Jumping Ship

Hey everybody!  I know it's been a while since I've posted anything on here.

Well, I'm jumping ship.  I'm relocating the blog to Wordpress, and you can find it at:

You'll also be able to find Bases Loaded Balk on Wordpress as well:

The primary reason for the change is that I'm thinking about upgrading so that I have my own domain name without the .wordpress, or .blogspot adding to the address.  Simply put, I can't do that on Blogger.

We'll see how the move goes, but for now, I want to encourage you to make the changes in the necessary places.


King of the Jews, King of All

The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, November 21, 2010.  The text for this week's message is Luke 23:33-43.

You may or may not remember a couple weeks ago, when I said that the story of Zacchaeus for All Saints’ Day wasn’t going to be the only passage that you might be wondering about this month.  Well, in case you haven’t figured it out, this week is the other week that I was talking about.  After all, who in the world preaches on the crucifixion story on the Sunday before Thanksgiving?  Who does that?  To be honest with you, I never would have thought about it, but after studying this passage all week, I can’t help but think that it is the perfect passage for this Sunday.

You’ve heard me talk from time to time about the Christian calendar.  The Christian calendar is a way to help us remember the different seasons of the Christian year.  You may or may not know that next week begins Advent.  Advent is the four weeks that lead up to Christmas, and actually mark the beginning of the Christian calendar.  This Sunday, then, is kind of like the final Sunday of the year.  The Christian calendar culminates in a celebration of Christ the King.  It is a week in which we remember that Christ reigns.  We may not think about it in our daily lives, but perhaps there is nothing more important for us to remember as we enter into a week in which we celebrate Thanksgiving – that Christ indeed reigns.

What we read in this passage is something fundamental to the Christian life: the element of paradox.  A paradox is a statement or group of statements that points to some kind of inherent contradiction. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there is a part that says, “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”  In Hamlet, the title character says, “I must be cruel to be kind,” which is a saying that you may be more familiar with from Nick Lowe’s 1979 song of the same title.

As we really look at the Christian faith, we find that it is full of paradox.  To truly live, you must die to the self.  Love your enemies.  But perhaps there is no greater paradox to the Christian faith than what we read about in today’s passage: a suffering and dying Messiah.  Because the Messiah wasn’t supposed to be killed.  The Messiah was supposed to be the one who led Israel back to its glory days.  The Messiah was supposed to be the one who pushed out the occupying forces and governed Israel as in the days of David.  The idea of a Messiah who would give his life for the people was not even in the realm of possibility.  It was a paradox.

In the first century, there were several figures that claimed to be the Messiah.  They would always try to overthrow the government, but once they were killed, the movement died with them.  Nobody continued to follow a Messiah once he was killed, because if he was killed, then clearly he wasn’t the Messiah, and there was no need to follow him in his death.  But that wasn’t the case for the followers of Jesus.  In fact, his death was the catalyst that helped the movement become a worldwide phenomenon.  It’s a paradox.

We know about the life of Jesus.  We know about his birth, which we will celebrate over the next month.  We know about the miracles, the healings and the teaching.  We know about his innocence and the false trial that caused him to end up where we find him in this passage.  And when we come to today’s passage, we want to know more, but we don’t necessarily get that.  We simply read in verse 33, “they crucified him.”  That’s it – “they crucified him.”

Of course, to crucify a person meant all sorts of torture and degradation.  A crucifixion is quite possibly one of the worst ways to die, not just in the ancient world, but in all of history.  The goal of crucifixion wasn’t just death, but the utter humiliation of the victim, and a warning for those who would follow after that person: don’t do what this person did, or this is where you will end up.  Every element was intended to make a person suffer – whether it was physical pain, emotional pain or psychological pain.  And here, in Luke 23, the Messiah, the Anointed One, is crucified like a common criminal.  In fact, he is crucified between two criminals, one on either side.

In his life, Jesus surrounded himself with a ragtag group of disciples; common people, not the religious elite.  He was criticized over and over again for spending time with the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the sinners.  In response to this criticism, he even says, “It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.”  Jesus dedicated his ministry to reaching those who were left behind; those who were ignored and looked down upon by the rest of society.  And now, in his death, he is surrounded by the same kind of outcasts, the same kind of seedy people that we would like to avoid in our own lives.

The Roman soldiers that were overseeing the execution took his clothes because that’s part of the humiliation of the cross.  You were exposed for all to see.  They took clothes and started casting lots to determine who got what.  The same clothes that, not long before, healed a woman who had been bleeding for several years.  There had been no cure for this woman.  She was permanently outcast because of her condition.  In fact, she was breaking the law just by being around all these people, and by reaching out to touch Jesus’ garments, hoping that she would be healed.  And she was.  She was healed because of her faith.  Now, those same clothes were being divided up between a bunch of Roman soldiers with nothing better to do while they were waiting for the owner of those clothes to die.

