Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Justice for All Children" slide show

Evan Harrel presented this slide show at
the "Justice for Children" panel presentation
in McPhail Hall on the evening of April 26, 2009.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Emerging in Meyerland

Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." (New Revised Standard Version)


Emerging in Meyerland

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on April 26, 2009 (Easter 3B)

A single mother with a child has been standing in line for several hours in the summer heat. She finally gets to the handout counter where a middle-aged woman from Illinois gives her a packet that contains a comb, diapers, toothpaste, toothbrush, hand wipes, soap and a hand cloth. The single mother does not know that the packet was put together by a Presbyterian in Houston, Texas. She does not realize that the woman handing her the package is a Presbyterian volunteer from Illinois who is staying in a tent village provided by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering received by Presbyterian congregations all across the United States. All the single woman knows is that she and her three year old daughter will fall asleep under the stars feeling clean where they live in D'Iberville, Mississippi. This will be the first night in three weeks she will fall asleep feeling clean since Hurricane Katrina took away their home. The time is now and the social gospel is still at work through the Presbyterian Church.

Jesus told his disciples, "If I go to my Father then you will do the works that I have done and greater works than these shall you." We wonder how the disciples will be able to heal the sick like Jesus does; and how the disciples will be able to raise the dead like Jesus does; and how the disciples will be able to preach the good news with authority like Jesus does? We read in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament story after story about how they did it.

They were meeting in a well-lighted upper room. A young man named Eutychus was sitting in an open window. As Paul preached on and on, Eutychus fell sound asleep and toppled out the third-story window. When they picked him up, he was dead. Paul went down, stretched himself on him, and hugged him hard. "No more crying," he said. "There's life in him yet." (Acts 20:-10, MSG) Jesus is saying the same thing to St. John's Presbyterian Church today: "No more crying. There's life in you yet." Paul shared the gospel throughout the world and so did Peter.

Peter, the disciple who had betrayed Jesus three times on the night of his trial before Pilate, preaches to a crowd in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and 3000 people are converted to the faith. Those who put their trust in the Master were added right and left, men and women both. They even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on stretchers and bedrolls, hoping they would be touched by Peter's shadow when he walked by. They came from the villages surrounding Jerusalem, throngs of them, bringing the sick and bedeviled. And they all were healed. (Acts 5:14-16, MSG) The social gospel at work in the lives of Jesus' disciples.

You may know from reading William Faulkner that Mississippians, similar to native Texans, are blessed with a sense of place. We have deep roots. We are grounded here in a way that is deeper than some other Americans in other places. My father tells the story of Sister Josie Andrews. Sister Andrews was a leader of the women's group at the Puckett Baptist Church in Puckett, Mississippi, where my father was reared. Puckett is in Rankin County just south and east of Jackson. Any time the brothers and sisters of Puckett Baptist Church would have a fellowship dinner, a dinner on the grounds as they called it, they would always call on Sister Josie Andrews to say the blessing. And every time Sister Josie said the blessing she would go at it hard and long in her talk with the Lord. And although the content of her prayer would change each time it always ended the same way. Sister Josie always signed off her blessings like this: "Sister Josie Andrews, Route 3, Box 261a, Puckett, Mississippi." Sister Josie had a sense of place. She knew where she lived and she reminded the Lord of her exact address every time she prayed. We have a sense of place here and that is good.

We know the mindset and we practice it in the church. Our lives revolve around this sanctuary. We come here week after week to worship God. We bring our children here to be reared in the Christian faith. We baptize our babies here, marry off our daughters here, funeralize our dead here. Right here in this place. This is where it happens. God meets us here. The Spirit moves here. Our lives are somehow made right in this place.

Now Jesus takes that concept and turns it upside down. The risen Christ told his disciples they were to do like he did, proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins ... beginning from Jerusalem. And going out from Jerusalem. Out. Out. Out from here! Out from Jerusalem. Into the world. And so Christ says to us in regard to this sanctuary. "I am sending you out from this place to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins ... go and heal the sick, raise the dead, and proclaim the good news. Out. Out of this sanctuary. Out of our comfort zone. Out into the wild and needy world. To bear witness for Christ at the Kroger store, at the high school, the daycare center, in our neighborhood, and throughout the world.

