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Sunday, April 26, 2020

“The Lord Will Provide”

A sermon based upon Genesis 22: 1-18
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Easter Sunday May 3rd, 2020
(1/10. How Jesus Saves.)

Today we begin the first part of our series on ‘How Jesus Saves!”  In this first part we will preach about ‘how’ God has established salvation by grace through faith in the life and death of Jesus Christ.  In the second part, we will look more closely at the way the New Testament describes our proper response to God’s salvation by growing in the knowledge and grace of God’s saving and healing love.

We begin this story of God’s saving grace with one of the most dramatic and unforgettable stories in the whole Bible.   It is a story that goes all the way back to Abraham, the Father of all people of revealed faith. 

Perhaps you remember this story.  It’s about how God once called Abraham to offer ‘his only son’ Issac as a sacrifice.  This story still ‘shakes up’ all our preconceived notions of a loving, caring, and saving God. 
How could God ever ask a father to sacrifice his child, let alone his ‘one and only’ child?  It’s completely unexpected, but this is exactly what this story declares.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob once commanded Abraham to take out a knife, cut his own child’s throat, and offer the child to God like an animal sacrifice.  It’s still outrageous to most all religious sensitivities.  How do we understand something like this?

The Bible says this is a ‘test’ to sacrifice ‘your son, your only child’.   Abraham is to take him to the mountain, bind him up, slay him, and offer him to God as a ‘brunt offering’ before God.

Many early Christians who didn’t grow up Jewish, were so shocked that they came to believe that God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament.  How could the God of Jesus Christ make such a command?

For one thing, Abraham was hearing this voice in a world where gods could be very demanding.  Why would the true God be any less demanding than any other god?  Human sacrifice was common in the ancient world, so when his own God made such a demand, ABRAHAM didn’t flinch or hesitate.  He took his only son and set out on their final, fateful journey.

Can you imagine giving your child up as an offering to God? 

Last Halloween, a child walked out in front of a car at a Church Halloween Event and was accidentally killed.  On the TV news the Father said he was responsible.  He should have been looking after his son.  He didn’t blame the driver.  It was an accident.  Then he said, this had to be God’s doing.  This had to be God’s plan.  Perhaps he was trying to deal with his unbearable loss.  Perhaps he didn’t realize he was holding God responsible.  Perhaps he needed to face this tragedy With some reason, rather than merely an accident.  We feel for him.  We try to understand.  But it doesn’t make God look very loving when his plan takes children away from us.

What God commands Abraham to do is even more unthinkable.  Can you imagine the sinking feeling in his stomach when he got up to make his final journey with his only son?  Can you even begin to fathom the idea of God asking you to kill your child?  How could he take this step?  How could you call this faith?  What kind of God ‘tests’ his most faithful people like this?

I wonder what was going through Abraham’s mind as he saddled his donkey.  Was he thinking about all the good times they had?  Did he remember Issac as a baby, remembering his first steps, his first words, and all ways he had grown into a man?  Did he realize that he was going to watch his one and only son die.  It sounds he’s going to become the father of a fanatical religious cult, rather than the father of our faith.

And think of his mother, Sarah.  Did she realize what was happening?  How would she cope?   How could deal with her husband killing her boy? 

Can you also imagine Abraham cutting the wood to make his son a brunt offering?  Each stroke of the axe had to cut into his own heart and soul?  This was his son who was going to die.  How could ever obey a God who commanded such as this? 

Did Abraham ever think of turning back?  Did he think of losing his faith and keeping his son?  But this God who gave him the promise, was now asking for proof that Abraham’s faith was true.  Abraham was both trusting and trapped by the call and command of his God.

As bad as all this was, it gets worse.  On the way to the altar his son asks, ‘Dad, where’s the lamb for the sacrifice.  They’d made this journey together many times.  Children can be very observant.  Dad, we’ve got everything, the wood, the knife, but where’s the sacrifice?  I wonder if Isaac suspected anything?  Even if he didn’t, the pain on Abraham’s face or the look on his face had to have given it away.  His words must have stuck in his throat.  God will provide it,’ he said.

Don’t you wonder whether Isaac was looking around for the lamb for the sacrifice?
Don’t you also wonder whether or not Abraham was looking into His son’s face as he tied him to to the altar? 
Was he able to look him in the eyes,
As he was lifting the knife up in the air;
As he paused getting ready to strike?

Abraham passed the test.  He did fear God.  He did not withhold his only son.
On the day day God tested Abraham, God also provided the sacrifice.  And because of this all nations have been blessed with the goodness of God.  We, our own faith, is now the result of God saving Abraham’s child.

Then, one day God tested himself.  And what a test it was, to sacrifice your son, your only son.   On that day, God led him to the hill, bound him and sacrificed him, his son, his only son.

Human sacrifice wasn’t uncommon in those days.  The Romans were doing it all the time.  Would God pass the test?  It seemed like a barbaric thing to ask him to do.  But committed to righteousness and justice, God the Father took his only son and set out on the fateful journey.

Can you imagine that last morning when he got up the sinking feeling he felt, right in his gut, in the pit of his stomach?  But he was still intent on going through with this.   He was going to kill his son, his only son..

This is still unthinkable.  Scholars still debate how God could command this.  Why Jesus had to die.  But it is much more than a theory.  To God the grief must have welled up in his mind.  When he watched all as the events unfolding, as his son appeared before Pilate, and before the High Priests, as they passed him from soldier to soldier, as he was mocked, struck and spit upon him. 
Maybe he thought about all His son had accomplished. 
Maybe he thought of how he was as a baby or who he’d grown to be as a man. 
Maybe he had thought about his first words. 
Maybe he thought about how he made the lame to walk. 
This Jesus was his beloved Son and he was very pleased. 
Now, his Son who was his very heart, was going to die. 

What was his mother going to think?  How was she going to cope?   What would she think when learning that her son was killed by his own father?   

Imagine how the Father watched each step he took on the way to the hill.  Did he think of sending all the angels to rescue him?   Did he think of calling it all off?  Did he letting all those people go to hell for killing his only Son?

But this Father was constrained, held back and trapped, by his own love.   Even in this terrible moment, he was keeping the promise he made to Abraham long ago, that through him and his people, all the world would be blessed.  

