Sunday, August 21, 2022

What has Jesus ever done for us?

On Aug. 21, I was privileged to have been invited to preach at Sango UMC, Clarksville, Tenn., on the occasion of their homecoming Sunday and celebration of the church's 122nd anniversary of its founding.

This is the video of my sermon; the whole service's video is on Sango's Facebook page. As I explain at the beginning, I ripped the title of the sermon off from a skit by Monty Python about Jews in ancient Judea, under Roman rule and occupation, discussing, "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

And so, "What has Jesus ever done for us?"

The prepared text: 

Luke 9 presents a series of vignettes about Jesus as he makes his way with his disciples to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. One of the vignettes is from verses 46 to 48:

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

Consider that brief statement in v 46: "An argument started among the disciples as to which one of them would be the greatest."

Even at this late date, the disciples thought of Jesus and their discipleship in earthly ways. They thought that Jesus would arrive in Jerusalem and depose the Roman vassal, Herod Antipas, from the throne of Judea, then take the crown himself. He could claim it, being in the line of descent from King David. And the disciples knew that Jesus had a very large following, not an army but large enough to be turned into a formidable mob. In fact, when the Roman governor Pilate later interrogated Jesus, he expressed surprise that none of his followers were fighting in the streets to free him, prompting Jesus to reply, "My kingdom is not of this world."

So, the disciples argued on the Jerusalem road, basically, about which offices Jesus would appoint them to once he took power. Who would be the secretary of state? Treasurer? Chief of staff? Secretary of commerce?

"But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts," put a stop to such foolish chatter. Then there is this stark sentence, verse 51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

John Piper wrote,

To set his face towards Jerusalem meant something very different for Jesus than it did for the disciples. ... Jerusalem meant one thing for Jesus: certain death. Nor was he under any illusions of a quick and heroic death. He predicted in Luke 18:31, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him." When Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, he set his face to die. ...

If we look at Jesus' death merely because of a betrayer's deceit and the Sanhedrin's fear and Pilate's spinelessness and the soldiers' nails and spear, Jesus’ death might seem very involuntary. And the benefit of salvation that comes to us who believe from this death might be viewed as God's way of making a virtue out of a necessity. But once you read Luke 9:51 all such thoughts vanish. Jesus was not accidentally entangled in a web of injustice. The saving benefits of his death for sinners were not an afterthought. God intended it all out of infinite love of sinners like us and appointed a time. Jesus, who was the very embodiment of his Father's love for sinners, saw that the time had come, so he set his face to fulfill his mission: to die in Jerusalem for our sake. "No one takes my life from me,” he said, “but I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:18).

But all the disciples could talk about was, "What will Jesus do for us?"

Nowadays we call this a "consumerist" approach to following Jesus. Here is where the disciples went off course:

·        They placed their own welfare and desires at the top,

·        Their primary frame of reference was the organization,

·        They saw themselves in competition with each other, and,

·        They wanted personal benefits.

Of the four faults I have listed, the second is the most fatal and the most relevant for 21st-century Christians. We have a strong tendency to think of ourselves as organization people. Our primary frame of reference is the Church, while the New Testament is clear that it should be the risen Christ. Ideally, there would not be a tissue-paper's width of difference between the two, but we have never achieved that ideal though we must keep trying.

How much we fall into the disciples' consumerist error is illustrated by two simple words: "church shopping." Just Google those two words and see what comes up. The problem with church shopping is not that people are looking for a church, which is a great thing. It is that church “shopping” puts the church as the primary frame of reference rather than the Lord. As retired pastor Gordon Anderson put it,

The danger for those of us who are looking for a spiritual community is that we might slip into a consumer mentality. You can tell this has happened when you sound like a movie critic at lunch on Sunday afternoon.

“I don’t know, the sermon kind of bothered me. I didn’t like the sound of his voice. How about that solo? Yikes, someone was off key. Also, what’s up with [using an offering collection station instead of passing the plate?] And anyway, I’m not sure they have the kind of youth program we’re looking for.”

