Sunday, March 24, 2013

Joy in the Shadows - Luke 5: 33-39

We in southern California are blessed to have so much sunshine…and so when the sun is obscured by days of gloomy clouds, we truly long for the sun to return.  My dear cousin from Oregon always arrives in shorts and flip flops no matter what time of year it is…because he and his family hope for warm, clear skies.  For me one of the most beautiful sights to behold is the sun…piercing the clouds after a rainy day; the rays of light illuminating the earth and sea like heavenly searchlights.  On this Passion Sunday I want us to think together about the light of joy…joy in the shadows.   

In Luke 5:33-39 we hear Jesus speak for the first time of his suffering and death…but it happens in the most unexpected moment: it happens at a joyous dinner party.  Then [the Pharisees] said to him, "John's disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” (33-35)

i. In the shadow of the cross, Jesus knew the joyous gift that cannot be taken away. (33-35) Jesus has just called Levi, a tax collector to follow him.  At that time, Levi throws a great dinner party for Jesus and invites all of his tax-collector-friends.  The Pharisees and Scribes complain to his disciples.  For them, the proper response to sinners was separation…not compassion.  But Jesus reminded them that he came to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance; that the Kingdom was like a party to which sinners and hurting people alike were invited.   Can we think of a sinner, a sickness, or an outcast that Jesus would have distanced himself from or turned his back on? More likely he would have turned toward them, with his healing touch, his forgiveness, and the call to repentance and faith in him.

The religious leaders again questioned him.  “Why do you not fast and pray like John’s disciples instead of eating and drinking with such people?”  What we need to understand is that these men were fasting and praying to hasten the coming of the Kingdom.  They did not yet understand that Jesus announced the Kingdom and that in Him the words of Isaiah were being fulfilled: good news was being preached to the poor, captives were being released, the blind could see again, and the oppressed set free!  The point being…The Kingdom is at hand, so now is the time to rejoice!  Jesus used the picture of a wedding feast.  Everyone knew that you didn’t fast at a wedding feast; you enjoyed the food, you rejoiced with the happy couple; but the problem was Jesus was keeping company with the wrong kind of people and so….

As Jesus spoke these words, he saw the stern disapproval in their faces.  That’s when he continued, “The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”  He foresaw the rejection of his message and ministry in their faces.  He foresaw his own sacrificial death.  The day would come when he would be taken away.  The day would come when he would be betrayed by one of his own disciples and deserted by the very ones with whom he was now celebrating.  The day would come when he would be falsely arrested, flogged and crucified like a criminal, treated worse than any tax gatherer or common “sinner.” The day would come when he would suffer and die on a Roman cross…but that could not take away the joy of this day nor his power to love and forgive on that dark day. Why would anyone reject such joy or the man who embodied it?

ii. Why some cannot receive the gift that Jesus brings. (36-39) [Jesus] told them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old.(36) To put it another way: many people are prepared to patch their old ways with some of Jesus. They’re willing to take bits and pieces of him and stitch them into the fabric of their old ideas where they have become threadbare.  But what tailor would ever try that?  Who would cut a piece from a brand new suit and use it to patch an old worn out one?  My words and ways, says Jesus, are meant to be a total replacement, not just a convenient patch when our old ways aren’t working out very well.

Jesus continues: And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. (37) These are the ones who want to have all of Jesus provided they can keep all of their old ways too.  In the ancient world, grape juice was fermented in animal skins.  The CO2 generated by the fermentation process would stretch the skins which is why new wine was always placed in new, flexible skins.  Jesus warns that the brittle “wineskins” of our old beliefs/habits can’t contain the “new wine” that he brings. 

And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, "The old is good.'"  (39). That is, some prefer their old ways to any part of Jesus.  His point here is not that some think their old ways are “better” but that they are “good enough” and don’t even want to taste the new.  It’s a refusal to even try Jesus’ words and ways or admit that they have any merit at all.

But what does Jesus mean when he says that “new wine” must be placed into “new wineskins”The Greek word kainos conveys more than simply “chronologically new” (If that were true then only the physically young could follow Jesus).  No, kainos  means “newly-invented, remarkable or previously unknown.”  When Jesus says that his wine must be put into fresh wineskins he is talking about a miracle of the new creation -- the creation of a new kind of vessel that can hold his Spirit, his message and ministry; and that new vessel can even be a tired old heart that comes to him in repentant humility, and is transformed by his grace.  A “new wineskin” is growing and changing as Jesus fills us with more of himself; growing in the knowledge of his word and ways, growing in compassion for others: the poor and the sick, those have been treated unjustly, who feel unloved, forsaken, lost and lonely and running from God.  Again, it is not separation from “sinners” that defines Jesus’ followers, but compassion.

iii. The secret of the gift and why any who will may receive it. (35) But here is the secret of the gift of Jesus’ “new wine.”  We can’t make ourselves into “new wineskins” – No!  The “new wine” makes our “old wineskins” new!  “For if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.  The old has gone, the new has come.”  (1 Cor. 5: 17). “I have a friend” Henri Nowen once described, “a friend who radiates joy, not because his life is easy, but because he habitually recognizes God's presence in the midst of all human suffering, his own as well as others'. ... My friend's joy is contagious. The more I am with him, the more I catch glimpses of the sun shining through the clouds. Yes, I know there is a sun, even though the skies are covered with clouds. While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds.”

