Why Did Jesus Come? (Matthew 9:14-17)

Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (New International Version)

The late Abigail Van Buren, better known in her day as the columnist, “Dear Abby,” was the person who made famous the phrase, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.”

We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s that are reminders of why Christians and Churches exist in the first place. The Church does not remain on this earth solely for its own benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the benefit of doctors or insurance companies. 

The Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of the gospel, the good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ. The Church calls people who are ensnared, entrapped, and in bondage to guilt and shame, and who need the restorative touch of grace. 

Our calling is not to find out what others can do for us (e.g. tithing and attendance) but what we can do for others. That’s why we are the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth as the temple of the Holy Spirit. 

Even though I am a church pastor, it is not my church. The church is not your church. It is Christ’s Church and we are to act in accordance with that truth.

Some of you reading this blog post are unhealthy. Some of you are sick with sin; some are heart-sick; others are just plain sick and tired of being sick and tired. Jesus (nor me!) is not looking to heap on you a load of expectations and guilt for things you are not doing; but instead is pointing you to the source of healing and change and inviting you to admit your need and come to him. 

Conversely, you may be healthy, spiritually alive and well. Therefore, it’s your job to roll up your sleeves and serve, to participate fully in the mission of Jesus for the church and the world.

Why did Jesus come? 

Jesus came to set up a new structure that could embrace his mission of bringing new life to people.

Christ used the occasion of John’s disciples asking him about fasting to communicate that his mission of reaching people through mercy and forgiveness will need a significant structural change. 

The two illustrations Jesus used – cloth and wineskins – is to simply point out that old and new wineskins are incompatible; and old and new pieces of cloth don’t go together. I would put it this way: You don’t put a new collar on a dead dog.

The Lord Jesus didn’t come to this earth just to perpetuate the status quo; he didn’t enter this world through the incarnation to simply dress up the Jewish religion, or to make a few minor adjustments to what already is going on. No! Christ came to change the old and do something new so that his mission could go forward through us.

We need a structural system which can accommodate the finished work of Jesus on the cross.

The entire sacrificial system and ritual laws of the Old Testament were only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.(Hebrews 9:10)

Christ is the one who arranges a new covenant, so that those who have been called by God may receive the eternal blessings that God has promised. This can be done because there has been a death which sets people free from the wrongs they did while the first covenant was in effect. (Hebrews 9:15, GNT)

Jesus canceled the first covenant in order to put the second into effect; the old is obsolete and has served it’s purpose. Now, Christ’s new covenant is in effect – a system big enough to hold the mission of the Church. (Hebrews 8:13; 10:9)

I wonder:

  • Is there anything in your life or in your church that is obsolete?
  • Is there a practice, ministry, system, or structure that is ineffective and not contributing to the mission that Jesus has for us in reaching others? 
  • Are there any dead dogs you keep trying to prop up on its legs?
  • Are you focused on what is important to Jesus? Do you know what’s important to him?
  • Do you keep performing the same rituals over and over because that is what you’ve always done?
  • What needs to change in your life to accommodate the mission of Jesus?

If the mission of Jesus is to occur we must develop:

  1. A relationship with Jesus. Engaging in spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading and meditating on Scripture, are activities that put us in a position to know Christ better and respond to what is important to him.
  2. Relationships with each other that are not superficial but help one another to grow in Christ. We need to hold one another accountable for how the mission of Jesus is being accomplished, or not.
  3. Relationships with those outside of the church. This world is filled with sick, needy, hurting, lonely, unhealthy people who are stuck. They need a major change of life that can come from Jesus working through his followers. 

May it be so. Soli Deo Gloria.

Stop the Bad, Start the Good (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth. Don’t get so angry that you sin. Don’t go to bed angry and don’t give the devil a chance.

If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need.

Stop all your dirty talk. Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say.

Don’t make God’s Spirit sad. The Spirit makes you sure that someday you will be free from your sins.

Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude. Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.

Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. Let love be your guide. Christ loved us and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. (Contemporary English Version)

All of us have a hard time breaking bad habits, even and especially destructive habits which damage us and/or others. Why, despite knowing better, is it so doggone hard to change? And why, even though having the best of intentions, does that person in my life never change because I tell them to?

