Saturday, August 30, 2008

August 31st Sermon at Richfield Christian Church

Here's the sermon I preached on August 31st at Richfield. Pray for their Pastor David Story and his son Grant as Grant begins his long road to recovery after a terrible car accident several months ago.
When I’m planning out a budget, there are certain bare necessities that have to be included: rent, gas, groceries, utilities. For awhile, I could count on the average costs being the same. But now, well I can’t be sure of a lot. Gas…we all know that common lament. High Prices that never seem to come down. Groceries are more expensive now…partly because of gas. Utilities…well, suffice it to say that last month was 10 degrees hotter on average than July of 2007. You can imagine that got expensive. The budget gets tighter and tighter as the prices go higher and higher, and I don’t have any choice about paying. I HAVE to pay rent to have a place to live. I HAVE to buy gas so Cliff and I can get to work. I HAVE to buy groceries because eating isn’t an option. I HAVE to pay my utilities so we can have running water, air conditioning and electricity. I HAVE to pay, no matter how high the price.

I don’t know that first century Jews in Palestine had to worry about their water bill or paying the cable bill, but they did have some of the same worries – where to live, what to eat, how to live. And though prices may be higher than then, the costs were probably still high considering that they were a subjugated people ruled over by the impersonal Roman empire. They suffered from roaming armies, corrupt governors and harsh tax collectors. They paid a high price to live. But for Jesus and his disciples, the price they paid to live and teach and transform the world was much higher. It wasn’t just about skirting around the established governments, but critiquing them outright and calling out the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and sinfulness. It wasn’t about paying the rent, but depending on the kindness of strangers wherever they went so that they could faithfully fulfill God’s charge to spread the news of Jesus Christ. It was about suffering torture, ostracism and eventually death for all of them, all for the sake of the world that would often times reject them. And they chose it freely, lovingly, selflessly. You see, Jesus Paid a High Price and as His Disciples We Are Called To Do the Same

Though we often speak of the love of God and the compassion of Christ and all of the miraculous and kind things that Jesus did, we sometimes forget that Jesus’ life was anything but easy, anything but plagued by tragedy. We must remember that Jesus’ Road Was A Hard Road

Carl Sandburg was an American author, soldier and journalist. He survived the Spanish American War, World War I and the Great Depression, and strangely, he is remembered most vividly for his poetry. Listen to his words from "The Road and the End."

I SHALL foot it
Down the roadway in the dusk,
Where shapes of hunger wander
And the fugitives of pain go by.
I shall foot it
In the silence of the morning,
See the night slur into dawn,
Hear the slow great winds arise
Where tall trees flank the way
And shoulder toward the sky.

The broken boulders by the road
Shall not commemorate my ruin.
Regret shall be the gravel under foot.
I shall watch for
Slim birds swift of wing
That go where wind and ranks of thunder
Drive the wild processionals of rain.

The dust of the traveled road
Shall touch my hands and face.

Sandburg's eloquent words speak of a tenacious desire to continue on, to move forward, to walk through the pain, and hunger, to continue a journey forward even with the dust of the road painting his face. And in our scripture passage this morning, Jesus is coming very quickly to the end of a very long journey. Jesus has been footing it through baptism and temptation, through teaching and fleeing, through miracles and confrontations with demons. Many times, Jesus has had only the silence of the mornings to pray, to keep silent, to give him the clearness of purpose to carry on his way. Jesus’ road, through dust and dark nights, has been a hard one. And it’s only about to get harder.

Now, remember in the scriptures right before this, Jesus has asked his disciples who he is and Peter’s revealed he’s the Christ, the promised Messiah. Affirming this, Jesus talks about the church that will be founded and how the gates of hell cannot triumph against it. The disciples are pumped! They’re a little confused about having to keep the whole Jesus is the Christ thing a secret, but otherwise they’re totally on board. Except, then Jesus describes what’s coming up – what the road ahead of them is going to look like. And it doesn’t look easy at all. Hear again the words of the scriptures: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Imagine hearing this – imagine hearing your beloved teacher and friend telling you “guys, we’re going to Jerusalem where I’m going to be brutally tortured, given a mockery of a trial and eventually I’ll be crucified. It’s necessary though.” The disciples are totally blown away! He just said that he was the Messiah, the Christ of God! How can that mean crucifixion? How can that mean brutal torture and death? The people of Israel had been anticipating the arrival of their ‘messiah’ for hundreds of years. They had many expectations about who he was going to be, how he was going to act and what he was going to do to redeem Israel. And none of those expectations had anything to do with crucifixion. One of the most prevalent ideas about the Messiah was that he would be a military leader, a fierce warrior who would lead Israel into battle against the Roman Empire and would restore her to rightful place as an independent nation. When Jesus announced that he was about to die (though he did mention he would be raised again) the disciples saw the road ahead of them was filled with suffering and pain and blood – and they quailed at the sight.

