Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Gifts of Christmas Past

Are you ready for Christmas?

And I’m not asking if gifts have been bought – in spite of some guilty looks in the room…

Are you really ready for Christmas?

Funny how the meaning of that question has changed over the years, isn’t it?

Once upon a time, “Are you ready for Christmas?” could have meant “have you sent out all your Christmas cards?” (some of you remember that) Nowadays, some people don’t send out anything through the post – they call it “snail mail” now – instead, greetings are now sometimes sent over the internet.

Once upon a time, “Are you ready for Christmas?” could have meant “are your Christmas lights up? When I was young, my Dad hauled out the ladder every year and painstakingly attaching little hooks to the eaves-troughs so that we could have a single row of Christmas lights, and then one of them would burn out (which would extinguish the whole thing) and he’d take the whole thing down, find the faulty bulb, and put them up again. Nowadays, people have no trouble throwing out whole bags of lights and getting really fancy ones to hang from the inside of the window. It is sure a lot more convenient, isn’t it?

Well, lots of things have changed over the years, haven’t they? I was having this conversation with Mrs. Collins just a few weeks ago. I was observing that my parents’ generation really knew what it was to work. They worked hard. And by comparison, I’ve been spoiled. Compared to them, I’m soft. And yet Mrs. Collins said that her parents worked even harder. (wow!) It is almost as if over the last three generations we’ve lost the ability to work! I wonder what else we’ve lost along the way.

For example, perhaps our parents understood and appreciated gifts and giving much better than we do. After all, most of our parents lived without all the luxuries that we take for granted. They also lived without all the leisure that we take for granted. So when Christmas came, if someone they loved were to get them something for them that they really needed but couldn’t afford… wow! Not only would it be an extra-special meaningful gift, but it would strengthen that relationship (the relationship between giver and receiver) in a really special way.

Today? Most of us can afford practically everything that we need. And many of us buy those things whenever we need them, rather than waiting for Christmas. So instead of receiving gifts of the things we need, we now receive gifts of the things we want. Unfortunately, all that advertising that’s constantly bombarding us convinces us that what we want is the next, the bigger, the better, the trendier, and the more luxurious. And I’m not at all sure we’re any happier for all that. But I am quite sure that we’ve lost that special relationship-building aspect that gift-giving used to involve.

And I’m afraid that our children are in even greater trouble in this respect. After all, what is the meaning or value of a gift when you not only have everything you need but you even most of things you just want as well? What good is a gift, after all, if it doesn’t move you in the slightest?

Here’s two cultural expressions indicating that we’ve lost most, if not all of the essence of giving and receiving gifts. First, there is actually a website called “” – because we all need plenty of advice on the topic. Second, there is this guy named Jimmy Kimmel.

If you don’t know, Jimmy Kimmel is a television comedian. He’s often clever – and sometimes funny. Last year, he asked folks watching his show to do something tragic… but hilarious. He asked them to tell their kids that they were allowed to open one gift one week before Christmas – only to surprise them with a gift they’d never want. And then to film them opening that gift…. As you can imagine, some of the children’s reaction were truly horrifying. But I want to share one, because Marisa is so adorable (and her brother deserves some credit, too)… about as adorable as a five-year-old could be after just unwrapping a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich. Watch this…

[video of Marisa edited from the Youtube]

Now if you thought that was funny, I’ll admit it – so did I. But maybe, just maybe, you felt a little piece of your soul die as the sacred act of gift-giving was turned into cheap entertainment – the real entertainment, of course, came from the two children!

In order to recover some of what we’ve lost – in order to really appreciate what gifts and giving should be all about, we need a good dose of Christmas. And not the plastic, artificial, commercial travesty they call Christmas on TV. I’m talking about the timeless, profound, change-the-world Christmas that most of the world has tragically forgotten.

To get us there this morning, let me tell you about two Christmas gifts I’ve encountered over the years. For fans of Dickens, these are the gifts of Christmas past. Each of these gifts tells me something about real gifts. Two gifts, three lessons.

The first of these gifts was given seventeen years ago to my son, who was two. Now you may be aware that about twenty-five years ago or so, some “clever” person decided that there really wasn’t any difference between little girls and little boys – besides the obvious. They actually started to teach this in university: that baby boys and baby girls thought the same, and that gender roles were all part of the culture. Recently, the largest toy company in Sweden was actually reprimanded for marketing cars to boys and was told to change its advertising.

Sadly, some people who went to university when this thinking became trendy actually fell for this nonsense… And one of these dear people convinced my wife that she would be doing my son, Nathanael, a favor by giving him a doll for Christmas. She handed him the wrapped package, and he tore off the wrapping. He frowned. He looked at his mother. And in his wonderful deep little-man voice (nobody ever noticed Nathanael’s voice change – he’s spoken like that all his life), he said, “This is for Meg,” referring to his older sister. “No, this is for you!” replied his mother. And before she could even close her mouth, that doll was flying across the room, never to be looked at again. Sometimes we give gifts for ourselves, perhaps to make us feel better. The best gifts, on the other hand, are given for the other person – to be personally meaningful to them!

Thousands of years earlier, on that first Christmas morning, there was a gift given to some people who weren’t used to getting anything. Their employment was difficult, the hours were terrible, and the health benefits were non-existent. They were doing the night shift. And it was cold. And it was boring. And there was no chance of escape. But that night, as they sat around the fire, suddenly a messenger came to tell them about their gift. And not just any messenger, either: it was an Angel. The Angel said to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” A Savior, and a Savior for you.

Can you imagine what the Angel could have meant when he told the shepherds that the Savior was born for them? What would you say if I were to tell you that the Savior was also born for you? Some people might say “what could the birth of a poor Jewish boy two thousand years ago possibly do for me?” Sure – in some circles, that’s the common response. But others… others have found amazing comfort in this Savior – even today!

