DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Filtering by Category: Lent

The Empty Tomb (Mark 16:1-8)

On Friday, things couldn't have been any worse. Jesus Christ, who had been preaching and healing for three years, had been completely abandoned by even his closest friends. One of the twelve people closest to him had betrayed him. One of his three closest friends had cursed, saying that he didn't have anything to do with Jesus. Not even his family believed. The story was over. Jesus had joined the history heap. He was just one of countless messiahs who came, built up a following, and then flamed out. If the Gospel of Mark ended at chapter 15, then Jesus would have been nothing more than a footnote of history, maybe getting a line or two in some ancient text but nothing more.

But just when things are at their worst, everything changes. In just 8 verses Mark shows us that everything has changed. In these 8 verses we're going to see that Easter was a surprise; that Easter includes us; and that the Easter story continues.

First: Easter is a surprise.

If you had lived at the time of Jesus, you would have understood that Jesus was just one of many messianic figures who came, and ended up dying disappointing deaths. For instance, Simon bar Kokhba led a revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 AD. He set up an independent Jewish state, and ruled for three years as ruler. But his revolt was eventually crushed, and today his name is hardly known. After the failure of the revolt, rabbinical writers began referring to him by a new name. Instead of calling him Bar Kokhba ("Son of a Star") they started calling him Bar Kozeba ("Son of the disappointment"). If the story of Jesus ended in Mark 15, this would have been the story of Jesus as well. Disappointment. Failure. End of story.

Now, Jesus had told his disciples over and over again what was going to happen.

"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the 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." (Mark 10:33-34)

Here it is the third day, and absolutely nobody has even considered the possibility that what Jesus said would come true. His disciples are scattered. In verse 1 of this passage, three women come as soon as they can, early in the morning, with spices to anoint the body of Jesus. These spices would be very costly. They were designed to help deal with the stench that a decaying body would create. Nobody is expecting a resurrection. They expect to find a bloodied and decaying body there. Not a single person expected anything other than a dead body. As far as they were concerned, the story was over. Theologically, they didn't even believe that a resurrection could even take place in this age. That is something that the Jewish people believed would take place at the end of history. They certainly didn't expect Jesus to be risen from the dead.

Sometimes we make the mistake of reading the Bible and thinking that of course ancient people could accept the story of someone rising from the dead, and now we're so much more sophisticated. What you need to understand is that nobody back then expected the resurrection of Jesus. They didn't even have categories for it. When other leaders were killed, nobody thought to make up a story of resurrection.

The people in Mark didn't get it either, and yet something happened to transform them completely. A group of first-century Jews who were scattered and defeated and had no category for the resurrection were suddenly changed to emboldened witnesses who were prepared to give up their lives speaking about what they'd seen. As Pascal put it, "I [believe] those witnesses that get their throats cut." Virtually all of the disciples and early Christian leaders gave up their lives testifying to the resurrection of Jesus. Something happened on Easter morning that nobody had expected that changed everything.

If you're here this morning and you have a hard time believing the resurrection, join the club. There's not a person in the Gospel of Mark who expected it to happen. But something happened that changed everything - and is still changing everything today. Easter is a surprise.

But then, secondly, we see:

Easter includes us.

Mark 16:1 says, "When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body."

It's easy to miss how shocking this is. These women had been witnesses of Jesus' death. "Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome" (Mark 15:40). Two of them, according to Mark 15:47, witnessed where Jesus was buried. Now these three women are about to become the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and to the message of the angel.

What's so surprising about this? In Jesus' day, women were viewed as being unreliable witnesses. Their testimony was not considered admissible evidence. N.T. Wright makes the point that if you were inventing the story of the resurrection, you never would have made the first and best witnesses to be female. It would have been too inconvenient. The only reason you would say that women were the first and best witnesses is because that's what actually happened. It's there because it's true.

But it's surprising for another reason. The readers of Mark's Gospel would have understood that one of these three women, at least, was a woman with a past. Mary Magdalene was somebody who had previously been demon possessed. Luke 8:2 calls her "Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out." At least one of these three women is somebody who has a history.

What does this tell us? Mark is showing us how the gospel turns things upside-down. People who are excluded, who are pushed to the side, are the first and best witnesses of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The least likely people become part of the Easter story. You may be here this morning thinking that you're the least likely person. The first to be discounted in human society are the first to be included in divine society.

And just in case we get ahead of ourselves, Mark still points out that we won't get it right away. These women go to the tomb. They enter into a small chamber in the tomb and see a young man sitting there. This young man - an angel - announces the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They're told to go tell the disciples. All along, Jesus has told people not to tell people about him. Jesus commanded people to silence, and they spoke. Now, they're compelled to speak, and what do they do? Verse 8 says, "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." Easter is for the least likely people, but even the best of us blow it. The Resurrection changes us. The gospel changes us. But it's a process. Easter includes people like us, people who are the least likely to be included, people who still blunder in our responses to God and who don't get it right away.

What about the disciples? The angel told the women, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you'" (Mark 16:7). Before Jesus was betrayed, he told his disciples:

"You will all fall away," Jesus told them, "for it is written:
"'I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.'

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." (Mark 14:27-28)

The disciples had completely blown it. Jesus had told them over and over again what was going to happen, and they just couldn't get it. And when put to the test, they caved and they fled.

And out of all the disciples, no failure was more dramatic than Peter's. Peter had sworn emphatically, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you" (Mark 14:31). But when the moment came, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Out of all the disciples, except for Judas, Peter knew that he had let Jesus down profoundly.

Yet the message was, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" You see what this means? Jesus hasn't written Peter and the other disciples off.

Easter includes unlikely people. It includes people who blunder. It even includes people who have completely and utterly failed. Easter includes people just like us.

That's what Mark has been showing us so far. Easter is a surprise. It caught everyone by surprise. Nobody expected. And Easter includes us - the unlikely ones, the blundering ones, the failures. There's one more thing Mark shows us:

Finally: the Easter story continues.

You'll notice this morning that we've looked at verses 1 to 8. There's a reason. The oldest and most reliable manuscripts end at verse 8. Early church fathers don't seem to know of anything beyond verse 8. It seems like the last verse we have that authentically and originally comes from the pen of Mark is verse 8. Verses 9 to 20 seem to have been added later as a way to smooth out the ending.

I don't want to get into all the theories this morning about why Mark ends the way it does. Some think Mark meant to end this way. Others think that something happened - Mark wasn't able to complete his book, or what he originally wrote was lost. In a sense it doesn't matter. We learn a lot about what happened from the other records. No doctrine is affected no matter what we conclude about the abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark.

But you have to agree that it's a strange way to end. Women come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away. They meet an angelic messenger who tells them that Jesus is risen, and he gives them a message to pass on to the disciples. Jesus is alive, and he's going to reconvene his community. The story continues. And then: "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." The end. Amen. Let's pray.

What a strange way to end the book! You can see why they'd try to neaten the ending and smooth it out.

But let's think for a minute. Those who first read Mark's Gospel would have known that this wasn't the end of the story. They would have heard the stories of Jesus' resurrection appearances. The very fact that the Gospel of Mark had been written would have been evidence that this wasn't the end of the story. Easter Sunday had set in motion a series of events that had transformed the disciples. Somebody points out that you have all the raw materials you need: an empty tomb, the young men's message, Jesus' indication that he's not done with his disciples yet. It's left to us to pull it together and to trace the line from what happened then to where we are today.

No matter how you understand the ending of the Gospel of Mark, it points out that Easter Sunday was not the end of the story. It's only the beginning. The resurrection of Jesus set in motion a new story that has not yet finished or resolved. It's a story that includes us today.

In a sense, Mark's Gospel ends at verse 8. For all we know, there was more, but we don't know. What we have ends, though at verse 8. But the story that Mark has begun to tell is a story that continues right to the present day. Jesus has been raised from the dead. It's taken us all by surprise. And Jesus is calling the most unlikely people - people who have let him down - to join his community of followers, and to announce the good news that Jesus is alive and has finished his work. The Gospel of Mark is over, but the story isn't. The story continues to this very day, and it includes you.

I'm glad that Mark ends with the disciples scattered and the women scared. I'm glad because we know that it doesn't end there. God transformed them into a group of people who, through the power of the Spirit, turned the world upside-down.


But it gives me hope, because some of us are scattered and afraid today. There's hope for us too. Easter may be a surprise, but the Easter story includes you in. It pulls you in so you see that Jesus has risen, and is alive, and the story continues. And it's a story that includes you.

Father, thank you for Easter. We've seen that Jesus bore our sins and our shame. But we've seen today that this isn't the end of the story. Jesus also rose to give us new life. You vindicated him, and he now sits at your right hand as King.

But you take us - those who are caught off guard, those of us who don't matter, who blunder in our responses, who flat-out fail you - and you pull us into the story. You take us and use us to change the world, not because we're strong, but because Jesus is risen.

So change us. Would you draw some of us even now into this story. We thank you for Jesus, for what he did. We thank you that he lives. And we pray in his name, the name of the risen and reigning King. Amen.

The Death of Jesus (Mark 15:21-47)

At first glance, the death of Jesus looks like a horrible defeat. In the passage we just read, Jesus is alone and abandoned. Instead of defeating the Romans as the Messiah, he's killed by the Romans. His own friends abandon him, and he's surrounded by mockers and strangers. And he dies with a loud cry, and it's over, and then he's buried. Why would Christians celebrate this death? Why do we call this Good Friday?

But you'll notice as you look at this passage that there's more than meets the eye. Because in this passage Mark tells, first, us that history's changed. Not only that, Mark tells us that our lives can change as well. Finally, Mark shows us, what took place at the cross is not a defeat; it's actually something that's worth celebrating.

First, History's Changed

Let's see how Mark shows us that history has changed by what takes place in this passage. In verse 33, right before Jesus died, we read: "At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon."

This detail - the darkness - is so important that it's mentioned by three of the four gospels. This couldn't have been an eclipse. Why? For one thing, an eclipse only lasts for a few minutes. Passover - which is when Jesus died - took place during a full moon, and eclipses only take place when it's a new moon. So this was no eclipse. Some people think it might have been a dust storm, but a dust storm would have been unlikely at this time because it was the wet season.

What Mark is telling us here is more than a weather report. Mark is showing us the significance of what happened. In the Bible, darkness means judgment. In Deuteronomy, God warned Israel:

However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you...At midday you will grope about like a blind person in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you. (Deuteronomy 28:15, 29)

One of the Hebrew prophets foretold a day when God would judge the nation of Israel. Amos predicted that God would call his people to account for their injustice. He said:

"In that day," declares the Sovereign LORD,
"I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight."
(Amos 8:9)

What Mark is saying is significant. We're going to look at the other events that take place around the cross. You're going to see that a lot is going on. But for three hours, the focus is not on any human activity, but on unnatural darkness. And it's not a darkness that goes to midnight. It's a darkness that ends at the death of Jesus. For three long hours, time passes as the death of Jesus takes place in unnatural darkness. Judgment. Isaac Watts wrote:

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature's sin.

What's going on at the cross? This isn't simply somebody's death. This is something far more than that. This is divine judgment. At the cross, Jesus bears the full weight of divine judgment for sins that we had done. God finally judges - but instead of judging those who had done wrong, God bears the judgment himself for all that we had done. As one person puts it, "Christianity is the only faith system where God both makes the demands and meets them" (Tullian Tchividjian). That's what happened at the cross.

But there's more. Verses 37 to 38 say: "With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom."

At the very moment that Jesus dies, something unbelievable happens. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. There were actually two curtains in the temple. One, the outer curtain, separated the sanctuary from the outer porch. The other was the inner veil that separated the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter in, and only once a year for a moment. The curtain was 60 feet high and 30 feet wide. We don't know which curtain it was, but Hebrews identifies it as the inner curtain.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body... (Hebrews 10:19-20)

At the cross, Mark is saying, Jesus bore the judgment of God. And something happened at the temple which showed that the death of Jesus changed everything. At the cross, Jesus took the punishment for the sins we had committed. He experienced the judgment that should have been ours. At the death of Jesus, something happened that made the temple system of sacrifices and priests and all that it involved obsolete. This wasn't just an ordinary death. History changed at the cross.

But it's not just history that changed. Mark shows us something else in this passage. Here's the second thing that Mark shows us:

Secondly, Mark says, Our lives can change as well.

Do you notice the motley crew of characters in this passage?

In verse 21, we meet Simon of Cyrene. He's from north Africa. He stumbles upon the scene, and his family is changed as a result. Mark mentions his sons, Alexander and Rufus, presumably because his sons would have been familiar to the original recipients of Mark's book. A stranger from Africa stumbles upon the scene, and it evidently transforms his family.

Then there are three big surprises. In verse 39 we read, "And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, 'Surely this man was the Son of God!'" The centurion in this passage would have observed the death of many crucified criminals. He's the last person you would expect to be changed. But something about the way Jesus dies grabs him. He says that Jesus is the Son of God. The Romans called the emperor's son the son of god. This soldier transfers the title of the most revered figure in the Roman imperial cult to a Jew who's just been crucified. The first human witness to describe Jesus as the Son of God is not a disciple, not a Jew at all, but a Gentile army officer with no previous connection to Jesus. The disciples don't get it; the religious leaders don't get it; this Roman officer gets it. He may not have understood the full significance of what he said, but he gets that this is no ordinary insurrectionist. He understands that something more is going on. This is the true Son of God, who does not die in failure. He dies fulfilling his Father's will.

Then there are the women. Verses 40-41 say:

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

What's surprising about this? In all cultures at that time, women were viewed as inferior. Their testimony was not accepted. Up until this point, women had played a very minor role in the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn't mention any female disciples. But here, at the climax of the Gospel, the male disciples have deserted Jesus, and the women are still there, faithful to the last. They are the witnesses of all that takes place. They are the ones that saw Jesus die; they saw his body being laid in the tomb; they are the ones who find the tomb empty. They are the only eyewitnesses of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. God entrusts the message of the resurrection to them. This is one evidence, by the way, of the accuracy of the Gospels. If you were making a story up, you would never invent that women are the first eyewitnesses. You'd only write that if it were true.

Do you see what Mark is showing us? The death of Jesus is turning everything upside-down. It's changing families of a random person walking by; a Roman soldier becomes the first to grasp something of who Jesus is at the cross; women who are normally excluded are brought into the very center, and become eyewitnesses of the greatest event in redemptive history.

There's one more person who's changed in this passage. We read in verses 43: "Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body." Joseph, Mark says, is a prominent member of the Council, the Sanhedrin - the group that has just condemned Jesus. He has significant social standing in Jerusalem. And yet he risks his life here by going to Pilate and asking for the body of Jesus. Romans usually left bodies hanging on the cross until they decayed as a warning to other would-be rebels and slaves. And yet Joseph puts his reputation and life at risk by asking for Jesus' body. And even more shockingly, he prepares the body for burial himself. Preparing a crucified corpse for burial would have been an unthinkable task, certainly well below what a man like Joseph would ever do. It was a job that was usually left for those much lower than him.

Do you see what Mark is showing us in this passage? What happened at the cross changed history. At the cross, Jesus bore God's judgment, and he made a new way for us to approach God. But it didn't just change history. It changed people. At the cross, the death of Jesus changed the lives of the most unusual people, people who would otherwise have nothing in common. It's still changing the most unlikely people: people from all different nationalities; people who are religious and people how aren't; people who are prominent and powerful and people who aren't. The death of Jesus changes history, and it changes lives as well.

There's one more thing Mark wants to show us.

The death of Jesus is not a defeat; it's a victory worth celebrating.

In this passage, Jesus is remarkably silent. Mark records only two times that Jesus says anything. As he dies, Mark says in verse 37, he lets out a loud cry. And in verse 34 he cries, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

What is this about? At first glance it looks like the desparate cry of someone who's been completely abandoned by God. It is that, but it's actually much more.

If you study the gospels carefully, you'll notice that this is the only time that Jesus addresses God as "My God." Every other time that Jesus refers to God, he calls him Father. Jesus addresses God not in terms of the intimate relationship he enjoyed with God as his Son; he addresses God at a distance. And his cry, "Why have you forsaken me?" gets to the heart of what happened at the cross. On the cross, Jesus is experiencing the immense pain of divine abandonment. Centuries before, the prophet of Isaiah wrote:

Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.
(Isaiah 59:1-2)

Isaiah says that our sins have separated us from our God. The Bible teaches that God's eyes "are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing" (Habakkuk 1:13). On the cross, all of our sins were poured on Jesus. When he took on the sins of the world, "he became the most grotesque, most obscene mass of sin in the history of the world" (R.C. Sproul). And at that moment, God turned his back on Jesus. He hung in the cross cut off from the relationship he had enjoyed with his Father throughout eternity. He didn't just feel forsaken; he was forsaken. Phil Ryken put it this way:

It was as if God had taken a giant bucket and scooped up all the sins of his people - all the jealousy and the lying, all the rebellion and the stealing and the incest, all the hypocrisy and the envy and the swearing - and dumped them all out on Jesus Christ. "The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us..." (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Once he had done that, God the Father had to forsake all that sin. When Jesus was wearing our sin on the cross, God the Father could not bear to look at the sin or at his Son. He had to avert his gave. He had to shield his eyes. He had to turn his back. He had to condemn and reject and curse and damn that sin...When Jesus Christ picked up our sins, he became a curse for us, and when he became a curse for us, he was accursed by God. God was not forsaking his Son as much as he was forsaking the sin the Son was carrying.

I said this was good news. So far I haven't told you how this is good news, have I? It's good news in two ways. First: "The forsaking of the Son of God on the cross is a fearful thing, but it's good news for sinners who repent" (Phil Ryken). Why is it good news? Jesus was forsaken so that we don't have to be forsaken. He was rejected so that we can be accepted. At the cross, he was cut off from God so that we could be brought in.

It's also good news because of where Jesus got this prayer: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus is actually quoting Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is the prayer of someone who is being attacked, someone who feels abandoned by God. When Jews quoted the Hebrew Scriptures back then, quoting one verse would be enough to bring up the whole passage. So many of those hearing Jesus quote Psalm 22:1 would have remembered how Psalm 22 ends: it ends with vindication. It begins like this:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
(Psalm 22:1)

But it ends like this:

For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
(Psalm 22:24)

Jesus is saying that he knows the abandonment is not the end of the story. God will vindicate him. There's more:

All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him...
(Psalm 22:27)

As Jesus goes to the cross, there's more than meets the eye. At the cross, history changed. Not only that, but lives were changed. At the cross, Jesus was cut off from God so that we wouldn't have to be cut off. Because God did not reject him forever, neither will God reject us when he place our faith in Christ and understood what he did for us at the cross.

So help us see beneath the surface, Father. Thank you that on that Friday long ago, history changed. Thank you, though, that it's not just history that changed. For two thousand years now, you've been changing lives because of what Jesus accomplished at the cross. He bore our sins; he was cut off so we wouldn't have to be.

Help us see the cross. And I pray it would change us today. We pray in the name of the one who was rejected so we could be accepted, in the name of the one who gave his life so that we could live. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Enduring the Shame (Mark 15:16-32)

We're in Mark 15 this morning. Jesus has been tried and condemned, and abandoned by everyone. We are now moments away from his death in this passage.

But before Jesus is killed, we have an interlude. And in this interlude we notice two things. One: that Jesus is mocked. Two: that in the entire time leading up to his death, Jesus does nothing to resist what's happening. He never raises his voice to defend himself. He willingly endures whatever comes his way as he moves closer to the cross.

As we look at this passage we're going to see three things. First: we're going to learn about ourselves. Second: we're going to learn about Jesus. And then lastly, we're going to learn about what Jesus accomplished for us not only in his death, but in the hours leading up to his death.

First: let's learn about ourselves in this passage.

What's shocking in this passage is the extent to which Jesus is abandoned. Look at this passage and what takes place immediately before:

  • In 14:43, Judas - one of the twelve disciples that Jesus had chosen - betrays him with a kiss.
  • in 14:51, another one of his followers runs away naked. Some think that this person is Mark himself. Whoever it is, it points to the complete failure of Jesus' friends to support him when the moment came.
  • In 14:65, members of the Sanhedrin - the top religious leaders - spit on Jesus, covered his face, and struck him.
  • In 15:13-14, the crowds call out for Jesus' death.
  • In 15:15, Pilate had Jesus scourged. Scourging meant that Jesus was tied to a post and beaten with a leather whip that had pieces of bone and metal that would tear through the skin. Scourging itself was sometimes fatal.
  • In 15:16-20, the guards sarcastically mocked Jesus as a supposed king.
  • In 15:29-30, those who passed by the scene of the crucifixion mocked Jesus. They wagged their heads and taunted him.
  • In 15:31-32, the chief priests and scribes joined the mocking.
  • In 15:32, even those who were being crucified alongside Jesus joined in and mocked him.

It's absolutely shocking as we read this. Jesus is completely and utterly abandoned by everyone. Jews and Gentiles, religious and non-religious, leaders and ordinary folk, and even criminals join in the mocking. His own friends betray him.

What is this supposed to teach us? Martin Luther, a monk and Reformer who lived 500 years ago, wrote:

Let us meditate a moment on the passion of Christ. Some do so falsely in that they merely rail against Judas and the Jews.

Let's stop there for a minute. Luther was saying that 500 years ago, some would open up the Bible as an excuse to attack Judas or the Jewish people. In other words, the Bible became a tool they used to point the finger at others, and even to engage in racist behavior. Luther continues:

The true contemplation is that in which the heart is crushed and the conscience smitten...Take this to heart and doubt not that you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins certainly did, and when you see the nails driven through his hands, be sure that you are pounding, and when thorns pierce his brow, know that they are your evil thoughts...The whole value of meditation of the suffering of Christ lies in this, that man should come to the knowledge of himself and sink and tremble.

