Friday, March 18, 2016

The Message of the Cross (I Corinthians 1:18; Matthew 27:27-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In the summer of 2012, 36 year old Sage Stallone, son of actor Sylvester Stallone, of Rambo and Rocky fame, died suddenly of a heart attack.  His father said: "It's very, very tough. It's a horrible situation, but time hopefully will heal and you try to get through it."  When filming began on a Rocky sequel, the actor was still devastated by the loss of his son. Stallone said, "You just feel responsible. You weren't there and you can't even save your son."

We are familiar with the principle of life that all parents hold in common – children should not precede their parents in death.  The loss of a child, whether young or grown, is perhaps the greatest loss in life.  We contrast this normal human reaction with the Bible's understanding of the cross.

John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”  God chose to not save his only Son for our sake.

We turn now to the crucifixion of Jesus.  The Roman's charged Jesus with treason; he was condemned by the Romans as a traitor.  The derisive inscription on the cross read – “King of the Jews.”  Rome was telling the world there was only one king, one Emperor and that was Caesar.  The name of the place in Jerusalem where criminals were crucified was ominous.   Jesus was crucified at a site just outside of the walls of Jerusalem called Golgotha, an Aramaic name for “place of the skull.”

Now, the question is often asked - who killed Jesus?  Was it the Jews?  Yes and no.  Jews have been called Jesus-killers or Christ-killers for centuries. The Nazi’s accused them of this crime in order to justify their diabolical plot to exterminate all Jews.    The New Testament Gospels implicate the Jews in Jesus’ death.  The crowds and the Jewish political and religious leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judea, under Roman Emperor Tiberius, and shouted –“Crucify him, Crucify him.”

Annually, the custom was that the Roman Governor Pilate could free one prisoner, anyone the Jews asked for.  Pilate asked the crowd if they wanted him to release Jesus, but they shouted “No,” release another prisoner, Barabbas.  So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, freed Barabbas from his impending execution.

Well did the Romans kill Jesus?   Yes and no.  Clearly, they carried out the punishment.   As I've said, the governor Pontius Pilate desperately tried to get Jesus released, but the crowd wouldn’t hear of it.  Pilate didn't believe that Jesus had committed any crime which merited execution.  But the crowd was relentless.    So a specially selected unit of Roman soldiers first whipped Jesus and then hung him on a cross to die a slow and agonizing death.

We could stop here.  We could say both the Jews and Romans were responsible for crucifying Jesus.  But the New Testament pushes us forward.  Our Christian faith takes us to a deeper level.   We move from interpreting Jesus' death politically, to interpreting it theologically.

The Bible and our Christian faith says Jesus was crucified because humanity sinned against God.  Humanity's sin dishonored God, disobeyed God, rebelled against God and followed other gods.  Humanity committed idolatry by following and worshipping others gods instead of the one true God. This was an egregious affront to God, the creator of the heavens and the earth.

The Bible and Christian faith proclaims this truth; it was humanity’s sin which killed Jesus.  The letter of Romans says: “What then?  Are we Greeks any better off than the Jews?  Not at all, for we have already charged that all, Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”   The Bible declares: “For the wages of sin is death.” Because of humanity's sin against God, humanity deserves the penalty of death.  Humanity broke away from God.  Human sin was responsible for Jesus’ death.

Christians have long sung the gospel song “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.  Were you there?”  The Bible's answer is: “Yes, I was there that day, you were there that day.” Humanity crucified Jesus on that fateful day at Calvary.

But still this is not the final word.  The Bible goes even deeper, it declares this astounding truth; it was God’s will out of love for the world, that Jesus died on the cross.   I Timothy says: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  The letter of Romans says:  “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.”  “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  Jesus atoned for our sins by his sacrifice on the cross.  Jesus took our sin, guilt, our shame, our punishment, our death upon himself.  Jesus the judge, was judged in our place.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah, chapter 53 written centuries before Jesus appeared on the human scene says: "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.   Surely he bore our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

Rather than punishing humanity, God decided to do something about this broken relationship and mend the relationship, reconcile it, restore it, through the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ.  Scripture uses different metaphors to portray this.  Jesus' death was a means of redemption or deliverance from sin.  It was a sacrifice, a ransom, a debt paid, a substitution, an act of forgiveness, an ultimate price paid to bring us back to be at one with God.

