Sunday, February 24, 2013

Good Grief!


A Sermon Based Upon Luke 13: 31-35
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Lent 2, February 24, 2013

“How often have I desired to gather our children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  (Luke 13: 31-35).

On June 16th, 2012, Nik Wallenda walk into history on a hire wire as he walked over the rushing waters of Niagara Falls without a safety net.   Others have walked over Niagrara River, but no one has ever succeeded in walking 200 feet above the falls itself.   When Nik reached the other side custom agents were waiting on him.  “Passport, please!” agents demanded.  Nik handed them his passport.   “What is the purpose of your visit, sir?”  Nik ansnwered, “To inspire people around the world!”  (http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/niagara-falls-high-wire-walk-nik-wallenda-fulfills/story?id=16584774).

Most of us would never dream of trying a feat like that, but the truth, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, is that sometimes our lives are filled with high tension, and can be like walking a tightrope.   To put it another way,  the music of our lives is often played out on the high tension strings of life.  Our lives are made up of many pushes and pulls in many directions, demanding our constant attention, time and effort.  

Several years ago, when my Father was dying of aggressive thyroid cancer, the Hospice worker handed the family some information to help prepare us for his impending death.   Part of the information that was shared with us is that my Father was now living in the pull of two worlds.  In the next days he would be making a transition from one world to focusing on the next.   He would pay less and less attention to what was going on in this world.  He wouldn’t care about what was on TV, the news, or even what was going on down the street.  The transition to the next life would be gaining more and more of his energy and attention.  We needed to understand this and help him make the journey as comfortable as possible.

It is not only at death that our lives must deal with the tensions of life and death; between what is and what will be, between what should be verses what really is, or between the life we want and the life we get.  When we don’t get the life we want, or we have to let go of the life we have, we grieve and suffer loss.  This is part of our lives, living in the world where we have much joy, which one day we must surrender to the powers that are out of our control. 

One thing that is most profound about the Bible is that tells us the truth about the world we all have to face.  The story of Jesus is also a story of a life lived in great tension, great grief and great sorrow.  Early Christians believed that Jesus fulfilled the ancient prophet’s understanding of suffering servant who would bear the sorrows of his people.  The prophet did not believe that this vicarious suffering would get rid of all our suffering, nor that he would show us how to live beyond all grief and pain, but the prophet believed that this suffering one would enter directly into the world we all know and experience too often, becoming a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” just like us.   The only difference is that he would not only suffer with us, but he would also suffer for us, bearing our sin and grief upon himself like a blameless lamb without a blemish (Isaiah 53.3).  

As Christians we understand this language as the language of our salvation and our hope of redeeming the grief we know, by the Savior who came to suffer, grieve, and pay the price for sin.  But the world still wonders and so do some of us.   We wonder about what good is all this talk about grief bearing, shared suffering, and sin carrying.  What good does it do?  And what good is the grief we have to endure in life that God doesn’t take away from us?  Why do we still have to live in such a world filled with the high wire tensions of good and evil, joy and pain, and right and wrong?  Remember the question in that popular 70’s song, when Burt Bacharach once asked: “What’s it all about Alfie?    That song still asks what many still wonder when they find themselves caught in the high tension moments of life: 
“What's it all about, alfie?  Is it just for the moment we live?
 What's it all about when you sort it out, alfie? Are we meant to take more than we give
 Or are we meant to be kind? And if only fools are kind, alfie, Then I guess it's wise to be cruel.  
And if life belongs only to the strong, alfie, What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there's a heaven above, alfie, I know there's something much more, Something even non-believers can believe in.  I believe in love, alfie.  Without true love we just exist, alfie. Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, alfie.  When you walk let your heart lead the way, And you'll find love any day, alfie, alfie.”

Using Burt Bacharach’s question, “What’s it all about?”, this text requires that we ask this of Jesus.  “What’s it all about, Jesus?”  Our text contains two great tensions playing out in the life of Jesus.  Do you see them.  On the one side, Jesus is being hunted down by Herod and others.  Strangely enough, some of those Pharisees, Jesus often found himself up against are warning him that Herod is out to ‘kill him’.  This is why Jesus is always on the move.  His messages of truth were getting him into more and more trouble.  Even his hometown people tried to throw him off a cliff.   Now, Herod wants Jesus dead to.  “Go tell that Fox for me”, Jesus says, that I haven’t finished my work, just yet.    We all know what’s coming.  We know the grief that the world will give Jesus, but we are not there, just yet. 

But the other tension in the story another kind of grief; not only the grief the world is giving Jesus, but it’s the grief Jesus has for the world.  We see it revealed as the focal point of this passage in verse 34: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets an stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  This very word from Jesus about the grief God has over this world, our lives and the situation we all must face every day, is the major headline of this text.   We all know more than we want to know about the grief we must be willing to face in order to have life, but what do we know about the grief God has to face.  In this text, Jesus has not only come to bear our grief, but he’s also come to share about God’s grief.

Before we try wrestle with the meaning of God’s grief over this world, let stop and reflect for a moment about what this means.   Having a mental picture of Jesus weeping or God grieving is not what we normally carry around in our head.  When I once took my G.I. Joe doll and crafted into a crucifix, with Jesus bleeding and hanging on a cross, my Father looked at me and said Jesus is now resurrected and no longer hanging on that cross.  I wanted my Father to bless my effort, but evidently he did not what that image to have the final.  He wanted me to see Jesus as now victorious over sin, not still suffering under sin.  I got the picture.

But the image of a grieving and suffering God is still important, even though we do live in the hope of resurrection.   The image of God grieving is important because there is still a lot of pain, suffering and grief in this world.   The glorious resurrection of Jesus did not get rid of the great tension in all our lives.  Even though Jesus lives, we still suffer, we still hurt, we still suffer loss, and we still must grieve over how things are.   Whatever the gospel wants us to know about the good news, the good news must still be preached in a world of very bad news, which still grieves God too. 

But this image of God grieving over what goes on in this world is not the usual one we think about.  I think Julie Adkins is right to say that the God we often carry around is our heads and hearts is more like the God Jonathan Edwards imagined in his great sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?”  In that sermon preached in the early 18th century, the graduate of Yale, spoke of how people are like insects compared to God.  We are much like spiders, spinning our webs to construct our world, but we are oblivious to the fact that our lives are really in God’s hands.  In this life, we are all much closer to fire of Hell than we realize, Edwards preached.   It is God who holds us up by a thread, and if we sin, we could make God angry enough to drop us into that fire so we will fry in the flames.  That’s a very powerful, unforgettable image.  It’s no wonder that when people first heard it they were falling out of the pews and running down the aisles to be saved.   With this image of an angry God, Edwards literally scared hell out of a lot of people. 

There is certainly a truth to be understood in his image of God’s anger about sin and the threat of hell.  Our lives are much more dependent upon God’s grace than we could ever realize.  But while there is truth that God is angry about sin, it is not good theology, says Jesus, to carrying around in our head that God is angry with us.  God is hurt, God grieves, and God even suffers with us in our sin and for our sin, and God will even hold us accountable for our sin, even allowing us the free will to kill preachers, prophets, which will bring judgment, hell, death and destruction to us, if we persist and are unwilling to change.  Jesus wants us to know that God is much less angry with us, than he grieves over us.  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets I sent…  How often I have desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”   It is only after we read those tragic words, “and you were not willing!” that we finally come to the terrible pronouncement of judgment: “See, your house is left to you.”    Some translations, add the word “desolate” to clarify the meaning that, ‘what you get is what you deserve.’  This is not what makes God angry enough to get you, but it is what makes God grieve over what we humans continue to do to ourselves.”

