Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mitchell and the idol rumor

Good Morning tout le monde. A big “welcome” to everyone this morning, and especially to the boys and girls. I’m looking forward to showing you my new puppet – but you’ll have to be a bit patient for that. First up? A little quiz.

As my kids will tell you, I don’t pay much attention to television but I do know some useless trivia. So I have a television trivia quiz for you this morning – just one question, but three answers: There are only three shows in the history of American television that have been rated number one on the Nielsen Ratings for five seasons in a row. Can anybody tell me what those shows are? One of those shows ran between 1971 and 1979 (All in the Family). The second of those shows ran between 1984 and 1992 (The Cosby Show). And the most recent one is still on the air and began showing in 2002 (American Idol). If you are visiting from another planet, let me explain American Idol. American Idol is a talent contest show that starts with auditions all over the country and ends in a showdown between the two singers that the audience all over the world chooses by phone-in votes. It is a show big on music, and glitz, and a show that has captured the imaginations of a huge number of people.

Well, this morning, I’d like to remind you of a story from the Bible that talks about a different kind of idol – but an idol that also captured the imagination of a huge number of people; an idol that was also big on glitz and music; an idol that every one was talking about. And one of the main characters in this Bible story is a guy named Mitchell. Did you know that there was a guy named Mitchell in the Bible? Well, maybe not exactly Mitchell… something closer to Mishael, actually – but Mitchell is easier to say, so I hope you won’t mind if I call him that this morning.

One day, Mitchell was hanging out with his buddies when they heard the latest buzz. And the buzz wasn’t from the stables or from the barracks or from the taverns, where it could have been dismissed as a rumour. No! This news he was hearing was straight from the palace. People close to the King himself were beginning to talk, and there was something really big going down. You see, Mitchell and his buddies worked for the government and the King apparently had a plan to bring all of the civil servants in the city together for some team building exercises. Now “team building exercises” are sometimes as boring as they sound… but the buzz was that this year the King had outdone himself. Apparently, it wasn’t just an idle rumor.

Finally, Mitchell heard that the time had come, and all the civil servants were being summoned to Dura Field. So Mitch and his buddies left everything in the office, and walked over to the field. As they were walking, they started to overhear bits and pieces from all the other people walking in the same direction. Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it wonderful? (Goodness! What are they talking about?) But before Mitchell and his buddies were able to see anything, they were able to hear something -- something special. This amazing band was playing some really trendy tunes somewhere up ahead. As you know, back then they didn’t have amplifiers and loudspeakers; if you wanted big music, you needed to have a lot of people playing at the same time. And all Mitchell’s favorite instruments were playing. Very cool.

But then Mitchell got a glimpse of what people were buzzing about. Oooooh! Aaaaaah! Somebody had made this really impressive, and huge, and flashy, and b-i-g (did I say huge?) a really, really BIG statue. And so flashy – covered in gold would you believe it. “What’s going on?” thought Mitchell. But as he arrived with the last of the civil servants, suddenly the music stopped dead, and a herald – remember: back then, they didn’t have microphones and speakers – so there were there “herald” guys whose job it was to shout really loud so everyone could hear. Anyway, this herald stood up on a platform and read a message from the King, and this is what it said:

“This is what you are commanded to do, [all you civil servants]: As soon as we cue the music to restart, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that [the] King has set up.”

Oh my! Mitchell wasn’t at all sure that he liked this. And he turned to his buddies to make sure that he had heard right. But as they were discussing it, they missed the last part of what the herald said –a firefly something – it couldn’t be that important… Mitchell just knew that bowing down and worshipping an image, whether it was big or small, gold or wood, set up by the King or set up by the village gossip – it didn’t matter, he knew that it wasn’t something that he wanted to be doing. They remembered that in their Sabbath School, they were taught that the second commandment was “don’t make idols or worship them.” And his buddies agreed. But they seemed to be the only ones who were thinking this way! Everybody else was so caught up in this the BIG idol, the glitz, the crowd, and the King’s order – these people knew that their job depended on the King, and if they displeased him, they might be out looking for work – or worse.

And then it happened: the band started playing again. And nearly every single person in this large crowd bowed low to the ground – except for Mitchell… and his friends Hani and Azi. (in case you are wondering, these men have two sets of names in the Bible – you might know them as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego). The three of them just stood there. The people around them might have noticed, and I bet at least one of them said, “Are you crazy? Get down!” But these three friends stood straight and tall!

Imagine that a reporter for Babylon Television was there that day. He would be covering the event, talking to the cameras, describing the statue, and the music and the crowds. Actually, I have something that might help our imagination (one second)…[with reporter puppet]

R: What an event! What a statue! What a wonderful King. Oh dear! There appear to be some in the crowd who don’t seem to get it. Are they deaf? Are they stupid? Are they crazy? Let’s ask them. You! Didn’t you hear the king’s order.
M: We heard it.
R: Well, you don’t seem to be doing much about it.
M: That is true, we aren’t going to follow the order.
R: Why not?
M: Because we don’t believe in this idol.
R: What do you mean, you don’t believe in it? Can’t you see? It is right there in front of you, and surely big enough for you to see. Are you blind?
M: No. We’re not blind. But you don’t understand. We believe that it exists. We just don’t believe it deserves any worship.
R: But it’s huge! And it’s gold! It took the King’s servants weeks and weeks to make it.
M: This means that we can admire it. We can be impressed by it. But we won’t – ever – worship it.
R: The King says you should worship it.
M: That doesn’t matter.
R: And all of your colleagues are worshipping it, too.
M: That doesn’t matter either. Only God – God in heaven – deserves our worship.
R: Ok, ok. Well you don’t have to exactly worship it. You can be looking around on the ground for your lucky quarter.
M: We’re not even going to pretend to be worshipping it.
R: Didn’t you hear the punishment for not following this order?
M: It doesn’t matter what the punishment is. God’s law is clear: we must not worship idols.
R: But the King is going to throw you into the fire!

Ouch. That’s gonna hurt. That’s right! That “firefly something” that Mitchell and his friends didn’t quite hear about was actually a fiery furnace. And anyone who refused to worship the idol was to be thrown into that furnace on the spot. So I want you to keep that story in your heads, and don’t lose it. We’ll come back to it in a second. I want to explain something to the Moms and Dads and teenagers… You see…

When I was a teenager, I was puzzled by the fact that the Bible is full of warnings against idols. After all, when I looked around, I didn’t see too many idols. Have you ever thought about that? We don’t see crowds of people worshipping gold statues anymore, do we? But the Bible seems to be hung up about idols. You know: “thou shalt not make any graven image” and all that. Today, we think that the “two big sins” are murder and adultery. But in fact, there are more references in the Bible to idols and idolatry than there are references to murder and adultery combined. And most of the references to adultery are actually metaphors for idolatry. So what’s up with that? Has society progressed beyond the Bible? Of course not! In fact, the Bible makes it clear that idolatry is not just something that people do with wood or stone. In Ezekiel chapter 14, the Bible talks about people setting up idols in their hearts. You see, whenever we set our hearts on something besides God, we are practicing idolatry.

