Gospel

A Sprig Held High

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
   from the lofty top of a cedar;
   I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
   from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
   on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
   that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
   I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
   and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish it.


As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.

Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.

Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:

  • He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year God said the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
  • During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
  • Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
  • He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.

It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.

For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.

Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.

We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life, being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.

This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.

In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.

And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.

Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.

Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.

Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.

Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.

The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.

Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.

 

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Children, There Is Truth

1 John 5:9-15 (NLT)

Since we believe human testimony, surely we can believe the greater testimony that comes from God. And God has testified about his Son. All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.

And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.

I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life. And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.


This is the final sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


“What is truth?” This must be the question of questions. Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem, asked it in the presence of the King of Kings, the source of all truth.

The scene, found in John 18:33-40, is particularly sad because Pilate doesn’t seem to want an answer.  I imagine the tone of his rhetorical question, aimed more at the air than at Jesus, to be weary and cynical.

We should do better. We at least need to take the question seriously. What is truth?

When I say “we,” I’m addressing Christians, of course. Non-Christians, like Pilate, have to wrestle with the question in a different way, beginning with the notion of whether there is any truth at all.

The Great Story

Christians sometimes forget what it means to have “Christ” as part of their religious moniker. Such forgetfulness is a little strange, if you think about it, but we also have to remember how we remain immersed in a world trying on a daily basis to ignore or challenge Christian versions of truth. Perhaps it is not surprising that we sometimes listen to those voices, rather than the voice of God expressed in the Bible through faithful writers.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeThe author of 1 John certainly is one of those writers concerned with the notion of truth. He recorded the “what is truth” scene in the Gospel of John, and in the letter we’ve been studying, he asserts the answer to the question.

Understanding Who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is doing lets us define truth. If you were in Life Groups last week, you talked about evangelism, the act of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. To evangelize successfully, you have to grasp the truth, which is rooted in a story you are called to relate to others.

Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God. To John, the word “son” means much more than a simple biological progression, a passing of genes from one generation to another. The spiritual essence of the man known as Jesus is God, and that aspect of God has always existed. The Word took on flesh to live among us. Again, see the opening of the Gospel of John.

What is Jesus doing? He is the fulfillment of promises made long before God took on flesh. These were promises of restoration and healing, assurances God would provide people a way out of sin even though we deserve nothing but condemnation.

In a great act of sacrificial love, Jesus fulfilled these promises by going to the cross and dying for our sins. Through the centuries, Christians have tried to describe how salvation works in more ways than I can count.

Jesus bore the punishment for us; he served as a ransom to free us from Satan; he accepted our shame; he bridged the divide between us and God—likely, every orthodox explanation takes us in the right direction, but alone, each also falls short of describing the magnitude of what God has done as Christ.

John is clear about the result, however. Instead of death, we have eternal life. Death is now but a veil, something we pass through to begin our life fully aware of the presence God.

This Great Story, and all the little stories that fill it out, are remarkably beautiful when we let them sink in. The Great Story has penetrated nearly every culture on the planet for a reason. God’s grace is something every human has the potential to understand.

And yes, the claims we make about Jesus’ identity and work representing truth are quite exclusive. To have eternal life, we must know God as expressed through Jesus Christ. As John writes in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, quoting Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

The Unevangelized

This brings us to a sticky point in Christian theology: What is the fate of people who never get to hear about Jesus Christ? It seems unfair for them to be condemned.

As Dr. Ben Witherington at Asbury Theological Seminary has pointed out, salvation is not about what is just or fair. Thank God! None of us would be very happy if we thought we were to get what we deserve when standing before God.

Salvation is about grace. God’s grace makes it possible for all people to sense the presence of God, the reality of God, if only through the limited ways we sense God in nature.

Says Dr. Witherington: “You are held accountable for what you know about God, and what you do with what you know about God.” It is reasonable to expect that God will give those who never heard of Jesus Christ the opportunity to respond to his work on the cross in some way we cannot currently understand.

Back to Us

Of course, not knowing about Jesus Christ is strictly theoretical for us. We’ve heard of him. We know the story, and by calling ourselves Christians we are accountable to the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing in unique ways.

As Christians we are truth bearers. I mentioned earlier how the non-Christian world approaches the question of truth differently, either denying there is some universal truth or debating what the standard for truth might be.

