John the Baptist, An Almost Familiar Story

It is a familiar story for this time of year. A heavenly messenger, a miraculous birth, a normal childhood a short ministry preaching to people who loved his message and hated his message and then an untimely death at the hands of the authorities he had offended.
Most people could fill in the missing details if they were asked and they would be wrong. They would talk about shepherds and wise men, heavenly choirs and stables and little animals, drummer boys and stars and flying reindeer. But none of those were part of the story. I know that you are thinking, “Well maybe not the drummer boy and the flying reindeer but the rest were.” Nope, the problem is that the story is familiar but only because it mirrors another story.
At this time of the year we are all too familiar with the Christmas story and all that goes with it, and most of us can parrot back the details both the details that are biblical and extra biblical. Wrapped up in the Christmas celebrations are facts and legends, poems and songs. And that is why Christians, both committed and nominal will celebrate around the world in less than a month. And even those who would never darken the door of a church 364 days out of the year will take time to at least tip their hats to the birth of Christ.
But the story didn’t start when the Angel appeared to Mary, no the story began half a year earlier and 100 kms away.
Before the angel appeared to Mary and Joseph he had already appeared in Jerusalem to a man named Zechariah to announce the birth of a boy who would be named John. Part of the story was read for us earlier and this morning we are going to look at the tale of Jesus’ older cousin John, because the story of Jesus would never be complete without the story of John.
Many people feel that there is so much detail in the book of Luke about what happened prior to the birth of Christ that it could only have come from one source and that was Mary, and so the feeling is that what we hearing in Luke’s account is a firsthand view of the miraculous.
So let’s begin our journey where our Journey should begin, at the beginning. Historically we are at the end of four hundred years of silence in the Story of Israel. The last recorded words from one of God’s prophets had been written in the book of Malachi and the people of Israel have been waiting to be delivered from the various occupiers of their country.
Luke 1:5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. The Parents of John: Interestingly enough the Elizabeth who is mentioned here is actually a relative of Mary’s. Earlier I called John a cousin because I didn’t know what else to call him. And that’s what he would have been called in those extended families, when you can’t think of anything else to call someone who is kin you call them your cousin. You know if they aren’t your brother or sister, niece or nephew then they have to be your cousin.
When Gabriel appeared to Mary at beginning of the Christmas story he reveals this to her, Luke 1:36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month.
In the King James Version it calls Elizabeth Mary’s cousin but the word in the original Greek was much broader than that and simply meant someone who was related to you, somehow. And she may have been her cousin, we just don’t know. What we do know is that Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron and we are told that Mary was a descendant of David’s so whatever relationship there was on their Mother’s side of the family tree.
But we do know a few things about Zechariah and Elizabeth, we know that they were good folk, the Bible tells us in Luke 1:6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. Sounds like good folk to me.
And we know that Zechariah was a priest and that Elizabeth was descended from the priestly line and we know that they were childless. A tragedy for most folks who it happened to but for a priest it was a double tragedy in that there would be no son to carry on his priestly responsibilities.
And we know that they were older, again how old? We don’t know, old enough to be mentioned, but perhaps because it was in relation to their child bearing years maybe it was just relative, maybe they were old in their late forties or early fifties. Not sure.
And we know that they were chosen for a very special assignment, to raise John. This wasn’t just an oops we are pregnant, what now. From the beginning this was to be a very special birth and a very special child.
Luke 1:11-13 While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.
The Promise of John’s Birth By this time in history there were more priests than there were jobs for priests, so they took turns working in the temple, good work if you can find it. And Zechariah’s turn came up and he was chosen to enter into the temple and offer the sacrifices and while he was in there the strangest thing happened.
He’s doing the things he supposed to be doing, preparing the sacrifice, getting it ready to be offered, preparing his prayers and the scriptures he will read as part of the ceremony and God interrupts him, with an Angel.
And Zechariah was a little spooked; actually he was a lot spooked. After all he was supposed to be alone in the altar area, there were no windows just lit by flickering torches, maybe he’s whistling as he worked. And all of a sudden he’s no longer alone. I don’t think he was spooked because there was an angel there, I think he was spooked because there was anyone there.
And if we read through the conversation the Angel, who identifies himself as Gabriel, I know don’t get me started, tells Zechariah that their prayers are going to be answered that they will be parents and that their son will do great things for God.
And after the angel drops this bombshell, I mean good news on Zechariah he gets this response; “What?” Actually that was a rough translation his actually words were Luke 1:18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
My wife is well along in years, that charitable, love how it is put in the King James Version Luke 1:18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. Guys just a hint, not sure that “well stricken in years” is the most appropriate way to describe your wife’s age.
You got to love this, for years Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a son, They had been praying so long it had become route and I don’t think they really expected it would be answered and had never stopped to consider what would happen if it was answered, there would be diapers to buy, a house to be baby proofed and they’d have to get a baby seat for the camel.
Presumably they knew what caused babies and presumably they had been trying that particular technique without success so the assumption would have to be that there would have to be something miraculous about this.
And to be fair, it may not have been disbelief as much as curiosity that caused his reaction, he knew the other way wasn’t working so what was going to change?
If you don’t know the rest of the story it would appear that Gabriel was a little sensitive about not being believed because he responds by saying in Luke 1:19-20 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
Boy, do you know where I’d be if folks who don’t always believe the promises of God lost their voice? Yeah, preaching to a very quiet church.
And the story continues.
Luke 1:14-17 You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
The Purpose of John’s Life I think it’s interesting that in that actual promise these words are spoken by the angel Luke 1:15 For he (your son) will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.
Without commentary don’t you find it interesting how those thoughts are joined? 1) Great in the eyes of the Lord 2) filled with the Holy Spirit 3) must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks, just saying.
There are some who say that the Angel’s words “God has heard your prayer.” had nothing to do with Zechariah’s prayers for a child and everything to do with Zechariah’s prayers for deliverance for his country. Which would explain the shock upon hearing Elizabeth was pregnant. He was praying for God to do something outstanding for his country but I’m not sure he thought he’d be a part of that plan