People today continue to find that He reaches out to them; He touches them where they are; and He rescues them from the difficulties of life in a real and personal way. For those people, the Savior was born for them, too. That first Christmas gift (“unto us a son is given”) can be personally meaningful to each of us, too, if only we’d let him be. Of course, if you close your mind and guard your heart, you can think of all kinds of reasons to avoid this Christmas miracle. But the fact of the matter is that this gift is for you, too.

It can be so tragic when we over-protect ourselves. Sure, that’s the temptation when life has hurt too many times. But when we convince ourselves that “it’s no big deal” sure, it will make it less painful when life hurts, but it will also make us incapable of experiencing life’s true joys. One of the greatest gifts that we can ever receive is a gift that moves us. Don’t be so guarded this Christmas – be open to the God of Christmas moving you with His love and with His generosity.

The Angels first appeared to the poorest of the poor – young Jewish shepherds. And then the message came through the stars to the wise men. These were the educated, the “scientists” of the day. By correctly reading the message built into nature, these non-Jewish, rich, old men were also able to rejoice in the coming of a Savior along with the Jewish, poor, young shepherds. It is such a shame that a small number of very loud atheists have hijacked this channel, and insist that nature’s only message is “chance and necessity”. But they aren’t right, you know. God’s message is available to us, too – if only we’d open our eyes.

But the Christmas story doesn’t stop with the wise men. Later, at the temple, Jesus was greeted by two important old people. Simeon was someone that the Bible calls “righteous and devout.” The other, the eighty-four-year-old Anna, is called a prophet.

Please notice just how remarkable this Christmas story really is. It is the first recorded event in history in which young and old, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile all play roles as equals. And please understand how earth-shaking this is. Two thousand years ago, the social structures of race, and sex, and age, education and wealth meant that only the male, and the old, the educated and the wealthy were “in.” Everyone else was “out.” Let’s face it: we still suffer from the artificiality of some of those distinctions to this day! We can be thankful that we do much better than they did two thousand years ago. But the reason we do so much better is Chrismas! Christmas shook up the world order. Suddenly God’s gift of salvation was available to everyone. This Savior has been born for you.

And this is a message that isn’t just there in the Christmas story – it all through the Bible! You know this verse:

• For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son [as a Christmas gift to us], that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16

But check out these verses, too:

• the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. - Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45 • He … did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - Romans 8:32a • the Lord Jesus Christ… gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age - Gal 1:4 • the Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me. - Gal 2:20b • Christ loved us and gave himself up for us - Eph 5:2 • Christ Jesus… gave himself as a ransom for all people - 1 Tim 2:6 • Jesus Christ… gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness - Titus 2:14

You might sense a theme here. Rescue, salvation, deliverance – that’s what the gift of Christmas entails. The tragedy is that so many people are satisfied with so little instead. Listen to C.S.Lewis, when he says “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I told you that there are two gifts that I wanted to share. Here is the second one. When I was growing up, I had four brothers. And Christmas always meant opening gifts that were labeled “Doug” and contained…underwear. Or on a good year, pajamas. On occasion… there was a cool toy or game, but those were always labeled “to all the boys”, or “to Doug and Frank” or “to Dave and Doug” (names always in birth order). I had a deep subconscious longing for a cool gift that was addressed only to me, “Doug”. But I didn’t realize it until when I was sixteen. That year, I received a gift that was both really cool, and just for me (I still have it, actually). The feeling was euphoric. I was walking on air for weeks after. Like I said before: the best gifts are personally meaningful. But the funny thing about it was this: on the one hand I thought that I enjoyed it so much because I didn’t have to share it, but on the other hand, I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to share it with everyone! The best gifts are the ones that make us thankful and generous ourselves.

And that’s exactly the right response to gift of Christmas. And that, of course, is exactly what the Bible encourages of us. Here are some verses reminding us that we are to supply to others the grace that we receive from that baby in the manger:
• Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you - Romans 15:7
• Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you – Eph 4:32
• Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us – Eph 5:2
• God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he committed to us this message of reconciliation - 2 Cor 5:19

So what have we got so far? First, the best gifts are designed for us – those who receive the gift. Now Christmas, and the Savior who came that first Christmas morning can be personal and can be fulfilling. Second, the best gifts make us feel generous. And when we receive that ultimate Christmas gift, we also want to be generous to others. Christmas, more than any other event in history has also resulted in the most generosity for those who have received it. I was recently in a conversation with someone who was skeptical of this claim.

Ever heard of the Red Cross? Salvation Army? World Vision? Mennonite Central Committee? St. Vincent de Paul? Sure, there are charities today whose roots aren’t explicitly Christian. But do the research, and you may be surprised how deeply those roots go for all the oldest and most respected charities!

One last one:

I earlier mentioned a special gift that I received when I was sixteen. Later, I discovered that this gift was not cheap, and that my Mom wasn’t really on board with its purchase. My folks weren’t so rich. But that’s another thing about the best gifts isn’t it: the giver has to sacrifice for them. When a child saves his pennies and buys something for someone he loves, he also makes himself vulnerable. There is absolutely nothing quite as devastating as doing something for someone you love only to have them turn up their nose at it, or undervalue it. But with real gifts, that can’t be helped: the best gifts make the giver vulnerable.

But is there anything in the world quite as vulnerable as… this [picture of a newborn]? Few other species are quite so vulnerable, and for so long as human babies. But God became one of us, and carried that mantle of vulnerability just for us. But that’s only the beginning.

Jesus knew the meaning of sacrifice, and he embraced it… for you. He knew that his sacrifice – his ultimate sacrifice [picture of crucifixion] – was the only way to heal us, to save us, to bring us back to reality. As the Bible says, it is through this sacrifice that we have been made holy. Jesus didn’t die for good people. Nuh-uh. God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God didn’t send his Son as a king to impose his values on the World by force. Instead, Jesus was born into poverty and oppression. Jesus didn’t do miracles to force people to accept him. Instead, he showed acts of mercy in order to demonstrate God’s love. This man, the most revolutionary moral thinker who ever lived, the most brilliant teacher whose stories still touch lives thousands of years later, the only blameless man to ever walk this earth. He didn’t push himself on us. He didn’t “prove” himself. Sure – he could have. But he didn’t on purpose. He wanted us to have the choice. He gave us the opportunity to reject him. The best gifts make the giver vulnerable.