Let us remember on this Passion Sunday that the light of the Son has pierced the clouds of sin and sadness; that Jesus invited us to experience true joy even as he stood in the shadow of the cross; that in Him there is no sin or sickness, no evil or injustice, no failure or disappointment, not even the shadow of death itself, that can take us away from God’s joyous Kingdom or his love. 

King Jesus, in the shadow of the cross, You showed us the joyous gift of the Kingdom of God that no sadness or sorrow can defeat; the joyous reality of Your sacrificial love that bore our sin and turns our mourning into dancing: “Surely, You have born our grief and carried our sorrow. For You were wounded for our transgressions, and upon You was the chastisement that made us whole.”  Responding to Your sacrifice we turn from everything we know is wrong. We honor, bless, and praise Your holy name. We thank You for bearing our sins upon the cross, for offering us forgiveness and the fullness of Your Spirit.  We ask You now to come as Savior and cleanse us; to come as Lord, and take control of us, that we might serve You with Your other disciples, forever.  Amen!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hope for "Saints" - Luke 6: 1-11

Last week we learned that Jesus loves to surround himself with “sinners” –The fact that Jesus ate and drank with tax gatherers and other morally questionable folks irked the religiously serious of his day who felt that the proper response to such people was “separation” not “compassion.”  That’s when Jesus explained that he came to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.  

It would be a mistake, though, to think that Jesus despised the religious professionals or had no time for them.  Jesus often taught in the synagogues.  He had many encounters with the Pharisees and scribes, the pastors and bible teachers of his day, and some like Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus became his followers.  Jesus loved the “sinners” but he loved “saints” too…even though many of them would reject him and his messiahship.  They rejected him because he seemed to disregard their traditions, played fast and loose with Sabbath regulations, and claimed to understand the “spirit” of the Law as if He himself had written it. What rebuke, and what hope from Luke 6: 1-11, does Jesus give to the “religiously serious” in each of us?

1 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" 3 Jesus answered, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?" 5 Then he said to them, "The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath." 6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come and stand here." He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?" 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, "Stretch out your hand." He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
i. Understand the purpose of the rules: God’s law was meant to free us from sin, not enslave us to legalism.   One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.  But some of the Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" (1-2)

Now it’s important to understand that on any ordinary day what the disciples were doing was freely permitted according to the Law of Moses. Deut. 23:25 reads, “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand….” As long as you did not use a harvesting tool, like a sickle, you could pick corn without breaking any rule. There was another law that actually required farmers to leave a part of their harvest for “gleaning” by the poor (Lev. 23:22; Deut. 24:19-22).

But Jesus’ disciples were not picking grain on just any day; they were picking grain on the Sabbath day, and by the time of Jesus there were 39 specific activities that were classified as “work”…among these were reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal.  The disciples were technically breaking all four! The religious professionals of Jesus’ day had good intentions… they wanted to encourage holiness and hasten the kingdom by building a “fence” around the Torah, a fence of oral tradition and regulations that were added in order to keep the commandments from being broken.  So, for example, if the Sabbath Command prohibited “work”, the Mishnah attempted to define “work” more specifically. 

Was there an awareness that this could descend into legalism?  Yes.  In the Mishnah Hagigah we read, “the rules about the Sabbath…are as mountains hanging by a hair, for the Scripture is scanty [while] the rules many.”  Even so, this group of Pharisees, who held a strict position on Sabbath keeping, expected Jesus to stop his disciples immediately.  Instead, Jesus cites some Scripture of his own. Jesus answered, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?"  (3-4).

Jesus tells a story from 1 Samuel 21: 1-6 where we read about a time when young David was fleeing with his men from King Saul who was trying to kill him. They come to the town of Nob, where the priests were watching over the tabernacle and the daily sacrifices. Exhausted and hungry from a long journey, David asks the priest Ahimelech if he has anything to eat. The priest responds that there is no ordinary bread, only the holy bread.  The 12 loaves that were placed on a special table before the altar where it remained for one week as a sign of God’s presence.  Now this is the key point: we know from the Law that it was changed on the Sabbath, which is why the story is relevant. And so when we read in 1 Samuel that “the priest gave [David] the holy bread…which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away” (1 Sam. 21:6) we have good reason to believe that David had come to the priest on the Sabbath; and that it was on the Sabbath that he ate what was forbidden by anyone but the priests to eat. The priest does this for David because he is the King's son-in-law, and he is on a holy mission and is hungry.

