Tag Archives: Lent

“Look and Live”

Gospel Lesson: John 3:14-21 (NRSV)

14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

On this day in the year 44 BC, as he was on his way to the Theatre of Pompey, Julius Caesar is said to have encountered a seer who had cautioned him that harm would befall him on the Ides of March.  According to the ancient Roman biographer Plutarch, Caesar, who believed that the prophecy had failed to come true, quipped that “The ides of March have come.” The seer is said to have responded by saying “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”[i] And a short while later, Caesar is murdered by members of the Roman Senate. This assassination is said to have led to the downfall of the Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

William Shakespeare retells this moment in history in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, giving the seer one of the most well-known lines of all time, “Beware the Ides of March!”[ii] Though few remember what the Ides of March actually are, these words have become synonymous with a call to heed the warnings we have received.  The very fact that they have remained a part of our popular culture more than four hundred years after the bard first wrote them reveals a great deal about human nature.  Our history is filled with moments when we have failed to see the signs in front of us.

Even today, as we read our Old Testament lesson from the Book of Numbers, we see yet again the human propensity to disregard signs of caution and warning.  At Mount Hor, the whole congregation of Israel mourned the passing of their priest for thirty days.  Aaron died on top of that mountain as punishment for his rebellion against God at the water of Meribah.[iii]  And yet, when they had scarcely left the mountain behind, they sinned against God once again.

The impatient people groaned against the Lord and Moses, complaining about the manna that God had provided to sustain the assembly.  In response to their complaints, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among them, killing many of the Jewish people.  The snake was a fitting punishment, given that this was the same creature that had led Adam and Eve to share in the original sin.[iv]  Having been cursed by God to leave the garden as enemies, it is fitting to see serpents set against God’s people out in the wilderness.

The “Nehushtan” has continued to stand as a symbol for healing, which is incorporated into the modern Star of Life that is frequently displayed by emergency services.

But in a demonstration that the Lord’s love and mercy exceed God’s anger, God answers Moses’ prayer on behalf of the people, who have recognized their sin and now seek to be saved from the punishment being carried out among them.  And in doing so, the Lord’s sovereignty is demonstrated when God takes the object of the people’s destruction and turns it into the means of their salvation.  From that moment on, whenever the sting of the serpent bite threatened their lives, the people had but to have faith in their God and to look to the bronze serpent on the pole, so that they might live.

This is the tale that Jesus remembers during his evening conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  Even as they recognized the power of Jesus, demonstrated through the “signs” that he performed, the Jewish leaders struggled to understand the message that this Rabbi had come to teach.  And so, Jesus seeks to reveal to Nicodemus the will of God in this present moment by reminding him of the history between the covenant people and their God.  If they remember the lesson of the bronze serpent, then they might come to understand the truth of Jesus’ mission.

The long-held expectation was that the Messiah would come and deliver God’s people by leading an army to victory, destroying the evil that oppressed them.  But as Jesus reveals, God’s love is for the whole world.  And the presence of the “Son of Man” in the world shows that God has once again taken a symbol of destruction and used it for salvation.  This time, the one who was to be raised up would not only offer salvation to the people of Israel, but to the people of every nation, so “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

But if we would claim to believe in Jesus, we cannot just look at Christ “lifted up” from the tomb in the glory of the Resurrection or even to the majestic Son who is “lifted up” to take his place at his Father’s right hand in the majesty of the Ascension.  No.  To believe in Jesus is to look upon our Lord “lifted up” on the cross in the humiliating moment of death.  For it is only in looking upon Christ crucified that we shall live.

Look and live.  It’s a message that we teach our children in so many ways.  We teach them to look both ways before crossing the street.  We tell our girls and boys to watch out around the stove or the ironing board so that they don’t get burned.  We caution them as they play to be aware of the dangers posed by staircases or swimming pools or strangers.  Time and again, we encourage our young ones to look around and to be aware of the danger they are in.  And yet, it never fails to amaze me how quickly children learn to ignore our warnings.