The soldiers mocked him.  The people stood by, watching and waiting.  The religious leaders hurled insults at him.  Even one of the criminals who was hanging on the cross beside him railed against him.  It’s part of our story, as Christians.  It’s part of who we are, as followers of this Messiah who is hanging on the cross before us now, but what about this story should cause us to give thanks?  There’s nothing glorious about this type of death.  What about the death of the Messiah should lead us into a time of thanksgiving and even praise?  It is a paradox, isn’t it?

But, we give thanks and praise in spite of what we see happening in this passage, and, in part, because of what else we see going on.  In the midst of all this – the torture, the humiliation, the dehumanizing things that are going on – we see something greater.  In verse 34, right after we are told that Jesus is crucified between two criminals, his words are, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  While, in the context of the passage, it’s pretty clear that Jesus is asking forgiveness for those who are committing these atrocious acts, that forgiveness extends far beyond those people.  That forgiveness extends even today, to us.

Think of all the times in your life that you have let people down.  Think of all the times that you’ve let yourself down.  Think of the times in your life when you lived in sin.  I don’t just mean that you did a few bad things, but that you surrounded yourself in sin.  You breathed it in.  You ingested it; it was a part of every fiber of your being.  Think of those times, because what we see in the crucifixion is what happens when sin controls our lives, and yet… and yet.  In Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness.

Mark 10:45 tells us that the Son of Man, Jesus, did not come so that all would serve him, but that he would serve the world, and give his life as a ransom for sin.  Jesus told his disciples that, but they didn’t know what to make of it.  It didn’t make any sense.  Jesus wasn’t going to die.  Jesus was the Messiah.  But here we are at the end of Luke, and indeed Jesus is giving his life.  While he is surrounded by sinners, while he is surrounded by people who don’t know and don’t care who he is, while he is surrounded by people who are nailing him to the cross, insulting him, and mocking him, he says, “Father, forgive them.”

While this horrible atrocity is playing out before us, what we see is, in fact, an act of love.  Not on the part of those who are nailing, insulting and mocking, but on the part of the one who is being crucified, the one who is being insulted, the one who is being mocked.  The target of all their hatred and sin displays love and forgiveness, and it becomes more personal when we look at another character in the story, the criminal who isn’t railing against Jesus.  The criminal who looks at his life, knowing that Jesus hasn’t done anything to deserve to be here, but has given himself for the sake of others.

Maybe this is the person with whom we can identify more readily.  This is the person who recognizes his faults and failures, and knows that ultimately he is getting what he deserves.  He says that he is receiving the due rewards for his deeds.  And yet, in faith, he asks Jesus to remember him.  In faith.  This man whose story we don’t know.  This man who probably wasn’t that great of a guy, who probably did some things that hurt other people.  He knows that he is getting what he deserves, but he asks for something that he doesn’t deserve – forgiveness.  He asks for forgiveness.  And it is given to him.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know what we deserve and what we don’t deserve.  I don’t think there is a person here who can honestly look at his/her life and say, “Yes, I deserve to be in Paradise with Jesus.”  Nobody knows our mistakes and faults better than we do.  No matter how hard we try to hide from them or cover them up.  We know that we have fallen short of the ideal.  We know, like the criminal on the cross, that we are getting our due rewards.  And yet, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them.”

One last detail about this passage.  I haven’t touched on it yet, but it is probably the most important detail when we start to look at why this passage on this particular Sunday.  Above Jesus hung a sign: “The King of the Jews.”  Officially, this was his charge.  This was why he was hanging on the cross.  The Romans would do this so that the people would know what he did to deserve this punishment.

The King of the Jews.  He wasn’t treated like a king.  He was nailed to a cross.  Mocked.  Insulted.  His clothes were divided up among the soldiers.  He was beaten.  It’s a paradox, isn’t it?  A dying Messiah.  Other people declared themselves the Messiah.  Few remember their names.  Hundreds, even thousands, of people were crucified in the history of the Roman Empire.  Why would the people of the first century remember this one particular Messiah and this one particular crucifixion?  Because it wasn’t the end of the story.  There was another chapter to be written, yet it was a chapter that was written before the beginning of time.  Another paradox.

