Are You Making Progress?

We find ourselves in the second chapter of Luke, verses forty-one through fifty-two. According to the text, Jesus was twelve years old. (2:42) That was a significant year in the life of a young Hebrew man. For it was during that year, he began his studies to take his place among the men in the faith. Perhaps, that is why Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem? Or perhaps, they went to Jerusalem annually for the Passover, as was required by the law. We really don’t know why they were in Jerusalem, but we do know they were returning home. The distance between Jerusalem and Nazareth is 63 miles as the crow flies. It was more like 68 miles, because no road is perfectly straight. You do the math. If you walk about 4 mph, then it would have taken 17 hours to get home. The journey was not done in isolation. The pilgrims returned home in large packs. Those packs offered the pilgrims protection. They walked with family and friends, who filled the hours of traveling with various discussions.

Jesus was twelve years old and twelve-year-old boys begin to explore their independence. It would have been natural for Jesus not to travel with his parents. Mary and Joseph assumed their son was traveling with his friends. They assumed wrong. Jesus was missing. They send out a first century “amber alert”. They asked everyone with ears the question, “Have you seen Jesus?” Everyone answered, “No!” With no other option, Mary and Joseph returned to the Golden City. (They had to go back! How do you tell God you have lost his only son?) After three days (2:46) of searching, they found Jesus in the temple. It is easy to feel both their frustration and relief. They tried to reprimand him, but their words seem to fall on deaf ears. They thought Jesus was lost, but he knew where he was the whole time. He was in his father’s house. Listen to what I am about to say.

The story of Jesus at twelve years old is really our story. It is a story for anyone who wants to make progress in the faith. Jesus models for us how to make progress. He models for us how to grow spiritually. Verse 46 tells us what Jesus did clearly. It says:

After three days they (Joseph and Mary) found him (Jesus) in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Let us break that verse down together.

Jesus Positioned Himself

First, Jesus positioned himself. We have covered this in the past, but it is worth reviewing. In a world of places Jesus could have been. Jesus was at the temple courts with the teachers. He should have been walking home, but he was in the temple courts with the teachers. That simple fact says great deal about Jesus’s priorities. Even into adulthood, Jesus had every reason not to attend worship, but Jesus never failed to attend worship. The Bible does not say Jesus missed worship because family was in town. The Bible does not say Jesus missed worship because the weather was too bad or nice. The Bible does not say Jesus missed worship because he was tired after laboring at the synagogue’s big fundraiser. The Bible does say Jesus attended worship because worship was a priority to him.

As a nation that is not our story. Our national theology is extremely poor. There are several reasons why. One of the reasons is worship is no longer a priority for many. Everything thing else seems more important than worship. This is not just my opinion. It is fact. According to Gallup, in 1937, 73% of all Americans belonged to a church. Today, approximately 45% of all Americans belong to a church. That is a sad fact, but the problem runs deeper.

There is a world of difference between church membership and church attendance. We can belong to a church and never worship. You can worship and never join the church. According to the Pew Research Group, 38% of Americans consider themselves regular worshippers. That means they worship once a month. How bad is the situation? We have redefined the term regular worshipper. We used to define a regular worshipper as one missed worship only once a month. Now you are considered a regular worshipper of you come once a month. How many times have you worshipped this month? One of the reasons we are not making progress in our faith development is that we are not positioning ourselves. We just don’t worship. Jesus sat in the temple courts with the teachers. Where do you sit on most Sunday mornings? Jesus positioned himself.

Jesus Listened

Second, Jesus listened. Jesus is sitting in the temple with the teachers, and he is listening to what they were saying. In other words, when Jesus was listening, Jesus was learning. You know it is true. We are not very good at listening. However, we are excellent at talking. Have you ever gone to church and tried to listen but the person next to you will not stop talking? There seems to be a national shortage of good listeners. If you don’t believe me then just google this question, how can I become a better listener?

Everyone seems to have list to help us. Even dumblittleman.com. This is their list of seven

  1. Remove all distractions
  2. Be present
  3. Wait for the other person to stop talking
  4. Don’t assume anything
  5. Look at nonverbal communication
  6. Clarify
  7. Ask questions 

Do the people in your life consider you a good listener? When you come to church do you spend more time listening or talking? It is my job to communicate the divine Biblical truth in a clear way. It is your job to listen to the divine truth. American author Bryant H. McGill (born 1969) once said, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is to actually listen to what another has to say.” How much do you respect the people in your life? How much do you respect me? How much do you respect God? Are you a better talker or listener?Jesus positioned himself and listened.I don’t want to shock you, but you don’t know everything. You may want to stop talking and listen.

 Jesus Questioned 

Third, Jesus asked questions. When I was young, I lived in a home that will built in the 20’s. If you lived in a home built in the 20’s you know they weren’t built like homes today. Homes built during that decade did not have air conditioning or decks. However, they did have front porches. We never sat on the front porch, except when the weather grew hot. I have fond memories of those hot evenings because the entire neighborhood sat on their front porches at the same time. That is how we got to know our neighbors.

When I was young, I would journey to our neighbor’s front porch. We shared a driveway. Her name was Mrs. Ortmyer. I thought she was as old as the hills. She was probably my age. She served me the same snack regularly, ginger ale and soda crackers. Every night I would ask a mountain of questions. Why is it so hot in the summer? Why is it so cold in the winter? Why is the grass green and the snow white? How can birds fly and fish swim? Every evening our discussion end the same way. She would cup her hands over her ears and say, “Russell, go home! When you get older you will have all the answers you want.” I have to say it. Mrs. Ortmyer was wrong! I am older but I still have a mountain of questions. Why are some born with so much and some so little? Why are all my friends fighting the battle of the bulge, yet someone dies  every seven seconds from a lack of food? How can you raise two children in the same house, and they end up so different? Have you ever asked those kinds of questions? When I get to heaven, I have a mountain of questions for God.How many questions do you have for God?

There is nothing wrong with asking questions. Jesus asked questions. Look at verse 46 again. It says, “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”  There is nothing wrong with a sincere question. Asking God, a sarcastic question just shows your arrogance. Asking God, a sincere question means you are simply trying to understand. Look at it this way. If you don’t ask questions, it means you don’t care enough to try to understand. Jesus positioned himself, listened, and asked questions.Ask God all the questions you like. Don’t worry, He can handle it!

I love this story. I have told it many times. You may remember me telling it in the past. When Pablo Casals (1876-1973) reached 95, a young reporter asked him, “Mr. Casals, you are 95 years old and considered the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” Mr. Casals answered, “Because I think I’m making some progress.” As your minister, let me ask you this revealing important question: are you making any progress? I am not talking about the cello. I am talking about the faith. Are you making progress in the Christian faith?

I graduated from Mount Union College in 1979. During my daughter’s time at Mount Union the name was changed to the University of Mount Union. Only the name changed. In many ways the school is still the same. The core values never changed. It is still a good place.

Like today, students loved Spring break. The lucky ones went to Florida. I spent my Spring breaks in northeast Ohio. One year a group of guys decided to drive to Florida. They were in a hurry to escape the cold damp spring of Ohio for the warmth of Florida. To save time and money they decided to drive through. They figured it would take them about twenty-four hours, so they decided the six of them would drive in four hours shifts. I was there when they jumped in a van and headed south. To be honest, I was jealous. The bright lights of Warren did not compare to Miami. When they returned, they had a million stories. The one that was repeated the most was about the trip on the way down. In the middle of the night, it was time to change drivers. The driver exited the highway and woke up the next driver. They traded seats. When the new driver got back on the highway, he started driving north, not south. The mistake was not noticed until the next driver got behind the wheel. It was an ugly scene. The trip was extended by an additional eight hours. They had not made any progress in those four hours. So, here is the question you must answer. Are you more like Pablo Casals, making progress? Are you more like Spring breakers, making no progress? It is the question that will not go away.

Are you making progress? If you are ashamed of your answer, then do what the twelve-year-old Jesus did. First, Jesus positioned himself. Worship was a priority to Jesus. Second, Jesus listened. Stop talking and listen when you come to church to hear the divine truth. Third, Jesus questioned. I am not talking about cynical or sarcastic questions. I am talking about asking sincere questions because you simply want to understand God’s mysterious ways. Christian author Anya VonderLuft once said, “Life is not worth living unless you live it for the one who gave you life.”  Are you making progress?

