Christians as nomads

Intro

An old saying is that we are all just ships in the night, that nothing is permanent and we will all pass on to the next life sooner or later. What would Jesus say to that?

Goal 

Let us understand that we are all nomads, pilgrims.

Sermon Plan 

We will look at the highest priority in life, family values, plowing, black and white values and Christians as nomads.

The priority of Jesus

In Luke 9:51-62 is a story of distractions and the priority of Jesus. Do we squeeze Jesus into our plans or does he shape our plans? Do we allow persecution to distract us from the mission of the church? Imagine a company violating our rights to freedom of religion. Most of us might take them to court and spend a lot of time and money seeking justice. It is not an evil thing to do, but does it distract us from the priority of the Gospel? Most of us spend hours feathering our nests and preparing a home. This too is not an evil thing, but can the comforts of home distract us from the priority of Jesus? Honoring parents has a very high priority in the Bible, but can family distract us from an even greater priority, Jesus? 

Family values vs Kingdom values

Many Christians have jumped on the political bandwagon of “family values.” Perhaps we believe that it is a euphemism for “Christian values.” InLuke 9:51-62 Jesus seems to challenge that idea. One individual says he has to go and bury a parent and another wants to say goodbye to the family. They seem like perfectly reasonable requests. Jesus did not ask them to sever family ties, but used the situation to teach a valuable lesson. While many family values are also Christian values, they are not always the same thing. A family name can be an idol. A family business can be worshiped before God is worshiped. Family relationships can come between us and God. While family is very important, it is God who made family and God is more important. Kingdom values are higher than family values. 

How to plow a straight line

Not many modern western farmers plow with oxen any more, although I knew a farmer from Maryland who returned to a team of oxen and claimed a far greater return on investment than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on expensive farm machinery. He also said he was much happier. My father-in-law reminisced about farming with horses and told the story of how to keep a straight line. Just like the story in Luke 9:51-62 you can’t remove your hand from the plow or take your eye off your marker. To plough a straight line the farmer would choose a tree branch or other marker at the end of the field and stay fixated on that until the row was done. As farmers in God’s field, we must keep our eyes on Jesus and our hands on the plow. 

Not everything is black and white

Have you ever met people who claim that everything is either black or white, good or bad. Jesus would probably dispute that because in Luke 9:51-62 he reminds us that some choices are between two good things. Easy choices are between good and bad. We also know that sometimes we must choose between two evils, like a mother’s life or her unborn baby’s. Another example is Rahab who had to choose between the death of two Israelites and telling a lie, the lesser of two evils. Jesus set before us the choice between two good things, burying a parent versus following him, or saying goodbye to family versus following him. Both are good, but one is a greater good. The kingdom of heaven has priority over other good things that we could be doing. What is our choice today? 

Christians as nomads

We used to speak of Christians as pilgrims on earth, but the word has fallen out of use and people don’t really know what it means anymore. Jesus alluded to this aspect of the Christian life in Luke 9:51-62. Paul spoke it in different terms saying that of our citizenship is not of this world but of heaven (Philippians 3:20). Like the children of Israel who had been freed from Egyptian slavery we wander in the wilderness like nomads not yet having fully experienced eternal life with God. We don’t always know where we are going, but we do know who is leading us. And so we are wandering nomads but also pilgrims on a journey to a holy place, heaven, just as the ancient Israelites traveled to their pilgrim festivals three times a year to worship God. 

Outro/Take Home 

Our highest priorities in life are the things of God. Family values are important but kingdom values are more important. Let us keep our hands on the plow as we journey on our pilgrimage into our eternal rest with God.

The crazy Gerasene

Intro

In today's world demons are often relegated to the realm of Hollywood fiction. What is the truth?

Goal 

Let us understand the power of evil.

Sermon Plan 

We will look at Jesus' healing of a demon possessed man, the spiritual dimension in psychotherapy, and the struggle, freedom from evil and living a free life.

The Crazy Gerasene

We don't often experience demon stories on the street like those in the Bible. We institutionalize the mentally ill. They blamed mental illness on demons. At the opposite extreme, we often blame it all on physical causes. However, ask someone who works with the criminally insane or otherwise mentally incarcerated and many will tell you that there is an mysterious and little-understood spiritual dimension to psychopathology. While some of these people are diagnosed as having physically caused organic brain syndromes, others are not as easily explained by the physical alone, such as schizophrenia and psychotic disorders. East of the Sea of Galilee a mentally ill man lived among the tombs (Luke 8:26-39). Jesus did not make a scientific diagnosis but asked a question, commanded the impure spirits to leave and gave them permission to enter a herd of pigs. 