Deep in the human heart is the need to put our trust in something, or in someone. Deep in the human heart is the desire to associate with something bigger than ourselves. We’re wired to connect with God, folks. But when we rebel against God, as each one of us has done; when we redirect our worship instinct toward something else or someone else, we’re setting up an idol in our hearts. The most tragic example of this is when people turn their worship instinct towards themselves, and start to think that their choices, and their ideas are the most important thing in the world. Those people always end up very lonely.

Now in Bible times, idol worship was often pretty nasty. There were idols that required you to cut yourselves. There were idols that required you to burn your children. Shudder. Really bad stuff. And though there are still modern idols that grab our attention by simply being “bad”. Most idol-worship doesn’t start off looking evil. Very few idols start off scary. But these idols only become scary after it’s too late. That’s right, most modern idols start off looking really very attractive!

For example, we enjoy money and commerce, (we’re reminded this morning that it is almost Christmas, a time when spending a bit more than usual can add to the fun) but money and buying things can so easily become an idol. In fact, the Bible clearly teaches that greed is simply another name for idolatry. We can also enjoy relationships and affection and pleasure. Good things that God has created for our well-being, but they can also become idols. If we put God first, then our finances and relationships and the support we receive from them will all be for our benefit. But if we let them take over God’s role, if we turn our hearts over to them rather than to God, as if the created thing is greater than the Creator, then we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

You see, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. If we seek first the Kingdom of God, if we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and all our minds, and all our strength, then we will be free from the demands of idols, and God will take care of all of our needs. But if we lose our focus, and offer our hearts to our desires, or to our plans, or to our friends, or to our ambitions, or to our possessions, or to our status… then we are guaranteed to be let down, and even lose what we were wanting in the first place.

Let me read a short passage from a great book by Tim Keller entitled “Counterfeit Gods”:

“…anything in life can serve as an idol, a God-alternative, a counterfeit god.

“I recently heard the account of a field army officer who so … pursued physical and military discipline with his troops that he broke their morale. That led to a communication breakdown during combat that resulted in fatalities. I knew a woman who had experienced periods of poverty as she grew up. As an adult, she was so eager for financial security that she passed over many good prospective relationships in order to marry a wealthy man she did not really love. This led to an early divorce and to all the economic struggles she feared so much. It appears that some major league baseball players, in a quest to play not just well but at a Hall of Fame level, took steroids and other drugs. As a result, their bodies are more broken and their reputations more sullied than if they had been willing to be good rather than great. The very things upon which these people were building all their happiness turned to dust in their hands because they had built all their happiness upon them. In each case, a good thing among many was turned into a supreme thing, so that its demands overrode all competing values. But counterfeit gods always disappoint, and often destructively so.”

There is a life principle here, and C. S. Lewis puts it very clearly: “every [time we prefer] a small good to a great [good], [or we prefer] a partial good to a total good, [we lose] the small or partial good for which [we made] the sacrifice.” You see, if you discard God in favor of the good things that God wants to provide, don’t be surprised if you end up with less of the thing that you were wanting in the first place. Don’t make the mistake of selling your soul for small or partial goods. Instead, “seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.”

All these things – all these good things: friendship, health, security, family, progress, pleasure, science, family, fun, success, even wealth… God knows just how much we need them (sometimes less than we might think that we need them). God knows that they are all good and worthwhile. But don’t set them up as idols in your life – as they will certainly let you down. For the longer idols have a grip on your heart, the more they reveal themselves for what they are. At first, it is all so alluring. Then it is no big deal. But soon it can turn into a habit, or an obsession, or even an addiction. Then idols start to eat away at you. Expecting more, demanding more, until you can only see the trouble that you are in when it is too late.

Recall how God starts off the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other Gods before me. You must not bow down to an idol or worship it.” Note that these commands are not there to put artificial limits on our behavior. No! He says “you shall have no other Gods before me” to keep us from harm. He says “you must not bow down to an idol or worship it” to explain the kind of life that will give us the most happiness.

So when confronted with a crazy King who ordered that they bow down and worship his golden statue, our three friends Mitchell, Azi and Hani believed God, and they knew that the last thing that they wanted to do was to destroy their souls with idol-worship.

Let’s go back to that story, ok? You remember, right? Mitchell, Hani and Azi refused to bow down in the presence of the idol. And, as always happens in the “civil” service, one of the other officials went to the King and snitched on the three friends. The King couldn’t believe it. Like the reporter, he was certain that the three friends didn’t hear or didn’t understand. So he had them brought before him. And he wasn’t too happy.

“Perhaps you didn’t hear the instructions precisely…” he said to them, “when the music plays, you bow down. If you don’t bow down and worship, you’ll get thrown into a blazing furnace.” Gulp. But check out the answer that Mitchell and his friends give the King. “O King. No need to cue the orchestra up again. We won’t even make excuses. If you throw us into the furnace, the God who we serve is able to save us from it. But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will never worship the golden idol.”

Well, if he wasn’t too happy before, the King now had steam coming out of his ears now. The Bible says that he heated the furnace seven times hotter than usual and had Mitchell, Hani and Azi tied up and thrown in. He was expecting to see them writhe in agony. He was expecting to see them fried to a crisp. He was expecting to see any opposition to his will vanish in a puff of smoke. He was expecting any number of things except what he actually did see. He looked. He rubbed his eyes. He looked again. And he didn’t believe it. He saw the three friends walking around inside the furnace, apparently unharmed. Now that was enough to freak him out, but there was one other thing that he saw that gave him goose-bumps and made tingles go up his back. There, in the furnace, he didn’t just see three men walking around. He saw four. And the fourth one looked really special. The Bible says that the King thought he looked like “the son of a god.”

Jesus says in the Bible, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge before the angels of God. And whoever disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God.” “…disowned before the angels of God.” Ouch. We really don’t want that. Our three heroes this morning stood up for God before the King, and as a result God came and stood with them when things started to get hot. And this is a strong illustration for us this morning: when Jesus is in our lives, when he is walking among us, when we are in the habit of talking to him, when we are not ashamed to associate with him, then he will be there when we need him the most – we will be able to walk through the fire in our own lives without any harm.

The King was so impressed that he ordered Mitchell and his friends out of the furnace and he gave them all promotions! How do you like that? Honoring God, instead of being a career-limiting move, gave our three heroes both earthly success and fellowship with the Son of God. And that is the testimony of thousands and thousands of God’s children throughout history. Don’t just buy into the herd mentality of the crowd around you. Keep your heart toward God, and His Son, Jesus, will become your best friend.