Facing An Uncertain Future

Years ago, before a civil war threatened to divide our country, before Columbus discovered a New World, before Jesus hung on the cross for the salvation of mankind, there was a man who spoke on behalf of God. His name means “the Lord exalts” or “the Lord establishes.” However, we simply call him Jeremiah. His story is found in the Old Testament book that contains his name. He is considered one of the major prophets. That means he was wordy. In those 52 chapters, he does not hide his personal struggles. He states them clearly. He was crippled with self-doubt and self-criticism. He needed to be filled with self-confidence because his country was needy. Judah was on a downward spiral. They were nothing more than a pawn in their little corner of the world. The superpowers of their world, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, were dividing up the land. Judah was facing an uncertain future.

That is why the words from the twenty-ninth chapter of this book must have stood out. Jeremiah was trying to calm their raw nerves. Verse eleven must have acted as a cooling ointment on their open wounds. Speaking for God, Jeremiah said:

For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Those are powerful words because he is reminding the people that they were not forgotten. Despite their uncertain future, they were still loved by God. Despite their uncertain future, God had a plan for them. Despite their uncertain future, God had a future for them. There was only one problem with all that. God’s plan for them was a great secret. They were facing an uncertain future and didn’t know how to answer the question, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? It is not just a question for ancient Hebrews. It is a question for all of us who are facing an uncertain future. How do you answer the question? What are you doing to do with the rest of your life?

Graduates are forced to answer that question. It does not matter if it is high school or college. It does not matter if it is a graduate with an advanced degree or a GED. I find that question, what are you doing to do with the rest of your life, to be cruel. Especially to the youngest graduates. Have you ever wondered why they are forced to make the most important decisions of their lives at the youngest age, when we have least among of experience? There may be a field out there that will capture their passion that they don’t even know exists today. I am not being critical when I say this, there is no occupational group I hold higher. However, I am convinced that is why so many high school graduates want to be teacher. They admired a certain teacher and wanted to be one too. The graduates do their best to answer the question about their futures but who really knows. At best, it is an educated guess. Only God knows what is in store for them. However, it is not just a question for graduates. It is a question for anyone whose life is changing. It is for anyone facing an uncertain future. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

It is a question for the person who has labored long and hard in a certain vocation. They had experience success and now it is time to retire. Cards are sent and a party is held. Everyone says, “Congratulations! Then, they ask the question. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?” It is a fair question. You can only drown so many worms and hit so many golfs balls. Someone once said to me, “Russ, this retirement thing is really overrated. I wish I could go back to work. You will be sorry.” More people have said to me, “Retirement is great!” I am fortunate. My job filled with passion. I just want to do less of it in retirement. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

It is a question for anyone who stayed at home to raise their children. That was their career. They did a great job! They created wonderful independent people. They got an education and a job. Then, they moved out and pay their own bills! They are doing great, but you are struggling with the question. What are you going to do with the rest of your life? You never thought you would ever miss the softball games and the band practices. You never thought you would miss the carpooling and the homework. It is now over, and your home is now neat and quiet. You miss the mess and the noise. Your home in its present state is going to drive you crazy. You are left alone with the question. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

It is a question for anyone who has survived a horrible disease. I am glad to report all the treatments worked, and you are cancer free. You survived but for what? Television is not enough. Reading is not enough. Napping is not enough. You are left with the question. What are you going to do with the rest of your life? God must have saved you for something, but you are not sure what. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

What are you going to do with the rest of your life? It is a question we all must answer. God has a plan for everyone in this world. Jeremiah told those ancient Hebrews that God had a plan for them. I am telling you God has a plan for us. God has a plan for you! There is no greater mystery in life than discovering God’s purpose for your life. You can be honest with me. How do you answer the question, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?

Today, I want to give you three pieces of pastoral advice to help you answer that question. These are not original. They came from Dan Borchert, who is the pastor of the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, in Bakerstown, California. These three points spoke to me, and I believe they will speak to you. Write them down for the next time you ask yourself the question, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?

Pastoral Advice #1:   Face your fears!       Fear is one of the great crippling factors in our lives.Sometimes, it is natural fear. For example, you may be afraid of heights. I am afraid of women and financial debt. (Maybe, they go together?) Sometimes, it is a fear of not being accepted by others. That kind of fear is far more common and destructive.

Sometime back a university did a survey. They had ten people in a classroom and the teacher would ask the class which line on the blackboard was the longest. Nine of the people participating were told to choose the 2nd longest. One person did not know what was going on. In 75% of the tests, the one person would go along with what everyone. Why? Out of fear. Fear of not being accepted.

Don’t be afraid to be different. We are not products made on an assembly line, identical. Each one of us is unique. God has made you in a certain way for a certain purpose. There are just certain things that you do naturally well. There are things that make you stand out. Embrace your uniqueness and face your fears! What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

Pastoral Advice #2:   Forget your failures!     One of the things we will not tolerate as a society is failure. One of the things we will not tolerate individually is failure.

Years ago, I went to a continuing education event in Pittsburgh. It started eight days after Easter so emotionally I had been on a roller coaster ride. There was the high of Easter morning, big crowd. Then came the week after Easter, small little group. I was still licking my wounds from the small little group when I arrived. I registered and found a seat at a table. I didn’t know anyone, so I just sat there alone. The presenter started by telling his story. He was the pastor of one of these big mega churches. He told one success story after another. With every story I felt worse about myself. I remembered the small little group. When he started talking about his newest building, I couldn’t take it anymore. Leaving all my material behind, I walked out and drove home. When I got home, I sat on my deck and felt sorry for myself. I sat there long enough in that state for my neighbor, Rick, to come home from work. He came up and sat next to me. He asked me what I was doing sitting there in the middle of the day. I told about my workshop and my emotional state. He looked at me and said, “What is the big deal! We have known you are a loser for years. Go back to work and make it better.” I hate to admit it, but he was right.

We spend too much time worrying about our failures and not enough time trying to make our lives better. How much time do you spend reviewing your failures? How much time do you spend in the past? Forget your failures!What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

Pastoral Advice #3:   Follow your faith!    Don’t let money be the driving force in your life. Let God be the driving force in your life. I am always concerned about people who go into a certain vocation because they are going to make a lot of money. If God has a purpose for your life, then God will take care of you. I have a friend whose wife is an oncologist. She told me once the greatest frustration in her life are colleagues who had no compassion for their patients. She said they didn’t go into medicine to help people. They went into medicine to make money. What is the greatest driving force in your life? Is it making money? Is it serving God? Follow your faith!What are you doing to do with the rest of your life?

Her name is Gustava Bennett Burrus (1902-2006). She was a proud member of the class of 2003 of Richmond High School in Richmond, California. Home of the fighting oilers. She was the oldest person in her graduating class. She may have been the oldest person to graduate from high school in the history of the United States. She was 97 years of age. To say the least, her story was unique from the rest of her classmates.

She was born in 1905 in Louisiana, one of ten children to sharecroppers. At the age of two, the family moved to Oklahoma to raise cotton. She dropped out of school in the fourth grade. At the age of 19, her family arranged her marriage to a doctor from Tennessee, Porter Burrus. He said he was a 30-year-old-widower with no children. He lied. After the vows, she learned the truth. Porter was a 50-year-old widower with 8 children. He convinced her to stay. Their marriage lasted 38 years. They must have gotten along a little. They had 11 children of their own. Porter died in 1966 at the age of 88. They had 97 grandchildren, a countless number of great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. She was so busy with all those children she never had time to finish school. At the age of 74, she went back to school to study computers. That coarse lead to other courses. When she was in her nineties, she told her son she wished would have graduated from high school. He persuaded to go back. He dropped her off in the morning and picked her up after school. They say the chemistry between her, and her classmates was amazing. They liked her and she brought the best of them out! She gave the class of 2003 this advice, “If you don’t want to get old, gray and wrinkled, die young.”  I love that story. She graduated at 97 years old! I wonder if anyone asked her the question, what she was going to do with the rest of her life?

It is the question that just won’t go away. What are you going to do with the rest of your life? Maybe this is a better question. Are you living or just waiting to die? Jeremiah was not wrong. He said, God has a plan for you.What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

A Son’s Regrets

My father died in 1996. That meant for the first time in over forty-five years, my mother was alone. My sisters and I did the best we could to fill his void, but we failed. She struggled without him. She was the perfect person for his routine. We tried many things to fill her empty, lonely days. Annually, she would travel to Colorado Springs to visit my sister, Janet. Janet did a great job of hosting her. My job was simple. I took her to the airport and picked her up at the end of the visit.

