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Sunday, September 29, 2019

“I Watched Satan Fall!”

A sermon based upon Luke 10: 1-12; 17-20
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
September 29, 2019

What does it mean to be a Christian?   More precisely, what does it mean to follow Jesus Christ?  It sounds like a simple question demanding just an easy answer. 
Well, part of the answer, if you’re asking, is that it’s not easy.  It can be easy to like Jesus or to appreciate that Jesus suffered and died a terrible death.  It can be easy to understand that Jesus came to be a savior for his people, was rejected by them and should be accepted by us, but to actually follow Jesus, to imitate Him, or to obey his commands? That’s certainly not as easy as some try to make it.
Consider how the last chapter concludes.  In Luke 9:57–62, as Jesus was walking along on the road, someone came up to Jesus all dreamy-eyed, treating Jesus like a movie star, saying:  “I will follow You wherever You go!”  Jesus told him, it’s not that easy: “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”  That’s hard, who could live like that?
Jesus then turned and called another person to “Follow me!”.  That person answered yes, “Lord, but first let I’ve got to bury my father.”  Jesus answered: “Let the dead bury their own dead?”  That sounds even harder to do.  Who could just walk away from a parent like that? 
Another person is invited and he says yes, “I will follow You, Lord, but first let me go and say good-bye to those at my house.” Jesus makes it even hard for him, “If you put your hand to the plow and then look back, you’re not fit for the kingdom…!”  Ouch!  Jesus even makes it sound cruel and mean.   It sounds like Jesus told his disciples elsewhere: “I assure you: It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven!  ….It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  The disciples couldn’t believe their ears. “Then who can be saved?” They asked in astonishment (Matthew 19:23–25, HCSB). 
Jesus certainly isn’t making it easy to grow a church, to gain recruits, or get results.   The army surely doesn’t make recruits this way.  All you’ve got to do is sign up.  They say, they’ll make it easy for you.   Of course, it’s not easy.  Basic training and military life can be hard.  It can get you killed too.  But they sure make it look easy.  You can be a hero too.  That’s what they tell you, but what don’t tell you, at least not up front, is that the truth.  At least Jesus tells the truth, but he’ll get a lot fewer recruits.  He says it will be hard…. Who wants hard?  We’d rather have “an easy button” like the commercial says.  But Jesus seems to make hard for us. 

It even sounds like Jesus doesn’t want many people to follow him.  However, this isn’t what ‘hard’ is about.   “Hard” isn’t just about hard, but hard is about true.  “Hard” is about honest.  Hard is about real.  In the ancient world, and in our world too, this is how real, good, and smart works.  If you are trying to get a good job, you have to get prepared for a long application process.  If you want to go to a good college, you’d better get ready to ‘jump through a lot of hoops.  If you want become a professional or reach a certain level of credibility to have credentials, it will take some struggle, real sacrifice, and a lot of dedication.  It will pay off, and it can be worth it, but anything worth anything will also be hard.
In the ancient world, master teachers often screened very carefully their ‘would-be followers’.  A certain guru, a wise teacher lived up in the mountains in an isolated cabin.  A would-be disciple knocked on his door.  The wise man opens the door and asks: “What do you want?”  “I want to be your disciple.”  He slams the door in his face.  The person goes back a second day.  “I want to be your disciple.”  The wise man spits at him and closes the door.  The third day, “I want to be your disciple.”  And the wise man hits him with a stick and closes the door.  Finally, the wise man listens. “I want to be your disciple.”  “Now I know you are sincere; come in.”
It wasn’t just Jesus who did this, but other Rabbis did this, carefully screen their applicates, just like colleges and universities still do today.  There is an old story about a fellow who wanted to become a Monk.  He went to the Abbot, the head Monk, and explained how he wanted to become a Monk. 
“Well, it means seven years of living is silence, after which you get two word.”  
After seven years of total silence, the Abbot called him in and said, “You no can say two words. 
“Cold breakfast.” 
“Are you going to stay?”
“Well, it means you will have to live seven more years in silence and then two words.”
Seven years passed in total silence.  The Abbot called him in,” You can now have your two words.”  He said,  “Hard bed.”
“Are you going to stay?”
Seven more years, after which he called him in and said, “You now have two words.”
“I quit.” 
And the Abbot said, “Well, it’s just as well.  You’ve done nothing but complain the whole time you’ve been here.”
It could be easy for any of us to complain about being or becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, but Jesus tells us up front.  “It’s going to be hard!”  It’s rewarding.  It’s redeeming.  It can even be saving, but it’s going to get hard.  Like in our text today, Jesus told his disciples from day one.  “The harvest is abundant.”  But “the workers are few”.  “Now….I’m sending you out like lambs among wolves.”  It’s going to be hard, and it can be dangerous too.  Are you sure you want to do this?  Are you sure you a ready to do this?
Interestingly, there are a lot of people who answer the call, accept the mission, even when it seems impossible, or exactly because they love the Lord and they yearn for the challenge.  In fact, some people don’t like a ‘mealy mouthed, watered down, anybody can do it, there’s nothing to it, invitation.  Most young people finally get tired of ski trip after ski trip, vacation after vacation at the same place, doing the same thing.  Many people understand that the God of Heaven and Earth, would expect something from us, and from them, and that being Christian should cost something, if it is indeed, worth something.   “When Christ calls a person, he calls that person to come and die, not come and dine!”   “If anyone will come after me, let him take up his cross…  If you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.”  That’s how Jesus really put it.  It’s sounds hard, because it is hard.   It’s not easy to be Christian. 
There was a time when Jesus, the Jew became a Christian, when he left the carpenter shop opened the scroll and announced that he was called to preach good news.   If you understand the Bible correctly, you can also see that it took a long time for this Jewish understanding of God to become a Christian understanding of God.  That took a long-time-coming because it was also a ‘hard-time’ in coming.  It wasn’t easy for Israel to accept the Christian view of God, just like it’s not easy today for people to live and follow the Christian view of God.  It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.  “With God, all things are possible!”  Jesus said.  And here, in today’s text, Jesus is extending an invitation for his disciples to answer the gospel call, to accept the terms, and then to ‘go’ and something that can be hard; very hard.

