Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Everything Is Possible with God - Message

This message refers back to the skit (previous post) performed earlier in the service. It is helpful to read the skit prior to the message.

As we’re looking at this passage today in Mark 10, I’d encourage you to keep your Bibles open. It should also be helpful to keep in mind the skit we did earlier—this will help illustrate some of what’s going on it this story today.

In VBS this past week, we learned about trusting God—and we can trust Him because all things are possible with God. You probably noticed that this theme verse for VBS is taken from this story we just read.

But to get a better idea of what’s going on here, let’s look more closely at these conversations in our passage today.

Little Children

We started reading even before the man comes to Jesus, because the previous section is helpful in framing the story for today. People are bringing children for Jesus to bless, but the disciples try to stop them. But maybe the disciples think that Jesus has more important things to do. He has a full schedule—preaching, miracles, debates. Important stuff.

But Jesus clears His schedule for these children. He even tells the disciples that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Wow. So the disciples shouldn’t keep the children from Jesus; they have to actually become like children in some way.

There are several different ways to understand this. It could be referring to the sense of trust a child has for their parents. They just humbly receive the parents’ love and care.[1] We might guess at how the opposite of this could look: If anyone comes to Jesus with a full resume of all their talents and qualifications—almost like Flash tried to impress the pilot who offered him flying lessons, by bringing his videogames—they won’t be able to receive Jesus. They must become like little children, bringing nothing in their arms but accepting God’s offer.

And it’s amazing. Jesus took these children, even babies, in His arms and blessed these, even when they had done nothing for Him. That’s grace.

 The Rich Man

Then, right after this, we see a man who’s run up to Jesus and knelt before Him. If we were reading this for the first time, maybe we would wonder if he’ll be an example of receiving the kingdom of God like a child. Let’s see what happens.

Now we hear him: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Seems he wants to do something. We know from later on that he is rich—so maybe he has the capability of doing lots of good things, helping people, giving to the temple, and more.

As we’re wondering what this passage might mean for us, I think we shouldn’t just think of wealth as only about money. Think of land, think of what might have been the man’s inheritance. For us, think maybe of our wealth as things we tend to cling to—talents, success, intelligence, good deeds, not having done any “big” sins—even the fact that we might work in a church, even being a pastor. Or just those things we value most in our lives—our family, our car, our friends, our lifestyle. For Flash, it was his videogames, and all his skills that he hoped would impress the famous pilot.

We could each think of something that we personally treasure, and would hold onto more tightly than anything else.

All this could be seen as our wealth.

Now Jesus asks the man a question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.” So Jesus, as God’s own Son and Himself God, is good—but we don’t know if this man truly recognized that. This also means that this man himself isn’t good, because only God is good. He is lacking, needy, poor before Jesus. But does he recognize that?

Jesus now tells him some of the commandments—how people are supposed to live rightly before God. And the man says, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Checkmark. Been there, done that. Maybe he doesn’t truly recognize his neediness—thinking he’s good. But at least he sees that he needs something, or he would never have come to Jesus at all.

Jesus looked at the man and loved him, and seems recognize what was standing between the man and God. Even though this man is wealthy, Jesus points out that he’s lacking one thing. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor...”

Maybe in a way it’s poverty that this man lacks. He thinks he has it all, can do it all, but maybe he’s more like Flash Skyrunner in our skit earlier. Flash thought he could take all his videogames with him, that he could impress the pilot with his gaming skills, but really they were just a barrier. He couldn’t even fit in the cockpit with them. His skills, and the fear of losing them, could have kept him from actually ever just admitting he didn’t know how to fly and accepting the flying lessons from the real expert. The rich man is coming to Jesus with all his wealth in his arms, loaded down, and Jesus seems to show him that he has to be poor to receive eternal life. For some reason, the man’s wealth is just a barrier between him and Jesus. Jesus’ call to follow is just grace, a gift, but a gift that costs us everything. God’s currency is radically different from ours.
If being a Christian doesn’t ever feel costly, we may not be truly following Jesus as we are called to.

I have a friend from Saudi Arabia who is a Muslim, and we had many conversations about faith. But if he were to become a Christian, the laws in that country would technically allow him to be killed—though not practiced. But on top of this, how would his family and community react? He might lose his family—but like Jesus says at the end of our passage today, he would gain another family: all those who believe in Christ. Obeying Jesus’ call must be costly in some way, or we may be conforming instead of following. And what God gives us freely is far greater than anything we leave behind.

