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Monday, November 30, 2015

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Isaiah 64:1-9

Introduction
Christmas is traditionally a time when people go home to be close to family.  Unfortunately, not everyone is able to go home for the holidays.  There are often obstacles in the way that keep us from going home.  Home may be too far away.  We may be too busy to go home.  Or it may be too painful to because we don’t get along with our family or we may be overcome with grief as we think of loved ones who have passed away.
Even so, Christmas is still a time when we long to go home to the place where we feel at peace, where love is freely given and freely received.  Ultimately, our Home is with our Heavenly Father.  As we prepare to celebrate Christmas over the next few weeks, I want to challenge you to think of “Home” in its broader, spiritual sense.  Consider how Jesus came to overcome whatever keeps us from being at home with God.
Sometimes Home seems too far away.  I think of our brave soldiers serving oversees.  This must be an especially difficult time of year for them.  They feel the same longings we feel to go home for Christmas, but their duty to our country will not allow it.  For them, home must seem especially far away this season.
In a similar way, there is a deep spiritual longing in the heart of humanity to be at home with God, but sin separates us so far from Him it seems impossible to go Home.  Throughout history, men and women of faith have sensed this obstacle and longed to find a bridge between God and humanity.  People have gone to great lengths to cross this chasm, but all human efforts fail.  The prophet Isaiah wrote of the Jewish longing to be at home with God in Isaiah 64:1-9.  This was written over 500 years before Christ was born and laments how sin separates humanity form God.

Isaiah 64:1-9
1Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!
    How the mountains would quake in your presence!
As fire causes wood to burn
    and water to boil,
your coming would make the nations tremble.
    Then your enemies would learn the reason for your fame!
When you came down long ago,
    you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations.
    And oh, how the mountains quaked!
For since the world began,
    no ear has heard
and no eye has seen a God like you,
    who works for those who wait for him!
You welcome those who gladly do good,
    who follow godly ways.
But you have been very angry with us,
    for we are not godly.
We are constant sinners;
    how can people like us be saved?
We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
    and our sins sweep us away like the wind.
Yet no one calls on your name
    or pleads with you for mercy.
Therefore, you have turned away from us
    and turned us over to our sins.

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father.
    We are the clay, and you are the potter.
    We all are formed by your hand.
Don’t be so angry with us, Lord.
    Please don’t remember our sins forever.
Look at us, we pray,
    and see that we are all your people.
 

Christmas Materialism
God did look and see His people.  Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Savior.  God loves us so much He sent his son Jesus to bridge the gap that sin places between us and God.  Jesus already did everything necessary to make a way for us to go Home spiritually.  In order to overcome the obstacle of sin that keeps us from being at Home with God we must:  believe in Jesus, repent of our sin, and invite Jesus into our life. 
Unfortunately, few people consciously recognize that they are lost and far from Home.  We mistake the temporary trappings of this world for things of eternal value.  And so, as Isaiah said in verse 7, “No one calls on [God’s] name or pleads with [God] for mercy. Therefore, [God has] turned away from us and turned us over to our sins.”
The Christmas season often heightens our pursuit of worldly things.  It is a time of great excitement and expectation.  Retailers play off this to increase sales and make more money.  A friend of mine told me a funny story that illustrates the effect the Christmas hype can have on people.  He said he once stood in line to see Santa Clause with his little boy.  Of course, it was a long line with many children eagerly waiting to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas.  They must have stood in line for nearly an hour.  Then, just before Ken and his boy got their turn, Santa stood up and said, “I’ve had enough of this!”  He ripped off his beard and hat, threw them down, and walked off the job.  Ken just stood there dumbfounded with his jaw on the floor.  He didn’t know what to say to his son.  Would his image of Christmas and Santa Clause be shattered?  Then, his son looked up and said, “Dad, what’s the matter with that elf?  He’s not doing a very good job filling in for Santa!”
The excitement builds as we wait for Christmas to come.  We wait and wait and finally we get our turn at Christmas and then we are disappointed.  Christmas was not all it was cracked up to be.  Why?  Because we can’t find true peace, joy, and happiness in a fat man dressed up in a red suit. 
Sometimes, even visiting family for the holidays isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Maybe we have fond memories of how great Christmas was in the good ole days.  And maybe it seems things can never be as good as they once were.  The music just isn’t as good, the food isn’t as tasty, the presents aren’t as special, the laughs aren’t as funny, the relatives aren’t as friendly…  Could it be that sometimes we even substitute family for God?  And when we do, we are always disappointed.
That’s not what Christmas was meant to be.  Christmas is the celebration of God’s love revealed to us through the birth of His Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus was born to remind us and invite us to come Home to God.  Jesus lived to show us the way Home.  He died to overcome the obstacle of sin that keeps us away from Home.  He rose from the grave because not even death can keep us from being at Home with our Father in Heaven. 
 