          If it’s that’s hard, why would anyone ever chance it, dare it, or accept it.  Why? Jesus accepted not just a baptism by water, but also a ‘baptism by fire’.    ‘You will be baptized with the baptism I’m being baptized with’, he informed his own disciples.   ‘A servant is no better than his master,’ he also reminded them.   But before all this was sealed, the devil gave Jesus several alternatives.  Remember how Luke tells it.   Jesus was in the desert with nothing to eat, and the devil said, “If you are God’s son, tell this stone to become bread.”   When that didn’t work,  the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world.  “I’ll give you…all this (worldly) authority.”  “Worship me, and it will all be yours.  When that also didn’t work,  the devil came a third time, taking him to Jerusalem, standing on top of the temple, saying, ‘Throw yourself down, and the angels will protect you,’ you’ll not get hurt, not even stump your toe, that is, “If you are really God’s Son”, then you can prove it.  You can take another route.  You can do this another way.  You can push the ‘easy button’, if you are really are somebody; if you really are who you say you are.
Isn’t that still what the tempter whisper’s in ears of the human heart?   When those wealthy movie stars made money and though they were somebody, they heard that whisper in their ears, that they could have everything, and that their kids deserved to have the best too, so they thought they could manipulate, validate, and escalate the process of getting their own children in the most elite schools, skipping the whole process.  They thought what most people had to do the hard way, they could an easier way, because they were better, deserving, and able.  
In a similar way, there are many out there who think they can have their ‘cake’ and ‘eat it too’, because they can live as a Christian any way they want.   They can get Baptized the way they want to get baptized.  They can join the church or answer the call whenever or however they wish.   They can choose to be Christian they way they want to be a Christian, not necessarily the way the gospel and the master demands, but the way that they choose, wish, or want.   Once, a famous preacher was at a conference preaching from the New Testament book of James, where not only says, you have to be a ‘doer’ of the word and ‘not a hearer only’ and that your faith must be at work in how you live your live, not just how you believe in your heart.  He was specifically speaking from the text where it says that so much that is wrong in this world comes from wrongly place ‘desires’ (1:14) or wrongly motivated ‘passions’ (4:1).  In other words, James was explaining that we desire the wrong things when we want and ask for things, just so we have pleasure (James 4:3).  
The preacher went on to explain how in the ancient world, self-control, and constraint was one of the great virtues.  He added in his sermon, “Just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean you really can afford it.”  “Having money, the wherewithal, the skill or the freedom, is not a green light, to have anything and everything, as long as one hungry child is in the world.  You cannot afford spend all that extra on yourself when there are needs like this.  It might be OK in some kinds of churches, and in some kinds of Christianity, but it’s not something Jesus affords in the ‘way’ that started on a cross.  What kind of life where those movie stars really buying when they tried to pay their kids way, all the way?  What kind of Christianity are people buying, when they give, just as long as they get something in return?  What kind of life will you have, when you come to the end, and you stand before God, and he asked, “What did you do?”  “Well, I had a nice life.  We’ll I drove nice cars, had big house, took some nice trips, and of course, ‘we got to shop!” (Fred Craddock, Collected Sermons, p. 162).