And now was the time to bless all nations.  This Father, our heavenly promise had never broken a promise.   Even in this horrible event he was keeping his promise.

Then, there is that garden, the Son looks the Father in the eyes, saying ‘Dad, where’s the Sacrifice?   We’ve got everything, the cross and the nails, but where’s the sacrifice.  “Father, if it be possible, let this cup be pass from me…” 

Lord, Father, this is your son, your only son.  
We know the son knew what was going to happen,
all the way back to the Garden, not just the garden of Gethsemane,
but all the way back to the Garden of Eden and the before the foundation of the earth.  He suspected.  He knew.  He didn’t hold on to equality with God, but he was being obedient, obedient even to death on a cross.   

With a lump in this throat, the Father said, Son, ‘I will provide the sacrifice.’  
But could he say this looking into his Son’s eyes?
As the hammer blows rained down, one after another,
As the cross was about to be lifted up, up in the air above the earth,
Then it got darker, very dark.

No one was there to stop the cross that was lifted up.  And the Father turned away.  He could not look.  There, in that darkness was the terrible agony of separation between the love of the Father for his Son.   
No one could say stop. 
No one could say stop as the hurled insults and mocked him
No one could say stop as they gave him wine and vinegar
No one could say stop as he cried out
Oh how all those words rang out loud and clear.  “My God why…?  Why have you forsaken me?   Why?  Why?  Why?
What sort of God are you?  What sort of Father are you?  
There was no one, anywhere, on heaven or on earth could say Stop, except this Father, and he didn’t.   So, the Son died, not just any death, but the death of all deaths.

This is how God passed the test.   This is how God the Father kept his promise.  As Paul wrote,  “He who did not spare him own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also along with him, graciously give us all things?  

One day, long after God tested Abraham, God tested himself, and he ‘proved his love to us, that even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…that is, while we were enemies, and while we still powerless,  CHRIST DIED FOR US. 

On that day God tested himself, and proved himself,  he went through with what he would not let Abraham do.
And for a second time, and the last time,  ‘God provided the sacrifice’.

And because of this all the nations have been blessed.
‘For God so loved the world, that he have his one and only Son, so that everyone who believed in him might not perish, but have eternal life.’
God, this very God,  ‘who did not spare his own Son, gave him up for us all---HOW WILL HE NOT ALSO GRACIOUSLY GIVE US ALL THINGS?

Perhaps the only final commentary to give, about what didn’t happen to Isaac
and what did happen with Jesus is what was said perfectly long ago:
On the Mountain of the Lord, it shall be provided’.

Catch how this was originally phrased in the future tense!  Even after the ram was provided and Isaac was spared, this story is still looking forward to shall do next.

And we still must look ahead.  Although we look back to Abraham,
And we look back to what God is through Jesus, our Lord Jesus Christ,
we still must face our own future too, don’t we? 

I think that Jesus pointed to this, when he told his disciples at the Last Supper ‘I will not drink from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.  

For not only did Jesus say ‘do this to remember me’ but in the same breath he said,  ‘the kingdom comes.’  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  

The point the apostle Paul was making is by remembering Jesus’ saving death we are projected forward to the future God has for ‘those who love him and are called to fulfill his purposes”.   Our faith isn’t finished with what Abraham did, and with the death of Jesus it has only begun to be ‘revealed’ what God has for us.  It has only begun because this God is ‘for us’ and is not ‘against us.’

And how would we know this?    We know it because we trust these words, just like Abraham obeyed and ‘trusted’ that ‘the Lord would provide’ just like Jesus trusted, and just like we must also trust that, ‘it shall be provided’. 

Going back to that man who lost his child in that tragic accident.  
Although I don’t think God wanted his innocent child to die, God has created a world where ‘accidents’ happen, and when accidents happen, he is right that God is ultimately responsible.   In a world of suffering and injustice, which is also a world of sin and struggle, God doesn’t cause it all, but God is the cause behind it all.   If God is all-powerful, God has decided to allow this world where both evil and good dwell.   Since God is love, could it be that God allows life to continue because the good of love is worth the bad and even the worst that could happen?

It’s certainly not easy to live in a world like this.  It wasn’t easy for Abraham.  It wasn’t easy for Jesus, and perhaps its not easy for God too.  But God still allows it.  Jesus endured it.  Abraham dared to obey, and we can too.  Why?  How?
Because the Lord himself has provided the sacrifice. 
Because the Lord God himself is the sacrifice. 
He is the slain lamb who takes away the sin of the world, forever, as far as ‘the east is from the west’.
Thanks be to God his love shall provide for us all, through our faith in him. 

*(This narrative idea is from a sermon by Peter Stevenson, in Preaching the Atonement, WJK, 2009, pp. 12-16).

Sunday, April 19, 2020

What Do We Say?

Sermon based upon Romans 8:  18-39
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
April 19th 2020

The global suffering surrounding the Coronavirus is unprecedented. 

It’s immense, tragic, overwhelming, and random too. 

Perhaps it's the randomness that most difficult; most get well, but many don’t.

Such mysterious, global, suffering, raises many questions: medical, political, economic, and theological too.
And for the believer, the granddaddy of all questions is:

“Why do is there so much suffering in the world?”

The very first prayer I was taught to pray was: ‘God is great, God is good, …’. 

 And this is exactly where the question lies:

 If God can’t stop suffering, then how you say can ‘God is great’.
If God can stop suffering, but doesn’t, how can say ‘God is good’? 

As a pastor, I’ve observed that many Christians don’t like this question.
The question is hard.   Many are afraid of it too.   

It’s also the main excuse unbelievers cite as their reason for unbelief: 
“How can there be a loving creator when the innocent suffer?” 
Is there any kind of answer to this line of reasoning?

Well, in this text from Romans chapter 8, the apostle Paul looks this question straight between the eyes.   It’s perhaps the only place in the Bible, here in Paul’s most sophisticated letter to the Romans, that the world’s suffering is given full consideration,

And at first, at least, it doesn’t appear that Paul us helps that much. 

For with one single line, being a good Jew, Paul places the ultimate responsibility upon God.  But strangely, he does with an optimistic twist.