Three days later.  The crowd is gone.  The religious rulers were tucked away in their Temple.  The soldiers were back on duty.  The criminals were buried in their shallow grave.  But there was a tomb, a tomb that belonged to a man from Arimathea named Joseph, a tomb that housed the body of Jesus.  A tomb that was empty.  The resurrection happened.  This king of the Jews who was killed, buried and was supposed to be forgotten was raised from the dead.  The forgiveness that he had asked the Father to extend was extended, not just to those who were there, but to all.  No longer was Jesus the king of Jews, as the sign has so appropriately, albeit unintentionally, stated.  He was the king of all.  All who submit themselves to him, and all who refuse to do so.

As Paul says in Philippians, one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  He may have died as king of the Jews, but he was raised to be king of all.  I’d say that is a pretty good reason to give thanks, wouldn’t you?  So Thursday, or Friday, or Saturday, or whatever day you stop to give thanks.  Don’t just give thanks for the four “f’s” – friends, family, food and football.  Give thanks that there is indeed a king who reigns.  A king whose reign is a bit of a paradox, but a king who is indeed Lord of all creation.  

All Will Be Thrown Down

The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, November 14, 2010.  The text for this week's message is Luke 21:5-6.

Last week, we looked at the second chapter of the prophet Haggai.  What we saw there was a very encouraging word from the Lord in the midst of a discouraging time for the people of Israel.  They had just returned from exile in Babylon when they were charged with the task of building a new temple to replace the one that had been destroyed nearly 50 years before.  It was certainly a daunting task, but it was not an impossible one.  Regardless, the people became discouraged and the building of the temple halted.

It is into this situation that the Lord speaks.  He speaks because complacency is not the ideal state for those who have been given a task by God.  The Lord comforts the people, reminds them of His presence with them, and encourages them to press on.  What we saw in that passage is that things change.  Plain and simple.  Things change.  And while it is good for us to remember and honor our past, we cannot live in the past.  We have to look forward to what could be, even when the road is unclear.  God has given us a great task, and we need to spend more time looking forward to where God is leading us, and less time looking back at the way things used to be.

When we come to today’s passage, we are several hundred years into the future.  The temple that the people were encouraged to continue with in Haggai was eventually completed.  It wasn’t the most magnificent building in the history of architecture, but it didn’t have to be.  That’s not what God intended for the people at that time.  By the time we get to the first century, the second temple has been torn down by Herod the Great, and he started rebuilding a new temple.  The previous temple was torn down in 20 B.C., and nearly fifty year later, which is where we find ourselves in today’s passage, the new one is still being built.  It would not be complete until 63 A.D., but at this point, it is already a magnificent building.

In verse 5, the disciples have spent the entire day with Jesus as he taught in the Temple.  They were getting ready to head back for the night, and on the way out, they were admiring the workmanship of the temple.  It was truly a wonderful sight to behold.  And yet, Jesus is not as impressed as the disciples.  Instead of taking part in the conversation and marveling at the beautiful building before him, Jesus uses it as a teaching moment.  He says, “As for these things that you see the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Put yourself in the shoes of the disciples for just a minute now.  You are just walking around, after a very long day at the temple, looking up and taking in the sights.  It’s a beautiful building, and you can’t help but make a comment about it.  And along comes Jesus.  “Hey, Jesus!” you shout.  “Check out this building!  Isn’t it incredible?”  Then Jesus looks at you and says, “Eh, it’s not going to last forever.  It’s going to be torn down soon.”  Talk about a buzzkill, right?  I mean, can’t the guy just enjoy the splendor for just a few minutes?  Well… no.  Because there is something bigger going on here.

As beautiful and magnificent as this building was, it was just a fa├žade.  What the disciples see and admire is the external adornment, but all that was doing was hiding a spiritual emptiness that had become the temple and the religious institution of the day.  At this very moment, the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community were plotting how to get rid of Jesus so he would stop being such a radical and stirring up trouble for them.

The problem was that the religious elite was not concerned about sharing the message with others.  Their primary concern was how they could hold on to the power that they had obtained.  The things that Jesus said, the way he undermined their authority in the religious sector was enough to make them want to kill him.  These are not the types of thoughts that spiritual leaders need to entertain.  The glory of the temple had nothing to do with the presence of God at this point, but that didn’t seem matter to those who just wanted an amazing looking building.  So, the disciples, like so many before them, were caught up in the beauty of the building, and Jesus very quickly had to bring their focus back to what was really important.

In some sense, Jesus is retelling a message given six hundred years prior by the prophet Jeremiah.  In the time of Jeremiah, the people were in trouble, but they didn’t know it.  Spiritually, they were just as empty and devoid of life as the people of Jesus’ time.  They had fallen into the trap that the Lord was there to serve their needs.  It was an easy trap to fall into in those days, because that is exactly what their neighbors believed.

