Sunday, April 28, 2013

In Search of the Good Life - Luke 6: 17-26

What is your dream of “the good life”?  Is it about money, fame, success…contentment, comfort?  This was an important question in Jesus’ day and ours as well.  Many suppose that the “Beatitudes” in Luke 6: 17-26 answer this question by offering a “how to guide” on the good life.  Strive to be poor, sad, hungry, and hated: then you’ll be blessed, and get the really big rewards from God.  Dallas Willard tells about a man who left the church because of the Beatitudes.  He had chosen a career in the military, and said to his mom that if being meek, poor, and sad was the ideal Christian life, he just couldn’t be that: "That's not me." (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 99).

In case you’re wondering, poverty and deprivation is not the ideal in scripture.  In Luke 1:52-53, Mary praises God for lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry.  In Acts 2: 43-47, Luke describes the church as a place where believers “had all things in common” and gave to one another “as any had need” (see Acts 4:34). If poverty and hunger is a sign of God’s favor, why try to alleviate it?

But if the Beatitudes are not meant to be a “how-to” guide to the Good Life, what are they?  We need to know…especially if we’re serious about experiencing the Good Life which he intends for us.  The key is the context of Jesus’ sermon:  Jesus has spent the entire night in prayer.  In the morning he chooses the Twelve who will carry on his mission, and then comes down with them, standing on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and an even bigger crowd of the curious. Among the crowds, Luke tells us, were people from all Judea, and the city of Jerusalem (17a). These were, of course, Jews, but there were also men and women who had traveled from the regions of Tyre and Sidon - “pagan” Gentile cities on the Mediterranean coast in what is modern Lebanon (17b). Luke says that they came for two reasons: They came “to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases” (18).  “Everyone in the crowd was trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”(19) That’s when Jesus stopped, looked up at them and began to teach them about the Kingdom they had just experienced. And this is what he tells them…

i. Jesus’ word to the hungry crowds: “Yours is the kingdom of God – through Me!”  20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 
Notice that Jesus did not say, “Blessed are you because you are poor and hungry and sad.  No, Jesus implies that you are blessed in the midst of and even despite your poverty, hunger and sadness. Why?  Because “Yours is the kingdom of God”…and you may enter it now through me regardless of your condition. This is the key to understanding the Beatitudes.  We are blessed not because we are miserable…we are blessed because God has come to us regardless of what condition we are in. In Jesus’ day and ours many assume, if you are poor or hungry or miserable or hated, that God must have abandoned you.  But the message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God has come near to such as these…to an unlikely mixture of Jews and Gentiles, the curious, the questioning, the poor, the hungry and the heartbroken… because no condition can exclude us from God’s merciful touch when we come to him with simple faith! 

Back in the 70’s something truly wonderful happened across the border from El Paso documented in the film Viva Cristo Rey.  It was Christmas, and Father Rick Thomas was leading Bible studies on both sides of the river.  They were doing outreach at the high school, in the prisons, running summer camps, and trying to reach out to needy people with food, clothing, and faith in Juarez.

A magazine writer describes how she was brought to the Juarez dump one day by Father Rick. “The smell and the flies were unbelievable. People lived there in cardboard and tin shacks. They spent their days sorting through garbage looking for salvageable or saleable goods, and their nights in either alcoholic or drug stupors...trying to forget the day. Early every Wednesday morning, people from the neighborhood and the suburbs came for Bible study and were inspired to give a banquet for the poorest people they knew.”

They decided to bring dinner on Christmas to the people who lived in the Juarez dump. They scraped together what they could, loaded a few cars and headed out on Christmas morning with a small meal for 150 people— all they could afford. When they arrived they found that a fight was about to break out between two rival groups over a piece of dump territory, but they were able to negotiate a temporary peace for the dinner. 300 people gathered. Frank Alarcon noticed that as the women were serving ham from a pickup tailgate sliced and sliced, the ham grew no smaller; and everybody got at least one of the 75 burritos they made. When everyone had eaten seconds and thirds, they were offered the leftovers and bagfuls disappeared into the shacks. On the way back to El Paso they were in a state of shock, sure that they had seen a miracle. The next week they found that the summer camp they used for the kids was being sold. A few weeks later, someone deeded them a small ranch in Arizona… on which they found water on the first drilling...and the story goes on from there. Small acts of faith and tiny steps of obedience opened more and more doors for God to show his power and glory.