So here is what Zechariah was promised for his son.
And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God.
He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah.
He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.
He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children
He will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.
That sounds like a pastor’s dream come true for his child. Pictures of crusades and mass conversions must have gone through Zechariah’s mind. I’m sure that most of us as Christ Followers would want that for our children.
It’s interesting though that while Zechariah was told some of the story he was not told all the story. When his son was born Zechariah received his voice back and proclaimed the goodness of God and his belief in what his son would be called to do. I’m not sure if he would have been nearly as excited had he known how that would play out.
Luke 1:80 John grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.
The Person that John Became If you were to ask Zechariah to predict the future of his son it would probably of had to do with the priesthood. It was John’s lineage, his father was a priest and his mother was the daughter of a priest. And I’m pretty sure that in Zechariah’s mind that if his son was going to have an impact for God it would be through the religious establishment that the family was familiar with. After all why wouldn’t it be?
But when John had grown up we read that he went into the wilderness and when the time was right he appears preaching repentance, baptising people and telling them that the messiah was soon going to appear. Both Matthew and Mark give us the same description of John. Mark tells us in Mark 1:6 His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.
And while he is preaching repentance his mantra continues to be that he is not the chosen one, that he is just the messenger and that there is one coming who will fulfil all the prophecies of the Old Testament and will deliver Israel and then we read in Mark 1:9 One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. That was the short account, you may remember that John protested that he shouldn’t be baptising Jesus but that it should be the other way around and Jesus insisted that John baptise him, and then when he came out of the water how the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Christ and a voice came from the sky saying “This is my Son and he brings me great joy.” Talk about affirmation.
We don’t know how much contact John and Jesus had with each other through the years, the bible is silent on that relationship, we can speculate but it would simply be speculation. Some cousins are close, others not so much. We don’t know if the boys played together or if they even knew they existed. The pastor at Hillside Wesleyan Church is Jay Guptill and people often ask us if we are related, Jay will tell them I’m his father, and they nod and smile often believing it without thought even though he is only a couple of years younger than me.
The truth however is that our fathers are something like third cousins and I didn’t even meet Jay until I was twenty years old.
And then we see little snippets of John appear throughout the gospels. He continues to preach and confront people about their behaviour. He preached repentance, he baptised those who repented and he offended people who didn’t . In particular he offended the wrong people.
Luke 3:19-20 John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others.
The Price that John Paid It is an interesting side bar to the Gospel story, Herod of Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who we remember from the Christmas story, Alexander McLaren writes this about Herod. “This Herod was a son of the grim old tiger who slew the infants of Bethlehem. He was a true cub of a bad litter, with his father’s ferocity, but without his force. He was sensual, cruel, cunning, and infirm of purpose. Rome allowed him to play at being a king, but kept him well in hand.”
Apparently Herod’s younger brother, Phillip, had married a woman by the name of Herodias and somehow she ended up married to Herod. The assumption is that she left the younger brother for the older brother. And John began to publically take issue with the morality of the entire situation. I’m not sure that it bothered Herod that much he was probably used to people criticizing him, after all he wasn’t the most lovable tyrant. But it was getting to Herodias and we are told that Herod had John imprisoned as a favour to Herodias. Here was John who had spent so much of his adult life in the wide open spaces of the wilderness now confined to a prison cell. Must have been tough but it would get tougher.
But listen to this little snippet in Mark 6:19-20 So Herodias bore a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But without Herod’s approval she was powerless, for Herod respected John; and knowing that he was a good and holy man, he protected him. Herod was greatly disturbed whenever he talked with John, but even so, he liked to listen to him.
Now maybe you know how the story ends for John, you hear people talk about how immoral our society is, how far we’ve fallen but this account reveals what life was like 2000 years ago in the society that John and Jesus were called to confront.
Herod throws this big party for everybody who was anybody and part of the festivities was a dance performed by his daughter. When the dance was over Herod applauded and told her “that was awesome, I will give you anything you desire, right up to half my Kingdom.” Not sure how the Romans would have felt about that, but I would suspect that Herod had been in the bubbly.
So the girl went over to her mother and had a little girl talk and she came back and we pick up the story in Matthew 14:8 At her mother’s urging, the girl said, “I want the head of John the Baptist on a tray!”
Now that seems a little extreme, and I’m sure that everyone knew that it was the booze talking but we read in Mark 6:26-28 Then the king deeply regretted what he had said; but because of the vows he had made in front of his guests, he couldn’t refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner to the prison to cut off John’s head and bring it to him. The soldier beheaded John in the prison, brought his head on a tray, and gave it to the girl, who took it to her mother.
So that is the story of John the Baptist from start to finish. But if we couldn’t find any lessons in the story it would just be another story.
As I was writing this message a number of thoughts came to me, here are a few of them.
The first lesson is “Prayer delayed is not prayer denied.” I wonder how many times Zechariah and his bride had questioned whether or not God even heard their prayers. But their son was to be born at just the right time. Which made me realize what a gift it was that John was born in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s old age. By the time of his death John was in his early thirties and his parents had probably passed away. And so they weren’t around when their son was executed, they were spared that heartache.
Then we discover that John prepared the ground for Jesus. It was his preaching about repentance that opened the people’s hearts to hear Jesus. He had tilled the soil for Jesus to sow.
The crowd that John had gathered around him had primed the pump, for Jesus, so to speak. There is very little that we accomplish in life that isn’t accomplished with the help of others. If you see a turtle on a fence post you know that he had some help getting there.
And finally doing the right thing sometimes has a price that has to be paid. I get tired of people who preach that as long as we are good and obedient we will be blessed. There will be eternal rewards, that’s true but it doesn’t always translate into earthly blessings. John did the right things and it cost him his freedom and his life. But we are still charged with doing the right things.
And that’s the way it is.