A spiritual dimension in psychotherapy 

Some dismiss the Bible’s demon stories as ancient ignorance. Carlton Cornett writes that ‘For a professional pursuit that prides itself on its uncompromising search for “the truth” of psychological functioning, psychotherapy has often gone to seemingly absurd lengths to avoid considering the possibility that the spiritual dimension deeply affects human life.’1 Jesus made no apologies for his dealings with a man with obvious mental problems. We would perhaps diagnose it today as dissociative identity disorder (multiple or split personality). The causes are controversial but some experts are open to the idea of demon possession. Some even argue for possession syndrome as a separate category of mental illness found more often in non-western cultures.2 Rather than dismiss Bible stories such as the Madman and the Pigs (Luke 8:26-39) as mere fable, perhaps we ought to be more open-minded. 

When evil possesses 

We have all done something wrong in our lives, even if it was only a passing bad thought. What happens to people who allow wrong thoughts to go too far? Ordinary mischief turns into outright evil. As we go down that road too far, who is there to bring us back from the brink of destruction? In modern terms evil can and does possess people all around us. It is a dangerous downhill path towards insanity. We witness it in public among murderous world leaders, terrorists, drug addicts and greedy industrialists who enthusiastically destroy their families and the environment in worship of the “almighty dollar”. Not every nut job ends up as a drooling wreck living in a graveyard (Luke 8:26-39). The insanity around is is widespread and varied, but there is a common solution to it all: Jesus. 

Struggle, Announcement and Living Free 

Like many biblical stories the tale of the Lunatic and the Pigs (Luke 8:26-39) can be broken down into three similar scenes.3 Here we could call them the struggle, announcement of freedom and living free for a former madman. A consistent biblical theme is liberation coming from divine and not human resources. In the struggle between worship of dead idols and the living God, Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Baal and God gave victory. God delivered Israel many times from her enemies. In the Gospels, we see Jesus as the deliverer from all human bondage. After deliverance came living free. Living free involves taking the announcement to others who are captive. Just as Elijah and Moses announced freedom so to do all who have been set free. We who are free must tell others what God has done. 

Your story 

The story of the Crazy Man and the Swineherd (Luke 8:26-39) is also everyone’s story. We all experience crazy times struggling against wicked forces. From the moment of birth we have fought to survive against evils. Success in life is an up and down struggle against the unyielding forces of evil that seek to possess us: steal from your sibling, lie on a test, get high, experiment with sex, steal from your boss or employee, lie to your clients, lust after someone else’s spouse or house and cheat your neighbor out of a just result. In our story against the insanity of this world, we have often tried to do it alone and failed. At times, we have asked for God’s help and in those moments, we have had a story of victory to tell to the whole world. 

Outro/Take Home 

The world of demons is a very real world that we ignore at our peril. At the same time Jesus gives us victory over evil and the power to live a victorious life. Let's live that freedom and spread it to others.

Endnotes

1Cornett, Carlton. The Soul of Psychotherapy: Recapturing the Spiritual Dimension in the Therapeutic Encounter. Simon and Schuster. 1998. vii.
2Spiegel, David. Dissociation: Culture, Mind, and Body. 1994. American Psychiatric Press, Inc. 131.
3Brueggemann, Walter. Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe. Abingdon Press. 1993.

Healing words

Intro

Words are powerful and with the power of God behind them our words can do wonderful things.

Goal 

Let us understand the power and limits of power to our words.

Sermon Plan 

We will look at the healing of a widow's only son and examine the power behind Jesus' healing words.

The healing faith fable

Have you ever been to one of those churches that focuses on miracles and healings? Miracles and healings are wonderful when they come from God, but a false prophet can also perform miracles (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Revelation 19:20). A way to tell the difference is by the teaching. Is it false and heretical cult-like teaching or true and orthodox Christianity? In some churches people who are in wheelchairs or suffer from uncured diseases have been told that they lack faith to be healed. Is that true or just another fiction from unlearned preachers? In Luke 7:11-17 Jesus healed a person who was dead and in a coffin. What faith can a dead person exhibit? He was not even conscious and therefore unable to even ask to be healed. The only criterion mentioned was Jesus’ compassion on a widow.

A compassionate healing

Imagine the loneliness of a woman who has lost her husband. Then imagine that same woman losing her only child. The pain is indescribable. The real desolation would be deep and abiding. Human community is not always compassionate, but the large crowd who followed the funeral procession of the widow of Naïn (Luke 7:11-17) seems to have wanted to support her in her devastating loss. The village is Nein in Israel today, a Muslim town, with a Christian church built on the possible site of her house. The account does not emphasize any great faith she or her son may have had, but the compassion of Christ for a widow. The Greek word comes to us in medicine as splanchnic, meaning visceral or intestinal. It implies here a kind of sympathy that is physically felt deep within the bowels.

