Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Jesus in the Wilderness

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 4:1-13

at Batesville Presbyterian Church on the

First Sunday of Lent, February 25, 2007

            The wilderness is not somewhere we want to be. The very word, wilderness, conjures us negative synonyms such as waste, badlands, barren, desert, wasteland, wild, wild land, wildness. The wilderness is not a nice place and it is not a safe place. In the scripture, the wilderness is a place of chaos haunted by the devil. The wilderness is not a place that ordinarily comes to mind when we think of places the Holy Spirit may lead us. Yet, we see in our text today that is was the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness.

            And sure enough, right off the bat, Jesus encounters the devil in the wilderness and for forty days the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. The devil came at Jesus through his appetites which is the same way he comes after us. Jesus was fasting in the wilderness and when his fast was over he was famished. The devil approaches Jesus and gently puts an innocent thought into his head. The devil merely suggests that if Jesus is really the Son of God he could command a stone to become a loaf of bread. Just an idea. Something to think about. It sounds like a great idea to someone who hasn't eaten in forty days.

            Yet, even in his starving state, Jesus controls his appetite, for he knows his mission as Son of God is not to serve himself but serve others. Jesus knows he is on the earth not to make bread for his physical body to eat but to give his physical body as bread for the world to eat. Jesus first temptation is the devil's attempt to twist his mission from being bread to making bread. Jesus answers the devil, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" Later, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus will serve bread to his disciples and tell them, "This is my body, broken for you." Score one for Jesus.

            But of course the devil is not finished. He's not even discouraged. He is simply relentless and continues the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by taking him up and showing him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world, saying: "They're yours in all their splendor to serve your pleasure. I'm in charge of them all and can turn them over to whomever I wish. Worship me and they're yours, the whole works." Jesus does not question the devil's authority over the world for Jesus knows in his heart he will one day break the devil's stranglehold over planet earth. And that, Jesus knows, is his mission. Again, he is not here to be served but to pour himself out in service to others. So Jesus refuses the devil's offer, again backing his refusal with a quote from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy: "Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness." (Luke 4:8, MSG) Jesus now has the momentum against the devil. He's resisted his temptations twice in a row. But the devil comes back again as if nothing has happened.

             For the third test the Devil took him to Jerusalem and put him on top of the Temple. He said, "If you are God's Son, jump. It's written, isn't it, that 'he has placed you in the care of angels to protect you; they will catch you; you won't so much as stub your toe on a stone'?" (Luke 4:9-11, MSG) Jesus, full of insight, realizes the problem with this suggestion, for by acting on the devil's suggestion Jesus would confront God with the indignity of being put to a test by his own beloved Son. Jesus rebukes the devil, saying, "Yes, and scripture also says, 'Don't you dare tempt the Lord your God.'" (Luke 4:12, MSG)

             That completed the testing in the wildnerness. The Devil retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity. That opportunity comes later in the form of Judas Iscariot, whom the devil uses to coordinate the crucifixion of Jesus. But there in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he faces the cross, Jesus bests the devil again by resisting the temptation to take the easy way out. Jesus faces the horror of the cross, stares it down, and submits to God's will, knowing that in doing so he will face not only shame and the death of his body but the even more excruciating pain of separation from God when he descends into hell on behalf of us and all humanity.

            Thus ends the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus passes the test. He keeps the faith. He resists temptation. He thwarts the devil. Jesus has been in the wilderness. Jesus has faced temptation. So when we find ourselves retreating into the wilderness of addiction, sex, or violence, we can know that we are not there in that hellish place alone. For Jesus Christ our Lord has been in that wilderness before. He has faced whatever it is we face. And the best good news of today on this First Sunday of Lent is this: Jesus is with us in the wildnerness. We are not alone.

            Perhaps you've heard this anonymous story but it bears repeating as we begin our Lenten Journey.

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.

Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.

Sometimes there were two sets of footprints.

Other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life

When I was suffering from anguish, sorrow, or defeat,

I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord, "You promised me, Lord,

That if I followed you, you would walk with me always.

But I noticed that during the most trying periods of my life

There have only been one set of prints in the sand.

Why, When I have needed you most, you have not been there for me?"

The Lord replied,

"The times when you have seen only one set of footprints

Is when I carried you."


