Unfair Grace

 
Overview/Background
The goal of this communion message is to challenge the belief system of the listener. We find out about a mass-murdering cannibal whose deathbed conversion seems genuinely unfair. How could God possibly let him into heaven? That exact question may reveal more about you than you think!
 
1 Timothy 1:15-16
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 

Introduction
In his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?”, Philip Yancey raises the matter of Jeffrey Dahmer’s conversion. Dahmer, the homosexual mass murderer, abused and murdered 17 young men. He cannibalized them and stored body parts in his refrigerator. Eleven corpses were found in his apartment. He was the epitome of the word vile. During his trial he sat serenely in court, showing no signs of remorse. In November of 1994, Dahmer was beaten to death in prison by a fellow prisoner. Television news reports included interviews with relatives of Dahmer’s victims. They said their only regret about his killing was that it had ended his life too soon. They wanted him to suffer more.
 
Yancey writes, “One network showed a program taped a few weeks before Dahmer’s murder. The interviewer asked him how he could possibly commit the crimes he was convicted of. Dahmer said that these things happened before he believed in God, when he wasn’t accountable to anybody. He said it all began with petty crimes and small acts of cruelty, and he just kept going, further and further. Nothing restrained him. Dahmer then told of his recent religious conversion. He was baptized in the prison whirlpool and spent all of his time now reading his Bible and Christian literature.”

The prison chaplain affirmed Dahmer’s conversion, saying that his repentance was sincere and that he was one of his most faithful worshipers.  

What about justice!  

What goes on inside you when you hear these things? Does it seem unfair? Something about it just doesn’t seem right. In once sense, I am very happy for Jeffrey. He grew up a member of the Church of Christ and requested to be re-baptized for the forgiveness of sins in prison, a short time before he was killed. When I first heard the story, I was sceptical, thinking it was simply a death-bed prayer anyway. But after further study, it became clear that his conversion was likely honest, forthright and biblically accurate. That sort of forced me to face how I really feel about what happened. 
 
There are the obvious questions, “What about all the people he killed? What about their lives? What about their families? What about justice!!!? The implications are far reaching: If Dahmer could be in heaven, then anyone could make it to heaven. He had no respect for God, for the value of a life, for family, for morals. He lived out the atheistic stance in its ultimate, inevitable conclusion – if there is no God, then there is no right or wrong, and therefore nothing is morally wrong.
 
Nietsche believed it, but Dahmer lived it out. 
 
So, how in the world could he possibly be in heaven? Then comes the next question: How could he be in heaven when there are so many good people out there who aren’t followers of Christ.  
 
Are you saying that Dahmer is in heaven, but many of those good people aren’t!? 
 
I see this question as one of the deepest issues in our fellowship of churches. Deep in our hearts, we want to base salvation on how “good” we are. We find any other type of salvation as unfair, unrighteous and almost ungodly. Reality is that if you view this as ungodly, then maybe your view of God is off-base.
 
God and Murderers
The strange thing is that God loves to work through murderers. Paul considered himself guilty of the death of Stephen. Peter came within inches of killing Malchus. If not for Malchus’ quickly ducking to the side, he would have lost more than an ear. And what of Moses, the Old Testament messianic figure of salvation? He didn’t just attend or attempt a murder. He committed one. Yet these three figures are arguably some of the most important figures in the history of God’s working on our planet. Why? Because God is very different. He is literally out of the box! 
 
So what does all this say about your belief system? Are you saved by the grace of God alone? Or do you work hard to maintain that saved state?
 
Hard work has its value…and it can be the expression of gratitude.
 
But the danger in hard work is that we become enamored with it. We become dependent on it. We need it. It keeps us saved…or so we feel at times.
 
Are we any different?
In Lucado’s book, “In the Grip of Grace”, he remarks, “A condemned criminal was sent to his death by his country. In his final moments, he asked for mercy. Had he asked for mercy from the people, it would have been denied. Had he asked it of the victims, they would have turned a deaf ear. but it wasn’t to these he turned for grace. He turned instead to the bloodied form of the One who hung on the cross next to his and pleaded, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus answered by saying, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23:43)  As far as we know, Jeffrey Dahmer did the same thing. And as far as we know, Jeffrey Dahmer got the same response. And when you think about it, the request Dahmer made is no different than yours or mine. He may make it from a prison bunk and you may make it from a church pew, but from heaven’s angle we’re all asking for the moon.”     
 