Eternal life is a gift. We can’t earn it. If the man were to obey Jesus and seel all he has, he still wouldn’t be earning eternal life; only God can do this, and then only He can give life.  We can’t impress Jesus enough to get it because of any of our talents or accomplishments, or by our church attendance or the number of sermons we have preached or listened to. And we can’t follow Jesus if we’re unwilling to be emptied of the things we hold tightest—even our family and our very selves, sense of identity. They have to be given to God.

Like we read in Isaiah 55 at the beginning of the service, this life is for people who recognize their need—poor people, but in a much broader sense than just financially. “Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! Come, take your choice of wine or milk— it’s all free!”

Remember the words from the song “You, You, You” that we sang earlier: “You don’t have to be the fastest, strongest, you don’t have to hold your breath the longest. You don’t have to be a star, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can trust God!” Flash couldn’t impress the pilot with his gaming skills, and we can’t impress God with our talents or resumes or good deeds.

Everything we want more than Jesus will have to be stripped away or we will never follow Him. We have to come recognizing our need for His grace and forgiveness, submitting to His work in our lives and His radical call for us to hand over all our treasures, all our wealth. Again, like the VBS song says, “You can take Him at His word, and give Him your heart.”

There’s a well-known passage in Philippians 3 that relates: “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:7-11)

Flash had to leave his videogames and skills behind. The rich man had to leave his wealth or inheritance behind. The Israelites had to leave Egypt or they could never inherit the Promised Land.

After this, Jesus says, “Then come, follow me.” The rich man is wondering how to inherit eternal life. The only place he’s going to find it will be in following Jesus.

A couple weeks ago, we talked about Jesus as God’s Son, and because He’s God’s Son, He is the only one who has the right to inherit anything. We all have rebelled, turned from God—including this rich young man. But we learned that belonging to Jesus, believing in Him, we are also God’s children.

And we read in Hebrew 9: “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Heb. 9:15)[2] This inheritance comes through Christ. And Jesus is basically equating eternal life with following Him.

In John 17, we read some of Jesus’ prayer to His Father. He can give eternal life to all those His Father has given Him. Then He says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3, NIV 1984) So this man will only find what he’s looking for in relationship with Jesus, in following Jesus. And later on we’ll see more of where he’s following Jesus to—where Jesus is going. Flash can only learn to fly by lessons from the famous pilot—getting to know him and learning from him. In a way that’s even greater, we only have true life in Jesus, when His hands take ours.

Responding to Jesus

So how will the man react to Jesus’ command and invitation? He goes away sad, not willing to let go of his wealth. He’d rather hold onto all of this, rather than letting it go to come after Jesus. Flash was holding tightly onto his videogames, but there was no way to learn how to fly without at some point letting go of these things. He couldn’t do it on his own, but with God all things are possible.

Then Jesus looks around and tells his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus must be mistaken here; how could he have meant to say that? Rich people are obviously those blessed by God, so they must be more good than others, and they can do more for God too. Wouldn’t it be easier for them to be saved??

Then Jesus says something even more ridiculous. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The biggest animal in this region, and a tiny opening. And when the disciples anxiously question Jesus on this, he shows that it can’t be done. “With man this is impossible.” We can’t save ourselves. But God can. “...all things are possible with God.” There are a couple different ways this image has been taken, but either way, Jesus confirms that it is an impossible thing He is picturing. A camel can’t go through the eye of a needle. Flash can’t teach himself to fly, can’t fit through the cockpit with his TV, can’t give up these things on his own. “With man this is impossible.”

The rich man can’t both cling to his wealth and follow Jesus. This doesn’t mean Christians can’t be wealthy, but it means that we cannot cling to anything as if it really belongs to us.

So the rich man leaves. And now we remember what we read earlier: that we must receive the Kingdom of God like children. They don’t come with an impressive resume. They just come with open arms. And God is able to make us like little children.

The disciples have entered Jesus’ flight school, as we hear from Peter next. They left everything to follow Jesus. The only resume they have is: “Forgiven disciple, has nothing except Jesus, belongs to Jesus, following Him by His grace.” The life that Jesus gives is a gift so expansive that it must push everything else out of our life—everything we would cling to on our own. There’s no room for it, like there was no room for Flash’s videogames in the airplane cockpit. But then we find little by little that in Christ, we have all we need and it’s so much better than trying to hold onto the things we valued most. When we let go, we are freed to receive all that God desires to give us back as a gift from Him.