The letter of Romans says:  “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   Scripture in essence is saying that Jesus’ death is a paradox; it was the result both of the sin of man and the will of God.

John 4:9 declares:  “This is how God showed his amazing love among us; He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”  Jesus’ death made us right with God and through faith in the crucified and risen Savior we can experience new life, a new beginning, a fresh start now and forever.

The late author Christopher Hitchens wrote a bestselling book God Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything in 2007.   Hitchens was an avowed atheist and toured the country debating religious leaders.  In Portland, OR he was interviewed by Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell.

Here is an excerpt:
Rev. Sewell: “Mr. Hitchens, the religion you refer to in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I'm a liberal Christian, and I don't take the stories from the Scripture literally. I don't believe in the doctrine of atonement that Jesus died for our sins.  Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?” 

Hitchens: “I would say that if you don't believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you're really not in any meaningful sense a Christian. 

Rev. Sewell wanted no part of that discussion so her next words were, "Let me go someplace else."

I agree with Hitchens.  If you don't believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who died on the cross to forgave our sins and the sins of the world, and rose from the dead, you are not "in any biblical or meaningful sense" a Christian.  How ironic that an outspoken atheist points out this truth of Christianity.   What you believe about Jesus Christ and his life and death really does make a difference; it really does matter.  No other world religion makes this claim about God.

For centuries, the message of the gospel has radically changed people's lives.  People who have heard and believed this message experienced a transformation and were never the same again.  At the same time, this same message has been rejected by many people.  People have distained it and called the message sheer folly.    People have mocked it and ridiculed it.

The Bible calls this message a mystery.  We read in I Corinthians where the apostle Paul writes:  “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom.  I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Scripture says human wisdom alone cannot believe this message.   We read further: “Among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age.  We speak of God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this.  For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

I close with this story from the Rev. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. He tells about a Vietnam veteran‘s parade in Chicago to commemorate a mobile version of the Vietnam Wall, which like the original wall in Washington D.C. bears the names of all the American service men and women who died in Vietnam.

A reporter asked a veteran why he had come all the way to Chicago to visit this memorial and to participate in the parade. The veteran looked straight into the face of the reporter and with tears flowing down his face said, "Because of this man right here." As the veteran talked, he was pointing to the name of a friend that was etched in the wall.  He traced the letters of his friend's name in the wall with his finger saying: "This man right here gave his life for me.  He gave his life for me." And the sobbing veteran let the tears flow, as he stood there with his finger on the name of his friend.

As we approach holy week, beginning next week with Palm Sunday, let us both remember and testify to this central truth:  The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.”  Amen!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Hear my Prayers, O God (I Timothy 2:1-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A man said to his friend, “I'll bet ten dollars you can't say the Lord's Prayer by heart.”  His friend answered, “I'll take that bet.”  “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  When he finished, there was a pause, his friend shook his head and said, “Well I'll be, you do know it, and handed him the money.”

A young mother in a weak moment asked her 5 year old daughter, “How do you think I'm doing as a mom?”  The daughter thought for a second and said: “Well, you do yell a lot.  I know you've been praying about it, but it just isn't working.”

Is prayer central to your Christian life?   I am convinced that if a Christian is to be spiritually alive, if a Christian is to be joyful, faithful, Spirit filled and Christ centered, one must be continually bathed in prayer.  And likewise, I am convinced that if the Church is to be spiritually alive, if it is to be Spirit filled and Christ centered, it must be continually immersed in prayer.

In the Old Testament, the book of Psalms, which is often called the prayer-book of the Bible, we often hear the psalmists' say:  “Hear my prayer O God, give ear to the words of my mouth.”  The Gospel of Mark says: “And in the morning, a great while before day, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed.”  Jesus Christ himself demonstrated for his followers, the need for prayer in one's daily life.   Friday, March 4, was the World Day of Prayer.  Men, women and children, in more than 170 countries, celebrated the joy and gift of prayer.

What is prayer?  It's certainly not a science, one definition of science being: “The intellectual and practical activity, encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world, through observation and experiment.”   Thousands of books have been written about prayer and yet prayer remains elusive.  Prayer is shrouded in mystery; we will never fully comprehend it.