Thus, the first truth of this passage is that Jesus wants us all to see how and why God grieves over us.  Just as God grieves over the impossible situation of self-destruction coming to Jerusalem, God still grieves over the evil, the sin, and the situation of our world as we too, bear the weight of what we too often do to ourselves.   Just as Jerusalem should have lived up to its name, city of shalom, or peace; it didn’t.  Instead it had become a city of pain and provocation.  But this is not just the history of Jerusalem, even up to this day, this is the unfortunate story of our world, even today.  We all live is a world, like the garden of Eden, which has so much promise, so much potential and so much possibility; but to get to this we still have to deal with so much pain, so much heartache, so much stress and so much struggle.  We all know how much hurt and pain is involved in the possibility and potential giving birth to life, and God does too.    How God ‘wants’ it to be different, to gather all his children together and to protect them all.  God is so willing to bring about a different world, but the world is not willing, and so we keep grieving, and so does God. 

During the terrible Nazi time, when so many innocent Jewish people were suffering and dying unjustly in the incinerators and concentration camps,  Elie Wiesel recalls in his book, The Night, how one innocent child did not quite die quickly and continued to hang, and hang, and then struggled and cried out for help, and all those others waiting for their own death, had to listen to his cries.  Finally, in that dark place, someone was heard to cry out, “Where is God?  Where is God?  If there is a God in heaven, where is he?  Why won’t he come to help us?   After a deafening silence, another desperately and perhaps even sarcastically answered, “There is your God, there is your God, he is dying on the gallows!” 

This image of God suffering and grieving with us is an image Jesus wants us to hold firmly in our minds.  While God does get angry over our sin, God is more angry and hurting for us, than he is angry at us.   This is the image Jesus wants to put into the hearts and minds of the people of Jerusalem and it is still the primary image of God that we should carry around with us.  God grieves over the evil that happens, like the evil at Columbine, Nickel Mines, Aurora, or Sandy Hook.  God grieves over the evil that happens in our own worlds, in our families, our communities and even in our churches.  If God is angry, it is not because he is angry at us.  He is a grieving God, who is still ‘acquainted with our grief’ and ‘bears our sorrows’.  He sees what is, and it grieves him as much or more than it grieves us.

The second important message about God’s grief, which we should take from Jesus, is not only about the evil that humans do to themselves and to each other, but God also grieves over the good we don’t do for ourselves or for each other.   What we must understand is that Jerusalem has not only become a city so bent on evil that it will kill anybody who tries to bring change, it has also become city completely unwilling to change.    This is graphically at the center of Jesus image, when he grieves, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, ….how I would gather your children like a hen gathers and protects her own, but you are, in a lack of a better word, ‘unwilling!’   It is this ‘unwillinginess’ accept the truth that brings God great grief.  It is not just what people do wrong, but it’s also our unwillinginess to change and do what needs to be done.       

Several years ago, when I was a pastor in Shelby, we had a missionary couple come and speak to our congregation.  They had spent 30 years plus on the mission field and were now back in the U.S. to retire from their work.  I wanted to asked them one question: “What is the difference in churches of America now, than churches you 30 years ago.  What difference to you see?  They both answered with one word: “repentance”.  They said, we do not feel any real seriousness about change, repentance or about sin, which we used to know in the churches.  

We certainly do see reflected in much of our culture, as well as in our churches, we see a very stubborn resistance to any form of challenge or change that appears from any kind of differing point of view.   Whether it be about differing religious viewpoints, differing political viewpoints, or differing perspectives or lifestyles, we, it is becoming more the rule, than the exception, that we will be intolerant of each other.   We live in a world of growing extremes, impossible compromise, and dog eat dog politics.   Where all could lead us, is the same place it lead Jerusalem, to a place where both religion, politics and community were so different from each other than all where ‘unwilling’ to change to help the other or in the name of God.   Our unwillinginess to change quickly leads to an inability to change, and that will, in the end, lead to a world situation that grieves God and will bring grief to us all.   Without a willinginess and openness to hear, to understand, to accept, to repent or to be with and for each other instead of against each other, we end up in a city or a world that has no hope.  It is our constant ‘unwillingness’ to change for good, for God and for love, that still grieves God.

The final message about God’s grief is the strangest of all---at least it is to those of us who believe and trust in God.  In this final angle of Jesus word about God’s grief, we must finally face not only a God who grieves over the evil in the world, and the God who grieves over the good and needful things we are unwilling to do, but Jesus also wants us to imagine the strangest picture of God of all.  We are asked to imagine that there is something that God grieves over because can’t do it, at least not yet.  It is much easier to believe in a God who is able to fry us all in Hell than to imagine a God who has his hands tied when it comes to dealing with all this grief we have to face in this world---the suffering, the pain, the evil and of course, death.   The very last person most of us would want to trust, is the one who appears powerless instead of all-powerful, isn’t it?   What good would it do to imagine there is something that God grieves about because he can’t do anything about it?  What kind of God is it, who has the power and knows what needs to happen, but does not make life turn out differently than it does?   
It is the greatest question of our faith, isn’t it?  It he right there at the middle of our faith, suffering on the cross, unwilling to save his own son, that Jesus also had to accept.   “My God., My God, why have your forsaken me?”   This is the feeling and the question none of us can fully answer and don’t want to have to face, but we will.  Someone put this question this way: How can a God who is all powerful also be all loving, when he lets all this evil continue.   Why doesn’t this God who loves us, who has all power, honor and glory-- why doesn’t he do something different?   Why does life have to seem as if God has forsaken us?

If we are honest, none of us who believe in God know the full answer such a question.  When people suffer and when we suffer, sometimes the best answer is to be silent, to wait, to hold on, and to have faith.   Job didn’t know the answer to his suffering, and God even told Job that if he was told the answer, he still couldn’t understand it.   Jesus does not give us all the answers about evil, sin, and suffering either.   What Jesus tells us is all Jesus can tell us, for now.    What Jesus tells us, is that God grieves and has the power to make turn out different, as he has the power to protect us.  Just like a mother hen, God has the will and the power to protect his children.   He has this power to gather us together and shield us from so much evil, but most are unwilling to come to God in this way.  This is what grieves God the most. 

But this truth begs one final question: What kind of power does a hen have against a fox, against a hawk, an eagle or against a hungry raccoon?   Of course, the hen does not have any power to stop the predators from coming and taking her children, unless the chicks run to her for cover.   But if they will come to her, she will fight to protect them, even to her own death.   Why would a mother hen do something like this?  What kind of power is this, really?  It is not the power that will stop everything bad from happening, but it is still the power that makes life worth living, and the power that turns the worst grief into grief that we too can bear.  This is the power that Burt Bacharach sung about to Alfie.  It is the power that caused Jesus to weep and grieve over Jerusalem.  It is the power that God has change us all, and this world too, if we will come to him.  This is the greatest power that still transforms the worst the world can put against us---the power of God’s perfect love.   Amen.      
  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Devil We Know


Sermon based upon Luke 4: 1-13
By Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
First Sunday of Lent, February 17, 2013

After the Revolutionary War, General George Washington was so loved by the American people that there were popular movements to crown him king.  Some people tried to privately seduce him with all the allurements of power.  “You can be both president and general of the army”, they said.  

