Overflow (Luke 6:27-38)

It's my privilege to be with you today. On behalf of the Executive of the Toronto Association of the Fellowship, congratulations on celebrating 60 years of ministry. We rejoice with you that God has been faithful these past 60 years, and we pray that God will continue to bless this church in the years to come. We pray that the best years of Wilmar Heights Baptist Church are still to come.

Have you ever had this happen to you? I went to Starbucks recently and ordered a Venti decaf coffee. When it came to me, I looked in the cup and saw that they had left room for cream. Not just a little room; they'd left a good inch or so at the top. I may as well have ordered a smaller size, because that's all I got. I drink my coffee black, so that inch of space at the top is wasted space.

Sometimes when this happens I have the gumption to ask them to fill it all the way up to the top. This time I didn't, so I went over to the milk and filled the rest of the cup up with milk. I don't even drink my coffee with milk in it, but I figured that I'd better get my money's worth anyway.

This morning I want to ask you, individually and as a church: How full do you want God to fill your cup? Do you want God to fill up your cup leaving lots of empty space, or do you want God to fill up your cup right to the top? The reason I'm asking this is because the theme of this coming year for your church is overflow. It's the prayer of your leaders that God would pour out his blessings on this church to such an extent that there isn't enough room to hold all the blessings. In particular, your leaders are praying that God would bless the evangelistic ministry of this church so that people who are currently far from God become followers of Jesus Christ. That's a prayer that's worth praying, and on this anniversary we're asking God to bless the evangelistic impact of this church.

As I prepared for this morning, I kept coming back to a passage of Scripture that speaks of overflow. It's found in Luke 6:37-38:

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.

Did you catch that? The image is of someone going to the market to buy some grain. You give the merchant some money, and then you hold out your container to be filled with that grain that you've just purchased. Some merchants are going to be stingy. They will fill your container almost to the top and hope that you will accept this and walk away. But that's not what happens in this case. In this case, Jesus speaks of a merchant who gives you a good measure. But he doesn't stop there. He presses the grain down in order to fit more in there. But then he goes even further. He shakes the container to try to settle the grain so he can fit even more in. Have you ever seen the label on a cereal box, "Contents may settle"? It's so that you don't complain that you got a half-empty box. In this case the merchant shakes that container so that everything settles so he can put even more in.

But he doesn't stop there. We then read that the grain is running over. The merchant is so interested in giving you grain that it actually begins to spill over. As you're holding the container, it begins to run into your lap. In those days you may go home holding your cloak as a container so that it can hold the rest of the grain. How do you like that image? How do you like this as a picture of God's generosity and blessing on your life and as the life of the church?

Today I want to ask what it will take for Wilmar Heights to experience that kind of blessing. This passage tells us. This passage gives us three characteristics of people whom God blesses extravagantly. I'm going to give you these three characteristics and then summarize them in one over-arching characteristic, and then ask you to respond.

How can we overflow with God's blessing? Three ways:

One: Rather than hating your enemies, love them.

Look at verses 27 and 28 with me:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also...

Does anyone here have any enemies? I bet that somebody’s face just entered your mind. Can you think of anyone you’d hate to meet in the supermarket? Is there anyone who’s hurt you so badly that you think about them almost every day, even though they hurt you a long time ago?

I don’t think of myself as someone who normally has enemies, but a couple of things happened this month that made me realize that I do. Last Saturday I attended a graduation. It was a great occasion, and I enjoyed it. After the service I was walking through the foyer when I locked eyes with someone who hurt me a couple of years back. I don’t think I harbor any grudges, but as I looked at his eyes it all came back. I kept on walking because the last thing I wanted to do was to engage in a conversation with him. I didn’t think I had any enemies, but then I realized that I did.

I recently got an email alerting me to the fact that my name had shown up on a website somewhere. I followed the link and began reading what someone had written about me. It was horrible. The worst part was that whoever wrote it hadn’t signed their name. I knew from what was written that it was one out of about a dozen or so people, but I had no way of knowing who it was. The next time I was with that group of people, I remember looking at them. Is it you? Could it be you? I began to imagine ways that I could find out who was responsible and give them what they had coming. I don’t think that I have enemies, but these two recent events reminded me that I am sometimes tempted to hold grudges and resentment against people who have wronged and hurt me.

What do we do when someone hurts us? Jesus says here: love your enemies. Later on, in verse 37, he says, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Do you believe that?

In 1993, a young man was shot to death during an argument. The young man was an only child. The killer was only 16, but was tried as an adult and sentenced to just over 25 years. The killer was eventually released and moved back into his old neighborhood - right next door to his victim’s mother. Listen to what the news story says:

How a convicted murder ended-up living a door jamb away from his victim’s mother is a story, not of horrible misfortune, as you might expect – but of remarkable mercy.

A few years ago Mary asked if she could meet Oshea at Minnesota’s Stillwater state prison. As a devout Christian, she felt compelled to see if there was some way, if somehow, she could forgive her son’s killer.

“I believe the first thing she said to me was, ‘Look, you don’t know me. I don’t know you. Let’s just start with right now,’” Oshea says. “And I was befuddled myself.”

Oshea says they met regularly after that. When he got out, she introduced him to her landlord - who with Mary's blessing, invited Oshea to move into the building. Today they don't just live close - they are close.

Mary was able to forgive. She credits God, of course - but also concedes a more selfish motive.

"Unforgiveness is like cancer," Mary says. "It will eat you from the inside out. It's not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done. Yes, he murdered my son - but the forgiveness is for me. It's for me."

N.T. Wright puts it this way:

Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person, and then go ahead and do it ... Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead.

Do you want to overflow with God’s blessing? Then forgive extravagantly. I could spend an entire sermon or more on this one point, but there’s even more.

Rather than holding on to possessions, give them away.

Jesus says in verses 30 to 34:

Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.

And then he says in verse 38: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

Do you believe this? Are you beginning to see how impossible this is? Maybe this is the reason why we’re not overflowing right now. Most of us aren’t living like this! I was recently having dinner with someone. I even paid for the dinner. I’m trying to eat healthy, so I didn’t order fries, but they did. I thought I would help myself to some of their fries, and it didn’t go well. I began to think, “What a nerve! I’m the one who bought this dinner in the first place!”

