A question of faith

What questions do you have about the Christian faith?  John the Baptist gets us going.

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A question of faith

 

February 12, 2017 – Luke 7:18-23

 

 

 

            At our last confirmation class, I invited the students to join in a game I have played a few times over the years, called, “Stump the Pastor.” It’s a chance for them to ask what are their most difficult questions regarding the Christian faith.

 

            I haven’t played it very often, because, along with a few good questions, I will get questions like, “How do you say, ‘God loves you,’ in Swahili?” (I think Jake wishes he would have asked that question!) or, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it?” (which attempts to create a conundrum regarding God’s omnipotence.)

 

            But the questions I got this time were all good.  There questions like, “Why didn’t God send Jesus earlier?” and, “Why is God so violent in the Old Testament?” and, “Why aren’t there dinosaurs in the Bible?” and, even, “Did Jesus play sports?” (A new question!)

 

            There was one question they didn’t ask.  It’s a question that occurs in the Bible, in the story of Jesus.  It’s a question that a person no less than John the Baptist asks, whom Jesus calls the greatest of all prophets.  It may be the most important question of all.

 

            The question is this: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

 

 

 

            John the Baptist was a great prophet, a man loved and feared by the people.  But, because he was outwardly critical of Herod, John was in prison.

 

            While we get different pictures of the relationship between John and Jesus, in the story told by Luke, John the Baptist and Jesus are actually related.  If this is true, then John certainly grew up with stories about Jesus, how he was God’s promised one, how he was born of Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps other such things.

 

            John himself had great expectations of Jesus and the transformation he would bring.  When people asked John if he were the Messiah, John said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

 

            John – the Baptist and prophet – had great expectations for Jesus.  But where is he now?  He is in prison, bound by chains, and facing the likelihood of his execution.  Things look pretty bleak for John, wouldn’t you say?  Who could blame him for wondering – is Jesus really the guy or was I wrong?  And if John the Baptist – greatest of prophets – can ask that question, then we don’t need to feel guilty if we ask it.

 

            In fact, I think it is the question that every Christian should ask.  It is the question that should be on every Christian’s heart – Are you the one, Jesus, or should I look for somebody else?

 

 

 

            So, that’s the question I’m going to address today.  This is my faith statement.  It’s not the same faith statement I would have made five years ago.  And who knows if it will be the same five years down the road.  But it is the statement I make today.

 

            And my statement is – yes – Jesus is the one for me.  Jesus is the one for me because he shows me the way to the best kind of life.

 

 

 

            Almost for as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  It is largest single body we have of Jesus’ teaching.

 

            When I was in fifth grade had just started thinking about being a pastor, I came up on these words in Matthew 6: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?”

 

            When I was in seminary, some 15 years later, I took an entire class – a whole semester! – on the Sermon on the Mount.   I wrote a 20 page paper on the verse – “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.”

 

            Since reading Dallas Willard’s book on the Sermon on the Mount a few years ago, I have had this verse in my mind – “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisee, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  The scribes and Pharisees teach and practice an outward righteousness.  Jesus teaches a righteousness of the heart and his entire sermon here can be understood as training in that righteousness.

 

            But through the years the verse that keeps coming back to me is: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

 

            Growing in love is the way to live the best kind of life there is.  And I am convinced that there is no better way to grow in love than to practice the love of the people who are most difficult for us to love.

 

            This doesn’t mean we have to like them.  It doesn’t mean we have to be friends with them.  It doesn’t even mean we can’t get out of their way when they are being most difficult.  It does mean we have to look at our own hearts.  It does mean we have to look at the roots of our own anger and hatred.  It does mean that, rather than label them and categorize them and dismiss them, we need to practice looking at them as God looks them – despite their faults they are God’s beloved children, on whom God sends the rain to fall and the sun to shine.

 

            The whole sermon is about the transformation of the human heart, something God has been working on ever since Adam and Eve left the garden.  From the Fall to the Flood, from the Exodus to the Exile, from the Commandments to the Kings, God has been working to change the human heart.  And that’s what this sermon is about.

 

            But the sermon of Jesus is not just the words of these chapters.  It is also about his life of compassion that extends to his death on the cross, where he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Jesus doesn’t merely tell us how to love. He shows us how to love.  And, in fact, he loves us in that very same way.

 

            It is a love that comes to us in the stories in the Bible. It is a love that comes to us through the meal that we share each week.  It is a love that comes to us in the friends of Jesus.

 

            This is my faith statement.  I didn’t answer all the questions, but then I give a faith statement every Sunday.  And I suppose you could call it more of a practice statement than a faith statement.  Because if I do nothing else for the rest of my life, I plan to read and digest and practice the Sermon on the Mount.  At its heart it is about transformation. Or you could say it is about giving a major upgrade to our operating system.  It is about retraining our hearts and minds.

 

             This is the best way to live because it teaches us faith.  This is the best way to live because it teaches us hope.  And this is the best way to live because it teaches us love.