The message of Jesus is that he comes to us in our poverty and in our hunger and in our sadness…whether it is physical hunger or spiritual hunger…whether it is a lack of food on the table, a job, a friend, or just self-confidence and joy.  He comes to us with his grace, his love, and his healing touch to all who receive Him.

ii. Jesus’ word to his sidelined followers: “Yours are the rewards of heaven, rejoice!”  (22-23) 
Now Jesus turns to those among his followers who have felt hated or excluded for the sake of Christ.  22 "Blessed are you when people hate you…exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven….”

We pride ourselves for being a “tolerant” society…yet even in this country we can feel excluded or sidelined for our faith in God.  Scientists like Francis Collins have taken a lot of criticism for openly declaring their Christian convictions.  We’re reminded over and over again in academia that “there are no absolute truths, except the truth that there are no absolute truths!”  Nevertheless, Jesus says that we are blessed.  
  • Some of you come from families in which you are the first or only person to trust in Christ…and you’ve been subtly or openly criticized for that faith.  Blessed are you when you make it known that you are my follower… regardless of what people may think of you.   
  • Some of you have tried to live according to a different moral standard than the world.  Blessed are you when you are made fun of because you are modest or are teased for wanting to reserve the life-creating act for a life-sustaining marriage. 
  • Some of you have tried to go against the tendency to make superficial judgments about others.  Blessed are you when you refuse to put down that awkward guy with the rest of your friends…but share your lunch with him instead.

In God’s kingdom those who are rejected and sidelined because of Him are nevertheless blessed by Him and have the promise of heavenly rewards as well.  In his book What Good Is God?, author Philip Yancey writes about the 2004 Ukraine election in which the reformer Victor Yushchenko challenged the entrenched party and nearly died for it. On election-day the exit polls showed Yushchenko with a comfortable lead, but through outright fraud, the government had reversed those results. That evening the state-run television reported, "Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated." However, government authorities had not taken into account one feature of Ukrainian television: on the small screen insert in the lower right-hand corner of the television screen a brave woman gave a different message in sign language for the hearing impaired. "I am addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine. Don't believe what they say. They are lying, and I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yushchnko is our President!"  No one in the studio understood her radical message.  Inspired by her courage, deaf people led what became known as the Orange Revolution. They text-messaged their friends on mobile phones about the fraudulent elections, and soon other journalists took courage … and likewise refused to broadcast the party line….a million people wearing orange flooded the capital city of Kiev to demand new elections. The government finally buckled under the pressure, consenting to new elections, and this time Yushchenko won.

When I think of that bold translator, I think of the Holy Spirit who is quietly reminding us each day, and especially when we feel sidelined or ridiculed for our faith that the One who was excluded and hated and reviled is there too, and none of these things can separate you from his indestructible love for you.   And finally,
iii. Jesus’ word to the careless rich: “Yours is not the good life, not yet!” (24-26)  24 "But woe to you who are rich…who are full now…who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep….”
Now Jesus turns his attention to those who have full bank accounts, full stomachs, comfortable lives and the world’s applause but who care only about themselves.  These are the careless rich.  The key to understanding Jesus is v. 24: “Woe to you who are rich because “you have received your consolation.” The Greek word is apecete (apechete) and it means “to acknowledge receipt of full payment.” 

In other words, those who live only for material gain as their driving ambition have received their full payment.  Barclay puts it this way: “If you set your hearts only on the things that the world values, you will get them, but that is all you will get.”  In other words, “You’ve had it!”  

Lee Iacoca the former CEO of Chrysler Corporation, writes in Fortune magazine: “What do guys like me do who’ve had the world by the string?  I got some notoriety... and made some money in the car business... Now that chapter has closed, and I don’t think much about cars anymore.  You can plan everything in life, and then the roof caves in on you because you haven’t done enough thinking about who you are and what you should do with the rest of your life.”  In his book, Straight Talk, he writes: “Here I am in the twilight years of my life, still wondering what it’s all about.... I can tell you this, fame and fortune is for the birds.”

