Learning to Live Well (Proverbs 1:1-7)

Every day we face dozens of decisions. Some of them are relatively unimportant, like where should we eat for lunch? Or should I wear by blue pants or my black pants today? Some of them are incredibly important, but it's pretty clear what we should do, like should I pad my expense account? Or should I flirt with this person who isn't my spouse? We may not do the right thing, but at least we know what the right thing is.

But there's a third type of decision that we face every day. These decisions are important, and which choice we make can change our lives. But the answers aren't always very clear. They're questions like:

  • Which university should I go too out of all the ones that have accepted me?
  • Should I take the job in Calgary or stick with the one I have here?
  • How do I handle the guy at work who drives me crazy?
  • How do I handle my own bad temper?

There are tons of decisions that we face just like these in which the answers aren't obvious. There's no "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not" about some of these choices. Yet we need to be able to make these decisions, and many more like them, and the choices that we make with these decisions will ultimately change our lives.

That's why I'm really excited to begin a series from the book of Proverbs today, because Proverbs is written to address this category of decisions which are important, and yet for which there is not always a black and white answer. It's absolutely critical that we gain the skill we need in order to live wisely, and Proverbs is designed to help us gain this skill that we need.

One scholar says that "the church has practically discarded the book of Proverbs" (Waltke). Out of its 930 ancient sayings, many Christians know only three or four, and even these are often misunderstood. It's a book of the Bible that's often ignored, and there are probably a few reasons. The proverbs can seem banal to some, sometimes contradictory, and far from the twenty-first century. Because we live in a culture that's full of hype, I'm going to assume that we're going to be a bit cynical about grandiose promises, especially from a book that was written thousands of years ago in a very different culture from our own. Given all of this, we need to ask why we should make the time to study this book of the Bible.

At the very beginning of the book, Proverbs gives us some reasons why we should make the time to study it - not only study it, but be mastered by it. This morning I'd like to look at these reasons. They're contained in Proverbs 1:1-7. Here's the first reason:

1. Because of who compiled it

Proverbs 1:1 says, "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel."

There are a couple of things to notice here. First, that these are proverbs. A proverb comes from a word that meant "likeness," with the idea of offering comparisons, but it came to refer to a pithy statement or object lesson that helps the reader choose a wise course of action. We're going to see many examples of these proverbs in this book.

It also tells us the author or compiler of these proverbs. For years, some scholars have had a hard time believing that the book of Proverbs was written by Solomon. Some other collections of proverbs in the ancient world were written by some obscure person and then attributed to someone famous so that more people would want to read it. But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that Solomon indeed is behind this book. Kings at that time often collected wisdom material that could be used within the royal court to educate royal officials on how to conduct themselves. It certainly seems likely that Solomon, king of Israel, put the bulk of this book together, collecting proverbs from other sources, writing his own, and shaping the material into what has been preserved.

One of the reasons why this is important is because if we learn from Solomon, we're learning from one of the wisest people who has ever lived. It would be like learning hockey from Wayne Gretzky or how to play guitar from The Edge. Solomon is the Wayne Gretzky of wisdom.

I mentioned that other nations and cultures had their own proverbs. For instance, here's a Babylonian proverb on living within your means: "Build like a lord, go about like a slave! Build like a slave, go about like a lord!" Here's an Egyptian one on dining with your boss: "Take what he may give, when it is set before your nose...Do not pierce him with many stares...Laugh after he laughs, and it will be very pleasing to his heart."

These are good proverbs, and they're still useful today. But the Bible describes how Solomon's wisdom was even greater than what you find in these collections. 1 Kings 4:29-34 says:

God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.

One reason why Proverbs is still worth reading is because it was written by somebody who was world-renowned for his wisdom. Solomon's wisdom is greater than the wisdom found in the Assyrian or Egyptian ancient literature. Solomon observed nature - we're going to see that in this book - and applied what he observed to how to live life. People travelled from all over the world to hear his wisdom. It's one reason why we should study it today, because the person who collected these proverbs was uniquely qualified to do so.

The second reason we need to pay attention to this book is:

2. Because of its purpose

So we've looked at the author. Verses 2 to 6 give us both the purpose of this book, and its intended audience, which we'll get to in a minute. Here's the purpose. You'll notice that there are five purpose clauses beginning with "for":

for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young-
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance-
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.