In the polytheistic religions, or the religions with multiple gods, of ancient times, the basic belief was that if you did the right thing, or said the right thing, then the gods would take notice of you and do whatever it was that you asked of them.  Many times, in their prayers, the ancient people would call on the name of all the gods that they could possibly think of, especially if they were in dire need.  The thought was that surely one of them would respond.  Even worse, some believed that if you followed a particular formula, the gods had to help you in whatever way that you asked.

So, it’s not surprising that the Israelites came to believe that the Lord was there to serve them.  Everyone else they came into contact with had that same kind of thought.  However, there is a significant difference between the gods of the others nations and the Lord Almighty.  The God that we read about in Scripture is the Living God.  The gods of the nations were nothing more than wood carvings or metal figures.  They were idols.  They were nothing more than little toys to which people prayed.

There was a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God in the time of Jeremiah.  The people believed that as long as the presence of the Lord was with them – which was symbolized by the Temple – then they didn’t have to worry about anything.  They could just go on and live their lives in whatever way they wanted as long as they performed their sacrifices and kept their ritualistic duties.  In Jeremiah 7, the prophet says to the people, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’”

Jeremiah is telling them that the temple doesn’t mean a thing.  And indeed it didn’t.  Not long after Jeremiah shared that message, the Babylonians came in and conquered Jerusalem, exiling most of its citizens back to Babylon.  The temple was still there.  Solomon’s Temple, in all its glory, did no good to the people of Jerusalem because they placed too much trust in the external trappings of their religion that they forgot the true purpose of their faith.  Later on in Jeremiah 7, God asks, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” 

And now, you may be wondering to yourself, “Haven’t I heard that phrase before?”  Hopefully you have.  Jesus refers to it.  Jesus comes into the temple one day, and in the Court of the Gentiles, moneychangers and people selling animals for sacrifices are making all kinds of noise.  They turned that part of the temple into a marketplace.  It’d be like putting a bank and a pet store in the back of the sanctuary.  The difference – the Court of the Gentiles was the only place in the temple where non-Jews were allowed to worship.  Because of all the commotion surrounding the busyness of the buyers and sellers, the Gentiles who came to worship God could not do so without significant distractions.  Jesus sees what is going on and he starts turning over the table, driving the animals out of the court and generally making a whole lot of people really upset.

The temple was supposed to be a place where all people could come and worship God.  But that wasn’t the case.  It wasn’t a sacred space anymore; it was a marketplace.  People were being cheated on money exchanges.  People were being forced to pay ridiculous prices for sacrificial animals.  This is the state of the temple; the same temple that the disciples are marveling about in today’s passage.  There nothing marvelous about such a place.

Jesus shuts down their amazement, not because he’s a buzzkill, but because they were missing something much more important.  What the temple looks like on the outside doesn’t matter if the inside is messed up.  That’s the key message that Jesus wants to get across to the disciples.   It doesn’t matter how the outside of something looks if the inside is rotten and worthless.  This place that was supposed to be for worship turned out to be a place of liars and thieves.

And what is it that Jesus says to them?  He says that all will be torn down.  This building, this marvelous structure, this great human accomplishment will be torn down one day.  And, indeed, it was.  The Jewish people finally revolted against the Romans in 66 A.D., taking control of Jerusalem and killing the Roman soldiers that were at the garrison.  They managed to hold on for another four years until Titus, son of the recently proclaimed Emperor Vespasian, destroyed the city following a seven-month siege.  Caught up in the destruction of the city was the temple, which was torn to the ground.

Jesus wasn’t just talking about how someday, eventually, the Temple would just fall apart.  He knew what was ahead for the people of Israel.  He knew not just because he was the Son of God, but because he could see the direction that things were going.  He was looking forward at the path the people were on, and there was only one destination for that path.  While all of this is interesting and informative, let me just go ahead and throw out the question that y’all are thinking, “So what?”

Why does it matter that the Temple was destroyed?  Why does it matter that Jesus wouldn’t let them admire the architecture?  Why does any of this matter?  It matters because, if we aren’t careful, we can miss out on the lesson of this passage.  Don’t get so caught up, don’t get so enamored with the things of this world.  They aren’t always what they seem, and they won’t last in the first place.

We talked a lot last week about remembering and honoring our past, but that it is more important for us to look to the future.  Whatever happened in 1972 is nice.  It was a good time.  It helped shape us into who we are today.  But we can’t recreate it.  We can’t go back to 1972 and have a grand ol’ time.  We have to start thinking about 2011, 2015, 2025.  Because, if we don’t, 1972 isn’t going to matter because nobody will be around to celebrate it.