I do not remember the year. However, I do remember the weather. My mother was returning from one of her Colorado trips and I went to the Pittsburgh Airport to pick her up. It was a long trip there and back because the weather was so bad. I am sure it was the heaviest snow of the year. I crawled to the airport, and I drove slower on the way to Warren. The hour was late when I drove into her driveway. Before I escorted her inside, I unlocked the front door, turned the lights on, turned up the heat, and carried in her suitcase. That is when it happened. She looked at me and said, “Russell, you look tired. The weather is so bad. Why don’t you spend the night? I will cook you a nice breakfast in the morning.” My response to her kind invitation has haunted me for years. I said, “No. I have some things to do in the morning.” A few minutes later I was driving home. Can I be honest with you? I can’t remember what I had to do the next morning. Chances are it wasn’t that important. The truth is, I just wanted to go home, so I did. I left my mother alone in that cold dark house because I was selfish. My mother sacrificed so much for me, and I couldn’t sacrifice a little for her. I am ashamed of my behavior and that night still haunts me. It is one of my life’s greatest regrets. I wish I could make it up to her now, but it is too late.

I would like to say that was my only regret, but I can’t. I have many, but I only have time to talk about three today. I don’t believe my regrets are unique. They may be your regrets too. American playwriter Arthur Miller (1915-2005) once said, “Maybe all we can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”  For those of us whose mother have passed it is too late. For those of you who still have your mother, they are a warning. Don’t wait until it is too late. I hope you learn from my mistakes.

My first regret is not asking more questions. Listen to what I am about to say. I know basic facts about my mother. Her name was Ruth. She was the oldest of two daughters born to Walter and Nina Milligan of Brooklyn, New York. She went to P.S. 92 during her grade school years and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School. During the Second World War, she went to Pratt Institute and studied dietetics. After graduation, she moved to Jersey City, New Jersey and worked in a hospital. She worked during the day and began studying towards her master’s degree at night. One night the work and the studies were placed to the side. She attended a social gathering at the Marble Collegiate Church. The Second World War had just ended, and dances were held so returning soldiers could meet single women. She met a young dark-haired man named Ronald from Ohio. At first, she wasn’t interested in him because she thought he was Catholic. She was suddenly interested in him when she found out he was Protestant. In time, they married and moved to a magical place called Warren, Ohio, where everyone is a little smarter and better looking. In time, they would have three children; I am the youngest. I know basic facts about her life, but I wish I knew more. My mother is gone now. I regret not asking her more questions.

I wish I would have asked her more family questions. Was Aunt Sarah Grandma’s older or younger sister? Was Uncle Lester Grandpa’s older or younger brother? Where are Grandma and Grandpa buried? I wish I had asked her more personal questions. Did you ever consider staying in New York? Did Grandma ever forgive you for moving away? At what age did Grandpa start smoking? What was her favorite color? I am seven years younger than my sisters. Was I an accident, or just a disaster? Did you ever wish I was a girl? I have a million questions I would love to ask her now, but it is too late. Am I the only one, or are there questions you never asked? I regret not asking my mother more questions. I regret not asking more questions.

My second regret is not being more secure. Webster defines security as “a firmly established relationship or reputation”. Tomorrow, I will celebrate my 65th birthday. To be honest with you, I like the fact that I am going to be 65; it is a cool age. I am glad I do not have to be young again. Being younger is hard. Being my age is very liberating. When you are young, you have so much to prove. You must prove you are the smartest. You always must prove you are the strongest. You always must prove you are the fastest. You must prove you are going to be the most successful. When you get to my age, you discover none of those things really matter. I will be the first one to admit I am not the smartest, strongest, fastest or the most successful. It is not that those things do not matter. All I am saying is, I do not care. I really don’t care what you think about me. The only thing that really matters is that I like myself. Do you like yourself? In other words, are you secure?

I regret not being more secure when my mother was still with us. One of the reasons adult children struggle with their parents is insecurity. The younger generation is always trying to prove something to the older generation. My mother loved me unconditionally, but I was always trying to win her respect by proving my self-worth. That is why there is always an edge between parents and children. Our mothers know too much about us. They know our weaknesses that we are always trying to hide. I regret not being more secure, because I would have had a better relationship with her. I know something now I didn’t know on the day she passed. She loved me unconditionally. There was nothing to prove. I regret not being more secure.

My third regret is not being more articulate. It was early spring in 2002. My mother was in a rapid state of decline. As a matter of fact, I sat near her deathbed. She was sleeping comfortably. My father had died six years earlier and she was dying of a broken heart. My sister, Susan, and I did what we could. We were taking turns sitting with her so she would not be alone. It was my turn, and I sat in the shadows of her room at Crandall Medical Center at Copeland Oaks in Sebring, Ohio. The hour grew late and once again I began to think of everything that had to happen the next day. In the silence of that room, I decided to leave. I did something for the first time. I said something for the first time. I leaned over my mother and kissed her, and I said to her, “I love you.” From some unknown power she opened her eyes and responded, “I hope so. I am your mother!” I am ashamed to admit, that was the first and the last time I said those three important words, “I love you.” I regret not being more articulate.If you still have your mother, then find the courage to tell her. I have never met a mother who got tired of hearing that they were loved. I regret not being more articulate.

This all takes us to our scripture lesson for today. We find ourselves today in the nineteenth chapter of John. It is extremely late in Jesus’ earthly ministry. The last person Jesus healed had been healed. The last lesson he taught was completed. The disciples have even observed their last Seder with Jesus. Jesus has been arrested and tried. There is only one thing left for Jesus to do: die. Hanging between two criminals, Jesus is running out of time. The crowd of Palm Sunday had disappeared and the only ones who remained were those who truly loved him. The list is small. On that small list was his mother, Mary. I am not surprised. It must have been a painful day for her. Time moves so fast. Thirty-three years earlier she had brought him into the world; now she was watching him leave. She longed for Joseph’s strength, but he was gone. Jesus sees his mother and does the responsible thing. He entrusts her to John, the author of this Gospel, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Jesus waited until the last moment, but he didn’t wait too long. He died without a single regret. I hope you don’t wait too long.

This is Mother’s Day, and it is a good day to ask all your questions. There is no such thing as a foolish question. This is a good day to become more secure and relate to her. You don’t have to prove anything to your mother; she loves you unconditionally. This is a good day to become more articulate and tell her how you really feel. Mothers never get tired of hearing that they are loved. Abraham Lincoln (1803-1865) was the sixteenth President of the United States and the first President to be assassinated. He said it for many of us, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”  

In Remembrance

How is your memory? I heard of an older couple that was having some trouble remembering so they signed up to take a memory course together. A few months later the husband was out working in his garden when a neighbor stopped by and began to talk to him about the memory course, what was the name of the instructor? The husband paused, then asked “What is the name of that flower that smells so nice but has thorns? You mean a rose the neighbor answered. Yeah, that’s it, “Hey Rose, what’s the name of that guy who taught us the memory course?” How is your memory?

It is impossible to remember everything. How many things have you forgotten recently? When was the last time you forgot a loved one’s birthday? When was the last time you lost your keys? When was the last time you forgot to return a phone call? Is there some secondary person in your life you don’t call by name because you forgot their name? Have you ever forgotten to get milk at the store or to pick up a youngster from school? Have you ever forgotten where you parked at the stadium or the grocery store? You can admit it. We have all forgotten something. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. For example, I can never remember Ronald Reagan’s first wife. Sometimes, it does matter. Don’t forget to file your taxes by April 18. This evening we remember an event that you must never forget.

It is imperative that you remember Jesus’ last Seder. Our primary scripture is First Corinthians 11:23-26. It would be his last meal before his appointment with the cross. For it is at that meal, Jesus gave us a memorial for the ages. You know the scene. We have reenacted it. It has been reenacted in movies and inspirited some of the greatest pieces of art. That makes it easy to imagine this evening’s lesson. The Gospels tell us, the disciples were wondering about the Passover meal. This is not shocking. It was the reason they came to Jerusalem. They had been observing the Passover meal annually since childhood. Jesus sends two of the disciples ahead to make the arrangements. When Jesus arrived, everything was ready in that upper room. The menu for the meal was traditional. Each course represented something from the story of the exile. Every word was scripted. No one dared change a single word, but Jesus did change the words. Instead, of just remembering the past, Jesus began to talk about the future. He began to speak of the future when he would be separated from his disciples. We know the words that he uttered because we are his contemporary disciples. The bread represents his body. The wine represents his blood. He gave us those elements for one reason. He did not want to be forgotten. Remembering Jesus is extremely important. On Maundy Thursday we need to remember three things.