1.     Repentence
The key to overcoming sin is repentance.  Jesus has already broken the power of sin over us, but we must repent—that means to turn away from sin and turn to God.  But how do we actually repent.  First, we must ask ourselves in all honesty, “What do I put in the place of God?”
  I have a good friend who is a die-hard Tennessee Volunteers football fan.  He used to spend all his time tracking statistics on his team, watching games… He even lost sleep over whether or not they would beat Georgia!  But one day a few years ago as he was praying, he realized that he was being foolish.  He spent more time on a silly college football team than he did on his family.  He was even more passionate about the VOLS than he was about God.  When he came to his senses, my friend asked God to forgive him and he repented.  That means he changed the way he lived his life.  He’s still a Tennessee Volunteers football fan, but instead of being a fanatic sports fan, he’s a fanatic God fan.  And football never comes before God or the things that are truly important in life.  

2. Ask Forgiveness
Once we are aware we have put something before God, we must ask forgiveness.  It’s OK to ask for forgiveness in general… because we may never be fully aware of all the things we put before God.  But we should also reflect deeply on our life and then ask for forgiveness for the specific things that God reveals we have put before Him.  

3. Let God Change You
Next, we must let God change our behavior.  It is good to be sorry for our sins, but just feeling sorry is not enough.  There must also be a change in our behavior.  Change comes as a result of a personal encounter with Jesus.  I hope then, you will pray for more and more personal encounters with Jesus that you may be changed.  And pray for God to open your eyes more and more so you can recognize how you have already encountered Jesus in your life.  These divine encounters have profound, life-changing effects on us.  They help us to truly repent and come Home to God.
We change as a response to God’s love.  I think about the lady who was caught in the act of adultery in the passage from John 8:1-11.  She was caught red-handed, dragged from the bed by an angry mob, and thrown at the feet of Jesus.  According to the law, she was supposed to be stoned to death.  The mob demanded an answer—should they stone her or not.  You remember Jesus’ response.  He said, ““All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.  When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.””[i]
The Bible doesn’t tell us what became of her after this, but an early church tradition says she went on to become a saint.  If that’s true, she didn’t become a saint to impress Jesus.  He had already seen her at her worst and he loved and forgave her anyway.  She became a saint in response to the great love of Christ that forgave her and spared her life when she was still a sinner.
The same is true for us.  We don’t try to be good people to earn God’s favor.  Isaiah said, “When we proudly display our righteous deeds, we find they are but filthy rags.”[ii]  We can’t impress God and we don’t have to.  God loves us in spite of our sin.  His love for us is demonstrated by Christ who gave up the glory of heaven to be born as a helpless baby in a rickety old manger.  He lived a perfect life and was crucified for our sins so that we can be washed clean—as white as snow. 

Conclusion
 So how do we respond to all this?  Well, we could disregard it and keep on falling for the same old hype the world offers every year.  We could place our hopes in the temporary pleasures the gifts of this world bring. 
Or we could spend our time preparing our souls for the coming of Christ.  One day, we will face Jesus and look into the eyes of the man who hung on a cross for our sins.  If Christ came to take you Home to heaven today, would you be ready to go or would you keep clinging to the temporary things of this world?  The season of Advent is a very fitting time to prepare our souls to go Home to be with God.  Won’t you look into the eyes of your Savior today and say, “I’ll be Home for Christmas this year?” 

Thank You Jesus, for the great gift you gave us on the cross at Calvary.  You have made a way for us to truly come Home for Christmas this year.  We long for Home—the place we’re always certain to find hope and joy and peace.  Reveal to us those things in our lives that we have put before God.  And help us to know that no sin is too big for you to overcome.  Urge us to repent and to always put God first in our lives so that we will be ready to be at Home with God this Christmas.  Amen.