We may not be poor in material things…but we can still be poor in spirit; and that describes so many today.  We want to “win it all,” but we don’t have a clue what “it” --- is all about.  The answer is not to become poor so that we can earn the really big rewards from God…but to become rich in faith and a never-ending life of generosity toward others!  It stands to reason that if God comes near those who are poor, hungry, and cast out as Jesus has done… then those who are his followers will do no less.  We will respond out of gratitude to God by using our vast resources of wealth, education, and influence as God would do.

One day Steve Reynolds of World Vision got a call from headquarters while working in Ethiopia at the height of the famine, asking if he would host a young European couple who wanted to visit and learn firsthand what was happening. Steve was willing to help. The couple, Ali and Paul stayed almost a month, rolling up their sleeves to help and showing tireless compassion. Paul and Ali finally went home but not before they had committed to do whatever they could to help. You may know Paul Hewson better by his nickname, Bono. Since that trip in 1985 the lead singer of the Irish rock group U2, has traveled the globe as an advocate for the poorest of the poor, lobbying members of parliaments and congress; persuading governments to appropriate billions in aid.
But in a later interview with Christianity Today, Bono specifically mentioned the key influence of Steve Reynolds. Bono said, "All of this started for me in Ethiopia in the mid-'80s, when my darling wife and I went out there as children, really, to see and to work in Africa."  Condensed from Richard Stearns, Unfinished (Thomas Nelson, 2013), pp. 152-154

Steve Reynolds and Paul Hewson, an unknown missionary and a rock star…God inspired both to do crazy things for his Kingdom…and he will do the same in us.  Like (1) going hungry for 30 hours to raise money for the poor like our students did this weekend or (2) standing up for an awkward kid in school, or (3) refusing to be quiet about our faith in Jesus even when others make fun of us.  (4) Proclaiming the good news, (5) Bringing healing to the sick, (6) Sharing our abundance with those in need, (6) Comforting those who mourn, and (7) Standing with those who have fallen…we’ll do more than dream about the good life, we’ll live it…because his Good Life is living in you and me.   

King Jesus, open our eyes that we might see the blessed life, the truly good life which is available to us regardless of our present condition or situation through faith in You, a life which does not trust in our own wealth and power or the illusions of control, or the idea that we can “have it all” without You. For apart from You, nothing we possess has any lasting value. By the power of Your Spirit, help us to enter now into Your blessed Eternal Life, rich in grace and in generosity toward others,  steadfast in the face of every trial, and assured of the blessings of heaven. All glory and honor and praise be to Your name!  Amen

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Called & The Committed - Luke 6: 12-17; 9: 1-6

The other day I was driving down Centinella when I saw a sign in front of a neighborhood 7-Eleven.  It said, “Believe in Something Bigger.” My eyes widened with curiosity as I read the fine print and snapped a picture. That’s when I saw the word “Powerball” – the latest California lottery gimmick.  It’s amazing to me that the human capacity to believe in something truly bigger…like the fall of the Berlin Wall or sending a man to the moon, or the end of world hunger, let alone believing in the goodness and greatness of God, could be compared to believing that your one ticket in 175 million could be the lottery jackpot.  

In Luke 6: 12-17 we read about twelve men who were drawn to something, or rather Someone, truly bigger…One whose vision of the Kingdom of God, of justice, mercy, and love, of victory over evil, death, and hell, was so compelling that they left everything to join the first community of his followers…and together they changed the course of history.  To go back to the beginning and understand what that community of Jesus’ original followers was like is to know what we should be like if we are to fulfill our ancient calling.

i. It was a community that knew its Creator. 6:12 Now during those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles:

After a night of prayer Jesus made the decision to form from among his many disciples a close knit community and to teach and train them to replicate his ministry. Mark put it this way: He “called those whom he desired to be with him.”  When we say the word “church” today, most people think of a building or a religious institution; but the word “church” is much more personal than that… it is derived from the Greek word kyriakon meaning “those who belong to the Lord.”  The church was not invented by Jesus’ followers as an afterthought when he died.  The church was a community created by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.  It was comprised of (1) disciples (mathetes) which means "learners, students, and apprentices"; and (2) apostles (apostolos) meaning “messengers, delegates, those sent on a mission.” We read in Acts 1: 21-26 that the apostles had been witnesses of Jesus from his baptism and were now called to join in his mission. 