 
 

Dreamer

You every have weird dreams? I mean really weird dreams? I normally don’t remember my dreams when I wake up, but this past Sunday night, three of them were in the forefront of my mind when I awoke. I dreamt that I gave flowers to our General Superintendent and she ate them. I dreamt that I sailed my little red car in the Bay of Fundy and then I dreamt that Jason and I found a brown striped rabbit in the basement of the church (think skunk stripes but in ginger brown!). And what really doesn’t make sense is, the church doesn’t have a basement. Must have been the Moroccan food I had Sunday evening.

16 years ago, I had a dream of starting a church that would have an impact on the community and would reach out to the pre-churched, the unchurched and the de-churched in a relevant manner and to some folks that seemed a little weird. But here we are 16 years later impacting the community and reaching those who are pre-churched, de-churched and un-churched, so I guess that wasn’t so weird after all. Now, if I can just figure out what to do with that silly rabbit. Have a great week and remember: To see what is really possible, you will have to attempt the impossible

Taking time to Remember

It was quite the crowd. They were all there from the very young to the very old. From babies in strollers to veterans in wheelchairs and they had all come for the same reason; to remember.
I marvel each year at the number of people who show up to the Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph in Bedford.  Literally hundreds of people come out each year, take an hour out of their day to pay their respects.  And they don’t come for the service, which stumbles along and is relayed over a screechy public address system, nor for the music, such as it is.  They come and stand for an hour out of respect and to give thanks for the freedom they have. Freedom to come or not to come to the event.  
And really, isn’t that why we should come to church? To remember that sacrifice that was made for us and not because of how good the service is done for us?  In theory that works, but in practice it is a little different.  And I suppose if we only did church for an hour once a year it would be different and maybe that explains all the strangers on Christmas Eve.   Have a great week and remember: To see what is really possible, you will have to attempt the impossible