Upward Call
So as we take the bread and wine right now, let’s examine our own belief system and compare (or contrast) it with Jesus’ unfair justice displayed to the criminal on the cross.  
1) What is it in you that makes it difficult to accept a Dahmer in heaven?
2) What is it in you that makes it difficult to accept that your salvation has nothing to do with your hard work?
3) What is it in you that makes it difficult to simply depend 100% on the sacrifice of Christ as the only basis of your salvation?
 
Prayer for Bread and Wine

Santa vs Jesus

Introduction

The title of the communion message today is simply Santa vs Jesus

  • So…if you have any small children here today who might be surprised by some of the “facts” about Santa.
  • We will take a look at why Santa appeals to us so much.
  • Then we will see that Santa pales in comparison with Christ.  How great is our Lord!

Matthew 22:41

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42″What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. 43He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 44” ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” 45If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Digging In

I found some pretty funny videos comparing Jesus to Santa.

  • Very similar to “I’m a Mac & I’m a PC
  • There’s a pretty cool guy who says “I’m Jesus“. And another, short, fat, bald, annoying, insecure guy in a red Santa costume – who says “I’m Santa
  • In the end, Jesus is right (and still very humble) while Santa looks like a complete idiot.
  • And you are supposed to walk away thinking “How could I ever be enamored with Santa?”

Personally I don’t like this “straw man” argument very much.

  • In a straw man scenario, two foes are pitted against each other. And one is made to look clearly wrong.
  • Therefore, if the “this guy” looks like a nincompoop, then obviously “the other guy” must be right.
  • This happens all the time in politics. Someone is tryng to convince me that a candidate is an idiot. But is that really the best reason to cast my allegiance toward the one being portrayed as normal?

Everyone loves Santa!Today, we are going to take a different approach:  Maybe it sounds sacrilegious to you, but for many people, Santa is much more appealing than Jesus.

  • For many people, the images and feeling conjured up by “Santa” are much more appealing than those conjured up by “Jesus”.
  • Does Santa appeal to you?
  • Growing up, Santa has always appealed to me.
  • He is happy. He likes to laugh! Everyone knows his favorite cheer: Ho Ho Ho!
  • He is giving. He gives to all children…regardless of race, nationality or economic status…which makes him pretty fair.
  • He likes to listen to what you want.
  • He takes the time to have you sit on his lap/tell him what you really want.
  • So, many children will tell their secrets to Santa even if they won’t tell those secrets to their parents.
  • He’s magical and can fly.
  • There is no limit to his resources
  • He has as many elves (angels) as he needs to get the work done
  • And best of all, everything he does all year long is devoted to making everyone happy on December 24th and 25th.
  • What an awesome guy! – Who WOULDN’T love a person like that!

As one author put it, Santa represents the BEST of what our imagination can come up with.

  • This character embodies all the qualities we really deem important.
  • We have put our heads together and come up with the ultimate character – Santa Claus

See – – Santa is a projection of our greatest wishes and wants.

  • He is a caring friend who travels a long way to give you gifts
  • He is a wise man who is aware of your good and bad deeds – yet chooses to bless you despite your vices.
  • He loves children & invites them to sit on his lap & open up their hearts.
  • What a guy! What a hero!
  • He embodies our passions, yearnings and hopes.
  • Yet he also reveals our pathetic expectations.

 Santa cannot really provide for our deeper, inner needs

  • He comes around once a year
  • He’s not there for your spring time final exams
  • He’s not there during the difficulties of tax season
  • He’s simply not always around

And more than that, although he gives, he doesn’t take anything away

  • He doesn’t take away the riddle of death and the grave
  • He doesn’t take away the confusion about how to keep a marriage and raise kids
  • He doesn’t remove the burden of making mistakes
  • He doesn’t take away the anxiety of life’s demands
  • He doesn’t remove the unbearable weight of a guilty conscience
  • And he doesn’t do anything with your sin.

My point here is NOT to slam Santa

  • But rather to slam how bad we are at designing our own legends and heroes
  • You’d think that we’d have come up with the ultimate hero
  • King Arthur/Jack Bauer doesn’t have all the answers
  • And even Superman has an Achilles heel and needs to lie about who he really is.
  • Our heroes, as noble as they are, were conceived in the same stained society as you and I.

But what about Jesus?

Jesus is way beyond anything man has ever been able to concoct.