In 1 John chapter 5, we read a description of what our three heroes experienced: “…God's own Son protects [His children], and the devil cannot harm them. We know that Jesus Christ the Son of God has come and has shown us the true God. And because of Jesus, we now belong to the true God who gives eternal life.” Yes, we know that when we belong to the Almighty God that we can rest in Him and nothing can snatch us out of His powerful hand. And we know that Jesus is the source of this comfort and this security and this peace. But even after this triumphant conclusion to his letter, the Apostle John adds a tiny little post-script: six important words (verse 21):

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”

Be aware of potential idols in your lives, my friends. Don’t give your heart to them this morning. Don’t let it be said of you what was said of God’s people in Jeremiah’s time: in Jeremiah chapter 2, God says about them:

“…my people have exchanged my Glory for worthless idols. My people have committed two sins: [first] They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and [second, they] have dug their own cisterns, broken [and dirty] cisterns that cannot hold water [at all].”

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Consider the Raven

Good morning everyone. It is nice to see all the boys and girls up for the service this morning. And I’ve brought a special guest just for them: my pet raven, Edgar.

E: Oh! Look at that! I guess I didn’t get in enough trouble the last time I was here.

D: Not at all. In fact, we should have brought you back when we were having problems with squirrels!

E: Mmm. Squirrels. I like squirrels.

D: But that’s not why you are here this morning.

E: Oh no? Why am I here?

D: Wow! That’s a deep question for a raven.

E: Huh? I mean… why am I here, here, now?

D: Oh! Well, I was reading my Bible.

E: That’s always good.

D: And I was reading in Luke chapter 12.

E: Ok.

D: And in Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells his disciples to consider the raven.

E:

D: What?

E: You’re crazy.

D: No! I’m serious! If Jesus says to consider the raven, I thought that I’d be doing the church a big favor by bringing in my favorite raven and letting them all consider you.

E: I should have worn my good suit.

D: Aw. Come on. If Jesus says that we should consider the raven, then I’m sure that he has a good reason for saying it… I just don’t exactly know what it is quite yet.

E: Do you think it is because I’m so good-looking?

D: I dunno about that!

E: Do you think it is because I’m so very intelligent?

D: Well, we could be getting warmer! I’ve read that recent research shows that ravens are more intelligent than we thought.

E: MUCH more intelligent than you thought.

D: Let’s not get carried away. After all, you’re just a silly puppet.

E: Look who’s talking

D: Hmm. He has a point, doesn’t he? But seriously, if you’re so smart, could you give me some investment advice? My retirement plan is seriously in trouble after the economy of the last year.

E: Well, ravens are great with investments!

D: Really?

E: Really! Why don’t you just read your Bible? If you’d only listen to Jesus, he’d tell you that my investment advice is exactly the reason why you should be considering me in the first place!

D: Oh! You mean, I should read a little further in Luke chapter 12?

E: Exactly!

D: Who knew? Let’s see (Luke chapter 12, verse 24): “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Consider the raven’…

E: Dude!

D: Sorry. ‘Consider the raven… they do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds?” Hey! Hear that – we’re more valuable than birds?

E: Get over it.

D: Hey this is really interesting! Would you mind?

E: No worries. I can listen just fine down there.

D: Thanks, Edgar.

It must be time to get a bit more serious, so let me pray?

So just what do you think that Jesus means here? “Consider the ravens: they do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn, yet God feeds them.” You know, back when Jesus was saying these words to his disciples, “sowing and reaping” were the ways that people got their food. They didn’t go to the Metro and buy their dinner. Sowing is when you put seeds in the ground. Reaping is when you collect the grain when it is ripe. So sowing and reaping are the work that people needed to do to have food at all. And Jesus is saying that God feeds the ravens even though they don’t do work to have food. But please notice: Jesus isn’t saying that we should be like ravens. He is just saying that we should think about them.

And what about that “storehouses and barns” business? Back when Jesus was saying these words to his disciples, “storehouses and barns” were the ways people invested for their future. By putting grain in barns, it can be kept all winter without going bad, and then there will be some to plant the next spring. They didn’t buy stocks, or put money into retirement plans. So having storehouses and barns is the work that people needed to do in order to look after their future. And Jesus is saying that God feeds the ravens even though they don’t do work to look after their future. But once again: Jesus didn’t say to become a raven. He just asked us to think about the raven – to consider them.

At least Edgar set me straight on one thing. Instead of just paying attention to one thing that Jesus said, Edgar reminded me that I should look at what else Jesus said. So let’s read some more… verse 27:

“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these lilies. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you!”

The ravens get fed; the grass gets fancy clothes. If God looks after the ravens and the grass, then God is certainly able to look after you, too! That’s really good advice. But once again: notice that Jesus doesn’t say we should become a lily. He is just asking us to think about lilies. So let’s do that this morning.

What is it that a lily does in order to deserve God’s provision of exquisite clothes? Nothing. Of course. The lily doesn’t deserve it at all. But God delights in giving those clothes to the lily anyway. How about a better question: What is it that the lily does in order to enjoy God’s provision? What is it that the lily does in order to receive such beautiful clothes? It’s a trick question, isn’t it? The lily simply needs to be a lily – to behave as a lily should. The lily drinks up moisture from the earth and reaches out to the sun. When the lily is doing what a lily is designed to do – when it is simply being a lily – all of its needs are looked after.

What about the raven? What is it that the raven does to deserve God’s provision of food? Once again: nothing. But God delights in providing the raven with food anyway. What is it that a raven does in order to enjoy God’s provision of food? He is just being a raven – behaving like a raven should. A raven is made to clean up dead things. When a squirrel gets hit by a car, it is the raven’s job to go pick up the dead squirrel and take care of it. When a raven is doing what the raven is designed to do – when it is simply being a raven – all of his needs are looked after.

But the same principle is true of human beings. God can look after all of our needs. God wants to look after all of our needs. We can’t do anything in order to deserve God’s provision. But if we want God to meet us and bless us, then all we need to do is what we were designed to do. If we behave like we were made to behave, then we don’t have to worry about food and clothes! What do you think of that?

There is an important difference, however, between you and ravens. And the same important difference is between you and lilies. The raven can’t help but be a raven. The lily can’t help but be a lily. But human beings are broken. Inside every one of us is the ability to fight against our true nature. And fight we do! And we see the results of that fight on the news every evening.

