March 12, 2017

Victorious Hope

Not too long after God called us here and I was settling into the pattern of writing sermons every week, I found that my wrists would get sore from all the typing.  I was still working on a laptop then and the particular angle at which I had my wrists by virtue of sitting in the particular chair I had and the height of the desk resulted in a fair bit of pain after a long stretch of working.  As a result, I started to experiment with some different solutions.  I eventually came around to a regular keyboard with one of those gel-filled wrist-guard things.  But along the way I tried using the voice-recognition software built into the laptop I had at the time.  It took a little while to get it up and running, but after a while I found that I could get it to pretty successfully reproduce what I said on my computer screen.  That was a cool moment.  I spoke, and things appeared on my screen.  I could actually see my words accomplishing a task right before my very eyes.  Now if only I could have figured out a way to bottle that power and translate it to my children…

Since that time, voice-recognition programs have gained in popularity and presence.  With my iPhone I can dictate text messages and emails and notes and the like.  I can ask Siri questions and she’ll usually respond with an answer that’s at least in the ballpark.  Although the other day I asked her for directions to Manchester High School as Lisa and I were trying to figure out what time we would need to leave for the show last Sunday evening and she promptly told me no because Manchester High School is in Kampala, Uganda and you can’t get there from here.  I could have given her a break if she was in the wrong city, but the wrong continent and hemisphere was pretty hard to swallow.  Still, there are even more advanced voice-recognition programs built into computers for the visually-impaired.  And the new smart home devices like Google’s iHome and Amazon’s Echo are even more sensitive to voice commands.  I read the other day that Amazon has gathered so much data from all its Echo users that it is on track improve the software so that “Alexa” can pick out a single voice giving instructions from among a crowded room of people.  Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, announced at the beginning of 2016 that his goal for the year was to design an artificial intelligence program to control his home along the lines of Tony Stark’s digital butler, Jarvis, in the Iron Man movies.

We want for our words to be able to do something.  We want for them to make things happen.  We ascribe power and authority to people in part on the basis of their ability to speak and get things done.  We will say that a lowly cubicle-filler at a major corporation doesn’t have much of a voice in the organization (well, the organization may give lip service to such a state of affairs because it sounds good, but it probably doesn’t really exist), but when the CEO speaks, things happen.  A government employee at the local DMV may complain a lot, but it won’t do much good.  But if the President starts griping about something or another and turns to Twitter as is his custom, there could be nation-shaping policy changes because of it.

What’s more, in most circumstances, when someone seems to be able to make things happen with their words, we naturally have more confidence in them than we do other people.  What can actually start to happen is that we begin to have hope in them and what they say.  We have hope because of our confidence that they can accomplish what they say they can accomplish.  Or perhaps to put that another way, we have hope because of our confidence that they’ll be victorious in what they say.

This morning we are in the second part of our brand new series, Victory.  The big idea for this journey is that we often find ourselves living with uncertainty and anxiety because we don’t know how things are going to turn out.  But, when we get our hearts and minds around the fact in Jesus we have victory over all the things that might stand in our way, we can live with freedom from all these burdens.  Last week we started things out by making sure we all had a proper view of the Jesus who brings us this victory.  We gain such a view by taking in the whole picture of Jesus in the Scriptures.  In order to do this we have to read more than just the Gospels.  In Revelation, the apostle John recorded his vision of Jesus in (some of) His glory.  This vision and Jesus’ own declaration that He has conquered the two enemies we haven’t (sin and death) can give us great confidence in the face of the trials we deal with now.  If Jesus is the victorious Lord of all and if we get to share in His victory, then we have already won the prize.  We are just waiting to see how the journey to that moment plays itself out in our lives.