We don’t want to attack them; that kind of approach led to some of the great sins of the Christian world. But we also certainly should not ignore them. God calls us to go into the world and declare who Jesus is and what he is doing.

As Americans, we are particularly blessed to live in a place where we can enter what is supposed to be a marketplace of free ideas and explain what we believe. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we should learn to do this winsomely—we have the greatest love story ever told on our side!

Do you know the story? Can you tell the story in your own attractive way?

One of the great things about being in a church is we learn the story and celebrate its truth in worship until we can tell it well. It is a joyous duty, and I pray we all learn to take more seriously this call to declare truth.

 

Children, You Are Conquerors

1 John 5:1-8 (NLT)

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

And Jesus Christ was revealed as God’s Son by his baptism in water and by shedding his blood on the cross—not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit, who is truth, confirms it with his testimony. So we have these three witnesses— the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and all three agree.


This is the fifth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Before I went into professional ministry, my family attended Forest Park United Methodist Church in Georgia, and most Sundays we had a habit of eating afterward at a nearby Wendy’s. A lot of the church members ate there, as did other people we knew from the community.

One fellow we saw regularly was an older man named Steve. He and I volunteered at the same youth center. Steve and his wife attended what I thought of as a fundamentalist church.

Steve liked my son Charlie, who enjoyed talking about Bible stories even at the age of six. Steve always had some kind of Bible question for Charlie to see what the little guy would say.

One Sunday, Steve walked over to Charlie, held up his big black Bible and asked, “Charlie, what’s this book about?”

Charlie swallowed a bite of chicken nugget, studied Steve’s Bible cover for a second, and said, “Love.”

Steve pursed his lips and raised one eyebrow. “No, it’s obedience. Obedience!” He then walked away to order his lunch.

Charlie looked at me quizzically. “It’s okay, son,” I told him. “You’re both right.”

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIf you’re paying any attention at all to our text today, you can see why this story came to mind. Two threads that have been dancing around each other in the letter of 1 John, love and obedience, twist together as one. Scripturally, they really cannot exist without each other.

The easiest way to understand what I’m saying is to imagine one without the other, although it really doesn’t take much imagination. Most of us at some point have tried to live as if one can exist without the other.

Love Alone

Love can be a good feeling, of course. It is good to love and be loved.

John has reminded us already in his letter that love is an action. Love is what we do. But love without obedience to shape our actions can quickly dissolve into something meaningless.

A husband might tell his wife, “I’ll always love you, but to be happy I’m leaving you.” Even if he’s telling the truth about how he feels, the effectiveness of his love has been destroyed by his wrongful action, his unwillingness to be obedient to the marriage covenant God asks us to live under.

Or maybe we love someone who lives a lifestyle clearly opposed to God’s will. As Christians, if we say “I love that person too much to speak the truth,” our failure to declare God’s will is a betrayal of whatever love we may be feeling. We have chosen to leave someone we love in a state we believe might ultimately separate that person from God for all eternity.

James, the earthly brother of Jesus, understood this: “My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.” (James 5:19-20)

Obedience Alone

Obedience simply means that we listen to God’s guidance, particularly his guidance in Scripture, and align our behaviors with God’s will.

Obedience without love becomes something rigid and repulsive. Obedience without love is actually disobedience, because God is love, and love is the major part of his plan for salvation.

Religious obedience without love usually ends up being expressed as some form of legalism. Jesus spent a lot of time going after the legalist Pharisees for emphasizing rules while ignoring love.

Matthew 23:27 comes to mind: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.”

WWJD

I hesitate to boil all this down to what is now a Christian cliché, but “What would Jesus do?” was a pretty good notion back in the 1990s. The question can be applied to most situations, particularly if we’re willing to study the Bible with some seriousness.

The Bible is, of course, the ultimate source for understanding God’s will. Even when God’s will seems to be revealed to us in other ways—in prayer, in visions, or in holy gatherings, for example—those ideas have to be tested against what we find in the Bible.

In the Bible, we see Jesus was perfectly loving, and our best lessons are drawn from Jesus in action. Jesus was very welcoming to all who were drawn to him. He also was quick to say to forgiven sinners, “Go and sin no more.”

To War

John, having twisted these threads of love and obedience together, switches somewhat shockingly to the language of battle and conquest, as if he has fashioned a whip instead of a string. We have to remember the highly metaphorical nature of how he speaks. His churches had no worldly power, and were happy to get through the day without being persecuted.

