Luke 24:13-35 – A Walk to Remember

Luke tells us it is about 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. I do a lot of walking, about 4 miles whenever I go out. I takes me about an hour. That’s trying to walk fast, though, trying to work up a sweat. So, walking at a normal pace, with practice, 7 miles is doable. If we live an active life, some of us might get close and not even realize it. The distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus is not the problem . . . but that’s not the only journey Cleopas and his friend are on.

They are also traveling between despair and faith. These two travelers are taking a journey from “We had hoped” (vs. 21) to “weren’t our hearts on fire?” It’s a journey we all must take. We all must take a walk from despair to faith, from dashed hopes to inspired lives, from lost to found. By looking more closely at this story, we find a roadmap from making that trip.

Why did Luke include this story? We can read from verse 12 to verse 36 – leaving out the Emmaus story – and barely miss a beat. It’s almost as if Luke has inserted a story in another story. Maybe he wanted to remind all of us – even those not in Jesus’ inner circle, the average believers as opposed to the more important disciples – that Jesus has risen for us, too.

If we examine the story, it becomes a kind of allegory for the faith journey. We see the path that we all must take.

Luke 24:13-35 (CEB)

 13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him.

17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

19 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. 20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. 26  Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead.29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.

The journey from despair to faith sometimes begins with an argument. That’s what the two men were doing. The English translation makes it sound like they were two professors rationally discussing a lecture that had recently heard. In Greek, the words used for “discussing” and “talking about” were words usually describing sermons (homileo) or debates (antiballette; “to place against”). This was no “small talk,” or calm conversation. They were not talking about the weather. Cleopas and his friend were preaching and debating what had happened in Jerusalem. By using these words, Luke tells us that this was a sermon designed to persuade, and argument with a “winner” and a “loser.”

They were emotionally and powerfully laying out their points, trying to convince each other of what had happened.  Totally engrossed in this debate and sermon, they do not even notice a man approach; they don’t even notice that he is the very man they were preaching and debating about. (Maybe they’d never actually seen Jesus? Only heard of him?)

When Jesus arrives, I like to imagine him describing the discussion like any good Southerner would – “What in the world were y’all fussing about!?” I also like to imagine Cleopas responding like any of us might, “Are you serious? What rock have you been living under?”

Cleopas and his friend, like many of us, were “fussing” about their faith – struggling to hang on to what they believed just a few days ago. Less than a week ago (Luke says “On that same day” – Easter day!), they had high hopes. But, hopes get dashed, especially in the real world. Dreams we have for ourselves or for our families, for our jobs or for our security, fall to the wayside as reality takes over.

The two travelers had hoped Jesus would be the one to take their people out of oppression, lift the burden of Roman rule. “We had hoped . . .” How many times have any of us said those words? Some of the saddest in all of scripture – certainly some of the saddest in all of human experience. “We had hoped . . .”

This is grief. This is loss. This is something that human beings feel on a regular basis, if we are honest with themselves. Plans we have for the future are lost with the death of a loved one, lost in the limitations of life, lost when other people make other choices. Grief and loss are part of life.

Cleopas and his friend, furthermore, can’t believe that the answer might be better than they ever imagine. “But there’s more,” they say, “some women in our group have left us stunned.” Earlier in the chapter, verse 11, Luke uses the word “nonsense” to describe the women’s report. (NRSV uses the phrase “idle tale”) Guess what? The Greek means more! It is a physician’s term (remember, Luke was a physician) for “delirious babblings of very sick people.”

Into this grief-stricken sermon and debate, Jesus arrives. Once again, I think Jesus was a Southerner, because what CEB translates as “You foolish people!” is actually a term of endearment. It’s like Jesus was saying “Bless your heart. Don’t you know . . .”

How did Jesus minister to these grieving men? By explaining the Scriptures. He showed them that God had been working on all this since the time of the Old Testament prophets – even since the days of Moses!

Jesus teaches them a lesson we can all learn. When lost in grief, trapped in despair, Scriptures show us the way out. Jesus doesn’t try to move too quickly past their pain, like we do sometimes, but dives right in. Walks with them, enters their “sermon and debate,” and wrestles with the pain along with them.

Part of what we learn from this journey from despair to faith is that often despair must come before faith. The heart that is broken by pain and confusion often comes before the heart that is burning with passion and calling.

The heart that is broken by pain and confusion often comes before the heart that is burning with passion and calling.

A broken heart is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. We cannot be human without experiencing pain, without suffering a broken heart. It is to us broken-hearted disciples that Christ comes.

When he comes, Jesus teaches in a way that we can understand (through Scripture and debate?). He shows us his presence in the Bread and Wine of Communion. He uses our worship to set us on fire! Jesus takes our broken hearts and makes them burn!