In fact, this is what the Bible says, isn’t it: “He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him.” God became vulnerable in Jesus. God became vulnerable with Jesus. God is even willing for people to take him and his blessings for granted. He loves you that much. He really does.

My prayer for you this Christmas season is that you will unwrap this, the greatest of all gifts; that you will open your heart to the joy, and the comfort, and the peace, and the wonder of what God has given you this morning.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Justice, Wisdom, Values

Good Morning, and Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1)

This last summer, while some of you were in Sunday School, and some of you were at the cottage or traveling the world, we were reminded of some great heroes in the Bible. But I bet you’ve heard of some of them… ([let us] give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind-Ps 107:15) What’s your favorite Bible story?

Perhaps you like:
- Daniel in the lion’s den? This one is awesome. Daniel’s enemies tricked the king into having him arrested and thrown to the lions. But as Daniel himself says the next day, “God sent an angel to shut the lions’ mouths.”
- David and Goliath? This one is often the favorite of boys, isn’t it? We like the idea of winning a fight against someone four times our size, don’t we?
- Moses at the Red Sea? I recently listened to the head Rabbi in the UK describe this story – and he did it wonderfully. He said that the weakest of the weak were able to prevail against the strongest of the strong by the intervention of a great and powerful God.
- Joseph in Egypt? (as some of you know, this is my very favorite story in the Bible – I’m almost fifty, and I can’t read it without crying at the end). Sold as a slave by his brothers, Joseph is lifted up to the second highest position in the world. And in the end, he forgives his brothers for their cruelty.

Did you notice something in common with all these wonderful stories? In each of them, the main character is at a bit of a disadvantage, isn’t he? Joseph and Moses and Daniel were all essentially slaves in a strange and foreign land and David was a young fellow going into battle against a giant. But in each of these events, the underdog prevails. In each case, God is more than enough to solve the problem. In fact, we could say that the point of each of these stories is that God’s justice is different than man’s justice.

Joseph, Moses, David, Daniel: each one of these men’s experiences still resonates with us today. Whenever we see the humble succeed against all odds, we celebrate with them. Most of us identify with the underdog. And when God takes the guy that everyone else is putting down and makes him succeed, it is hard not to share the excitement. Take a second and look inside yourself – what are you feeling when you are reminded of the power and drama of these Biblical events? Don’t you want to thank God that His justice is so much better than the so-called “justice” of the world?

One of the most dramatic sports stories of the last year was concerning a young man named Jeremy Lin. Mr. Lin is a basketball player, and in the course of this last season, his team went up against the world-famous Los Angeles Lakers. The night before that game, a reporter asked the Lakers’ big star, Kobe Bryant, whether he was at all worried about Jeremy Lin. Kobe, not exactly known for his humility or tact, told the reporter that he had never heard of Jeremy Lin. The next day, this is what happened… VIDEO

Even if you don’t follow basketball, you get the idea – here’s a player nobody has even heard of a few weeks earlier, coming onto the court and schooling the biggest egos in sport, perhaps the biggest egos on the planet. Quite a story. And it didn’t hurt that Mr. Lin, in the after-game interview, wanted to give all of the credit that he received to his teammates and to his God. Ok, I’ll admit: schooling Kobe Bryant isn’t in the same league as killing Goliath, but no need to be picky.

But let me ask you again: what are you feeling when you see a story like this? Is it… perhaps… thanksgiving? It is… perhaps… praise? Not praise for Moses, or Joseph, or Jeremy Lin, of course. But praise for God. Perhaps events like these remind us of the words of Hannah’s song:

My heart rejoices in the LORD;
[He] sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.

You know, God raises the poor and the needy out of the dust and seats them with princes not just because it is fun, and we all get to cheer, and it makes us feel good. God also exalts the humble to remind us that His justice is different from the world’s justice.

But now listen to the words of Jesus… after all, we’re transitioning from a sermon series on the heroes of the Bible to Jesus: the greatest teacher. And of course, Jesus doesn’t just teach us by what he says – he teaches by what he does! Let’s pay attention to his example this morning:

… Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” – Luke 10:21 ... ROPE

Now I don’t know about you, but for me that was fun because the small and young and shy succeeded while the old and confident failed. And if you liked it, then you are picking up the ripples of Jesus, when he said: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

But with Jesus words, we see a slight twist to the theme, don’t we? With David and Daniel, the conflict is physical – David against Goliath and Daniel against the lions: no mercy in sight, but God’s justice prevails. We get that, because most of us have realistic estimates of our physical limits (we don’t think we can fly, or run faster than cars).

But now Jesus reminds us that God’s wisdom is greater than our wisdom. Unfortunately, studies show that we so often over-estimate our own wisdom. And this makes it harder to appreciate God’s wisdom, of course. When that happens, perhaps it may be the time to remember Jesus words: “Truly, I tell you: unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Then we would better understand Jesus heart, when he says: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” As Paul writes “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Far too often what the world thinks is brilliance is often really just foolishness, and that what the world thinks is hopelessly simple is often actually far closer to the truth.

But God takes things one step further. You see, not only is God’s justice higher than the world’s; not only is God’s wisdom higher than the world’s, but God’s values are also higher than the world’s – and this is illustrated for us a few verses further in Luke 10 (verse 30):

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two hundred dollars and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Now this parable is called “The Good Samaritan,” but it isn’t about the Samaritan at all. Instead, the story is about us. The story is about how we react like the priest, and how we react like the Levite and how we react to the Samaritan.