The Christian invitation to life is to a life that is more than just ‘having’ and ‘getting’, because life must be more, if it is it is a life worth having lived.  Jesus is inviting, not just his disciples, but in Luke’s text particularly, Jesus is seeking to find more who will follow him and life for him in this way, because the message he’s preaching and the mission he’s sending to risk themselves for, is a life than can be lived by anyone, maybe even possibly by everyone.  For here, in Luke’s version of this story, we find that that seventy-two disciples were being called and sent out to preach and invite, because Luke implies this is message is intended for anyone. 
This isn’t just about preaching and missionaries, and it’s also not just about “God’s Kingdom” coming near, here, and now, for you; for us, in this world and for this world.  It’s not a message about us, but it’s a mission and a message for us, because it is about God’s way, God’s purposes, and God’s rule in this world.   We can’t have a full life without finding God’s purpose, and we can’t discover God’s purpose, until we meet head on the fact of human healing that is needed in our world, just like those disciples were called to face it head on in their world.  What you can’t honestly ignore about God’s message and mission, is that any kind of true church or kingdom work is directly related to answering human need, and living beyond our own wants, and living into  and for God’s greater purposes, demands, and responsibilities for our lives.
Wasn’t it because this message and mission was so urgent, that Jesus told his disciples, ‘Don’t take a money bag’, suit case, or even extra shoes with you with, and don’t even wave at anybody along the road.’   Jesus was trying to tell them, and us that this is God’s mission, that is not about what you have, but it’s about what they need, really need.   What is that?   Well, Jesus told them, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘ Peace, Shalom to this household.’  ‘Eat and drink whatever they offer…  Don’t take advantage of people, but tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near.   If they don’t accept you or your message, go on to the next place.  Things are urgent.  Their needs are urgent.  Life is short.  The kingdom is near, right now, and it might not be so close to tomorrow. (Lk. 10:4-11 CSB17)
Now, of course, explaining what God’s kingdom means takes some translation today.  Not everyone is wanting God nor seeking God’s kingdom, which means having allow God’s truth to rule their lives.  Again, I told you about the fellow who went around, door to door, telling people, “You need to get ready for the judgement day!”  “Well, when is it?, one man asked.  “It could be today, and it might be tomorrow!”  “When you determine which day that is, you can come back and tell my wife, for she’ll surely want to be there both days.”   We certainly can’t go around talking about God like this, now can we?

What we can go around talking about is not only a wish for ‘peace’, even having or making “Peace with God,” as Billy Graham, once put it.  For you see, the Word says that God has already made peace, and wishes us peace, so what is there left for us to hear or for us to do?
          Well, what is left is to ‘see’ what Jesus saw when he ‘watched Satan fall’ and to know what might mean you to learn to how to ‘rejoice because ‘your names are written in heaven.’   I realize it’s a rather strange way to end this conversation, but the truth that Jesus wants to disciples to learn, even by taking Christ’s message, and going out on God’s mission, is as much about what it will do for us, as it will do for them.
          I might as well tell you one more story Fred Craddock since his sermon inspired this one.  In his sermon, he told about an elderly lady who come up after the message and wanted to talk.  Like many people, she didn’t come up to talk because she wanted to ‘do something’ but she wanted to ‘talk about something’.  And what she wanted to talk about was about her, not about God.  
          She said, “I’m in the process of finishing our home, our retirement home.”
          And Pastor Craddock answered, “Yes?”
          “My husband and I have been planning this house for some time and it’s about finished.”
          “Where is it?”
          “It’s right on the edge of Pittsburg in the suburbs.”
          “Nice home, I take it?”  The pastor implied.
          “Yes, it’s costing about 1.4 million.”
          She went on to describe her retirement home.  Six bathrooms is what stuck out, but you can imagine what all went with that.  The pastor then asked, “How many people are going to live in your house?”
          “Well, it was to be for my husband and me, but he died last year.”
          “I’m sorry, and you are still going to live in that 1.4 million dollar house all by yourself?”
          She answered, “Well, my husband made a lot of money.”  I can still afford that house.
          But could she really afford it?  Could the needs of the world around us afford it?  Can the call, the mission, the message, and the meaning of the gospel that is for everyone afford it?   Jesus said, “Don’t even carry your wallet”  She’s still going to hold on to that house?  I guess, since the Kingdom is slow in coming, or since the Kingdom is already come and gone, she might as well get to stay in her house.
          It’s hard to hold on to everything be ‘on a mission from God!’ isn’t it?   When all those Americans came to visit and go on mission with us in Germany, they would always bring so much luggage.  They would end up carrying it around everywhere they went.  And they couldn’t go far.  People where watching everything they were carrying with them too.  The method did have an impact on their mission and their message too, but they still had to carry all that access luggage. 
          What they didn’t really get, and what’s hard for us all, which is part of what is still hard about the gospel, is the joy we find when finally discover that the trip was not about what we had, or what we took back with us, but what the great joy was that when we go and when we return, that we realize how the joy was who we got to know, what we did, what we saw, and what was changed in us.  You can’t put that put that in your suitcase and bring it back with you and put it on your desk, when you return from going on God’s mission, but you can carry it around with you in your heart for the rest of life.  And you can keep it with you, not because you remember it all, or you remember everyone you helped, but you know it because of you are different, and you know where your name shows up in everything that matters.  
When you have learned and you keep on living, based upon not just what, but who matters to God, Satan falls again, and you rejoice more and more, not because of what you got, but the fullest life is always about ‘who’ we are, and who we can still become.  Answering with ‘who’ needs ‘who’, is always what matters most to God.  Amen.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

"They Drove Him Out of Town!”

A sermon based upon Luke 4: 14-30
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
September 15th, 2019

Tom Long tells how there was once a small, church-related college that had an annual event called Christian Emphasis Week. The student Christian group would invite a speaker to campus, who would preach several times and have discussions with the students – all aimed at deepening faith and creating a mood of religious revival.

One year, however, the students at this college got more than they bargained for. They invited a speaker whom none of them had heard before, but he had the reputation for being dynamic and exciting. Indeed, he was. On the first night of the special week, the campus chapel was filled with the faithful. Of course, the “Animal House” types and other impious students stayed away; this was, after all, an occasion for religious insiders, for the truly Christian.