Jesus, too, had a strong sense of place. As a Jew his world revolved around the holy city of Jerusalem. Even after Jesus had ascended into heaven the work of the early church flowed out of Jerusalem. Again, we see Jesus turning things upside down. For before Jesus' arrival everything had flowed into Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the temple, the place where every Jew looked as a place of national pride, spiritual strength and solidarity. Three times a year each Jew would make a journey to Jerusalem to worship in the temple there. Everything revolved around Jerusalem. And Jesus took the Jewish sense of identity, their sense of place, and turned it around on them. Jesus told his disciples that up until now Jerusalem has been the place to which we all come to. But from now on Jerusalem will be the place from which we go out into the world in mission. That movement — not to Jerusalem but from Jerusalem — is the same movement the risen Christ is calling on us to make today.

And we are doing it. We are going out into the world in the name of the risen Christ. We are going out to the world when we send some of our own members on missionary trips to Haiti to set up a water system and solar system. We are going out into the world as we start a new ministry for special needs children and do it for the least of these in the name of the risen Christ. We are witnesses of these things.

We are moving beyond our own comfort zone. We are moving outside the walls of this lovely sanctuary. We are moving beyond West Bellfort in Houston. We are moving on. Emerging from Meyerland. We are moving on.

Our body has to undergo a transformation in order to be habitable in our next destination which is the kingdom of heaven. But until we get to the kingdom of heaven we are to work to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. This way of thinking is part of the prayer our Lord taught us to pray. "Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Think about the Lord's prayer. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Our job on this earth is to work to bring the kingdom of heaven into play on planet earth. It is a job that we are unlikely to complete in our lifetime. Yet this is our mandate. This is our great commission from the risen Christ.

We fulfill this prayer in a thousand different ways. We fulfill it through giving money to missions. We fulfill it through offering use of our church facilities to various community organizations. We fulfill it through going to exotic places such as Uganda and share the gospel there. We do good things all over the place in Jesus name. And what sets us apart in our good works is not so much the quality or quality of what we do but it in the one in whose name we do it.

Like Jesus disciples, we have experienced the risen Christ and we do our good works in his name. Whenever we serve a person in need we are serving the risen Christ. Jesus personalized our service to the world in Matthew 25 when he says,

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.'

We see the same theme in our reading today in Luke 24. The risen Christ appears to the disciples and invites them to look at his hands and feet. "Touch me," he tells them. "For a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And then he showed them his nail scarred hands and feet. The disciples were blown away, thinking, "This is too good to be true! He is alive!" Jesus says in his best Southern drawl: "Y'all got anything to eat around here?" Feed me! The risen Christ wants something to eat. And friends, he is still hungry today. He is hungry and he wants us to feed him. And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. The disciples literally fed the risen Christ. And so do we.

Let's keep feeding the risen Christ by feeding the hungry. Let's keep a roof over the risen Christ's head by giving the homeless a place to live. Let's give some relief to the shivering Christ by clothing children who can't afford new shoes. Let's encourage the risen Christ by visiting the sick. Let's give hope to the risen Christ by calling on those in prison.

We are good here. Houston is a good place. This is our home. This is our sanctuary. Even more than drawing people in here — Jesus wants us to go out to where the people are. Even more than giving to meet our church budget — Jesus challenges us to give more to a needy world. Houston may be our Jerusalem but Jesus challenges us to move out beyond our base -- out into the wild world – as we work to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We reach the risen Christ by reaching out to others -- beginning now. We are emerging in Meyerland -- continuing in Montreal, Moscow, Mexico City, Munich, Mumbai, Madrid, and Manila. Ending when the kingdom of heaven finally comes to this good earth. We are living out the Lord's prayer where Jesus prays: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Declare Forgiveness

A sermon preached by Dr. Jon Burnham

at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on April 19, 2009

from this text:  John 20:19-31

A couple married for 15 years began having more than usual disagreements. They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the wife had. For one month they planned to drop a slip in a "Fault" box. The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations. The wife was diligent in her efforts and approach: "leaving the jelly top off the jar," "wet towels on the shower floor," "dirty socks not in hamper," on and on until the end of the month. After dinner, at the end of the month, they exchanged boxes. The husband reflected on what he had done wrong. Then the wife opened her box and began reading. They were all the same, the message on each slip was, "I love you!" (Unknown.) That is the kind of forgiveness Jesus offers his disciples.