First, we need to remember past events! Did you know in the state of Ohio there are 1,750 historical markers? Each one has been placed by the Ohio Historical Society. That program started in the 1950s. I think my father read every one. It used to drive me crazy when I was young. Now I read as many as I can. Time changes things. Did you know there are 16 historical markers within the zip code of this church? Maybe you have seen them? Has anyone read the marker at the old The Mahoning Dispatch Building or the one at the Pioneer Pavilion? Each one exists for the same reason. They don’t want you to forget the past.

The disciples observed that annual Seder to remember past events. It was a meal designed to remember the past. It was a meal designed to teach the youngest about their past. Each participant heard the story again. Their ancestors were held in bondage in Egypt. They had no hope of liberation, so God sent them a liberator. His name was Moses. He spoke on behalf of God to the Pharaoh and announced a series of plagues. Each one was miserable. There was the plagues of blood, frogs, gnats, flies, livestock, boils, hail, locust and darkness. However, the last plague was the worst, the plague on the first born. It was that plague that changed the heart of Pharaoh. He released the Hebrews. We remember because there are events that should not be forgotten. It is not just true of them. It is true of us. We should never forget the events of that upper room. We remember because of past events are important. We remember because past events hold lessons.

Second, we need to remember past lessons! Someone asked me recently, “What is the worst thing about traveling?” I think he wanted to hear about bad food and lumpy beds. Instead, I told him about airport security. If you have traveled in the past twenty-plus years you know it is true. It is part of the day. You take off your shoes. You take off your belt. You empty your pockets. You show your boarding pass and passport. You step into the machine to get x-rayed, and you are patted down by someone who needs a breath mint. It is annoying, but I never complain. Why? You know the answer. We have learned from the past. September 11 changed our world. Someone once said, “Growing up is learning from yesterday’s mistakes.”  How many times have you said, “I will never do that again!” We remember so we don’t make the same mistakes again. We remember because of past events are important. We remember because past events hold lessons. We remember because those events remind us of our core values.

Third, we need to remember our core values. The Seder is designed to help people remember the past. However, the Seder is designed to do more. It was designed to remember past values. The Seder is an annual reminder to the Jews that their relationship with God is unique. They call themselves “God’s Chosen People.” It is a statement that is hard to argue with when you remember the events in the wilderness. Pharaoh had changed his mind and sent his army to retrieve the slaves. Moses had led the people to the shore of the Red Sea. Things looked bad. The people could not go back because of the army. The people could not go forward because of the water. They were trapped and they had no hope. However, they are God Chosen people, so God divided the waters for them. The water was held back for the Hebrews but not the Egyptians. It is not just a story of a miracle; it is a reminder that they are special. When they remember it; they remember their core values.

When we partake of the body and the blood of Christ you are not just remember some past event. You are remembering our core values. You have a unique relationship with God. You are a disciple of Jesus Christ!

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The history is interesting. It was built in the 1600’s by the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahah. He built it as a memorial for his wife, Mumtaz Hahal. The building, itself, is truly an amazing. It is an octagonal building with walls measuring 130 feet long by 70 ‘high and it is surmounted by a dome adding an addition 120’ in height. It is constructed entirely out of white marble, which is reflected by a huge pool. The interior design is magnificent, containing 12 types of inlaid stones, and mosaics of great beauty. Many consider the Maj Mahal the greatest memorial in the world today. They are wrong!

 The greatest memorial today is found at the communion table of every church. It is the body and the blood of Christ. When we come to the communion table we remember. In is important that we remember past events. It is important that we remember past lessons. It is important that we remember our core values. We have a special relationship with God. We are disciples of Jesus Christ! Saint John Bosco (1815-1888) once said, “We do not go to Holy Communion because we are good; we go to become good.”

Responding to the Resurrection

In January, Kathryn and I went to Washington DC. It was not our first trip to our nation’s capital. We had a short list of things we wanted to see. On that list was Arlington National Cemetery. My father-in-law, who I barely knew, John Trojan is there. He is in the columbarium, located in the southeast section approximately one mile from the Memorial Gate. The cemetery personnel drove us there, but they didn’t stay as we visited his plague. Instead of waiting for a ride to return, we decided to walk back. There is no other way to say it. It was moving walking by those countless graves. There are approximately 400,000 graves in Arlington. The words between us were few, but they were meaningful. That evening we had dinner at a restaurant near the National Archives building. It was full of people having a good time. Arlington was moving, but the restaurant was fun. Let me state the obvious. It is more fun to be with the living than the dead. May we never forget we serve a risen Savior. Jesus is alive and well!

We find ourselves today in the twentieth chapter of John. Each one of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, have their own account of the resurrection of Jesus. The details vary, but the main point remains the same. Jesus is resurrected! This is John’s version. Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb early on Sunday morning. It is so early; it is still dark. It was the first time the law permitted anyone to touch the dead. Corpses could not be touched on the Sabbath. When she arrives, she discovers that the stone in front of the entrance had been rolled away. She is shocked by this discovery and assumes the worst. Someone had taken Jesus body! The abuse Jesus had endured on Friday was not enough. Now they had taken his body to continue the cruelty. She wants to find Jesus, so she enlists some help. There is no other way to say it. They lost Jesus! (Don’t you hate when you lose a corpse?) She ran to tell two disciples that Jesus is missing. The first is Peter. The second is described the one that Jesus loved. That is John’s way of describing himself. Instantly, the two run to the tomb and it is at this point the scripture comes to life for us.

The story is familiar because we have looked at it countless times. It is hard to preach the resurrection of Jesus Christ annually and be original. John’s account of the resurrection is unique. It illustrates for us the three responses to the resurrection. They are not unique to John. They are not unique to John’s time. They are the same ways people respond to the resurrection today. The question you must answer is, how do you respond the resurrection? Are you skeptical about the resurrection of Jesus? Are you curious about the resurrection of Jesus? Or, do you believe, in your heart of hearts, Jesus was resurrected?

Peter plays the role of the skeptic. Look at the text with me. It says when Peter got to the Jesus’ tomb he went in and saw all the clothes of clothes scattered. Verse ten says he does something that he must have regretted the rest of his life. What does that verse say? It says after he saw clothes scattered on the tomb’s floor, he went home. He missed the whole thing because he went home. It made logical sense to go home. The problem is the resurrection is not logical. It is a miracle that cannot be explained by science.

Do you know any skeptics? Our world is filled with skeptics. Our world has always been filled with skeptics. The story of the resurrection has always been surrounded by skeptics. Do you know how many theories exist trying to disregard the resurrection of Jesus? One theory says someone got to the tomb ahead of Mary Magdalene and stole Jesus’ body. One theory says Mary Magdalene got confused and went to the wrong tomb. (You know how women are with directions.) One theory says the women confused Jesus with someone else. After all, if you have seen one Jew then you have seen them all. One theory says Jesus never died on the cross. Instead, he was drugged and once his head had cleared, he simply walked out unnoticed on Saturday. Do I have to go on? We live in a skeptical world because many believe science is the final word. Miracles are dismissed because they cannot be proven. The resurrection is a miracle, so it must not have happened. There is only one problem with this line of thought.

The final word is not science; the final word is God. God is not frustrated by scientific law. God does, what God desires. Part of God’s plan of salvation for the world was to resurrect Jesus.

Mary Magdalene plays the role of the seeker. What does the text say? She followed Jesus to his tomb. She was going to treat his body. She thought it would be her last loving act for Jesus, but she was wrong. What does the text say? It says that after Peter and John examined the scene they went home. What did Mary Magdalene do? We are told that she stayed at the tomb. She knew something had happened, but she didn’t know what. She had been part of the great story of the resurrection, but she didn’t exactly know what happened. She waited outside of the tomb crying trying to comprehend what had happened. In other words, she had a few questions.

Does anyone here have a question about the resurrection? In your mind you understand that Jesus came back to life! However, that fact has not yet penetrated your heart. You are just like Mary Magdalene? You know something happened, but you can’t comprehend the true meaning of the resurrection. Ask all the questions you want because it is the best way to learn. Do you have any questions? Do you know anyone who is a seeker? Could it be you are a seeker? It is fine to be a seeker. I have a few questions myself.

John plays the role of the saved. The text says when he got to the tomb, he didn’t go in. Peter went into the tomb first. John stayed outside. There may be several reasons. Maybe he was resting? After all, he had just been running. Or maybe he was afraid that Mary Magdalene was wrong. He didn’t want to see Jesus’ mangled body. Or maybe he did not go in because he was just afraid? Roman guards could be waiting inside to arrest any Jesus supporters. He didn’t go in until Peter went in first. When he went in, he discovered Mary Magdalene’s account was accurate. Verse eight gives us one more piece of vital information.  It says that after John examined the tomb he believed. He remembered everything Jesus had said about his own death and resurrection. John remembered those things and believed.  His belief in the resurrected Jesus saved his very soul. Do you remember what Romans 10:9 says? That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is the question of the day.