John 20:1-18 – No Good Thing Ever Dies

Have you ever seen “The Shawshank Redemption”? Or read the Steven King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption?” It is a story set in a Post-WWII prison in Maine. Leave it to Steven King to turn a story in that setting into an extended parable on hope.

Andy Dufresne is a young banker, wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife (played by Tim Robbins). Morgan Freeman plays Ellis “Red” Redding, the prison “fixer;” whatever you want, Red can get it for you. He’s a lifer, and older than Andy. Though they are vastly different men, the two form a friendship and begin a long debate on hope.

Red believes, after so many years in the maximum security environment, that “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

After receiving solitary confinement for locking himself in the Warden’s office and playing “The Marriage of Figaro” over the prison loudspeakers, Andy explains his view: “You need music so you don’t forget there’s something inside you that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch hope.”

Andy’s hope drives him to dream of a new life in a quiet, Mexican town on the Pacific Ocean, Zihuatenejo. Not only does he dream, he plans, inspired by this hope, an escape. Over many years, hidden behind a poster of Rita Hayworth (and later of Raquel Welch), he begins to tunnel through the prison wall. His route leads him through a 500-yard long tunnel of sewage, carrying a plastic bag of clothes. His escape becomes legendary to the prisoners, and inspiring to Red.

Long years later, Red is finally paroled. Unsuccessfully, he tries to fit in outside, getting a job as a bagger in a grocery store and living in a halfway house. He thinks about giving up and doing something that will get him sent back to prison – the environment that feels most familiar. But, his memories of Andy – and some of their conversations – leads him to a stone wall, in a field in rural Maine. Red didn’t know it, but Andy’s hope extended to Red, for he had left a letter hidden in that wall, behind a rock “that doesn’t belong there.”

In the letter, there is cash and a call to remember the name of the town – Zihuatenejo. In his letter, Andy says this:

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

The movie ends with Red walking down the beach to find his friend, Andy, working on a dilapidated old boat. Over that scene, we hear Red’s voice:

“I find I am so excited,  I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it  across. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope. 

Picture Red, leaning back against that stone wall, reading Andy’s letter. Imagine the thoughts running through his head – Do I have the courage to believe? Can I actually do what he proposes? Do I even hope that there is a better life than bagging groceries? Can I even find Zihuatenejo?

Imagine all that, and you are imagining the same thoughts running through the head of Mary, in a garden outside an empty tomb, struggling to hope and grasp the truth that “hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.”

John 20:1-18 

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 

Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying. 

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 

As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” which means Teacher.

 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

We might remember the words of Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

 Christians know that hope and faith have always been related. “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.” (Hebrews 11:1, CEB) “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Both were written by the Apostle Paul, who spent a lot of time in prison; maybe one has to reach the end of all human hope to find the hope of faith, the hope of new life?

Modern writer Peter Steinke, in A Door Set Open: a Theology of Hope, says:

  • Hope puts possibility into play
  • Hope is a way of imagining God’s future and persevering in faith that it will arrive.
  • Hope draws us toward the future, directs our focus, arouses our passion, and gives meaning to our actions.
  • Hope is a concrete invitation to act in adventurous ways.

Hope is Zihuatenejo.

Hope is Mary running back to the disciples with the news, “I have seen the Lord!”

Hope is in extremely short supply today.

Many Christians, many churches, are confused. Their focus is not yet directed by hope, their passions not aroused by hope, and their actions meaningless. Many churches have not yet allowed hope to draw them towards God’s future! Many of us might have received God’s invitation to adventure, but put it back in the envelope, and thrown it away.

Often we are “dispirited, bewildered, struggling, conflicted, paddling-as-fast-as-we-can” and we believe all our struggles are our fault. “We’re a bad church, a failing church, a dying church.” Not true.

We are still the same church, called and created by God to be the body of Christ. The world, on the other hand, has decided it no longer needs us.  Steinke says, “it is the end of an era in which the world is eager to be hospitable to Christian churches.”

Maybe the whole Church, capital-C Church, universal Church, all Christians everywhere, find ourselves in the garden, talking to the man we think is the gardener. Maybe we are all a little bit like Red.  Do we dare hope?

The whole point of Easter is that God has proven that all will be put right in the end. Easter means that Jesus took all that we sinful, brutal, blood-thirsty humans could dish out – and still loved us to the end; “Father,  forgive them for they know not what they do.” From the cross, as in life, Jesus looked upon us with compassion, “like sheep without a shepherd.”

That’s the life that God raised from the dead on Easter morning.

