“Love the One You’re With” (a sermon for pastoral transitions) I Corinthians 3:4-9a and 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 (GNT)

Well, time is rapidly moving, and the moment of our pastoral change is almost upon us. You know, when a pastor has been with a congregation for any length of time, a bond of love develops which is hard to break. Terri and I have grown to love you all, and have been strengthened by experiencing your love shown to us. And even when I am no longer your pastor, we will still be bound together with you in love, although the nature of our relationship will change. I thank God that our friendships will continue throughout this life and eternally in heaven.

There’s is an old rock song I remember growing up (I can’t even remember who recorded it), but I think it gives some great advice for pastors and congregations that are in the midst of pastoral changes. The song offers this sage advice: “If you can’t be with the one you love, LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH.”

Well, in just two days, I will no longer be your pastor. Charley will step into that role. I am asking you to show your affection for me by supporting and loving him, the way you have supported and loved Terri and me. And in that spirit, I’d like to challenge you to be very intentional about encouraging Charley and showing your love for him and him family. There are at least twelve things you can do to demonstrate your love for your new pastor. (Turn to the back of your bulletin and find the sermon notes so you can jot down the points I will be sharing.) These twelve words of advice are the things every congregation needs to hear – they are things I share with congregations whenever I am moving. So here it goes:

1 Don’t criticize.

There is nothing that will cripple a pastor’s ministry quicker than criticism. Ministries are established on relationships and positive energy. Unfortunately, there are always a few people in every church who will find some shortcoming with every pastor who comes along and be very vocal at expressing that opinion to others in the church or community. Criticism is the most difficult thing pastors face in ministry, and it will negatively impact the tone and effectiveness of the entire congregation.

I’ve got news for you… Studies have been done that show that being a pastor is one of the most stressful vocations There is – right up There with police, air traffic controllers etc. Every single Sunday we are on display, and must perform in ways that are pleasing to 100% of the people in worship, all of whom have different ideas about what makes a great pastor. Every pastor is aware that every sermon we preach and every service we plan is being critiqued by dozens, or even hundreds of people in the pews who are making a judgment about whether or not the sermon or service measures up to THEIR expectations and preferences. Even though pastors know they can’t please everyone, we know that we will be judged on what percentage of the congregation gives us high marks, or at least, don’t give us low marks. And we know that people will vote with their feet and their checkbooks if we don’t “measure up.”

In addition, the job description of the pastor is unending. Pastors are expected to meet every member’s need, and in our spare time, minister to those outside the church AND convert the world to Christ. NO pastor, no matter how good and effective, ever meets those impossible criteria.

So, you can show your support for Pastor Charley by not holding him to unrealistic expectations – cut him some slack – show him a little grace – and he will be far more effective for Christ and serve the church with much more joy and effectiveness. So my first advice: Don’t Criticize!

2 Pray for your new pastor daily.

I want to thank every person in this church who has told me over the years that you are praying for me every day. You’ll never know how encouraging that is to your pastor. It is an encouragement because I know how powerful prayer is. Your prayers not only have sustained me in my ministry role, but your prayers for my continued health have been answered. I covet your continued prayers, not only for my health, but for my new responsibilities in my new ministry Sebastian.

But as you prepare to receive Pastor Charley, I’m asking you to commit to begin praying daily for him. Bathe him in prayer, that God will bless him, and that God will prepare the hearts of this congregation to receive him. And don’t just do it, but tell Charley that you are praying. Nothing will help your new pastor succeed quicker than being supported by prayer.

3 Express your appreciation.

As our Scripture from 1 Thessalonians tells us, when it comes to their pastors, congregations should “pay proper respect to those who work among you, who guide and instruct you in the Christian life. Treat them with the greatest respect and love because of the work they do.” Everyone needs to feel appreciated – and pastors are no different. If anything, WE need MORE affirmation than most people. You see, to counteract the negative impact of criticism, it takes a whole LOT of positive words of appreciation. And if you want to REALLY make an impact, put it in writing.

If your pastor has blessed you with him sermon, TELL HIM SO. If you appreciated his visits, let him know that. If he did an especially nice job with a wedding or funeral, drop him a thank-you note. If you pastor has qualities you admire and would like to emulate, write him a letter affirming that. (In fact, expressions of appreciation are often so rare that many pastors keep a file of these “love notes” so that they can take them out and reread them whenever they feel discouraged.)

And of course, the Staff-Parish Relations Committee should always remember to recognize your pastor during “Pastor Appreciation Month” every October. Everyone likes to be told they are doing a good job – and pastors are no different.

4 Use your skills to assist your pastor.

Because pastors focus most of their time on ministry, many of us have never mastered some of the skills that lay-people take for granted. Maybe you could help your pastor learn the computer or show him how to better care for his lawn or garden. Perhaps you have mechanical skills and could offer to change the oil in his car. Or you might be handy around the house and you might offer to do a light repairs at the parsonage. Or perhaps you know all about taxes and might let him know you’d be glad to help him complete his tax return. And why not offer to teach him to golf or to fish sometime?

These are small things, but they can give great encouragement to your new pastor – not so much because of the things you might do for him, but because they represent your friendship. Pastors often have very few real friends. Be a friend, and show him love by sharing your life with him.

5 Squelch gossip.

This should go without saying. Gossip should have no place in the church. And yet, to some extent, it exists in every congregation. Unsubstantiated stories begin to circulate, erroneous information gets passed along, and before you know it- it’s a rumor! – Great damage has been done. And when that rumor involves your pastor, it can sabotage his ministry and the overall ministry of your church. The Letter of James warns about the danger of gossip (1:26) “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues, …their religion is worthless.” So, snip all gossip in the bud!

6 Offer to meet a need in the church.

There are countless areas of ministry that need to be done in a church – yet oftentimes many of those ministries never occur because no one volunteers (thankfully, at Mims UMC, we have a good number of folks who volunteer, but still There are jobs that are left undone). When that is the case, the pastors and staff, and a handful of volunteers who are already overloaded, must do the jobs that are most essential to the life of the church.

The Scriptures tell us that God has equipped the Church for ministry by giving all believers spiritual gifts. When everyone knows their spiritual gifts AND puts them to use, the Church flourishes, and no one gets burned out. So seek to discover the way God has equipped you for ministry, and use those gifts for the cause of Christ.

Do you want to see your new pastor rejoice? Decide now that you will volunteer to meet a need in the church. Don’t make Pastor Charley resort to begging!

7 Participate fully in worship.

There are two ways you can support Pastor Charley when it comes to worship: You can make it a point to be in worship as often as possible; and when you are here, you can be fully engaged in worshiping God.

One of the sad trends in most all churches today is the decline in the regularity of worship attendance. Part of the reason is a decline in members due to the fact that people are not interested in being a part of a church the way they used to be. But, another trend is that even people who consider themselves “active,” are attending worship more and more sporadically.

Oftentimes people think no one will miss them if they don’t attend worship, especially if no one makes a fuss over them when they’ve been gone. But I can tell you – preachers notice! One author put it this way, “The empty pew has an eloquent tongue. To the preacher it says, ‘your sermon is not worthwhile.’”

Often when someone stops coming regularly, the first thing the pastor thinks is that they are unhappy with him or her (a least that’s how I feel). “Maybe they don’t like my preaching style, or my theology, or the way I put the worship together, or the hymns I choose or the way I dress or the fact that I failed to say “hello” in Walmart.” Preachers are insecure like that!

When in reality, their absence may likely have absolutely nothing to do with the preacher. Yet, because the preacher (and many in the congregation) assumes that a member is staying away because of him, he is hesitant to approach them about it. And the longer they are absent, the more troubled the preacher becomes about their absence.

So you can spare your new pastor all that “neurotic paranoia” by being regular in your worship attendance. And, if you can’t be in church for a period of time, be sure to tell your pastor why, so he won’t worry about it.

And when you are in worship, make sure you are fully engaged in praising the Lord.

Nothing is more discouraging than to stand in front of a congregation full of sour faces. Ask the choir! Most of you are attentive and engaged in worship, but some of you out there look as though you were baptized in vinegar! Others of you look more like you are asleep than awake. I’ll tell you a little secret – When I preach, I seek out the faces of five or six people who are obviously engaged in what I’m saying and I preach to THEM.

You can encourage Pastor Charley by making it a point to be in worship as often as possible, and showing him that you care about what he is saying. I promise you that YOU will get more out of the sermon, and he will preach better, knowing that you are listening.

8 Throw away the measuring stick.

Don’t compare preachers. When I came to Mims in 2017, I couldn’t have been Pastor Denny, even I had tried to be. And Pastor Charley will not be me. Each and every pastor is different, with God-given gifts that are as unique as their personalities. Charley is a delightful person with a unique skills and talents that will be a blessing to this church. Please don’t expect him to be me. Instead, celebrate who he is!

9 Insist that Pastor Charley takes care of himself and takes care of him family.

It isn’t unusual for those charged with the spiritual leadership of the church to neglect their own spiritual life, their own physical and emotional health, and their personal relationships. I know, because I am guilty.

A pastor often fails to have a prayer time because he or she prays so much with others as part of the job. We tend to neglect personal devotions because we spend so many hours a week in the word preparing sermons and Bible studies. And because the ministry is so all-encompassing (being on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week), we often don’t get the proper exercise – or spend enough time with our spouses or families.

If you want to have a spiritually strong and healthy pastor, INSIST that Charley takes AT LEAST one full day off (better 2); that he take the time for spiritual renewal; time for physical exercise; and time for him personal life and family.

Often, if congregations DON’T insist that their pastors take a Sabbath rest, they’ll work non-stop – their health and relationships will suffer, and they will burn out. And that’s not good for the pastor OR the church!

10 Provide a fair wage and benefits.

People don’t go into ministry for the money. Any pastor worth his or her salt could make lots more money in the secular world than he or she could ever make in the church. (With my nine years of college including one bachelors and two master’s degrees, I could be a medical doctor or lawyer today.)

But just because preachers could make more money outside the church doesn’t mean that they don’t still have financial concerns. Just like all families, they have children to raise, bills to pay, college to fund, retirement to prepare for, etc. Unfortunately, sometimes churches tend to think that they should pay their pastor and staff as little as they can get away with. Fortunately, that hasn’t tended to be the case at Mims UMC, but with the financial challenges, there is always a temptation to have that mindset.

In Galatians 6:6 Paul teaches that pastors deserve a fair wage: “Let him who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches.” Or in 1 Cor. 9:11, “If we have sown a spiritual crop for you, is it too much to expect from you a material reward?”

I know There are financial challenges all churches face. But I would encourage you to try your best to show your love for your pastor and staff by helping them provide financially for their own families. They will be grateful and more productive if you will do that.

11 Affirm Pastor Charley’s call into the ministry.

Whenever a church receives the appointment of a new pastor, there are always some folks who are anxious as to what to expect. There has been expressed some concern that you are receiving a “Local Pastor,” rather than and ordained “Elder.” I want to explain a little about what that designation means, and assure you that Pastor Charley is fully capable and empowered to be the pastor of this (or any) church.

Most of the pastors of the Conference are Ordained Elders. This means that they have completed an undergraduate degree, plus three years of seminary. They have also been examined by the Florida Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and passed that examination. Elders (and Deacons – another ordained category of ministers) are then ordained by the bishop. Elders then devote a lifetime of service to the Church, and make vows to submit to the bishop, and go wherever they are needed.

The alternative path into ministry is to become a Local Pastor. Local pastors often are “second career” ministers – having worked for some time in careers outside the church, and hearing God’s call to ministry during mid-life (Charley sent many years as a funeral home director before entering the ministry). Because of this, they may not be able to drop everything to spend three years at the seminary. Instead, they can complete a “Course of Study” with seminary professors while they work at their secular job or in a ministry role. Once they complete the Course of Study, they can apply to the Board of Ministry to become “licensed” for ministry by the bishop. Local Pastors do not have guaranteed appointments, but may serve any congregation an Elder can serve, but their license is only valid in the “local” church to which they are appointed. This means that, as you pastor, Pastor Charley can do anything that I can do. His ministry among you will be just as it has been with all your previous pastors.

Many of our most effective pastors in the Annual Conference are Local Pastors. I think this is because they have spent much of their adult life in the secular world, so they bring all kinds of experiences and skills to the ministry that seminary graduates may not possess. I am confident that you will love Charley and Toni, and that his ministry here in Mims will flourish. So, please affirm Pastor Charley’s ministry among you.

12 Trust your pastor’s judgment and respect him authority.

The writer of Hebrews gives this warning to the church (13:17): “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful to you.”

I chose this as my final word as a way to say thank you. As I said earlier, Mims UMC has been a fabulous place for me to serve for these years – you have really tried to live out these twelve words of wisdom in your dealings with me, and for that, I thank you! Before we say farewell, I wish to say thank you for the ways you have always trusted my judgment and respected my authority as your pastor. I can tell you from experience, this is not always the case in congregations.

