sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 03/16/2014
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We’re in the midst of a special season here in the church, something we are calling “A Leap of Faith.” Some of you may have had experiences of Lent, the 40 days before Easter when Jesus’ followers engage with God in special ways to identify with the time Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days before beginning his ministry. It’s a way of connecting with Jesus in his suffering in order to share in the joy of his resurrection. Often times, Lent is known as a time of giving things up. And while many of us may be “giving things up” during this Leap of Faith, it’s not about religious observance. Everything we are doing is about growing in our capacity to experience the awesome life that Jesus promises us. And at the center of that life is faith. At the center is learning to trust that Jesus is really good and really wants to do good things for us. So we are setting this time aside to really go after that, to take him at his word when he promises he came to give us life, and life to the full, and see what happens.
Here’s how it’s working, if you’re new with us this Sunday. Or maybe just as a reminder or deeper explanation if you’ve already begun the experiment with us. It’s all outlined in the Leap of Faith User Manual that you can grab in the lobby or download online if you don’t already have one.
First, each one of us is praying, every day, for at least one Big Ask. This is a specific, measurable thing we are asking God to do for us (that we think maybe he wants to do for us) that if he could do it, it would really be a big deal for us. And we’re asking him to respond in some way that we could see before Easter.
We’re doing that, not because we want to test God, but because we want to grow in faith. And often times that takes a leap of trusting him. He tells us to ask. He tells us he wants to take care of us. He tells us he wants to do good for us. That’s where he gets his glory, by being really good to people who depend on him. And so, by making our Big Ask specific and measurable and putting a time frame around it, we put ourselves in the position of taking a bit of a risk. A bit of swallow and a gut check each time we ask. Because we’re sort of putting him and his reputation, at least with us, on the hook. He’s a big God; he can handle it.
[For example, last year’s Big Ask for me – my wrist – and how it worked out…this year’s, and how he has responded so far.]
Also, each one of us is praying, every day, for 6 people in our lives who we’d love to see experience more of the life Jesus promises to give people. 6 people not necessarily in our closest circle of friends or family, but maybe people we still have some kind of regular, local connection with, who, so far as we know, aren’t already engaged in one-on-one discipleship with Jesus, and so aren’t already asking him for things on their own behalf. So we’re trying to exercise our faith to ask God to bless them, maybe so God can show them how much he loves them and how really good he is. And for those of us who are up for it, we’re going to blow some money or time on some of them. Buy them something they might really be blessed by, or do something for them that might make their day.
And finally, we are asking God, every day, for some things for our church. We’re calling them “Family Prayers.” For example, that God would help us all grow more mature and loving as his students. That we’d have the privilege of baptizing a bunch of people on Easter, as a sign of great things he’s starting to do in this community. That he’d find a way to take care of all of our financial needs together, specifically so that we’d not have this $20,000 gap in our budget by the time Easter gets here.
But for all of this to happen, we’ve got to take some mini-leaps of faith. Of trusting in the goodness of God. Particularly in the goodness of Jesus, who is the one who shows us what God is like, more than anything or anyone else.
As we began to talk about last week, the core dilemma we have when it comes to trusting another person is that there is a sort of quantum uncertainty when it comes to the goodness of any particular action on their part. People are vulnerable to fear & pride, and people have limits. It’s really difficult to be sure of someone, no matter how well you know them. Heck, we can’t even be sure of ourselves.
People might, for example, have mixed motivations. Their actions might be motivated in part by fear, or pride, shaped by the influence of anxiety or shame. And even if their actions spring originally from good motivation, they can be derailed by fear or pride along the way.
[e.g., Peter from the Last Supper to the crucifixion, enthusiastically supportive, then denying Jesus…]
And beyond that, people might not actually be capable of following through on their best intentions. People can come to the end of their strength or power or influence or skill or resources.
[disciples falling asleep in Gethsemane…]
This is a major issue for us who live in a world full of us. Trust opens the door to Love, and love is the fundamental source of our life. This kind of chronic un-sureness in each other can leave some of us unwilling to really trust anyone, ever. And with the importance of trust for love, it leaves love at arm’s length for many of us. Thus, life itself, the fruit of love, is just out of our grasp.
This is tragic. And ultimately destructive for human beings.
We need rescue.
We need someone who is really good.
We need a God who is love who can begin to set things right.
Someone whose actions spring reliably and always from love,
and never from fear or pride.
We need someone that we can trust who can heal us.
Someone that we can trust who can lead us out of this mess and into life.
We need Jesus.
Jesus is really good.
He’s genuine and truthful in his motivations, and his motivations are to do good on our behalf. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” This is Good that he’s not only willing to do, desiring to do above all other desires, but good that he’s capable of doing. He can do what he says. And we can trust him. Not only is he trustworthy, but he’s demonstrated, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that the essential core of his being is invulnerable to the forces that make us unable to be sure even of ourselves. So we can be sure of him, in the way that we have never been able to be sure of anyone before.