He did, however, have great faith in the power of love and obedience working in tandem. He was saying that when we combine the two, we achieve something ultimately more powerful than swords, guns or even atom bombs.

Evil will be fully defeated by God’s obedient people working in the world in loving ways. Again, John’s language is startling. It is as if each of us, standing with God and filled with God’s love, has the individual potential to finish the job.

We conquer primarily by evangelizing, telling the world the truth about the God who loves us so much he would die for us, about the God we should seek to emulate in every moment of our lives.

Those of you in Life Groups will talk more this week about what it means to evangelize, to tell others of the Good News about Jesus Christ. Approach this lesson with both love and obedience in your hearts, and the Holy Spirit will lead you.

 

Children, Make Room

1 John 3:16-24 (NLT)

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.

Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him. [goes to prayer life; perhaps something on how we avoid a breakdown in community]

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us.


This is the third sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Last summer, during one of the sermons in our long series on the book of Romans, I made mention of the concept of hospitality. Reading our text today, I feel invited to further explore this tame-sounding concept that actually is quite radical.

John begins by telling us what real love is, pointing to the death of Jesus on the cross. This is the same author who wrote down the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, in the 15th chapter, he also quoted Jesus as saying this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This action-based love John keeps discussing is also deeply sacrificial. In the church community, such love calls us to go so far as to die for each other.

Certainly, risk-taking is a big part of a love so deep that we are willing to give up our lives. The taking of risks undergirds this concept of hospitality. Hear what I’m saying: The Christian life is supposed to be a little dangerous.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIn my opinion, American Christians can be a little short on courage, in part because we are so affluent compared to the rest of the world. When you have stuff, you have to guard your stuff from others who might want it.

Our concern for our stuff makes our tolerance for risky interactions with others low, and we reach that low point before we even begin to consider risking our lives for others. I’m generalizing, of course, but I feel comfortable that I just described our group average, and I acknowledge I often am more a part of the problem than the solution.

A risk-averse people have difficulty solving many of their social problems simply because they cannot, as a group, step up and do the hard work that has to be done. Our discord over abortion in this country long has served as a good example.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

As a crime reporter in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time covering anti-abortion protests. It quickly became obvious the opposing groups had no political middle ground, with one side calling for women’s rights and the other declaring life begins at conception.

About the same time, a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay that demonstrated how hospitality, properly practiced and understood by the church, offers a solution that could make the demand for abortion subside.

The essay, entitled “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” makes some startling assertions, at least if you’re a typical American Christian.  When we become Christians, Hauerwas says, we should stop thinking in terms of rights and instead begin thinking in terms of responsibilities. Christian thinking has little to do with politics. It has everything to do with seeking and following God’s will.

Forget about what Congress or the Supreme Court has to say about the issue. For Christians, what the state has to say about abortion is unimportant. What’s important for us is whether we function so well as Christ’s community that the need for abortion becomes irrelevant.

In the essay, Hauerwas embeds a sermon from one of his former students, and it is there we see a couple of examples of the church truly being hospitable. There is the black community church, where the people welcome a pregnant teenager into their midst, placing her and ultimately her baby with an older couple so both mother and child can have hope-filled lives.

There is another church where a divorced Sunday school teacher becomes pregnant, and rather than finding herself ostracized, she is instead cared for and even financially supported by the church. In both cases, the temptation to abortion is eliminated by community, and the babies in effect become “children of the parish.”

A Matter of Space

How we help the homeless is another example of where Christians could make decisions in our own lives to impact the lives of others. Individually, some Christians choose to have “Elisha rooms,” creating a simple space for people in need. The underlying Bible story is in 2 Kings 4:8-17, where we also see how those who offer hospitality are sometimes blessed by the people they help.

Again, there is risk, particularly when we engage with people we don’t know that well, and with risk comes fear. But one reason we can obey Jesus’ words, “Fear not,” is that when we live in well-crafted, Holy Spirit-inspired community, we can help each other with hospitality. If we find our homes too isolated for such outreach, it is best if we figure out how to be hospitable as a Christian community.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as modifying our church spaces with hospitality in mind. At my first appointment out of seminary, the church was expanding its facilities. On the advice of an older pastor who had been through a few such expansions, I limited my role to spiritual encourager. The church leaders did plop the blueprints down in front of me one day, however, asking if I had any input.