When people fight against their true nature, when they struggle against what we are designed to do, we can’t help but be unhappy. This summer, I was able to spend a week at camp. And the nurse that week brought along her dog. Now this dog was bred for three things: it was bred to run fast; it was bred to play games; it was bred to be a companion to people. This is what the dog was designed to do. And you could tell that when that dog was running, and playing, and keeping people company that it was really, really happy. And when she was kept indoors because some camper was scared of her, you could tell that She. Was. Not. Happy. And so it is with us. So it is with me and so it is with you.

When the raven does what a raven is designed to do, God provides it with food. When a lily does what a lily is designed to do, God provides it with beautiful clothes. So what is it that we were designed to do? What do our blueprints say? Why are we here? What is the purpose to our lives that will make us happier than anything else and enable God’s provision in our lives? Well, Jesus tells us, doesn’t he? In verse 31: “Seek God’s Kingdom, and these things [food and clothing] will be given to you as well.”

Did you know that there have been several scientific studies of happiness? It is true. And the things that they have discovered in these studies are very interesting. They are also entirely contrary to the messages that we receive continually from entertainment and advertising. What did they study? They studied the factors in people’s lives that signal happiness. And what did they find? They found that money, education, success, health, beauty or youth were not at all indicators of happiness. Seriously! The number one most significant factor correlated with happiness was this: a spirit of gratitude. And the second was similar: unselfishly caring for and helping others. How about the third: learning to give and receive forgiveness. The fourth was along the same lines: finding a real sense of meaning and purpose in life by giving ourselves over to something bigger than just us.

Hey! Modern psychology agrees with Jesus! Gratitude to God. Kindness to others. Forgiving and being forgiven. Those items are a not at all far from the Kingdom of God. As the Philosopher J. P. Moreland writes: “You’d almost think that we were designed by God for life in his Kingdom.” And, indeed, that is exactly what Jesus is saying to us this morning. That is why we have been designed. That is the source of our sense of purpose. It is what we know we are here for. And it is bigger than just us. Seek the Kingdom of God, and these things will be given to you as well.

We have a choice: we can worry, and fret, and obsess about the future, and about our retirement, and about our career, and about our cash-flow… or… we can do what we’re designed to do and let God look after all of those things. I can remember – and if you are a parent, I bet you can, too – times when disaster strikes, and your well-meaning if misguided child wants to “help”. Picture the sump-pump failing in the spring, and there you are bailing away. If your child is young, and you’ve just asked them to do their piano lesson, chances are that they will see the crisis as an opportunity. But it isn’t helpful to have a little one under foot while you are doing your best to contain the damage. You want to say, “Thanks, buddy, but let me take care of this, ok? – please do your piano like I asked you to.” And that is exactly the picture that Jesus is painting for us this morning. God is ready, willing, and able to look after all those things that we are inclined to worry about. But instead of worrying about them, God wants us to trust him for them, and to do what we have been asked to do – to do what we have been designed to do: to exercise gratitude and kindness and forgiveness. And when we do, then we find that God provides exactly what we need.

The other famous verse in the Bible about God’s provision is Phil 4:19 “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” But we’ve already learned the importance of context this morning, haven’t we? And what was the context of this verse in Philippians? Well, Paul is thanking the church in Philippi for their gift to the church in Jerusalem. There was a famine in the land of Judea, and collections were coming in from all over the Roman Empire to help the church in Jerusalem. Paul says: because you have been generous, God will be generous to you. Give, and it will be given to you. Give a little to God, and he will give you a lot back. Pressed down, shaken together and running over into your lap.

And that brings us to verse 33: Jesus says “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted” In the gospel of Matthew, this passage is a little more familiar (chapter 6, verse 19): “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This is such brilliant advice. Stock markets tumble. Houses and furniture wear out. We can fill ourselves with vitamins and work out continually, but we’ll all grow old anyway.

In the last fifty years, folks in Canada have become obsessed about their treasure on earth. According to the numbers, they are twice as rich as they were before. But they aren’t happy. But that’s what happens with treasure on earth. It just doesn’t live up to its promise. It just doesn’t last. Jesus says “Whoever would save his life will lose it.”

But there is something else. Something bigger than any of us; something called the Kingdom of God; something that even though we might not understand it, we’ve been designed to participate in. And when we look for it, Jesus says we will find it. And we don’t need to look far. Jesus also says that the Kingdom of God is right here. It is near. It is among us. Let’s be practical…

Whenever you talk to someone, you build up treasure. If you only talk to people to use them to enhance your own life, you are building up treasure on earth. On the other hand, if you give up your own time or energy to enhance someone else’s life, then you are building up treasure in heaven. And guess what? Life is more fun when you do exactly that.

Whenever you are tired or sick, you build up treasure. If you focus on the illness, feel sorry for yourself, and insist that others look after you, you are building up treasure on earth. If you rather focus on heaven, in which you are going to be healed, and work a little harder than you feel like at the time, you are building up treasure in heaven. And guess what? You’ll find yourself healing much faster when you do that.

Whenever you need to work, you build up treasure. If you focus on the tedium and the unfairness, if you attempt to do as little as possible, then you are building up treasure on earth. On the other hand, if you work as if working for God, and for his glory, then you are building up treasure in heaven. And guess what? You’ll find that work isn’t nearly so bad when you do that.

Whenever you exchange money, you build up treasure. If you spend money thinking only of yourself – your health, your toys, your pleasure, you are building up treasure on earth. But if you spend money thinking of the effect that it has on your family, or your neighborhood, or your community, or your world, you may be building up treasure in heaven instead.

Whenever we do anything, we build up treasure. But the choice is yours. Do you want that treasure to be on earth, where it won’t last, or in heaven where it can be something that you enjoy for eternity? Whatever you think about this, listen to what the Bible says about it: “Don’t be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”

Let me tell you one final story about one of my kids. Not that long ago, I woke up in the morning, came down stairs, and there on the white board. Isn’t that sad? The only reliable way I could talk to my teenagers during the summer was on the whiteboard – they would often come home after I was in bed, and they would often only wake up after I was already at the office. But no matter. There was this note: “Dad, could I have some $$ to go to La Ronde with my friends? I understand it is last minute, so it isn’t that important.” Kind of sounds like a teenager thing to do, doesn’t it? Well, as it happens, I was entirely out of cash. LaRonde was going to cost about $35 for the day, and I just had nickels and dimes. So guess what I did? I wrote on the white-board: “L-O-S-E-R!” Just kidding. J I threw on some clothes, jumped in the car, zoomed to the bank and I got out some cash. Then I came home and tiptoed into said teenager’s room and put the money on the night-stand.

