Thursday, April 20, 2017

Royal Hospitality

When we speak of our Presidents, one of the ways we evaluate their performance is by looking at what they have done during their first 100 days in office. In fact, as I am composing this, Donald Trump is just wrapping up his 92nd day in office. Presidents, Kings and Prime Ministers have a unique opportunity to act in ways that affect large numbers of people, reaching even billions through what they do. It is hard to know, during the time of a leader's tenure, exactly which of their deeds will define them in the years that follow them, especially after some of the political banter has died down.

Some of our leaders establish their legacy in unflattering ways, being remembered for their failures, ineptitude, or indiscretions. Others are cherished and romanticized for their victories, economic expansions, or eloquence. While all leaders have a collection of attributes, both positive and negative, it is still usually a more narrow set of actions and circumstances for which they are remembered.

This is also true of many people we encounter in Scripture. Despite the fact that Thomas was the first person in Scripture to speak of Jesus as "God"--not just an authority, but Deity--we still always call him "doubting" Thomas because of his former skepticism. Antonius Felix was the Roman procurator of the Judea Province from A.D. 52-58. The thing for which we remember him best came when he and his Jewish wife Drusilla requested to hear Paul speak about Jesus. However, as Paul began talking about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and told Paul he would talk to him more about these things, "When I have a convenient season." "Don't be like Felix," we warn. "If you wait to follow God until it's convenient, then your 'convenient season' may never come!"

Of course, one of the greatest villains in Scripture would be the Pharaoh to whom God sent Moses. We remember him for his murderous acts against innocent babies and his harshness towards the Israelite people in slavery. But there is another member of Pharaoh's household whom we see in a much different light: his daughter.

Being part of the royal family must have brought a lot of opportunities to do things of perceived significance. Regardless of whatever else she did in her life, today we remember Pharaoh's daughter almost entirely for one simple act of compassion. She saw a baby, floating in a little basket among the reeds, and even though she knew he was just a slave, condemned to die by her own father, she decided to save his life rather than to ignore it. She never could have imagined that the most significant act of her life would be this generous gesture towards a child. Of course, this child grew up to be Moses, the great leader of God's people.

Perhaps we spend too much time on the things we believe to be "major", shaking the right hands, getting invited to the right places, and having the right letters after our name. Jesus says that even the simple act of giving someone a cup of cold water because of him will be rewarded (Matthew 10:42). Just like Pharaoh's daughter, we can't know ahead of time which of our actions will be the ones that most define us, and if we learn anything from her, it's that we cannot neglect unexpected opportunities for kindness and compassion. The truth is, as Christians we're already adopted members of God's royal family. What promotion could be more important than that? As members of God's household, we must be the ones who make time to value those whom the world doesn't. There are already enough people who are too busy and too self-centered. Because God has lavished us with his grace, it is our role to extend the same kind of royal hospitality to others.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Getting to Know Your Risen Savior


If what you are wanting is a Savior who mostly stays out of your way, a Lord who makes no demands on your time, energy, or priorities, or a Teacher whose ideas you are free to pick through and select what parts you like best, then perhaps the Roman government did us all a favor. A dead Jesus is a much easier Jesus to deal with.

Jesus' journey to the cross, beginning with his birth and continuing to his death is largely shaped by a downward movement. In Philippians 2, Paul shares a hymn about the life of Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
He released his claims to divine glory. He reduced himself to servanthood. He poured out whatever was left in his death on a cross; mocked and humiliated. His execution left him so thoroughly devalued by the world that the apostles wouldn't think of going to see him early on that Sunday morning, instead allowing a few servant-hearted ladies to rise up early and go to do the dirty work of preparing his body. (I saw some irony in the story this very morning, knowing that several servant-minded women came to our church much earlier than anyone else to do the dirty work of preparing for today's activities. If the first resurrection appearance tells us anything, it's that God has a special place in his heart for servant-minded women like these.) Since Jesus hadn't died well in their minds, at least they could give him a decent burial.

When Jesus is dead, we can do with him what we want. His commands can be reduced to suggestions. His demands can be reduced to options. Much like any other historical person or artifact, we can poke, prod, and determine value, chewing up and swallowing what we like while spitting out what we don't.

Perhaps on this Sunday morning you've come here for a viewing of the body. He was, after all, an innocent person who died unjustly. Perhaps you came with a funeral in mind. Let's hear a few favorite memories, share some of his better quotes, and pay a few respects before we get back to doing with our lives whatever we please.

But if you came this morning to pay your respects to a dead Savior, I'm afraid you've just missed him. Don't be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Though you could go and see the place where they laid him, he isn't there. He's gone on ahead of you, making preparations for you, and when you get there you'll see him, just as he told you. Meanwhile, be sure to go and tell the others the good news.

Before we could even finish preparing the body, before we could even work out the details of a proper funeral, Jesus came back. Death couldn't hold onto him. It is not a dead hero whom we've come to respect this morning, it is our risen King who is now reigning at the right hand of God.