Who could see that kind of a miracle and not hope? Who could meet the risen Christ in the garden and not answer the call to adventure?

It’s easy to find the precise moment when Mary’s confusion transformed into hope. It’s when Jesus said her name. Mary. With those two syllables, a confused and frightened woman become a hope-filled disciple – the first evangelist, if you will.

The transformation goes deep. Within the time it took Jesus to instruct her to go tell her “brothers and sisters,” Mary had ceased to see him as just a teacher. In those few seconds, “Rabbouni” turned to “Lord.” By the time she reaches her confused and frightened friends, hope has taken root.

Let’s not leave this place this morning without hearing Jesus call our name. Let us not refuse to listen to the “thing with feathers” sing its unceasing song into our soul.

There is nothing wrong with God’s church. At least, nothing wrong that a little hope couldn’t fix.

Hope that acts. Hope that leaves a farm in Maine and travels to a coastal Mexican town, Zihuatenejo.  Hope that runs to tell the disciples,  to share the Good News.

Hope that hears the call to serve adventurously. Hope that sees the future as God sees the future; not full of broken, dispirited people, but a future where all brokenness has been mended.

 “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Matthew 21:1-11 – Who is this?

Coming to Jerusalem for Passover must have been a lot like coming to Winfield for Mule Day – people shoulder-to-shoulder, milling around, stopping to see what people were selling, running into old friends. You can smell the food being prepared. There is noise and music and a general commotion.

Amid all that, coming up the street into town – in Jerusalem, not Winfield – is a man riding on a donkey (maybe it is Winfield? Jesus on a donkey would fit right in on Mule Day). Not an unusual sight. What is strange is that people are leading the procession, surrounding him, and following him. They’re spreading their cloaks in front – letting a donkey step on their clothes! They are laying palm branches down on top of all that. They’re shouting something that is hard to hear with everything else that is going on:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 

Another thing to be noted – it is a motley crew in procession. Women, children, tax collectors, and prostitutes. In fact, the whole thing looks a little “unclean;” no way that bunch is getting in the Temple!

If you’re like some people, after looking for a second, you might walk away thinking, “Isn’t there enough fuss at Passover?” But according to Matthew, “the whole city was stirred up.” If we were there, we might be stirred to ask, “Who is this?”

Who is this?

What’s the big deal? This is Jesus, you know, that prophet we’ve heard so much about lately. We all love his teachings.  He’s so interesting and wise. It’s like he is the second coming of Isaiah or Elijah! He’s even doing just what Zechariah said – riding on a donkey.

If we are honest, many of us would join the parade for just that reason. Jesus, to us, is a great teacher. He says things that comfort us, move us, challenge us. He explains concepts and ideas in a way that we can all understand. If he were to write a book, we would buy it. We might even tell our friends about it.

If we were there, in Jerusalem that day, we might join the parade just to be close to that kind of celebrity. “Hey! I’ve heard of that guy! Wasn’t he on ‘Good Morning America’ last week? I saw his book at Barnes and Noble!”

We join the parade because our friends have. We join the parade because our friends told us about him. We jump on the “Jesus Bandwagon” because it’s the popular choice.

Who is this?

No. You don’t understand. He is the Prophet! The One We’ve Been Waiting For! The Messiah! Jesus is our King!

Well, he better be careful. There are some powerful people who won’t appreciate a “King” who challenges the status quo. They like power and they aren’t giving it up! Besides, he doesn’t look like any king I’ve ever seen.

Contrast Jesus’ visit with the visit of another King. In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany came to Jerusalem. His entourage was so large, and his carriage so grand, that he had to have the gate into the city widened so he could pass.  After his parade was through, someone put a sign over the gate, “A better man than Wilhelm came through this gate. He rode a donkey.”

Who is this?

From our vantage point, we know the end of the story. We know that this Jesus, so honored and praised on Palm Sunday ends up vilified and ridiculed and crucified within a week. The voices that praised him on Sunday, condemned him on Friday.

We know that his greatness lies not in his intelligence. His fame didn’t come from his teachings, though they have lasted. Jesus might have been praised because they thought he was going to make Israel great again. But, those Palm Sunday praisers were wrong. They praised Jesus for the wrong reasons.

Jesus had a different plan. His plan was to serve his Father’s will. The Apostle Paul puts it this way:

Philippians 2:4-8 

Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus knew that he must follow God’s will, teach and proclaim his Father’s great love for his people. Jesus knew that doing so would not sit well with those in power. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, Jesus’ death happened “because of his fidelity to the deepest truth he knew, expressed in his message and behavior, which showed all twisted relationships to be incompatible with God’s shalom.”