This occurred to me the other day when I was trying to get Rebecca to slow down.  During what I describe as “the witching hour” (that hour before dinner time when both of our children seem to have a burst of hyperactivity), Rebecca kept running into the kitchen where I am constantly afraid that she will slip and fall on the hard linoleum floor.

Pursuing her into the kitchen, I knelt down and caught her up in my arms.  I tried to calmly explain why it was important for her to stay in the carpeted areas while we prepare supper.  But at two years old, my daughter has already figured out that she can turn her head away and close her eyes when she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.  And as frustrating as that moment was, I realize just how aggravated God must be when we who are God’s children do essentially the same thing when confronted by the light of Christ.

Seeing the light of God now lifted up on that pole, many would rather turn their heads away and close their eyes.  They prefer to continue in disobedience, choosing to dwell in darkness where they don’t have to face the evil in their own lives.  This is the tragic act of a people who have failed to see Christ crucified for who he truly is.  Jesus is the light whom God calls us to look upon so that we might live.

But the Good News for those who are willing to face the light of Christ is that the cross not only reveals our sinfulness, but it also shines light on the redemptive work of God that is taking place in and through us.  As we claim faith in Jesus, we reflect his light into the world.  In doing so, we ensure that there is no place that the light of Christ does not reach.

So friends, as we march onward in these final weeks of Lent, our ongoing task is to examine how we reflect that light of Christ.  Are we shining examples of God’s love and Christ’s grace?  As we meet others, do we welcome them into a more illuminating experience of belief, through which they too might not only step out of the darkness of their own lives but also look to Christ and become reflections themselves?  If we love the light that shines forth from Jesus, do we orient ourselves to that light to maximum effect?

The “mirrored microscope”, bane of many a 10th grade biology student!

It’s kind of like that microscope that I remember using in high school biology.  It was one of the older style ones that required infuriating precision in directing its little mirror.  It seemed to take forever to get the lens just right, so that I could see anything at all.  Once I was able to properly direct the light, it seemed to open up a whole world that I had never been able to see before.  And yet, it was a world that had been there all along.

That is the opportunity that we have today, Brothers and Sisters.  We may constantly work to better adjust ourselves to reflect Christ’s light.  And as we do so, the view of a whole new world becomes increasingly sharper for all who believe.  What emerges is nothing less than the true and everlasting life that has been here among us all along.  All we had to do was to look and live.

So today and everyday, let us be dedicated to looking with open eyes so that we might see the light of Christ, which shines down upon us from the cross.  May we go forward aware that there are still many in this world who stumble about in darkness, yet long to see the light.  For those people, may the words of our mouths, the prayers that fill our hearts, and the actions of our hands and feet all serve to reorient them so that they too might step into the light.  And as the light of Christ is shared with the whole world, let us give thanks for the Gospel truth that through God’s only Son, everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen.

[i] From page 66 of “Julius Caesar”, one of Plutarch’s volumes in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

[ii] The soothsayer offers this warning to Caesar in Act 1, Scene 2.

[iii] Numbers 20:22-29

[iv] Genesis 3

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 15, 2015 (The Fourth Sunday in Lent).

“Pardon Our Dust”

Gospel Lesson: John 2:13-22 (NRSV)

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

The scene that John describes actually sounds an awful lot like a cliché moment featured in countless teen-focused comedies.  At some point during the movie, everyone comes together for the house party to end all parties.  Often, the bash is thrown at the home of some guy or girl whose trusting parents are conveniently out of town.  While the adults are away, their home is trashed by what must be every teenager in a twenty-mile radius.

Usually, we see the teen who lives there running around in a futile effort to put coasters under red solo cups and pick cigarette butts out of the houseplants, all while he tells the unruly partygoers that nobody is allowed upstairs.  But in our Gospel lesson, this isn’t just anyone’s house; this is the Temple of the Lord.  And Jesus isn’t about to let all of these people desecrate his Father’s house.