One of the greatest tests we face is how generous we are with our stuff. We can fake a lot of things, but it’s hard to fake this one. Here Jesus commands us to live with radical generosity: giving extravagantly and generously without any thought of how it will benefit us. The Bible calls for radical generosity on our parts: to our families, to other believers, to the ministry of the church, to those who aren’t Christians, and even to our enemies.

Let me give you a test that I’ve been using recently. I heard a sermon recently that talked about tipping. I hated it. The guy said that if you are a Christian, you should be tipping with radical generosity. Here’s what he said:

For example, radical generosity – people who tip waiters way beyond what they deserve – requires a gospel explanation. Go to the same restaurant regularly, and even if they’re having a terrible day and their service reflects that, blow them away. Give them an amazing tip. Do that a few times. Eventually they’re going to realize that something’s different about you – because nobody tips according to bad service, they only tip if they got something good for it. But the gospel tells us: we got something good that we don’t deserve for our bad service. That’s gospel-tipping… it gives me an opportunity to talk about the gospel. (Jeff Vanderstelt)

What about if they give you bad service? How should you tip then? Well, how did God treat us when we were undeserving?

Since I heard this message, I’ve been working on my generosity. Last Sunday I took the family out for lunch. When it was time for the bill I pulled out my iPhone and figured out 15% of the pretax amount. That’s what I used to give. I was tempted to write that number down, but instead I gave more, and it hurt. It’s revealing that I have a stingy heart. It reveals the hold that money still has on my heart. I’m working on it.

Do you want to overflow with God’s blessing? Then instead of hating your enemies, love them. Instead of holding on to your possessions, give them away.

There’s one more way that Jesus says that we can overflow with blessing:

Rather than always looking at what is wrong with others, see what is wrong with yourself.

Look at verse 37: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

This is one of those verses that is frequently misapplied. This verse does not mean that we should never notice the faults of others. How do we know this? In just a few verses, Jesus is going to tell us to observe the fruit of people’s lives, because we can discover their true natures when we observe their behavior. Jesus is not telling us to be undiscerning or to not evaluate others.

Here’s what Jesus is condemning: he’s condemning a harsh, judgmental attitude that is always finding fault with others. Jesus is telling us not to usurp God’s place in judging and condemning other people. Don’t always be critical and find fault. Show mercy to others even when they don’t deserve it.

This was illustrated for me last week with the horrible news story of a former pastor being charged with the murder of his wife. How do you respond to that? I have no idea whether he is guilty or not. The courts will eventually decide that. But I can tell you the reaction of two of the most godly people I know. One wrote this:

Another, a pastor friend, expressed interest in going to visit him in prison. Understand; neither one is being naive. Neither one pretends to know the facts of the case. But both are slow to rush to judgment. Both recognize that we should be slow to rush to judgment, and that we should show undeserved grace to even those who are guilty. After all, Jesus points out, we are in need of grace and forgiveness ourselves. Show the mercy you want to receive from God. Nobody here could withstand God’s scrutiny if he didn’t show us grace.

How can we live with God’s blessing? By loving our enemies rather than hating them; by giving away our possessions instead of holding on to them; see what’s wrong with yourself rather than looking at what’s wrong with other people.

If we live this way, Jesus says, “it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Do you want radical love? Then love others radically. Do you want radical generosity? Then love others radically. Do you want radical grace? Then extend radical grace to others. If we live that way, Jesus says, we will overflow with his blessing.

I hope you can see this morning that nobody here is capable of living this way. This is like saying you’ve got to run a marathon in half an hour, or setting the high-jump bar at twenty feet and telling you to give it your best. The only thing that gives me hope is verses 35 and 36:

...your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Do you realize what this passage is describing for us? Jesus is describing the characteristics of God himself. Loving? God extends his love to enemies. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Generous? “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Gracious? “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

There’s been only one person who has ever kept these commands to extravagantly love, give, and extend grace: it’s Jesus. And I’m convinced that the only way to see these qualities develop within us is to keep coming back to what God has done for us. How can we overflow with God’s blessing? By living in light of God’s extravagant grace. Let me say that again: How can we overflow with God’s blessing? By living in light of God’s extravagant grace. The more we see what Jesus has done for us, the more we’ll be prepared to love others. And the more we see Jesus, and the more we extend grace, the more God will pour out his grace upon us until we’re overflowing.

God is not a stingy God. God doesn’t pour the cup until it’s 3/4 full and then stop. God has lavished his love, his gifts, and his grace upon us. And Wilmar Heights, God wants that love, that giving, that grace to be reflected in the way that you live and serve. I pray that this would be a church that overflows with God’s blessing, because this is a church that lives in the light of God’s extravagant grace.

Tested (Luke 22:39-46)

Today I'd like to talk to you about something that's a little difficult. I'd like to talk to you about testing.

I want to begin in Ikea. Right away I know that some of you men think you know where I'm going with this. You think that I'm saying that going to Ikea is a test. Yes, it is a test. If you can go to Ikea with your wife and shop for an hour or so and not get in a fight, then I congratulate you. You have a very healthy marriage. You should actually consider leading a seminar on how to maintain a healthy marriage. I take my hat off to you.

But that's not quite what I want to talk about. In Ikea they have a chair. The chair is like a lot of Ikea stuff: layers of wood glued and pressed together. They want to show you how strong this chair is, so they have a testing machine that pushes a 220 pound weight on the seat, and a 70 pound weight on the back, 50,000 times.

Or take the CN Tower. Years ago my wife and I went to the restaurant up there for our anniversary. Afterwards we went to the observation deck. If you've been there, you know that they have a glass floor 1,100 feet off the ground. It was a bitterly cold night, and I swear that the floor creaked when I stepped on it. Granted, I had just finished eating dinner, but it wasn't the sound that I wanted to hear. I did some research and discovered that it's five times stronger than the required weight-bearing standard for commercial floors. If 14 large hippos could fit in the elevator and get up to the observation deck, the glass floor could withstand their weight. And yet it creaked when I stood on it. Go figure.

Every day of our lives we encounter roads and seats and bridges and floors that have been tested to bear a certain load. And we should be grateful that this is the case. I'd hate to find out the hard way that a bridge wasn't engineered to hold the weight of the car that I'm driving.