Prayer is a gift of God's grace.  Prayer is a spiritual bridge in the divine-human relationship.   Prayer is the soul's approach to God.  Prayer is an encounter with God.  Prayer is communion with God, an intimate meeting with God.  Prayer is conversation with God, one that involves speaking and listening.  Prayer is a both a gift from God and a spiritual discipline for followers of Jesus.

Prayer is the path to a deeper relationship with God and to a deeper knowing of ourselves.  Prayer, transforms our minds, lifts our spirits, and enlivens our hearts.  Prayer is a way for our spirit to get in tune with God's Spirit.  Prayer is possible because we are created in God’s image.   Prayer is an expression of love.  Intercessory prayer is a way of loving and caring for someone, whether for members of your family or friends or strangers.

In the spirit of Lent, Professor Marlene Kroph writes: “In the daily round of life, dust and cobwebs accumulate in our souls.  During the weeks of Lent, God's Spirit is given opportunity to clear away the clutter, sweep away the dust and wash us clean.  We are invited to prepare ourselves—heart, soul, mind, and body—for the new life of Easter.”  Will you give the Holy Spirit through prayer, such an opportunity?

I believe prayer is the highest activity of the human spirit.  No, as I've said, we will never fully understand the nature of prayer, but should that keep us from praying?  We have a brain which we don't fully understand, but that doesn’t stop us from thinking.  We have emotions which we don’t fully understand, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling.    We have a soul we don't fully understand, but that shouldn't stop us from praying.  No, we don't always feel like praying, but that's just the time we need prayer more than ever.

There is a dialectical tension inherent in prayer.  Prayer expresses God's Spirit in us and at the same time it's an expression of our spirit.  Prayer builds faith in God and expresses one’s faith in God.   Prayer transforms our minds, feeds our souls, and enlivens our hearts.  Prayer empowers the church in its ministry and mission and influences lives and events around us.  We pray prayers of petition or supplication for ourselves and prayers of intercession for others.

In our lesson in I Timothy, we read:  “I urge you, first of all, then, that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

It's amazing!  It's incredible!  One way that God accomplishes His will and purpose in this world is through the faithful prayers of His people, your prayers and mine.  God has chosen you and me to be living channels for changing lives through our prayers.  How this exactly works, how its accomplished is a mystery because of our limited understanding.  Yet scripture urges us to pray for ourselves and for others.

I Timothy is a shocking passage, why, because Kings refers to the enemy, Caesar, the Roman Emperor.   It refers to the Roman government, to the Roman Senate, to the high priests in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem, to Jewish kings in Israel, like Antipas and Agrippa, to powerful persons in Israel and Rome.

This passage is astounding because Nero, a cruel and brutal ruler, was the Emperor at this time.  Nero blamed Christians for Rome’s problems and persecuted them.  He made Christians the scapegoat for the fire that destroyed much of Rome in A.D. 64.  Nero denied Christians any rights, executed, imprisoned, and forced Christians to fight animals in the arena.  And yet, despite this fact, here is a request to pray for kings and people in powerful positions.  The word of God says just do it.

What a privilege to pray for our nation, for our government, from San Diego city hall to the White House, for our businesses, our courts, our schools and teachers, our hospitals, our doctors and nurses, our police and firefighters, our prisons, our neighborhoods, and yes, for our churches.  Our nation needs prayer.

Let us pray for President Obama, for Vice President Biden, for Congress, for the Supreme Court.  Let us pray for our military men and women and their families and our allies in our battle against terrorism.  Let us pray for innocent civilians of terrorist attacks in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, America and other nations.  Let us pray for Republicans, Independents and Democrats, now I know that here I may be pushing it.  Let us pray for our presidential candidates.  Let us pray for immigrants in our world, legal and illegal.   And yes, as Jesus commanded, as difficult as it is, as counterintuitive as it is, let us pray for our enemies.  Jesus said:  “For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?”

Our Scripture passage also urges us to voice prayers of thanksgiving for our lives, for this nation and our rights, and freedoms and blessings.  Let us pray prayers of thanksgiving for our religious and political liberty and economic opportunity.

