Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Sower, the Soil, and the Seed

Plain of Gennesaret, Sea of Galilee / holylandphotos.org
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times." Then Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  (Mark 4: 1-9).

The day that Jesus told The Story of the Sower (Mark 4), he was near Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, the home town of Peter. I imagine it to be a cloudless spring day… not only because the crowds were comfortably listening to the teacher from Nazareth, but because Jesus was able to teach from Peter’s fishing boat as it floated just off shore. We can’t say exactly where Jesus spoke but there is a natural amphitheater half way between Capernaum and Tabgha to the south where the land slopes down to a beautiful bay that matches Mark’s description. Israeli scientists have verified that the “Bay of Parables” can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore (see James Edwards, The Gospel of Mark, p. 126).

Now the reason why Jesus tells this Story is two-fold: first, Jesus was proclaiming that in him the kingdom (rule & reign) of God had come near, and second, there was a mixed response to his message and ministry. Some skeptics asked why, if the kingdom had come near in Jesus, was the world still in such a mess? Granted, Jesus was doing some amazing miracles and was a profound teacher, but it hardly seemed that Satan was “out for the count!” Take John the Baptist who had just been put in jail by King Herod. He sent messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you the One…or should we wait for another?” This was not the Kingdom of God he was expecting (Matt. 11. 2-3)! Surely the Kingdom of God would overthrow corrupt people like King Herod?!  A skeptic used to say to me, “God doesn’t do anything, so why should I believe in him?” There are still people starving from malnutrition, there are still people dying from deadly diseases, there are still people suffering under corrupt dictators and unjust laws. If Jesus came to bring the Kingdom near… where is it?  In the Parable of the Sower, and some of Jesus’ other seed parables, Jesus addresses these kinds of doubts by revealing the power of a seed…

Because the mystery of the kingdom is that God’s rule and reign grows through the Messiah Jesus like a seed that is sown (Mark 4: 1-9). I imagine that as Jesus was teaching he had a good view of the green fields and fertile plains of Gennesaret - soil so rich and welcoming to every kind of crop that rabbis called it, “the garden of God". As Jesus spoke he described the most familiar scene imaginable: the peasant farmer who could often be seen sowing seed in the rich volcanic soil beside the lake – walking up and down his field with a bag hanging from his neck he would dip his hand into the seed and scatter it evenly across the field. Jesus' simple message was this: “The sower sows the seed, and when that seed takes root in good soil, it yields a spectacular harvest.” He emphasized to his disciples -- and I think the crowds understood as well -- that this parable was not just about the garden of God (their backyard) – it was about the kingdom of God (see 4. 11-12).

Now it’s often said that this story is teaching us to be good soil, good listeners, and receptive to God’s word. But first and foremost it is a Parable about the Sower, not the Soils. “When you think of my ministry, and the coming Kingdom, think of a Sower going out to sow!"  Listen up! Jesus was saying something truly revolutionary here! As I said, many people had trouble understanding why the Kingdom of God was not moving faster, why there was still evil in the world! Yes, there were signs and wonders, but why were the basic social and political problems not instantly changed if Jesus was truly the Messiah? It was a common assumption, shared by Jesus’ own disciples, that the kingdom of God’s arrival meant an immediate harvest, judgment, and consummation. But Jesus consistently taught that the kingdom enters into the world gradually through the sowing of his words and works…and that after a delay, it will yield a great harvest, and then the consummation (see Mark 4. 26-32).

This was a revolutionary picture of the Kingdom of God. A sower went out to sow! Sowing is pretty unimpressive and ordinary. On the other hand, sowing seed is the beginning of something of the greatest importance.  Take Svalbard for example.  Half way between the North Pole and the coast of Norway, on the remote arctic island of Svalbard, you will find a 390 foot tunnel that leads to an underground vault where there are three huge concrete chambers built to withstand natural disasters or nuclear catastrophes for thousands of years. Why? Its purpose is to safely protect up to 3.5 million seed samples from around the world – thus safeguarding the world’s food and agricultural resources in case of disaster (2009, LiveScience.com). Seeds look unimpressive and ordinary, but the ability to sow seed is essential to life. Jesus’ message is clear: “Like a seed that is sown, my ministry may seem painfully slow, apparently weak, and unimpressive, but it’s the beginning of a revolution that is bringing salvation and new life to God’s world!”

Jesus is giving us a new picture of God’s rule and reign and how it breaks into the world – gradually, deliberately, by word of mouth, one person at a time…but how can we be part of this kingdom revolution? The parable contains three mandates for those who want to be part of his seed sowing revolution (Mark 4: 10-20):

The first mandate of the kingdom: gather around the kingdom Sower (Mark 4: 10-14). Notice that the first thing Jesus says is in this story is, “Listen!” And the last thing, “Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen!” Hearing and listening are the most important words in this story, because the kingdom comes through Jesus’ words. We know some people got the message because “when he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables” (10). They left the large crowd beside the lake, and met with him in private. The key to growth in God’s kingdom, is to listen to the King among the crowds, but then to gather around him later…to find time alone with Jesus; yes privately but also with a few others, to ask questions, listen to his words; and put them into practice. I can’t say enough how important it is to not only worship in the larger gathering on Sunday – to be part of the crowd, so to speak – but then to gather around Jesus in close-knit fellowship, in a small group where you can listen to his words and put them into practice.

