04/26/2015 – Matthew 22:34-40 – Following Jesus Today: “Worshiping God by Walking Backwards”

Mark Wheeler

Matthew 22:34-40

“Following Jesus Today: Worshiping God by Walking Backwards”

April 26, 2015

Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church

You are our refuge and our strength, O Lord. We pour our lives into Your hands that we may discover all the benefits of Your grace and all the power of Your presence. Amen.

Two years ago last Monday, Velma and Linda and Jeanette and I, along with 16 others from across the country stepped off a boat and entered into the ancient city of Ephesus. We met our local tour guide who introduced herself and then led the 20 of us along a 2-mile 2,000+-year old marble road and told us about the ruins of huge old stone buildings including the third largest library of the ancient world, the theater from which Paul spoke to the crowds, and the jail where Paul was imprisoned. But here’s the thing, this tour guide did this while walking backwards.

She knew the pot holes and divots, she understood the turns and the angles, she recognized when to stop and where to point – without really having to look where she was going.

How was that possible? She knew the landscape so well because she had walked this road and studied its route so many times, it was all second nature.

During these weeks between Easter and Pentecost we are learning how to Follow Jesus Today. We have examined how our words and actions impact the world around us and how we experience both the absence of God and the embrace of God in our daily walk with Him (and how to invite others to experience God’s perfect grace).Today we will listen as Jesus answers a question we all ask in one way or another, Matthew 22:34-40 …. —-

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’

37 Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’

May God bless the reading, hearing, receiving of His Word which never fails. The questions we usually ask go something like: So … this particular sin isn’t as bad as that one, so …, it’s OK, right? The way I convince myself that my sin really isn’t so bad is by asking if enjoying someone’s good cooking is better than wasting the food, right? So I overeat like the glutton I am…. One of the Pharisees, one who was an expert in the Old Testament Law (all the Pharisees were experts in the Old Testament – so this one must have been some kind of super-Pharisee in order to get this kind of acclaim), tried to trick Jesus into coming up with some lame, inappropriate answer to the 10 Commandments question.But Jesus answers the question about which commandment is the most important by quoting from the same Old Testament Law of which this Pharisee was such an expert. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”This comes right after the 10 Commandments were listed in Deuteronomy 5, and then Moses summarizes them in this short verse, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind/strength.” “Love the Lord your God….” In English, the word “love” has so many connotations it’s hard to know what Jesus may have meant. Fortunately, we can go to the original Greek language and get a better picture of Jesus’ words. In English I can say that I love the Spokane Indians (baseball team), and I love cherry cheese cake, and I love Jennifer – but each of those loves better have at least slightly different meanings.I love the Spokane Indians in a way that makes me wish I could attend more games in their short season; I love cherry cheese cake in a way that, if given the choice, I would choose a slice of that over a cupcake any day of the week; but I love Jennifer in a way that means I will always choose her as my life partner no matter how may Spokane Indians, cherry cheese cakes, or other people cross into my line of vision. In Greek there are a number of words one could use that translate into English as “love”. Jesus uses a word with unique meaning and purpose. He uses a form of the word “agape”. This kind of love is completely selfless, utterly altruistic, entirely and totally self-giving!Agape-love is a kind of love humans can’t really do. Even the most caring, gentle, generous person among us has self-centered moments where we want what is best for good old number one. Nonetheless, that is, apparently, the greatest commandment: Agape-love the Lord your God with … everything you have. This is the kind of love that we might put on a par with worshiplove God equals worship Godrecognize God’s worth, and give Him what that worth deserves. What is God’s worth? [Absolute ultimate value] How do we pay for that value? [by giving Him absolutely everything we have to giveheart, soul, strength/mind]!And for New Testament followers of Jesus, worshiping God, loving God, always happens through His Son Jesus Christ. And because we are, actually, unable to offer agape-love under our own power, we love and worship God in spirit and in truth only under the power of the Holy Spirit.So, ,,, do you pass this “greatest commandment” test? Yeah, neither do I. Thank God for His perfect grace!

But Jesus does not stop with the simple quote from Deuteronomy – He also quotes from Leviticus 19:18; in the middle of a whole list of “laws” (one “thou shalt not” after the next “thou shalt not”) the writer of Leviticus writes, “but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God …. And the second greatest commandment is just like it: love your neighbor as yourself!