[i] John 8:7b-11
[ii] Isaiah 64:6

Monday, November 23, 2015

Arguing with Jesus About His Silence on Important Issues

John 8:1-11

Introduction
            Have you ever wanted to argue with Jesus?  Jesus said and did many things that were very challenging or hard to understand we might want to argue with him about those.  However, sometimes the most troubling thing about Jesus is not what he said, but what he didn’t say.  It is the times when Jesus is silent on important issues that bother me the most and sometimes I want to argue with Jesus when he doesn’t speak directly about an issue.  Here is a partial list of issues Jesus didn’t teach about directly:  drugs, alcohol, slavery, birth control, homosexuality, democracy, science, abortion, gun control, freedom of religion…  These are all hot topics that stir passionate debates in our times and Jesus never spoke about them directly.  (At least, we have no record of his teachings about these subjects written in the Gospels.)  And sometimes, I want to argue with Jesus about his silence.  “Why didn’t you say something, Lord, so we would know how to respond on these important issues?”
            Today’s scripture comes to us from John chapter 8:1-11.  It is example of Jesus’ vague silence on an important issue that is debated today—the death penalty.  Keep in mind, though, that this message isn't really about the death penalty.  This message is about Jesus' silence.

John 8:1-11
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. 
 
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

11 “No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

A Vague Response
            In order to really understand anything Jesus says in scripture, you have to understand the context.  And the context of this story is that Jesus was under attack.  The Pharisees weren’t motivated by sincerity when they came for a ruling.  Verse 6 says they were trying to trap Jesus.  So we have to take that into account in everything that follows.
Jesus must have been thoroughly disgusted by this whole situation.  Here is a group of supposedly “religious men” using a woman’s life to bait a trap for Jesus.  The Pharisees actions are deplorable.  They have know regard for this woman's life.  They are willing to use a human life to advance their agenda against Jesus.  And so, Jesus had to be intentionally vague so as not to give his enemies any ammunition against him.  Even though Jesus’ words are not as definitive on the issue of capital punishment, you have to admire his wisdom given the circumstance.
The way I read this, Jesus didn’t give a clear ruling.  He assented (reluctantly) to Old Testament law which calls for the stoning of adulterers, but he does it in such a way that he puts it on the people.  It’s as if he says, “Ok, if that’s what you want, then go ahead and stone her, but I don’t want any part of it.” 
Jesus’s actions are such that both supporters of the death penalty and those who wish to abolish it can use this same story to support their arguments.

Silence is a Tool
            Set aside for a moment your opinions about the death penalty.  Look at the way Jesus uses silence as a tool.  As the angry Pharisees demand an answer, Jesus stoops down and writes in the dust with his finger.  Silence...
            I once had a teacher in the 6th grade—Mrs. Garland.  When the class would get too noisy, she would simply stop and hold up her finger.  This was the exact opposite of what other teachers would do.  They would usually get louder and louder, competing with the noise of the class, sometimes angrily scolding the students and admonishing them to quiet down, maybe even threatening them with consequences.  But not Mrs. Garland.  She would just stop talking and hold up her finger.  It would take a few moments, but eventually (and amazingly) the noise of the room would fad as students started to notice Mrs. Garland’s silence.  You could even hear other students start shushing the class—doing the teacher’s work for her—until everyone sat quietly, paying complete attention to Mrs. Garland.  Then she would say something like, “Now that you’re ready, I will continue…”  Mrs. Garland was a great teacher—she used silence to keep command of her class.
           
            Jesus used silence to keep command of the angry crowd.  Though he stooped to write in the dust, he would not stoop to their level.  First, he used silence to focus their attention.  Then, he used silence again to give them time to search their hearts and make up their own mind.  He shifted the responsibility and the silence gave everyone the time they needed to feel the immense weight of the responsibility of holding a human life in their hands.
            Silence is a tool Jesus uses to help us truly understand.  He could give us the answer—and sometimes he does—but we must come to some answers as we search our own hearts as Jesus waits in silence.