This is a new type of Jesus we are experiencing, and we would all benefit from getting to know our risen Savior. Jesus may have emptied himself to the point of death on a cross, but because of his obedience, he snatched victory out of the hands of death and is now glorified again in the presence of God. That Christian hymn that Paul quoted speaks of his humiliation, but it also speaks of Jesus' restoration to glory:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Revelation that God gave to John contains several striking images of our risen Lord; all of which are worthy of reflection, but I wish to reflect on the vision found in Revelation 1. Jesus will go on to give specific messages to specific churches, but he begins with a few words that should mean something to all Christians in every church.

Allow yourself to get caught up in John's vision of this mysterious Savior we follow:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
In fact, before he even speaks, the mere appearance of Jesus in this setting tells us something about him. There is a lot of symbolism going on here, just as there is in much of Revelation. We have the lampstands with their candles burning, representing churches, all of which should keep our lights burning to shine hope on our community.

But John also references that Jesus had seven stars in his right hand. The stars, we are told, represent the angels; God's messengers to the different churches. The word "angel' in the original languages also means "messenger," and this is significant, because much of the ancient world believed the stars contained messages. The stars, they believed, contained a map of human history and determined its course. So they read their horoscopes and stared into the sky with great diligence, desiring insight into how to navigate the confusing waters of life. The stars would often be symbolized by the seven most prominent heavenly bodies, the ones that could be seen with unaided human eyes: the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Much in the way we Americans display "In God We Trust" on our currency--whether we mean it or not--ancient coins would sometimes indicate what they believed determined the course of history. 
Here in our encounter with Jesus, we find a Lord who holds the seven stars in his hand. Whether you trust in the stars, the stock market, or your favorite cable news network, the clear message here is that whatever it is you believe drives the course of human history, it is subservient to the will of Jesus Christ. The Lord of Lords is the one who determines the course of human history, and holds it within his hand.  

In the presence of one as powerful as Jesus is presented here in John's vision, what would you do? Fight or flight only works when you can overpower or outrun someone, and to try either would be obviously futile. So instead, John falls down as if he were dead. Jesus places his right hand on John's shoulder, and speaks to him. I believe Jesus' introductory words here are meaningful to all Christians in every generation.
Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
FEAR NOT
Christians need not waste our time with some of the world's hypothetical questions. If you knew you couldn't possibly get hurt, what would you do? If you knew you couldn't possibly fail, what would you try? The one who leads us has conquered death. There exists no adversary whom he has not already bested. The only questions we should be wrestling with are: What does Christ call me to do next? and What could possibly be holding me back from trying? It is not only the difficult things that we can do with Christ's help, it is often the things we believed were impossible

Paul reminds us in Romans 8:1-2:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 
We are to be people characterized by hope and courage, because in Christ, there is nothing left to fear. 

I AM THE FIRST AND THE LAST
Sometimes when we want to refer to the entirety of something, we refer to the beginning and the end. We've studied everything, we say, from A to Z. We've been everywhere from coast to coast. We've looked it over from top to bottom. Jesus will later say he is the Alpha and the Omega. He is our beginning, he is our end, and he is our everything in between. 

In a similar vein, John introduces Jesus to us in his Gospel in the following way:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
If what we desire is a meaningful life, then we should follow the one who is before us. We should acknowledge the one who remains after us. We should honor the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. In Jesus we find life as it is meant to be lived. His life is our light. By looking to him, we can see enough to take the next step on a path that leads us where we want to go. Getting to the end takes patience, but taking one simple step with true light is better any day than taking many stumbling steps into uncertain darkness.

I DIED, AND BEHOLD I AM ALIVE FOREVERMORE 
All elements of this are important. It is significant that Jesus actually died, because it means that he experienced the very worst of what humanity could do to him. We could use our greatest weapons of deepest treachery, and after we had done our worst, he overcame and conquered them all. 

Jesus says clearly that he had died, but now he is alive, and there remains nothing that can kill him again. Had Jesus merely died, we would have no reason to be here. There are many great teachers who have lived and died, and none of them warrants a weekly period of remembrance, or the constant commemoration of their life. We are free to disagree with and dispense of dead teachers. If Jesus were just another dead teacher, Paul believes this would create a domino effect of bad implications in the life of the church, which he describes in I Corinthians 15:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
It is bad enough to be mistaken. But if Jesus isn't risen, we are liars about God. Our faith is a waste, and we are pitiable more than anyone else in the world. But because Jesus is risen, we can read Paul's ideas in reverse.

"Behold! I am alive forevermore," Jesus says. And so we know that because Jesus is raised, our teaching is valuable, and so is our faith. We are God's true representatives because we are telling the truth about Jesus' power over death, through which he redeemed us from our sins. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ are now reigning with Christ. Because of he hope we experience in Christ, we are of all people most to be envied, for we've found a fountain of life that can nourish the soul of every person who drinks from it.

