Josh and I have been doing youth ministry for a billion years….wait..more like since we were married almost 15 years ago. For most of you that is a feather in the wind but it has been a fabulous run with teens for us. For the first 10 years we didn’t have Anna, so Josh and I were a ministry power house…a super team for the UMC church. I was the lay leader, co-lead bible studies, co-directed youth ministry, sat on or just attended most committees in the UMC church, had dinner with the pastor and his wife approx. 3-4 nights per week, had a full time job in neurology/sleep center, and was a wife. Sometimes I sprinkled my time with other family and friends. Josh pretty much had the same lifestyle as I did because we were always together. What a blast we had…didn’t we honey? I get tired just reading that crazy busy schedule now but we did a lot of ministry and I learned a TON of stuff. I learned that if the devil can’t make you bad…he makes you busy. I learned how to talk to teens and how to relate to them. I learned that talking about Jesus is not a cookie cutter job…it takes some creativity, finesse and sensivity. I learned how not to judge teens on their decisions and their mistakes. This is the best time in their lives to make those mistakes. They have a core support system to help them through the tough stuff. All teens have tough stuff….some situations are tougher than others but I have learned that it is all tough in their eyes. It is all a matter of perspective…which most of them don’t have. Their core supports should be parents, teachers, counselors, friends, youth directors, neighbors, church members, ect. Not all kids have all these people but all kids have someone. If you are that person for a teen…thank you…they need you. When I was praying about this message lots of thoughts came to mind. I wondered what Jesus was like as a teen. The bible tells us He is the perfect man. He made no mistakes…I find it fascinating that a teen made no mistakes. I wondered if he was tempted in those years. How he handled it. How did he learn? Who taught him? Wouldn’t he know everything because He is God? So I went on a search. In our lesson today Luke 2..41 Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. He is with his parents for the most part. He is 12 at this time and in those days he was practically an adult so he didn’t spend as much time with his parents as the younger kids did. Also, when they traveled the woman and children were more towards the front the caravans and the men in the back and since Jesus was almost a man he could have been in either place. So his parents probably thought he was with the other. After a day of traveling they noticed he wasn’t with them and they went back but it took 3 days to find him. So a total of 4 days without his parents. If I were him…I would be in deep serious trouble! Then another thought cropped up..A cell phone would have been incredibly handy at that point. So he wasn’t in trouble at all…his parents were astonished at his wisdom and so were the people of the temple courts. My foot notes say that Mary was frantically looking for a boy but she found her boy as a man…the Messiah. If that were Anna…I would have grabbed her by the scuff of her neck…oh probably not….I would have burst into tears. My foot notes also say this is the first awareness that Jesus had that he is God’s Son. I found that interesting also. So..more questions pop in my mind…according to that then Jesus didn’t know he was the Messiah…so he did have to learn from other people. He was God in the flesh but Jesus wasn’t aware of that. That is really the end of that day. His parents find him and Mary treasures all these things in her heart. It doesn’t say that Jesus returned to their home in the scripture. It just says that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men. In my foot notes it says he does return home with Mary and Joseph and they raised him like any other child in their family. It says he helped with the family business of carpentry and he was the oldest child in their family. It also says that Joseph probably died in that time frame of the lost 18 years. Think about 18 years of your life. That’s a long time but probably flew by. One of the best pieces of advice that I received when Anna was born was “the days are long but the years are short”. That is the truth. I did some other research on these lost 18 years and I want to say a disclaimer here…I don’t believe everything I read but these books are good to mention and I liked the sections that I found on the internet. Also I like to hear or read other peoples opinions on the matter. The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Clare Prophet and The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ by Nicholas Notovitch. Both of these books claim that Jesus spent those 18 years studying, meditating, learning, praying, preaching in Persia, Tibet and India. That he traveled during those years to mostly learn. I won’t get too deep into that because it is not in the bible that he did it. I will say that it is very interesting to learn that there is documentation in the Tibetan community of Jesus being there. What a neat “claim to fame” writing on the wall…like Jesus took a black sharpie and wrote his name on the underside of a bunk bed indicating “I was here”. I don’t mean to make light of those authors research or their books. I am actually glad that God didn’t include Jesus’s teen years in the bible. Even though we think this…we don’t have to know everything. I know it says that he was perfect…but I wouldn’t want all my teen mistakes, tantrums, trials, misguided shenanigans or anything else that I didn’t want public to come out in a book that over 2000 years later people are still reading about it. I am glad he had some privacy to “figure it all out”. I am glad he was able to slow down and take it all in. I picture his teen years making furniture, traveling the land, wrestling with his brothers, swimming in creeks or rivers, making sand castles or tunnels, ect. There is a reason that those 18 years were left out. I don’t mean to leave out the youth in this message. I have directed my message to adults but now I want to say a few things directly to our youth. I have learned a lot. You have teach me so much. My life is fuller and richer being your leader. As much as it hurts parents, teachers, counselors, church members…we need you to grow up…and we need to let you…..make mistakes and learn from them. We need you to take responsibility for your actions and reactions to issues that you find breathless. We need you to love people and love God and seek His will and make Him known in your life. Please understand that these years are tough and no one is writing it down in a book. No one is tallying your mistakes or your questions. Try and rely on your core people for support and seek us out. In the beginning of this message I told you how busy my life was before Anna and sometimes that business shifts….like when you have a child. Jesus was back in the text when he was about 30 years old and began his ministry on the books so to speak. I think by that standard….I am reminded that I am just getting started…Pray with me.