Do you see what Luther is saying? There are two ways to read this account. One is to read it and to shake our heads at the people who mocked Jesus. We look at them and condemn them. The other way to read this account is to contemplate that this is a passage that reveals our hearts. This passage shows us to be enemies of God who abandon and mock him, because nobody is excluded from this passage. Everybody joins the mocking. Everybody abandons Jesus. As Luther says, "The true contemplation is that in which the heart is crushed and the conscience smitten."

This passage both humbles us and raises us up. First, it humbles us. You know, it's easy to blame a group of people to which you don't belong. We've all been parts of groups in which we begin talking about the faults of others who aren't like us. But what if we are all put on even ground, and what if there is no difference between us? That's exactly what happens in this passage. Everyone is humbled. Everyone abandons Jesus. The religious mock him; so do the irreligious. Jews mock Jesus; so do the Gentiles. His friends abandon him; strangers shake their heads at him. Nobody gets off. Everyone is humbled as we read this passage.

But this passage also raises us up. What do I mean by this? Because we're all in the same boat, nobody here can claim superiority over the other. Everyone of us is equal in our need for Christ. We're all brought to the point of sinking and trembling. But we're going to see in a moment that there is hope for us in this passage as well.

This is the first thing that Mark asks us to see in this passage. Everyone is guilty. Everyone abandons Jesus. Everyone joins in the mocking. All of us are humbled. All our hearts our crushed, and all of our consciences are smitten.

Secondly, let's learn about Jesus.

If you've ever been falsely accused, you know how you want to respond. You are going to let people know the truth. There's no way that you are going to allow people to spread falsehood about you and to ruin your good name. Yet in this passage, Jesus is falsely accused and verbally attacked, and he says nothing. He's silent.

If you've ever been physically attacked, you know that we all instinctively either fight or flee. But in this passage Jesus does neither. He endures the blows and is beaten and shamed, and he doesn't raise a voice or a fist to defend himself.

This is especially significant because had Jesus stuck up for himself, he would have been very convincing. Adrian Rogers writes:

If Jesus had risen up in his own defense during his trials, I believe he would have been so powerful and irrefutable in making his defense that no governor, high priest, or other legal authority on earth could have stood against him! In other words, if Jesus had taken up his own defense with the intention of refuting his accusers and proving his innocence, he would have won!

We've seen that Jesus is incredibly convincing whenever he's had a verbal confrontation with anyone in this gospel. Jesus is never at a loss for words. But in this passage, Jesus says nothing in his defense, nor does he make any move to avoid what's happening to him. Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah had written of Jesus:

I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.
(Isaiah 50:6)

In other words, Jesus willingly endured the mocking and the spitting. Hebrews 12:2 puts it this way: "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame." It's here that we learn something very important about Jesus.

What do we learn? In a sense, everything that is said about Jesus is true in this passage. They mock him as King of the Jews; ironically, they're right. He is the King of the Jews, except he's a king who suffers. Read verses 29-32:

Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!"

In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe."

What are they saying? They're calling on him to save himself. They accuse him of saving others, but not being able to save himself. And in a way they're right. Don Carson imagines what it would have been like if Jesus had taken them up on their challenge:

This would be a pretty remarkable and convincing display of power, and the mockers would be back-peddling pretty fast. But in the full Christian sense, would they believe in him? Of course not! To believe in Jesus in the Christian sense means not less than trusting him utterly as the One who has borne our sin in his own body on the tree, as the One whose life and death and resurrection, offered up in our place, has reconciled us to God. If Jesus had leapt off the cross, the mockers and other onlookers could not have believed in Jesus in that sense, because he would not have sacrificed himself for us, so there would be nothing to trust, except our futile and empty self-righteousness.

But then Carson explores the meaning of their statement, "He saved others, but he can't save himself." Carson says:

The deeper irony is that, in a way they did not understand, they were speaking the truth. If he had saved himself, he could not have saved others; the only way he could save others was precisely by not saving himself. In the irony behind the irony that the mockers intended, they spoke the truth they themselves did not see. The man who can't save himself--saves others.

One of the reasons they were so blind is that they thought in terms of merely physical restraints...But those who know who Jesus is are fully aware that nails and soldiers cannot stand in the way of Emmanuel. The truth of the matter is that Jesus could not save himself, not because of any physical constraint, but because of a moral imperative...It was not nails that held Jesus to that wretched cross; it was his unqualified resolution, out of love for his Father, to do his Father's will--and, within that framework, it was his love for sinners like me. He really could not save himself. (Scandalous)

Jesus was completely capable of saving himself - but then he couldn't have saved us. So he willingly chose to endure the mocking and the spitting. He willingly chose to suffer and die so that we could be saved. He chose death so that we could live.

What is this about? Maybe a movie from 1938 will help. The movie is called Angels with Dirty Faces. James Cagney plays the part of Rocky Sullivan, a celebrity criminal who is the hero of all the young juvenile delinquents in the city. He's about to go to the electric chair. The night before his execution, he's visited by his childhood friend Jerry, who is now a priest trying to save inner-city kids from a life of crime. Jerry makes a request of Rocky. He asks Rocky to disgrace himself so that his juvenile followers can live.

I want you to let them down. You see, you've been a hero to these kids, and hundreds of others, all through your life - and now you're going to be a glorified hero in death, and I want to prevent that, Rocky.

Rocky can't believe it.

You asking me to pull an act, turn yellow, so those kids will think I'm no good...You ask me to throw away the only thing I've got left...You ask me to crawl on my belly - the last thing I do in life...Nothing doing. You're asking too much...You want to help those kids, you got to think about some other way.

Jerry is saying to Rocky, "It's them or you. If you go down in glory, these kids are going to go down in shame. But if you go down in shame, if you're willing to throw away everything you have, your entire reputation, then they can be saved." But Rocky refuses.

The next morning he walks out to the execution chamber as Father Jerry watches. He comes out with a snarl. When one of the guards insults him, he slugs him. He's in control. He's going down in glory. But when he gets to the door of the death chamber, suddenly he begins to squeal like a child. "No! I don't want to die! Oh, please! I don't want to die! Oh, please! Don't make me burn in hell. Oh, please let go of me! Please don't kill me! Oh, don't kill me, please!"

Father Jerry, as he sees that happen, looks to heaven. The next day, the newspaper says:

At the fatal stroke of eleven p.m. Rocky was led through the little green door of death. No sooner had he entered the death chamber, than he tore himself from the guard's grasp, flung himself on the floor, screaming for mercy. And as they dragged him to the electric chair, he clawed wildly at the floor with agonized shrieks. In contrast to his former heroics, Rocky Sullivan died a coward.

You see what Rocky did? He substituted his life for the boys. He gave up his reputation so that he could save others.

You see, we are in that story. We are those boys whose life is about to go down. And Jesus is in the story too. He can either save his reputation and his life or save us. And in the most stunning reversal, he offers his life and his reputation so that we could be saved. He substitutes his life and everything he has for us.

Friends, we've seen ourselves in this passage this morning. We're crushed because we are the ones who mocked him. We've seen Jesus in this passage. He willingly endures the mocking and the spitting, because he can either save himself or us. He can't do both. And amazingly, he chooses to save us. There's one more thing we need to see this morning.

Finally, let's see what Jesus accomplished by enduring the shame.

Have you ever been shamed? I mean, really shamed? We see it happen with celebrities and politicians. Scandal hits, and somebody's good name becomes fodder for the late night comedians. We've seen it in business. You spend a lifetime building a good reputation, and you hit one rough patch and your name becomes mud. Think of the worst thing that you've ever done being made public. It would be enough to disgrace every person here.

What does that have to do with this morning's sermon? You've probably been told that Jesus died for your sins. I believe that this morning's passage also teaches us that Jesus did more than this. Adrian Rogers puts it this way: "The Bible teaches that when Jesus took our sin, he took all the punishment that goes with that sin. A part of that punishment is shame."

You see, Jesus assumed your sin. But in this passage he also assumed the shame. Jesus didn't just die; he was humiliated and shamed so that you don't have to be. Romans 10:11 says, "Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame."

As one person put it, "You don't have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there" (Jack Miller). You have nothing to prove. You never have to be ashamed. Jesus took all the shame. And anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.

So Father, humble us this morning. We see ourselves clearly in this passage. We are those who mocked him. Everybody abandoned him. Our hearts are crushed, and our consciences are smitten.

But we see Jesus, who willingly endured the mocking and the spitting. He couldn't save himself and us at the same time, so he chose to save us. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame.

Because he took the shame, we don't have to be ashamed. Help us to trust in him and in what he did. We pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.

Two Kingdoms (Mark 15:1-15)

We're in Mark 15 this morning. In Mark 15, the book of Mark is reaching its climax. Jesus has been betrayed by Judas and abandoned by his disciples. He has been arrested and beaten and condemned by the religious leaders. And now he's in his last hours. He's about to face his death, but before he does he's going to come up against Pilate, the Roman governor who was in charge of Judea. Only Pilate had the power to condemn Jesus to death. So as we approach this morning's passage, Jesus is bound and beaten, completely abandoned, and about to lose his life.

This morning's passage is really a contrast between two people. Mark has set this scene to contrast two types of strength, two kingdoms. One type of strength is the strength that we all aspire to; the other type of strength is what we'll avoid at all costs. Mark is going to show us what true strength looks like, and if we understand this, it's going to turn our church and our lives upside-down.

First, let's look at the strength, the kingdom, that comes from power.

When Jesus was alive, Rome was in power over the nation of Israel. Because Rome was so huge, they appointed governors in different regions to maintain order. The Romans allowed self-government, so that each nation felt like they had some of their identity and autonomy. But the real power belonged to Rome. They had the ultimate say. They had all the military and economic power, and what they decided is ultimately what happened.

So as we open Mark 15, Jesus is brought before the most powerful person he has ever met in his life:

Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

"Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. 


"You have said so," Jesus replied.

The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of."

But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15:1-5)

Notice the contrasts.

Scholars tell us that these events took place early in the morning, because Roman officials began work at daybreak so they could be free by midmorning to pursue activities of leisure. Pilate was going to enjoy the rest of his day; Jesus was on his way to being killed later that day.

Pilate was connected to the most powerful people in the world at that time. He was a mover. At one point he was considered a possible future emperor. He had connections and knew how to access the levers of power. Jesus had no connections. His closest friends had abandoned him. He had no access to the levers of power, and was completely abandoned, even by those closest to him.

Pilate was sitting in a palace. The trial probably took place in Herod's Palace, which was used by Roman governors when they came to Jerusalem for the feasts like Passover. It was encircled with ramparts and towers. It was the largest and most elaborate of Herod's palaces. It had two huge and elaborate reception halls in which you could entertain hundreds of guests. One historian from the period said described it as "the king's palace, which no tongue could describe. Its magnificence and equipment were unsurpassable." The historian wrote that this palace had rooms that were even more magnificent than the Holy Temple, Herod's greatest edifice in Jerusalem. Pilate had free access to all of this magnificent palace. Jesus, on the other hand, came as a prisoner, bound and about to be beaten and condemned.

Pilate had troops at his disposal. It is written that he had "power even to execute." He hadn't been afraid to use his power either. Luke 13 tells us that he had once mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices, perhaps in response to a riot. Pilate was the law, and he could essentially determine what was going to happen. There was no appeal, no supreme court to second guess his decisions.

In short, Pilate has wealth, connections, power, and leisure. Jesus has nothing - no money, no friends, no power, and no freedom. The contrast between Pilate and Jesus in this passage couldn't be more striking.

I want us to see this today because Pilate has everything that we can hope for in our own lives. Henri Nouwen wrote:

Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink; and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love.

I don't know about Pilate's sex life, but everything else that Nouwen mentions is what Pilate had, and what we long for too: the accumulation of wealth and power; the attainment of status and admiration; the best food and drink. Pilate had it all. He had everything that we spend our lives trying to get. We want the connections, the money, and the power. In this passage, Pilate embodies everything that we normally want for ourselves.

But notice what happens in this passage. Pilate has all the advantages, but it's Jesus who seems to be in control. We read in verse 10 that Pilate perceives that the real reason Jesus is on trial is because of the jealousy of the religious leaders. Pilate comes to an accurate conclusion about Jesus, and realizes that Jesus isn't guilty of treason. It's here that you begin to realize that what Pilate has is the appearance of power. He's not a free man. In verses 6 to 15 he tries to free Jesus, but the crowd won't let him. Look a little more carefully and you begin to see the problem with Pilate's strength.

He has access to the best that Jerusalem has to offer - but he hates the place. He has all the power, but he's learned from the past to pick his battles. He's already backed down from one battle with the Jewish people, and here again he gives in. It turns out he's really not in control after all. Eventually he is removed from office and and travels in haste to Rome to defend himself against charges. Before he could get there, the Roman emperor died, and so Pilate disappears from history. Nothing more is known about him. Pilate is a man who has everything, but even in this passage you see that there's really nothing there.

Listen. You and I will spend our lives chasing everything that Pilate had. Many of us are doing this right now. We want the money, the leisure, the respect, and the power. But this passage shows us the futility of this kind of strength. These things are idols that promise the world but that ultimately never deliver. Mark contrasts the strength of Pilate with the weakness of Jesus, which ultimately turns out to be the greatest strength that ever existed.

So let's look for a moment at the strength, the kingdom, that comes through weakness.

We've already seen the weakness of Jesus in this passage. He's bound and abandoned. The religious leaders turn the crowd against him. An insurrectionist and murderer ends up being more popular than him. By the end of this passage, Jesus is condemned and scourged. Scouring means that Jesus would have been bound to a pillar or post and flogged with whips made of leather that were sometimes weighted with pieces of metal, bone, or even hooks. There was no prescribed number of lashes, so scourging was sometimes fatal if they got carried away. At best it left you severely weakened and already on your way to death. There's no greater picture of weakness than in this passage.

Yet it's a chosen weakness. Jesus had a kingdom that far exceeded Pilate's kingdom. Rome could not compare to the riches or the power or the acclaim that Christ enjoyed. Yet he laid it all aside and chose to become weak for our sakes. He chose weakness.

The irony is that Jesus is bound and seemingly powerless, yet it's Jesus who is in charge not Pilate, and not the crowds. Jesus had predicted that this would happen. Jesus had said back in Mark 10:

"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the 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." (Mark 10:33-34)

And Jesus could have put an end to it at any moment. But he didn't. Jesus chose everything that happened to him, because somehow his kingdom functions completely different from every earthly kingdom. His kingdom functions through weakness.

That's why, when Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answers: "You have said so." What kind of an answer is that? It's an enigmatic answer that means yes or no - or in this case, maybe it means both yes and no. Jesus says, in essence, that he is a king. But he's not the kind of king that Pilate is. He doesn't hold to his rights or his privileges. He's the king who willingly leaves his throne to come to earth unrecognized, to give his life for people who don't deserve his grace or return his love. Jesus is the kind of king who offers his life. He's the king who lays aside his strength and comes in weakness. Isaiah 53 says:

He was despised and rejected by others,

a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.

Like one from whom people hide their faces

he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain

and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

stricken by him, and afflicted.
(Isaiah 53:3-4)

If that's the kind of king we have, what does that mean for those of us who are in his kingdom? It means that we too will lay aside our privileges so that we can serve others. We'll choose to be weak. Justin Martyr, an early church father who lived from 100-165, wrote:

We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.

Hear that? Willingly choosing to give up wealth and grudges. Clement, who lived around the same time, described a Christian this way:

He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.

Nobody puts this better than John: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another" (1 John 3:16). Jesus chose to be weak, and we'll choose to become weak as well as we follow him - willingly pouring out our lives for others.

Because it's not just a chosen weakness, it's a saving weakness. The end of this passage gives us a picture of what happened because Jesus chose to be weak. This man, Barabbas, actually had another name: Jesus Barabbas. Somebody was going to be free; someone was going to be condemned and killed. Pilate knew that Jesus Barabbas was guilty and deserved to die. He was an insurrectionist and a murderer. Pilate also knew that Jesus did not deserve to die. He was guilty of nothing. The only reason he was on trial was because of the jealousy of the religious leaders.

Unthinkably, the convicted murderer goes free, and the innocent Son of the father is condemned. Barabbas deserves to die, but Jesus dies in his place. The love of God does for us what we can't do for ourselves. It's a picture of what Jesus does for every one of us who trusts in him: he dies in our place, while we who are guilty go free. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Mark is showing us two kings, two types of strength. One king, one type of strength, is how we normally live. It's about getting ahead and enjoying the best of life. As Nouwen said, it's what "the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment." But it ultimately leads to the kingdom of self, a kingdom that ends in weakness.

But Mark shows us another type of king, another type of strength. It's a strength that willingly lays aside its rights, the strength of a Savior who's condemned for our sins so that we can go free.

Mark shows us two types of kings - but only one is a king who saves, and a king who will reign forever.

So Father, help us to see what Jesus did.

He left His Father's throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself and came in love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race!

And I pray that all of us would trust in that kind of king.

And I pray it would change us, individually and as a church, so that we would lay down our lives for each other. I pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.

The Stone the Builders Rejected (Mark 11:27-12:44)

I'm sure that many of us have enjoyed the Olympics over the past two weeks. We all know that the real event is still to take place later this afternoon. You can enjoy your biathlons and bobsleds and short track speed skating. You can even have your curling, but we all know it's about the men's hockey. So today we'll be glued to our sets seeing who is going to win the gold medal.

I'm not about to predict who is going to win this afternoon, but let me be clear: the team that wins will have both talent and experience. To put it differently, if they passed out skates and sticks to a random group of people here today, I guarantee we would do worse than Latvia, a team that has won no games and has been scored against four times more than they've scored. In other words, it's no accident that teams like the United States and Canada end up near the top. We have the most experience in hockey. We have the deepest pockets of talent.

This may sound like the most obvious observation ever. Except I want to pose a question for you. We've been studying the Gospel of Mark, and today we come to a passage in which Jesus is in the Temple. Jesus is in the holiest place. He is at the center of faith and salvation for Jews and Gentiles around the world. Not only that, he is surrounded by the top religious leaders. This is like home ice with the top religious team present. You would think that we would be watching the equivalent of gold medal action as Jesus and the religious leaders talk, that this would be the spiritual equivalent of TED, when they bring some of the top minds in the world to talk about some of the most important ideas going. You would think this would be a thing of beauty.

But instead it's a train wreck. Last week we saw that Jesus took a look at this center of faith and its leaders and condemned it as lifeless. In this week's passage we have a series of confrontations between Jesus and these top religious leaders, who have devoted their entire lives to spiritual things. You have four different incidents in which the top religious leaders go after Jesus. And you have Jesus go after them with a story and a question before issuing a warning about the religious leaders.

To go back to hockey, it's like if the team that practiced most gets worse and worse the harder they try. It's like Team Canada being beaten by a bunch of five-year-old Timbits. It's like the higher they go religiously, the further they move away from God.

This isn't just an academic question, because there are a lot of us here this morning who are not quite at the level of these religious leaders, but we are pretty religious. This passage is a little like a warning label that comes with a prescription: side-effects of religion include the danger that you drift further and further away from Jesus until you're opposed to him and he condemns you as spiritually dead.

Because we face this danger, I'd like to ask you to look with me at a story Jesus tells us that will help us understand the danger we face. The story comes in four parts. Not only does it help us understand why religious people end up far from God, it also helps us understand the whole story of Scripture and where we fit into it.

So let's look at each of the four parts, beginning with part one.

Part One: The Vineyard

Mark 12:1 says:

Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: "A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place."

The story begins with a vineyard. It's a great picture, because the people Jesus was addressing would have been familiar with vineyards, and even though we're not exactly vineyard folk we can picture what this would have been like.

If you've done any gardening, you know the kind of work that it takes to turn a piece of land into something productive and beautiful. It takes planning, and then it takes work. Some of us know the opposite. We know it's not hard to go the other direction: to take something that was a thing of beauty and see it degrade into a wild patch of weeds.

The picture you get in this passage is of a vineyard that has received a great deal of care and attention from the landowner. This was a new vineyard, so it would take at least four years of work before a crop could even be harvested. It's a vineyard that has a wall, a pit, a winepress, and a watchtower. The owner has gone to a lot of work. He's invested a lot in this project.

And then he does what was common in those days. He rents out the vineyard to workers who will care for it in his absence. The workers won't own it; they will simply rent it. The price of rent would be some of the produce from this vineyard.

If you were one of Jesus' listeners, you may have remembered a similar image from Isaiah 5:

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones

and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

and cut out a winepress as well.
(Isaiah 5:1-2)

What is this about? The vineyard is an image for God's people, Israel. It is, the Bible tells us, the object of his love and care. God has invested heavily, providing everything that his people need. If you look through Scripture in Genesis, you see that once sin enters the world things go downhill. Everything you can think of happens. It's like a garden gone wild. It's all in a state of chaos. But in the middle of that mess God promises Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,

and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.
(Genesis 12:2-3)

God keeps this promise, building and preserving a nation, and delivering them from Egypt, leading them into their land. So you have a beautiful picture here of all that God has done to prepare for his people. It's a care that extends to this day as well, to everyone who here who has heard the gospel and trusted in Christ's name. God has lavished his care on every one of us.

Part Two: Rebellion

But, Jesus explains, things don't go well. You get the most of the Old Testament, right to Jesus' day, summarized in verses 2 to 5:

At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

Despite all that the owner has done, these people do not respond out of gratitude, nor do they keep their commitments. Instead, there's a flat-out rebellion against the owner and his messengers. He keeps sending more and more messengers, and things get even worse. They start by beating but pretty soon they're killing the messengers.

Again, it reminds us of Isaiah 5:

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

but it yielded only bad fruit.
"Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,

judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard

than I have done for it?

When I looked for good grapes,

why did it yield only bad?
(Isaiah 5:2-4)

What is this about? Throughout the Old Testament, God had sent prophet after prophet to his people to remind them of the covenant, and to call them back to faithfulness. The people kept ignoring the prophets, and things kept getting worse and worse. The prophet Jeremiah put it this way:

From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors. (Jeremiah 7:25-26)

Some of the prophets were killed, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and Amos. The most recent prophet to have been sent and killed was John the Baptist. Jesus had just finished talking about him before telling this story.