But this morning I want to talk to you about the spiritual weight load. How much are you engineered to carry? This is an important question, because you're going to be tested. I know, because we've been in a period of testing recently ourselves. Some of you have been too.

For some of you, the test is going to be like the Ikea chair. It's not going to be a heavy weight, but it's going to be a repetitive one. Push, push, push, 50,000 times. It's not the heaviness of the testing, it's the persistence of the test that is going to leave you feeling like it's been enough.

For others of you, it's going to be like the 14 large hippos jumping on a piece of glass. It's going to be the weight of the testing. I've been reading a book called Wednesdays were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, And God. It's about a two-year-old boy who came down with cancer. That's a heavy test. For some it's not the repetition; it's the weight of a trial like this that can overwhelm you.

So I'd like to look at a story in Scripture about testing today. It's found in Luke 22. Let me set the scene for you. It's the night before Jesus is taken to the cross. Jesus knows that he is about to be betrayed and arrested. This is an intense period of testing for both Jesus and the disciples. We know this, because Jesus begins and ends this passage by saying to his disciples, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation" (Luke 22:40, 46). The word there is a word that's used for testing, for discovering the nature of someone or something. Jesus and the disciples are going through a severe period of testing together, and he emphasizes the need to pray during this period of severe trial.

This is a watershed moment. This is when we find out what Jesus and the disciples are made of. The consequences are huge at this moment. A lot is at stake. If Jesus doesn't pass this test, everything falls apart. What we're seeing in the garden is huge.

So here's the question. What do we learn about Jesus and about us when we enter a time of testing? Two things.

First: We learn that we can't pass the test.

In this passage we first learn something important about ourselves. This is very important information. This is make or break stuff here. It's critical to learn this, because if you don't you will live your entire life under an illusion. It's an illusion that has the power to crush and destroy you. So let's look at what we learn about ourselves in this passage.

Look at verses 39 and 40 with me:

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

Do you ever ask someone to do one relatively simple thing, realizing that it may be difficult to do more than that, but one should be manageable? Parents, do you ever ask your kids to clear the table when you go out? Then you come home and the table's full of dirty plates and food that you have to throw out. Or at work you delegate one thing to someone else while you cover the rest, and you come back and it's not done at all.

In this passage Jesus gives the disciples one thing to do, and it's not even that hard. They're under tremendous stress. Jesus has told them that he's going to be betrayed by one of them. He's turned to Peter and told him that he, Peter, is going to deny him. They know that tensions are swirling. And Jesus tells them that he wants them to do just one thing: to pray. It's not even that hard. He gives them an easy prayer too: Pray that they won't enter into temptation. Pray that they won't be tested. Jesus is essentially telling them, "Look, do just one thing. We're entering into the crucible of testing. Would you please pray that you will be spared from more testing. I have to go through this, but pray that you'll be spared." It's amazingly easy. It's like asking to be exempted from an exam at school. Jesus tells them to do one thing, and that's to pray that they get out of the time of testing.

But look what happens. Read verses 45 and 46:

And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

Notice two things here. One, they flunk. Jesus gives them one thing to do, and they fail. This is the watershed moment, the climatic point in the Gospel of Luke so far, and they're asleep. Not their finest moment. Translation: they have revealed what they are able to handle under testing, and it's not very much.

But notice something else. Notice that they get off relatively unscathed. For one thing, Luke kind of gives them an excuse. He says they were "sleeping from sorrow." Luke seems almost sympathetic in reporting what happened. Even Jesus goes pretty easy on them. He gives them a mild rebuke, but he's much more restrained than I would be.

You see, Jesus and the disciples were entering the crucible of testing. They were about to discover what they're made of. And what we learn about the disciples is important, because what's true of the disciples is true of us as well. Here's what he learn: We don't stand up very well under testing. We generally fail the test. You push us 50,000 times, and we'll probably snap at some point. You put us under the weight of a huge test, and we probably won't do very well. Here's what we learn in this passage: We are incapable of passing the test on our own.

This is so important because, frankly, a lot of us are trying. And we're continually disappointed that we don't. I'm reading a book by Steve Brown these days. He tells the story about a man named Clarence who had a frog named Felix. Clarence worked at WalMart, but he had dreams of getting rich, so he decided he would teach Felix the frog to fly. Who wouldn't pay to see a flying frog?

The frog wasn't that excited. "I can't fly, you twit. I'm a frog, not a canary!"

Clarence wasn't impressed. "That negative attitude of yours could be a real problem. We're going to remain poor, and it will be your fault."

So they got to work. Clarence explained that their building had fifteen floors, and that each day Felix would jump out of a window, starting with the first floor and eventually getting to the top floor. After each jump, they would analyze what worked well and tweak the process in preparation for the next floor.

Felix tried his best, but things didn't go to well. THUD! He tried different strategies, and even tried a cape, but the result was the same. THUD! On the seventh day, the frog said, "You know you're killing me, don't you?" And that day Felix the frog took one final leap and went to the great lily pad in the sky.

Steve Brown, who tells this story, was once a pastor. After relating to the story, listen to what he said:

A number of years ago, I realized that I was, as it were, trying to teach frogs to fly. Frogs can't fly. Not only that, but they get angry when you try to teach them. The gullible ones will try, but they eventually get hurt so bad, even they quit trying. And let me tell you a secret: the really sad thing about being a "frog flying teacher" is that I can't fly either.

Do you hear that? Steve Brown is telling us the same thing that this passage is telling us. We cannot pass the test. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much effort we make, when tested, we are found wanting. Church is not a good person telling good people how to be good, as Mark Twain put it. Church this morning is a broken person person telling broken people that they're broken. We flunk the test! We get a glimpse of ourselves in this passage, and it's important for us to see this, because it will save us a lifetime of trying to fly out windows when we were never made to fly.

This passage reveals what happens to us when we're tested. We cannot pass the test.

But that's not the whole story. We've seen what's true of us: We can't pass the test. But then:

Second, see that Jesus was severely tested, and that that he passed the test.

Read verses 41-44 with me:

And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

Do you realize the severity of the test that Jesus was going through? First, he was abandoned. His closest friends were standing apart from him asleep, and he was alone, completely alone, to face the greatest trial of his life.

Not only was he abandoned, but he realized what he was about to face. He prays about the cup of suffering that he was about to taste. The cup in Scripture is used to refer to God's wrath.