We Gotta Have Faith
Hebrews, chapter 11
Who first taught you what it meant to have faith?
From as far back as I remember, when I was a child my mom would tuck me in at night and she would lead me in praying. Our prayer, not really very original, began “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” But that would be followed by our praying God’s blessing, God’s faithful “keeping,” over members of my family and friends and people in our church that were sick or in need. In general, it was the naming of those we wanted God to keep. Although I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, I was being taught that prayer was an act of faith in God’s trustworthiness and ability to “keep” his own. Prayer was my response of faith to God’s faithfulness.
Let me repeat. That process of prayer as a child taught me that prayer was an expression of my faith in God’s faithfulness and ability to “keep” his own.
But the lesson, I doubt, would have ever sunk in had it not been demonstrated by my parents as they lived their lives.
My memory of childhood begins at the age of 4; the very day we moved from Johnstown, PA to a tiny community north of Dayton, OH for my dad to attend seminary. My memory was “jump started” that day because of the trauma of the event. My parents had three children ranging in age from 4 to 17 and, if you are a parent, you know that 17 is a very difficult age to move a child. My parents had always lived in the same small city surrounded by the support of family. They were moving 300 miles away where they did not know a soul. They were poorer than church mice. They did not know or comprehend the culture of the people whom they were called to serve. The church parsonage had been unoccupied for a time. There had been difficulties with the oil-burning furnace and the last occupants had been fond of leaving the baby’s dirty diapers lying on the cracked linoleum floor. When we pulled into the driveway, there was no one to meet us. My parents instructed we kids to stay in the car while they checked the house – it was dirty, it was smelly, it was in poor condition. I have a vivid memory of my mother and big sister hugging and crying in the gravel driveway of that parsonage. And so, I began to cry too. It was a long and hard three years. But, we made it and we made it because my parents firmly believed that God was “keeping us.” We were in his care because, crazy though it appeared to friends and family around us, we’d made that move because we believed it was God’s purpose for us. We followed the call believing that the God who called was worthy of our trust.
Who first taught you what it meant to have faith?
Today I’m concluding a brief mini sermon series on the book of Hebrews. If you’re anywhere near my age, the title “We Gotta Have Faith” might remind you of the 1980’s pop hit song by George Michael, “I Gotta Have Faith.” But you’ll notice I’ve made use of a different pronoun. It is the plural personal pronoun, “we.” Just as there is no “I” in team, there is no “I” in Church. And faith is not a private matter. In fact, faith that is not visible, observable to those around us is an oxymoron.
This morning’s verses from the book of Hebrews were just a small portion of a section of scripture that encompasses 40 verses and highlights the faith of 16 people by name and thousands of others who remain nameless. This is the Hall of Fame of the Faithful and here’s what’s important to notice: that faith can’t be defined in a vacuum or in any abstract sense. It can’t be defined apart from the faith-ful, those who make it visible. Faith is seen and comprehended by observing and interacting with the faithful. I learned what faith was by seeing my parents demonstrate it in bold and powerful ways. Faith was the only possible explanation for that crazy move to Ohio. It wasn’t done to make life easier; life got harder. It wasn’t done for financial gain; we got poorer. It wasn’t done for notoriety. When my dad returned to PA, no one particularly knew or cared about any ministry “success” he’d achieved during his Ohio sojourn. Faith, my friends, is not a system of beliefs designed to earn us convenience, progress, prosperity or comfort. In fact, it will often earn us the opposite. Well-known southern preacher and story-teller Fred Craddock writes that:
Hebrews 11 offers two portraits of the life of faith.