Did you get the five purpose clauses? Verse 1 gives us the title and author of this book, and then these verses give us the purpose. Most scholars think that verse 2 is a summary statement, which is then broken down even further in the other verses. So verse 2 says that the book has been written "for attaining wisdom and discipline, for understanding words of insight."

Wisdom here literally means skill. It's a word that's used elsewhere for the skill of sailors, administrators, and of craftsmen. But here it means skill in living. Wisdom means having the knowledge and skill necessary to life your life in a God-honoring way, making good choices in life. We got talking about this in the office the other week. There are some people who are intelligent, but who aren't wise. They have a high IQ, but they make horrible choices in life. Then there are people who are wise. Their wisdom isn't measured necessarily by book knowledge or the ability to pass tests, but they consistently make good decisions. That's wisdom. One scholar (Von Rad) says that wisdom means becoming competent with regard to the realities of life: how things really happen, how things really are, and what to do about it. Wisdom is simply the art of living well in God's world.

Verse two gives us the flip side of wisdom. My version says "instruction." Yours may say discipline. One translation says "moral instruction." It's what happens when you observe the negative consequences of foolish actions. By observing what happens when people make negative choices, one can be trained and instructed how not to act.

You have a number of other words here: prudence - knowing what's right to do in a situation given the circumstances. The point probably isn't to make a distinction between all of the terms here, and break the proverbs into categories. The point is that this is what you get overall as you read the book. You can see that the type of knowledge that the proverbs hope to impart is:

  • practical - it's not abstract or theoretical; it's about everyday life
  • about knowledge, but also about more than knowledge - in other words, it's about knowing things, but it's also about how to use that knowledge well
  • moral - it assumes that there are right and wrong things to do, and it guides you into making the right decisions
  • it draws you into the mysteries and complexities of life - no easy answers

We all need this. Somebody has said that in many churches, you learn how to do churchy things better. You learn how to pray and study the Bible and that kind of thing. That's fine, but we also need to learn how to deal all of the complexities of life: how to get along with our neighbors, what to do with a difficult boss, how to choose which car to buy. C.S. Lewis wrote:

Before I become a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one's life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before, one hopes in a new spirit, but still the same things...Conversion [does not] obliterate our human life... (The Weight of Glory)

We need a faith that's not just about how to do religious things. We need insight and skill in not just living on Sundays, but every day of the week. Proverbs gives us just that.

So, it's worth tackling the book of Proverbs because of who wrote it, and because of its purpose. Two more quickly:

3. Because of its intended audience

One of the most important steps in writing a book is to define your audience. If you're going to write a book, they say, you need to understand the sort of person who will wander into a store and buy it.

Oftentimes, as I mentioned, proverbs were compiled for the royal court, so that those who were princely or close to power would learn the skills they needed to carry out their roles. You see traces of this in the book of Proverbs. For instance, in Proverbs 23 you get guidance on how to behave when you sit down with a ruler. But Proverbs isn't just for the royal court; it's for all of us. There's wisdom here that relates to living with neighbors, plowing fields - everyday kinds of matters that anyone can relate to. In fact, according to verses 4 to 6, there are two target audiences in mind with this book.

The first is described in verse 4: those who are simple, those who are young. I realize that if I described you as being a simple person, you probably wouldn't take it as a compliment. If we call someone simple, it usually means they're not all that smart. They're maybe a few ants shy of a picnic. But it's not the case here. Simple here means those who are still young enough to be open-minded. They're still being formed. It's too soon to know if they'll take the path of wisdom or the path of folly, so the purpose of this book is to help make up their mind.

If you're young, if you still have a lot of life decisions ahead of you, then this book is for you. I'm really excited that we can look at it together, because this book can help you make wise decisions as you set out in life. It's a lot easier to make the right ones up front than to go back and clean up the mess after.

But I know that not all of us are young. Proverbs gives us a second target audience in verses 5 and 6: those who are wise, those of us who are maybe a bit older and already have some wisdom. If we listen we'll be able to "add to [our] learning". We'll also be able to understand the art of the proverb and maybe learn how to teach others who are younger. This book is not just for neophytes; it's for all of us who want to grow in wisdom. The young and inexperienced need this book, but so do the wise and discerning. You never outgrow your need for wisdom. This book is for everyone.