There are congregations that seem to specialize in second-guessing, undercutting, and undermining what the pastors and staff of the church are attempting to do, with devastating results.

But not here at Mims. I have always known you were supportive of my leadership, and trusted me, even when you may not have fully agreed – and for that, I will be forever grateful. And I want to challenge you to be just as trusting and respectful to Pastor Charley as he comes to be your pastor.

This congregation will be blessed if you will do that.

So, there you have it – one dozen things that you can do to guarantee that your new pastor will have a powerful ministry here. If you will do these twelve things, I promise that God will bless this congregation. To paraphrase Paul: “I beg you, my friends, to pay proper respect to those who work among you, who guide and instruct you in the Christian life. Treat Pastor Charley with the greatest respect and love because of the work he will do.”

Or in the immortal words of the Rock Star: “If you can’t be with the one you love – love the one you’re with.”

Prayer:

Gracious God, you are the one who appoints all of us, both lay and clergy, to our places of ministry. While you are soon sending me to serve the congregation in Sebastian, you are calling Pastor Charley to serve this congregation.

Bless every one of us through this time of transition, that we may prosper your kingdom by whatever we do and wherever we are. Father, I thank you for the privilege of serving you here at Mims UMC, and I ask you to cover this congregation with your power and grace as they prepare to welcome Pastor Charley. In Christ’s name. Amen!.

#4: All’s Well that Ends Well Genesis 42-50 (esp. 45:1-5 and 50:15-21) – NLT

Over the past four weeks, we have been following the wonderful story of Joseph which we find in the Old Testament book of Genesis. It’s a narrative that is described in so much detail that it takes 14 chapters of Genesis to tell it – the lives of few other biblical characters get so much attention in scripture. And what a story it is! As I said in a previous sermon – Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed up a better plot! And like all truly satisfying movies, it’s a story with a happy ending – “all’s well that ends well!” I suppose that’s why we love the story of Joseph so much!

This morning is the final sermon in our series, and so we will be reflecting on that happy ending – the restoration of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. Few scenes in scripture are more powerful or poignant than those we have read as our scripture lessons this morning – a broken family restored to wholeness because of the extension of grace and the offer of forgiveness. Certainly, there are lessons each of us can learn from Joseph, as we deal with the broken relationships in our lives – relationships that need to be restored by grace and forgiveness.

But before we can understand the events we have read in our two scripture lessons, we need to refresh our memories about the details of this fascinating story. It’s a complicated plot with so many twists and turns that it’s easy to get lost along the way. So, bear with me as I give you’re the Cliffs Note version of the story of Joseph. Just sit back and let me review just exactly how we got to this point in the story.

You’ll recall that Joseph was one of 12 sons, the sons of Jacob. Jacob had children by four different women, two wives who were sisters (Leah and Rachel), and two concubines (we may find that arrangement odd, but bigamy was accepted practice in those days). That means that the sons were born to four different mothers – the first 10 sons were born to Leah or one or the other of the concubines. Now, Rachel was the love of Jacob’s life, but sadly, she was barren for many years – until finally, she gave birth to the 11th son, Joseph. Later, Rachel became pregnant again, but died in childbirth. Thankfully, son number 12 arrived safely – his name was Benjamin.

Now I tell you all that detail about birth order and parentage because it plays a key role in the unfolding of our story. Because Joseph and Benjamin were born to his beloved Rachel late in his life, Jacob loved them more than the others and doted on them – much to the consternation of the other sons. You will recall that Jacob made matters worse when he presented Joseph with a very special and expensive coat of many colors, making the brothers even more jealous. The spark that lit the fuse of their anger was the way their bratty little brother bragged about the dreams he had had that predicted that one day, he would rule over his brothers. Needless to say, they were livid.

All that hostility came to a head when one of the brothers, Judah, suggested to his brothers (not including baby Benjamin, of course) that they murder Joseph. The other brothers were willing to go along with that crime, but Ruben suggested that, to avoid having blood guilt on their hands, they instead sell Joseph to slave traders, which they did. While poor Joseph was being dragged down to Egypt, the brothers took Joseph’s beautiful coat, smeared it with the blood of a goat, and convinced Jacob that Joseph had been eaten by wild animals. As you can imagine, Jacob was beside himself with grief. And from that moment on, the family lived with the lie, and the brothers wrestled with the guilt of what they had done to Joseph.

Now the story shifts to Egypt. Joseph was sold to a military officer in charge of the palace guard, a man named Potiphar. You will remember from one of the sermons, that Potiphar was so impressed by the administrative abilities of his young slave that he put him in charge of his household and all his business interests. Joseph excelled at everything he did.

All was going well for Joseph until Potiphar’s wife, who lusted after the young Hebrew slave, falsely accused him of attempting to rape her. So Potiphar threw him into prison, where he remained for two full years.

Then, in a remarkable turn of events, Pharaoh sends for Joseph to interpret his dreams. Joseph foretells seven years of bountiful harvest, followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom that he makes Joseph his prime minister, assigned to administer all of Egypt so that the kingdom would be prepared for the coming famine. And so, in the span of one day, Joseph went from being a slave in the dungeon to becoming the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself!

And that sets the stage for the drama we are considering this morning.

You see, the famine that hit Egypt also affected Canaan, as well. Jacob and his family were struggling to survive. So Jacob sent his sons (all, that is, except precious young Benjamin), to go to Egypt to purchase grain. As foreigners, they had to make their request before the prime minister – Joseph himself. Of course, they had no idea that they were standing in the presence of the brother they had treated so badly.

And imagine how surprised Joseph must have been to look up and see his brothers walking into the room! What a flood of emotions must have washed over him! Joy, anger, longing, resentment. How should he react to seeing them again? I’m sure his first impulse was to tell them who he was right away. But then Joseph reconsidered. He wondered if his brothers had changed after so many years. He had to find out. So Joseph came up with a plan to test them – and to have a little fun at their expense, watching them squirm! (After all – they were brothers, and you know how brothers are!)

So Joseph accused them of being spies. Then he threw them all in prison for three days. I’m sure those three days in jail gave them lots of time for soul searching! On the third day, he called them back before him and told them that he would sell them the grain they asked for, but to prove they weren’t spies, they would have to leave one of the brothers in prison as collateral while they went back to Canaan. Then they were to return and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin. If they did so, that would prove they weren’t spies, and he would release their brother from the dungeon.

Before they set out on their journey, Joseph provided each brother with the sack of grain they had bought. But he gave his servants orders to also put in the sacks the money they had used to make the purchase.

So Simeon stayed behind in the dungeon as his brothers left Egypt. When they arrived in Canaan, they had a lot to share with dear old dad! Why was Simeon locked in the dungeon of a powerful Egyptian official? And how would they convince their father to allow his beloved Benjamin to travel to Egypt to win Simeon’s release, putting Benjamin in jeopardy of suffering the same fate? Jacob was distraught all over again – he had lost Joseph, and now Simeon. Would Benjamin be next? Finally he gave his consent, but only after Judah vowed to personally guarantee that Benjamin would return to his father safe and sound.

When they opened their sacks of grain, what a shock to discover that the money they had used for the purchase was still in their sacks! How did it get there? When they go back to Egypt, they will be accused of stealing! So Jacob sent them with the money they originally took, PLUS more money to buy more grain. Perhaps that will convince the Egyptians they are not thieves.

So, when the brothers arrived back in Egypt, they appeared before Joseph’s servants and tried to explain the situation – that they had discovered the money in their sacks and had no idea how it got there, and so they were returning it, plus more. But Joseph had his servants tell them that the debt had already been paid, even suggesting that God had given them the money, so they should keep it. Strange! But then, things were about to get even more bizarre!

The brothers had anticipated being accused of stealing, and were bracing themselves for the Prime Minister’s anger. But instead, Joseph ordered that his servants prepare a great feast. And what’s more, he had his servants seat the brothers in order from the eldest to the youngest. The brothers must have been mystified – how is it possible that this prime minister of Egypt knows their family so well that he can seat them in the proper birth order!

When Joseph arrived for the banquet and finally laid eyes on Benjamin (his only full brother whom he hadn’t seen since they were children) he was overcome with emotion. He had to excuse himself so he could find a private place to weep. Then, when the meal was served, Joseph made certain that Benjamin got portions that were five times as large as the other brothers. But he still didn’t tell them who he really was. There was one more test.

Before sending them on their way, Joseph ordered his servants to fill a bag with grain for each of the brothers, just as he had done on their first visit. This time, however, he handed his best silver chalice to his servant and instructed him to plant it in Benjamin’s sack.

As the brothers were leaving the city to set out on their journey, Joseph sent his guard to catch up with them and accuse them of stealing his cup. Dumbfounded, they were dragged back into Joseph’s presence. Each sack was examined, beginning with the eldest brother’s. One by one the sacks were opened. What a shock the brothers had when the cup was discovered in Benjamin’s sack!

Now was the moment of truth! How would the brothers react? Would they turn on their little brother to save their own necks? Would they leave Benjamin in Egypt to rot, just as they had done to Joseph? Or had they changed?

Joseph declared that Benjamin would be kept in Egypt to serve as his slave, but that all the others were free to go. That’s when something amazing happened – all the brothers said that they shared Benjamin’s guilt, so they all should become the slaves of the Prime Minister. Joseph must have been impressed! But Joseph refused their offer – saying, only the one who was found guilty would be punished. With that Judah speaks up.

Now remember – Judah was the brother who had wanted to murder Joseph, and would have, if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Reuben. And, it was Judah who had just promised his father that Benjamin would be returned safe and sound to him. Now it is Judah who is offering to take the place of his brother Benjamin – asking that the prime minister might accept Judah as his slave, so that Benjamin could be returned to their father.

That proved it – a dramatic transformation had taken place in the hearts of Judah and all the other brothers. They were not the same men they were.

That’s where our first lesson comes in. In a flood of emotion, Joseph reveals his identity, and the brothers are finally reunited! Joseph was able to let by-gones be by-gones, and he readily forgave his brothers. A remarkable scene, indeed! It seems, “All’s well that ends well.” But is it?

Put yourself in the place of the brothers. You had thought you had been dealing with an Egyptian official, a foreigner who held your future in his hands. With each strange turn of fate as they traveled back and forth to Egypt, the brothers had begun to wonder out loud if God was punishing them for their sin against their long-lost brother. But they didn’t have the slightest inkling that the man they had been dealing with was Joseph himself. What a mix of emotions they must have felt when Joseph unmasked his identity – Amazement? Joy? Apprehension? Fear? No doubt their minds flashed back to the dreams Joseph shared with them so many years before, that one day he would rule over all of them all. And now the prophecy had come to pass.

They knew their guilt. And they knew that they were at the mercy of the brother they had wronged, who now was the second most powerful man on earth. Yes, they had good reason to be fearful.

But Joseph tried to assure them that all was well. God had been at work through the events of their lives, placing Joseph in his position so that he could save his family and all of Egypt. They should not fret – they would have nothing to fear from Joseph.

So Joseph tells his brothers to go back to Canaan, and bring the entire Jacob clan to settle in Egypt in the land of Goshen, and that is precisely what happens.

And again, it seems “all’s well that ends well.” But is it? If that is the “happy ending” to the story, then why does Genesis continue on for five more chapters? Even after the reunion scene in chapter 45, there is unfinished business between these brothers.

Our second lesson tells the rest of the story. After living together for some time in Egypt, the patriarch of the family, Jacob, dies. Joseph and all his brothers take Jacob’s body back to Canaan for burial. But once Jacob has been buried, old guilt and fears resurface.

Now that Jacob is out of the picture, would Joseph be as forgiving of his brothers who had harmed him so? Was Joseph’s gracious forgiveness offered to the brothers only for the sake of their father? And now, with dad gone, would Joseph finally retaliate? Forgiveness has been given – but, has it really been received?

So, in the 50th chapter of Genesis, Joseph finally hears his brothers confess their sin against him, and plead for mercy; These were their words to Joseph: “Before your father died, he instructed us to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” What sweet words those must have been to Joseph’s ears!

But Joseph has already forgiven them. He made that clear on the day they were reunited. Joseph had forgiven. But, the brothers were having trouble forgiving themselves. So, for a second time Joseph extends grace to his brothers and assures them there are no hard feelings. Finally the gift of grace is received. And now, finally this broken family can truly live “happily ever after.” “All’s well that ends well!”

Isn’t that an amazing story! The power of grace and forgiveness to restore broken relationships. It’s no wonder that the church has recognized Joseph as one of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, and one of the biblical personalities whose personal qualities actually foreshadow those of Jesus himself! We should all strive to be like Joseph.

When reflecting on this powerful story, there are many lessons we can learn. Of course the most obvious lesson we can glean from our scriptures for this morning is the importance of forgiveness. The only reason the story of Joseph’s family has a happy ending is that Joseph was willing to extend grace and mercy to his brothers. By forgiving his brothers, everyone in the story was liberated from the guilt and resentment they had lived with so long – negative obsessions that robbed their lives of joy. Joseph’s forgiveness made reconciliation possible. It is the power that drives the story, and makes it possible that “all’s well that ends well.”