Of course, they are still in training. Back in chapter 9 the disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest. They desert Jesus when He is arrested. Peter disowns Jesus later on. Even after the resurrection, we know that Peter was afraid of what the Jews would think about him eating with the Gentiles, and Paul had to confront him on this. They’re still in training, as we all are even once we’re enrolled as Christ’s disciples. It’s all by grace. We don’t deserve to be taught by Him, or forgiven, or have His ongoing patience with us as He continues to strip away all our sin and all the things that load us down like Flash’s TV, videogames, and what he thought he knew about flying from the Nintendo Wii. Thank God for this! But these things must come away. We must come to God with empty hands, and let Him empty us so He can fill us. We have to unlearn what we thought we knew so He can teach us the real thing.

“Follow Me” the Cross: The Gospel

This rich man didn’t realize his utter need of Jesus. And if he did, he wasn’t willing to lose the thing which was standing between him and Jesus. He needed to follow Jesus to where Jesus was going—to the Last Supper and to the cross. In the Last Supper in Mark 14—which we’ll be celebrating next week—Jesus would teach the disciples that life and forgiveness was only found in Him, in His sacrifice for them. The judgment for all their sins, all the ways they had not lived as God commanded them to live, was born by Jesus on the cross. He died so we could have eternal life. No matter how rich we think we are, no matter how good, how talented, how good looking or popular, how often we go to church or even whether we are a pastor, we can never make up for our rebellion against God.

There’s a joke about a man who takes his wealth with him to heaven only to find that it’s already paved with gold—so he’s just brought a piece of asphalt. Any “goodness” we cling to, or anything that we want to cling to instead of Jesus—is just as worthless in dealing with our sins. And even more, it can be deadly in keeping us from Christ.

A well-known missionary named Jim Elliot, wrote in his journal, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." [3] He ultimately was martyred on the mission field. I never want to reach the end of my life, and find all that I had grabbed onto—like the rich man—was meaningless and empty.

Giving up those things that stand between us and Jesus’ offer to follow Him is hard—impossible without God. And it hurts. But there is also a real freedom, a joy in being freed from these things.

Growing up, for many years I wrestled heavily with questions about faith, the Bible, and Jesus. Was this true? Was it historically sound? It came to a point during my sophomore year in college where it seemed like a decision point—would I go on believing this, or would I not? It seemed that I demanded being able to fully understand what I would believe. Intellectual control was one of my riches, what I clung to most tightly.

One night in particular, I remember praying and thinking about all this. I had been given solid evidence of God’s existence and grounding for the Christian faith. I saw the lives of those around me, how they were evidence of this truth, I had seen God at work in my own life, and there was plenty of other evidence that it made sense to believe the truths of the Bible; they were not without grounding. But ultimately, it came to a point of faith. God had given me sufficient evidence of the truth even though I would never have the intellectual certainty I was looking for. And this night, I ultimately ended up giving up my need for intellectual certainty and control. This was something that was coming between me and God, and it had to be stripped away. And with this came such a sense of freedom. I still have questions, and still study, but now it is more on the foundation of belief in Christ, than on a constant shaky doubting. 

And as we mentioned before, it’s an ongoing process too. I, we, belong to Jesus. But thank the Lord, He doesn’t stop there. He is still showing me the things I cling to, and stripping them off little by little. And this is true for all Christians.

Earlier we thought of something that we personally value most highly, and would hold onto more tightly than anything else. That too must come to Jesus, so He can strip it from us. Maybe He’ll give it back, maybe not. But God alone must be the One we value above all else.

Only God can strip us of all these videogames and our false humility and self-righteousness and “good works” and make us new, forgiven. Only He can teach us to fly. Eternal life—the life that we were always meant to live—is only found in following Jesus, in relationship with Him. And He can make the rich poor enough to follow Him, to receive Him. And He can save even us: All things are possible with God. Let’s come to this God today. And following Jesus, belonging to Him, we find life that is as it was always meant to be, eternal life in relationship with our God. What a wonderful God and Savior we have!

[1] Hendrikson: “humble trustfulness.” Or NET Bible note.See Matthew 18:2-4
[2] See also 1 Peter 1:3-5, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” (NIV)

Everything Is Possible with God - Skit

I wrote this as a final skit for a VBS-themed Sunday service that followed up on our church’s recent VBS week. This skit is a follow-up on the week’s skit series on the character of “Flash Skyrunner” (as summarized in the first paragraph below).