Probably because our approach to change dooms us from the beginning. Here are a few approaches which, frankly, do not work:

  • Telling ourselves (or others) to stop. Barking commands may alter speech or behavior for a while but it won’t stick. That’s because people need affirmation, encouragement, and love in order to change – and not by mandated rules. Judgmentalism or shaming others never effects any sort of positive change. Neither our brains nor our souls operate that way.
  • Relying on willpower. This is really an over-reliance on thinking. Yes, it’s necessary to change our thinking. It isn’t, however, enough. That’s because we are not brains-on-a-stick. We also have a body, emotions, and a spirit which needs activation, as well. What’s more, our thinking doesn’t change by sheer force of the will. Our brains are literally not wired that way.
  • Believing in positive thinking. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….” “Dream it and do it.” “I believe in myself.” “Nothing is impossible.” I am not suggesting we indulge negative thinking or let a bad attitude take root. I’m saying that positive thinking has its limits. It’s helpful but is not the true agent of behavioral change.
  • Pursuing self-help. Yes, we must all help ourselves. After all, we are responsible for our own behavior. However, self-help alone doesn’t bring lasting change. By only going it alone, individuals come up with hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions that will not get the job done. That’s because we are hard-wired for community and any sort of effective change of habit happens with others.

To stop doing or saying something is only half the equation. We also need to start doing and saying something else altogether.

Change always involves both putting off and putting on, laying down and picking up, removing and replacing, starting and stopping.

The Christian tradition holds that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus together, we are to share a common life together.

Therefore, we will stop non-Christian ways of relating to each other and start a Christian way of relating to each other – because we belong to one another and are inextricably connected as the community of the redeemed.

Stop lying and start speaking the truth

Too often, we put up a plastic false front. Pretending we are okay, when we are not, or even acting like life is hard, when it isn’t, is an untruthful presentation – it’s a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretention, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other. 

Buying into the devil’s snake oil salesmanship leads one to believe we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine; it’s not worth the risk. We worry about being rejected, losing face, or becoming a victim of gossip. Shame then takes the steering wheel of one’s life, instead of speaking truthfully.

We speak the truth in love because we are responsible to one another – not hiding in the shadows or avoiding the dark places of the heart – but stepping into the light and forsaking all fakery for the benefit of everyone’s needs. The only thing lying does is undermine and erode true community.

Stop stealing and start being generous

Thievery takes many forms: petty theft, identity theft, stealing intellectual property (copywrites, patents, trade secrets, etc.), fraud, plagiarism, robbery, burglary, embezzlement, shoplifting, and more. Gossip, slander, and defamation robs another person of their dignity and reputation. Likely the most insidious theft of all is the stealing and kidnapping other human beings.

Stealing will always be a way of life unless it is replaced wholesale with generosity. Learning to give back is the surest path to real change. And there a lot of ways of doing it.

We can give back to the community through donating our time, participating in charity events, volunteering at a school, hospital, or senior center, and even recycling or planting a tree, or giving blood.

Whatever it is you choose to do, connect it with the penchant toward stealing you may have. For example the one prone to gossip might replace it with gratitude; or the one who chronically steals another’s time might join an altruism group.

Stop the dirty useless talk and start encouraging others

Locker room talk and dirty jokes aren’t helpful. There’s also a lot of speech that’s just downright useless, such as: a preacher who pads the sermon with lots of unnecessary words; a relative who is vague and not specific with their words; a boss who always points out, with many words, what is wrong but barely says one word of affirmation to an employee.

Instead of tearing down others with words, replace those words with encouragement. Going out of your way to write an encouraging card or note to someone, bending down to look a child in the eye to say, “hi,” expressing sincere condolences to someone who lost a loved one, or just having a kind word for the harried cashier behind the counter or the waitress at the restaurant, are simple ways of embracing encouragement as a lifestyle.