Jesus practiced forgiveness of sins. You can see it in our text today. Just three days after he had been crucified on what we now call Good Friday, Christ arose from the dead on that first Easter morning. According to John's Gospel, it was Mary Magdalene who first encountered the risen Christ. And she told the other disciples who were huddled up in a safe house that she had seen the risen Christ. That night, the other disciples got the proof. For the risen Christ appeared to them. And what did the risen Christ say? Did he say, as he had reason to say, "What in the world have you people been doing for the last three days? I was taken captive in the Garden of Gethsemane and you all ran away like a bunch of scared chickens! Then I was tried by Pontius Pilate and you were nowhere to be found. I was nailed to a cross between two thieves and a few of you showed up to cry about it. Is that the best you could do?" No, the risen Christ did not "dress down" the disciples. Instead, the risen Christ built up the disciples. The first word the risen Christ spoke to the scared disciples was not "Why!" It was "peace." Peace. Peace be with you.

Jesus comes to the disciples and offers the peace that comes from forgiveness. You may have felt that kind of peace before. It's the good feeling you get after an argument with your mother, your spouse or a friend, one that was your fault, and you ask for forgiveness and she or he says okay. That feeling of peace you get then is the kind of peace the disciples felt on that first Easter evening with the risen Christ.

And beyond peace the risen Christ gives his disciples the Holy Spirit. He breathes Holy Spirit onto them and into them. The comforter. Guide. Deliverer. Teacher. The gift that keeps on giving. The Holy Spirit which is the spirit of Jesus Christ. The risen Christ, in effect, gives the disciples his own spirit. He gives them the greatest gift they could ever get. This is three days after they fell asleep while he prayed in the garden. Three days after they denied ever knowing him. Three days after their betrayal. The risen Christ comes to the disciples and he gives himself to them in a deep and real and spiritually mystical way. Now that, my friends, is forgiveness. And that is Jesus. That is the risen Christ and that is what we are to declare.

We are to declare the forgiveness of Christ. As if we still haven't gotten it -- as if we may be dull of understanding -- John's Gospel immediately gives us another account that demonstrates the forgiveness of the risen Christ. It is the story of a disciple named Thomas. This story takes place one week after the risen, forgiving Christ, appears to the disciples. Thomas wasn't there when the risen Christ appears to the other disciples. And Thomas is not buying their story. It sounds too good to be true. Thomas thinks he knows better. He won't be taken in. He's thinks he's smarter than the average disciple. So he tells the other disciples, the ones who have seen the risen Christ, "Listen, until I have seen his nail scarred hands and put my hand in his sword pierced side, I don't believe it." Well, the risen Christ must have gotten word about Thomas, so one week later he appears to Thomas. And notice how Jesus responds to Thomas. Instead of renouncing his lack of faith, instead of accusing him of doubt, instead of insulting him for requiring evidence for himself, the risen Christ focuses his attention on Thomas and says: "Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don't be unbelieving. Believe." The risen Christ offers himself, exposes himself, and challenges Thomas to believe.

Thomas said, "My Master! My God!" I wonder if Thomas was more astounded by the fact that Christ was indeed risen or by the fact that the risen Christ forgave his doubt and accepted him as he was.

Jesus said, "So, you believe because you've seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing."

And that, my friends, is where we enter the story. We do not get to see the risen Christ with our own eyes on this side of heaven. But we do get to experience the risen Christ in a myriad of other ways. Through the Holy Spirit. Our conscience. Our spiritual sense. We get to experience the risen Christ when we barely survive an accident that could have killed us. We get to experience the risen Christ when we witness the birthing of a baby.  We get to experience the risen Christ in many ways the disciples never could because the risen Christ is with us through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

There's a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: "Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father." On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.(Bits & Pieces, October 15, 1992, pp. 13.)

The risen Christ is all about forgiveness. And the risen Christ has commissioned us to declare forgiveness to all God's creation. Everything broken will be put back together again. Everything twisted and tied up in a knot will be unloosed by the loving hands of our divine creator. Everything that is cracked wide open will be glued back together, or better yet, transformed into something greater than it was before. That is true for us. That is true for all humanity. We declare forgiveness. We speak it. We breathe it. This is real and eternal life in the way the risen Christ personally revealed it. We'll give it away. It's too good to keep it to ourselves. Declare forgiveness. This the truth that shoves us forward and takes us places we never thought we would go. Declare forgiveness. This is the truth that shows us miracles we never thought were possible. Declare forgiveness.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Appearances of the Risen Christ

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009 (E1B)
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas

Humorist Isaac Asimov tells the story of a fire-and-brimstone preacher looking down sternly at the worshippers in the pews and saying, "What a fearful thought it is that every member of this congregation is going to die."

