Sunday, April 21, 2019

Jesus Himself Drew Near

Jesus Himself Drew Near
Luke 24:13-35
            I’ve written on this story before, but it is so rich that I return to it often and always find something new.
            Some years ago Arch Wiggins and George Marshall wrote a song for church choir titled Jesus Himself Drew Near.  It began:
I set out a pilgrim sad at heart, to walk a lonely road;
Doubt had marred my simple trusting, doubt a future ill forbode.
And as I pondered o’er my grief, my shattered hope and unbelief,
A stranger to my soul’s relief drew near and walked with me
Jesus himself drew near, Jesus himself drew near;
When alone on the road, oppressed by my load,
Jesus himself drew near and walked with me.

                The song is based on the story of the Emmaus walk, but with one difference.  It comes from a theological base which emphasizes an individual relationship with Jesus Christ.  While that is necessary—each of us must have our own spiritual journey—Luke tells a story about two disciples traveling the road together.  We are told that one of them is named Cleopas.  We do not know the name of the other disciple.  There is speculation that this disciple could be Cleopas’ wife.  There are many good reasons why this could be true.
            We know from Luke’s gospel that many women followed Jesus, some of them all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem.  John (19:25) lists Mary the wife of Clopas as one of the women at the crucifixion.  It would have been more likely that a husband and wife would have been living together than that two men would have been sharing a house.  We can speculate all we want, of course, but we’ll never know for sure this side of the grave.
            Let’s assume that this was a married couple, Cleopas and Mary, traveling home to Emmaus on the evening of the resurrection.  They had been with the other disciples since the triumphal entry, had shared the joy of that occasion, the thrill of hearing their Master teach in the temple, the horror of Thursday and Friday, the depression of Saturday, and the uncertain joy of Sunday.  Now, emotionally exhausted, they want nothing more than to be at home, where they can be in familiar surroundings.
            As they walk they discuss the events, not only of the past week, but of their time with Jesus.  They want to believe he is alive, but it doesn’t make sense.  People don’t die and come back to life.  Oh, yes, there are the stories of Elijah and Elisha raising people from the dead; but that was long ago.  Jesus raised Lazarus and the young man from Nain, but that was Jesus.  Who was there to raise him?
            Then a stranger approaches them.  He hears their conversation and joins in.  Once he begins speaking he doesn’t stop, but cites familiar Scripture passages that show them how everything that happened was part of the prophecy which had long been part of their tradition.  They understand now what happened to Jesus, why it had to happen, and that Jesus was indeed alive.
            Arriving at their destination they invite him to share the evening meal with them.  As an honored guest he is given the privilege of breaking the bread.  And they know him.  And he vanishes.
            “Didn’t our hearts burn within us,” they say, remembering how they felt as this now-familiar figure spoke to them.  They heard God’s truth, and their inner beings responded, reaching out to the words that changed their lives.
            Jesus himself drew near to them, shared words of hope with them, broke bread with them; and now they couldn’t wait to share the good news.  Jesus Christ is alive!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem

Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem
Luke 18:28-44
The Triumphal Entry.  Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the eve of Passover.  This is not accidental timing.  This is a calculated event, designed to create the maximum attention for his arrival. 
For some time he has been preparing his disciples for the events that will occur when they reach the Holy City.  They do not yet understand—or perhaps they do not want to understand.  What Jesus is telling them is so horrific they cannot accept it.  Jesus must be wrong.  He can’t possibly believe that he’s going to be arrested, tried, tortured and executed.  They’ve missed the part about rising in three days, perhaps because that’s the most difficult part to understand.
Jesus has timed his arrival to occur when the city is at fever pitch.  Passover, the most joyous festival of the Jewish year, begins in a few days.  Pilgrims from all over world are making their way to the city.  For years they have been saying to friends and relatives, “Next year in Jerusalem,” and now it’s coming true.  Crowds are everywhere, extending out to the Mount of Olives, the place where tradition says the Messiah will appear.  “Perhaps this will be the year,” they say to each other.  “We don’t want to miss it.”
The Jewish religious and political leaders are also keyed up.  They don’t want any trouble during the feast.  If there is trouble, and they can’t handle it, they might lose their positions, along with the prestige and income those positions bring.
The Romans are also tense.  While they are trained administrators and soldiers, once trouble starts there’s no telling what may happen.  They can handle trouble alright, but, like a musician or actor before a performance, they’re full of nervous energy.
Into this scene rides Jesus, on a donkey, a symbol of peace, coming down the Mount of Olives, surrounded by his disciples.  They desperately want Jesus to take control of the city, to throw the Roman oppressors out, to demote the religious leaders, and promote Jesus’ followers to positions of leadership.  They know this is the time it will happen.  They can feel it, almost taste it.
Crowds gather, attracted by the shouting, adoring disciples.  Coats are thrown in front of Jesus so the donkey’s feet will not touch the ground.  Others in the crowd cut branches off trees and add them to the coats.  Perhaps this is the year.  Perhaps this is the promised Messiah.  He doesn’t look like much, but who knows.  Can’t always judge a book by its cover.  His followers are enthusiastic.  They must know something the crowds can’t see.
Jesus sits calmly, almost detached from the noise and action around him.  His face is peaceful, relaxed.  He alone knows what awaits him.  He alone knows how the week will end. 
The Pharisees join the crowd to evaluate the situation, to figure out what’s happening.  They sense this might be the trouble they want to avoid.  They tell Jesus to stop this nonsense, to control his followers.  Jesus answers, “I tell you, if these are silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Nothing can stop the chain of events that is unfolding.  Event after event will unfold until all is completed.  The next few days will find Jesus in the temple, further infuriating the leaders until they have no choice but to remove him.
“And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.”
Jesus’ suffering will be a matter of hours.  Jerusalem’s will go on for years.  Jesus has wanted to gather the nation to him, but it will not happen.  The die is cast.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Leaving Our Comfort Zone