Stop being so bitter and angry and start forgiving people

Many people either cannot or will not forgive because they want to hold onto their anger and bitterness. Somehow, in their twisted and darkened thinking, they believe that, unless they maintain their grudge-bearing, the offending person or group will get off the hook.

Please, lay down that crushing load of mental vengeance; and pick up the light backpack of grace and forgiveness.

Chances are, if you’ve been in the habit of being angry for a long time, you have a cardiologist you see on a regular basis. Do yourself a favor by changing yourself and saving your health, instead of expecting others to change and blaming them for your issues.

If you are not the person you want to be, then take a lesson from the Apostle Paul: don’t just try and stop something you don’t like but also start doing just the opposite of it, in helpful ways that are a blessing to others.

And if ever in doubt, love is always the best choice.

May the God of peace make you pure and faultless, belonging only to what is right, just and good. And may your whole self—spirit, soul, mind, body, and emotions—be kept safe and be blameless when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. Amen.

What’s On Your Wish List? (Acts 26:24-29)

Before Paul finished defending himself, Festus shouted, “Paul, you’re crazy! Too much learning has driven you out of your mind.”

But Paul replied, “Honorable Festus, I am not crazy. What I am saying is true, and it makes sense. None of these things happened off in a corner somewhere. I am sure that King Agrippa knows what I am talking about. That’s why I can speak so plainly to him.”

Then Paul said to Agrippa, “Do you believe what the prophets said? I know you do.”

Agrippa asked Paul, “In such a short time do you think you can talk me into being a Christian?”

Paul answered, “Whether it takes a short time or a long time, I wish you and everyone else who hears me today would become just like me! Except, of course, for these chains.” (Contemporary English Version)

The Apostle Paul was quite the guy – a zealous, indefatigable, intense, Type-A dude. Yet it wasn’t those characteristics that Paul wanted others to see in him. He simply desired others to see Christ in him. 

Having been arrested for preaching the good news of forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ, Paul found himself before King Agrippa, engaging in a DTR (define the relationship) talk; and making a strong apologetic for the Christian faith. 

Agrippa asked Paul, “In such a short time do you think you can talk me into being a Christian?” Paul answered with confidence and conviction, “Whether it takes a short time or a long time, I wish you and everyone else who hears me today would become just like me!” 

“Trial of the Apostle Paul” by Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875

I wonder how many of us could boldly say the same thing as Paul. 

Are we the sort of Christians that others could emulate? 

Has our faith journey led us to the place of being a solid model of what a follower of Christ should look like? 

Do we expect others to change while avoiding change ourselves? 

Do we deeply desire and work toward others coming to know Jesus? 

So, what is on your wish list?

  • I wish each Christian everywhere would spend their relational and emotional energy making this world a better place by living into the words and ways of Jesus Christ.
  • I wish every person I encounter would have the privilege of knowing Christ as I have.
  • I wish all my parishioners and patients would become what I am, except, of course, for my self-made chains.

Perhaps we all must look in the mirror and examine our true desires. It’s easy to put our energy into good yet lesser wishes in life. Yet, if Christians are to become like their ancient forefather in the faith, the Apostle Paul, we will begin focusing our energies into things such as the following:

  • Making outreach a priority. We do what is most important to us. That’s probably self-evident. But churches and believers that do not make outreach a primary priority are really making it no priority, at all.

Paul said, “Do the work of telling the Good News. Do all the duties of a servant of God.” (2 Timothy 4:5, ERV)

  • Mentoring others into the words and ways of Jesus. Many church laypersons believe that training other Christians is what we pay the clergy to do.But this is really the responsibility of every believer.

Paul said, “You have often heard me teach. Now I want you to tell these same things to followers who can be trusted to tell others.” (2 Timothy 2:2, CEV)

  • Taking responsibility for spreading the good news. Blaming and shaming gets us nowhere. Pastors complain about churches. Churches bellyache about Pastors. And both attack the culture, the denomination, or some other external scapegoat. It’s time for all of us to own what needs to be said and done.