The speaker began by opening the Bible and reading a passage of scripture. When he had finished, he closed the Bible and then suddenly flung it across the stage and out an open window. The congregation sat in stunned silence. Were their eyes playing tricks on them? Did the preacher really throw the Bible out a window? The preacher looked at them and said, “There goes your God,” and proceeded to preach a challenging sermon on the difference between worshiping the Bible and worshiping the God who comes to us through the scriptures.

In a similar way, Jesus performed something shocking in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth. At the outset, it seemed like a normal service. Jesus opened up the scriptures and read from the familiar text: the word from the prophet Isaiah about good news being preached to the poor and release being given to the captives. Then he preached. Luke does not preserve the whole sermon, just the main point: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

At first, the congregation responded warmly, enthusiastically. “Good sermon!” “Beautiful words!” Heads nodded, people murmured their assent and pride in this hometown boy who was so eloquent. But then a question began to stir among them. If Isaiah’s prophecy has really been fulfilled today, how come nothing happened? How come Jesus didn’t perform any of those mighty deeds we have heard he did in Capernaum? What does he mean, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”?

It was then that Jesus threw the Bible out the window – or at least their understanding of the scripture. They thought that Isaiah’s words were only for them, for Israel, for Nazareth, for the local folk. Jesus proceeded to throw that understanding of the Bible out the window by saying that God’s care for the poor and the oppressed has always been for the outsiders as much as for the insiders. Indeed, when insiders try to restrict God’s grace to themselves, they cut themselves off from that very grace. 

It was when the ‘insiders’ realized Jesus was for the ‘outsiders’ more than for them, that they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff.   They rejected not just his message, but they rejected Jesus himself.  He was no longer one of them, but now, they felt as if Jesus was one of them.

After the great reversal Mary sang about, comes the great rejection.  In all started in Jesus own hometown, Nazareth.  Like the preacher who threw the Bible out the window, the people in Jesus own hometown, are ready to throw Jesus off a cliff (Luke 4: 29).  You didn’t see that coming, did you?   

This is, as one commentator said, the Gospel in miniature.  It is a preview of what is still to come.  The gospel of John, written around the same time as Luke, declares up front: “He came unto his own, and his own did not receive’, nor ‘accept him (Jn. 1:11).’    It is one of the strangest parts of the gospel.  The gospel means ‘good news’ but it is good news started with some very bad news.  The one who could have been Israel’s true Messiah, deliverer and redeemer, was rejected by his own people.    
How can you ‘save (your) people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21) when by all appearances, you begin as a rejected, failed, and crucified Messiah?  And how can the one who was rejected by his own hometown people, the people who knew him as “as Joseph’s son” (v. 22), be the Israel’s Savior, or more, become the savior of the whole world?   It’s a powerful question; it’s still a very important question too.  As the apostle Paul contemplated later, how did Israel’s rejection of Jesus become ‘salvation’ (Rom. 11:11) and ‘riches’ (Rm. 11:12) for the Gentiles (Rom 9-11).  How did Jesus’ rejection become the pathway that calls us to accept Jesus as our own personal savior, and the savior of the whole world?

The answer begins by understanding exactly why Jesus’ own people rejected him.  It is the great rejection that ends up at the cross.  What was it about Jesus that made so many people mad?  Well, when you study Jesus’ rejection you will find two basic sides to it.   Let’s briefly consider them both.

 First, you will see how Jesus was rejected because of what he did, and how he did it.   This is where all the other gospels; Matthew, Mark, and John begin.  They focus on the fact that Jesus healed people when he shouldn’t have been healing them; he fed people when he shouldn’t have been feeding them; and he also touch people, who should not have been touched, just like he reached out to people, he should have been leaving alone; because they were sinners, outsiders, and should have remained ‘outside’ God’s reach.   This is also included right here in Jesus’ reading from Isaiah.  Jesus is reading about how God’s love is especially meant for those who on the outside.

But there is something else that is going on.  All the gospel’s address it, but Luke hits it head on, right from the beginning.   Luke wants us to see right up front, that it wasn’t just Jesus’ message or method that was being rejected, but it was Jesus himself.  When Jesus informed his own hometown that ‘the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach good news to the poor’, the outsider, and the down and out, it was Jesus himself, and his claim that God was speaking directly through him, that was the heart of the rejection.  Jesus’ own hometown did not want to see Jesus as anything more than their own ‘hometown’ boy, just like later, Mary and Jesus’ family, couldn’t see Jesus as any more than her ‘crazy’ son.   It wasn’t just Jesus’ message or message that was ‘crazy’, but it was Jesus himself.

This is also where it finally comes down in the gospel story.  It is the main reason that Jesus is crucified.  Israel’s ruling leaders declared him ‘crazy’ by charging him with ‘blasphemy’; not because of what he did, but because of who he said he was, ‘the Messiah, the son of the blessed…’ (Mark 14:61).   In much the same way, the Roman government was willing to put Jesus to death by the cruel act of crucifixion because the masses called for his crucifixion, declaring him not only crazy, but also dangerous.   Jesus message was deemed to be so dangerous to the status quo, that he had to die.

It is this very bad new of ‘rejection’ that is at the heart of the good news.  Don’t you find that still a bit strange?  Don’t you find it rather strange that the one a few Jews called ‘the Messiah’ was put to death, executed as a common criminal?  Don’t you find it very strange that the one this church is built to worship and glorify is one who was rejected by his own people, including those friends and neighbors in his own hometown? 