The disciples thought that the Temple was the neatest thing that they had ever seen.  And, who knows, at the time, maybe it was, but it wasn’t going to be around forever.  In about 30 years, the construction on the temple would finally be completed, and in about 40 years, it would all be destroyed.  The things of this world simply don’t last.  No matter how much we adore them, no matter how hard we try, they simply aren’t meant to last for eternity.

Even some of the things that we think will last, things that are beautifully adorned, can have some major issues that we may not necessarily see on the outside.  Once again, we come to the question, “What is the condition of your heart?”  I certainly don’t mean your physical health either.  Is your heart in a place spiritually where you are receptive to the things that God is saying to you?  Do you put yourself in positions to hear from the Lord?  The condition of your heart is so much more important when it comes to matters of eternity, but we make it a habit to spend less and less time paying attention to it.

Let me encourage you this morning to really hear what it is that Jesus is trying to say because he’s not just talking to his disciples on one spring evening two thousand years ago.  He is speaking to us, right here in Veedersburg/Hillsboro on this November morning.  Don’t get too caught up in the things of this world.  Examine what is going on inside yourself, and don’t take things at face value.  Remember, that one day, all will indeed be thrown down, and only that which is truly eternal will last.

God's Building Plan

The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, November 7, 2010.  The text for this week's message is Haggai 2:1-9.

We are in the little-known book of Haggai this morning with a message that seems very appropriate as we look at the task of reaching others with the good news of Jesus Christ.  This can be a daunting task, one that we may feel incapable of accomplishing.  However, what we will see in today’s passage is that our deficiencies and inabilities are not obstacles to God when He has something that needs to be accomplished.  To start off this morning, let’s take a look at some of the background of Haggai so we can understand where we are in history, and then move forward from there.

Haggai was a prophet in the time after the Israelites had returned from exile.  In 587 B.C. the Babylonians came into Jerusalem, conquered the city and exiled the majority of the Israelite people.  Nearly fifty years later, in 539 B.C. the Persians, led by Cyrus conquered the Babylonians.  The Persians had a very different policy regarding conquered nations, allowing them to continue in their cultures and traditions, including their religions.  In 538, Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple.

Construction began the following year, but was quickly stopped because this new Temple was nothing like Solomon’s Temple.  It paled in comparison, and the people were discouraged.  When they saw the foundations of the new temple, they wept out loud because they knew that the new temple would be inferior to the first.  They knew that there was no way they would be able to build a Temple that even somewhat resembled Solomon’s Temple.  How could they?  Solomon had a workforce of over 30,000 people.  They were just the remnant that returned from exile.  When we get to prophet Haggai, we are in about 520 B.C., roughly 17 years after construction on the Temple began, and the Temple was still not finished.  This is where we are as we come to the second chapter of Haggai.

At the beginning of today’s reading, we are told that the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai.  Before we go much further, let’s take a look at what this tells us right from the get-go.  We come to a situation in which the people have grown comfortable and complacent in their inability to rebuild the Temple.  Because they didn’t think they could accomplish the task that was set before them, they didn’t even bother trying.  Eventually, they got to the point where the foundations of the Temple just became a part of the landscape.  It was no longer a reminder to press on to accomplish their task.  It was no longer a goal that they were trying to meet.  It was just the foundation of a failed attempt to build another Temple, and they had accepted it as part of the scenery in Jerusalem.

When the Lord speaks into this situation, we know that He cannot be pleased with what has been going on in Jerusalem, or rather, what hasn’t been going on.  The Lord is not pleased with a defeatist attitude and complacency with the status quo.  He is not pleased that the people have abandoned their task because they felt as though it was too difficult for them to accomplish.  We know that God cannot be pleased with this situation because if He was, then He wouldn’t have said anything at all.  He would have just allowed them to continue in their complacency, and the Temple never would have been rebuilt.  But that’s not what He does, is it?  No, the Lord speaks into this situation through the prophet Haggai.

One of the problems that we have in the church worldwide, but particularly in contemporary American culture, is that we’ve grown comfortable.  While we make think that comfort is a good thing, the truth is, comfort is not always the ideal, and should not be the goal.  It’s okay to be comfortable when you are trying to go to sleep, but when we are faced with a task from the Almighty God, comfort should be the last thing on our minds.  If we ever find ourselves too comfortable with where we are, then maybe we need to
 step back and reexamine what it is that we are doing.
For too long the Israelites had been just living their lives without any regard or concern with accomplishing the task of building the Temple.  Some of them had put more time and effort into their own house than they put into the house of God.  And it was unacceptable.  When God gives us a task, it is imperative that we actively seek ways to accomplish that task.  It is unacceptable if we have a call from God in our personal or collective lives, and we are not seeking ways to fulfill that call.