But the key is to understand that Jesus called them to be with him, to learn from him, to share life with him.  He calls us not just to master his teaching, which is what the students of Rabbis typically did, but to the imitation of his life.  It’s something to think that as Jesus was praying about who would join him in his ministry and proclaim his message, that he was also thinking about you and me! Which is why, in John 17: 20, Jesus prays not only for his own disciples but for “those who will believe in me through their word!”  A lot of people today are in search of a good church.  But our job should not only be to find a good church but to know the One who created the church and chose us to make him known!   In the one case, the church is the place where I can get my needs met, in the other the church is where we meet the One who knows what I need, and join him in his mission. 

ii. It was a community of unlikely members. 6:14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. 

The gospels state that Jesus called Twelve as apostles. This is not an arbitrary number.  In Scripture, 12 is a family number.  Jacob (Israel) had 12 sons…and those 12 became the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel.  When the N. Kingdom was destroyed in 721 BC, ten tribes were lost.  The remaining 2 formed the S. Kingdom, the ancestors of today’s Jews.  When Jesus called 12 to follow him, it signified Jesus’ hope for the restoration of the community of God’s people. In addition to these 12 men, the gospels name at least 3 women who followed Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Suzanna, “and many others who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8: 1-3). All this is to say that when Jesus called his followers he intended to form a family (Matt. 12: 46-50). He formed a family (not a corporation, not a mortgage investment company, not a political party, not a religious institution) but a close knit group of brothers and sisters with whom he ate, slept and shared his life.

But like any family…there was great variety among them.  Who could have predicted that Jesus would have chosen as the original leaders of his community such an unlikely group of diverse and even antagonistic personalities? Churches often look for what Greg Ogden once called "the omnicopetent professional" (The New Reformation). They're looking for someone with great communication skills, pastoral sensitivity, administrative excellence and though the ability to walk on water is not required…it is preferred.  It’s interesting to see that Jesus did not choose for his first followers a group of rabbis or trained religious professionals - people like me.  Instead he chose unschooled men like Peter and his brother Andrew who had a fishing business with James and John.  Matthew, as a tax collector worked on the Sabbath and extorted money from the people…not exactly the resume of a spiritual leader, let alone the writer of a gospel.  Amazingly, this man was called to follow Jesus along with Simon the zealot, an anti-Roman revolutionary and an ultra nationalist. What a strange group to lead a movement.   
We’ve noted the diversity of our own church before, the variety of political and economic and racial backgrounds that make up St. John’s…but it’s really the unity of our church that should amaze us more, the forbearance, the endurance of our commitment to one another.  Such unlikely unity is a gift: it is only possible because of Jesus. 

ii. It was a community of redeemed sinners. 6:17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  Jesus came down, Luke tells us.  He came down from heaven to earth to walk among us, and now he comes down again from a mountain where he was in prayer with the Father to walk with his disciples, and teach them his ways.  He comes down to stand on a level place with us...the ones he came to save.  He is the one "who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God something to be grasped...he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross" (Phil. 2: 6-8).  

When we consider the names of Jesus’ new family and the stories behind those names, we’re reminded that he came down to call sinners to repentance and faith in Him.  Peter is always named first because he was first in faith…and first to fall on his face…denying he knew the Lord three times!  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were nicknamed sons of Thunder because of their fiery tempers. Bartholomew (Nathanael) tended to say whatever was on his mind. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:47) Matthew the tax collector was despised by his own people as a ‘sinner.’  Thomas was the pessimist and skeptic of the group.  Judas Iscariot was the dishonest treasurer, and betrayer. 

Failure and forgiveness will always be the twin companions of Jesus’ church.  There will never be a time when we do not need them; never a time this side of heaven when we are free from failure or the need to forgive. The grace of God is the most transforming and healing power in the universe. Because of grace, Mathew began using his gifts to gather gospel material instead of taxes.  James & John saw their pride and anger transformed into compassion and humility. Thomas, discovered the reasonableness of faith. Simon the Zealot joined Christ’s revolution of love. Peter knew forgiveness after failure.   

Now, twenty centuries later, we are still called to love because he first loved us; and to forgive because we have been forgiven.  I once preached for an AP search committee and then met with the Senior Pastor.  He asked me with a smile: Are you a Team Player?  I sincerely answered, “Yes” and explained why.  To which he replied shortly, “Well, I’m not.”  “Oh." I was pretty sure that was the end of the interview! After speaking with a staff member I learned that this pastor liked to breed competition between his staff members rather than teamwork to encourage productivity.  It seemed to me that fear and intimidation was the motivating work environment he was trying to create. 

