Sunday, December 27, 2015

Eternity in our Hearts

Welcome to Bethel Chapel as we approach yet another New Year’s Day. The Earth -  this beautiful green and blue marble that we call our home -- has made another lap around the sun. Very shortly, we will greet the year that we call 2016, perhaps with parties and toasts and hugs and kisses. In a few days, we’ll draw a line across the arrow of time, calling things on one side “last year”, and things on the other side “this year”. But making divisions in time is something that people have done ...for a long time.  

After all, here we are in the middle of history, we give this very important place we find ourselves the rather modest title “now”. We call everything that comes before the “past”, and we call everything that comes after the “future”. Here and now, we call it the “present” -- because it is a wonderful gift, isn’t it?

So here we are, stuck in the middle of history, and (if we stop to think about it) marvelling at the mystery of it. As the Bible says, “God has set eternity in the human heart.” But the end of that verse says: “yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Time is full of mysteries.

There are scientific mysteries with time. Scientists tell us that the passage of time depends on how fast you are traveling. They say that if you were to build a fast enough spaceship and take a tour around the galaxy, by the time you return you might be younger than your children. They call this “time dilation” and it is a consequence of what we call “special relativity” after Einstein. Time is full of mysteries, but we don’t need to be troubled by those mysteries, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever -- and it is in him that we put our trust. I don’t pretend to understand time dilation, but here’s another one that nobody pretends to understand...

How did time “begin”? We know that the universe had a “beginning”, and we know that time and space are closely connected. So the beginning of the universe was the beginning of time. But what could it possibly mean for time to “begin”. After all, for something to begin usually means that there was a “pre-beginning” -- that is, a time that it was not, and then a post-beginning -- a subsequent time when it was. But that won’t work with time, because “before” time, there was no time for the pre-beginning to exist. We don’t understand this. We can’t understand this. The best we can do is recognize that God created time, not by being “before” time, exactly, but by being “outside” time -- by being greater than time.

But the most amazing thing about time is that it could accommodate God Himself. That’s right, the maker of time, the one responsible for the creation of the universe, the one who is bigger and greater and “outside” time -- He entered time in order to demonstrate his love for his creatures “inside” time -- creatures like you and me… and this event is what we’ve been celebrating in the season of Christmas, of course.

For the creator of time to break into time is like an author writing himself into his book to help his characters. It would be like a painter painting himself into a painting to help his subjects. But it is bigger than that -- because Jesus is not just a representation of God in time (like a character in a book or a portrait in a painting); Jesus is God Himself. And Jesus entrance onto the stage of time was of such significance that more than two thousand years later, most of the world uses what we call the Gregorian calendar -- separating time into “B.C.” (before Christ) and “A.D.” (Anno Domini -- the year of our Lord). Sure, folks can change the labels, but the reality is that every time you sign and date a document, every time you celebrate a birthday, there is a built-in reminder of Jesus’ birth. After all, if God breaks into history, you know that it is going to have a lasting impact.

This last year, we had a series of sermons on the Apostles Creed, and there, sure enough, Christmas features prominently in that creed. It reads:
(and) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
  who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
(there’s Christmas)
  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
...and on the third day he rose again from the dead. (and there’s Easter)

Christmas and Easter: the landmarks on the Christian calendar, and the most world-changing events in human history. But now that Christmas is over for another year and Easter is another few months ahead of us, it is quite reasonable to ask that very sensible question “what about the in-between times?” What about that incredibly important space of time we call… now.

With Christmas and Easter, we see the drama of God’s plan for history. And as amazing as it is, it sometimes doesn’t always seem to address what we’re going through. What about when relationships fail? What about when our health gives out? What about when circumstances conspire against us, and sure, we can be consoled with the messages of Christmas and Easter -- that God has sent his Son to be our Savior; that he died and rose again to conquer death once and for all. But how do we cope with the struggles of day to day? How does God’s plan in history help when we can barely get along with those we live with, or when we are burdened by the injustices we face in the world?