  • That was half the problem when he came.
  • Everyone expected a Warrior like David.
  • Everybody expected a King like King Solomon

During his final week on earth, he summarized his claims with one question.

  • What do you think about the Christ…Whose son is he?
  • He didn’t ask what you think about his teachings
  • He didn’t ask your feelings about his social/political opinions
  • He wanted to know if you understand that he is defined by “Whose son he is“.
  • See, that is the ultimate question to ponder – regarding the Christ.

Do you see what Jesus is getting at?

  • Is he the son of David – and therefore the ultimate warrior?
  • Or is he the Son of God – and therefore FAR BEYOND WHAT YOU CAN EVEN IMAGINE

If God asked us to design a redeemer, what would he look like?

  • I guarantee he would be much different that Jesus
  • We would place him in a castle, far away and safe
  • We would allow him a few brief encounters
  • We would revere him so much – that no prostitute/tax collector could ever get near.
  • We wouldn’t ask him to dwell in the middle of sin-diseased people

In our wildest dreams we would never conjure up a king who just becomes one of us.

  • But God did!
  • God did what we wouldn’t dare dream!
  • God did what we couldn’t imagine.
  • He became a man so that we could trust him.
  • He became a sacrifice so that we could know him.
  • And he defeated death so we could follow him.

Upward Call

So this message is not an indictment of Santa Claus, but rather an indictment of you and me – and our feeble expectations.

I have had doubts at times in my life – did we create Jesus or did he create us?

  • We could NEVER create Jesus.
  • He truly is TOO GOOD to be true – but he IS true.

So let go of your feeble expectations and meager thinking! And faithlessness.

  • And accept the fact that Jesus is GOD’s Son!
  • And it is absolutely incredible that he knows whether you’ve been bad or good.
  • And he offers not just to give you things and overlook your mistakes.
  • No, he offers to give you eternal life
  • And removes your doubts, fears, worries, and especially your guilt!

Prayer for Bread and Wine

 

Reference

Max Lucado, The Angels Were Silent, P 98

The Shepherd who was King

The Good ShepherdPreparation

Prior to presenting the Communion talk, we recommend singing or performing a hymn based on Psalm 23. There are many variations, although Keith Greene’s is the one that moves my heart the most. 

Introduction

Q. What are some of the most well known images of Jesus?
One is that Jesus calls himself The Good Shepherd.

In John 10 Jesus explicitly refers to himself as the good shepherd.

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Jesus’ inspiration from scripture

Q. Which OT scripture comes to mind?
Obviously Psalm 23. Most people can even quote the first few verses.

Q. What adjectives come to mind when we think of a shepherd?
Typically things like comforting, patient, nurturing, guiding, sacrificial, and so on. Yet to the Jews of the first century, other images and OT passages would also be awakened.

Q. What other OT passages besides Psalm 23 come to mind?

  • Isaiah 44:28 refers to Cyrus, King of Persia, as a shepherd.
  • Psalm 78:71-72 refers to another King (David) as shepherding his flock, his nation.
  • Ezekiel 34 refers to the leaders of Israel as shepherds. But God doesn’t call them good but rather bad shepherds. Thus, God’s response to their shepherding was to send a good shepherd to them. In fact he says that He himself will do the shepherding, and that he will send another shepherd in the likeness of David.

So although Psalm 23 most easily comes to mind for us, it is likely that Jesus, in John 10, is referring to himself as the good shepherd of Ezekiel in contrast with those selfish, lazy, ambivolent shepherds.

Matthew 2:4-6 describes Herod’s search for the infant Messiah. Combining the terms “shepherd” and “ruler” was not a foreign concept to these Bible scholars. This prophecy from Micah 5 seemed to make complete sense to these men. In this passage, the shepherd is also called a ruler, a commander and even a mauling lion.

“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Let’s make one more comparison – between Matthew 25 and Ezekiel 34.

Matthew 25:31-33
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”

Ezekiel 34:17
“As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.”

Q. So, how does this change your view of Jesus the shepherd?
For me, it revolutionizes the image of a shepherd. Honestly, I believe the Jews listening to Jesus had a much clearer picture of what a shepherd was. They understood the bravery, the danger, the sacrifice. And they also understood the leadership role.

Just like when we hear the word “disciple” we know it is much more than a “member”- so the followers of Christ understood the range of meaning that accompanied his identity as a shepherd.