With that bigger picture established, I want to start looking more specifically at what having this view of Jesus as the victorious Lord of all can do in our lives.  The first thing this image can accomplish for us is that it can give us hope.  It can give us hope exactly along the lines that we were talking about just a minute ago.  If Jesus really is the one who is Lord of everything, then His words have power.  His words have the power to get things done, to make them happen.  We can look to His words as proclamations of life and trust that living by them will transform our own lives in ways not available through other means.  We can, in other words, find hope that the brokenness we endure on a daily basis will not be the defining character of our lives for long.  In Jesus’ assurances of the life that is coming to all those who follow Him in faith, we can find the hope and strength to keep moving forward along the path He has blazed until the day we will experience it all for ourselves.

We are not the first to recognize this hopeful power in Jesus.  It was recognized by people who encountered Him when He was first alive and walking around on earth.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the apostle records just such a situation.  Check this out with me in Matthew 8.  But before we get there, let me give you a bit of context.  Matthew 8 follows on the heels of Matthew 7.  Matthew 7 is significant for being the last part of Jesus famous Sermon on the Mount in which He lays out His vision for what life in the kingdom of God looks like.  The important thing for us this morning is the reaction of the crowd to Jesus’ teachings.  In Matthew 7:28 we see this: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”

The standard mode of teaching back then was for a teacher of the law, or a scribe, to read a passage of the Scriptures, note what various other famous rabbis had said about the matter, and then offer their own comments.  We expect the same kind of thing today.  In school, you probably had to write several research papers.  Well, the whole idea of writing a research paper is that you are writing on a topic about which you don’t know very much.  As a result, you go and read what other scholars have said on the subject and essentially summarize what they’ve said, adding a few of your own thoughts or insights along the way.  At the end of the paper, then, you include a bibliography in which you tell the reader all the places where you were citing one of these other authorities.  And, the more authorities you cite in your bibliography, the more weight the paper carries.  The better it sounds.  People who don’t cite sources are either cheating or are really smart.  Part of what made Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” such a big deal was not simply the idea of relativity that it introduced to the world (although that certainly was revolutionary), but the fact that he didn’t cite anybody else’s work when he wrote it.  That the work was all original to him is part of what so revealed his genius to the world.

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus is specifically citing and reinterpreting some well-known Old Testament passages, He does the same thing.  Had it been another rabbi offering this sermon, he would have said, “You have heard that it was said…  Well, Rabbi A says this about it.  Rabbi B says this about it.  And Rabbi C says this about it.  While I agree most with Rabbi B, Rabbi A makes a good point here and Rabbi C offers an important contribution here.  Based on what they say, you should probably think about the issue this way…”  Jesus put it like this: “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…”

Nobody taught like this then.  It’s no wonder they were totally blown away by it.  Jesus taught with authority.  His words had power.  They had a power to make things happen.  What’s more, this reputation of Jesus began to spread.  When the folks who were at this world-shaping sermon went back home they took with them not just their reflections on what Jesus had said, but also their impressions of how He had said it.  We know this is true because of an encounter Jesus had when He got back home.  This brings us finally back to Matthew 8.  In Matthew 8:5 we read this: “When (Jesus) entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.’”

Now, let me offer a couple of quick cultural notes here so this all makes a bit more sense.  First, a centurion was a Roman army commander.  They were over a group of 80-100 soldiers.  Romans were hated by the Jews as a pagan, culturally inferior, occupying force.  This guy wasn’t just a Roman, he was in the army, meaning he was one of the leaders in the movement.  Under normal circumstances he would have been considered twice as bad as a regular Roman citizen.  Fortunately for him, these weren’t quite regular circumstances.  Luke’s telling of the same story includes a couple of details Matthew doesn’t, most notably that this guy was actually well-liked by the Jews for being pretty fair-handed with them and for being a man in pursuit of righteousness himself.  He came to Jesus with a few prominent Jews serving as character witnesses for him.  Second, the average centurion didn’t make a ton of money.  He wasn’t starving by any stretch, but neither did he have a large estate filled with servants either.  What’s more, because of the rigors of the job, many centurions never married.  The combination of these facts point to the conclusion that this servant may very well have been the only member of his household.  This servant would likely have been as a son or a father to him.  All this is to say that this wasn’t just some Roman barbarian coming to demand that Jesus heal his servant so he didn’t have to deal with the inconvenience of his being sick, but who rather was humbly seeking healing for someone about whom he cared a great deal.