Of course, all this raises the question all over again for us. Jesus is still hard for people to like, even today.  As one theologian says, it still stings when a Jewish person says to us today, “How can you Christians still say Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, when the world is still going to hell in a hang-basket? (Stanley Hauerwas).  Once, when I was preaching for a week at a church in the rural area outside of Cherryville, I asked one of the young, faithful attenders, how long he’d been a member they church.  “I’m not a member’, he told me.  When I asked why he told me he was Jewish.  He had married a Baptist girl from that congregation, and he promised he would come to church with her.  “Why can’t you become a Christian, like her?”  I asked.  His answer was that because Jesus was a Jew.  And to a Jew, a Jew like Jesus was, can’t ever be God.  That’s why I’m not a Christian he said.  As a Jew he didn’t like a Jew being God.

There are still lots of reasons people still don’t want Jesus to be God, the true Messiah, or the Son of God.  You and I know that even to mention Jesus in the ‘public square’ or pray to Jesus in most any kind of public place has become a negative, unwanted, even uncomfortable and embarrassing, hasn’t it?   As someone has said, you can talk about Buddha, Mohammed, or most any other kind of religious leader or activists, but leave Jesus out of it.  You can talk about Martin Luther King Jr. as a great activist but don’t mention that he was a Baptist preacher?  You can talk about a lot of other great achievers in history too, sharing all kinds of important or personal information about them too, but if someone points to their Christian faith, it’s much better now to overlook that fact, isn’t it? 

What’s going on?  Why is Jesus getting to be so hard to like?  Why is the Christian faith, and even our church lives being pushed further and further into the background of who we are or who we are supposed to be, even in our so called, “Christian” culture?  Why is Jesus someone who needs to be ‘crucified’ all over again?   At least that’s how the New Testament book of Hebrews put it?   Even as Christianity was just getting started, there was a group of people promoting that some of those early churches leave Jesus behind, trample his blood underfoot, and to forget and loose their Christian faith, and go back where they belonged—before Jesus, without Jesus, or as some say today, to move ahead, beyond Jesus, beyond religion, or the Christian faith.  “We can do better, without all that religious stuff”, some are saying.

I have a book in my library, which declares, “They Love Jesus, but not the Church”.  Here’s my problem with that statement.  The Church is the body of Jesus Christ in the world today.  You can’t have Jesus without the church, and you can’t love Jesus without loving the church, warts and all.  This of course, doesn’t mean that the church is perfect, or that the church and churches don’t have a long way to go in being like Jesus in the world, but it does mean that you can’t love Jesus without also loving the Jesus who lives through the church, who are not an institution, but who are people who are actually trying to live out their faith in Jesus in the world.   The church is the people who come together to try to learn to be like Jesus in this world.   Without a people trying to live and answer with their own lives the truth of Jesus, you don’t have true churches and you don’t have a true Christian faith.  To have Jesus, you must have, in some shape or form, a people learning how to be and do church.

But it is right here, pointed against the church that we have this ‘hate’ growing too.  So, where is all this ‘hate’ for the church and for Jesus coming from?  Can we name it?  Can we see in what was happening in Nazareth, what is still happening in our world today?   What makes and still makes Jesus hard to like and hard to love?   Isn’t it because Jesus, the true Jesus, the living Jesus, the LORD Jesus, is always someone who is hard to follow, because of what he asks us to do with our own lives?  

The true Jesus is hard to follow now, just like he was hard to follow in Nazareth, in Israel, and is still hard to follow, also by us.  Jesus is hard to like and hard to follow, because he is the living Christ who not only tells us the truth, but asks us to live the truth, even when the truth hurts.  He is the Christ who, as one great Christian said, is the one who ‘bids us to come and die’; to ‘take up our cross, and to follow him’ in our living, not just in our dying. 

Who would ever want to like, love, or follow someone who calls us to leave our world of entertaining ourselves, looking after ourselves, experiencing the world mainly for ourselves, and for our wants, to ‘lose our lives for his sake’, for God’s sake, and for the sake of the ‘least of these’?  Who could ever like someone who would ask not only something from us, but everything from us?  Who could ever like someone who will only be our savior, by being our LORD?  Could you ever like someone as demanding and commanding, as this?  Could you ever like someone who would ‘turn the tables’ of your life over and ask you to look at life in whole new, un-self-focused way?

To try to answer why you might still consider Jesus now, is to remember why Jesus became Christ then, as least to a few.   What was it about Jesus that made him acceptable to certain people in Israel, and beyond Israel in that very ancient world?  And could there still be a reason to hear, accept and follow Jesus today?   The remarkable picture at the end of our text, pictures Jesus walking right through the disgust, hate, and maybe ‘fear’ of his own hometown people, might point to how Jesus could walk right through your own rejection of him, into your heart?  How, why, and what would it look like if Jesus walked through all the rejection into your own heart and life? Would you let this happen?  And if you did allow Jesus, the living Christ, who is alive and well, not just in the church, but through God’s Spirit, is alive and loose in the world, what would it look like?  What does it mean to allow Jesus into our world?

