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Sunday, March 29, 2015

“Accidental Witness”

A Sermon Based Upon  Matthew 27: 45-54
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sixth Sunday of Lent,   March 29, 2015

  "Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!" (Mat 27:54 NRS)

A doctor examines a cowboy with back problems and asks if he’s had any recent accidents.
      ‘Nope,’ replies the cowboy.
‘That’s odd,’ says the doctor, ‘I thought a cowboy’s job was pretty dangerous.’
     ‘It sure is,’ replies the cowboy. ‘Last week I was kicked by a mule, thrown by a mustang, and bit by a snake.’ ‘And you don’t call those accidents?’ asks the doctor.
     ‘No, sir,’ replies the cowboy, ‘those varmints done it on purpose.’

Today we come to our final lesson around the cross which may be the most fascinating of all.   It is fascinating because it makes the cross look like an accident or a bad mistake, while we are also being told it’s all happening on purpose. 

If you think this is a rather strange way to put it, you need to read the story for yourself and consider all the other phenomena that Matthew tells us about.   We read that it’s noon, but there is ‘darkness over the whole land’.   Jesus has said he is God’s son, but now cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”   Jesus has claimed to ‘save others’, but he makes no effort whatsoever to save himself.    While being executed as a criminal, so he can’t cause any more trouble, all heaven breaks loose as the untouchable temple curtain is ripped in two and the earth shakes so violently that it splits rocks.   We are also told that tombs open up, so that some sleeping dead holy people are raised up, but surprisingly they don’t come out of their tombs until after Jesus’ own resurrection.  You just don’t make stuff like this up!  There are sure a lot of accidents happening, but they seem to be happening on purpose.

The last ‘accident’ around the cross is ‘accidental’ witness of the Roman centurion.   We can call this an accident because we can be sure that this centurion did not plan to see what he saw, nor say what he said.   What he saw was a ‘righteous (or innocent) man’ (Luk3 23.47) dying a most terrible death he should not have died---the cruel crucifixion of a criminal on the cross.     It was at this very moment that the Centurion came to say what no one would ever expect him to say; that this now dead, defeated, degraded man ‘truly was God’s Son!’   This was certainly not what you’d expect to hear a hardened solider of violence say.   Yet strangely enough, what we hear from him takes us straight to heart of the message of the cross.   This centurion is an ‘accidental’ witness inviting us to look directly into the deep, if not unfathomable, purposes of God.   

What would we have seen, if we were this centurion, or one of his cohorts?   Mark’s gospel tells us that when the centurion watched ‘the way he breathed his last (breath)’ he spoke (15.39).   Certainly to watch anyone die is a moving, if not sobering experience.   But Matthew wants us to see more.  He wants us to see that it wasn’t just the sight of a dying man that triggers this witness, but it was also when they ‘saw the earthquake and what took place’ (54) and became terrified.   What they witnessed was quickly becoming less of an accident and more like something that was happening on purpose.

What do you see when you reflect upon the cross of Jesus Christ?   When as a college student, I spent a summer as a youth worker near Lake Lure, I was shown a place beside the road where the water ran into a rock and I was told that the hole was bottomless because no one had ever discovered how deep it was.  I was mystified and could help but stop by often to watch the water swirl down into the unfathomed abyss.  In much the same way, considering what this Centurion saw and said,  I am moved more by the mystery than any explanation.   Perhaps this is why the gospels give very little explanation but take us there to be witnesses ourselves.   The gospels are like a great vocal quartet singing: “Where you there, when they crucified my Lord…. Sometimes it makes me want to tremble, tremble, tremble.  Where you there…?”   It’s great for drama, but how could any of us have been there?   If you were, would you have trembled?

Three of the four gospels tell us the real drama began in ‘darkness’---a darkness that ‘came over the whole land’ (Mt 27:45).  This is more than a solar eclipse, heavy clouds, or as some have suggested, a violent sand storm.   The gospels want us to feel what is happening, not just see it.  The gospels take us to the cross so that we can feel the earth move, hear the jeering taunts, and watch this innocent person suffer and die.  Why do these most unique writings take us here to this awful, dreadful, God-forsaken place?  Who would want to watch anyone hang?    It is said years ago, in the old west, people used to pack their picnic baskets and take their families to watch a hanging as a social event.  In the absence of other social outlets, people would come together, spread their blankets on the ground, and watch the public hanging while children played and drank kool-aid.  Then, everyone would pack up and go home (As told by Carlyle Fielding Steward, III, in a sermon, “Hang Time” from Joy Songs, Trumpet Blasts, and Hallelujah Blasts,  CSS Press, 1997).

But who could find satisfaction is something as ugly as this?   Well, look at the people who were there.   Matthew tells us that besides those passing by, some of those who once listened to Jesus’ teaching came by just to watch Jesus die.  They used his own words to mock him: “You said you’d destroy the temples and build it back in three days…”    Others came to make fun of his plight as proof of his failure.  “He saved others, let him save himself”, they heckled.  The lack of an answer was reason enough to be glad he was dead.    

In watching such inhumanity, like that Centurion did, we might wonder why should we also be here?   Why should we join to watch this darkness overtake the light and listen to the jeers of those who are glad to see Jesus dying?   Do these gospels take us there just so we can politely pause to remember or invent our own theories about God’s purpose, or is there something else?   

Could it be that this story is still being told because this is not just something that happened once-upon-a-time, but this is something that still happens?  Luke’s Centurion says Jesus was ‘a righteous’ (KJV) or innocent (NRSV) person” (23:47).   In our world innocent people still suffer unjustly.  Good people are still taunted and mocked.   People who have power and money still do not want to be bothered.  People still stand back and watch evil take over.  Religious are still capable of being the most hateful and destructive in the name of God. 