When the Lord begins to speak through Haggai, the first thing he says is, “Who among you saw this house in its former glory?  How do you see it now?”  In other words, who here remembers the way things used to be?  Does it look the same now?  There would have been a few people around that remembered what the previous temple looked like, but not very many. 

Remember, they were in exile for 50 years.  Many of the people that are around at this point either were really young when the exile occurred, or they were born after the exile.  But there would be some who would have remembered.  The older crowd would have in their minds what Solomon’s Temple looked like prior to the exile to Babylon, and they already knew that this new temple could not measure up.  That is why they stopped in the first place.  They were stuck in the glory days, and didn’t see that God was doing something new in their midst.

Our past is incredibly important.  We could not be who we are today if we did not have the influences that we had in the past.  However, we can’t live in the past.  We have to live in the here and now.  We have to look forward to the future.  When you think about this church, this place that you find yourself this morning, do you think about how things were 10, 20, 30, even 40 years ago?  Or do you find yourself thinking about how things could be in 5, 10, even 15 years?  We honor our past, we remember our past, but we don’t live in our past.  The Israelites had lost sight of their future because they were so focused on their past.  They had become complacent and ineffective in their present because they didn’t look forward to what God was going to do through them.  We need to learn this lesson from the Israelites.  We cannot be so focused on the way things used to be that we lose sight of the way things could be.

When the first temple was built, Solomon had a massive workforce.  They didn’t have that kind of workforce after the exile, and they became discouraged.  There problem, however, wasn’t that they didn’t have enough people to do the work, but that they tried to do the work in the same way that it was done before.  A smaller workforce didn’t mean that they had to abandon the project; it just means that they needed to take a new approach.  A different time calls for a different approach.

Ministry as it existed 10 years ago is not the type of ministry that will be effective today.  What worked in 1985 is not necessarily going to work in 2010 and beyond.  This is true in all facets of ministry – youth ministry, discipleship ministry, outreach, missions, everything.  We cannot do the things that we have always done and expect different results.  We live in a different time, and it is necessary for us to take a different approach in order to effectively reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ.  The days when we can just expect people to come to church on a Sunday morning are over.  I’m sorry to say that, but it’s the truth.  We must be intentional about reaching out to those who need the message of the gospel, both by our actions and by our words.

Notice what else God says in this passage.  Two times, He says, “Take courage,” or “Be strong.”  God is calling them to a new way of life.  They have been living in discouragement.  They have been living in hopelessness.  They have been living in fear.  God calls them away from those things.  God calls them to take courage.  God calls them to have hope.  God calls them to be faithful.  How?  How can they move from this place of discouragement, hopelessness and fear?  By realizing something critical to their mission – the Lord is with them.

They are not alone in their task.  God gave them this great task, but did not leave them to figure it out for themselves.  The Lord never left them.  Twice, He reminds them of His presence.  In verse 4, He says, “Work, for I am with you.”  In verse 5, He says, “My Spirit remains in your midst; do not fear.”  Knowing that God is with us in our endeavors helps us approach them with a sense of confidence.  Trusting in God’s presence helps move us out of complacency and comfort, and into faithful obedience, which is where we need to be if our task is to truly be accomplished.  We have to remember that the Lord does not call us to something and then leave it up to us to figure out how to get it done.

I’ve talked to my dad a few times about his job.  He does drafting for all kinds of buildings.  Many times, the biggest challenge he faces is the fact that sometimes architects come up with really neat designs, but figuring out how it practically comes together can be difficult.  It is his responsibility to put it down on paper and figure it out.  It’s not like that when we are given a task from God.  God gives us the design, but He has already put together the plans.  That is what is so great about this call that we have from God.

God has called us to reach others with the good news of Jesus Christ.  We do need to figure out what that means in our context, but it is not up to us to figure out every last detail.  What we have to do is spend time in prayer, discerning the design that God has already put together for us.  We need to have discussions with one another about how God is speaking to us in this time.  We need to remember that this awesome task that has been given to us has been given by an awesome God, whose Spirit resides within us.  We need to turn away from the fear and anxiety.  We need to take courage and rest in the hope that we have in Christ Jesus.  God knows what needs to be done.  We just have to trust in Him, open ourselves up to Him, listen to Him and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

What is so great about this passage today is not that God is coming down on the Israelites for their lack of effort because He’s not.  This is a very encouraging word from the Lord.  Yes, they have to face the reality of their situation, which isn’t always that easy, but ultimately, God is encouraging them to press forward.  They don’t know what the Temple is going to look like, nor do they have any idea how it is going to be accomplished.  But God doesn’t call us to understand His plans, just to be obedient to the task that He has given us.