Used by permission. © 2012 Group Publishing, Inc.  All rights reserved.  No unauthorized duplication permitted.

The passage for the message later in the service is Mark 10:13-31—the story of the Rich Young Ruler coming to Jesus.

Leader: Some of you probably remember Flash Skyrunner from this past week. He wanted to be a pilot, but it turned out all he had ever done were airplane videogames on the Nintendo Wii. But he finally entered flight school and graduated—and was hoping to attend the Flight Academy next year. And as you might remember, we were helping him learn a couple lessons about trusting God through this time. No matter who you are...TRUST GOD! No matter how you feel...TRUST GOD! No matter what other people do...TRUST GOD! No matter what happens...TRUST GOD! And no matter where you are...TRUST GOD! I sure hope he learned those with us. And in fact, I actually just received a letter...

(Flash stumbles in, wearing his flight jacket, hat, and scarf, and holding onto a TV and videogame controllers)

Leader: Oh, hi Flash! Wow—you’ve got quite the load there. What are you up to?

Flash: Well, I just beat level 493 on my flight simulator! It’s the level where you have to fly through a whole fleet of teenage mutant snail copters and take your passengers safely to the other side. It was hard—but after 3 days straight, I beat it!

Leader: Um, wow. That’s pretty impressive...So I was just telling everyone here how I just received a letter from the flight academy!

Flash: Woohoo! Um, you might have to read it—I’m kind of tied up here (motioning about TV he’s still holding)

Leader: (reading letter)
Dear Sheldon,
You probably already received our previous letter, in which we wrote that all the spots in this year’s flight academy were full. However, we are pleased to offer you an exciting opportunity that has just come up. A famous airline pilot has started teaching at our Academy, and he’s offering free flying lessons—in his own plane—to anyone who is interested. Please reply ASAP to confirm your interest in this opportunity.
Sincerely, Sky Angels Academy

Leader: Wow!

Flash: Woo-hoo! (tries to dance while holding TV) I’m gonna fly a real plane! I’m off—up, up, and away! (starts running/hobbling offstage with TV, but is stopped by Leader)

Leader: Hold on Flash! You’re not going to take all that stuff with you, are you?

Flash: Of course I am! I’m the best at these videogames. No one can touch me! I’m like the Red Baron!—except a bit more brownish, I guess...

Leader: But those are just videogames. They won’t help you up there. That pilot said he would teach you. He’ll be with you up there. Plus, I don’t think you’d fit through the cockpit with that load.

Flash: But this is everything I’m good at! I’ve worked at this for years—I can’t give it up! Won’t the pilot be impressed with my skills in level 348 where I singlehandedly defeated Glob the Mutant Airplane Eater and rescued the damsel in distress?

Leader: I’m afraid not, Flash. Let’s see if they left any more instructions. (looks at the letter again) Oh wait—there’s a note from the pilot himself!

Flash: Oh boy! What’s he say?

Leader: “P.S. Don’t bring anything with you. You just have to watch me and learn; I’ll teach you how to fly. And while we’re learning, I’ll have to teach you how to leave behind all you thought you knew from any videogames you’ve been playing. Remember, there’s no “B-button” up here!”

Flash: (motioning to TV, etc.) But, this is my whole life! This is all I’ve worked on! If I leave it behind and if he teaches me to forget all this, what will I have left? The pilot won’t be impressed with me, and then I’ll never fly!

Leader: I think it’s ok if he isn’t impressed with you. He’s the pilot remember. He knows you don’t know anything yet—that’s why he offered to teach you.

Flash: But how can I give this all up? I’m afraid...I feel like I’ll have nothing left... (walking off stage as he’s talking)

Leader: Don’t forget all we’ve been learning this week at Fly VBS. Trust God! Even if you feel you can’t leave your videogames behind, I’m sure he’ll help you. Remember, no matter what you’re afraid of, trust God! You can never impress him enough to make him teach you how to fly—he’s already offered to do it for free. Just forget about your videogames and go learn the real thing from him! Even if it seems that you can never get along without your videogames, trust God—and remember, everything is possible with God!

Flash: Thanks for all your advice; you’ve been a big help this past week. Let me think about that a bit...

Leader: I sure hope Flash learns that he can trust God with everything—no matter what he’s afraid of. In fact, I’m not sure Flash’s fears are so different from some of ours...But until next year, just remember, everything is possible with God!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Wine and Blood

What does the Lord’s Supper mean, and why does it matter?