You and I can’t read the story of Joseph, and not be led to reflect on our own relationships that have been broken by sin – hopefully not as serious a sin as the brother committed against Joseph. But, it doesn’t take a huge sin to cause relationships with family and friends to be strained to the point of breaking.

Take a moment – think about your own family – as well as your relationships with others.

Are any of your relationships strained or broken because of some wrong done to you – or some wrong you may have done to them?

What is the status of that relationship today?

Why has it remained broken?

Chances are the reason relationships in our lives remain broken is because you and I are waiting for the one who has done us wrong to confess their sin and ask for our forgiveness (am I right?). If they would just do that, and if we think they are sincere, we might grant them our forgiveness, and enter into relationship with them once again. You and I may be convinced to go through the motions of forgiveness, but, more often than not, we continue to nurse our grievance. We will put our anger and bitterness into our back pocket just in case . . . We hold on to our resentment, ready to pull it out and use it against them if they hurt us again. Isn’t that true?

That’s where we can learn wisdom from Joseph. Joseph’s forgiveness was given freely and without strings. His willingness to forgive was not dependent on his brothers’ willingness to repent. In short, his offer of grace was freely given, just as God’s grace is freely given. Let me try to explain:

We Christians love to sing about grace as being free, without conditions. Amazing Grace… And of course, it is freely given. But most of the time we Christians live as if grace is conditional. We hold back forgiveness until the one who has wronged us repents, and once they have made their confession, then we give our grace as a reward. To justify our actions, we point to a verse from the Apostle John (1 John 1:9), which reads: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” We say, “See, that’s the order of how grace works: first we have to confess, then God will forgive, and finally relationships are restored.” According to that verse, repentance is a prerequisite for grace.

But what if we have misinterpreted that verse – forcing it to suggest a cause and effect relationship. I say that, because as we look at the entirety of the scriptures, typically it’s the other way around: Forgiving Grace is given without conditions, which leads to repentance and the restoration of relationships.

That’s the way it played out in the Joseph story, isn’t it? Joseph had decided to forgive his brothers as soon as he saw them arrive in Egypt. Sure, he wanted to verify that they had changed, but he didn’t withhold his grace until they owned up to their sin. Instead, over and over, he assured them they had been forgiven. It wasn’t until very late in the story that the brothers actually repent. They confessed their sin in response to having already been forgiven, not in order to receive Joseph’s forgiveness.

That has huge implications for the way we should relate to those in our lives who have wronged us. We tend to want to withhold our grace and forgiveness until they own their guilt. But if the lesson we learn from Joseph is right, we have it backwards. We are to forgive, regardless of whether they own their sin, or not. We are to offer them grace, because it’s what God expects us to do. Perhaps, once they have experienced undeserved grace, they might then be convicted of own their sin, and maybe even confess it. If so, wonderful, because then the relationship can be restored. But even if they never confess, we are still supposed to forgive. It all begins with grace.

And isn’t that the Gospel message? Isn’t that what the cross is all about? “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…” Did you hear that? God extended undeserved grace to a world full of sinners, people like you and me. He didn’t wait for us to own our sin before He sent his Son to take away the sin of the world on the cross of Calvary. God gave his grace freely, with the hope that once we had experienced such amazing undeserved grace, we might own our sin – not so that we might deserve to be forgiven – but so that our relationship with God might finally be restored. It all begins with grace!

Joseph forgave those who had hurt him, and his broken relationships were restored. If it worked for Joseph, it will work for you as well. Extend grace where it’s not deserved and see what happens.

I dare you!

#3: Cream Always Rises to the Top Gen. 29 – 41 (excerpts) (39:2-6a,20-23; 41:37-42a,43b – NLT)

As you know, pastors in the Methodist tradition are not hired by local congregations – they are appointed by the bishop. Instead of being “called,” as independent congregations do, United Methodist clergy are “sent”, assigned to their place of ministry.

That’s why you sometimes hear people say that ours is an “itinerant” ministry, because preachers move from place to place, or “intenerate.” That means that, while pastors have some control over when a change might be made, we have no control over where we are appointed to serve. We go where we are needed most. (Yesterday/This morning at the Annual Conference, I stood with the lay people from Sebastian UMC as the bishop “fixed” – or set – my appointment to that church.

There is a saying that is often passed around in United Methodist clergy circles –
“Bloom where you are planted.” We may not have control over where the seed of our ministry falls, but we can do our best to flourish wherever we take root.
It’s not just great advice for preachers. It’s great advice for every person if they want to have success in life.

Joseph understood this concept better than any person in scripture. He was able to succeed wherever the winds of circumstance placed him. With a positive attitude, he put down roots, and bloomed. And the more he bloomed, the more useful he became to God in carrying out God’s purposes.

After his brothers sold him into slavery, where did he end up? As a house-slave of an Egyptian military officer, named Potiphr. Did Joseph despair? No, he determined that if he was to be a servant, he would be the very best servant there could be.

And his efforts didn’t go unrewarded. Potiphar promoted him to his chief of staff,
overseeing his entire household and all his business dealings. Pretty impressive accomplishment for a slave!

After being framed by Potiphar’s wife and ending up in prison, did Joseph give up?
Not at all. His attitude and abilities were admired by the warden of the prison
– so much so, that even though Joseph was still an inmate, he was entrusted with oversight of all that went on among the prisoners. Even in prison, Joseph found a way to bloom.

After two years languishing in jail, Joseph’s God-given ability to interpret dreams
got him an audience with Pharaoh, himself.

Pharaoh had dreamed two similar dreams that he couldn’t make any sense of – a dream about skinny cows eating fat cows, and one about thin stalks of wheat consuming plump stalks.

Joseph deciphered the dreams to forecast seven years of bumper crops,
followed by seven years of famine. He then advised Pharaoh to appoint someone
to administer a strategy of making wise preparations – someone who could lead the nation in storing up food reserves in the bountiful years, so that there would be enough to ration out during the lean years.

And did Pharaoh take Joseph’s advice? Absolutely! Not only did he believe Joseph’s dream-interpretation, he made Joseph his Vizier, his Prime Minister, if you will – the most powerful man in Egypt, answerable only to Pharaoh, himself!

That’s quite a promotion, don’t you think? What a “meteoric rise to power!” In the morning, Joseph was a prisoner languishing in the dungeon – by nightfall he is wearing the royal signet ring and ruling the most powerful empire on earth! Talk about blooming where you are planted!

Some of you can remember the time before milk was routinely homogenized. What happened to the cream? It automatically rose to the top! Well, Joseph was the cream of the crop – one of those rare people who always seemed to be elevated to greatness.

What was it about Joseph that made him so successful in such varied situations? What qualities did he possess that caused him to be promoted to positions of influence over and over again? What characteristics did God find in Joseph
that led God to place Joseph at the pinnacle of power so he could be used by God
for God’s glory and purposes?

I think we can see four outstanding characteristics that God is looking for in those he wishes to use for his kingdom; qualities we should nurture in our lives:

First, Joseph was faithful.

Joseph was a man in whom others put their trust. One of the main reasons people rise to greatness is because they are faithful and trustworthy. Proverbs 28:20 says, “A faithful man shall abound with blessings…” That was certainly true in Joseph’s case. No matter the circumstances of his life, Joseph remained loyal to others, winning their confidence and trust. And in the end, his faithfulness bore fruit in blessings.

This is because Joseph knew instinctively God’s principles of promotion.
Jesus expressed that principle this way (Luke 16), “Whoever can be trusted with very little
can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy
with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” (Luke 16:10-12)

Or as Jesus says it in another place, “’Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” (Matthew 25:21)

Joseph proved his faithfulness to others by being trustworthy. And because of his fidelity and loyalty, his was given more and more authority and power.

While this principle is true for worldly relationships, it is also true for our relationship with God. God wants to promote us so that we have greater influence to promote his purposes in the world. But he will only do so if we prove we are faithful to him in small matters. Only then will he entrust us with Kingdom matters.

Are you always faithful in your dealing with others? Are you faithful in your relationship with God? If you’re not, don’t expect that God will give you a promotion in serving him.

Second, Joseph was Spirit-filled.

All throughout these chapters of Genesis as we read the story of Joseph,
we come across these words, “The LORD was with Joseph.”

I don’t believe that that means simply that God’s spirit was manipulating Joseph, causing him to do or say certain things. I think the text is telling us something about the quality of the relationship Joseph had with God. I think we see this in several ways:

For instance, it is clear that God was always foremost in Joseph’s mind – Joseph was always attuned to God’s leading, in his life and in the lives of others. He had a clear moral gyroscope that always kept him upright and a moral compass that kept him always moving in God’s direction. He never doubted God’s presence with him, even in his darkest days. And because he was so attuned to the Spirit of God in his life, he was able to divine the meaning of people’s dreams.

Paul described this constant connection with God’s spirit as “praying without ceasing.” That simply means, living all of life in the constant awareness of God’s presence. Joseph lived life that way.

Another glimpse into the quality of Joseph’s relationship with God can be seen in the way he always gave glory to God, not himself.

Joseph always makes it crystal clear that his ability to interpret dreams comes from God, not himself: When his fellow prisoners had dreams they didn’t understand, Joseph tells them, “interpreting dreams is God’s business,” – only then does he tell them the meaning.

Then, when Pharaoh needs his dreams interpreted, Joseph could have claimed special powers for himself. But instead, he says this, “It is beyond my power to do this, but God can tell you what it means and set you at ease.”

You can always tell the quality of someone’s relationship with God by who gets the credit when things are going well. Often, we are quick to blame God for our troubles, and to pat ourselves on our back when we are succeeding. But a person close to God knows where his blessings and gifts come from, and is quick to give God credit and praise.

A final proof of the quality of Joseph’s relationship with God is that others, even non-believers, could recognize God’s Spirit active in Joseph’s life.

After Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and advised him to appoint someone to prepare for the famine, did you notice what Pharaoh said? “Can we find anyone else like this man so obviously filled with the spirit of God?” Even the Pharaoh of Egypt who worshiped a whole pantheon of pagan gods, could see there was something special about this Hebrew slave – one who was “so obviously filled with the spirit of God!”

There is a quality in the lives of people who walk with God. God’s Spirit dwells in them, and it shows.

When people look at you, would they likely say: He or She is “so obviously filled with the spirit of God?” If not, that should give us pause. Success in serving God’s kingdom depends on having such a close relationship with him that everyone around us can see God in us.

So Joseph was faithful and Spirit-filled. But he was also wise.

Joseph succeed where many other would have failed because he was wise – he demonstrated wisdom in two ways, both of which are required for success in life, and in the service of God:

One aspect of wisdom has to do with discernment. Can we analyze a situation, and clearly see right and wrong? This first part of wisdom involves being able to separate the good from the bad, and to therefore make good judgments in life. In this, Joseph proved to be very wise.

But there is more to wisdom than that. After correctly discerning a situation, a truly wise person will be able to then determine a godly course of action that will bring about a good solution to a bad situation. It’s taking the lemons we are given in life and making lemonade.

Over and over in the story of Joseph, we see how wise he was n the way he was able to take the tragic circumstances of his life and turn them into something positive. Joseph was able to both correctly analyze a situation and chart a positive course that was pleasing to God. He was very wise indeed.

But, most people fail on one or both counts: Some fail because they are unable to discern right from wrong, others because they can’t determine a God-honoring course of action that could transform bad into good. And so they are more foolish than wise.

Could you and I be described as “wise” in seeing right and wrong, and knowing the best course of action that honors God?

The final quality of Joseph that made him successful was that he was fearless.

It was because Joseph was faithful, Spirit-filled, and wise, that he was free to live his life without fear. Joseph could face the trials and tribulations of life with courage, and he could deal with worldly powers with confidence and boldness.

Why? – and this is the key to why Joseph is such a great role-model for the rest of us: Because he put his whole trust in God and God’s promises. He was confident in his relationship with God and that God was with him, no matter what he faced. And he knew that if he remained true to God, God would remain true to him.

That was the secret to his being able to be bold and fearless in the way he lived his life, and it is the reason he was always able to bloom wherever he was planted.

My friends, God wants you to bloom where you are planted so that you can be used by him for his glory and purposes. Are you blooming for him?

Maybe, because of the circumstances of your life, you don’t think you can be of any use to God. I don’t care what your circumstances are, they aren’t any more challenging than Joseph’s were! If God could use Joseph and raise him up from the dungeon to the palace, God can do the same for you!

But only if you exhibit the qualities that Joseph displayed: faithfulness to others and to God; walking close to God so that his Spirit lives in you; showing godly wisdom; and living fearlessly trusting God with every aspect of your life. If that describes you, God wants to promote you so God can use you for his glory and purposes.