In verse 20, Paul writes that ‘…the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope…’.
Hope?  Hope of what? 

Here, Paul repeats the most basic, primordial, biblical understanding.

He’s takes us back to Genesis, where Adam’s sin and disobedience forced God’s hand to subject His own creation to futility, which includes meaningless suffering and death too. 

For Paul, God does not cause suffering, at least not directly, but futility and suffering are now a necessary part of how things are, at least for now. 

But Paul also concludes, God did this ‘in hope’ that one day the glory of creation will be restored as God intended.   This creation will be set free from its bondage to decay (21) and our bodies will be redeemed  from suffering and death (23). 

Now, that’s certainly something to hope for, isn’t it?   

But what I find most interesting is Paul’s idea that God has hopes for his creation; hopes which can now, only be realized through suffering.   

Paul’s biblical perspective is important, because there’s are many less constructive, and even a few very destructive ways to ‘consider the sufferings’ of the present time (18).

The worse way was etched in my mine as a 16-year old.   I had accompanied my father to visit our grieving neighbours, right after their 6- year old son died after being struck by a car when getting off the school bus. 

While in that awful moment, we were sitting there with that young family the interim pastor came in. 

Then, he told them in these exact words, “I know it’s hard, but you must find a way to accept the will of a God.” 

I couldn’t believe it.   How could he dare say such a thing? 

But the truth is, many Christians still give sloppy answers about human suffering that are more harmful than helpful. 

Some I have heard go something like:

‘I know this is hard, but everything happens for a reason’,

‘God’s a purpose for this’.    He needed an another angel.

The other unhelpful phrase I hear is:  ‘God doesn’t put more on us than we can bear.’ 

I was at a funeral home not long ago and I heard all of these and more, in one evening.

In contrast to what is often said, Paul says, in this text, that God has subjected the creation to futility. 

Thus, many things happen in life for no reason.  They without purpose; meaningless. 

And this futility includes most suffering too.  It has no particular reason, other than this is the way it is.

Now, this doesn’t mean there is no reason for some suffering in the world.
A lot of suffering in the world is, in fact, caused by humans themselves. 

For one thing, Scripture is clear that human sin brings suffering and casts a shadow of death over the whole world: ‘The Soul that sins, shall die’.

In this Scripture, Paul’s certainly isn’t negating that link. 

But Paul is also saying that most of the creation’s groaning in pain, is what it means to live in a physical world. 

Recently, a health expert was on the news explaining how many diseases in the world have popped up in recent years, due to increased human invasion into what used to be animal habitat. 

Lyme’s disease, SARS, Ebola, and even this Coronavirus, are diseases that have jumped from animals to humans because of the choices humans have made to live in places where once, only animals lived. 

You can see the same thing with many natural disasters too, he said. Humans are building homes in places that are beautiful, but put themselves at a higher risk of inviting disaster upon themselves.

Living on a planet like ours, is beautiful, but it can be complicated. 

It’s a lot more complicated than the simple answers we often give. 

So, if suffering is part of our lives, when then did God choose to ‘subject’ this world such futility and suffering? 

It may come as surprise, but the Bible has asked more questions about this, than it has given answers.   

The question about why suffering, especially as it relates to the righteous, is all over the Bible. 

The Psalms ask it.  Job asks it.  Lamentations is full of it.  The prophet Habakkuk complains to God about it. 

The prophet Jeremiah questions God about it:   In the 12th chapter he prayed: “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” 

Many of the biblical writers cry out the same kinds of questions we still ask. The Bible also questions why great world-wide suffering happens, which causes so much suffering and disruption.

So, how does Paul answer Jeremiah’s complaint, our complaints, and answer why so much struggle and suffering is built into this world? 

The most surprising word Paul’s uses in Romans 8, is the word ‘hope’.  Paul answers human suffering in verse 24, saying: ‘…in hope we are saved’. 

Notice, that this ‘hope’ he means is a ‘hope’ that saves us through our suffering, but not from our suffering? 

Paul says this hope is a hope as big as all creation, which will ONE DAY be set free from its bondage to decay.  But this hope is also a hope that will be obtains as a new freedom for all children of God (21). 

This is God’s promise of hope, already made to us, through Christ’s resurrection.   

But Paul also says, we must wait in patience for complete fulfilment of this hope.

We have to wait, Paul says, because this very hope is at already at work, bringing God’s salvation to us, right now. 

One of the greatest childhood stories ever told, is The Wizard of Oz.  It came on every year and a Sunday evening. 

I remember how I couldn’t hardly wait to see in on our new, color TV. 

It that story, hope was alive and saving too. 

It was the hope of going home that guided Dorothy throughout her whole time in the land of Oz. 

But getting back home still wasn’t the main point of the story.   The story was ultimately about,  the kind of person Dorothy becomes, and who her friends become too. 

Throughout this entire, difficult and dangerous journey together, they each realize who they are, and who they need to be to fulfil their calling in lives.

The scarecrow already had a brain, but needed the opportunity to use it.   The tin man already, had a heart, but needed someone to love,
The lion, already had the courage, but just need be who he was. 
And if you recall, the story began with Dorthy’s own discouraged attitude toward her childhood home, but by the end of this story, this discouragement was transformed into one of the most brillian hopeful chants in literature and movies: ‘There’s no place like home’. 

This story, which is more than a child’s story, is a story about how hope has the power to save; to transform human character and the human soul.

And isn’t this what the New Testament is saying, when James says, “Brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,
 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance;
 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

So, again, when you rightly ask yourself, why does God subject this creation to trials, to futility and to suffering? 

Paul says, it’s so that we can now, already, in this fallen world, in our current situation, be saved by hope. 

But of, hope isn’t all Paul talks about.   It is through this hope,  God’s hope, that we can become the people we are called to be; people, Paul describes, who are predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (30). 

This is very big word to conclude with: ‘predestination’’.  But it doesn’t means that God chooses some to be saved and others to be lost. 

No, this word means, that through this hope that saves and change us, we can, even in this fallen world, still become the people God has created, called and pre-destined us to be all along.

Isn’t it the hope of who we will become, because of what this virus has done, something people are already talking about?