Paul said, “Be ready to spread the word whether or not the time is right. Point out errors, warn people, and encourage them. Be very patient when you teach.” (2 Timothy 4:2, GW)

  • Connecting prayer with telling the message of Christ. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to pray for Aunt Mable’s bunions to go away. It’s altogether another thing to pray sustained, focused, and passionate prayers for the people in my life to know Christ and him crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again.

Paul said, “Don’t forget to pray for us, that God will open doors for telling the mystery of Christ… Pray that every time I open my mouth I’ll be able to make Christ plain as day to them.” (Colossians 4:3-4, MSG)

  • Being compassionate and kind, like Christ, to others. There not only needs to be a clear articulation of the gospel, but also a clear demonstration of basic human kindness. Many Christians never get the opportunity to share the gospel because they’re just downright obnoxious.

Set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience. (1 Peter 3:15-16, NET)

  • Establishing every Christian ministry as an opportunity to share the gospel. Intentional effort and energy toward proclaiming the gospel in both word and deed needs to go into everything we do.

Paul said, “So take special care how you conduct yourselves. Don’t be unwise but be wise. Make use of any opportunity you have because these are wicked times we live in.” (Ephesians 5:15-16, NTE)

  • Caring, not at all, that new Christians will change our lives or our church too much. I’m serious. I’ve heard the line many times by church folk in my years of pastoral ministry that new believers come in and change things we like. Come on, man. Get over it. Change is built into the Christian experience. God said:

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19, NRSV)

You don’t need a personality like the Apostle Paul to live into your calling as a Christian. You and I only need to put our will and energy into things that matter most to God.

Risen and ascended Lord, you are the king of all creation. May your rule and reign take over my life to such a degree that everything that comes out of my mouth, and every action I take would be worthy of emulation in your way of love. Amen.

Luke 13:1-9 – Jesus Will Have None of It

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So, he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (New International Version)

Jesus stood in a crowd of thousands of people. They peppered him with questions about all kinds of issues and situations. Christ responded with a combination of direct exhortations and pointed parables, designed to leave the people reflecting and thinking about what he said.

Christ’s direct exhortation is this: Repent. Change your mind. Christ’s pointed parable message is this: Bear fruit. Change your behavior.

The two go together. A fruitless life points to the need for repentance; and repentance results in bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

Jesus, throughout his earthly ministry, relentlessly went after the fruitless dead religion of his day. Jesus believed that such religion needed to be cut out and thrown away. 

Therefore, the Lord exposed the assumptions that people have about sin, faith, and judgment. Jesus challenged four false assumptions or presuppositions that people often hold. In dealing with them, Jesus wanted to foster a change of heart which would lead to a change in behavior.

First Wrong Assumption: Other people’s sin is more serious than mine.

It’s a common human tendency to focus on the bad things in the world what other people do, rather than focus on our own heart and life. We can always identify people who are worse sinners than us! 

The crowd believed Pontius Pilate was a terrible sinner who needed to be dealt with, and they wanted Jesus to get on board to their way of thinking. The people wanted to talk trash about the Romans.

“Repentance is nothing else but a reformation of the whole life according to the Law of God.”

John Calvin

We must beware of people who constantly bemoan the state of the world and the sins of others, while ignoring their own issues or how they might be contributing to the problem. It’s so much easier to scapegoat a person or group of people, believing that if “those people” change, then everything will be okay.

But Jesus will have none of it.

Christ steered the discussion to personal repentance. Although you and I cannot control, change, or fix anyone, we can practice self-control, change our personal habits, and be the solution to our own problems.

Everywhere we go, the world is rife with criticisms and accusations of others. It’s always somebody else’s fault for the ills of the world and even the church.

Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans. Anti-vaxers blame the government. The vaccinated blame the previous government. Everyone thinks that if the other changes, all will be well. 

In the church, when things aren’t right, Christians might ask things like, “Who sinned, the pastor or the congregation, the church or the denomination?” With the decline of religion in the land, we look for a scapegoat. 

But Jesus will have none of it.

Christ cut through all the scapegoating and blame-shifting by saying that every single person needs to repent, without exception. Then, Jesus upped the ante with a parable by challenging us with a very probing thought: 

Are we bearing fruit, or just taking up space? 