From our vantage point, we see that what made Jesus worthy of praise was not that he was going to conquer the evil regime of Caesar. What made him praise-worthy was not his wisdom. What made Jesus great was his ability to look trouble  – even death –  in the face and stay true to God’s plan.

Jesus’ death was an act of violence perpetrated by human beings lost in sin and threatened by Jesus’ message. Jesus’ message was God’s message – that all our manipulative, power-driven relationships and motives are sinful and not compatible with God’s Kingdom of peace and well-being. That kind of sin wouldn’t last when God established his kingdom.

What made Jesus great was his willingness to suffer the consequences of human evil – all so that we would know God’s love. Jesus was a suffering servant of God’s ultimate plan for the world – shalom. Peace and well-being for all.

And, as Barbara Lundblad says. In her sermon on this passage, “only a suffering God can help us.”

Who is this?

The final answer, one that we can only know from our Post-Resurrection position, is that Jesus is a Savior. He is a Savior by being our companion, by being a full participant in human life. He never stood at a distance. He entered our life fully, as “Emmanuel,” God made flesh. How else would we receive salvation?

Jesus could not save us by being a spectator. He could only save us by being one of us, by being God while being one of us. Only a suffering God can save us.

Who is this? A king, though not the kind we might want.

Who is this? A prophet with a message that is hard to bear – so hard we choose to kill the messenger.

Who is this? He is Jesus, our companion forever, despite all consequences, an everlasting participant in human life.

Who is this? He is our Savior.

John 11 – Jesus Wept?

 

This passage catches Jesus “mid-story,” so let’s catch up:

  • There has been considerable plotting to kill Jesus. At one point, in the previous chapter, the Jewish Authorities even pick up stones to use; ready, aim, but no fire.
  • Jesus is “hiding out” on the other side of the Jordan, where his cousin, “John the Baptist” began his ministry. Maybe, like us, Jesus feels safe when he remembers the “good times.”
  • While Jesus is there, he gets word that Lazarus, “the one he loves,” is sick. Jesus waits a couple of days before he goes. Maybe he is considering the risk of going so close to the people who want to kill him (Bethany is less than two miles from Jerusalem); the authorities are sure to hear of his visit.
  • Maybe he is pondering his relationship with the two women and their brother. His mother was a “ponderer.”
  • Then, he gets word that Lazarus has died. Now, he’s got to go!
  • When he finally arrives in Bethany – or at least near Bethany – Martha comes out to meet him.

 John 11:17-27

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

After Martha has her say with Jesus, she goes back home and tells Mary that Jesus wants to see her.

That is where we find Jesus in our assigned passage this morning. His friend is dead. One sister seems a bit angry with Jesus for not coming sooner. The other sister is distraught with grief. Of course, since he is Jesus, he has the power to change their circumstances by raising their brother from the dead. That’s exactly what he does so that those who believe will “see the glory of God.”

As we consider this scripture, I would like all of us to be “ponderers” for a minute. An excellent way to dive into scripture is to place yourself in the story – imagine that you are one of the characters. Let’s pretend that we are Martha and Mary.

The gospels tell us little about either sister. There is this story, from John, and that somewhat more famous story from Luke:

Luke 10:38-42 

While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

We could go into the virtues and values of “hard work” versus “sitting at Jesus’ feet,” but not today. For now, let’s just note that Martha and Mary have very different personalities.

Their discipleship is just like ours – we bring all our different personalities to Jesus. He receives and appreciates all of us. All of us have a place in his ministry. And . . . just like Mary and Martha, we are sometimes subject to petty rivalries and jealousy. Jesus is tolerant and patient of that, too.

When John introduces us to the two sisters, we find that they live with their brother, Lazarus. In that time, such a living arrangement would mean that Lazarus was the sole source of support for his sisters. Martha had no way of exercising her industrious sense of work in the outside world, dominated by men as it was. Mary was not appreciated for her depth and sense of beauty and relationship.

Lazarus may have been the only person in their world who knew and appreciated both women for who they really and truly were. Until they met Jesus. He knew them. He appreciated them.

When tragedy strikes, when Lazarus becomes ill, the two women’s world is falling apart. Their home, their safety, their food might soon be gone. If Lazarus dies, it would be a life of begging or prostitution – that’s all that was available for women without a husband. Not bright prospects. They turn to the man who was perhaps the only other person they knew who would help, Jesus.

When we are at the end of our rope, we do the same. We take our unique needs and our unique points of view and turn them toward Jesus. We truly find sisters in Mary and Martha and know that they react to grief according their personalities.