Why pray? I Timothy says:  “So we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness and because such prayers are good and please God who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Intercessory prayer is made possible because of Christ’s Spirit in our lives.  Yes, our prayers sometimes feel futile, like we are praying in vain, but we have an advocate, Jesus Christ, our Lord and our intercessor.   I Timothy says: “There is one mediator between God and humankind, Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom for all.”  Scripture says Christ's Spirit intercedes with our spirit and gives us the power to pray even when we feel powerless.

Let us pray because Christ commands us to pray, because prayer is an act of love, because prayer is a gift of grace, and because prayer makes all the difference.     Amen.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Jesus said: I Am (John 15:1-17) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Do you recall when you first got your driver's license and access to a car, either your own or your parent's car.  What an exhilarating feeling.  What symbolism.  A rite of passage.  A passport to a brand new life.  It radically changed your life.  Independence.  Freedom.  Autonomy.  You were no longer dependent on your parents.    Free at last.

But ironically, interdependence, connectedness relationships is God's plan for our lives.  Some practical examples quickly come to mind: you are living on the streets, alone and hungry, and a church welcomes you and serves you a hot meal, you’re car breaks down on the highway, you call AAA and they arrive shortly, you discover the value of networking when you’re job hunting, you qualify for an organ transplant and get the call that the organ is ready, you receive pints of blood donated by volunteers, you are having chest pains, someone dials 911 and paramedics and fire fighters arrive in minutes.

A newspaper reporter interviewed a successful entrepreneur.  “Sir, how did you make all your money?”  The entrepreneur replied: “Well, when my wife and I married, we started out in a tiny apartment, with barely any food in the pantry and five cents between us.  I took that nickel, went down to the grocery store, bought an apple, and sold it for ten cents.”  And then the reporter asked.   “Then I bought two more apples and sold them for 25 cents.”  And then, the reporter asked, hanging on his every word.  “Then my father-in-law died and left us a fortune.”  Yes, it’s good to be connected.

Jesus' metaphors have become known as the I AM sayings.  Each one conveys the nature of Jesus' relationship with His followers.

Jesus said: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”   Christ is the source of our faith and hope and power.  His perfect faithfulness is the source of life for all believers.   He has life in himself and as the vine, passes on life to the branches.  Because of sin, you and I cannot become the persons, and live the lives God created us to live, apart from Him.

Jesus says as branches we are to abide in Him, that is, rest in His presence, remain in relationship with Him, pray to Him, open ourselves to Christ's guidance, direction, strength, peace and power.   We are to receive life from the vine.

We see in life how this truth is incontrovertible.  A flower torn from its stem will wither.   A baby separated from its mother will not survive.   A marriage will not flourish without the two persons sharing, supporting, encouraging and working out their love together.   A church relationship will fade if there is no active participation in worship and ministry.

Jesus says as branches of the vine we are to bear fruit.  We abide in order to bear fruit.  “By their fruits you will know them.” It is our fruit that identifies us as Christians.  Fruit is the joyful result of our existence in the vine.   There will be no fruit if the branch is not connected to the vine.  But in the vine, branches bear much fruit.   Jesus Christ is our source for bearing fruit.

Bearing fruit is both a marvelous gift and an awesome responsibility. A gift and task.  Jesus said: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last.”

God wants to see lasting fruit come from your life and mine, yes, and from our ministry as a church.   What fruit are you bearing?  Being fruitful pleases God.

What does God consider as fruit?  Here are some biblical examples:  true repentance, standing up for the truth of Christ, speaking the truth in love, praying for others, an offering of money, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, ministering to the sick, winning unbelievers to Christ, showing forth a Christ-like character - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Christ doesn’t expect you to produce more fruit than you are able, but he does expect you to produce all that you can, by His power working within you.   Are you abiding in Christ?   Are you bearing fruit?

Jesus further said:  “I am the Door.”  Doors play a pivotal function in our lives.  They are entry points and exit points.  We can open them and close them.  Jesus was saying that He is the door to salvation, the entrance to God's family, the entrance to God’s household, the entrance to the Kingdom of God, the entrance to life and everlasting life.

It was a familiar picture for the people of Jesus' day. There was but one entrance to the sheepfold, a gerry-rigged gate.  Shepherds also often acted as human doors or gates.  The shepherd would lie across the opening to the sheepfold at night and sheep could not get out or wolves get in without crossing over his body.  "I am the door if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture."   It's a beautiful image.