A church consumer is focused on things like,

·        How large is your children's or youth program?

·        Is there a Sunday School for my age group?

·        What kind of music program is there?

·        Is there a VBS?

And other questions or statements with a similar outlook.

I want to be clear: All those things are important, and churches neglect them to their peril. But they are not of primary importance. A church’s organization and programs are not more important than the Christ who is our only reason for being.

Author Bill Muehlenberg put it this way:[1]

The fact is that while we may be able to market the church, we cannot market Christ, the gospel, Christian character, or meaning in life. The church can offer handy childcare to weary parents, intellectual stimulation to the restless video generation, a feeling of family to the lonely and dispossessed – and, indeed, lots of people come to churches for these reasons. But neither Christ nor his truth can be marketed by appealing to consumer interest, because the premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s need is sovereign, that the customer is always right, and this is precisely what the gospel insists cannot be the case.

To anyone who may be church shopping, I pray God will guide you and suggest that you ask these questions of this or any church, its people, and its pastor:

·        Is this a congregation where I can find help in moving on to Christian perfection?

·        Are the people of this church taking dominion over sin and will they help me do the same?

·        Are they being filled with the pure love of God, and may I also be filled here?

·        Is this a congregation centered on Christ? Are these a people for whom Christ is so real that they live all their lives to his glory?

If the answer to those questions is predominantly affirmative, then looking at programs and activities may be a next step. But if the answer is no, then a church’s programs and activities don’t much matter.

Falling into the disciples’ error is before us and every church daily. So, let us pray that we remain focused not on what has Jesus ever done for us, but how we may grow together in holiness to serve the Lord and his kingdom no matter the benefits or costs to ourselves.

The disciples became apostles through Christ’s resurrection and his commandment to go into the world to proclaim the Good News. They learned their lessons superbly well. Never in their letters or epistles do we read any hint of consumerist Christianity. In fact, all but John were martyred for their faith, and John died in exile. Among the apostles, "What has Jesus ever done for us?" is never asked in anticipation, but with thanksgiving, as in Ephesians chapter 1:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will ... 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. ...

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

This is the Spirit that should live within all of us and should be the main attraction to people seeking a congregational home. We can market our church but must not. We cannot market Christ; we can only give witness to our redemption through him and his forgiveness of our sins. And that is where we find what unites Christian people together as brothers and sisters with Christ and adopted children of God. We are not united by the bumper stickers we place on our cars, not by the political causes we support or oppose, not by our careers or credentials. We are united by loving God and one another and living according to the mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

What has Jesus ever done for us? More than we can ever imagine. Perhaps we also should set our face toward Jerusalem, determined to stay faithful to the call of Christ no matter the cost, understanding what the apostles did: It’s not about us.

Let us then ask the Lord to strengthen in us and all Christians faith in Christ, the Savior of the world. Please join me in our Litany for Christian Unity, number 556 in your hymnal:

Let us ask the Lord to strengthen in all Christians' faith in Christ, the Savior of the world.

Listen to us, O Lord.

Let us ask the Lord to sustain and guide Christians with his gifts along the way to full unity.

Listen to us, O Lord.

Let us ask the Lord for the gift of unity and peace for the world.

Listen to us, O Lord.

Let us pray together:

We ask you, O Lord, for the gifts of your Spirit.

   Enable us to penetrate the depth of the whole truth,

       and grant that we may share with others

            the goods you have put at our disposal.

Teach us to overcome divisions. Send us your Spirit

   to lead to full unity your sons and daughters in full charity,

       in obedience to your will; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

"May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." 

Romans 15.5-7:

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Prayer and suffering, Luke 18:1‑8

Luke 22:39; 41-42 – Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 41 He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."

Here is a meditation on this passage by author Amanda Witt.