Take this passage as a reminder today.  Remember the past, but don’t be trapped by the memories.  Push forward.  Think about where God is leading us, not about what has already been accomplished.  Take courage and know that the Lord is with you.

The Making of a Saint

The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, October 31, 2010.  The text for this week's message is Luke 19:1-10.

Today is a very special day in the life of the church.  Not because Halloween happened to fall on a Sunday this year, but because we have the opportunity today to remember those who have gone on to the promises that we have in Christ Jesus.  It’s not as commonly celebrated in contemporary American culture, but November 1st is known as All Saints Day on the Christian calendar.  It stands in stark contrast to Halloween, which we usually associate with goblins and candy and hayrides and bonfires.  All Saints Day is a day to remember why it is that we do what we do as a congregation.  It’s a day to remember and celebrate the saints who have moved on to glory.

Perhaps the story of Zacchaeus is an odd story for us to examine on All Saints Day, but I can guarantee you that it’s not going to be the only Scripture passage over the next several weeks that may seem out of place at first.  The story of Zacchaeus doesn’t have anything to do with the saints who have left us to meet the Lord.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Zacchaeus is not a saint in this story.  He is a tax collector, which, according to Jewish thought in the first century, was even worse that being a sinner.

Tax collectors were so despised by the Jewish people that when we read through the gospels, they are often given their own category.  Many times you’ll read about the tax collectors and the sinners.  They were so despised that to lump them together with sinners was not good enough.  Even sinners deserved more consideration than the tax collectors.  Why is that?  Why is it that tax collectors were so despised by the Jewish people in the first century?  We may grumble about the IRS today, but we don’t go out of our way to identify them as worse than any other group of people.  A lot of the hatred towards tax collectors had to do with the way they went about their business.

On the most basic level, a tax collector was an agent of the Roman Empire.  A tax collector was given a particular area, and a particular amount of money that they had to raise for taxes.  Anything above that amount would be their pay.  As you can imagine, corruption is built into this tax system.  Let’s say that Zacchaeus had to raise $100 for taxes this month.  He could go around to every person in his district and demand payment for taxes with the full backing of the Roman Empire meaning, in this case, the Roman military.  If Zacchaeus shows up at your door with a handful of soldiers and demands payment for taxes, the chances of you fighting him on his demand are pretty slim, unless you happened to like fighting professional soldiers.

Tax collectors often abused their power for the sake of their own gain.  If Zacchaeus went out and collected $200 dollars in this scenario, then he just made $100.  Put this on a much grander scale, and you can see how tax collectors were often wealthy, but at the expense of the people with whom they lived.  It had to be hard living in the same town as Zacchaeus knowing that the reason why he has a 63” flat screen and a Cadillac was because he cheated you out of your hard-earned money.  Suddenly it makes sense that the people hated tax collectors so much.

Notice what Luke tells us in verse 2.  Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector.  He was a supervisor.  He had responsibility over a larger area and had people working for him to collect taxes.  He’s the guy in charge in this area as far as collecting taxes was concerned.  This is the background as Jesus enters the city of Jericho at the beginning of today’s reading.

When we get to Luke 19, we are at the tail end of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel.  Shortly after this encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus enters into Jerusalem in what we have come to call the Triumphal Entry, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday every year.  In Luke’s narrative, we are coming down to the end.  We are almost at Jesus’ ultimate purpose here on earth.

As so often happens in the gospel stories, there is a crowd.  We are told that when Jesus enters Jericho, a crowd comes to see him.  Stories of Jesus had spread all over the territory.  People knew his name, they knew the things that he had done, and they wanted to catch a glimpse of this person who some were calling the Messiah.  But in the midst of this crowd was Zacchaeus, the despised chief tax collector.  Even Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus.

And perhaps this is the first lesson that we can learn from today’s Scripture: people need to see Jesus.  It’s so simple, but I don’t want you to miss it.  People need to see Jesus, especially those who have not seen him before, especially those are despised because their sins, especially those who are despised because of their betrayals.  Zacchaeus was despised because he was a tax collector.  He was hated because he betrayed his people in order to profit alongside the enemy.  On the outside, it may have looked like Zacchaeus had everything, but in fact, he was missing something.

We know that he was missing something because he went out of his way to see Jesus.  This man of high position risked embarrassment and ridicule because he was too short to see Jesus with the crowd standing in the way, so he climbed a tree.  He climbed a sycamore tree so he could get a better look at the man they called Jesus.