A number of years ago, a little book came out that became something of a sensation. It focused on just a few obscure verses from the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles, verses containing the brief little prayer of a man named Jabez.

This is what that verses say: ” Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, ‘Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.’ So God granted him what he requested” (1 Chronicles 4:9-10).

Joseph could have prayed that prayer. Because he was faithful, spirit-filled, wise, and fearless, God enlarged his territory to include the mighty empire of Egypt.

What is the territory of your life that God wants to enlarge so that you can give him glory and advance his kingdom? What is it…?

My friends, God wants to promote us. He wants to expand our territory and influence for his Kingdom’s sake.

He did it for Joseph.
And he can do it for you, too.

#2: The Wisdom of Integrity Genesis 39:1-20 (NLT)

A long time ago, someone came up with a list of the Seven Wonders of the World, and on that list of ancient landmarks is the Great Wall of China. In ancient China, the people were fearful of an attack by the barbaric hordes to their north, so as a defense, in the 7th century BC they began the construction of a wall that eventually stretched 3,700 miles! It is so massive, it can be seen from space – the only man-made structure to be able to make that claim.

The wall was too high to climb over, too thick to break down, and too long to go around. The Chinese had provided for their complete security – or so they thought.

In fact, during the first 100 years of the wall’s existence, China was invaded three times! Was the wall a failure? Not really – for not once did the barbaric hordes climb over the wall, break it down, or go around it.

How did they get into China? The answer lies in human nature. They simply bribed a gatekeeper and then marched right in through a gate! The fatal flaw in the Chinese defense was in placing too much reliance on building a wall, and not putting enough effort into building the integrity of their gatekeepers. The integrity of the Wall (and all of China) was compromised by the lack of integrity of one soldier.

Integrity. The lack of integrity of that gatekeeper was the chink in the armor of China’s defensive strategy. And, a lack of integrity can put our lives, and our souls, and even our nation, in mortal danger, as well.

What is integrity? One source defines integrity with these words: It is “Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code; The state of being wholesome; unimpaired; The quality or condition of being complete; pure. ”

Thomas Ward, in his study on the life of Joseph, has shined the spot-light on the basic flaw in America today: “Integrity” he wrote, “is one of the main ingredients missing in the lives of 21st century Americans. Situation ethics and the lack of teaching on moral absolutes has contributed to the decadence of our day. Honesty and wholeness of character have become optional.”2

We don’t talk too much about integrity these days, probably because we see so little of it. We look at our politicians and are surprised when one appears to be a person of character and integrity, only to become depressed with they turn out to be corrupt. We look at business people or those on Wall Street, and are hard-pressed to find one who deals honestly and honorably with others. We place our trust and affection in a husband or wife, only to become the victim of their dishonesty and betrayal. We look at priests and pastors and educators, and are saddened when even they are caught having engaged in unethical behavior. Yes, integrity seems to be a vanishing concept in America today.

That’s tragic, because integrity is the foundation of character. It is also absolutely essential for the Christian life. “Gilbert Beers says, ‘A person of integrity is someone who has established a system of values against which all of life is judged.’ Thomas Macauley said, ‘The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he would never be found out.’”2 Or as someone else has put it even more succinctly, ‘A Christian is a person who always does what is right, even when they know no one else is looking.”

That’s why the Old Testament story of Joseph is so important for us to reflect on. Under incredibly adverse circumstances, Joseph demonstrated that he was an outstanding person of integrity. He remained true to his faith and principles, even when he was the only person in the entire nation who believed in the one true God. He was a man who lived the faith he professed, no matter what the cost.

I think there are a few important lessons we can glean from our scripture this morning, lessons that might help us become people of integrity once again. But before we do that, let me catch everyone up on what’s been happening in Joseph’s life that brought him to this point.

As you’ll recall from last Sunday’s message, Joseph had gotten himself in a great deal of trouble with his ten older brothers by telling them about his dreams that predicted that Joseph would one day reign over them all. The brothers were so angry with Joseph that they sold him to slave-traders, and then led their father to believe Joseph had been killed by wild animals. Once the caravan with poor Joseph in tow reached Egypt, the traders sold the young man to a well-connected officer in the Royal Court, named Potiphar, to become a slave in his house.

But (as the Scriptures put it), “The LORD was with Joseph,” and soon Potiphar came to appreciate the outstanding administrative abilities of his slave. Quickly, Joseph won the trust of his master and was placed in charge of everything in the master’s household – everything that is, except Potiphar’s wife – a woman with a wandering eye and a lustful appetite for sex (I think in this day and age, the term we would use to describe her is “cougar!”). And that sets the stage for the drama of our story this morning.

So what can we learn from the way Joseph dealt with the temptation that was laid before him? Let me make couple of observations:

First, the obvious: A person of integrity can expect to be tested by temptation.

Satan is very persistent. He will come at you over and over, until like those barbarian hordes, he finds a chink in your armor and makes his attack.

As you may know, we have a home in Ormond Beach – a house that backs up into a nature preserve. In fact, our back deck is so close to the woods that we call it our tree house. One of the things I really enjoy about our deck is being able to sit out there and watch all the different types of birds that visit the trees. One time as I was out there, I was fascinated to watch a woodpecker pecking his strong beak into the bark looking for insects. And as I watched, I was amazed at how persistent he was. He would begin to drill a hole, and if the wood was too hard or there were no bugs, he would simply move a couple of inches to the right or left and start again. Over and over he would do this, until he finally met with success.

Satan uses temptation in much the same way. He will try one temptation on us, and then if not successful, will move over a bit and try another. And so he continues, over and over again, until he finds a soft spot in us that he can use to his advantage.

Satan thought he had found a “soft spot” through which he could attack the integrity of Joseph. Joseph was at the peak of his manhood – if he were back in his father’s tents, by now he would have taken a wife. No doubt, this virile attractive young man was just as hungry for sexual satisfaction as was his master’s wife. Potiphar’s wife was a willing, even an eager partner. The house was empty – she had made sure of that. Presumably no one would ever know.

But Joseph was a man of integrity. He knew that his witness for God would be compromised if he surrendered to the temptation to sin.

What is the “soft spot,” the chink in your armor that Satan can exploit to cause you to compromise your faith and your integrity? We all have one – chances are you are very aware – painfully aware – of what that soft spot is in your life. We need to always be on the defense – because, as scripture tells us, Satan is on the attack. St. Peter gives this good advice: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

But no matter how Satan tested him, Joseph was determined to live as a man of integrity, no matter what!

Which leads to our second observation from the story: A person of integrity can overcome temptation.

Everyone faces temptation, and is tested to see if we are people of integrity, or not. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 10:13, when he writes, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.”

It’s clear that Joseph understood the dangers of surrendering to temptation. He knew instinctively that if we compromise our integrity, it would mean a loss of honor, of happiness, and of prosperity. A brief fling of pleasure would have long-lasting and irreversible consequences. Proverbs 6:32-33 seems to be address directly to Joseph’s situation: “The man who commits adultery is an utter fool, for he destroys himself. He will be wounded and disgraced. His shame will never be erased. For the woman’s jealous husband will be furious, and he will show no mercy when he takes revenge. He will accept no compensation, nor be satisfied with a payoff of any size.”

Joseph was no fool. He knew the consequences if he gave in to the demands of Potiphar’s wife. He escape Satan’s trap – did you notice how? He avoided moral failure by doing three things – a strategy you and I can also use whenever we are confronted with temptation. What did Joseph do?

First, was to REFUSE. What did we read in the scripture this morning: “’Come and sleep with me,’ she demanded. But Joseph refused…”

How could he be so bold as to refuse the bidding of a woman who could have him thrown in jail or even killed? Because he was a man of loyalty and honor. Even though a slave, Joseph felt loyalty to his master who had placed so much trust in him. In fact is that Joseph was more loyal to Potiphar than Potiphar’s wife was! But more than that, he was loyal to the trust God had placed in him.

So when presented with an opportunity to betray the trust others had placed in him, Joseph refused. When we are confronted with temptation to compromise our integrity, do we refuse?

The next technique Joseph used was to RESIST. Our text says: “She kept putting pressure on Joseph day after day, but he refused to sleep with her, and he kept out of her way as much as possible…”

Potiphar’s wife had set her sights on her handsome young Hebrew slave, Joseph. Day after day, she continued to harass him, trying to allure him into her bed. This woman would not take “no” for an answer. Even though Joseph had clearly refused her advance, she kept right on advancing, becoming more and more assertive and insistent.

Temptation to sin is like Potiphar’s wife’s advances. We can be resolute in standing firm on our convictions – but then, find ourselves day after day placed in situations that continue to tempt us – little by little, our defenses are weakened, and we become more and more in danger of surrendering. Joseph did his best to avoid being alone with Potiphar’s wife because he knew how easily we can be worn down.

Is there something (or someone) in your life that you need to avoid, lest you be tempted to surrender to sin? Are there things you can do to help you resist that temptation?

Joseph remained true to his faith and his God, and in doing so, gives us an important lesson in how you and I can resist the temptation to compromise our integrity.

When all that failed, Joseph did the only thing left for him to do – RUN! The Bible says: “She came and grabbed him by his cloak, demanding, ‘Come on, sleep with me!’ Joseph tore himself away, but he left his cloak in her hand as he ran from the house…”

Charles Swindoll, in his book on Joseph, comments on this scene with these words, “What a clear image! What a practical spotlight on truth from Joseph’s life. What strong biblical counsel. Whenever the New Testament lingers on the subject of sensual temptation, it give us one command; RUN! The Bible does not tell us to reason with it. It does not tell us to think about it and claim verses. It tells us to FLEE! I have discovered you cannot yield to sensuality if you’re running away from it. So? Run for your life!”3

So that’s the wise counsel we can learn from Joseph’s brush with sin. If we are to remain people of integrity, we must be strong enough in our faith to Refuse, to Resist, and to Run from all temptations to sin. Why? Because, as people of God, any sin in our life tarnishes our integrity and compromises our witness for God.

One Sunday, a pastor preached a sermon on integrity. On Monday morning he took the bus to get to his office. He paid the fare, and the bus driver gave him back too much change. During the rest of the journey, the pastor was trying to rationalize to himself how God had provided him with some extra money he needed for the week. But he just could not live with himself, and before he got off the bus, he said to the driver, “You have made a mistake. You’ve given me too much change.” And he proceeded to give the driver back the extra money. The driver smiled and said, “There was no mistake. I was at your church yesterday heard your sermon about integrity. So I decided to put you to the test this morning.”

Friends, your integrity and mine is being tested all the time. Temptation comes in big and small ways, in obvious and subtle ways. Do we pass the test? Or do we surrender to Satan’s attack?

It is so very important that we not compromise our faith when confronted with the temptation to sin. We can try Refusing, Resisting, and Running. But as Christians, there is an even better way – a sure-fire way – to deal with Satan’s attacks. We can learn this truth from the mouth of a little girl.

A very wise little girl was asked a question in Sundays School ho she deals with temptation. This was her response: “When Satan comes knocking at the door of my heart, I send Jesus to answer the door. When Satan sees Jesus, he says, ‘Oops, I’m sorry, I must have the wrong house.’”

Joseph gives us the tools we need to keep our integrity intact. When Satan comes calling, refuse, resist, and if those don’t work – then run for your lives. But Christ gives us the sureest defense. When Satan knocks on the door of your heart, just send Jesus to answer the door.

1 en.wiktionary.org/wiki/integrity

2 Thomas E. Ward, Sr. Joseph Series: Twelve Weeks of Life-Changing Character Studies on Joseph (internet c.2008).

3 Charles Swindoll. Joseph: A Man of Integrity and Forgiveness. Word Pub. 1998. Page 30
4

#1: The Dream Catcher Genesis 37:2-11 (NLT)

Over the past few decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in Native American art and customs. Nothing symbolizes this fascination with all things “Indian” more than “Dream Catchers.” You can hardly go to any art show in America without having the opportunity to purchase beautifully decorated hoops filled with a web of strings, and adorned with feathers, beads, and other trinkets. While today these have become decorative items in many homes, they originated in the Chippewa Tribe, and are central to their belief system.

In Chippewa tradition, grandparents would make a dream catcher when a new baby was born. They would suspend the dream catcher over the crib. The Chippewa believe that the night is full of dreams, some good, others bad. When dreams passed though the dream catcher, the good dreams would cause the feathers to quiver as they descended to the infant, giving him or her peaceful sleep. Bad dreams, however would get caught in the web, trapped until the light of dawn caused them to vanish. A beautiful custom.

While not all cultures include dreams as part of their belief system, people of all civilizations throughout history have been fascinated with dreams. Who hasn’t had a vivid dream, and wondered what it might mean? People as divergent as the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud and the psychic mediums living in Cassadega, Florida have attempted to decode the dreams people have – to try to interpret their meaning, or to predict the future. With very mixed results, I might add. Yes! Everyone is intrigued with dreams.