Agape-love your neighbor as yourself?! Wow! Really? God, do you know my neighbor? Agape-love him? I can barely stand him!

Yes, Jesus says, Agape-love your neighbor!

How does one do that?

Remember the story of the tour guide I told you at the beginning of this message? Here’s where that story fits in – and how we apply the same thing to our Christian lives of following Jesus today.

A thorough perusal of our Holy Scriptures shows us over and over again how God’s greatest desire is for a transformative relationship with us, His greatest piece of creation. When we begin to understand that the Creator of everything loves us without/beyond any conditions, our only reasonable response is an overwhelming desire to love and serve God! And as that becomes our reality, we begin to care more and more about the things that matter most to Godloving and serving our neighbors!

So the “greatest commandmentflows straight into the “second (which) is just like it”. When we love God, we will love our neighbors. I John 3:11-16 reminds us that “the message we have heard from the beginning (is that) we should love one another … this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. We ought, therefore, to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (we ought to love each other.)

God-honoring love and worship will compel us, and our experience of God’s love will enable us, to actually invest in loving our neighbors.

Our tour guide walked backwards because she knew Ephesus, and she wanted to share Ephesus with her tourists!

Here’s the take-away lesson for usGenuine, God-honoring love and worship happens when you and I, followers of Jesus, have experienced God’s love and the transformation it brings (even in small doses), and we begin to walk backwards, sharing what we have with our tourists, pointing out God’s creation, directing attention to God’s mighty acts, and simply showing people something of God’s grace in our own lives. THAT is loving our neighbors.

Know the power and love of God, and

Grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, compelling us to

Go in the footsteps of the Holy Spirit, loving and servng others who do not yet

Know the power and love of God….*

The people around us desperately need to see these kinds of followers of Jesus.

Worshiping God by walking backwards involves loving God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, by living our faith out-loud so that others might see God as we walk backwards showing Him to our neighbors.

 

Name one person with whom you are currently “walking backwards” – and name someone with whom you will start this week.

 

Teach us to love as Your angels love,

one holy passion filling every frame;

the baptism of the heaven-descended Dove,

our hearts an altar, and Your love the flame. (Amen) – George Croly, 1854

Resources:

Detterman, Paul; Following Jesus Today: Challenges and Opportunities (Participant’s Book); Presbyterian Mission Agency; Louisville, KY; 2014; Pp. 19-24.

*Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church Vision Statement, 2006.

04/19/2015 – Isaiah 45:15; Luke 15 – “Following Jesus Today: Deus Absconditus and the Embrace of God”

Mark Wheeler

Isaiah 45:15; Luke 15

“Following Jesus Today: Deus Absconditus and the Embrace of God”

April 19, 2015

Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church

You are our refuge and our strength, O Lord. We pour our lives into Your hands that we may discover all the benefits of Your grace and all the power of Your presence. Amen.

Last summer a couple of wind-storms blew through Spokane with tree-toppling force! Winds and gales crushing cars and houses and churches and businesses. The Riverside Community, just north of Spokane, looked like a war-zone with mobile homes completely demolished and hundreds of people left without shelter or power or protection.

Or so they thought. Did any of you drive through Riverside, maybe on your way to Priest Lake or Sandpoint or Camp Spalding? You know what the world discovered after that storm? People from every background, from a variety of religious and faith systems (and from NO faith system) stood by each other and helped each other and fed each other and struggled together to rebuild their community.

And churches and mission agencies stepped right in with food and clothes and supplies to help.

In an interview, one shirtless, tattooed, rough-looking man said something about how “no one could articulate what they had experienced – but something spiritual took place”.