Did David’s extreme situation have anything to do with Jesus and his disciples strolling through the grain fields? Yes, in the sense that the priest made an exception to the rule in order to meet a legitimate human need.  No doubt the priest would have agreed with Jesus that “The Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2: 27)  That is, God’s Law was meant to free us from sin not enslave us to rules that substitute for a bold and creative love of God and people. Indeed the whole foundation of the Law is the unmerited, steadfast love of God for his people (Exodus 20:1).  This is why Jesus remind the Pharisees of the words of Hosea: I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6) 

Let’s face it…we Christians have been just as good at creating silly rules as the Pharisees.  There is a message there for all of us.  Here are a few Sunday rules I found, that are still actually on the books….*In Blackwater, KY, tickling a woman under her chin with a feather duster while she's in church service carries a penalty of $10.00 and one day in jail.  *No one can eat unshelled, roasted peanuts while attending church in Idanha, Oregon. *In Honey Creek, Iowa, no one is permitted to carry a slingshot to church except a policeman.  *No citizen in Leecreek, Arkansas, is allowed to attend church in any red-colored garment. *Swinging a yo-yo in church or anywhere in public on the Sabbath is prohibited in Studley, Virginia; *and turtle races are not permitted within 100 yards of a local church at any time in Slaughter, Louisiana.  Robert W. Pelton in The Door. Christian Reader, Vol. 33, no. 5. The Puritans felt that “play” could degenerate into wickedness and so anything that resembled “play” was banned.  Church was no time for silliness or fun.  I can’t help but think of David who, while  “wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might” as the ark was being brought up to Jerusalem! Jesus changed the image of Sabbath rest from a straight jacket of joy-crushing rules, to a stroll through the grainfields with friends, conversing and celebrating the bounty of God’s harvest in His presence.   Therefore, we must…

ii. Beware the abuse of the rules: The rules must never be an excuse for disregarding people or human need.  Luke tells us about another time when Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and saw a man whose hand was “withered.” (6-11) He tells us that the scribes and Pharisees were there watching to see if he would try to heal this man on the Sabbath. Jesus knew what was on their minds, so he asked them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?"  No one said a word in response. Then he had the man stretch out his hand, and he healed it.  Luke tells us that “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” Already the seeds of Jesus’ passion are being sown in this defiance of the religious professionals and their traditions…and not only of their traditions, but of our own tendency to promote legalism over love, and religiosity over relationships.  He would never allow the rules to be used as an excuse to disregard people.

I was reading the other day about Mati Goldstein, the commander of the Jewish ZAKA rescue mission to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.  She was asked why she came to Haiti, working tirelessly, even on the Sabbath.  “"We did everything to save lives, despite Shabbat. People asked, 'Why are you here? There are no Jews here', but we are here because the Torah orders us to save lives… We are desecrating Shabbat with pride…"”  What would it mean for you and I to desecrate the Sabbath with pride?  What outrageous work of compassion or love could we do to earn that badge of honor?   I wonder if sometimes it isn’t simply the willingness to set aside our need to always be right, to be good rule keepers, and focus instead on forgiving, loving, listening, and even admitting how much we need each other, despite our differences and even because of them? I wonder also if it wouldn’t mean a commitment not just to know the rules, but to know the Ruler, because we cannot understand or obey the rules…

iii. Know the heart of the Ruler: We cannot understand or obey the rules that are set forth in Scripture until we know the heart of the Ruler.  Jesus made a shocking claim to the religiously serious when he said, The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:5)          

At the heart of every rule is the Ruler who established it.  Now there are good rules and there are unjust rules; there are rules that bless and protect us from harm and there are rules that destroy or are just plain silly.  The new pope has decided he isn’t really interested in all the traditional pomp and circumstance.  He favors simplicity: no fancy vestments and no red shoes.  I’m sure he thinks the “rule” about the red shoes is sort of silly, and not in keeping with the Ruler.That’s because it’s not enough to know the rules.  It’s not enough to memorize the rules. It’s not enough to sing about the rules.  It’s not enough to obey the rules.  We’ve got to know the Ruler! 