Now you might be thinking “you must love that child of yours”. And you’d be right. I most certainly do. But the interesting thing about this story isn’t so much what I did, but what was going on in my head at the time. You see, when I put on my clothes, I really wasn’t thinking “Oh. The sacrifices I make for my teenagers.” Honest! And when I hopped in the car, I wasn’t thinking “Oh. This is so inconvenient. That teenager better pay me back!” Really! Instead, I was thinking “I so hope that this precious person has a really fun day with friends at LaRonde.” I was! And let me tell you why. You see, the previous night, this same teenager was on the phone with a friend, and I overheard plans about getting together, and after the phone was hung-up, I heard a bit of scurrying and then the door slammed. Thunk. And thirty seconds later I heard the door open again. And this same teenager came up to my office door and wanted to let me know what the plans were for the evening.

You see, just those few seconds in which my child invested in me… made me want to invest in my child. Driving to the bank was a joy that next morning. So it is with God. Any investment in God’s Kingdom – time spent doing what we have been designed to do – never fails to come back to us multiplied in value according to God’s riches in glory.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

Welcome to Bethel on this Father’s Day. Before we come to consider the Parable of the Two Lost Sons [Luke 15] that was read for us this morning, I’d like to share a journey with you. Last month, I had the great privilege of going on a two-and-a-half-week bus-tour of Turkey. This was something that my Mom had planned to do with my Dad, but after Dad’s sudden passing last fall, my Mom kindly asked me to come with her. Oh, and it just happened to coincide with the gift of some extra vacation from my employer…. Let me share some of the highlights…

Our tour started at the far end of the Orient Express: the ancient city of Constantinople, or modern Istanbul. From there, we were able to visit all manner of places mentioned in the Bible: we went to Iconium (modern Konya), Attalia (modern Antalya), Perga - places that Paul visited, and from there to Ephesus, Smyrna (modern Izmir) and Pergamum - three of the seven cities who received a special message in the book of Revelation. In those messages, we read again and again: "Listen to what the Spirit says to the churches." We don’t have time to read those messages this morning, but if you did, and took the time to study them, and if you wanted to summarize that message in one word, the word that you would choose would be "repent". Last week we were reminded that repentance is the message for the lost, but we often forget that repentance is a message for the church as well - an important habit of mind and heart for our spiritual health. And as I hope we'll discover later, this morning’s parable has something to teach us about repentance.

Here are a few more Biblical locations in the area - and a wee bit of history: all these places supported significant Christian populations until quite recently. In his wonderful book “The Lost History of Christianity” Philip Jenkins details the rise and fall of Christianity in the East. Did you know, for example, that in the late Middle Ages – the thirteenth century – more than one third of the world’s Christian population lived in Africa and Asia? What’s more, by studying these churches, Jenkins examines what it takes for a church to go the distance – what keeps a church healthy and alive – even when the going gets rough. In one sentence, he sums it up: “Too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much [adaptation means] assimilation.”

We have been given the Good News of the grace of God available in His Son Jesus Christ. But this is not just a message to keep to ourselves; it is a message to share with the world. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to want to listen sometimes. So throughout history, the church has adapted the message so that the world will be able to understand it better – not to change the content of the message but to change its form. But we must be careful: some folks are worried about too much adaptation – that the message will be diluted to the point that it loses its power. These folk we can call conservative. And their worry is a legitimate one. But there are others who worry about too little adaptation – meaning that we end up speaking our own special language, incomprehensible to the rest of the world. You see, there needs to be a relationship between the conservative and the progressive elements in the church. Both are necessary for a healthy church.

In fact, we can well interpret our parable this morning to be addressing both of these elements in the church – the younger son represents a challenge to the traditional order while the older son is the law-and-order sort. And as we shall see, God’s plan is for these naturally-conflicting tendencies to come together in celebration with Him.

There is a famous quote that is sometimes put as follows: “Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brain.” While this is, of course, too much of a stereotype, it does represent what it sometimes called the “generation gap”. And this morning, on Father's Day, the meeting between the young and the old, between the conservative and the progressive, is God’s desire for us this morning. As the Bible says, God wants the hearts of the fathers to turn to their children, and the hearts of the children to turn to their fathers.

Now the reason that I asked you to join me on my journey is not just to get as far as Turkey, and not just to go back in time to the churches of Ephesus and Smyrna, but to go back even a little bit further, and to travel a even a little farther until we arrive in the land of Judea in the first century. You see, two thousand years, thousands of miles and a switch of languages separate Bethel Chapel in Pointe-Claire from the context in which Jesus first spoke the parable that we will look at this morning. Now it is true that some, perhaps even most of the story has made it this far, but some of it has been “lost in translation.” And to recover that lost part of the story, it helps to become a bit more familiar with the time and the language and the culture in which Jesus lived.

Of course, the closest that we can get to Jesus’ culture today is the culture of the Middle East. But unless we go for a visit the only exposure we get to that culture is through the news. We hear tidbits of strange practices from that corner of the world. For example, I expect that you’ve heard of this business of “honor killing” after a teenage girl was killed by her father in Toronto a year and a half ago. Well, in and around the Middle East, this practice claims the lives of perhaps thousands of girls a year. And it isn’t necessary to actually be guilty of anything, either. Just the perception of dishonor is sufficient.

But why am I telling you this? Simply that the importance of family honor, specifically the honor and reputation of the family patriarch helps us appreciate the parable of the two lost sons. When the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance and a division of the estate, this was a slap in the face to his father, and a shared insult to the entire community. You see, dividing an estate was unthinkable while one’s father was alive. A request to do such a thing would be treated by the community as if the younger son had publicly shouted at his father “I wish you were dead!” You know, they had a law against such things: Leviticus 20:9 in the Jewish Study Bible reads “If anyone insults his father or mother, he shall be put to death.” The word translated “insult” here, can also mean “brings dishonor”.

Jesus' hearers would have felt the father’s dishonor, just as his neighbors would. The Pharisees listening to Jesus might have been looking around for stones to pick up and execute the judgment of the law. First they would be furious by his son’s impudent request, and then… then they would be scandalized – by the fact that the father in the story simply does exactly what his son requests. The estate is divided, one portion is sold, and the proceeds are given to the younger son. Back then, these things were simply “not done”.

Of course, the younger son can’t stick around. The family and friends of the father would take up the insult personally – they would never do business with him. So off goes the younger son, and lives a life far away, without the limits of his upbringing. Unfortunately, the money runs out a lot quicker than he expected. So there in the field feeding pigs (not exactly the preferred career trajectory for a good Jewish boy), he’s in a bit of a pickle. He is slowly dying in the land of his choosing, but he could be lynched if he were to return home. Selling your land was dishonorable back then, but losing the proceeds to foreigners was terrible. His only possibility for recovery lies in the hands of his father.

In the culture of the day, he would think (and those listening to Jesus tell the story would also think) that the only way to receive his father’s welcome is to give his father the solemn promise that he will go to work and make enough money to pay his father back. He also remembers that his father’s hired hands were even able to maintain a savings account. So maybe his father would permit his failed son to apprentice as a skilled laborer? It would take a great deal of kindness on the father's part, but this plan just might work.