Coming to Jerusalem, our Lord is infuriated by what he finds there.  The Temple looks less like the holy dwelling place of the one God and more like a common bazaar.  The sanctity of the place is violated by merchants who loudly barter with pilgrims over the price for a cow or sheep or dove.  While they’ve come to make a sacrifice to the Lord, the travelers figure that there’s no reason they shouldn’t get a deal on the sin offering that they present.

A silver shekel from 66 C.E.

Meanwhile, the sound of clinking coins is amplified in the courtyard.  Because of the images that were engraved on them, Roman coins were regarded as idolatrous and thus could not be used to offer tithes or to purchase sacrificial animals.  But fortunately, the money changers would gladly exchange Imperial currency for Jewish coins, for a small fee.

All of these things make the Temple look less like a sanctified place to commune with the Almighty and more like a common stock exchange.  And having seen and heard more of this sacrilege than he can bear, Jesus’ temper boils over in a way that we don’t see elsewhere in the Gospel.  As he fervently drives all of the livestock out and overturns the money changers’ tables, he thoroughly disrupts the commercial market that had been profiting so well from the Temple.

And as we witness Jesus in truly rare form, the sight might make us a little nervous or even afraid.  After all, this isn’t the way we are used to thinking about our Lord.  More often, we see him as the Good Shepherd who lovingly carries the exhausted lamb on his shoulders.  But here, we are faced with the harsh reality that sometimes that same shepherd has to take up the task of violently driving away the lions.  And though Jesus’ response seems out of character with the depiction we normally have, his own disciples are reminded of the words of Psalm 69:9: “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.”  Though the Gospel writer doesn’t mention it, the second part of this verse states that “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”  In their offense against his Father, the money changers and the animal sellers have all personally insulted Jesus.

But the Jewish leaders believe that Jesus is out of line.  What right does this itinerant rabbi from Galilee think he has to come into the Temple and disrupt the well-maintained practices for efficiently and economically providing for the worship needs of the Jewish people?  Who does he think he is to claim the Temple as his “Father’s house?”  If he is going to make such bold demands, the leaders expect him to provide them with a sign to justify his actions.

But as he often refuses to do in John’s Gospel, Jesus does not speak plainly here.  The sign he offers is one that would only be understood by his disciples after his resurrection.  In the moment, the Jewish leaders think that Jesus is truly asking them to tear down the Temple, so that he can rebuild it in an unfathomable three days.

Many of us probably feel like we have had to endure some unending construction projects in our lives.  After a while, we just accept the traffic delay in roadwork sites as a normal part of our daily commute.  When we see those barrier walls that never seem to come down, marked with “Pardon our dust” signs, we eventually stop wondering if the construction happening on the other side will ever be completed.  But of course, at some point, the work does end and the finished project is made available for all to enjoy.

Not so with the Temple reconstruction. Having already been underway for forty-six years at the time when our Gospel lesson is recorded, the Herodian temple would never be completely rebuilt.  It was a continual work in progress up until the moment it was destroyed during the Roman sack of Jerusalem in the year 70.  Such grand construction projects, which were the hallmark of many ancient empires, required the devotion of massive amounts of time, labor, and resources.  So the suggestion that one man could rebuild such a landmark as the Temple in a mere three days was utterly preposterous.

David Roberts’ 1850 painting, “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans”.

Yet, what Jesus is truly proposing is even more unimaginable for the Jewish leaders.  In speaking of himself as the Temple, our Lord reveals that he knows both of his coming death and of the bodily resurrection that would follow.  And though he does not reveal it here, the greatest miracle comes in the ability of Jesus to share in this resurrection with all who repent and have faith in him.