It makes me wonder how this eclectic collection of atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Mormons and Christians, together, in this very unchurch-like setting, could experience what we in the Church so much long for? Where is God in our every day lives? Now, I certainly know that several people in this room have daily God-moments, but there are also seasons in everyone’s life where we just do not seem to have any empirical evidence of God’s existence. And we wonder why. (Can anyone give me an “Amen” here?) The Old Testament prophet Isaiah (43:18-19) counseled the struggling Israelites with these words:“Do not remember the former things, or even consider the things of old. [God says,] I am about to do a brand new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.Will God again do a brand new thing in our presence? Will we experience His Spirit in ways “no one can articulate”?Two chapters later Isaiah writes, in 45:15….—-“Truly, You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” I love that one-sentence confession and conundrum. Isaiah confesses that God is God, that God is Savior – and in the same breath he questions God’s priorities (where are You? Why are You hiding?)! It’s a tension many of us live in every day. Why are there times when God seems so absent from our lives and even from our churches? In theological circles this is called “Deus absconditus” (the hiddenness of God).Church history has taught us that we cannot effectively fix this sense of God’s absence by trying harder – not even by our own diligent efforts to read the Bible more devotedly, to serve the hungry, to clothe the naked, or to visit the shut-in more dutifully.Martin Luther, in the 16th Century, said that this distance was not caused by our lack of knowledge or ethics, but rather it was due to a “relational estrangement. We needed a deeper relationship with God.It’s really all about our desire to invest time with Him! Yes, to read His Bible and to serve the hungry, and clothe the naked – but not out of obligation or duty, but out of love for Him!It’s a matter of gaining insight into God’s heart and what matters to God. It is seeing where God is already at work in the world around us, and asking how we can join in!In what ways have you personally experienced Deus absconditus (God hiding Himself)?Pastor Randy Lovejoy (Silverlake Community Church, Los Angeles) suggests that, maybe we’ll discover that we are looking for God in all the wrong places! We expect God to be inescapably evident in the lives of our churches and in the lives of churched people – but we sometimes walk away wondering if God even exists.The religious people of Jesus’ day expected the same thing – and they missed the “brand new thingGod was doing through the person and work of Jesus Christ.Let’s take a look at this most well-known chapter from Luke’s GospelLuke 15….—-

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were looking for God in their structures and institutions, but God was “hidingamong the tax collectors and sinners. Where might God be “hiding” in Spokane in 2015?

The rest of Luke 15 is a series of parables where Jesus teaches about how God finds us and how we experience the opposite of Deus absconditus.

There’s the parable of the lost sheep, and the story of the shepherd risking everything to find this one sheep who wandered off – and when he finds it he throws a party, “‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Then there’s the parable of the woman who has lost her coin, and after spending every moment of her day she finds this one coin which has somehow just fallen through the cracks – and she throws a … party, “‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’  In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Then we come to the most famous parable, maybe of all time, the parable of the prodigal son – these are really all parables of the lost being found – lost sheep, lost coin, and two lost sons. But this parable is different.

We all know about how the younger Son gets lost looking for somethingGod? And the father does not go running after him, (Deus absconditus?). This son walks away from his father, living a life of casual carousing and merrymaking (I think he’s looking for “meaning”). He finally goes home and his fatherthrows . a . party.

But there’s another son, an elder son, who has stayed at home, and also experienced Deus absconditus. He did his duty for his father, but had no real relationship with him. And, interestingly, the Greek description of this brother is “Delphos presbuteros” (Presbyterian brother – does he describe us? Do we do our duty, but without a living, loving relationship with God?).

Back to the younger brother, when he comes home we read: “20 …“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him….

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate….

The climax of this parable, and really of the whole chapter, is in verse 20: “the father ran and put his arms around him and kissed him!” In His life and in His parables, Jesus revealed the heart of God.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin illustrate a costly search for something missing – something of great value! And when the search ends successfully, there is a celebration!

God draws people into relationship through Jesus Christ! The surprise here is that the shepherd and the woman invested so much of themselves focusing on what was “outside” rather than what was “inside. Of course God wants us “inHis Church – but it looks like He still focuses, and maybe wants us to focus, on what’s “out there!” That may surprise us, who think we know the heart of God – but think how much more it surprises those people who believe they are somehow beyond the reach of God’s perfect love! The Embrace of Godwow!

In what ways have you experienced the embrace of God (Luke 15:20)?

That’s what happened in Riverside last Summer! They experienced the Embrace of God! People in that small community experienced something no one expected – and it was beyond their ability to articulate! And since then, I am told, several individuals have been attending some of the churches that reached out to them – and they are still experiencing the Embrace of God!

 

Ready for a simple surprise? Part of the Moving back into the Neighborhood experiments we are about to embark on include the potential for stumbling into the Embrace of God. As the weather warms and the sun shines, our “experiments in God doing something new” might involve simply inviting our neighbors to help – to help with serving the hungry and clothing the naked, help in mowing our lawn and weeding their garden, help in … being good neighbors.