   Listen to the phrasing of our prayers: Please heal her – but if not, then your will be done. Please give me a job – but if not, your will be done. Please bring home my lost child – but if not, your will be done.

   We are praying humbly. We are saying that we know that God knows better than we do. But many times our phrasing seems to imply that God's will is always the bad thing – malignancy, poverty, bereavement. We speak as if we think God wants to hurt us, and if we're lucky he'll give us our way and not wreak his terrible will on us.

"Too often," wrote Thomas Merton, "the conventional conception of ‘God's will’ as a sphinx‑like and arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, leads people to lose faith in a God they cannot find it possible to love.”

That is the center of the problem of prayer and suffering. Merton continued, “We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening ....

 When we understand ... we will learn to take the risks implied by faith, to make the choices that deliver us from our routine self and open to us the door of a new being, a new reality.

When Christ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane to be spared the agony of the cross and concluded, 'Yet not my will, but yours,' it turned out that God's will was indeed terrible to behold. Sometimes it will be so in our own lives. Yet even in such circumstances we must remember, as Christ surely remembered, that we pray for God's will to be done because His will is the best, most wonderful thing that could happen to us, even if it is also the most terrible thing we can imagine (Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation).

Let us pray:

Great and holy God, creator of the universe and author of every good work, we praise you for giving us the gift of prayer, that we may approach you confidently. Let us pray from our minds, Lord, that our thoughts may be true and holy. Let us pray from our hearts, Lord, that our souls may be filled with love. Let us pray without ceasing, Lord, that when you come again, you will find faith on the earth. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Are you familiar with the story of the persistent widow? She was an elderly, United Methodist woman whom we’ll call Matilda. She was not able to do all the maintenance that her house needed over time, so she asked her church’s lay leader to arrange for some men of the church to come over and help her out. Time went by and no men came by, so she asked again with no result. Finally, she started calling him on the phone at various times of the day or evening, ignoring his pleas to leave him alone. At last, he could not take it anymore and just to get her to be quiet he persuaded several men to go to her house one Saturday.

They did do a lot of work. The cleaned out her gutters and cut dead branches off some trees. They repainted some places inside and out and weeded her garden. They edged her sidewalks and sprayed grass killer on her driveway and replaced burned out eave lights, and much more.

The next day Matilda was not in church. And the week after that she was not there. When she was absent on the third Sunday the lay leader asked Matilda’s best friend if Matilda was all right.

“Oh, she’s fine,” came the reply. “But she told me that ya’ll made her house look so upscale that she decided to join the Episcopal church.”

Well, that’s one story of a persistent widow. Jesus told one, too.

Luke 18:1‑8

1 And he told them a parable to illustrate that they ought always to pray without giving up. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who had no regard for God or the opinions of others. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice in my lawsuit.’ 4 For a while he brushed her off, but finally he said to himself, ‘Though I don’t care what God or other people think, this widow keeps bothering me. So I will rule in her favor so she will quit pestering me to death.”

6 And the Lord said, “If even that sinful judge says that, 7 don’t you think that God will give justice to his people, who call to him all the time? Do you think he will drag his feet over their prayers? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them right away! Even so, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

In this passage Jesus is not comparing God to the unjust judge. He is contrasting God with the judge. The widow had to pester the judge for a long time before she finally wore him down, but Jesus says that God does not drag his feet over our prayers.

I have corresponded for about 20 years with a writer named Gerard Vanderleun who once wrote an essay why prayers are answered -- or aren’t, as the case may be. The main thrust of Gerard's essay concerns God's workload. "He's one God who is running a very big universe," wrote Gerard. 

Perhaps He's got the whole thing franchised and He's running thousands of universes in a host of different dimensions, all with local variations to the main menu. We don't know. We can't know. But if you grant even one universe to this one God, you've got to admit this would be a very busy Supreme Being. Even being omnipotent and omnipresent and omniscient, You'd still have an In Box beyond the human mind's capacity for bogglement. ...