What is your response to the resurrection of Jesus? I hope you are not a skeptic about the resurrection. No, science is not the final answer. The final answer is God! I hope you are not a seeker, just curious about the resurrection. It is the one thing you cannot question. I hope you believe that you are one of the saved. The resurrection changed everything. It changed the way you look at death, itself. It changed your final destination. May we never forget we serve a risen Savior. John Ortberg (born 1957) is the Senior Pastor of the Menlo Church in Menlo, California. He once said, “At the very heart of the Christian faith is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection”If you believe in the resurrection, then, like John, you are saved!

The Beginning of the End

We begin in the twelfth chapter of Exodus, verses twenty-nine through thirty-two. Do you remember the story? We cover it annually. The descendants of Abraham had been spared from a great famine by following Joseph into Egypt. During his life they had been shown favor, but time changed things. Joseph died and his descendants had fallen into disfavor. They were enslaved by the Egyptians. Their lives were hard, and they cried out to God. The Almighty heard their cries and sent them a great liberator, Moses. Their freedom does not come in an instant. It comes at the end of a series of great plagues. The last was the worst, the death of the first-born sons. The will of the Pharaoh was broken, and the Hebrew people were given their freedom. It was a great day for God’s Chosen People. That day was such a great day that the people held an annual festival to remember what God had done just for them. The highlight of that festival was the Seder. It is a meal with a message. That whole annual feast is called the Passover.

Fast forward the clock thirteen hundred years. The people came to Jerusalem to remember what God had done for them one more time. This brings us to the scripture lesson for today. It was Passover, and the crowd was energized. The crowd was energized every Passover. I am not being critical. I am being honest. You cannot blame them. They were energized for the same reasons we are energized during our annual festivals, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

Some were energized because they were away from home! There is some truth to that statement. Their lives were hard. Every day looked about the same. Every week looked about the same. Sometimes it is just nice to get away. There was a law that said all Jewish males within a fifty-mile radius of Jerusalem were required to attend the Passover in Jerusalem. That law wasn’t needed. People didn’t attend the Passover because they had to go. They attended the Passover because they wanted to go. It would be like passing a law that everyone was required to celebrate Thanksgiving. It isn’t necessary. We look forward to Thanksgiving and they looked forward to Passover. If nothing else, it was a time to just get away. Have you ever gone away to just get away?

I have a good friend who went to North Carolina to celebrate his brother-in-law’s 50th birthday. (You know how some have to make a big deal out of their birthday!) When he returned home, I asked him, “Rick, did you have a good time?” He answered, he said, “Yes, I guess.” Then he told me about his trip. They were in complete isolation. The restaurants didn’t serve his favorite adult beverage. The weather was cold and foggy. His bed was lumpy. The party, itself, was attended by some shady characters. At the end of his stories I said, “So you didn’t have a good time?” He said, “Well, it was nice just getting away.” It isn’t just his story; it is our stories. Maybe it was their story? Sometimes, just getting away can be exciting! Maybe the crowd was excited because they had just gotten away? If you like getting away occasionally say, “Hosanna!”

Some were energized because they were with the most important people in their lives! Passover had both a religious and a secular side. The religious side had to do with remembering what God had done for the Hebrew people. The secular side had to do with that day. It was a reunion. Everyone was in Jerusalem. People you had not seen in a year or longer were there. They were excited because they were with the most important people in their lives. Passover was like a great family reunion. It is exciting to see family. (It is more exciting to see them go home.)

Several years ago, the news was filled with the story of Katheryn DePrill. Do you remember her story? She is the young woman who was looking for her biological mother on Facebook. Years earlier, her biological mother had left her as an infant in the bathroom of their local Burger King. Katheryn was looking for her to fill a void in her life. When her biological mother stepped forward, she openly admitted her mistake and told her side of the story. She had been sexually attacked at the age of sixteen, had the baby alone in her bedroom and headed to Burger King. She is relieved to know her baby is such a wonderful young woman. Katheryn’s biological mother cannot thank her parents enough for what they have done for her baby. Katheryn said when she met her biological mother there was a lot of emotions and everyone was excited. Maybe the people were just excited on Palm Sunday because they were reunited with the people in their lives? If you like seeing the most important people in your life, occasionally say, “Hosanna!”

Some were energized because they had renewed hope! The source of that hope was Jesus. Everyone knew the name Jesus. Everyone had heard about his teachings. Everyone had heard about his healings. Jesus was the one who brought Lazarus back to life! Some had felt his powerful presence. Everyone believed Jesus was going to usher in something new, and they were hungry for change. There is no other way to say it. The crowd was energized because Jesus was offering them hope. They had grown tired of Roman rules and domination. They longed for political change. Everything they did that day was political. They laid palm branches on the ground and waved them in the air. That is what previous generations did for their conquering heroes. They yelled political things. “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” They were excited because they knew change was coming. They were right, yet they were wrong. Change was coming but it was not political change. Jesus did not come for political change. Jesus came for spiritual change. Jesus came to lead a spiritual revolution. You know the story.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the end. For Jesus, there would be no turning back. This is the truth. Holy Week means nothing for those who believe they can earn your salvation. It is nothing more than a celebration Spring or an excuse to eat ham. However, for those of us who understand our only hope for salvation is in the sacrificial death of Jesus, Holy Week means so much more. It is not enough to just return next week and celebrate the resurrection. This is so much more.

This year, I challenge you to take a few minutes out of each day this week and remember what Jesus did on that day. It will change the way you experience Palm Sunday. It will change the way you experience Easter. This is what the scriptures tell us:

          On Palm Sunday, Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem by the crowd. He was the eye of the storm. It was the point of no return. He spent that night in Bethany.

On Holy Monday, Jesus returned to Jerusalem. On the way he cursed the fig tree because it was not baring fruit, like the Hebrew faith had stop bearing fruit. It would be the only thing Jesus ever cursed. Then, he drove the money changers out of the temple. It was a place of prayer, not profit. He returned to Bethany that night.

On Holy Tuesday, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and saw the dead fig tree. He went to the temple and frustrated the authorities. He went to the Mount of Olives and taught about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of time.

On Holy Wednesday, Jesus rested. Jesus did nothing of note on that day. However, it was on Wednesday, Judas Iscariot agreed to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, and Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume. The Master was preparing to die.

On Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and had his last supper with them. He transformed the traditional Seder into something new, communion, a living memorial. In the evening, Jesus went to the garden to prayer. It was there Judas Iscariot betrayed him with a kiss and was arrested. He was taken to the home of the High Priest, Caiaphas. They made their case against Jesus.

On Holy Friday, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pitot sentenced Jesus to death. The order was carried out and Jesus, the sinless one, was executed between two criminals. He was the perfect sacrifice. His sacrificial death covered the sins of the world. That means he died for you. Jesus’s corpse was claimed by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. They placed it in a tomb.

On Holy Saturday, some call it “Silent Saturday,” nothing happened because Jesus was dead.

On Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, Jesus returns to life and changes our world forever. Without Jesus there is no hope of eternal life. He died for all of us, and it all began on Palm Sunday, the beginning of the end.

Last week, I told you about the cathedral in Milan, Italy. Do you remember? It is

such a large structure with five front doors. Each door leads to a different aisle in the sanctuary. The center three doors have carvings of note. Over the arch of one of the side doors is a carved wreath of roses, and underneath it is the legend, “All that which pleases is but for a moment.” Over arch of the other side door is sculptured a cross, and there are the words, “All that which troubles us is but for a moment.” But underneath the great central entrance to the main aisle is the inscription, “Only the eternal is important.” Jesus came to save our souls.

How Great a Sacrifice

One of the most magnificent structures in the world is the cathedral in Milan, Italy. It is such a large structure it has five front doors. Each door leads to a different aisle in the sanctuary. The center three doors have carvings of note. Over the arch of one of the side doors is a carved wreath of roses, and underneath it is the words, “All which pleases is but for a moment.” Over arch of the other side door is sculptured a cross, and underneath it is the words, “All which troubles us is but for a moment.” But underneath the great central entrance to the main aisle is the inscription, “Only the eternal is important.” It is the eternal we are going to look at in the next weeks. The eternal grabs our attention today.

