Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Kind of King, What Kind of Kingdom?

Texts: Psalm 75; Mark 10:32-45

    HAS THIS EVER HAPPENED to you?  There's a person you admire, a family member, a teacher, a political figure, anybody.  You know his character, his opinions, the principles he bases his actions on.  You're sure you know what to expect from him as he lives his life.  But one day, you think you hear him say something that doesn't fit with what you know about him.  He'll say something is not a certain way when you'd expect him to say it is.  Well, maybe you misheard.  Forget about it.

    But then he says something else along the same lines.  What?  Well, maybe he just misspoke.  And you let it go.  But then he says or does it again, and it wasn't a slip.  You admire him, you respect him-- gosh darn it, you know him!  So automatically your mind works to make this new, contradictory information harmonize with your image of him.  And you go on like that, until the time comes when you have to face facts: These new, disturbing things really reflect who your hero is, and the image you had of him or her up to now is false, or at least inadequate.  Something has to give: Your allegiance to that person-- or the deficient idea about him you previously held.

    Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance.  That's when two things you think you know are out of tune with one another, but you do your best to make them harmonize because you don't want to give up what you basically believe on the matter.  We've all experienced it at some time or the other.  In our passage from Mark chapter 10, this lack of harmony engulfs the disciples, the Twelve, and especially the brothers James and John.  They think they know all about Jesus and His role and mission on this earth and they want to keep on relating to Him according to that knowledge.  But Jesus knows they don't have the whole story about Who He is and what He came to do.  The entire gospel according to St. Mark records how Jesus worked to make them-- and us-- give up our inadequate image of Him and embrace the real Jesus and His real kingdom, so we can turn to Him and be saved.

    Humanly-speaking, we can't blame the disciples for their deficient ideas.  After all, hear what it says in Mark 1:14-15:

    After John was put on prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.  "The time has come," he said.  "The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news."

Jesus' basic message was about the kingdom of God: the blessed time when the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished and the Lord God Himself would reign in the person of His promised Messiah.  By His proclamation Jesus made it clear that He was the One who was bringing the kingdom in.
    And hear what the Scriptures say in the seventh chapter of the book of the prophet Daniel:

        As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. . . . 

        In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

    Here we see the glorious Son of Man, and by that title the promised Messiah would be known.  The eternal kingdom, that is, the kingdom of God, would be given to Him to rule over, and it would never be destroyed. 

    So what do we hear Jesus of Nazareth calling Himself?  In Mark 2:10 He says: "That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . " And in Mark 2:28: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."  And so on through the Gospel of Mark, not to mention many other times Jesus takes that title to Himself in Matthew, Luke, and John.  So Jesus without apology steps into the role of the Son of Man Daniel spoke about, and His miracles and teaching proved He deserved it.  This Jesus was the One who would reign as King over the indestructible divine kingdom, and His reign would have no end.

    That's how the disciples, including the Twelve, saw Him.  And they were right to see the Lord Jesus that way, as far as their perception went.  But their ideas didn't include what had to happen before the Son of Man could be awarded "all authority, glory, and sovereign power."  And when Jesus tried to teach His followers the whole truth, they didn't want to hear it, in a very real way they couldn't hear it, and they went on acting as if He'd never said anything on the subject at all.

    Though they couldn't ignore Him on it altogether. At the beginning of our target passage in Mark, we read that "they were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid."  From the ordinary point of view, they were just heading for Jerusalem as they would every year to celebrate the Passover.  But even the half-committed crowds that went along with Jesus just to see what miracles He'd perform next knew that Jerusalem wasn't a safe place for the Rabbi to be.  And His behavior was so odd!  He wasn't strolling along with them, singing the customary Psalms and anticipating a glorious time in the holy city.  No, as another translation puts it, He was "forging ahead," His head down like a charging bull, a Man on a mission determined to get that mission done.  What could it all mean?

    The disciples were astonished, the ordinary disciples and the Twelve as well.  From their point of view, Jerusalem was the last place Jesus should go at the moment, Passover or no Passover.  How did this seemingly self-destructive behavior fit, how could it fit with His identity as God's elect King and Ruler of the heavenly kingdom?

    And then Jesus turns up the dissonance.  He takes the twelve apostles aside and says,

     "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise."

The Son of Man?  Betrayed, flogged, and killed?  Preposterous! Impossible!  Jesus can't possibly mean it.  Never mind that this is the third time Mark records Jesus making this prediction.  It just didn't fit.  And as for His statement that three days later he will rise, what could that possibly mean?  As we see from what happens on Resurrection Day, that didn't register with the apostles at all.

