Tuesday, March 20, 2018

New Life in the Graveyard

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, March 18, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, KS. 
Listen to the audio here.
Read John 11:38-44, Job 9:1-12 here

“It ain’t over til it’s over.”
That’s what Yogi Berra, the coach for the NY Mets, said in 1973 when his team was in last place in the pennant race.  Fans may have been ready to give up on the Mets, but Yogi wasn’t, and they went on to win the pennant that year.[1]

There are a million stories like this, where people refused to give up even though the situation seemed impossible and went on to succeed.  Just this past week we saw another one during the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament when #16 U of Maryland-Baltimore County beat #1 Virginia.  UMBC played fearlessly because they had nothing to lose.  Virginia felt the pressure to hold their ground, and probably underestimated their opponents.  Yet again, the underdog surprised us and won the game.[2]

We claim it as the classic American story, but it’s really a story that belongs to all of humanity.

Because we’re stubborn.  It’s both our strength and our downfall.  We see it all the way back in Exodus when the people were wandering in the desert.  They were stubborn enough to keep going, but too stubborn to listen to Moses and to truly trust God.  At one point when Moses is pleading with God on their behalf, God says, “I have seen these people.  They are a stiff-necked people.” (Ex. 32:9)

God kept having to restrain himself from destroying Israel because they couldn’t help being who they were—“stiff-necked” people (Ex. 33:3), or as one translation puts it, “Impossible to deal with.”  And we too are stiff-necked and difficult, because we are human.
Job, in the passage that Diane read for us today, addresses this dilemma when he asks, “How can a mortal be just before God?” . . . if we were to try to defend ourselves in court, we wouldn’t stand a chance before the righteousness of God.

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Eph 2:4-5).  Because of Jesus we are ok with God.  Which is a good thing because we’re looking forward to spending eternity with God, and that would be the opposite of heaven if God was having to try to stop himself from destroying us every moment.  Spending eternity faced with the wrath of God would be . . . hell.

Jesus came so that we might have life (John 10:10), both now and in eternity. This is one of the major themes of John’s gospel.  In the prologue to this book, John says, “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4)

In him was life. Jesus brings new life because Jesus is life. The sign of this is that he brings new life – literally -  to a graveyard by resurrecting Lazarus.

Each of the gospel writers shows us that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God in a different way. 
·      Mark keeps it simple and tells it straight. 
·      Luke adds more detail and emphasizes Jesus’ concern for outcasts
·      Matthew connects what happens to the Old Testament prophecies. 
·      John gives us more of the theological significance, emphasizing Jesus’ divinity

John’s gospel tells us about seven signs.  The first sign, in chapter two, is Jesus changing the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  John tells us:
“What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)

The disciples believed, and so began their journey with Jesus.  John tells us at the end of this gospel that he wants us all to believe.  He says:
“These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31)
So that we may believe, and through believing have life.

Raising Lazarus from the dead is the seventh sign in John’s gospel, and John is the only gospel writer to tell us about this event.  Luke and Mark both tells us about another resurrection that Jesus performed. [3] Jairus the synagogue leader came to Jesus because his daughter was sick and he hoped Jesus would heal her.  But by the time Jairus reached Jesus his daughter had died, and people were telling him to give up because it was too late.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with.  Jesus said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  Well, actually, he said, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” (Luke 8:50)

Luke also tells us that Jesus raised another man.  As they were passing through the town of Nain in Galilee, Jesus and his disciples happened upon a funeral procession.  Luke tells us that Jesus had compassion on the dead man’s mother because she was a widow, and so he resurrected her son. (Luke 7:11-17)

Maybe John doesn’t include these other resurrections because the other writers had already covered them, or because these both happened in Galilee, far away from Jerusalem.  John may have thought that raising Lazarus has more significance than the other two because this was the tipping point for those who were against him.  After seeing Jesus raise Lazarus, many people believed that Jesus was the messiah, and that made the religious leaders in Jerusalem realize it was time to take action.  They said, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (John 11:48)

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.  They didn’t realize that there would be one more resurrection, the most important one of all, when Jesus himself would be resurrected, when God said, “It ain’t over till I say it’s over.”