Madeline L’Engle in her book Walking on Water writes about a Hassidic rabbi, renowned for his piety. He was unexpectedly confronted one day by one of his devoted youthful disciples. In a burst of feeling, the young disciple exclaimed, "My master, I love you!" The ancient teacher looked up from his books and asked his fervent disciple, "Do you know what hurts me, my son?"  The young man was puzzled: "I don't understand your question, Rabbi. I am trying to tell you how much you mean to me, and you confuse me with irrelevant questions." "My question is neither confusing nor irrelevant," answered the rabbi. "For if you do not know what hurts me, how can you truly love me?"  Jesus wants us to know his heart, the heart of the Ruler.  He wants us to know what hurts him (yes) our pride, our selfishness, when we use the rules as an excuse to disregard people; but also what blesses him…understanding that at the heart of the Rules are the two greatest commands…to love God and love people.

In one of Jesus’ most well known parables, The Parable of the Father & His Two Sons, Jesus tells the story of two sons…a younger son who takes his inheritance and squanders it in wild living; and an older son who remains home doing his chores.  When the younger son finally comes to his senses, he decides to return home and plead for his father’s mercy, intending to offer himself as a hired servant.  This he does…but before he can speak his Father welcomes him, forgives him, and decides to throw a huge party.  At this point the older son is outside, pouting.  "Why are you throwing this huge party for that loser of a son?  I’ve been slaving for you for years, and I’ve never gotten a party like this?"  The Father had to remind him, “My Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours, but we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has become alive, he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15: 31-32).

If you haven’t guessed, the older brother represents the religiously serious, the Pharisees and scribes, the church-going, pew-filling, bible-reading, hymn-singing, religious folks like you and me who are a little annoyed by Jesus’ focus on all those strange and difficult people out there.  Yes, Jesus loves me too despite my pride and self-righteous attitude.  There is hope for sinners but, by the grace of God, there is hope for saints too… 

King Jesus, the Word made flesh, I confess that I am a mixture of sinner and saint. I confess that it is possible for me to keep the rules and cherish the rituals, while remaining distant from You and uncaring toward others. I admit that I can be in church every Sunday, know all the songs, and recite all your commands, yet still have a heart that is stubborn, impatient, arrogant, and uncaring. Forgive me, Lord, when this has described me! Let Your Law convict me of sin and guide my daily walk, but never be used as an excuse to be cruel or uncaring. Let Your Word always lead me to Your heart, and to those whom You came to save and want to bless through me, to the glory of God. Amen!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Friend of "Sinners" - Luke 5: 17-32

For Jesus it was never enough to simply diagnose what was wrong with the world or with us.  He claimed the authority to bring a treatment.  The religious leaders of his day were very good at diagnosing sin, but to grant us the assurance not only of God's forgiveness but of his transforming power was Jesus' mission.
In Luke 5: 17-42, Jesus touches the life of a paralyzed man, bringing him more than physical healing...but a healing of his soul. To the friends who brought this man to Jesus, he was truly that "...friend who stays closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18: 24).  Immediately after this encounter, Jesus touches the life of second man, Levi the despised tax collector, who not only begins following Jesus but invites all his fellow tax collectors to meet him too.  How can we, who are Jesus’ disciples, offer such transforming hope to “sinners” like Jesus did?  We can begin by being for them what Jesus has been for us…their friends.

We can be friends who simply care. (17-18a)  In a typical Middle Eastern house, there was a large central court that one entered from the street.  Jesus would have been teaching and healing in this central court.  Luke says in v. 17 that “The power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal,” and thus a large crowd was pressing into this central court in order to see him which included many Pharisees and Scribes.  Luke makes it clear that early on in his ministry, Jesus experienced the criticism of these religious professionals, the "pastors" and "bible teachers" who were troubled by his message and his methods. The Pharisees, or “Separated Ones,” advocated a rigorous interpretation of the Law of Moses, insisting on observance not only of the written Torah but also the oral Torah ascribed to Moses that was developed to guard the Law against violation like a fence. The primary duty of the Scribes was to study the Law of Moses, teach it to the people, and even to help settle disputes involving questions of the Law. With Jesus they shared several common convictions including a passion to see God's kingdom realized, and a firm hope in the resurrection of the dead, but whereas the Pharisees and Scribes sought to hasten this day by the strict observance of Torah, Jesus emphasizes that the Father's mercy and its transforming power is our one true hope.

Into this unusual crowd of desperate souls, curious seekers, and hard-nosed skeptics, (v. 18a) four men are carrying a man on a stretcher who is paralyzed.  Before we begin talking about how these men took their friend to Jesus, we shouldn’t miss the fact that they were carrying him, period, and that it probably wasn’t the first time. They had a history with this man.  They cared about him, and their friendship was genuine.  Jesus does not call us to make friends only for the purpose of sharing the gospel with them, or evangelizing them or curing them.  No, a faithful witness to Jesus is often first called to be a genuine, faithful friend, period.  Sharing our faith with others is a natural thing when it is built upon a foundation of genuine caring and compassion.   