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, he experienced the abandonment of his friends, he also began also to experience the cup of God's abandonment of him, the full weight of the wrath of God that weighed upon him.

Notice how he struggled under that load. In fact, an angel was sent to strengthen him, but it only led to greater intensity and struggle in his prayer. This is the peak of Jesus' struggle. After this you never get any sense of internal struggle in Jesus as he's arrested and tried and as he goes to the cross. But here he struggles. He's tested, and the struggle is intense, far more intense than what the disciples went through.

And notice: Jesus passes the test. It's like the disciples go through a minor test and they fail. And Jesus goes through the most intense test that anyone in history has endured. It's so intense that even Jesus receives strengthening. But he passes the test. He asks if there is another way, but he submits to his Father's will and moves forward in obedience.

Here's what Luke is telling us: Where we fail, Jesus succeeds. Where we fail the test, Jesus passed. Despite the fact that Jesus is tested far more severely than the disciples, he passes the test, and the disciples don't.

But wait. There's one more thing we need to look at. Why does Jesus tell them to pray, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation"? This was bothering me as I thought about it this week. Jesus didn't tell them to pray that they would be able to stand up to the time of testing. He asked them to pray that they would escape the time of testing.

As I was wrestling through this, it finally came to me: Jesus knew that they couldn't pass the test. Jesus knew that they had no hope of standing up to the crucible of testing that he was going through. Jesus knew that he would be arrested, tried, and killed. This was his God-given vocation; this was what he was sent to do. He also knew that he would go alone into the hour and the power of darkness. He would go, but he would not take them down with him.

Then it hit me: Jesus knew that he was not only passing the test, but he was passing the test for them. You know that this passage is telling us? Jesus passed the test that we failed, but he did it so that we could pass even though we failed. On the cross, Jesus bore the weight of our failure. On the cross, Jesus passed the test on our behalf. His obedience was credited to our account, so that we passed through Jesus even though we failed.

Do you know what that means? It means that we don't need to become flying frogs to please God. It means we acknowledge that we cannot withstand the test on our own strength. But it also means that we can have complete confidence in the one who has already passed the test for us. "The Bible's purpose is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The Bible's purpose is to show you how God’s grace breaks into your life against your will and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome" (Tim Keller).

On the same day, Rebecca Pippert attended two very different events: a graduate-level psychology class at Harvard University and a Christian Bible study adjacent to Harvard. She offered the following observations on how the two groups addressed (or failed to address) their faults, problems, and sins:

First, the students [in the graduate-level psychology class] were extraordinarily open and candid about their problems. It wasn't uncommon to hear them say, "I'm angry," "I'm afraid," "I'm jealous" …. Their admission of their problems was the opposite of denial. Second, their openness about their problems was matched only by their uncertainty about where to find resources to overcome them. Having confessed, for example, their inability to forgive someone who had hurt them, [they had no idea how to] resolve the problem by forgiving and being kind and generous instead of petty and vindictive.

One day after the class, I dropped in on a Bible study group in Cambridge. [The contrast] was striking. No one spoke openly about his or her problems. There was a lot of talk about God's answers and promises, but very little about the participants and the problems they faced. The closest thing to an admission [of sin or a personal problem] was a reference to someone who was "struggling and needs prayer."

"The first group [the psychology class] seemed to have all the problems and no answers; the second group [the Bible study] had all the answers and no problems."

Do you know what really happens when we understand what Jesus has done for us? We can be like the first group and be completely honest about our problems. But we can also have confidence because we realize our confidence isn't in ourselves, but in Jesus who passed on our behalf.

A minister used to tell his people, "Cheer up, you're worse than you think." Think about it. He was telling them to cheer up despite the fact that they're failing the test, because they don't have to pass anymore. Jesus has passed.

I was at the gym on Friday, and I noticed that the guy beside me had a t-shirt on that said, "Ernst and Young. I passed!" It made me want to get a t-shirt that said, "Jesus and me. I failed!" But then I'd have to add that Jesus passed the test that we failed, but he did it so that we could pass even though we failed.

Tim Keller often prays this prayer which captures it well: "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 invite you to come this morning in your failure, in your weakness, in your brokenness, and admit all of this in complete honesty, and then to revel in the fact that you're loved anyway because of what Jesus endured when he passed the test on your behalf.

When You Find Fault with Others (Luke 12:13-15)

A while ago I traveled to England with my two brothers. We were almost at our destination when we went through an intersection. Seconds later a car came through the other way. A few seconds later, it would have t-boned us. We shook our heads. Clearly there should have been a stop sign at that intersection. The next day we drove past the same intersection and realized that there was a sign there all along.

The problem wasn't with the intersection; the problem was with us. And yet, if you had caught us the first time we went through, we would have been pretty self-righteous about it. It was a problem that could have caused an accident. We could have been seriously hurt; we could have hurt someone else.

We're in the middle of this series on relationships, and today we're going to see that the very same thing we just talked about can happen in relationships. The Bible gives us a warning, and if we ignore this warning in our relationships we could cause damage to both ourselves and to others. And yet many of us miss the signs and end up in relational accidents as a result.

So this morning I want to look at the passage that we just read. And as we examine it we're going to see that it's going to help us understand the danger that we face. We're going to see four things:

  • when we're in danger
  • why we probably won't realize it
  • what we'll miss
  • and what to do about it

First: let's look at when we're in danger.

Verse 13 says: Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."

Let's try to fill in some of the background. It seems that the father had died. Under Jewish law, the eldest son received a double portion of the inheritance and was responsible for dividing up the rest after his father's death. It looks like the eldest son had possession of the entire estate, and so far had refused to give the younger brother his fair share. You would have to conclude the younger actually has valid complaint. He has not received what is rightfully his.

But why would he come to Jesus with this problem? Why not take it to court? In those days, there were no courts. Disputes like this were normally settled by rabbis on the basis of existing law. So it makes sense for this man to come to Jesus with this case.

It wasn't even a very complicated case. Sometimes cases are very complicated. I have a friend who's involved in a dispute right now that's before a tribunal. I've heard both sides, and frankly I can't decide who has the better case. I can't wait to see the ruling. The judge is going to have to be a lot smarter than I am, or else he's going to have to flip a coin.

This wasn't at true here. The man already knows the ruling; there's no question about which way this case is going to go. All he needs is for Jesus to say, "You're right. Tell your brother to pay up."