Last week I had the privilege of hearing Dr. F. Dale Bruner teach on John’s gospel at a conference for Presbyterian pastors in Santa Cruz.  Each time he recited the passage (translating it from the Greek text by memory!) I was powerfully moved to tears. What I noticed is that every time he speaks, pastors gather around him after his lecture to talk and ask questions.  We instintively want to be close to those who inspire us and challenge us. Now when the disciples asked Jesus about this story in private, he answered them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables….” That is, to YOU, those who gather around me, who seek to know me personally and to follow me, the secret of the kingdom will be revealed. And what is that secret? That in Jesus himself, the Kingdom had arrived and is transforming human experience. That those who respond in faith, gathering around him as his disciples…will know that he is the King of the kingdom and will come to understand “all things” (4:34); while those who respond in unbelief and skepticism, will hear only riddles, and unintelligible parables (4:11).

The second mandate of the kingdom: seek to be good kingdom soil (Mark 4: 15-20a). As the Word of the Kingdom is sown, there are a variety of responses which Jesus describes… the hard soil, the rocky soil, the thorny soil and the good soil. Some of you are feeling hard as you read this, like soil that is dry and impenetrable. You’ve gotten into patterns of sin that you can’t seem to break free of or even want to break free of. Your conscience has become callous, you don’t care if others are hurt or if you are hurting yourself. God’s word is difficult to hear…and even speaking Jesus’ name is difficult.

Some of you know your faith is shallow…like a thin layer of soil over a bunch of rocks. You hate to admit it…but you’re in it for the good feelings, for the weekly inspiration, for the fire insurance. You want the blessings, but you avoid the responsibility of being numbered among his disciples. You want to believe that Jesus is always fun and affirming …never dangerous or demanding.

Still others of you know that your faith is being choked by weeds and thorns. You want to follow Jesus, but the cares of this world, the desire for wealth, power, success, and pleasure are like a drug, an addiction you can’t seem to get free of. They are literally strangling your life with stress and worry. How do I know this…because my soul has been there too: hard, shallow, filled with weeds. 

Yet here you are, because in your heart you want more. You (and I) have a prayer in mind, “Lord make me like the good soil – that rich, dark, volcanic soil that Jesus was describing; the good earth that stains the hands black, ploughed and ready to receive the seed of God’s word … to hear it, accept it, and to bear much fruit." 

Friends, Jesus knows how much we need God’s help, so he invites us to do more than pray that the soil of our hearts is changed; he invites us to trust in the power of the seed (Mark 4: 20b; 26-29), the third mandate of the kingdom from this story.  Remember Jesus’ promise? “Those who hear my words, accept them and put them into action will bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold? The middle eastern farmer expected a harvest of 7-10 times what was sown at best. But a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold? That kind of harvest would be amazing by any standard…a harvest that is truly supernatural!  The point is that not even the best of soils could be expected to yield this kind of harvest. Thank God, there is something more at work here than good soil. There is the power of the seed itself. Let me tell you one more seed story…

Forty years ago, archaeologists discovered a treasure at the cliff side fortress of Masada where hundreds of Jews killed themselves to avoid capture by Roman invaders. What they uncovered were human remains…and something else, a cluster of seeds from a 2000 year old date palm. Did they come from the plain of Gennesaret where dates were grown that were so desireable they were actually banned from Jerusalem during feast days -- banned because religious leaders feared that travellers would come only for the fruit? Of course, we can’t say for sure where these date seeds came from, but they found their final resting place on the mountain of Masada. Once discovered, these seeds were stored in a drawer for four decades, assumed to be lifeless. But two years ago, they were turned over to plant specialists who hoped to provide the conditions in which these seeds could germinate. The result? A species of this now extinct date palm tree – which flourished around the time Jesus told this story, sprouted back to life after 2000 years! The tree now stands four feet high which they’ve nicknamed “Methusalah” – after the oldest person in the Bible because it’s the oldest tree seed that has ever been sprouted. And that’s not all: the new date plant may have healing properties too. These dates were used for all kinds of things: pulmonary problems, tuberculosis, dysentery, cancer (Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25123015/)

The point of this story: never underestimate the power of a seed!  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you teach your child to pray and love God’s word.  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you respond in compassion to those in need.  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you make a commitment and keep it for Christ’s sake.  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you bless, encourage, challenge and love someone in the name of the Savior.  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you share your faith with someone who does not know the Savior…Because the seed of faith that was sown in you… a seed that may have laid dormant and apparently dead for years can be reborn today and bear much fruit. And in the same way, the seeds of the kingdom that you sow in others will not be sown in vain!