The final upshot is that, even if God just steps away from his desk for a quick trip to heaven's free beverage machine, when He gets back, he's confronted with at least 4,675,839 prayers presented as pink ‘While You Were Out Slips.’

I submit that even the most omnipotent God cannot deal with incoming requests at this rate. ...

To me this is the most obvious reason that some prayers are answered while most are not. It's simply a question of time and resources, even for God.

Does it really happen this way? I will readily grant that prayers come to God at a rate that we can but poorly imagine – Gerard mentions a scene in the movie Bruce Almighty where Bruce, an ordinary man to whom God gives his divine power for a weekend, is so overwhelmed monitoring the prayer board that he freaks out and hits the "yes to all" button, which causes no end of turmoil in the world because the millions of prayers include requests for unholy things or vast contradictions among them. 

It will not do to hide behind the old cliché that "God does answer every prayer, it's just that often the answer is no." That's not what Gerard is getting at. He is addressing why so many prayers apparently get no answer at all. They are, as far as mere humans can tell, simply ignored. Why?

 That prayers come too fast, too many even for God to handle is a reason I cannot accept. Here's why. The eleventh-century English theologian Anselm of Canterbury defined God simply as “that than which no greater can be conceived." This insight has stood the test of time quite well. After all, if there is a Supreme Being, then that being must be, well, Supreme. There can be no greater.

So if God, the Creator of the universe, is unable to keep up with the workload of managing it, then I would not say that God is doing the best he can. I would say that the entity so described is not God.

Why are so many prayers apparently unanswered? "Apparently" is a sort of dodge, of course, because most of us understand that some prayers get answered in ways we may not recognize. God is not always obvious in his works. Answers to prayers are often subtle.

But that understanding can't be used every time. There are tragedies or suffering that can force us to confront a core issue of faith: if God seems not to heed prayers of the most crucial kind, then exactly why should we believe the Scriptures, which say that we can approach God with confidence? How could Jesus have claimed that God responds quickly to our prayers?

Of course, we do not ask such questions outside of the tragic. No one who gets a promotion and raise at work sees it as evidence of God' absence and then decides to throw Jesus under the bus.

It is in suffering that we tend to see God as inscrutable or indifferent when our prayers seem to be ignored. How often have I heard platitudes such as, "God does not put on us more than we can bear," which is nowhere taught in the Bible, or, "God must have some reason for this," which presents God as a sphinxlike, arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, as Merton said. Do we really think we are pawns pushed around by incomprehensible, divine capriciousness?

Jesus had little patience with the idea that God snuffs out people arbitrarily or even as punishment. In Luke 13 Jesus commented on two recent tragedies. One was that Pontius Pilate had ordered the slaughter of some Galileans who were making their sacrifices. Then there was a building that collapsed and killed eighteen people. Do you think they were worse sinners or guiltier than everyone else? Jesus asked. He answered, “I tell you, no... .”

If tragedy is God’s punishment for sin, the obvious question is, Where would God stop? With the righteous? Jesus refuted the idea that the righteous will not suffer; in fact, he promised it as a consequence of righteousness!

After an Indian ocean tsunamis killed almost a quarter million people in 2004, British journalist Gerard Baker observed the triumphant shouts of the new-atheist movement that the disasters proved God does not exist. Baker wrote (abridged):

   We ask: why would God allow such suffering? A perfectly legitimate question, of course. We know all too well that undeserved pain, injury, disease, and loss of life are daily facts of life for hundreds of millions of people on the planet.

   If, then, what the atheists are attacking is the notion of an all‑seeing, all‑powerful benign deity, constantly engaged in and altering the tide of human events, they do not need a tsunami to prove their point. The knowledge that just one child somewhere was dying of cancer would bring the whole fantasy crumbing down.