“Just one,” I said. “Maybe a shower somewhere? Then if people in the community have an emergency, we could use the building for short-term housing.”

The church members liked the idea so much they put in two shower facilities. They now regularly house and feed homeless guests through a program providing temporary help to displaced families.

The Church’s Call

Sadly, not enough American churches have a hospitable mindset. Many churches, perhaps most churches, have yet to fully embrace this very scriptural work. They even are willing to pass that responsibility on to the government, distancing themselves from the powerful call God places upon us in Scripture.

Where do we get the strength, personally and communally, to take such radical risks as we make ourselves more hospitable to each other, and even to the world at large? Well, we begin small, and we grow in strength.

The Life Groups we are starting at Luminary UMC are great places to better study and implement hospitality. When a church has enough such groups, they become a built-in rapid response system, and great works of welcoming can be done.

John also points out a cycle of growth we can experience as we demonstrate that love is an action. Our actions show we have accepted the truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. As our work draws us closer to our savior, the guilt of our sin subsides, and we find ourselves emboldened to come to God in prayer, trusting he will protect and provide in the riskiest of circumstances.

It is my prayer that one day the American church at large, regardless of its denominations, will fully be the hospitable church described in the Bible. When that happens, the government’s intractable problems will prove to be no problem for God and his people.

 

Children, Seek the Light


1 John 1:1-2:2 (NLT)

This is the first sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Quick: In your mind, define what you mean when you say “God.”

Humans are bound by finite time and space, so none of us can hope to provide a complete definition of an eternal being. That doesn’t mean, however, that God is unknowable. People of faith believe there have been powerful revelations from God about God, and from those we can assert certain important truths.

We gather in church, a short word for a Christian community, primarily because we have a common understanding of these truths. If we are not gathered together because of a common understanding of God, we remain a community, but we cannot call that community “church.” We instead would be some kind of club or civic group.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeThe author of 1 John understood in a most practical way the importance of church members having a common understanding of God’s nature. Later in this letter, it becomes quite clear the churches he led in the vicinity of Ephesus had divided because some of their members asserted a different understanding of God. In particular, a dispute arose regarding whether Jesus was fully God in real human flesh.

Those who disagreed, saying Jesus simply appeared human, eventually left. There was little point in people who couldn’t agree on God’s nature staying together in worship. For all practical purposes, each group would have been worshiping a different god.

Just as the author does in the opening to the Gospel of John, he gets directly to his point in this letter to the churches. Let me tell you some important details about God, he is saying. Let me tell you about those truths that bind us together as a church. Let us cling to the idea of who God is with our very lives, letting the truth about God shape our behaviors.

He speaks as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and also certainly as one who experienced the full presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  He speaks as one touched by the divine mind. This is deep stuff.

The message in the opening of 1 John is very similar to the message in the opening of the Gospel of John. Even before taking on flesh, the aspect of God we call the Word existed, “from the beginning,” an echo of the assertion in John’s gospel that the being we now think of as Jesus was present at the creation.

We also hear that within the being of God, there is fellowship—God is naturally relational regardless of whether we or any other intelligent part of creation exists. Through Jesus Christ, a full and complete relationship is offered to human beings despite our sin.

Living in that relationship is like living in light. There is no shame when we stand with Christ, and therefore, nothing needs to be hidden in the dark.

Because of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, living in the light also cleanses us. The more we place ourselves in that light, the more we are purged from our sins. We are like sheets initially cleansed in the wash and then thoroughly sterilized while hanging on a line during a clear, sunny summer day. (Does anyone do that with their sheets anymore?)

In this letter’s opening, we also see how repentance is necessary for salvation. People who try to claim they aren’t really sinning have not yet reached this first step toward salvation. “Yes, what I’m doing is wrong, it offends God,” we have to say to ourselves. From there, we can begin to hand our sins over to God, trusting they no longer have power to make us repeat them or cause us condemnation.

As a sinner in the room, I pause when I hear this call to repentance. Have I thoroughly and completely examined myself—how I live, how I think—trusting God’s revelations in Scripture and prayer to guide me? Can I say I repeat this process from time to time?

This process of self-examination is the only way we can achieve the goal of John’s letter. The author wanted us to not sin, to put aside our brokenness. The author also was a realist, however. Even when we let Christ into our lives, we are human, and we are likely to continue sinning. Are we humble enough to continue to go before the throne, admit our mistakes, and let the light continue to do its work?