In the conversation that Jesus had with Lazarus’ sisters before he raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)  And then he asked her, “Do you believe this?”

And she answered that she did.  She said, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” (John 11:27)  But then when they were about to open Lazarus’ tomb, Martha tried to stop him. 

She says, “It’s too late, Lord, we already cremated him.”
Of course, they didn’t, really, but even if they had, that wouldn’t have been a problem for Jesus!

That’s not what happened, but Martha did show us that her belief in Jesus didn’t include the expectation that he could raise the dead, especially after Lazarus has been dead for four days. That length of time is significant, because it’s one day longer than the amount of time that Jewish tradition said the person’s spirit was still hanging around.

Martha is certain it’s too late for a resurrection. She says, “It’s stinky in there. He’s been dead for four days.”   But Jesus says, “It ain’t over till I say it’s over.” 

He said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40)

If we truly believe, then we will see the glory of God.

Whether we believe or not, God is still God, Jesus is still the son of God, resurrection still happens, but if we believe than we get to see, and if we don’t then we miss it.  After Jesus raised Lazarus, John tells us that many believed. (11:45)  He doesn’t say that everyone believed.
The religious leaders believed…they believed that Jesus was a big problem, so they began plotting to have him killed.
What about us?  What about you?
Do we believe?  And if we truly believe, how does our belief affect our lives?
In the book we’re reading together for Lent, Easter Earthquake, James Harnish says, “Because of the Resurrection, our lives are no longer a long day’s journey into night; they are an ongoing journey into light and life.[4]

He reminds us that resurrection is not just about what happens after we die or at the end of time, resurrection is also about the new life we have through our faith in Jesus now. 
How do we see that new life now?
If we believe it ain’t over til God says it’s over…we demonstrate the hope of resurrection
We know that it’s not over until God says it’s over.  We don’t give up and we don’t lose hope, even in tough situations.  Our Old Testament reading for today shows us that although Job has lost everything, all his children and his possessions, he still trusts that God has the power to change everything.  He knows that God is the one “who shakes the earth” and “commands the Sun” and “does great things beyond understanding, and marvelous things without number.” (Job 9:6,7,10)
There’s a church that was in the Presbyterian news this month that didn’t give up.  They were down to fifteen members, and had given up doing everything they used to do, but they still gathered each Sunday to worship.  They weren’t ready to give up on God, though, so they did some soul-searching prayer about how they could show God’s love in the world, even though they were so small. They decided to open up their church to hikers as a hostel.  The church is in Delaware Water Gap, PA alongside the Appalachian Trail. Hospitality became their focus and they are thriving. They offer hikers food, showers, and campsites.  Since that decision in 1976 they have hosted hikers from all over the world, and they have grown from 15 to 130 members.[5]  They believed and saw the glory of God at work among them.

If we believe it ain’t over til God says it’s over …we tell everyone
That’s what happens after Lazarus is raised.  Everybody’s talking about it.  The crowd that gathers on Palm Sunday came to see who this was that raised the dead.  The leaders get worried because everybody’s telling about it. 
Sometimes, we have Martha’s problem.  We believe, but we get stuck on the difficulties. 
·      It’s going to stink. 
·      People might not believe us or want to hear about this. 
It’s true, faith does get messy, and Jesus told us that we would be challenged for believing.  It happened in the media twice recently, once when Vice President Pence said he heard from God and people said he’s crazy[6], and just this week when another politician[7] was challenged by a reporter because he said he sought God’s will when making decisions.  It was bold and brave for both of them to say what they said, and not surprising that they got challenged by people who don’t believe.

We should expect that we will also face challenges and even ridicule.  We need to be thoughtful and prayerful about when and how we speak, but we must speak. 