This morning, we are beginning a new sermon series as we consider the life of a dreamer. Throughout the scriptures, we come across all kinds of people who had dreams – dreams that changed their destiny, and even the destinies of entire empires. There can be great power in dreams – for good or for ill.

Perhaps the most familiar “dreamer-catcher” in the Bible is the Old Testament character, Joseph. Beginning in the 37th chapter of Genesis, we have one of the longest narratives about any biblical personality that we find anywhere in scripture. For 14 chapters, we follow the life of Joseph, the 11th son of Jacob, whose dreams got him into a great deal of trouble with his family. He irritated his brothers so much that they sold him into slavery in Egypt, and then led their father to believe that Joseph had been eaten by wild animals.

Then, in a remarkable twist of fate, Joseph’s ability to interpret the meaning of dream became his ticket out of slavery, and even brought him to a position of privilege and power as the chief advisor to Pharaoh himself. And like all good stories, there is a happy-ending – a dream-come-true (if you will). The story of Joseph is an epic story – better than any Hollywood screen-writer could dream up. (Intrigued? Don’t believe me? – go to your Bible and read it for yourself!)

This morning, we are going to think about dreams in the context of our faith. Joseph was a dreamer because he was a man of faith. He was open to hear the voice of God speak, guiding his life. And even though, as a youth, he didn’t understand the meaning of his strange dreams, and was very immature and foolish in the way he shared his dreams with his family, his dreams did turn out to be accurate. At the end of the story, not only do the Egyptians bow down to Joseph, so do all his brothers, and even his father. Thankfully, at the height of his power and influence, Joseph had learned humility. Instead of getting even with his brothers, Joseph uses the occasion of the fulfillment of his dream as an opportunity for forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation.

Yes, the dreams of Joseph came true. Joseph had received a vision from God, which was God’s plan for his life. But more than that, Joseph “lived-into” God’s dream. Because he was obedient to God’s will, he fulfilled his destiny, and his life became a blessing to others.

You know, when you stop to think about it, the people we most respect throughout human history are those who were “dreamers…” people who caught a vision of God’s plan for their life, or for our world, and were faithful in living into that dream – to make it a reality, and to become a blessing to others.

The history of our faith if filled with dreamers who lived into God’s dream. The Bible is really the story of God’s dream for our world, and the men and women who dared to dream God’s dream. And there are still dreamers in our day and age. If we had the time, I’m sure we could come up with a long list of “dreamers” who have dared to dream God’s dream.

Perhaps the most well-known dreamer of the 20th century was Martin Luther King, Jr. He articulated God’s dream for his life and for our nation in his powerful and eloquent speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In the midst of strife and racial hatred, he was able to name God’s vision for America: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Martin Luther King discerned God’s dream for his life and for our nation. He lived into that dream. And even though those who didn’t share the dream ended his life with a bullet, the dream lived on. And it lives even today, although forces of hatred again are trying to stamp out God’s dream for our world. But God’s dream can never die, so long as there are dreamers willing to live into that dream.

Joseph and Martin were dreamers, that’s true. But the reality is that within every person of faith, within you and me, God has placed a vision, a destiny – a dream God intends for us to live into, if we are to fulfill his purpose for our lives. Someone has said it succinctly and beautifully: “There are two great moments in life: 1) when you were born, and 2) when you know why you were born.”

Do you know why you were born? To live God’s dream, that’s why! Along with Joseph and Martin, you and I are to declare, “I have a dream…” and live to make that dream come true. Are you a dream catcher? What is God’s dream for you?

If you and I are supposed to live God’s dream for our lives, we need to reflect on what the nature of that dream might be: A few observations about godly dreams:

First, God’s dream for you is unique.

Joseph had a unique dream and a unique destiny. No one else could have shared that dream, nor lived it. It was chosen for Joseph by God himself.

In the Book of Joel in the Old Testament which we quoted in our call to worship, God says through the prophet, “Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions.” All people of faith are given a dream by God, but each dream is tailor-made. When we discern God’s dream, it will fit us like a glove.

Every believer has been assigned a dream – but sadly, many people never discover God’s dream for their life, much less live into it. There are countless Christians just going through the motions of religion, with no direction or purpose for their existence. They need to be a dream catcher! Without a dream to live into, their life is being wasted. They will never know the joy and fulfillment God intends for their life. And they will never fulfill the destiny God has prepared for them.

The second insight of Godly dreams is that they always benefit others, rather than ourselves.

Most people, even in the secular world, would agree that it is important that we have dreams. But most of the time, the dreams people have are selfish in nature: They dream of finding Mr. or Mrs. Right; They dream of being successful in their career; They dream of winning the lottery and quitting their job. Now, there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with those kinds of dreams – they are natural.

But if the only one who would benefit from your dream coming true is YOU, then it isn’t really God’s dream. Dreams that come from God always benefits others first.

In Philippians, Chapter 2, Paul writes these wise words: “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.”

Consider for a moment the dreams you have for your life. Who would benefit if that dream were to become a reality? Yourself, or others? If all your dreams are for you alone, you have not yet discovered God’s dream for your life – and your purpose for existence.

The third observation follows the second: Living into God’s dream MAY benefit you as well, but more often than not, it won’t. In fact, if the dream is truly from God, the likelihood is that you will face opposition, and even persecution, because you insist on living into God’s dream.

In John 15, Jesus says this to his disciples, “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first… I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you… Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you.” It’s dangerous to dream God’s dream, because the world doesn’t share it.

Think of all the great men and women of the Bible – people who devoted themselves to living into God’s dream for their life. How many of them benefited from their commitment to remain faithful? Only a handful. Most paid dearly for answering the call of God on their life. Yet it was all worth it! What a blessing their lives were to others! God’s dreams are always the ones that are a blessing to others, and they are worth the price we may have to pay.

But the good news is that, if the dream is truly from God, ultimately it will prevail.

In John 16, Jesus offers this assurance: “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

And in Revelation, at the end of the Bible, we see how God is victorious, and how God’s Dream becomes reality.

That’s the promise of God through all of scripture: If we will catch God’s dream for our lives and our world, and answer God’s call to live into that vision, we can be confident that, in the end God will make that dream come true. As Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 1:12) “I am not ashamed of (the Good News), for I know the one in whim I trust, and am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return.” We can have confidence to dream big when the dream we’re dreaming is God’s dream!

My friend, God is a God who dreams big dreams for our world – big dreams for our church – and big dreams for each one of us – a dream that is part of that larger dream of the day when all will be as it should be. You and I are called to become “Dream Catchers” of God’s dream – to live into that dream – and to trust God to make that dream a reality.

Lucy MacDonald has put it like this: “Each person is born with a calling. It is your task to discover what that calling is and find a way to make that calling a reality.” What is God’s dream for your life? What part of God’s dream are you supposed to catch? Have your discerned it? Have you been resisting it? Have you lived into it?

No one can tell you what God dreams for your life: Perhaps you are hearing God’s call to help others in need or become an advocate for those who are hurting. Maybe God is giving you a dream to get involved with a ministry or even to launch a new ministry of some kind. It could be that God is giving you a passion to share the good news of salvation with others so that they can begin to catch the dream God desires for their life. It could even be that you are feeling the nudging of the Holy Spirit to answer the call to full-time ministry. God has a big dream with your name on it – have you caught it?

You know, sometimes stories and movies created for children contain profound truths that speak to all generations as well. In “The Muppet Movie,” Kermit the Frog sits on a log in a swam and sings about the power of dreams. He wasn’t referring to God’s dream, of course, but through his words we can hear God’s voice calling our name, if we will just listen:

Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors.
The voice might be one and the same.

I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

My friend, let me tell you the truth. Until you know God’s dream for your life and live into that dream, your life will never be complete. Be a dream catcher!

Let us pray:

Lord, in the stillness of the night – or even right at this moment – we hear you call our name. We’ve heard it too many times to ignore it – it’s something that we’re supposed to be. Someday we’ll find your dream for our lives – Lord, may that someday be today. Amen.

“When Doubt Rocks the Boat of Faith” James 1:5-8 and Matthew 14:28-31 (NRSV)

A three year old told his dad that he’d like to have a baby brother. “I’ll tell you what,” Dad said, “if every night you pray for a baby brother, and really believe it, I guarantee that God will give you one!” (You see, dad knew something little Bobby didn’t!) Bobby prayed every night – but after several weeks, he got tired and quit. A few months later, mom went to the hospital. When she came home, Bobby’s dad called him into their bedroom. Next to mom lay a bundle wrapped up in a blanket. Mom pulled back the corner to reveal … twins! Dad looked down at his son, “Now, aren’t you glad you prayed?” Young Bobby hesitated a little, then looked up at Dad and said, “Yes – but aren’t YOU glad I quit when I did!”

That’s what I called “answered prayer!”

Now, we laugh at that story, but it raises some serious issues for us as people of faith. What happens when we pray? Does prayer really change anything? And if it does, why are some prayers answered while others go unanswered?

The Bible tells us that the key to answered prayer is “faith:” Mark 11:24 – “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Matthew 17:20 – “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” James 5:15 – “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” Yes, according to scripture, faith is the secret to answered prayer.

But that’s not ALL the Bible says. It also says that doubt is an obstacle to answered prayer: In John 20:27, Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” Matthew 14:31 – this time to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And from James 1:6-8 “Ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts . . . must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

So, if faith is the secret to answered prayer, doubt is the reason some prayers go unanswered. At least that’s what the Bible says.

We are good Christians. We accept these texts as being true. We want to believe them – but can we?

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I have a little trouble believing this business about faith and doubt. And I have a hunch that I’m not the only one this morning. Does faith guarantee results? Are our doubts the reason our prayers are ineffective?

Let’s be honest: we all have been in situations which have called into question these teachings from the Bible. For example: I have prayed for the healing of countless people throughout my ministry – sometimes for many years for the same people. Some have been healed, but others have not. I’ve prayed for two different people with the same ailment: the “saint” dies, and the unbeliever is healed.

Maybe you have had similar experiences: You’ve prayed about trouble in the family, and the situation only gets worse; a marriage is on the rocks and you have prayed for a reconciliation, but it ends in a messy divorce; you have prayed for your children or grandchildren that they might go the right way in life, but they end up in serious trouble and make a mess of their lives; You or a loved one have battled a serious illness and so you and everyone you know has prayed for them, but they are not healed.

When your prayers seem to fail, what is the cause? Which is it? Do you not have enough faith – or do you have too much doubt? And why is God so capricious in the way he answers prayer?

What are we to make of all those scriptures that tell us that if we would have enough faith (and no doubts) God will grant us our requests?

After Mother Teresa died, many of us were surprised to hear about the spiritual struggles she endured for most of her adult life as she ministered to the destitute of Calcutta. She felt that God had refused to hear and answer her prayers – that because of her weak faith and nagging doubt, God had turned a deaf ear. In one of her letters to a confidant and friend which was released after her death, she made this attempt at writing out a prayer:

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? . . . I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith… I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me.”

C.S. Lewis, the great defender of the Christian faith during the last century, prayed fervently for his mother that she would be healed. When she died, he lamented the failure of his prayers. He wrote, “The thing had not worked, but I was used to things not working, and I thought no more about it.”

If we are honest, we have all felt that same way at times – that prayer doesn’t work. At least I know I have. When we feel that way, we discover that our doubts increase, while our faith decreases, which only makes us feel worse.

When our prayers do not get results, there are four possible responses we can make – three of which are unhealthy and lead us to despair (away from God), and one which is healthy which leads us into hope (and into the arms of God).

1) First, when our prayers go unanswered, we can completely reject the whole notion of God.

This often happens to people who have prayed for the healing of a loved one, only to watch them die anyway. They conclude that prayer is just wishful thinking. They decide that all religion is fraudulent, the Bible purely fiction. So they end up as atheists, or agnostics, or secular humanists.

Ted Turner, the billionaire founder of CNN, prayed fervently that God would heal his sister. When she died, Turner turned his back on God. Now, before we are too quick to judge Mr. Turner, we have to acknowledge that even many so-called “Christians” function this way – because they have been disappointed with God, they have become “defacto atheists.” Their prayers went unanswered, and therefore, they live as if there is no God.

But the Bible warns of the dangers of rejecting God. In Psalm 14:1 it is written, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” Yet countless people have done just that. So, first, when prayers are unanswered, we can pretend that God doesn’t exist.

2) Another way we can react is to blame God, believing that it is his will that we suffer.

This is a terrible thing to believe about God, accusing him of being unjust, heartless, – even cruel. To believe this way implies that either God caused our troubles, or he allows our troubles to continue, in order to carry out some unknown mysterious grand purpose – that our tragedies and sufferings are for our own good somehow.

This way of thinking grows out of a theological position referred to as “the doctrine of predestination” (a teaching, by the way, that comes from the Protestant reformer John Calvin, NOT John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement).