So gather around the Sower, ask him to make you rich and fertile soil for his word, and trust in the power of his seed to bring a supernatural harvest in your life and in this world…to the glory of God and for the good of humankind.

Gracious Lord, thank you for sowing the seed of your Word, the Word of the Messiah Jesus that is bringing your rule and reign to this world…one life at a time. Give us the gift of patience as your kingdom seed does its miracle working power. Forgive us for our resistance to your will. No longer do we want to be hardened by unbelief and enticed by evil; isolated from spiritual community and easily uprooted by the fear of trouble or persecution for your name’s sake. No longer do we want to be choked by the cares of this world and our silly self-centered goals. Make us rich and fertile soil as we hear, accept, and act upon your commands. Let the seed of your Word and Spirit take root in us and bear a supernatural harvest…thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold, for the sake of your kingdom and the good of this world. Amen!

Monday, April 12, 2010

I Saw the Light

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of the compelling truth of the resurrection and the many witnesses of that event. “Last of all,” Paul says, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God –but by the grace of God I am what I am.” The story of how Paul's life was re-directed by the Risen Christ is told three times in the Book of Acts -- the last of these after Paul is arrested for proclaiming Jesus, risen from the dead, in the temple courts of Jerusalem. As Paul stands before two men who will decide his future -- Governor Festus of Judea and King Herod Agrippa of northern Palestine -- he describes how he met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.  Then he ends with a prayer “that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am – except for these chains” (Acts 26: 29).  It is for us who read his testimony two millennia later to decide if that prayer is still being answered.

I saw the light: “from heaven, brighter than the sun” (13). Paul explains that as he was traveling to Damascus to bring the followers of Jesus back to Jerusalem in chains, his heart was filled with “murder and threats” (9:1); and he was “furiously enraged” (26:11). Then, Paul very carefully describes the moment that changed his life. It was mid-day…when the sun was shining at full force…at that moment a light from above him (a light that was clearly NOT the sun, because it was “brighter than the sun” sent Paul and his men falling to the ground. All of them saw the light…and all of them were overwhelmed by its power. The word that Paul uses for this light is the Greek word phos. It's the same word John uses when he describes Jesus as "the true light" (John 1:9) that enlightens humankind and makes God known to us.  Einstein made a profound statement when he once said that Jesus was "the luminous Nazarene."  The Greek word phos is the root of our English word photon. Now photons are massless particles of electromagnetic radiation traveling at 186,000 miles per second. There are low energy photons like radio waves and high energy photons like gamma rays. But visible light is the only form of electromagnetic radiation that human beings can see…and in that piece of scientific fact I find a spiritual truth....

Christ is the Light that makes visible the invisible God. Whether you are using a conventional camera that focuses light on to a piece of film creating an image using mechanical and chemical processes, or a digital camera that focuses light on to a semiconductor that creates the image electronically…you can’t take a picture without light. You can’t do it! And you can’t truly see God without Jesus, the light of the world. Look at Jesus…his compassion, his forgiveness, his grace, his authority, his wisdom, his self-giving love, his mighty miracles, his enduring impact, and ask yourself if you do not see the words and works of God made visible in him, because if you don’t…forget him. But if you can’t forget him…maybe it’s because (like me) you’ve never seen anything…quite like him. Jesus: the light of the world.

I heard the voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me” (14)? After the light from heaven, Paul hears a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” Notice that the voice of the Lord is personal. It addresses Paul in his own language (the Hebrew dialect) and repeats his name, “Saul, Saul…. " When God speaks, he speaks in a way that we can understand…by his Spirit, in his word, through people and circumstances. Beyond this, the voice of the Lord understands our deepest need. "Why do you persecute Me? It hurts you to kick against the goads” the Lord says. When we continue to do the stuff we know is wrong it not only hurts the Lord, it hurts us. The Greek word for “goad” is kentron. A kentron was a pointed stick that was used to goad an animal in a particular direction.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be stuck with a kentron. I don’t want to have to be shocked into reality, before I start walking with the Lord. About 9 years ago, I came very close to a head on collision while driving down Centinella as my on year old daughter was screaming in the back seat. I was inattentive and barely missed a serious crash. That was a little kentron, a wake up call. I said, “Lord, thank you for your mercy. Thank you for this wake up call.” The voice of the Lord speaks personally, in a way we can understand, warning and coaxing us…that we might be fully awake to his grace and truth. The wise man will heed that voice, and turn to him.

