Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:[32-34] 35-45

For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

My bible study group recently worked through a study on Psalm 119. This psalm, the longest of the psalms, is filled with words of law. It is an uncomfortable psalm for many of us, first of all because it is twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each that seem to say the same thing over and over and over again. How many times can someone say "I love your law," especially those of us who understand God's grace?

What we learned, however, is that the psalmist is not repeating the same words over and over again. It is hard for us to see it in English, and particularly hard because some of the Hebrew words can be translated with the same English word, but each word has a unique and different meaning. The psalmist is repeating the same thing over and over again, but it is not as repetitious as you might think. Each stanza gives us a fuller understanding of what it means to be obedient to God. With words like statutes and commandments, it might seem like it is simply about obeying rules, but the reality is that it is a far more, all encompassing trust and obedience to God and His Word.

Without walking too far from the lessons of this day, let's look at Psalm 119:9-16 a little more closely, seeing the words more clearly to understand how it fits into this next to last Sunday in Lent.

"Wherewith shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word." The word translated "word" in this passage is a Hebrew word that means "spoken word." In other words, the speaker understands that following God means hearing and obeying that which has been spoken about Him.

"With my whole heart have I sought thee: Oh let me not wander from thy commandments." The word translated "commandments" is best translated "all God's law." This refers to everything God has commanded, not just a specific set of rules. This is about more than being a perfect law-abider; it is about being all God has created and redeemed us to be.

"Thy word have I laid up in my heart, that I might not sin against thee." This word is the best word. "Word" in this verse should be translated "promise." See, we can't be perfectly obedient to anything on our own strength or power, but God has promised to guide us and lead us in the right way. He has also promised that He will not abandon us when we fail.

"Blessed art thou, O Jehovah: Teach me thy statutes." This word, "statutes," refers to the boundaries. It is often used in reference to the ritualistic law, but God lays out all sorts of boundaries for us in His Word. Those boundaries are given to keep us safe, to set us on the right path, to keep us close to Him. We all need boundaries and we ask God to teach us the limitations of our humanness.

"With my lips have I declared all the ordinances of thy mouth." This word, "ordinances," refers to justice. True justice, biblical justice, is that which adheres to what God intends for His people. As much as we do not like to consider it, God has returned a verdict: we are sinners in need of a Savior. That's what Lent has been all about - discovering the truth of our failure to live up to being the people whom God intends us to be.

"I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, As much as in all riches." The word "testimonies" refers to the work of God in the world, the witness of all the good God has done. When we are troubled by our sinfulness, we can look back to the story of God and His people and see that He is faithful to His promises. He will save us because He has promised.

"I will meditate on thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways." Here the psalmist makes a commitment to be obedient to God's authoritative rule. The "precepts" are official orders properly appointed by God. He is the authority over our lives and His Word is the one to give our full attention.

"I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word." Here we return to the words in verses 9 and 12. Obedience to God's boundaries and spoken word is not a burden; it is a joy and a delight to follow God, no matter where He leads and no matter what He calls us to do. And sometimes He calls us to do very hard things. But when He does, we can trust that He has given us all we need. His Word is enough to keep us on the right path and take us where He wants us to go.

James and John were important to Jesus and they were witnesses to the miraculous and incredible things Jesus did. They were called to join Jesus and immediately left their father Zebedee and his boat to follow Him. James and John were invited, along with Peter, to go on the mountain to pray when Jesus was transfigured. We hear about James and John when the disciples were walking toward Jerusalem. The people in one Samaritan town refused hospitality to Jesus; they asked Him if He wanted them to call down hellfire on the town. They were zealous and loyal. They believed and lived their faith passionately. They also thought they were pretty important. They were bold enough to ask Jesus to do for them what they wanted.

Jesus had authority over heaven and earth but He did not have the authority to put James and John into such seats of honor. The reality, which they did not yet understand, is that the seats they desired would never exist. They thought Jesus would be an earthly king like David, who would rule over Jerusalem and Israel to save the people from the oppression of the Romans. The irony here is that Jesus just finished telling the disciples that the Son of Man, Jesus, had to suffer at the hands of the world, condemned to death. He told them that He would be mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed in Jerusalem. Jesus would never sit on that type of throne they expected and desired. It would not take long before He was hung from a cross, a much different end to His ministry. They had no idea that the cup He would drink and the baptism He would be baptized with would offer only suffering and pain.