We have news that can change the world.  If the good news of the gospel has changed our lives, and we truly believe that God does what he says he does, how can we keep it to ourselves? If we believe and tell, we will see the glory of God at work among us.

Because we believe it ain’t over til God says it’s over …we watch for signs of new life

John’s gospel gives us seven signs:
1.    Changing water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11) - "the first of the signs"
2.    Healing the royal official's son in Capernaum (John 4:46-54)
3.    Healing the paralytic at Bethesda (John 5:1-15)
4.    Feeding the 5000 (John 6:5-14)
5.    Jesus walking on water (John 6:16-24)
6.    Healing the man blind from birth (John 9:1-7)
7.    The raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45)
Jesus says that if we believe, we too will see signs of life, signs of God’s glory. 

Job sees them in the Sun and the stars, and in the changes that have happened in his life.  Paul tells us we will see the signs of God’s work in ourselves and in one another whenever we see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)  Though it seems impossible that hearts and minds can change, with God all things are possible! (Matt 19:23-30)
2 Cor 5:17 If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
In Hanover, England, there is a cemetery next to a small country church.  In the middle of the cemetery there is a large stone monument with steps leading up to it.  The date that it was built is etched into the stone.  1782.  And along with the family names, there is this statement carved into the stone: 
“The sepulchre, purchased for all eternity, is not permitted to be opened.”
Whoever purchased the monument was determined that it should stand undisturbed for all eternity.  But at some point in its time in that place, a small seed fell into one of the crevices of the foundation of the monument. 
The seed took root, and grew into a large tree, splitting apart the stones, and reminding us that despite that carved warning to future generations not to open this grave, God is the one who has the last word.[8]

It ain’t over til God says it’s over.

Jesus says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

May we believe and watch and see and give thanks for all the ways that new life keeps coming into our lives through Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Easter Earthquake - Healing Scars

This is a sermon that was preached at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS on Sunday, March 11, 2018.  Listen to the audio here.

Read Isaiah 53, Luke 24:35-49 here

Do you like scary movies?  Intense movies?  I must confess that I don’t.  When there are scary scenes or graphic violence, I usually don’t watch.  I put my hand over my eyes.  Sometimes I’ll watch through the crack between my fingers if I can watch at all.  Sometimes I even have to cover my ears now, because TV shows and movies have gotten so good at giving us the sounds that go with the sights. 

For instance, there’s a very good show about an autistic doctor, The Good Doctor[1], but this doctor is a gifted surgeon and when he goes into surgery, the camera goes right into the wounds and I have to cover my eyes.  And all the gooey sounds come through as well, so I tend to talk during those scenes so I don’t hear those sounds, because I don’t have enough hands to cover my eyes AND my ears.

Most of us don’t like to watch pain, and we don’t like to experience pain.  Understandable.

But in the passages we read this morning, what Isaiah is describing is pain.  He’s doing it artfully, poetically.  We read from the King James (NKJV) because I wanted us to appreciate that beautiful poetry.  But let’s be perfectly clear.  When Isaiah says:
By his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
… I have to point out what that sentence is NOT saying. It is NOT saying this:
    or this:  

The stripes to which Isaiah is referring are these:

Those are hard stripes to look at. Those are the stripes that come from scourging, being whipped.  Pilate ordered that Jesus be whipped before he was crucified.  This was not unusual punishment during that time.  Today we call this cruel and unusual, and it is. 

In the very graphic movie about Jesus that came out almost fifteen years ago, The Passion of the Christ[2], this was one of the scenes I watched through my fingers.  But I have friends who, though it was hard, made themselves watch because they didn’t want to turn away from the stark reality of what Jesus endured for each one of us.  He bore that punishment for us. He knew this was coming, he knew that coming back to Jerusalem meant facing this, but he came anyway.[3]  He told us this himself in John 10:18: "No one takes my life from me (he said), but I lay it down of my own accord."