One image is filled with triumph and victory over all enemies,
with dramatic deliverances from all threats and dangers,
even death; the other is marked by torture, public mocking,
imprisonment, beatings, stoning, homelessness,
destitution, hiding in caves, and violent death.
Hebrews simply entitles both portraits “faith.”
Faith does not calculate results and thus believe…
Faith, my friends, isn’t taught. Faith is caught; we catch it by observing the faith of others. Who first taught you what it meant to have faith? Who first taught you by their boldness and courage that faith was absolute reliance on Jesus; that faith was hope put into action? Who first taught you what it meant to have faith?
Too often, Christian faith gets reduced to a belief system or a set of moral rules. But faith is about living out a relationship with Jesus, the one who is worthy of our trust; who was faithful to us even unto death. Faith is about living in a way that makes clear that our relationship with Jesus permeates, influences, determines every area of our life, every moment of our days.
We can’t notice it in English because of the way that it is translated but in the original Greek of the New Testament, Hebrews chapter 11 is framed by what’s known as an inclusio. Verse 2 of the chapter reads: “Indeed, by faith, our ancestors gave witness.” Then, verse 39 reads, “Yet all these, giving witness to the faith.” The word there is martureo, to give witness. Friends: to give a witness implies speech or behavior of a public nature, right? When we were living in Dayton, I saw a man pull a gun on another man in the alley behind our house. I called the police who showed up at my house later that night. They had found the two men – the one with the gun and the one it was pointed at. The gun slinger had been taken to the city jail. Now they wanted to know, “Would I come by the station the next morning and ID the man? And, if I agreed and charges were pursued and it went to trial, I could be called to give witness under oath in court.” I had a sleepless night. I lived in that neighborhood, diagonal to a crack house. That’s where the men had been. Giving witness could be, potentially, a very dangerous thing ‘cause discreet and witness don’t go together. There’s no “giving a witness” on the down-low. It’s about being obvious and visible and bold.
Friends, who first taught you what it meant to have faith? Now, here’s an even bigger question, “Who will you teach?” Who will YOU teach about what it means to have faith? What are people learning about the boldness of faith by watching you? If we want to inspire others to develop a life-changing, life-transforming relationship with Jesus, they’ve got to be able to see the results of that in us. This is what I believe folks: I am firmly convinced that people aren’t passing Christianity over because it asks too much of them. I am convinced that people in America today are passing Christianity over because, when they observe us, Christianity seems to ask too little of them. If people can’t look at us and see that they way we live our lives isn’t entirely different because of Jesus, then what is there to see? Nothing; they can just move along.
So I want to challenge us this morning as individuals and as a church: where in your life is Jesus calling you to be bold, to take a risk, to step out of your comfort zone… ‘cause if you notice that list of bible folk, that’s all about folks who heard a call and took a giant risk. Think about Abraham. That dude was old, really old. And God just told him to pull up all those tent pegs and get moving. I mean, don’t you think he might have had Sciatica and he must have had at least some arthritis at that age. But off he goes. So where in your life is Jesus calling you to be bold, to take a risk, to step out of your comfort zone? And, if you don’t know, start praying more and listening harder cause faith that’s not visible and observable is an oxymoron.
I’m done preaching. But here’s the thing… you still might not beat the Presbyterians to lunch and here’s why… because this morning, after the offering, I want to ask you to tell me, really, who taught you what it meant to have faith? I want you to tell me, who are some of the people in this church or other churches that taught you what it meant to have faith? Now, I don’t want to hear about people who were hard workers and showed up reliably to help out. That’s important. We appreciate folks who are loyal servants in the church. We do. But it doesn’t take great trust, great risk, great boldness to make coffee every week or count the offering or mow the lawn, right? Again, that doesn’t mean those things aren’t important and it doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the people who do them. But I want to know, who were the people who said to you that it didn’t matter if there weren’t enough people or enough money or enough time or enough whatever but that, if it was something God wanted us to do, we could do it AND we would do it because God would faithfully keep us. Who are the people who taught you what it meant to have faith?
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Some people feel that we have become a culture in which sin is no longer taken very seriously. It’s that culture epitomized by every child on the team getting an award; the “everyone’s a winner” culture. Now, it’s true; we do seem to want everyone to feel good about themselves. And yet, based on what I’ve observed over my years as a pastor, very few of us do. Sure; you can get away with putting a lot more sexual explicitness in an R-rated movie today than you could have thirty years ago. But I don’t believe that, as a culture, we’ve become any less intently aware of our own sins, failures and shortcomings. I come to this conclusion based on the number of people over the years that have broken down in my church office or over the phone, expressing feelings of utter shame and hopelessness over their own sinful behaviors. I’d seen them just one Sunday prior, in their regularly appointed pew in their Sunday best with their bright, clean, shiny children; the picture of Christian perfection. And now, head in hands, they confess sins that I would have never imagined.
