by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Today is Palm Sunday, and we begin our journey with Jesus from Jerusalem’s gate to Easter’s triumph, from Hosannas to Hallelujahs! However, Jesus’ Palm Sunday journey ends with tears. He weeps because he knows that we too often miss God’s presence and look for peace in all the wrong places. We must never forget that Jesus’ journey leads through the betrayal of one of his followers, the denial of his closest friend, and the abandonment of all his disciples. It leads to the cross.
Raining Tears on a Parade
I think I was in 8th grade. At the end of Sunday school one of the teachers asked me to carry a large basket over to the sanctuary? The basket was filled with little boxes that had coins in them. They were for the One Great Hour of Sharing which we are collecting today. During Lent, every child was asked to put a nickel or a dime in the box every time they ate dinner. On Palm Sunday we collected all those boxes. I got to carry all those coins over to the Sanctuary. It was quite heavy.
I got to the back of the sanctuary and asked what I should do with the basket. Web Heidt, our head usher, said “Just stand here for a few minutes.” A couple minutes later music started playing, everyone was waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” and I was leading the Palm Sunday procession. I carried the basket all the way to the front of the church. I had to sit up front for the whole service. I usually sat up in the balcony with my friends. Sometimes we slept. Sometimes we passed notes or played games. Not this Sunday. My friends all sat in the balcony making fun of me and I had to stay awake and at least look like I was paying attention.
I love Palm Sunday. It is one of the great stories from the Bible. It is so easy to visualize. Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem, surrounded by his disciples. The people of Jerusalem join in the parade, waving branches and praising God. “Hosanna. Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” They danced and sang, celebrating their new king.
Strange thing about this parade, though. Jesus didn’t act like the typical Grand Marshal. Usually, when you’re the star of a parade you’re supposed to use the wave (wave) and have a smile glued onto your face. Jesus didn’t do that. Just outside of Jerusalem he stopped the parade and looked out over the city. He saw the temple, in all its magnificent splendor. There was Herod’s Palace, equally impressive. There was a marketplace, where anything could be bought. There were homes and people everywhere. Because the Passover was coming there may have been more than 500,000 people in the city, and it wasn’t a very big area. Jesus looked out over the city and tears began to roll down his cheeks. His chest started to tremble. His shoulders began to shake and he wept.
Through his tears Jesus tells us why he wept. He wept because the people did not recognize “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42). The Jews were looking for a king, the new Messiah, who would sweep in and overthrow the Roman army. This king would throw out all the gentiles and restore the glory of Israel. He would bring back the good old days. But the kingdom that Jesus brought was different than the one the people expected.
Jesus wept because he knew that the people would reject him. He is the one who brings peace. He brings us God’s salvation. Yet the people would reject his message. They would reject him and miss God’s peace.
Jesus said “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you.” The peace that Jesus gives is different from the peace of the world. It is a peace that comes through a relationship with God. Unfortunately, we look for peace in countless other ways. We fill our lives with activities and accomplishments, believing that the more items we can put onto our resume and the more money we can put into our bank accounts the more peace we will have.
If only I could get my degree and graduate from school.…
If only I could get that promotion or that new job….
If only I could build up my retirement account and have financial security….
If only we could elect the right government….
If only my kids would get their lives together, get a good job, find the right
spouse, and have children….
If only I could find the right church with the perfect pastor, where everyone
gets along and agrees with me about all the issues….
If only … then I could have peace. And so, Jesus wept. [6:00]
Jesus also wept because he knew what was going to happen to Jerusalem. He talked about enemies building ramparts around the walls of Jerusalem, which would allow the enemies to get inside the city. Jerusalem was going to be destroyed.
In 70 AD, just 40 years after Jesus died, the Jews rebelled against Rome. The Roman army came and captured Jerusalem. They destroyed the city. All the buildings were leveled. “They will not leave within you one stone upon another.” Thousands of people were killed. “They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you.” Jesus wept over Jerusalem, because he knew that the people did not recognize that he was the source of their peace. And because they missed the peace that he offered Jerusalem would be destroyed.
Jesus weeps whenever we reject peace. He weeps when people have so much hatred and so little hope that they become suicide bombers. He weeps anytime violence is used to settle a difference. He weeps when people use words to attack other people simply because they disagree about an issue. He weeps when politicians are more focused on winning an election than doing what is right. He weeps when churches and denominations fight with each other and in the process stop sharing God’s love. Jesus weeps when we reject his peace and our lives are destroyed.
There is a third reason that Jesus wept. He wept because the people did not “recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:44). They didn’t recognize that in Jesus God was with them. They missed God. On Palm Sunday they shouted “Hosanna” and praised Jesus’ name. By the end of the week they had turned their backs on him and shouted “Crucify him!” They were so disappointed in Jesus that they wanted him dead.
All of us have moments when God visits us. I like to call them glimpses of grace, or even holy moments. Sometimes they are easy to recognize. Maybe it is a grand parade. Maybe it’s a great worship service. Maybe we are gathered with our family or friends, surrounded and overwhelmed by love. Maybe we are stunned by the beauty of creation, or we experience a peace and joy that are not based on the circumstances of life. Those are the easy moments to recognize.