But even as his popularity continued to rise, Washington made the decision in 1783 to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.  He did so because he believed that military power belonged to the citizenry, not to the generals.  Washington’s hands shook as he read his prepared speech to the Continental Congress, and people wept openly. The speech he made was a decisive moment for the new American republic, a moment which defined what the new nation was going to be.

The Washington Post told this story because the state of Maryland recently unveiled the original manuscript of this very famous speech (See the article by William Wan, "Maryland Unveils the Page That Began a New Chapter,"The Washington Post, February 19, 2007, 1).  It was powerful speech made in a because Washington was a powerful man.  No doubt, before making this speech to relinquish his military powers, Washington must have struggled long and hard with his own personal desires and ambitions.  He probably knew he could fill the role of both general and president better than anyone else.   But his renunciation of all that power shows us something else that was just as mighty about the character of our first president.  We see his power to resist the greatest temptation---the temptation to power.

THE TEMPTATION WE ALL KNOW
The whole idea of ‘temptation’ seems like childish, medieval nonsense to some.  These days, people prefer to speak of ‘inordinate dysfunction’ or ‘inappropriate desires’ rather than use the word ‘temptation’.   If we speak at all about being tempted, the word is used only in a metaphorical, light-hearted manner like saying we are ‘tempted’ to indulge in a rich dessert or to purchase an expensive electronic devise.   As Lisa Kenkeremath has said, “we worry more about expanding our waistlines or expending our pocketbooks than we care about the health of our souls.”  In a market, money oriented culture like ours, where nothing is gained unless people spend what they should be saving, when greed rather than creed makes the world go around, it gets harder and harder to talk about sin and temptation.  

However, it is against the grain of this culture that we, the church of Jesus Christ, must continue to insist that both temptation and sin are real.   These words describe realities that are not going away.  The traditional disciplines of the Lenten season, today being the first Sunday in Lent, are a good counter-message, even offering us in a church a counter-discipline against a culture that consistently lies to us that ‘anything goes’; or that ‘we can live any way we wish want’, or that ‘the sky is the limit’, no matter how deep we fall into debt. 

Several years ago, I became pastor of a fairly affluent church.  One of the very first social events I was invited to was a party to introduce me to a way to make more money.  As the TV commercial says, “Everyone wants more cash, right?”  Ironically, the baby in that commercial speaks with more wisdom that most realize when that ‘babe’ says “no”.  “Out of the mouth of babes”, Scripture says.  Well, in that church it was also ironic that the church that appeared to have so much money, more than any other church I’d ever been a part of, was still captivated by having ‘more cash’.  That’s what the party I was invited to was about.  They were even hoping I would join them in trying to acquire more cash.  It was supposed to happen through one of those ‘pyramid’ schemes, but they were very careful not to call it that, since that was illegal.  People had figured out a way around that.  But what they had not figured out is what happens to people who are always bent on having more, spending more, gaining more, and who seem to have everything except one thing-- they never ever seem to have enough.  Interestingly, it wasn’t too many years later that the deacon who invited me to the part had to filed for bankruptcy.

We don’t like to talk about it, but we are all tempted, and we are all tempted in different ways with different things.  Some things that tempt a few of us will not tempt the rest of us, and some of the things that tempt most of us, will not tempt a few of us.  There is no universal rule about temptation, except that somehow, someway, we will all be tempted and need to resist temptation.

In early January, the Today Show interviewed Ken Linder, a life coach who has written a book on “Conquering Your “Killer Emotions”. (a polite way to speak of human temptation the ‘emotions’ people have when they kill, themselves and others).  Linder said that human ‘emotions’ can be difficult to control.  While he was an undergrad at Harvard, he saw “very intelligent people do some really stupid, self-destructive things.”  “In the process,” he continued, “they destroyed themselves and the very bright future ahead of them.” 

The illustration he used next was what really caught my attention.   He said that there is no way that General David Petraeus would have given into his emotions like he did, had he realized the full consequences of his actions.  While I agree that Petraeus wasn’t thinking clearly, I don’t think we can say he didn’t realize there was a price to pay.  That’s how ‘temptation’ works.  Temptation does not deny that there is a price to be paid, even a high price, but it fools you into thinking that what you get will be worth the price you will have to pay.  That is exactly how you and I can be fooled by the power of temptation.

THE TEMPTATION JESUS KNEW
Whether we want to admit it or not, we all face temptations.  This is a given.  It may be one of the big temptations of money, power or sex, or some other smaller, almost unnoticed form.  What we all need to know is that our character, our faith, and our future, depend on the ability and discipline we need to resist the many lures and traps that can wreak havoc into our lives. 

The three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all tell us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, right after the heavens were opened and Jesus was declared God’s beloved Son, and even before he had a chance to dry off, we read how the Spirit led him, or as the original language says, “drove him” into the wilderness to be subjected to a series of temptations. 

I have never been that exact wilderness where Jesus was up in the Judean hills, but I’ve been in many wilderness places, both physically, emotionally or spiritually.  Perhaps you’ve been in some of those scary, desolate places too.  It is in those lonely, trying and deathly silent places in life, where God seems distant or hidden, that strange things get whispered into our ears.  Could you dare imagine what the wind might whisper in your ears after days in a desert where you’ve had no food and no company?  Scripture says that Jesus was there forty days and it was at his weakest moment, at the very end when he was most depleted and vulnerable that the tempter came to him with three tests of temptation.

WHAT WILL FEED YOU?  The first temptation to simply to eat something. Why not? He was weak from hunger.  Even a messiah has to eat.  But what seemed like a good enough reason was not good enough for Jesus.  His ‘meat’ or ‘food’ was something few know enough about.  You don’t live to eat, you eat to live.  For Jesus especially, giving in to his physical appetites in this moment, as he starts his ministry, meant using God’s power to meet his own need, rather than to rely on God’s mercy and strength.  The devil attacked Jesus right at the point of his own human needs.   It was not ‘wrong’ for Jesus to need  bread, but this was a ‘test’ about what would be most important in Jesus’ life and ministry: Would Jesus only live by ‘bread alone” or would Jesus be able to live by the greater ‘bread of heaven’ he came to share with the world?  If Jesus went for the quick fix, he proved that he was no one special, just another mouth to feed.

WHAT WILL DRIVE YOU?  The second temptation had to be harder.  The devil told him, “just give me my due and I’ll give you full control.”  It sounded so good. “You can be everything you came to be.  All the kingdoms of the world will be yours.” Just think of what you’ll be able to do.  If you don’t like the way the way the world works, the way things are being run, you don’t have to put up with it.   I have the ‘real’ power in this world.  All you have to do is worship me, just compromise a little. Face reality.  As you will find out, the world works by my rules.  Integrity will get you nowhere.  If you keep doing things God’s way, all you’re going to get is a cross.  Only by doing things ‘my way’ will you get the world you want.  And, you deserve it, don’t you?  Who better than you to take charge?  All you have to do is bow down to me, ‘take charge’ of your life and your world, and it will all turn out right.  Get it?  