Martha approaches Jesus with her controlled, somewhat guilt-inducing, self: “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t be dead. Because I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”  She discusses theology: “Yes, we all know he will rise on the last day, when everyone else does.” When Jesus states that he is the “resurrection and the life,” Martha calmly, and rationally agrees. Then, she returns to get Mary – and go about seeing to affairs of the estate.

When Mary arrives, she is surrounded by her fellow mourners.  It was the custom for the women of the village to come and cry with the bereaved (a custom that I imagine Martha despised).  Picture her arrival at the place where Jesus was – all tears and crying, moaning and weeping and sobbing. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet, and says – ironically – the very same thing her sister says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

John 11:33-46 

When Jesus saw her (Mary) crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

Maybe, down deep, Mary and Martha are more alike than they are different. Maybe, down deep, so are we.

In the face of all this mourning and weeping, Jesus himself is moved. John writes two words that we know as the “shortest verse in the Bible.” They just might be the most moving. “Jesus wept.”

Jesus meets both sisters, his friends, right where they are. He accepts Martha’s business-like “bottom line” approach. He discusses things at the level that she can understand, perhaps until she is ready to go a little deeper. Maybe she never will be ready, some of us aren’t.

When Mary arrives, all tears and crying, make-up running down her face (if they had make-up back then), nose running, surrounded by women in the same state, Jesus warms up. He cries, too.

He gives them the gift that only the Son of God could give – new life.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no right or wrong way to come to Jesus. Jesus accepts us all – Marthas and Marys.

After such a profound gift, there is little, if any, change to the sisters’ basic personality. The day before his triumphant entry to Jerusalem, Jesus is back at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. What are the sisters doing? Business-like Martha was serving, and emotional Mary was pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and drying them with her hair.

Not a word of criticism from Jesus for either one. Both of them expressing thanks in their own, unique way.

All of us come to Jesus with a “boat-load” of peculiarities and ways of expressing ourselves in grief and in joy. Jesus receives us all, loves us all, accepts us all. And – sometimes – in the middle of the chaos caused by such variety, he brings new life!

 

 

John 9:1-41 – There Is None So Blind

“There is none so blind, as those who will not see.” Who said that? Ray Stevens in “Everything is Beautiful”?

Actually, it was Jonathon Swift (The “Gulliver’s Travels” guy). In 1738 it was used in his essay, ‘Polite Conversation.’ The full saying is: ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know’.  

Today’s passage, describing this event in Jesus’ life, contains what might have been the inspiration for the most famous line in Christian hymnody: “I once was blind, but now I see.” John Newton must have had this story in mind when he wrote “Amazing Grace.”

(I won’t print the whole story here. Go read it!

“I once was blind, but now I see.”  

Remember a couple of sermons ago, the one about Nicodemus, when I said, “darkness isn’t just darkness for John”? It always has a connotation of faithlessness or lostness for John. This story is no different – a blind man, trapped in permanent darkness – must have some “sin” attached.

We, like the disciples, always have to find a reason for any suffering or chaos we encounter in this world. We have to find the justice inherent in any situation; we must make things make sense. We hold in to it with a “white-knuckled” grip. If something seems unfair, we will often concoct reasons that only make it seem unfair; that, if we really knew everything there is to know about the unfair situation, we’d find the cause.

In this case, the disciples decide that somebody must have sinned – otherwise this poor man wouldn’t have been born blind. Somewhere, at some time, some ancestor – father, mother, grandparents, whoever – must have sinned. This man’s blindness was the punishment for that sin.

I once had the mother of a drug-addicted adult child tell me that her child’s addiction was a “generational sin,” and she was sending this child to a special Christian rehab center to discover that sin.

“Who sinned, so that this child is hooked on OxyContin, her or her parents?” 

The disciples, good Jews trained by the Pharisees, assume a connection between illness or disability and sin. This idea was commonly held, and supported by several bible verses. Most notable is Numbers 14:18

‘The Lord is very patient and absolutely loyal, forgiving wrongs and disloyalty. Yet he doesn’t forgo all punishment, disciplining the grandchildren and great-grandchildren for their ancestors’ wrongs.’

There are just as many verses that proclaim a different view – that God forgives all sin, even to the fourth of fifth generation. So, while the need to cast blame, or find a reason for all suffering, was common, it was not the consensus.

And we, like the disciples, often think that, when someone suffers, it must be someone’s fault.

It’s a variation of the “Vending Machine God” idea. If someone is suffering, they either:

  1. Failed to insert the “correct change” – they did something wrong
  2. Put in a “slug” – faked their faith, or were insincere
  3. The worst of all – skipped the quarter altogether and tried to steal it – no faith at all.

Like Jonathan Swift said, “There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.” “What we already know” is that sometimes, chaos happens. Suffering happens.

