This was the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 12 September 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22 – 28; 1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17; and Luke 15: 1 – 10.
In Mel Gibson’s movie, "The Passion of Christ", he puts the devil on Jesus’ shoulder as He hangs on the cross. In this scene the devil reminds Jesus that He has the power to change the outcome of the crucifixion; He has the power to end His own suffering and death.
This, of course, is not the way any of the accepted Gospels tell the story of the temptation of Christ. The temptation of Christ, the dialogue between Jesus and the devil occurs during the forty days in the wilderness just before the start of Jesus’ ministry. But there are suggestions that Jesus still struggles with this temptation during those last hours before his trial and execution; remember his painful struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane, so we know that the temptations of Christ were not just one brief moment in His ministry.
Now, I am not going to discuss whether or not this changing of the Gospel is appropriate or not. But we have to know that Jesus certainly knew that He could end His own pain. But, were He do to have done so, He would not be able to end our pain. To surrender to the devil, to surrender to temptation is to lose the entire meaning of the Gospel message. Jesus had to make a choice between doing what was right for Him and what was right for us and His ministry. He had to make a choice.
Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus spoke of the choices that we must make. If we are to follow Jesus, we must make choices that we may not necessarily like to make.
It will come as a surprise to some and as a disappointment to others but there is no stop on the road to Damascus in my life like there was for Paul. There is no time when my heart was strangely warmed like there was for John Wesley. I have no conscience memory of a time or a place when there was a life-changing event as either Paul or John Wesley described.
But there have been times when I suddenly realized that Jesus was my Savior and that he died for me. To some, this would mean that I have not been "born again" and, thus, my words contain no power. But that does not diminish in any shape or form the choice I made many years ago, unconscious as it may have been, to follow Christ on my life’s journey. On at least one occasion in my life, I know that I was struck by the singular notion that Christ’s death on the cross was for me, even though it occurred almost two thousand years before I was even a consideration in this world. And on at least one occasion I have been reminded that it was God’s grace that has as John Newton wrote, "brought me safe thus far". These events are singular and they are reminders that the ministry of Jesus in this world is a singular event, meant to be between Christ and each one of us. But they are also events that must be shared for the Gospel is nothing if it is not shared with others.
As United Methodists, we believe that our faith is both informed and experiences. Ours is a faith that is both intensely personal but one that must be shared. While I may not have had the life-change experiences others may have had, I do know that my awareness of Christ, not only as a figure in the history of this world, but as my Savior comes from my own experience and knowledge. I choose to follow Christ because of what I learned growing up. And, as United Methodists, we affirm our belief in one God as revealed through Jesus Christ but understand and appreciate that there a variety of ways in which that affirmation can be expressed. And to complete this point, as United Methodists, we hold a concern for the spiritual, physical, and social concerns for all persons, not just some or a few.
Now, I will admit that the anti-establishment side of me likes the fact that Jesus challenged the status quo, that He put aside societal conventions and reached out to all individuals, not just a select few or those deemed worthy of being in his presence. At a time when I was searching for the person that I am, it was important for me to know that Christ was looking for me and that I was as important as anyone else. I think this point is lost on a lot of people today, who while saying that they accept Christ as their personal Savior are not willing or able to let others do so as well. This was especially true in the Gospel time.
As noted in today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees and scribes took offense that Jesus ate with sinners. They did not associate with sinners because to do so would make them unclean and unworthy to serve God. Jesus ate with sinners so that they, the sinners, would be made clean and worthy to serve God.
I once characterized Jesus as a radical and was strongly chastised by one of my Lutheran minister cousins. I said this because Jesus was offering a new and decidedly radical view of life. It was this approach that made the "powers that be" angry with Him. My cousin felt this was a bit too strong, but a year later, this minister of over fifty years, also characterized Jesus as a radical. And he acknowledged that his mind set about his Savior, long set was changed when he heard my views. As we learn about Jesus, as we learn about the Gospel, we grow in our understanding and amazement of the power of God. There are some that do not want us to learn about Jesus, preferring that we keep Him a mysterious figure whose access they control. But the more we individually learn, the more we find that we do not know and the great our amazement of the power of God through Christ.
When I started preaching, I had the luxury of knowing the specific dates and places where I would be preaching. Those dates were far apart, the places where I preached were of my choosing, and I picked the topics on which I preached. Now, of course, I preach according to a calendar that has a Sunday every week. I serve in churches at the direction and desire of the District Superintendent and Bishop.
And while what I write and preach is still my own, it is based on scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary. When I started, I picked the scriptures that I wanted to use. But when I began to supply the pulpit, as what I do is officially called, I found that my own knowledge was limited. So I began using the lectionary, that collection of Old and New Testament readings that takes the preacher through a three-year cycle of the Bible and life of the prophets, disciples, and Christ.