WHAT WILL SAVE YOU?  For the last temptation, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, to the top of the Temple, and he invited him to jump—to throw himself down in a suicidal act.  “With all God has planned for you, you can’t get hurt.” Surely God will send angels to guarantee that his own Son won’t get hurt.”  Surely, if anyone could count on divine protection, it was Jesus, God’s beloved Son!  God doesn’t let his people get hurt, no matter what stupid things we do, right?  If you ‘jump’ and make a spectacle, you will NOT only NOT get hurt, but the crowds will gather around the word will quickly spread.  Instead of death and pain, you will get a power boost for your ministry!  If you have been saved and spared, people will believe that they too will be spared and saved, having have God’s full protection, no matter what they do.  As the Lord of a life lived above all suffering and pain, there will be no end to the people who will come begging to you do the same for them.  Think of how many people you will influence, Jesus?   But for the third time, Jesus said no.  He knew to live life as a cheap trick was testing God.

There is of course, ways Jesus was tempted and tested that were very unique to Jesus own identity.  Besides Adam in the Garden, Jesus is the only person in the Bible who had to face the devil head on and all alone.  Jesus had to face the devil alone and prove that he was who God wanted him to be, the Messiah, the new Adam—and the first new man who could pass the test.  Jesus’ own resisting of temptation in his flesh, proves that we too can live by a higher standard too in our flesh, and it also says, that when we are tempted, we don’t have to face the devil alone. 

But in the temptation of Jesus, we not only see the uniqueness of Jesus’ own temptation, but we also see what is at the heart of all temptation.  Temptation is not merely about ‘inordinate dysfunction’ nor about ‘inappropriate desires’, but at its core, temptation is to be ‘tempted’ to be someone other than who God intends for us to be.   For some this is a temptation to try to be more than who we are.  For others, it is to settle for being less than who we can be.  But at the heart of all temptation, there is this test, this struggle to be who we are supposed to be or the temptation to be who someone we aren’t.  Just as Jesus’ temptation was about his identity as the Son of God, our temptation is about who we are supposed to be as children of God.  Jesus had to prove who he was, before he could do or be what God called him to be, a beloved Son of God.

Life will also ‘prove’ who we are, and unfortunately, it may also prove who aren’t.   The struggle with temptation for Jesus wasn’t over at the end of the forty days.  If anything, it just intensified. It dogged him throughout his ministry, as he was confronted day after day by people who wanted him to use his powers in ways that would make him less than the person God wanted him to be.  Don’t you remember how the temptations kept coming?  The temptation that asks: What feeds you: "Multiply more of those loaves of bread; we liked that trick." Or what about the temptation about what drives you:  "Once you’ve got the best seat in the kingdom of heaven, reserve us a spot." Or what about, finally, the temptation concerning what really saves us: "If you are the Son of God, come down off that cross."  All through his life, the tempter was never far away from Jesus.  And if the tempter was always close to Jesus, the tempter is never far away from any of us.

THE TEMPTATION WE CAN RESIST
The one thing this story of temptation, nor the Bible directly answers about temptation is “why?”  While we can perhaps understand why Jesus needed to be tested and tempted as the true Messiah, who knows why we are still being tempted? 

Jesus was, as Scripture says, “tempted in all points as we are”, but we are still tempted in many points like Jesus was, too.  We are still tempted about what kind of person we will be, what we will ultimately live for, and what we believe will be the redeeming or saving power for our lives.  The book of James does directly tell us  that we must not dare think that we are tempted by God, but still, James does not directly answer why we are tempted.  James does say that human desire leads to the tests and trials that prove, strengthen or  confirm who we are if we endure and if we pass the tests, but James never directly answers ‘why’ people are tested or tempted to give into selfish desires.

I would dare suggest there is only one answer to the temptation to do evil in this world: The devil is real.  However you imagine the devil, there are powers of evil in this world that resist God, resist God’s will, resist God’s work and powers that rebel against God’s way and will for life.  The ‘real’ devil does not have to be a horned, red suited, pitch-fork carrying creature from middle ages. The devil is, unfortunately, not so easy to recognize.  Even in the Bible, the devil also appears as an angel of light or even as a disciple of Jesus, not once, but several times.  I don’t know of any other meaningful or biblical answer to the why of ‘evil’ than this: The Devil is real.  And the devil can become real in any of us.  Evil is live spelled backward.  The devil still tempts us to do evil instead of choosing to live as God intends. 

When those children and teachers were tragically murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary, the public official was right when he said that ‘evil had visited his town.’   But the problem was not simply the ‘evil’ out there in the world, nor was it simply a mental illness nor was it the guns the boy got hold of.   All mentally ill people don’t kill other people.  And guns don’t shoot people, either.  I’m all for keeping guns out of the hands of stupid or sick people, but the truth is that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  Guns don’t rebel against God.  Guns don’t resist the will and purpose of God.  Guns don’t murder people.  People who give in to temptation and people who give in to the way of evil are the greatest problem in our world.  And it is not who we are that is the problem, but it is when we settle for being less than who we should or could be, that is where Satan, the adversary of God, has his way in this world. 

The devil Jesus knew is the devil we still know.  And Jesus did not just know the devil that came to him in the cruelty of the wilderness, but Jesus also knew the devil that came to him, pretending to be his best friend.  He even had to say to Simon Peter, one of his own: “Get behind me, Satan”.  When Peter told Jesus there had to be easier way than to bear the cross, Jesus had to call him the devil out.  You know that devil too, don’t you?  You know the devil that tempts you to do evil, not by doing something bad, but the devil who tempts you to do less than the good God is calling you to do.  This is what makes evil, evil.  Evil is not people being bad, but evil is people being good in their own way instead of being good God’s way. A mind that gives in to temptation always thinks, at least in that moment, that they are going a ‘good thing’.  Evil is the evil disguised as its own ‘good’ that opposes the humble, loving, caring, and serving will, work and purpose of God. 

Just as Jesus had to get to know the devil that was close to him, we need to get acquainted with the devil who can get inside of each and every one of us.  And we only get to know the devil, (him (or her) by getting to know ourselves.  When you learn who you are and who you aren’t, this is how you start to recognize the devil and his tricks most clearly. 

But the final piece of this puzzle is still “why?”  Why is it so easy for the devil to get into us and so hard to keep God in us?   If there is any answer to ‘why’, it is only answered in the ‘who’ we become when we resist the devil and overcome.   Jesus overcame the devil with God’s truth about who he was, and so can we.  Even though we humans are all vulnerable to evil, it is this very vulnerability can make us who we can be in God. 

Look again at Jesus.  Right when he was willing to be weak, this is when he became strong.  In the same way, those parts of our human nature, our weaknesses, our struggles, our trials, and even our temptations that give rise to the possibility of evil are the same places in our lives that can give rise to the probability of great good in us.  You simply can’t have one without the other.  The garden of the soul is like the garden in life.  You can’t have a good garden without the possibility of a bad garden; of having tender plants, without the possibility of weeds.  The rich soil that nourishes the good has to allow the possibility of both good and bad, or nothing will grow.  This is exactly what James goes on to say.  He says that in the same soul where wayward desires, lusts and sin can grow, if we allow it, if we discipline ourselves, this is the very same soul or soil, where  generosity, meekness, humility and mercy can grow. 