Let’s dig into this a little bit. Bear with me; this should be fun, and we’ll get back to Jesus soon, with fresh eyes to see his goodness in a powerful light.
Remember the episode of Golden Balls we looked at last week? The one where Ibrahim and Nick faced off with big money at stake. They’ve each got two golden balls. One says “split” and the other says “steal.” If they each play the split ball, they share the money, 50/50. If one plays split and the other steal, the one who plays steal gets all of it, and the one who played split gets nothing. And of course, if they each choose steal, no one gets anything.
It’s a beautiful microcosm of the dilemma we have when it comes to trusting anyone. If they are proven good, and we are good in kind, everyone wins. But if we trust their goodness, but they betray us, they walk away with something that we feel should have been ours (and our hatred) and we have a broken heart. Or do we just assume no one can be trusted, so we resolve to get what we can for ourselves while the getting is good, and take a gamble on playing the steal ball?
Well, in Nick and Ibrahim’s episode, Nick surprised everyone by announcing he was going steal, and suggested Ibrahim choose split, with Nick promising he could give Ibrahim half the money after the show. This led to all kinds of consternation, with Ibrahim calling Nick all kinds of names but eventually relenting, only to discover that Nick had actually played the split ball and they shared the money after all.
But of course, this isn’t how the game usually goes. In every other episode, every single one over the course of three seasons, the players try to convince each other that they are planning to play the split ball, they try to convince each other that they are “good” people with good intentions, hoping to persuade the other person to trust them. Either so they can actually split, and share the money, or steal, and get all the money. Here’s a great example of how the game usually goes…(both players have lost before, the woman in quite a humiliating way, and the man just a very small amount that hardly mattered – this is their second time at the final table, but their first time with each other.)
It’s her last comment that gets to the heart of the matter. “I didn’t feel happy about what I’ve done, but having been stabbed in the back last time, I just couldn’t put myself through it again.” And it’s that picture of him, head in his hands, unable to look up.
Sure, sometimes it’s greed that makes us unreliable – which of course has its roots in fear, in the idea that we’ll never have enough so we’d better get as much as we can while the getting is good.
But usually, according to social scientists who’ve run all kinds of experiments on this, it’s a different kind of manifestation of fear. It’s the fear of having that terrible, humiliating experience that man just had. We hate that feeling. We dread that feeling. Way more than we love the feeling of getting some money. And as a result, people generally prefer to “steal” and risk getting nothing than to “split” and risk having that awful, pit-in-the-stomach, I’ve-been-made-to-look-a-fool feeling.
It’s a feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability. Not trusting another person, and walking away with nothing, is a better feeling than powerlessness and vulnerability. It’s a form of power. It says I took my fate in my hands, and it may not be a great fate, but at least it’s still in my hands and not yours, you greedy son-of-a-bee-sting.
Which reveals the brilliance of Nick’s strategy. He put Ibrahim in a position where he was already powerless and vulnerable, right from the get-go. I’m stealing, now you deal with it. He made Ibrahim have to choose which option had the best shot at recovering some of his power. He could play the steal ball, walk away with nothing, and look vindictive and small. Or he could play the split ball, looking generous and possibly walk away with whatever Nick gave him afterwards. Even if Nick gave him nothing, he wouldn’t have that pit in the stomach feeling of powerlessness, because he already had it.
As you may recall, he argued with Nick for 45 minutes before finally playing the split ball. 45 minutes! That’s how badly he wanted to get out of that powerless place. That’s why he was calling him names. Remember that story he told about how his father told him that a man who didn’t keep his word was nothing? Ibrahim never knew his father, he was raised by a single mom. It was a bald-faced lie told to try to get his power back. When we are powerless, we resort to desperate measures.
In fact, Ibrahim said later that he’d been planning to steal the money they whole game until that moment that Nick announced his intentions. Nick’s strategy forced Ibrahim to be good, in a sense. By persuading Ibrahim of his own badness. By coercing Ibrahim into something that looks like trust, but is really just hoping against hope for a good result, because it’s all Ibrahim had left of his stripped to the bone dignity. And at the end, Ibrahim was exhausted, spent.
As we said last week, this is sometimes how we experience our lives with God. We live in fear of incurring his wrath, and that motivates us to do “good.” But it feels a little icky, like what Nick did feels a little off to us. We feel coerced into trusting him, where we are just hoping against hope for a good result, hanging on to the small shreds of dignity we have left.
That’s not the God Jesus reveals to us. There’s no ickiness in Jesus. Nothing a little off in his approach to us.