I hear people saying things like “I’ll never take life so for granted again”. 

“I hope we can get my life back to normal and we can be together again.” 

I even heard a former American diplomate say, “I know I’ve relearned what’s most important again.  I certainly hope this means some kind of transformation all over the world.” 

Now, that’s getting very close to biblical language, isn’t it? 

Who do you hope to become, and to do differently, even more positively, as a result of this Virus threat in the world? 

Isn’t it true, that considering the kind of person we should be is seldom seriously contemplated, until we have to face the struggles, the sufferings and pains of life head on. 

This is why, Paul says, God’s subjects this world to such futility, so that we will too might find our way home not only be saved by hope, but so that we can become the people God has called us to be. 

For you see, God isn’t in the suffering business, but God is in the transformation business.   

Our God, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is the very God still has to power of love to turn trouble into triumph!   

This God doesn’t remove our suffering, but he redeems it. 

All roads of this text lead us to Paul’s greatest truth, a truth that is made real to us through suffering:  “For God is at work in all things for those who love God and are called by his purpose… Paul says.  ‘We are than conquerors through Christ who loves us.” 

Love is what you have the opportunity to learn most about in a futile, suffering, fractured world. 

And you learn, not just about what you love, but you also have the opportunity to know how much God loves us.

“Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”  He says. 

You don’t learn really learn what love means when all is well in the world. 

Just like you don’t learn how much you need God when your health is good and your bank rolls are large. 

It is in only in this kind of struggle, and in suffering too,
that we fully realize just how temporary and fragile life is,
and how we shouldn’t take anything or anyone for granted,
and most important of all, it is only in the threats of this world, that we are draw closest to the very love that enables us
to conqueror all these things. 

When Martin Luther, the great reformer and his wife, lost a young child to illness, it was very difficult for them both.   Luther’s wife, in her frustration, looked straight at her husband in overwhelming grief, and said: “Martin, where is your God in all this!”

Luther’s response expressed his saving hope:  “I know exactly where God is in all this.  God’s exactly where he was when he lost his son.  He’s crying and weeping like we are.  And just like God raised his Son up from the dead, I have all the confidence, that God will also raise our child up too.

It’s not easy to have faith like that, but hope can still save us, and help us to learn to love life, to love God, and to love each other even more than before. 

The great poet Emily Dickenson said, 
“You do not know how to live unless you know how to love Christ,’
especially, when you’re going through loneliness, suffering and pain.

My hope is, that even in this time of great suffering, through hope you are being draw closer to God’s great love for you. 

For you see, Hope can still save us, in spite of, and sometimes even because sin or suffering.   This saving hope comes to us through God’s love for us, is most important for us now, and in all life’s challenges, because, as Paul says, 'if God is for us, who or what can be against us?...   We are conquerors through Christ who loves us.

This is the hope that still saves.  Are you living in this kind of hope, especially today.   This living hope doesn’t have to wait for the glory that is to come,  this hope can come to you right now, in your own life, through faith in Jesus Christ. 

Let us pray: 

Dear Lord Jesus, you are our hope that saves us. 

Because of your great love for us, we can face the futility and our own suffering in this world, with hope. 

We have hope because your love is always for us, and is never against us Your conquering love enables us to face whatever comes,
Even without having all the answer,
but because we put our trust and our hope firmly your love.   Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter Message: WE HAD HOPED…

Sermon based upon Luke 24: 13-35
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
April 12th, 2020

It’s Easter.  And maybe like me, you feel some disappointment today.  
----We are not in church together.
----This Coronavirus still threatens in the world.
----Covid 19 is still infecting people, killing people, and has the potential of infect thousands more.  That’s why we aren’t in church.
As Pastor Rick Warren said recently,  “God gave you a brain to use it!”   We are using our brains and this is a disappointing and fearful time.  
We are also praying that the infections will spike soon, so we can get our lives back. 
But of course, some will not get their lives back. 
Isn’t this why the message of Easter is so important? 

This is only the second Easter in my life of 62 years, that I’ve NOT been worshipping in Church, with other believers.
The only other Easter I missed was when I was in Baptist Hospital recovering from a car accident back in 1975, when I was 17.  
I had been in the hospital nearly 2 months. Easter came on March 30th.  I didn’t get to come home from the Hospital until the April 4th.  
I remember that that time very vividly.  It was disappointing too.   
Now, don’t get me wrong.  The hospital staff were very good too me.   I was fortunate to have had such good medical care.  
I remember one day, I was in my hospital bed, playing my guitar and singing.   Nurses came running into my room.  Even though I was singing a John Denver song, they thought I was Elvis Presley.  Elvis was in the same building battling Pneumonia.   It was fun for me to be mistaken for Elvis, but you could see the disappointment on their faces.
 That funny moment helped me with some of my feelings of disappointment.  
---I was missing the best part of my Senior Year in High School.  
---It was supposed be a time to celebrate years of hard work.  
---It was a time to coast, to look back and to look forward.  
But what did I have to look forward to?
Yes,  I was alive.  But there I was, lying on my back, confined in bed, wearing a body cast.   
----I would be unable to walk normally ever again.   
---I would never run ever again.   
---I would not get to do many things I had dreamed.  
---I wasn’t handicapped, but I was going to be limited.  
---The pain was going to be with me every day.     
Why am I telling you this?   I want you to know.  I know what disappointment is like.  It remains with me everyday.  
Now, we are all feeling disappointment this Easter.  
WE had hoped it would be different, but this is ‘how’ it is now.
Haven’t we all had ‘great expectations’ vanished before our eyes?  
---We had hoped that we would get that job.
---We had hoped the marriage would last.
---We had hoped our kids had turned out different.
----We had hope the cancer would not come back.
…WE HAD HOPED…  That’s one line in this Easter story, which can stab straight into many human hearts.    
And there is NO DISAPPOINTMENT WORSE, than the disappointment we can have with God!