Jesus was killed then, because Jesus is still being killed.   Jesus is killed when the majority demands its way no matter who gets hurt.  Jesus is killed every time disciples desert him.   Jesus is killed because the elite fear his call to holiness.  Jesus is killed because people don’t want to take responsibility for anything.   Jesus is killed, because ‘the people had nothing better to do.’ (Stanley Hauerwas).  The answer to who killed Jesus is that we all have killed him and still reject his way, his truth, and his life.  “He came to his own and they did would not receive him” (Jn. 1.11) is a saying that is still up-to-date?  Who really wants to have Jesus around? 

When Peter, Paul, Stephen, and the very first preachers preached the cross, they used the strongest language to call us all to tremble, because they of what the Centurion saw.   They preached: ‘This Jesus you crucified’ (Acts 2.36; 1 Thess. 2.14 f; Acts 7.52).  You cannot understand the cross without knowing how all human sin comes under divine judgment in the darkness of the cross.  

This centurion and his cohorts are ‘terrified’ when they realize what has just happened, but their witness is not simply a word of fear or regret.    When the Centurion says “this was the Son of God,” he does not yet see what we can see, but he does see something.  He puts everything in past tense, saying ‘this was the Son of God” rather than ‘this is the Son of God’ because his observation is not yet faith, but he is rightly grappling with the facts right in front of him.   As an accidental witness, he is at the right place and the right time to see straight into the heart of God the gospels want us to see, not by accident, but this time on purpose.

So, what is God’s purpose being revealed in the death of Jesus?   Recently I read how a Methodist pastor was teaching a class on worship to young people and he sent them on a scavenger hunt in the sanctuary.  They were to look for all kinds of items that the church used in worship like hymnbooks, candles, musical instruments, stained-glass windows, a baptistery and a cross.   They found all these, but one child came back and counted 600 crosses, most of which were found on the front of their hymnbooks.  The pastor had only counted 8, including the one on top of the Christian Flag, but this child creatively found them on front of every hymnbook.  But this was not all, then they all remembered that a cross was on top of every offering envelope so that finally they reasoned that a thousand or more crosses were in that one sanctuary.   It was then that they all realized together that the Christian faith is a religion of the cross (From “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian?”, by Marin Thielen, WJK Press, 2011, p. 113).

If the cross is the center, how do we move beyond merely observing the facts about his death to having saving faith in his death?   The first part of the answer, that we have already addressed, is that at the cross we must realize with this Centurion that Jesus was killed on the cross because he truly was God’s Son.   Jesus’s life was taken because he was who he said he was.   While we read that Jesus forgave those who did not know what they were doing, we must also realize that Jesus can only save those who realize what they did and what we still do.   This cross Jesus died so cruelly upon, reveals what we are all capable of doing to each other because we crucify the God who tells us the truth we don’t want to hear.

The other side to faith in the cross is that Jesus did not die only because the world wanted him dead, nor did Jesus die because God had to have him murdered in order to forgive us.   No, Jesus died to reveal the love God already has for us all so it is made clear once for all: “For God so loved that he gave his only son….”    This is why Jesus could not be our Savior until he was killed.   We could not know just how much God loves us until we realize that God will not stop loving us, even if it kills him, as it did.   God letting us kill him is a strange message that no one would make up, because it is true.  And this God who dies on the cross is the only kind of God who can save anybody, because he is the very God who gives his own life for the sake of love.   

Jesus gave his own life to reveal God’s love and forgiveness for us all because only dying love reveals the heart of God’s undying love in the message about the cross.   But we can’t receive this love as a saving love until we also realize just how much we still need love like this.   And how can we know God’s love will save us when the whole world is still not saved by it?   Here is where the apostle Paul comes in, who rightly said: “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”  We can never convince everyone that the cross reveals God’s love, forgiveness and saving purpose, but those ‘who are being saved’ will do become convinced of God’s power to love.  But how will they know it?

The other day Teresa and I got a message from our German friend who is soon to retire from teaching English to German students in high school.  Teresa and just called her and had a long conversation on the phone, but the day after their conversation, she emailed back to tell us something that had just happened after her class. 
Before I tell you what happened, I need to remind you that this teacher teaches English in eastern Germany, where even less than 1% of the people have any affiliation with church at all.  

After her class was over, a certain student came up to and asked whether or not she was ‘religious’.   Our friend was taken by surprised with this personal question along this student’s curiosity, especially since the teacher had never mentioned her faith to this class. 
          “Yes, I am,  why do you ask?” our teacher friend responded.
          The student answered: “I can tell that you are a religious person because of who you are and how you teach.”
        After our friend told us this story, she thanked us again for bringing the kind of faith to her that her students could see, even without her ever having said a word.   I then asked Teresa to email our friend back to welcome her into the ‘accidental witness’ club.   I explained that like the centurion, she was accidently sharing the truth of Jesus by showing God’s love on purpose.  

This is the greatest witness to the cross, isn’t it?   It is not only when we talk about it, but it is also when we live the cross that the message comes through.   While people still need a preacher, the preacher’s message will have little impact without the ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Heb. 12:1) showing both by accident and on purpose, that the message of the cross is true.    Are you living proof, both by accident and on purpose, that the centurions words are true?  The world took Jesus’ life, while Jesus gave his life, and now we live his life, because “Truly, this was (and is) God’s Son!”  Amen!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

“Navigating Darkness”

A Sermon Based Upon  Mark 15: 33-41
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fifth Sunday of Lent,   March 22nd, 2015

"When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. (Mar 15:33 NRS)

“Come on inside, it’s getting dark!”   