He had evoked a somber-looking expression from everyone -- with one exception. A man in the front pew had a disbelieving smile on his face. The preacher's face grew red as he looked squarely at the man in the front pew and said, "I repeat! Every member of this congregation is going to die!" Again a disbelieving smile came over the man's face.

Now the preacher addressed the man directly. "May I ask you what you find so amusing in my statement that everyone in this congregation is going to die? To which the man replied, "I am not amused. I am relieved. You see, I am not a member of this congregation."

Regardless of whatever else you may choose to believe, you can believe that you are going to die. The first thing Paul says about Easter Sunday is that the Messiah died for our sins according to scripture. As we say in the Apostle's Creed, "He was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried." Jesus' death was part of God's plan.

God had a plan for your salvation and mine. Part of that plan called for the suffering of God's Son Jesus Christ. Part of that plan called for Christ to die on the cross. During that part of the plan the disciples did not understand that God's plan was proceeding according to scripture. They questioned God's plan. We are very much like the disciples in that regard. We question God's plan. We question God's plan for us and for this church because we are right in the middle of it. We are taking causalities. People are taking hits. People are dying. We are suffering down here. It feels like a battlefield some days. Marriages are breaking apart. People are searching for work. Some bad things are still happening. And so we sometimes doubt that God's plan is working. But I'm here to tell you that God's plan is still working for this congregation and for all creation!

Christ's work did not end when God raised him from the dead. The risen Christ got to work on that first Easter morning, appearing to a group of women who visited his tomb, telling them to go find the men and tell them they had seen the resurrected Christ. Thank God for the women. The ones who will come to your tomb to weep. The ones who care enough to call even when the men have given up hope. Thank God for the women of the church. The ones who bring you food when you've just had a baby. The ones who feed your family when you've just attended your spouses funeral. Thank God for the women of the church.

The risen Christ had to appear to over 500 people at the same time in order to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was indeed risen. Paul mentions the appearance of Christ to over 500 people at one time. Here is some strong evidence for the resurrection of Christ. When have you ever seen 500 Christians agree on an issue? Yet 500 Christians agreed that Christ appeared to them at the same time in the same place--after his crucifixion.

The risen Christ appeared to the Apostle Paul as Paul was on the road to Damascus in Syria. Paul was going there to persecute Christ's church. The risen Christ had to make a special appearance to Paul in order to convince him to stop killing Christians and begin planting churches all over the world.

The risen Christ still has some work to do today because it doesn't matter that Christ appeared to all of those people if he hasn't appeared to me and you! In the final analysis, Paul talks about his personal experience of Christ's resurrection. And that personal experience is the key to the Christian faith.

I'm with Paul. Christ has appeared to me. I've seen him in some of your eyes. I've heard him in some of your voices. I've seen the risen Christ in other eyes and voices. I've experienced the risen Christ in my heart. I've cried tears of repentance. I've been healed from maladies. I've been saved from despair.

What about you? Has the risen Christ appeared to you? Has the risen Christ appeared to you? Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus Christ. Have you got one? You can have one. Ask the risen Christ to appear to you. That is the only evidence for Easter that will ever matter.

When the risen Christ appears to you He will explain the meaning of life. Easter is all about a four letter word — and Christians are full of it. Or at least we're supposed to be full of it. The four letter word is LIFE.

New life. Whole life. Abundant Life. Redeemed life. Resurrected life. The purpose of life is not death, Easter says. The purpose of life is life . . . a life that triumphs over death forever.

Celebrating Easter is the best thing that the church can do because it is a celebration of all that is good, all that is true, and all that is beautiful. In fact, I would make the case this morning that celebrating Easter is the greatest public service the church can perform for the world. Why? Because it is the reality of Easter that makes everything else we would do possible.

Remember Jesus' final words on the cross? "It is finished."

When the soldiers taking Jesus' body down from the cross stabbed him with a spear point, "blood and water came out" (John 19:34). That rush of fluids revealed what may have been the actual final cause of death for Jesus — a burst aorta. Jesus died of a broken heart. The breaking of Jesus' heart was what "finished" Jesus' sacrifice. On Easter morning the great surprise is that sacrifice was not the end of Jesus' mission. Out of Jesus' broken heart there emerged a new heart, a resurrected heart, an unbreakable, unstoppable heart. Out of the Last Adam's split side a new Eve was conceived, the bride of Christ, the church, whose life revolves around the water of baptism and the blood of communion.