That’s what’s happening in Luke’s story. 
These two disciples, Cleopas and his wife, were walking the road of Disappointment, called Emmaus.  
Archeologists have yet to locate the Emmaus Road, or the on a map?   They don’t need too, haven’t we all have traveled this road?
 And the disappointment these two disciples were feeling, wasn’t just that Jesus died.   But when Jesus was ‘handed over’ to the authorities and crucified all their hopes died along with him.   
—Jesus had been a ‘prophet mighty in word and deed’, but he did not redeem or restore Israel like they hoped.   
—-Jesus had been a great light with ‘power’, but his ‘authority’ didn’t rest on his shoulders’ very long. 
The ‘mighty God’ of this new David, was the King as they had wished.  Now, all their righteous dreams for Israel were gone, like ‘Dust in the wind!”
 ‘When you are going through hell, keep going’, Winston Churchhill once said.   One truth of this story, is that it keeps going, because it 

was while moving along on this Road to Emmaus that something very mysterious, unexpected, and unforeseen happens.   An unexpected ‘stranger’ joined them out on that that road.   
Of course, they didn’t know who he was, but we do.  
Jesus came as an unrecognized presence, like he can also come to us, even on the the most difficult roads of our lives.
Recently, I was talking to a new friend.  We were talking about the Virus, our fears and our hopes that this difficult, disappointing moment, might bring us all closer to God.    
Then he told me his story.   Back in 2009, he was riding his motorcycle, when a car suddenly stopped in front of him.  He had no where to go.  He felt the end had come.   He woke up in the hospital, realizing he had survived the crash, but his neck was broken, with other bones too.   
With his mother by his side, he started feeling very bad.  He told his mother than he loved her.  He felt like he was dying.   He went into cardiac arrest.  He flat lined.
But in that time he was gone, something very mysterious happened. He remembered being somewhere else with a background of very bright, white light.   He saw his deceased grandmother.  She was sitting a chair looking straight at him and said, “What are you doing here!  You need to go back and help your mother!”   
He woke up again and that’s what remembered.   He said he couldn’t explain it and hadn’t shared it much. Most people wouldn’t  understand nor appreciate it.  I did. When I asked if I could share it with you, he told me this this unexpected meeting put him on the road of walking closer with God.

Jesus can still be, mysteriously present.  
But it’s also important to see that on this Emmaus Road,  Jesus wasn’t just trying to make them feel better.  
He was one trying to help them find God’s greater purpose.  Jesus expounded the Scriptures, saying, ‘How slow of heart you are to believe what the prophets have declared!”  Jesus didn’t give easy answers either, but rather, asked some hard questions: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer and then enter his glory”?
If we want to recover hope, we too must move beyond our own interpretations and change our expectations too.   We must keep walking with Jesus until we can learn to see things differently.  
And that’s certainly not easy to do.   
For many people, in this difficult time we are now experiencing, life is NOT going to return to the way it was.   
I overheard someone say with great frustration, “I just want things to return to normal!”  I also heard a stockbroker say, ‘stay calm.’  Your funds will recover.’  
 I understand the need for optimism, and I am, but what if it doesn’t?  What if it can’t, what we can’t recover exactly like we want?  What if I, you, we get this deadly virus?  Many of us are in the danger zone.
Of course, none of us can see exactly what’s coming!    
On TV, I watched an interview with Bill Gates, Microsoft’s Co-Founder.  In his days of retirement, Bill Gates does a lot of Philanthropic work in the developing world.   And back in 2015, he was warning that the next big disaster would probably not be from missiles, but from microbes.  But even Bill Gates couldn’t get governments or investors to take him seriously.  He didn’t see it unfolding this way either.
Most importantly, Bill Gates wasn’t harping on this.   When reporters tried to push him, he answered, ‘There will be time for Postmortems later.’  ‘Right now’, he said, ‘we’ve got to focus on what we need to do  together to stop the spread of this virus.’
That’s how you get through, anything, isn’t it?  You focus.  You talk, listen and learn and keep working with others.  You don’t focus on what wasn’t, or what could or should have been, but you move forward into what is real now.   
And, as these two disciples continued to move forward, walking, talking and learning from this mysterious stranger, and before they knew it, this long, even this very difficult road had brought them home.  The day of disappointment had been transformed. 
Arriving home, they invited their new conversation partner to stay and eat with them.  It was then, when he blessed the food, that their ‘eyes were opened’ to WHO had been with them, all along.
What will it take for us to realize Jesus is wants to be our conversation partner through this—through both the joys and the suffering, through the breakthroughs and the breakdowns, and through disappointment until we can see hope?
But realize that Jesus is with us, seldom happens all at once.  We may believe we are in this alone.  Nothing may make sense.  
And most likely,  the eyes of our souls won’t be opened because we have figure something out.  We may never find adequate answers to what has happened, but we may instead, find him, the presence and promise of Jesus, right there in the most difficult questions we ask. 
 When I was lying there those two months, fighting to recover,  I should have been greatly depressed, but somehow it never happened.   
I can’t fully explain how I kept my hopes up.  
When I finally did get back to school, I walked my crutches straight up to the fellow who caused the accident and said,  ‘Its OK, you didn’t come and tell me you were sorry.  You might be afraid.  But I want you to know that I forgive you!’  
Was that naive?  Was that the idealism of youth?  Perhaps. 
But isn’t it ‘better to the one who does the forgiving, than the one who needs forgiving’?   
At that time, and not anytime in that hospital, did I ever feel alone, defeated, or broken.  I had too many bone broken, but never my soul.   
It was also, while in that hospital, that I, as a young person, gained direction and wisdom for my life, that some never find.  
In that hospital, I decided not to go into medicine nor journalism, and I was confirmed in my leanings toward pastoral ministry.    
I also recall, my surgeon coming into my room, like he did every day, checking to see if it my foot would heal.  He had done all he could.  Now, he had to wait for two weeks and see what happened.  On this particular day, he was showing his interns my foot, telling his students,  ‘Oh, I want you to meet his special case.  He’s got bad foot damage, but now, he’s got religion too’.   What the Doctor, didn’t realize was Jesus had me long before this.  But he was right, about one thing, this challenge had given me clarity.  Like Jacob, I too had wrestled with God and lost.  I would walk with a limp too.  But I would be better for it, for the rest of my life. 
And when you understand that limps or any other disappointment in life can make us better people alone, but you must still find hope out on the road, you too, are already walking toward Emmaus.   
For it was only an encounter with the resurrected Jesus who made them see everything differently.   This is the eternal, living, universal Jesus, who promises his presence and the his eternal hope, even when we are walking on the most disappointing road.
Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto was Pastor of the largest Protestant congregation in southern Japan, in the city of Hiroshima.  
One day, a yellow flash suddenly appeared.  Somehow, instinctively,  Pastor Tanimoto drove into a garden and wedged himself between two huge rocks.  
Next, a powerful blast of wind and fire blew over him.  It knocked him unconscious. 
When he came to and got on his feet, the city was flat as a desert. 
Sixty-eight thousand human beings were killed instantly.  
Only 30 members of his 3,500-member church were still alive.   
But having hope in this redeemer, Jesus Christ, Pastor Tanimoto began to rebuild his crucified church.   He arranged for the spiritual adoption of 500 Hiroshima orphans by North American families.   
As a result of his work, all bomb survivors became eligible for free medical treatment.  
Pastor Tanimoto also created a Peace Foundation. In that Foundation's museum a little girl named Sadako placed two cranes made of folded paper. It was her belief that if a person who was ill made these little paper cranes, the person would get better. 
But neither, Tanimoto nor little Sadako were fully healed in this weorld.  After 10 years of horrible suffering from the effects of radiation,  both the Pastor and little Sadako died in the great disappointment of everything that happened.  But they also died with a firm faith that Jesus was with them and had prepared a place for them.
Today, a statue stands in Hiroshima to their memories.  This year is the  75th  anniversary of that bombing.  The statue to their memory is Triangular, representing the Trinitarian Christian Faith,  made from the figures of two children on either side and another child on top, with their arms outstretched to express their hope for a peaceful world.   Today, Japanese children still keep the center of that statue filled with many-colored paper cranes to confess their hope that will not disappoint.   
Today, the people of God confess the foundation of all hope as the resurrection of  Jesus Christ.    That is why we sing, straight into our own disappointments too:  
He lives.  He lives. Christ Jesus lives today.  He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.  
He lives.  He lives. Christ Jesus lives today!  You ask me how I know he lives.  He lives within my heart.  
I hope he lives with your own heart.  
Is there any reason you can’t recognize him? 
What keeps you from being in his presence?  Don’t you see?   
Jesus quickly disappeared from those two disciples in Emmaus to come and be with all his disciples, everywhere, and says:  ‘Let not your heart be troubled.  Believe in God.  Trust in me’.   Will you recognize Him?