    No, the disciples' idea of the Son of Man had nothing to do with disgrace, suffering, and death, it was all about ruling and glory.  Right after this, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus.  How have they explained their Master's strange behavior to themselves?

     Well, maybe He was going up to Jerusalem to declare Himself Messiah and King.  Yes, that would be it.  By the word of His mouth, with mighty signs and wonders, Jesus would overwhelm the Romans and the Jewish religious establishment.  He would take His stand in the Temple, the Holy Spirit would come down in power, and everyone would fall at His feet and crown Him Lord of all.  Definitely something to be astonished at, but it would fit.

    So since the kingdom must be coming in its fullness very, very soon, the brothers ask Him to grant them the seats at His right hand and His left when He sits enthroned in His glory.  As good Jews they're visualizing the thrones set in place in Daniel's vision.  It wouldn't be mere pomp and ceremony.  What they had in mind was the ruling power and authority and might the Son of Man would wield. James and John want to share it when King Jesus sits triumphant in His everlasting kingdom.  Co-prime ministers of Christ the King, that's what they want to be.  The kingdom, the power, and the glory may belong to our Father in heaven, but they're looking forward to a time in the very near future when a good chunk of it is delegated to them.  Talk of death, suffering, and disgrace is out of tune here; let's keep hold of eternal power and splendor.

    They don't know what they're asking, Jesus replies.  "Can you drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?" 

    Oh, yes, certainly they can!

    Did our Lord look at those two with loving pity when they gave that eager reply?  What did they think He meant?  Yes, there was a cup of the king: It was the cup of joy, the cup of salvation, the cup of overflowing provision.  And though the Bible doesn't tell us a lot about the preparations a king-elect would undergo before he was crowned, we do know from Exodus 29 that before a high priest was consecrated, he was to be thoroughly washed-- baptised, really-- to purify himself for his office.  And certainly the prophets say that the Messiah was to be the great High Priest as well as Israel's everlasting King. Likely there other rites before a coronation, like fasting and prayer and seeking the face of the Lord.  Yes, certainly, James and John could handle that!

    But James and John don't know that Jesus will have to drink the cup of God's wrath, as we read about in Psalm 75.  He will drink it down to the dregs, so that the wicked of this earth, including you and me, might be transformed through Him into children of God.  That cup of wrath was drunk by Christ alone, but the sons of Zebedee and all of us who belong to Jesus must be prepared to suffer for the sake of His name, before we can expect to reign with Him in glory.

    And James and John don't understand that the baptism Jesus will undergo will be the baptism of death.  He will be plunged into it fully for our sake on the cross, and after three days emerge living and glorious as the risen Son of Man.  Only Jesus could die that death for our sins, but all of us who bear His name must put to death our selfishness, our pride, our wills, even our physical lives; all we think we know and all we think we are.  All must be submerged and drowned to death in the blood of His cross.  Only then can we rise with Him to eternal life and kingdom glory.

    Yes, James and John will certainly share in Jesus' baptism and cup, and so will you and I who are baptised in His name.  But as to rewards and places of authority, the humble Son of Man declares that they are the Father's alone to give.  As we read in Psalm 75,

    No one from the east or the west
            or from the desert can exalt a man.
    But it is God who judges:
            He brings one down, he exalts another.

    The sons of Zebedee were looking to the main chance and working for their own advantage.  But in their indignation the other ten disciples were just as far off the mark, and in their situation we'd probably do the same.  Why shouldn't one of them get the best place?  Why not you, why not me?  But Jesus frankly, even ruthlessly destroys their false idea about the workings of the kingdom of God, both now and in the world to come.  He says,

        "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."    

This is the truth about the kind of king Christ is and the kind of kingdom He came to establish.  He's not an earthly ruler and His rulership doesn't follow earthly rules.  "Long live the king!" is the traditional cry.  But Jesus came to be put to death.  Many in the Church today can accept the idea that Jesus came to be a model  of service to our fellow man.  But this idea that the wrath of God was upon us all, and only the shed blood of the sinless Son of Man can turn it away, that doesn't fit.  They explain it away by saying the cross was only symbolic, or just a supreme example of love.  But Christ our King was enthroned upon that cross, and without it there would be no kingdom for Him and none for you and me.  We must accept our need for His death, for only then can we truly be His disciples. 

    It's not for us on this earth to be coveting glory for ourselves in God's kingdom to come.  Rather, let us receive the aid of the Holy Spirit as we humbly walk in the way of the cross.  Jesus has reconciled us to God through His suffering so we who belong to His kingdom can follow Him in humility, patience, service, mutual submission, and love.  It is our glory here on earth to suffer for the name of Christ: sometimes directly in times of persecution; sometimes simply by praising and trusting Him in the ordinary troubles and pains of this life.  There will be transcendent glory to come, but for now, He calls us to drink His cup and undergo His baptism.