What Jesus is saying is that God's people have a long history of rebellion, of ignoring his prophets. The religious leaders in the temple stood in a long line of people who had rebelled against God. We stand in the same tradition today. One hymn says that we're prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. This begins to help us understand where the religious leaders of Jesus day went wrong - and where we can go wrong as well.

Part Three: Rejecting the Son

The story in Isaiah ends at this point. It ends on an awful note.

Now I will tell you

what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge,

and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,

neither pruned nor cultivated,

and briers and thorns will grow there.

I will command the clouds

not to rain on it.
(Isaiah 5:5-6)

Isaiah is talking about foreign invasion here, and national destruction for the nation of Israel.

But Jesus' story continues, and it takes a shocking turn.

"He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, 'They will respect my son.'

"But the tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. (Mark 12:6-8)

What kind of father would risk sending his own son to these rebels after what they had done to all of the previous messengers?

And that's exactly the point. God is that kind of owner. At incredible risk, God makes one final effort, one final appeal to his people. God does not give up on his people. He sends his own Son to them at the risk of his life.

But it's not just at the risk of the Son's life. It's at the cost of that life. Because, as Jesus tells the story, they plot against that his life and take it, and throw the body out of the vineyard. They don't even give the body the dignity of a proper burial.

This puts the arguments in Mark 11 and 12 in a completely different light. The religious leaders question Jesus' authority. They ask questions to try to catch Jesus in a trap. They give the appearance of having theological issues with Jesus. But those are a smokescreen for the real issue. The real issue is that they have long been in rebellion against God, and now they are plotting to take the life of God's very Son.

Mark is telling us that it's possible to be religious, to even be at the top of the religious heap - gold medalists - and to be in direct opposition to God. It's possible to be very spiritual, and yet oppose God.

And yet this passage tells us that God goes to every length to rectify the situation, going so far as to send his only Son, even at the risk of his Son's life.

Part Four: Judgment and Hope

The story ends in this passage - and for us as well this morning - on a dual note. There is a note of judgment as this story ends. "What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others" (Mark 12:9). To put it as simply as possible, to reject Jesus is to choose judgment. This is a horrible thing. To reject Jesus is to choose judgment.

But there's a stunning twist. Jesus says, "He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others." There are going to be new tenants, new beneficiaries of his care. Jesus then quotes a passage of Scripture that is often quoted about Jesus from this point on. It's apparently about a stone that was rejected as unsuitable as they were building the temple. Yet this very stone, originally rejected, ended up becoming the cornerstone. The one rejected ends up becoming the most important of all.

Haven't you read this passage of Scripture:

"'The stone the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"
(Mark 12:10-11)

Jesus is saying that even his rejection and upcoming death accomplishes God's purposes. Jesus' rejection was foreseen, and God will even use that to bring glory to himself.

Do you see: Jesus is saying that even the most spiritual people, the most faithful attenders of church, can end up as enemies of God. But God has sent his own Son at the cost of that Son's life so that he could lavish his care on us. To reject Jesus is to choose judgment; to put our trust in Jesus is to receive all of his blessings.

This passage is depressing, because the spiritual gold medalists end up losing not only the game, but everything. But this chapter is encouraging because it ends with two people who unexpectedly seem to get it. One is a religious leader. Jesus says he's not far from the kingdom. There's hope even for the religious! The other is the least likely person of all, not a spiritual gold medalist, but a widow who gives everything - literally in the Greek, who gives her whole life, just like Jesus has done for us.

If you're a spiritual gold medalist, be warned. You're in danger. But there's hope for the most unlikely of people. There's hope for you.

The Coming of the King (Mark 11:1-26)

This morning's passage is one that's important on many levels. It's got layers. It's like one of those movies that has a plot, but underneath the plot are all these layers of meaning, and the more you look the more you see. It's got surprises. Just when you think it's going one way, it goes another. It's puzzling at parts. This is a passage that gets under your skin.

But when you look at this passage you encounter a message that is just as important for us today as it was for the people who are in this story. The more I looked at this passage, the more I realized that it's exactly what I need, and what you need as well.

So let me try to lead you to understand the two things that this passage is showing us. And then let me spend just a few minutes applying this to us today, and then we're done.

The Coming of the Deliverer-King

If you've been with us so far as we've been going through Mark, you know that the tension has been building. Jesus has told his disciples:

"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the 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." (Mark 10:33-34)

You can picture what it would have been like for Jesus and the disciples as they join the massive crowds on the way to Jerusalem. They knew that things were coming to a head. Up until now Jesus had been avoiding confrontation with the religious leaders. Now he was heading right towards a head-on collision with them that would cost him his life.

So picture them as they travel from Jericho to Jerusalem. It was mandatory for all male Jews to go up to Jerusalem for the feasts of Pentecost, Tabernacles and Passover. Passover was the most popular. The population of Jerusalem tripled in size. You would have been with tens of thousands of people walking to Jerusalem to celebrate that God miraculously delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt.

Jericho is the lowest city on earth, 800 feet below sea level. Jerusalem is only about a dozen miles away, but is nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. The road goes through a hot, dry desert. Suddenly, as you approach Jerusalem, you would see the first signs of vegetation and the glorious sight of Jerusalem itself. You would see the temple - the place where God had chosen to place his name and present, where he assured Israel of forgiveness. The pilgrims would be singing the songs of ascent from the Psalms. The whole experience would take your breath away.

As Jesus and his disciples experience this, something strange happens. The entire book of Mark, Jesus has never gone anywhere except on his own two feet or in a boat. He's walked everywhere, except on water - well, even then he's walked sometimes. But here he asks his disciples to get a colt, a young donkey, on which nobody has ever sat. As he approaches Jerusalem, the crowds spread their cloaks on the road. What's that about? In 2 Kings 9, Jehu is made king over Israel, and we read, "They quickly took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, 'Jehu is king!'" (2 Kings 9:13). You don't throw cloaks on the dusty, stony road for just anyone. You do it for royalty.

They're also spreading branches and singing, "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" (Mark 11:10). Palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationality and victory. Two hundred years before, Judas Maccabaeus defeated a Syrian king. He entered Jerusalem and cleansed and rebuilt the Temple. The people waved ivy and palm branches and sang hymns of praise. Judas started a royal dynasty that lasted a hundred years.

Put this all together. Jesus' followers believe that he is the true and rightful king of Israel, come to Jerusalem to be seen as such. It's the time of the Passover, the time of hope and remembrance of freedom. As Jesus arrives, Mark is screaming for us to realize the significance of what's happening. To really understand, you have to know what the prophet Zechariah had predicted five hundred years earlier. Zechariah had written:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim

and the warhorses from Jerusalem,

and the battle bow will be broken.

He will proclaim peace to the nations.

His rule will extend from sea to sea

and from the River to the ends of the earth.
(Zechariah 9:9-10)

The promised deliverer-king is finally coming to Jerusalem. Psalm 72 said of him:

May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May all kings bow down to him

and all nations serve him.
For he will deliver the needy who cry out,

the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy

and save the needy from death.
May his name endure forever;
may it continue as long as the sun.
Then all nations will be blessed through him,
and they will call him blessed.
(Psalm 72:8, 11-13, 17)

Mark has been asking us to consider the question, "Who is Jesus?" Jared Wilson writes:

No man is probably more misunderstood than Jesus...We've spent decades selling a Jesus cast in our own image...The quasi-Puritan Jesus liked to smack you on the knuckles with a ruler when you got out of line. Later, we received Postcard Jesus - the Coppertoned, blond-haired blank-stare Jesus of the gold-framed portrait, a bland two-dimensional portrait occupying moral tales that help us to be better people. This flat portrait evolved into a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free Jesus, and this Jesus has inspired millions to say a prayer to get his forgiveness - and then go on living lives devoid of his presence....Today we have an amalgamation of all - and more - of these Jesuses running rampant in the world and in the church...We've settled for the glossy portrait. We've used him, made him into types and stereotypes, taken his message out of context and made it about being a better person or being cool or helping us to help ourselves. (Your Jesus Is Too Safe)

Nobody is more misunderstood than Jesus. This morning's passage is helping us to understand who Jesus is. He is more than a great teacher. He's not just someone who was especially in tune with God's presence and power. He is more than just our personal Lord and Savior. He is the long-promised king, the hope of the ages, the king who arrives to reign over the entire earth. That's the first thing Mark is telling us in this passage. Jesus is the promised deliverer-king.

Before Peace, Judgment

But the second thing Mark tells us is that Jesus is not the king we would expect. They arrive in Jerusalem, and Jesus looks around at the temple. What happens? "He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve" (Mark 11:11). Talk about anticlimax. The tension has been building. You expect something to happen. And then this? It's baffling.

Then there's this incident with the fig tree. This fig tree has given people trouble for years. Jesus sees a fig tree from a distance. He goes to see if there's any fruit on it. It's not the time for fruit, but he curses it anyway, and the next day it's withered. At first glance it looks like Jesus is being unreasonable and petulant. It's the only miracle in the gospels in which Jesus brings death instead of life. What do you make of the fig tree?

And then Jesus goes into the temple and drives out the moneychangers and those who sell pigeons. What's that about? It's been misunderstood for years. People often think that it's about selling things in the church, which I think misses the point of what's really going on here.

This all looks baffling at first - until you understand what's really happening here. The prophet Malachi had written:

"I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4)

What was Malachi saying? Israel had expected that when the Lord came, it would be good news. Malachi said that God would indeed appear in the temple one day, but not only in blessing. He would come in judgment. "Who can endure the day of his coming?" he asks. When the Lord comes to his temple, Malachi said that he would purify and he would judge.

In the passage we've been looking at this morning, the Lord has come to his temple. He came not as a pilgrim but as the sovereign Lord who suddenly comes to his temple. He looks examines it as one who has come to purify and to judge.

What about the fig tree? What's that about? The key to understanding this is to realize that it's actually not about the fig tree at all. It's an enacted parable. Mark places it before and after he judges the temple so he can explain what's actually happening here.

You see, it wasn't the season for fruit. But as the leaves appear, there are usually small green figs forming as well that you can eat. This tree had all the appearance of having fruit despite it being early. Yet it as all an empty show. This was a fruitless, barren tree. It had all the appearance of health not no real fruit. Do you see what Jesus is saying? It was a visual parable for the temple: lots of activity, and the appearance of life, with no substance. The fig tree is all about Jesus appearing in the temple, and judging it as lifeless. Jesus arrives at the promised deliverer-king. But before he brings peace, he brings judgment.

The temple was a busy place. At Passover there would have been thousands of people there. There would be hundreds of tables to sell animals for the sacrifices, and hundreds of moneychangers. The historian Josephus tells us that in one Passover week one year, 255,000 lambs were bought, sold, and sacrificed. You know the financial trading floors, how loud and busy and chaotic they used to be? They were probably nothing compared to the temple during the week of Passover.

The temple was at the very center of their national faith and identity. It represented the very presence of God. It went to the very heart of their relationship with God. Jesus looks at it as the long-awaited king and sees that it looks alive, but it's diseased and blighted. The place of prayer for Gentiles had become anything but that. It was, Jesus said, "a den of robbers." He's quoting from Jeremiah 7 there. It's really not about the buying and selling that was taking place. He's quoting from a passage that talks about the mindset that you can:

...steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, "We are safe"--safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:9-11)

Jesus pronounces judgment on the temple as he curses the fig tree, and when he overturns tables he's again pronouncing judgment. As Malachi said, "Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple...But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?"

If this is the case, it's very depressing. I hope we understand today who Jesus is. He's the king, the Messiah, the one who comes to rule the whole earth, to bless the nations, to deliver the needy. But he doesn't come only as the deliverer-king. He also comes to purify and to judge. He finds lots of religious activity, but no life. Where is the hope in all of this?

The hope for us is found in the last few verses of this passage:

"Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will happen, it will be done for you. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." (Mark 11:22-24)

What is this? Is Jesus switching subjects and giving a lesson on prayer? No. Actually, Jesus has just pronounced judgment on the Temple. The prayer that should be happening there isn't. It's no longer going to be the locus of prayer. In just a few short years it's going to be destroyed.

But Jesus envisioned a future without a temple. In its place would be a new praying community. Instead of only the appearance of life, this praying community would demonstrate mountain-moving faith centered on Jesus, who became the new and better temple and the sacrifice for our sins.

Have you seen Jesus as the promised deliverer-king? Have you realized that he sees through our religious appearances; that all our busyness and activity can't hide the lack of true spiritual life? "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?" Only those who are part of this praying community, who understand that the sacrifice Malachi talked about - "Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years" - that this sacrifice is Jesus himself.

The Road to Recognition (Luke 24:13-35)

There are lots of reasons that people struggle with Christianity. I talk to lots of people who have all kinds of objections. How could a loving God send people to hell? If God is good and powerful, why is there so much evil in the world? Doesn't science disprove Christianity? How can Christianity claim to be universal truth? And why are Christians such hypocrites?

These are important questions, and they need to be answered. But although they are important, they are not the most important question about Christianity. The main question we have to answer is: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? If he did, then that's enough to change our worlds and sideline all the secondary issues. If Jesus rose from the dead, then we have to accept all that he said. But if Jesus didn't rise from the dead, then who cares about any of the other issues about Christianity? The issue upon which everything hangs is whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. If he did, it changes everything. If he didn't, then you don't have to worry about the rest. We can live our lives however we want without worrying what the Bible says.

So today, we really have to pay attention to what the Bible says happened that first Easter Sunday. The resurrection is the ultimate vindication of who Jesus is and everything that he said. The resurrection, if true, means that there is a God, and that he as acted in history. It means that we no longer have to be afraid of anything. If Jesus did rise from the dead, it changes everything. So a lot rides on what really happened.

But we have to be honest. It's not so easy to believe in a resurrection. And it's exactly here that today's passage is going to help us. What this passage tells us is that it wasn't so easy to believe in a resurrection then either. In fact, some of us are going to really relate to the two people that we encounter in this passage.

So what I want to look at this morning is simply three things: first, at our doubts about the resurrection; secondly, at how these doubts can be resolved; and finally, the difference that it makes.

Let's first look at our doubts about the resurrection.

We sometimes have the crazy view that we are modern, scientific people, and therefore we are a lot more levelheaded than anyone else who's lived before us. C.S. Lewis called this chronological snobbery: the belief that the thinking of an earlier time is inherently inferior when compared to that of the present. But one of the things I love about Scripture is that there is every bit as much skepticism about the resurrection as there is today. It isn't just modern, scientific people who struggle with the idea of resurrections. The people in Scripture struggled every bit as much as we do today. They had the same doubts about the resurrection that we do.

There were dozens of accounts of what are called post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. But out of all the ones that Luke could have chosen to describe, Luke chooses three. And what all three have in common is disbelief. They know something has happened, but they are having a hard time making all the pieces fit. And they are certainly not ready to just believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. It's as hard for them to accept as it is for the most skeptical person here this morning. And these are his followers, his disciples!

So in verse 14 we meet two of his disciples. We learn later, in verse 18, that one of them is named Cleopas. We have no idea who the other person is, although some guess that it could have been his wife. If you're the skeptical type, you've got to pause here and ask why Luke mentions the name Cleopas. There's no real need for him to be named. There's an answer that really helps me. This was a rare name, and it's so rare that Luke is essentially giving us a footnote, so that the original readers can check the original source and verify the story. If you lived in Luke's day, and you wanted to, you could look up Cleopas yourself and verify that what Luke wrote was true.

So we get to verses 13 and 14, and we see that these two are walking to a place called Emmaus, and while they're traveling they're discussing all that happened in Jerusalem that Passover weekend. We learn what they were discussing in verses 20 to 24: about the crucifixion of Jesus; how their hopes had been shattered; how they had heard of the empty tomb, but were having a hard time coming up with a logical explanation for it. Again, we have to stop and recognize that this was big news. They said in verse 18 to this stranger who walks with them: "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?" This was not something that a small group of people knew about. The crucifixion and even the empty tomb were big news, so much so that some 25 years later, the apostle Paul could stand before King Agrippa, the ruler over the temple in Jerusalem, and say, "The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26). Agrippa didn't deny that he knew. He actually made an attempt at a joke to try to change the subject. And this was 25 years later. People knew the basic facts; the challenge was how to make sense of them.

So as you read about these two disciples who were on their way to Emmaus, you see that they're trying to make sense of things too. They were shattered. Even though they had heard about the empty tomb, they couldn't explain it. Don't miss the fact that they're leaving Jerusalem; they're not sticking around with any sort of hope that something world-changing has happened. They're going home. Verse 15 says that they're talking and discussing. There's a bit of a debate going on. They're trying to make sense of everything that's happened.

I don't know if you've ever noticed before, but when this stranger appears and asks them what they're talking about, verse 17 says, "They stood still, their faces downcast." They're not having a discussion like we have about how Cito is doing as manager, or what the Leafs need to do to rebuild. This is something that's really hit them. They had hopes for this Jesus, and their hopes had been crushed. And even though they had heard about the empty tomb, they weren't ready to believe that this could mean Jesus was alive again. They had doubts. They couldn't make sense of it all.

I think it's significant that Luke chose three stories about the resurrection, and all of them are about doubt. The Bible is not sentimental at all. It's not telling us some fairy tale that we're expected to just swallow, or some story that is not literally true but that warms our hearts. What it's saying is that it is hard to believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually happened. If you find it hard to swallow, you're in pretty good company. So did everyone else who heard the news that Easter morning.

But something happened to change their doubts. So let's look at that. We've seen their doubts.

Now secondly, let's look at how these doubts were resolved.

Now everybody is different, and the fact that we have three stories here means that there is going to be more than one way to respond. It means that our stories are going to be different. But out of the three accounts, this one just may be the most meaningful to us today. What happened in the other two accounts will never happen to us. We'll never stand by the empty tomb and see angels. We'll never see the resurrected Jesus suddenly appear in a room with us like the disciples did. But what happened to these two followers can, in some sense, happen to us today.

So what happened that moved them from disillusionment and doubt to belief? Jesus appeared to them on the road, even though they didn't recognize him. That's the part that won't happen to us today. But two things happened with these disciples that moved them from disillusionment to belief and joy, and these same two things can and do happen today. In fact, it's my prayer that they will happen this morning.

First, they came to a new understanding of Scripture. You know, these two disciples had the same problem that we do. They read the Bible, and they had formed certain beliefs about the Messiah. Jesus had fit their beliefs until he died. Their problem is that they had read selectively, but they had never understood fully who the Messiah was going to be and what he was going to do. They didn't have a category for a suffering Messiah. This is why Jesus said to them in verses 25 and 26, "How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?"

Aren't you glad that we're better than they were? Actually, we're not. One of our problems is that most of us have read the Scriptures, and we've found the parts that we like about Jesus, but then we leave out the rest. We have this tendency to domesticate Jesus, and the problem is that Jesus doesn't fit the boxes that we try to fit him into.

So Jesus does something that helps these two, and it can help us as well. Verse 27 says, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." Jesus helped them see that the whole Bible, from start to finish, is about him. The storyline of all of Scripture - indeed, all of history - converge in Jesus Christ. Every page of the Bible is about him - not just the explicit prophecies, but much more. The historical patterns, the promises, symbols, blessings and curses, the pictures of salvation, the shadows and types, the ceremonies - all of them point to Jesus. He's on every page of every Scripture.

So Jesus that day may have covered some of what we've been covering. He may have talked about Abraham, who led his son up Mount Moriah to die, just as God led his one and only Son up the same mountain. He may have talked about the Passover, and how that pointed forward to himself as the true Passover Lamb. He may have talked about the rock that was hit in judgment by Moses in the desert as a picture of what happened when Jesus was struck in judgment on behalf of his people on the cross. He may have talked about the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness, and about David's victory over Goliath as a signpost pointing to Jesus' victory as our representative over death and sin. Every page - the ceremonies, the stories, the psalms, the prophecies - point to him.

When these two looked back on what Jesus taught them about Scripture, they said in verse 32, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" Something happened within them as they began to see Jesus on every page of Scripture. The same thing happens today. When we stop seeing Scripture as a set of unrelated stories, or a set of fables and examples almost like Aesop's Fables, and when we start to see Scripture as about Jesus Christ, something begins to happen within us. Our hearts begin to burn. We begin to see Jesus not in the little box we've created for him, but as the climax of all of Scripture, the resolution of every storyline, and the revelation of all of Scripture.

Something else happened to turn them from doubt to belief and joy. Verses 30 and 31 say, "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight." We don't know what exactly happened when Jesus broke the bread - more on that in a minute - but somehow, something changed. All of a sudden they saw things they hadn't seen before. In verse 16 it says that they were kept from recognizing him, but all of that changed now. Their eyes were opened.

You may say, "That's not very useful to me. That's something they had no control over. It happened to them." And you'd be both wrong and right. I've been reading a short biography of Jonathan Edwards, a brilliant theologian and philosopher who lived in the 1700s. He lived during a new era of scientific progress in which people were leaving Christianity behind. He wrestled with it. He wanted to believe, but he couldn't seem to overcome his doubts. But one day he found that the certainty and clarity that he had been searching for was there. One day God gave him the spiritual eyesight, just like he gave these two disciples, and it changed everything.

If you are wrestling and seeking, then this is evidence that God is already at work. He's already opening your eyes. You may feel like you're all alone, but like these two disciples, you may not realize until later that Jesus has met you on the road of doubt, and he's already walking with you. If you seek, you will find. God has to give you the gift of spiritual eyesight, but he meets us, and he gives it to those who search for it.

Well, we've seen the doubt, and we can relate to it. We've seen what changed them: that they began to see that all of Scripture points to Christ, and that they were given spiritual eyesight to see what they couldn't see before, just like God gave spiritual eyesight to Jonathan Edwards and to all those who seek him.