I received the answer: “‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’” (15). The answer given to Paul’s question is upsetting to a culture like ours… a culture that honors diversity and tends to be suspect of any absolute truth claim (except, of course, the truth that that there are no absolute claims to truth). “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” That is to say, “I am Jesus, and I am Lord.” Make no mistake, Paul was a good Jewish monotheists, but within that monotheism, he saw, by direct experience, the person of Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus says in John 14:9, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus is not another god, set alongside the true God, he is the invisible God made visible.

A modern parallel to Paul’s experience is Sundar Singh’s conversion story after a period of bitter hostility to the gospel. Praying in his room in the early morning of December 18, 1904, he saw a great light. He writes:“as I prayed and looked into the light, I saw the form of the Lord Jesus Christ. It had such an appearance of glory and love… it was the Lord Jesus Christ whom I had been insulting a few days before. I felt that a vision like this could not come out of my own imagination. I heard a voice saying in Hindustani, ‘How long will you persecute me? I have come to save you; you were praying to know the right way. Why do you not take it?’ The thought came to me, ‘Jesus Christ is not dead but living and it must be He himself.’ So I fell at His feet and got this wonderful Peace which I could not get anywhere else… When I got up, the vision had all disappeared, but…the Peace and Joy have remained with me ever since” [B. H. Streeter, The Sadhu (London, 1921) pp. 6-8)].

Can we still meet Jesus in such a personal way today? Yes. In my own life…Jesus has spoken through those with the spiritual gift of prophecy, personal words, written down and given to me, words so important to me that I’ve carried them in a personal notebook now for more than 38 years now. And I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to a sermon, or come to a personal time of Bible Study, asking the Lord to speak to me through his word, and have heard him so clearly, that I knew it was Jesus, the Lord himself.

Finally, Paul says, I obeyed the call: “to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me…” (16-18). It was not the voice of the Lord per se, but it’s effect on Paul’s life that makes it so compelling to us today: “Get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose…to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”

Science fiction editor and author Sam Moscowitz tells of the occasion when L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology) spoke before the Eastern Science Fiction Association in Newark, New Jersey in 1947: `Hubbard spoke ... I don't recall his exact words; but in effect, he told us that writing science fiction for about a penny a word was no way to make a living. If you really want to make a million, he said, the quickest way is to start your own religion.’”(Messiah or Madman, p. 45). Many people look at religion as a scam…a way to make a million, to use and abuse people, and sadly there are many examples. But the compelling thing about Paul’s conversion, is that there was no material or social benefit from it. Paul was not involved in a pyramid scheme, he was not getting a commission based on how many Christians he could make. He became an instant outcast, an enemy of his own people. He was threatened by death numerous times and finally executed. He lost everything of material value as he obeyed this divine calling! Why? Because he was convinced that Jesus really did rise from the dead…and that in Him there is power to stand, and power to turn from evil, there’s the gift of God’s forgiveness, and the promise of a life sanctified not by what I can do for God but by faith in what God has done for me in his Risen Son.

Last week I saw a man walking up the stairs as I was going down to the locker room, a man in handcuffs. As it turns out, he was an addict who got caught stashing heroin in the locker room at my gym last week. Now here is the amazing part of the story. The locker that he stashed the heroine in…was the locker of a parole officer who just happened to be working out that day, and just happened to pick that locker to put his clothes in. When the parole officer saw the stash, he closed the locker door, and waited for this guy to return and reclaim it, with five other police officers to back him up. When the guy came back to retrieve his stash, surprise! Here was a man who thought he could keep hiding…but his secret was brought out into the light. Later, a few of us were talking in the locker room about what had happened. I said to some guys inside: “You know that it was God’s grace that he got caught… because it was an opportunity for him to change course.”

Friends, we all have dark lockers in which we’re trying to stash the very things that are destroying us and getting us in their power: addictions, lies and half truths, boiling anger, unfaithfulness, arrogance, envy, and unbelief. We have two options. We can run from the Light. We can try to hide from God, and deny the power of evil over us. We can take our chances, and join the ranks of religious and golfing professionals alike whose sins have finally caught up with them. We can continue to let the darkness destroy our lives, our relationships, and our eternal destiny. Or, like Paul, we can come to the light! We can put our faith in the One who is the Light of the World, we can ask Jesus to illuminate every dark corner of our souls, we can confess our sin, receive his forgiveness, and be filled with the power of the Spirit so that we might begin to walk with him as his disciple for all eternity. We can run back into the closet…or we can run to the light.