Whatever state of sinfulness or holiness we find ourselves in, we move toward eternal life through a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no other way forward, there is no other path out of darkness and death and into light and eternal life.

Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done, and what he offers us—is the central truth of the community we call church. As we move further in 1 John over the next six weeks, we will hear much more about how we live and grow into this truth together. We’ll do this as we are gathered in worship, of course. I’m also particularly excited about the deeper experience some of you will have in Life Groups.

Let’s be praying for vibrant life in our church as we go through this process.

 

The Remembrance that Overcomes

John 20:1-18 (NRSV)

The story of the resurrection is joyous, of course. That which we should fear the most, death, is shown to be a temporary condition.

There are, however, other emotions we can sense in John’s story of the resurrection, as well as the three other gospels. There are moments where even the witnesses who love Jesus experience what we might call muddled minds, showing or expressing confusion and fear at the news Jesus is risen. These anxious responses continue for some time in the stories, even after Jesus physically appears to his followers.

In John’s version of the resurrection, Mary has every right to be confused. Coming to the tomb very early, she is deep in grief. As the events surrounding daybreak unfold, she remains rooted in the horrors of what she has seen. Her beloved teacher, the miracle worker who had brought so much hope into her life, had been beaten, crucified, and even speared through the side in the Roman guards’ effort to be sure he was dead.

Yes, the stone is missing; but Jesus is dead. Yes, there are strange-looking men in the tomb talking of wonders, but Jesus is dead. Yes, Jesus is standing right in front of me, but Jesus is deadit must be the gardener.

Not until Mary hears Jesus’ voice does she begin to live into the truth of the resurrection, soon declaring, “I have seen the Lord!” in a proclamation almost angelic in its power.

Other followers took longer to let the resurrection truth begin to reshape them. The most visible example is Peter, who seems to have continued brooding even after Jesus had physically appeared to, spoken with, and even breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

Peter’s difficulty is understandable. He was, after all, the brash disciple who failed Jesus, three times denying knowing Jesus after his arrest. Near the end of the Gospel of John, in the 21st chapter, Peter tells the other disciples, “I am going fishing.”

I find this one of the most poignant quotes in the Bible. Peter, broken by his own failure, decides to take comfort in returning to what he used to do for a living. He and six other disciples don’t go to fish to relax, like we do on the lake. They pull out the big boat, haul out the nets, and pursue a commercial catch.

The resurrection has happened—Jesus is alive, and appearing to hundreds of followers—but Peter cannot let himself be transformed by this world-changing truth. He will, though. Oh, will he learn!

From the beach, Jesus appears to his followers in the boat, giving them a sign. As they end up on the beach eating breakfast together, Jesus three times asks Peter to affirm his love, which of course, Peter does. Breakfast becomes a do-over for Peter, wiping away the pain of his three fearful denials.

Our own sinfulness and shame are similarly wiped away as we learn to trust the power and grace in Jesus’ resurrection. We hear these stories, we let the Holy Spirit go to work in our hearts, and we too are healed and restored. We call this process remembrance, and every one of us is invited to participate in this process today.

When we use the word “remember” casually, we associate it with memory. Something happened in the past. What we sensed and how we felt was stored in our brains in varying levels of clarity, and we retrieve that mental record.

When we think biblically, however, remembrance moves us to a whole new level spiritually. In a way, the words we translate as “remember” invite us to time travel.

Biblical remembrance means prayerfully immersing our emotions and souls into an event as if we were physically present. It is what we have been trying to do this past week if we’ve paid any attention at all to the story of the crucifixion.

When Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples and said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he was telling them and us, come back to this table, and all that this table representsmy broken body, my shed blood and experience how much you are loved. Our table may be in a different place and time, but we are all in the story.

If we consciously stepped into the continuing story, we walked with Jesus through the betrayals, the agonized prayers in the garden, the arrest, the beatings, and ultimately the horror of the crucifixion. It was frightening, but we see God’s love in action.

If you’re thinking this definition of remembrance sounds far-fetched, consider this: We were there. Jesus had each and every one of us on his mind and in his heart as he died on the cross. He died for our sins; he experienced their great weight and absorbed the punishment we deserve. He saw our unborn faces as he suffered.

And joy of joys, today we are invited to time travel to the resurrection, to let go of pain and shame and live into that moment where we see proof that sin and death are defeated.