Guess who controls what happens in your garden?   YOU!  You are the one who gets to decide what grows there.   The truth about temptation is that in the end, it is not about who the devil is, but temptation is more about ‘who’ you are and what kind gardener or person you choose to be.  Just as the soil will not grow a good garden without your input, neither will the soul.  Just as this temptation by the devil was never really about the power of the devil, but it was about the power within Jesus to overcome, in the same way, the presence of evil in the world is not about the power of the devil, but it is about whether or not you will choose to make use of the power God has given you.  The devil has no power if we tell him no.  Temptation is never about how powerful the devil is, but it’s about what power we choose to live by.   Temptation is about who you are, and whether you are who you can be.  Overcoming is what temptation is about, and when win over your temptation, its not just you that wins, but everybody wins.  Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Failure to Launch

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 5: 1-11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 5, February 10, 2013
 
“When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Luk 5: 4, NRSV)
 
 While on vacation in Tampa Florida back in 1990, I heard on the news on that on the day we were to leave, the space shuttle was to blast off from Cape Canaveral.   This was my chance.  So early on the morning of our departure we drove straight across the peninsula to the Cape.   When we arrived the crowd was already gathering.  Traffic along the interstate was at a standstill.  I had timed it just right.  Then came the countdown.  “T-minus 15 seconds and counting, 14…13…. .  Then, there was a silent pause.   My heart skipped a beat.  The counting ceased.  We were in a holding pattern at T-minus 13 seconds, the loud speaker said.  All that money spent, all that planning, all the preparation was at risk of failure.  Besides all that, I got everybody up at 4 in the morning while on vacation and now, we had a failure to launch. 
 
Our Bible text today is about the ‘launching’ of Jesus’ ministry.   Jesus took over a fishing boat and made it into a pulpit.   Since the acoustics were better out on the water, Jesus asked Peter to put the boat out a little ways off shore.   Now that Jesus has everyone’s attention, he asked Peter again, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (5.4).  The King James uses the very specific, singular and stronger word “Launch.” Jesus begins his ministry with a call for his disciples to ‘launch’ out into deeper water.  
 
 But Peter, being a fisherman, perhaps also realizing Jesus to be a carpenter, politely question’s Jesus request: “Master, we have worked all night but have caught nothing.” (5.5).   Our text tells us they were already “washing their nets” (2) so they were preparing to quit for the day.   They had let Jesus use their boat, but maybe they were thinking, “Come on Jesus, its quitting time!”  Besides that, everyone knows in this hot climate that the fish feed at night.  If this is what they were thinking, Peter is still remarkably polite saying, “if you insist, I will let down the nets” (5.5b).
 
 I guess there are always very good reason not to go too far with Jesus.   Religion can be dangerous stuff.  Remember David Koresh and the Camp Davidian compound in Waco, Texas?  Religious people can become fanatics, can’t they?  It can also complicate our lives to get more than casually involved with Jesus’ mission.   We are so busy with so much to do ourselves and have ‘better things’ in mind for our time.   There are only so many hours in a week.  Such excuses are never hard to come up with, as with Moses or like Peter, we’ve all got our reasons for not going any further with Jesus than we have.   The truth is that many, if not most, understand baptism as a finish line, not a launching pad.   Our ship, if it ever goes out, stays close to shore or it remains on the launching pad because it can be costly to go all the way with Jesus.  
 
 
When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die!”   That’s how Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it, and he meant it, and paid for it, with his own life, when he opposed Hitler in the name of Christ and was hung for it.   Following Jesus can be dangerous.  But it can also be just as dangerous not to launch out at all, can’t it?   As Churches, as Christians, and disciples of Jesus, we’ve got all this wonderful, inspiring history behind us, and we have this unparalleled opportunity before us, and we also have great potential within us, and it is a ‘crying shame’ that we are not doing all that we are capable of doing in Jesus’ name.   What will it take for us to ‘launch out’ and to ‘go deeper’ and to take a risks beyond the normal; to against the odds and to ‘let down’ our nets for a great catch in the name of Jesus?
 
 Of course, if you don’t know by now, this is a message about the core mission and main purpose of the church—our church, every church.   The church is called to be an ‘evangelical’ church.   An evangelical church is one that believes the good news of God changes and saves lives.   We also believe that it is our ‘calling’ as the ‘people of God’ to be faithful to ‘this gospel’ and hear God’s call in our own lives to ‘drop our nets’, leave the safety of shore, and to go ‘out into the depths’ of this world and fish.  In a way, today’s text is like the fellow who was catching a lot of fish, so much that the game warden wanted to see what he was doing.  They were on the boat together and the fellow dropped a stick of dynamite into the water, and all kinds of fish came floating up to the top.   “You can’t fish like that,” the game warden insisted.   The man hands the game warden a stick of lite dynamite and asks, “Warden, are you gonna talk, or are you gonna fish?”
 
Our text is like a stick of dynamite in the hand of a confused, conflicted, complacent church: “From now on, you will catch people,” Jesus told them and reminds us.  The reason for Christ’s mission is unmistakable.   Are we going to ‘talk’ or are we going to fish?  Our mission is not to enjoy the boat ride, but it is go out into the deep of this world, out into in the elements and to go up against the odds and to ‘let down our nets’ so that we too can catch people into the net of God’s love.   This is our definitive calling, purpose, our reason to be, and it is our most basic mission.   But the question is what might a ‘launch into the deep’ look like in our lives and in our churches today?  How can we overcome the ‘failure to launch’?   It is this ‘failure’ which is the greatest threat to the church of Jesus Christ today, much more of a threat than any evil out there in the world. 
 
WE MUST ANSWER THE CALL
Whatever we can say about how the gospel of good news get from ‘the world of the Bible’ into the ‘world of our lives”, we must say that it requires that a human ‘answer’ to the call of God in our lives.   In this story, even against his better judgment, Peter must make himself and his boat fully available to Jesus’ commands.  Peter must make Jesus ‘master’ and ‘commander’ of his ship.  There is no room for discussion.  Peter must immediately give Jesus full control of the direction and outcome of his life.  The way, the work, and the call of God, demands our full human cooperation or there will be no miracle, no catch and no result.
 
Among the many other angles we can take on what it means to answer God’s call in our lives, the one thing Luke seems most concerned with Jesus’ distinctive call.   The call that comes from Jesus is a call for us to go deeper, go further, do more and go the ‘extra mile’.  The call of God is not only definite and descriptive, it is most of all demanding.  True discipleship places real demands upon our lives.  Discipleship exacts a high ‘cost’.
 