We’d like to think that we’re okay with Jesus’ pronouncements about how he was going to die. We’ve heard the story a hundred times and though it sometimes makes us sad, it’s over and everything’s better now, right? But really, the truth is that we still struggle with how this whole thing happened. If we start thinking too closely about the crucifixion, we start to think about why the crucifixion was necessary and then we start to realize that it was necessary because of one thing: sin. And then we’re forced to look at ourselves again and admit: the cross was necessary, the unjust trial, the torture and beatings of Jesus were necessary because of our sin. Our continual, unabated, disobedient sin. Believe me – I hate that! I don’t want to read the scriptures and hear Jesus predict this painful road he has to walk down and admit that I’m partially responsible for it! I don’t want to read the scriptures and see Jesus begin the journey to Jerusalem and realize that his road wouldn’t have been so hard if only I could have been obedient to God’s will! I don’t want to own this! But I do, and we do, all of us…not just in here but all over this city and all over this state and all over this country and all over this world. And Jesus knew. I don’t know for how long he knew, but he knew that in no small way, he was born a man so that he would die for all mankind. Are you humbled by that? That Jesus chose a dark and bitter road so that he could redeem you at the end of it? That Jesus walked into his death so that we could walk out restored? That Jesus chose this so that we would choose him?

And choosing him is most definitely the goal. But even that is fraught with danger as Peter and all the other disciples will learn. You see, Following Jesus is Costly

Last year I got married here in Waco at Lakewood Christian Church. Since I’m a member there, I didn’t have to pay to use the facilities. Cliff’s grandfather officiated, so we didn’t have to pay him. We didn’t have dancing, so no DJ, so we saved money there. A gentleman in our church is an owner at a flower shop, so I paid no taxes on my flowers and my pastor’s wife (Sherry) offered to do the arrangements for me as her gift to me. Suffice it to say, my wedding was small, as cheap as I could make it and fun all the same. And it seems to have stuck! But I was not your average bride, as the average wedding in America now costs somewhere around $30,000. I’m going to say that again: $30,000. What will a $30,000 wedding buy you? A wedding dress, a church, a reception hall, a band or DJ, tuxedos and flowers and thousand dollar cakes, a set of wedding rings, huge crowds, lots of bubbles/rice/doves to release when the couple leaves, a honeymoon in some exotic locale? What else could you do with $30,000? Put a down payment on a house? Buy a new car? No! Have a ceremony and reception that lasts for maybe a total of 3 hours and where the lady of the hour has an outfit on that she’ll only wear once in her whole life. What a deal! I joke, but the numbers here are real. $30,000 for a ceremony that doesn’t even have a life-time guarantee as the divorce rate even amongst Christians is almost 50%. $30,000 for a ceremony that could be done for free in a justice of the peaces office and be just as legal. $30,000 for one day. Weddings, it seems, are just too costly.

Well, costly in the money, time and stress department. In terms of lasting and mortal cost…I should hope not. There are other things in our lives, however, that are more costly. Things that are more risky, that require not only our commitment monetarily, but our commitment whole-heartedly. And Jesus is asking for that commitment. But he asks for it in a very strange way. Now Peter, like the rest of us would have been, is horrified with this suffering/crucifixion stuff that Jesus is talking about and says “Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" And Jesus, who just a few moments before has declared that Peter will be the rock of the church, says "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." What a terrible thing to say! But let’s break this statement down together, and we’ll get to the heart of what Jesus is saying. Firstly, Jesus says “Get Behind Me” which can also be translated to “Follow Me.” There is a long tradition amongst rabbis of this time period to have disciples, and those disciples were also known as followers. The command to follow me or to get behind me is to establish not only a ranking system of rabbi before disciple but also serves to encourage obedience to the rabbi. So why call him Satan? Because the word satan means adversary. When Peter tells Jesus that His predictions of suffering should never happen, he is not only wrenching himself out of his obedient role, but placing himself as an adversary against Jesus and his plans for salvation and redemption. Which is why Jesus has to say, “you are a stumbling block to me.” If Peter stays in this position, placing himself physically and spiritually in front of Jesus, he is a satan, an adversary, a disobedient disciple who jeopardizes God’s great plan for the Resurrection of Humanity. Peter has to get out of the way, to follow behind Jesus into the future of unknown variables and possible dire consequences. He has to leave behind the world of mankind in which he lives and begin to have a mind that focuses on the things of God. Even if the things of God are ghastly in their cost. Even if the things of God seem to head right into the heart of darkness. This will cost Peter everything.

How many times in your life have you become the adversary of the kingdom of God, the disobedient disciple, stepping into the road before your Lord and telling him “Never”? How many times have you been told the direction in which you must go and run away instead? There have been many times in the past and there will be many times in the future when we all become the satan to our God’s cause. Admitting that is the first step. The second step is getting back behind Jesus again. You see, Jesus knows the cost of this life well. He knows what it costs us to love our enemies, to give all we have to the poor, to worship God as man who saved mankind by dying on a cross. He knows that at times we feel like fools for always striving to do the right thing even when the world mocks us for it. He knows that we are persecuted for our faith, that we are scorned for our morals, that we are dismissed for our values. He knows that the world stands incredulous as we give up the things of this life for the sake of the kingdom. He knows what he asks is so difficult it verges on the impossible. But he still asks. And he still expects us to follow him onward in obedience once we have committed to it. God has many outrageous things to tell you about the future. God has many difficult things to show you for your road ahead. No matter what the cost of discipleship, He expects you to walk forward, to walk behind him, because as always, he walks those difficult future roads with us. No matter the cost.