The last few weeks, we’ve taken a few moments during each worship service, discussing why we do what we do. Why do we have the Call to Worship and God’s Greeting first? Why do we sing? Why do we profess our faith? These are rituals, things we do regularly because we believe they have value. But if we don’t understand them, they easily seem to become meaningless.

One of the most central rituals that has defined the Church for two thousand years is the Lord’s Supper, which we celebrated this morning. God gives this sacrament to us as something that we can see and touch and taste, that points to Jesus. In a way, the sacraments are kind of like a wedding ring: A wedding ring is a physical object that reminds us that we are united with our spouse. The sacraments are physical things that remind us of our relationship with God, that we belong to Him, and of our call to live in light of this relationship.

Over the past years, I have found that celebrating the Lord’s Supper has become more meaningful as I’ve come to understand it better. And it’s something through which God can strengthen our faith.
So today, we’re asking why we do what we did this morning. Why does the Lord’s Supper really matter?

Gathered and Going: Discipleship and Mission in Matthew

This summer, we’ve been talking about discipleship and mission in Matthew: What does it mean to be called to follow Jesus, and to be sent out by Him to tell others about Him.

When I was younger, my brother, sister and I loved playing outside in the woods. But then came dinnertime. My mother used to call us in with an old cowbell she had (I’d kind of like to know if anyone else does that, or if that was just our family!). We would hear it, and come on in to gather around the dinner table. In a way, that’s like what Jesus is doing here, and what happens whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We’re reminded that we are gathered to the dinner table by Jesus, and what He’s provided for us. And like food allows us to stay alive physically, what Jesus has done gives life to all those who come to His dinner table.

As we try to understand what’s going on here in Matthew, you may find it helpful to follow along in the Bible, as well as the outline for notes in your bulletin. 

This passage in Matthew (we’ll be focusing especially on verses 26-30) and what it symbolizes of Jesus death is, we could imagine, like the peak of a mountain. It will be our focus today. As we look at it, imagine we’ve made our “base camp” here on the peak: Jesus having dinner with His disciples. But the mountain also has foothills in the Old Testament, other spots below the peak that help reveal its geology, why it’s there. So this passage is our base camp, and we’ll take three day hikes to other passages that help us understand what it’s all about. In a way, it’s like detective work—finding out what’s going on behind the scenes of this story in Matthew. Through this, we hope to get a better sense of why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and what it means.

Some of these passages seem pretty strange. But of course, God’s way of working doesn’t always match our expectations. We come up with Superman to save people; God comes up with the cross. So we shouldn’t reject something in Scripture just because it sounds strange.

Base Camp: Matthew 26:17-19 (the Lord’s Supper is closely connected with Passover)

As we begin at our base camp in Matthew, right away in verse 17 we hear about the Passover. This goes back to Exodus, so this is our first “day hike” we’ll take into the Old Testament.

Day Hike #1: Exodus 12 (The Passover celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and the lamb’s blood allowed the family to live)

The Passover began when the Israelites were in Egypt, and goes along with the tenth plague on the Egyptians. Each family was told to take a lamb or young goat, and keep it for a few days. Then on the same night as the plague in which God killed the firstborn of Egypt, the Israelites were told to slaughter the lamb or goat and put some of its blood on their doorposts, while they ate the rest. This blood would be a protection so that none of the Israelites would be killed—but it cost a life for their lives to be saved. Then finally the Israelites would be freed from slavery in Egypt.

The Passover, then, commemorated God’s deliverance of Israel.

This all helps us understand a bit more of that “mountain peak” of Jesus’ Passover dinner with His disciples. But with Jesus things are now focused on Him. He is the lamb. We can read in 1 Corinthians 5:7 that, “...Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”[1] So He is the one whose blood keeps us safe.

God had provided the lamb for the Israelite people, and even more, God provides Christ as the perfect Lamb of God. The Israelites had to have blood on their doorposts; we have the blood of Christ. The Egyptians died on that night. And if Christ’s sacrifice is not accepted, ours by faith, then we will also die. Now, as a symbol of His sacrifice and the need to receive it by faith, we have the Lord’s Supper.

Base Camp: Matthew 26:20-25 (Betrayal)

As we return to base camp—our passage in Matthew—we come to the part about who would betray Jesus. We’ll be focusing on the verses after this, but let’s look at this part for a minute.