Sometimes we miss God’s visitation because they come in our disappointments and in the struggles of our lives. We pray for Jesus to help us as we plan our dreams and goals, but life doesn’t seem to turn out the way we had hoped. We pray for God’s healing, but someone we love gets sick and maybe even dies. We ask God to protect and guide our children, but they make choices that are not wise. We pray for our church, that everyone would experience God’s grace and peace here, that it would grow and spread the good news of Jesus Christ to our community, yet we have arguments and people leave and go look for another church. We know what it is to be disappointed in God.
Let me suggest that these disappointments are likely to be “the time of our visitation from God.” They leave us with a holy choice: when we are disappointed in Jesus will we turn away from him and look for another God? When we are disappointed in God will we give up and decide that faith isn’t worth it. Or, will we continue to cling to Jesus and follow him, even if we are disappointed in God, even if following him leads to a cross?
During Lent, we looked at some of the parables of Jesus. He taught these parables as he and the disciples journeyed through Samaria, through a foreign land. Journey is one of the best metaphors for what it means to be a Christian. The Christian life is not a decision we make at one point in our lives but something we do every day as we journey through life.
Jesus’ journey took him from Galilee, through Samaria, to Jerusalem. Just outside of Jerusalem he stopped, looked out over the city, and wept. He wept because he knew that the people would reject him. He knew that people would not recognize that he was the presence of God, offering hope and peace. And because they rejected Jesus and didn’t recognize that he was God, Jerusalem was destroyed.
Sometimes, when Jesus looks at the church today I think he weeps. He weeps because he loves us and wants the best for us, but he knows that when we take our eyes off of him we will miss the glorious future God wants for us. He weeps because churches are so busy, or so timid, that they miss opportunities to share the good news of God’s love with a world that desperately needs the good news. He weeps because we spend time arguing over the issues that divide us and forget that we are all sinners who need God’s grace.
Thankfully, Jesus’ journey didn’t end outside Jerusalem. He continued into the city, to the Upper Room where he celebrated the Last Supper, to the cross where he died for our sin. On our journey of faith let us focus our hearts and minds, our lives, on Jesus. Let us look to Jesus as the source of our peace and salvation. “Hosanna! Lord, save us!”
by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Repentance, according to the Bible, is an essential part of the process of salvation. Biblical repentance and conversion involve radical transformation of our relationships both with God and neighbor. “Repentance is much more than a private affair between the individual and God. It is the complete reorientation of the life in the world… in response to the work of God in Jesus Christ.” Ron Sider, quoting René Padilla
The Invisible Man
I would imagine that some of us have had the experience of driving in an unfamiliar area and turning the wrong way onto a one-way street. It’s unsettling when you realize that you are going one direction, and everyone else is going the opposite way, right at you. Even if you have never driving the wrong way on a one-way street, we’ve all had times when we were going the wrong way. That is what sin is all about, heading away from God. We need to turn around, back toward God.
There is a biblical word for what we need to do. It used to be a popular concept, but over the past fifty years it has fallen out of favor. I still believe it is an essential part of the Christian life. It is the word “Repent.” At the Ash Wednesday service I talked a little bit about repentance. I mentioned that the Old Testament word for repent means to turn around. I invite you to look with me at our parable this morning, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It is a call to repentance.
The parable starts with life in the present. There is a rich man who has had life handed to him on a silver platter. He wears purple cloth, which was very expensive, and only the wealthiest people could afford it. He also wore fine linen. In other words, he wore designer suits by Gucci and very expensive underwear. I actually did a Google search for expensive underwear. A five-pack of Hanes underpants cost about $15. An expensive pair of underwear can cost $50 - $100 each. I even found one place that had one pair of cotton boxers for $470! The rich man would have had a drawer filled with those. He also “feasted sumptuously every day,” which suggests that he never observed the different fasts that were part of his Jewish faith.
Lazarus is the other character in our story. He is the only person in any of Jesus’ parables who is named. His name means “the one whom God helps,” which is rather ironic. His life is described as if God never helped him. Certainly the rich man didn’t. Every day someone carried him to the rich man’s gate and laid him there where he would beg for food. He could probably hear the rich man feasting and smell the food, but he didn’t get much for himself.
2000 years ago in the Middle East people didn’t use napkins. They would eat with their hands. When their hands were dirty they would take a piece of bread, wipe their hands off on the bread, and then throw the bread on the floor, where the dogs would eat it. The dogs were probably guard dogs that protected the rich man’s estate. However, Lazarus was such a helpless and gentle person that the dogs didn’t attack him. Instead they licked his sores which might have had a healing effect.
At some point in time both Lazarus and the rich man died. That is when the great reversal takes place. Lazarus is carried by the angels up to Abraham – literally “to Abraham’s bosom.” It was a place of honor, at Abraham’s right hand. When the rich man died he went to Hades, where he was tormented and in agony from the flames. [5:30]
At that point the parable is a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man started by telling Abraham to send Lazarus to help him. He is as self-centered as he was in this life. Abraham responded by describing the great reversal. “When you were alive on the earth you had everything and Lazarus had nothing. Now, Lazarus is comforted and you are going to struggle.”
