Monday, April 28, 2008

Sixth Sunday after Easter Year A - April 27, 2008

John 14:15-21

Jesus said to his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."

Sermon

(Opening a bag of Cheetos and starts looking inside, shaking the bag to shift the Cheetos around)

What am I doing? Why, I’m looking for Jesus, of course! Isn’t everyone?

Well, sure, most people wouldn’t expect to find Jesus in a bag of Cheetos! But just recently a youth group minister in Houston, Texas revealed “Cheesus”, a Cheeto he believes holds the image of Jesus. He found it a couple of years ago and has kept it ever since.

For centuries, people have claimed to see images of Jesus in all sorts of ordinary objects.

In 2005, people in Rochester, NY claimed to see the face of Jesus in the bark of a silver maple tree on North Clinton Ave.

In the same year, a man in Pittsburgh claimed that Jesus appeared in a stain on a plaster wall in his shower. He subsequently removed the section of plaster containing the image and sold it on Ebay for $1999.

Another Ebay member claimed miraculous intervention occurred in his life because the face of Jesus appeared on his grilled ham and cheese sandwich.

As entertaining as all this is, I don’t think that it is at all what Jesus meant when he said that he would reveal himself to those who love him and keep his commandments.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be leaving them and the world will see him no longer. But because the disciples believe in him, they will see him. But the world will not see him, because they do not believe. While most of us have heard the phrase “seeing is believing” in this case, it should be “believing is seeing.”

Jesus outlines the steps for moving from believing to seeing. First, you love Jesus and you keep his commandments. Then Jesus will send you an Advocate, which is the Holy Spirit or the spirit of truth. And when the spirit of truth dwells with you, Jesus will reveal himself to you.

If that seems a little complicated, you are not alone. Wouldn’t it have been easier for God to just show up one day and say, “Here I am…now you know that I exist and you don’t have to worry about it any more”? My guess is that God is all too aware of how the human mind works. Josh McDowell, Christian apologist, explains it this way in his book Answers to Tough Questions:

“People refuse to believe that which they don’t want to believe, in spite of evidence. When explorers first went to Australia they found a mammal which laid eggs; spent some time in water, some on land; had a broad, flat tail, webbed feet, and a bill similar to a duck.

Upon their return to England, they told the populace of this, and all felt it was a hoax. They returned to Australia and found a pelt from this animal and took it back to England, but the people still felt it was a hoax. In spite of the evidence, they disbelieved because they didn’t want to believe.”

God knows that there will always be people who do not want to believe that he exists, in spite of evidence to the contrary. There are many examples in biblical history of this. God lead the people of Israel out of Egypt through many miraculous events, yet they abandoned him at the foot of Mt. Sinai as soon as Moses left them there to seek God on the mountain. These were the people who had seen with their own eyes the parting of the Red Sea, the provision of manna and quail, as well as many other miracles. Yet, in spite of all these miracles, they still made a decision to deny God.

In the book of Deuteronomy, God speaks to the Israelites through Moses saying:

“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.”

Obviously, God is aware of our tendency to deny him in spite of evidence to the contrary. And this problem grows worse as we grow older, which is why Jesus said that in order to come to him, we needed the faith of a child. The older we get, the more we think we know. The more we think we know, the harder it is to take that leap of faith that is required to pass from believing into seeing. So how do we do this?

Alexander Maclaren was a famous 19th century Baptist preacher. He wrote:

“Important lessons are given by this alternation of the two ideas of faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience. Disobedience is the root of unbelief. Unbelief is the mother of further disobedience. Faith is voluntary submission within a person’s own power. If faith is not exercised, the true cause lies deeper than all intellectual reasons. It lies in the moral aversion of human will and in the pride of independence, which says, “who is Lord over us? Why should we have to depend on Jesus Christ?” As faith is obedience and submission, so faith breeds obedience, but unbelief leads on to higher-handed rebellion. With dreadful reciprocity of influence, the less one trusts, the more he disobeys; the more he disobeys, the less he trusts. “

When you think about this link between faith and obedience, you will see how impossible it is to have faith without submission to God’s authority. We cling to our will, not wanting to give up going our own way, making our decisions independently of what God may want us to do. By denying God’s authority over us, we become unable to believe. And because we can’t believe, we cannot see him. That is why Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” By submitting ourselves in obedience to him, we have faith that God really does know what is best for us. And our faith brings us a dividend, for by it we will receive the spirit of truth that will enable us to see Jesus.

But does that mean that we will actually get a visit from Jesus? What does it mean, to “see” Jesus?