It’s hard to say what Judas’ betrayal means for us. I’m not sure what it means to betray Jesus as opposed to deserting Him like all the disciples, or denying Him like Peter. But what we do know is a couple things.

First, even though Judas probably was trying to secretly betray Jesus, Jesus knew what would happen all along. He wasn’t surprised. But this reminds us that Jesus wasn’t just in the wrong place at the wrong time and got killed—He willingly gave up His life as a sacrifice, as our Passover lamb.

Second, we might wonder what Judas’ betrayal has to do with us. The disciples were worried that they might be the betrayers. Do we betray Jesus when we sin? I don’t know the answer to this, but we can be confident of one thing. There is forgiveness for all who come to Christ and receive Him as He is: Our Lord, our Savior, who gave up His life for us. This meal is for all who will come. We have all sinned. And no matter what, we know that there is always forgiveness when we repent.

But we have to also remember that we are called to examine ourselves before we receive the Lord’s Supper. Are we living at odds with others, with major divisions and sinning against each other and not seeking reparation? Are we living in sin and don’t care about it? Then we shouldn’t come until we desire mercy.

But remember: Jesus knew that all the disciples would desert Him at the moment when it mattered the most, and even so He told them “Drink from it, all of you.” That’s amazing. They weren’t worthy, and that’s all the more reason they need to come to find forgiveness.

Base Camp: Matthew 26:26-28 (bread and wine, body and blood)

We’re still at base camp in Matthew, and let’s look at what happens here next.

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”

Day Hike #2: Leviticus 17:10-12 (with John 6:35, 40, 53-58)

Pretty strange. If we were there we’d probably be wondering what was going on. Eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood? It sounds cannibalistic. There must be something going on behind the scenes here.
So this takes us on another excursion, a hike back into Leviticus this time.

Earlier, we read the passage from Leviticus 17. Again, it seems strange, but let’s look at how it might help us understand Jesus’ words to His disciples. In this passage, we see that the Israelites were told never to eat blood, because “the life of a creature is in the blood.” We know that blood carries oxygen through the body, and is vital for life. And then we see that God gave it for one particular purpose: Atonement. Removing our sins to we are at one with God. Forgiveness so that we are back in right relationship with Him.

The sacrifices throughout the Old Testament are a reminder of the price of sin. Jesus connected (wrongful) anger with murder, and so in that sense we are all guilty of bloodshed. And that would cost us our lives. But God gives animal sacrifices, and the blood involved, to point the Israelites towards the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf: Jesus. He is the fulfillment of all those “foothills,” all the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament.

In Hebrews 10, we read, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 10:11-12)

But something else is also relevant—another destination on this day-hike. In John 6, Jesus says in verse 53: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” This was hard for the people around Jesus to accept to. But we see more of what He means by eating and drinking in what He said earlier. In verse 35 He said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Then in verse 40 He says, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Believing in Jesus, coming to Him, looking to Him is something of what it means to eat and drink.

When we eat something we take it into ourselves. It’s not just something we set on a bookshelf that gathers dust; it goes inside us and gives us life. And faith in Jesus is more scandalous than just wearing a bracelet or a having a fish on our car. It means dying to ourselves, receiving Christ’s life.

So the image of eating is connected closely with believing. If we don’t eat food we will die physically; and if we don’t come to Jesus we will die eternally.

Jesus offers His body and blood, symbolized in the bread and wine, to His disciples and to us. We come to Him, believe Him, take in His sacrifice and His life He gave for us. So to eat His flesh and drink His blood means to truly believe in Him, receive the life He gives us so deeply that it completely defines who we are. Jesus’ blood is for our life.

What we are seeing here, in Jesus’ words about his body and blood, is that Jesus is giving Himself as a willing sacrifice so that through His blood, His sacrifice received in faith, we receive His life and become more and more like Him. 

This seems strange, but there are some pretty close analogies in our own lives. One of my professors had a recurrence of Leukemia a few months ago, and ended up having a full bone marrow transplant. He received life from someone else donation. And even something like blood transfusion, or dialysis. But instead of just cleaning the blood, we get a whole new life from Christ’s blood, and His life becomes ours.

So Jesus is the true blood donor, for all of us who are fatally wounded, dead apart from His gift of blood. His life given for us. That’s grace.

Base Camp: Matthew 26:28 (“...for many for the forgiveness of sins.”)