Jesus the Shepherd Ruler KingRamifications for you and me

Q. So, how should we be feeling?

  1. I can only speak for myself, but this view of the shepherd as king comforts me. Jesus, my shepherd will guide me through the valleys of the shadows and dismal fear.
  2. This view gives me confidence and security. Jesus will keep me fed – not just today but every day.
  3. This perspective makes me proud of my Lord. He embodies the so-called feminine strengths of concern – as well as the so-called masculine strengths of self-sacrificial rulership.
  4. This knowledge energizes me. Jesus once again lives up to the prophecies uttered centuries before – but embraces them and defines himself by them. Do you think it was others who defined Jesus as the messiah? No, he knew well each prophecy and made each his own.
  5. This truth emboldens me. Jesus is not just for the weak. Jesus clearly designates himself as the shepherd who rules, the shepherd who knows if you have been “naughty or nice” and will judge our hearts on the last day.
  6. Finally, this fact humbles me. I need a concerned shepherd. And I need a self-sacrifing ruler. I am not independent and autonomous. I am not an independent member of the flock. Jsus does care if I have wandered off from the flock and from his presence. And he inserts himself into my world to pull me back in.

Prayer

Dear Father, please forgive us for our human, weak images of Jesus. Forgive us for humanizing him. Give us the proper vision of our shepherd king. Help us feel the comfort that comes from knowing that Jesus cares for each of us. And help us feel the coruage that comes from knowing that the king of kings is on my side! We pray through our great shepherd and ruler, Jesus. Amen.

Reference

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus – by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, P45

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Trouble Comes My Way

Preparation for the Communion Lesson
Before the communion, the gospel hymn, “Trouble Come My Way” should be sung.

Scripture

John 16:33
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Introduction
This communion message deals with the troubles of life. Jesus faced several types of trouble in Gethsemane. His example comforts us as well as challenges us that it is possible to respond in a different, righteous way.

Warning
Only hours before his trial and crucifixion, Jesus makes a remarkable statement. He very realistically warns us of trouble – and then gives us the way out.

But here’s the catch – He himself is the way out!

Then, in John 17 we see that mere minutes after this confidence boosting claim, Jesus turns to heaven and prays for the unity of all of his disciples. According to John 18:1, after this, the small band of disciples sings a a final hymn (Psalm 118) and heads off to Gethsemane.

In Matthew 26:46-56, we read what happens: Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.” Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” At that time Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

In the book Just Like Jesus[1], the author describes the different types of trouble that Jesus faced.

1. First of all, he faced the frustration of UNFRUITFUL SERVICE. Take a look at the angry mob that came to arrest and him. Take a look at the fickle crowds who yelled, “Crucify him, crucify him,” – although they had shouted “Hosanna” just a few days before. How easy it is to become discouraged when we see our work for the Lord yield little or no fruit.

2. The second type of trouble he faced was pain of UNBELIEVABLE BETRAYAL. It wasn’t just Judas. It was all of his friends. The Bible says that all fled. Sure, he knew it would happen, but that doesn’t lessen the pain when reality hits.

3. The third type of pain he faced was probably the worst. He faced the dilemma of UNANSWERED PRAYER. In the moment that he needed God the most, he went into prayer, and all he got was a bit of comfort from an Angel. But God didn’t remove the trouble. In fact it got worse as time goes on. He cries out to God, “Why are you not here for me? Why have you forsaken me?”

Do you feel Jesus’ pain?
I have news for you. He feels your pain. He understands. And his promise stands: “Take heart! I am well aware that you will face trouble. But it won’t overcome you. I have already overcome the world.”

Personal Sharing
[This is a great opportunity for the speaker to share his own frustrations with unfruitful service, unbelievable betrayal and unanswered prayer]

Upward Call
What encourages you the most? Knowing that Jesus can relate to your frustration of unfruitful service? Knowing that Jesus understands what it means to be left alone by people who are supposed to be your friends? Or knowing that Jesus feels your pain when although you cry out to God, sometimes you don’t think he is in interested in answering you?

Prayer
Father, thank you for Jesus example in dealing with his own troubles. Thank you that he was not just offering us kind words – but that he truly understood what we go through – he truly understood when he talked about the trouble we face. Father, we turn our trouble over to you. We bring it to the cross and lay it down. As the song says, we are going to cry sometimes, but we also pledge to we are going pray and even shout with joy – knowing you are the final judge and authority. In the name of our brother, Jesus. Amen.

Reference
[1] Max Lucado, Just Like Jesus (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1998), 131-133.

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