Well, in order to answer these questions, in order to help us in those in-between times, in order to address the challenges of life in the “now”, in order to appreciate all that God has provided for us for life, let’s consider Jesus’ “in-between-times”. After all, a lot happened to him between “[being] born of the virgin Mary” and “suffer[ing] under Pontius Pilate” (in the creeds, we might get a comma in between those lines; in the gospels, we have pages and chapters of amazing). So let’s consider Jesus’ “in-between-times” this morning and see how it can benefit us as we live our lives day to day.

Reading from Luke chapter 4 (starting at verse 4):
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
So let’s honor Jesus this morning by letting him define himself, and let’s pay close attention to how he chooses to describe his own calling (because that’s what an “anointing” is, isn’t it?). His chosen ministry is to reach down and touch the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the brokenhearted -- all the challenges of our “in-between” times. You see, Jesus is well aware of the heartaches and tragedies of life. He knows what it is to be poor; he appreciates the feeling of being trapped in one’s circumstances; he knows what it is to be oppressed, and blind; he isn’t preaching oblivious to the challenges of life. He is speaking into our lives with great authority, preaching deliverance in spite of all those challenges. In John 16:33, we read: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus would speak into our lives this year? Wouldn’t it be amazing if, by listening carefully to him, this scripture would be fulfilled in our lives? But that’s the key, isn’t it: if we want Jesus to speak into our lives, we need to let him speak to our hearts.

So this morning, I’d like to call your attention to the rest of this remarkable passage. Here, in one situation, we’ll see Jesus acting in great power to deliver the oppressed. And we’ll also see him more less decline to act at all in another situation. But be prepared to be surprised: Jesus might act completely contrary to our intuition.

Let’s read from verse 31, the first demonstration of Christ’s ministry after his public declaration of his mission:

Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath he taught the people. They were amazed at his teaching, because his words had authority. In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. All the people were amazed.
Before we continue, perhaps a word needs to be said about demons. Many people today make fun of the notion as a throwback to primitive thinking. I’m not so sure about that. Demons are smart enough to know that they have all manner of devious tactics available when people imagine that they don’t exist.

But whatever else we might say about it, it is clear that this demon was a force of evil, a force of oppression, a bitter element destroying the life of the man involved. And it was also a force of power: the people didn’t have any resources or strategies to address it. But Jesus, entirely in keeping with his stated mission, releases the captive, and brings deliverance for the oppressed. And as we were reminded last week, the people were amazed. This kind of thing was so far beyond their experience or expectation, that they knew that in Jesus they were dealing with something altogether new, and different and wonderful.

But now let’s pause for a second and ask an important question: What did this man do to deserve such wonderful deliverance? What, indeed. The demon inside him has him under complete control. The influence is evil, and self-destructive. And it is very much opposed to Jesus and anything he stands for. This man had no ability to do anything deserving of such grace. This man did not, in fact, do anything deserving of Jesus intervention. But that’s the theme that keeps coming back as we study the life of Jesus, isn’t it. He doesn’t go looking for people who deserve his intervention -- he, instead, goes looking for people who need his powerful deliverance. This is so important. God intervenes in our lives in our need. And I don’t think that it hurts to recognize that need, and come humbly before him for grace.

So the deliverance of a demon-possessed man is the first example Luke gives us in which Jesus demonstrates the power and authority that he has to execute on his calling. But I skipped a long part of our chapter, didn’t I? What about verses 23 to 31? There, we see an entirely different dynamic in play. Instead of deliverance, the people in those verses are rebuked. (v 24)

Jesus said to them: “Truly I tell you, prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Whoa! There’s a different kettle of fish! In the first case, you have a man oppressed by a demon. In the second, you have a synagogue full of respectable men. On the one hand, Jesus speaks in power and delivers the man from his suffering. On the other, Jesus speaks in judgment, and tells the people that they will by no means observe his power. But what’s up with that? Wouldn’t we expect him to be gracious to the good and upright and firmly opposed to the evil and nasty? And yet we find precisely the opposite of those expectations, don’t we?