As we close, I want to look at the results.

As we close, I want to look at the difference it makes when we move from doubt to belief about Jesus, and about the resurrection.

At the surface level, it's clear that this made a huge difference. We read in verses 33 and 34 that they had certainty, so much so that even though they had settled for the night, they got up right away and made the round trip to Jerusalem.

But there's something else that happened that's a little below the surface. Do you remember when their eyes were opened? Verse 35 says, "Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread." Why did they recognize him in the breaking of the bread?

There are three times that Jesus broke bread in the book of Luke: one when he fed the five thousand; one when he broke the Passover bread for what we now call The Lord's Supper; and here. Scholars who have studied Luke have identified a major theme that develops in the book of Luke: that of a Messianic banquet. In Isaiah 25, the prophet had said:

On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine--
the best of meats and the finest of wines....
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people's disgrace
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.
In that day they will say,
"Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the LORD, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."
(Isaiah 25:6-9)

Luke keeps pointing us to this Messianic banquet, in which God defeats sin and death, saves his people, and feeds us with the best food and wine. And when Luke says that they recognized Jesus as he broke the bread, I think he's pointing us to this theme again. He's saying that these two doubters became guests at the Messianic banquet that God has prepared for us, in which God triumphs, evil is defeated, and the world is set right.

We're coming this morning to our own foretaste of the Messianic banquet. The food we're about to eat is a pointer to that day when we say, "Surely this is our God;

we trusted in him, and he saved us." God still welcomes people who've been on the road of disillusionment and doubt to meet him at this table and feast with him.

Let's pray.

Father, we thank you that Jesus met these two doubters in the middle of their doubt. I thank you that before they even knew it, Jesus was with them, teaching them and us that all of Scripture is about him. I thank you that you opened their eyes.

I pray today that you would open our eyes. I pray that we would see all the story-lines and symbols of Scripture converge in Christ. I pray that you would allow us to see the risen Christ as someone who changes everything. And as a result, I pray that you would allow us the privilege of feasting at your table with you this morning, and fill us with hope that we will dine at the coming banquet you're preparing for us. Grant us this I pray, in Jesus' name. Amen.

The Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9)

When you go to a doctor, or when you go to a pharmacist, you will probably see a symbol with one or two snakes wrapped around a staff or a rod. One of these symbols is called the Rod of Asclepius. It's used by the Canadian Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and countless others.

Where did this strange symbol come from, and how did it ever get to be associated with medicine, with healing? There are a few theories, but you'll notice that the account we just read includes a snake, a staff, and healing. There are some who think that the medical symbol we used today has its origins in the account that we just read.

But this raises even more questions. What in the world is this passage about? It's incredibly strange. At first glance it looks like some primitive magic from ancient times. It also looks at first glance like there's a drastic overreaction to a pretty common problem. There are many passages in Scripture that are hard to understand. This one's easy to understand, but it leaves us scratching our heads.

But as we look at it again, we're going to see that this passage tells us three things that we need to know. First, what's wrong with us. Second, where things start to turn. And finally, how we are healed of what's wrong with us.

So first let's look at what's wrong with us.

If you've read the books of the Bible that recount the wanderings of Israel on the way to the Promised Land, you know that it wasn't smooth sailing. They kept grumbling and complaining the whole way through. But when we get to Numbers 21, we've reached a turning point. Right before the passage we just read, Israel defeats a Canaanite king. This is the first victory over the Canaanites, and many more are going to follow. It really looks like things are finally turning around for them.

But some things don't change. In verse 5, we encounter a problem that stayed with the people of Israel, and that if we're honest it stays with us today. Verses 4 and 5 say:

But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"

Now what's going on here? When Israel wandered through the dessert, there obviously wasn't a lot of food. But we read earlier that God miraculously provided for them. Every day he gave them what they called manna, which was a fine, flake-like frost. It was like a coriander seed, white, and it tasted like a wafer made with honey. They ground into a meal, boiled it in pots, and made it into cakes.

When you think about it, it's amazing and miraculous that God provided so well for such a great multitude in the middle of the dessert. But here we read that the people are impatient. And if you notice, they don't really complain that they're hungry or that they lack food. What they do say is that they "detest this miserable food." The manna that God provided for them, they begin to see as worthless, good for nothing, and miserable.

Now, that doesn't look like much, but that's probably because we suffer from the same problem that they had. It's a problem that really doesn't look too serious, but as we're going to see in a moment, it's fatal, and there are very few cures.

What is the problem? Do you notice when this sense of dissatisfaction hit? It hit right after a victory. Israel had just achieved a great success, and right after they're complaining. They're empty.

The New York Times ran an article of some successful people. One of them, Diane Knorr, a former dot-com executive, said, "The first time I got a call way after hours from a senior manager, I remember being really flattered." She thought, "Wow! I'm really getting up there now." But eventually her work and family life became a blur with hours that were hard to scale back. Back in college, she had set the goal of making a six-figure salary by the time she was 49. She had reached her goal at age 35, years ahead of schedule, and yet she said, "Nothing happened; no balloons dropped. That's when I really became aware of that hollow feeling."

Do you know the problem with us? Inside of us, there is this hunger, this longing. And we think, "If I just get this" - a marriage, a job, children, an achievement, this house, this car, recognition - "If I just get this, then I'll be satisfied." But it never happens. We reach our goals, we achieve success, but we're still left wanting more.

Brad Pitt starred in Fight Club, which is about a man who has the American dream and yet remains unsatisfied. Rolling Stone interviewed him. Listen to what Pitt said:

Man, I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us--the car, the condo, our version of success--but if that's the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more impotence and isolation and desperation and loneliness? If you ask me, I say toss all this--we gotta find something else. Because all I know is that at this point in time, we are heading for a dead end, a numbing of the soul, a complete atrophy of the spiritual being. And I don't want that.

Rolling Stone asked him what we should do to avoid this dead end of dissatisfaction despite all that we have, and he said:

Hey, man, I don't have those answers yet. The emphasis now is on success and personal gain. I'm sitting in it, and I'm telling you, that's not it. I'm the guy who's got everything. I know. But I'm telling you, once you've got everything, then you're just left with yourself. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it doesn't help you sleep any better, and you don't wake up any better because of it.

This isn't a new problem. It goes as far back as Genesis 3. Adam and Eve were in paradise. Everything was good. They could enjoy everything - everything! - except for one tree that God placed off limits. And even though they were in paradise, it wasn't good enough for them because they wanted more. They wanted what they couldn't have. They got it, too, but instead of leading to satisfaction, it led to disaster and disintegration, and the world has never been the same since.

In fact, the apostle Paul says that this dynamic is at the heart of what we call sin. In Romans 1:21 he says, "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." Sin is essentially looking to other things besides God for meaning and satisfaction, thereby rejecting God and refusing to give thanks to him. And the results, as we're going to see it, are disastrous. One author put it this way:

It is the desire for God which is the most fundamental appetite of all, and it is an appetite we can never eliminate. We may seek to disown it, but it will not go away. If we deny that it is there, we shall in fact only divert it to some other object or range of objects. And that will mean that we invest some creature or creatures with the full burden of our need for God, a burden which no creature can carry. (Simon Tugwell)

And this leads, ultimately, to not only a rejection of God, but to enslavement and deep dissatisfaction. You see this in what happened in response to this problem in the passage.

Some have wondered why God responded so severely to this problem. We read in verse 6: "Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died." The word venomous literally means fiery. The snakes would bite, and the result was this burning inflammation. This would probably lead to other symptoms - paralysis, blindness, thirst - and ultimately to death. Why so severe? Tim Keller has pointed out that the physical symptoms here are merely a mirror for the spiritual symptoms. When we're bitten by this dissatisfaction of the heart, a dissatisfaction that is ultimately a rejection of God, a very similar thing happens within our souls, and the ultimate result is death. We think it's not a big deal, but our spiritual condition is just as fatal as these snakes.

So what do we do, then? We've seen our condition, and how serious it is.

Let's now look at where things begin to turn.

We read in verse 7:

The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

You see what's happened here? One minute they're complaining. The next moment, they've realized what they've done wrong. There's no blame-shifting going on here. There are no excuses. What there is is a simple confession of sin, a recognition of what's gone wrong.

The biblical word for this is repentance. One of my favorite authors, Jack Miller, says that repentance is a form of sanity. He says that "Repentance is a return to God as my center...What a simple thing it is to humble the heart and return to sanity by repentance and praise."

We know that repentance itself is a gift of God. It may be that God is giving some of you this gift this morning. Most of us are scared to death of repentance. We have this picture of a traumatic experience, or some dramatic experience. Repentance is something we think we're going to hate. But repentance is actually just a return to sanity, a recognition that we've put other things at the center of our lives that just don't belong there, and that can kill us. Repentance is coming to our senses and returning to God as our centers, which leads us to the cure for our disease.

That's the last thing I want to look at this morning: the cure for what's wrong with us, or how we can be healed.

Verses 8 and 9 say:

The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

This is the last thing you'd expect. Shouldn't there be some medicine, some treatment? When you're being bitten by venomous snakes, the last thing that you want is to look at a bronze version of that snake. And you certainly wouldn't expect that this would save you! You would at least expect a list of things to do in order to get better. But here you have the simple cure: that anyone who is bitten and about to die can simply look to this bronze snake, and they live.

The poet and composer Michael Card wrote a song about this passage, and he got it right when he said, "the symbol of their suffering was now the focus of their faith, and with a faithful glance the healing power would flow." What does this mean? It's a paradox! They're saved by looking at the very embodiment of what had bitten them.

And that's exactly how we are saved as well. In one of the most famous passages of Scripture, Jesus explained to Nicodemus and to us what why he came to the world. And, amazingly, Jesus talked about this snake. Listen to what he said: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him" (John 3:14-15).

Do you see what Jesus was saying here? Three times in the book of John, this phrase "lifted up" appears. John tells us later in chapter 12 that this "lifting up" image was given to show us "the kind of death he was going to die" (John 12:33). In other words, Jesus was saying that he was like this bronze serpent. That's shocking! He was going to be lifted up and placed on the cross at Calvary, and that everyone who believes and simply looks will be saved.

On the cross, Jesus became the very embodiment of what was killing us. He became the curse; he became the embodiment of our sin; he absorbed the venom. And Jesus became the source of our healing, so that all who look upon him live. When we look at the cross in faith, our sin and God's wrath are taken away, and we live. We are healed by looking at what has been lifted up on the tree. We are healed by looking to Jesus. All we have to do is to look.

In 1850, Charles Spurgeon was a young 15-year-old boy. One morning he was walking to church in a snowstorm. The snow was so bad that he never made it to his destination. He turned into a little Primitive Methodist chapel. Only a dozen or fifteen people were there.

The minister never showed up at that church; he probably was snowed in. A thin man who was a shoemaker or a tailor, but not a preacher, was called upon to preach. Spurgeon describes what happened:

He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth [Isaiah 45:22]."

He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: "My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, 'Look.' Now lookin' don't take a deal of pain. It ain't liftin' your foot or your finger; it is just, 'Look.' Well, a man needn't go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn't be worth a thousand [pounds] a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.

"But then the text says, 'Look unto Me'. . . . Many of ye are lookin' to yourselves, but it's no use lookin' there. Ye will never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the father. No, look to him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, 'Look unto Me.' Some of ye say, 'We must wait for the Spirit's workin'.' You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, 'Look unto Me.'"

At some point in the sermon, with only a small congregation present, the preacher noticed the young Spurgeon there. Spurgeon said:

Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say, with so few present he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart he said, "Young man, you look very miserable." Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, "and you always will be miserable--miserable in life, and miserable in death--if you don't obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved."

Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a primitive Methodists could do, "Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live." I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said--I did not take much notice of it--I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me.

I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, "Look!" What a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could have almost looked my eyes away.

There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to him...

And Spurgeon's life was forever changed. Let's pray.

We've seen this morning what's wrong with us. We've seen that it's far more serious than we expected. But we've also seen that things begin to turn as we come to our senses and repent.

And we've seen that we are healed as we look to the cross and believe. We have nothing to do but to look and live.

I pray, Father, that we would look to the cross, that we would see what Jesus has done for us in absorbing the venom, and that we would live. Because whenever anyone is bitten and looks at what was lifted up, they live.

May everyone here look to the cross today, and live. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

The Greater David (1 Samuel 17)

We've just read about one of the most well-known and inspiring events in all of Scripture. Even if you've never been to church before, chances are that you've heard the story of David and Goliath. It's a story of fear and courage, of the triumph of the underdog. I did a quick search in Google News this week and found dozens of articles that mention David and Goliath in relationship to sports teams, even about Facebook and Microsoft (the Goliaths) fearing young, upstart companies.

You have to admit that it's a bit strange talking about David and Goliath on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday marks the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before he was killed, and was welcomed as the king who came to save his people. But as we're going to see today, it's not that unusual a passage after all.

If you've ever been to the eye doctor, they've do all kinds of things to you to test your eyesight. And then, near the end, they put this contraption in front of your eyes with different lenses. They make you look through the lenses and they ask you, "Is this one clearer, or this one?" I'm always scared of giving the wrong answer! The result, though, is that they end up finding the lens that allows you to see the chart on the wall most clearly. You may have been living with the wrong prescription for years without even knowing it, and it's only when you see through a better lens that you realize what you've been missing all along.

I'm going to suggest that many of us need a new lens through which we can see the account of David's defeat of Goliath. The lens we have right now is okay, but we may not be seeing what we're supposed to be seeing as clearly as we should. So today I'd like to flip some lenses before you and and ask, "Is this clearer, or this one?" And I want to begin with the normal lens through which we normally view this story.

Our Normal Lens: Facing the Giants

You may have seen a movie a couple of years ago called Facing the Giants. The movie is about a football coach and team that has to stare down the giants of fear and failure. He challenges his players to believe God for the impossible on and off the field. It's a modern day story of facing obstacles that are much bigger than ourselves, and digging down deep to overcome them even though the odds are stacked against us.

This is the lens that I think most of us use when we read the account of David and Goliath. We begin chapter 17 with the Philistines and Israel nose to nose and ready for battle, each on a mountain looking at the other side, and with a valley in the middle. Then you have this fearsome man coming out repeatedly. When I say fearsome, I'm not kidding. His height is reported as 9 feet, 9 inches. Some later versions have been found which say that he was only 6 feet, 9 inches - still tall! This may have been an attempt to tone down the height. This guy is huge!

And not only that, he has other advantages as well. They had a huge advantage in military technology. You read in verses 5 to 7 that he has all of this equipment on: a bronze helmet, a coat of mail, armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze. The coat of mail alone weighs 125 pounds. The shaft of his spear is compared to "a weaver's rod." Some scholars think that this is because the technology in the spear was so new that the Israelites didn't even have a word for it yet. They had to compare it to something they already new. This was the beginning of the iron age, and the Philistines had an advantage not only in the size of Goliath, but in their military technology as well.

So you can understand why the people of Israel were terrified. Verse 16 tells us that Goliath came out every day, twice a day, for forty days and took his stand, taunting the nation of Israel. And everyone was terrified, including Saul. We read in verse 11 that they were "dismayed and terrified."

And then David comes along. David is not even supposed to be there. He's not even in the army. When his brother sees him, he completely dismisses David and why he's there. But David, the most unlikely of people, refuses to wear Saul's armor. He refuses to accept that someone is defaming God's name. Instead, he responds to Goliath's taunt by promising to defeat Goliath. As he goes out to battle, he cries out: "The whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give all of you into our hands" (1 Samuel 17:46-47). And then David kills Goliath with a sling and a stone.

It's hard not to be moved by what happened. And it's not hard to look through this lens and make application to our lives. This is the normal Sunday school application of this story. You are going to face giants in your life. You don't stand a chance against these giants. You're probably going to be afraid at times. But don't forget: the bigger they come, the harder they fall. You may not be big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can face the giants in your life.

I'm going to suggest to you this morning that this lens is letting us see the story at some level, but it's really not the best lens through which to view the account of David and Goliath. It's leaving some things blurry that really should be clear, and it's probably making some things clear that really aren't even there in the first place.

The flaw in this approach is that it assumes that the author of 1 Samuel 17 gave us this story so that we would emulate the example of David. There is no question that David is worthy of emulation here: he alone acted in faith and trust in God when everyone else reacted in fear and doubt. He alone trusted the promises of God when everyone else chose to see the obstacles as bigger than the promise.

But you have to ask yourself: did the author write this passage to lift David up as a moral example for us to follow, or did he have some other purpose?

The problem with this lens is that we start to read the Bible as a set of moral examples to follow. You start to see the Bible's message as "God blesses those who live morally exemplary lives." And this approach starts to make people the hero of the text, rather than God.

David is praiseworthy here, but as we're going to see in a minute, it's for a reason. And I can't be like David. I don't have the power. If you tell me to walk out of here and "Be like David!" I'll last until Tuesday at the latest before I fall apart in fear again. Not only this, but this lens obscures the message of the Bible, which isn't that God blesses those who get their acts together, but that God showers his grace on unworthy people who don't deserve it, and who let him down over and over again.

I'm not saying that we should throw out this lens completely, but I'm going to suggest that we try another lens to see if it will help us to see this passage more clearly.

The Lens of a Greater King

Let me give you a new lens for a minute. This lens may seem strange at first. It may take a bit of time to get used to, but let's see how it works.

There are a couple of details that are fairly easy to miss, but that really help us grasp what this passage is really about. The first is the wider context. What in the world was the author trying to prove by giving us this account?

As you look at this passage, you realize that it's not an isolated account buried among other random events that took place. The author has arranged these skillfully in order to communicate a message.

If you look earlier in 1 Samuel, you see that Israel didn't have a king. But they began to cry out to God for a king who would reign over them so that they could be like the other nations. God granted their request, but before he did so, he said to his prophet Samuel: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king" (1 Samuel 8:7).

As you read 1 Samuel, you know that God gave Israel their first king. His name was Saul. And he shows some promise early on. It's not too long, though, before Saul begins to get himself into all kinds of trouble. Saul does things his way instead of humbly obeying God's commands. And there's a mounting sense of tension in chapters 13 to 15 as Saul makes one bad decision after another, as he does things his way even if what he does is a complete rejection of God and his ways. It gets so bad that the prophet Samuel eventually said, "Now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD's command" (1 Samuel 13:14). And even later: "The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors--to one better than you" (1 Samuel 15:28).

So there is a sense of mounting tension that God has rejected Saul, and that Israel needs a better king. And then you get to chapter 16, and you discover that God has selected this new and better king. David is anointed as king, but he hasn't yet taken the throne.

And then you get to the story of what happened with Goliath, and where do you find Saul? Verse 11 says, "On hearing the Philistine's words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified." It should have been Saul's job to accept the challenge on behalf of Israel, but instead he was cowering in fear. And then David comes in and responds, as God's anointed, in faith and trust in the Lord. See if this lens makes sense. The author is not saying, "All of you should muster the courage you need to face giants." Instead, he's saying, "Israel needs a better king." David is that better king.

But wait. There's more. There's another detail that's easy to miss. Verse 4 says that Goliath is - what? - a champion. What does that mean? In ancient times, rival armies would sometimes agree to let selected individuals from each side decide a conflict. This reduced casualties and other costs. I almost wish we did this today! The two would be called champions, and they would represent all the people. Their victory would be attributed to the whole army, and so would their defeat. For obvious reasons, they would normally pick their strongest person to go to battle.

Back then, many of the cultures believed that the god of each nation would be present in that champion, and that god would go to battle along with the representative. Whichever champion won, that god would be vindicated.

And so David went into battle as a representative of all the people, as their substitute, winning the victory that they couldn't win for themselves, so that God would be vindicated and the forces of evil defeated. He was their substitute. But you see, David came in weakness. He was so unimpressive that nobody would think God would triumph through him. He went almost as a sacrificial lamb. But God used his apparent weakness to destroy the enemy, and David's victory was imputed to all of them. David stands in the place of many, and through his obedience God brings salvation to Israel.

If you see the story of this chapter through this lens, things look very different. It's no longer saying that you need to get your act together so that you take on the giants in your life. Instead, it's saying that we need a better king. We need someone who can take on the battles that we can't win, so that his victory becomes our victory. We need him to fight on our behalf as our substitute, and as our champion. We need a king like David. We don't need to try harder so that we triumph! We need a substitute who will come in weakness and trust, and who will win the victory that we couldn't win ourselves.

That's a much better lens through which to view the account of David and Goliath, I think. It's a bit bewildering at first, only because we're so used to seeing this account through the other lens. It's much more in line with the structure of the text, I think. We need God's anointed king who will triumph and win victory on behalf of his people.

But there's one more lens that will help us see even more clearly.

The Lens of Jesus Christ

On Palm Sunday, two thousand years ago, an even greater King arrived. We read in Matthew 21 that the crowds that followed him shouted:

"Hosanna to the Son of David!"
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

(Matthew 21:9)

Israel needed a better king, and that king was David. And now an even better king has come, a Son of David, to win the victory that we can't win ourselves. Jesus comes as our champion, our substitute. God's anointed king arrives, and although, like David, he appears weak and insignificant, he fights for his people, knowing that the battle is the Lord's. Jesus is the true and better David. He stands alone as our substitute, the one in place of the many, and through him God wins salvation for his people.

When we see the account of David and Goliath through the lens of Jesus Christ, it's not about trying harder. It's about the King who entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and went to the cross in weakness, who triumphed over sin and death in our place, and vindicated God's name. It's about God's anointed king who has triumphed on behalf of his people.

Father, as we enter this week, we're overwhelmed with what Jesus faced as he entered the streets of Jerusalem that Palm Sunday almost two thousand years ago. He came as a greater King, as a true and better David, to win the victory that we could not win for ourselves.

He came not in strength, but in weakness. But through the weakness of the cross he triumphed over evil, and his victory has become the victory of all who trust in him.

As we enter this week, may we do so seeing Jesus as the true and better David, the one who stood alone in the battle that nobody else could win, and through whom you have brought salvation to your people. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.

