“Enduring Forever. Present Today.” Youth Sunday 2019 Sermon

“Enduring Forever. Present Today”  
| Psalm 118:14-29 | John 20:19-31 | Acts 5:27-32 | Revelation 1:4-8

This sermon tries to answer the questions:

Why do the Gospels see Jesus in the Psalms?
Why do Christians behave as if the Bible, an ancient collection of writings, has something to do with the way God wants them to live today?

Jonathan Balmer

We were driving on a gravel road in a 15-passenger white van—the kind you always take on mission trips— last July, 30 minutes North of Houston. I made a wrong turn, and so decided to back up and turn around. And, the back of the van went just a TINY bit off-road and dipped into the small grassy ditch. There were shouts. “Relax! Relax! I shouted back,” throwing the car into drive and moving us forward onto the road. “You don’t think I’d drive us off a cliff?” Immediately a response came from the back a student (I won’t say which) yelled: “YES, YOU WOULD!”

            I’m sure you’re as inspired by the confidence I instill in our students as I was. Trust has a lot to do with how we interpret events. A bad car ride in an assuredly different van surely with a different driver, may have made students think that this time, surely, they were goners. Memory affects our present.

            You have probably listened to a song which was meaningful for you in a certain time in your life, a song you associate with a specific place or time. Just last week, you probably knew it was really Easter by the songs which proclaim “Alleluia!” Just one note of a favorite song can bring up memories.

            Psalm 118 is one of those songs, which gained new relevance in people’s lives, in each generation. The lens through which Israel read Psalm 118 was that of trust—Trust in God.

            The Psalm may have first been the song of a King declaring a military victory. In celebrating God’s King, the people celebrated the ultimate Kingship of God. In front of, then in, the Temple, God’s faithfulness was celebrated. Just as God delivered Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus, so God delivers them today. For God’s love endures forever.[1]

            Later, Israel had no King. They were taken into Exile and under the control of surrounding nations. Had God abandoned them? No, for a time they would face this exile, but, as verse 9 says, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” Their hope was in God. And perhaps the line for the one entering the temple took on great significance for the people: “The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.”

            Their hope was that the Lord would redeem Israel again, and make a New Exodus for them. And, when some returned from Exile, they would gather in Jerusalem and sing this song every year. This Psalm was also sung at Passover, when people also gathered in Jerusalem, as part of what is called the Great Hallel, the Great Praise. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD/ From the house of the LORD we bless you.”

            Every year, every generation, sang this song. God’s faithfulness was praised through exile and occupation by foreign powers. They remembered and gave thanks. The song was more than a relic of history, it was their present story too.

1. Scripture’s story is our story.

            Have you ever heard a story and become involved in it just by hearing it? I think I got to witness that sort of moment during that same mission trip to Houston.

            A CBF missionary Butch Green was leading us in repair Greenhouses in a Cambodian Neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey. While I was taking one of my many breaks, because of the heat, I witnessed a conversation he and Brianna had. She asked simply, “What led you to do this.”

            Once in high school, Butch said, he saw a man in a suit get out of a car at a construction site he worked at. He pointed, gave some instructions, got in a nice air-conditioned car, and he left. That was the architect. Soon, he was on his way to Texas A&M to study architecture. Something didn’t feel right though. His life’s direction changed after a friend invited him to go on a Baptist Student Ministry mission trip to Mexico, as they needed someone with construction experience.

            Seeing poor, but praise-filled, churches there led him to ask God what he should do with his life. He perceived a voice saying, “You never asked me.” And, eventually, God led him to become a missionary, serving with immigrant and refugee populations. Now, Harvey had changed his work again, to disaster relief.

            It was not her story. It was not mine. But I know I was drawn up to it. God may not ask me to be a missionary, but the question became mine, “God, what would you have me do?”

            Here’s another example: Imagine a Jewish child in Babylonian Exile. “Mom, Dad, why do we follow all these Laws?  They may quote Deuteronomy 6, “…then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand”. Historically, was this family in Egypt as slaves? No, not for generations. But that story is their story. This is that; Then is now.[2]

            This past lent, we as a youth ministry have been discussing the crucifixion. We spoke on how to understand the cross. One way was as a “New Exodus.” We talked about how this “New Exodus,” is not just a past event but a present reality, I gave this example from Andrew Young. He tells a story from a Civil Rights march in Birmingham, Easter Sunday, 1964, from New Pilgrim Baptist Church to the City Jail where Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned:

“The marchers set out in a festive mood. Suddenly they saw police, fire engines, and firemen with hoses in front of them, blocking their path. ‘Bull’ Connor [“Commissioner of Public Safety”] bellowed, ‘Turn this group around!’ Five thousand people stopped and waited for instruction from their leaders.”