I like the fact that Luke, the Physician, describes this sick man differently then Matt./Mark who call him simply “the paralytic.” Luke, in v. 18 uses the more medically accurate description: “a man who was in a state of paralysis.”  If you have a chronic medical condition as I do, it does not need to define you or your family, but it does take adjusting to.  In "Adjusting to Life with Chronic Illness," Mary Yerkes suggests that we: (1) Educate ourselves about our condition. (2) Recognize our limits and learn to say no.  (3) Build fun into our lives (4) Focus our physical and emotional resources on those things that matter most.  (5) Share our gifts and talents.  (6) Accept help from others.  Don’t suffer in silence…and don’t assume other people know what’s going on. To these men (and to God) this person was not just a medical condition to fix he was a man, a friend they deeply cared about who happened to have an illness.  Friends begin by simply caring.  But then… 

We can be friends who risk bringing our friends to Jesus. (18b-19, 27-29). Luke tells us that these four men had a plan: “to bring him in and lay him before Jesus” (18b). But unable to bring him in through the front door because of the crowd, they got very creative.  They climbed up on top of the roof, removed some of the roof tiles and lowered him down (19). The point is that the faith of these men was bold, determined, and unconcerned about consequences.  Their faith was driven by one great desire: to get their friend to Jesus, to get him to the head of the line, to tear the roof of that house and lower him right into the middle of the joyous circle of his friends.

The Institute for American Church Growth asked 10,000 people about their Christian pilgrimage. What led them to faith? Answers: A special need, 2 %; Walking-in, 3 %; Pastor, 6 %; Personal visit with someone, 1 %; Sunday school, 5 %; An evangelistic crusade, 5 %; A Program, 3 %; A Friend/relative, 79 %.  I was eating at a local market with my family in our area the other day when we ran into two boy from our youth group.  They were completely unselfconscious about the fact that I was their pastor, and even introduced me to one of their friends woh was sitting with them.  “Hey Pastor Steve, meet my friend, he’s an atheist,” he said smiling at him.  “I know quite a few...and some are my friends” I said.  It’s nice to meet you.” Frankly I was impressed that these boys even knew their friend's worldview.  It implies that they had engaged in some conversations about faith and doubt, Christianity and secularism.  Our Lord can work through relationships like that…penetrating the darkness of doubt and despair with his light …and all because of friendship.  Personal relationships are the primary means through which men and women, boys and girls are introduced to the Living Christ. 

We can be friends who know the true Friend of sinners (20-26, 30-31).  Notice that these men asked nothing of Jesus.  They simply lowered their friend down before him with tremendous faith that He would know what to do. In response to that faith, Jesus does not say, “Your sickness is healed” but rather, (v. 20) “Friend, your sins are forgiven you!”  In John 15:15, Jesus says to his disciples, "I do not call you servants any longer...but I have called you friends...What this man needed most was to know he was not the enemy of God but his friend, that he could be forgiven of his sins and set free from his guilty past.  What this man needed most was to know that God loved him and forgave him for everything wrong he had done. The most important healing we can receive in this life, is the healing of our relationship with God.  

I was meeting with my doctor the other day when I saw a colleague of mine sitting in the waiting room.  We knew we had the same endocrinologist, but it was the first time we had seen each other in his office at the same time.  In the exam room, my doctor pointed out this coincidence to me; and then took the opportunity to say, “There are very few people who do what you guys do; and I want you to know that I respect what you do, and wish there were more people like you doing it.  It meant a lot that my doctor, who I respect very much, would share that he highly values my work as a pastor; and that he felt that this work complimented his own.  In truth, minety-five percent of doctors now recognize that there is a powerful connection between our spiritual/psychological state and our physical health (see Dale A. Matthews, M.D., The Faith Factor, New York, NY: Viking Press, 1998).  So when Jesus says, “Yours sins are forgiven” he is reminding us of this powerful connection...that there can only be genuine healing when the separation occasioned by our sin has been mended through God’s mercy and our repentance.  David makes this very point in Psalm 32: 
1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Selah) 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Selah) 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. (Selah) 
Karl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, wrote at length about the reality and power of sin in a world that no longer takes sin very seriously (Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin)! Menninger purportedly said, “If I could convince patients in psychiatric hospitals that they were forgiven 75% would walk out the next day.”  Before she died, Marghanita Laski, a well known atheist claimed that, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me” (John Stott in The Contemporary Christian. Christianity Today, Vol. 38, no. 7).  Many of us carry around with us a powerful load of guilt.   