With words like these mothers have coax their children into coming inside.  Why did our mothers want not us to play outside after dark?  They didn’t have to explain.  When it got dark the lights came on and the house was filled with light and warmth.  It just made sense to come in.  Besides, who isn’t somewhat afraid of the dark?

For the most part, the Bible does not speak very favorably of darkness.  “Let there be light!” are the very first words God speaks.   Even for God, darkness has to be overcome for life energy to flow.   Without light there is no life.   The absence of light invites evil.

It should be no surprise that when the gospel first began to describe the crucifixion of Jesus, it says that ‘darkness came over the whole land’ (Mk. 15:33).   Mark’s description includes, but implies more than mere physical darkness.   Mark gives no direct explanation to what kind of darkness this was and it can’t simply be explained as a solar eclipse or dust storm.  The darkness here is only described by Jesus’ own dark cry of dereliction: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:46).    

Though it may seem that Jesus is completely alone in the dark, he isn’t.  Mark also tells us that “many women were also there, looking on from a distance…” (Mk. 15:55).   He tells us that first among those women was Mary Magdalene.   Here she is, still following Jesus when the world goes dark.

I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like for Mary.  It is one thing to follow Jesus when everything is bright, sunny, visible, explainable and understandable, but what would it have been like to keep following, keep loving, keep caring, and keep walking along side of Jesus as he was dying in the darkness of the cross?  Perhaps there is something we might learn from Mary for that day when we too must face the darkness that will come.

One thing we can certainly learn from Mary is that faith does not always depend upon having a full understanding of everything.   I don’t think that she, nor anyone, especially those male disciples, understood why Jesus had to suffer on the cross.   When Jesus first mentioned how ‘the Son of Man must suffer’ (Mk 8: 31-33),  even the idea of it was wholly rejected by Peter and the others.  Everything God was doing was beyond human understanding.  What God might do in darkness seemed to be pure nonsense.    But what the disciples did not want to see and ran away from, Mary and these other women did not run away,  but they walking faithfully with Jesus even in the dark. 
What might it mean of us to learn to navigate and negotiate our faith when life gets confusing and everything goes dark?  Could we dare imagine such a moment of difficulty, discouragement, or darkness?

A couple of months ago, the news reported the tragedy of a private plane crash in rural Kentucky in the dark of a stormy dark night.   All the passengers on that plane were killed except for the 7 year old daughter of the pilot, Sailor Gutzler.  She climbed out and walked over a mile from the crash site, emerging out of the woods bloody and barefoot in freezing temperatures.  By finding and following a small light, she kept walking toward it until she reached a house, knocked on the door and then told the 71 year-old homeowner Larry Wilkins, that she had been in a plane crash, her mom and dad were dead and the plane was upside down in the dark woods.  “I just can’t imagine anybody that young going through that, especially to witness her parents dying.”  The elderly man added,  “It’s amazing that she held up as good as she did.”  (

None of us want to imagine how dark life can get.  But what this little girl did in those dark Kentucky woods and what Mary did as they put Jesus up on the cross, can teach us all how we too must remain determined to keep on walking in faith even when the dark comes. 

Mary Magdalene is a unique example of such simple, spiritual determination.  We don’t know a lot about Mary Magdalene, but we know more about her than most of the other women who were there at the cross.  While we are mostly familiar with those twelve male disciples who followed Jesus wherever he went, Scripture also tells us about seven women who also followed Jesus wherever he went.  Mary Magdalene was one of those seven.  Luke tells us that she became a follower of Jesus because she had been cured from having seven demons (Lk. 8.2).  Demonic possession did not mean that Mary Magdalene had been an evil person or was a prostitute as some have mistakenly interpreted, but it means that until she met Jesus, her life had been completely out of her control as evil and negative dark powers ruled over her life.

What makes Mary Magdalene’s faithfulness at the cross so significant is that here, the darkness threatens once again.  Here again, evil had gotten the upper hand.  Here again, she is about to walk into a dark hole and she does not know where it will lead or how it will end up. 

To be a person of faith, even someone who has once experienced the saving power of Jesus Christ, does not guarantee we will be spared from having to walk into the darkness again.   Just as living in the daytime will not keep us from having to face the coming night, also living by faith does not mean that we will not still have to face crushing moments of disease, disability, doubt or discouragement.   No matter how hard we pray or how hard we believe, the day of faith will not keep the dark night away.    “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land….” (Mk 15.33).   This is what Mary had to experience, and the whole world does too.

While we cannot prevent the darkness from returning, but we can learn to navigate it, and we must.  Like that little girl climbing out of that crashed plane and walking in barefoot in the freezing darkness searching for whatever light she could find, we too have to find a way to climb out of what has crashed in our lives and we must keep walking until we can finally see  light again.   What do you think motivated that little girl Sailor Gutzler to keep on walking?  She came from a good family.  Her family owned a furniture business up in Illinois. Her father was a good pilot and a flight instructor.  She must have had a good family and a good upbringing.  Is that part of what gave her the strength to keep walking through the dark?

Whether it was her family, her upbringing, or her sheer will to survive, what she did teaches us all what we must do.   It also makes it even clearer to us what Mary Magdalene did as the return of darkness threaten her.   Mary did not run away giving into her worst fears, but Mary resolved to remain close to Jesus.  She kept following, even when everything fell apart and even when they hung him on the cross.  What else could she do?  Because of her love for Jesus, Mary remained close and kept walking; even if it meant walking straight into the dark.