One other note: although Proverbs often refers to men, as in "my son," it also is very appropriate for both men and women. In fact, when Proverbs gives a picture of what wisdom looks like in the final chapter, it offers the picture of a woman. She embodies the wisdom that's talked about throughout the book. That's not meant to put more pressure on the women. I heard of a man who was single who said, "I'm just looking for a Proverbs 31 woman." Eventually his pastor told him, "Maybe the Proverbs 31 woman you're looking for is looking for a Proverbs 1 to 30 man." The point is that there's plenty in here for all of us, male and female, at all different stages of life. This book is for everyone. In fact, there's only one category of person excluded, and that's the fool mentioned in verse 7.

So far we've covered three reasons why we should study and master the book of Proverbs: because of who wrote it, because of its purpose, and because we are part of its target audience. These are all important and true, but they are not the most important reason. The most important reason is still to come. Here it is:

4. Because of it's God-centered focus

The world is full of self-help tips. To be honest, a lot of it has been tried and found wanting. Every month you can buy magazines that tell you how to lose weight and have a fantastic love life and to de-stress. A lot of us have grown weary of all the pragmatism, because we've tried it before and it promises way more than it delivers.

The book of Proverbs is absolutely unique. Bruce Waltke, an Old Testament scholar, says that there are no parallels in all of the ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature. The thing that sets it apart, that makes it different from the wisdom and advice you get anywhere else, is so central that it's found right in the introduction. It's the theme or focus of this book. It's found in verse 7: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge."

You would think that a book that's about the skill we need for everyday living may not focus too much on God. If that were true, it would just be another self-help book that you could put on your shelf beside all the others. But that's not what Proverbs is. It's not just a set of principles that you can apply; it's also a God that you need to worship. There is no knowledge or wisdom apart from a proper attitude and relationship to the Lord, and if you are going to live wisely and well, then it all begins here. This is a deeply God-centered book.

What does "fear of the Lord" mean? Fear is usually seen as being a negative thing, like we're cowering. What you need to know is that fear is sometimes appropriate. When you are standing close to the edge of a tall building with nothing between you and thin air, then fear is a very good thing. When you are about to touch a hot stove with your bare hands, then fear will prevent you from doing something you'll regret. When you are living life, as indeed you are, as a creature before the God who has created all things, then fear is a very appropriate response. Not fear as in cowering, but fear as in knowing that he is God and you are not; fear as in being subservient to God, acknowledging your dependence upon him, seeing his power and holiness, as well as your own finiteness and unworthiness.

Oswald Chambers said, "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else." Proverbs gives us the skill to live well, and it does so in the context of a God-centered focus, one that we need desperately in our lives.

For all of these reasons, we're going to study Proverbs in the coming weeks. I'm going to invite you to begin by memorizing a verse a week with me. The first one is found in the bulletin this morning. We're going to come back next week and read it. There's also a reading schedule in the bulletin for you to follow. Most of all it's going to involve an attitude of teachability, a willingness to absorb what's written here and use it for our benefit.

As we close this morning, I want to tell you how valuable the book of Proverbs is. In fact, it's only really been improved by one person. Jesus said that the Queen of Sheba came to hear Solomon's wisdom, but then he said, referring to himself, "one greater than Solomon is here" (Luke 11:31). Colossians 2:3 says that in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." As great as Solomon and his wisdom were, we know someone who has wisdom even beyond Solomon's. So as we study this book and are mastered by it, and as we come to the one who is ultimately the source of all wisdom, we'll really gain the skill to live well in God's world.

Father, thank you for the wisdom that you gave Solomon. I pray that you would grant us teachable hearts as we learn from this book. Most of all I pray that you would teach us that living well begins with fearing you, recognizing that there is no knowledge or wisdom apart from you. Thank you for showing us wisdom in Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. May we be drawn closer to him as we study this book. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Eyes Are Opened (Luke 24)

Of all the stories out there, my favorite is one that involves a reversal of fortunes at the end. All seems lost, but at the very last minute something unexpected happens, and the day is saved, and everything bad that happened is undone.

So near the end of The Lord of the Rings - the book, not the movie - Sam realizes that he and Frodo have survived, and that Gandalf has returned from the dead. Sam says, "It wasn't a dream?" When he realizes it isn't, he lays back with both joy and bewilderment and asks, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?" A great question. Is everything sad going to come untrue?

Out of all of the stories of reversal, the one that we just read beats them all. And what's more, it claims to be true. This morning I want to do three things, nothing more. I want to look at why it's hard to believe, how we can believe it, and what difference it makes when we do believe it.