We find ourselves today in the twelfth chapter of John, verse one through eleven. According to the text, it is a few days before the Passover. Jesus is in Bethany. Jerusalem and Bethany are approximately two miles apart. It just so happened, Jesus has friends who lived in Bethany, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus normally had an open invitation to their home. However, this time Jesus has a formal invitation. The women wanted to thank Jesus for resurrecting their brother, so they hold a dinner in Jesus’s honor. Jesus never traveled alone. He brings the twelve, along with a nameless crowd. The crowd was extra-large because they wanted to see the newly resurrected Lazarus.

The event is going off as planned. Everyone is having a wonderful time. Martha is serving. Lazarus is reclining at the table. It is Mary who does the unexpected. She took a pint of perfume nard and pours it on Jesus’ feet, wiping it with her hair. Mary seems to have some insider information. It is almost as if she was anticipating the week to come. Consider these two facts with me. First, she anoints Jesus like the dead were anointed. Second, she anoints Jesus’s feet like Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. The obvious happens. The house is filled with the odor of that sweet perfume. Everyone seems to handle the anointing, except one of the disciples, Judas Iscariot. He protests the waste. He is not completely wrong. The nard was expensive. He would have made the perfect church member in the twenty-first century. None of us believe money should be wasted. After all, a penny saved is a penny earned. The very least they could have done is sell the nard and given the money to the poor. Jesus deflects his criticism and applauds Mary for her priorities. Would Jesus applaud your priorities? We always sacrifice for those that we love. How much are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus.

Where were you on March 2, 2012? It is remembered as one of the most violent weather days in the history of our country. There were 140 tornados sighted that day, 76 confirmed landings. Thirty-nine people were killed. We prayed for the grieving, and all the lives that were changed that day, but we were inspired by one, Stephanie Decker.

On that day, Stephanie was a 37-year-old wife and mother, who lived in Henryville, Indiana. It was like a living nightmare. A tornado slammed into her home. With no other option, she acted like a human shield and laid on top of her children to protect them. The good news is everyone survived. The bad news is Stephanie lost both legs, one above the knee, one below the knee. Years later, she does not regret her sacrifice because she saved her children. It is a sacrifice she said she would do again. It is a sacrifice I hope I never have to make. I do not know how her children can look at her legs and question her love for them. I do not know how anyone can question her love for her children. We sacrifice the most for the people we love the most. That leads us to the question of the day. How much are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

How much money are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Imagine the scene with your sacrificed imagination. It is impossible to read this story and ignore the financial issues. You can still buy a pint of nard on the internet. It will cost you approximately $625 for a single pint. No wonder Judas Iscarot was shocked by her extravagance. It seemed economically impossible for a common to own such a possession. Some believe, Mary received the nard from her parents as a wedding gift for her wedding night. Mary sacrificed a great amount of money to show her devotion to Jesus. How much money are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

The Biblical standard for giving is the tithe, 10%. That is a challenge for a great number of people. According to Vanco, only 5% of all church goers’ tithe? 77% of all tithers give more than 10% The average church goer gives approximately $17 per week. That is $884 per year. It is the question I have asked you for the past quarter of a century. If everyone gave the amount to the church that you give to the church, would our ministry contract or expand? How much money are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Remember, we are not afraid to sacrifice for those that we love.

How much time are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Imagine the scene with your sacrificed imagination. The house is filled with guests and there are a million things to do. There is food that needs to be cooked. There are dishes that need to be washed. There are children that need to be entertained. There are a million things to do, so where is Mary. She is sitting at the feet of Jesus absorbing every word. It was not that those other things were not important. It was that this was an opportunity that could not be missed. You can do housework anytime, but you cannot always sit at the feet of Jesus. Mary sacrificed valuable time to sit at the feet of Jesus. How much time are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

It is impossible for our generation to sit at the feet of Jesus. However, that changes nothing. How much time do you spend with Jesus? I am not talking about the time you spend in the church building or the time you spend fundraising for the church. I am talking about spending time practicing the Holy Habits. How much time do you spend meditating? How much time do you spend studying your Bible? How much time do you spend in worship? How much time do you spend in prayer? How much time are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Remember, we are not afraid to sacrifice for those that we love.

How much pride are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Imagine the scene with your sacrificed imagination. The fact that Mary anointed Jesus’s feet is significant. That sounds odd to our generation. It was odd to her generation too for two reasons. First, usually someone’s head was anointed, not their feet. Second, Hebrew women never unwrapped their hair in public. They only unwrapped their hair at home. Both expose her humility. How much pride are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

Humility is not emptying yourself of self-worth. Humility is embracing your self-worth and your gifts and offering those things to the glory of God. Are you hoarding your gifts or are you using your gifts to bring glory to God? How much pride are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Remember, we are not afraid to sacrifice for those that we love. Let me state the obvious. During the next two weeks the issue is not how much we have sacrificed for God. The issue is how much God has sacrificed for us. In the Gospel lesson, only Mary seems to see the big picture. Only Mary, understands the events to come will have eternal consequences.

Jesus sacrificed it all because he loves us! You know the story, but it is worth repeating. It all began with the incarnation. God left the perfection of heaven to slum it with people like us. The incarnation of God, Jesus was born in the ordinary, yet he lived an extraordinary life. Let me make the point clear so there can be no confusion. Jesus’s father was God, and his mother was a poor young woman by the name of Mary. The most famous stepfather in his Joseph, a simple carpenter. At twelve years old, Jesus’s spiritual uniqueness became clear, yet he did not begin his ministry until he was thirty. That ministry only lasted three years, but it changed the world. In a nutshell, he simply loved everyone. Healing the sick and teaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus threatened the orthodox leaders of his day. So threatened, they decided Jesus had to be eliminated. The plan was simply, but deadly. During the Passover, a few days after everyone cheered Jesus as he entered the city, one of Jesus’s own, Judas Iscariot, agreed to betray Jesus. He was arrested after the Passover meal on Thursday evening. Jesus was tried twice, once by his own people and again by the Romans. It was the Roman, Pontius Pilot, official who gave the death sentence. Hours later the order was carried out. Jesus died Roman style, on a cross between two criminals. The Sunday crowd has abandoned him, but the faithful remained. They saw him draw his last breath. They saw him take out his lifeless body. They cried because all hope was lost and they were the ones who asked the question, “Why?” No knowing the happy ending we call Easter, they wrestled with the harsh reality, Jesus was dead.

It was a powerful moment in the history of the world. Jesus, the incarnation of God, was dead. Remember, we are not afraid to sacrifice for those that we love. This is not doubt about it. Jesus loved us so he sacrificed it all for us. It has been said many times:

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.

The only things that matter are eternal!

Sins of Omission

Her name was Catherine “Kitty” Genovese (1935-1964). She was a 28-year-old bartender who lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York City. She died in the early hours of March 13, 1964. Her death was shocking at several levels. She was fatally stabbed by Winston Moseley (1934-2016). He took her life for one reason. He did not like women. He was a “misogynist.” He spent the rest of his life in prison for the crime, dying in 2016 at the age of 81. As shocking as that crime was, the reaction, or the lack of reaction, of her neighbors was even worse. Two weeks after the crime, The New York Times reported 38 people either witnessed or heard Kitty’s cries for help by no one responded. It is one of the most famous cases in the history of American sociology. In the science of sociology, it has been called the by- standers effect or diffusion of responsibility. Moseley was guilty of committing the crime. The neighbors were guilty of not preventing the crime. Any kind of sin should be taken seriously.

Sin can be grouped into two categories. The first category are the sins of commission. They are the sins we do that are contrary to the ways of God. On that list is lying, stealing, murder, gossip, judging, and the rest. Winston Moseley committed a sin of commission because he did it. The second category are the sins of omission. They are the things we should have done but we did nothing. The neighbors committed a sin of omission because they did nothing. My sins of commission upset me, but my sins of omission terrify me. What are you not doing that you should do? That takes us to the scripture lesson for today.

Today, we find ourselves in the sixth chapter of John, the first thirteen verses.Jesus had gathered a big crowd. The reason is simple. They had seen or heard about the miracles. Jesus had brought wholeness and health to the limited and the sick. Listen to what I am about to say. They had seen the miracles, but Jesus wanted them to experience more. The Master went to a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. From that high elevation, he saw the great number that were following him. Wanting to challenge the disciples, he looked at Phillip and said, “Where shall we buy bread for all these people to eat?” Phillip does the math and admits the funds are not available. It would take eight months wages to buy enough bread. He was right, yet he was wrong. Money was only one option. By the end of the day, everyone was satisfied, and the power of God was obvious. 