But past all the talk of darkness and suffering and the hard road ahead, a glimmer of hope rises up like a new born sun. All this suffering and hardship has purpose; all that Jesus asks of us has a lining of gold: The Kingdom of God is worth the Cost

Right now the housing market is terrible. Foreclosures are becoming more and more common, and the desperate pleas of house-owners everywhere are becoming more desperate: “Please! Just come look!” Nowadays, this kind of buyers market offers its own temptations to those who like to play the real estate game. Foreclosed houses appear to be jewels in the rough, treasures on the market for cheap. House flippers can taste the profit as they buy up marked down properties for pennies and hope to receive hundreds in exchange. But the question remains, however – will it be worth it? Foreclosed houses can carry hidden dangers – sometimes you can’t have the properties inspected before you purchase them. And that can be deadly – what if the house you just bought has irreparable foundation issues? Or termites? Or is a historical landmark that you can’t modify? Oops. House Flippers run these risks as well – what if they do up the value of the house, but then can’t sell it? Or what if their budget and time runs out before they can finish their renovations? The risks are great even in this market. There are still too many unknown variables, too many chances for failure, too many ways to get bamboozled by the thought of a ‘great deal.” In some ways, the risk is too great. The cost is too high. It’s not actually worth it. But there are some things in life, however, that are worth the risk. That the cost is worth paying.

Hear again the scripture: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. Here Jesus is reiterating the cost – take up a cross and follow; lose your life to gain it. But there is something else going on here – there is reward for this hard life. Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples that though he asks everything of them (and himself) he actually gives them more in return. Do you want to save your life, Jesus asks: then give it to me. When you are killed in my name, the world will think that you’ve lost your life for nothing, but you’ve actually gained eternal life with me. Do you want to gain the world? You’ll lose your soul, Jesus says, and I’m here for souls if for nothing else. And then he tells them: When the Son of Man comes (When I come) in glory, you’ll get your reward. Notice what Jesus is doing here: he’s reversing their understanding about cost, risk and reward. Now, the kingdom of God is not about cautious investment, and slow analysis and committee meetings – it’s about wild risk, tumultuous confrontations with long standing institutions and religious bodies. The kingdom of God is not about getting paid every two weeks but about an ultimate payment – an ultimate reward for services rendered. Jesus is talking long term – really long term – but he’s still trying to encourage them. Follow me, he says, will save his life by giving it up and gain his soul by giving up the world. All this pain and suffering, Jesus says, is worth it.

Have you examined what it costs you to be an obedient follower of Jesus? Maybe you have to redistribute funds in your budget because you’ve committed to tithing. Maybe you have to redistribute priorities because you’ve committed to serving the church by teaching Sunday school. Maybe you have to leave behind your safe suburban oasis to move into low-income neighborhoods to intentionally be a neighbor to the poverty stricken and drug addicted. Maybe you have to withstand the ridicule and harassment of co-workers or strangers because of your heartfelt commitment to the Christian life. Each of you pay your own price to be a follower of Jesus. Well…I hope you are. Because if being a follower of Jesus isn’t costing you something…then I have questions that we can talk about at a different time. We all are paying our prices to follow Christ. And many times in our lives, the price seems very high…and we are tempted to give up, to take the easier road, to try for an easier avenue out. But Jesus speaks to you the same way that he spoke to his disciples those thousands of years ago – Why do you want to gain the world and lose your soul? Why do you want to preserve this life so much that you are willing to lose your eternal life? Follow me; Follow me down a road fraught with danger; Follow me with a cross on your back; Follow me into death; Follow me into new life. It’s worth it. I’m worth it. The kingdom of God is worth it.

From the perspective of the gospel of Matthew, this is Jesus first time to warn the disciples about the tragedy and triumph that is coming soon. Understandably they’re flustered. Understandably they’re upset. Understandably, Jesus has to be exceedingly firm in his explanations. But give them some credit – they’re finally getting now what its’s going to cost them (ultimately) to follow this guy.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Jesus’ warning. We know that Jesus died on a cross, that John the Baptist was beheaded, that Peter was crucified upside down, that Stephen was stoned to death, that most of the disciples either perished in jail or were martyred in a myriad of brutal ways. We know the cost. We know what’s coming. And Jesus is still exceedingly firm in his explanations. “Pick up your cross” he commands. “Follow me” he demands. Follow me through good and bad, through dark and light, through turmoil and laughter, through death and into light. “Follow Me” he asks, holding out his hands to you, promising to walk with you, to weep with you, to laugh with you, to die and rise again with you. “Follow Me” he asks, “Pay the Price” he says unflinchingly. “You know the Kingdom of God is worth it.” And so it is. And so it shall ever be.

1 comment:

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