First, why it's hard to believe.

One of the hardest things to believe about Christianity is the resurrection. There are lots of people who believe a lot of things about Jesus - that he was a good man, a great teacher, even a prophet. They will even believe that he died on the cross. But believing that he physically rose from the dead and left an empty tomb is a whole different matter.

You may be someone who finds it hard to believe, in which case I say: You're in very good company. As we look at this passage, we find skepticism as the prevailing reaction. We read about a group of women coming to embalm Jesus' body, and when they find the tomb empty, verse 4 says that they wonder what happened. That's putting it mildly. The Greek is much stronger. It says they were bewildered, perplexed. The picture is of women who are confused and anxious, just like we'd be if we showed up at the tomb of one of our friends and found a big hole, an empty casket, and the clothes that they were buried lying on the ground.

You imagine telling your friends about that, especially if you add some details about angels. In those days, the testimony of women was inadmissible in court. The historian Josephus wrote, "From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex." They didn't exactly have progressive views of women. So when these women show up in a room full of Jesus' followers, we read, "But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Luke 24:11). Even Peter, who at least goes to investigate, doesn't automatically buy in. He finds the grave just as the women had described it, but walks away wondering what it all means. Nobody can figure it out.

You find this all throughout the chapter. Two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about seven miles away. They're both dejected by what's happened. Neither one has any hope of any resurrection. Later on we see the disciples again, and they as they try to make sense of what happened on Easter morning, they're ready to believe in almost anything other than a physical resurrection.

N.T. Wright has done an exhaustive study of the thinking in Jesus' day, and concludes that nobody even had a category for this to happen. Greeks and Romans thought that the body is corrupt, and that a soul is liberated from the body. Resurrection was not only impossible, but it was undesirable. The Jewish people, on the other hand, believed in resurrection, but at some future point when God will renew the entire cosmos. It was a future event, not something that happens here and now. "The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable" (Tim Keller, The Reason for God).

I know we have this belief that we're sophisticated today, that we doubt things like miracles and resurrections, but people back then were ready to believe anything. C.S. Lewis calls this "chronological snobbery" - thinking that we modern people take claims of a bodily resurrection with skepticism, while thinking that the ancients would have immediately accepted it. But that's not at all the case. A dead person was a dead person. They wouldn't have any easier a time than we would in believing that someone who was dead is alive again. Nobody would have even thought of resurrection as a possibility. Everybody understood that Jesus was dead. Jesus' death wasn't a setback for them; it was game over. Jesus joined the scrap-heap of history along with all the other messiah figures who were killed. Game over.

Wright says again:

Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest themselves, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was. (Who Was Jesus?)

This is good news for those of us here who are skeptical about the resurrection. Join the club. You should be skeptical; everyone else was. Jesus' closest followers, his dearest friends, couldn't believe it either. In fact, if you're feeling skeptical this morning, you shouldn't feel too bad about it. There would be a problem if you didn't approach the subject of Easter with skepticism. The disciples and friends of Jesus were just as skeptical as you are.

How We Can Believe It

The reality is, though, that something happened to change their minds. They started out skeptical. They didn't even have a category for a physical resurrection here and now. Yet within a short time, all of that changed. It not only changed for them, but it also changed the course of human history. How can we experience the same thing today, assuming we'd even want to?

I'll tell you what's important, but not enough. Many of the people who experienced that Easter morning examined the evidence. Some went and investigated the empty tomb themselves. They looked at the grave clothes lying on the ground, at the stone that had been rolled away. When Jesus appeared to them in verses 39-43, they looked at him. Jesus offered that they could touch him to verify that he wasn't a spirit; it was really him in his body. They watched him eat a fish. Spirits don't eat fish.

Today, it's important - but not enough - for you to examine the evidence for yourself. Books like Mere Christianity are excellent. A more recent one is The Reason for God, which is on the New York Times Bestseller list. These are important, especially if you are trying to make sense of what happened that morning. It only makes sense to investigate the evidence. For instance, why would Luke have recorded the testimony of women when women weren't considered reliable witnesses? He must have been under tremendous pressure to change the story. Why didn't he, unless it really happened that way? What transformed a group of cowards into people who turned the world upside down? How do you explain their willingness to die? Pascal said, "I [believe] those witnesses that get their throats cut." There are all kinds of things that can't be explained unless the resurrection really happened, and it's important - but not enough - to look at all the evidence.

Something more is needed.