God Loves Lost People

If you’ve been around Cornerstone long enough you have probably heard our mission statement or perhaps you’ve read it on our website. Late in the last century when Angela and I were dreaming about what this church would look like we were told that an important part of that process was to develop a mission statement and so we did. 16 years ago when people asked us what we were about we could tell them with conviction “Cornerstone Wesleyan Church exists to reach pre-Christians through dynamic worship and relevant preaching, bringing them to a life expanding relationship with Jesus Christ and guiding them into a practical holiness as evidenced through the fruit of the Spirit.” And sometimes when we would parrot off our mission statement we would have other Christians question it. “Why do you call them Pre-Christians? You’re just being mushy, it should be the lost or sinners” or “Why don’t you talk about them getting saved? What’s with the Life expanding relationship stuff?” “You’re just pandering to them with your relevant messages and dynamic worship; we didn’t come to entertain the world”
So early on we learned to defend our vision, we refer to folks as pre-Christians because we believe that we are going to reach people who aren’t Christ followers now but that they will become Christ followers, thus they are not non-Christians they are simply pre-Christians. We talk about Life Expanding because we believe that when you come into that relationship with Christ it not only gives you the promise of eternal life in heaven when you die but it gives you a better life, an abundant life, a changed life, an expanded life here on earth.
And the relevant preaching and dynamic worship is just part of the plan, if we expect folks to connect with Cornerstone then we are going to have to take the first step. That when they hear the messages they don’t leave saying “So what?” Instead the messages will be relevant to where they are in their lives right now and they can apply it to their lives where they are today. And dynamic worship, why not? People ought to enjoy church. Most of us don’t listen to 500 year old music played on an organ the other six days of the week so why would we do it on Sunday?
And that dream started during my time in Australia, I read a book by Robert Kriegel called “If It Ain’t Broke Break it” it is primarily a business book challenging people to think outside the box. Then I picked up a book by George Barna called “User Friendly Churches” that highlighted a number of new churches that were making a major difference in how they did “Church” And then it all came together in a week long seminar I attended in Brisbane in the winter of 1992, it was actually summer in Brisbane, but that just gets confusing. Bill Hybels and a team from Willow Creek Community Church spent a week presenting a conference entitled “Building a Church for the Unchurched”, during the conference he referenced a book written by Lee Storbels called “Inside the mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary” and I was smitten. To have a church that was intentional in their purpose, intriguing.
For the first ten years of my ministry the thought had been “If they are serious about getting saved they’ll come to church the way we’ve always done church.” They’ll sing our songs, they will learn our language and they will adopt our customs and in the end if they stick with it long enough they will meet our God.
But what if we sang music that at least the style was familiar to those outside the church? What if we made sure that we didn’t use words that unchurched people were unfamiliar with? What if we used videos of things they were familiar with? What if we took the time to explain things like communion? And that was the dream that this church was based on, that we would endeavour to reach the pre-churched, the de-churched and the un-churched.
After all we are told in John 3:16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. And that thought is reiterated in Romans 5:8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. So if God loved pre-Christians enough to give his Son and Jesus loved pre-Christians enough to give his life I would think that we should be willing to give up our traditions and preferences for them if that’s what it takes.
And so 16 years later our mission remains the same, although sometimes we shorten it down to say “Cornerstone exists to reach pre-Christians” or most times I will simply say “Cornerstone is here to help depopulate hell.” And I believe that, I believe that there are people today in our church and in our community who will go to heaven because of who we are and what we do and that wouldn’t have been the case if there had been no Cornerstone.
But sometimes I still have pastors or believers from more traditional churches accuse us of pandering to people, or watering down the gospel and dumbing down the message. Oh well. I am reminded of the story told about D.L. Moody, apparently someone asked Moody how he reached the lost. When he told them they informed him they didn’t agree with his methods so Moody asked “How do you do it?” to which they replied “I don’t.” Moody answered “I like my way better.”
Our story begins in Luke 15:1-3 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! So Jesus told them this story:
Two thousand years ago it was the same as it is today. Religion was sometime seen as a closed club, you came to God on the terms of established religion, you learned the language, you sang their songs and you understood the rules, both the written rules and the unwritten rules. And Jesus began to shake that up, instead of expecting those who needed God to take all the steps Jesus made it easier for them. He taught in fields and market places, in people’s homes and with simple stories that people could understand. And the religious establishment got a little cranky because they were feeling threatened.