This story reminds us of two things. First, with God all things are possible. How else can you explain how Jesus took five barley loaves and two small fish and fed 5,000 people? It must be from God. There is no other option. Second, it reminds us that Jesus cared not just about the spiritual needs of people, the Master cared for their physical needs as well. He could have sent them away hungry, and no one would have cared. That leads us to an interesting question: how concerned about the needy of our world? As a disciple of Jesus Christ, you should care. Remember, you are supposed to be a little more like Jesus every day, so let me ask you these three questions.

Do you see others like Jesus? When Jesus looked out and saw the multitude surrounding him, he saw their need. They were hungry. Jesus knew they had to be fed because they did not have resources to feed themselves. Jesus did not just care about their spiritual needs, Jesus cared about their physical needs. He responded to their need. Do you see the needs of others, or do you look the other way? Do you ignore the needy? Would you have said about the 5,000, “They are fools! They should have known better. They should have packed their own lunch!” Do you see others like Jesus?

Do you feel other people’s pain like Jesus? One of the things we struggle with is the humanity of Jesus. We are much more comfortable with his divine side. In Matthew 9:36, it says Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were harassed and helpless. Jesus had compassion on this crowd because they were hungry. Never underestimate the compassion of Jesus. Wikipedia, the online dictionary, and encyclopedia, defines compassion as the response to the suffering of others that motivates to help. Do you feel other people’s pain like Jesus? Perhaps this is a better question, how compassionate are you? Do you worry more about your family pet, or human beings? Do you look at people, or do you look through people? Do you feel other people’s pain like Jesus?

Do you act like Jesus? The Master had the power to feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus used his power to respond to their need. We do not have the power to feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. However, we do have the power to do something. What are you doing to help others? Are you doing nothing at all? What is the Holy Spirit calling you to do? Do you act like Jesus?

Kitty Genovese was crying out for help, but her neighbors did nothing. They were guilty of a sin of omission. I hope that is not our story. Our world is crying out for help but very few are responding. Our community is crying out for help but only a few are responding. It is not a matter of physical deafness. It is a matter of lack of caring. Do you care about the needy in our community, or are you too preoccupied with yourself? Jesus cared and responded. Are you going to respond, or do nothing at all? American educator Yasmin Mogahed (born 1980) once said, “Compassion is to look beyond your own pain, to the pain of other.”

Living A Lie

Lance Armstrong (born 1971) dominated the world of professional cycling. He won the Tour de France seven consecutive times, from 1999-2005. He was the face of the sport. Can you name another cyclist? I can’t. For years the UCI, the Union of Cyclists International, suspected Armstrong of taking steroids, doping. For years Armstrong denied it. Then it happened. He grew tired of the lies and confessed it was true. The first one he told was Oprah Winfred (born 1954). I did not learn anything from the interview I had not suspected for years. Lance Armstrong was a doper! Lance Armstrong was a cheater! Lance Armstrong was a liar! Since his confession, he has been stripped of all his titles and has faced a mountain of lawsuits from past sponsors. Many consider Lance Armstrong to be the greatest cheater in the history of professional sports. Today’s blog is about lying. However, it is not about lying for personal gain. It is about lying to yourself.

We are in the eighth chapter of the gospel of John, verses twelve through twenty. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem. To be exact, he is in the temple courts. That was the place where rabbis taught their students. It is early in the morning, but a crowd has already gathered for another lesson. As Jesus surveyed the crowd, he knew it was going to be a bad day. For in the crowd were his well-organized enemies, the Pharisees. You remember them. They were experts on the law. That was no small task because there were 613 laws found in the Torah. The negative commandments numbered 365, which is the number of days in a solar year. The positive commandments numbered 248, which is the number of bones and organs in the human body. If you add the negative commandments and the positive commandment, there are 613 commandments. The Pharisees believed keeping those 613 laws was the key to spiritual enlightenment. The Pharisees believed keeping the 613 laws would hasten the return of the long-awaited Messiah. They did not just hope that was true. They believed that was true. In the end they were lying to themselves. That is why they were so outraged at Jesus.

They must have been shocked when Jesus uttered verse twelve, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” What does that verse men? It means Jesus is the key to spiritual enlightenment. It means the Pharisees are wrong. Then, a debate broke out between Jesus and the Pharisees over authority. The Master won the debate because he knew where he had come from, and he knew where he was going. The Pharisees knew neither because they were living in the dark. They were sincere, but they were living a lie. Do you know of anyone who is living a lie? You must know someone. There are so many.

In the world today, there are 1.8 billion Muslims. I hate to say it, but they are living a lie. There are many sincere Muslims. Islam teaches death happens when the body and the soul are separated. Muslims believe they will stay in their graves until their Day of Judgement. The spirit returns to their earthly home on the seventh and the fortieth day after their death. Also, the spirit returns to their earthly home on the first anniversary of their death. In Islam, Allah decides when everyone will die. There are some elements of Christianity there, but they are missing a savior. In Christianity, God left the perfection of heaven to be the prefect sacrifice for the sins of the world. A life without Jesus is living a lie.

In the world today, there are one billion Hindus. I hate to say it, but they are living a lie. They believe humans are in a constant cycle between life and death called samara. They call our spirit the atman. At death, the atman simply moves on to another person. The life you are living now has been influenced by your previous life. If you have a hard life today, it is because of the bad life you live in the past. If you have a good life today, it is because of the good life you lived in the past. The goal is to live a perfect life so you can exit the cycle. Can I be honest with you? One life is enough for me. I do not what to again.

In the world today, many do not believe in an afterlife. According to the Pew Research over 7% of all Americans are atheists or agnostics. When they die, they simply believe it all ends for them. Some famous people are, or were, in this category. You know their names:

          Morgan Freeman

          Brad Pitt

          Woody Allen

          Daniel Radcliffe

          Stephen Hawking

          Sigmund Freud

          Thomas Edison

          Karl Marx

There are others, but I do not have the time. They are not just living in denial. They are living a lie. Who wants to live when there is no hope of a happy ending? I long to go to heaven.

George Lee is a retired United Methodist minister in the area and a good friend to me and this church. Years ago, he told this illustration and I never forgot. A woman in one of his churches did everything in the church that was humanly possible. She sang in the choir, served on all the committees, and never missed worship. She went to every Trustee workday. She taught Sunday school. She worked in the kitchen. She had a certain assigned job in the kitchen. She peeled the potatoes. She peeled the potatoes for years. She pealed more potatoes, then anyone in the history of that congregation. One day, George was told she had cancer. She fought the disease with a positive attitude. Unfortunately, the disease was winning. One night, George was called because the end was near. He went to the hospital to be with her. When he arrived, he found her in a weakened state. She looked up at him and said, “George, have I pealed enough potatoes to get into heaven?” George said his heart broke. She played a large role in every part of the church, but she missed the main message. There simply are not enough potatoes! There just is not enough anthems. There are not dinners to cook or classes to teach. There are just not enough sermons to preach. We are not saved by our good works. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. Our only hope of salvation is Jesus!

It is called works righteousness. It is a product of the Protestant Work Ethic. What does the Protestant Work Ethic say? It says anything worth having is worth working for. It built our country. The problem is it promotes works at the expense of grace. I hear it at nearly every funeral I preform. The loved ones gathered in front of the casket and report on the live of the deceased. He or she loved everyone, and everyone loved them. They would do anything for everyone. They would give you the shirt off their back. Then, someone will say it, “If anyone deserves to go to heaven it was them.” I have never corrected a single person at that moment, but this is the truth. The loved one does not deserve to go to heaven. The loved one deserved to go to hell and so do you. I hope you are not living a lie. We are not saved by what we have done. We are saved by grace! You know the old Gospel story!

Jesus was born in the ordinary way, but he lived an extra ordinary life. There was something special about Jesus. After all, he was the son God. He loved and respected everyone. He taught about the Kingdom of God in a small geographic area. He healed the sick and the afflicted. He deserved to live a long and happy life, but that was not part of the divine plan. He threatened the leaders of the orthodox faith and made some powerful influential enemies. It was during the Passover one of his own agreed to betray him. Judas Iscariot did it for thirty pieces of silver, but he regretted that decision later. He would hang himself. Jesus was arrested while praying in the garden. Within hours he would face two trials. The first was in front of his own people. It was a monkey trial. He did not have a chance. They had everything they needed but the authority to execute Jesus. The one with that authority was the Roman governor, Pontius Pilot. He saw through the scheme but lack the courage to confront the crowd. In the end he sentences Jesus to be executed, and releases a notorious criminal, Barabbas. The solders followed their orders and made the fast few hours on Jesus’ life miserable. The Romans used their way of executing. Jesus dies on a cross between two thieves. The cheers of Palm Sunday had been replaced by the tears of Good Friday. Everyone thought it was over. Everyone was wrong. There was a surprise ending.