King Agrippa smiled at Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” Paul quickly responded with the sincerity of a radically converted man: “I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am – except for these chains.” Gracious God, answer Paul’s 2000 year old prayer again that everyone reading this today might see the light of your glory and grace, and share the gift of faith in your Son.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why Easter Really Matters

I want you to try to remember an event…a event that left a strong emotional impact on your life: perhaps it was the day you moved into your first home, the day a close family member died, a reunion or special birthday, a graduation from high school or college. I remember my wedding day very clearly. For one thing...it was hot, I mean really hot (a record 105 degrees for July 16 in the Bay Area)…and the sanctuary air conditioning was definitely not up to the challenge. Lisa, my bride, definitely had the worst of it...sweat was pouring from her face. I recall in particular that moment after we exchanged our vows and lit the "unity candle." As my brother sang a special song for us...we looked deep into each other's eyes, as all our friends and family looked on, and Lisa quietly but earnestly whispered to me...“Is my mascara running?!" All I could do was assure her that she looked great, and dabbed her face with my handkerchief. We still laugh about it today. Now that's a 15 year old memory, but I’m confident that memory will be just as clear when it turns "20" or "30" or even "40". Why? Because we remember the things that matter to us.

Writing between AD 51-54, the Apostle Paul speaks of a 20 year old event that mattered deeply to him and to hundreds of people who witnessed it, a powerful event they had no trouble remembering. The emotions they felt, what they saw and experienced were still very clear in their minds. In his letter, he gives four reasons why this event -- the resurrection of Jesus Christ -- should deeply matter to us as well. Hear Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 --

1 Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters* at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Paul implies here that the resurrection of Jesus should matter to us because it has historical credibility (1a, 3-7): It was “received” (1a) as an objective fact for good reason. Paul may not have seen Jesus crucified…but his disciples certainly did (all of them, with the exception of John, from a safe distance), and what everyone of them agreed upon was this: Jesus died. Crucifixion was a brutal form of execution. In all of Roman imperial history, there is not a single example of anyone surviving crucifixion. Jesus did not swoon and revive later, as some have claimed, Jesus died.

Paul goes on to say that Jesus’ followers saw him risen from the dead, a claim that on the surface of it seems absurd, until you begin to look at the evidence. There was Cephas (Peter) and the Twelve (disciples). The transformation of Jesus’ disciples from demoralized and defeated men on Good Friday to confident witnesses of his resurrection in the face of death is difficult to explain apart from some extraordinary event. Theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne calls it one of the strong lines of evidence for the truth of the resurrection (John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in the Age of Science, New Haven: Yale University Press., 1997, p. 33). Something happened.

Then Paul mentions the appearance to James, one of Jesus’ brothers. Now Cephas (Peter) and the others may have denied the Lord… but James and his brothers were skeptics from the beginning according to Mark 3:21; John 7:5. It was not until Jesus appeared to James alive that his mind and heart were changed. So transformed was James that he later became the spiritual leader of the Jerusalem church.

In addition, Paul mentions the testimony of “more than five hundred” brothers and sisters at one time, "most of whom are still alive": This statement sounds truly farfetched but for the fact that Paul wrote this letter between AD 51-54, only 20 years after Jesus’ death. We can confidently date Paul's letter to this time because of an historical reference made in Acts 18:12 to Gallio, who was made proconsul of Achaia when Paul was in Corinth. We know from the famous Delphi Inscription in which Emperor Claudius references Gallio's rule that he was made proconsul in AD 51 [http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/greek/gallio.html] thus Paul's work in Corinth and the letter he wrote shortly thereafter must have come within a very few years of this date. The upshot of all this is that Paul is writing within two decades of Jesus' death and resurrection appearances -- which means the claim that these witnesses are still alive is extremely credible. If you don’t believe me, Paul is saying, question them yourself! Listen to the words of Pinchas Lapide, an Orthodox Jewish scholar, who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah who but nevertheless believed that Jesus rose from the dead: “The resurrection belongs to the category of the truly real and effective occurrences, for without a fact of history there is no act of true faith" (Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus, 1984, cited in John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996, p. 118).

Second, the resurrection of Jesus should matter to us because it has immediate relevance (1b, 8-11): It is a message upon which one can truly “stand” (1b) and build a life. Paul’s "Exhibit A" that Jesus changes lives today and gives us staying power through the toughest situations--is himself. He says that “last of all, as to one untimely born, [Jesus] appeared also to me” even though “I persecuted the church of God.” A zealous religious leader, educated in the best schools, Paul’s life was changed on the road to Damascus where he met the Risen Christ. He was transformed from a terrorizer of the church into a testifier to Jesus. Despite his sufferings, he said that anything he achieved in the past meant nothing, compared with the joy of knowing Y’shua his Lord and Messiah. Paul became a new man…in the present. The resurrection was not just a nice story to him but a present and personal reality (see Acts 9). Just as surely as Jesus was raised from death, so it was true that a new life had begun for Paul in Christ.