Let us pray:  Dear Jesus, thank you that there is nowhere we can go and nothing that we may go through, that your love does not seek us out to bring us your eternal hope.   
On this day, Easter Sunday, the Lord’s Day, we remember that you were not in the tomb that was empty, so you can reveal your loving presence to all those who will walk with you. 
Jesus, you are the true, living hope in our hearts, even in life’s great disappointments.   Come, Lord Jesus!  Be with us on this road now. Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Have This Same Mind

A sermon based upon Philippians 2: 1-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,
Passion/Palm Sunday April 5th, 2020

I hate to tell you this, especially on Palm Sunday, but Palm Sunday is based on a lie---one very big lie. 

Palm Sunday had parades.  There were overflow crowds in the streets.  People were shouting over and over, Hosanna, which meant ‘Our God saves!’  Blessed is the one who comes!    They were all pointing at Jesus as the one who came to save them.

But as we all know, it all ended up being a lie.  By the end of the week, on that very same Friday, in the very same city, the same people who were shouting “Hosanna!” were now shouting: “Crucify him! 

And this very same Jesus, whom they once put their hope in, was now being executed as a troublemaker, a blasphemer, and a lawbreaker.  Crowds can be very fickle.  Crowds are fickle because people are fickle.  When people don’t get what they want, exactly how they want it, they can turn on you!   And this is what people did.  This is what people still can do.

This tendency for we humans to be ‘fickle’ and ‘unpredictable’ is what the apostle Paul understood, all too well.   

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul was writing to a great, young church made up of wonderful new Christians.   But these Christians were still people, just like you and me.  They were people who were ‘saints’ and sinners at the same time.   They were people who Paul remembered to prayer for, not just because he remembered how special they were to him, but he also remembered how they were still people, who could follow Jesus faithfully one day,  then forget what it meant to be follow Jesus the next.   To be a human being, and even being a Christian, meant that we could ‘forget’ that we are still to be like Jesus.

This is why Paul reminds them, “BE OF THE SAME MIND….THE MIND THAT WAS IN CHRIST JESUS….    Notice that what Paul is saying is they all should have the SAME MIND….    He is not saying only that they should ‘have the mind of Christ INDIVIDUALLY BUT THEY SHOULD HAVE THE SAME MIND COOPERATELY—together,  as a CHURCH, and as a PEOPLE together.

It is a wonderful thing for people to ‘come together’ and to see things together, do things together, work together, and believe things together.   Unfortunately, this is become ‘rarer’ these days, as we are losing a sense of being connected to the past, or working toward a unified future.  

Today, our tendency is to do things single-handedly, selfishly, and personally.   While we must do our part, something is loss in a culture that can’t seem to get together on anything.  AREN’T WE SEEING THIS IN OUR ELECTION YEAR?   Either one party is dominated by one person, or one party is so fragmented that people can come together around anything.   That’s a set up for dangerous times ahead.  When people can’t be of THE SAME MIND, they can lose their mind, or follow the wrong MIND…..   When life is self-centered and me-focused, we lose focus, and NO ONE can Focus on the BIGGER PICTURE that can help us all.

On this PALM SUNDAY, that one, and now, most agree: ‘GOD SAVES’.   They saw in Jesus this truth coming together, were hopeful and believed in might be realized in Him!  Jesus was the promised Messiah!   Jesus was the one God would use to SAVE.   But by the end of the week, things quickly fell apart.   By the end of the week,  JESUS, couldn’t even SAVE HIMSELF….  That ‘one mine’ was lost.  They became a very different mind.  They broke into many different kinds of attitudes and minds too.

WHAT HAPPENED?   You know what happened, don’t you?  Being human happened.   When Jesus came into Jerusalem and started telling the truth about how things were in Jerusalem and how they need to take part in GOD’S SALVATION, the people decided he was better off dead.   They preferred their own own way, rather than God’s way.  