But if we are to be built up with Christ on Easter morning, we must first welcome our Lord into these broken temples of our bodies.  We must ask God to “pardon our dust” so that our old broken selves might be replaced with that which is new and incorruptible.  In this act of repentance, God comes through the Holy Spirit to cast out the iniquities that marr us in body, mind, and spirit.  Just as Jesus sought to rid the sacred temple space of that which was common, God drives from us the things common to this world, so that we each might become a dwelling place worthy of the Lord.

The end result is something so thoroughly different, it is as though God had razed us to the ground and rebuilt us completely anew.  No longer shall our devotion to the Lord share space in our hearts with our selfish desires or with the conflicting interests of the world around us.  In the temple that God erects in the faithful Christian, there shall dwell no one but the Lord alone.

But today, as we continue on this Lenten journey, we must confess that we are far from the perfect structures that we long to become.  Each of us is called in this season of penitence to come to the Lord in prayer, so that God might reveal that which may be repaired and that which is simply to be driven out.  Often, it is easier to identify the latter.

We hear the commandments of God, first spoken to Moses, and quickly identify them as the Law by which all else must be judged.  God’s word calls us to oppose that within us which would drive us to idolatry, hatred, violence, dishonesty, and covetousness.  Such things are wholly impure and have no place in God’s presence.

However, our greatest struggles often come as we try to identify the places where we need to ask God to do some renovation.  We pray for health, but we struggle to keep up a good diet, to exercise regularly, to heed the instructions of our physicians, or abstain from the vices that degrade our bodies or minds.  We pray for God to intervene on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden, but we foolishly picture ourselves relatively unempowered to serve them ourselves.  We worship God on Sunday morning, yet we are ashamed to uphold Christian values of unmitigated love for neighbor, or the unending pursuit of peace, or the call to share God’s Good News of salvation, all because we don’t want to be labeled as zealots.

In moments like these, when we are struggling to be moved from contemplation to action, we need to ask God to come in and to cleanse these temples, so that we might be filled with the same zeal that overtook our Lord Jesus.  Today, we need to come before the Lord, asking God to “pardon our dust”—to forgive us of our failures and our shortcomings.  As we do so, let us give thanks for the promise that even as we might be reduced to rubble as a consequence of our sin, God’s restoration at work through Christ means that we who believe shall be built up again.  We shall be resurrected.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen.

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 08, 2015 (The Third Sunday in Lent).

“My Own Worst Enemy”

Gospel Lesson: Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV)

31 Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

While you wouldn’t know it by talking with me now, I used to dread the idea of having children.  When I was much younger, I thought of children as being these noisy, messy, needy, disruptive little creatures with whom I wanted little to do.  Even Scripture described children as being a pain for their parents from the moment they entered the world.  When I read those words in Genesis, describing the punishment that women must bear by enduring pain through childbirth, my thought was “Why would anybody want to go through this just to bring a child into the world?  Why would I want to put somebody  I love through this sort of pain?”

Of course, this was an awfully immature attitude toward children; just about as immature as Peter’s attitude toward his Lord’s revelation of what is to come.  As Jesus walks with his disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi, he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?”  When Peter answers, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus sternly warns them not to reveal what they know.

And yet, our Teacher now believes that his pupils are ready to learn a new lesson.  As they continue on, Jesus explains what it truly meant for him to be the Messiah, God’s chosen one.  The victory that their Lord had been sent to accomplish would not be won through the defeat of Roman forces.  Rather, it would come through Jesus’ own “great suffering.”  And though he reveals to his disciples that his death is a necessary part of God’s plan for salvation, Peter isn’t willing to hear any more of this.  And so, he misses out on the really Good News, which is found in the final victory of God over death through the resurrection.

Thinking back to my juvenile attitude toward children, I recognize how preposterous it was to think that the pain of childbirth couldn’t be worth the result.  Of course, in that moment, as Kara was bringing our children into the world, I wish that I could have taken this pain away from her.  But I couldn’t.  It wasn’t within my power to do so.


The look on Kara’s face says it all, as she embraces our newborn daughter!