So Jesus did what Jesus so often did, he told them a story, it wasn’t a theological dissertation, it wasn’t a sermon filled it religious terms and words, it was just a story. When we lived in Australia, it is a beautiful country filled with wonderful people who are far from God, and I discovered that in most social settings if people asked me what I did for a living and I told them I was a pastor it became a very different conversation, they shut right down. So often when someone asked what I did I would tell them “I’m a story teller” and that would often move them in a direction where we could talk.
But back to the message, this chapter is one of the most loved chapters in the Bible; it contains the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Or as he is often referred to “The Prodigal Son.” There are times that people will talk about these as three separate parables but the reality is that there is only one parable, there are simply three parts to that parable. It is like a montage, three pictures in a single frame, brought together by a single overriding theme, it would appear that Jesus was defining three types of lost.
So let’s start at the beginning, Jesus looks at the religious leaders, don’t know if he was sad, frustrated or angry that they didn’t get it but he begins his parable by telling them. Luke 15:4 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it?
In the first instance The Sheep Was Lost Through Its Own Carelessness The story would be familiar to anyone who had ever tended sheep because they really weren’t the brightest of animals. Most of what I read this week about sheep would imply that they aren’t the sharpest knife in the animal drawer. If I wasn’t so sensitive and careful with my words I’d probably say that The Sheep was lost through its own stupidity. But I won’t go there.
A sheep is driven by its appetites and the immediate, it has no long term plans or desires, its main concern is simply to find food for right now. And so with its head down the wayward sheep eats and wanders and wanders and eats until it has wandered far from the safety of the flock.
Its wandering is not a conscious act, it doesn’t begin the day by saying “I think I will wander off and get eaten by a wolf today.” Instead it is simply satisfying its base needs, oblivious to the bigger picture.
And there are folks like that today, perhaps some right here in this service. They are not far from God because that was their plan; they just didn’t have a plan. Their world is consumed with the immediate, earning a living, feeding their appetites, simply making it through life.
And some of those appetites and desires move them further and further from God, but it is carelessness and a lack of knowledge. That’s where I was when I was 19. Jason and I were talking one day and the question came up about making church relevant to people who are far from God. And I commented that the relevancy of the church never crossed my mind before I chose to follow Christ. I didn’t deliberately not go to church, it was just something that never crossed my mind to do.
I didn’t go to church, I didn’t attend meetings at the Lions Club and I wasn’t a Shriner simply because they weren’t a part of my life. I never stopped to think about the eternal, or about creation or about God. I was lost and like the sheep who had wandered away wasn’t even aware that I was lost. But that didn’t make me any less lost. And it wasn’t until a friend confronted me about my lostness that I even gave it any thought.
And I would venture that the vast majority of the folks in our community who don’t attend church just don’t think about it. And so for them we need to present both the church and the kingdom in such a way that they actually stop and consider what we have to offer. And in most cases that will happen when people who already follow Christ talk to their pre-Christian friends and family members about the difference that Jesus and Cornerstone has made in their lives. It’s really that simple no big plan just an acknowledgement that there is something else out there.
The second picture that Jesus draws is in Luke 15:8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? If the sheep was lost through its own carelessness The Coin Was Lost Through Its Someone Else’s Carelessness. Culturally there is a lot going on in this story. With the sheep the shepherd had lost one in a hundred, but here the woman loses one of the ten silver coins that she has, not one percent of the total but 10 percent of the total. And the commentators say that the coins may have represented a couple of different things to the woman.
For some it was her household savings, her rainy day fund, money set aside for a specific purpose and that makes sense. Maybe she was counting it wondering how much longer it would take her to have what she needed or maybe she had what she needed and now was taking it out to spend it on whatever it was that she had saved it for.
At least one commentator offers a more romantic spin and claims in that time and culture the mark of a married woman was a head-dress made of ten silver coins linked together by a silver chain. And if that was the case and that it was one of these coins that was lost, she would have searched for it like you would search for your lost wedding band.
But it was not the coins fault that it had been lost, it hadn’t jumped out of the woman’s hand, she dropped it or she misplaced it but it was her fault not the coin’s. But the coin had certain characteristics that allowed it to be pre-disposed to being lost. It was heavy and so it fell, it was round so it rolled and it was inanimate so it just lay there hidden.
And there are people in our community today who are far from God because of the actions of other people. Parents who had no use for the church, I hear that from time to time, adults who from the time there were children heard nothing but criticism of the church and God, they were shaped from childhood to be lost.