The Stricken Rock (Exodus 17:1-7)

For the six weeks leading up to Easter, we're looking at the unfolding mystery of the gospel from the ancient Scriptures. Although we see the good news of what God has done to save us most clearly after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you see glimpses of this good news throughout all of Scripture. This is why Jesus could turn to two of his followers, open the Hebrew Scriptures, and explain "to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). The Bible is not a collection of unrelated stories and moral lessons. It is, we discover, the revelation of God that ultimately takes us to Jesus.

Today we are looking at a crisis that took place not long after God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. What we're going to read is going to highlight three things for us: the trial; the sentence reached as a result of this trail; and the ultimate trial and sentence that we're all a part of.

So let's first look at the trail.

As we start to look at this passage, we need to remember what's just happened. God has just delivered his people from the most totalitarian regime of that day and set them free from centuries of slavery. He's guiding them visibly by going before them as a pillar of cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night. When they've had nothing to drink except for bitter water, he's provided sweet water for them. He's fed them miraculously in the desert so that they never have to worry about having enough food. What they have seen is nothing short of amazing. But as we look at the passage that was just read for us, we see that there is a problem. We have to look a little below the surface to understand how serious this problem became, not just for them, but for us as well.

In verse 1 we read that Israel has moved to Rephidim. We have no idea where Rephidim is anymore, but we can guess that it's within traveling distance of the last place they camped, which presumably had water, an oasis in the desert. We read the problem at the end of verse 1: "there was no water for the people to drink." This is a significant problem.

The whole nation of Israel was on the move, up to two million people. They were not in a car driving; they were in the desert walking. And they were not looking for the convenience of a refreshing drink. Their very lives were at stake. Stopping in the middle of the dessert with no water was big trouble. In the middle of Sinai, dehydration would take hours, not days. As soon as their water-skins from the last night were empty, death was certain. So you can understand why the people of Israel were concerned.

So we read in verse 2: "So they quarreled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink.'" Notice that this word keeps coming up in these seven verses. Moses says at the end of verse 2, "Why do you quarrel with me?" In verse 7 we read that Moses renamed the place Massah and Meribah, which means testing and quarreling.

Here's where we need to understand what's taking place below the surface. What does this word quarrel mean? It means much more than what your kids do when they're overtired. It's more than a spat. The word quarrel here is a legal term describing the launch of a lawsuit. The prophet Micah used the term to describe the lawsuit God brought against Israel for breaking his covenant.

The people of Israel were effectively taking legal action against Moses. The charge was negligence. They say in verse 3, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" And the penalty, presumably, is that after he is found guilty, Moses will be sentenced to death. That's what Moses says in verse 4. "Then Moses cried out to the LORD, 'What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.'" They are all going to die in the desert; Moses may as well be the first to go as the one who has brought them there. This is no case of grumbling; this is a trail on a capital offense.

But the defendant in this case wasn't just Moses. Ultimately, they're suing God. Verse 7 says, "And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, 'Is the LORD among us or not?'"

Here's the real issue: they are not putting Moses on trial; they are putting God on trial. God had provided for them over and over. He had cared for them in miraculous ways. And yet they've put God on trail, charging him with negligence on a mass scale. And the penalty, at least for Moses, is death.

We need to understand what this his incident is and isn't about. It's not about the doubts that come our way. Most of us, at one time or another, encounter times that we struggle to believe. I know some people who have lost their jobs in the economic crisis. Somewhere along the line they may struggle. They may say, "God, I'm having a hard time trusting you to provide in these circumstances." We may need to confess to God that we believe, but that we need help with our unbelief. But that's not what's happening here.

What is this passage about then? It's not about doubt; it's about accusation. Doubt is when we admit that we don't understand and that we're struggling. Accusation is when we set ourselves up as judges over God, and make him the defendant, as if God has to answer to us. Do you see the difference? When we struggle with doubt, we still see God as God. When we accuse God, as in this passage, we have set ourselves up over God. We've put him on trial.

And what this passage reveals is that we have a problem. And the problem goes deeper than actions; the problem is that our hearts have an inclination.There's something within us that makes us prone to question God, even accuse him. This began in Genesis 3, and it continues to this day when we set ourselves up over him, and we're inclined to press charges against him and doubt his presence at every turn.

I've experienced times that God has come through in surprising and extraordinary ways. I've heard of the same. Just this week I talked to someone who faced a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing. The problem with doing the right thing is that it came with a heavy price tag. It was going to cost him and his family. But he did the right thing, and as soon as he got home there was a check for $5,000 from a stranger. He believed that this was God's provision for him, a reminder that God would care for him no matter how bad things look.

I hear stories like this, and I've experienced them too. But when I get into a jam, my heart's inclination is not to trust God. My heart's inclination is to doubt, to fret, to worry and to begin to accuse the One who has provided for me, who has given me far more than I deserve. I don't wait for my need to be met. I don't always even pray for my needs to be met. Instead, my inclination is to doubt God, even to put him on trial, to expect him to answer to me.

God said later in Deuteronomy 6:16, "Do not put the LORD your God to the test as you did at Massah." But we do this all the time. So we see there is a trial going on in this passage, and it's a trial we're involved in too.

So what's going to happen with this trial?

Let's look together at the sentence that was arrived as a result of this trial.

So just to review: Israel has put Moses, and by extension God, on trial. God is in the dock. What's going to happen? Read verses 5 and 6 with me:

The LORD answered Moses, "Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink." So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

What's happening here? On the simplest level, God is providing water for his thirsty people, showing again that he provides for his people. That's true. But there's much more going on here. What you have going on here is a trial.

God tells Moses to go in front of the people. Why? Because this is the court of judges and witnesses. Court is in session as these elders come together. A trial is underway.

God tells Moses to take the staff with him. What staff? The one he'd used to turn the Nile River into blood, judging the gods of Egypt. In other words, this is the rod of judgment.

Moses passes before the people, and you can imagine them thinking, "Oh my goodness, what have we done?" They've accused God, and God has now said, "Okay, let's take this to court and see how this goes." And now you have the court assembled and the rod of judgment prepared.

What would happen? What if the rod of judgment fell on Israel for their rebellion? You can only imagine. Later on the prophet Isaiah talked about the rod of God's judgment coming down on Assyria:

The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;
with his rod he will strike them down.
Every stroke the LORD lays on them
with his punishing club
will be to the music of timbrels and harps,
as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.
(Isaiah 30:31-32)

But who's on trial? Is it Moses, who's been accused by the people? Is it Israel? In one of the most incredible twists, God says in verse 6, "I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb." You need to understand that in the Old Testament, God does not stand in front of people. People stand before God. God is on trial here. God sits in the prisoner's dock. Moses has his rod of judgment, and it is God himself who stands to be judged.

And in one of the most incredible passages of Scripture, God tells Moses to raise his rod of judgment and strike the rock. Later on in the psalms that commemorate the event, God is described as a Rock (Psalms 78 and 95). God is standing by the rock as it's stricken. Do you see what is happening?

God was not guilty. God had done nothing wrong. He had provided for them over and over again. And yet Israel put God on trial. God stands in the place of the accused. And now, at God's command, the rod of judgment strikes God himself, not because he is guilty, but because the people are guilty. He gets the punishment that they deserve.

And as a result of that judgment, as the rock is smitten, water comes out. The needs of a rebellious people are met as God himself bears the punishment that they deserved. They drink the water they need and their lives are saved precisely because God took the judgment they should have received! The guilty verdict is read, but instead of the guilty being punished, God is. God receives the judgment he didn't deserve, and the guilty receive the grace that they didn't deserve.

Do you understand? The God we serve, the Rock of Israel, is a God of mercy who bears his own judgment for the sins of his people. It's amazing! Some people think the God of the Old Testament was a harsh God. Here we see that God is a gracious and compassionate God, one who - even in the Old Testament - stands in the place of the guilty, bearing the punishment on behalf of his people. The stricken rock shows us the gospel of grace, even in the time of Moses.

But the story doesn't end there. We've seen the trail and the sentence reached at the end of this trail.

What I'd like to look at before we close is the ultimate trail we're all a part of, and the ultimate sentence that was paid.

God himself took the punishment that Israel deserved. It's great news. But there is a greater problem, that should concern us all.

In the coming years, Israel fails God time and time again. The events that we just read about took place at the beginning of the wanderings in the wilderness. Sadly, a similar event took place almost forty years later in Numbers 20. The old generation had died out; a new generation is in place, and they're about to enter the Promised Land. We read in Numbers 20 that this new generation also quarreled with Moses. The wanderings of Israel in the desert are bookended with these failures. This time, tragically, Moses failed by striking the rock twice. He knew that God's presence was in the rock, and that speaking to it would be speaking with God. He hit the rock twice, and unthinkable outburst of anger against God. God still provided water for Israel, but he announced the verdict. Moses would not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, because he had disobeyed God in such a severe manner.

God was so gracious in Exodus 17 when he stood in the place of sinners. But the problem is that the story doesn't end in Exodus 17. It continues in Exodus 32 and in all the failures of Israel, and even the failure of Moses himself. Even the good guys fail! What hope is there for us? God took the punishment for them in Exodus 17, but what's going to happen with all of their other failures? What's going to happen when even the good guys commit the most horrible sins?

The New Testament answers this question, and it's amazing. In 1 Corinthians 10:4-5 we read: "They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ."

What does this mean? It means that Jesus Christ was with Israel in the desert wanderings. The rock that was smitten by Moses was Jesus Christ himself. The smitten rock points us to the ultimate Rock who was smitten for our sins: Jesus Christ. We have received the guilty verdict for our sin. God, the righteous judge, must take the rod of divine justice and administer the sentence. But it is Jesus who is smitten. Isaiah wrote:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:4-5)

When Moses struck the rock in the desert, life-giving water poured out. And when Jesus was smitten at the cross, blood and water poured out from his side. In the ultimate trial that we're all a part of, we have been found guilty. But when the rod of divine justice came down, it came down on Jesus. And as a result of that Rock, Jesus Christ, being smitten, we get the water that we need.

As we close, we need to see two things clearly. One is that we're part of a trail, and that we deserve the guilty verdict. We deserve the rod of justice. Even the best of us don't stand a chance.

But then we need to see that the rod of divine justice will fall on us, and it should. But there's another way. Jesus said, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them" (John 7:37-38). Jesus said, "Those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14).

Let's pray.

One day we will stand before God in judgment. The rod of divine justice will be there. On that day, there are many who will plead innocence. They'll talk about all the good things they've done. But not even Moses was good enough. On that great and dreadful day, we will have to acknowledge that we deserve that rod of judgement to come down on us, and it's a rod that can crush us.

But on that day we can have hope. We can look at the rod of justice, admit that it's what we deserve, but then plead that Jesus our Rock stood in our place and received the judgment that we deserved. I plead with you to put your trust in Christ this morning.

Father, thank you for your amazing grace. Thank you that Jesus endured and exhausted the divine judgement that we should have received. This is our only comfort in life and death. We look to that Rock today. Amen.

Winning the Blessing (Genesis 32:22-32)

As you probably know, Jesus had quite a few disagreements with the religious leaders of his day. These were people who knew the Scriptures very well. One day he turned to them and said, "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40). Did you hear that? The Scriptures testify about Jesus. Don't forget that Jesus was talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.

So, leading up to Easter, we are taking a tour through some of the Hebrew Scriptures to see how they testify of Jesus. Today we're coming to what may be a familiar story to many of you: Jacob wrestling with God. U2 even sings about it: "Jacob wrestled with the angel and the angel was overcome."

To really understand this story, we need to know a little bit about Jacob. Jacob's name means "Deceiver" How would you like a name like that? Jacob's entire life had been a struggle, even from before his birth. We read that he struggled with his twin brother within his mother's womb, so much so that his mother, Rebekah, asked God, "Why is this happening to me?" (Genesis 25:22). When he was born, he was the second born. Under the laws of primogeniture, the eldest son got almost everything, which means that Jacob got almost nothing as a result. He missed out on all the privileges of being the firstborn by minutes. And since then, his entire life had been a struggle.

Let me give you a few examples. He exploited his brother so that his brother sold his firstborn rights to him. He deceived his father so that his father blessed him, and not his brother, who as firstborn should have received the blessing. Jacob then had to run for his life, and by the time we get to today's passage he had been in exile for twenty years. He also left his father-in-law on less than good terms. All of his life, Jacob had been angling and wrestling and deceiving to get ahead.

As we come to today's passage, we're in a sense coming to the climax of Jacob's life. There comes a time when you can't run anymore, and you have to face up to your past. And as we begin chapter 32, we find Jacob returning to Canaan at God's command. In one sense, he's been blessed. He left as a lonely exile; he's returning as a wealthy herdsman with two wives, many children, and a vast caravan of camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. He's become a success.

But you can also feel the tension as he comes back home. For one thing, he's got to face his brother Esau. Last time he saw his brother twenty years ago, his brother was trying to kill him. Then he hears that his brother is coming with 400 men. That's obviously not a welcoming committee! His brother, it seems, is coming to make war.

Jacob is so concerned that he sends gifts to Esau to try to make peace, and he also divides his group into two camps, so that if they're attacked at least one has a chance to get away. And it's at this point, a point of great tension, that Jacob stands alone and encounters a man. For all Jacob knows, it could be one of Esau's party sent ahead to deal with Jacob. And on the most crucial day of his life, a day on which everything is on the line, Jacob spends the night wrestling with this man, trying to not only win but to get this man's blessing.

What can we learn from this passage? There's so much, but let me highlight four things. The first is this:

1. We are all looking for what Jacob was looking for

What was Jacob looking for? His entire life, he had been trying to prove himself, to get ahead, to make something of himself. His entire life had been one of trying to make something of himself. And even now, with a family and wealth and success, you still see him longing - longing for acceptance from his brother, longing for relationships to be restored, and longing for a blessing from this wrestler. And we're like Jacob. We all long for the same thing: to amount to something, to have our lives count, to receive validation that we matter. And it has to come from outside of ourselves; we can't give this to ourselves. We're all looking for what Jacob was looking for.

Let me give you some examples. Don Miller is a very popular author. His books sell very well. But when he was young, he found himself looking for an identity, as many of us did. He tried sports, but he wasn't very good. He tried guitar, but he was really more interested in becoming a rock star than playing the guitar. And then one day when he was 25 or so, he watched a debate. Something went wrong with the camera, so to kill time one of the debaters stood in front of the crowd and recited poetry from memory for about twenty minutes. All the girls were falling out of their chairs, he says, their hearts exploding in love for him. And when the debate finally started, Miller wasn't thinking about the debate. He was thinking of poetry, and whether he could learn some so that girls would fall off their chairs in love for him. He writes:

What I really began to ponder, I suppose, was whether or not coming off as a smart guy who knows poems could be my identity, could be the thing that made me stand out in life.

Now I didn't realize it at the time, but I would come back to this moment much later in life and realize something very important about myself--namely, that I felt something missing inside myself, some bit of something that made me feel special or important or valued.

Miller says that he was looking for meaning, for some kind of endorsement from a jury of his peers, something that would win him the blessing.

He's not alone. We're all looking for that validation.

Tom Brady, the record-setting quarterback, says, "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me? I think, 'It's got to be more than this.'" The actor Jim Carrey said, "I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer." Sidney Pollock, the movie maker, died a couple of years ago. Before he died, even when he was sick, he couldn't stop working, even when his family wanted him to. An article written about him said, "Movie mogul Sidney Pollock says that although the grueling film-making process is wearing him down, he can't justify his existence if he stops." Pollock said, "Every time I finish a picture, I feel I've earned my stay for another year or so." Do you see the quest? We're looking for something that will give us meaning, that will validate our existence and prove that we matter.

You even see this in movies. In Chariots of Fire, one of the characters - an Olympic runner - is going for the gold in the 100-yard dash. When someone asks him why he is working so hard, he says, "I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence." He's saying, "I want to know that my life counts, that my life is worth something, that I'm worthy. And the way that I'm doing that is by winning as a runner." It gives him validation. When Rocky is about to fight Apollo Creed, he says:

'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.

And this is true of us as well. Our lives are one long pursuit for the blessing. This passage shows us Jacob's quest, and it's the same as ours. We're all looking for what Jacob was looking for.

The second thing we notice is this:

2. This longing goes deeper than we think

Did you notice some of the examples that I just gave you? I just told you that we all long to prove ourselves by making something of our lives. But I just gave you three examples of people who have made it: a three-time SuperBowl champion, an accomplished director, an actor. And yet none of them found what they were looking for even after they accomplished something. They were still looking for more.

When you look at Jacob in this chapter, you see him preparing for battle. And his battle is not only for his life, but to preserve everything that he's built for himself: his family and his wealth. His mind is on the next morning when he's going to confront his brother and his army of 400 men. All the strands of Jacob's life are coming together in this one confrontation, and he has everything to lose.

But what we learn in this passage is that Jacob's battle wasn't really with Esau. He's standing alone, and a man comes to wrestle him. Jacob has no idea who this man is, but sometime during the night it begins to dawn on him: this is no man he's wrestling with. This is God himself. Jacob is in the fight of his life, except it's not with his brother like he thought. The one that he must encounter is not Esau, but God himself. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it, Jacob thinks the main problem is: "How can I be reconciled to Esau?" But the main problem really is, "How can I be reconciled to God?"

Edmund Clowney writes:

The Lord is showing Jacob that the one he must fear to encounter is not Esau, but God himself, present in his Angel. Jacob's struggle at last is not the wrestling match with Esau that began in the mother's womb. His struggle is with the Lord himself, the God of Abraham and Isaac. (Preaching Christ in All of Scripture)

And what a fight it is! Verse 24 says, "A man wrestled with him till daybreak." I remember doing some wrestling in high school. A typical wrestling match in school might last anywhere from 6 to 11 minutes if it goes into overtime. You certainly don't wrestle all night! It's exhausting. It's hard to imagine the intensity, the sheer length, of this fight.

One of the problems for us is that we have pictures of WWE wrestling in our minds. In Jacob's day, wrestling wasn't acting, and it certainly wasn't entertainment. Wrestling was one way in which a legal case could be settled. This was trial by combat. Jacob was on trial before God, and the blessing that he longed for could really only be given by God, the very one that he's wrestling with.

Again, Clowney says:

Jacob realized that this was more than mortal combat. At issue was the whole meaning of his life. The prize was the blessing that he sought; the One who struggled with him was the very Angel of the Lord - God Himself appearing as man.

You need to know that this is our situation too. The longing that we have shows up in our efforts to prove ourselves through accomplishments and relationships and work. But what we're longing for can only ultimately be met in God. Like Jacob, what we want most is something that God alone can give. But the problem is that many have not received the blessing we long for from God. In fact, Scripture tells us we're under a curse rather than a blessing. And so you see that we have a problem: what we long for the most is unavailable to us. And we meet God not in blessing but in wrestling. The thing that we long for the most is unavailable to us, and we are actually under a curse. And nothing else can fulfill the longing no matter how hard we try.

This is where the story gets interesting. We've seen through Jacob that we're all longing for the blessing. And we've also seen that the blessing we long for is something we ultimately need from God. It's not going to be met through our accomplishments, relationships, or resume. But now we see:

3. This blessing is won through weakness

Question: Who won the wrestling match? That's a trick question. In verse 25 it says, "When the man saw that he could not overpower him..." So it looks like a draw. This mysterious man could not overpower Jacob. But then in verse 26 he says, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." And Jacob replies, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And Jacob ends up getting the blessing that he longed for. Now remember that a blessing is always verbal. Somehow this man, God himself in human form, spoke words of blessing to Jacob, words that he had always longed to hear. Incredible. So, in a very real sense, Jacob won.

But look at verse 25 again. "When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man." All it took was a touch, and Jacob limped for the rest of his life. Do you see? This was no ordinary wrestling match. When you wrestle, you always wrestle with someone in your own weight class. If you wrestle someone who is 15 pounds heavier than you are, you don't stand a chance. Jacob was wrestling with all-powerful God. The only reason he wasn't crushed was because of God's grace.

So how did Jacob prevail? Two ways: one because of God's grace. But Jacob also prevailed in weakness. This is the moment at which Jacob's life turns. All of his life, Jacob had been fighting. He'd been self-sufficient, proud, and self-reliant. He'd been the independent manager of his own life, doing everything that he could to get the blessing that he longed for, by fair means or foul. And all night he had done the same thing: he'd wrestled with God and tried to get the blessing from God on his own strength.

But now God had crippled him. He had crippled Jacob's self-sufficiency. For the first time in his life, all Jacob could do was to hold on in helplessness, clinging to the One who could crush him. He had certainly not won a wrestler's victory. He didn't pin down his opponent; in a sense he hadn't won at all.

What he said was, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." "He won when he was helpless; he had a power with God when his power was gone" (Clowney). Jacob was under great danger because daylight was coming, and nobody sees the face of God and lives. Jacob won with God when he stopped trying to win God, when he admits his name - Jacob, which means "Deceiver". Then he hears, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel ['He strives with God'] because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome" (Genesis 32:28).

This is, by the way, how we still obtain God's blessing. We try to get God's blessing most of the time through our strength, by performing, by building our resume. But it's only when we get to the point at which we're brought to the point of utter weakness, in which we see our sinfulness and dependence on God, and we simply cling to him in repentance that we get the blessing.

And Jacob becomes a picture of what the Christian life is: blessed, but limping; weak and humble in ourselves, and yet dancing. The blessing that we long for from God is won through the weakness of repentance.

But lastly we see:

4. The blessing we long for was won through the weakness of the cross

In a sense, both Jacob and his opponent foreshadow Christ. The wrestler was God but didn't come against Jacob in all of his strength, or else he would have crushed him. Instead he came in humility and weakness. He withheld his power and his judgment, and in grace heard the cry of faith and gave him the blessing. Galatians 3 says that he redeemed us so that we may receive the blessing.