Let’s go back to base camp again for a moment before our last “day hike.” In Matthew 26:28, we see that Jesus died “for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This takes us back to another passage in the Old Testament: Jeremiah 31.

Day Hike #3: Jeremiah 31:31-34 (A new covenant and new way of living, forgiveness)

In verse 31, God says that He will make a new covenant with Israel. Soon after we read,
“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.
  No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer. 31:33b-34)
So all of this that Jesus is doing is for our forgiveness, so that we can live as God calls us to, obeying Him and living as we were always meant to.

Forgiveness is something we all need: The “worst” sinners don’t need it any more than those who have sinned the “least,” and those who have sinned the least don’t need it any less than the “worst” sinners. We all stand in utter need of forgiveness and new life. And this comes in Jesus, believing in Him.

Base Camp: Matthew 26:29 (“family reunion” [Tyndale])

For one last time, let’s go back to our base camp in Matthew. Jesus finishes by saying, “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Earlier this week, a friend observed that this is like looking forward to Christmas. There will be a huge “family reunion” to look forward to, with Jesus and God our Father! (see Tyndale, 370, Is. 25:6) Death and the cross is not the end. Our old selves must die, but we receive new life and identity in Him. And we are invited to this dinner table of the Lord’s Supper, with the knowledge that there will be a much bigger feast waiting for us ultimately, with God as the host.

Everyone must come...Will we?

Remember, Jesus gives Himself for us. We just need to receive Him, believe. It’s like Christmas—we need to open the gifts we receive and surrender our lives to the giver. And one thing I think is amazing is how God gives us these physical signs and symbols of bread and wine. It’s sometimes hard to believe that Jesus’ death is really for us: We doubt, we feel apathetic, feel forgotten, wonder if we’re too bad to be forgiven, or feel that we don’t need as much grace as some others. But God gives us these things we can touch and smell and taste to remind us that Christ’s sacrifice is really, actually for each of us.

We are told to examine ourselves. If we don’t care about our sin, or don’t feel we need forgiveness, then we shouldn’t come. But if we recognize our sin and don’t like what we see, and see our need for forgiveness, we are all are invited, no matter what sins we have committed. The Lord’s Supper is the great leveler—there’s no difference here. We just need to come.

One time when I was taking a break from a local pick-up soccer game, I was sitting by the field watching as others continued to play. Also watching were a mother and her toddler son. He was toddling around by the field, and despite his mother's repeated warnings, he wandered close to the sideline and ultimately was knocked down by a stray soccer ball. Though shaken and in tears, he wasn't hurt.

My first thought was along the lines of “That’s what he gets for not listening!” But then I realized that I’m not too different, in wandering from God.

But the toddler didn’t just sit and cry. He ran back to his mother, who took him in her arms.

“Gathered and Going:” Will we come and eat?

At the Lord’s Supper, no matter how far we’ve wandered, we’re invited back by our God. In Christ, His arms are open.

But we should never wait to come to Him if we have not yet. J.C. Ryle observed that at the cross, “one of the thieves” crucified beside Jesus “was saved so that no sinner might despair, but only one, that no sinner might presume.” Neither we nor others can wait to come to Jesus—we never know when Christ may return or we may die, and lose our chance. But we also know that when we come, we will find forgiveness. This should move us to a sense of urgency in sharing the gospel with others.
And remember, even though Peter denied Jesus on the same night as he ate this meal with Him, Jesus still restored Him, gathered him back to Himself.

And we are gathered, invited to this table together—can you hear the dinner bell, the call of God in Scripture?—with the hope of the future banquet with our Savior God as the host. This is for each of us as personally, in as much a way as we each ourselves eat the bread and drink the wine, as we truly believe in Jesus. But it not just about us individually and our friendship with Jesus. This is a great family dinner, where we are gathered as part of the Church across the world and throughout history. From the 1st century to the 21st century, from North Korea to Sudan to those sitting beside you today. We have been made part of this family by being drawn to Jesus and believing in Him—symbolized by the bread and wine. He is our blood donor, who gives us forgiveness and new life.

Look around you, to your right and left, behind you. These are the people God has gathered to Himself in Jesus Christ, through His body and blood. This is your family—all who believe in Jesus, receiving life in Him. That’s a glimpse of why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

[1] 1 Cor. 5:7b, in a discussion of rebuking and separating the one who claims to be a Christian but is living in unrepentant sin—like yeast separated during Passover