I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer a moment ago.  He wrote one of the most important books ever written outside of the Bible.  His book, ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ was written as Hitler and the Nazis were gaining power in Germany.  In German the book is given a one-word title, Nachfolge, meaning one who “follows”.  The point Bonhoeffer was making is that following Jesus will ‘cost’ you.   One of the great phrases of the book is  Bonhoeffer’s term “cheap grace”.   Do you know what cheap grace is?  Let Bonhoeffer define it as he does in the book:  “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, and communion without confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”   The  big problem with ‘cheap grace’ is that among other things, it is a lie.  It preaches a lying gospel which says that ‘you are a sinner, but you are forgiven and now you can stay as you are and enjoy this forgiveness without doing anything else with your life.  The ‘defect’ with such a proclaimation is that it says you can be a Christian without being a disciple---you can have Jesus without ‘following” Jesus.  But this is not biblically correct, Bonhoeffer asserts: “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart.  It is costly because it compels a person to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden it light.”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cost_of_Discipleship).
 
This are ‘hard’ words, and Jesus did say the way that saves is a ‘narrow’ and ‘hard’ way, not the easy way, or the way of least resistance.  But following Jesus saves us many more times than it kills us.   We need to understand that what the ‘call’ of following Christ means is that we will hear and answer the inward call to rise above what is wrong in this world, in our lives, and even in our religious faith, and we will do the ‘hard’ things that will bring hope, reform and the newness of God’s grace.   This is exactly what Bonhoeffer did.  When most of the German church choose to follow Hitler, to bless the ‘powers’ rather than challenge them, Bonhoeffer recognized the true nature of the Nazi ‘lie’ and establish a ‘confessing’ church to answer God’s call to stand with Jesus, rather than with Hitler, with God rather than with his own countrymen.  It was not easy then, nor is it easy now, but the church that marches to the ‘beat of a different drum’ is the church that does not seek self-comfort nor accolades, but the church that risks all to rise above the culture and hear and answer the call of Jesus in today’s world.   But now, how do we do this?
 
WE MUST OVERCOME OUR FLAWS
The first thing we must do is what Peter had to do in this text.  He had to face, confront, and confess his own weaknesses, doubts, and flaws before God.  Of all things, he had to be ‘honest’ and ‘clean’ with Jesus.   It is a powerful message also for us, isn’t it, that we too must confront and work to ‘overcome’ our own flaws before we can follow Jesus in greater and deeper ways. 
 
There is something ‘holy’ and ‘good’ in Peter’s reluctance to follow Jesus.   By confessing his own ‘hesitations’ before the miracle and by confronting his own sin and negativity after the miracle, Peter comes clean before God and answers the call of Jesus with honesty rather than pretense.  Peter’s confession of his own flaws and sins do not keep him from answering God’s call.  Peter hesitates when he realizes ‘who Jesus is’ and ‘who he is not’, but also, Peter’s flaws do not hinder him, from answering the call and claim of Jesus on his life.
 
Unfortunately, many people see their ‘sins’, ‘shortcomings’ and ‘weaknesses’ and reasons not to follow Jesus, whereas, they should be seen as obstacles which by overcoming them will make us strong and better people.
 
A great example of a ‘flawed’ person who admitted, challenged and overcame his own flaws is the character Jean Valjean in the classic Victor Hugo novel, Les Miserables.  Jean Valjean was put in prison for hard labor for stealing bread.   When he got parole, he got caught again ‘stealing’ silver from a church, but instead of having him arrested, the priest forgave him, gave him grace, but then challenged to go and overcome his weaknesses by answering a higher call in his life.   Valjean does just that, as he helps a dying prostitute by adopting her daughter and raising her as his own child.  Valjean lives his whole life, now, not by living for himself, but by giving his life, even risking his life for others.  In the end, this is what has made him a person who has sinned, but now who can die with no regrets.  He overcame his own ‘flaws’ by answering the ‘higher call’ in his own life.
 
Isn’t it the same for us?  When we take our eyes off of Jesus and we only think about ourselves, we often sink,  like Peter did when he tried to walk on water.  But when we keep our focus on Jesus, and own the calling we are to answer, the power to live is given to us so that even ‘heavy burdens’ and ‘failures’ can become launching pads to new heights of life and living.  But to get to this point, we can’t go on in life pretending.   Like Peter, we have to give ourselves to God, with doubts, fears, frustrations, and failures –all.  We don’t hide them, but we share them, bear them, and we take them to Jesus and let him transform them into stairways rather than roadblocks.   We launch out, not as ‘perfect’ people, but as people who know our strength and our weaknesses, our possibility for good and our potential for evil, and we bring all this honestly, openly, and bravely to God, asking him to help us each step of the way---and he will, and he does.
 
WE MUST DARE TO CARE LIKE JESUS  
Answering the call of Jesus in our lives will enable us to be better people than we thought we could be, and it will also give us a better reality and a better world than we thought we could have.  At Christmastime, a news report told of two ‘old soldiers’, war heros, who were going into schools trying to teach children how they too could be ‘heros’ by doing good things and being good in the world.   One little elementary student understood precisely their message when she told the reporters, “They told us that we are heroes too, when we do the right thing, we make the world a better place.”
 
But what is the ‘right thing’?   What does it mean to answer the call of Jesus, or to overcome our own flaws and weaknesses and become better people?  How do we define it?   The truth is we don’t need to ‘define’ anything any better than Jesus defined what it meant to be his disciple.  In this text, we see clearly that answering the call of God is not just hearing a spiritual message, nor is it only about being a better person who saves their own neck, but answering the call of God to get off the launching pad can only be understood in the most practical terms of hearing Jesus’ call to ‘catch people’ or to become, as the old King James Bible said, “fishers of men”.  
 
This can mean, but does not only mean that you must become evangelists, that you must learn how to witness to people or bring people to church.   It can mean that, and for some of us with the ‘people skills’ it should mean that too, but what Jesus means is even bigger, broader, and more inclusive of every person who has decided to follow Jesus.   When Jesus calls Peter to put down his ‘fishing net’ and pick up the ‘gospel net’ and go fishing for people, Jesus is asking Peter and each of us too, to rise above our normal life of working for a living, and he is calling us to work to live, and to find a ‘calling’ in our own lives that will not only make us better people, but will be a ‘work’ that will help people, and ‘catch others’ in the net of God’s love.  Peter did not leave his fishing boat for good, but later we see him fishing again, to make a living.  But God wanted Peter, and wants us to, not to be content of working to survive, or living only to work, but Jesus wants Peter to take a step of faith and to dare to care, not just about his work, but to enrich his life and the to, as the little girl said, ‘make the world a better place’ by caring for others.  
 
Will you just live your life to survive, or will you learn to thrive, by daring to take a step beyond the doldrums of everyday life, and to ‘exponate’, (is that a word?), or to booster, to better, or to enhance how things are by caring for others in the name of Christ?   I have on my desk a new book I’m reading entitled, “The Aims of Christ”, by Ben Meyer.  However your summarize the most basic mission or aim of Jesus, it was not about saving Jesus, but Jesus’ ministry was about saving Israel, and about bring God’s saving mission into a decaying, dying and tragic world.  
 
 
What made Jesus different than all other religious leaders or would be messiahs, is that Jesus build his ministry not upon high religious ideals, but Jesus build his ministry upon responding to the real needs of real people.   Remember Jesus’ words that got him into hot water with the authorities:  “Man is not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath is made for man”.  In other words, the greatest need in the world is not simply giving God what we think God wants, but the great need is meeting human need head on in the name of a loving, forgiving God who eats, drinks, and calls sinners to repentance and salvation in the love of God.  It is this love the caught people’s attention then, and it is still this love, this dare to care more about the needs around us, than making ourselves more comfortable, that will bring about the rule of God in the world. 
 