But Jacob also points to Christ. Jacob was given the name Israel; we learn later that Jesus is the true Israel. With Jacob, God feigned weakness so that he could give the blessing. In Jesus, God became weak so he could give us the blessing. Jacob wrestled all night; centuries later, Jesus wrestled all night in the agony of Gethsemane's garden. Jacob was smitten by God; Isaiah 53 tells us that Jesus was stricken by God, and afflicted. Jesus became the Victor because he went to the cross as the Victim. He would not let go until he had received the blessing. The weight of divine justice that would have crushed Jacob instead crushed Jesus. Jacob held on at the risk of his life to get the blessing for himself; Jesus held on at the cost of his life to obtain the blessing for us.

The blessing we long for, the blessing we desperately need, the blessing from God was won through weakness. So I pray that you would experience the blessing that comes from reaching the end of yourself, and simply clinging to God in your weakness. And I pray that you would experience the blessing that Jesus won for us through the weakness of the cross.

Father, as we come to the table, thank you that the blessing we long for is found in you. And thank you that it's not won through our strength, but it's won through the weakness of repentance. And thank you most of all that it was won through the weakness of the cross. Thank you in Jesus' name. Amen.

What It Cost (Genesis 22)

Today we come to one of the greatest pieces of ancient literature. It's beautifully written and intensely moving. As part of my preparations, I listened to a sermon on this passage. Before the sermon, the person who read the Scripture did so with tears. It's almost impossible to read this passage without getting caught in the emotional intensity of what's happening.

But it's also one of the most disturbing passages in all of Scripture. It's puzzling and its infuriating, and throughout the ages all kinds of people have wrestled with it. A friend of mine preached on this passage recently, and he said, "If we aren't a bit undone by the story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, I wonder how carefully we've read it." This is a story that really does undo us.

It's almost impossible to imagine how God could ask Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering. It's unfathomable. It's also mind-boggling to understand how Abraham could respond in obedience. Thinkers like Kierkegaard think that the killing of Isaac would have been ethically wrong but religiously right. He wrote, "When I have to think about Abraham, I am as though annihilated." That's the effect that this story has on us. It tears us apart.

Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel argues that God was wrong for asking, and that Abraham was wrong for agreeing. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that Abraham should have cried in outrage to this "supposedly divine voice" that commanded the "butchering and burning of his son." Leonard Sweet argues that Abraham failed the relationship test. He says that Abraham should have gone to the mountain as God commanded, but he should have pleaded and argued with God every step of the way.

This passage brings us to a crisis. How can God ask for such a thing? What exactly is this passage trying to teach us? How can what God asked for in this passage be considered moral? A number of people have said that we're not meant to read Scripture as much as Scripture is supposed to read us, and I don't know many passages that do a better job of reading us and really confronting us at the deepest possible level with all kinds of important questions.

And so today I want to look at two dimensions of the story. I want to ask first what this passage teaches us about ourselves, and secondly, what it teaches us about God. So the first question I want to ask is what this passage teaches us about ourselves.

Abraham's Test

On the human level, this passage presents us with a test or an evaluation. It's hard not to see that this an important part of what's happening in this passage. The writer even signals this to us in verse 1: "Some time later God tested Abraham." This means that the real question in this story is not what is going to happen to Isaac; the real question is what is going to happen with Abraham. The real question, on a human level, is how Abraham is going to respond to this test, and by extension, how we will respond to the same test as well.

Now Abraham had already passed a test. God had already asked Abraham to leave his country, people, and father's household (Genesis 12:1), and Abraham left without questioning. But now Abraham faced an even greater test. God had promised that Abraham would have a son, and that through this son Abraham would become the father of kings and nations. And at the age of 100, this son was born. He was more than a son. He was also the embodiment of all of God's promises to Abraham. He was everything.

This makes God's command unthinkable. In Genesis 22:2 God says to Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love--Isaac--and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you."

This is beyond comprehension. Isaac is the son that had been promised by God. He's also Abraham's only son, the son, God says, that Abraham loves. And God now asks Abraham, against all reason, to destroy with his own hands the promise that had been fulfilled. They go on a three day journey. I can't picture what it would have been like. Did Abraham tell Sarah before he left? What did he think every night of that journey as he lay down to sleep? "No more fiery crucible for faith can be imagined" (Edmund Clowney). The command of God and the promise of God came into conflict, and it was impossible to make sense of God's request.

It's important to pause here and highlight a few things that are easy to miss. Sometimes people think that this is a passage that reflects the primitive nature of people at this time. What's easy to miss is that this command would have been as unthinkable and shocking to Abraham and to the people of the Old Testament as it is to us. It's shocking to us, and you have to know that it would have been even more shocking to Abraham who faced this request.

You also need to understand something else. Kierkegaard saw this as a divine command to commit murder. It certainly looks like this to us. But it's called a burnt offering, and it's the firstborn. Edmund Clowney writes, "God was not commanding Abraham to commit a crime but to execute a judgment that was justly due."

Burnt offerings involved cutting up and burning the whole animal on the altar. This type of offering had two ideas: first, offering oneself completely to God with nothing held back; and secondly, that the sacrifice in some way atones for sin. So this sacrifice means that Abraham is holding nothing back from God, but is giving God everything; and that sin demands justice. Sin demands justice. If anything, this passage reminds us of the horror of sin.

Isaac is also the firstborn. The Bible teaches that the firstborn uniquely belongs to God. God said in Exodus 13:2, "Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal." God said, later, "You must give me the firstborn of your sons" (Exodus 22:29). So Isaac belonged to God, and God alone had the right to decide what to do with him. God has every right to condemn sinners to death. God alone has this right.

So we see that God was just in making this request; that God owns the firstborn and can do as he pleases. We also know how things turned out. But none of these can save us from confronting a horrible and terrifying question. Nothing can keep us from facing the same test that Abraham faced, a test that stretches us to the point of breaking. Are you prepared to love God completely and unconditionally? Do you have any emotional attachments that are off the table? Does God have access to what you love most? Is there anyone or anything that you love, that if God asked you for, you would say "No"?

The issue is really one of idolatry. If we love anyone or anything more than God, we're idolators. Our problem is that we make good things - our marriages, our children, our jobs - into ultimate things. They become idols in our lives. This leads to all kinds of problems: we end up trying to find our ultimate hope and fulfillment outside of God. We put a weight on these things that they cannot bear. As one of my friends says:

Nothing will destroy children quite like turning them into idols...If Abraham had not been willing to destroy Isaac, he would have destroyed Isaac. In losing his son, he found him. . . Had not Abraham placed Isaac on Yahweh's altar, he would have killed him on Abraham's altar. (Chris Brauns)

It's really important to see this. Abraham would not have saved Isaac's life by sparing him. Whatever we love more than God we turn into an idol, and whatever we turn into an idol destroys us, and we often destroy the idol as well. As Tim Keller writes:

If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling. The other person's problems will be overwhelming to you.

If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.

And so on. We can make idols of our work and career, money and possessions, pleasure, relationships, approval - even religion and morality. Jesus said that if we love anything - including our children, including life itself - more than we love him, we're not fit to be his disciples (Luke 14:26)

The test for us this morning is a test that will also push you to the point of breaking if you answer it honestly. Who or what do you love God most? What do you withhold from God? Whatever that is is your idol. "Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us" (Keller).

This is the test that we faced. Abraham faced the test, and he passed. Hebrews tells us that "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead" (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham knew that everything belonged to God, and that therefore he could hold nothing back. He must give all that God asks. And he trusted that God would somehow provide what he needed.

Do you think that if you love God more than what you love most, you'll lose it? C.S. Lewis said:

When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

When we love God first, our enjoyment of secondary things actually increases. But if we love secondary things more than God, we lose both God and the secondary thing. This is the test Abraham faced with Isaac, and it's the test that you and I face this morning as well.

But if we stopped here, we'd see only one dimension of the story, the horizontal dimension. We'd miss the vertical dimension. In fact, we'd miss not only the main message of this passage, but the main message of Christianity.

Provision at Mount Moriah

When Isaac said to Abraham, "The fire and wood are here but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (Genesis 22:7-8). And when Abraham was about to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, God provided a ram as a substitute. Verse 14 says, "So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.'"

It's here that we discover the real heart of the story. This isn't just a story about who Abraham loves most. This is a story that teaches us something about God. What can this possibly teach us about God?

If you look at verse 2, you discover that these events took place on the mountains of Moriah. Where are the mountains of Moriah? 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us, "Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah." The place where God provided a ram for a burnt offering was Jerusalem, where the temple would later be built.

So when verse 14 says, "To this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided," it is telling us about far more than Abraham. It is telling us that God provides the sacrifice necessary to atone for sin. Isaac's question, "Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" is the age-old question. Where is the sacrifice that can atone for our sins?

God did not summon Abraham to Mount Moriah only to test him. He was also showing Abraham what it cost God when he sent his own Son up that same mountain for our sakes. Jesus said in John 8 that Abraham "rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).

Edmund Clowney says:

Abraham was shown Christ's day; he was taken to the very area where the Temple would later stand, to the very mount where the cross of Calvary would be erected...The Heavenly Father led His Beloved up the hill to Golgotha. When the Son, who was always pleasing to the Father, cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" the Father paid the price in His silence. (The Unfolding Mystery)

The Apostle Paul ties the stories of Abraham and Isaac to the Father and Son at Calvary when he wrote, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).

Why do we have this story? Tim Keller said, "We have this story...so that we have some true human understanding of what the Father did with the Son."

The angel said to Abraham, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (Genesis 22:12). As we look at Calvary, we can say to the Father, "Now we know that you love us, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

How do we know God loves us? How can we be free from turning good things into ultimate things, from worshiping and being enslaved by secondary things? How can you know he loves you like that?

By seeing that Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain is a picture of the price that the Father paid at Calvary. When we see it and really get it, then we'll understand the Father's love for us, and we'll be changed through the power of the Spirit to pass the test along with Abraham.

Father, thank you for this amazing story. It's impossible not to be moved as we read it. For those of us who cling tightly to the people and things we love, use this story to show us our idols, so that we can loosen our grip and worship you alone.

But thank you that this is not just a story about our idols. Thank you that through Abraham and Isaac we see the price you paid to save us. You led your beloved Son up the same hill as Abraham, and you placed your Son on the wood. But while Isaac was spared, your son was not. There was nobody to take his place.

May this story give us a human understanding of the face that you did not spare your own Son, but gave him up for us all. And then may we say, "Now we know you love us!" And may this love change us through the power of the Spirit. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Suppose There is One (Genesis 18:16-33)

Today we're going to look at one of the big problems of this world. You may think that the biggest problem that we face is cancer or poverty or war. Those are big problems. One of my friends once told me that he thought there are three great problems in the world: war, cancer, and parking.

I'm not sure if you've ever thought of what we're going to talk about today as a problem, but believe me: it is. It's my job to show to you why it's a problem, and then to look at the passage today to see what can be done about it.

The Problem

So here's the problem. There are two character qualities of God that seem to be in conflict with each other. This is a huge problem, because both qualities are essential to God's nature.

The first characteristic is that God is a gracious God. I love this about God, don't you? This is the part of God that we are comfortable with.

The Bible tells us that God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt, the most totalitarian and powerful world power in the world at that time. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God delivered them. You'd think that Israel would be completely devoted to the Lord. Yet we read that while God was appearing to Moses, giving him a covenant that would bind him to this people, Israel was committing idolatry.

You would expect God to wipe them out or say that he's had enough. But amazingly, God instead asked Moses to bring him new tablets to replace the ones that Moses had broken in anger, so that we could write the covenant terms over again. It's a renewal of the covenant terms with a people who really didn't deserve it. And in one of the most moving scenes in all of Scripture, God appears to Moses:

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7)

Aren't you glad that God is gracious? Can you imagine if God treated us as we deserved after we had failed him? God is the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.

So that's the first characteristic of God: he's gracious. There's another characteristic of God that seems to be in conflict with his grace, however.

The second characteristic of God is that he is a just God. I told you how God responded to Israel when they made the golden calf: he revealed his grace. But his first response was different. When Israel committed idolatry by making a golden calf, God said to Moses, "I have seen these people and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them" (Exodus 32:9-10). You read this and say, "What happened to God's grace?" God would have been just to destroy Israel. But how can God be just and gracious at the same time?

Even when God reveals himself to Moses, and says that he is gracious and compassionate, he also says: "Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 34:7). God reveals himself to Moses and says essentially two things: that he is gracious and that he is just. He says that he is just and must deal with sin justly, and at the same time that he treats us with grace and compassion.

All throughout Scripture we see God's justice. We read of how God wipes out all people except for Noah and his family so he can start again. Near the end of his life, Moses says, "Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness...you aroused the LORD's wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you" (Deuteronomy 9:7-8). How do you feel talking about God's anger? An anger that is so aroused that God is angry enough to destroy his people?

The prophet Malachi spoke of the day of God's judgment: "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire..." (Malachi 3:2). God is a God who cannot just overlook sin. He must judge it. God is angry at sin, and he cannot leave the guilty unpunished.

Wrong Attempts at Solving the Problem

I know that this is a problem that many of us have never even considered, but it's a real problem. You may have actually tried to resolve this problem. People do this in two ways, generally.

Some people try to solve this problem by making a distinction between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God. They say that the Old Testament God was a God of justice, and the New Testament God is a God of love. It's almost like in the Old Testament, God was grumpy, as if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but he somehow is in a better mood now.

This is a popular view, but it's dead wrong for a few reasons. God doesn't change. Besides, in the Old Testament, God says that he is the "compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin." You see God's grace written on every page of the Hebrew Scriptures. And in the New Testament, you see God's justice. Jesus said, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them" (John 3:36). That was Jesus! The apostle Paul writes, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Romans 1:18).

God didn't somehow change into a different God in the New Testament. God is both just and gracious in both the Old and New Testament. There's no difference. So saying that God changed somehow just doesn't cut it.

I suppose the other way that people handle this is to think that God somehow sets aside his justice for a minute. A lot of people think this. They think that God says to himself, "Well, how should I react? Should I be just or gracious in this case?" And then he weighs all the factors, and sometimes he comes down on the side of justice, and sometimes he comes down on the side of grace.

I get why people think this, because that's how it appears to us. There are times that we discipline our kids that we seem to have to choose between grace and justice. Sometimes we let them off without giving them what they deserve, and other times they have to face the consequences of what they have done.

But when you think about this, this approach also fails. The reason is because God can never set aside his justice without being unjust. Justice is essential to who God is, so God cannot temporarily suspend his justice.

You see, wrath is not God blowing his top. God is not angry despite his love but because of it. Becky Pippert writes:

We tend to be taken aback by the thought that God could be angry. How can a deity who is perfect and loving ever be angry? Just look at us - we manage to be very understanding and accepting of our flaws. We take pride in our tolerance of the excesses of others. So what is God's problem?

But then Pippert helps us understand: "God's anger issues from the intensity and depth of his love for us, as well as the height of his moral perfection and his outrage against evil." It's like loving people who are drug addicts. You love them, and yet you see what the drugs are doing to them, and you feel anger, even fury. She writes, "I wasn't angry because I hated them. I was angry because I cared...Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys." If we feel this as we see sin destroying people around us, how much more does God who made them?

Not only this, but it is right to be outraged by evil. A few weeks ago, Chris Brown allegedly attacked a woman. Some press reports suggest it has his girlfriend, Rihanna. A photo was released showing the woman after the attack. Her eyes are closed, and there are visible contusions on her forehead, cheeks and mouth. People who have seen the pictures have reacted with outrage and anger, and this is right. There is no adequate way to respond to this sort of attack without expressing anger against the injustice.

Almost a year ago, security cameras caught the killing of an 18-year-old man in Toronto. Police said the victim was an innocent man with no ties to gangs. A pair was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. You can actually watch the murder on video that was released by police. But this week, the charges were withdrawn, and the alleged killers walked free. The news story I read ends with this: "Outside court this morning, friends of the victim's family expressed outrage and disgust over the withdrawal of the charges." You can't help feel anger that justice will probably never be served by the courts after the murder of an innocent man.

If we feel outrage at injustice, how much more is this true for a perfect and holy God? Again, Pippert writes that God can't just play fast and loose and say, "Oh, never mind. Boys will be boys."

Try telling that to a surviver of the Cambodian "killing fields" or to someone who lost an entire family in the Holocaust!

No. To be truly good one has to be outraged by evil and utterly and implacably hostile to injustice. No one can call themselves good and have an iota of indifference to evil of any sort. (Hope Has Its Reasons)

So we have a God who cannot be anything but just. It's not like God changes in the New Testament, and it's not like God can temporarily suspend his justice. It's right for him to be angry with sin, both because of what it does to us and because it calls for outrage.

This brings us back to our problem, then. In human terms, there is no conceivable way for God to be both just and gracious at the same time. Nor would we want either one to change. If God ceased to be just, then he would also have to stop hating the things that destroy us. Not only that, but then there would be no ultimate justice in this world. Knowing that God is just enables us to deal with injustice, because we know that ultimately there is no injustice, because everyone will have to answer to God. It is inconceivable that God should cease to be just.

But if God is not gracious, then we are all in a whole lot of trouble. If God is only just, then nobody stands a chance. We all deserve God's wrath. If God is not gracious, we're all in a trouble.

How can God be both just and gracious at the same time? It appears to be an unsolvable problem - except Abraham in today's passage finds a way through.

The Solution to the Problem

In the passage that we read this morning, Abraham understands this dilemma, this seemingly unsolvable problem. Abraham knows that God is a God of justice. When Abraham went to Egypt with his wife, he told people that Sarah, his wife, was really his sister. Pharaoh took Sarah into his household, not knowing that he was taking Abraham's wife. He didn't even know that what he was doing was wrong. We read, "the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai" (Genesis 12:17). That's how God responds in justice when someone does wrong out of ignorance. How is he going to react when it's willful? Abraham knew about God's justice.

Abraham also knew about God's grace. God told Abraham that it was his intention to bless the entire earth through Abraham. Not only that, but God had already reacted to Abraham's failures with grace. Abraham had already messed up severely at least twice, but God had responded with grace.

So when God tells Abraham that he is about to investigate the injustice in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham knows that justice is necessary. They're places of great wickedness, full of injustice and oppression. They're inhospitable places where you can't even visit without being concerned for your safety. What was so bad about them?The prophet Ezekiel wrote years later:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

So Abraham knows there is going to be trouble for these cities. Justice demands that God respond in judgment.

But Abraham also wants God's grace. At first glance, it just looks like Abraham is only looking out for his nephew Lot. But there's more to it than that. Abraham is about to boldly intercede on behalf of the cities before God. If Abraham wanted to get Lot and his family out, it would have been much easier. He would have just said, "Go ahead and destroy the cities, but could you at least save the life of my nephew and his family?" Instead, Abraham pleads on behalf of both cities.

What you see Abraham doing is pleading with God on the basis of theology. He bases his argument on God's justice:

Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Genesis 18:23-25)

You see what he's doing here? He's pleading with God for grace on the basis of God's justice. It's brilliant. Because God is just, Abraham says, can the record of the righteous few not be enough to save the entire city?

Abraham got that guilt can be shared by everyone. You and I know this. If someone in our family goes off the tracks, we all feel responsible. We all carry the weight and ask ourselves what we could have been differently. But Abraham switches it. He asks God if the righteousness of a few is not enough to save the many, and amazingly, God says yes. The wicked can be saved by the righteousness of the few. And Abraham bargains him down from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 and finally to 10. If there are 10 righteous people, then the many will be saved.

And in one of the most astonishing developments, it's left at 10, and Abraham goes home, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. Why? Why does Abraham stop where he does? We don't know for sure, but it seems that Abraham might have recognized that there weren't enough righteous people in the cities to save them.

But don't miss what Abraham did. Abraham solved the unsolvable problem. He found a way through. Abraham discovered a way that God could be both just and gracious at the same time: that based on God's justice in recognizing the righteousness of a few, he could extend grace to those who deserved only judgment.

What Abraham didn't say is this: Suppose there is one righteous man. Suppose there is one who is so righteous that his record is enough to save the many who are wicked? And in one of the most incredible acts of both justice and grace, there was one righteous person who came to earth. And God essentially said, for the sake of this one I will not destroy the wicked.

Justice demands that sin be dealt with. The wages of sin is death, and the wages must be paid. God would not be just if the penalty is not paid. But Jesus, God's own Son, willingly choose to come to earth to pay that penalty himself. For all who trust him, he takes all their sins, and he offers all of his righteousness. The righteousness of one is enough to save the wickedness of many. And on the basis of God's justice, he cannot demand payment for sin twice.

Abraham found a way to solve this unsolvable problem, but he couldn't get all the way there. But Jesus did. And at the cross, God's perfect justice and his amazing grace met, and both were fully satisfied. God's justice and grace meet in one righteous person.

So Father, we thank you for this amazing grace. We thank you that Jesus taught that all Scripture is about him. And in this passage we so clearly see our predicament: that we deserve your wrath but need your grace.

And we thank you that through Jesus this problem has been solved. Perfect justice has been done, and undeserving sinners receive your grace. May you bring us to the cross, and may we live as people who have been saved through the righteousness of one person. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Good Friday (Luke 23:44-49)

The Gospel of Luke records the death of Jesus Christ in just a few words, which we’ve just read. Yet it’s packed with the significance of what took place on that Friday. When we look at this passage, we’ll understand that the death of Jesus was cosmic, unjust, and voluntary. We’ll also see that it’s part of a bigger picture, a picture that includes you.

The death of Jesus was cosmic. What do I mean by that? There are some places today in which capital punishment is common. For instance, 25 countries used the death penalty in 2006. One country alone executed over a thousand people in that one year. Two thousand years ago, Romans ruled much of the world, and their preferred method of execution was crucifixion. It was used for hundreds of years, for slaves, rebels, pirates and notorious criminals. Thousands of criminals were killed on the cross, yet out of all of them, we only remember one today. Why should we remember the crucifixion of Jesus out of all of the thousands of crucifixions that took place?