The pastors and bible teachers who heard Jesus pronounce this man’s forgiveness objected because they saw true forgiveness as something that could only be experienced on the Last Day, when we stand before God’s judgment seat.  So they began mumbling to themselves that this was blasphemy: "Who is this?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (21)  And they were quite right.  It was blasphemous if Jesus was just another man.  But if Jesus was and is the incarnation of God who brings the promise of divine forgiveness and new life from the future into the present, this is not blasphemy, it is a liberating blessing. Therefore Jesus asks, “Which is easier to say?  ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Rise and walk’? (23) I’m sure they were thinking, "It's easier to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' because the truth or falsehood of that claim cannot be verified."  But in fact, to be able to say truthfully, 'Your sins are forgiven, and your relationship with God is restored' is the harder thing by far.  The cleansing of leprosy is easy, calming of storms simple, the casting out of demons child’s play compared to this.  

As Jesus stands before this man, he demonstrates that he not only has the divine authority, but the divine power to do both; and so “he said to the one who was paralyzed – ‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home’” (24).  Notice that Jesus does not simply say, “Rise and walk” but tells him (even before he is healed) what he should do after he is healed… "Take up your bed and go to your home!"  Such is Jesus confidence and authority over illness, and over sin.  Luke tells us that the man immediately “stood up before them, and took what he had been lying on, and went to his home” (25)  -- just as Jesus had commanded, and no doubt his friends were leaping and praising God with him.  

Not long afterward, Jesus sees a man seated at a tax booth, a tax collector despised by his fellow Jews because he profited from the Roman domination and worked with Gentiles, even on the Sabbath.  This was a man who may have been paralyzed by guilt.  I can imagine that Jesus lovingly challenged him to be just in the way he collected taxes, no longer stealing from the people, assuring him that he could begin again, that he could rid himself of the terrible guilt that he carried and the scorn he suffered from his own people.  Jesus told him that he could turn back to God, experience his mercy, and begin to use his tremendous resources to bless others.  Luke does not recount this conversation but reports that Jesus simply said, “Follow me."  And so Luke record that “[Levi] got up” using the same Greek verb that described the man with paralysis after he was healed.  The man got up…not to argue with Jesus, not to tell Jesus to mind his own business, not to walk away from Jesus, he got up to follow him, as if to say “Yes Lord, I want to turn from everything I know is wrong and receive God’s forgiveness. I want to treat people justly.  I want to walk in the light of God’s truth. I want to experience God’s mercy and be merciful to others.  I want to follow you and learn from you how to live the eternal kind of life.”

Levi’s heart was so filled with joy over the experience of God’s forgiveness, and the prospect of a new life here and now as the friend of Jesus that he threw a great party for Jesus and invited all his tax collector friends to come and meet him: “Come and spend an evening with my new Friend, the man who changed my life.” Again, the Pharisees and scribes were complaining to Jesus’ disciples saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." (vv. 30-32)  I'm not interested in simply diagnosing sin, I want to treat the sinner…to bring help to those in desperate need, to bring people back to God.

I’m struck by the picture of friendship in these stories; compassionate men who carry their friend to Jesus’ house where he is healed of his illness.  A man touched by the mercy of God who invites his friends to a dinner party where they can meet Jesus for themselves.  I would not have been born if it were not for a friend who decided to invite my mother to a church where she met Christ and eventually met and married my father.  I wish I could thank that woman today.  I wish I could meet that friend.  I can’t, but I have met men and women that in small and large ways have befriended those who did not know Christ…and gradually shared with them the gift of His friendship, men and women who have become the friend of "sinners" like them.   

Some of you need to know that Christ desires to be that friend "who stays closer than a brother."  Others of you are being called to carry someone into the middle of the joyous circle of Jesus’ forever friends, to invite them to the great banquet table of His grace.  

Lord Jesus, Crucified and Risen Lord, thank You for inviting us to the great banqueting table of Your grace, for welcoming us right into the middle of the joyous circle of Your forever friends: a circle of friends who have been forgiven and set free from guilt and shame; a circle of friends who are learning to live lives of goodness and love, turning from everything they know is wrong in order to more boldly and passionately follow You; an ever-widening circle of friends who have made the risky commitment to really care about others, and to look for opportunities to carry them into the healing light of Your presence through prayer, worship, hospitality, compassionate service, and personal testimony. Thank You, King Jesus, for being the Friend of sinners like me; and for making us therefore the friends of God.  Amen.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Toucher of Untouchables (Luke 5: 12-16)

The disease that people were afraid of in the first century was not malaria, or scarlet fever or polio or the plague.  The disease that created the greatest fear in the first century was leprosy. People feared leprosy like our culture is afraid of cancer, heart attacks, or AIDS. A person positively diagnosed with leprosy in Jesus’ day had little to hope for; because it caused blindness, permanent nerve damage, and disfigurement. People could lose the use of their hands or feet, because, over time, the decreased sensation resulted in repeated injuries to and even loss of limbs.