Finding the Answers
            Everything we need for salvation is written in the Bible.  However, Jesus doesn’t answer every question we have in the Gospels.  We must walk with Jesus in a living relationship.  Sometimes we will be able to turn to the pages of the Scripture and find the answers written plainly in black and white.  Other times, we are going to have to listen to the Holy Spirit in our hearts to know what Jesus wants us to do.
Sometimes, we already know the answer.  That's how it was when I was struggling with the call to ministry.  At the time I was studying to be an engineer and had a promising career ahead of me.  However, I loved volunteering in the church and bagan to question if God had other plans for me--plans to be a pastor.  Several people comment on this too.  Once I was telling my sister, Katie, how much I enjoyed studying the Bible and she said, "Have you ever thought about going to seminary?"  I began to pray about whether God was calling me to the ministry.  I was willing, but I wanted God to give me a clear sign or a word from heaven. 
I have heard amazing stories of God speaking to other ministers and giving them a clear revelation that He wanted them to be a minister.  But no such miracle came to me.  Finally, after praying about this for over a year, the answer finally came.  But it wasn't a booming voice from heaven--it was a whisper in my own heart.  It just sort of dawned on me one day.  I know that God wants me to be a minister.  Why else would I have been praying about this so fervently for the last year?  I don't need a sign or a word, because I already know what God wants me to do.  I just have to have the faith to do it.  The answer was there all along, I just had to accept it.
            Sometimes we already know the answer.  Sometimes the answer is "no."  Other times, there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer that applies in all circumstances.  Sometimes you have to take things on a case-by-case basis.  I think God intends it this way so we have to have a living relationship with Him.  You see, ultimately, it’s not about the answers anyway.  What really matters is having an ongoing, intimate relationship with our Creator.  The questions are just there to keep us pointed toward Him. 

Conclusion
            Are you listening for the Voice of God? 
Maybe you are struggling with a difficult problem.  You’re wondering what direction to go or what you should do.  Maybe you’ve asked Jesus for the answer, but all you get is silence.  Perhaps, you already know the answer in your own heart.  Maybe you already know what you need to do, but haven’t had the confidence to do it.  Maybe Jesus has been silent so you could hear your own answers and find the resolve to trust your own heart.
Are you listening for the Voice of God?  Perhaps you’ve been looking for a one-size-fits-all answer.  Maybe, you just want to have all the answers so you don’t need God so much.  That’s not gonna work.  The one answer that applies to everyone in every situation is this:  you need a dynamic, ongoing, living relationship with God.  Maybe you need to focus on the relationship more than the answers.  Then the answers you really need will come and the relationship you need even more than the answers will be stronger.
 I suggest you pray to the Lord today.  Ask Jesus to take control of your whole life--to save you from your sins and be your Lord.  If you start there, the rest will follow.  The Holy Spirit will be your guide.  And you will find peace.

Monday, November 16, 2015

"Sell All Your Possessions..."

Arguing with Jesus about Giving Up Everything
Mark 10:17-31

Introduction
On Friday evening, November 13, 2015, the world was shocked to find Islamic terrorists had attacked civilians in Paris with guns and bombs, killing 129 people and wounding many hundreds more.  Anger, sadness, fear, shock, and deep concern for our world are among the many chaotic emotions people feel.
Over the weekend, millions around the world have offered support and lifted up prayers for the people of Paris.  Buildings have been lit with the flag colors of France in a show of solidarity.  Facebook has exploded with profile pictures overlaid with the French flag.  We want to express our support for the people of Paris who have suffered such evil at the hands of godless men.  We fear more terrorist attacks are on the horizon in our own homeland.
The outpouring of support reminds me of the days following 9/11 when Americans were swept up in a wave of patriotism, fear, and outcries to God in prayer.  Unfortunately, that fervent wave eventually (and too quickly) settled back into a placid sea of apathy as most returned to living as if God were only something to be pulled out occasionally for a casual encounter or when tragedy strikes.
How much substance is there to this rising tide of prayers and support for the people of Paris?  It is easy to click a button and change your profile picture to a French flag.  What the world needs are disciples wholeheartedly committed to the ways of Jesus.  His love in our hearts is the only thing that can drive evil darkness from our world. 
            The emotionally charged outcry to “stand with Paris” reminds me a lot of a man whose heart swelled with emotion as he ran up to Jesus and fell to his knees with a burning question.  It is found in Mark 10:17-31. 

Mark 10:17-31
17 As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. 19 But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”

20 “Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”

21 Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” 24 This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God. 25 In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

26 The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.

27 Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.”

28 Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said.

29 “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, 30 will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. 31 But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.” 