You see, Jesus’ listeners had been brought up to believe that the priest and the Levite were automatically close to God. (The closest thing we have today would be one of the elders in the church). But in Jesus story, these two characters showed their distance from the heart of God by their inability to address the suffering right beside them. But Jesus’ listeners would understand the behavior of the priest and the Levite. The priest is a busy man. The priest has important work to do. The priest might even have been late for a meeting of the synagogue outreach committee. Besides, the law said that a priest must not touch a dead body – and how did he know the man wasn’t dead, after all? And the very robbers who had injured this poor fellow might still be around. Like all educated people, the priest would have been quite familiar with the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But the priest was more interested in his protection or his pocketbook or his privilege than his principles.

Rather than the priest or the Levite – the religious characters in Jesus’ parable, the person closest to the heart of God is clearly the Samaritan. But back then, Jesus’ listeners would only have looked down their noses at a Samaritan. You see, the Samaritans back then had their theology all wrong, and they had their religious practices all wrong, and to make it even worse, they represented a history of wrong behavior, too.

We don’t have too many Samaritans walking about these days. But if Jesus were to tell the story today… among Habs fans… instead of “Samaritan” he might have said “Leafs fan.” Or if He were to tell the story today… among Liberals… instead of “Samaritan” he might have said “Conservative.” Or if He were to tell the story today… among Conservatives… instead of “Samaritan” he might have said “Progressive.” You get the idea. Whatever group of people you like the least, imagine that Jesus had mentioned that group rather than a Samaritan. Jesus is saying very clearly that God has much more room than we do for anyone in the world, and that God isn’t particularly interested in our prejudice.

Isn’t it tragic that God’s people, having God’s laws (which were, of course, a “snapshot” of God’s values) had such a profound misunderstanding of God’s values that this parable was necessary. But don’t imagine I’m pointing a finger at the failure of the Jesus’ listeners. We do exactly the same thing. We take the things that are valuable to us and convince ourselves that they must also be valuable to God. And we so often overlook the things that are valuable to God – because they are not valuable to us.

Isn’t it a whole lot easier to be neighbors to those who are far away? In our modern society, we all too often choose our neighbors for our own convenience – usually overlooking those who God considers to be our neighbors.

The priest and the Levite limited their own neighborliness for their own protection. In churches today, it is far too easy to limit our own neighborliness for our own protection. If your marriage is working (and I pray that the marriages at Bethel are) don’t limit your neighborliness to your wife or your husband or your children. “If you love those who love you, what reward do you expect?” And if you have a close circle of friends (and I pray that those flourish in our church as well) don’t limit your neighborliness to your close circle of friends. Listen to Jesus command: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed.

But, but…. Those people are awkward. They are difficult. They make me uncomfortable. Uh huh. The injured man made the priest and the Levite uncomfortable as well. In fact, according to Jesus, unless your expressions of love aren’t slightly awkward or difficult or uncomfortable, there may not be a heavenly reward in them at all.

Let’s recap: when we see God’s justice, most of us rejoice. We thank God that His justice is at a much higher standard than the justice of this world. Now when we see God’s wisdom, it is often a bit more of a challenge. We often need to become more like children – to have our imaginations expanded – to appreciate God’s wisdom, which is so much greater than the wisdom of this world. Then we will be able to share in our Lord’s thanksgiving, who rejoiced that God shares important truths with little children. But we all struggle when we see God’s values. Even though God’s values are so much higher than our values, we cling to our own values, don’t we – it is so much safer that way. But Jesus challenges us here. After all, he says to each of us:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 …But love your enemies, [and] do good to them, … Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.

When, by the grace of God and through the Spirit of God, the people of God understand this important truth, they will change the world. And they will share the same joy in the Spirit that Jesus had, and they will cry out in thanksgiving: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The True Message of Easter

When my kids were younger, one of the places that we liked to go during the summer was the labyrinth that they used to have down at the old port. Who here ever went? Well, for those who don’t know, there was this huge warehouse in the old port in which they had created an enormous maze. And the game was to be able to find clues in the maze in order to get out, in order to escape. And it was a great deal of fun, especially if you went with a large number of friends. On the other hand, there is potential for a maze to be less than fun – especially for me.

You see, I really, really, really, don’t like being …lost. I can happily report that I’m not quite so bad with being lost now that I’ve grown up a bit, but when I was younger being lost – especially being lost alone – was the worst thing ever. Imagine paying good money to get yourself lost!

Sometimes life might feel a bit like being caught in a maze. When you feel that way, of course, it really helps to be with someone. And it helps especially to be with someone who has been there before. Each of my children had been through the labyrinth before me. They had each been invited there for friends’ birthday parties. And when I went for the first time, they knew that I really, really didn’t like being lost, and they very sweetly encouraged me. “Don’t panic, Dad: we won’t be far away.” It especially, especially helps to be with someone who has been there before and loves you.

But thinking about mazes, I’d like to tell you an imaginary story that has a riddle in it, ok? Please imagine two of the smartest people in the world. Now suppose that these two brainiacs were put into a really difficult maze. Now there are instructions that clearly explain how to escape. And there, in the middle of the maze, these two people meet right beside those instructions. They study the instructions carefully, but here is the riddle: they are never able to escape from the maze. How is this possible?

Well, one possible answer to the riddle is very simple: these two people, as smart as they are, simply aren’t able to understand the instructions. Now while this might explain the riddle, the thought is really tragic, isn’t it? Being able to understand each other is one of the greatest blessings in the world. And misunderstanding (or being misunderstood) – those are two of the greatest tragedies in the world. Right down there on my list of least favorite things… right beside being lost? Misunderstandings.

Seriously, when you really understand someone, when you “click” with them, you often become instant friends. And good friendships are most certainly one of life’s greatest blessings. When you have the privilege of being married to your best friend, that blessing can be enormous. But misunderstandings occasionally happen even between the closest of friends, don’t they. Now these cartoons by Wiley are a bit on the silly side, but there is just enough truth in them that the humor might sneak up and grab you.