The rich man didn’t give up. “Send Lazarus down to warn my brothers so that they can avoid the agony that I’m experiencing.” Abraham said that his brothers have Moses and the prophets. That is the Jewish Scriptures. Everything that his brothers needed for salvation could be found in the Bible.
The rich man came back at Abraham a third time. “The Bible isn’t enough. Show them a miracle. If Lazarus comes back from the dead they will repent and turn their lives around.” At that point there may be a connection with the story in the gospel of John in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. If you read through John’s story you will see that the Pharisees don’t respond to Lazarus being raised from the dead with faith. Instead, they start planning how they can kill Jesus. Abraham suggests the same thing. “Even if they see a resurrection they won’t believe.” In other words miracles don’t produce faith. It takes faith to see miracles, to see God at work.
We usually call this story the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. However, neither one of them is the main focus. The focus is on the five brothers. Let me explain. Earlier in chapter 16 Jesus made a statement about money. “You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). The Pharisees loved money and made fun of Jesus and his teaching.
In response, Jesus made several comments and then told this parable about the rich man and Lazarus. This parable is directed at the Pharisees. It’s too late for the rich man and Lazarus. They have already died and their destiny has been decided. The question is how will the five brothers respond? Will they repent? Will the Pharisees repent? Will you and I repent?
I want to share with you two ideas about repentance, two ways that we can repent. Both of these ideas come from our parable. However, before I talk about those two ideas I want to make one comment about repentance. Repentance is not a condition for being forgiven. We don’t repent so that we will be forgiven, or even hoping that we will be forgiven. Instead, repentance is a response to the belief that we are already forgiven. We repent as a way to respond to God’s grace, as a way to receive the forgiveness that is ours through Jesus Christ. Please keep that in mind as I share with you two ideas about repentance.
First, to repent means to pay attention to the Scriptures. Abraham is clear that everything the brothers need for their salvation is found in the Bible, in Moses and the prophets. The problem is that the rich man and his brothers, along with the Pharisees, didn’t pay attention to God’s word.
Oh, they probably paid attention to some scripture passages. They would have loved the passage that Jeanne read from Deuteronomy. It talks about God rewarding obedience. “If you obey, you will be blessed,” which the Pharisees interpreted that they would be rich. There are preachers in our world today who proclaim that message. It’s called the prosperity gospel. I saw an article this week about a prosperity gospel preacher down in Atlanta who told his church that God wanted them to buy him a $65 million jet. I’d be more than happy with a used Chevy!
If you only focus on the passage in Deuteronomy, along with a few other passages, the prosperity gospel makes sense. But to do that you have to ignore many other Scripture passages. Leviticus 19 talks about not collecting all of your harvest for yourself, but leaving enough for those who are poor. Isaiah 58 claims that true fasting, true religion, involves sharing your bread with the hungry, caring for the homeless, and clothing those who have no clothes. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes Jesus says “Blessed are the poor.” We need to read all of the Scriptures and listen to God’s word from Genesis to Revelation.
Let me tell you a couple of stories. The first happened in June, 1940. Hitler’s army had cornered the British army on the beach at Dunkirk and were about to destroy them. The British people waited anxiously to hear what would happen. The British army was able to send a message across the English Channel. It was three words long – “And if not.” It was a biblical reference. Does anyone know where it comes from? I didn’t remember. It is from the book of Daniel, the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They stood before the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar. This is what they said. “Our God is able to save us… and if not, we will remain faithful to him anyway.” The message caught the hearts of the British people. Thousands of people crossed the English Channel in their own boats and rescued their army.
The second story happened in January, 2001. During George Bush’s inaugural speech he included several biblical references. Dick Meyer, of CBS News, said this about the speech. “There were a few phrases in the speech I just didn’t get. One was, ‘When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.’” Again, a biblical reference. Do you recognize that? It is the story of the Good Samaritan.
Two stories about two very different generations and two very different cultures. One was grounded in the biblical story. The other doesn’t know the Bible. Our culture may not know the Bible, but as God’s people we need to know the Scriptures. We need to study the Bible. We need to repent and pay attention to God’s word to us.
There is a second thought about repentance. To repent is to pay attention to the invisible people of our world. Lazarus lay at the gate of the rich man. The rich man obviously knew Lazarus. He’d probably walked by Lazarus countless times. The guests at his parties walked by Lazarus. They just ignored him. They might even have made fun of him during their parties. Even after they had both died the rich man still looked down on Lazarus and saw him as nothing more than a slave or a messenger. Lazarus was invisible to the rich man, an object to be ignored or used.
When we see people with needs again and again and again we tend to develop what is sometimes called compassion fatigue. It overwhelms us so much that we become numb and stop noticing these people who need help. They become invisible to us.
Eugene Peterson tells the story of Karen. She was a journalist for a newspaper in Baltimore. She got the assignment to go down to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and cover an exhibit about King Tut. Karen borrowed a wheelchair and had her husband push her through the crowded exhibit. For five hours they wandered through the hallways of the Smithsonian, surrounded by thousands of other people. During that time no one ever looked at her or talked with her. She was invisible.