Jesus gives us three hints, however, that what the son is up to is not a real repentance. First, the words the son uses: “I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.” – well, Jesus’ audience would know that these are the same words that Pharaoh used toward Moses in Exodus chapter 10 – just after the plague of locusts. But four verses later when Moses prays and the locusts all vanish, Pharaoh isn’t exactly repentant. The second hint is that this is really only one of three parts of the parable, isn't it? There in Luke chapter 15, Jesus also tells of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In the first case, the shepherd goes looking for an entirely unrepentant sheep. In the second, the coin that the widow hunts down isn’t exactly repentant either. But the third hint is even stronger: in Hebrew, there is a word for repentance, and it is often translated “return”. But in our story, Jesus avoids ever saying that the younger “returns” to the father. Instead, he plans to “go” and then “goes” home. The servant tells his older brother that he has “come”, and the older brother uses the same word “come” when speaking to his father. Never “return” – so never “repent”.

You see, the younger son realizes that his last chance is to come to the father, but he wants to do it on his own terms. “Make me like a hired man” he wants to say. “Put me to work, and I’ll pay off my debt.” He doesn’t get it. He thinks that in order to be accepted by his father, he needs to earn his way. Many folks -- even many Christian folks -- make the same mistake today. But as we see, his father has something else in mind. Even while the son is a long while off – long before the father’s friends and neighbors can recognize him; long before they decide to take the law into their own hands – a long way off, the father rushes out and hugs and kisses his lost son. In the culture of the day, running is simply not honorable. A respected elder of the community does not run anywhere. I was reminded of this just this last week -- my dear daughter Meg had her grad dinner, and her parents were invited. I put on my suit and my new shoes and goodness! I just couldn't go as fast as I usually do! Running is not at all dignified. But once again, the father in our story considers his children to be more important than culture, to be more important than tradition, to be more important than honor, to be more important than “the rules” – he runs and embraces his son. The son starts into his spiel: “I have sinned against heaven … I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” but the father notably cuts him off before he can get to the part about paying off his debt. You see, the son thinks the same way that the culture does: it is all about honor; it is all about settling accounts. The father thinks differently. For the father it is all about relationship.

Relationships don’t work by the same rules that run accounts. Accounts are all nice and ordered and rational. Relationships are on another level altogether. When we think of repentance, we often think of “making things right”. That’s what the younger son was thinking. But the kind of repentance that God wants is the one where we simply see the amazing love that God has for us. Only when our eyes are finally opened to God’s great love and mercy available for us in Jesus – only then are we finally able to become his children. And that’s what the father wants. He doesn’t want another hired hand. He wants someone who loves him and accepts His unconditional love – he wants us to be his children.

As we read in Romans 8:15 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave …, but you received the Spirit of sonship.” Similarly, in 1 John 3:1 “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” And as a symbol of restored sonship, the father in our story orders his best robe to be fetched and wrapped around the rags that now cover his child. Wearing his father’s best robe, the community will no longer be looking to lynch this young man. Rather, they will respect him due to this symbol of his father’s acceptance. And this is exactly what we learned last Sunday: Galatians 3:26 “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

Repentance is not just feeling sorry. As any parent can tell you, there is nothing like being caught in the act to make a child feel sorry. Repentance is not just asking for forgiveness: children are quick to ask for forgiveness when there is any threat of punishment. Neither is repentance making a deal with God -- giving and getting. Real repentence is like changing your uniform: turning away from sin, and turning to God. Real repentance means accepting His extravagant love for you. God’s mercy is so great, in fact, that he was willing to accept us before we even understand his terms. “God shows his great love in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” And the younger son finally gets it: giving up on his plan to pay the father back, he is overcome by gratitude for his father's love.
And so the fattened calf is butchered, and aging wine is brought out. The neighbors are all invited, and the caterers are booked. Time to celebrate. But now we come to act two, and the older son takes center stage. He hears the musicians that the caterers have booked, and he wonders what is happening. And then someone tells him: your brother is home; your father is having a party – your brother has been accepted home in peace. And the older son is angry. And the Pharisees who are listening identify with this anger.

But as soon as that anger rises in the hearts of Jesus hearers, they feel caught. Because now it is the older son’s turn to insult his father. It is true! When man throws a party, and invites the entire village, it is his oldest son’s duty to share with the hosting responsibilities! Refusing to go in would be a slap in the face to the father. But once again, the father behaves in a way far beyond all cultural expectations. He once again bears the entire weight of the insult, considering his relationship with his son more important than honor. Leaving the party to proceed on its own, he goes outside to plead with his older son. But this is the important difference between the two sons. The younger son insulted his father and was accepted back with extravagant grace. But the older son insulted his father, and he is still outside. This is how the story ends in the Bible. Don't let this be how the story ends for you. For some people this morning, God is pleading with you to come inside and join his party. Don't let the faults of folks in the church destroy your relationship with God.

You see, the older son made two big mistakes. These are also the same mistakes are still being made by many folk today. First, the older brother says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.” God does not want slaves, he wants children. If we imagine that our service to God earns us anything, we are insulting God. We have become mercenary rather than celebrating a relationship. Paul writes: Gal 5:1 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” If we think that our service to God earns us health; if we think that our service to God earns us success; if we think that our service to God earns us status, we just aren’t getting it. None of these things have any value at all compared to “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord,” As Paul says: “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

Let me tell you a short Nathanael story: when Nathanael was quite young -- perhaps eight or nine, he came to me one day and asked me for a quarter. Now for whatever reason, I chose to say "no" to Nathanael, but I guess I hadn't ever said "no" to him enough, and, as a result, he wasn't at all happy. A few minutes later, I was talking with Nat's big sister Grace, and Nathanael walked by with a thunder cloud over his head. "What's the matter with him?" Grace asked. Now I'm not usually that smart, but that day I said: "Nathanael thinks that a quarter is more important than his relationship with his father." And dear Nathanael stopped in his tracks. He looked over his shoulder. The thunder cloud started to dissipate, and he smiled. Even Nathanael understood that there is nothing more important than relationships!

The first mistake that the older son made was to think that his service to his father earned him something. But his second mistake was to begrudge his younger brother his father’s favor. He focuses on his brother's faults – remembering the insult to his father, for example, and imagines that the party is for his brother, and the two things seem terribly unfair. But the Bible doesn't say that the party was for the brother at all. In the ancient Coptic manuscripts of Luke, the father says “For my son was dead, and I have brought him to life. He was lost and I found him.” You see, the feast is in celebration of the father’s success in finally getting through to his child. “Rejoice with me,” he says.