When you look at this passage, you realize that something cosmic took place that day. It was noon, and yet we read in verses 44-45, “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.” This was no ordinary crucifixion. What took place here was so significant that the sun itself refused to shine for three hours. When the sun should have been at the height of its powers, darkness descended.

The Hebrew prophets had foretold that a day like this would happen. Here’s one example. The prophet Amos once gave a surreal prophesy about a day of judgment that would take place.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign LORD,

“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.”
(Amos 8:9)

This is just one of many of the Old Testament prophesies that spoke of a coming day, which they called the day of the Lord, a day in which God would come in power and in judgment. At the cross, this day came. Something cosmic, something spoken of for years, was now taking place at the cross.

Luke goes on to describe what else happened at that same time. Verse 45: “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” In the temple, a veil separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and only once a year, and only with blood, which “he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (Hebrews 9:8). But now that veil was ripped open from top to bottom. The writer to the Hebrews said, “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain...” (Hebrews 10:19-20). There are many motifs in what happened here. There’s a motif of judgment, a motif of God turning away from the temple to accomplish his purpose by other means, the motif of God leaving the temple to reach out to all, the motif of new access to God. It’s clear that something huge is happening here, something that causes the sun to stop shining, that causes upheaval in the most holy place of God.

More than 100 people die every minute of every hour. Every second, somebody somewhere dies. But Luke tells us that this wasn’t just another death. Something cosmic in scope took place in the death of Jesus, something that changes everything.

Secondly, Jesus’ death was unjust. The joke goes that if you want to find an innocent person, the place to go is prison, because almost everyone there claims to be innocent. The same must have been true of those who were crucified. Most of those who were killed probably went to the cross claiming innocence. But Luke shows us that Jesus was in fact innocent.

Presiding over the crucifixion was a Roman soldier. We meet the person who’s probably the man in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus in verse 47: a centurion, in charge of 100 soldiers. As a Roman noncommissioned officer, his testimony was viewed as significant. As this man - who is not a believer, not a religious Jew - watches the death of Jesus, he concludes, “Surely this was a righteous man.” It’s one thing to proclaim your own innocence. Luke tells us that Jesus’ innocence, his righteousness, was recognized even by the man in charge of killing him.

But there’s more. Verse 46 says, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” Every word that Jesus says on the cross is loaded with significance, and so is this one. Here, Jesus is quoting from Psalm 31, a psalm of David. It’s a psalm in which David is being treated unjustly. David prays that God will deliver him from his enemies. He is an innocent sufferer, but he expresses confidence that God will deliver and vindicate him. And so David prays in Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” It’s a profound statement of trust. David puts his very life into God’s hand as he’s being mistreated, trusting that God will vindicate him.

When Jesus quotes David’s words, he’s doing more than just randomly quoting a psalm that he had memorized. He’s claiming to be an innocent sufferer, the ultimate innocent sufferer. He’s entrusting himself to God in the face of imminent death, submitting to God’s will and trusting that God will deliver him.

Jesus dies unjustly. He’s completely innocent. Even the Roman officer in charge of killing him recognizes his innocence. The prophet Isaiah had prophesied the reason why the innocent one suffered:

Surely he took up our pain

and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:4-6)

The innocent died in place of the guilty on that cross.

So Jesus’ death was cosmic, and it was unjust. Thirdly, it was voluntary. It would have been amazing for Jesus to suffer everything that he did if he had been a victim who was powerless, at the mercy of evil forces that were greater than him. The amazing thing as we read this passage, though, is that Jesus was not a helpless victim. Jesus did not suffer the cross because he had no choice. Jesus willingly gave his life for us. His death was voluntary.

When victims were crucified, they were normally given wine as a sedative. Jesus refused this. He refused to be drugged. He suffered fully and experienced the full force of everything that he went through.

The crucifixion normally took hours. It was a slow and agonizing death. As the victims died, they would grow weak and they would be unable to speak. What’s surprising, then, is what we’re told in verse 46: “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” The speed of his death is surprising. It’s also extraordinary, unexpected, that Jesus would be able to call out with a loud voice from the cross. That just doesn’t happen. Why did Jesus die so quickly, and how was he able to speak so loudly when it should have been impossible? Because even on the cross, Jesus was in charge. He gave up his life because he chose to do so. This was part of a plan that Jesus had talked about all throughout the gospel. Even on the cross, he offers up his life. It’s not taken from him as much as it’s freely offered by him. Jesus once said, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18).

Spurgeon, a preacher from London in the late 1800s, said, “Jesus Christ looked down and he saw the people he was dying for - some cringing, some snarling, all of them clueless. And in the greatest act of strength and love in the history of the world, he stayed.”

The death of Jesus was cosmic; it was unjust; it was voluntary. Finally, it was part of a bigger picture. If you take this entire passage and put it together, you get a sense that this is no ordinary death. At times you have to wonder where God is when awful things happen. You read this passage and realize that God is very present even in this most horrible moment. He rips the veil open. You see someone who claims to be God, who claims to be innocent, willingly suffer a death that he had predicted. You remember that this one you see upon the cross had said just hours before, “It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors' ; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37). And you see that Jesus puts his life in God’s hand, trusting him for vindication.

And then you understand that this is no ordinary death. This death fulfills God’s purposes. It changes everything. It’s a part of God’s eternal purpose, his eternal plan of salvation.

John Stott says:

I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I turn to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness.

That is the God for me. He set aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.

As we look to the cross, we see the God who died for us.

Father, help us to grasp what happened that day on the cross. May we see that this was no ordinary death; it was a death that is cosmic in its scope, a death that changes everything. May we see the one who was innocent, but who voluntarily gave up his life for us. Help us to understand that this was part of your eternal plan. And may we see that it was God himself dying for us. This is the God for me.

And as we look at the cross, may it change our lives forever. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

They Don't Know What They're Doing (Luke 23:18-43)

It's the time of the year that churches all over the world are looking at the last days of Jesus before his death. We are now at the point in which Jesus has been condemned to die, and is being led to be crucified.

Our Bibles have four different accounts of this event. Each account is similar, but calls attention to different details. The Gospel writer Luke has a number of details that don't appear in any of the other accounts. One of them is the well-known prayer that Jesus offered when he was on the cross, found in Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

Normally we focus on the first part of this prayer: "Father, forgive them." That's an important thing to do, because forgiveness is at the heart of the cross. But we can't overlook the second part of this prayer: "for they do not know what they are doing." As Jesus walked to the cross, and as he looked around him, he recognized that the people around him really had no idea what was going on. They think that they understand, but they really don't. Jesus asks God to forgive them, recognizing that they don't understand the significance of what's happening as he goes to the cross.

A couple of thousand years later, things aren't that different. The apostle Paul called the message of the cross "foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Corinthians 1:18). I know someone who got talking about the gospel to the person sitting beside him on an airplane. "What does the execution of a Jewish man by Romans two thousand years ago have to do with me?" In a sense, he's right. What could this have to do with us? Missing the significance of the cross is just as easy today as it was two thousand years ago.

But Luke helps us out. Luke describes the stories of two groups of people who didn't get it, and then he offers the stories of four people who help us understand what happened at the cross. So let's look at how we miss the message of the cross, and then how we can understand the message of the cross. Everything you need to understand the cross in a way that will change your life is right before us in this passage.

Missing the Significance of the Cross

As we read this passage we saw two groups of people who didn't get it. The first is unique to Luke's gospel; the other group appears in the other gospels.

Luke describes the first group of people who didn't understand what was happening in verse 27: "A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him." Who are these people? Two groups. The first is just a crowd of people following along, likely curious to see what happens to Jesus. The second group consists of women who are mourning what's happening to Jesus. They're sad because of what's happening to Jesus. This is admirable. It continues what's true all throughout Luke: women are highlighted as important. Women are given a very high profile in Luke's gospel, and are presented in a very favorable light. Not once in Luke's gospel, or the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Mark) is a woman hostile to Jesus. So you get a very favorable impression of these women.

But Jesus speaks to them, and what he says is something that we need to hear if we are to understand the cross:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, "Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!" Then

"'they will say to the mountains, "Fall on us!"
and to the hills, "Cover us!" '

For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:28-31)

These women are mourning what's happening to Jesus. They're focused on his suffering. Surprisingly he says, "Don't feel sorry for me. Feel sorry for yourselves." Why would Jesus say this?

The reason why is the terrifying prophecy that Jesus gave in verses 29 and 30. The time is coming, Jesus says, when the normal order of things will be turned upside down. Normally, women who have children are considered blessed. The time is coming, Jesus says, in which the normal categories of who's blessed and who's cursed will be reversed. The pain will be so great that it will be better to not have a family. Death will seem like a better option than the misery they'll go through. That's how bad things will get.

What's Jesus talking about? In 70 A.D., the Roman army besieged and conquered the city of Jerusalem. Josephus claims that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege. 97,000 were captured and enslaved. The Temple and all of Jerusalem were completely destroyed. You can understand that for the people who lived and died in that siege, it would be better not to have a family.

But Jesus looked beyond even that siege to something far more serious. Jesus quotes a passage about God's judgment from Hosea 10:8. The same passage is quoted in Revelation 6:16-17: "They called to the mountains and the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?'"

Who do the people want to be hidden from? The one who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb. Who is that? Jesus. Jesus points us to the uncomfortable truth that the fate of those who reject Jesus is to be pitied even more than the fate of Jesus as he goes to the cross.

I don't think there's a person here who likes the idea of hell or judgment. It's important to note thought that hell is giving people the freedom to choose life apart from him. Jesus says, you can choose hell, but over my dead body. He does everything to give us a way out of hell if we'll take it.

C.S. Lewis says:

In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: "What are you asking God to do?" To wipe out their past sins, and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

"There are only two kinds of people," he says, "those who say, 'Thy will be done' to God or those to whom God in the end says, 'Thy will be done.' All who are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn't be Hell." Those who reject God and what he has done in Jesus will one day face something so bad that death will look like a better option.

There's another group that doesn't get it in this passage. We read in verses 35-39:

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is God's Messiah, the Chosen One."

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself."

There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"

Their logic went like this: If Jesus had power, he would use that power for his own benefit. He would get himself out of this mess. And because Jesus isn't out of this mess, therefore Jesus doesn't have any power, and he's a fraud. But their premise is all wrong. These people had never seen a person who had power not use it for their own benefit. But Jesus had a power that he used to save others, not himself. Jesus said, "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" (Mark 10:45).

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference. Conferences can all start to look the same after a while. This one was going down that road until the very last session. The speaker got up and asked, "Are we teaching and living a spirituality so small that people can integrate it into their lives, rather than it being their lives? Jesus did not come to improve our lives, but to be our life." He went on to say that Jesus is more than a set of self-improvement technologies, that we should never present a Jesus who is so small that he can be tucked into our comfortable lives. We cannot reduce Jesus to self-improvement techniques. Jesus did not come to make bad people good, or good people better. He came to make dead people live.

In the end, this mob had a selfish view of Jesus on the cross. They wanted Jesus to serve their agenda, and if he didn't, they weren't very interested in him. Jesus never responds to our request that he change his agenda to meet our demands. We miss the point of the cross if we come to Jesus with selfish demands as conditions of following him.

Do you know what this passage teaches us? There are two ways to miss the significance of the cross. One is to think it isn't about me; the other is to think it's all about me. It's to think that the cross has nothing to do with me, or to think that the cross is all about Jesus meeting my demands and my agenda. These are the two ways that we miss the significance of the cross: not realizing that Jesus went to the cross for me, and on the other hand, coming to the cross with demands and ultimatums rather than gratitude.

How to Understand the Message of the Cross

What's the alternative? Luke helps us to understand the cross through the eyes of four individuals: a Roman centurion, two criminals, and a Greek.

First, the centurion. As Jesus dies, we meet a centurion, a commander of 100 Roman soldiers. The centurion says in verse 47 after he sees Jesus die, "Surely this was a righteous man." He recognized Jesus' innocence. When we look at the cross we must see Jesus as the innocent. He did not die for any sins or wrongdoings on his part. The apostle Peter, who knew Jesus very well and who lived with him for three years, wrote, "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). The Apostle Paul wrote, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). This centurion helps us understand the sinlessness of Jesus.

But then we have two thieves who help us understand the cross. The first is Barabbas, a man guilty of not only insurrection but murder. We read in verses 18-25 that Barabbas, the one that everyone knows is guilty, is set free, while Jesus, the innocent, is condemned to die. Every sinner, every person, is invited to see themselves in Barabbas who is set free as Jesus, the innocent, dies in our place. This is what one book calls The Great Exchange: My Sins for His Righteousness. He takes our place. He gets our sins, and we get his righteousness. As the hymn says, "Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should'st die for me?"

So Jesus is our sinless substitute. Another thief helps us see that even at the cross, in what is in many ways the most awful moment this earth has ever witnessed - the murder of God - Jesus is also the triumphant king. The thief says to Jesus in verse 42, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." You're looking at Jesus and saying, "What kingdom?" Jesus may have looked like a king the week before as he entered Jerusalem with cheering crowds, but he hardly looks like a king now. What kingdom? But what this thief somehow recognizes is that even in the moment that looks like Jesus' greatest defeat, in the hour of his death, he is accomplishing his greatest victory. Colossians 2:15 says, "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." And even before Jesus has been enthroned as king, he's already extending clemency to those who ask for it.

Then finally we have Simon of Cyrene in verse 28. When criminals were led to the cross, they were made to carry the crossbeam of the cross, which was 30 or 40 pounds, to humiliate them. Jesus was so badly beaten that he couldn't do it. The Romans commandeered Simon, someone who was just passing by, to carry the cross for Jesus. What's fascinating is that his name is given because Simon seems to have become well-known within the church. Why mention the name? So you could talk to him, or to his sons. In Mark's gospel we learn that Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus. Rufus may turn up later in the church of Rome. It seems that these names meant something to the early church, and that perhaps they became followers of Christ.

Through Simon we're reminded that Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Those who follow Jesus take the same path that he did: the path of giving up our lives in service for others, the path of dying to ourselves, and in the process finding real life.

There are lots of people who misunderstand the cross. Some see it as irrelevant, as having nothing to do with them. Others are selfish, and think that it's all about Jesus serving them. But Luke invites us to see the cross as the innocent taking our place, winning victory over sin and evil, and calling us to follow him. When we understand the cross as Luke describes, and as the penitent thief did, confess our guilt and ask for his clemency, then we'll really live.

What Thou, my Lord, has suffered
Was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior;
'Tis I deserve Thy place.
Look on me with Thy favor,
Assist me with Thy grace.

Before Jesus (Luke 22:63-23:43)

All over the world, churches are preparing for Easter by looking at the events that took place in the days before Jesus' death almost two thousand years ago. Today we're coming to a section that describes what happened after Jesus' arrest and in his trials before he was condemned to die.

It's popular for people to say that they like Jesus, but they're not really sure that they believe that he's the Son of God. A lot of people respect Jesus, and they think that he was a prophet or a great moral teacher, but they're not sure if they can accept that he was God or the Savior of the world. Today we're going to see that there are four ways to think about Jesus, and all of us fit into one of these four ways, but only one way makes sense.

What are the four ways of responding to Jesus?

1. Outright hostility

Some people respond to Jesus with outright hostility. Ironically, this response makes more sense than other responses, as we're going to see in a minute. Some see Jesus as a fraud and a danger and have no time for him or for any of his followers. We see this exact same reaction to Jesus in this text.

We read in verses 63-65:

The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, "Prophesy! Who hit you?" And they said many other insulting things to him.

It wouldn't have been uncommon to have some fun with prisoners who had been arrested. Here you've got a bunch of bored guards passing the time by playing blind man's bluff, only with a twist: they mock Jesus for claiming to be a prophet. Ironically, the fact that they do this confirm that Jesus is in fact a prophet, because he had predicted that this would happen. Jesus said in Luke 18:32 of himself, "He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him." Jesus had just predicted as well that Peter would deny him three times, and it happened just as he said. But here you have the hostility against Jesus' claims to be a prophet. Luke doesn't give us all the details, but your imagination can fill in the details of what it would have been like. "And they said many other insulting things to him."

Then in verses 66 to 71 you have the elders, chief priests, and scribes. This was the religious leadership of Israel, the religious leadership of that day. Because they're under Roman rule, they have no authority to put Jesus to death. This was a pretrial investigation. They wanted to lay the groundwork for pressing a charge that they could take to Pilate. It was only if Pilate agreed that Jesus could be destroyed.

So you have them trying to decide on a charge. They begin by asking Jesus if he is the Messiah. You need to understand what Messiah meant back then. We think of it as a divine title now. At the time, Messiah didn't mean Son of God who saves people from sins. It meant anointed agent, descended from David's royal line, who would cast out the Romans and restore Israel. If Jesus admitted that he was the Messiah, then they had a case. The Romans wouldn't hesitate to kill someone they suspected of rebellion. They couldn't care less if Jesus made a religious claim, but if Jesus was a political threat to the Romans, he was a dead man.

But Jesus didn't answer. He gave a non-answer. "If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer" (Luke 22:67-68). Jesus knew it was useless to answer them, because they weren't asking an honest question. They would reject anything that he said that didn't mesh with their agenda to kill him. It wasn't an honest question, you see. It was a hostile question designed to incriminate.

They did get Jesus though. Jesus gave a non-answer, but then he added, "But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God" (Luke 22:69). People who say they like Jesus' teaching but don't think he was God haven't really understood how offensive Jesus' teaching is if he was right. What Jesus said here was completely offensive, and either he's right or else he's one of the most deluded leaders to ever have existed. Jesus was essentially saying, "Well, you say that I'm the political deliverer, and I won't get into that because you don't want the answer. But I will tell you who I am: the Son of Man that the prophets talked about." Daniel had talked about the Son of Man:

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 nations and peoples 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. (Daniel 7:13-14)

Jesus said, "That's me." Essentially he was saying, "You think I'm on trial before you. Actually, one day you're going to be on trial before me. From now on I'm seated at the right hand of God, and I will come in the clouds to judge the world." Then, in verse 70, he confessed to being the Son of God. They're asking, "Do you claim to be a uniquely exalted person who is able to sit next to God as his virtual equal?" Jesus says, "You say that I am." He didn't deny it. And this was enough for them to proceed with his conviction.

What do you say to those who are hostile to Jesus? Two things. First, your position makes some sense. In fact, if you take Jesus seriously, you're forced to either worship him as who he says he is, or dismiss him as a crackpot and condemn him. Those who are hostile to Jesus actually make some sense. How do you respond to someone who claims to be God if you think he's not? We have to treat people with respect who are hostile to Jesus, because if he isn't who he says he is, they have every reason to be hostile.

The lead singer of U2, Bono, was asked, "Christ has his rank among the world's great thinkers. But Son of God, isn't that far-fetched?" Bono said:

No, it's not far-fetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: He was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says, No. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying, "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying, "I'm God incarnate." And people say, No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet we can take....Because, you know, we're going to have to crucify you. And he goes, No...

So what you're left with is either Christ was who He said He was - the Messiah - or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson.

It's an all-or-nothing choice when it comes to Jesus.

There's only one thing to ask of those who are hostile to Jesus, and that is to consider his claims. The problem with the Sanhedrin is that they came with an agenda. They weren't asking honest questions. We need to learn to doubt our doubts and to look at the evidence honestly, rather than coming to the evidence with our minds already made up.

That's the first response to Jesus we see in this passage. Quickly, three more:

2. Mild curiosity

The Sanhedrin had condemned Jesus, but they had no legal authority to kill him. So they passed Jesus on to Pilate, who passed him on to Herod, Romans who had the authority to put him to death. Herod was thrilled to finally meet Jesus. "When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort" (Luke 23:8). You don't get the sense that Herod had any spiritual longings. He had heard that Jesus could perform miracles, and he wanted to see some tricks. He doesn't want to consider the claims of Jesus or be changed by Jesus. He wants to be entertained by Jesus. He's mildly curious, but only at the most superficial levels.

On the surface this looks much better. There's no blatant hostility toward Jesus. People actually are interested in Jesus, but for all the wrong reasons. But you'll notice that Jesus doesn't even answer. As entertainment, Jesus is profoundly disappointing. If you're looking for a Savior, God in the flesh, Jesus is all of that. But he does not entertain, and Herod ends up rejecting him and joining the ranks of those who are hostile to him. "Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate" (Luke 23:11).

We live at a time when we're blessed to have the best entertainment available to us. Sometimes it's easy to begin to expect some entertainment from Jesus as well. C. Michael Patton decided to go out and visit two churches. One was an evangelical high Anglican church. The other was a large, more accessible, even alluring church with valet parking, a children's program with video games, professional music, excellent production. When he reflected on it afterwards, he realized that underneath all of the glitz was a nagging question: "When things get tough (and they will), who will people turn to? Where will people go when the entrainment, laughter, and fun serve no purpose?" As someone else said about churches that entertain, "I had to wonder how one shifts from their emphasis on entertainment to Bonhoeffer's famous line in The Cost of Discipleship: 'When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.' Can that call come after the entertainment?"

All of us, I'm sure, want church to be interesting rather than boring. But when we start to see Jesus as another entertainment option in our lives, we discover that Jesus refuses to go along. He always ends up disappointing those who are mildly curious, who are looking for Jesus to do something to impress them.

Two more responses:

3. Going with the flow

Out of all the options in responding to Jesus, this one is probably the easiest. Not many people are overtly hostile to Jesus. If you want to be entertained, there are much better options than expecting Jesus to entertain you. But going with the flow is easy. If Jesus fits into life and doesn't cause any major problems, fine. If it becomes inconvenient or unpopular to follow Jesus, then he's gone.