            As the great spiritual song says, "Jesus walked this lonesome valley. He had to walk it by himself. Oh, nobody else, could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself." Jesus had to walk it by himself so that we will never walk alone. Jesus passed his test in the wilderness so he can help us with ours. Jesus knows how to find us in the wilderness because he's been there himself. Jesus walks with us through the wilderness experiences of our lives.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Love Bears the Unbearable

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 1 Corinthians 13
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on February 18, 2007

            Last week I was surprised to see Kendrick Sledge being interviewed on CNN. I know Kendrick from my time in seminary in Richmond, Virginia, when she was a child and her father, James Sledge, was my best friend in serminary. Kendrick is now a Sophomore at Boston University and there she was on CNN speaking about her experience in an abusive relationship when she was 14 years old and dating a 19 year old boy. She is educating young women on the dangers of abusive relationships and how to get out of them. Kendrick reminds us when we say "love bears the unbearable" we do not intend to encourage women to remain in abusive relationships with men.
            On the other hand, there is much to be said for Saint Augustine's paraphrase of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul writes "love endures all things" and Augustine paraphrases him "love bears the unbearable."   Of course this phrase applies to God's love as demonstrated most clearly in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. But my contention is that even us human beings, and especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, can and do emulate Christ in this respect. In our feeble ways, we too are learning and practicing that great truth: "Love bears the unbearable."
            Let's consider a few movies and see what they say about how love bears the unbearable.
            First, let's consider Clint Eastwood's movie, Million Dollar Baby. Here Clint Eastwood plays the role of Frankie Dunn who has trained many a fine fighter in his career as a boxing coach. The most important lesson he conveys to all his protégés is the importance of protecting yourself in the ring. On the personal side, Frankie suffers from a broken relationship with his daughter. Then a young lady by the name of Maggie Fitzgerald walks into his gym and wants him to take her on and teach her to box. Maggie comes from the wrong side of the tracks and has it in her mind that boxing will be her ticket out of the cycle of poverty in which she and her dysfunctional family dwell. Frankie finally agrees to take her on and teaches her the importance of protecting herself in the ring. Maggie follows Frankie's direction and gets on a winning streak that eventually takes her across Europe until one night when she meets a dirty fighter and forgets that most important lesson of all. She forgets to protect herself in the ring. The championship fight ends with Maggie being paralyzed from the neck down. As she gets progressively worse in the hospital, having one leg amputated and then another, she begs Frankie to restore her dignity by helping her to die. Frankie finally grants her wish and helps Maggie die in what he and she considers to be an act of unselfish love. Regardless of our stance on the issue of euthanasia, we have all had some experience with these questions as we struggle with ethical questions in regards to our loved ones. Having a living will is one thing but honoring it on behalf of our parents or spouse teaches us the lesson that love bears the unbearable. Our family relationships teach us that love bears the unbearable.  
            This is a lesson we learn also in our experiences in the church family to which we belong. Living and loving in the context of a church family is a theme explored by a movie called Babette's Feast. Babette is a famous chef in Napoleon's Paris when she has to flee the country due to being caught on the wrong side of a political debate. She flees to Denmark where she takes up residence with a couple of older widow women. These women run a small church of about 20 members that has been continually declining since their father, who had been pastor of the church, died. Babette gets involved with the little church and finds it to be full of bickering, dissension and unrest. One day Babette gets notice she has won the lottery back in France. Shortly thereafter she receives a check worth millions of dollars. She uses the money to throw an elaborate feast and cook up the finest food available on the planet. The conflicted congregation slowly melts into the moment and over the course of Babette's exquisite seven course meal a healing takes place between the members of the congregation. After the feast, the congregation assumes she will be leaving them since she is now rich. Babette says, "What? Leaving? Rich? I don't have any money. I blew it all on that feast! I threw it away for a feast for you all. I'm not going anywhere." Babette is a Christ figure in this movie because, like Christ, Babette does not protect herself in the ring of life. Babette exposes her full heart to a small, dysfunctional, church family. And she gives away a fortune to them expecting nothing in return and even after that she remains with them in solidarity, in love. Here is an image of God's love which is the kind of love that bears the unbearable, brooks even unlovely, unlikable, uninteresting people. The kind of love Babette displays is the kind of extravagant love Jesus practiced. It is a love that goes beyond expectations -- beyond the call of duty -- it is an all encompassing love.
            As a seminary student I visited the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Jerusalem, and I was stunned by one exhibit in particular. It was a large room with a tall ceiling and a glass wall. Behind the glass wall were tiny, wrinkled leather, children's shoes. A whole big room full of antiquated children's shoes. They were the shoes of children killed in Nazi concentration camps such as Ravensbruck. It was in Ravensbruck, that place so tainted by evil, that someone found a poem by an anonymous author.  A brief poem that describes how this voluntary self-empting -- agape, caritas -- can transform even the greatest human evil into something of beauty. Here is the poem:

O Lord,
remember not only the men and women of good will
but also those of ill will.

But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us
remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our
courage, our generosity,
the greatness of heart which has grown
out of all this.

And when they come to judgment
let all this fruit which we have born
be their forgiveness.