 
This ‘love’ lived-out, acted upon, and demonstrated, in us, as it was in Jesus, is the dare that Jesus is still calling us to answer, one person, one need, and one day at a time.   How can you answer that love right now?  How can you get your life and this church off the launching pad and out into the deep of the world’s needs?  Will you answer?  Will you overcome your flaws?  Will you dare to care, like Jesus did?  Amen.  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Can Jesus Make You Mad?


A sermon based upon Luke 4:14-30
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 3, 2013
 
Exactly 4 years ago, in February of 2009, Central Baptist Church in Australia got into a bit of ‘hot water’.  Someone in the congregation put on their church sign the words “Jesus Loves Osama Bin Laden”.   I’m sure they meant well, but there message was not well taken.  Knowing that many Australian soldiers put their lives at risk to help America get him made those words look insulting, outrageous, even stupid.  In short, the sign made a lot of people mad.  People got so mad  they began picketing the church and riot fears developed.   Even the Prime Minister John Howard got involved.  The Prime Minister agreed that the church had a right to express their opinion, but that the sign was sending the wrong message; implying that the church ‘approved’ of Osama Bin Laden.  

To the credit of the congregation, the Baptist church did have an explanation at the bottom, quoting Jesus’ own words of explanation for the sign: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”   The church was trying to follow Jesus, but people were not impressed.  (http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-202_162-2420546.html).   

 Can Jesus make you mad?   Sometimes we forget that Jesus was killed by crucifixion exactly because he made people mad.   Remember that scene near the end of the gospels, where Jesus is standing before Pilate and the people decide to save Barabbas and not Jesus.  In an angry and loud voice they screamed in agreement: "Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!"   Jesus really did make people that mad.   And in our text today from Luke, at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, and on top of that, even in Jesus' own home town we read that because of Jesus "all the synagogue were filled with rage."   How mad were they?  We must understand that Jesus’ own people were mad enough to drive Jesus out of town, lead him up a hill, take him to the edge of a cliff, just so they could 'hurl him off'.  Now that's mad!  Can Jesus make you that mad?   Can he make you mad enough to want him gone? 

Now, I know all this sounds strange, but the gospels are strange documents.   They do not tell us a regular guy hero story.   We prefer our heroes to be nice, caring, wonderful kinds of people.   We can also know from the gospel stories that Jesus was a good person, who went around doing good.  We also know that people loved to be around Jesus.   His personality drew all kinds of people to want to get close to him.   Especially in the early part of his ministry people followed him, and even hounded him much like the paparazzi do movie stars.   But as time goes on the desire to be close to Jesus finally fizzled out.  Jesus said things hard to understand.  Jesus hung around people no one wanted to hang around.  The truth Jesus told could be crude and rude.  Being around Jesus was nice for a while, but taking him too seriously could get ones nerves. 

The truth about Jesus  is that only a few, maybe only a hand full of people were very glad to get to know Jesus, but most people could not stand the guy.  He simply made too many people mad.    Can’t you think of some of them?  The birth of Jesus made Herod mad.  When Jesus disappeared from his parents at age twelve, it made his parents both afraid and mad.  When Jesus healed people on the Sabbath day, it made religious leaders, both Pharisees and Sadducees, mad.   Rich people were troubled by Jesus’ teaching because he said it was practically impossible for a rich man to get into heaven.   The Rich Young ruler went a sorrowful and perhaps more than a little perturbed.   Jesus even called his best man, Peter, a Satan.   In reflection upon Peter’s eventual denial of Jesus, would you cover for someone who called you out in front of everybody?  The Jesus of the Bible definitely appears to have needed a Carnage course on ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.”  

The truth Jesus brings to the world can still be offensive.   We see this especially in this opening story from Luke.   It appears that Jesus intentionally insults his own hometown people.   Now this is a very strange way to start a gospel.   But what I’ve also come to understand is that Jesus intends to make us mad too.  I’m convinced that Jesus cannot save us fully, freely or abundantly---he can’t save us from our sins, he can’t us from ourselves, and he can’t save us for a life of faith, hope and love, until Jesus also makes us mad—real mad.   Before Jesus can help and heal, he wants to pick a fight with us.   I know this is strange, undomesticated way to look at Jesus, so let’s get on to some explanation.

 Mad For Good Reasons
When I was in college, my roommate had a lot of interesting sayings.  He would use these sayings when he needed to express himself.  One of my favorite was what he always said when he was debating something and the conversation got heated.  He'd say something like, "Come on bro, dogs get mad, people get angry."   What he meant was ‘no calm down, we don’t have to get mad, we’re more than dogs.  We ought to be able to control ourselves, our emotions, etc.   Of course, my roommate was right in ideal situations, but what we know all too well is that sometimes people go mad too.

 A couple of years ago, in a small community south of Greensboro called Pleasant Garden, Mary Ann Holder went mad and shot five of her children in the head.   What is most alarming about such crimes of rage is that very often people turn their rage upon those they are closest too.  In another recent murder, a husband, who was also a fireman, trained to save lives, hired a homeless man to go into a Wal-mart with him and buy a hammer to bludgeon his wife to death.  We also remember how Casey Anthony killed her own child and got away with it.  Maybe you've seen such anger turn to rage, bitterness and hate in your own family.   When I was a child, my handicapped cousin took a 22 rifle and shot his Father three times in the stomach.  Nobody thought he could even pull the trigger, but he got mad enough and did it. 

People do get mad and go mad.   If you want some type of psychological explanation, human anger is most often connected to those things that frustrate us, hurt us, or make us afraid, which, if  left 'bottled up' in our hearts for too long, one day will explode.   Instead of getting all these issues out to deal with them,  too often we keep pushing stuff up under the rug, so to speak, until pressure builds up and then one day, boom!   Even over something completely unrelated, like your husband leaving his socks on the floor, or the wife waiting to the last minute to put on the brakes--something small or inconsequential, then it comes, boom!   Everything blows up.  He loses it and hits her.  She loses it and walks away.  Behind that seemingly small matter was something really big—and it was dynamite.

 Anger is a very human emotion.  It is also a necessary emotion.   Jesus got angry.  We get angry.  If we didn’t get angry, then nothing would matter.  We get most angry about those things we care about.   When a person hurts someone they love, or God forbid, if someone gets killed in a fit of rage, the law may call it a “crime of passion.”  A different set of rules might need to be considered in some of these situations.   We can’t always say why a person suddenly ‘flies off the handle’ and loses it.   We have ways to describe what happens, but we don’t always have full explanations.   Just like a mass murderer, or a murder suicide, it’s very tragic, it’s terribly horrible, but very the anger that is being released upon innocent people is really not about those people, but it’s about something gone terribly wrong inside a person who has lost all sense of reality, morality or self-control.   When people get mad, they can go mad, and it can happen real fast. 