What’s going on? Well, I wish I could tell you, exactly, but I can’t. As much as I might like to construct a formula in order to explain Jesus behavior, the text doesn’t really let me get away with that. In fact, the text might strongly suggest that the desire to impose such a thing on Jesus is precisely the problem of the people from Nazareth in the first place. There’s the hint of it at the end of verse 22 -- it looks innocuous enough, doesn’t it? ‘“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked’.

You see, these people had seen Jesus grow up. They might remember his voice changing. They might have seen him learn to walk, or heard him learn to talk, or observed any other one of the many opportunities to see him as a vulnerable child. They put him in their own terms. “Isn’t this [just] Joseph’s son?” Terms that they understand; terms that make them comfortable; terms that put a label on him, that they put him in a little box so that they don’t need to take him particularly seriously.

But far too often, we do the same thing, don’t we? We think we can “own” Jesus. We think that we have him all figured out. We think that Jesus is a buddy, who will (of course) operate where and when and how we need him to. And he’ll also give us the space we demand the rest of the time. Have you ever noticed that every possible political position has someone trying to shoehorn “what Jesus would think” about this or that hot-button issue? Guess what? If anyone thinks that “what Jesus would think” is to support their pet cause, they don’t know Jesus at all.

As we were reminded just last week, the Jesus we find in the gospels was continually amazing everyone. They were surprised, again and again and again, at his words and at his behavior. If we think we have Jesus “tamed”, and if we think we know what Jesus thinks, if we are so arrogant to think that we have him all figured out, then it is almost certain that we are making it impossible for him to work in our lives. What irony. But there it is. Whenever we insist upon dealing with Jesus on our own terms, rather than letting him shake us up on his terms, we end up disinviting him into our lives. Instead, we need to be ready for Jesus to shake us up.

This last fall, I had the pleasure of attending a birthday party for my father-in-law. He had just turned 90, and in attendance were four children, twelve grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. The second of the great-grandkids was two years old, and he was delightful, and polite, and well-behaved for going on five hours. Throughout the evening, this dear two-year-old received lots of good quality attention from a certain great-Uncle (not me, in case you are wondering). They played catch; they played hide-and-seek. But as the evening progressed, it seemed that the more love that great-Uncle poured into this boy’s life, the less the young man seemed to appreciate the grace that it represented. By the end of the evening, he was behaving as if he could snap his fingers and Uncle would immediately do his bidding -- as if he “owned” his Uncle James.

But the youngest of children often display the most natural of behaviors, don’t they? Without having had it worked out of them, they behave in the way that we are all inclined to behave. And I wonder how often we inhibit grace by taking it for granted. I wonder how often we are in the situation of not seeing Jesus power in our lives and being slightly irritated (like the citizens of Nazareth), because we -- deep down -- imagine that we deserve more.

So we first saw Jesus working in power for the deliverance of the oppressed, and then we saw Jesus declining to perform on the other. But what is the lesson here? Jesus’ powerful presence rests entirely on grace. It acts entirely in our need. And it cannot be manipulated or domesticated. Oh. And it is also unfailingly amazing.

So let’s come humbly before the God of all grace this morning and pay close attention to those remarkable words that the disciples heard from heaven: “this [Jesus] is my Son,” God thundered, “my Son whom I love, listen to him.” -- let’s listen to Jesus this morning!

And considering that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” it should come as no surprise that Jesus call today is the same as it was in those Bible days. “Follow me” he said to his disciples then. Today, he says to us, “follow me”. And if we are to be his disciples and follow him, the least we can do is to remind ourselves of who he was, what he considered important, and the directions he gives for living. Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Hear his words speak to your hearts this morning when he says “follow me”.

Of course, that word “follow” involves discipline. That’s what it means, after all, to be a disciple. In fact, I’d like to challenge every one of us this morning. Between today and Easter, choose one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John), and read it through. Read it carefully. Not too fast, but not too slow, either. Don’t think of it as a “new year’s resolution”. Instead, think of it as an act of devotion. If we were to all grow closer to Jesus in 2016, it could very well have a remarkable impact on our lives and on our community.

In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul writes: “Now is the favored moment - now is the day of salvation.”