“I once was blind, but now I see.” 

Jesus has a different answer, of course. (We should know him well enough by now to know he always  has a different answer) This man has been blind since birth, not because of sin, but because God will use his malady to show forth a “mighty work.”

New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, in a commentary on the Gospel of John, says:

The chaos and the misery of this present world is, it seems, the raw material out of which the loving, wise, and just God is making his new creation.”

That sounds a bit like Jesus’ answer. This man is not blind because his parents or grandparents sinned. This man is blind – with no blame attached – and God will use this blindness to show forth his mighty works.

God has always taken this attitude toward chaos. Genesis 1 tells us that, when “all was formless and void,” when “nothing existed but chaos,” God spoke. God ordered the chaos. He did not analyze (“What caused this chaos?”). He did not blame (“Who made this big mess?”). When God saw chaos, he got to work ordering the chaos. He separated light from dark, land from water and air. When God saw chaos, he created.

In an act very reminiscent of God’s actions at the beginning, when Jesus saw chaos, he acted. He didn’t analyze or blame, When Jesus saw chaos, he healed.

Making mud with his spit sounds a lot like God making Adam “from the dust of the ground.” Both acts brought forth life. God created life where there was no life; Jesus gave new life when all seemed lost. Jesus brought forth light – the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it – and transformed the life of this man trapped in darkness.

No cause was found for the suffering. No blame was cast. When faced with the “chaos and misery of this world,” Jesus made it the “raw material” for a new creation.

What would this “now moment” look like for us? What kind of healing would Jesus bring to people who are well-behaved, well-respected, and well-off? Not subject to punishment for any secret sins, what would that now mean if it happened right now?

“I once was blind, but now I see.”

What would happen if our “blindness” became “sight”?

What is it that we are not seeing? Is it the true pain trapped beneath the chaos of our lives? Beneath the chaos of others’ lives?

It is entirely possible that we still look at those who are suffering and have to find reasons. It is still possible that we use those concocted reasons to withhold our help. Are we blind to the humanity trapped in the suffering of poverty? Of addiction? Of physical or mental illness? Are we blind to the “Child of God” trapped beneath the cover of pain?

Are we so intent on casting blame or finding reasons that we aren’t available to be used by the “loving, wise, and just” God to “make his new creation?” If we are, we’re blind, too.

True sight is hard to come by. The rest of this long passage is given to the aftermath of this man’s healing. There is confusion. People aren’t sure if this is the same man who used to sit by the gate and beg. He looks so different!

They add more suffering! In the need to find out what exactly happened, they accuse Jesus of being sinful for healing on the Sabbath, call in the healed man’s parents to question them, and expel the formerly blind man from the church because he now believes that Jesus is Lord.

The Jewish authorities, like us, are afraid to let go of the old to grasp the new. We are all afraid to let go of old reasons, old understandings – the old blindness – and grasp the new creation that Jesus offers. Our actions often make more suffering after the healing orders the chaos.

“When surrounded by fear and anger, the only way through is to glimpse whatever we can see of Jesus and follow him out of the dark and into the light.” (N.T. Wright)

This gives us some hint as to what we should be doing, if we hope to help God show forth his mighty works in the midst of suffering: be Jesus to those in need, bring them healing, bring them peace. Lead them through the hard times, the “blindness,” and into the light. Let our actions be the way Jesus reaches them.

If we’ve been “blind,” and through the grace of God we “now see,” then let us lead others into sight.

John 3:1-17 – Accept

Remember the “John 3:16 guy”?  Check out the article below from a 2009 Forbes Magazine:

Rollen Stewart, a.k.a. Rainbow Man, first showed up on the American sports scene during the 1977 NBA Finals. Initially he merely put on a rainbow-colored Afro wig and danced wildly for the cameras. But after the 1980 Super Bowl, Stewart sat in his hotel room watching a televangelist named Charles R. Taylor, and became a born-again Christian.

Shortly thereafter, he came up with the idea for adding the John 3:16 sign to his repertoire.  For the next decade, he traveled the globe to display his signs and banners. Among the events he attended:  the Olympics, the World Cup, NFL playoff games, the Indy 500, the Masters, horse races and even the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

He claimed that he drove 60,000 miles a year to attend sporting events. He figured out the prime positions for holding his signs by carrying a battery-operated television to games to help figure out where the cameras were pointed.

But eventually the rush began to fade for Stewart. When the 1980s came to a close, he became more volatile, ramping up his antics. “He became convinced that God had given him a sign to use more negative tactics,” says George Winter, who is working on a biography of Stewart and acts as his unofficial spokesman.