So what's the problem? This man is exactly right, and he's come to the right place. But he's just as blinded as my brothers and I were when we went through the intersection.

Here's the issue: when you are in conflict, you're in great danger. Jesus is about to address the problem, but first we need to see when we're most vulnerable. If you are in conflict with someone, you are vulnerable to this right here and right now.

This leads us, of course, to the second thing we need to see in this passage:

Second, let's look at why we probably won't realize we're in danger.

Read verse 13 again. Notice what he says: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Ask yourself: where is this man's focus? It's on his brother.

Our sinful nature gives us an inclination to judge others critically rather than charitably. As a result, whenever we experience conflict, our natural reaction is to blame others and focus on their wrongs.

This tendency is as old as the world. When God confronts Adam in Genesis 3, Adam is quick to shift the focus to Eve's conduct. Eve is equally swift to blame Satan for the sin that has brought cascading conflict into the world.

This pervasive tendency to blame others for conflict is so natural that we do not need to teach it to our children. As soon as they can mouth the simplest words, they begin to use their tongues to shift the focus from their own wrongs to the actions of others: "He took my toy!" "She hit me first!" "He does it, too!"

As we get older, we try not to be quite so obvious when we blame others for our problems, but the natural tendency is still there. If we are in a conflict, we ignore or pass quickly over our own deficiencies while developing detailed lists of what others have done wrong.

A concerned husband goes to see the family doctor: "I think my wife is deaf. She never hears me the first time I say something. In fact, I often have to repeat things over and over again."

"Well," the doctor replies, "go home tonight, stand about 15 feet from her, and say something. If she doesn't reply, move about five feet closer and say it again. Keep doing this so we can get an idea of the severity of her deafness."

The husband goes home, and he does exactly as instructed. He stands about 15 feet from his wife, who is standing in the kitchen, chopping some vegetables. "Honey, what's for dinner?" He gets no response, so he moves about five feet closer and asks again. "Honey, what's for dinner?" No reply. He moves five feet closer, and still no reply. He gets fed up and moves right behind her--about an inch away--and asks one final time, "Honey, what's for dinner?" She replies, "For the fourth time, vegetable stew!"

You see, sometimes we are so focused on the other person being the problem that we fail to see that the problem is with ourselves.

So we've seen that we're in danger in conflict. We've also seen that the danger is that we'll focus on the faults of others rather than on ourselves. But that's not all this passage shows us.

Third, let's look at what we'll miss.

It's important to see what we'll miss if we focus on others and don't see the fault in ourselves.

You can tell that things aren't going well for this man when you read Jesus' response in verse 14. "Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?'"

Why would Jesus say this? Jesus seems to be rejecting the role of rabbi to decide cases like this. It's strange since Jesus elsewhere has no problem interpreting and applying the law.

It seems, though, that Jesus is moving below the surface and spotting that something is off with this man's request. If he really believed that Jesus has authority over this case, then Jesus' authority would extend over all of his life. But his request indicates that he isn't ready to accept Jesus' authority over his life. In other words, he likes Jesus' authority when it comes to thumping his brother, but not when it comes to caring about the things that Jesus cares about. But Jesus challenges this. He challenges this man even before he gets to the problem.

But then he gets to the real problem - the problem underneath the problem, if you will. Verse 15 says, "Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.'"

Notice, by the way, that Jesus is speaking now to the entire audience. At this point Jesus thinks it's worthwhile for everyone to learn about this topic. I heard someone speak this summer and say that when Jesus warns about something, we should never think, "That doesn't apply to me." We should automatically accept that when Jesus turns to a crowd and warns about something, then that warning applies to us as well.

So what does Jesus say? What Jesus says is this: Our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries if we pay attention. This man was so focused on his brother's faults that he missed that his heart had fallen into huge danger. This man was in danger of being possessed by greed. Yet he was so focused on the problem in his brother that it never occurred to him that he had a problem himself. But the problem in this man's own heart was potentially fatal to his own spiritual life, and damaging in his relationships with others.

What do I mean when I say that our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries? An idol is anything we that is "more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give" (Tim Keller). Conflict reveals our idols, because in conflict we're often acting to preserve something that is important to us. And yet we're so focused on the faults of others that we don't even see the idol that's taken hold of our hearts.

At one point years ago I used to pick Charlene up from work. She'd phone and say she was ready to come home. I'd get in the car and drive the 10 or 15 minutes to pick her up. And I'd wait. I'd driven 10 or 15 minutes. She just head to get in an elevator and come down. I'd sit in my car steaming, and then when she got in the car I'd let her have it.

Do you know what was happening? I was in danger because I was in a conflict. And in the conflict Charlene's fault - being late - was so clear to me that I missed a greater fault in my own heart. My heart was full of selfishness and self-righteousness, which was a far greater threat to our marriage than Charlene keeping me waiting for a few minutes after work. The conflict revealed my hidden idolatries - if only I had paid attention.

In Matthew 7:3-5 Jesus said:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person's eye.

In his great love for us, Jesus is showing us the way we can turn conflicts around. Instead of indulging our habit of putting the emphasis on others' wrongs, and sticking them in the eye with our sharp accusations, he teaches us that the shortest route to peace and reconciliation is to take a careful look in the mirror so we can identify and confess the planks in our own eyes. We'll be able to see our own idols. Only then will we be in a position to graciously and effectively help others to see how they too have contributed to the conflict, and can help to restore it.

And this will make all the difference in the world. As Gandhi, of all people, said:

I can truthfully say that I am slow to see the blemishes of fellow beings, being myself full of them. And, therefore, being in need of their charity, I have learnt not to judge anyone harshly and to make allowances for defects that I may detect.

When we see the idols in our own heart, we won't be as quick to judge the faults we see in others.

We've seen we're in danger in conflict. We're in danger of focusing on the faults of others, and not recognizing the idols in our own hearts. There's only one thing left to consider.

We need to look at what we're going to do about this.

At one level, this is easy. Jesus said in verse 15, "Watch out! Be on your guard..." At the surface level this is a good place to start. Look at the conflicts that you're experiencing in your life, and examine your own heart for idols. Our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries if we pay attention.

