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Monday, 29 October 2018

Luke 15:1-10 Finding the Lost

Back when I was 15 and in Air Cadets, we were on a winter survival weekend just outside Thunder Bay, when my best friend, Pat and I decided to take the snowmobiles out for a spin on the lake after dinner on a cloudy really dark night. As we skimmed along the snow and ice of the lake, we enjoyed the brisk winter night until we decided to head back to camp and realized that we had gotten ourselves turned around and couldn’t find the camp anymore. We tried to follow our tracks back, but because there were so many tracks criss-crossing all over the lake, that didn’t help. As we drove around the lake, Pat suddenly spotted a light shining in the dark, waving back and forth. Our captain had gone out onto the ice and was waving a spot-light into the night sky to bring us back. When we drove up, the captain was freezing from standing in the bitter cold, but he didn’t curse us or even punish us, he was simply happy that we were back safely. As I let this story of Jesus and the Pharisees settle into my heart this week, this memory of my captain standing there in the cold and freezing for Pat and I, wouldn’t go away. 
It was a picture of what I think Jesus is getting at here. Jesus is drawing a crowd as he travels around teaching the people about God, inviting them to trust God’s love and commitment to them, calling them to repent and believe. But it’s not the Pharisees and teachers of the law who recognize that Jesus is from God, instead it’s the sinners and tax collectors who gather around Jesus to hear what he has to say. Now for the Jews, hearing was more than simply listening, hearing means that you listen and them put what you’ve heard into action into your life.
Now the proper people, the ones who seem to have their lives all together, are muttering, “This man welcomes sinner and eats with them.” This is said with a bit of a sneer and a sense that they’re better than Jesus, what’s Jesus thinking, eating with people like that. Jesus just doesn’t seem to care about the laws God put into place to keep the nice people separate from the scummy people, Jesus doesn’t seem to understand or care about who proper people should hang around with or eat with. You need standards after-all. Jesus actually hangs out with sinners as if they were family or kin, as if they were acceptable.
So, Jesus tries to explain to the Pharisees through a series of parables why he’s with the sinners. Jesus wants to help them see why he’s hanging out with the sinners, why it’s so important. Jesus asks them to imagine that they’re shepherds. The shepherd is a common image in Jewish thought and usually refers to leaders in Israel. One of the most well known passages of the shepherd as leader comes from the prophet Ezekiel who talks about uncaring shepherds in chapter 34 and tells the people that God himself will come and seek and rescue his sheep and care for them. The idea that God is a shepherd to his people is also found in the well-loved shepherd psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not be in want.”
Jesus asks, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.’” The shepherd loses a sheep and leaves the ninety-nine sheep in a safe place where they can keep eating and goes to look for the lost sheep. This is what a shepherd does. Sheep have a natural tendency to wander away, following the grass without often being aware of any danger, going off on its own without really thinking. There’s nothing more helpless than a lost sheep: they have no natural defenses against lions, eagles, wolves or other predators. The shepherd doesn’t easily give up, he goes after the lost sheep until he finds it.
Video of looking for lost sheep
We often picture the shepherd strolling through the fields, keeping an eye out for the lost sheep. It’s always a sunny day and not too hot in our minds. We never think that it might be dangerous for the shepherd, we only see a cute lamb wandering on rolling hills, the shepherd finds the sheep, easily lifting the sheep onto his shoulders and strolling back to the flock. But the reality is different, sheep have a way of finding themselves in odd and often dangerous places. The shepherd needs to work hard and even risk his life at times to save the sheep from their own foolishness. Even while getting a sheep out of a dangerous situation, they will often fight against the shepherd. Carrying a 100 pound sheep who is struggling and wiggling on your shoulders is hard work. Do you get why the shepherd calls his family and friends together to celebrate finding the lost sheep? It takes a lot of effort to find, save and bring home a lost sheep. It’s not like walking the trails at Chickakoo and coming across a small lamb, picking it up, putting it on our shoulders and heading home; this is about a full-grown sheep in rough country needing to be found and saved.