What she heard: “Anything less than absolute perfection makes you an utter failure as a wife and mother.” What he said: “Mom is coming over for dinner.”

What he heard: “Let’s go drain the life force from your body.” What she said: “Let’s go shopping.”

Now while these are admittedly silly, there is also an element of tragedy in them, isn’t there? But how much more tragic are real misunderstandings between real friends, and real partners. But there is an even bigger tragedy this morning, and this is the tragedy of misunderstanding Easter. Yes: most people even today misunderstand Easter! Easter may very well represent God’s best attempt to communicate his love to the world – to communicate his love to you. And sometimes people just don’t get it.

Suppose, for example, you go to the internet and at Google, you type “explaining Christianity to children”, you get links to a lot of advertising for educational resources, but in the top three, there are actually two websites that attempt to summarize who Jesus was for the sake of teaching one’s children.

According to the first one, “Jesus… came to earth to teach about love and fellowship.” Well, you might tell me that it is appropriate for some age…. Oh-k-ay. Here’s another one: “Jesus… came to… remind us how to behave.” Well, that’s also kinda true… but… I gotta tell you, “love and fellowship?” “how to behave?” This really is a dollar-store substitute of the Christianity of the Bible. Honestly: Christianity is not a sin-management program. As if life is all about avoiding sin.

That’s nonsense. Whether we like it or not, everyone in the entire world is regularly sinning. Everyone in this building, too. Anyone who thinks otherwise is judging themselves by a really low standard, typically the standard of themselves. God has a much higher standard. You see, Christianity is not about making one sin less; it is about the one who is sinless. (I need to say that again, because it is so important…) Christianity is not about making one sin less; Christianity is about The One who is sinless – Christianity is about Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

For when the Bible gives a summary of its own message, it doesn’t talk about sin management. Instead it talks about the Resurrection; it talks about Easter! Let’s read: (1 Corinthians 15:3,4) “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is it, folks. This is the real deal. Accept no substitutes. Nobody who really understands this is going to water it down to “teach about fellowship” or “remind us how to behave.” The message is that Jesus. Conquered. Death.

Do you remember how we started this morning? I told you one of my least favorite things, didn’t I? Well, guess what? Even if you were to think about your least favorite thing… the dentist, the dark, spiders? No matter what you thought about, I bet that you’d agree that death is much worse. And Jesus. Conquered. Death. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

Now if you are anything like me, you still might not quite understand this. Hey, it took decades before I even began to get it. I used to read these verses or listen to them and think “ok… but what do those events mean to me?” And that’s the real question, isn’t it? If these events: Jesus dying for our sins, and Jesus rising from the dead, happened almost two thousand years ago, why should I really care? Well, that’s exactly the right question this morning. By the grace of God, I hope that we can come a little bit closer to “getting it” – to really, truly, understanding God’s most profound message of love for you.

You see, Easter is an event in history, for sure, but Easter isn’t just an event. It truly is the focus and the emphasis of the entire Bible. It may be mostly in pictures in the Old Testament, but it is all through the gospels, and it is all through the letters, and we even hear it in the song that the billions of angels sing in the book of Revelation. Don’t miss this: the reason why Easter is such a big deal in the Bible is that Easter can be such a big deal for you. In fact, Easter should be a big deal for all of us, if only we wouldn’t, tragically, misunderstand. You see, when Jesus conquered death, he wasn’t just showing his power: he was actually blazing a trail – a trail for us to follow; a trail that leads us through death into the most abundant life available.

Now if you are still puzzled – don’t worry, you are in good company. You see, even the disciples of Jesus – those closest to him, those living with him day-to-day – they didn’t “get it” for a long time. Now you might be thinking “How is that possible? They saw Jesus come back from the dead!” True enough. But Jesus’ disciples were introduced to the message of Easter before they ever got to witness it. In fact, they were introduced to the message of Easter in almost exactly the same way that I’ve introduced it to you this morning. Really. Recall how I did that. I read those verses: “Christ died. He was buried. He was raised on the third day.” And how were the disciples introduced to the message of Easter? The only difference was the verb tense. That’s right. You see, the Bible records Jesus telling the message of Easter to his disciples in advance. On many occasions, Jesus told them that he was going to die and he was going to be buried, and then he was going be raised on the third day! Here are the references of Jesus doing exactly that. I bet you didn’t know that Jesus told his disciples the message of Easter so often! These are really important elements of the gospel.

So this morning, I’d like for us to look at one of these passages, and consider the disciples reaction to the Easter message – because their reactions are almost certainly the same as the reactions of people today! And while we are at it, let’s pay close attention to how Jesus responded to their reactions. Because that will give us a hint as to how we should really react to the message of Easter today. So please open your Bibles to Mark 8:31-32: "from that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples … that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."

Notice how it says “from that time on Jesus began to explain”. This wasn’t an isolated thing. It is like a lesson that Jesus needs to go over again and again. But now let’s see how the disciples respond. Verse 32: “He spoke plainly about this, but Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Peter saying “Never! this will never happen to you!” And this, my friends, is still a common reaction to the message of Easter today: denial. “No way,” people say, “it never happened.” Never in the history of the world has more ink been spilled in attempts to deny a historical event. It isn’t even close. The message of Easter must strike a nerve. So many people prefer to deny it altogether rather than having to deal with it.

But as so many historians have discovered, it is very much more difficult to dismiss the Resurrection than one might think. There is no doubt (at least among real historians) that Jesus did, in fact, live. There is no doubt among historians that Jesus was, in fact, crucified, and died. And there is no doubt among historians that important historical figures like Paul and James became believers after Jesus crucifixion. And there is no doubt among historians that all the disciples believed that he was raised from the dead. After all, this is the message that they took to the ends of the known world and this is the message that they gave their lives for.