 Yet, here we need to stop and consider something very important.  Anger is a warning sign.  Anger is sign that something is wrong---very wrong.   And the great message about anger in us is that the wrong is not only about what is being done to us, but it can be about the ‘wrong’ that’s also inside of us and needs to be confronted.   Most of us recall how back in the 70’s when counselors and psychologists often advised people to ‘get it out’, get mad, even to throw things---express your true feelings---but just don’t hurt anyone.   They would tell you to get your frustration out, but to do it in a constructive and non-destructive way.   However, it has now been realized that such advice is very risky.  Giving free reign and expression to your anger and rage can be very dangerous---not just for those you are angry with, but even with you, yourself.   Fits of rage and anger can cause unhealthy stress on your body and your heart.  It can teach you negative, bad habits too and leave things unresolved. 

What people need to do with their anger is not just ‘get it out’, but we need to also try to find out ‘why’ it is there.   Anger can be a sign that something is isn’t right with you too.  It can either be a signal that you have too few coping skills or emotional resources in your life, or it could mean that there is something inside you that needs your immediate attention.  In this way, when anger rises up in you and me, anger can be gift.  If we will see it rising up and if we recognize it, identify it, and discover exactly why it is there, we can also put ourselves on the road to understanding, to healing and finding help.   

But I’m not trying to bring you a psychology lesson.   But good psychology and good religion are related.   When people get angry, just like they do in this text and just like we do in life, anger can be a sign that something has gone very wrong.  But the wrong that makes us so angry is not always the wrong that is ‘out there’ or in someone else, but sometimes the ‘wrong’ has also gotten into us, into our hearts, our minds, and into our souls.   Until we feel the anger, we seldom can get to the real problem.   Confronting what’s wrong, is always a ‘two-way street’--going in both directions.   This means that part of what is wrong and find what is right, must also be revealed in us.   Before we can find the help and the healing, we may need to get a little mad, before we become glad.
 

Jesus Still Makes People Mad
With some understanding that anger is not always bad, but can also be a way to healing if we catch it early, let’s move on with this story.  What was it that made the people so mad with Jesus?   He seemed like such a likeable guy.  

Our text tells us that Jesus was ‘filled with the power of the Spirit’ when he returned to Galilee.   Reports about his good deeds spread everywhere in the surrounding area.  Jesus healed the sick.  He ate with sinners.  He makes at God’s table a place for all people to find rest for their souls.  Everybody is inviting Jesus to come to their town and to speak and to teach.  We also read how at Nazareth, Jesus went to the synagogue, ‘as it was his custom’, being a good, church going person.   Then, Jesus opens scroll for the Scripture reading assigned for that day.  It was from Isaiah and was about “the Spirit anointing” God’s prophet to speak and do good things in the world.   So far, so good.  After the reading was over, “the eyes of all were fixed on him” because their hopes seemed to be coming true in Jesus.  Jesus goes on to get more specific, leaving nothing to their imagination, saying: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  

Up to this point, the people are still with him.   The text says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”.   In full amazement they could not believe what they saw and heard in one of their own.  They spoke their hearts out loud: “Is this not Joseph’s son?”   Up to this point, everything is wonderful.  We might say that the feeling in the air is that “God is in the heaven and all is right with the world.”  Or, as comedian Billy Crystal used to say, It’s simply “Marvelous.”

Why then, does Jesus mess everything up?   Instead of receiving their praise and worship, Jesus turns and insults his home crowd people.   He insults them so badly that they all want to kill them.  Was this really necessary?   Does Jesus have to make people mad before he can really make them fully glad---glad to be alive—glad to have faith in God? 

 I recall several years ago, when I was pastor elsewhere, the church decided to become more intentional in evangelism outside the church walls.  We had received an offer from a local baseball stadium inviting our members to participate in an evening of Christian fellowship in support of the home team.  I shared that this could be a great evangelistic outreach opportunity.  We could ask members to buy a ticket for themselves, but the church would by a ticket for any unchurched friends they would invite.  It sounded like a great opportunity and the planning committee was all excited.

Then came the Sunday we were to head to the game.  We called off Sunday night worship and a warm summer evening and invited the congregation to attend the game with us.  Everything was going fine, until an older lady stopped at the door, looked me in the eye and said, “How dare you call off Sunday night worship for a baseball game!”  I just smiled.  I didn’t answer.  What do you say?  The woman hardly came to evening worship services herself.  She wasn’t always there, but she wanted to make sure that her church only did what she wanted it to do.   As wonderful of a person as she was, and she was that, she was so good she could not see anything beyond herself.   Like the people in Nazareth, she wanted Jesus just the way she wanted him to be---a Jesus who worked for her, who met her demands, and who kept the miracles close at home.

 What we need grasp is not just about what was going on in Nazareth, but what was goes on everywhere.   Jesus gets to the heart of this when he confronts what they really wanted: “Doubtless you will quote this proverb,Doctor, cure yourself’.  And then you will say: “Do here in your own hometown the things that we have heard that you did at Capernaum.”  In this statement we find the real problem---not just the problem that people have with Jesus, but the problem that God has with us:  We want Jesus, and we like Jesus, but not for the sake of God and the needs of the world, but we want Jesus on our own terms.   We want Jesus to give us what we want.  Jesus’ hometown wanted Jesus’ miracles, and they wanted Jesus to do something for them, but they did not want to know what God wanted or expected from them.   They wanted to be served, but they did not want to learn to serve.   Jesus couldn’t be a prophet to them.  And the greatest truth of this text is that long before they ever got mad at Jesus for not giving them what they wanted,  they were not giving God what God wanted, and Jesus had come calling them to repentance as well.        

Jesus Must Make You Mad
I guess we could go on about some of the ways Jesus could make us mad today.   But we see it all the time.  People come to church and come to Jesus to get what they want, and when they don’t get it, they get mad.  What never occurred to them is that you don’t come to Jesus just to get what you want, but you come to Jesus to give God what God wants.  

The popular evangelical speaker sociology professor Tony Campolo was speaking about the needs of the people in Hati, long before the terrible earthquake hit.  Once he was speaking at a large convention hall, but the people didn’t seem to care a bit about what he was saying.   Then, Tony stopped, said a cruse word loud enough for all to hear.  The hall was deadened into complete silence.   Then Campolo, finished his speech.  Thousands of people in Hati need your help, but right now you self-righteous people are much more upset at me for saying a cruse word than you are upset about the situation in Hati.  Shame on you!  He concluded:  I hope I made you mad enough that you might not just sit there, but that you might do something. 

 It may sound hard, at least at first, but God does not plan to always make us happy or give us what we want.  Getting everything you want will not make you a better person.  Getting what you want will not save you either.  In fact, only living for what you want will make you a very spoiled, emotionally starved and spiritually and physically sick person.

This is why Jesus still wants to make some of us mad.   He wants to make us mad enough that we see much more to our life getting what we want.  Jesus wants to give us, me and you, what we really need.  And what we need, more than life itself is God, his grace, his mercy and his demands to be placed upon our lives for our own good.    In fact, Jesus wants to make you mad enough to see ‘red’---to see the red of his sacrifice, a Jesus who did not come to get, but a Jesus who came to give, and by giving himself, he teaches us how to live for more than just what we want.   Can Jesus make you that mad?   Can he make you mad enough to give up what you want for what God wants?   Amen.