Leonard Sweet says: "An Easter heart church is always in a state of arrhythmia, always experiencing adrenaline surges, always skipping beats, and always a racing pulse. An Easter heart is an arrhythmic heart because in an Easter heart church the unexpected is always happing. Resurrection happens. Miracles happen. Truth happens. Goodness happens. Beauty happens. Jesus happens." And that is what is happening at St. John's Presbyterian Church. We are an Easter church. We are alive! The unexpected is always happening here. Jesus is happening here!

A minister was preaching and during the course of his sermon asked, "Who wants to go to heaven?" Everyone held up their hands except one young boy. "Son, don't you want to go to heaven when you die?"

"Yes sir, when I die, but I thought you was gettin' up a load to go now."

That is probably the attitude of most of us. Most Christians DO figure that when we die we go to heaven to be with the Lord, even if we are not ready to make the trip tomorrow. (David E. Leininger, Collected Sermons, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc.)

The profound message of Easter is that we can experience eternal life as human beings before we die! We may experience new life in Christ NOW when the risen Christ appears to us!

A man named George was accustomed to driving his wife, Rosie, to church every Sunday. And every Sunday, they parked in the same spot. George and Rosie had been married for forty years and they loved each other very deeply. They did everything together. They were inseparable in almost every area of their life, except one. When George drove his wife to church Rosie went in and George remained in the car. Where he would read the Sunday paper.

Rosie died, and for many Sundays after, church members looked wistfully at the parking lot because George's car was no longer seen there. Several months later, on Easter Sunday, George's car again appeared, and George went into church.

The preacher delivered a stirring resurrection sermon and then, as was his custom, invited the members of the congregation to respond. No sooner had the words left his mouth than George stood up and with deep emotion said firmly, "Rosie lives!" And then he began to sing: "My wild Irish Rose, the sweetest flower that grows . . ." One person joined in, then another, and another. Finally, everyone present was joyfully singing what someone later described as "The most beautiful Easter hymn ever sung in our church."

George came to know first hand, the truth of God's final answer. And it gave his life hope. Because Resurrection is God's final answer. (Author unknown )

May each of us come to know the truth of God's final answer. And may it give us hope. Then may we join with the Apostle Paul in the expression of our faith, as we say, "O death, where is thy sting?" For whether we live, or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Way Up is Down

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Philippians 2:1-13 
on April 5, 2009 (Palm + Passion Sunday, Year B)
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

The last week of our Lord's earthly life and ministry was like a Hollywood movie. It was lights - cameras - action. The opening act of this dramatic week—the Palm Sunday parade—reminds me of a humorous story about the Hollywood actor, Francis X. Bushman.

Bushman, the first of the movie idols, started as a sculptor's model. He was working in 1915 for the Essanay studio in Chicago for $250 a week, but his agent David Freedman knew that in the gold-rush atmosphere that prevailed among the competing film studios, the sky was the limit for talent with a proven following. How to prove Bushman was such a talent was the problem, and Freedman conceived of a plan.

The agent instructed Bushman to take the train to New York. Freedman met him at Grand Central, carrying a large sack of pennies. The sack had a small hole, and as the two gold-diggers walked along forty-second street they were followed along the trail of pennies by a surging crowd. Of course, pennies were worth something back then. By the time Bushman and his agent arrived at the Broadway offices of the Metro Film Corporation, the movie executives looking out the window beheld such a mass of followers that they felt lucky to sign Bushman for a mere thousand dollars a week. (Peter Hay, Move Anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) That was when a thousand dollars was a lot of money, too.

One would think that Jesus was leaving a trail of shekels, the way the crowds followed him on that first Palm Sunday. Jesus began the week as a hero. But before the week was over he would be crucified, dead and buried.

A mother and her young daughter were driving to the zoo during Lent. On their way, the little girl began counting out loud the crosses on various church steeples.

"Mom," she asked, interrupting her counting, "how many times did Jesus die?"

"One time, dear," her mother answered.

"Then why are there so many crosses?" the little girl asked.

"To help us remember how much Jesus loved us," her mother replied. "He died on the cross for us."