I watched a recent debate between a Christian historian and an atheist. And the Christian historian asked the atheist what alternative explanation could there be for all these things. And the only one that the atheist could offer was that everyone who saw Jesus was hallucinating. First the ladies who went to the tomb were hallucinating. Then the disciples were all hallucinating together. And then for the next forty days, everyone shared this big hallucination. And then, of course, the atheist would like us to believe that every Christian since that time was brain-damaged. I don’t think so.

There is plenty of evidence – even enough for doubters – that Jesus raised from the dead. But let’s now consider the difference between Jesus’ response to someone who doubts the Resurrection and someone who denies the Resurrection. The doubting story, of course, involves a disciple named Thomas, and it happened after the Resurrection. Thomas hadn’t been around when the other disciples saw Jesus after he had been raised from the dead, so Thomas tells his buddies, “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were… I won’t believe.” – you see, Thomas had seen Jesus suffer a grisly death on the cross.

So when Jesus finally appeared to the disciples when Thomas is around, is he annoyed with Thomas for not believing? Not. At. All. The first thing he says to them is “Peace be with you.” And immediately turning to Thomas, he says: “put your finger here; see my hands… Stop doubting and believe.” And as you can imagine, Thomas is overcome with goosebumps and believes heart and soul. Then Jesus said: “You have believed because you have seen me; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” So Jesus isn’t at all troubled with doubts. Doubts are good. Doubts are healthy. God is bigger than our doubts.

But with that in mind, let’s go back and listen to how Jesus responds to Peter. Remember, in Peter’s case, the Resurrection hadn’t even happened yet. But when Peter tells Jesus, “no, no – that dying business, and that rising again? It will never happen.” How does Jesus respond? Mark 8:33, “Jesus rebuked Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’” Wow. What a contrast. On one hand, Thomas doubted the eye-witness testimony of his fellow-disciples, and Jesus was deeply gracious to him. Peter, on the other hand, is shut down in the strongest possible terms. When the Prince of Peace calls you ‘Satan’, you know you’ve stepped over the wrong line. Denying the resurrection is almost certainly the wrong thing to do. Doubting? No problem. Denying? Don’t go there.

But now pay attention to what happens next: Jesus notices a “teaching moment” and so he calls everybody around to listen. And this is what he says: (verse 34) “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his own soul?”

What is Jesus saying here? Well, he is attempting to explain that in order to understand the message of Easter, we need to live it. It needs to be more than the story of Jesus in our heads. It needs to become our own story, deep in our hearts. This is a dynamic that is throughout the Bible. This explains passages like the following:

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:4)

“If we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Rom 6:8)

“we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” (2 Cor 5:14)

“you died with Christ” (Col 2:20)

“you have been raised with Christ” (Col 3:1)

You get the idea. You see, the message of Easter becomes the power of God for salvation when it moves from our heads as a set of historical facts about Jesus to our hearts as the dynamic by which we live day to day – when we decide that we are going to follow Him in the path of life.

This is certainly at odds with the thinking all around us isn’t it? In a world of self-indulgence, self-gratification and self-assertion, Jesus is turning everything upside down: “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” he says, “but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” But that, my friends, is the message of Easter. Jesus laid down his life for you. And God gave it back to him again. Now it is our turn. If we want to receive this amazing gift of love, we, too, must be ready and willing to die for it.

The message of Easter is not just some historical events. It is a fundamental rethinking of our entire lives. Jesus was lifted up to the highest place in creation and given a name above every name only once he humbled himself in obedience, in death on that cross. And the Bible makes it clear that we need the same attitude. In fact, that’s exactly what the Bible says! This is how the Message puts it:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He … didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to [his] … status …. Not at all. he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a [servant], became human! It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

[But] because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth…will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.

This is so upside-down from our take-what-you-can, assert-yourself, know-your-rights culture. Nobody saw Easter coming.

So the next time that you feel like life is being caught in a maze… the Captain of our Souls has shown the way out. It isn’t what you might expect. In fact, it might be just the opposite of what we’d expect. The way to life isn’t to avoid death. Rather, the way to life is through death – Jesus’ death for us.

People who really, truly “get” the message of Easter are completely changed. First of all, we are freed from the fear of death! Death has no more sting! We don’t have to obsess over youth, or looks, or health. None of that matters nearly as much anymore. Second, everything in life is now put into perspective. Trusting in the Resurrection and the Life means that everything we do takes on new significance. Finally, we are set free. Free from death, and sin, and boredom, and evil. None of this because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus did for us. Happy Easter everyone!

Sunday, February 19, 2012


[Start with a game showing close-up shots of pictures, and ask the children to identify the object in the picture. Some of these are difficult, but always someone in the congregation can eventually guess. After each one, the "big picture" is shown, with a box indicating the "zoom-region" of the first picture]

Now I hope that at this point, we can all agree that sometimes it helps to take a step back and look at the big picture. If we look at things too closely, we so very easily miss what’s really going on! Now this is not just true of pictures and magic tricks. It is also true of life. But the bad news about life is that you, me, and everybody else is really tempted to look at things from a really narrow perspective.

The Bible warns us about this. It says: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways and [His] thoughts than [our] thoughts.” We often need God’s help to make our vision bigger; we often need God’s help to have our minds opened to what’s really going on; we often need God’s help to make our hearts bigger, too.

Now to stretch your perspective this morning, I’d like you to consider one of philosophy’s biggest unsolved problems! It’s one of the great mysteries of life: we get older, and we learn lessons, and in one sense we are completely different people than we were five, or ten, or thirty years ago. But in another, equally important sense, we are exactly the same person! It is a grand paradox. But isn’t this wonderful news? We don’t ever need to be stuck with who we are today. We can change, and we can keep changing even when we get older. And God has change in his will for us. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation!” the Bible says

It means that God won’t judge you on how we were when we were four. And it means we don’t get judged on how we were when we were eight (you know, when your Mom or Dad reminds you how you were when you were eight – they do that because they love you and they thought you were adorable; but when big sister reminds you how you were when you were eight, she want to hold it over you for-ev-er – just sayin’).