The foundation of Jesus’ community was not fear or intimidation, but grace and apprenticeship to Him.  It was Jesus who told the story of the prodigal son, forgiven and welcomed home by his father, to illustrate God’s love.  It was Jesus who said to the adulteress, “I do not condemn you…go, and sin no more.” It was Jesus who said, “I did not come for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.” The church is sometimes accused of being “hypocritical.”  In truth there is some hypocrisy in everyone of us.  The word “hypocrite” which was the name given to an actor who wore a mask over his face in ancient Greek plays…accurately describes how many of us attempt to cover up the true person inside.  The church was designed by Jesus to be a place where actors and actresses can come and finally remove those masks, admit their faults and find grace and healing.  

iv. It was a community with breathtaking orders. 9:1 Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 

Just as Jesus called the twelve and gave them power and authority over evil and disease and sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God…so he has sent us. When the Secretary of State is sent on a diplomatic mission to negotiate a peace treaty or meet with heads of state, the Secretary represents the President and acts on behalf of and with the power and authority of the President.   Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Just as Jesus was sent by the Father on a mission to redeem this world, so he sends us into the world as his representatives.

Earlier I said that the word “apostle” means "one who is sent on a mission."  Now it would be easy to assume that only apostles go on missions… just as many assume that ministry is what we pay the pastor or missionaries to do. In fact, the apostles were the leaders of the mission…but not the only members of the mission team.  In Luke 10: 1-2 we read that Jesus sent out the 70 to do exactly what he tells his apostles to do here. So….there are no disciples without a mission!

Now when Jesus gave the Twelve a mission, he also gave them the power and authority to accomplish it.  People today are hungry for power and authority… for fame, influence, prestige.  The brothers that bombed the Boston marathon last week may have been seeking some kind of power and authority through violence and terror.  But this is not the kind of power that Jesus gives.  His power and authority are given in order that we might confront evil not do evil, heal the sick not make people sick, and proclaim the good news of the Kingdom…where what God wants done is done.

I was talking to a guy at the gym who has become disillusioned with people.  He doesn’t want to be part of a worshiping community because people have hurt him and disappointed him.  I’ve been trying to give him hope…that the community of God’s people is filled with imperfect people, but its also a place where we can experience forgiveness and find healing relationships.  He’s part of my mission.  Jesus invited us to be part of God’s advancing kingdom on earth and beyond through faith in Him.  Friends, our neighbors need, our co-workers need, our friends at school need what we’ve been given by grace through faith alone.  

The other day I heard a professor of choral music encourage singers at Palms Middle School with these words: “We have many people in our lives who can help us…mechanics to fix our cars, doctors to treat our aches and pains, attorneys to help us with legal problems, policemen to fight crime; but who do we have in our lives to help take care of the inside?  That’s your job,” he said.  “You are the artists and singers and music makers.  You help us to take care of the inside.  You are the “gardeners of the soul.”  I couldn't believe my ears. I walked down to him afterward and said, “As someone who cares about the inside of people...about the soul, I wanted to thank you for that.”  

Friends, regardless of what kind of work we do, Christ has called us to care for the inside of people as well as the outside, to commit ourselves to Him as the healers and proclaimers of kingdom hope, to encourage those around us to believe in the One whose grace is bigger than our sin and shame...and whose resurrection life is bigger and stronger than death itself.  This is the job of the church…not just a place that we go to, but a community that goes in His risen name. 

Risen Lord, we thank you for calling us to share life with you in the community of your people.  We also acknowledge that with community come the inevitable irritations of real life together.  Therefore, help us not only to confess our sins to you, but to ask forgiveness from those we have hurt; to practice the same forbearance that you have shown us.  Master, as much as we love this spiritual family and desire for it to grow ever deeper, may it not become an idol.  Forgive us when the familiar has blinded us to the unfamiliar, the unloved, and the uncommitted who are outside our church walls.  Help us to warmly welcome into our hearts and homes, and this church, those who need your illuminating truth and redeeming love as much as we do.  Amen!