This is what I was, Paul says, but "by the grace of God I am what I am" (10). Paul had a new foundation on which to build his life…and that foundation was God’s grace. Paul now stood firmly on the grace of God! Did you catch that? Not on his striving. Not on his impeccable credentials. Not on his thirst for power and status. There is a powerful force in the universe called gravity. Gravity is pulling on us all the time…and eventually it pulls everyone of us to our knees. In our own lives, we mimic this power…by attracting others to ourselves, by absorbing and seeking to enlarge ourselves. But there is another power, the power of grace. Grace moves in the opposite direction…it is the power of self-giving love, forgiveness, and mercy (See Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil, a French intellectual and a Jewish believer in Jesus during WWII who died at the age of 33). When Jesus decended into our humanity, and when he died on the cross and was buried in the tomb…he humbled himself, submitting to the force of gravity…but when he rose again he proved that God’s grace is more powerful than gravity. Build your life on the grace and mercy of God…it’s the greatest power in the universe!

Third, the resurrection of Jesus should matter to us because it has profound consequences for the future (2a, 12-20): It is a message through which we are “being saved from” and “being saved for." Paul argues that those who live in reliance upon Jesus and his word are being saved from the terrible consequences of sin, evil and death (separation from God and all that is good); and are being saved for a glorious future ("The wages of sin is death...but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord," Romans 6:23). When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was being taken to the gallows, he said to a friend: “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” Bill Flanagan, a dear friend and colleague of my Dad’s who is close to death wrote this recently, “My faith in Jesus Christ is strong and I rejoice in the Hope that has been a part of my life for so many, many years. I pray that all of you can rest comfortably in the wonderful promises that God has made to all of us who put our trust in Him." I pray that our Lord heals and extends the life of my father's dear friend...knowing that whatever happens he and we are secure in his promise of eternal life. When Mickey Mantle was dying of diseases brought on by a life of heavy drinking he said: “I would have taken better care of myself if I had known how long I was going to live!” Jesus asks us to seriously consider how we are taking care of ourselves in light of an eternal future. Where honestly, is our present life leading us: each day we either moving away from God, or toward Him. Where are you headed?

Finally, because of all of the above, the resurrection of Jesus deserves a firm response (2b, 58): It is news concerning which no one can remain neutral. “Hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you…be steadfast… always excelling in the work of the Lord,” Paul says. I want to conclude by asking you to join me in a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that you had 3 years to do anything you wanted…and that I was somehow able to provide you with the best education on the planet, unlimited material and human resources, and unrestricted political power. What would you do, what would you try to accomplish in those three years?

Now here is the astonishing thing – Jesus had no formal education, he was raised in a poor family under the occupation of a foreign power, he had no political influence to speak of, he left no writings behind, he was crucified like a common criminal…And yet in three short years, his imprint was so deeply felt upon the consciousness of humankind that he became the dominant figure not just for the next 20 years…but for the next two thousand years of human history.... and counting. H. G. Wells once said, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of [and] the most dominant figure in all history.” Konrad Adenauer, former Chancellor of West Germany remarked to Billy Graham, “Outside of the resurrection of Jesus I know of no other hope for this world" (cited in Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994, pp. 164-165). A man like this surely demands a firm response (to use Paul's word), a decisive “yes” or “no.” We cannot be neutral about Jesus Christ.

But “Does Jesus really matter that much?” you may still be asking. You must decide that for yourself…but know this - that you matter to him, that he loves you, that he is calling you to follow him and to know the gift of his mercy and forgiveness, and the power of his resurrection life.

Lord Jesus, let the truth that you are alive, and risen from the dead reign over me today! For I know that in you I can begin again, turn from the things I know are wrong, and live each new day in the Father’s love. In you I am welcomed into the fellowship of the wholly forgiven, boasting not in my merits but in your mercy. In your risen life, I can have the full wealth of conviction, knowing that death has been conquered, and that I too shall live the life that is beyond death. In you I am blessed to be a blessing; entrusted with the message of God’s saving grace to all nations and peoples. Therefore, by the power of your Holy Spirit, I receive the good news that you are risen from the dead, that you are the solid rock on which I stand, and that you have saved me for all eternity. Amen.

Friday, April 2, 2010

How to Make It Through Anything

The Apostle Paul doesn’t quite fit the profile of what most would assume to be a contented man. After all, he wrote many of his letters from a prison, knowing his death could be imminent. Yet again and again he says, “I rejoice in the Lord!” At the conclusion of his letter to the Philippians, Paul thanks his friends for the gift they sent him…but reminds them that while he's grateful, he doesn't depend upon that gift for his security. This is a curious statement considering the fact that Roman prisoners survived on the food and financial support given them by friends and family. Paul obviously benefited from their support, so what was he talking about (?) and in the uncertain times in which we live (in the wake of wars, economic turmoil, political divisiveness, and personal challenges) how can we make it through with the contentment that Paul experienced?