One marcher recalled, “I asked the people to get down on their knees and offer a prayer. . . . Suddenly Rev. Charles Billups, … jumped up and hollered, ‘The Lord is with this movement! Off your knees! We’re going on!” . . . Stunned at first, Bull Connor yelled, ‘Stop ‘em, stop ‘em!” But none of the police moved a muscle. . . . Even the police dogs that had been growling and straining at their leashes. . . were now perfectly calm. . . . I saw one fireman, tears in his eyes, just let the hose drop at his feet. Our people marched right between the red fire trucks, singing, ‘I want Jesus to walk with me.’

. . . [Bull Connor’s] policemen had refused to arrest us, his fireman had refused to hose us, and his dogs had refused to bite us. It was quite a moment to witness. I’ll never forget one old woman who became ecstatic when she marched through the barricades. As she passed through, she shouted, ‘Great God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one mo’ time!” [3]

            We trust that the mighty acts of God described are not merely a past event but present for us.

            On mission trip, we all got very tired, I was asked by more than one student, “Why do we have these times of prayer and bible reading each night during mission trip? Aren’t we here to do work projects?” This is precisely the reason: what we are doing in working alongside Christ’s church in other places, and listening to their words about their communities, is seeing how their story is ours. We share the biblical story. Or, to put it another way, then is now. This is that.

            There are as many ways to hear scripture as there are people, a yet there is one God and Lord to whom the scriptures unfailingly point.

            When in Sunday School our middle school students say the “Old Adam” has a “Dust Body” and Jesus, the New Adam, has a “Heaven body”—their Sunday school teachers will definitely remember it whenever they read 1 Corinthians 15. Their unique way of seeing the story wasn’t just funny, we may be better at remembering scripture because of them.

            We might get worried about going off a cliff here with seeing “this story as our story,” or the “this is that” method of Bible reading. How do we know what a good reading is? Is the Christian faith just making good use of stories?

            If that’s the case, why use the Bible? Why not use any book that has good metaphors? Or any text which had moving history? And you may be surprised to learn some do that. There is a podcast out treating the Harry Potter series as a source of virtues, morals, and “spiritual wisdom.”

            This gets to the core point. The Story of Scripture is our Story. BUT We approach all scripture as our story because of our relationship to Christ. Because Christ is the key to the scriptures, and to our understanding God’s love which endures forever.

            We do not have two Gods. There is no Old Testament God of wrath and New Testament God of mercy. There is only the living God.

2: Christ is the key to the scriptures.

            “Doubting Thomas,” he is called. And he is so often used as an example of someone who should have just believed. But notice! He says what others do not. Thomas confesses Jesus in a way no one – in the whole Gospel of John– has.

            Think of Thomas’ past two weeks, and our own. He had seen Jesus ride a donkey in Jerusalem. And the people greeted him like a King, in the words of our Psalm:

            “Hosanna! / Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel” (Jn. 12:15)

            And, there John says, “His disciples did not understand these things at first.” (Jn. 16:17). What did they not understand? Later, we learn more.

            Around the time of Passover when Psalm 118 would have been sung as Part of the Great Praise, the Great Hallel, Jesus was betrayed by one of his own, abandoned by his followers, sentenced to death, and crucified on a cross.

            Before Thomas ever sees Jesus, Peter and another disciple go to the tomb after Mary Magdalene tells them it is empty. And the Gospel of John tells us, “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (Jn 20:9).

            The risen Christ appears to Mary, who calls him “My teacher!” and believes he has risen.

            The risen Christ appears to the disciples, when they are sitting in fear of the religious leaders. The see his wounds and rejoice when they saw the Lord. And he gives them the Holy Spirit, and sends them to tell others, as Christ has been sent by the Father.
            Christ is the key to the scriptures.

            Thomas does something unique. Yes, he demands to see the risen Jesus before he believes. But, after another week, when Jesus shows himself to Thomas, his response is not “Now I have enough evidence to believe you rose from the dead,” but “My LORD and My God.” My Lord and My God. And he says what no one else has. Jesus is God. And that is why Christ is the key to the scriptures.

And…

3: Christ is the key to our understanding God’s love which endures forever.

            Not only is Jesus like all the things described in the Hebrew Bible, our psalm today, but they take on new meaning because of him. The disciples did not recognize Jesus had to die and rise again. They did not recognize Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as God’s deliverance and “New Exodus”—God bringing the beloved of God out of death and into life.

             The disciples did not understand the scriptures’ relationship to Jesus. But the risen Christ, who by his Spirit sends out his disciples, that is sends out the church, to witness to him makes it clear.

            Thomas says what no other disciple says and that confession makes it clear what Jesus has said all along: “I and the Father are one.”