Or maybe it was an incident where they were hurt or disappointed by a church or a believer; I’ve heard those stories as well. Or maybe today it is a result of the constant negative press the church seems to get in the national media. A few years ago we did the window wash thing at the Esso across the street. One Saturday in February we washed peoples windows and topped up their windshield washer fluids and gave them a magnet with information about the church on them. And this one guy when he found out I was from church started yelling about priests and little boys and televangelists and churches stealing people’s money. And then he jumped in truck and drove away. Wow.
And for those people we need to prove ourselves, and we do that through our actions and through our authenticity. We not only say we care and can be trusted we prove it through our actions and the actions of those who call themselves Christ Followers. But remember even those that are lost because of the carelessness of others, are still lost and they still need to be found.
And that brings us to the third picture in the frame and probably the most familiar one, everyone knows the term the Prodigal Son, even people who have never set foot inside a church. Little side lesson here, often we think that Prodigal is a description of someone who knew God and wandered away. Prodigal was actually a description of the life style that he was living and had nothing to do with his past life style or his future life style.
And so Jesus continues with his lesson Luke 15:11-13 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living.” The Son Was Lost Through His Deliberate Actions This is what sets this story apart from the other two, it wasn’t carelessness that resulted in his being lost, it was a conscious thought and action, he deliberately walked away from his father and his father’s home. Have you seen the progression? One sheep out of a hundred, one coin out of ten, but here it is one son out of two. We’ve gone from a loss of 1% to 10% to 50%. From a relatively insignificant loss to one of incredible significance, the loss of a son.
It wasn’t his carelessness that led the boy into his wilderness, he knew exactly what he was doing. And it wasn’t someone else’s fault, as far as we can tell the boy had a good home and a loving family. And he decided to walk away from his home and his family. This was a conscious decision that he made, nobody else made it for him.
And there are people out there today who have consciously decided to not follow Jesus or they were part of the family and decided that they didn’t want to be part of the family any more.
But regardless of why the son was lost the reality is that he was lost. He no longer had any of the privileges of being part of that family, he no longer slept under their roof no longer shared their meals.
I think it is interesting that the shepherd went looking for the sheep, and the woman swept her house in order to find the coin but the father simply waited for his son to return. Because there wasn’t anything else he could do. Once the boy had decided to go there were only two options that remained 1) Let him go 2) Take away his free will. And as effective as shackles and a small room in the barn would have been it was outside the scope of the father’s love. As much as the father loved his child he wasn’t about to take away his free will. Sound familiar?
In January I will have been in pastoral ministry for 30 years, and I have owned cats for 42 years and I have discovered that pastoring people is like owning cats. If they get out you can’t run and catch them. You ever try to catch a cat? Not going to happen not until it wants to be caught. Oh you do the right things you call for the cat, and you rattle the treat bag but they come home when they want to come home. All you can do is be prepared when they come back to let them back in.
And I have discovered that when someone decides to leave the church or worse turn their back on their faith there’s not a lot you or me or God can do to prevent that from happening, shy of locking them in a small room in chains and that goes back to the free will issue again.
And so we call them and rattle the treat bag but we need to be prepared when they come home. In the story we read this Luke 15:20 “So he (the lost son) returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.”
Sometimes we are better at tracking down lost sheep and lost coins then we are at welcoming back lost sons. Just saying.
But all three stories ended the same way listen again to the words of Jesus.
Luke 15:6 When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
Luke 15:9 And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbours and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’
Luke 15:22-24 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.
And then Jesus ties it all together with a bow when he said Luke 15:10 “In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”
Are we serious about our mission, about God’s mission? About reaching pre-Christians? It cost God his son, it cost Jesus his life and be assured it will cost you something.
There are those in this group today because others were willing to pay that something, the cost of this building, stepping outside their comfort zone to talk to you about God and Cornerstone or in giving up their preferences in order to have a church that you would feel comfortable in.
What will it cost you? Being a part of the 9 a.m. service or eventually moving to another service? As more people come home to Cornerstone there will be need for more volunteers to provide for more ministries and you might be thinking but I don’t want to miss Sunday morning worship. Do you think our other volunteers want to miss the service? Plus we have the great opportunity to work in one service and worship in the other one. And ultimately there will be a need for more finances and eventually for a bigger facility.
The only question that remains is: Do we love lost people enough to pay the price?