Under Paul's advisement, we must begin with this premise: The power to make it through is not based on what I have or don’t have. For "I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need." Thus far, nothing Paul has said would sound any different from the popular thought of his day. The Greek stoic philosophers in particular prided themselves for being content...literally, self-sufficient in any situation (the meaning of the Greek word, autarkes). Plato once wrote in this vein when he said, “Man should be sufficient unto himself for all things, and able, by the power of his own will, to resist the force of circumstances." Centuries later Ralph W. Emerson wrote a famous paper entitled “Self-Reliance” which is required reading in high school American lit. classes. It’s the ideology of the rugged individualist -- the myth of the American cowboy, the underdog who can make it no matter the situation: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."  We love this idea...and we have embraced it as a core conviction of our culture. But is Paul saying nothing more than what Plato said...or what American Culture would later embrace as dogma?

Before Paul answers that question for us...let's pause and reflect on how we seek sufficiency and contentment in what we have…a boy friend, a job, our health, our children, a pastor or priest, or some great cause. These are all well and good…but eventually they will fall short of our ideals. A boy friend drops us, our job situation becomes unbearable, our health deteriorates, a pastor or church member disappoints, our children forget us, the cause we devoted our lives to doesn’t thrill us like it used to. A great disillusionment comes over us, and friends…the sooner the better! In fact, Bonhoeffer says it’s a blessing, “when we become disillusioned with others and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” Why? Because, as Paul learned, the power to make it through is not based on what I have or don’t have….

The power to make it through anything is based on who has me. Here is one of the most memorable verses of scripture: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4: 13). It's not self-sufficiency that Paul seeks, but the all-sufficient One in whom he trusts. But a word of caution: this is also one of those verses that can be easily misunderstood. Paul is not making a statement about his own superhuman abilities…that he can do anything he desires because of the spiritual power he now possesses. Remember, Paul has been talking about the ability to be content “in any and all circumstances” -- with a lot or with a little, with a full stomach or an empty stomach…he’s writing from a prison cell, possibly facing execution. Thus, what Paul is saying is that he can deal with all circumstances… ride the ups and downs of life, and make it through anything with the help of “him who strengthens me.” Paul literally says, “All things I can do in the One who is continually infusing me with power (dunamis, from which we get the word "dynamite").” The "continuous" nature of this infusion of power is important. It’s not a one time impartation - it's not something Paul received once because that was all he needed. It was a daily infusion for a daily, constant need.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Nick Vujisic - a 27-year-old Australian, who was born without limbs. Vujicic's parents, devout Christians who planted a church in Australia 11 months before Nick was born, found it hard to understand how God could use their son's loss for good. Reading in Sunday school about being made in the image of God seemed like a cruel joke to Nick. He seesawed between despair and begging God to grow arms and legs for him. He contemplated suicide at the age of 8. When he was 15, though, one story in the Bible answered one of his toughest questions. "When I read the story of the blind man … Jesus said he was born so that the work of God could be revealed through him," Vujicic said. "That gave me peace. I said, 'Lord, here I am. Use me. Mold me. Make me the man you want me to be.'" Vujicic learned to write using the two toes on a partial foot that protrudes from his body; how to throw tennis balls, answer the phone, walk, and swim. He invented new ways to shave and brush his own teeth. He even earned double degrees in accounting and financial planning by age 21. He’s since spoken to congregations in over 12 countries, and has ministered to over two million people face to face, and oversees an organization for the physically disabled. The title of his book? No Arms, No Legs, No Worries. This exactly mirrors Paul's sentiment when he says that he can make it through anything in the one who constantly infuses him with his power -- the Living God made visible in Jesus the Messiah. How does he do this? Paul answers that question in two ways.

First, Jesus is the One who inspires his people to give and care for others. Remember that Paul wrote to thank the Philippians for their gift of compassion, the gift of a friend and help mate in his imprisonment along with a gift of money to aid him. “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me…I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God...." (Phil. 4: 10,14-19). We need to understand this word "revived" because the translation doesn't quite capture Paul's intention. The word (anathallo) means "to sprout up or blossom again" like a seedling that breaks through the soil and begins to flower. Last Saturday I was hiking through Malibu Creek State Park with several men from our church...it was a narrow foothill pass that was covered with yellow, purple, and rose colored wild flowers. Now I’ve walked through that park many times…in other seasons when there were no flowers in sight; but these flowers were announcing that Spring has arrived. That’s the image Paul uses in v. 10 when (borrowing a translation from N.T. Wright) he says, "I've been having a great celebration in the Lord because your concern for me has once again burst into flower." For Paul, the arrival of Epaphroditus was like the spring thaw…the signal that winter was over and Easter was coming. It was the resurrection of his hope and another reminder of the concrete presence of the Risen Christ whom he first met on the Damascus Road. It's a reminder that the power to make it through will often be communicated to us by one of Jesus’ own followers, through prayer and compassion and caring.