This is how it was in Jersualem, and it’s also how it could easily become in Philippi, as as it can still be in Union Grove, in Hamptonville, in Yadkinville, or in Statesville, or wherever we humans reside ‘having ONLY our own minds’.   Aren’t PEOPLE ALREADY ARE LOOKING FOR ANOTHER PLANET…like the Moon, or Mars, to move too, because we can’t get together,  BUT IT WOULD BE THE SAME THERE TOO.    This is what that story, LORD of the FLIES WAS ABOUT….”   It is a story a shipwreck, where children got to fix all the mistakes their adults made, only to make the same mistakes again….  I see this happening in our world too, don’t you?   People trying to abandon Foundations, Establishment, Traditions, so quickly, thinking they can create a whole new world, which will end up, no better than learning how to behave in the world we are in.

Last Fall, in America, as the Election year was starting up,  the President of the United States, who was facing the possibility of Impeachment, was attending a World Series Ball Game in Washington, and a large section in the crowd starting chanting to the presidents, the same kind of words, he taught people to chant toward his presidential opponent 3 years earlier.   Instead of saying ‘Lock Her Up!”, as he once allowed, now they were chanting at him: “Lock, Him Up!   Lock Him Up!   It’s doesn’t matter what you think about the president, or his opponent, when you let “INCIVILITY” out of PANDORA’S BOX,  it will come back to haunt you.   It always comes back.  That’s what they Bible means when it says, ‘When you sow into the wind, you reap the whirlwind!”   The ‘whirlwind’ that is out of the Box is our day, is incivility.   The ‘attitude’ that has the day is hate, blame, criticism, ugliness, meanness, and negativity.

This is exactly what happens in a culture where everyone is doing most everything from ‘selfish ambition and conceit’ (v. 3).   Whereas Paul says we should ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition and conceit’ we have become a culture almost completely focused on ‘me, myself, and mine’.   This began way back in the 60’s and 70’s with the rebellion and SELF-EXPRESSION of the Hippy Culture.   Then when all those Hippies took over the culture,  they moved all the companies to Mexico, China, and India, and other places so that they could continue to keep what was ‘mine’---all mine.   Now, what was being done in the 80’s and 90’s is finally ‘trickling down’ to be revealed in our uncivil culture, where it’s not only just about me,  NOW, ITS MORE OPENLY, UNASHAMEDLY, not about YOU….   It’s me, me, me, and there is no more Thee, WE, or Thou, because God is now out of the picture too.  YOU always have to KILL GOD, or CRUCIFY JESUS again in order for you to LIFT UP and LIVE ME, Me, And only Me.

And what we need to understand carefully, is that this is not only happening in our WORLD, but it’s also happening at church.   I was at a meeting at my Baptist School, and the Teacher reported to us:   Every year in America 4,000 churches padlock their doors.  This means by 2030, ¼ to 1/3rd of all Churches will be closed.   It also means that each day 3,500 people leave the church.   That’s 1.2 million people in a year.  What that means is that every day, 3500 people, even people in this church are saying and singing loudly,  ME, ME, ME.  That’s the only ‘tune’ in life they know.

In this text Paul tells us this is exactly what happens when people ‘only’ look after their own interests’.  When have no ‘encouragement in Christ’.  When we have no ‘consolation from love’ and when we share no more ‘in the Spirit’, we lose both ‘compassion’ and ‘sympathy’.   Do you see it?    When we only look after our own ‘interests’   life, culture, society, and final the world falls apart.    That goes for nations, societies, communities, churches, families, and individuals too.   IN a me age, SUICIDES CONTINUE TO RISE…   Every good psychologist knows that the ‘death wish’ is mostly a ‘me wish’.   To kill yourself is the most selfish act, because you don’t care about what anyone else thinks, feels.   YOU ONLY THINK ABOUT HOW YOU FEEL.

WHAT PAUL RECOMMENDS, instead, is learning the kind right kind of ‘attitude’ or ‘mind’ to have in this world, in Philippi, or in the church, where we are RIGHT NOW.   This is the way to salvation, not to find something completely new, but to find something NEW IN WHO WE ARE, HOW WE THINK, and WHAT WE DO, right where we are and in who we are, and should be.   Paul says ‘his joy’ is ‘complete’ when people ‘have the same mind’, ‘the same love’ and are in ‘full accord’ and ‘of one mind’.   He implies that we lose ‘joy’ and become ‘incomplete’ when fail to have the right kind of mind and attitude.

ISN’T THIS always the true WAY OF SALVATION.  Isn’t this the way of BEING A WHOLE PERSON, a saved person?   It starts in the HEART, or IN THE MIND…   This is not intellectual part of our mind, but it’s in the relational and moral part of our minds.   It is to have a ‘mind’, that is ‘one mind’ based on the most basic ‘way’ or ‘truth’ that has a saving effect on us all.  BUT WHAT IS THIS MIND?  WHAT IS THIS ATTITUDE?

The RIGHT KIND OF MIND begins when we realize that WE CAN’T SAVE OURSELVES, nor can we be saved THE WAY WE WANT TO BE.    We are going to have to ‘give up’ some part of our own MIND to be saved!     You have to stop some of your ‘own interests’.  You are going to have a MIND bigger than your own.   You are even going to have to understand that YOUR LIFE… YOUR OWN LIFE is not only about you.   PEOPLE used to believe there was a ‘GRAND NARRATIVE’, that is that our lives are part of an ongoing story, that transcends time and place.   Today, however, most people are writing a THEIR OWN LIFE STORY, individually, alone, with only a few, either on FACEBOOK, in their own groups, or in their own way.    THERE is no SHOULD anymore,  there is only a WHAT WOULD I LIKE, or What do I want.  