It was a warm, spring morning several years ago and I’d not yet left for the office when my parsonage phone rang. I’ll call him Bill and the words tumbled from his mouth. He wanted me to know: he was on his way to check in to a drug treatment facility. He was an addict and his life had fallen apart. He was a salesman in danger of being fired by the company. When he’d confessed to his wife, she told him to leave and never come back. She was finished with him. But most of all, he was ashamed; ashamed of his weakness. Ashamed that a substance he’d been controlling in order to be more focused, more energetic, more productive (for his wife and the company), was now fully in control of him. He couldn’t identify the exact moment it had changed. But now he felt the full weight of his helplessness and shame and utter hopelessness at what lay ahead.
Years ago I remember watching an episode of a TV show about a housewife, named Lynnette; the mother of three young boys and an infant. She recently lost her nanny and her husband is a traveling salesman and, consequently, her mental health is dangling by a thread. She has reached wit’s end. By mistake, she takes her son’s A.D.D. medication – which, of course, has the opposite effect on those who don’t have A.D.D. But when the energizing effects wear off, she is even more exhausted. She goes to see an acupuncturist who gives her a Chinese herbal tea designed to help her relax and get to sleep. Forgetting it’s her turn to lead the scout troop, she drinks the tea just before their arrival and her desperate attempts at rest are thwarted. Near the episode’s end, she shoves her children off on a neighbor and drives to a nearby park where she sits on the grass uncontrollably sobbing. She is discovered by two friends who come looking for her, concerned for her emotional state. She begins to unload on them about her inadequacies as a mother and human being, in general. But, as she describes her failures, the two women – whose children are now in high school – assure her that her feelings are nothing unusual. Every mother of young children has days when she feels like she’s falling apart at the seams. The two women share their own stories with Lynnette and it makes her feel better… and normal. The scene ends with Lynnette wondering why it is that they’ve never shared with one another like that before. She declares, “We should tell one another these things.” But, of course, we viewers know they won’t because it is not in our human nature to talk about our faults, failings or humiliations. It is in our nature to try and look as if we’re keeping it all together.
It has always been ironic and somewhat baffling to me that, of the multiple contexts each of us occupy – home, work, school, civic organizations, etc. – we seem to feel the least able to be who we are truly are (in all our human weakness) in the context of church.
But that is not what God intends for us. Many of us live our lives hopelessly trying to meet the expectations of others; struggling to make proud those who are never satisfied with us or accepting of us. But that is not what God desires for us.
God’s desire for us is not that we would wallow in shame and despair, not struggle to please those who are unplease-able, but that we might receive from God mercy and grace and eternal salvation even here and now.
God sent us a Savior who took on flesh; one who knows our human experience with all its weaknesses and temptations; one who stooped so low as to leave the glory of heaven to become a mere mortal; one who would fully bridge the gap, that dreadful gap, that sin had caused between us and God.
The book of Hebrews is a sort of combination letter/sermon to a group of early Christians who are struggling to keep the faith. Now it’s important for us to recognize that the writer of Hebrews does not want these early Christians to give up, to surrender their faith… not even to return to Judaism. And so, throughout this writing, he reminds them of the superiority of Jesus. That Jesus surpasses any other means or practices for seeking closeness to God. Jesus outdoes them all. Only Jesus can provide us with the kind of deep intimacy with God that we all yearn for deep within.
As former Jews, the recipients of this letter are well familiar with sacrifice as a means of addressing the problem of sin. But the sacrifices the Jews were instructed to make had their limits, as did the priests who offered them. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple, God’s “footstool on earth,” and offered sacrifice for the sins of himself and the people. But it was a process that needed to be repeated every year and that innermost sanctum, that place of greatest proximity to God, could only be entered once a year by one person.
But now, the writer of Hebrews proclaims, Jesus has served as both sacrifice and high priest. And because he is willing to sacrifice himself, there will never again be a need for blood sacrifice. Jesus, because he is God’s Son, because he was obedient unto death, because he submitted in all ways to God’s purposes, because he was perfect, has gained for us all the benefits of mercy and grace and eternal salvation.