Predestination says that, since God is all powerful and all knowing, God must therefore have full control over all events, both good and bad: nothing in life is left to chance – human free will plays no part in our lives. According to this teaching, our lives are mapped out beforehand, every event that happens to us is predetermined – even those who will be saved and those who are damned to hell have already been selected by God before any of us were ever born.

If this is your view of God (and unfortunately it is the predominant view of the majority of Protestant Christians in America) then it would be natural that you would blame God for your tragedies, your misfortunes, and for your unanswered prayers because God would be to blame! As a result, many people conclude, “God doesn’t care about me, why should I care about God?” And their doubts about God’s essential goodness cause them to blame God and to turn their backs on him.

As a Wesleyan and a Methodist, I am NOT a predestinarian. I believe that God loves all people and has issued an invitation to each and every person to accept salvation – and I believe that he gives us the free-will to say “yes” or “no.” I do not believe that God causes evil, but desires only the best for us. Therefore, I do not think God should be blamed for our trials and tribulations, as if God were somehow in league with the Devil. Yet, countless Christians today try to blame God, and as a result, they are bitter, and they lose their faith. So, lots of people blame God.

3) Others of us blame ourselves.

We think that, if God doesn’t answer our prayers, it must be for one of two reasons: 1) either we are sinners, not worthy of God’s mercy, or 2) our faith is not strong enough to prompt God to act.

This is what all those scriptures I cited seem to be saying to us. This is the flip-side of the predestination position. According to this way of thinking, God doesn’t dictate our condition ahead of time. Instead, people who react this way seem to believe that God’s power is limited by our righteousness or unrighteousness, by our faith or doubt. In other words, God isn’t to blame for unanswered prayer – we are (and of course, there is some validity to that statement because faith DOES have a role to play).

But I don’t believe this is the whole truth, either. If the only factors which determine whether prayers were answered or not are how much faith or doubt we have, then those with strong faith would be healed or have their prayers answered, and those with weak faith would not.

But that isn’t always the way it works. Often the prayers of saintly men and women seem to have no effect, while the prayers of sinners get results. In spite of what the Scriptures tell us, it appears that our level of faith or doubt is not the only factor at work. Blaming ourselves is not the answer, any more than blaming God is.

So, we ought not to reject God, blame God – or ourselves. How, then, CAN we respond when our prayers go unanswered?

4) The only thing we can do is to place our trust wholly in God, in spite of our circumstances and troubles.

Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to his purpose.” This is the real “faith” our scriptures are talking about. God doesn’t cause the bad things that happen in our lives – but God can and will work in our lives to bring good out of bad – sometimes by answering our prayers, and sometimes not. It’s a mystery. It’s a matter of trusting in God, no matter what.

I believe that the problem stems, not from God, but from our misconceptions about what “faith” is. Most of the time, when we say “faith” we mean “belief.” But faith and belief are two very different things:

“Belief” is an intellectual thing – it is static. You can believe in God and not have faith at all. Many polls have shown that, while a large majority of Americans say they “believe” in God, only a small percentage actually practice their “faith.” They don’t live any differently than people who do not believe in God at all. The scriptures tell us that even the Devil and his demons “believe” there is a God.

“Faith” is something quite different. It is a action verb – and might better be translated “to trust.” In the New Testament, “faith” means “to entrust and commit oneself” – it implies an active dependent relationship with God. I once saw a wonderful plaque that explained this distinction better than anything I have ever read. It said: “Faith is not belief without proof, its trust without reservation.”

In our scripture lesson from Matthew, we see this kind of faith in action. You know the story – the disciples had set out in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus stayed behind to pray. In the middle of the turbulent lake, Jesus came to them, walking on the water. Peter stepped out of the boat – why? Because he intellectually believed in Jesus? No. Peter stepped out of the boat because he had placed his faith in Jesus, trusting Jesus not to let him sink. And as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, Peter walked on the water.

But, when he “noticed the wind and the waves,” he sank. Now, Peter still believed in Christ, but he had allowed fear to take control when he took his eyes off Jesus. He stopped trusting Jesus, and so he sank. Peter allowed doubt to get in the way of his relationship with his Lord.

In our other text, James says the same thing. Like Peter’s experienced proved, you cannot trust and doubt at the same time – they are mutually exclusive. “Ask in faith, never doubting,” James writes, “for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

Let me try to explain it this way: If I were to give my wife, Terri, reason to doubt my fidelity, she could no longer trust me (faith and doubt are mutually exclusive). Therefore, I must never allow doubt to enter my relationship with Terri, no matter what. We must always nurture the highest level of trust so that we know that we can always count on one another, no matter what life throws at us. It is because of our love and trust that our relationship can weather any storm.

It’s the same way with our relationship with God. When we feel that God has not answered our prayers, it’s easy to get discouraged. But we must never, never allow doubt to gain a foothold in our relationship with our Lord. We must resolve to love him wholly, recommitting our lives to him daily, no matter what. And we must keep our eyes focused on his face, knowing that he loves us more than we can ever know – and that he will never let us sink.

“Too Good to Be True?” 1 Corinthians 15:12-23 and Matthew 28:1-15

It seems that every religious holiday has become overshadowed by the secular trappings of the day, especially in the minds of children, and Easter is no exception. In the newspaper cartoon, “The Family Circus,” the children find their Easter baskets on Easter morning and begin enjoying them. The little boy asked, “Who colored all these eggs?” To which the sister replied, “The Easter Bunny.” “Who gave us the jelly beans?” “The Easter Bunny.” “And the chocolate rabbit?” “The Easter Bunny.” (Obviously, there was NOTHING beyond the reach of the Easter Bunny!)

Later that morning, the family attended Easter services at their church and heard the preacher say, “They came to the tomb and saw the stone had been rolled back. Who could have done this?” To which the little boy jumped up in the pew and shouted, “The Easter Bunny!”

Yes, sometimes we miss the point of our religious holidays. But we had better NOT miss the point of this one! That is because Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, is the very heart of the Christian faith. It is the cornerstone on which all our other beliefs are built. It is the lynch-pin which holds the Church together.

There is no other doctrine in the Christian faith which is more essential . . . no conviction that is more important . . . than the belief in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. We confess it in our creeds, we sing it in our hymns, and we proclaim it from our pulpits Sunday after Sunday. Indeed, there is nothing that defines us as Christians more clearly than our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. And that is why we are here this morning.

Yet, if we look beyond all the whoop-la of our Easter celebration, we must confess that, at times (and maybe even this morning), you and I have a little trouble accepting this remarkable story at face value. It seems “too good to be true.” Growing up, I always heard that if something seemed too good to be true, it probably was!

Some of us have a hard time quieting the questions that arise from our modern 21st century minds. We think, “It’s impossible for a person who has been dead three days to be brought back to life . . . isn’t it? Maybe Jesus wasn’t really dead after all . . . or perhaps the disciples DID steal the body, like the Roman guards said . . . or maybe the whole story was made up?” No matter how hard we try to ignore it, our minds cause us to question our faith, and sometimes, we lose our faith.

Years ago in Moscow, when the Communists were doing their best to erase the church from Soviet Society, a noted Soviet educator was giving a lecture attempting to prove the Christian faith had no merit. At the close of the address, he asked if anyone would like to reply or to refute his arguments. After a few hushed moments, a village priest arose and slowly ascended the platform.

“Remember, only five minutes,” the lecturer reminded him. “What I have to say will be brief,” the priest replied. The priest looked out over the crowd a moment in silence, and then in a clear ringing voice, gave the timeless Easter greeting, “Christ is risen!” Then, as if in chorus, the audience responded with on voice, “He is risen indeed!” The lecturer went home in defeat.

Yes, many of us in the 21st century are like that Soviet atheist . . . we have trouble accepting the notion of the resurrection. But we are not alone.

Our scripture lessons this morning tell us that we are not the first to have difficulty believing in the Resurrection of Christ. In the account of the resurrection found in Matthew’s Gospel, we read of how the Roman guards and Jewish leaders were so flustered by the Resurrection, that they agreed to start a rumor claiming that the body had been stolen in order to discredit the Disciples. And it must have worked. Because, in the Church in Corinth, there were those who claimed that there was no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. And, of course, that is what our Scripture lesson from First Corinthians is all about.

You know, there are many people today (even some leaders within the Christian church) who say you don’t have to believe in the Resurrection in order to be a Christian. Maybe even some of you here this morning might agree with that statement. I don’t agree!

Every year at Easter-time, thousands of people climb a mountain in the Italian Alps. Along the trail, they pass the “stations of the cross” and end up standing before an outdoor crucifix. One tourist noticed a little train that led beyond the cross. He fought through the rough thicket and, to his surprise, came upon another shrine. It had been neglected. The brush had grown up around it. That hidden shrine depicted the empty tomb. Almost everyone had gotten as far as the cross, but there they stopped.

There are many people who never get beyond the cross. They see Jesus as a “good man” who was martyred for his beliefs. Period. For them, Jesus’ ministry, his passion, and his death are enough. To them, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was actually raised from death or not.

But Paul says, “Yes it does! It makes ALL the difference in the world!” Why? Paul gives us at least three reasons:

First, he says that if Christ was not raised from the dead, our preaching is fraudulent, and our faith is a delusion.

Sigmund Freud, one of the great seminal thinkers in the area of psychology, wrote a little book, entitled, The Future of an Illusion, in which he argues that all religion is a mere projection of wishful thinking on our part. He said that we believe what we want to believe, but that there is no foundation for that belief. It’s all in our minds.

Those of us who have strong religious convictions are offended by that! But you know, in a way, Freud does has a point . . . he makes the same point Paul himself makes: If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our faith IS a fraud. If the Resurrection never happened, then we ARE just deluding ourselves this morning, – and we all might as well go home.

In the second place, Paul says that if Christ wasn’t resurrected, then we are still lost in our sins. Christ’s promise of forgiveness would have exposed as a lie, and we would still be doomed to hell by our sin.

John Bunyan, in his allegorical book, Pilgrim’s Progress, describes a character he calls by the name, “Christian.” Christian goes around throughout the story carrying a heavy burden on his back.

If Jesus was not raised from death, then He was not the Messiah. And if He was not the Messiah, then his passion and death on the cross could not have redeemed us from our sins. If Jesus was not raised from death, then we, like “Christian,” in Pilgrim’s Progress, would be forced to labor under the weight of our sins forever, with no hope of relief.

Finally, Paul says that, if Jesus did not return to life, then all those who have died believing in Jesus are lost forever.

If Christ is not raised, then there is no reason to hope for our OWN resurrection. That means that our loved ones who have died in the faith have lived a lie, and you and I who look forward to spending eternity in heaven are fools. We might as well give up – Easter was a cruel joke – we are eternally trapped in the “tomb” of Good Friday. Death has had the last laugh, and evil has ultimately triumphed . . . all is hopelessness and despair . . .

That is . . . IF the story is a LIE.

But . . . what if the story is TRUE?

The remarkable, radical conviction of the Church for 2000 years is that THE STORY IS TRUE! . . . That Jesus WAS raised by God on the third day . . . and is ALIVE . . . and is HERE in our midst this morning!

The modern mind asks for proof, and, to be honest, the IS no empirical proof of the Resurrection. It’s left up to each and every individual to decide for him or herself whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead. Ultimately, it is a matter of faith.

We must decide for ourselves . . . Is this story “too good to be true?’ Or is it good – BECAUSE it is true?

If the story is true, then those of us who believe the Biblical witness have reason to celebrate this morning! Because, this morning, God has kept His promises! You and I are freed from the burden of sin! We can be born again! We can live new-lives in Christ! And death is NOT the end!

This morning, we proclaim that the Easter story IS true! Christ is alive, God is victorious over evil, – and we can share in that victory!

Once there was a man named George who was accustomed to driving his wife, Rosie, to church every Sunday. They had been married forty years, and loved each other deeply. They did everything together. They were inseparable in practically every area of their lives, except one. When George drove Rosie to church, she went in. He did not. He refused to go inside the church with her. He remained in the car, reading the newspaper.

Well, after a time, Rosie died, and for many Sundays thereafter, church members looked wistfully at the parking lot because George’s car was no longer seen there.

Several months later on Easter Sunday, however, George came to the church service. The pastor delivered a stirring sermon on the Resurrection, and then, as was his custom, invited the members to respond.

George stood up, and with deep emotion said firmly, “Rosie Lives!” Then he began to sing, “My wild Irish Rose, the sweetest flower that grows . . .” One person joined in, then another, and another. Finally, everyone present was joyfully singing the most beautiful “Easter hymn” ever sung in that church!

Rosie lives . . . because Jesus lives! That is the good news of Easter. We can live . . . because Jesus lives!

The story is NOT “too good to be true!” It is good BECAUSE it is true!

“Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen, Indeed!” “Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen, Indeed!” “Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen, Indeed!”

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.