And I’ll bet, God will … throw . a . party! Let the celebrations begin! With whom might you share God’s embrace this week?

Father, Your love washes over us into the lives of those we do not yet even know. Grant us the courage to follow that love into Your wonder, mystery, and awe so that in places unfamiliar, with people we have only just begun to know, we might share the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. To Your glory and honor, Amen.

Resources:

Detterman, Paul; Following Jesus Today: Challenges and Opportunities (Participant’s Book); Presbyterian Mission Agency; Louisville, KY; 2014; Pp. 13-18.

04/12/2015 – Mark 1:14-15; Romans 10:14-15 – “Following Jesus Today: Words and Deeds”

Mark Wheeler
Mark 1:14-15; Romans 10:14-15
“Following Jesus Today: Words and Deeds”
April 12, 2015
Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church

You are our refuge and our strength, O Lord. We pour our lives into Your hands that we may discover all the benefits of Your grace and all the power of Your presence. Amen.

Look over the past year-in-the-news. There has been a lot of “religion” based news stories: wars in the Middle East appear to be caused by differing religious world-views; the massacre at the college in Kenya two weeks ago was definitely about religion; the Religious Freedom Referendum Acts in Indiana and Arkansas have the word “religion” right in their legal monikers; the news stories about florists and wedding chapels right here in our own backyard not wanting to allow their services/facilities for same-sex weddings were definitely “religion-based” news stories.
But this is not just recent news events. My entire adult life, and much of my childhood, has been dominated by debates, debacles, and divisions between “evangelical Christians” and “social Gospel Christians”. The names of these two sides have evolved as the topic-du jour has changed – but the words of hate and fear have not changed all that much.

Here’s an experiment any of us could do: (at work, on the street, at the mall) stand with a clip board and ask strangers what they think of when they hear the word “Christian”.
According to professional surveys, the common answer from the “person on the street” says that they think of judgmental, hypocritical, hateful bigots. That’s what the word “Christian” has come to mean for those outside the Church (and for many within the Church). That is one of the saddest commentaries I have ever heard. It’s especially sad because it is, at least partly, true.
People, in the name of Christ, have killed people who believe differently from them; in the name of the Church, people have disruptively demonstrated at funerals of people who lived differently from them; and simply because of their differing interpretation of Scripture, people have used the name of Jesus to fight and argue and blame and criticize, even other people who use the same name of Jesus.
Right now our own denomination is all stirred up over same-sex wedding ceremonies. And it is right to stand up for what we believe to be God’s revealed Word on the subject – but not in a way that doesn’t also welcome and receive those who disagree with us into the Family!

What makes these images of the Christian Church wrong is that they depict the people of Christ but not the Person of Christ! When the people of Christ act like the Person of Christ – we might still be hated by the society around us, but it will be for doing good in the world according to God’s call, not for obviously malicious acts of fear and hate.
No one has built more hospitals, saved more lives, cured more diseases than the Christian Church! No organization has built more schools, educated more girls, raised more awareness than the Christian Church! No group has served more hungry, housed more homeless, protected more vulnerable people-groups than the Christian Church!        Why can’t we be known for these things? But, we’re not; we’re remembered for the ways we fight!

But because the word “Christian” can so easily be misunderstood in this 21st Century, for the next several weeks we’ll be defining “Christian” as “one who FOLLOWS Jesus Christ”.
When Jesus was gathering His original 12 Disciples, He would approach them and simply invite them to FOLLOW Him – Simon and Andrew, James and John, Matthew, and the rest.
I dream of the impact Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church can have, you can have, if we simply choose to FOLLOW Jesus well.
So between Easter (last Sunday) and Pentecost (May 24), we will explore what it means to Follow Jesus Today. Step One involves our Words and Deeds.

At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we’re told in Mark 1:14-15 …. —-
14 After John [the Baptist] was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the Good News of God. 15 “The time has come,” He said. “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Good News!”
May God bless the reading, the hearing, the receiving of His Word which never fails.