It could be that this will lead to a breakthrough in some of your relationships. You've been so focused on the faults of others. When you look at your own heart, you will see that, like the man in this passage, you've been right on the issue but wrong in your motives, wrong because of idols. Confessing this and dealing with the idols may lead to you seeing the entire situation differently.

So this is a good place to start, but it doesn't go far enough. The issue is really our hearts. The issue here in this passage wasn't this man's brother. The issue was this man's heart. As Jesus said elsewhere:

But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these defile you. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)

Or, as James said:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)

Through these passages, God is teaching us that the key to experiencing genuine peace and reconciliation is to recognize, confess, and get rid of the sinful desires that rule our hearts. We cannot do this on our own. No matter how much we hate our pride, self-righteousness, envy, jealousy, and unforgiveness, we cannot sweep these things from our hearts through our own efforts.

But God can. He sent his own precious Son to the cross to pay the full penalty for the many sins that we have committed against him and one another. Through faith in Christ, we can experience complete forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

When God forgives and redeems us, he also gives us a new heart. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, he makes this promise:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

The transformation of our hearts is both an event and a process. When God saves us, he gives us a new heart that enables us to repent from our sins and trust in Jesus as our Savior. That event triggers a life-long process in which the Holy Spirit slowly and steadily transforms our hearts and minds so that we progressively put off our old desires and behaviors, and replace them with desires and behaviors that are pleasing to God.

God often uses conflict to move us along in this transformation process. Every time we are in a conflict, we have the opportunity to identify worldly desires that have taken control of our hearts, turned our eyes away from God, and caused us to do and say things that offend other people. As these sinful desires are exposed, we can confess them to God, seek his forgiveness, and ask him to help us find contentment and security in him alone.

As God purifies and liberates our hearts, we can also confess our sinful desires to one another. Instead of staying on the surface and talking only about our behavior, we can demonstrate the reality of God's transforming work in our hearts by admitting to the desires that have been ruling our hearts, such as greed, control, envy, and selfishness.

These humble and transparent confessions are far more likely to touch the heart of someone we've offended and move them to forgive us and also take a deeper look at themselves. When both sides in a conflict dig deep into their own hearts and confess both the attitudes and the actions that have offended others, peace and reconciliation are just around the corner.

So what conflicts are you facing? Can you see that you're in danger of focusing on the other person, that you're in danger of missing the hidden idols that the conflict reveals? By his grace, we can make a humble u-turn by facing up to the sinful desires in our hearts and confessing the logs in our eyes. This radically different approach to conflict will bring honor to our Lord, set us free from the blame game, and place our feet on the path to peace, reconciliation, and lasting change.

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 Hearts of the Fathers (Malachi 4:4-6; Luke 1:17)

We've been in a series the past few weeks called Far As the Curse is Found. We've been looking at the promises found in the Hebrew Scriptures of someone who would one day come, and as the hymn says, make his blessings known far as the curse is found.

So we've seen that Jesus' birth is:

  • the promise of a descendent of Eve who would destroy all the works of Satan
  • a sign that God is in control and has not abandoned this world
  • the arrival of the king we've always longed for, the king who will reign over the entire world and will never let us down

Today we're going to look at one more prophecy, and it's a surprising one. At the time this was written, it really seemed that all the old prophecies were just a big pile of hurt. The Jews had now returned from exile. The prophets had encouraged them to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed. They promised God's blessing. God promised that the rebuilt temple would be greater than the former temple; that God himself would return in mercy; that entire nations would turn to the Lord and become his people; and that there would be a new day of peace and prosperity.

But eighty years had passed. The temple was rebuilt, and it wasn't anywhere near as good as the previous temple. God had given them glowing promises, but these predictions must have seemed like a mockery. The economy was tanked. The land wasn't fruitful; there was drought, pestilence, and crop failure. The kingdom was a fraction of what it had been under David and Solomon - maybe 20 miles by 30 miles. That's just about twice the land mass of Toronto - not exactly small, but not exactly a great kingdom either. And there was only a population of about 150,000 people. And instead of nations flowing to be taught at Jerusalem, the nations were in control of Israel. They were no longer an independent nation, and there was no longer a Davidic king. God really didn't seem to be present in Jerusalem, and instead of spiritual vitality things seemed, well, dead.

In other words, all the things that we've talked about - that Satan's works were going to be destroyed, that God was in control, and that a king would come to set things right - none of them had happened. There was every reason to be discouraged. They may not have been in exile anymore, but they might as well be. All the promises had not yet come true.

It's in this context that we receive another promise of how God will set things right. In the middle of this hopelessness, Malachi prophesies that the Day of the Lord will come. The Day of the Lord, by the way, means the day that God will settle accounts and will finally triumph. It will be the day that God finally settles things. But Malachi says that before this day will come, he will send Elijah the prophet (Malachi 4:5). This is why today, Jews still leave an empty chair at Passover in the hope that Elijah will come. They still pray that the prophet Elijah will return.

And read in verse 6 what Elijah will do when he comes. I think you'll find something surprising in what it says: "He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (NIV). Did you read that? He said that before God ultimately triumphs, he will send a messenger who will turn the hearts of fathers to their children.

Now let's pause here and fast-forward a few hundred years. Right before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to a priest named Zechariah. The angel explained that he and his wife would have a child named John. Listen to what the angel said:

Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (NIV)

So here's what the angel is saying. That messenger, Elijah - the one who is going to come before the Day of the Lord, before God's final triumph - is now being born, an d his name is John the Baptist. You see, it's not literally Elijah who comes back; it's somebody else just like Elijah. And before God triumphs, this prophet is going to do two things:

  • turn the hearts of the fathers to their children
  • and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous

I kind of saw the second one coming. I don't have a hard time thinking that a prophet would have something to say to the disobedient. But I wasn't expecting anything about the relationship of fathers and children. So what I want to do today is to look at just two things: first, to look at the scope of what God is doing in sending his Son; and secondly, to look at how we live in response.

The Scope of Redemption

Why did Jesus come? We've already seen some of the answers. It's much bigger than we usually think. He came to save sinners from their sins. Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). This was very big news to the people who were drawn to Jesus, and it's still good news today. For two thousand years now, people's lives have been changed by Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we didn't. He bore our sins at the cross. He died the death that we should have died, and he rose again to give us new life. And in what's called the great exchange, he gave us all of his righteousness, and in exchange took all of our sin. He's made this available to anyone who comes to him and believes. This is why Jesus came.