But it means that we don’t get defined by our mistakes. Seriously! Sometimes churches (I hope not our church – but some churches) get their message wrong on this point. As if life were like baseball: your errors are counted, and three strikes and you’re out. But that’s the difference between a friend and an enemy, isn’t it: a friend wants to define you by your successes, and an enemy wants to define you by your mistakes; an enemy wants to define you by your past, and a friend wants to define you by your future. When Jesus says “love your enemies” he simply means to treat everyone as friends, doesn’t he? Get in the habit of defining people by their successes.

This morning, in order to prove to you that we can change (that we should change), and in order to prove that we aren’t defined by past mistakes, I’d like us to consider the life of someone in the Bible.

This person is very important in the Bible. In fact, this person is one of only four people in the Bible that God gave a new name. Who can help me name all four?
• Abram->Abraham;
• Sarai->Sarah;
• Jacob->Israel;
• Simon->Peter.
Now before we get where we’re going, it is interesting to consider these four people as in the following diagram. The Bible says that Abraham and Sarah are the physical ancestors of the people of Israel (that’s the “Old Covenant”). But it also says that they are the spiritual ancestors of the people of faith, too (that’s the “New Covenant”). And each of the two other God-renamed people in the Bible show up right at the beginning of each of those branches of Abraham’s descendants! Israel (who name was originally named “Jacob”) is the father of the nation of Israel, and his relationship to that nation is derived from his twelve sons. Peter, on the other hand (whose name was originally “Simon”) is the rock on which the church was built, and his relationship to that community is derived from his leadership of the twelve disciples.

So let’s talk about this guy named Peter. But like I’ve already kinda warned you, instead of what we normally do in church, I’d like to try something different. Usually, we take a story, and digging deeper and deeper, we talk about that one story all morning (at least sometimes it feels that long, doesn’t it?) But today, I’d like to take a step back and remind you of all of the stories with Peter from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and John! Really. You see, this morning, I don’t want us to be looking at the character of Peter so closely we miss what is actually going on… instead of looking at things up close, we’re going to skim over all of Peter’s life – at least the part that he thought was important (history implies that Peter’s story comes to us in the gospel of Mark)!

Now, depending on how you count, there are fifteen stories involving Peter in those books. Of those, three of them just talk about things that happen to Peter. Those aren’t so interesting. Instead, I want us to see exactly how Peter behaves, and how Jesus responds to that behavior. Ten stories might sound like a lot for one morning, but most of them are really short, so let’s go!

Story #1: (Luke 5) One day, Jesus is preaching, but the crowd is getting big, and the people at the back are finding it hard to hear. So Jesus gets into Peter’s boat (he was a fisherman, you know, and he and his buddies were cleaning their nets) and he asks Peter to put the boat a little bit from shore so that the people on the bank can have a natural auditorium. When Jesus is done, he tells Peter to go catch some fish. After all, that’s what fishermen do: they catch fish. And even though Peter doesn’t think this is the time or place (and, after all, he the expert, and what does this preacher know about fishing?), he does what Jesus says. And you know what happens: they catch more fish than they had ever caught their entire lives. It takes a long time to get all those fish under control, but after it is all over, this is what Peter does: he falls down at Jesus feet and says “Go away from me – for I am a sinful man.” Perhaps the most important revelation you will ever receive is to discover just how sinful you actually are. Down to the core. That’s exactly how people respond when they truly meet with God. Clearly Peter felt inadequate to even hang around Jesus. Perhaps you might feel that way some time. I know I have. But the good news this morning is that God can and does use people who feel inadequate, too!

Story #2: (Matthew 14). Later on, the disciples were caught in a storm on the lake in the middle of the night. Not fun. But then, still in the middle of the night, as they are fighting the storm, and trying desperately to get back to shore, they see Jesus coming to give them a hand. Except… he’s walking on the water. Quite naturally, they’re a little freaked out! The Bible says that they even screamed with fear. I can’t blame them, really. But then Jesus yells “don’t be afraid, it’s me!” And then it is Peter’s turn: he says, “If it is really you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Now notice that Peter is smart enough to know that if you are going to do something that seems crazy – it is only really crazy if you don’t talk to God about it. But if God gives you the go-ahead, you might very well go down in history as one of God’s special people. And that’s what happens to Peter: Jesus replies, “Come on, then!” So out steps Peter, and there he is: walking on the water with Jesus! How cool is that?

Now at this point, most people reading the story of Peter are really impressed with his faith, and many sermons have been preached about being as bold as Peter. But is Jesus impressed? Not at all – because of what happens next: Peter, taking his eyes off Jesus, starts to notice that the wind and the waves are even scarier when you are on the outside of the boat. And in his panic, he starts to sink. Now Jesus saves him, and helps him back to the boat. But does Jesus commend Peter for doing something bold? Not at all; just the opposite: (verse 31) Jesus says to Peter, “your faith is so small!”

So even though the story might seem impressive at first, it seems to be a disappointment to Jesus in the end. So, if you ever think that your faith is way too small – you’re in good company! Jesus built his church on someone whose faith was too small.

Story#3 (a really short one – Matthew 15): after hearing some of Jesus teaching, Peter asks Jesus to explain. At school, there are some times when if you ask the teacher to explain, the teacher is delighted that you are paying attention. Other times, asking for an explanation is a dead giveaway that you haven’t been paying attention, and that’s what Jesus response suggests. “Are you so dull?” he asks Peter. Once again, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was disappointed in Peter… again. Have you ever asked a question you really should have known the answer to? I have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who make that mistake, too.

