Pride Comes Before the Fall (Luke 22:31-33, 54-62)

The Denial of Peter by Carl Bloch (1834-1890)

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death….”

Then seizing Jesus, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”

But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.

A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”

“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.”And he went outside and wept bitterly. (New International Version)

A Lesson In Trust

One day I watched a lifeguard handle a group of kids for their first time in the pool. She went to each one and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. 

Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms.

Even though nearly all people float when they assume a posture of rest, many believe they’ll sink, and don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They couldn’t seem to rest and relax because Jesus said and did things that they were not expecting him to say and do. 

Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies; and he focused on ministry to the least persons around them. The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda because they kept pulling their knees up by thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map – believing it would be just like the old days of Jewish domination of the land.

But Jesus is all about a different agenda: transformation of the inner person that leads to greater submission to God’s will so that the least persons among us will be reached.

Bad News Before Good News

Many already believe they know what God wants and how to follow Jesus, and so, aren’t much open to the Spirit. They acknowledge they’re sinners, yet don’t believe their sin is as bad as others. “O, sure, we sin, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are ‘respectable’– a little resentment, a little prejudice, and a little gossip is even necessary to make sure people submit to the unwritten rules.”

We must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. Once we hear the bad news and accept it, we must receive God’s remedy for it. In order to do this, let’s compare and contrast two disciples: Peter and Judas.

Peter’s Denial, 17th Century Ethiopian

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas shared a similar vision about seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a Zealot, ready to take military action, if necessary; and Peter had no problem taking up the sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Even though Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus, Jesus knew better. And, sure enough, Peter did a full-fledged moral belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Judas actually caught on, quicker than Peter, that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Judas had enough of wasting time on poor marginalized people; they weren’t going to make good soldiers. After Judas clearly saw that Jesus had no intention of forcing an earthly political kingdom, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

Neither Judas or Peter, nor any of the disciples wanted to take a step into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others and embracing the kingdom of God. They wanted glory not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized after denying Jesus that they had made a terrible mistake. But that is where the similarities end. 

Judas realized what he had done, and so, went out and died by suicide. Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas tried to atone for his own sin. He tried to fix something that could not be undone. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter responded by weeping bitterly, consistent with someone experiencing repentance. He realized he was poor in spirit and mourned over his sin. Peter later becomes a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him as he, in the book of Acts, demonstrated mercy and became a preacher of truth and grace.

The Need for Transformation

There cannot be systemic and structural renewal without personal transformation. And there cannot be personal transformation without a brutally honest assessment of myself. “I will never fall,” comes from a heart of pride that believes “I’m not so bad.”

Our sins and failures stem ultimately from a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people don’t pray much because they are self-sufficient. But humble people pray a lot because they don’t want to fall into temptation. They pray because they discern they’re prone to being like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. 

Even Jesus felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of all mankind.

Following Either Close or From a Distance

Jesus was arrested and Peter followed him at a distance. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, this too, describes much of our own following of Jesus. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. 

Christ is asking us to trust him, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. We need to acknowledge and admit that we have commitment-it is; we have made a mess of our lives by our stubbornness and holding on to our own ideas for how we think things ought to go.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else, the only thing that can handle it is a close following of grace. We are to approach God with brutal honesty, humility, and a willingness to rest and relax when he is telling you to. 

The Lord will give you his righteousness; you need not try to obtain it on your own. So, let the knees go down and stick the belly button out – rest in Jesus.

The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10)

By Sieger Koder (1925-2015)

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.“

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (New International Version)

Lost people matter to God… a lot. They matter so much to the Lord that one lost soul who is found is the grounds for a big celestial party. 

Note a simple observation of today’s Gospel lesson: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels over one sinner who repents, then it is God who is doing the rejoicing. The Lord is absolutely giddy with joy over a lost person being found.

Jesus told two short stories, each teaching the same thing, so that we will be absolutely sure to get it: A loving God has unbounded joy over lost people being found. These parables of Jesus give us a glimpse of God’s own heart. The Lord would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile that person to right relationships. 

The Lost Sheep by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

God would go dumpster diving and wade through stinky nasty garbage to find just one lost valuable person.

Restoring lost people is such a high priority to God that the Father sent the Son to this earth. Jesus paid the ultimate price of a cruel death on a cross to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I have not always been a devoted follower of Christ. I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the Church – it was lonely and awful, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help. 

But God mercifully sent people into my life to share good news with me and help me out of my prodigal way of life. I once was lost. But now I am found. When I turned from my path of destruction and embraced Jesus Christ, there was a big party in heaven.

God gathering wayward and lost persons is a gracious activity, seemingly free from criticism. But there was. The rightful Judge of the universe got judged by a group of spiritual simpletons. And because there were complaints leveled at Jesus for purposely going after the lost, it therefore needs to be asked: 

Where do we locate ourselves in these parables? 

The two stories were downright offensive to many of Christ’s original hearers. Those upset with Jesus were so inwardly focused that they believed ministry ought to revolve around them and their needs.