I don't want to minimize this at all. I don't know how you could minimize something like that anyway. But I do want to say that there's more. It's much bigger than that. Jesus came to redeem and restore all of creation. Neil Plantinga puts it best:

At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn't content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn't content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too...

Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans...The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, the whole world needs to be redeemed - every last person, place, organization, and program; all "rocks and trees and skies and seas"; in fact, "every square inch," as Abraham Kuyper said. The whole creation is "a theater for the mighty works of God," first in creation and then in re-creation. (Engaging God's World)

That's why we've been doing this series. The Old Testament is full of the reasons Jesus came, and we've been looking at them. It's huge. He came to destroy the works of Satan, to be a sign that God hasn't abandoned the world, and to reign in power as the king who brings peace to this world. Everything that sin has wrecked, Jesus came to fix. As the carol says, "He comes to make His blessings flow, Far as the curse is found."

If that's how big it is, then Malachi and Luke help us remember how small it is. It's also about the hearts of fathers toward their children. Before Jesus came, God sent a messenger to begin to prepare people for what Jesus was going to do, and this messenger had such an influence on people that the very nature of relationships within the family was changed. When people are changed vertically (with God), it also changes their relationships horizontally, with each other. It would revolutionize the way people lived in their homes. Fathers would awaken to their parental responsibilities and re-prioritize their lives.

The message of John the Baptist was that God was intervening in history. The long-awaited dominion of God, a dominion of peace and justice, was breaking into time and space. God is on the move, and preparations are necessary. What God is doing is as big as setting the world right again, and as small as changing a father's heart so that he cares for his children again. It's as big as the whole world, and as small as an individual family.

How Should We Live?

I want to close by asking how this should change our lives. John the Baptist asked people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We live on the other side of the cross, and we have an advantage: we know the grace of Jesus Christ. We've been enabled by the Spirit to obey. Through Christ we've learned about God as a Father who cares for his children, and we've received grace so that we can care for ours.

In Roman times, when Luke wrote this, fathers were much stricter than mothers. They were known to often be excessively harsh.

In our day, fathers tend to be absent more often than mothers. We can be so busy with our lives that we effectively ignore our children, giving them the leftovers. Even when we're home, we're not really home. Our minds are always on the next email or meeting.

Sometimes we can be too harsh. Paul talks about the danger of exasperating our children, making them feel like they can do nothing right. We can be emotionally distant, expressing nothing but disappointment and disapproval.

We serve a God who is restoring the entire world, defeating the works of Satan. He will one day banish all diseases and death. But even now he's changing father's hearts so that they really care for their children, and are no longer distant or harsh. This is exactly what can happen in your family, not just this Christmas but always.

So let me pray for you right now. Let me pray that you will know Jesus, and not just know him but everything that he has come to do. We look forward with anticipation and hope to all he will do. I pray that you will know him this Christmas. And as he changes us, I pray that he will turn our hearts (not just our actions) to our children. Let's pray.

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
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.

Repenting of Religion (Luke 19:28-21:38)

This morning we're beginning a series that looks at the climatic week of Jesus' life, the events that took place in the week before his death and resurrection. We're doing this so that we can begin to prepare ourselves for Easter, which according to the Bible is not only the central event of Jesus' life but of all of history.

I'd like you to think of a way of life that's opposed to Jesus Christ. What lifestyle do you think is completely against who he is, what he did, and what he taught?

Jesus once said:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

We all know that the small gate and narrow road is Jesus. What is the broad gate and road that leads to destruction?

If you're like me, you've always thought that the broad way is the irreligious way of open rebellion against Jesus. It's what we normally picture: there are two ways to live. One is the Christian life. The other is a life of sin and rebellion and immorality. The path of sin and rebellion and immorality is a path that leads to destruction.

If you think that, you're not alone. That's what I've thought most of my life. But I want to step back for a minute. It's true that irreligion and immorality is a way of life that is opposed to Jesus Christ and leads to destruction, but I don't think it's what Jesus had in mind when he talked about the broad gate and road. In fact, if you read through the Gospels, Jesus is repeatedly called a friend of these kinds of people.

I'd like to suggest that Jesus had a completely different group of people in mind when he spoke about a broad gate and road that leads to destruction. You see that he's talking to this group of people throughout the whole Sermon on the Mount. It's the same group of people he talks about when he says, "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves" (Matthew 6:15). And also when he says that "not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven," and again when he says that those who build their house on the sand will one day see it come crashing down (Matthew 6:21-27)?

Who is he talking about? Religious people. You see, traditionally we've got it all wrong. Traditionally, we've focused on two ways to live: God's way and man's way. We can choose to live our lives according to our own rules and desires or we can submit and live for God and in his way. On the surface that's true, but there's actually a third way of living that is just as evil and destructive - maybe even so - than open rebellion: living according to the external religious regulations. In fact, Jesus said harsher things and had far more problems with religious people than he did with people we think of as sinners.

There are actually three ways to live: religion, irreligion, and gospel. Both religion and irreligion are destructive and deadly, but out of the two religion may be more dangerous.

There are few places that you see this more clearly than today's passage. Today's passage is about a moment that should have been really good, but was completely wrecked by religion.

It was the last week of Jesus' life, and Jesus was arriving in Jerusalem as King. The psalmist had anticipated this event hundreds of years earlier when he wrote:

Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD strong and mighty,
the LORD mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
The LORD Almighty—
he is the King of glory.
(Psalm 24:7-10)

As Jesus enters Jerusalem in Luke 20:37-38, he enters as God himself, the King of glory, arriving as a victor - the "LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle." It is one of those moments that should have been pure joy.

But instead this moment became one of sorrow for Jesus. It's one of the few times in Scripture that we read of Jesus weeping. Instead of enjoying the moment, Jesus was led to weep over it. Luke 20:41-44 says:

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come on you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." (Luke 19:41-44)

Instead of enjoying the moment, it caused Jesus to weep. It was a moment that was ruined by religion and its destructive consequences.

In fact, this is the theme of not just this passage, but the next couple of chapters as well. Beginning in chapter 19:47 to the end of chapter 20, Jesus has a number of confrontations with religious people. In this section we get to see three of the problems with religion. It's possible that some of us may not realize how dangerous religion is. There are three problems with religion that we need to see from this passage.