If we begrudge our brother’s talent, or wealth, or opportunities; if we begrudge our sister’s beauty, or intelligence, or fortune, focusing instead on their failures – then we are insulting their loving Father who gave these things to them in the first place. Rather, the surest indication that we have a right relationship with God is if we are in right relationship with our brothers and sisters and are able to celebrate with them – even and especially those we disagree with. Celebrating our relationship with God means joining with Him to celebrate the deliverance of the least of our brothers. We need to come to the place where our relationship with God is more important to us than the fact that our neighbour might seem to be getting lucky breaks.

For the conservative folk: if your love of tradition and order is greater than your love for your progressive brother, then you are not nearly as obedient to God as you imagine. And you progressive folk: if your love for relevance and progress is greater than your love for your conservative brother, then you are not nearly as close to the heart of God as you imagine.

Rather, the Spirit this morning is calling for repentance and unity. God The Father is asking us His children to come into a real relationship with Him. And when we do, the words of Psalm 85:10 with become our reality: “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Message of Easter

Good Morning and Welcome to Bethel on a lovely Easter Sunday Morning.

And it is wonderful to have some visitors with us and all the children here this morning. For those who don’t know, I sometimes have something for the children on Sunday mornings, and Easter Sunday is no exception. But it isn’t just candy this morning. I also have something for them to see… just a little trick with a handkerchief… normally, it is difficult to put something big inside something small, but very few people think that I’m normal. And what is this a picture of? A bunny? A bunny? Oh. I understand… some of you might imagine that I am showing a bunny because it is Easter, but this isn’t exactly a rabbit... It’s a duck! You see, sometimes, depending on how you look at something, it can be as different as a rabbit or a duck! This one was easy – I just have to turn the cloth, and everyone can see the two different pictures.

Here's another one I like: But in both of these two cases, it isn't at all clear that one way of looking at things is any "better" or "more important" than the other. So sometimes, things can be taken two ways, and it is a matter of looking at them differently. In these cases two ways of looking are just as valid. But this isn’t always so. In some cases, one way of looking at something, or one way of understanding something is very much more important than the other.

Here is an example. You see, there are two ways of looking at this image. And they are by no means created equal. This picture was taken by my boss, who is an expert scuba diver and underwater photographer (used with permission). Suppose you were a little fish, and you were out on a swim with your best friend. (out of school ;-) ) And suppose you came to this location, and started to discuss what it was you were seeing. Your best friend says, “Oh, it is just some coral.” But you aren’t so sure. “It’s no big deal,” says your friend, “You can have your opinion and I’ll have mine – it doesn’t matter.” But just at that moment, your friend gets a little too close to the “coral” and CHOMP! He just got eaten by this scorpion fish! There’s his eye, and there’s his mouth. Sometimes differences in perspective can be important – even life-changing! Good thing that you knew all along that it wasn’t just coral!

How about those “Magic Eye” images? Well, they either look like a jumble of nothing, or they look like something in three dimensions. And anyone who has seen the real image would not let you get away with claiming that it is just a jumble, or that seeing the jumble is “just as good” as seeing the “real image”. You see, there are some things in life in which the way that we choose to look at them is very important indeed.

One of the other fun things about these images is that it doesn’t even help to be smart. It doesn’t help to have read the right books. It doesn’t help to have been born in the right place. Either you see the “real image” … or you don’t. And if you have seen the “real image”, not even the richest, smartest, most educated man in the world would be able to tell you that it is just a jumble. Because you’d know better than him!

So many things in life can be looked at in different ways. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that some of the most important things can also be looked at in different ways. In particular, the message of Easter is one of those things. I’d like us to turn to 1 Corinthians 1:18. The Bible says:

[T]he message of [Easter] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The message of Easter can be either foolishness or the power of God. How do you like that? And hey, this doesn’t look like a case of two “equally valid perspectives” either. If someone says “It’s no big deal, it can be the power of God for you, and foolishness for me,” you want to say “wait…WHAT? No big deal??? Are you kidding??? You don’t know what you are missing???”

But, of course, we aren’t angry at folks who tell us that the message of Easter is foolishness. The Bible doesn't say that the evil, or the enemies of God think that it is foolishness. It is the perishing. These are the folks who need our help. And besides, they are in good company. Really! You see, even Jesus own disciples didn’t get the message the first time. In fact, the Bible tells us that at least twice Jesus predicted his own death, which, of course, is what we commemorate on Good Friday. Sometimes Jesus included his resurrection in his predictions – and that’s the basis of our Easter celebrations, isn’t it? But Peter, James and John, Jesus disciples – men who went on to change the world with their wisdom, courage, commitment and sacrifice – these guys just don’t get it any of those times.

Now as you probably know, there are four different accounts of Jesus life and death: Matthew Mark Luke and John. But Jesus’ predicting his own death is found in all four of them. In fact, we have seven different places in the Bible in which these predictions are recorded for us. In two of those seven, the Bible says that the disciples had no idea what Jesus was talking about. For example (Luke 18):

31Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33On the third day he will rise again." [that's the message of Easter, isn't it?]
34[But] the disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

What do you think of that? What could it possibly mean when it says that “its meaning was hidden from them”? Isn’t the meaning of Jesus words obvious? “Handed over” – that’s easy, we get that. “mock him” -- no problem. “insult him” – that’s easy, too. “flog him” “kill him” “rise again” – what’s not to get? Were the disciples of Jesus a little bit slow? What’s going on?

Well, this morning, I’d like you to imagine that this message – the one about Jesus dying and rising from the dead – the message of Easter – that this message is a bit like a Magic Eye picture. Sure, there is what it looks like on the surface, a few historical facts, perhaps… but there is another meaning, a deeper meaning, a really very much more important meaning that God wants us to get this morning.

Now if you’ve never really “got” that deeper meaning of Easter, not to worry. The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus was angry with his disciples because they were a little slow. But it is worth mentioning that the Bible does say that Jesus once seemed to be very angry with this fellow named Peter. Of course, Peter was one of the leaders of the disciples. And so he was very close to Jesus. But, believe it or not, Jesus once had stronger words for Peter than he has for the evil Romans, or the self-righteous Pharisees, let alone the tax-collectors or worse. It is true. In particular, he challenged Peter when Peter was unwilling to accept the message of Easter. God doesn’t mind if we don’t fully understand things, but He is not at all impressed when we close our minds to the truth. Matthew 16:

Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. [he was to be killed and on the third day raised to life – that’s the message of Easter, isn’t it?]
22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!"
23Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! … You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Imagine! Is that a bit harsh? Jesus calls one of his best friends “Satan.” But the lesson here, of course, is that we can’t just “correct” Jesus whenever we feel like it. Peter wasn’t able to understand the message of Easter, but that part wasn’t bad – the other disciples weren’t reprimanded for their lack of understanding. The problem occurs when Peter went too far – when he decided that since he didn’t understand the message, then there wasn’t really any special message at all. That’s when Jesus challenges Peter with these sharp words. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Of course, the remedy to that mistake is to simply change your mind. And that is what God is asking some of you to do this morning. Open your minds. Consider the things of God this Easter.