Jesus responds by either offering to go heal him or by asking if that’s what the centurion wanted Him to do.  Which one depends on how exactly you translate the Greek here.  It can go either way, but I would lean toward it being a question: “Shall I come and heal him?”  This makes better sense of the centurion’s response and it also is a nod to the fact that good Jews were not to even enter into the homes of unclean Gentiles lest they become unclean themselves.  Peter revealed as much when he later went into the house of Cornelius, another Roman centurion, as recorded in Acts 10.

Well, the centurion’s response does something to Jesus that didn’t happen very often in His ministry.  It surprised Him.  Listen to this starting in v. 8 now: “But the centurion replied, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  And I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’”  In other words, he recognizes the whole you-can’t-come-in-my-house thing.  “I get it,” he says.  But, while he probably doesn’t really grasp Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah, he does recognize something about Jesus that not many others at this time did.  In fact, he recognizes two things.  First, Jesus has the authority to speak and make things happen.  Second, Jesus doesn’t operate on His own authority, but is under the authority of another, namely, God the Father.  Because he recognizes these two things he essentially says this to Jesus: “Look, I know you’re not supposed to come with me.  But I really care about this guy, and I know you have the power to help him.  If you’ll just say the word, he’ll be better, I’ll get on my way, and you can get on about your business.”  He understood who Jesus was—even though incompletely—he came to Jesus with the faith that He could do the things He said He would do, and he left with hope.

And what a hope Jesus gave to him.  Listen to Jesus’ response here starting in v. 10: “When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.’”  Now, given how the Jews were programmed to think about Gentiles, this exclamation by Jesus would have packed quite a punch for His audience.  The Gentiles were pagan dogs and yet this centurion had more faith than anybody Jesus had encountered in the whole of Israel?!?  Perhaps He needed to get out more.  But Jesus goes on to twist the knife around once it was firmly in place: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  In other words, “Folks, there are people who you wouldn’t consider fit for the kingdom who will be there, and some folks you consider shoe-ins who won’t.”  And on the weeping and gnashing of teeth, to gnash your teeth is to grind them together.  What circumstances might prompt such move?  Torment and torture?  No.  Frustration and the knowledge that you missed out on something good that you should have received because you didn’t do everything necessary to get it.  It is a picture of exactly how these “sons of the kingdom,” that is, apparently faithful Jews, will react when they discover that they have missed out on the party, while the Gentiles they never even considered capable of righteousness get invited.

Here’s the bigger point for us: We should never assume on someone’s ability—or inability—to get to Jesus simply because their background and story are different from our own.  Because Jesus is the victorious Lord of all, anybody can go to Him in faith—just like this centurion does—and come away with hope.  After breaking His audience’s paradigm on righteousness and how one acquires such a state, Jesus turns back to the centurion and delivers to him the news he had been waiting to hear: “And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment.”  Because Jesus is the victorious Lord of all, when we come to Him in faith, we find hope.  When we come to Jesus in faith, we find hope.  We find the very hope we talked about a few minutes ago.  We find the hope in the fact that He has the power to do what He says He’ll do.  And why?  Because as we talked about last week: If he’s conquered sin and death, what other obstacles could possibly get in His way?  When we come to Jesus in faith, we find hope.

Now, there are two parts to this idea.  The second part is our finding hope.  What does it mean to find hope?  It means to come to a place of confidence in the eventual appearance of some future reality which for now remains beyond the reach of empirical verification.  In other words, it means we have confidence that something good is coming even though we can’t see it yet.  How we come by this confidence is the concern of the first part of the idea.  We come by it when we come to Jesus in faith.  What does that mean?  It means we come to Jesus trusting in His ability to do what He says He’ll do.  It means we have our eyes fixed on this picture of Jesus as the victorious Lord of all.  We have our eyes fixed on this picture and we’re willing to do what He says.