 
A Very Challenging Passage
            This is one of those Bible stories that really troubles people.  "Did Jesus really mean we should sell all our possessions in order to have eternal life? Would he ask that?"  These are questions concerned people have asked me many times.  People struggle because they are afraid Jesus might ask them to do the same thing (and, honestly, they are not sure if they could).
            We sometimes spiritualize what Jesus said or reason that he was only speaking to this one rich guy and not to all his followers.  That may be true.  Jesus knew exactly what the rich man in the story put ahead of God in his life.  Jesus revealed just what the rich man needed to do to get his life right with God.  Sure, the man was respectable.  He didn't steal, cheat, lie, or murder, but God was still not first in his life.  So Jesus challenged him to do the one thing he couldn't bring himself to do unless he put God first.
            I've always taught this story as if the man couldn't (or wouldn't) actually sell all his possessions.  That's the way I've heard others teach it too, but something occurred to me for the first time as I studied this week.  The Bible never says whether the man did or didn't complete the challenge.  It just says he went away sad.  We are the ones who assume he didn't do it.  That the man went away sad is doesn't necessarily mean he didn't eventually sell all his possessions.  It just means he was very troubled by the difficult task Jesus gave him.  Sadness would have been the natural response (whether he did or didn't not sell all his possessions).
            The greatest evidence we have that the rich man didn't sell all his possessions is we never read of his returning to follow Jesus.  However, that's not conclusive evidence either. It would have taken a long time for a very rich man to sell all his possessions. (How long would it take you to sell everything you own?)  It would have taken even more time to give all the money away to the poor in meaningful ways.  This episode happened near the end of Jesus earthly ministry according to the Gospel of Mark.  So the task might not have been completed before the written Gospel ended.  It may be that we just don't have a written record of the final outcome for the man.  Most of us just assume he couldn't do it (maybe because we think we could never do it).  I like the way the story ends without a final resolution,  because it leaves us to question what we would do in the same situation.
            We still want to know though: Does Jesus expect us to sell all our possessions in order to follow him?  The simple answer is no.  You don’t have to sell all your possessions in order to follow him and inherit eternal life.  In fact, you can't do anything to earn eternal life.  It is a free gift from God to those who follow Christ.
            Jews teach that you must follow all the commandments and live a good, moral life to gain God’s favor.  Muslims teach you must not worship any God but Allah and you must follow the teachings of the Koran and the prophet Muhammed in order to avoid torment in hell.  Other religions teach you must sacrifice to earn the favor of the gods, but Christ teaches it is impossible to earn God’s favor and so God saves you by a His free, unearned and undeserved grace.

 
            But wait before you sigh a breath of relief because you get to keep your stuff... You're not off the hook yet, because Jesus challenges all of us to put God first in our life.  He said in Matthew 6:33, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness..."  And just as Jesus knew exactly what the rich man put ahead of God in his life, Jesus knows exactly what you put ahead of God in your life.  And it is precisely that with which Jesus challenges you.              

Leaving with a Troubled Heart
           The rich man left Jesus very sad and with a troubled heart because he had many possessions.  The rich man had a tough decision to make.  You have a tough decision to make too, because Jesus asks you to re-prioritoze your life.  For some of you, that means making some significant, substantive changes.  You may need to give up something so difficult you would much rather sell all your possessions instead.   You may have to fret over it a while. You may need to count the cost closely and decide whether you think following Jesus is really worth it.
            You see, we all want goodness to some degree.  We a want to be good people. We all want to live in a good world.  We all want "peace" and "justice" and "goodness" to come in our world.  The problem is, we don’t want it enough to pay the price. 
            I challenge you as Jesus challenged the rich man in the story.  Go and give up that which is keeping you from whole heartedly following Christ as his disciple.
            And for those that complain "It is impossible!"  I quote you Jesus' words from Mark 10:27, "Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God."  You see, the grace of God kicks in when we finally realize it is our only hope.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Arguing with Jesus About Nonviolence