"Well," the child responded, "how could we forget something like that? (Malinda Fillingim Kentucky, The Upper Room, March/April 1996, p. 41.) How could we forget something like that? And yet we do, don't we?

This is the Sunday we celebrate not only Christ's victorious entry into Jerusalem but also his passion—his crucifixion and death upon the cross.

We get a foreshadowing of the crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the garden, Jesus prayed, "If it is possible, take this cup from me." But, even as he prayed, Jesus knew what he must do. And thus he closed his prayer with these simple words, "Not my will, but thine be done." I wonder if it was the physical pain he dreaded as he knelt in the garden as much as it was the abject humiliation.

Philip Yancey in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, tells a heart-breaking story very much like Christ's humiliation. The story comes from a memoir by Pierre Van Paassen about the years before World War II. In this memoir Van Paassen tells of an act of humiliation by Nazi storm troopers who had seized an elderly Jewish rabbi and dragged him to headquarters. In the afar end of the same room, two colleagues were beating another Jew to death, but the captors of the rabbi decided to have some fun with him. They stripped him naked and commanded that he preach the sermon he had prepared for the coming Sabbath in the synagogue. The rabbi asked if he could wear his yarmulke, and the Nazis, grinning, agreed. It added to the joke. The trembling rabbi proceeded to deliver in a raspy voice his sermon on what it means to walk humbly before God, all the while being poked and prodded by the hooting Nazis, and all the while hearing the last cries of his neighbor at the end of the room.

"When I read the gospel accounts," says Yancey, "of the imprisonment, torture, and execution of Jesus, I think of that naked rabbi standing humiliated in a police station. Even after watching scores of movies on the subject, and reading the Gospels over and over, I still cannot fathom the indignity, the shame endured by God's Son on earth, stripped naked, flogged, spat on, struck in the face, garlanded with thorns." (Fred Smith, Ch. 16, Moving Beyond Belief, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993) One night the confirmation class watched a film version of the crucifixion of Jesus. One particularly striking scene was when the Roman soldier pushed the crown of thorns on Jesus head.

As the little girl said, "Who could forget something like that?" Jesus totally submitted himself to God's will.

When our Lord entered our world He modeled a different perspective on things. In coming and dying for our sins, He in essence said, "The way up....the way to life and fulfillment and joy is not to put self and personal needs first....NO....the way up is DOWN...the way to find happiness is to become a servant and put the needs of others first." And this is exactly opposite of the way our society tends to look at things. The vast majority of the people in our country tend to think that the way up is UP......the way to GAIN is to get. They would think that to do otherwise would be absurd.

I love this quote from Bill Hybel's book, Descending Into Greatness. He writes:

"In the vocabulary of our world "DOWN" is a word reserved for losers, cowards, and the bear market. It is a word to be avoided or is a word that negatively colors whatever it touches. We say: DOWN and out, DOWNfall, DOWNscale, DOWNhearted and worst of all, DOWN under. And down's antonym is 'UP'— a word in our high-voltage society that has come to be cherished and worshiped....a word reserved to describe winners and heroes. Unlike the word, 'down,' 'up' positively colors whatever it touches. We say things like: UPscale, UP and coming, UPper class, and UPWARDLY MOBILE. We believe in ASCENDING to fame, money, power, comfort, and pleasure. In our society UP is clearly the direction of greatness. From the world's perspective, it is the only way to go ... just as a compass needle points north, the human needle points UP."

But you know, like a tidal wave, Jesus crashes into our worldly way of thinking and flips things. He turns everything upside down by teaching that if you truly want to be great, you must go down. You must descend into greatness. You see, according to Jesus' way of thinking, greatness is not a measure of self-will but self-abandonment. The more you give, the more you gain.

You probably know that John Newton wrote the words to the much-loved hymn, Amazing Grace. Well, Newton once speculated that if two angels in heaven were given assignments by God at the same instant, one of them to go and rule over the greatest nation on earth and the other to go sweep the streets of the dirtiest village. He said that if this happened each angel would be completely indifferent as to which one got which assignment.

It simply wouldn't matter to these angels because they know that the real joy lies not in the task itself but in simply being obedient to God. And Christian servants have likewise discovered that the important thing in life isn't what God has us doing. No, the truly important thing is that we're simply doing what God wants us to do.

The way up is down for in Jesus God indeed came down to our level. He put our needs above His own privileges. He humbled Himself and was obedient even to the point of death on the cross on our behalf. So may we do for others.