Remember that Magic Eye image? There is no shame in not being able to see the “real picture” – it may be your loss, but there is no shame. But there is a dangerous mistake of the mind and of the soul to conclude that just because you can’t see the “real picture” then such a picture doesn’t exist. You see, the second that you make that choice, you will never be able to see the real picture, and you will likely keep others from seeing that real picture, too.

And it is the same with Easter. There are those who have shut their minds to the things of God – so full of themselves that they think nothing of “correcting” the word of God. Then there are people like the disciples before they “got” the message. They aren’t able to see the “real picture” but there is still hope. But then there are also people who “get” the message – those for whom Paul’s words in Romans chapter six have become a reality: “like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” For them, the message of Easter is the message of hope: the power of God unto salvation.

But this message is threatening to some folk, isn’t it? In fact, it is an interesting aspect of our culture that more ink has been spilled in disrespect of the historical message of Easter than perhaps any other event in history. But here’s the problem: if some professor comes up with good evidence for the traditional understanding of the Bible, it gets published in some academic journal, and most of us never hear about it. On the other hand, if some professor has some speculative theory that goes against the traditional understanding of the Bible, it somehow gets published in Time magazine, the Gazette, and the Globe and Mail. What’s up with that?

So if someone tries to tell you that Jesus might never have existed, it simply isn’t true. What’s more, we have more historical evidence for Jesus than for all but a very few people who were alive at the same time. And if someone tells you that the Bible was written centuries after the life of Jesus, it simply isn’t true. These days, even the most skeptical of the serious scholars agree that, for example, the book of 1 Corinthians was written within a few decades of Jesus’ life. In that book, Paul writes:

This is the message by which you are saved… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and
that he appeared to Peter, and
then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, (most of whom are still living…)
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles,
and last of all he appeared to me also.

“by this message you have been saved.” If we understand this message, it can become the power of God in each of our lives. Sure, there is what it looks like on the surface, a few historical facts, perhaps… but there is another meaning, a deeper meaning.

But this is a very interesting passage historically. When Paul writes that he “received” this Easter message, he means that it came to him from someone else. Scholars who have analyzed the language of this message all agree that it appears to have originally been formulated in Aramaic, the language of the first disciples, and translated into Greek, the language Paul wrote in. When he wrote this, the people who he says saw Jesus were still alive. Peter was still alive. Many of the other twelve disciples were still alive. James was still alive. And Paul explicitly says that most of the five hundred who saw Jesus alive together were still alive.

But these people who met Jesus after he was raised from the dead didn’t just say “hey cool, Jesus is alive again, that’s nice.” This Easter message has the power to change lives entirely. Paul himself “was a rabbi, a Pharisee, a respected Jewish leader. He hated the Christian [movement] and did everything in his power to stamp it out. He was even responsible for the execution of Christian believers. Then suddenly he gave up everything. He left his position as a respected Jewish leader and became a Christian missionary: he entered a life of poverty, labor, and suffering. He was whipped, beaten, [and] in constant danger, deprivation, and anxiety. Finally, he made the ultimate sacrifice and was martyred for his faith at Rome. And it was all because on that day outside Damascus, he [had an encounter with] Jesus our Lord. [Reasonable Faith - WLC]”

Peter was also radically changed by a similar experience. Before Jesus’ death, he was frightened out of his wits by the words of a servant girl around the fire. A few days later, he was hiding in a room with the door locked because of his anxiety. But it wasn’t that long afterwards that Peter is preaching in the temple with great boldness. And when he is arrested, his courage is remarkable as he explains that God raised Jesus from the dead. As we read in Acts chapter 4: “When [the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Where did Peter’s courage come from? Why was there such a remarkable change in his behavior? As it was with Paul, so it was with Peter: he had had an encounter with the risen Jesus.

Indeed, the Bible says in Luke chapter 24 that one of the things that Jesus did when he met with his disciples after his resurrection was to “open the minds of his disciples so that they could understand the message of [Easter].” It was this message that changed their lives entirely. And it is still a message that still changes lives to this day. But we need to have our minds open to the message.

So what’s the key? What can take us beyond the events of history to a life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus? Well, I bet you can guess that I think that the answer is in the Bible. You will remember that I told you earlier that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection on a number of occasions but none of his disciples were able to “get it”. Well, in each of our Gospels, Jesus accompanies that prediction with a certain teaching. That’s right. The teaching that I’m about to read to you is put in the context of understanding the message of Easter. And I pray that we will be able to get that deeper understanding this morning.

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

What, indeed, is the good in all the “stuff” in the world if it means losing your soul? But Jesus offers a radical alternative. Instead of losing your life by trying to save it, to extend it, to comfort it, or to preserve it, running after the things of this world, why not give up your life for something bigger than yourself?

You see, the only way to the resurrection is via the cross. There is no glory without sacrifice. There is no victory without struggle. And Jesus uses the cross as a metaphor for his disciples: “If anyone would follow me,” he said, “he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily.” The Bible says (Romans 6), “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 8Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Christians say all the time that the way to heaven is to believe that Jesus died for us. And this is true. But over the years, I fear that we have lost some of the true meaning of what it is to believe. The belief that saves us is not a mental acknowledgement. Jesus came: check. Jesus died for me: check. Jesus rose from the dead: check. That’s a start, but that just isn’t enough. Jesus says that the belief that will save us is the one that gets us on our feet, and makes us follow in his steps. We need to believe in the story of Easter enough that it becomes our story as well. If we aren’t willing to sacrifice, then it can never be said that we truly believe in Jesus’ sacrifice.

In 1 Peter 2: 20 we read “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps… 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; [there’s a challenge – do we believe the Easter story enough to be polite when insulted?] when he suffered, he made no threats. [another challenge – do we believe the Easter story enough to actually suffer peacefully?] Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” You see, this is the faith that saves: a faith that puts oneself in the path of Jesus, following his example. Do we trust Our Heavenly Father enough that we can give up our rights? Do we believe that there is a better resurrection waiting for us so strongly, that we are willing to give up our ambitions? How about our pride? How about our right to be disappointed? Are you willing to give these things up? Are you willing to follow Jesus, carrying your own cross, being willing to experience death with him, trusting that the Almighty Judge will raise you up with the same power that Jesus was raised? When we come to that place, our life is changed completely.

I love those words of Jim Elliot: “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” The resurrection is being offered to you this morning. It is a free gift that could never be taken away. Are you willing to give up what you cannot keep in order to gain what you cannot lose?