate expression of love. “Agape” is a self-sacrificing love; a love that puts a higher priority on the welfare of someone else other than yourself and your desires. “Agape” love is what Jesus not only exhibits but what He calls for: “agape” love God and “agape” love for your neighbor as yourself. The perfect “agape” love of the Father is demonstrated in and carried out by Jesus at both the cross where death dies and the tomb where the grave is overwhelmed by God’s “agape” for you.

Sinners such as us need WAY more “agape” love in life and WAY less “hedone.” We rejoice in God’s greater “agape” love for us such that we are encouraged and strengthened to show forth grace and mercy and peace and love for one another. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (15:13). Are you also ready to live and love – “agape” – like that?

Something came around either on Facebook or email this week about how kids define love. Here are some of their responses. “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.” “Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.” “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” Yes, they do, little Jessica, yes they do. Go forth to this week and show your “agape” love for both God and neighbor because in all things and at all times, first comes love.

Amen.