The Leap of Faith is all about freely, joyfully trusting God. About an exuberant adventure in faith. About exhilaration at the end of the story, not exhaustion. About life to the full, not spent life. [FNL: Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose…]
And it’s possible because Jesus is really good.
We can see that in the way he frees us to trust him.
Does Jesus try to persuade us of his intentions? No, not really. He announces them, and that’s about it. The first people to trust Jesus hear a sales pitch that goes basically like this:
Come, follow me.
Turn around from where you’ve been going, from whatever you’ve been doing, and trust the good news I’m telling you about what God’s up to in the world.
Along the way, and especially when we reach the destination, I’ll make sure you have access to life, and life to the full.
Sometimes they get some additional bits.
It will be hard. You might have to die along the way.
Not much of a pitch, is it?
So why do they trust him?
They trust him because Jesus has demonstrated that he has no fear of powerlessness or vulnerability. And as a result, they can be sure of him. Sure of him in the way no one has ever been able to be sure of anyone else ever before.
The first happens before he’s done anything powerful at all.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,, 2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
3“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ”
4And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased
12At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Consider Jesus. Having his cousin, John, minister to him the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus, fully human but also fully divine. Without sin, here among sinful humanity. Placing himself in the position of the sinful, for the crowds to see. He’s not afraid to be perceived as weak, sharing in the common humiliation of sin, is he? Not even when he’s not.
Then, he gets this extraordinary encouragement from heaven. “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” That could be empowering, couldn’t it? It could go to one’s head. Not Jesus’. Instead, he’s obedient to the Spirit.
He goes into the wilderness where he doesn’t eat for 40 days. One of the most vulnerable places for a person to be, weak and surrounded by wild animals. And in that place, in that state, tempted by Satan himself. And as we find out in other accounts, the temptations all have to do with power. With different ways to demonstrate his power or get more power or get himself out of this powerless position. And Jesus resists all of them, allowing himself to remain in a place of complete dependence on God’s provision and care.
That’s how we first meet Jesus. Completely immune to the fear of powerlessness, embracing vulnerability. And in that weak place, his goodness is beginning to be revealed to us. Along with his strength and power.
13 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
2The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Here, “all things under his power,” Jesus takes the position of a slave. He does the job only slaves are supposed to do, which is why if you read further, Peter has difficulty accepting it. To be a slave is to be profoundly powerless. And Jesus has no fear of it. It is what love demands, and Jesus does it with joy.
He loved them to the end, it says. Which, as I understand it, doesn’t just mean to the end of his life. It also means that he loved them to the very end of love, the furthest reaches of love. When love is willing to go into a place of powerlessness on behalf of another to reveal its goodness, then it has gone where only true love can go.
Which brings us to the third example. Jesus’ death on the cross. We’ll save the details for Holy Week before Easter, but his crucifixion is the most deeply humiliating, powerless place a human being has ever been.
He’s stripped naked and displayed on hill, enduing mocking insults.
He’s lumped with thieves and rebels.
He is discredited on the cross, a taunting sign above him to shame him.
His hands and feet are nailed to tree trunks, unable to move.
He’s abandoned by most of his closest friends, who have run away in fear and embarrassment.
He’s cut off even from God.
He hangs there until he cannot breathe any more, emptied of strength, and then of life itself.
And Jesus goes there willingly, resisting various temptations to escape it along the way. He does it so that we can life, and life to the full. He does it so we can see how good he is, how good God is. He does it so we can be sure of him.
There is no quantum uncertainty in Jesus’ goodness. We will never, ever have to wonder if his good intentions and actions will be derailed by fear or pride. Perfect love is invulnerable to fear and pride. It defeated them a long, long time ago.
When we sit across the table from Jesus of Nazareth, deciding whether or not to trust him, and he looks us in the eyes and says, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full,” we can have total peace. There are no games being played, not by Jesus. He’s not trying to avoid shame. He’s not trying to make himself look good. He doesn’t need anything from us. He’s not upset with us and trying to teach us a lesson. He’s putting all the power in our hands.
We are totally free in his company. We can take the steal ball and see what happens. He’ll respond with whatever brings us the most life. We can play the split ball and he’ll respond with whatever brings us the most life.
Or, if we’ve had enough of games, we can pick up the Golden Balls, put them back on the table, and say to him, I don’t need these. You’re all I need. Let’s go. Where to?
And off we go. One baby leap of faith at a time. Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.
1. Do the Mark Devotionals this week. Pay attention to how little Jesus is concerned about being humiliated or being in a position where he’s having to totally trust that his Father is going to come through for him. Notice how this affects those around him who are taking risks to come to him with their needs. See if it makes you surer of him when you come to him with your own Big Ask.
2. Step down. If you’ve got a relationship in your life where love has been kept at arm’s length because no one wants to risk feeling powerless or humiliated, try imitating Jesus in embracing that position for the sake of love getting a foot in the door.