Who are the invisible people of our lives? I started to make a list of people who might be described as invisible – people with disabilities, poor people, lonely people. Probably there are members of this church, of any church, who are invisible. But the question of who is invisible is an almost impossible question. If they are invisible we don’t know who they are. I’d like to suggest that the challenge for us, as individuals and as a church, is to repent by noticing those who are invisible. Probably the place to start that is by asking God to open our eyes to those who are invisible. Every day, in any setting, take a few moments and look around you. Who are the invisible people? Who needs to be noticed? Who needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ? Who needs to hear you say “Good morning. I’m glad to see you. How are you?”
“Repent!” Repent because God loves you and wants the best for you. Repent by reading the Bible. “This is the Word of the Lord!” Thanks be to God. Repent, by asking God to open your eyes and noticing the invisible people of our world.
by Doug Marshall, Interim Pastor
Thought for Meditation:
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin communicate with undeniable vividness that God is concerned about the lost, cares about individuals and is consumed with an active, seeking love for you and me.
Lloyd John Ogilvie, Autobiography of God p30
We are in our fourth week of looking at some of the parables Jesus told as he traveled through Samaria toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. In the 15th chapter of Luke there are three parables about being lost. The third parable is probably the best known of all Jesus’ parables, the Prodigal Son, or the Prodigal Sons as it ought to be called. Immediately before that parable are two other parables about being lost. Let me read them to you, along with the introduction, or the setting. “Luke 15:1-10”
Lloyd Ogilvie is a Presbyterian pastor. At one point he was the chaplain of the U.S. Senate. He tells the story of the time he was in Ocean City, New Jersey. He was staying at a hotel right along the Boardwalk. The Boardwalk is right along the beach and on a typical summer night there are huge crowds. This particular night it was beautiful outside and Lloyd was watching all the people walking up and down the Boardwalk. Some people rode their bikes. Others strolled in and out of shops. Some enjoyed the amusement parks that are there. An announcement came over the loudspeaker that changed everything for Lloyd. “A little girl about 5 years old, answering to the name of Wendy, has been lost. She is wearing a yellow dress and carrying a teddy bear. She has brown eyes and auburn hair. Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Wendy, please report to the Music Pier. Her parents are waiting for her there.”
Imagine the agony that Wendy's parents must have felt when they realized that she was lost. I expect every parent has had moments like that. It is that sheer terror of wondering what has happened to your child. Imagine also, what Wendy might have felt when she realized that she was lost. I can picture a little girl standing next to a light pole, clutching her teddy bear, tears streaming down her face, her heart bursting with fear and loneliness.
Being lost is a horrible feeling. I’m not talking about driving in downtown Pittsburgh or somewhere in western Pennsylvania and not being sure about where you are going. I’m talking about being so lost that you have no idea where you are or where you should go; in Baghdad, or Mexico City, or rural Egypt. Nothing is familiar – the streets make no sense, you don’t know anyone and can’t even speak the language.
The Greek word for lost in our passage is apolumi. It has two different meanings. Sometimes it is translated as lost, not knowing where you are. Sometimes apolumi is translated as to perish or to be destroyed. To be lost means being in danger of being destroyed.
Jesus tells two stories about being lost. The first story is about a sheep that has been separated from the rest of the herd. It is lost. In the Middle East, during the summer, shepherds lead their sheep up into the mountains where they could find good pastures. Sheep are not the most brilliant animals. They will wander and eat their way till they have no idea where they are. In this story one of the sheep had wandered far enough that the shepherd didn’t know where it was. He left the other 99 sheep and went to look for the one that was lost. When he found that one he celebrated.
The second story is about a woman who has lost a coin. In the homes that people lived in back then it would be easy to lose a coin. Houses were dark, with at most one small window. They had dirt floors covered with reeds and grass. Looking for a coin would not be easy. Yet the woman searched until she found the coin.
Part of the reason she worked so hard was probably because the coin was worth one day’s wages, at least an equivalent of $100 - $150. There was probably another reason she worked so hard. The mark of a married woman was a head-dress of 10 silver coins linked together by a silver chain. It was almost the equivalent of a wedding ring. These 10 coins could never be taken from her, even if she owed someone money. It’s possible that this woman lost one of the 10 coins and was looking for it like someone today might look for a wedding ring. When she found it she was so excited that she celebrated.
Lost is a metaphor that describes many of our lives. There are a variety of ways that a person can be lost. Let me mention a few. Some people are spiritually lost. They’ve never accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. They don’t know God’s love and abiding presence. They’ve not had their sins forgiven and are cut off from the salvation that is found in Jesus. There may be some people here this morning who are lost spiritually. In every congregation there are people who come to church but who have never become Christians. There are certainly people in our communities who are spiritually lost – our friends, our neighbors, people we work with.
Another type of being lost is what I would call wandering in the wilderness. These people are Christians. At one point in time they believed in Jesus and experienced God’s love and presence, but for some reason, right now they feel spiritually dead. God is silent and maybe even feels absent from their lives. Many Christians go through a time like this, and it is very painful and disturbing.