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Because Jesus, God in the flesh, took on our sins and our suffering, through our faith and through letting him touch us, we find healing and forgiveness.  Through his resurrection, we too are resurrected.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4)  Jesus knows our pain and sinfulness because he experienced it for us on the cross.

Jesus is explaining all this to his disciples in the passage we read today in Luke 24.  There is a lot happening in this chapter!

·      It begins with the woman coming to the tomb early in the morning and finding that the stone has been rolled away and Jesus has been resurrected.  They run off to tell the disciples. 
·      Meanwhile, two men who had been following Jesus are on their way back to Galilee, sad that he has died. Jesus walks with them explaining the scriptures to them, but they don’t recognize him.  Then when they sit down to eat together, as they break bread together, their eyes are opened, and they see that this is Jesus.  So they run back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples. 
·      As they arrive and begin telling their story, Jesus appears among them.  Not surprisingly, they are afraid and confused.  Jesus was dead.  They still don’t quite understand what resurrection means. 

Is he a ghost?  There’s not a ghost of a chance that he is a ghost, and to demonstrate that he isn’t, he shows them his scars and eats some fish.  Then Jesus explains to them again what the scriptures say about the messiah. 

Jesus probably includes Isaiah 53, the scripture we read today, in that explanation. It’s one of many prophecies in the Old Testament that help us understand that Jesus is the Messiah, and that what happened on the cross was part of God’s plan for the salvation of us all.

This is God in the flesh, who knows our suffering and suffers with us.  We can sometimes forget this because we talk about each person of the trinity in such different ways.  We talk about God in heaven, Jesus the man who walked the earth, the Holy Spirit who lives in us.  They are all different and yet they are all the same God. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are inseparably one God.[4]     
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Cor 5:19)
And because of this, Jesus’ touch is healing.  Even just touching his robe heals a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years.[5]  Throughout the gospels we see Jesus healing people.  Matthew ties that right back to Isaiah 53 for us: 
That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:16-17)
Though it is hard to imagine someone enduring so much pain for us, it is a vivid demonstration of the redeeming power of sacrificial love.

This is what we see in the movie Frozen (2013).  The movie came out five years ago, but our kids are still enthralled with this movie, still in love with the main characters, the lovable snowman Olaf and the two sisters, Anna and Elsa.  The sisters have had a difficult relationship, with Elsa mostly isolated from Anna out of fear of accidentally freezing her because Elsa has something like the Midas’ touch.  Everything she touches freezes.  Despite Elsa continually pushing her away, Anna doesn’t give up on Elsa, and at the very end, when Elsa is about to be killed by a man with a sword, Anna steps in front of the sword.  At that same moment, she also touches Elsa and instantly becomes a block of solid ice…and when the sword comes down, it hits the ice and breaks into pieces.  Nobody is killed by the sword!  Elsa has been saved.  Anna has sacrificed herself for Elsa.

Sacrificial love is healing love.  This is also demonstrated in one of the stories that was recently told on the show The Voice.  As contestants prepare to come sing for the judges, we get to hear their stories, and one contestant, Kaleb Lee,[6] tells about the pain he felt as a child when he was abandoned by his father.  He found healing through becoming an adoptive father.  He and his wife adopted a little boy from Nicaragua.

Sometimes something we think we have dealt with comes back and surprises usThe movie Forrest Gump has a heart-wrenching scene in which the young Forrest is with his 5-year-old friend Jenny.  They run into a cornfield to hide from her drunken father, and Jenny prays, “Dear God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far away from here.”  The next day her father, who had been abusing her, is arrested and she goes to live with someone else. God answers her prayer and improves her situation, but the painful memories of the abuse remain.  Years later she comes back to the small town.  She and Forrest, now in their thirties, are walking near the abandoned shack where Jenny once lived with her father. Jenny is suddenly overcome by the hurtful memories of that place, and in anger she throws her shoes at the shack, and then starts picking up rocks and throwing them at it.  Eventually she breaks down in tears.  Forrest comments, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”[7]

As Jenny faces her pain, Forrest, her faithful friend, stays with her in those difficult moments, like Jesus stays with us. When we come to Jesus and reflect on the pain he endured on the cross, we find that we too can reflect on our own wounds and pain in the light of his.[8]

We talk about bringing our sins and sorrows to Jesus and being healed, and we give the impression that it’s quick and easy, bring it to Jesus once and you’re done.  In reality, often we have to keep bringing the same thing to Jesus over and over.  I think this is because our hurts are usually built up over time, and each time we bring that same hurt to Jesus, a layer of hurt gets healed, but there may still be more underneath.