They were willing to do anything for Jesus, but in doing so they wanted a promise. The problem is that they were making vows about something that they truly did not understand. They were willing to follow Jesus anywhere, but they did not expect that it would mean following Him to a cross. They told Him they were able to follow Him. Jesus said, "You will."

This prophecy came true for James. Just fourteen years after the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, James was beheaded in a lame attempt to halt Christianity. He was the first Apostle to be martyred, the only one of the eleven whose death was recorded in the scriptures. He indeed did drink the same cup and suffer the same baptism as Jesus. James boldly asked Jesus for the wrong thing, but he continued to live out his life of faith and then he died for the sake of the Gospel. We may make the same mistakes, thinking our position or our experiences merit us greater attention or honor.

Jesus called the twelve together and said, "Ye know that they who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you: but whosoever would become great among you, shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you, shall be servant of all."

We all want to be important. In our walk with our Lord Jesus Christ, we have opportunities to hold positions of authority. We are elected to the council or asked to teach a Sunday school class. Many of us have jobs in the world that give us the responsibility of leadership. Our relationship with Christ should show in the way we take upon those responsibilities. We aren't called to these positions to rule over people; we are called to serve them. Jesus Christ was the Servant King, one who did far more than He ever asked of His disciples. He went to the cross and died for us. Now, those of us who are in Christ Jesus, by the forgiveness that comes from His blood, walk in His light and do His work with joy. We should not allow our position in God's Kingdom become one where we consider ourselves more important than another. We are called to be servants, knowing that Christ did it first for us.

This kind of humility comes from obedience to God's Word, the kind of obedience we are encouraged to do in today's psalm. It isn't simply about being righteous by our works, following a list of rules, but truly understanding that God is the authority and that He lays down boundaries that are for our best interest. God's verdict is right and His Word is true. He has made us a promise and it would do us well to remember it and to remember that He has already been faithful.

His faithfulness has been manifest in the most spectacular way. While we deserve His wrath for our failure to live up to our commitment to His Law, God chose to lay His wrath on the One who kept it perfectly. Jesus Christ did not deserve to go to the cross, but He did so in humble obedience to His Father, taking upon His shoulders that which we rightfully deserved. He fulfilled the greatest promise of all: He won for us eternal salvation by defeating death and the grave.

See, Jesus knew He had to die, and He said as much to His disciples. But He ended His lesson with a promise. "...after three days he shall rise again." The cross was not permanent; His death was merely temporary albeit very real. Jesus died to pay the price for our selfishness, our self-centeredness, our self righteousness, but He rose again on the third day, securing for us the promise.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that even though Jesus Christ was the Son, the one and only, He was obedient, giving up the glory of heaven to become flesh to live, serve and die for the sake of the world. "...and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation…" Our obedience to God's Word, the Word made flesh who has fulfilled every meaning of God's Law, is our response to that which He did for us. The source of our salvation calls us to a life of humble service; following in His footsteps, perhaps even to our own death.

What an incredible promise we hear from Jeremiah in today's text. The promise of this new covenant was fulfilled in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in His death at the cross. His resurrection and ascension gave us the hope of eternal life. He forgave our sins and promised that we would live in His light and life by His Power. He gave us that power at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon all flesh. Now God dwells within the hearts of His people, those who believe in Him, molding and reforming us each day. We know Him because He has written Himself into our hearts and our minds with His Word.

Isn't that enough for us to want to be like the psalmist? We have been given a great treasure to hold in our hearts, a treasure that will help us be true to God's word and delight in His Word. He is the authority whose judgments are right, but even more He is the One who is faithful to His promise. Our Lord may call us to hard work in this world; we might have to humble ourselves in ways that are difficult and unexpected. We might, like James, have to follow Jesus even unto death, but we do so with the knowledge that He has already won for us the victory over death and that we will be raised in Him in new life to live with Him forever.

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