You see, this faith in Jesus that can create hope in our hearts requires action on our part.  To simply say, “I trust in Jesus,” is a meaningless gesture unless we are willing to back that declaration up with actions that prove its veracity.  That makes sense, right?  Let’s say you were giving someone instructions on how to build something.  To build this particular structure meant doing a couple of things in a way that, initially at least, were counterintuitive.  You asked the person to trust you and they affirmed they did.  But, when they got to the tricky steps, they did them in the way that made sense at the time, but which proved wrong later on down the line.  Did the person actually trust you?  Not at all.  They may have confessed it, but when the rubber met the road, they trusted themselves more than they did you.

In the same way, for us to confess our trust in Jesus, the victorious Lord of all, but to not then make the necessary changes to our lifestyle so that we are living life His way instead of in whatever other way were living it before, is not to actually trust in Jesus.  If we are going to receive this hope we’ve been talking about—the same hope the centurion experienced—then we’re going to have to take the necessary steps to live out our trust.  The centurion did this by coming to Jesus in the first place (or at least by sending a messenger to Him).  It may not seem it right now, but this was an incredible act of faith on his part.  He had every reason in the world not to reach out for the help of this radical Jewish rabbi.  Had he done what made the most sense given his cultural position and assumptions he would have gone to the local temple of one of the gods and offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of his servant.  He would have taken him to one of the various healing shrines in the region to get well.  He would have done a lot of different things.  But he would not have gone to this backwoods “faith healer” from this bizarre religion that was a single step away from atheism.  His going to Jesus for help in the first place was a powerful expression of his faith that Jesus had the authority, power, and willingness to heal his servant.

As a result, he came away with hope.  When we go to Jesus in faith, we find hope.  And what was the hope?  Most specifically, it was Jesus’ assurance that his request would be granted; his servant was going to be healed.  But at a bigger level than that, the hope was in the form of the promise of a greater healing to come.  He got merely a taste of the feast that was waiting for him to receive when the time was right.  Here then was his real hope: Not in the healing of his servant, but in the life to come of which the healed servant was merely a pointer.  In the same way, when we come to Jesus in faith, we find hope.  This is not necessarily the hope of having whatever our immediate expectations are perfectly met, but somehow we will get a taste of the kingdom life toward which our faith is aimed.  This foretaste will be enough to give us confidence that the full thing really is coming.  In other words, it will fill us with hope.  When we come to Jesus in faith, we find hope.

Still, that seems a bit ethereal, doesn’t it?  What does a life filled with hope look like?  How do we know when we have it?  Oh, you’ll know.  Hope is a  personal thing.  It is waking each morning with the confidence that nothing that happens this day is going to define us or hold us captive because we are chiefly defined by our identity in Christ.  We are firmly in the grip of His love.  It is walking through the various trials of life knowing that nothing can overcome us because we are anchored to the Rock of Ages.  It is living with the freedom to love the people around us regardless of who they are or where they’re from because we are overflowing with the love of Christ.  It is going to work each day without being dragged down by the futility of the curse of Adam because we are firstly working for the one who always rewards His workers properly.  It is serving and giving and worshiping with exuberant joy because we know we are actively practicing and preparing for life in God’s kingdom.  Now, is any of this something that can be spotted from the outside?  Perhaps.  People will notice our attitude is different from everybody else’s.  They’ll notice our demeanor is warmer and we are more optimistic even in the face of tragedy than most people are.  But more importantly than all of that, we’ll know.  We’ll smile at the victory we know is coming, and live our whole lives pointed in that direction.  When we come to Jesus in faith, we find hope.  May you know this hope as you live out your faith.