This has been my experience.  I keep having to come back to the cross and let Jesus do more work in me. 

The marvel of Jesus working in us over time is something that Carla Davison[9] [who was at that very moment running the projection for worship] has also experienced.  Carla was struggling with anger at her mother, anger that had built up over the years.  Her healing from that anger also took time.  The Holy Spirit prompted Carla to begin working on getting rid of her anger as she began to see how it was getting in the way of her relationship with Jesus. She says: “it started with writing down “I forgive” statements, i.e. “I forgive my mom for _______” ...even though I didn’t feel any of it at the time.  I trusted that He might get me there - I wanted to love her…I just couldn’t get past the anger.  I had a laundry list of things [to forgive] and I read them every morning. Then . . . one Saturday [when I went to mom’s apartment] I looked up at her from where I was sitting and realized in that moment that the anger was completely gone, and I was immediately filled with such a tender love for her.  I felt like it was God showing me how He loved her. He removed all the anger. [Carla says] I am so grateful because after that, I was able to share some very special times with her in her last years.” 

At the church Carla was attending at that time, they invited people to give their testimonies in a very simple and graphic way using pieces of cardboard.  Carla’s transformation is described in two statements:

 and then… 

And maybe the most beautiful demonstration of the change, is that her mother was there with her in that second picture.

Healing and forgiving intertwined.  Our relationship with God is healed through his forgiving us.  Carla’s relationship with her mom is healed through her finding the ability to forgive her mother.  Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:14-15: For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but [here’s the hard part] if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

We are called to be witnesses to Jesus’ powerful healing love and comfort and peace and forgiveness. We are more effective witnesses the more we have seen and experienced Jesus’ work of transformation ourselves, as Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (NIV):
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
Jesus’ touch is healing and transforming, and a wonderful testimony to share with the world …if we are willing to trust him, and let him in.  We have a hard time doing that because we are ashamed, or because we don’t want to deal with the pain, so we keep all that stuff locked away, hiding it from the world, maybe even hiding it from ourselves, and in the process we are also hiding it from Jesus. 

But we can trust Jesus with our sin and our sorrow because he knows our pain, and because he is God and has demonstrated through his death and resurrection that God’s power is greater than our sin, greater than our shame.  God can redeem all of it.

·      Sometimes it takes more time than we would like.
·      Some things are not healed in the way we want them to be.
·      The first step is to let Jesus in, to offer all that is troubling us to Jesus. 

So now take a moment to consider....

What do you need to surrender to Jesus today?

In worship that day, we wrote our answers down and brought them forward to lay on the worship table near a cross that the children had made during the children's message.  I encourage you to do something similar - write it down, crumple it up and throw it away, trusting that Jesus is taking it from you.

Let’s now bring Jesus all that is not how we would like it to be
and trust him to redeem it.
Jesus is calling.  

[3] He predicted in Luke 18:31f., "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him."
[4] Guthrie, S. C. (1996). Human Suffering, Human Liberation, and the Sovereignty of God. Theology Today, 53(1), 22-34.
[5] Matthew 9:20-22 And a woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years, came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His cloak; for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
[7] Forrest Gump (1994) as told by Stephen Seamands in Wounds that Heal: Bringing our Hurts to the Cross (IVP Books, 2003), 10.  Actual scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anz91PPMPw8
[8] Seamands, 10.
[9] Carla Davison is a member of United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  She gave me permission to use her story in this sermon.