The problem with living without a ‘SHOULD’ and only with a “WOULD” is that we finally end up without a ‘COULD’.   What I mean is that when we lose the mind and heart of how we must or should live,  we will eventually lose how we ‘could live’.   You see, the selfish life, if finally a self-destructive life, because when we go after what we want, it eats up what we have already.   Do you understand what I mean?  Let me explain.  When people go after only what we want, what we want is becomes a desire without limits, and in a world that is ‘free’ like ours is,  we can keep eating away at more and more, so that by getting everything we want, we not only lose what we have already, but we also fail to go after what we really, truly need.  For you see, the FREEDOM you have to be YOU,  Is always made possible by THE FREEDOM of a WE.     It’s like the song the foot bone is connected to the Leg bone, etc.   THE FREEDOM of ME is connected to the Freedom of WE, and the freedom of we is connected to the freedom  to do what I MUST DO, not just what I want to do.      YOUR ATTITUDE what you COULD BE IS Alway connected to what your attitude SHOULD BE,  because only by being responsible with your freedom do you get to keep it.   The PEOPLE IN PRISON lose their freedom because they can’t connect the dots.   The people headed for a prison of lost opportunity forget how to connect these same dots.  The people who think it is only about ‘me’ and forget the ‘we’ are headed for the inability to ‘be’ or ‘become’ much of anything they have the potential to be.

So, the ‘SHOULD’ begins in our ATTITUDE and in the right kind of attitude.   This is what Paul means by using the words, encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, compassion and love.   These are RIGHT, whereas their opposites are the way of ME WITHOUT THE WE.

But who’s to say that there is an ‘attitude’ that we SHOULD have?   Well, Palm Sunday they said it was Jesus, until they understood the kind of ATTITUDE he had.

What kind of ATTITUDE WAS IT?   We know what they eventually did to Jesus, but do we remember ‘why’ they did it?   Well, this passage from Paul reminds us that it was the kind of ‘attitude’ Jesus had that got him killed.  But it also says, that this kind of ‘attitude’ can save us.   Can we believe this?   The early church made a ‘hymn’ out of this ‘attitude’ and they sang it in their services.   This hymn is what Paul quotes here, as the kind of ‘ATTITUDE’ that could save the world then, and can still save our world today.  

Do you believe it can?   I do!  While we might have different ideas on what will save the world, and we might even interpret Jesus somewhat differently,  what you eventually must get to that what was in Jesus’ heart.    What kind of attitude was in Jesus own mind and heart?   And do we remember this is what Paul said we must also ‘have’ if we want to be a people, a church, or even a nation ‘blessed’ by God’s goodness and grace.   So, what is this mind of Christ?  What kind of ‘mindset’ did Jesus have that ‘killed’ him, but today, could ‘save’ us?
There are many lines in this hymn or song, but only one line interprets the rest of it.  Do you see it?   It’s the saving line.   It’s the line in verse 8 that says, that,”He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross”. (Phil. 2:8 NRS).   The attitude of Jesus that saves us that Jesus had an ‘attitude’ to ‘obey’ God, ‘even to the point of death…even death on a cross’.   The attitude of Jesus that can still save us, is that we also return to ‘an attitude to ‘become obedient’,  that is to be obedient to what is good and right, even ‘to the point’ of our own ‘death’.   Paul does not mean we have to our must repeat what Jesus did for us, but he is pointing to the attitude we must have in our heart toward each other… which Jesus had FOR US.  Jesus denied himself to obey God and die, and we must deny and die to ourselves to obey God and to give ourselves FOR OTHERS TOO.  

All this begins in the heart and in the mind.  In order to have salvation, we have to live our salvation into reality in this world.   This is what the people in Jerusalem did not want to hear.  They wanted Jesus to do it for them.   Well, he did.  But it was on God’s terms, not on their terms.   In the same way,  God wanted Jerusalem to live Jesus’ way.  If they would have, the Romans would not have destroyed them, like they did.   If these people in Jerusalem had listened and learned that ‘OUR GOD SAVES’ means that God calls us to participate in this salvation though our own obedience.  TRUST AND OBEY, for there’s no other way.   

And this trusting, obeying way of Jesus, that must be lived in us, is a sacrificing way.  Again, we don’t have to die on a cross, but we do have to take up our cross, and follow Jesus, for God’s salvation to be realize in our lives, here and now.   This is how the saving way of Jesus becomes the saving way for the world.   It is a saving way because it is a self-denying, sacrificing, obedient way, and it is an obedient way because it is A HUMBLE WAY…. A SERVANT WAY, which is how God redeems and restores human life, here and now.     God still works through the attitude and through the heart, but we have to first give our hearts to him, in both word and in deed.

In short,  Jesus gave up being God to save us.   It’s a mystery, I know, but this mystery points to the simplest truth of all:  ‘We have to also give up being god, to be saved.’      This is what ‘denying ourselves’ and ‘following Jesus’ is all about.  To follow Jesus in his way, which is the right, humble, and healing way.

Jim Wallis, Editor of Sojourners Magazine says that the way to ‘heal our land’ starts in the heart, and in the attitude of our own minds.   And this attitude must be to give up our own positions and politics and return to the politics of Jesus, which are the way of the cross.   He says, Jesus is the solution to our great political crisis, and we can only apply his solution to our lives, when we put our full trust in him by ‘having the same mind’ that was in Christ Jesus.

Dear friends, we not only call this Sunday Palm Sunday, but Passion Sunday, because it is on this day that we start to think about the true, heart-felt, passion of Jesus to die for us, so that we can live for him.   And living for Jesus means living like Jesus.   This is not just religious, churchy, or even just political stuff, THIS IS LIFE STUFF.    As the old gospel song says,  “THE WAY OF THE CROSS LEADS HOME….”   Only when we cease to ‘look on our own interests’ and begin to ‘look on the interest of others’ can we be a CHURCH,  can we be a PEOPLE, and can we keep being a NATION that brings light into this world.   This is how God came in Jesus to put his HEART IN US, so we can receive his HEART and also RECEIVE the gift HOPE AND LIFE.     

Dear friends, on this Palm Sunday, which is also Passion Sunday, we understand from Paul, that the only way to get OUR WORLD BACK, or to KEEP the FREEDOM we have is to obey God,  and to follow this servant way.   In order to keep our heads in life, we have to LOSE OUR MINDS IN HIM.   This loving, serving, caring, and trusting mind is the only hope for a return to sanity.   Have this mind, and you’ll keep yours!  Amen.