In her recent writing about the dark, Barbara Brown Taylor says that before the time of Enlightenment and before the Printing Press could put the Bible into every hand or every home, the Christian faith was not made up of complicated doctrinal belief systems.  Then, faith was more ‘ a disposition of the heart than it was about the specific furniture in the mind.”  Taylor goes on to remind us that originally ‘to believe’ did not mean having it all figured out, as much as it meant ‘setting your heart upon’ something or ‘to give your love to’ someone.  (Learning to Walk in the Dark,  Barbara B. Taylor, Harper One, 2014, p. 143 ).    

There are no set of beliefs that can take the place of daily walking with Jesus, especially when you have to walk with him in the dark moments of life.   It would be especially good for people who struggle with religious belief today to know that true faith has always been more than memorizing or affirming the ‘letter of the law’, or deciphering the exact meaning of words, or living by certain rules, but belief should be more about knowing who you are with whatever you have to face or figure out.

This is why the great teachers of faith, have always encouraged belief, even before understanding comes.   “I believe that I might come to understand”,  Augustine wrote before the Middle Ages.   His statement was not some trick to get people into church or to encourage religious power instead of brain power, but this is how life always works. 

 Even the greatest discoveries of Science and Reason still begin with belief.  I can recall how, as a child, I used read about Dick Tracy in the comics and his amazing telephone he had in his wrist watch.  Now, some 50 years after I was introduced to that 1930s comic book character,  the very innovative computer company comes out with an Apple Watch you can phone with and so much more.   All this incredible science and high technology did not begin as a fact, but it all begins as an faith in an idea.   Faith never rests on how things are, but it rests on what could be.  In the same way, having faith, especially when life gets dark, is how we must position our hearts toward God even when we don’t have everything figured out.  Because faith is more of the heart than in the head,  we can keep walking with God, we can find a way to keep believing, keep learning, and keep walking by faith, even when we can’t see or find our way at the moment.  Just like we learn to find our way in our homes at night, we can find our way through the dark moments of life when the way is written in our hearts.

But to follow the heart, requires something more from us.  Mary had to learn yet another powerful lesson about navigating her life in the dark.   Remember her encounter with the resurrected Jesus only John’s gospel records (John 20:11-18)?    As she followed Jesus even to the grave, she stands weeping ‘outside the tomb.’   There, Mary encounters two angels, but even angels do not bring her comfort, as she answers them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  

We will all stand there with Mary.  We will stand at the darkness of the tomb and wonder where and why our loved ones are gone.  But there is more to this story.  For as Mary turns around she thinks she sees the gardener.  She even asks him if he knows where the body is.  It is only when Jesus called her by her name that she recognized him as her Rabbouni, or Teacher.   But just as Mary reaches out to embrace him, Jesus surprisingly and strangely says, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father….” (Jn. 20.17).

A lot of ink has been spilt trying to figure what Jesus means.   Whatever mystery lies behind it, one truth remains.  If Mary or we want to walk with Jesus through the darkness of our lives into newness in life, we will have to learn to let go, even more than we have learned to hold on.  We cannot learn to walk with Jesus into the new light of what can be, or will be, or must be, without letting go of how things have been.  If we are going to grow in Christ, both spiritually and emotionally, and if we want to move beyond the darkness we have experienced, we will have to learn to let some things go so that what is new will be able to grow.

But letting go is not easy either.  It is so human and natural to want to hold on.  Especially when the life we have been given has been such a blessing, or when the love we  have shared has been good and gracious, it can seem like a curse to have to let go.  There is an initial shock to all of this, for it may have first seemed to Mary, as it might also feel to us, that when we are asked to let go, that it’s because God does not care or Jesus does not want to embrace us.  What Jesus does want, however painful it can seem in the moment, is to take Mary’s life to a whole new level of living.  Jesus wants her to walk out of the dark she has known into the new God has to give.  But this newness of life will not take hold in her life, unless Mary first learns to let go.

How will Mary learn to do this?   How will we also learn to navigate the dark with a Savior who will not allow her or us to hold on to life as it was too tightly?   Amazingly, John’s retelling of it implies that Mary didn’t hesitate to let go and move on.  Without any hesitation, Mary moves on to announce to his disciples how she has “seen the Lord!”   Yet this Lord she has seen is no longer an earth-bound, buried Lord, but is the risen, living and ascending Lord!  How was she able to let go of what once was so freely?  How will we also be able to ‘let it go’, as the popular song says, so that the new can grow in us?

The answer could already be seen in Mary before the cross and even before the resurrection.  How we all find strength to walk with God in the dark is already available to us, as well.  What is it?   Although all four gospels tell us how a woman broke a jar of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet, none of the gospels tell us that this woman was Mary Magdalene.  But in spite of that, she has been the woman who traditionally, if not mistakenly, has been thought to be that woman.  How did this happen?  No one knows for sure, but when the gospel of John named Lazarus’ sister Mary as the woman, somehow in the tradition of the Roman church, Lazarus’ sister, Mary of Bethany became confused with Mary of Magdala  (From Anchor Bible Commentary on John, 1-12, by Raymond Brown, Doubleday, 1966, p. 452).   

Sure, these are different events and according to the Bible, and they are different women, but their hearts are much the same.   What both Marys did is what we all must do, before life gets dark.   It is only possible to let go and to keep going when you have already given yourself fully and completely to Jesus.   It is this fully abandoning love for Christ that we must fully give now, while it is still light, if we want to keep faith and find strength to navigate our hearts through the darkness that will come. 