1. Religion is selfish

Luke 19:45-46 says:

When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. "It is written," he said to them, " 'My house will be a house of prayer'; but you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

The temple was the meeting place between God and man, the place where God's presence dwelt among his people. But to the religious leaders of the day, the temple was a profit center. They had transformed the court of the Gentiles from a place of prayer into a supermarket, charging exorbitant prices. The religious leaders twisted the temple, using God as a means to an end. They were selfish.

Religion is incredibly selfish.

When we think of religious people who are selfish today, we're tempted to think of famous televangelists who are using God so they can life opulent lifestyles. But we need to think a lot closer to home.

There was a father who never saw his sons. No matter how often he invited them, they never came to visit. They were always too busy. They told Dad that he wasn't important enough; that he was yesterday's news. One day the father took a chest and filled it with pieces of broken glass, and then he locked it. If you picked it up and shook it, it sounded like it was full of money. The boys started visiting, and in the last years of that man's life they had great times together. Eventually he died, and the boys opened up that chest and found nothing but broken glass. They had been fooled by their father.

The point of the story is not to say that God is like this father. God does not fool us. The point of the story is to ask why we are drawn to God. Is it for the stuff we think we'll get from him, or is it for the pleasure of God himself? John Piper asks: If you were to go to Heaven and have all of the rewards laid out for you, the removal of penalty and the joys forevermore, but God was not there, could you rightly say that your joy was complete? How do you answer that question? Religion is selfish, and it wants what it can get for itself. Religion kills because religion turns the soul in on itself.

2. Religion misses the point

I wish I had the time to read through all of chapter 20 with you. If you read chapter 20, it's a series of exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day. But it's tragic. If you had Jesus Christ standing right in front of you, what would you talk about? The religious people got into discussions that completely missed the point. Religion talks about all kinds of semi-important things but never gets to the heart of the issue. So you see them debate. "'Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,' they said. "Who gave you this authority?'" (Luke 20:2). "Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (Luke 20:22). If a woman has seven husbands, "at the resurrection whose wife will she be?" (Luke 20:33). Not one of these questions was an honest one. They had an agenda, and their agenda was to get the upper hand.

The saddest thing is that all of these questions focused on secondary issues but completely missed the decisive question that every person has to deal with. The real issue is, "Who is Jesus?" Jesus got at this by telling a parable that described exactly who he is in verses 9-17 - the very Son of God sent to Israel after all the prophets had been rejected. Jesus calls himself the cornerstone, a stone that crushes those who reject him. You can argue all day about taxes and multiple wives, but the real question is, "What are you going to do with Jesus?"

Jesus ends the discussion by quoting a psalm that points to the fact that the Messiah is also the divine Son of God in verses 41 to 44. Again, the issues Jesus presents is: what are you going to do with Jesus? You can debate every issue in the world, but all of them are secondary compared to this one. But religion isn't concerned about that question. It focuses on every issue but Jesus.

You can talk to many religious people today and get into all kinds of issues, but never get to Jesus. You can go to churches and hear all kinds of messages that talk about all kinds of things but never deal with the main issue. Religion is selfish. Religion misses the point. We also see in this passage that:

3. Religion is a sham

At the end of these debates, with everyone listening, Jesus said:

Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely. (Luke 20:46-47)

Jesus was saying that it was all a sham. It looked good - the flowing robes, the decorum at synagogues and banquets, the showy prayers. But underneath it was corrupt and it would be punished.

But not everyone was putting on a show. In the middle of the hypocrisy, Jesus points to a poor woman who doesn't do anything impressive by the standards of the religious leaders. Except she wasn't acting. She was the real deal.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "Truly I tell you," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." (Luke 21:1-4)

We don't usually think religion is bad. But religion ruined the moment for Jesus. There are three ways to live: the irreligious way, which is bad, but Jesus is a friend of these kinds of people, and many of them came to follow him. There's the religious way, which is catastrophic. And then there's the Gospel. Before we end this morning, though, I want to look at where religion leads us.

We've already read what Jesus said as he wept over Jerusalem, he said:

The days will come on you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you. (Luke 19:43-44)

Jesus looked a few years ahead and saw that in just a few years, Jerusalem would be completely destroyed. He also knew that the reason would be because of religion. It would kill the city. Jerusalem would be destroyed because the people missed Jesus in all of their religion. Nobody would have believed it as they looked at the temple as Jesus cried over it because it was so impressive. But it's a theme that Jesus returned to.

In chapter 21, after these confrontations with religious people, Jesus expands on the judgment that would fall on Jerusalem because of its religion. The temple will be destroyed, Jesus says. But there's kind of a double fulfillment. One day it won't just be the temple that's destroyed:

There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:25-28)

Jerusalem indeed was destroyed. The historian Josephus tells us:

Caesar had already commanded the entire city and the temple to be razed to the ground, leaving only the towers which projected higher than the others to stand...All the rest of the wall which encompassed the city the demolition teams leveled so that no one who would come there in the future would ever believe that the spot had been inhabited.

The destruction was so bad that when the city was stormed and the temple burned, Josephus says that the victorious Roman general "Titus threw his arms heavenward, uttered a groan, and called God to witness that this was not his doing."

In the same way that religion destroyed Jerusalem, it will destroy us too if we let it. Jesus said that there are going to be a lot of people coming to him one day with religious credentials:

Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matthew 7:22-23)

There are three ways to live: irreligion, religion, and Gospel. If you choose the way of religion it will kill you.

What's the solution? The early church apologist Tertullian said, "Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors." There are two thieves of the gospel: religion and irreligion, moralism and hedonism. Both "steal" the power and the distinctiveness of the gospel.

Another day I'll invite you to turn away from hedonism, but today I'm going to ask you to turn away from religion and moralism and run instead to Jesus Christ. Follow the example of the apostle Paul who said:

But whatever were [religious] gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:7-9)

Let's pray.

Father, this morning we repent of religion, which is selfish, which misses the point, which is a sham, and which will destroy us. Father, forgive us for falling for religion which is a counterfeit of the gospel. Help us instead to turn to Jesus Christ, so that we may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of our own.

Help us to avoid the broad road of religion that leads to destruction. Help us to enter the narrow gate of Jesus Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.