So … if we claim to be a people who follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ (that is what being “Christian” is supposed to mean), how do we cause an effective change in the world’s perception of us as haters who judge and discriminate against them?
Jesus started by “proclaiming the Good News of God”. As followers of Jesus, do we proclaim the Good News of God? I mean, do we do that outside the safe walls of this monastic enclave? Do we proclaim the Good News of God at work? At school? At the bank? In line at the grocery store? At the bus stop? In the dining hall or the restaurant?

What is this “Good News of God” we’re supposed to be proclaiming? Jesus answered that with His challenge to “repent” and His invitation to “believe the Good News” (and the Gospel stories reveal that that “Good News” always meant that He is our means of true relationship with God – He is our salvation – Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life – Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life – do you believe that Good News?

What does it mean to “proclaim” the Good News? Proclamation always begins with JESUS CHRIST!
But what are some ways Followers of Jesus Christ (Christians, you) might proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ … without preaching on the street corner? Without a sandwich board announcing that “the end is near”?
If you work at a public school – how would you share your faith, legally? If you work in a business whose policy is to not be religious, how do you proclaim your faith? If you’re a government employee, how do you “follow Jesus”?
St Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, “Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.” What did he mean? Our actions, our lifestyles, the way we care for one another, the love we show – all of that – should proclaim the Good News of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11-16)

Our passage from Paul’s letter to the Followers of Jesus Christ in Rome (Romans 10:14-15) reminds us of our responsibility – that God invites us to be His sales-personnel, God trusts His Good News in your hands!:
“How can those [who do not know Jesus Christ] call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they [possibly] believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone proclaiming to them? And how can anyone proclaim unless they are sent? As it is written [in Isaiah 52:7] ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News!’”

Good deeds should be our life-plan – but even Francis of Assisi recognized that there are times when it is necessary to use words. What are ways we can/should use words to proclaim our faith?
¬On the floor, in the yard, at the lot, in the office, at the movies, at the game, on the bus, in the classroom, at the supper table, with your spouse, with your friend, with your client, with your children, with your teacher, what words do you use to offer the challenge to repent and the invitation to believe the Good News? [Let’s hear some shout-outs on this – what words might introduce the subject of Jesus Christ in these relationships?]
Your Sermon Notes Page has one Homework assignment: Name one person to whom you will proclaim Jesus Christ this week – and how will you do it?

Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, today you are sent to proclaim the Good News of God wherever you may be!

Loving God, when You said, “Let there be light,” creation dawned. Shine that light into our hearts, that we may receive Your Good News and know that it is good. You have called us out of spiritual darkness and made us a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation – Your own people. You have revealed Yourself to us in Jesus Christ. Help us face the darkness in this world with confidence through Your Holy Spirit, and nurture us to become proclaimers of Your Word in all we say and do. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Resources:
Detterman, Paul; Following Jesus Today: Challenges and Opportunities (Participant’s Book); Presbyterian Mission Agency; Louisville, KY; 2014; Pp. 3-12.

Resurrection Day thoughts

We wish each other a Happy Easter on this day – and we mean it … but is that truly the best greeting? We read that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the cemetery and found an empty grave! What does that empty grave mean? Death has been conquered – forever and for all who believe in the Truth of Jesus.
How does that change my life? ow does it effect yours? What do we do with the truth of resurrection and eternity?
I invite your thoughts – so please comment below, and we’ll share in this journey together.

God bless you on the Way!

Maundy Thursday thoughts, 2015

Maundy Thursday, from the Latin for Mandate, or Commandment Thursday:
Jesus said, “A new commandment I have for you, love one another as I have loved you, so you should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

What does it mean to love one another? Maybe Jesus was thinking along the lines of Paul in I Corinthians 13 (although Paul wrote those words some 30 years after Jesus spoke His words in John 13:34).

So, it looks like loving one another includes things like: patience, kindness, contentment, humility, politeness, calm-tempers, forgiveness, generosity, protection, trust, hopefulness, perseverance.

We should strive toward being that kind of welcoming community.
No where do I see that loving one another must mean agreeing with one another on every doctrine, choice, life style, or even interpretation. Nor do I see where we must compromise convictions.

So friends, let’s slow down the rhetoric of hate and fear (in both directions), and let’s turn up the goal of Christ-like love (see above) for even those with whom we have severe differences.

Happy Maundy Thursday. May you be prepared for Good Friday, and receive the gift of Resurrection Sunday!