Doors are critical.  We can close the door to our past.  It may be the pain of that divorce that tore your family apart, the door needs to be shut. It may be an untimely death when you felt you were robbed of a loved one, and find you cannot function.  It may be the door of guilt or shame from something you did or should have done. The door needs to be closed on that pain.   A door functions to close something behind us.  And if we don't allow a door to be closed, we can't experience the future, we can't experience a new day and a new time.   What do you need to close the door on?

But doors also open us to something new.   Jesus says he is the door to abundant life.  Jesus is the door to a new life. There's a quality of life that we will never know apart from Jesus Christ. For not only are persons saved, delivered, and healed through Jesus but if they enter the door of Christ, they will go in and out and find pasture.

There are many doors in life.  Some lead to nowhere, some doors lead to destruction.  Jesus was declaring that there is only one door into God’s family.  This is an exclusive statement and offensive in our pluralistic society where any belief is considered as valid as any other belief.

Jesus says by entering through the door you will find pasture.  That is, a place of rest and refuge and safety, a place to be protected and sustained, a secure place of forgiveness and peace with God, a safe haven in the storms of life, a place of freedom in Christ, a place of nurture and growth for body and spirit.   Pasture is a place to learn more and more about Christ and becoming like Him.  What door do you need to close?  What door do you need to open?

Jesus also said: “I am the Bread of Life.”  Before 1922 bread was only sold in whole loaves.  In 1919, the first automatic electric toaster was designed by Charles Strite, a man tired of burned toast.  Prior to his invention, an earlier model of an electric toaster could only toast one side of the bread at a time.  Strite’s toaster was automatic. From 1922 to 1930 sales of his toaster tripled, thanks in part to the introduction of, you guessed it, sliced bread, by Wonder Bread.  Yes, that’s where the saying comes from, “It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

There are few aromas more tantalizing than the smell of freshly baked bread.  An Armenian Christian wrote that Westerners do not understand bread's place in middle eastern culture and therefore we do not understand what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the Bread of Life.”  Pita bread is the heart of every meal.  Forks aren't used to eat food.   Bread is used to scoop up other foods on your plate.

As one poet wrote:  “Be gentle when you touch bread.  Let it not lie uncared for and unwanted.  There is so much beauty in bread: beauty of sun and soil, beauty of patient toil.  Winds and rains have caressed it; Christ often blessed it.  Be gentle when you touch bread.”

I am the Bread of Life.”   Jesus' followers knew he was claiming to be the staff of life; the sum and substance of life, the essence of life.  Jesus meant that He gives us Himself to sustain us, to feed our souls, to feed our spirits.  His indwelling Spirit gives us the power to live a meaningful and quality of life.  We are more than material beings.  We are also spiritual beings.  Scripture teaches that we are made in the image of God, and since God is Spirit, we are spiritual beings as well as material beings, made of the dust of the ground.

Man shall not live by bread alone, Jesus said, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”   Jesus is God's Word.

I recall a conversation with a man, who by every standard was successful.  He told me his life was empty.  Why?  There is a deep, inner hunger in the human heart that only God can satisfy, a hunger of the soul.   Materialism alone leads to emptiness. There is a hunger that stalks our lives.  The eyes cannot see it, the hands cannot touch it, the tongue cannot taste it, the nose cannot smell it, and ears cannot hear it.  There is a deep hunger in us that must be satisfied, the hunger of knowing God, finding refuge in God, worshiping God, the hunger that only Christ's Spirit can feed, the hunger of being reunited with our creator.

Man shall not live by bread alone.” Human beings live by truth, by faith, by relationships, by feeling, by creativity, by meaning, by worship, by hope, by joy, by beauty, by inspiration, by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  All of these sustain the soul.  There is a need in the core of our being for love, appreciation, acceptance, forgiveness, joy, and a relationship to a spiritual power and person greater than ourselves.  The great father of the church St. Augustine said, “Oh Lord you have made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”  

Jesus is saying “Welcome to my table!”  I invite you to enter into Holy Communion, to enter into my spiritual reality.  Jesus offers himself as bread for your soul.  Jesus says:  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven, whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

The “I Am” sayings of Jesus.  I am the Vine, the Door, the Bread.  In this Lenten season, which of Jesus' sayings speaks directly to you today?  Amen.