But as tragic as the disease itself, was the false idea that leprosy could be spread by a mere touch.  The Law of Moses stipulated that a leper must be quarantined from the rest of society; cut off from family, jobs, synagogue and temple, with no one to help them except, perhaps, another leper.  Leviticus 13: 45-46 states that afflicted persons had to wear ripped clothes and keep their hair messy so that others could spot them more easily.  They were required to cover their mouths and cry “Unclean! Unclean!” as others approached, for if anyone touched them they too became unclean.  All of this is to say that “lepers” were the outsiders, the untouchables, which is the backdrop of Jesus' extraordinary encounter with the man in Luke 5: 12-16:
12 Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean." 13 Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "I do choose. Be made clean." Immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he ordered him to tell no one. "Go," he said, "and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them." 15 But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

The fact that this man approached Jesus at all is amazing, given the rules that isolated him.  Yet, in his brief interaction, we see that Jesus touched those who no one touched, and moved toward those who others were repelled by.  So how can we honor our Lord as the “toucher of untouchables” today? 

As those who were once outcasts, we can identity with strangers and untouch-ables as Jesus did. (12).  The fact that a leper broke all convention to come close to Jesus was already a sign of his desperation. Bowing low with his face to the ground he begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean!”  (12) What was it about Jesus that this man felt the freedom to approach him like this? Obviously he knew that Jesus had the power to heal him, but I believe there was something else…a kindred spirit.  He knew in his heart that Jesus could identify with him.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus knew rejection.  After all, he was almost thrown over a cliff after his first public sermon, he was maligned by the religious leaders, and then condemned and crucified on a cross.  As Isaiah prophesied, the Messiah would be “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53: 3).  Jesus identified with the outcasts not in theory, but as one who was himself rejected and despised.  One of the highest principles of the Mosaic Law which Jesus ran a highlighter over was the command to treat others as you would want to be treated (Lev. 19: 33-34).  In Ex. 23: 9 we read: You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” and again in Deut. 10:10, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  I have long thought that Jews and Palestinians, both people of the Book, should sit down and read these verses together…and then pledge to obey God by treating each other as “the stranger” in the land whom God has called them to love.  Both peoples have a history of being despised and oppressed by other nations…an experience that God says should inspire them to love. 

Paul uses this same language to remind Christians at Ephesus to remember where they came from…that we “who were aliens…and strangers…who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2: 12-13). There is therefore no stranger, no matter how strange, that I cannot identify with…because I myself was a stranger and an alien, far from God and without hope in the world because of my sin, until Christ rescued me, and called me to himself.  Thanks be to God!  But it is not enough to identify with someone…we must next go on to pray for them and show them compassion.

As recipients of God’s grace, we can pray for and show compassion to those who have received little. (13)  The first thing Jesus did in response to the man’s request to be healed was to stretch out his hand and touch him (hyato means “he grabbed hold of him,” a man who had not felt a human touch since he had become ill.  Hear me!  If Jesus had backed up ten feet and had only spoken his healing -- it would have been a different miracle!  “The whole gospel is in that grasp” Dale Bruner says. So Jesus touched him, but then he said: “I do choose!”  He told the man what he needed to know: that he wanted to heal him, that his desire was for him to be whole and healthy once again.  Finally, he said: “Be made clean …Immediately the leprosy left him.”  The main difference between us and Jesus is that He can choose when and how he wants to heal…we can’t.  What we can do is to draw near to those who are hurting.  What we can do is offer them the touch of compassion and prayer trusting that he is bringing his healing to their lives through the action of the Holy Spirit, the trials and challenges of life, and their apprenticeship to Him.

One day, as Francis of Assisi was riding on horseback he met a leper. He had always felt an overpowering revulsion when he saw these sufferers, but with great effort he conquered this aversion, dismounted from his horse and, in giving the leper a coin, kissed his hand. The leper then gave him the kiss of peace, after which Francis remounted his horse and rode on his way.  Several days later he took a large amount of money to the leper hospital and, gathering all the inmates together, he gave them the money and kissed each of their hands. In the past he could not have touched or even looked at lepers, but when he left them on that day, what had been so horrific to him was transformed into something beautiful. As Jesus’ followers one of our prayers needs to be… “Lord help me to see those who I have formerly despised and feared as those whom you love, whom you have touched, whom you are drawing to yourself, and healing by your grace.”

As Christ’s followers, we can welcome into our community those who He is drawing to himself. (14)
When Jesus said, “Be made clean” he was using a technical term which means “to make ritually acceptable.”  After which “he ordered him to ‘Go…and show [himself] to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for [his] cleansing, for a testimony to them.”  Why?  Because Jesus not only wanted to heal this man physically, he wanted to mainstream him back into the community from which he had been ostracized. Make no mistake, Jesus had already welcomed him into his circle (when he touched him) but he also wanted to mainstream him into the larger community.  Unless the priest declared him ritually clean, he could not rejoin his friends and family or worship in the temple. 