Some people are lost because they have failed. Maybe it was a job, or a relationship, or a dream that was an important part of your life, but you failed. Your job didn’t work out. Your marriage fell apart. Your dream was shattered – and you feel lost.
Probably the most tragic type of lostness is not knowing you are lost. The Pharisees had that type of lostness. They thought they had it all together. They thought they were righteous. They were God’s chosen people. Their self-righteousness was truly nothing more than a cover-up for their actually being lost.
The good news that Jesus teaches us is that God is so madly in love with us that he will do everything in his power to search for us and to find us. Notice that the parable does not say “if the shepherd finds the sheep.” It says “when the shepherd finds the sheep.” It doesn’t say “if the woman finds the coin.” It says “when she finds the coin.” God searches for us until we are found. Jesus came to find us. No matter how lost we may be, we are never beyond God’s ability to find us. And when we are found, God rejoices. Heaven celebrates when someone who has been lost is found.
That truly is good news. If you are lost, in any way, know that God is searching for you. God loves you and wants you to join in the celebration of being found.
However, there is also a challenge in this passage. God has a passion for reaching the lost. God is so madly in love with all people that God will do everything he can to reach them. The primary way God reaches the lost is through other people who have been lost and are now found.
One of the characteristics of a healthy church is that it has the same passion that God has, a passion for people in our world who are lost. A healthy church is one that loves people enough to do everything it can to help people be connected to God. We are invited to have the same passion for the lost that Jesus has. We are to tell people the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, to love them with the same love that God has, a love that desperately wants everyone to be found.
There is a word that describes this. It is not a word that Presbyterians like very much – evangelism. Unfortunately, we have seen too many bad examples of evangelism. Here is one on the screen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcYmRPtqpQ4&feature=player_embedded.
That is not a healthy example of evangelism. Let me see if I can give you a different image of evangelism.
If you need to get somewhere and you have lost your car keys, how hard will you work at finding them? If you are desperate to get wherever you are going you will put every ounce of energy into looking for your keys. You might even recruit others to help you. If you lose a contact lens how hard will you work at searching for it? If they are disposable lenses you might not work very hard, but if it’s the only one you have and will cost $1500 to get a new pair, you are likely to search as hard as you can. You might take apart a bathroom sink or the chair in your living room. If you lose one seven-year-old blue sock that was starting to get a hole in it anyway, how hard will you search for it? The value of the lost item will determine how hard you search for something.
In God’s eyes people are valuable. From God’s perspective each person is precious. To God, everyone is a treasure. It is worth it to leave behind the ninety nine sheep to find the one that is lost. It is worth it to search the house carefully to find the one coin that is lost. You, and every other human being, are valuable enough for God to send his only son, Jesus Christ, into the world, that we might be found. Should we not value people just as much as God does?
I am convinced that a healthy church will make evangelism a central part of its ministry. This is not the time or the place to do a full training on evangelism. So let me share with you five things you can do to help people who are lost.
First, make a list of people that you think need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Two or three people, maybe five. Friends, family, acquaintances – people who are lost.
Second, pray for those people. You are not the one who has to save them or find them. That’s God’s job. So ask God to work in their lives.
Third, build a friendship with those people. Listen to them. Play with them. Serve with them. Love them. Through building a relationship of love you earn the right to tell them about God’s love in Jesus.
Fourth, invite them to church. Last week Joe and Shanna invited their friends to come to worship to celebrate Leighann’s baptism. If we invite people they may choose not to come. However, if we don’t invite them they are far less likely to come. I don’t remember the statistics, but a significant percentage of people are willing to come to worship if they are invited. I hear people say that they want to grow this church, so that more people are part of Sharon. The way to grow a church is not to build more programs. Programs aren’t bad, but they don’t bring people. People bring people. Invite your friends to church.
Fifth, tell your friends something of what God is doing in your life. If you have truly built a friendship they will want to know what is happening in your life. So say to them something like “I’d like to tell you about the most important thing in my life.” Or, “May I share with you an experience that has made all the difference in my life.”
When we experience something that is truly beautiful there are usually two reactions. First, we stop. We are so stunned by whatever it is that we focus our entire attention on whatever the thing of beauty is. The rest of the world fades away. I read one time that the first white explorers who came upon the Grand Canyon were so stunned that they stood in silence for an hour and a half.
The second reaction is that we want to share it with someone else. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, along with Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and the mountains in Colorado. If you want to get me excited ask me any of those. I’ll be happy to tell you. Or ask any grandparent about their grandchildren. They will probably be more than happy to share with you their pictures and their stories.
We have received the most amazing message of all time, the most beautiful good news – God, the Lord of the universe, the holy one beyond our wildest imagination, loves us so much that he came to live with us, to die for us, and was raised from the dead that we might live with God, so that we might not be lost. Let us stop and celebrate that amazing good news. And let us share it with all who are lost.
By Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is in being Christian. Robert Hodgkins
You know how a song can get stuck in your head and drive you crazy? Since I decided to preach on this parable I’ve had a song stuck in my head. It’s a paraphrase of the parable. Let me sing it for you. The chorus is simple enough that you can all sing it with me. I’ll do the verses. Let me teach you the chorus. Sing: The Wedding Banquet
“I cannot come.” Who would say that to God? Who would reject an invitation to a party that God gave us? The excuses that these guests gave were absurd and insulting. “I’m not going to be able to come to your party. I just bought a house in Coraopolis and I need to go check it out. Tanya and I may want to move into it and I need to go see if it has enough bedrooms and if it needs any work. I hope it’s in a decent neighborhood.” No one buys a home like that. In the Middle East land was at such a premium that you never bought land unless you knew everything about it. Before you bought it you would walk over the entire piece of property, looking at every stone, every well and every tree. In fact those items would all be listed in the contract. You would learn a history of everyone who had owned the land for many generations, what crops had been grown and how much money had been made. This first excuse was a lie and everyone knew that.
The second excuse is just as bad. In the Middle East before you paid for a pair of oxen you tested them . You would take the out into a field and make sure that they would work together. If they didn’t it would be a waste of money. It would be like saying “I just bought a 1963 Corvette for $70,000. I’m going to go see if it actually runs or has any rust on it.” Again, everyone knew that this excuse was a lie.
The third excuse is even worse. No village would have a banquet and a wedding on the same day. The wedding would have been at least a couple weeks earlier, maybe even a couple of months earlier, so it wasn’t a conflict of interest. On top of that, in Middle Eastern society men do not talk about women. Back in the 19th century there is a story of a Middle Eastern man who had a wife and two daughters. He went on a trip and wrote a letter home. He addressed it not to his wife or his daughters. You don’t write a letter to a woman. He addressed it to the son he hoped would be born someday. Essentially the man in our parable was saying “I’m too ‘busy’ with my wife to come to your party.” It was rude and inexcusable.
It’s easy to point out how absurd and insulting these excuses were. What about our own excuses. What excuses do we give to God? At one point in my career I wrote down all the excuses people gave me for not coming to church:
- “I’ve got company coming today.” Why don’t you bring them to church? They probably need it as much as you do.
- “It’s my only day to sleep in.” Come on, people. I know that you lost an hour of sleep last night, but you can sleep through my sermon just as easily.
- “I’ve got tickets to the Steelers game.” Ouch! Maybe I’m getting too personal. I sometimes wonder if the Steelers were playing in the Super Bowl and God planned the Messianic banquet at the same time, how many people would choose the Steelers over God.
- My favorite excuse was from a guy who told me that his wife had been away and he had to clean up this house. I worry about anyone who would rather do housework than celebrate at God’s party.
There are countless excuses that people give as to why they don’t come to church or respond to God’s call. Probably the most common excuse in our time is that we are too busy. People aren’t opposed to God. They just don’t make God a priority in their lives and in their schedules. You cannot claim that God is the most important thing in your life if your calendar doesn’t show it. If you give God one hour a week, every two to three weeks, and spend the rest of your time on yourself or your job or anything else, how can you claim that God is the most important part in your life?
Mike Yaconelli told the story of the time he went on a retreat. The retreat was at a center for mentally challenged adults. He was part of a small group that included some of the handicapped adults. On the first day they got together in their group and went around and introduced themselves. Mike told a little bit about himself and said that “the busyness of life is draining my soul.” That is why he was at the retreat. After they had finished their introductions one of the members of his small group came up to him. Robert had a limited vocabulary. He came right up to Mike, face to face, inches apart. He said “Busy?” Mike said “Yes, I’m busy.” Robert wasn’t done. “Too busy?” “Yes, I’m too busy.” Mike squirmed a bit and Robert moved even closer. “Why?” Tears filled Mike’s eyes. Let me read to you what he said.
“Robert, asked the one question I had been afraid to ask. Somehow he knew that the solution to my weariness was hidden somewhere in the answer to his question – a question I was afraid to ask and no one else had. Why was I so busy? Because I was hanging on to the belief that God’s affection for me was measured by my activity for Him. The more things I did for God, the more He would love me, or so my insecurities kept telling me. Robert, in his childlike way, could see my insecurity, could feel my need to prove to God I was worth loving.”
If your life is too busy ask yourself “Why?” What are you trying to prove by your busyness? What insecurities are you covering up with your busyness? Busyness that keeps us from God is never from God. As one theologian put it “Busyness is not from the devil. Busyness is the devil.” Does the busyness of your life keep you from coming to church, from growing in your faith, from responding to God’s call?
This parable is certainly very challenging. It also has another lesson for us. We have been invited to a party that God is giving for us! God wants us to celebrate and have fun. Early Christians were often called hilares, which is the Latin word from which we get the word hilarious. Christians are called to be filled with “Holy Hilarity.” We are to overflow with excitement, with joy and happiness.