Thankfully, the pain is only momentary. And when it passes, life will never be the same for the parents who endured it.  If you ask a mother whether or not the suffering is worth the reward, most often you will hear an unhesitant “Yes!”

This is the same attitude that Jesus has as he faces his own walk toward the cross.  Our Lord does not deny that the path ahead is an agonizing one.  And yet, he is focused not on the temporary moment of his suffering.  Rather, he is fixed on the eternal joy that he shall experience in the new life, shared with all the faithful, when he is reborn from the tomb.

But in order for him to continue on this path, Jesus must first convince Peter to step out of the way.  The disciple’s defiance, while misguided, is ultimately an act of love and devotion.  Peter has given his life over to Jesus, and now, he would do anything to keep his Teacher from harm.  But sadly, his interference poses a much greater threat than the cross.

When Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to reprimand him, our Lord commands his pupil: “Get behind me, Satan!”  While it sounds as though Jesus is insulting someone who loves him greatly, his intention is to call the disciple to recognize the role he has taken on.  As we saw last week, Jesus has already encountered Satan and overcome the temptations that had been laid before him.  And now, Peter is taking on this same role.  But Peter is not just playing the tempter for Jesus.  Peter is tempting himself.  In this moment, though he doesn’t know it, he is his own worst enemy.

By “setting [his] mind not on divine things but on human things,” Peter has unwittingly laid a snare before his Lord.  However, Jesus is not about to be caught in this trap.  In ordering Peter to “Get behind me!” our Lord reminds his disciple of his place.  If Peter would remember what it means to be Jesus’ disciple, he will see that it is not his place to take Jesus aside or to stand in his way.  His place is to follow close behind.

And this is exactly what Jesus proclaims to his disciples and to the larger crowd.  Discipleship demands more than simply stepping aside and letting Jesus pass.  If we want to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to go where he is going and do what he is doing.  And yes, that does mean that we have to be willing to take up our own crosses, to endure suffering, rejection, ridicule, and even death.  If we are disciples of the Lord, we must be willing to follow him, even into the tomb.

And if we are honest with ourselves, aren’t we already there?  If we look at the world around us—filled with so much anger and hate, so much needless suffering and pain, so much death—is it really that hard to see that death is already here among the living?  Even if it hasn’t claimed our lives yet, death has certainly laid claim to the world.  So, why are we fighting so hard to hold onto this deathly existence?

Perhaps like Peter, we struggle to see the promise of the resurrection through the darkness of the tomb.  Perhaps we have been in this darkness for so long that we have actually become comfortable with it.  Why risk the unknown of the resurrection life when we can become quite prosperous in this deathly existence?

Like Peter, we each become our own worst enemies. When we question the value of the pain that Jesus is willing to endure, we actually become the heavy stone that is rolled across the doorway; we are the ones who hold ourselves captive in this tomb.  When we choose to pursue the temptations of this world, we accept a lesser vision than the one that God has in the plan of redemption.

A view from the inside of a garden tomb at Bethpage. The large stone to the right would be rolled in front of the entryway to serve as a door.

But today, Jesus invites us to hear the Gospel and to give up this life for the sake of this good news: we are being called to come out of this tomb and to take our places at this table.  At this table, all who come unashamed are nourished through the body that is broken and the blood that is poured out.  Here, we remember that even when faced with the temptation to step away, Jesus steps forward.  And here, he invites us to step forward with him.

So now, let us take our place behind the Teacher.  As he leads us out along the path to the cross, let us follow in faith.  May his path lead us through lands where we might join him in sharing the Good News, witnessing through acts of love and compassion.  As others witness us on our journey, may they be come to learn of the Good News, so they too might stop being their own worst enemies, standing in the way.  And as we march on, may we who would follow Jesus take up our crosses in the assurance that the one who shall save us from these devices of death leads the procession into everlasting life.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen. (Philippians 2:9-11)

This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 01, 2015 (The Second Sunday in Lent).