In 1991, at the Masters, he blew an air horn as Jack Nicklaus lined up a putt, then detonated a stink bomb. Later that year he detonated four more stink bombs in Orange County, Calif.

His personal life was a wreck as well. Stewart claimed he never made any money (his tickets to sporting events were believed to have been bought by sympathetic Christians).   By the 1990s, he was homeless and living in his car.

His wife and one-time signage partner had left him–she claimed he choked her when she didn’t hold her sign in the correct place during a game. Finally he went over the edge. 

In September of 1992, Rollen locked himself in a hotel room in a Los Angeles Hyatt and made threats to shoot at airplanes landing and taking off at nearby LAX Airport. He held a Hyatt maid hostage in his room. He plastered religious verses on the windows.

After an eight-hour standoff, SWAT teams broke into his room and found a handgun, two ammunition clips and 47 live ammunition rounds. Stewart, now 65, is serving out three life terms in Mule Creek Prison in Ione, Calif. He comes up for parole nearly every year but is repeatedly denied.

Obviously, signs don’t save you – no matter how many people see them.

Outward actions, no matter how spectacular, no matter how much attention they get, don’t save you. “You must be born again,” Jesus says. You must “accept the freedom God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” even if you, yourself, become “the form in which they present themselves.”

In the early church, Lent was used to help people prepare for Baptism. 40 days to examine your spirit, repent of your sins, decide if you really are ready to commit your life to Christ.

Last week, I asked us to consider the first Baptismal vow: On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

We looked at the story of Jesus’ temptation to see we renounce the various temptations to live as though we are our own gods; how we renounce the forces that lure us to be the center of our own universe.

Today, the word is “accept”, as in the second vow: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

So, we turn to this week’s scripture for more:

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” 

Nicodemus was not free.  Night – “darkness” means something to John

Earlier, in John 1:3-5, 10-11, he writes: “Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him.”

For John, “night” is a metaphor for “outside the faith,” failing to understand who Jesus is; when Judas leaves to betray Jesus, John tells us “it was night.”

Laws and rules controlled him.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus knew God through the Law, a multitude of tightly constructed and constricting rules of behavior – what they ate, what they wore, how they interacted with people. In verse 1, John calls him a “Jewish leader” (an administrator or elected official?); Jesus later calls him “a teacher of Israel” much like a preacher or a Sunday School teacher.

Jesus does things – miraculous things – that defy those rules.  

Nicodemus is desperately trying to understand how Jesus can “a teacher come from God” and not teach the same laws, in the same way, that all Godly teachers have done. If Jesus is “from God,” why doesn’t he act like all us Pharisees act? Why doesn’t he teach what all us Pharisees teach?

Pride and reputation constricted Nicodemus.

Nicodemus had power. Rank and file Jews looked to the Pharisees as paragons of holiness.  Leaders – religious and government leaders – sought their advice.

It might be that when Nicodemus says “we know,” it’s just a cover for “I know.”  He knows. He has an inkling of who Jesus might be (if we follow him through John’s gospel, we see that he does, by the end, become a believer).  He knows, but he can’t say that out loud – somebody might hear him.

We do the same thing: there’s something that we need to say, but we’re afraid to admit that we think that, so we attribute it to the “mysterious they.” “They say,” or “people are saying,” even “I heard this . . .”

For whatever reason, Nicodemus cannot admit that he is struggling with the question of who Jesus is.

Tradition tied him to the past. 

More than all that, what really “tied him up,” was the fact that he could not make sense of all that he had seen and heard about Jesus.

How does Jesus answer Nicodemus’ unspoken question? Even though he is flattering Jesus, below it all, Nicodemus is asking “Who are you?” Jesus says, “you must be born again – or ‘from above’.”

To a dedicated Pharisee, a “leader of Jews,” a “teacher of Israel”, to a “good church person,” Jesus says “you just be born again.” Nicodemus is no heathen, not an atheist, not a worshiper of foreign gods, not even a skeptic.

Nicodemus is what all of us aspire to be – a respected, obviously righteous, leader of his church.  Even he must be born again. And us?

We probably respond in the same way Nicodemus does.

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?” We might ask the same.

How? Why? I go to church. I even come to Sunday School and Wednesday night Bible Study. I know who you are. I read my bible. Me? Surely you are talking about someone else.

The birth of which Jesus speaks is not one we create or earn. It comes from “above;” is “of water (baptism) and the spirit;” and is controlled by God – just like the wind.

We are not born again by the amount of laws we uphold, the amount of hours we spend in church – nor even the amount of Bible we know. We are born again when we accept the grace of God’s love and God’s forgiveness of our sins.

He stands ready to give us that forgiveness, to blow the wind of the Holy Spirit on our lives, whenever we are ready to accept it.