Leaving Our Comfort Zone
Acts 9:1-19
            When my wife was a high school guidance counselor, she put a sign on her office door that read,” There will be a $5 charge for whining.”  She says there was one student who walked in frequently with a five-dollar bill in his hand.  He needed to whine, and he was willing to pay the price.  (Just to be clear:  she didn’t charge him, and she did listen.)
            Poor Sallie (Charlie Brown’s little sister).  She’s the classic whiner.  Sallie whines about a lot of things.  In one Peanuts comic strip she whines about going on a school field trip.  “Oh, I hate field trips…” she says.  “I always get sick on the bus.  Why do we have to go on field trips?”  Then she says, “Why can’t we just stay in school and mind our own business?  Why should we bother the outside world?”  Why indeed?
            We’re a lot like Sallie, aren’t we?  We like to stay in our comfort zone, among the people we know and like; surrounded by familiar objects; going to familiar places.  Sure, we like occasional variety, as long as it’s not too much, or too different, or too chance-taking.  After all, if we try that new restaurant across town, the one with the weird name, and we don’t like the food, we’re out a bunch of money and we’ve wasted an evening.  Who wants to do that?
            That sounds like Saul.  He came to Jerusalem to be with people who believed as he did, who thought and spoke like he did, who read the same books in the same way he did.  He was going to be a Pharisee and be just like all the other Pharisees.  Then he did something different.
            Trying to be the best Pharisee he could, the best defender of the Torah, he asked permission to go to the city of Damascus to arrest anyone who was a follower of the recently-executed Jesus Christ.  He’d show those other Pharisees he was no slouch! 
Things didn’t work out the way he’d planned.  On the road to Damascus he encountered Jesus, the one whose followers he was going to arrest.  His life was changed.  Jesus called him to be the apostle to the Gentiles.  For a Jew, you can’t find anyone more different than a Gentile.  Jews weren’t even supposed to be near Gentiles, let alone talk to them; let alone carry on full-blown conversations with them; let alone try to convert them to a religion he was just beginning to understand.
And yet this is what God called him to do.  And what a job he did! With a new name (Paul), a new religious outlook, and a new ministry, he, along with a handful of other missionaries spread the gospel throughout much of the pagan world.  Instead of refusing God’s call and staying in his comfort zone, he launched out into the deep, and in doing so helped change Christianity from a small, little-known Jewish sect with little influence to the world’s largest religion.
In the same way and for much the same reasons, God calls us to leave our comfort zones and launch out into the deep.  It may be the deep of an unfamiliar culture, or a new occupation, or a new city.  It may be a new way of looking at the gospel, or at people, or at the world.  But whatever it is, it’s God’s call, and we must answer.
“The tragedy in the lives of most of us is that we go through life walking down a high-walled lane with people of our own kind, the same economic situation, the same national background and education and religious outlook.  And beyond those walls, all humanity lies, unknown and unseen, and untouched by our restricted and impoverished lives.”
Florence Luscomb, the author of these words, understood how small our lives can be in our comfort zone.  God calls us to a larger zone.  It may not be comfortable—at least at first, but if we allow God to guide us, as Paul did, we will find great reward, and eventually, the comfort of knowing we’ve done what God asked.