I can’t out of my head the image of that little seven-year-old girl, Sailor Gutzler, who crawled out of that crashed plane, watched her parents die, and then found the strength to walk about a mile in the dark to find help.   “It’s amazing that she held up as good as she did,”  repeating again what the elderly 71 year-old Larry Wilkins said.   It is amazing, but it was no accident.   Her life before the crash gave her the strength to walk through that darkness.    And it will be much the same for us.  How much we give to faith now will determine how much strength we can receive from our faith when the darkness comes.  If you’ve never walked this way before, you certainly can’t easily learn after it gets dark.  So, now, walk in the light as He is your light, so that when darkness comes, you will already know the way to get through.   Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 27: 11-26
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday of Lent,   March 15th, 2015

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." (Mat 27:24 NRS)

Several years ago, I had a young man who had once been a lawyer in the church where I was pastor in Greensboro.  I’ll never forget how nice and caring the guy he was.  He was newly married, had a new baby and he rescued greyhound dogs.  He had strong faith in Jesus Christ, tender love for his family and had a big, formerly abused dog walking around in his living room. 

Quiet, abused, big, needy dogs make me nervous, but he assured me, when the dog eyed me, and I eyed the dog, that he didn’t want me for lunch, but was only starved for love.  As I watched the dog out of one eye and we talked, I wondered why he wasn’t practicing law anymore.  It finally came up in our conversation and I asked ‘why’ he had left the law practice to work for an insurance company.  I’ll never forget this answer:  “I quit working as an attorney, because I wanted to remain a Christian.” 

The problem we have with our legal system not the system, but the problem is we have a system that is built by the people, is of the people and is for the people.   As long as we, the people are ethically concerned and morally motivated, our system works.  But when the people lose their moral compass, or are naively taken advantage of by the professionals who work the system to their own advantages, the system fails.  No system rises above the people who are running it.  When people become corrupted by power, or by political or monetary gain, no system works justly.    

Legally, the trial of Jesus, is one of the most ironic in human history.  As the world passed moral judgment upon Jesus, it was really passing judgment upon itself.   This was a ‘monkey trial’ if there ever was one.  While we certainly can’t learn how to fix our own legal system by studying this trial, we might certainly learn something about what can be broken in us.

The text begins with this unforgettable scene:  “Now Jesus stood before the governor” (27:11).  Matthew’s wants to etch in our minds the complete power this governor had.  Pilate’s power was full and seemingly unlimited.  Matthew has already shown how all the Jewish religious and legal leadership put aside all their difference to ‘confer together against Jesus’ to ‘bring about his death.’ (27:1).   Since these Jewish leaders had no legal right to enforce a death penalty, they had to ‘hand him over to Pilate” (27:1-2). 

Life or death was placed in Pilate’s hands so that he had to decide.   Here’s where the great irony comes in.  Even though Pilate was the highest ranking official of Rome in that region, what he does next has little to do with his “official” duty.   It is the human choice that keeps coming out.   Whether it be Judas, Peter, the Jewish elders or Pilate himself,  they each had to make a choice about Jesus and the choice they each made was to hand him over.  Do you see it?  Judas handed Jesus over to the Jews.  The Jews handed him over to Pilate and Rome, and finally,  Pilate handed Jesus over to the will of the crowd.  In each of these characters around the cross, we observe them making a choice just like we are given the power to make our own choices.   No one was holding sword over Judas’ head saying, you must betray Jesus.  No one was forcing Peter to deny him.  No real charge was making the High Priest want him dead.   And more than anyone else, in Pilate we see a governor who should have been free to make his own verdict. Each of them were freely choosing,  deciding and self-determining people.  Fate is never as powerful as their ability to decide or to choose what they would do.

When we choose to live and work as Missionaries in Europe, we seldom had family or friends to visit, but when they did come, we would take vacation and travel together.  Once, when Teresa’ Aunt and Uncle came to see us, they wanted to see Paris, so we got in the car and drove.   But as we approached Paris, we noticed the traffic slowing.  It was becoming a traffic jam that was slowly coming to a halt about 20 miles outside of Paris.   Instead of staying on the Interstate, I decided to take the first exit to stop and eat.  While there, I learned that the traffic snarl was due to a strike (the French love striking) and that all routes into Paris were blocked by tractors and transfer trucks.  The French government had just introduced a point system on driver’s licenses, so in protest, the farmers and truck drivers blocked all the roadways into the capital.  Paris was totally closed by land and by air.  

Being young and adventurous, and not a little self-assured, I turned and asked our guests, if they wanted to continue to Paris.  When they answered ‘yes’,  I found a detailed map and started finding back roads, pig paths, and even driving through parking lots and empty fields to find a some way around the road block into Paris.  After a few hours  we arrived in the center of Paris, and I learned that people in cars and buses had been stranded on the interstate and at airports for days, even doing without food.  They choose not to get off the main road and were stuck.  We literally took  “A Road Less Traveled” and arrived.   The power we had to  arrive at our destination, was all about the choice.

When we look at the choice Pilate, Judas, or the High Priests had to make with Jesus, there is only one way the New Testament limits their choice.   If you go back to when Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested, a disciple (Peter) pulls out a sword to resist.   Jesus objects to any kind of resistance to the choices being made, saying “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?   But how then, would the scriptures be fulfilled, which must happen this way (26:53)?