With that grace comes the “freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”  That “freedom and power” is ours. All we have to do is “accept” it, for it comes from God as a freely given gift.

God gives it when and where he sees fit – whether we approve or not.

“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 

I don’t hear anything about forcing or controlling in that verse – God gave so that whoever believes in him, everyone who believes, will be saved.

I don’t hear anything about us deciding who gets to be saved. Nothing even really about God deciding who gets to be saved – everybody can be saved!

Everybody can “accept the freedom and power.”

Even us good, church people who thought we already had it.

Matthew 4:1-11 – The Real Temptations

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame;

and every time I pass that way, I always hear my name.

Bob Dylan (“Every Grain of Sand”)  

This week we begin the season of Lent – 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. It is usually a time of reflection, reflecting on one’s spiritual life and relationship to God; examination, examining one’s heart for sin; and repentance, repenting from the sin we discover.

On Ash Wednesday (March 1), we considered our mortality, sin, and humility. I marked our foreheads with ash, reminding us that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” The ash came from last year’s Palm Sunday palm branches. The very items we use to praise also turn to ash and show us that even our best efforts sometimes don’t amount to much.

The early church used Lent as a time to prepare one’s soul for Baptism, turning the examination and repentance toward that specific act. This year, I will focus my Lenten sermons on the Baptismal vows we all take – or are taken on our behalf – in Baptism (these vows begin on page 34 of our United Methodist Hymnal).

Today, we begin with “Renounce:”

On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: 

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

To start things off, we begin where all Lenten Observances begin, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness:

Matthew 4:1-11 (CEB) 

Temptation of Jesus 

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”[a]

After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[b]

Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[c]

Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[d] 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Christianity is unique in that it worships a God who came to be part of our life on earth. Other religions might focus on the divinity and “otherness” of their deities, but our God knows what we are going through on earth. Never more so than here in Matthew 4.  These three temptations may sound unusual, and “otherworldly,” but they represent temptations we all face. You might say they are the original temptations – and all others just variations on their themes.

In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul says: “No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.”

Perhaps God learned this compassionate approach in the wilderness of Matthew 4?

Maybe Paul’s truth seems untrue because our resistance is so low that every temptation seems irresistible? In all three instances in Matthew, Jesus has a “way out” because of his commitment to God, and his knowledge of Scripture.

Looking at the three temptations allow us to understand more deeply how we can “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness.”

The devil and temptations also afford us the opportunity to learn and understand Scripture, by experience and practice. Without these we should never understand them, however diligently we read and listen to them. – Martin Luther  

One of my favorite possessions is an autographed copy of In the Name of Jesus, by Henri Nouwen. How I came to own such a treasure is a story for another day. The book is Nouwen’s lecture on the three temptations of Christ. I always turn to this book on the First Sunday in Lent.

The First Temptation: “Turn stones into bread” – The Temptation to be Relevant 

For Nouwen, this is the temptation to relevance. To a hungry man, nothing is more relevant than eating. In being tempted this way, Jesus is tempted to make his will, his desires, his answers more important – more relevant – than God’s will, desires, and answers.

We do this every time we are tempted to come along with the perfect answer at the perfect time – whether it is what God wants or not. We are often tempted to act as though we are the smartest, most powerful person in the room (at least I am). Often, we don’t even sit with the question long enough to even know what God wants!

Nouwen says the way to renounce the wicked “spiritual force” of relevance is prayer, in which we “Walk in the full light of God, acknowledging that ‘I am human and you are God.'”

Many times, I find myself praying this prayer: “I can’t. You must. I am yours. Show me the way.” (from Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero) I need reminding that “I am human and [God] is God.”

The Second Temptation: “Throw yourself down” – The Temptation to be Spectacular

Nouwen says, “We act like visibility and notoriety are the main criteria of the value of what we are doing.” In other words, there’s no value in ministry unless somebody notices. On Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6, in which Jesus reminds us to do our good deeds in private, without seeking notoriety.  We must remember, “Ministry is not only done by the popular people in a church (or in any group of Christians), it is done by everybody.”

For Nouwen, the way to renounce this “force” is, through confession and forgiveness living into a life of vulnerability and humility.

The Third Temptation: “Worship me and it’s all yours” – The Temptation to be Powerful

Power never gives security, but always reminds us of our weakness. It “always lusts after greater power precisely because it is an illusion” and never satisfies. Relationships based on power, control, and manipulation are never relationships.

How do we renounce the “force” of Power? Spiritual Reflection, in which “Power is abandoned in favor of love.” As we reflect on God, we learn that God is present, caring, and always showing us the way.