Story#4 (Matthew 16): One day, out with his disciples, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them a question: “who do people say I am?” After hearing all their replies, Jesus then asks “and who do you say that I am?” to which Peter replies “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Now this might very well be the smartest and best thing that Peter has ever said in his life, and this is the point at which Jesus tells everyone that Peter will become the foundation of the church. And while he’s on the topic of building his church, now Jesus tells his disciples the events that will define the church: he tells them that he will have to suffer, and be killed, and then rise from the dead. But check out Peter’s response: he takes Jesus aside and says, “no, no – this can’t be happening.” Safety tip: not usually a good idea to correct God. And Jesus replies, “Get behind me Satan!” – he calls Peter the devil! He says that Peter “does not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” You know, I’ve been there. I bet you have, too. Not seeing things from God’s perspective can mess up your whole day.  -- but the good news this morning is that God can use people who make that mistake, too!

Story #5 (Matthew 17): The week after, Jesus took three of his disciples with him up on a hillside, and while they watched, the disciples saw Jesus appearance change. His face shone, and his clothes turned an incredible bright white. And then two other people appeared out of nowhere and started to talk to Jesus. When he saw that, Peter said, “It is so great to be here. How about you let me put up three tents for you guys!” You recall that last week, Peter said the smartest thing he ever said. This week? Not so much. In fact, the Bible actually apologizes for Peter, it says: “he had no idea what he was saying.” Once again, it is like the Bible is smiling and shaking its head about Peter’s attempts. Have you ever said the wrong thing at the wrong time? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who make that mistake, too.

Story#6 (Matthew 18): One day, instead of Jesus asking his disciples a question, Peter asked Jesus a question: “How many times should I forgive my brother when he wrongs me?” and then, in a fit of generosity, Peter suggests a possible answer: “Would seven times be enough?” And for many people, this would be generous indeed. And isn’t it a shame that so many Christians can’t even make it to seven? But listen to Jesus answer: “not seven times, but seventy times seven!” It is like Jesus is saying “Buddy! You’re not even in the right time zone!” Have you ever felt like the very best you could ever give wouldn’t come close to measuring up to God’s standard? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who feel like that, too.

Story #7 (John 13): At the last supper with all the disciples together, Jesus pours water into a basin and starts to wash the disciples feet. He comes to Peter, and this is not one of Peter’s “clever” days. He says to Jesus, “No! You will never wash my feet!” And very gently, Jesus replies, “unless I wash you, you can’t be with me.” Now to his credit, Peter is now smart enough to change his mind “then please wash my hands and head as well as my feet,” he says. You know, some people, after getting caught in saying something completely wrong, are far too proud to change and be right. They should learn from Peter this morning. And so should we: have you ever completely misunderstood God’s intentions in your life? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who make that mistake, too.

Story #8 (Matthew 26): After the last supper, Jesus goes to a garden and, taking three of his disciples (including Peter) he goes off a little ways and wants to pray. “Keep watch with me,” he asks these three close friends. But guess what? After praying for a bit, Jesus comes back to see his disciples, and instead of finding them on watch like he asked, they are all sleeping! Jesus wakes them up, and says “really guys, I mean it: watch and pray” and he goes off to pray again. Sure enough, the second time he returns, they are all sleeping again! And the third time, too. This is where that saying comes from: “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Have you ever felt just too weak to do what God has asked you to do? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who feel like that, too.

Story #9 (Luke 22): When Jesus is arrested, Peter wants to be the hero, and, drawing sword, slashes off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. No doubt Peter wanted Jesus approval by protecting him like this. Is that what he gets? Just the opposite! Jesus rebukes Peter, “put your sword away!” he says, and promptly heals the man’s ear.

As some of you know, I love to spend a week at camp during the summer. About eight years ago, when Nathanael was ten, I was speaking at a camp that Brent was directing. The theme of the camp was pirates! And one evening, the director (Brent) and the speaker (me) were involved in a bit of drama for the entertainment of the campers. There we were, at the end of the dock, and all the boy counselors were coming up both sides of the dock to throw us into the lake. Well Nathanael, bless his heart, came running out onto the dock to save us! One ten-year-old against a dozen teenagers!! He actually pushed one of them into the lake before the second counselor turned around and pushed him in  I could only shake my head and smile.

And I bet that’s how Jesus felt about Peter, too: a cosmic drama is playing out in front of Peter, and he is totally confused about God’s plan was in the world. Have you ever felt like that? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who feel like that, too.

Story #10 (Luke 22 – last one this morning): During the last supper Peter puts on a big show in front of all the disciples about how he would face death for Jesus. But after Jesus is arrested, Peter followed at a safe distance. And not once, not twice, but three times someone came up and said “hey, didn’t I see you with Jesus?” and every time, Peter denied ever knowing Jesus at all. So much for being brave. So much for being loyal. Just totally, shamefully, disowning his friend and teacher.

So what have we learned from the life of Peter this morning. He felt inadequate; he had little faith; he asked the wrong questions; he had in mind the things of man rather than the things of God; he sometimes said the wrong thing; even his “good” didn’t cut it with God; he completely misunderstood God’s intentions in his life; he felt too weak to do what God wanted him to do, he was totally confused about what God is up to, and he didn’t even have the character to stand up for a friend. Wow. That’s heavy. But check this out: God wanted to use him a-n-y-w-a-y. God used Peter as the rock on which he built his church!

The biggest lie you will ever listen to might be the lie that you’ve messed up too much for God to use you. God can always forgive you. The biggest mistake that you ever make might be the mistake that because you’ve messed up once, you might as well give up trying. Those ideas aren’t from God. The enemy, the accuser, wants us to believe less of ourselves so that we will believe less of God. You see, Jesus’ dying for us pays the price for our greatest failures; Jesus’ dying for us can cover all of our sins. And Jesus’ rising from the dead means that we, too, can live a brand new life. And that, my friends, is some good news this morning.