            How can that be? But the risen Christ is not only risen, he is “My Lord and My God” and that changes everything.

            To see Jesus as “My Lord and My God” means we read scripture is strange new ways:

            – The one who entered into the gates of righteousness is Christ our Lord.

            – The LORD God who gave us light, who is the light, who is ONE with the Father is Jesus.

            -The stone that the builders rejected who has become the chief cornerstone is Jesus.

            – When the people shout, “Lord save us” Hosanna, Jesus is himself the one who saves.

            – The one who suffered but was not given over finally to death is our Lord, and our God.

            – The steadfast love which endures forever is not a concept, but a person—Jesus of Nazareth.

Christ is the key to our understanding God’s love which endures forever.      

Thomas names the key for understanding the scriptures as our story, as it meets us in a thousand different ways it points to our Lord, and our God.

            Thomas does not say that he received enough scientific evidence from Christ’s wounds. He does not say he is satisfied and now believes the resurrection as a scientifically verifiable fact.

            He received the word from other believers—and, at first, did not believe. We are not told how the disciples responded to Thomas’ rejection. They, apparently, did not kick him out when he doubted.

            But then, Thomas believed and encountered Christ.

            John repeatedly emphasizes they did not understand the scriptures speaking about Jesus. For they did not read the Scripture through the lens of Trust—Trust in Jesus as my Lord and my God.

            It is true that Thomas saw the body and we can’t. We live in the in between time. We live in the in between time between Jesus’ ascension, his going up and sending of the Spirit, and his second coming. But we should be careful not to think of Thomas’ faith as based on evidence, while ours must be somehow “less certain”. Thomas confesses who Jesus is; that is a gift of the Spirit—not evidence.

            Stanley Hauerwas says it well, “For our salvation is not knowledge about which we get to make up our minds. Our salvation is flesh, crucified and resurrected flesh, wounded flesh…. Jesus is the wound of the Father’s love, which we share through the gift of the Spirit.”[4] And in view of the acts of unconscionable anti-Semitic violence we have witnessed done in the name of Christ, and the violence seen even just in the past sixth months, we ought to remember that Christ’s flesh which saves is also Jewish flesh.

            While the Gospel of John does speak of the disciples fearing “The Jews,” it is clear the disciples are in fear of certain Jewish leaders, in a time when Christians were a tiny minority. This Gospel has often been mis-used for anti-Semitism, but never rightly. As Jesus himself says in John, “Salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). While theological differences persist between Jews and Christians, the Christians attitude should always be one of respect and gratitude. Anti-Semitism must be rejected for the deadly conspiracy theory it is.

            In this passage we see God’s love endures forever. We encounter it in ten thousand ways, and we see it once and for all in Jesus Christ. The “one who comes in the name of the Lord” sends his Spirit to the church and sends us out as he is sent by the Father.

            In the Acts reading, the Apostles are told they are forbidden from teaching in this name, and they say, “We must obey God, rather than human beings.” And as our Reading from Revelation declares he is the “the Alpha and the Omega,” …. the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

            The Faithful love of God endures forever and is present today.

Christ is the key to our understanding God’s love which endures forever.

            We see this miracle not by our senses or historical knowledge, but because we’ve received the gift of the Spirit who unfailingly testifies to Christ and allows us to participate in the Kingdom of forgiveness—the disciples, the church, is given power to pronounce God’s love and forgiveness. From where does that love come? “My Lord, and My God”. What does it look like? It looks like Jesus.

Conclusion: Scripture is our story; Christ is the key to the scriptures and God’s love which endures forever.

Or if you do not have a church, a body of believers and witnesses, to which you belong, perhaps you would want to come up front and talk to me, or Pastor Erin, Leslie, or Matt, about joining the people of God here, who bear witness to Jesus’ steadfast, love to each other, and the world.

Or perhaps you would like to confess Jesus as “my Lord and my God” for the first time. I invite you to speak with a minister here or a trusted friend.

Or if you’re already a member, maybe you can find a way to testify in word and in deed. Like Sadie did to the children in Mission Friends, when she met with them to discuss our Houston Mission Trip two weeks ago. She shared her story of witnessing God at work in Houston, hoping it might become their story too.

 “Peace be with you,” the steadfast love of God says to you.

He is present today by His Holy Spirit and will reign forevermore.

Amen.

[1] See NIVAC, Dennis W. Tucker, Psalm 118.  

[2] James Wm. McClendon, “A New Way to Read the Bible” The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon, Jr., vol. 2, 3 vols. (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014), in chapter 41.

[3] Andrew Young, An Easy Burden, The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 223.

[4] “Believing is Seeing” in A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching, 29-30

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