Early on Sunday morning, a handful of women went to the tomb. They must have walked slowly. Their hearts were heavy, and their minds were full of questions. They did not have a clue what had happened. The stone was rolled away, but Jesus’s body was missing. At first, they fear the body had been removed by one of Jesus’s enemies. Then, they are informed that Jesus had returned to life. It is too good to be true. They run to the disciples to tell them, but they refuse to believe them. They run to the tomb, and they found the account to be true. A short time later they encounter the resurrected Jesus, himself. Over the next forty days Jesus appeared to a variety of people. Then, Jesus ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit filled the believers. There is no other way of saying it. The resurrection of Jesus changed everything! That is not a lie. It is the truth.

The Apostle Paul did not lie. He told us the truth in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hear God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” It is my favorite Bible verse. Jesus did not lie to the Pharisees in the temple courts all those years ago. Jesus is the light of the world! Plato (427 BC – 427 BC) once said, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” Are you living a lie?

Five Questions

In 1849, the Japanese painter Hokusai (1760-1849) died at the age of 89. His work spanned decades. Toward the end of his life, the artist dismissed any of his work done before the age of 70. It was only after he reached 70, that he felt like he was turning out anything worthy of note. On his deathbed Hokusai lamented, “If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.” His story is the story of maturity. Can I ask you two questions? First, are you getting better, or just getting older? Second, how spiritually mature are you?

We find ourselves this morning in the fourth chapter of John. According to the very first verse of our reading, Jesus is in Samaria, near the town of Sychar. It is about noon and the Master was near Jacob’s well (Ge. 48:21-22). The Master was warm from his journey, so he approached the well for a cool drink of water.Normally, people drew water from the well at the end of the day because the heat had passed. Jesus discovered a woman at the well during the hottest time of the day. Jesus and the Samaritan woman must have been quite a scene. They were a study in contrast. He was a man; she was a woman. He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan. He was sinless, she was sinful. He was spiritually mature; she was spiritually immature. This is the truth. We are much more like the sinful woman than the sinless Savior. At first sight he knew she must have a story. In his culture, men and women did not address each other in public; in his society, Jews and Samaritans did not speak at all. Jesus breaks both rules and talks to a Samaritan woman. Most of our reading is a dialogue between the two.

The Samaritan woman must have been filled with regret because her life was filled with mistakes. She just couldn’t find a decent man; she was a repeat offender. She had been married five times and was living with another man. In our society, only fifty percent of first-time marriages last. Every time you marry, your chances of a successful marriage are cut in half. That means, on her fifth wedding day her chances of a happy marriage were down to 3.1%. If she would have married number six, it was down to 1.6%. She was at the well in the middle of the day alone to hide from the harsh tongues of the other women in the community. She was the punchline of every joke in her community, and she knew it. This is the oddest thing about the story. Jesus chooses this mistake- filled woman to talk about spiritual maturity.

Our world and our churches are filled with sinful, spiritually immature people. I have never met a sinless person; I have met very few spiritually mature people. Spiritually mature people stand out in our society because there are so few. Can I ask you these questions? Do the people in your life consider you spiritually mature? Do you consider yourself spiritually mature? The Samaritan woman struggled with Jesus’s words because she was spiritually immature. Could it be we struggle with God’s ways because we are spiritually immature too?

There is a website called Cripplegate.com.  It is a Christian website with the tag line, “for a new generation of non-conformists. (I consider myself a non-conformist.)That line plays off Roman 12:1-2, “do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  On November 7, 2011, they posted an article called: 5 Signs of Spiritual Maturity. That article seemed to be written for us. The article revolves around five questions. If you answer these five questions honestly, then you will discover your level of Christian maturity. Each one of these questions has Biblical roots. You may find out that you are more mature than you thought. You may discover you have some work to do. You can consider these five questions a little quiz.

This is question number one. Do you have an appetite for meat? Infants drink milk regularly, but in time they ask for solid food. When a twenty-one-year-old asks his mother to spoon feed him mashed potatoes, it is creepy and dysfunctional. When a nursing home resident can’t take a single bite, it is sad because the end is near. Spiritually mature people can’t get enough meat. They can’t get enough of the Bible. They study the Gospels. They study the entire Old Testament. They study the epistles. What part of the Bible are you studying right now? Are you studying the Bible? Have you ever really studied the Bible? Or is the Bible just too hard to understand? Maybe that is the reason you are spiritually immature. Spiritually mature people have an appetite for meat. Hebrews 5:14 says, “Solid food is for the mature.” This is question number one: do you have an appetite for meat?How mature are you?

This is question number two. Are you easily offended? Experience has taught us that mature Christians seldom get offended. The reason is simple, they see the big picture. When Jesus turned the tables over because people were using the law for personal gain, people were upset with him. Jesus didn’t care because he saw the big picture. The temple was a house of prayer, not a place of profit. Do you see the big picture, or do you only see yourself or your interests? You may have heard me say this in the past. The only thing that matters is Jesus! Our churches are filled with offended people because our churches are filled with spiritually immature people. Philippians 1:18 says, “In every way Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes. I will rejoice.” This is question number two: are you easily offended?How mature are you?

This is question number three. Is your conscience formed by scripture or opinion? One of the great attributes of a mature Christian is grace. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. It is a simple truth to understand, but it is a hard truth to live out. I have grown tired of negative, critical, and judgmental people. No one needs your permission; no one must live up to your standards. Spiritually immature people are always critical of others. Spiritually mature people understand that we are saved by grace. Romans 14:1 says, “As for one who is weak in the faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.”  This question number three: is your conscience formed by scripture or opinion? How mature are you?

This is question number four. Do you serve humbly? God uses sinners in this world to do good things because there is no one else to choose. Have you ever known anyone who boasted about what they did for their church? Have you ever known someone who boasted of something they did for God in this world? If so, then you have the perfect example of a spiritually immature person. Spiritually mature people get it. They know it is not about us, it is all about God. Do the people in your life consider you humble? 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  Do the people in your life consider you arrogant? This is question number four: do you serve humbly?How mature are you?

This is question number five. Do you credit God for success? We live in a culture that idolizes people. It may be a well-loved pastor or the pope. It may be a professional athlete, Tom Brady, or LeBron James. It may be a historical figure, like George Washington or John Wesley. That is a true sign of spiritual immaturity. Spiritually mature people understand the truth. People, both contemporary and historical, are nothing more than tools in the hands of God. It is God who deserves all the credit. I Corinthians 3:7 says, “So neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”  This is question number five: do you credit God for success? How mature are you?

So how did you do with your little quiz? Did you find you are a spiritually mature person? Or did you find you have some work to do?

When I was young my grandmother came to visit us twice a year. She lived in Brooklyn, New York and we lived in Warren. I can remember going to the Greyhound bus station to pick her up. Later, she flew into the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. It really didn’t matter where she arrived. It was always exciting to pick her up because she came with gifts. Every reunion was the same. I would run up to her and give her a big hug. She would always square my shoulders and say, “Let me look at you. Look how big you have grown.” My dad, who hated those visits because he didn’t like her, always responded, “I would hope so. If he wasn’t growing there would be something wrong.” I think he missed the point, but he wasn’t wrong. We expect healthy children to grow.

Since the Russians have invaded Ukraine, I have been wondering about all the orphans I met in Eastern Europe. I have met orphans on both sides of the conflict. One of my lingering memories comes from the Renewal Orphanage in Dmitrov, Russia. It is the home of approximately one hundred emotionally, physically, and mentally disturbed children. Each one of those children had a story. One of the boys in the orphanage stood about four foot tall. That would be fine if he was a preschooler, but he was a teenager. I don’t remember his name, but my heart went out to him. He stood with crutches and always had a smile on his face. The other children liked him and considered him a leader. Every time I saw him, I wondered what was wrong. We expect healthy children to grow. This is the truth.

God expects you to grow, and God expects you to mature spiritually! When God looks at you does he say, “Look how big you have grown!” Or does God say, “What is wrong?” Never forget, we are to be a little more like Jesus every day. It is your choice. Are you just getting older, or are you getting better? Are you going to mature, or are you going to remain a spiritual babe? The author of Hebrews said it for the ages: by this time, you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. Let me say it clearly. Grow up!