Jesus, Nonviolence, and Self-Defense
Luke 6:27-36

Introduction
            I have always been fascinated with martial arts.  When I was only 6 years old, I begged my mom to let me sign up for a judo class that advertised to kids at my school.  My mom—who is very submissive and nonviolent—would not let me join the class.  She didn’t like any kind of fighting and she didn’t want her son participating in something she considered too violent.  However, the allure of martial arts never faded for me and I watched martial arts movies and tried to teach myself the moves from books I checked out of the library.  When I was 10, my mom finally relented and allowed me to join a martial arts class with some friends.  My friends dropped out after only a few months, but I was hooked and became a lifelong martial artist.
            It's 30 years later and my love and appreciation of martial arts and self-defense have never faded—even after I became a pastor.  In fact, based on some things I learned in seminary about the positive effects of martial arts, I even developed a Christian Martial Arts program that combined elements of martial arts with prayer, community service, and scripture memorization.  I taught my own martial arts classes for 7 years.  Even though I am a 2nd degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, I am currently learning a new martial art called Jiu-jitsu and I love it!
            People are sometimes puzzled by a pastor who has so much interested in punching, kicking, and choking people.  I mean, isn’t Christianity a nonviolent religion?  I got a few questions about it from the Board of Ordained Ministry when they interviewed me to see if I was fit to be a United Methodist minister.  “Do you like fighting?” they asked.  “Absolutely not!” I replied, “but I love sparring.”  Sparring is practice fighting.  Although I detest fighting, I really like to spar in a friendly setting.  The same is true of verbal confrontations for me.  I love to debate, but I can’t stand to argue.  I can spar with someone (or debate someone) and then give them a genuine hug full of love and mutual respect afterwards.  I may even love and respect them more because of it.  I do not like to fight.  However, if I am forced to fight—either physically or verbally—I am quite confident in my ability.
            How do I justify my love of martial arts and resolve to defend myself given Jesus teachings and life of nonviolence?  I often find myself thrust into an awkward position—arguing with Jesus about the subject of self-defense.  Actually, I am not really arguing with Jesus; I am arguing with the way people misunderstand or misuse what Jesus said.  Let’s look at one of the passages where Jesus urges a nonviolent response.

Luke 6:27-36
27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. 30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.

32 “If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! 33 And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! 34 And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.

35 “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. 36 You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. 
 
General Interpretations
Christ’s teaching and exemplary example of nonviolence are extraordinary.  Jesus wisely understood that given the socio-political-religious conditions of his time, the best way to change his world forever was through a nonviolent, peaceful revolution.  This was God’s plan of salvation and Jesus willingly drank from the cup God handed him.  By not resisting the Roman authorities and willingly dying on the cross, Jesus affected salvation for all humanity for all time.  Jesus astonishing sacrifice sparked a social and moral revolution that changed the world forever.
Following Christ’s nonviolent example, other notable leaders have made significant changes to better our world.  Mahatma Gandhi led India to win independence from the British Empire through nonviolent resistance.  Martin Luther King, Jr. helped transform civil rights in the United States through nonviolent protest.  So, we can certainly see that Jesus’ revolutionary teachings to “turn the other cheek” and to “love your enemies” are powerful weapons indeed.
Many Christian pacifists[i] interpret Jesus’ teaching to mean it is always wrong to injure other humans, no matter the circumstance.  They would argue that even self-defense is wrong.  If Jesus was willing to lay down his life—even for his enemies—we should do likewise.
On the surface, complete Christian Pacifism may seem reasonable and many who take a simplistic view if Christ’s example accept this conclusion without much thought.  However, this simplistic view is not the whole of Jesus teachings or actions.  To make my point, I would draw your attention to other examples of Jesus teachings and actions.
First of all, there is the story of Jesus and the money changers.  The story is found in all four of the Gospels—Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2.  In the story, Jesus enters the holy Temple in Jerusalem and violently flips over the money changers tables and drives them out of the Temple with a whip because they were cheating people and dishonoring God’s house.  This is not exactly the gentle, peaceful Jesus of our nonviolent dreams.
Second, when Jesus enraged the people of Nazareth with his preaching at their synagogue in Luke 4, a mob tried to push him off a cliff.  However, Jesus did not allow them to hurt him.  Luke 4:30 says, Jesus “...passed right through the crowd and went on his way.”
Third, when Jesus was on trial before the Sanhedrin (John 18:22-23), one of the high priest’s guards slapped Jesus across the face.  Interestingly, Jesus does not “turn the other cheek” and passively invite the guard slap him again.  Jesus doesn’t strike back with fists, but rather he fights back with words.  Jesus defends himself saying, “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, why are you beating me?”[ii]
Let me give you one more example.  Luke 22:31-38 tells the story of how Jesus predicted Peter would deny him.  You remember this story.  Peter is adamantly professing his eternal loyalty to Jesus even in the face of death and Jesus says, “Peter before the rooster crows in the morning, you will deny me three times.”  Well, embedded in this story is a strange instruction from Jesus to his disciples.  Let me read it to you straight from the Bible.
Luke 22:35-36 – Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out to preach the Good News and you did not have money, a traveler’s bag, or an extra pair of sandals, did you need anything?”  “No,” they replied.  “But now,” he said, “take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one!”
The implication here is that in the past the disciples were able to move about the country safely due to the goodwill of the people.  But Jesus is about to be arrested and executed and his followers are going to be in danger everywhere they go.  Even traveling will be treacherous.  The disciples will need a sword for self-defense.  Since we know Jesus is not encouraging military aggression—his plan is to allow the religious leaders to arrest and crucify him—Jesus must be telling his disciples to purchase swords for self-defense.  What!?!  That doesn’t seem like the peaceful, pacifist Jesus I was taught about as a kid!
In fact, the passage from Luke 6:27-36 where Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek” is not about nonviolence at all.  It is about receiving personal insult.  Slapping someone in the face was considered a great insult to Jews of Jesus day.  So Jesus is not talking about a grave, life threatening danger when he said “turn the other cheek”.  Jesus is saying, set your ego aside—even if you are in the right.  Love your enemies.  Bless those who curse you.  If someone insults you and slaps you in the face, love them the way God loved you when you were His enemy.  Show extravagant love by going the extra mile and turning the other cheek. 