And, what’s more, the religious leaders were offended because they thought all the fuss about sinners would only highlight their sin. In other words, there ought to be no party and no rejoicing for people who have lived an ethically and morally dubious life.

Preaching grace is always offensive to people who work for their salvation. It is scandalous to such persons to hear that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. 

If we hear Christ’s parables and the concern for lost sinners who don’t know Jesus and say, “Well, all this talk about outreach is well and good, but what about us?  What about me? After all, I never went down a path of immorality or hurt anyone. I’m a good person. Where’s my party?” Then, we must locate ourselves as the lost persons in need of being found by God’s grace.

Consider for a moment the worst sinner you can think of – a person for whom you would label as being akin to the devil…. Now picture that person being found by God and becoming a follower of Christ….

Would you attend the party to celebrate that person’s repentance, reconciliation, and recovery? 

If any of us feels justified in our hate, then we are the lost one in need of turning from our sin.

In leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the flock and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost….

Can you live with that? 

These parables of Jesus have significant meaning for church programs, budgets, and committees. By most estimations, only one-in-five lost people in America even knows one Christian. Statistics like that are what keep me up at night; it deeply saddens me. It drives me to prayer.

God’s unconditional mercy and amazing grace is what makes all the difference. 

If we lose the sense of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ, then there will be no outreach. Finding lost people is not dependent on completing a class on evangelism or getting training in how to answer every question.

Outreach is fueled by passion and desire. Healthy Christians reproduce themselves. I assume you didn’t take a class on how to procreate – you just had the desire and the willingness; and then, you celebrated nine-months later, the birth of new life.

New life always needs to be celebrated because that’s what God does. Yet, the party cannot commence until the lost are found….

O God – blessed Father, Son, and Spirit – sanctify all believers everywhere with your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people more and more with the light of the Gospel. Bring lost people to the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you and straying from the flock. Increase in us your grace and love so that we may participate with you in finding the lost. Amen.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – A Parable of the Vineyard

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.

 I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (New International Version)

God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.

The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.

It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.

God builds. God gives. God sustains…. And God destructs. God takes away. God ends what he begins.

The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.

The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. The cries and anguished responses of the needy were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.

The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.

Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)

If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.

If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.

If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.

Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.

Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.

Believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.

This is the way.

It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)

May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.

Merciful Father, we pray that violence will be overcome by the power of love; that opposition and division give way to reconciliation; and that the desire for power and control be transformed into the desire for forgiveness, justice, and peace.

May peace be in our hearts so that they are open to the action of your divine grace.

May all humanity – especially the poor, the needy, the least among us, and the lost – feel the warmth of your steadfast love and the love of your people toward them.

May the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control be our breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and may your divine abundance of mercy and justice be scattered throughout our city, our nation, and our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of your Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Hosea 6:1-10 – “I Want Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
As at Adam, they have broken the covenant;
    they were unfaithful to me there.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    stained with footprints of blood.
As marauders lie in ambush for a victim,
    so do bands of priests;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
    carrying out their wicked schemes.
I have seen a horrible thing in Israel:
    There Ephraim is given to prostitution,
    Israel is defiled. (New International Version)

My favorite word in all of Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word חסד (“chesed” pronounced in English “kes-ed).  It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth and import. 

So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as:

  • Goodness (American Standard Version)
  • Faithful love (Common English Bible)
  • Loyalty (God’s Word Translation)
  • Constant love (Good News Translation)
  • Mercy (King James Version)
  • Love that lasts (The Message)
  • Faithfulness (New English Translation)
  • Loving-kindness (New Life Version)
  • Steadfast love (New Revised Standard Version)

Chesed is God’s committed, gracious, and loving covenant loyalty to people. The Lord’s very attributes are sheer Love.

Since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward one another. In other words, because God is merciful and kind, we, as people created in God’s image, are to be marked with this same character in all we do. 

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God is calling and wooing wayward people to return to a life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not sending the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner. Instead, the Lord is committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.

At all times, the response God wants from people is not simply to go through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor.

Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy. 

God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity. The Lord is deeply grieved when people whore after other gods to meet their needs for love and belonging. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.

In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ.

The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions.

Mercy, in Christianity, finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:

As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.

But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13, CEB)

And when confronted about “questionable” activities, Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:

“Look! Your disciples are doing something that is not right to do on the day of rest—a holy day.”

Jesus asked them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his men were hungry? Haven’t you read how he went into the house of God and ate  the bread of the presence? He and his men had no right to eat those loaves. Only the priests have that right. Or haven’t you read in Moses’ Teachings that on the day of rest—a holy day, the priests in the temple do things they shouldn’t on the day of rest yet remain innocent? I can guarantee that something  greater than the temple is here. If you had known what ‘I want mercy, not sacrifices’ means, you would not have condemned innocent people. (Matthew 12:2-7, GW)

One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear.

Grace and love reconnects the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment; it’s mercy.

Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life.

God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace. 

May the result of our return to the Lord be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.

Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One. Amen.