What do you think Jesus means by scriptures being fulfilled by that ‘which must happen’?  Does Jesus mean that the Messiah had to be betrayed, denied, rejected and crucified to save his people?   What kind of God would send his Son to die such a horrible death?   What kind of God would work out a plan of salvation that involved such horrendous, ugly, cruel sacrifice?  People today look at the crucifixion of Jesus and say,  Uck!   People today resist any kind judgment from God or anyone, and say, Uck!   So, how can Jesus say this ‘must happen?’   Did God plan everything that happened to Jesus, or were humans empowered to freely choose?   A lot of people today want no part in such a ‘bloody’,  violent, messy religion where things have to happen a certain way.   They think themselves better than following a God who demands blood to show true love.

Part of the answer to all the religious confusion may come in the choice Jesus made as he said: “Do you not think I can appeal to my Father?”  By going to the cross Jesus was doing what he had to do.  The Chief Priests were also doing what they had to do.  Finally,  Pilate was doing what he had to do.  Who was really calling the shots?   Here,  I’m reminded of what used to happen when my Father was playing checkers with me as a little boy.  My Father was a good at checkers, and it might sound cruel what he sometimes did to me, but it was life lessons.  When he’d out-maneuver me and trap me, he’d say,  “Now, Son, you have to make your move”.  Knowing what the next move would mean, I’d hesitate and resist, “But I don’t want to.”  “Son, you have to take the jump!  “You have to take your move’.   You cannot, not make your choice.

However you view what happened to Jesus, the story calls upon us to make the next move too.  Judas, the Priests, and Pilate himself, have fallen into the hands of a righteous, holy, and God, who will not use His power against them.   God empowers them, just like he empowers us to make the next move.  When you face truth head on, you can’t  ‘play the game’ without making and living the choice we make; good or bad, easy or hard.     You cannot, not choose.  You have to choose.  Even not choosing is a choice.  Like my trip to Paris, circumstances, situations, opportunities, and the Lord of Life himself, calls for us to make our choice—and to know that we will not only live with it, but we will also die with it.  You can choose get stuck in life, or you can seize the moment and take another route.   The poet was right: “I took the road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference?”   Through Jesus, God calls us to make our choice.

The one thing we should not do in life is become indecisive.  But that is exactly what Pilate does.   Pilate makes the choice not to choose.   Ironically, the one with the most power, legally and politically; the one who holds all the cards and the keys to life and death; he is the one who proves to be the weakest character of all.  With all his power, Pilate appears helpless.  Can’t you see it?  Pilate hardly gets a single word out of Jesus.  Jesus says almost nothing to him.  Pilate is also being easily manipulated by the Jewish leaders and the High Priest.   This governor, with all Rome’s power at his disposal, is the one who refuses to govern, and he is the one who fully and finally gives in to the fickle wishes of the crowd.   He is the one who knows the choice that needs to be made, but he doesn’t make it.  Instead, “He washes his hands.” 
And did the stain come out?   Even today, in the oldest creed of the church, we still say that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”  Can you imagine being remembered for who you wrongly murdered?  When it comes to the death, suffering and dying of the innocent, those who try to wash their own hands of their responsibility toward others and toward God will also find that their hands will not come clean.  You can’t wash your own hands clean.   Remember Lady MacBeth’s powerful words in Shakesphere’s play.  No matter how much she cursed, the spot would not come out.

We all want to put our own hands in the wash basin with Pilate and claim we have nothing to do with the darkness of our world, just like Pilate claimed to be innocent of the dark in this world.   We blame the Jews.  We blame the Romans.  We blame the Democrats, or we blame the Republicans, or the Presbyterians, or the Methodist.  Or we might not even care at all, and simply try to wash our hands, but when we do this, our hands may never come clean.  None of us can wash our hands of the responsibility of the choices we make.  None of us can wash our own hands clean of having no responsivity to do the good that we should do.  Pilate thinks he side steps the truth without doing what he needed to do, but when he tried to remain neutral, which was only a political move to secure his freedom, by not choosing he made the worst choice of all.  

In Pilate, we see exactly what killed Jesus and what still kills Jesus.   Jesus was killed by neglect--washing the hands of responsibility.  No one wanted to be caught killing Jesus so they all ‘handed him over’.  Judas handed him over to the Jews, the Jews handed him over to Pilate,  then some say Pilate handed him over the Herod,  and then Herod handed him over to Pilate again.  But finally, Pilate handed him over to the crowd.   Who then killed Jesus?  Who is the crowd?  That’s us!  When we neglect his truth, we too hand him over to die in us by not choosing.  

So make this note:  It was not money, greed, or wrong-doing that finally killed Jesus, but it was doing nothing that killed him.  Doing nothing still kills Jesus.   While we may try to find the bright side of what happened; that through Jesus death we are saved from our sins, we must be careful to understand that it is not 'our' killing of Jesus that saves us, but it is that he was willing to die.   God did not put the fateful choice to kill Jesus into the heart of Pilate, but Pilate allowed Jesus to be handed over to the crowd to be killed at their wishes, because Pilate had no heart and he washed his hands of all responsibility and did nothing.   
Isn't  it also true that sometimes, if not most of the time, the worst thing we can do is to choose not to choose.   Think about a teen who doesn't want to grow up and get a job and make something of themselves.    Think about a person who has something going on, but doesn't want to go to the doctor and then, when they do go, realizes that they have waited too long.   Think about two people who are hurting each other in a relationship, but they won't seek help, and then their relationship falls apart, or they get stuck.   Think about the person who knows they are not living as they should live, but does nothing but allow their lives to continue a downward spiral.   In most all areas of our lives, the worst thing we may do, is to put the matter off, to decide to choose by choosing to do nothing.
What a way to be remembered---as a person who refused to do did not do what should have been done.   Who wants to be remembered that way?   Once a friend reminded the great preacher Charles Spurgeon that his ill health, was due to the fact of how hard he worked away in his youth.  "You preached 10 times in one week, almost all year long, year after year, and you wore yourself out." 