Jesus gives us mercy and grace. Now, it’s important for us to understand what that means. The word for mercy here can also be translated compassion. So, while we might equate mercy with forgiveness, compassion adds another dimension. When we forgive from a place of compassion it is because we fully understand someone’s shortcomings. Jesus forgives our sins from a place of compassion because he understands our weaknesses and sins and failures; because he knows what it is like to be human in this world. Often when we fall short – when we sin, when we fail – others may say they forgive us; but they are also often disappointed in us and frustrated with us. Likewise, when we sin and fall short, we are often disappointed in ourselves and frustrated and perhaps even angry at ourselves. But Jesus views us differently. Jesus views us from a place of compassion. And so, the first thing we are called to do is to be truth tellers before the throne of grace. We can confess our sins to Jesus because Jesus doesn’t want to beat us up over them; Jesus wants to show us compassion. How great is that?
And secondly, Jesus wants to offer us grace. Now oftentimes, we interpret grace as forgiveness and nothing more. But Hebrews says that this is grace that helps us in times of need. This is transformative grace; grace that has the power to change us from the inside out. As Methodists, we would call this sanctifying grace; grace that causes us to think and speak and act differently.
Now, we don’t recognize it as modern, 21st century Americans, but grace was a concept that went beyond the religious sphere in the first century Mediterranean world. There was this thing called “The Three Graces.” Now truly, this is more than a social studies or history lesson so try to stay with me here. The first-century Mediterranean world was what’s known as a patron-benefaction culture. A few, wealthy people had access to resources – everything from land, to jobs, to food, to important social connections. And, the majority of people, who had few resources, relied on those wealthy folks to be their benefactors. And here’s how that played out through three expressions of grace:
First, the wealthy person needed to be graciously predisposed toward those in need. In other words, they needed to be compassionate and responsive to those in need. And so, they expressed their gracious responsiveness by the giving of gifts (the second grace). The gift itself was considered a grace because it was a tangible expression of the benefactor’s graciousness and generosity. So they shared gifts of food or countless other resources that were in short supply. So, the first grace is the gracious disposition of the benefactor toward the one in need, otherwise known as their client. The second grace is the gift itself; the tangible expression of the graciousness. And the third grace is the expression of thanks or gratitude on the part of the recipient. Now, how did you say thank you in that culture? You said thank you by singing the praises of your benefactor: saying gracious or complimentary things publically about your benefactor; the kinds of things that gave even greater honor to your benefactor. Praise in the ancient world was like gold; it was priceless.
Friends, Jesus is a benefactor to whom no one and nothing else can compare. The benefaction of Jesus far exceeds anything we could find anywhere else. We have received from Jesus the blessing of his grace. First of all, Jesus is graciously disposed toward us. He doesn’t want to beat us up over our sins and weaknesses. He wants to show us compassion. That is the first grace. Second, Jesus gives us grace that is a help to us in our time of need. We can, in fact, defeat the power of sin and conquer temptation in our own lives when we rely on the help of Jesus. The grace of Jesus is more than forgiveness that helps us to feel better. It is the actual work of Jesus within our lives that equips us to be better; to live as God’s reverent, obedient children. Jesus did it and he can equip us to do it through the giving of his grace, a tangible help in our times of need. Third, if we recognize our need for the gift that only Jesus can supply – grace that helps and strengthens us – then we will say “thank you” to Jesus by living a life of loyalty to him and by publically and privately praising him. We won’t hide our faith under a bushel. We will share with others the difference Jesus has made in our lives. Friends, talking about what Jesus has done for us is not just a matter of evangelism and church growth. Let me say that again because I want it to sink in. It is, in fact, common decency, brothers and sisters. Sharing with others what Jesus has done for us, praising Jesus for what he has done for us, is the most basic expression of “thank you” to Jesus for what he has given us… something no one else ever could: close and intimate fellowship with God, the elimination of the barrier of sin and shame. And furthermore, we thank Jesus through worship because praise and thanksgiving are at the heart of worship.
Friends, for far too long far too many of us have been beating ourselves up over our sins and weaknesses and failures and short comings and God does not want that for us. What God wants for us is eternal salvation and he has offered it to us through Jesus, our benefactor, the giver of mercy and grace. So let us take the time and the energy and the effort we expend being hard on ourselves and others and let us transform it into prayer and praise. Let us come before the throne of grace with boldness seeking the help that we can trust Jesus to give us and may the living of our lives be an offering of praise for the one who has done for us what no one else could ever do. Let us no longer hopelessly seek to curry the favor and please those of the world, giving in to the world’s standards and demands. But let us seek to please the one whose desire for us, whose gift to us, is eternal salvation. Because of Jesus, we can trade judgment for mercy and shame for salvation. Amen.
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