I'll tell you what happened. Their eyes were opened. When they started out, they saw all of the evidence but they didn't really see it. Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, was on a streetcar one day in Basel, Switzerland. A tourist sat next to him, and they started chatting. Barth asked them if there was anything they were hoping to see while they visited the city. "Yes," the man said, "I'd love to meet the famous theologian Karl Barth. Do you know him?" Barth replied, "As a matter of fact, I do. In fact, I give him a shave every morning." The tourist was pretty excited. He went back to the hotel thinking, "I met Karl Barth's barber today." He saw Karl Barth but he didn't really understand what he was seeing. The people in this chapter were the same. They could look at Jesus and all of the evidence, and walk away not really being aware of what they'd seen.

But three times in this chapter, they had an epiphanies. Do you know what an epiphany is? It's a moment of revelation and insight that all of a sudden makes sense on everything that's happened up until that point. Three times in this chapter, all of a sudden their eyes were opened, and they were able to not only see the evidence but also make sense of everything that had happened up until that point - in fact, everything in their lives, in the world.

Three examples:

While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " Then they remembered his words. (Luke 24:4-8)

Then the two disciples who had been traveling to Emmaus, after spending quite a bit of time with Jesus:

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. They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:30-32)

Then the disciples:

He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)

The evidence is important, but it's never enough. At some point you need that moment in which not only do you see, but you really see and you believe.

Even if you're a Christian, you can have this experience. I mentioned Tim Keller's book The Reason for God. When Keller was being treated for thyroid cancer, he actually had time on his hands for the first time in his life. He picked up N.T. Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which is 740 pages. He even read the indices. He says that the book reenforced something for him:

There's no historically viable alternative explanation for the birth of the Christian Church than the fact that the early Christians thought they saw Jesus Christ and touched him and that he was raised from the dead. As I was reading it, I realized I was coming to greater certainty, and that when I closed the book, I said, at a time when it was very important to me to feel this way, I said, "He really really really did rise from the dead." And I said, "Well, didn't I believe that before?" Of course I believed it before—I defended it, and I think before I certainly would have died for that belief. But actually, there were still doubts in there, and the doubts were taken down 50 percent or something. I didn't even know they were there. And it was a wonderful experience It was both an intellectual and emotional experience: You're facing death, you're not sure you're going to get over the cancer. And the rigorous intellectual process of going through all the alternative explanations for how the Christian Church started, except the resurrection—none of them are even tenable. It was quite an experience.

You see that? Keller already believed, but his eyes were opened and he believed it even more. It became more real to him, more relevant to his life and to his cancer. Easter is hard to believe, but if you look at the evidence that will be a good start. But if you ask God to open your eyes, then God is in the business of doing so, and just like the people in this chapter, it will change everything.

Which leads me to the last thing I want to say:

What difference does it make if we believe it?

Simply, it makes all the difference in the world. Luke ends with the disciples finally getting it, finally seeing for the first time. Luke is part one of a two-part series of books. When Luke ends they get it; when Acts starts they turn the whole world upside down. Their lives were never the same. It changed everything from that point on.

Easter gives us hope. N.T. Wright says:

The message of the resurrection is that this world matters!...If Easter means that Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual sense - [then] it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my personal spiritual life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world - news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn't just about warming hearts.

Easter is good news for the whole world.

Even if you don't believe in Easter, you should want to, because it teaches us that everything sad will come untrue. Everything. As Dostoevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov:

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they've shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.

Easter is hard to believe, but if you believe - when you believe - it changes everything.

Father, we read a story like the story of Easter, and we find it hard to believe. But we're in good company. Those who experienced these events found it hard to believe as well.

But Easter is the great reversal. When our eyes are opened, we see it as the climax of history, the event through which all of history, all of Scripture, all of life, makes sense. So I pray that you would open our eyes, that we would believe. I pray that even those of us who've believed before would have our eyes opened to see it again. And seeing it again, may it turn our worlds upside down and draw us to you. We pray in the name of our risen Lord, Amen.

Good Friday (Luke 23:44-49)

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

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

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

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

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign LORD,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely he took up our pain

and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

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

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Stott says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing the Significance of the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Understand the Message of the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the four ways of responding to Jesus?

1. Outright hostility

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

We read in verses 63-65:

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Mild curiosity

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

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

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

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

Two more responses:

3. Going with the flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more response:

4. Radical Change

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

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

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

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