Because the Gospels are very specific in naming the outcasts whom Jesus touched…like this leper, or the woman of Samaria, or the tax collectors and prostitutes he spent time with, we must not avoid naming those in our society who Jesus is calling us to move toward with Jesus’ compassion.  
  • There are the physical lepers: those who suffer from AIDS or other serious diseases, those who may feel ugly or unattractive, or those whose illnesses are so long-lasting that few want to care for them. 
  • There are the psychological lepers: those with mental illness or psychological disabilities, "about whom others make jokes, but for whom they make no time" (Father Roger Landry).
  • There are the economic lepers: the homeless or the destitute poor, those who have been shut off from society and the things most of the rest of us take for granted. 
  • There are the social lepers: those who have been bullied at school or harassed at work, who live in fear, or who feel completely alone; and those who have felt despised, and misunderstood because of their sexual identity…even to the point of taking their own lives.  
  • There are the racial lepers: those who are ostracized and excluded, depending upon where they live, because of skin color, ethnic background or immigrant status. 
  • Then there are the pedophiles, prostitutes, drug addicts, and death-row inmates, those who have committed very public sins, and those who think that their sins can never ever be forgiven.  
Our attitude to such persons should be like that of our Lord…who reached out and touched this man, and  then healed him.  Notice the sequence: Jesus did not choose to heal the man first, and then touch him.  No, he touched the man first...and then healed him!  That is, he first embraced him and welcomed him...and then he did the healing work that he alone can do. If you think your job is to fix people before they can be part of Jesus' community then you've got it backwards; because it is here in the grace-filled community of his followers that Jesus intends for people to experience acceptance and increasing wholeness, repentance and forgiveness, as His sons and daughters.

As those fearing disapproval we can seek instead God’s approval (15-16).  After Jesus healed this man the crowds increased, and “many [gathered] to hear him and to be cured of their diseases” (15).  But Luke tells us that Jesus did not remain among these crowds indefinitely but “would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (16).  Jesus knew that he must always be focused on the Father’s will…and not the approval of people.  He knew that very soon the religious leaders would begin to take offense at him, and even plot his death because of the things he was doing.  Instead of being afraid of them, he sought instead to be about the Father’s business. To begin to love the unlovable and touch the untouchable will inevitably bring the scorn of some and the approval of others, but Christ calls us to seek instead His kingdom and His righteousness.   In the same way, He invites those who have felt like outcasts to find their identity not in the approval or disapproval of others, but in their new life as His devoted disciples. 

I saw a documentary recently about the son of Kirk Smalley, 11 year old Ty,  a boy who was repeatedly harassed at school for two years because of his size.  I realize “bullying” has become a frequent topic of conversation these days and some may be tired of hearing about it…but I couldn’t ignore this story.  When Ty retaliated one day by fighting back he was suspended.  That’s when Ty, a week before he was to complete the 6th grade, decided to take his own life.  That tragedy changed the course of Kirk’s life.  Kirk Smalley’s mission is to go from school to school to tell his son’s story. He calls it “Stand for the Silent.”  He reminds students that bystanders witness 85% of the bullying in schools, but only intervene in 10% of the cases.   At one point he asked, “How many of you have been bullied?”  Many hands went up.  Kirk said to them, “I love you.  You are somebody.”  Then he asked a different question, “How many of you are bullies?”  One boy with his head bowed dared to raise his hand in that auditorium,dared to raise his hand before a man whose son lost all hope because of a bully like him.  Kirk looked at him in the eyes, and then said, “I love you.  You are somebody.”   I think Kirk knew that more than anything, that’s the message that boy and all those children, needed to hear.

When you and I say, “I love you, I welcome you, and I invite you to join me in following Jesus” it makes God’s love real, even to someone who has felt abandoned by God and by others…because it is the power of God’s grace and the message of his forgiveness that we need most.  It is the love of God that is able to draw us away from self-hatred and despair; and give us courage to love ourselves, love the unloved, and touch the untouchable. Here and now, our Lord who knew what it was to be “despised and rejected by others” invites us to receive the signs of his sacrifice for our sin and shame, and the power to touch others, no matter how untouchable, as he has touched us.

Lamb of God, as You have loved us, so may we love one another - especially those who feel forsaken, outcast, or oppressed by others.  By the power of Your Holy Spirit, we want to bless those who bear the burden of loneliness, grief, affliction, or unconfessed sin, who are tired of praying, asking, or waiting. May they know by our love that You have not forgotten them, that You are compassionate and gracious, and that they can come to You confidently.  As You reached out to touch the man with leprosy, help us to draw near to those who hurt with Your healing hands…hands that were stretched out upon the cross to bear our sin and shame, to take up our infirmities, and to carry our sorrows (Isaiah 53). Amen!