#7: “Father, Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit” Luke 32:44-46 (NRSV)

What was the first bedtime prayer you were ever taught as a child? For untold millions of children, the words they were taught to pray were these:

“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

A simple but profound little prayer. It was our child-like statement of faith. Relying on God’s love and grace, we were placing our souls securely into our Heavenly Father’s care.

On this Palm Sunday, we have come to the end of our series of sermons on the “Seven Last Words of Jesus” from the cross. Jesus’ final word was in the form of a prayer he prayed to his heavenly Father – a prayer not unlike that bedtime prayer you and I may have prayed when we were children. Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” A simple but profound little prayer. It was his child-like statement of faith. Relying on God’s love and grace, he was placing his soul securely into his Heavenly Father’s care.

In fact, it is not by accident that Jesus’ final prayer reminds us of a bedtime prayer – because in actuality, that’s precisely what it was. In Jesus’ day, what do you suppose parents taught their children to pray every night before they went to sleep? You guessed it: Jewish children bowed their heads and prayed a prayer not unlike that prayer you may have taught your own children to pray: They instructed their children to pray, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” It was a verse right out of the 31st Psalm.

Isn’t that interesting. In the previous 24 hours, Jesus had experienced humiliation, desertion, torture, and crucifixion – and yet here at the very end, we don’t find Jesus lashing out at his murderers, lamenting his fate, or expressing bitterness toward God. Instead, the last words ever to pass the lips of Jesus were the simple but profound words of a child’s bedtime prayer – the first century equivalent of “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” It’s as if Jesus simply leaned back into the secure loving arms of his Father and drifted off to sleep.

I think that this final prayer of Jesus as he died tells us a lot about the trust he had in his Heavenly Father – a trust that enabled Jesus to live his life with boldness, and to end his life in peace. And I believe that these words of Jesus can teach us a great deal about what it means for you and me as children of God, to live and to die – how being in a faithful relationship with our Heavenly Father allows us to live our lives with boldness, and to die with peace.

Jesus was able to approach his dying with such remarkable serenity because he was confident in his relationship with God. He knew that there was absolutely nothing the world could do to him that could separate him from his Father in heaven. It’s as Paul wrote in Romans (8:38-39): “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…” With that assurance in his unbreakable bond with God, Jesus could face anything the world threw at him – even being willing to suffer death. Even has he hung on the cross, Jesus had no doubt that his Father would raise him from the grave and grant him eternal life.

Because he was so confident in God’s promise of victory over death, Jesus was freed to live his life boldly, speaking the truth of God even when that word was unpopular; doing what was right and just, even when those things that he did angered the authorities – words and actions that would eventually lead to his crucifixion. Because Jesus was confident in God’s promises of eternal life, he could devote his life on earth to doing God’s will – living without fear – knowing that the glory of his resurrection would far surpass the suffering he would endure at the hands of evil men. And on Easter morning, God proved that Jesus’ trust in his Father was not misplaced.

Paul said made the same point in his letter to the Philippians (2:8-11): Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Jesus was able to commit his life and death to God because he was confident in the eternal life God has promised.

And what was true for Jesus is also true for all those who follow him. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have taken courageous stands for what was right, even when they might face persecution or even death – WHY? Because they knew that this earthly life is not all there is, that in fact, it is only a prelude to the eternal life God has promised to all who love him. So countless people of faith have courageously taken stands to advance the Kingdom of God, no matter the cost. (We often call them “saints.”)

It’s why, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter, who only weeks before had denied ever knowing Jesus, was able to stand up before the very same crowd that had called for Jesus’ crucifixion, and preach the first Christian sermon, converting 3000 people to faith in Christ – even though he knew doing so would put his life in mortal danger.

It’s why Steven was able to be bold in declaring the Gospel, even as the angry crowds were stoning him to death – and it’s how, as he died, Stephen could pray, using words very much like those Jesus prayed: “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.”

It’s why the Apostle Paul could write: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:9-11) And Paul remained filled with joy throughout decades of persecution, even as he faced his beheading in Rome.

It is why people of faith throughout the centuries have been willing to take unpopular stands for what is right, often paying a high price for their stance. They have done so gladly because they were aware that this world is not their final destination – they knew that God had reserved them a place in heaven.

And that, I think, is the lesson you and I are meant to take away from this final word from the cross: If you and I have entered into a relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, we can be assured that we will live eternally with him, no matter what happens to us in this life. Come what may: good times or bad, prosperity or poverty, sickness or health, life or death – it doesn’t really matter, because we are safe in God’s care.

Jesus had the assurance to commend his spirit into the care of his Heavenly Father. He died as he lived, trusting in the promises of God.

As always, we take our cue for Jesus: Once we have the faith to commend our own spirits to God in death, we will be freed to commend our lives to God, as well. We can live boldly for Christ without fear, because we know that ultimately we are safe in God’s care.

And so, on this Palm Sunday, as we approach the cross of Good Friday, may we remember the confidence of our Lord, who was able to see that beyond the dark shadows of suffering and death, lies a glorious sunrise; an Easter dawn. God has raised Jesus from the dead, and he has promised that, if we remain faithful during the dark Good Fridays we will face in our own lives, you and I will know an Easter dawn, as well.

Perhaps this Holy Week, we should pray a different version of that bedtime prayer, one that reminds us that no matter how dark our nights seem to be, there is a sunrise to come:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
Guide me safely through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.

Amen.

#6: “It is Finished” John 19:29-30 (NLT)

This morning, we are continuing our reflections on the seven statements of Jesus from the cross, as they are recorded in the gospels. Today we come to the sixth of those “words” of Jesus, and the last word Jesus uttered according to John’s Gospel – although Luke records one final pronouncement which we will be considering next Sunday.

Today’s “word” from the cross follows immediately upon the one we looked at last Sunday. Last week, you’ll recall, Jesus is recorded as speaking just one word, translated in English as “I thirst.” In response, the soldiers put a sponge soaked with sour wine on a stick and offered Jesus a drink. Having tasted the wine, Jesus called out, again using only one single word, translated in our Bibles as three words, “It is finished.” And with that word, John tells us that Jesus died.

Jesus said, “It is finished.” Sounds pretty clear to us – Jesus’ words seems plainly spoken – very matter of fact. But as we have seen with the other statements we have looked at, there is always more than meets the eye to each thing Jesus said from the cross. We can assume the same is true with this one.

“It is finished.” What exactly did Jesus mean by that? WHAT was finished? His suffering? His life? His destiny? What is Jesus saying here?

On the surface, one might assume that this word was a statement of defeat, or at the least, a statement of resignation to failure. Considering the horrific circumstances of the previous 24 hours of his life, one could interpret the meaning of Jesus’ word this way: “O well, I did my best – too bad things didn’t work out the way I had hoped – I guess I’ll just give up.”

To the outside observer of the scene, that would be a logical conclusion – execution on a cross was the ultimate sign of failure and defeat – agonizing, humiliating, insulting, and degrading. It certainly wasn’t the what people expected of a Messiah. Maybe Jesus was lamenting that he had failed and was saying, “I can’t go on. It’s over.”

“It is finished.” Was this a statement acknowledging defeat? Not at all! When we begin to look deeper, we can see that it was actually a declaration of victory!

It’s interesting that none of the other gospel writers give us this word of Jesus as he dies. But when Mark and Matthew record this moment, they simply report that Jesus cried out with a loud voice. It is only John who tells us what it was that Jesus cried out (after all, we was present at the crucifixion). Instead of a whimper of self-pity, or even a scream of pain, Jesus shouted a word – one word – proclaiming triumph!

The word Jesus shouted was “tetelestai,” a Greek word that has a number of connotations. It can mean “finished,” as most of our Bibles translate it. But it can also mean, “to bring to an end, to complete, to accomplish.” That carries with it a whole different tone, doesn’t it? What exactly was completed or accomplished with Jesus’ death? That is the crucial question here.

The key is found in understanding the meaning of this word that Jesus spoke.

“People in the first century would have understood the word, “tetelestai,” because it was used in many ways: A farmer used it to describe an animal so beautiful that it seemed to have no faults. If he brought that lamb to the temple to be offered for sacrifice, the priest, whose job it was to ensure no animals with defects were offered for sacrifice, would look at it and say ‘tetelestai’! What a perfect animal you are offering to God! A carpenter, after finishing a perfect piece of furniture would smile and say ‘Tetelestai’! An artist, placing her finishing touch on a canvas would step back and pronounce it, ‘Tetelestai’! A servant would return to his master after faithfully finishing his job and report ‘Tetelestai- Done! I have finished the work you gave me to do’. And, perhaps most importantly, this Greek word was a banking term. When a person had paid off his debt, the banker would hand him a receipt with the word ‘Tetelestai’ written across it: ‘Paid in full’.

So you get the sense of this word. It is finished. There are no defects. It is perfect. The job has been performed exactly to the specifications. The debt is fully paid.” 1

Are you beginning to see why this word is so important to our understanding of the cross? One commentator has said that this one Greek word, ‘tetelestai’ is the greatest word ever spoken in all of history. Tetelestai is the one word that explains the purpose of Jesus coming into the world; it sums up the meaning of the incarnation, the power of the cross, and the glory of the resurrection. It is the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy. It is the climax of Salvation history. This is at this moment as Jesus lays down his life that the Great Transaction is completed. Jesus’ purpose for coming into the world is fulfilled, the perfect sacrifice is made, and our debt is paid in full! With his dying breath, this is what Jesus shouts, for all the world to hear! Tetelestai!

For John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the cross pivotal moment of history. And just so we don’t miss the significance of what is happening at that moment, John fills his Gospel with lots of clues that are hard to miss. For instance, did you notice that John specifies what kind of stick the soldiers used to lift the wine-soaked sponge to Jesus’ lips? It was a reed from the hyssop plant. Now why would John bother to tell us that?

Probably because hyssop plays a central role in one of the most important salvation stories from Jewish scripture – the story of the Exodus from Egypt. You recall the story, how Moses went to Pharaoh to demand that he let the Hebrews go, but Pharaoh refused. So God sent a series of plagues on Egypt, and still Pharaoh said no. Finally, God declared that every firstborn son throughout all of Egypt will die. But he gave special instructions to the Hebrews. Do your recall what they were to do? They were to kill a perfect lamb, then take the blood and smear it on the door posts and lintels of their houses, and the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes and spare their sons. (That’s where we get the word “Passover”.) But do you recall what they were to use to apply the precious blood that would be their salvation? They were to use hyssop branches! Any Jewish reader of John’s Gospel would make that correlation with the story of Exodus.

Then there is the chronology of Holy Week in John’s Gospel. As John tells the story, the events of that fateful week fall on different days than they do in the synoptic (or first three) gospels. Traditionally we follow the timeline that we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke: assuming that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, eaten on the Day of Passover. But in John’s Gospel, the meal may have occurred the day before Passover, with the crucifixion itself taking place on Passover itself.

Now do you see the connection John is making? If John is correct in his timeline, then Jesus, the Lamb of God, was dying on the cross at exactly the same moment that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. Those sacrificed lambs recalled the blood of the Passover lambs placed on the doorposts that brought liberation from physical bondage. But the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, smeared on the cross brings liberation from spiritual bondage. Those lambs sacrificed in the temple only brought forgiveness of specific sins for which they were offered. But the Lamb of God sacrificed on the cross brings forgiveness for all the sin of the world, for all time. It’s no wonder that John is the only gospel writer that begins his gospel by having John the Baptist point to Jesus and say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” It is also only in John that we hear Jesus declare the purpose he came into the world: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17) “It is finished! Tetelestai!”

Leo Douma, of the Sydney Reformed Church described the eternal significance of this word from the cross this way:

“On that first Good Friday Jesus in great excitement and jubilation declared on the cross “It is finished!” And on Easter Sunday morning the Father replied to that jubilant cry. He opened the heavens, removed the stone from Jesus’ grave and raised Jesus to life. With that reply God had responded and said ‘Yes! It is finished. My plan of salvation, my decree is fulfilled. It is all paid in full. Here is my receipt.’ As Paul said in Romans 4:25: ‘[Jesus}…was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our
justification.’ The resurrection of Jesus is God’s “Amen!” to Jesus “It is finished!” The Son said “Done!” and the Father replied “It sure is Son, it sure is!”1

At the moment of his death, Jesus declared “Mission Accomplished.” He had done for us what a million lambs could never have done. He had freed us from the bondage of sin. He had opened the way back to the Father. He had built us a bridge to heaven. Yes, he had completed his mission and fulfilled his purpose.

Jesus paid it all. There is nothing we have to do – there is nothing we can do – to earn our salvation. All that is required is to claim it – to apply the blood of the Lamb on the doorposts of our heart. As Roger Fredrikson put it: “Jesus is the Lamb of God whose blood is shed and the one door by which we must enter.”2 Jesus is the key to our salvation. It is finished – “Tetelestai!”