    Brothers and sisters, what will you do?  Will you try to minimize your need for the cross?  Will you attempt to explain away Christ's command to be the slave of all, so you can keep your deficient idea of Who He is and what He came to do?  Or will you accept that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give up His life as a ransom for many?  Worship Him as He is, your broken and bleeding Savior.  Follow daily in the path of His sacrifice, serving others for His sake.  And know that by His faithfulness and His atoning death, you will stand before Him in His kingdom, praising the Father in the glory of His resurrection.  Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Newborn from God

Texts:    Romans 6:1-17; John 3:1-14

    IN A LITTLE WHILE WE WILL BAPTISE H-- A-- B--, infant son of H-- and D-- B--.  I was told that H-- was born on the 15th of this past August, so he's not quite two months old.  Once this child was not even thought of, but now he's a little person living here among us.  Even in these past two months he's growing, developing, and gaining strength.  What will he look like when he's big?  What will he be able to do? 

    We marvel at the glory of human life, especially when we find it packaged in a little child.  But human life is not enough.

    And what a miracle H-- is!  If anything on this earth could be called miraculous, it's the birth of a newborn child.  We know from science how minuscule we all start out in our mothers' wombs, but somehow the genetic coding works together and a new human being is born!  And now, see how intricate, how delicate, how marvellously-formed a tiny baby is!

     A child like this is indeed is an earthly miracle.  But earthly miracles are not enough.

    And think of the spirit in this child, already manifesting itself.  Here is a new soul with all its dreams and possibilities ahead of it.  How can we look upon a infant like this and not be inspired to contemplate the mysteries of life and the universe and beyond?

    Certainly, the human spirit is an amazing thing.  But the human spirit is not enough.

    All this is not enough, for we know from Scripture-- and from the testimony of our own hearts-- that we are not what we should be or what we were created to be.  We are sinners who  fall short of the glory of God.  We treat God, our neighbor, and ourselves in ways we ought not, and we fail to give God and our neighbor the honor and consideration they deserve.  St. Paul in our passage from Romans 6 speaks of people who would insult the grace of God by using it as an excuse to sin all the more.  He needs to command even Christians not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies.  So wonderfully formed our bodies are, with tremendous capabilities and strengths, but we have to be warned not to use them as instruments of wickedness.  Paul urges us not to let sin be our master, to stop being slaves to sin-- and by this we understand that having sin as our master is the ordinary condition of human life.  It's the problem we were born with and still struggle with, no matter how old or how young we are.  Because we are sinners, our lives lead to death, our miracles are fleeting, and our spirits end in frustration.  All our human glories are not enough.

    But maybe (some might say), but maybe all this about sin is just Paul the Apostle talking.  After all (people say), Paul didn't want anybody to have any fun.  He just obscured the real Jesus-- the kind, loving, gentle, inclusive, all-accepting Jesus who'd never lower anybody's self-esteem or judge them or make them feel there was anything about them that God couldn't like.

    Oh, really?  That's an imaginary Jesus people make up in their own heads, and not the Christ of the Bible.  We can read what Jesus Himself said about the natural condition of humanity.  In John 3:18-20, He says,

    [W]hoever does not believe [in Jesus the Son of Man] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

"Men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil," says Jesus, the Son of God.  Not some men, but all men, and that includes us women, too.  It just comes naturally for us to do what is bad and wrong and to try to hide our guilt in the darkness, away from the righteous judgement of the holy God.  We are born with sin as our master and condemnation is what we naturally deserve-- Jesus has said so.  The tiniest child, the most aged, venerable senior, all of us come into this world as children of darkness and not as children of light.

    So what must we do?  Try harder?  Aspire to please God by acts of charity and service?  No, for even our best and kindest acts are polluted and degraded by selfish motives.  No matter how much we try, we fail to meet the standard of goodness set by God's own righteousness.  It's beyond human capability for anyone by his or her own efforts to have eternal life and not perish under the judgement we so properly deserve.

    Human life, human spirit, and earthly miracles are not enough.  We need divine life and the Holy Spirit, given to us by heavenly miracle.  It's not enough for us once to have been newborn-- we need also to be newborn from and by and through God.

    When Nicodemus, the member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus by night, he wondered whether Jesus' presence marked the coming of the kingdom of God.  The coming of the kingdom was an event all good Jews eagerly awaited.  Jesus has been doing miraculous signs in Judea and Galilee, and Nicodemus recognizes by this that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, and the Lord is with Him.  Plainly, the next question is, "Rabbi, are You the Messiah, and will we see You inaugurating the kingdom of God very soon?"