             What a testament to the human spirit. What a testament to a love that bears all things. Here we see that by continuing to pour oneself out in self-giving love even the darkest evil can be transformed into an act of incredible love.
            I close with the words that were found on a piece of paper in the pocket of a Confederate soldier over a hundred years ago, and though they have been commandeered by politicians and sentimentalists in recent years, I believe that they contain great wisdom:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do grater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have praise;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for –
But everything that I had hoped for."

             What an amazing thing: the things we do not know. One thing we do know. Love bears the unbearable. And with God's help, so shall we. So shall we.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Go Deep

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 5:1-11
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on February 4, 2007


            Lake Gennesaret is a beautiful setting for the story today. The lake has a holy aura about it left over from the time when Jesus walked the shores and taught the people sitting in a boat out a little ways on the water. Once when he was standing on the shore of Lake Gennesaret, the crowd was pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God. He noticed two boats tied up. The fishermen had just left them and were out scrubbing their nets. He climbed into Simon's boat and asked him to put out a little from the shore. Sitting there, using the boat for a pulpit, he taught the crowd.

            While Jesus is teaching from the boat, some fishermen are cleaning their nets on the shore, listening to Jesus teach as they work. These professional fishermen are in the process of cleaning their nets because they have finished working for the night. They have fished all night and caught nothing. As a casual fisherman I've had the experience fishing all day and not catching anything. It is not a pleasant experience. How much worse these professional fishermen must have felt for they have fished all night and caught nothing. They have lost time. They have lost money. They are tired and probably a bit miffed as they go through the laborious task of cleaning their nets.

            When he finished teaching, he said to Simon, "Push out into deep water and let your nets out for a catch." Jesus, a carpenter by trade, is telling them to take the nets they have just cleaned and go back out in the water and cast their nets out into the deep water and they will catch some fish. This means the nets will get dirty again, full of weeds or whatever dwells in the deep water in Lake Gennesaret. It must have seemed to the fishermen like an irrational suggestion.

            Simon says, "Master, we've been fishing hard all night and haven't caught even a minnow. But if you say so, I'll let out the nets."

            Here we see a repeating pattern in the Biblical narrative. God's messenger makes a seemingly irrational suggestion and when people respond unbelievably good things happen. For instance, take Naaman the Syrian who suffered from leprosy. Jesus referred to Naaman in his first sermon and so gave a hint as to the pattern of his coming ministry. Naaman was a Syrian general. That is three strikes against him. First, he is a person of a different religion. Second, he is a citizen of an enemy nation. Third, he is a general in an enemy army. As we like to say in baseball and elsewhere, three strikes and you're out. Yet, the message of both the Old and the New Testament is that God is continually breaking that rule. Far from being out, God considered Naaman to be in, and so when Naaman came to the prophet Elisha, God spoke through Elisha to give Naaman a seemingly irrational suggestion. If you want to be cured of you leprosy, go wash yourself seven times in the River Jordan. Naaman thought this was a ridiculous suggestion and refused to consider it until his servants talked him intro trying what the prophet suggested. The result is that Naaman was cured. This man with three strikes against was cured while others were not. He was cured because he acted on a seemingly unreasonable suggestion from God. It's as if Jesus, in his first sermon, was giving a clue about his upcoming ministry and saying, "Hide and watch. See what happens to the people who respond to my seemingly illogical suggestions."

            This is certainly the case in our story this morning. Jesus has just told some fishermen who had just fished all night and caught nothing to take their clean nets back into the middle of Lake Gennesaret and throw them in the deep water and they'll catch some fish. This is not a rational suggestion. But Simon has already experienced the power of Jesus. He was there when Jesus healed his mother-in-law from a fever. He has seen Jesus cure mentally and emotionally distressed people in Capernaum.

            So Simon acts on Jesus' seemingly ridiculous suggestion. He gets his fishing crew together. They get the boats back out in the middle of the lake. They let out the nets into the deep water. When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. These nets that had caught nothing after fishing all night. These nets that had just been cleaned. These nets were now so full of fish they were bursting at the seams. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. The two boats were simply swamped with fish.

            But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And at this tender moment when Simon's heart was fully open to the mysteriously powerful presence of God in this man, Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

            Let the record show that what Jesus said to Simon about fishing for people came to pass. For we read in the Acts of the Apostles that on the day of Pentecost, Simon Peter preached to a crowd of people in Jerusalem. That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

            All of this followed from such a fragile beginning. Jesus made a seemingly irrational suggestion to Simon and his fishing partners. They did what Jesus suggested and the rest is history. Obedience to God's seemingly unreasonable suggestions is the way into the deep waters of the miraculous power of God. Try it in your own life this week and see what happens. When the Spirit nudges you in a certain direction, respond and go there, act, and do that. When Jesus says to you, "Go deep," don't question why or how, just do it.