But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing left for you and me to do. As the Body of Christ in the world today, his purpose must be our purpose, we are to carry on his mission – what Jesus cared about, we are to care about – what he did, we are to do. Jesus was merciful, so we are to show mercy. Jesus was forgiving, so we are to forgive. Jesus cared about issues of justice for the poor and outcast, so we must work for justice for the poor and outcast. We are to love the world as Christ loved the world. We are to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God just as Jesus did, and then work to make that Kingdom a reality. And we are to proclaim to the world the good news of Tetelestai – that God has acted in Jesus to give us eternal life!

Yes, in gratitude for what Jesus did for us on the cross, we are to be his feet and go where he would go; his hand and do what he would do, his arms to comfort those he would comfort, and his voice to say what he would say. And that was Jesus’ plan all along:

The night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed this prayer to his Father: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18) And then on the evening of the resurrection, Jesus commissioned us to carry on his word: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Tetelestai – It is finished! And because it is, our work has just begun!

1 http://www.sydneyreformed.org.au/Sermons/200803/It_Is_Finished.pdf

2Fredrikson, Roger. The Communicators Commentary: John. c1985 p. 276

#5: “I Thirst” John 19:27-28 (NLT)

Have you ever been thirsty? I mean – REALLY thirsty? Most of us have never experienced real thirst. When we feel a little thirsty, we go to the refrigerator and fill a cup with cool filtered water through the door. Or we pour ourselves a nice cold glass of lemonade or iced tea. If we’re away from home, maybe we’ll find a soft drink machine or go through a drive-thru and order an ice-cold soda. And even if those aren’t available to us, usually there is at least a water fountain, or even a garden hose available.

The closest I have come to being desperately thirsty was one summer in Mexico. Back in the early 1980s, my sisters and I took a trip to Mexico with friends who traveled there nearly every year. We weren’t with a tour, so if we wanted to sight-see, we had to do it on our own. We were staying in the mountains of rural Mexico, and decided one day to take the public bus to visit one of the ancient ruins. We caught the bus in the cool of the morning for the hour-or-so ride to the area of the ruins. When we got off the bus, we were surprised that there was no development around that site. We gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the ruins, with my sister (who is a Spanish teacher) translating the signs.

It was a beautiful clear day, but as the morning turned into afternoon, the temperature began to climb – hotter and hotter. Of course, since we had assumed there would be shops or restaurants catering to tourists, we didn’t bring food or anything to drink. After hours sweating in the blazing Mexican sun, we were getting really thirsty, and beginning to feel a little faint. As we staggered back down the path to the road where we would wait to catch the bus back to town, we were getting a little desperate. What we wouldn’t have given for a drink of water – or even better, an ice-cold Coke!

As we turned the final curve in the path, we couldn’t believe our eyes: We felt a little like those pictures we sometimes see of a person crawling through the sands of the dessert, looking up and seeing a mirage of an oasis in the distance. There on the side of the road was what looked like an angel – well, not exactly an angel – but close to it. There was a man with a cart, selling – cold soft drinks!

We practically ran to where he had set up shop, and gladly paid whatever he asked, as we greedily gulped down that refreshing, rejuvenating elixir! I can still taste it! Maybe you have had a similar experience of being desperate for something to drink.

This morning, we are continuing our series as we consider the seven last words of Jesus as he hung on the cross. Today, we are reflecting on the fifth, and shortest of Jesus’ utterances: In his first word from the cross, Jesus speaks to his Father about forgiveness for his murders. Next, he shows compassion on the thief dying on the cross beside him by promising him eternal life in paradise. He then addresses his mother, seeing to her care. After that, he prays to God by quoting Psalm 22, as he cries out in agony. But now, for the first time, Jesus focuses on his own physical need, whispering, “I thirst.”

And thirsty he must have been. Consider his situation. According to the Gospels, the last time Jesus had had anything to drink was the evening before, during the Last Supper in the Upper Room with his disciples, as they shared their final meal. There (according to Matthew’s Gospel) Jesus had raised the cup and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:28-29)

And apparently, according to the Gospels, Jesus didn’t drink again. Very late that night he was arrested. In the early morning he was interrogated by the Jewish leaders and then by Pilate. He had been ridiculed and terribly beaten by the soldiers. About 9 the next morning, he had been nailed to the cross. He had been offered wine mixed with myrrh to deaden the pain, but Jesus refused it. He hung there for hours as the day got hotter and hotter, bleeding, suffering, his body dehydrating. From midday till three in the afternoon, everything had gone dark as Jesus (bearing the world’s sin) suffered the agony of feeling separated from his Father.

Now in the final throws of death, Jesus’ nearly lifeless body screams for relief. So, for the first and only time, Jesus asks something for himself… something to relieve the suffering his body was enduring: Almost unable to form the words, Jesus croaks out: “I’m thirsty.” The Son of God Almighty, the second person of the Trinity, the One who came into a dying world to offer us an infinite supply of Living Water so that we might never be thirsty again, was reduced to pleading with his executioners for a drop of water to relieve his awful thirst.

When you stop to consider it, this might be the most surprising “word” to pass the parched lips of Jesus. All the other words seem grand and noble, statements of faith, or grace, or compassion. But then, Jesus says “I thirst.” Even though this seems to be the most mundane and practical of all the statements Jesus made from the cross, it still captures our imagination in a way that surprises us. There is something in these words that stir up conflicting emotions within us. It’s both comforting and disturbing to us to hear Jesus plead for something to drink.

Of course, it is comforting to realize that Jesus knows our pain and suffering. He knows our hurt, because he experienced hurt. He knows our struggles because he struggled. He knows our disappointments, because he experienced disappointments. And he knows our thirsting because he thirsted.

When we are going through times of physical agony, Jesus’ acknowledgment of his pain is reassuring to us. And when our bodies are failing and we are nearing death, it eases our struggle to know that Jesus passed through that “valley of the shadow of death” as well. Yes, to hear Jesus admit that he was thirsty is comforting to us.

And yet, there is something troubling about his words, as well. What is it about this word of Jesus that makes us uneasy? It’s disturbing because it calls into question our assumptions about Jesus as the Son of God.

If we’re honest, we have to confess that it makes us a little uncomfortable to see God begging as he dies such a humiliating death. We humans tend to prefer our gods to be divine – far above us mere mortals – sitting on Mt. Olympus somewhere acting as gods are supposed to act – almighty and impervious to the antics of humans down below. A god who suffers such humiliation and dies at the hands of those God had created can’t be much of a god. A desperately thirsty groveling god dying on a cross just doesn’t make any sense. As comforting as this word of Jesus may be to us when we are suffering, if the truth be known, you and I may secretly wish this “word” of Jesus had been left out of the Bible. Why does’ John choose to include this rather undignified word from the cross?

John probably included it because there were some of his contemporaries who claimed to be followers of Jesus who felt just that way. John’s Gospel was written quite late, the last of the four to be recorded. By that time, a competing Christian movement had developed that believed some very odd things about Jesus, and they were preaching their strange beliefs throughout the ancient world – teachings that struck at the heart of the Gospel which John and the other Apostles were preaching.

These Gnostic, as they were called, couldn’t accept the notion that God could suffer and die. They argued that, in Jesus, God only appeared to be human – that he was actually something like a phantom. In fact, some taught that when Jesus walked this earth, he didn’t leave any footprints. They went on to argue that a real God could never actually suffer, and since Jesus was God, that meant that Jesus never really suffered. Some said that Jesus went through the whole experience of the cross without any real pain. And, since a God couldn’t die, that Jesus didn’t actually die. There were other Gnostics who suggested that at the last minute, someone else was nailed to the cross, and died in Jesus’ place.

These Gnostics had to come up with these weird ideas because the cross of Jesus interfered with their notion of how a god should act. The crucifixion was a scandal they had to explain away. And when you think about it, the cross can be troubling for us, too.

Like those Gnostics, we want a God who is all-powerful, who knows how to throw his weight around – a God in full control, who can ride to our rescue on a white horse – a God that directs all the forces of nature and preordains the course of human events – a God who answers our all our prayers and fixes all our problems. We want a God who can live up to his own PR. In short, we want a God who acts like a god.

But then, we are confronted by a blood drenched cross, and the figure of God himself, with nails driven through his hands and feet, writhing in pain, imploring his killers to show mercy on him.

What kind of foolishness is this! What good is a thirsty, dying God on a cross?

In fact, it is precisely in this rash, reckless, irrational act of God bleeding on the cross that you and I get a glimpse of the glory of God.

In William Willimon’s book, Thank God it’s Friday, he writes this: “It’s God’s difference from our expectations for gods that makes God hidden to us. We are blinded to God on the cross by our assumption that if there were a true God, that God would be somewhere a long way from us, not here before us, naked, exposed, and on a cross. I’m saying that Jesus’ “I Thirst” is another way of revealing God’s utter self-giving availability to us.”1

It is because of his willingness to enter the pain and suffering of our world that he has won our love and devotion. It is in the way he models for us what it means to give of himself to us, that we begin to understand what it would mean for us to give of ourselves for others. In the cross of Christ, what at first we may see as evidence of the foolishness of God, is transformed into a revelation of God’s amazing grace and transforming love for you and for me. As Paul expressed it in First Corinthians (1:18,22-25)

18 “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Yes, we want a God who acts like a god. But, instead, what we get is the incarnation – a God who came into the world, prepared to die, if that is what it took to show us just how much God loves us. In the incarnation, God emptied himself of his glory, coming into the world, to be born as one of us – to live our life – to make himself vulnerable to suffer at the hands of those he came to save – to die that our sins might be forgiven, and to offer us eternal life.

Yes, a thirsty dying Jesus withering away on a cross may seem to us to be ungod-like, but in reality, it is precisely in this moment when Jesus seems most human that we see the love of God shine through most brightly. Ironically, it is when Jesus whispers “I thirst” that we see him most divine.

But there’s an even more profound lesson to be taken from this word of Jesus spoken from the cross – and that is, that this One who knows our thirst is the very one who can quench our thirst! In John’s Gospel, water is always used in more than a physical sense – Every time Jesus mentions our thirst or the water that will satisfy us, he is using it as a metaphor for the spiritual hunger and thirst that gnaws at our souls.

Rev. Leo Douma, of Sydney Reformed Church, put it this way in one of his sermons:

“We have an empty spot inside that only God can fill. No matter what we do, nothing can fill that emptiness. The Psalmist picks up the point when he writes (42:1) ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you O God… When can I go and meet with God?’ We know what the Psalmist is saying. 2

“When we look around us we see a thirsty world. We humans will do anything to satisfy that thirst. We run after mirages of money, alcohol, drugs, sex, power, relationships, and a thousand other imitations. We stand amazed at how the rich and famous seem to have everything yet nothing. Like the atheist billionaire who said ‘I would give away every dollar I have for a good night’s sleep’. St Augustine wrote long ago ‘Our soul is restless until it rests in thee O Lord’. 2

Jeremiah (2:13) records God’s feelings about our foolishness – the ways we try to satisfy our thirst for meaning: ‘They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that can not hold water’. [In his ministry] Jesus (John 7:37-38) stood up [one day] and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me… streams of living water will flow from within him’. [And to a woman tired of drawing water from Jacob’s well, Jesus offered to give her Living Water from a well that never will run dry.] 2

“Are you thirsty? In his sermon on the mount Jesus (Matthew 5:6) said ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’ 2

“Are you thirsty? John, in describing heaven in the book of Revelation (7:16-17) writes: ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water’. 2

[And] as if [to drive the] point [home], the Bible actually ends with John recording Jesus’ words (Revelation 22:17): ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come, and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life’. 2

“Are you thirsty? Are you parched for God’s presence in your life? Have you been drinking out of the broken cisterns? Living water is available because the Son of God became as human as you and I,

[suffered for our sin]

and gave himself to death… [even death on the cross.] He thirsted desperately

[so that you and I might not have to]

. 2

“Every human being thirsts. The question Jesus asks from the cross is this: How long will you go on thirsting? You don’t need to.” 2 Ask Jesus to give you Living Water, and you will never be thirsty again.”

Prayer:

Lord Jesus as we ponder you suffering on the
Cross, we recall you crying, ‘I thirst’.
These words came from deep within your heart.
They are the words of a thirsty person
your body was without water,
your spirit was desolate,
but still your love embraced all.
Inspire us so that we may answer
the cry of others dying of both physical and spiritual thirst
as they ask for water,
Teach us to be generous and considerate
as I remember the millions
who cry at this very moment, ‘I thirst’.
May our hearts be so touched, that we will do
all in our power to provide those who ask,
a cup of water in your name.

Benediction:

Drink in God’s love. Let it fill you. Let it flow into every part of your life.
Let it spill out of you and splash upon your family and friends.
Offer them the drink that has changed your life…and mine.
Jesus: the real thirst quencher. Amen

1 Willimon, William. Thank God It’s Friday. Abingdon Press. c2006

Rev. Leo Douma, 16 March 2008. http://www.sydneyreformed.org.au/Sermons/200803/I_Thirst.pdf