That doesn’t fit the picture that many people have of Christianity. From the beginning there have been people who thought that Christians should not enjoy themselves. In the early church the hermits intentionally went out to live in the desert to make their lives difficult and uncomfortable. They did it so they wouldn’t be happy. They didn't take baths so that they would smell. They prided themselves on being covered with lice. They tortured themselves so that they wouldn't enjoy life. The philosopher Pascal wore a belt with sharp points on it next to his skin. Whenever he began to have a happy thought he would poke himself so that he wouldn't be too comfortable. A theologian at the end of the 19th century taught that as a child Jesus never played games. Jesus seldom smiled and never laughed. I believe they got it all wrong.
I think the church is much better than it used to be about that image of Christianity. However, we still have a long way to go. If you ask teenagers what is the word that many of them will use to describe church? “Boring!” Somehow, we need to learn that God’s Kingdom is a feast. It’s a party. Worship ought to be the most exciting, the most fun, and the most life-filled event of our lives. Christians are invited to celebrate, to enjoy the life that God has given us and to overflow with joy.
Tony Campolo is a Christian speaker who often talks about this type of fun. He tells about when he was dating the lady who later became his wife. To see her he had to cross a bridge between Philadelphia and Palmyra, New Jersey. It was a toll bridge, and cost 25¢. Sometimes he would give the toll collector two quarters, and tell the toll collector that he was also paying for his good friend in the car right behind him. He had no idea who was in the car behind him, but said, “it was worth a quarter just to pull away from the toll both, look in the rear-view mirror, and watch the toll taker trying to explain it to the next guy.”
Campolo’s son used to say to him “Dad, you’re a nice guy, but you’re dangerous.” Listen to what he says. Read Let Me Tell You A Story “p55 – Visible Joy & Joyful Noise?”
I’m not sure what it would look like or how we would get there, but I believe God is calling Sharon church to become a place that has that type of life and energy. God is calling Sharon church be a place that is so much fun that no one wants to miss church. God is calling Sharon church be a place that we want to bring our friends because we know they will be loved and welcomed. God is calling Sharon church to be a place that visitors want to come to because it is filled with fun and joy.
God is planning a party. There is an invitation with your name on it. Will you respond and come to the party, or will you make an excuse and find something else to do? Let us together learn how to celebrate life and love, how to have fun together and how to rejoice in a God who throws a party for us.
by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
A good gardener will do what it takes to help a vine bear fruit. What fruit does God want? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Gal. 5:22-23). These are the fruits of the Spirit. And this is what God longs to see in us. And like a careful gardener, he will clip and cut away anything that interferes.
Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder p144
This may seem strange to say on a day like this, but I love lilacs! One of my favorite parts of spring is smelling lilacs in bloom. We moved into our house about eleven years ago last October. I had no idea what plants we had in our yard. In the spring I noticed that there was a lilac in our neighbor’s yard, right at the border of our yard. It was a fairly large shrub, so I couldn’t wait for it to bloom. Finally it bloomed, maybe three to four small branches with blooms. I was rather disappointed.
Our neighbors were not into yard work, so after the blooms were gone I pruned off the dead branches and fertilized the plant and waited for the next spring. The second year there might have been two to three branches with blooms. I asked our neighbors if I could prune the lilac back and thin out the old branches. Blooms only grow on new branches. I again fertilized the shrub. All summer the plant looked beautiful. The next spring there may have been three or four branches with blooms. I gave up.
A couple years later a new family moved into the house. Toni Jean loves yard work. She pruned and fertilized the lilac. Still only a few blooms. After several years she whacked it off right at the ground, hoping that all new growth would produce blooms. No luck. By the middle of that summer the lilac was gone. Toni Jean dug it up and planted grass.
I imagine that there are some gardeners here. Some of you probably have the same question I’ve always had – how do you know when to nurture an old plant hoping that it will grow? And how do you know when it is time to get rid of it and start over?
Today is the second Sunday of Lent and we are looking at our second parable. As Jesus traveled through Samaria toward Jerusalem he told a number of parables. He was trying to teach his disciples how to live faithfully in a culture that did not encourage following Jesus. Luke included these stories to encourage the first Christians as they tried to follow Jesus.
To understand our parable we need to look at the verses that are right before it. At the beginning of chapter thirteen some people came to Jesus and asked him about some people who had been murdered. Jesus said that there is no direct connection between suffering and sin. Those who suffer the most are not necessarily the ones who have sinned the most. In the midst of that he makes a challenging statement – “Unless you repent you will also perish!” He said that twice to show how urgent it is to repent. Then he tells our parable. It has something to do with repentance.
To understand our parable you also need to look at the parable from Isaiah that Ron read a few minutes ago. God planted a vineyard, which referred to the kingdom of Israel. They were planted in a prime location, given the best of soils and everything they would need to produce fruit. But when God looked for that fruit it wasn’t there. Therefore God was going to judge and punish the vineyard. God tore down the walls so that animals would trample over the vineyard. God ignored the briers and thorns as they grew up in the midst of the vineyard. God wouldn’t allow rain to fall on the vineyard so that the vines would be destroyed. All of that points to the exile, when the Israelites were taken to Babylon.
This Old Testament story is a parable of divine severity. God expects the fruits of justice and righteousness but all he got was selfishness, idolatry and sin. Therefore God destroyed his vineyard. Because the Israelites would not repent they were cut off from God’s salvation. Every Jew would have known this story of Israel as God’s vineyard.