    Nicodemus was expecting the time when God would fulfill all His covenant promises to His chosen people, an unending time of blessedness and joy for those who belonged to Him, with a simultaneous experience of punishment and woe for the enemies of God and Israel.  To a great extent, Nicodemus and his good Jewish countrymen were right.  But it's more than that.  The kingdom of God also has to do with the condition of every human heart.  Is God our Sovereign and Master-- or will we continue to be enslaved by sin?  Jesus gets right to the point: In order to see the kingdom of God-- that is, to be able to experience it, live in it, and enjoy the eternal life that only God can give-- it wasn't enough to have been born of the bloodline of Jacob.  No, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

    For Nicodemus this is such a bizarre thing for Jesus to say that he tries to imagine an adult man crawling back into his mother's womb and having her deliver him all over again.  Absurd and impossible!

    But Jesus is not talking about anything natural or anything of this earth.  This new birth is from first to last an act of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In order to participate in the kingdom of God, we must be newborn from God.  Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."   Elsewhere in John's gospel the Evangelist records how Jesus promised the Samaritan woman living water that would become a spring welling up to eternal life.  When He preached at the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus spoke of "streams of living water flowing from within" those who believed in Him, by which He meant the Holy Spirit, which believers would receive.  Repeatedly in Scripture water, especially flowing, running water, is used as a means of physical cleansing and refreshing, and as a symbol for spiritual cleansing and revival.  John the Baptist baptised people in the Jordan River, so they might be ready to accept the Messiah when He might be revealed to Israel.   Behind the physical element of water stands a powerful truth about what God does in the human heart so each of us can be fit and ready to see the kingdom of God.   

    And you and I can't do or be a single thing to bring the kingdom of God to us, or to make ourselves clean enough to see and enter it.  Jesus won't allow Nicodemus or us to delude ourselves.  We must have a spiritual rebirth, and that can happen only by the will and pleasure of the Holy Spirit Himself, who is God.  Can you or I control the wind?  No, we only see its influence and feel its force.  And so it is with the new birth from above-- it's totally up to God and His sovereign will.

    But we can take heart.  "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."  God has provided the way for us to be born again and to have the life and Spirit that is more than enough.  Jesus Himself is the way, and as we believe in Him through the work of the Holy Spirit, we pass from life to death, from condemnation to adoption as sons, from darkness into light.

    Baptism is God's divinely-ordained sign and seal of this tremendous heavenly reality.  We take a common element, water, plain old H2O, and as we in faith invoke the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our Lord promises to apply His promises to us and our children.  Our Christian baptism is our initiation into new and eternal life-- because, St. Paul says (again, in Romans, chapter 6), our baptism into Jesus Christ is our baptism into His death.  In John 3:14 and 15, Jesus says that "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."  By this He looks towards the death He was to suffer on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.  His death washed away the guilt and stain of our sins in His own blood, and in the waters of baptism we are symbolically plunged into the blood of Jesus, that we might arise cleansed and purified and worthy to enter the kingdom of God.

    No one who refuses to come to God through the medium of Christ's atoning death will see life.  But if we are united with Him in His death, as Paul says, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.  With Christ in death, with Christ in newborn life-- this is our hope and our glory.

    But we also rejoice that when we are baptised into Christ, our old sinful self stays dead so we are no longer slaves to sin.  Oh, yes, that old sin nature still hangs around within it us, nagging us and tempting us to go back to what we used to be.  But now that we have been baptised into Christ, we are no longer what we used to be.  We are newborn from God-- truly innocent, truly perfect, truly holy-- because we have been united with Jesus Christ, the truly innocent, perfect, and holy one.

    As we baptise H-- A--, we express our faith that God will do for him what He has promised in Jesus Christ.  He is only a tiny child, and will not be able to express his faith in Christ as His Lord and Savior for many years.  But it was in our very helplessness that God took the initiative to revive and quicken us and raise us up in the power of the Spirit so we might call Jesus Master and Lord.  The Word of God written will teach H-- about Jesus and His death for him, and through the ministry of Christ's church as you surround him with your love and godly example, this child will come to  acknowledge and confirm the blessing of newborn life God gives to him and all of us in Christ. Young or old, whether you are a recent convert or a long-standing pillar of the Church, let us reaffirm our own baptisms, and humbly accept the what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For God so loved you that He gave His only-begotten Son, that if you believe in Him, you will not perish, but have everlasting life.  By His sovereign grace you are reborn into eternal life.  God has done it, let us receive it, and praise His name forever and ever.  Amen.