The power of words

In Luke 7:11-17 Jesus spoke a few words and a widow’s dead son was brought back to life. Words are powerful. Negative words can destroy life just as readily as positive words can give life. Have you ever been around someone who just sucked the life out of you with their words? I have, and it’s not pleasant. I just want to avoid them or love them at a distance. On the other hand have you ever been around someone who just gave you energy, enthusiasm and excitement for life? My grandmother was such a person and I have met many individuals like that throughout life. They are wonderful blessings to have around. We may not all have the wonderful gifts of healing like Jesus did, but we can all communicate. Let us spread healing words wherever we go.

Miracles and Magic

My eye doctor recently told me that a retinal occlusion which I had about a year ago was completely clear. He said that I should thank God because such things do not normally heal completely. I had been anointed with oil and prayed for by a fellow pastor. Since ancient times miracles of manipulating nature, healing from sickness, death and evil forces are recorded. Some thought that it was the words alone that caused the miracles and developed systems of magical incantations sometimes as scams, sometimes relying on self-seeking occult powers. Luke 7:11-17 tells of Jesus reviving a widow’s dead son, but there was more going on than words of a mere incantation. There was divine authority behind the words. Church liturgy can also be empty wishful words of incantation and magic unless we recognize God’s power behind it.

Healing where we can

Not everyone has the gift of healing, especially like Jesus did. In Luke 7:11-17 he raised a widow’s son from the dead. As much as we would all love to do the same, even in those churches that have a large focus on miracles, such things rarely occur. So what can we do then? We can all heal to some extent, even if not in such spectacular ways. Like Jesus we can notice the pain and suffering of others around us and we can care enough to have compassion. In a world where self interests are the fashion, we are to be different. We have many options to bring healing to a sick world, from encouraging words to personal investment of time and money. While most people just don’t give a damn about the poor and suffering, we must.

Cracks in welfare systems

Welfare in ancient Israel was a system that used private, family and state resources. The welfare laws of Israel provided fairness in inheritance and preserved family unity. Like our modern systems, they could not possibly cover every scenario and so like today, some people fell through the cracks. One such case seems to be the widow who was about to bury her only son (Luke 7:11-17). With her husband gone and her only son deceased, she possibly faced financial ruin, without the welfare provided in a family support structure. The individual responsibility of not harvesting the corners of fields so that the poor may glean and the national responsibility of paying a third year tithe for the poor may not have solved her problem. Regardless, Christ sets us the example of our responsibility towards those who suffer: heartfelt compassion.

Outro/Take Home

We may not have the power that Jesus had, but we do have power in our words. Let us use that power for good.

Beatitudes: the puzzle and the secret — part 2

Intro 

It is sometimes a puzzle to understand God's mind. His thinking is so far above ours. The secret is: there is no secret. People pay gurus millions to learn what is often half-baked wisdom and ignore the wonderful truth found in the beatitudes which is free to all (Matthew 5:1-12). 

Last week we looked at the contrast between spiritually self-satisfied people who are shallow and empty, and those who recognize their spiritual poverty are pleasant to be around. We also looked at those who mourn for society’s ills are more ready to change than those who ignore them, humble people who have more friends than the arrogant, and that desiring to do right is better than wanting to do wrong. These are puzzles and secrets of heavenly thinking.

Goal 

Let us understand the God's thinking. 

Sermon Plan 

This week we will look at four more pieces to the puzzle and the secret behind the beatitudes.

The puzzle of mercy 

Why did Jesus in Matthew 5:1-12 promote mercy? Examples of Jesus’ mercy in the New Testament were healing the sick and befriending sinners. Our world is filled with cruelty, intolerance, indifference, tyranny, disdain, accusation and punishment. All of these things exhibit a lack of mercy. In a merciless world few people care about the sick or sinners, unless the system can make money off them with high medical costs or isolate the worst sinners in prisons without hope of reform. Yet in the midst of a merciless world are a few who show compassion without a dollar sign attached. There are some tenderhearted souls who work with sinners to guide them towards a better life. Jesus promised that if we show mercy towards the poor and the guilty, we too will be shown mercy. Surely we all need it. 

The secret of mercy 

We want justice. We criticize politicians, police, businesses, employees, parents, teachers, neighbors and children. When it comes to criticism of us, we again criticize others for their lack of mercy. Why is this, when we show so little? Why do we want justice served on others, but cry for mercy for ourselves? Why do we show so little mercy? A merciless atmosphere makes us walk on egg-shells. Mercy creates an atmosphere of trust. Lack of mercy creates a police-state-like atmosphere of secrecy and distrust. Mercy creates a warm, affirming atmosphere. Without mercy, we tend to cover up problems and leave them unresolved. In an atmosphere of mercy, we are not afraid to admit mistakes and they can be worked on. As Jesus taught in Matthew 5:1-12 be merciful and when we need it, it will be there for us. 