"Oh yes, Spurgeon said,  it may be so and I don't regret it in the least!   Thank God I preached with all my might ever where I got the chance, and I would do it now, as I did in earlier days, if I could regain the strength."
"At least," Sprugeon concluded,  I don't have the misery of saying I wasted my opportunities and spent my days at ease...",  which meant, he was glad he was able to exonerate himself of saying to himself that he did nothing.  The people who do nothing have nothing to fear except 'that their sin will find them out'.  (
When we do nothing by refusing to answer the refuse voice of truth, and give in to the voice of the crowd, like Pilate, we too kill the Jesus who would save us, by neglect.  We don't kill Jesus because of what we do, but we do kill Jesus by what we don’t do.  If we wash our hands of our responsibility, the stain won't come out. 
So, don’t listen to the crowd.  Crowds are fickle.  The alternative to the crowd is to listen to Jesus and to follow Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Flickering Firelight

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 22: 54-62
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday of Lent,   March 8th, 2015

" But Peter said, "Man, I do not know what you are talking about!" At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. (Luk 22:60 NRS)

We all make mistakes.  But some mistakes are greater than others.   Some mistakes are bad and can hurt us.  Other mistakes are the best thing that could ever have happened.

As we shared last week, Judas made a tragic mistake and never recovered.   Even though he repented for what he did, he was never restored into the community of Jesus because he never came back to Jesus.  Peter also made a terrible mistake, but he did recover. He found forgiveness, renewal and redemption, because he did come back to Jesus and to the community of grace.  Judas’ failure ended in tragedy, but Peter’s failure gives us all hope.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  We need understand what Peter’s own discipleship failure can teach us about both the strengths and weaknesses of our own Christian discipleship.   Who can forgot the flickering image of the firelight or the ominous sound of that lone rooster crowing as Peter begins to realize what he did?   What will take us back to the time we denied our Lord?  Will it be something we see?  Will it be something we hear?  Or what is it that we are now doing that proves that we are indeed being faithful in how we are  following Jesus right now, this very day?

Before we consider Peter’s denial of Jesus, it is important to remember that the last disciple we see, before Jesus is crucified, is Peter.   Even when Jesus is being betrayed and being arrested, Peter is right there.   John’s gospel tells us that when Jesus is arrested, how Peter takes a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the religious leaders who is trying to make the arrest.   It’s not a pretty sight, and Jesus is not at all happy with Peter for taking up the sword.   But we can all understand why Peter did what he did.  He was passionate.  He was afraid.  This was Jesus.  Peter is supposed to be the Rock.  He thought he had to do something, and he did.

We know that Peter’s heart was right, even when he failed, while Judas’ heart may never have been.  What makes Peter’s denial so surprising is that it is not what we have come to expect from Peter.  This is not the Peter we all thought we knew.

Back in 2001, in the summer before 9/11, were able to travel back to Europe, one week on mission and on the other week, we drove to Rome.   It was our first visit to Rome and of course, we had to see St. Peter’s Basilica, the headquarters of Roman Christianity.  As I stood amazed at the largeness of St. Peter’s, I could not forget that this magnificent cathedral was supposed to be built over the bones of Peter, who is said to have finally come to Rome, where he preached the gospel which lead to him being crucified upside down, because he refused to be crucified as a mockery to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.   What also made the whole spectacle even more amazing, is that while most of the New Testament was written by the apostle Paul, who has a much more modest church built over his remains, the center of all Christian witness in the Roman world focused more on Peter’s faith, as Jesus said,  “Upon this rock I will build my church!”

We know that the ‘rock’ upon which the church is built upon is Peter’s own ‘great confession’ that Jesus was and is the messiah---the true Jewish king whom God has empowered not just to rule the hearts of people, but to one day rightly rule the world in peace.   When Jesus initially came unto his own and his own failed to recognize him, however, it was the faith and great confession of a very simple fishermen whose expression of whole-hearted faith established the heart of Christian desire for and belief in Jesus on earth, forever.  

Today, more than ever, we too need to realize that the church of Jesus Christ lives and dies, not based on history, not based it’s own goodness or righteousness, but the church was given birth and still either lives or dies, based upon the faith and actions of simple people, with simple, daring, determined faith, who will stand up and be counted as a disciple and follower of the Galilean who preached the nearness of God’s kingdom that comes by faith. 

Peter’s faith was a great faith.  No one moment of failure or frustration can ever take that away, just like no one moment of weakness can take away the strength and power of our own, intitial commitment to Jesus.  We must not ever any one moment keep us from seeing the big picture of who Peter was, or who we also can be, in spite of our humanness, our weaknesses, or our own personal failings.  

Not long ago, I read about the early days of Abraham Lincoln and how, his early genius and even his early promise as a lawyer and politician were often accompanied by moments of weakness, failure, depression and frustration.  Did you know that Lincoln always resented his father?   Did you know that Lincoln was a terrible manager of money?   Did you know that Lincoln had faith in God, but struggled with his faith and with going to church?   The man we consider the greatest president of our United States was a real man, but he was real with both great strengths and real weaknesses.  He was also a very clever and shrewd political opponent too, who could most naturally out-think even the most clever, educated or experienced politician around.  Lincoln was Lincoln because of who he was, but he was also Lincoln, in spite of who he was, too.   You just can’t take the weaknesses out of a person, no matter how much greatness they may achieve  (For more details see A. Lincoln, by Ronald White).