Well, to answer what it might look like to accept Jesus today, let’s consider again what happened at that little college, where the preacher started the preaching by throwing the Bible out the window. The congregation that night steamed in outrage and left the service muttering blasphemy. Word spread around campus about what had happened, and the next night the religious regulars stayed away, but the “tax collectors and sinners” drew near. The place was packed with fraternity types, those who would never think of themselves as religious, and the curious.

The preacher chose to preach that night on forgiveness, and when it was done, he engaged the congregation in dialog. One in the audience, intrigued but skeptical, said, “I heard what you said tonight, but how can a person know – really know – they are forgiven?”
The speaker looked directly at the questioner and said firmly, “I tell you, in the name of Jesus, you are forgiven.”
“Right, right,” responded the student. “I heard you say that. But my ques-tion is, How can you really know that for a fact?”
 “I tell you,” repeated the speaker in an even more forceful voice, “in the name of Jesus, you are forgiven.”
“I don’t think you catch my question,” protested the student. “I want to know how you can really know, I mean know for sure, that you’re forgiven.”
Now a third time the speaker looked him in the eye and said, “I tell you, in the name of Jesus, you are forgiven.”

It was then that something electric happened in the room. The word took hold in a way beyond understanding, and this student, this outsider, this one who would never have darkened the door of a church, sat down knowing in his heart that “in the name of Jesus” he was forgiven (As told by Tom Long in Annual Manual, 2012-2013).

Now, maybe there’s something to how the ‘outsiders’ at that little school came to know and accept Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t known making him a big, public name; nor was Jesus known only by reading and studying about him in the Bible.  No, this Jesus, the true Jesus is only know personally, spiritually, and even mystically, through the heart of hearts.  The Jesus who is real in this world today, is the Jesus who spiritually still walks through all the hate, rejection, and disgust, and walks to bring God’s love and forgiveness straight into our hearts.

This is the Jesus God wants you to know today.  It’s not the Jesus of he head, nor the Jesus of history, nor the Jesus of politics, which is what killed Jesus, by the way, but it’s the Jesus who came to live for them, and to die for all of us; so that we can find our way straight into the heart of this God who not only creates life, but redeems our lives, because he still loves and forgives us.   This is the God is not the God of those who have arrived, who have it all, nor is he God of those who are the insiders to what they think God is or isn’t, but this is the God who is the God of the outsider, who know that they aren’t who they should be, but come to realize through God’s redeeming love, that they are also, not yet what or who they can be; thanks to the God who’s love, is the only thing that wasn’t defeated on Jesus cross, and now, comes streaming, if not walking, straight throw all the rejection and hate, straight into the human heart.   

You may not love this kind of Jesus, but this kind of Jesus has come, and still comes, by this Spirit, to love, forgive, and to redeem you.   Will you let him walk straight through your preconceived notions of what God is or isn’t, and allow God’s love to reach you?  Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Brought Down...Lifted Up!

A sermon based upon Luke 1: 46-55
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
September 8th, 2019

“…he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly
(Lk. 1:52 CSB17).”
Did you know that God is prejudiced?  Did you know that God has a slant toward a certain group of people?   Did you know that God is NOT politically correct?

Today, we begin a series of messages from Luke’s gospel.   We will look at 6 action stories that are unique to Luke and no other gospel.   We will also look at 6 parables that are unique to Luke, and no other gospel.   Let be begin with a brief introduction to understanding what the gospels are and how the gospels are written.

Many people mistakenly think all the gospels are exactly the same.  They are not.   Although each of the gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, share same basic message about Jesus being Israel’s Messiah and God’s son, who died a cross to ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21), they all preach a message of ‘good news’ about Jesus with some very unique twists and important different points to make.    

In preparation for this series, I’ve gone through a gospel parallel comparison and found the stories that are unique to Luke, and to Luke alone.  I’m planning, if God wills, to do this also with Matthew, Mark, and John.  It is easier to find unique stories to Luke, Matthew and John, than with Mark, which was the first gospel written and the other gospels draw from him before putting their own unique touches.

Some people don’t like to find or focus upon the ‘differences’ between the gospels, but they tend to want to ‘harmonize’ them.  The problem with this approach is that it overlooks the unique angle on the truth about Jesus that was being told by each gospel writer for their own audience.   

When you consider each gospel independently and study them carefully, you will clearly see these differences.   Matthew was primarily writing for Jewish believers to show how Jesus was the true Jewish Messiah.  Mark was written to Roman, Gentile Christians, making clear that Jesus is ‘the Son of God’ (Mark 1:1), not the Roman rulers who were also called ‘sons of God’.  John was written last, to a more universal, philosophical audience, making clear that Jesus is the “Word that was with God’ and ‘was God in the beginning’ (John 1:1).  John’s gospel presented Jesus as the ‘eternal logos’, which was way Greek thinking people expressed philosophical source of all life and thought.  While that might sound very ‘high and mighty’, but the amazing truth is that God’s wisdom is not told in the abstract, but God’s truth is both relational and personal, so that in John’s gospel the truth about Jesus is expressed the most personal stories of all the Bible.  It is also the gospel that show us how ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn. 1: 14), and John gave us the greatest. Most universal words of all: “For God so loved the world….” (Jn. 3:16).  I can’t wait to get to John, but we are going to begin with Luke.