One of the neat things about the Magic Kingdom at Disney World is that every night, twice a night, they have a parade.  People will line up along the route over an hour before it starts just so they can have a good seat to see the Parade of Lights.  And as I was thinking about the position that Zacchaeus found himself in today’s Scripture, I couldn’t help but think of all the little children who were sitting on their parents’ shoulders just so they could see some of their favorite Disney characters in this Parade of Lights.  Children, little people who were too short to see everything unfold had to be helped so they take in the wonder of this experience.  But there was nobody there to help Zacchaeus see Jesus.  So, he climbed a sycamore tree.

As I thought more and more about this story, I started to wonder: what are the things that we do that prevent people from seeing Jesus?  How are we like the crowd that gets in Zacchaeus’ way so that he cannot see the Savior?  What are the things that we hold onto, the rituals that we take for granted, the traditions that we place above allowing people like Zacchaeus to see Jesus for the first time? 

There are things that we place above allowing others to see Jesus.  Whether we know it or not, and whether we do it intentionally or not, it doesn’t really matter.  Some people insist on a particular type of worship.  Others may insist on a particular translation of Scripture.  Still others may have their personal list of theological or political opinions with which you must agree or you risk being on the outside.  What are the ways that we are just like the crowd? 

Take a moment to think about your life and about the things that we do as a congregation that may seem perfectly normal to us, but in reality, to somebody who has not seen Jesus, these things would simply be a crowd that stands in the way of seeing the Savior.  It is a fairly difficult task for us to examine everything that we take for granted, but that is exactly what Jesus has us do in this passage.

After Zacchaeus climbs the tree, Jesus walks by that spot, stops, looks up at him and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry up and get down here.  I must stay at your place today.”  What is amazing here is that Zacchaeus doesn’t start waving his arms and crying out for Jesus to pay attention to him.  Zacchaeus doesn’t yell down, “Hey Jesus, I’m grilling out tonight, do you want to come by for a while?”  He just wanted to see Jesus, and next thing you know, Jesus calls him out of the crowd and says, “I must stay with you today.”

Jesus takes the initiative here.  Jesus calls upon Zacchaeus.  Jesus invites himself over for dinner.  Jesus chooses somebody who the rest of the crowd thinks is unworthy of such an honor.  It’s all Jesus.  The reason why you are probably here this morning is because at some point in your life, Jesus looked to you and said, “Get down here; let’s go have dinner.”  God’s grace works in our lives and brings us closer to him before we ever decide to follow Jesus.  He may have used all sorts of people and events to bring you to that point, but don’t doubt for a second that Jesus was the person bringing it all together in the first place.

Zacchaeus immediately responds in a radical way to Jesus’ call.  He doesn’t just say, “Okay, fire up the grill!  Let’s go!”  He says, “Lord, I’m going to give half of all that I have to the poor.”  I imagine the people weren’t all that impressed because they know how he got his money.  He is a tax collector after all.  But then Zacchaeus says, “If I’ve defrauded anybody, I’m going to give them back four times what I took from them.”  Suddenly, this isn’t just a rich man offering to give away half of what he had so he can look good but still be rich.  It is a man who so believes in the message of Jesus that he is willing to give up everything.  I imagine a few people probably took Zacchaeus up on his offer, and he ended up worse off than anybody.  That is what the grace of God will do to a person.

The grace of God will make a person realize the selfish, hurtful ways that he or she has lived life, and suddenly, everything comes into perspective.  What we have in this world doesn’t matter if it comes at the expense of other people.  God gives so freely that when we are faced with it, we cannot help but give freely as well.  Now, inevitably, the question of worth comes up.  Am I really worthy of the redemption that is possible through Jesus?  Well, no.  We’re not worthy.  But neither was Zacchaeus and Jesus still called him.  That is the beauty of grace – we aren’t called because of our worth, we are called because of our lack of worth.

What we see in the story of Zacchaeus is the making of a saint.  We see the awesome grace of God at work.  We see salvation as it happens, in spite of what the crowd may have wanted.  Jesus picks the worst of the worst in Zacchaeus, and salvation is still waiting for him.

On All Saints Sunday, we remember the saints who have gone before.  We remember and we celebrate their witness in our lives.  But let us also remember – they weren’t always saints.  At some point in their life, Jesus looked to them and said, “Hurry up and get down here.  I must be with you today.”  If we remember their flawed roots, we begin to remember ours.  And in doing so, we remember that we need to stop being the crowd in this story.  We need to stop preventing others from seeing Jesus, and we need to start making a way for those who are small of stature, those like Zacchaeus, to see the Savior.