When Jesus told the parable about the fig tree being planted in the vineyard, everyone listening would have known that Jesus was talking about Israel and its religious leaders. It wasn’t unusual to plant a fig tree in the middle of a vineyard. There wasn’t a lot of good land so if there was a place in a vineyard it would probably have good soil that should produce a good crop.
For three years the owner of the vineyard went to this tree looking for fruit, and didn’t find any figs. I love figs. I know they are a fruit, but to me that taste like candy. In my mind Fig Newtons are a delicacy. I have a sense that this farmer felt the same way. So, when he didn’t find any figs he was disappointed. He wanted to cut down the tree. At that point Jesus added an unexpected twist to the story.
The gardener, who would have been the farmer’s servant, told him to wait one more year. He would do everything he could to help that tree produce fruit, including fertilizing it with manure. The word Jesus used for manure is not common in the Bible. manure is not often used in religious illustrations. There is a modern word that would probably be a better translation, but I won’t use it in the pulpit. I’ll let you use your imagination!
If the fig tree pointed to the religious leaders, the idea that it needed manure was probably an insult. It was a rather bawdy and humorous image. I think we sometimes forget that Jesus often used earthy images, in this case literally.
The other thing about manure is that it works slowly. It isn’t a quick fix. It would take at least a year to see whether it worked. I doubt that most of us have ever thought of manure as a symbol of God’s patience, but that is what it is. God is not in a hurry. God is patient and merciful. Turning around a person’s life, much less turning a church around, is going to take time. However, God has all the time in the world. He created time.
The point of this parable is that no mercy is expected. We expect God’s severity, God’s judgment and punishment. Instead, we receive God’s patience and mercy. We are called to repent because God’s mercy is available to those who repent.
On Ash Wednesday I talked about repentance. We heard that the Old Testament word for repentance means to turn around. The New Testament word means to change your mind. In our parable we learn another idea. To repent is to produce fruit. True repentance makes a difference in one’s life and will be acted out in some way, in a life that produces fruit.
In the Holy Land there are two bodies of water. We call them seas but they are really lakes. The Sea of Galilee is in the northern part of Israel. Much of Jesus ministry surrounded that lake. It’s a freshwater lake, filled with fish. The area around it is filled with life. The other lake is the Dead Sea. Its name alone tells us something about it. It’s very salty and there is very little life in it or in the area around it. It’s a desolate area.
The difference between the two lakes is that the Sea of Galilee takes in water from the mountains and streams that surround it and the Jordan River flows out of it and goes south to the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee takes in and sends out. The Dead Sea only takes in. There are no rivers that flow out of it.
All of us need to take in. We need to receive God’s love and mercy. We need help from others to live. We can’t survive without taking in. We also need to give out, to produce fruit. If we don’t give out, if we don’t help others and participate in some sort of ministry our lives will be desolate and barren. We will dry up and die.
During Lent, as we move to Holy Week and Easter, I invite you to think about your life and your ministry. If you are feeling dead or like you’re withering, get involved in some type of ministry. Serve other people, teach Sunday school, lead a small group, share your faith with someone, go on a mission trip, visit someone in the hospital or a shut-in. We are called to repent by producing fruit, by giving away the love we have received.
The second lesson that this parable offers us is that we are called to trust in God, who is patient and merciful. A Yankee northerner went on a business trip down South, in rural Georgia. He stopped at diner for breakfast, ordered scrambled eggs and sausage. When the waitress put his plate in front of him there was a white blob on his plate. He had no idea what it was. He asked the waitress, “What’s this?” She said “Them’s grits.” “But I didn’t order any grits,” he replied. “You don’t order grits.” she explained. “They just come.”
That is what God’s grace and mercy are all about. You don’t order God’s love. You don’t deserve it. It’s free. It just comes. All we have to do is trust it, accept it and celebrate it. I love preaching about grace and mercy. If you hear nothing else during my time here as interim pastor other than God’s grace, I will be satisfied. I have a sense that we understand the concept of grace, but deep down we struggle to believe it’s true. At least I know I do.
If you are not comfortable thinking of manure as a symbol of grace, which is understandable, let me offer you another way that this passage points to God’s grace. When the farmer wants to get rid of the tree he orders, “Chop it down!” It’s not radically different than when the crowds cried out during Holy Week “Crucify him!” Both were attempts to get rid of the offending party – a tree and Jesus. When the gardener asks the farmer for patience, to let him have another year to work with the tree he says “let it alone.” When Jesus was on the cross his first words were “Father, forgive them.” The Greek word for “let it alone” is aphes, which is the same word that Jesus prayed on the cross, “Forgive them.” The gardener makes the same request as Jesus. “Forgive this tree, forgive these people, not because it deserves it, not because they deserve it, but because you are a God of grace and mercy and patience.”
As with our parable last week, this one open-ended. It doesn’t end. Does the farmer let the tree live for another year? Does the tree produce a crop the next year? Will you and I respond to the call to produce fruit, and the call to trust in God’s patience and mercy?
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