   Put it this way: imagine for a moment, that there were not only no earthquakes, floods and storms, but that there was no innocent suffering and never had been in the history of the earth. Imagine if, every time a faulty gene was on its way to being transmitted to an unborn child, the hand of God dipped in and the gene was corrected. Imagine God frantically circling the globe redirecting every train headed for a faulty bridge, reprogramming every failed computer in a hospital operating theatre, and printing money every time some undeserving chap got down on his luck.

   Imagine, in other words, if everyone since the beginning of time lived to a ripe old age and died in his bed.

   Such a fair, challengeless world might be a wonderful place to live. But I don’t think that it would be recognisably human. If we have reason to doubt the point of our existence in this world, surely we would understand it even less in that one. And if I were God, and had created Man, I am not quite sure that I would see the point either.

That we should be extremely reluctant to blame God for our suffering does not mean that God is absent from our suffering. Both testaments see suffering as part of human life. Jesus said so too: “In this world you will have trouble,” he said. “But take heart! I have overcome the world!”

Over time – and it was frankly a long time – I came to an understanding that for the most urgent issues of life and death, God has already answered our prayers long ago. Heal my wife's cancer, my child's leukemia, my heart disease – these are serious concerns to be sure, for which a miracle would be welcomed indeed. Yet I cannot justify praying for that which the Scriptures offer no support. There is nothing in the Bible promising God's people a pass on the tragedies of life. Of course, I do pray for healing of the sick and I do pray for the lives of those facing death. Yet, in grappling with the many cases I have encountered, I had to understand that God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing favors for which prayers are the currency. God is Lord of both life and death, and as Paul wrote, there is nothing in life or in death that can separate us from the love of God for us in Christ Jesus. That is itself an answer already given to many prayers. Though the sufferings of this life are real, they are not permanent. In a profound way, our prayers in such times have been permanently answered already in the incarnation, work, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

With that assurance, the more years I spend in prayer, the less I pray, or see the point in praying, mostly for God to do something, doggone it and the more I pray for God to lead me to do something. I pray less that God will conform to my desires or needs of the moment, no matter how pressing they may be, but that I and others concerned in the prayer‑situation be conformed more to God in the likeness of Christ. And that fact is itself an answer, already given, to many prayers, though the sufferings of this life remain real. They just do not remain permanent.

Yet more is necessary, I think. Prayer is only one part of engaging God. In the movie Forrest Gump, there is a character named Lieutenant Dan. He lost both legs in Vietnam and, embittered by his life, finally joins his old subordinate, Gump, in running a shrimp boat off the Louisiana coast. Dan scoffs at Gump's simple faith and sarcastically tells him to pray for shrimp. One day they are caught at sea by a violent storm that threatens to sink the boat. But Dan refuses to seek shelter in the boat’s cabin. He remains high on the mast with the whipping rain and lightning all around, shaking his fist to the storm and yelling at God, "Is this the best you can do?"

Lieutenant Dan is unable to dismiss God as delusion, even though it would be so much easier to do so. He is determined to confront God as God, even to defy God if that is what it takes to encounter him deeply. The two men and their boat survive the storm and over time, Dan finally finds his peace with God.

So many of us decline to encounter God except in storms of life or in pro‑forma occasions such as a minute of silence now and then. We should remember that the prayers of our lips are to be buttressed by godly living for godly purposes. It surely can be no wonder that God refuses to acknowledge prayers seeking his miracles when we so consistently fail to acknowledge his call to us for our daily service. Just as Jesus in the garden, we find that maturity in prayer is not about God doing what we want, but about being willing and empowered to do what God wants even if it makes us recoil. We need remember that the worst thing that can happen to us is not the last thing that will happen to us because Christ has died, Christ is risen, thanks be to God.

The conundrum of life‑as‑prayer is that we come less and less to ask God for a performance as for his presence – come what may. Finally, we realize that God with us and us with God is all the answer God may give us and is sufficient for our need.

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...