The meaning of the parable is no secret. Even in the Old Testament, prophets like Isaiah were calling those who’ve drifted away from God lost sheep. Isaiah 53:6, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Our going astray is usually not about deliberately going out and doing what we know is wrong and hurting God, someone else or ourselves. Most of the time we’re like sheep, nose to the ground following our appetites, whether it’s food, pleasure, power, or whatever, and then, as Tim Keller says, we take the good things God gives us and make them gods, they become more important to us than Jesus. Rosario Butterfield describes how Jesus saves us his sheep, Jesus comes untouched by the original sin that distorts, the actual sin that distracts, and the indwelling sin that manipulates. Jesus is no puppet on the strings of Satan, as we too often are. And when Jesus fulfilled the law by dying on the cross and rising by his own power to sit at God the Father’s right hand, he gave his people the power to overcome the sin that enslaves them. He gave us his blood to wash away our sins, he gave us his Word to instruct and heal us, and he sent the Holy Spirit to lead us in conviction and repentance of sin and to comfort us by the assurance that his saving love is rock solid.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that he’s the good shepherd from Zechariah who has come to find the lost sheep and bring them back home and every time a person comes back to God, it’s party time, “there’s rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” The sinners that Jesus is accused of eating with are the lost that Jesus has come to find and bring home. The sinners have responded to Jesus’ call to “Come follow me, repent and believe for the kingdom of God is near.” By eating with these sinners, Jesus is giving us a small glimpse of what waits for us, a banquet feast where Jesus is our host and we’re washed clean of our sin, healed from our sin, and being reconciled to our heavenly father who is number one in our lives again.
Jesus is inviting the Pharisees and us to join him in seeking the lost and bringing them home to the father again. This isn’t easy clean work, it’s hard, messy and sometimes dangerous; talk to our brothers and sisters in places like Syria, Egypt and other countries who have given their lives when going after the lost. We may get discouraged because we don’t see any results and yet we also believe that when God works in their lives, calling them to himself, that they’re unable to resist his call on their hearts, so we don’t give up. We’re called to go and make disciples because we deeply love our neighbours and want them to be with us at Jesus’ banquet. This is all about bringing home the lost, those who have forgotten that they’re children of God, loved deeply by their father. When the Holy Spirit moves them to accept Jesus as their shepherd, as their saviour, what an amazing time to celebrate!

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Luke 17:11-19 Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving Day

Harvard Health magazine writes, “Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.” It also has health benefits including being “strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”
Gratitude is a virtue and shows us a lot about where our hearts and souls are at. We see this especially in this story about 10 lepers who meet Jesus. Leprosy is an infectious disease that causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness that gets worse over time. People feared leprosy in Jesus’ time and lepers were isolated from everyone else, considered unclean and not allowed in the temple. People believed that leprosy was God’s punishment for sins. In this simple story we see people who are outsiders and who respond to Jesus with faith, the belief and trust in things unseen, as Hebrews puts it. Reading this story in Jesus’ life, I tried looking at it as if I was one of the lepers.
The sun is out and the day is hot. We’re sitting together, all us lepers and we can see people going and coming from the village. We don’t want to admit it to each other, but deep inside we’re hoping to see some of our loved ones, praying to our God that they are doing alright since we can’t take care of them or protect them. Life hasn’t gone the way we thought and each of us keeps looking back at our lives wondering what we did that was so wrong and evil that God has decided to punish us with this dreaded disease that has caused everybody, including our families to reject us and cast us out. Even though there are 10 of us here, we each suffer alone knowing that our life and death is going to be painful and filled with great suffering. Then we see a group of people coming towards the village and one of the other lepers cries out that it’s Jesus, he knows this because he had seen Jesus before and heard him teach about God, but he had also heard a story that Jesus had actually healed another leper, that he actually touched the leper when he healed him. Can it be that Jesus isn’t afraid of leprosy? If he can heal me, that means Jesus has power from God to heal and in healing us shows us that God forgives us from the horrible sin that brought this disease on us.