What about the Ponies?

I saw a headline the other day that said, “The Global eradication of Polio” and my first thought was, “I didn’t know there was a movement to eradiation Polo. Maybe it has something to do with the way they treat the ponies.”  Seriously, I am not making this up. And then I realized the article was about polio, the disease and not polo, the sport.
If we are honest we have all heard and read things the wrong way, and in most cases it really doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. And sometimes it’s good for a laugh. 
Unfortunately I have met people through the years who have based their theology and are wagering their eternity on something they read or heard and didn’t take the time to verify that thought.
Just because you read in a book, saw it on Oprah or Dr. Phil or heard it on the platform at Cornerstone, doesn’t make it the irrefutable. If you are willing to trust your eternity to a concept, you’d better be sure of the veracity of that concept.  Which is why God gave us common sense and brains.  My concern is: what they will do with the ponies when they have eradicated the sport? Have a great week and remember: To see what is really possible, you will have to attempt the impossible

Hypocrisy

Clean on the outside and dirty on the inside. Wow! Jesus spoke about that concept a number of times throughout the gospels using word pictures like whitewashed tombs all clean and pretty on the outside and full of dead men’s bones on the inside. On my first trip to Africa one of my team members asked our guide why he hadn’t seen any cemeteries. The man thought for a minute and said “I’ve been to America and the cemeteries are so beautiful, you almost want to live there.” And he went on to tell us that in Sierra Leone in the villages the dead were just buried in the forest and in the city cemeteries were just places to bury the dead. And he wasn’t kidding, they took us to a small cemetery where the first Wesleyan missionaries had been buried and it was overgrown and neglected, at first I was a little cranky, here was the final resting place of people who had given their lives for the people of Sierra Leone and nobody was taking care of their graves. But to the nationals the spirit had gone and all that was left was a container and what do you do with a container when you are done with it? You certainly don’t turn it into a shrine. They saw our obsession over how our cemeteries looked almost as ancestor worship. Interesting. And that really had nothing to do with the message.
So Jesus spoke of whitewashed tombs and of bowls that people prepared for eating, all shiny and spiffy on the outside and yucky on the inside. In each case there is a concern with outward appearances without a corresponding concern for what the inside was like.
And he used these illustrations to describe the actions of certain people, people who spent more time on the external than on the internal. That how they acted and what they did was more focused on how people perceived them than who they really were. The outside was all clean and shiny but inside where they actually lived was filled with all sorts of nasty things.
The story is told in Luke chapter 12, it was read earlier. We are told that the crowds following Jesus have become larger and larger, to the point that Luke tells us in Luke 12:1 Meanwhile, the crowds grew until thousands were milling about and stepping on each other. Jesus turned first to his disciples and warned them, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy.”
The next nine verses are strung together like pearls on a necklace, each thought separate but connected to the previous one and the next one.
Hypocrisy is one of those insults that cuts to the core of who we are, to be called a hypocrite is really hurtful. Most of us think of ourselves as authentic individuals. If we were to claim to a life philosophy it would be the same as Horton who said “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant is faithful one hundred percent.”
But Jesus dropped the hypocrisy bomb several times in the gospels, usual in regards to the Pharisees who would have never applied that label to themselves. After all, their very name meant “The separated ones” and they had removed themselves from the daily constraints of life to focus on keeping the rules and regulations of the law. It wouldn’t even be fair to draw a comparison with pastors because on a day to day basis we deal with administration and maintenance and people. The Pharisees were more like contemplative monks, except instead of living in a monastery they lived in the world and it would appear part of their mandate was to criticize people who weren’t as rigidly committed to the rules and regulations as they were.
 The very origins of the word hypocrite describe it, in the Greek the word is ὑποκριτής hypokritēs and it occurs throughout the New Testament and Christ’s teachings. And it came from it is the regular Greek word for an actor. And Barclay tells us “It then came to mean an actor in the worse sense of the term, a pretender, one who acts a part, one who wears a mask to cover his true feelings, one who puts on an external show while inwardly his thoughts and feelings are very different.”
One of the complaints that I hear about the church from those outside is “It is filled with hypocrites.” And I don’t believe that is true at all, just because Christians occasionally stumble and fall doesn’t make us hypocrites, it just makes us human. It’s when we deny that we ever stumble and fall that we move into dangerous territory.
And I’m reminded when someone uses the hypocrite excuse for not coming to church “The only thing smaller than a hypocrite is someone who can hide behind a hypocrite.”
So let’s start at the beginning which seems to be a logical and good place to start. Jesus warns us in Luke 12:2-3 The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!
So Jesus begins by focusing on A Warning About Our Behaviour: This is what we do and don’t do and for most of us that’s what we think about when it comes to hypocrisy. It is evidenced when what we say and what we do don’t line up.
We see it all the time, people who say they are committed to being fit and healthy but they never exercise and eat junk food. People who say they would like to have nice teeth but never floss. People who say they are committed to making their marriage work, but make put no effort in it. I have met with people who have committed adultery who have told me “But I really love my spouse.” Ok! A funny way of showing it.
And that takes us to the whole wedding vow thing, remember when you promised to , “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy law and thereto I pledge you my love.”
I have had people tell me how committed they are to their local church and how important it is to them and what a difference it had made to their family but never supported the church in in a tangible way. Nobody in this church but in other churches I’ve pastored.
People who tell me “I am committed to following Christ.” But then they ignore his commands and his church. They say that they believe the word of God but they’ve never read it and if they have it isn’t an important part of their life. These were the people Jesus was speaking to when he said in Matthew 15:7-8 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Last week I said that John Donne was a favourite of mine when I was doing the required poetry thing in high school, my other favourite was John Milton who wrote “For neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible, except to God alone.”