Whenever we howl for judgment on others, but insist on grace for ourselves, we are the ones in need of repentance.

Second Assumption: My sin isn’t that serious.

When King Frederick II, an eighteenth-century King of Prussia, was visiting a prison in Berlin, the inmates insisted they had been unjustly imprisoned – all except one. That one sat quietly in a corner, while all the rest protested their innocence. Seeing him sitting there oblivious to the commotion, the king asked him what he was there for:

“Armed robbery, your Honor.”

The king asked, “Were you guilty?”

“Yes, Sir,” he answered. “I entirely deserve my punishment.”

The king then gave an order to the guard: “Release this guilty man. I don’t want him corrupting all these innocent people.”

We may concede that we are all sinners, but then struggle with believing that our personal sin really deserves imprisonment. So, we see no need for repentance. It isn’t that bad.

But Jesus will have none of it. 

Here are some questions raised by today’s Gospel lesson: 

Do I continually locate sin outside of my life, or do I discern the sinfulness of my own heart? 

Do I believe people in hardship are more sinful than me? 

Can I envision that I must change for the church and the world to change? 

Is my life fruitful, or fruitless? 

How can I become fruitful? 

What must I repent of? 

What will happen if I don’t repent?

Third Assumption: God will not judge me.

Some might concede we are all sinners, and my own sin is bad. “But is it really so bad that God would judge me?”  Again, the two big ideas Jesus is working with here is that everyone needs repentance, and everyone needs to bear spiritual fruit in keeping with such repentance. 

Jesus alerts us that the future involves a Judgment Day. All shall be held accountable for fruit-bearing, or the lack thereof. No fruit on the branch means it will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus was talking to a crowd of people who were quite religious. They were faithful temple worshipers, and had weekly practices of giving, fasting, and prayer. But they needed to repent of trusting in self and stuff. 

They believed God would judge the evil Romans and everyone else who did not live or think like them. They were God’s people; the Lord would not judge them!

But Jesus will have none of it.

The Lord almighty looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:7, NIV)

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 1:17, NIV

Jesus wants spiritual fruit in keeping with repentance. Believing the right things and doing the right service never justifies indulging in hate, rage, anger, discord, selfish ambition, envy, impatience, unkindness, and ungraciousness. Doing a particular set of religious duties never gives one a license to use their attitude, their tongue, or their life in whatever way they want.

Fourth Assumption: I have plenty of time.

Okay, other people’s sin is not worse than mine. My sin is serious. God will deal with my sin if I do not repent. But I have time to deal with it, right? I will get around to it when I get a chance. 

But Jesus will have none of it.

Jesus was establishing a sense of urgency into the crowd. Repentance is not something to put off until tomorrow. Today is the day to deal with sin. If a lack of fruitfulness persists, judgment is imminent. Jesus was not trying to scare people into repentance; he was just letting them know that procrastination puts us in a precarious position. We don’t have unlimited time. We are on the clock.   

Just because God is gracious, merciful, kind, and patient does not mean that he won’t cut the dead religion tree down.

Today is the day of repentance, the day to quit looking for everyone else to repent and change, the day to take our own sin seriously, the day to discern that God does not show favoritism and will judge all persons equally and fairly. 

Today is the day because the hour is almost here when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.

Conclusion

So, we must repent of a lack of fruitfulness. The spiritual fruit God is looking for is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

When an apple trees bear fruit, some of those apples do not just bear the apple’s skin, some the apple’s core, some the apple’s meat. No! When an apple tree bears fruit, it bears apples – whole ones with all the things that make an apple an apple. 

There is no leg to stand on with the notion that I have love, but no patience; or display a lack of peace, but practice self-control. We either have the fruit of the Spirit, or we do not! If we have some of these, but not others, we have genetically modified fruit which has not been raised in the soil of the gospel.

Each one of us needs to look in our heart in this season of Lent and accurately assess the current state of our lives before God. Then, we need to repent, to change those things which the Spirit of God identifies. And, like a farmer, we are to cultivate, fertilize, and tend to our hearts in ways that will produce a crop.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.