Suddenly there’s hope, we climb to our feet and move towards the road to the village so we can all out to Jesus, praying to God Almighty that he will hear us and have pity on us. We can see some of them notice us and draw away from us in fear and horror and we begin to cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” Will Jesus hear us, will he help us, can he help us, was the story true? So many questions go through my head as we see Jesus stop. As Jesus stops, we stop shouting, waiting to hear him. “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus tells us. Could this mean, is it possible that our leprosy is gone, otherwise why tell us to go to the priests.
One of the other lepers starts running to the road that goes to Jerusalem where the priests can be found, and without even thinking, I start to follow him. As I’m running down the road, I look down at my hands and the sores are gone, my feet feel healthy for the first time in a long time. Then I remember that in the excitement of everything, I had forgotten to thank Jesus. I stopped and called out to the others, but they keep running. I turn around and come to Jesus and I throw myself at his feet, tears pouring out of my eyes, it’s the first time since I discovered I had leprosy that I could come close to someone not cursed by God. All I could say was “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The tears were choking my throat because I realized that I could come close to God in the temple, that my sins could be forgiven and washed away.
Through my tears I could hear Jesus speaking again. He asked, “Were not all 10 cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then I knew that Jesus was from God, because how else could he have known that I was the only Samaritan among the other lepers. Imagine, wonder of wonders, Jesus healed me even though I’m not even a Jew! He’s changed my life! He’s made me clean, inside and out, I’m no longer rejected, I’m accepted, and could it also mean that God accepts me too even though I’m only a Samaritan? Jesus turns to me, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” It is well with me, well with my body and well with my soul. Praise the Lord!
We’re celebrating Thanksgiving Day and as followers of Jesus we know that our greatest reason to be thankful, to be grateful to Jesus is for saving us from our sin, from the soul sickness that comes from being sinners. Jesus cleans our souls, but through faith, he also brings healing, restoration and hope into our lives. Jesus changes us, makes us well. And so we live with a spirit of gratitude because we know that we’ve done nothing to deserve God’s blessings, it’s all about God’s grace and Jesus’ unconditional love for us. Through our faith, which itself is a gift from God, we find salvation and new life and we respond with thankfulness to Jesus and give our lives over to him.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Luke 13:22-30 Belonging

When I was 13 I joined the Air Cadets and at 17 I joined the HMCS Griffon, the Naval Reserve. I joined both for the same reason, I wanted some place where I felt like I belonged, where I was accepted for who I was. Both the Air Cadets and Naval Reserve demanded my commitment and to accept their values and goals to remain part of both organizations. We all have a need inside us to belong, to know that we’re part of something, usually something bigger than us that gives us some kind of foundation in our life to move forward on. This is why kids have their secret groups with passwords and secret handshakes, this is why some teens are drawn into gangs. I’ve often found myself amazed that so many churches are shy about demanding this kind of commitment. I’ve also found that when I join something that demands my commitment, I value it more and work harder for it.
We are created to belong, yet so many people search for a place to belong. Many people struggle with feelings of being left out, not included, of not being seen or recognized, of always living life on the outside looking in to everyone else’s life filled with joy and happiness. This is why social media is so addicting, because people look into the lives of the people in their groups to see if they are being included and still part of the group. If they see others enjoying themselves and they didn’t know about it, they feel a sense of being left out and even cast out. They then might search for places and groups in their community to join and belong. Some reach out and gather a few people around them who are also looking for someplace to belong and they may use a need or cause to build a sense of community among each other so they might have a place where they belong.
There are even members in the church who experience this, wondering if they really belong, wondering if Jesus sees them, accepts them. This is the kind of the thinking and feeling that lies behind the question Jesus is asked about being saved, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” The expected answer to the question of how many people are going to be saved is, “Don’t worry, there might only be a few saved, but you are definitely one of the few.” After-all, this is Jerusalem, the place of the Temple and they’re the Jews, God’s people, so of course Jesus is going to reassure them that they belong, they’re part of God’s “in group.” But Jesus takes the conversation in a different direction, to a parable about narrow doors, a feast, and people outside who are weeping and gnashing their teeth and never really gives them a straight forward answer. Jesus doesn’t answer the question about how many people are going to be saved, but instead focuses on the who and how.
Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” My first thought is, ‘what is Jesus getting at here?’ then, as I tried to listen more carefully to what Jesus said, I begin to get some idea of what he’s getting at here. Jesus uses the phrase “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door,” and I took a look at the words Jesus uses here. ‘Make every effort’ in Greek is about striving, working towards, struggling, having a focus. Somehow it feels wrong to believe that my salvation depends on me making every effort to get in the narrow door, so Jesus must be pointing to something else instead.
We need to hear Jesus’ words that come before this. Jesus talks about repenting or perishing. Repenting is about changing our life in response to God’s grace and forgiveness. Jesus goes on to heal a woman on the Sabbath, which according to the religious leaders was wrong because it was considered work. Jesus is frustrated with these people and accuses them of caring more about their animals than about this woman. Then just before this story of the narrow door, Jesus tells the people that the kingdom of God is like yeast, starting small and growing in us. All these things point to the importance of relationships with God and with each other. Jesus is the one who saves us from our sins through his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus is the one who offers us new life, offers forgiveness and grace; the stuff Jesus wants us to strive for is a deeper relationship with him. As John 3:16 reminds us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” That’s a relationship statement, believing in someone is about trust and trust comes out of relationship.
The struggle is against our own desires, our tendency to focus on ourselves instead of Jesus because our own will is so strong. This is what Jesus is getting at when he talks about those who try to enter and will not be able to. These people are looking to get in, but there’s no real effort made, nor a deep desire beforehand. They’ll have all kinds of excuses, “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets,” but they never cared enough to actually build a relationship with the owner of the house. They want the benefits of belonging without the effort. I’ve had people say that Jesus is playing mean here by rejecting people, but if you’re looking to find a place where you belong, it happens when you respond to Jesus’ invitation to come follow him, to find your rest in him, to find your identity in him.
It’s like marriage or any other relationship that’s meaningful. You need to put effort into it; if it’s all about you, the relationship will never grow any deeper. It’s like any relationship, if you don’t work on it, if you don’t make an effort to build your relationship, it shows that either it isn’t really important to you, or you’re so self-centered you put all the responsibility for the relationship on the other person. The people Jesus is talking about heard the words of Jesus, but never took them to heart, never allowed Jesus’ way and words to shape their hearts and lives, their minds and souls. They listened and then quickly forgot because it wasn’t about them. So then because they felt entitled, they believe they should be let into the house where there’s a feast happening simply because they should be allowed in, even though they never bothered with having a deep and meaningful relationship with the owner. They want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace,’ where people believe that God is obligated to forgive them and offer them grace but they don’t need to make any effort on to respond to God’s grace. Jesus died, we’re forgiven and therefore never need to change.
A true relationship changes you. It changes you because you care so deeply about the other person that you focus more on them than on yourself. Jesus speaks in parables and calls us to listen, and when a rabbi calls you to listen, it’s expected that you will respond to what you hear. Listening is not passive, it’s active. As you change in order to please the other person, they change because you have shown that this relationship is important to you and you are invited into their heart, you find a person and place where you belong. At the heart of this parable, that’s what’s going on. The narrow door is a relationship with the owner of the mansion, the host of the feast, with Jesus and our Father in heaven. It’s about working towards allowing Jesus to shape our lives, our desires, our focus and our goals. Jesus doesn’t say how many or how few will be saved, he points to the way to experience belonging to the Father through having a relationship with Jesus. Yet when you listen, the feast is filled with people from all over who have worked at their relationship with the host and are now inside. 
The comfort comes from knowing that Jesus reaches out to you first and never gives up reaching out to you to have a deeper relationship with you because he wants you to belong, he wants you to know that the feast is for you, that the narrow door takes you home.