As you come to know Jesus, as the Holy Spirit guides you to a deeper relationship with him, you probably will not see Jesus physically. In fact, I think that many people waste a lot of time trying to see Jesus physically, when instead they should be seeking him elsewhere. Have you ever noticed that none of the authors of the gospels ever described Jesus physically? We don’t know what he looked like, simply because what he looked like was not important. It was the spirit of God manifested in Jesus that was the important thing. So if we aren’t looking for the image of Jesus, how can we see Jesus these days?

The key actually lies in the reading today. Jesus says, “keep my commandments”, which surely refers to the admonition to love one another. After all, Jesus told us that the greatest of all the commandments is to “love God with all your heart and all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.” By loving our neighbor as ourselves, we will see Jesus.

No one epitomized the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves better than Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She said, "I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper's wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord Himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?"

She also said, “If now we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another. If each person saw God in his neighbor, do you think we would need guns and bombs?”

So let’s look around and see Jesus. He may be in the person in the next pew, in the driver in the car beside ours on the freeway, in the waitress taking our order at the restaurant we visit, in the nurse taking our blood pressure at the doctor’s office or in the homeless person just looking for a warm place to sleep. Sure beats looking for him in a bag of Cheetos, doesn’t it?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A, April 13, 2008

You’ll find many unbelieving people who think it’s funny that Christians refer to themselves as sheep, since sheep are supposed to be very stupid animals. To call someone a sheep is to infer that they are blind followers, people who park their brains at the door and allow themselves to be led.

But actually sheep are pretty intelligent. In fact, they are almost as intelligent as pigs, which are regarded as one of the most intelligent animals around. They have the ability to recognize human faces and will remember them for years. They can also recognize human emotion through our facial expressions. They have very good hearing and can be taught to respond to their names if you work with them for a while. And, as Jesus stated in today’s gospel reading, they can differentiate between human voices. They know the voice of their shepherd and will respond to that voice.

In today’s gospel reading, we have two kinds of shepherds: the good shepherd and the bad shepherd. The shepherd as a symbol for religious leadership is found throughout the old and new testaments of the Bible. In the 34th chapter of the book of Ezekiel we find a description of what a bad shepherd is:

1 And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? 3 You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. 6 My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.” 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 “as I live,” says the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”

The good shepherd feeds the flock. He strengthens the weak, heals those who are sick, binds up the broken, brings back what was driven away, and seeks what was lost. This good shepherd is Jesus and we are to heed his voice and his voice alone.

In Jesus’ day, the bad shepherds were the priests and Pharisees, who had bound the Jewish people so tightly to the law that it was impossible to follow. They had lost sight of what was important to God and had become bound up in rules and regulations. They had ceased to feed the flock and care for it.

In our own day, there are also bad shepherds that seek to lead the sheep astray. It can be hard to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd among the babble of voices that claim to be speaking for him. These days New Age practitioners attempt to redefine Jesus, taking away the words he spoke that they find disturbing, and remaking Jesus into a God more to their tastes. Just recently a very famous talk show host featured some of these practitioners on her show and set up an online course to introduce their teaching to a wide audience. Thousands of people are taking this course, following a voice that is not the Good Shepherd’s voice. So how do we discern the voice of our Shepherd amongst those who would attempt to lead us astray? Why are so many people unable to discern the true voice of their Shepherd?

The voice of our Shepherd is found in God’s Word. And amazingly enough, even though the average Christian owns 3 copies of the Bible, he or she may not even have read them. A recent Gallup poll indicated that only 16 percent of Christians polled read the Bible daily. According to Gallup, less than half of those claiming to be born-again Christians can list five of the Ten Commandments. Only three out of five Christians could recall the names of the first four books of the New Testament. Only half of the Christians who were polled could correctly identify the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Without a good knowledge of what Jesus actually said, how can the sheep be able to hear the voice of their Shepherd?

A good knowledge of the Bible will allow us to hear that voice clearly and to discern the falseness of teachings that do not fit in with what Jesus said. Too many times we listen to the bad shepherds who try to rewrite the bible to make it more palatable for a world that seeks to follow its own way. As God told the Israelites when he gave them the commandments in the book of Deuteronomy:

6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 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. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

By spending time reading the Bible, by studying it, either by ourselves or by participating in Bible studies, and by taking the instructions God gave to the Israelites to heart and putting Bible verses around our homes, even if it’s just a simple post-it note put on the refrigerator, we can take the voice of the Good Shepherd into ourselves, insuring that we will listen only to the voice of He who would feed us, strengthen those of us who are weak, heal those who are sick, bind up those who are broken, bring back those who were driven away, and seek those who are lost.

Today we read the Venite, which is part of Psalm 93. I think that the last few verses would be a wonderful way to remember to listen to the voice of our Shepherd:

Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee

And kneel before the Lord our Maker,

For he is our God,

And we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.

Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!