What we still see in Lincoln is what we also  see in Peter, which is first and foremost their great desire--their whole-hearted desire to do right, to believe in the right, even to be willing to stand up against greatest threats of darkness the world can muster.   With Lincoln it was his unwavering commitment to the Union that we remember.  With Peter it the confession of his faith that never changed, even though he did waver in fear.  Under the circumstances of losing your own life, who of us would fare much better than Peter?  Don’t we all know the failure induced by the fear of a moment?

Now, let’s consider Peter’s weakness in that moment.   It was only a few hours after Peter pulled out his sword and was ready to fight for Christ and the Kingdom, that all the emotions, excitement and energy have dissipated.  Reality has set it.  Peter is waiting by the fire, watching for his Lord to come out of the interrogation room.  Maybe he is hoping for the best, even while he is expecting the worst.  Again, to his credit, Peter is the only disciple left standing, when a woman stares at him in the firelight and questions his identity: “This man also was with him’.  What would you say?

I recall one of the most interesting debates we ever had in philosophy class in college.  We were studying ethics and we were debating something called the teleological suspension of the ethical.  It might sound really sophisticated, but was about a simple question:  If you were a parent of small children, and a child molester or killer showed up at your door and asked you if you where or not your children were at home, would you tell him the truth or would it be O.K. to lie.   The point we were arguing was exactly this,  sometimes you can suspend what is right, if what is right is threatened by a great wrong.     

I don’t want to get into any kind of debate about absolutes, because its really not about what is right or wrong, its about doing what is necessary to save lives and maybe that was what Peter was trying to do.  Maybe he was not trying to deny Jesus as much as he was trying to save his own skin.  Maybe he was just trying to get out of a bad situation.  Who are we to judge Peter, when most of us would probably have done the same thing?

That may have been true, but it’s still not the point.   If we read on, Peter did not deny Jesus one time, but three times.  Yet, that is not the point either.  What the point is, is what Jesus said to this first woman and how he said it.  He not only, did not let his ‘no’ just be ‘no’, but he added, “Woman,  I do not know him.”   The point is, here and in the following two denials, that Peter does not have the strong faith he thinks he has.  Before he can lead , he needs to realize just how human he really is.   He can only do this when he realizes that Jesus was right:  “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me.”  You’re not as strong as you think you are.  You are person with weaknesses too.   Peter, you can’t lead, you can’t love, and you can’t follow, until you know exactly what your weaknesses are.  When you think about it, neither can we!

None of us can go the whole way with Jesus until we confront and allow ourselves to be humbled by our weaknesses.  Denial gets you nowhere.  You can only go where you could go or should go with Jesus or in anything, for that matter, when you take a serious look at who you are, and who also you aren’t.

Many times people become surprised when great leaders disappoint them.  We are disturbed when a president commits adultery.  We are disappointed when a Pastor is not what we expected him or her to be.   All these great failures are terrible in and of themselves, but we must also realize that many times, we, with all the expectations we put upon our leaders, are the ones who create the monster leaders can become.  

I recall something that Pastor and fellow Missionary Paul Box told me years ago.  He had been the founder of a large church in Oklahoma, but the expectations of that church he founded, wore him out.  He tried to meet them all, but he couldn’t, even if it killed him, and it nearly did.  He was put in the hospital, and after he recovered, he did not go back to that church, but he went on the mission field.  Isn’t it interesting to think of someone going to the mission field to relax and find peace of mind?

I asked Paul what happened to the church after he left.  “It is still growing, but it’s still a little crazy.”   What do you mean?  He told me how he and his wife had recently gone back to the church to tell of their mission work, and how the current Pastor would not let Patti speak, because she was a woman.  “Patti is an even better speaker than me, and the pastor would not even let her speak nor approach the altar, because as the Bible says,  “A woman should be silent” in church.

When I heard about the pastor’s counterproductive, and wrong-minded interpretation of that Scripture, I asked Paul, did the church not know better?  Of course they did, but because the church was growing and the pastor was such a dynamic speaker, no one would try to reason with him.   They kept putting their preacher on a pedestal, overlooking his weaknesses and not encouraging him get real, even though he needed too.  “The youth group is growing,” they said.  “We don’t want to do anything that might halt that.”

We create the monster leaders we have, most often because we expect too much of them.   But Jesus did not expect too much from Peter.  Jesus expected that Peter would fear like all the rest, even though his heart was right.  It was Jesus who tried to get Peter to face the humanness of being human long before Peter ever did.  Peter had to come to grips with his weaknesses, not by realizing who he was beforehand, but only buy realizing what he had done, afterward.  That is never the best way to learn---the hard way.   The way of Jesus might be hard, but it’s not as ‘hard’ as the hard way.

So how do we face our own weaknesses?  How do we go all the way with Jesus?  Isn’t our greatest fear, not what we haven’t done, but that we haven’t done enough?   Maybe you want me to say that the best way to follow Jesus is do something daring and great.  I’m going to surprise you.  Maybe the greatest thing you could ever do for Jesus is to make a mistake and admit it, and then start following or leading in humility, just like everyone else who gets real.  When you do this, you have great potential.  You have the greatest potential to lead or do great things for Jesus, not because of who you are, but because of who Jesus is.   To discover this great truth could be the greatest, most freeing thing that could ever happen to you.   But trust me, it not easy.  Think about Peter.  Facing, Admitting, or Conceding your weakness is not easy.    But if you get honest with yourself, you’ll begin the journey of true greatness.    Amen.