This warning is continued in Luke 12:8-9 “I tell you the truth, everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, the Son of Man will also acknowledge in the presence of God’s angels. But anyone who denies me here on earth will be denied before God’s angels. Often when we read this we think it applies to witnessing or proclaiming Christ as our saviour. We apply it to people like Peter who when push came to shove proclaimed “I don’t know Jesus.”
But I think the bigger problem today is that too many people call themselves Christians and then deny Christ with their actions. They claim to follow him but are heading in a completely different direction with their lives. If I told you that I was going to Toronto and you said that you would follow me I would suspect that meant we were going to be travelling in the same direction. And maybe you would for a while, we’d leave the church and you’d follow me up Gatehouse and we’d turn left on the Hammonds Plains Road and you’d follow me down to the 102 and we’d turn left and you’d follow me to Truro, but when I turned left onto the TransCanada to head for Ontario you turned right and headed to Cape Breton you’d no longer be following me, no matter what you said.
I get tired of people who profess their love for God and Christ but their lives show no evidence of that love. They want to love Christ and do as they like, but Christ himself tells us in John 14:15 Jesus said “If you love me, obey my commandments.” And he goes on to warn us John 15:10 When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love. . . we’ve talked about proving mathematical equations by flipping them, 1+ 2= 3, than 3-1=2 So if Jesus said John 15:10 When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love. . . it is the same as John 15:10 When you don’t obey my commandments, you don’t remain in my love. . .
And so Jesus warns us Luke 12:9 But anyone who denies me here on earth will be denied before God’s angels.
But hypocrisy isn’t just revealed in what we do, Jesus continued in Luke 12:4-5 “Dear friends, don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that. But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.” A Warning About Our Motives Several times in the gospels Jesus warns people about doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. They were doing good things, they couldn’t be criticized for their actions, but why were they doing it?
Matthew 6:2 When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get.
And then in Matthew 6:5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.
And again in Matthew 6:16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and dishevelled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.
Or as it has been so eloquently put “Man who toots own horn, blows his reward.”
It isn’t that their actions weren’t measuring up; it was that they were more concerned with what other people thought about them than what God required of them.
That is sometimes revealed through our actions and sometimes through our speech. When we know we should say something but bite our tongue, not because it’s the wrong thing to say but because we are afraid of what people will think about us. I’ve said it before: Silence is golden but sometimes it’s just plain yellow. It was Abraham Lincoln said, “To sin by silence, when they should protest makes cowards out of men.”
But Jesus reminds us that ultimately we will not be judged by men but by God and it will be God who has final say in our eternity. And he will judge us not only on what we do but on what we don’t do.
But here is the promise that comes along with the warnings Luke 12:6-7 “What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. So here we have the Promise of God’s Attention.
Sparrows aren’t worth much in the big scheme of things, they are not really colourful, don’t have a pretty song and probably aren’t very good eating. Even in their monetary worth, Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:29 What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.
And here he says you can get 5 for two copper coins , not only are we talking sparrows we are talking sale sparrow, marked down sparrows, discount sparrows. And Yet Jesus reminds us that God doesn’t even forget the least of the sparrows, even the free one that’s thrown in when you buy four, and then he assures us that we are so much more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.
You will never be lost in the crowd to God, you matter to him. When you chose to follow Christ you became a child of God’s a child of the King and he wants what is best for you. And if you are like me the times when you wonder where God is, it’s because you’ve wandered away, and when the wheels seem to come off the wagon it’s because I’ve chose to go my own way and do my own thing.
Sometimes I think we mistrust God and are afraid he has forgotten us because we are judging him by our standard and we know there are times that sometimes we forget him.
And then Jesus ends by telling those listening to him that day in Luke 12:10 Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. If I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me what the unforgiveable sin is, or what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, I’d have a lot of nickels.
If you are concerned about whether or not you have blasphemed the Holy Spirit you probably haven’t. This is the sin of resisting the Holy Spirit, of hardening your heart against God’s wooing to the point where you can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Where you have repeated rejected the grace of God to the point that it is no longer offered.
Let me conclude with the words of American poet Robert Frost who wrote “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” There will come a time that each of us will stand before our creator.
But until that time comes we have miles to go and promises to keep and if we walk as we are supposed to walk, keep the promises we make and make sure we are clean inside as well as out then we are on the right track.

That’s Not News

Do you ever wonder about things that end up in the news that just aren’t news? Last week a headline caught my attention that said, “Charlie Sheen found drunk and naked in a New York hotel.” And that isn’t news in so many ways. Events are supposed to be news if they are of importance to a large number of people and I’m not sure that many people care about Charlie’s antics . And “news” is supposed to be about things that are different, not the normal state of affairs and that just doesn’t hold true for Sheen’s misbehaviour. Perhaps if it had read, “Charlie Sheen found sober and responsible”, that would have been worth reporting.

Seriously, Charlie has some problems. My biggest issue with Charlie’s behaviour is that he professes to have had a life changing relationship with Jesus, but nothing seems to have changed.

And I know some of you are thinking, “It’s not right to judge people Denn.” True enough, however Paul does remind us in 1 Corinthians 5:12 that we have an obligation to the church to judge the actions of believers. After all, as a Christ follower, Charlie’s actions are a reflection not only on Charlie but also on Jesus. And so are ours. Have a great week and remember: To see what is really possible, you will have to attempt the impossible.