That’s what God’s people do for each other…they remind each other what season it is. They are charged with declaring the arrival of Spring...that we are living in the Season of the Risen Son; and despite the fact that many people live as though it was winter (in prison cells of fear and doubt and despair), we have new life to share, and the compassion of Christ to offer. As we do share the love of our Lord with caring and compassion, we receive this promise: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). In other words, as we meet the needs of others and share his love, he will fill us up and satisfy our deepest needs as well. Question: When firefighters turn on the water to put out a blaze what is the first thing that gets wet? Answer: The first thing to get wet is not the house or the forest that is bursting into flames…the first thing to get wet is the fire hose. It's important to know that as we give, we’re kind of like that fire hose…when God is using us as a channel of his grace…we’re going to get wet with his grace too. As we give to others, He fills us up…as we baptize we get wet too, baptized again in his Spirit…encouraged, blessed, healed and empowered. Paul could make it through anything because of the gift of compassion which Jesus continued to inspire in his people...but now hear the deepest truth in this passage, and the most important reason for Paul's contentment...

Paul could make it through anything because Jesus went through everything – even death on a cross for him (and for us). Hear again, Paul’s words regarding the Messiah… “Who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2: 5-11). Paul reminds us that Jesus did not submit to death, he submitted to death on a cross. Roman crucifixion was terribly brutal. It was reserved only for criminals and malcontents. As Roman citizens, no one in Philippi could even be crucified. Eventually, it was abolished throughout the empire for its barbarity. But, friends, what is most unique about the passion of Jesus is not simply what he went through; but who it was that went through it. The fact that a man endured terrible suffering and pain on such and such a day two thousand years ago is not unique in and of itself, but the fact that it was Him makes all the difference. Because it was Him, the Prince of Peace who was born in Bethlehem’s manger; it was Him, the unschooled rabbi who astounded the multitudes with his teaching; it was Him, the Master of the wind and waves; it was Him, the Great Physician who opened the eyes of the blind; it was Him, he Bread of Life who fed the multitudes and spoke the words of eternal life. It was His body nailed to that cross; the Word made flesh who suffered the terrible judgment which we alone deserved. It was not just any suffering; it was the suffering of God himself…and he did it all for us. He took upon himself our judgment; he suffered our death and our separation from God. He went through everything to show us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This past week, we realized we had a rat problem in our house. The smell was the tell tale sign…and we did everything we could think of to get rid of it. First we cleaned out the water heater box where they were nesting. Then my wife called someone out to replace the water heater and hopefully clean out the smell. They set traps for the rats…but the odor persisted…like something had died under our house. I thought to myself, I've got to go under down there and find out what’s causing that smell. I’m going to save the day! So I put on my coveralls, my dust mask and my gloves. I got my plastic trash bag and my flashlight…and I squeezed under the house, which has about a 2 foot sub floor…pretty tight for a guy my size. I even managed to squeeze under one of the large 2 by 6 beams and into another part of the house. But then I saw the hole...the hole through the concrete foundation that would get me to the area I needed to reach. Perhaps you've heard of Jesus' famous line: "It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven." Folks, I wasn't feeling like a camel at that moment....I was feeling like a blue whale! There was no way I was going to fit through that hole...or try. "This is crazy," I thought to myself. "I’m not going any further down here. I have no idea what I’m doing. Maybe I’ll get stuck in this dirty mess of decaying earth and rat poop. I’m going to have to call a professional. I need some help." I confess that I reached my limit!

My point is this (and yes, there is a point) - we all reach our limit. We reach the limit of our patience…the limit of our endurance…the limit of our compassion… the limit of our courage… the limit of our discipline…the limit of our love. And the sooner we reach that limit the better…because that’s when we’re ready to receive the unlimited love of Christ. That’s when we’re ready to say, “Lord, I need your help. Clean up the mess that I can’t clean up. Help me to make it through…because I can’t do it by myself." C. S. Lewis once put it this way.

"In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down....But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.....think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover" (Miracles, chap. 14, para. 5, p. 111).

Jesus came from the highest place to go to the lowest place...the place where none of us could possibly have gone (and lived to tell about it)...through suffering and death itself, that he might bring us and this whole ruined world back up with him. If you've reached your limit...if you've come to the end of yourself today...then you're ready to receive the unlimited power of the Living God made visible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Lord. Because the power to make it through anything comes from the One who made it through everything - even death on a cross - for us.

Jesus our Messiah and Lord, we bow our heads in humble confession. For you are the Savior who endured everything – even death on a cross – to bear the consequences of our sin, assuring us that we too can make it through anything in your strength. You shattered the chains of evil and delivered us from the powers of hell; and you proved to us your victory over death, when you were raised up on the third day. “Surely, you have borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. You were wounded for our transgressions, and upon you was the chastisement that made us whole" (Isaiah 53:5). Worthy are you to receive honor and glory and blessing! In response to your sacrifice for us, we now turn from everything we know is wrong. We thank you for bearing our sins upon the cross and ask you now to fill us with the power of your Holy Spirit. Come now as Savior and cleanse us. Come now as Lord, and take control of our lives, that we might serve you with your other disciples, forever. Amen!