Resisting Evil
            There is no doubt that Jesus’ nonviolent approach has brought about remarkable change in situations where change seemed completely impossible.  However, to teach that Jesus advocated pacifism in every situation is just not accurate.  To passively allow someone to break into your house and harm you or your family because “Jesus said so,” is a total misunderstanding of what Jesus said and did.  Theologians J. P. Moreland and Norman Geisler say that "to permit murder when one could have prevented it is morally wrong. To allow a rape when one could have hindered it is an evil. To watch an act of cruelty to children without trying to intervene is morally inexcusable. In brief, not resisting evil is an evil of omission, and an evil of omission can be just as evil as an evil of commission. Any man who refuses to protect his wife and children against a violent intruder fails them morally."[iii]
            I do not believe Jesus wants us to sacrifice our health or safety to someone who threatens us.  Nor do I believe Jesus would ask a nation to refuse to fight to defend the safety of its citizens.  You have the God-given right to defend yourself and I encourage everyone to learn how.  And thankfully, we live in a country where the constitution guarantees our right to keep and bear arms so we have an extra tool available to defend ourselves (God help us) if we ever need to.
            What I have learned in my life—what I have taught many people—is fighting should be the very last resort.  Sometimes however—and very rarely—fighting is the only solution.  Physical violence is a very short term solution.  It usually leads to more problems than it solves.  However, sometimes it is the only course to take.  And if you find yourself in a situation where you must fight for your life or limb, then fight with all your might and know that God is on your side.
            At the same time, there are occasions when the best course of action is nonviolence.  Sometimes, God calls us—like He called Jesus—to endure suffering for His glory.  Such times when we choose to refrain from fighting are not a sign of weakness at all.  Rather, they require great courage and resolve to suffer harm for a purpose greater than our own personal safety.  I pray that you will have such a close relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit that should you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to refrain from fighting and suffer abuse for the sake of Christ, you will clearly know it and have the strength and courage to be faithful.   

Conclusion
In closing, I would like to point out how great was the love of Christ that caused him to willingly lay down his life for us on the cross.  The sacrifice was made greater by the fact that Jesus could have saved himself.  You see, no one could take Jesus' life from him unless he willingly surrendered it.  Jesus could have called down an army of 10,000 angels to come save him and destroy the world because it offended him.  This was totally within his power to do and he would have been completely justified to do it.  Yet, Jesus’ great love for you and me—though we absolutely didn’t deserve it—and his wisdom to know what was needed to save our souls and change our world forever compelled Jesus to suffer abuse, be nailed to the cross, and remain there until he died.  His act would have been amazing enough had he been unable to prevent it.  Yet it is even more extraordinary precisely because Jesus could have avoided it and chose not to for your sake.
How would you respond to such an amazing love as this?  Close your eyes and reflect on the love of Christ for a moment.  You see, Jesus was nailed to the cross, but it wasn’t the nails that held him there.  It was his love for you that kept him on the cross until he died to pay the price for your mistakes and wrongdoings.  Do you understand that?  Now what are you going to do about it?
I would suggest that you decide this day, to commit your life to him, to love him the way he loves you, and to love the people of this world—good and bad—because Jesus loves them too.


[i] For more a more, see this great article - http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/qselfdefense.html
[ii] John 18:23
[iii] The Life and Death Debate: Moral Issues for Our Time, by Dr. Norman Geisler and JP Moreland, Greenwood Publishing, 1990.