When the Sanhedrin brought Jesus before Pilate, the Roman ruler in charge of maintaining law and order in that region, Pilate examined him and found him to be innocent of all charges. It's pretty hard to argue that Jesus was a threat when he was alone, all of his followers having deserted him. Pilate pronounced him innocent, tried to shift responsibility to Herod, before having to deal with him again. Three times he declared Jesus innocent. Verse 16 says, "I will punish him and then release him." In other words, let Jesus off with a slap on the wrist, the least amount of punishment possible. Pilate was doing everything possible to treat Jesus with fairness, but the crowd wouldn't take it.

Eventually Pilate caved in. "But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand" (Luke 22:23-24). Pilate lacked the nerve to do what was right. Politics and public relations won out over justice. Pilate did what was expedient rather than what was right.

There may be some here who are hostile to Jesus, but I doubt there are that many. I'm sure we all have a bit of the desire to be entertained within us, but usually that doesn't last long because Jesus refuses to cooperate. But maybe more of us are tempted to respond to Jesus as Pilate did. Our beliefs about him change depending on the pressures we face to modify those views. It takes courage to follow Jesus against the flow.

Blaise Pascal, who lived in the 1600s, was one of the leading scientists and mathematicians of his age. He invented the calculating machine, the syringe, and the first wrist watch. He was a brilliant mind. Yet for two hours on the night of November 23, 1654, he had a dramatic experience with God. He carried the record of these two hours for the rest of his life around his neck. This is part of what it said:

The year of grace, 1654
Monday, 23rd November,
From about half past ten in the evening until half past twelve
FIRE
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the
Philosophers and savants
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and Thy God
May I not fall from Him for ever
This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only
True God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent
Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
I have fallen away: I have fled from Him, denied Him, crucified Him
May I not fall from Him for ever.

We may never have that kind of experience of fire with God, but the more our relationship with Christ is based on a real encounter with God, a real understanding of who Jesus is, a true change of our hearts before him, the more we'll be able to pray, "May I not fall from Him for ever." Have you had that encounter with God?

One more response:

4. Radical Change

The most surprising response to Jesus in this whole account is the one that takes place in verses 39-43. Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One of them sneered at Jesus, but the other one said to the other criminal, "Don't you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." And then he said to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And then Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."

You know, the irony is that the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate all thought they were judging Jesus, when in fact they were standing before Jesus as ones being judged. But the only one who understood in this passage that he was judged and guilty, who admitted his guilt and appealed for Jesus' help and asked for mercy was saved. He didn't say, "Remember my works." He didn't try to make a case for why he should be forgiven. He simply said, "Remember me." He asked for mercy.

We all stand before Jesus as ones being judged, even as we think that we're the ones judging him. Some of us will reject him. Some of us will want him to please us. Some of us will follow as long as it's convenient. But some of us will echo the dying prayer of famous astronomer Copernicus, who died in 1543:

I do not ask for the grace that you gave St. Paul; nor can I dare to ask for the grace that you granted to St. Peter; but, the mercy which you did show to the dying robber, that mercy, show to me.

Alone in the Hour of Darkness (Luke 22:39-62)

A couple of years ago when my Dad was still alive, I spent a week with him in England. He wasn't doing well - he was suffering with dementia - and while I was there I came down with a case of shingles. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life. Looking back, I wonder why it was so hard. I've had worse things happen and it's been fine. In fact, it wasn't even as hard when my Dad passed away. The reason is because that week I was going through difficulty, and I was going through it alone. It's bad to go through trials; it's almost intolerable to go through trials completely alone.

As we come to the last night of Jesus' life, just hours away from when he would be tortured and killed, that's exactly how we find Jesus. He's going through excruciating anguish, and yet he's completely alone. And yet we're going to see that there's a reason why he's alone. As we look at Luke 22, I'd like two ways that he was abandoned. First, he was abandoned by his friends. But he also faced an abandonment far worse than that.

First, Jesus was abandoned by his friends.

At the beginning of chapter 22 we read:

Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present. (Luke 22:3-6)

And then we read what happened when Judas carried out this plan:

While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?" (Luke 22:47-48)

Someone has pointed out that there are two popular views of Judas: traditional and modern. The traditional view says that Judas is one of the most diabolical people who ever lived, more sinister and evil than almost anyone in history. In Dante's Inferno, Dante pictured the lowest level of hell, under a sheet of ice, in which the worst sinners were being eaten alive by Satan, and one of them was Judas. Dante portrays Judas as one of the three worst sinners who ever lived. Traditional views see Judas as the ultimate betrayer.

In the past hundred years, some have taken a more sympathetic, modern view of Judas. The most well-known recent example of this is National Geographic's translation of the so-called Gospel of Judas. This translation portrays Jesus and Judas as enlightened beings, with Jesus asking Judas to turn him in to the Romans to help Jesus finish his appointed task from God. Judas comes across as the only disciple who gets it. The movie The Last Temptation of Christ shows Judas as obeying Jesus' covert request to help him fulfill his destiny to die on the cross, making Judas the catalyst for Jesus' saving work on the cross.

You couldn't come up with two more opposite views. Is Judas one of the most evil people who ever lived, or is he actually a hero? The answer, according to this passage, is neither. The answer is that Judas is just like us, or maybe more accurately, we are just like Judas.

Let me explain. When Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, everybody knew that things were coming to a head. Finally Jesus was going to take action and, well, do something. But all week, Jesus didn't do anything out of the ordinary. He taught and prayed and taught some more. Now it was Thursday night, and Jesus still hadn't done anything. If anything, Jesus did nothing while the opposition around him intensified. Every disciple knew that if Jesus went down, they were going down with him.

If you know the disciples, you know that they weren't prone toward humility. We're going to see in a minute how they normally reacted. They weren't exactly open to humility and self-correction. Yet when Jesus says that one of them is going to betray him, we read in verse 23, "They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this." Why this time were they uncharacteristically open to examining themselves? Because the thought had occurred to all of them. Every one of the disciples had wondered whether it was time to bail, and the longer that Jesus did nothing the more it had occurred to them. Every disciple was capable of doing exactly what Judas did, and so are we. We are not so different from Judas.

Does that offend you? It offends me, yet it's true. It's much easier to think of Judas as being a horrible monster, one of the three worst sinners to ever have lived, who is right now in the lowest levels of hell, rather than someone just like us. We all have a little of Judas in us. If we had been there, the thought would have occurred to us as well. I'd much rather see Judas as a monster, rather than see myself as a potential Judas myself. Judas was willing to follow Jesus when it benefited him, but when following Jesus cost him, Judas was willing to sell Jesus out. But the same thought had occurred to every one of the disciples as well.

Becky Pippert puts it this way:

The biggest surprise of all has been about myself. I have had to face up to what I am sure has been clear to everyone else all along: I am deeply flawed. Mind you, I always knew theoretically that to be human was to be flawed - as in, "Hey, nobody's perfect." But as the years have gone by, I have had to face up to more dramatic, specific, and undeniable evidence that I was my own worst case...

We want to believe that the essential "us" is who we are in our best moments, when everything is going our way, when nothing is thwarting or threatening us. We want to believe that we are what we project to the world: nice, respectable, competent people who have it all together. Fortunately or unfortunately, life doesn't let us get away with our charade. Sooner or later, whether through a difficult relationship with a berating boss, a demanding spouse, a difficult child, or simply through overwhelming or infuriating circumstances, we are confronted with our darker side. (Hope Has Its Reasons)

But Judas wasn't the only one. There was also Peter.

"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."

But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death."

Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me." (Luke 22:31-34)

What's fascinating here is that Jesus already knew that Peter was going to fail, and yet he still prayed for him. Jesus prayed that after he had fallen, he would repent, be restored, and that after he had turned back he would be able to strengthen his brothers. This is incredible. Jesus knew that Peter was going to fall, and yet Jesus already saw a bigger purpose behind the fall. He saw that what Peter went through would make him more humble, more dependent on God's grace, and more able to strengthen others and help them understand that our status isn't based on our abilities or our devotion, but on God's grace alone.

One Saturday morning, a crisply dressed man attended an AA meeting in New York City. He complained about his problems: the injustice and betrayals of others. He promised to get revenge on all who had wronged him. He blamed everyone but himself. He was trapped in this cycle of trying to justify himself. While he was speaking, a black man in his forties leaned over and said to his neighbor, "I used to feel that way too, before I achieved low self-esteem."

What's the point of this? It's not that we should go around hating ourselves. It's that we should realize that we're all like Judas and Peter. We have all abandoned Jesus.

There's a new book out called unChristian. It reports what a new generation thinks of Christians, and one of the findings is that people think Christians are judgmental. The perception is that Christians are prideful and quick to find fault in others. The reality is that if we understand who we are, that we are all like Peter and Judas, when we all achieve low self-esteem, there will be absolutely no room for pride and no room to look down on others, because we can't take any credit. Rick McKinley says, "I'm perplexed at how anyone can hear the story of Jesus dying in our place and rescuing us out of our helplessness and have it produce arrogance in their life." We should be the most humble people around when we really understand we're just like Judas, and just like Peter.

As bad as it was to be abandoned by his friends, Jesus faced a far more serious abandonment that night.

Second, Jesus was abandoned by God.

When Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives, we see a Jesus who has never appeared before in any of the gospels. Up until now he's been fearless. All of a sudden we see Jesus deeply distressed and in anguish.

There have been many people who have faced death with more courage than what we see in Jesus in this passage. The Maccabean martyrs were famous for their spiritual courage, even when facing death. They spoke confidently of their trust in God even as their limbs where cut off. When Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the minds of youth, he was sentenced to death by drinking a mixture of poison hemlock. He had the option to flee, but he wanted to face death the same way that he lived life. Believing that the time had come for him to die, he faced his death with courage. Christian martyrs have also done the same. When Polycarp, an early Christian martyr, faced death, they were going to nail him to the stake, but he said, "Leave me as I am; for He that has granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pile unmoved, even without the security which you seek from the nails." And as he was burned, he prayed a prayer of thanks to God for being allowed to die a martyr.

But Jesus in the garden has none of that courage. We read in verse 43 that he's in anguish. He's in agony. Luke, who is a doctor, describes what seems to be a medical condition called hematidrosis, a very rare condition in which a human being sweats blood, sometimes when a person is suffering extreme levels of stress. Jesus is in agony, and asks his Father if there isn't a way out of death.

Why is this? Why is Jesus more overwhelmed with his death than others have been - even more than his own followers?

The reason is that Jesus was facing something that nobody else in history has ever faced. From eternity he had enjoyed perfect communion with the Father, a relationship of absolute intimacy and love. But at the cross Jesus was for the first time cut off from his Father. At the cross Jesus would take on our sin and bear the wrath of God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he experienced a bit of that and it put him into shock.

New Testament scholar Bill Lane writes, "Jesus came to be with the Father for an interlude before his betrayal, but found hell rather than heaven opened before him, and he staggered."

Centuries ago Jonathan Edwards said:

The thing that Christ's mind was so full of at that time was...the dread which his feeble human nature had of that dreadful cup, which was vastly more terrible than Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. He had then a near view of that furnace of wrath, into which he was to be cast; he was brought to the mouth of the furnace that he might look into it, and stand and view its raging flames, and see the glowings of its heat, that he might know where he was going and what he was about to suffer. This was the thing that filled his soul with sorrow and darkness, this terrible sight as it were overwhelmed him...None of God's children ever had such a cup set before them, as this first being of every creature had.

In the Garden, Jesus had a foretaste of what it would be like to be abandoned by God, the relationship that was infinitely more intimate and valuable than any relationship we could lose. If Jesus hadn't have been abandoned by God like this, we would have to be. It was either him or us.

In the dark, when nobody else was looking, when he had experienced not only the cup of our abandonment of him, and had begun also to experience the cup of God's abandonment of him, he went ahead anyway.

But here's the most important thing you need to hear this morning. Jesus was also abandoned so that your life could be saved. He was abandoned so that you wouldn't have to be.

When we see all of this, we will be the most humble people, because we know we didn't deserve what he has done for us. We will be the most loving and respectful of other people, because we understand what it is to be loved by him. We will be the most forgiving, because we understand how much we've been forgiven. We will be able to endure suffering, because we know how much Jesus suffered for us. And we will know what it is to be truly loved, loved so much that Jesus would go through all of that when we were at our worst. When we see what Jesus suffered for us, we'll really be able to sing:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Our True Condition (Luke 22:1-34)

We're currently in a series to help us prepare for Easter. We're looking at the events of Jesus' life in the week before he went to the cross. Today we're in the last hours before his arrest on the night before he his death. Today's passage gives us some insight into who we really are, and what Jesus has done about it.

Have you ever struggled with seeing yourself as you really are? We've all probably seen pictures that shock us because we had no idea that we looked like that. I have good news for you. You don't have to face reality. Through technology it's possible to live in denial. Selected models of Hewlett-Packard cameras now come with a slimming feature. HP's website says:

With the slimming feature, anyone can appear more slender - instantly! They say cameras add ten pounds, but HP digital cameras can help reverse that effect. The slimming feature, available on select HP digital camera models, is a subtle effect that can instantly trim off pounds from the subjects in your photos!

Here's my favorite part: the slimming effect "can be adjusted for a more dramatic effect."

We laugh about that, but all of us like to see ourselves better than we really are. It's painful for us to look at ourselves and see things that are not flattering. It's much easier to have a mental image of ourselves that is more flattering than reality. But it's very important for us to see ourselves for who we really are.

In his famous Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote:

It was not without reason that the ancient proverb so strongly recommended to man the knowledge of himself. For if it is deemed disgraceful to be ignorant of things pertaining to the business of life, much more disgraceful is self-ignorance, in consequence of which we miserably deceive ourselves in matters of the highest moment, and so walk blindfold.

There are two things that we need to know about ourselves, Calvin says. First, how excellent our nature would have been had we not fallen into sin. Secondly, how miserable our condition truly is since Adam's fall. When we see this, Calvin writes, "we blush for shame, and feel truly humble."

There are few passages that help us take a realistic look at ourselves better than this one. Today's passage gives us a very realistic view of ourselves. It's hard to accept at first, but it's very important. But this passage doesn't leave us in despair, because it also gives us a picture of hope about what Christ has done about our condition. So let's look first at what we think our condition is, then what it really is, and lastly what Jesus has done about it.

First, what we think our condition is.

The passage before us recounts events that took place at one of the most critical times of Jesus' life. It was Passover, and the religious leaders were determined to find a way to kill Jesus. Things were so precarious that Jesus had to use subterfuge to find a place to celebrate Passover without being arrested. There's a bit of cloak and dagger in this story because Jesus knows that he'll be arrested the first chance that his enemies get.

Jesus knows what is happening. As he eats the Passover meal with his disciples, he says in verse 15: "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." There's a bit of emotion in this statement. This has been something that Jesus has anticipated. He knows he is about to suffer, and he wants this last meal with his disciples to prepare them for what is about to happen.

So what is the condition of the disciples at this critical time? We read in verse 24, "A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest." If you've watched American Idol, you've probably seen people audition who are truly awful. You almost feel sorry for them as you watch them make fools of themselves before millions of people. Then the judges tell them how truly awful they are. You know that they're really bad when even Paula Abdul has nothing good to say. But what is amazing is when they argue. They say, 'You don't know what you're talking about. I'm really a good singer. All my friends tell me that I'm a good singer. They're always begging me to sing." It's hard to believe that people can be so self-deceived. Nobody has ever told them the truth about their abilities.

The disciples in today's passage are like that. They are arguing about which one of them is the greatest when in fact their true condition is a mess. You really should only get into a debate about who is the greatest if you in fact believe that you are great. But that's exactly what all the disciples think they are. They evidently believe in their greatness, when as we'll see in a minute they are huge messes. They shouldn't be arguing at all about who is greatest; they ought to be, as Calvin said, blushing for shame and feeling truly humble. They are completely self-deceived about their true condition.

Gordon MacDonald is a pastor and author who once failed to see his real condition. Through a very painful experience, he confronted some things about himself that he didn't know were true. He says that most of us have very optimistic view of ourselves, which causes great problems. He writes: "Almost every personal defeat begins with a failure to know ourselves, to have a clear view of our capabilities (negative and positive), our propensities, our weak sides." In other words, we tend to think we are better than we really are, which causes all kinds of problems.

John Calvin says it's incredibly important to have an accurate view of ourselves. This passage shows us that we have a tendency to have a mistaken view of ourselves. The Bible says, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" We have a tendency to not understand our true condition and think we're better than we really are. So what is our true condition?

Second, what our condition really is.

This passage shows us our true condition with no slimming feature. It shows us as we really are.

We've already seen that the disciples were unrealistic about what they were really like. They were the spiritual equivalents of the untalented people who bomb the audition of American Idol - they thought they were a lot better off than we really were. They were self-absorbed, concerned about who was the greatest, when really they should have been humble and aware of their weaknesses. The truth is that we are not too dissimilar from the disciples. We tend to be blind to our real condition ourselves.

There's more in this passage. In verses 3 to 6, Judas conspires with the chief priests and officers against Jesus. Judas is one of the disciples. It's stunning that one of his own disciples betrayed him. We read in verse 3, "Then Satan entered Judas." You and I read this and honestly we don't think we have anything in common with Judas.

I know what you're thinking. There's no way that any of us are like Judas. Actually, there's a lot more of Judas in all of us than we'd like to admit. In any case, if we're not like Judas, we may be like Peter. Jesus warned Peter of his real condition in verse 31. Now Judas was not the main disciple, but Peter was. But the same Satan who entered Judas also had designs on Peter. Jesus said:

Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32)

And when Peter responded with confidence in his spiritual condition, Jesus broke the news about his real condition. In verse 34 he said, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me." We may not be like Judas, but if we aren't maybe we're like Peter. Within hours, the bravest disciple abandoned Jesus at the word of a servant girl. Gordon MacDonald calls this the myth of "It can't happen to me," and he says, "When we utter this myth silently or aloud, we become guilty of a subtle lie." Oswald Chambers said, "Always beware of...a religion, or of a personal estimate of things that does not reconcile itself to the fact of sin." The minute we think that we're not in danger, that it couldn't happen to us, we are in more danger than we could imagine.

Then look at the disciples in verses 35-38. Jesus essentially tells the disciples that conditions had changed. Before, they could rely on the generosity of supporters. They didn't have to worry about their needs because they could rely on others to provide for them. Jesus paints a word picture for them in verse 36: "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." He's painting a picture, but the disciples take him much too literally. They say, "See, Lord, here are two swords," and Jesus says, "That's enough." Many of the commentators state that Jesus wasn't saying two swords is enough. Instead he was throwing up his hands at the inability of the disciples to understand what he was saying.

That's not even to mention what happens when they leave the upper room. Jesus urged them to stay alert and pray. Just before his arrest he was in spiritual and emotional agony. Then we read in verse 45, "When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow."

If you read this chapter you do not get an encouraging picture of the disciples. You encounter betrayal, dissension, failure, dullness. Jesus longed to spend this time with them, and they just didn't get it. They did and said all the wrong things at this critical moment.

This is the truth about ourselves as well. There's a prayer we have in the bulletins this morning that starts with this confession: "Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed." When we really see ourselves accurately, we realize the extent of our sinfulness and the desperateness of our situation. But we don't stop here and give up all hope, because if we did we would miss the heart of this passage:

Third, what Jesus has done about it.

The Passover meal was a time for Israel to remember that they had been set free from being slaves in Egypt. In this passage, Jesus presents himself as the ultimate Passover Lamb. He foreshadows the ultimate freedom - not just freedom from slavery in Egypt, but freedom from sin, real freedom. The original Passover patterns the ultimate redemption which is still to come, and which is represented in what Jesus is about to do.

In the middle of broken people, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and said, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). In the Passover meal, people ate lamb along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. In offering his body to be eaten at Passover, he announced that he is the ultimate Passover Lamb. The Apostle Paul wrote, "For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Then we read, "In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you'" (Luke 22:20). Years earlier the prophet Jeremiah had predicted a new covenant, a new agreement with God. Jeremiah wrote of this covenant:

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time," declares the LORD.
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

No longer will they teach their neighbors,
or say to one another, 'Know the LORD,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,"
declares the LORD.
"For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more."
(Jeremiah 31:33-34)

Now, Jesus says, it's happening. Exodus 24:8 says, "Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, 'This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.'" The covenant of law was ratified with blood. Now Jesus raises the Passover cup and ratifies the new covenant, this time with his own blood. Jesus offers complete freedom through his death so that we could be free, really free.

Never forget that it was when the disciples were cocky, self-absorbed, and deluded that Jesus did this. It wasn't when we were at our best. The Apostle Paul wrote, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

That's why the prayer I mentioned earlier about our sinfulness goes on: "Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but, through you, I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope. I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment and offering forgiveness."

You even get a glimpse of hope as you read Luke 22. As the disciples are fighting, Jesus says:

You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:28-30)

Even when we're at our worst, Jesus sees a future for us because of the work that he accomplished on the cross.

You are in far worse shape than you could have imagined. But you have much more hope than you could have ever dreamed.

Becky Pippert says:

Here is where we part company decisively with our modern culture. It tells us to ignore our self-doubts and to feel only positive thoughts about ourselves. But I am saying the opposite. Pay attention to those lurking doubts. Listen closely to that nagging discontent. Yes, it is important to have a healthy self-esteem. But the irony is that the best road to health lies in the direction of realism about the sickness. Those who want the last in their lives to be the best must face the worst first. It is only in giving up on ourselves that we can go beyond ourselves and find ourselves. (Hope Has Its Reasons)

It is only in giving up in ourselves and turning to the cross that we can find the salvation that we need most.

Father, this morning we're giving up on ourselves. We really are. The fact that we're coming to the cross this morning is our admission that we couldn't save ourselves. We are like the disciples. We are self-absorbed and over-confident and we completely miss the point.

But we believe that what we're about to celebrate is a reminder of what Jesus has done for us. When we were at our worst, Christ died for us so that we could be changed, so that we could be free.

I pray that you would remind us that we are weaker and more sinful than we ever before believed, but, through Christ, more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope. In Jesus' name, Amen.