Biblical remembrance is a life-changing act. I don’t know what sins weigh on you or what shame or pain you may bear, but on this Easter Sunday, walk with the risen Christ.

The cross has worked, your sins are defeated, and death is now meaningless for you!


The featured image is Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener,” 1638.

What We Want

Mark 11:1-11 (NRSV)

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the crowd, while certainly varying in size and makeup, acts like an individual character in the story. Mark’s crowd also represents every person trying to interpret the nature and ministry of Jesus.

So, what does this teeming crowd of Jews gathered for the Passover want? And more importantly, what is the crowd missing as the day unfolds?

Instant Gratification

What the crowd wants is for Jesus to act—now! He has made clear his claim to be the Christ; this planned act to ride a donkey colt into Jerusalem screams out the prophecy the Jews knew from Zechariah 9:9.

These are for the most part an oppressed people who cry, “Hosanna,” which literally means, “O Lord, save!” There was an expectation that the messiah would do a lot of uprooting and overturning, leading a rebellion against the hated Roman Empire and their puppet Jewish leaders.

In other words, the people in the crowd wanted a messiah for their time. It is interesting how anticlimactic the end of this passage is in Mark. I get the impression that the crowd, having not seen fire fall from the sky or heard a call to arms, has melted away, perhaps more than a little disappointed.

In Mark, Jesus will continue to arouse people in Jerusalem from time to time, cleansing the temple and teaching lessons that anger the priests and other Jewish leaders. The crowd never gets what it wants, however, and likely is the same crowd eventually calling for Jesus’ death.

The Bigger, Bloodier Picture

Thank God, however, that the crowd did not get what it wanted, a worldly warrior king. A messiah for their time certainly would have affected us, but not in the powerful ways Jesus changes our lives. Jesus proved his kingship not with worldly might. Instead, he rose to the throne over all creation by making himself a sacrifice for sin, from a human perspective an almost incomprehensible strategy.

To understand the radically sacrificial nature of the messiah, we have to back up in the story and see some of the subtle signs Jesus gave as he made his journey.

We are told Jesus approached Jerusalem from Bethphage and Bethany, meaning he traveled through the Kidron Valley, entering Jerusalem through its eastern gate. Being the time for Passover, the trip itself abounds with symbols of sacrifice.

Animals destined for slaughter at the temple would have been driven along the same route, up from the fields where they grazed. The great sacrifice, the ultimate atonement for all people in all times, the Lamb of God, traveled the road with the little sacrifices of the day.

The Kidron Valley also reminds us what a bloody religion Judaism and Christianity are. What went up through the valley also, in a sense, came back down. The blood from thousands of lambs had to be flushed from the temple, and this blood mixed with water drained directly from the temple mount into the valley. Some Bible dictionaries suggest that the word Kidron may derive from a Hebrew word meaning, “to become black.”

That one great, bloody sacrifice—God in flesh, hanging on a cross—made possible salvation for all the world. God loves the Jews, but he was working through them to save the whole world, to do more than just prop them up as a dominant global theocracy.

The crowd expected God to do great things. They just couldn’t imagine how great.

Nothing New Under the Son

We are so often like the crowd in Mark. Even as followers of Christ, we limit our expectations of an infinitely wise and loving God.

Much too often, we root our church planning and even our theology in what we want, rather than what God seems to be planning for the world now that Christ has made possible salvation. We too often want Christianity for our time and place.

I see this on a small scale in the local church. On more than one occasion, as a congregation has prepared to make changes to better reach people for Christ, I have had members ask me, “Can you not wait and do that after I die?”

One member was in her 60s and in reasonably good health, and she asked the question without a hint of irony!

On a larger scale, denominations—especially our own—are wrestling with whether biblically based beliefs should be modified to better fit contemporary issues. When we do this, what we seek is a messiah for today, rather than a Savior for all times, one who guides us toward the holiness revealed to us through Scripture by an unchanging God.

We have to ask ourselves some hard questions: Do I think the work of the church is about me and the time in which I live? Or do I think the work of the church moves us toward a time God has promised us, a time when we are gathered from across eras and places to dwell with God forever?

When we were children, our parents taught us an important lesson: Running with the crowd can be dangerous.

Our parents were right.


The featured image is “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem,” a fresco at the Nativity of the Theotokos Church in Macedonia.