What is so unique about Luke’s gospel?  Well, it all begins right here in our text today.  Luke’s gospel is the gospel that gave us Christmas.  John doesn’t even mention Jesus’ birth, nor does Mark.  In both those gospels, Jesus just shows up to be baptized and to start his ministry.  Matthew does tell about Jesus’ birth, but still explaining it only from a man’s point of view.  It tells how Joseph was about to divorce his finance Mary for being pregnant with a child that wasn’t his.  But then, we are told how an angel appeared to explain how this baby was ‘conceived…from the Holy Spirit’ (1:20) and the baby should be named ‘Jesus’ (meaning God saves, 1:20), because this child is “Immanuel, God with us!” (Matt. 1:23).   Matthew is making the same point about how ‘power’ is reacting to Jesus’ birth, but it gives much less details.  Matthew skips the ‘birth’ event to tell how 2 years later, wise men came, informing King Herod about Jesus’ birth, so that Herod trys to the ‘child’ so that Joseph had to flee into Egypt (Matthew 2: 1-15).  

Luke’s gospel is the only gospel that is intended to look at the gospel event as ‘a great reversal’ of how things are, and how God works.  In Luke’s Christmas story the emphasis is on the humble and the lowly, throughout, starting with the work of the Holy Spirit in Elizabeth, not Zechariah, and through Mary, not Joseph, including the humble manger, on the humble Shepherds, and concludes with the testimony of an elderly man and a young preacher woman, named Anna.   You can’t get much of a better picture of Luke’s very unique agenda focused upon legitimizing the lower and the lesser in the story of Jesus’ birth.  

And this emphasis upon God’s very different view of reality really got started, right here, in our text and with Mary’s song that ‘praises the greatness of the Lord’ (1:46), because in this humble, unexpected, and maybe unwanted, but not unneeded birth of Jesus, God has both ‘scattered the proud’, ‘toppled the mighty from thrones’, and has ‘exalted the lowly’; not only by ‘sending the rich away empty’, but also by ‘satisfying the hungry with good things’ (1: 51-53).  You can’t get much more of a picture of where Luke is going, than with an opening that sings God’s song like this.  But the question is what do we do with it?  What does God’s great reversal through the humble birth of Jesus as the Christ still mean for us?

Right after Mary begins to sing ‘praises’ and ‘rejoices’ in God as her savior, because God has ‘looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant’ (48a), Mary next makes an incredible observation; ‘Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed’ (48b). 

Now, as a Baptist, who isn’t a Roman Catholic, that sounds very ‘Catholic’ to me.   We know that in the Roman Catholic Church, it has been part of their own religious tradition to take these words and to worship Mary as the ‘Mother of God’.  This is how the Roman Catholic church very literally attempted to lift up the lowly ‘motherly’ image in a faith, like the world around them, named God as Father.  It did this so that both pagan and Christian women could have a motherly role model in a man’s world.  They also lifted up Mary because the ancient world already worshipped many ‘goddesses’ and lifting up Mary as special, and this helped in the church’s missionary helping many pagan people make a smoother transition into the Christian faith.  I get that.  I understand that.  But I don’t have to do that.  But I, and we still need to call Mary ‘blessed’.  Why?

As a Baptist sort of Christian, I’m not Roman Catholic, in a churchy sense, but I do claim to be ‘catholic’ in another sense.  The word ‘catholic’ simply means ‘universal’ and in way I’m connected to all other Christians through my faith in Jesus Christ.  But I don’t have to worship Mary as a ‘co-redeemer’ because I can take these words for exactly what they mean.  We too call Mary blessed, not because she was God’s mother, but because God choose to enter human flesh and Jesus’ needed, like every child needs a mother.  Mary was especially blessed because she was the first to understand, not simply how Gods would use her, but how through this humble birth a great reversal of how God works in the world was taking place. 

Now, through the birth of Jesus Christ, there is no more male or female favoritism, and now through Jesus Christ, the humble and the hungry are being shown God’s favoritism, because this is how God works.  From now on, it will not be through the high and mighty, but it will be through the humble and lowly that God will accomplish his mercy and do his mighty deeds in the world.  But what does this mean, in terms of everyday spiritual life?   Well, to be honest, to call Mary ‘blessed’ is revolutionary, let me explain.

We church people can have a serious pride problem. One pastor said that some of his members were so self-righteous that they have to hold onto the pews to keep from ascending. Our problem is not that we deny our sin. We know our frailties. But deep down we believe we are so much better than most folks that God would be ashamed of Himself not to let us into heaven on good behavior. When push comes to shove, we believe that God will grade on the curve. But the Bible says that the wages of sin is death. “None is good, no not one.” Not even Mother Teresa can make it to heaven on merit. That truth ought to banish our pride and humble us a bit.

Bill Hybels, founder of the contemporary Willow Creek Church in the northern suburbs of Chicago, was on a plane one day. The man seated beside him struck up a conversation. Upon finding out that his fellow passenger was a clergyman, the man said, “Well, I believe in God but I don’t affiliate with any church. Don’t really think I need it. Sure, I make some mistakes but I live respectably and give to charities. I wouldn’t hurt a soul on purpose. I believe that God will accept me on that basis.”