The puzzle of pure-heartedness 

Are not the pure in heart that Jesus blessed naive and foolish? How can a pure hearted person survive in the real world? The Greek for pure in Matthew 5:1-12 is used elsewhere to mean clean after having taken a bath (John 13:10). The Pharisees thought that they were righteous if they were clean on the outside. Jesus corrected them by saying that being clean or pure in the eyes of God begins on the inside. It has nothing to do with naivety and yet everything to do with innocence. There is a world of difference. The pure in heart can be wise as serpents and yet remain harmless as doves. Their intent is for good and without pretense. They carry no malice or dishonesty in their hearts. How can the real world survive without such blessed people! 

The secret of pure-heartedness 

What would it be like to have a clean heart, free from evil motives? What are the results of a contaminated heart with wrong intentions? Why is the one better than the other? The Pharisees thought they were clean, but their hearts were not pure. With right motives, we want to obey when only God is looking. How do we get a pure heart? It only comes from God (Ezekiel 36:25-27). It comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 5:1-12Jesus suggested that those who have a pure heart will see God. They look beyond mere human conditions to see God. Those with pure motives look for God in everything and thus see him. Old Testament laws regarding being ritually clean or unclean point to this purity of heart. Are our hearts contaminated or pure? 

The puzzle of making peace 

Some people love to fight. They think it’s exciting. Is not making peace a foolish waste of time and money? It has not worked in the Middle East where agitators on all sides ceaselessly instigate mayhem. Yet in Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus calls the peacemakers blessed. Why? On our planet there is no peace, but imagine a world where nobody tried to referee between sides. It would descend into complete anarchy. Humanity exists in a constant state of hostility. Animosity between people and God, between nations, between governments and their people, within churches and families are an ongoing fact of life. Peacemakers bring a measure of calm to a potentially escalating situation often at great personal sacrifice. While some men love a good fight and look to create strife, only peacemakers are blessed to be called the children of God. 

The secret of making peace 

In Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus said blessed are the peace-MAKERS. He did not say blessed are the peace attempts, or peace-wish-makers, or peace-hopefuls. Making peace requires sacrifice, compromise. For two warring factions to make peace, each must be willing to give up something. Negotiations must be a win-win for both sides. That is the hard part. Reconciliation can take a long time, and it is easy to be tempted to give up. If peacemakers are blessed, are peace-breakers cursed? Surely those who stir up trouble, make war and sow discord are loathsome and contemptible people. Nobody likes a troublemaker. History blackens their name and they are despised by all. Pride may prevent us making peace, but necessity demands it. Living in freedom must also include freedom from strife and warfare. Peace does not just happen. It has to be made. 

The puzzle of being abused for doing right 

Did not Jesus say that if they persecute you in one town, flee to the next (Matthew 20:23)? Persecuted means to pursue or chase away. How is that blessed? Why did Jesus call the persecuted blessed in Matthew 5:1-12? How can the harassed be blessed? Some estimate that 60% of Christians today live in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom and a quarter of us suffer severe mistreatment. How are we blessed? If that abuse is because of righteousness, then we identify with Jesus. If we cherish what is right, if we love God, if we love his Church, then we will be hated. Just as there is no half-pregnancy, this is also true: we are either on Jesus’ side or not. Persecution for righteousness is a sign that we are blessed to be on God’s side. 

The secret of being abused for doing right 

Why are we harassed if we do the right thing, like keeping the speed limit, supporting the boss or avoiding slander? In Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus said blessed are those who are persecuted for doing right. How does that work? It is a fact of life, that if we do the right thing, we will be insulted and vilified. It is a badge of honor to be abused for doing right. It confirms that we are on God’s side. In that sense it is a blessing. The opposite is also true. If everyone loves us and we are never mistreated, maybe we are doing something wrong. Unwanted attention like ridicule and torment is not always because we have done the right thing. Sometime we are at fault. However, when it does come because we were righteous, it is a blessing. 

Outro/Take Home 

Spiritually self-satisfied people are shallow and empty, but those who recognize their spiritual poverty are pleasant. Those who mourn for society’s ills are more ready to change than those who ignore them. Humble people have more friends than the arrogant. Desiring to do right is better than wanting to do wrong. Everyone wants mercy; giving it is golden. Purehearted people are true friends. Everyone wants peace, but few work for it. Doing the right thing is still right, even when others abuse us for it.