I was advised that it would be better to simply use one of the three readings for each Sunday and focus on that particular reading. But I always felt that, if three readings were given for each Sunday, there should be something connecting the three together and I should look for that connection. And each Sunday as I prepare and study for this moment in time, I become more and more aware of what Jesus means, to me individually and to this world.
And as I learned through my own reading and my own experience, I found that Jesus ministry was very much a singular event. No matter how large the crowd, he sought out the one individual. He truly cared for the one soul that was lost when others were concerned with the many that were not.
Paul also makes it clear that salvation is a singular event. As he writes, if there was ever someone in Christianity that should not be there, it was him. And he knew it. Yet, it was by God’s grace that Paul was given the ability and the power to proclaim the Gospel.
Yes, some of his writings and pronouncements trouble us today. There are times when what Paul wrote two thousand years ago seem out of place in our day and age. And many debates will take place as to how we are to use what he wrote. But Paul was writing to individuals and groups struggling to build their collective identity in Christ, fighting to keep the old ways of living from overtaking the new life they had found in Christ.
And I think that is why it is so important today that we read the message that the prophet Jeremiah passed from God to the people of Israel. Not simply because it is the Old Testament lesson for today, but rather because it part of the idea that there are choices in what we do each day of life.
We may not like what Jeremiah passed on to the people of Israel, for the past few weeks the words God commanded him to speak were not friendly words. They were not words of hope and promise but rather of death and destruction. But through the lens of history, we know that these are words of choices. The people of Israel had chosen not to follow God, choosing instead to follow the paths of least resistance with their neighbors and allies. God is basically telling them what the consequences of those actions will be. These prophetic words apply just as well today.
I see a world in which the various Christian denominations have changed to Gospel message; it is no longer what it was meant to be. It is a message in which the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is pushed aside, simply because it might scare away people. I am constantly reminded by print and visual media that what Christ asked of us is no longer seen as practical or appropriate. What was the major complaint about Mel Gibson’s movie, the "Passion of Christ"? The major complaint was that it was too bloody and the details of the crucifixion were too explicit. But should we not know that Christ died in the most inhumane way ever conceived by mankind? Should we not know the pain and agony inflicted on Christ, pain and agony that was meant for each one of us when we die in sin?
The problem is that when we take the cross out of the picture, when we try to soften the requirements of the Gospel, we make a choice that removes Christ from our lives. Churches today seem more concerned about who they let in rather than what the Gospel requires. Again, it is a choice that removes Christ from our lives.
And I fear that the words of the prophets of old are directed to the churches of today just as they were directed to the people of Israel some three thousand years ago. Churches today, as individual churches, as denominations, and as individual members, seem more hung up on the foibles of life that there are focused on the real problems of the world.
We have preachers even today crying out against the moral decay of the people of this earth, blaming every institution on earth except the church. This is not to say that we should try for a stronger moral character in our lives but we have to focus on what causes the decay. But we have to work for those things that are good, not work against those things that are evil. There were some preachers who claimed that the floods that ravaged the Midwest portion of this country back in the early 90’s were God’s sign that the end times were upon us. This hit close to home since I knew many of the people sandbagging the Mississippi River in the Hannibal, Missouri/Quincy, Illinois area. I didn’t think that their lives were all that bad. These were good, hard working people, people trying to earn a living from the soil and to be told that the floods covering their farms and homes was punishment for sins unseen and unsaid was a little too drastic. I did think that the practices of flood control, creatures of man’s thought, were more the reason for the devastation. I found it hard to believe that there would be individuals saying that the floods that ravaged the Midwest back then were God’s sign of the end of the world. After all, God himself told Noah that He never again destroy the world by flooding it.
I do not hold to the concept of the end time and destruction of the earth through God’s wrath. The unfortunate thing is that while God gave us great abilities to create, the same abilities can also be used to destroy. There is no reason for God to destroy the world when we are capable of doing so on our own and, are in fact, doing a wonderful job right now. The development of nuclear power not only gave us a wonderful source of energy but it also gave us the power to destroy just as easily. And though the threat of total nuclear destruction may have been eliminated from this planet, our own ability to destroy this planet countless time over is still present. We may have removed one way of destruction but we did not remove what leads to the destruction.
God gave us the ability to think and make choices. In the words that Jeremiah writes, we hear of the consequences when we make the wrong choices. But in what we do today, in the act of celebrating communion, we are reminded of the one choice God Himself made. He chose to send His Son to this world in a singular act of love so that we might live. His Son, our Lord and Savior, chose to come to this world and forsake all the power and glory that was His and become our servant so that we could better understand the love that God has for us.
Christ chose to die on the cross so that we could live, free from the slavery and death through sin. As we come to the table, we are reminded of these choices. The question thus is what choices do we make? Do we continue on the path that we have picked, ignoring others in our lives and hoping that our own abilities will provide the strength needed in times of stress and pain. Or do we chose to follow Christ, a hard one to follow I know, but one that gives us much that we do not have and a lot when it is needed the most. Clearly, the choice is ours.