Bill took out a legal pad and said, “Let’s make a grading scale for all people, from one to ten, with ten being just about perfect. Who are the best people in the world?” The man thought for a moment and said, “Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.” “Okay,” said Bill. “But we must allow them to place themselves on our chart. Each of them has said, ‘I am a sinner and have no chance of salvation unless it is a gift to me from Christ.’ So, by their own admission, they deserve to be down near the bottom of the chart. Now, my next question is, ‘Where should we put you on the chart? You don’t want to be above Mother Teresa, do you?”

The man replied, “If Mother Teresa is not good enough to get into heaven, I guess I’m in worse shape than I thought.”

Then Bill Hybel drew a cross right across the middle of the chart. Underneath that cross he wrote these words from I John 2:2: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Underneath that verse he drew a line and said to the man beside him, “Just sign here if you would like to be covered by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Then you can be as sure of going to heaven as Mother Teresa.” The man signed on the dotted line.

The first revolution of Jesus, and the reason God blessed Mary, is not because Mary was somebody, but because Mary was nobody.  God used Mary to prove that God came into the world to banish all human pride and spiritual self-sufficiency. None of us has any hope until we join in with great reversal and present ourselves before God in our own ‘humble condition’.   We are blessed by God because God loves us, not because we love God, or are good before God.   In other words, before God, there are no ‘high and mighty ones’, we are all sinners.  

The other day, a fellow said, when he saw me, “I’d better be good, here comes the preacher.”  I responded: “Well, it really doesn’t matter now does it, because we’re all already sinners anyhow.  Nobody is really a Christian until we first understand they are a still sinners first.   Before God, we are always sinners.  The only difference that Jesus makes is that through Jesus we become are ‘saved sinners’.  That’s the great reversal.

But again, and finally, what does this mean that God ‘has looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant’?   What does this mean in our world, right now, that God is ‘scattering the proud’ or ‘toppling the mighty’?  What does it mean that God’s priority not the ‘rich and famous’, but a God who ‘sends the rich away empty’ because God’s favors ‘exalting the lowly’ and ‘satisfying the hungry’?   Why would Mary sing about this, and why is such a great reversal still being realized today?

What we need to understand is that all goes back Mary rejoicing ‘in God my Savior’.  What Mary understands as the ‘great reversal’ is that God is on a rescue mission and that this is what God’s mercy is supposed to be about.  It is in the gospel of Luke that we see ‘outsiders’ being called to be ‘insiders’.  It is in the gospel of Luke that Jesus explains how he comes ‘to seek and save the lost’.  It is in the gospel of Luke that we have the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, but the point of all these stories, especially the story of lost son, is how the other son, needs to get with the ‘program’.  The ‘program’ is that the Elder Brother needed to learn to be happy with a Father who loves his others ‘lost son’ as much as the Father loves the son who stayed home and was never lost.  

We also need to see that it is only in Luke’s gospel that a Samaritan was made into the hero of the story, and that Zacchaeus was the rich man, who didn’t go to hell because he was changed into a humble person who wanted to ‘get with God’s program’ of caring for the hurting, the humble, and the hungry.   This is the great reversal in Luke, that God’s program is slanted toward the needs of the lowly, the humble, the hungry and the poor, who had been outside God’s promise, but now where being brought in as insiders, because of God’s amazing, mercy and grace.

Many years ago, Bruce Larson told a strange but beautifully true Christmas story.   A week or so before Christmas, a pastor told his congregation about a needy family facing a bleak Christmas. One young father decided to do something about that. He and his son set out in the family pickup truck to cut down a fresh evergreen and deliver it to this destitute family. They ran into a rock slide and a boulder hit the truck. It was totally destroyed. The windshield was smashed and while the father was not hurt, the young boy was cut by the glass and bleeding severely.

They tried to wave down a passing motorist to help, but to no avail. Finally, after over two hundred cars had whizzed by, one stopped. The couple in the car took care of the injured boy, returned the two of them to their home, and then went on. The father and son never got the names of their two ministering angels.

In a week's time the truck was repaired and the boy's injury healed. On Christmas Eve, the pastor asked this same man if he would deliver a basket of food and toys to the needy family he had set out to bring the tree to earlier. He loaded up his truck and drove to the address he was given and rang the doorbell. Who should answer the door but the couple who had stopped to help him on the highway just weeks before? 

This was a great reversal.  The people who ‘high and mighty’ fell hurt, and were mysteriously helped by the lowly.  Then, later those who were ‘high and mighty’ who went to help the lowly found out that it was the lowly who had helped them.   Of course, life does not always work out that neatly, of course. But love works. Life works. Lifting up the lowly is how God saves.  Herod and Pilate are in their graves but Mary's humiliated Son, now lives and is made LORD of all!  (As told by King Duncan).

Now, let me ask you, are you ‘with’ the program?  Do you see, once and for all, that the church is not about you, it’s about them?  Do you see that the church is not a place to come to, but it is a people who are joining in with God’s rescue mission in the world?  The great reversal may not be just what God did with Mary, but it may be what God wants to do with you.   But you need not apply if you still on ‘your mighty throne’, but you need to let God’s love ‘topple’ you; not to hurt you, but to heal you, to get through to you, and show you that the best thing that will ever happen to you is let God reverse your life and rescue you too.   Amen.