I HAVE THE KEYS OF DEATH AND HADES
The image we should have in our head of Jesus as he broke the chains of death is not that of a hero making a narrow escape of a dangerous situation. Jesus' actions more resemble an explosion of dynamite, crumbling the walls and breaking through the gates of death, who had absolutely no chance of holding the King of Kings. Jesus has taken over, and he is the one who now holds the keys.

I am reminded of a story about a factory. It was a business with a long history, and one gentleman in particular who had worked there for many years. As it grew in complexity, he understood better than anyone else how it all functioned, and the different components worked together. As the years went by and the factory came under new management, the younger management wanted to cut costs, and saw little use in paying an older person so much, when they could hire younger guys for a lower cost and longer hours. So they unceremoniously let the older gentleman go. After a few weeks, something went wrong. Production came to a halt. The young hotshots tried what they knew, but to no avail. It became clear that the only solution short of tearing down and rebuilding the whole factory was to give a call to the gentleman who had been released. A humble phone call was made, and he agreed to come for an hour or so to have a look, understanding he would bill the company as a consultant. After only a few minutes with the machines, he went to one in particular, took out a piece of chalk from his pocked, and marked one section of the machinery with a giant "X". "Here's the problem," he said. "Remove the cover, replace these parts, and it will all work fine." They did what he said, and everything happened as he said it would. The people were pleased to be back in operation. A few days later they received a bill from the gentleman, with the cost being $10,000. The bookkeeper was indignant. How could he charge that much money for only a few minutes' work? So they demanded an itemized list, explaining the cost. The man sent them a second bill, this time itemized:
1 piece of chalk: $1
Knowing where to draw the X with the chalk: $9,999
It's good to be the one who holds the keys. And if you aren't the one who holds the keys, you want to be on good terms with the one who does.
We can disregard him or devalue him if we want, but Jesus is the one who holds the keys to the afterlife. There is no Plan B; no option that allows us to bypass him if we want to have entrance to the presence of God. Jesus wants us not to be afraid, because even though he died, he now lives forevermore, and if we clothe ourselves in him, there is nothing strong enough to take us from the grip of his grace. He shows us the road to where we want to go, and he holds the keys to the kingdom. We can't afford to neglect him, and can find comfort in knowing he hasn't neglected us.

Note: This sermon was preached on April 16, 2017 at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017

More Than Technique

I like talking to people on airplanes. You never have any idea who it is that might end up seated beside you for an hour or two. My temporary acquaintances have included a has-been 80s punk rocker who now paints houses in L.A., the CFO of Johnson & Johnson, a Vietnamese legal assistant for an immigration lawyer, and the manager of a Nike sock factory in Mexico City (he offered to ship me free socks). However, I think my favorite conversation was with a classically trained artist from Belgium who has spent the last several years as a celebrated part of the art community in Nashville, Tennessee. In fact, her work will be on display next year in Nashville's Parthenon, a very high honor.


We were talking about different philosophies of art, and she lamented how so much art is being created without any real passion or meaning the artist is trying to convey. I was surprised to learn from her how popular abstract art has become. She spoke with frustration about a mediocre student of hers who, within a few months of learning to paint, was selling abstract works for several thousand dollars each. People like abstract art because all they do is select a color scheme that matches their living space and the painting fits right in with no particular shapes or bodies that would cause it to stand out. Real art, she believed, should have something to say. Good art should not be expected merely to blend in, but to matter.

At the other end of the spectrum, we were talking about some of the artists I've seen on social media who can replicate real objects with such total perfection so that you could not distinguish whether you were looking at a photograph or a drawing. In her mind, this was more respectable, because it at least required skill. But in the end, "Though it's very impressive, it's just raw technique," she said. "Most of them aren't really saying anything with their work. It generally doesn't inspire or convict you." There is a need for artists to stay relevant so that their works are marketable, but she urged that an artist must not give up their true voice just to produce what would sell easily. They should care about what they produce.

All throughout Scripture we are reminded that our talents and skills come from God. We develop and refine them, but God gives them. I think of the wisdom of Joseph, received from God, in guiding Pharaoh to prepare Egypt for the coming famine and to grow their economy when all others were declining. I think of Bezalel in Exodus 31 who was filled with the Spirit of God "to make artistic designs." I think of Jesus' parable about the talents. Some of us are given more than others, but all of us are accountable to God, not only to have skills or to use skills, but to glorify God with our skills.

If you're going to be good at something, be sure that your talent means something. We each have our own forms of art, and our own gifts that someone might observe and say, "Isn't it amazing to watch them do what they can do?" It would be a shame to be gifted in powerful ways by the Almighty, and to only ever use these gifts for material gain or self aggrandizement. Be whatever kind of artist God has made you to be, but do something with your work that will make God proud that he chose to give you the abilities that you have.