Sunday, May 4, 2014

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-14
1 Peter 1:17-25
Luke 24:13-35

Gracious is Jehovah, and righteous; Yea, our God is merciful.

I suppose it isn’t so much of a problem today because just about everyone has some sort of GPS device, but have you ever gotten so lost that you were afraid you would not be able to find your way? I was working for a mobile disc jockey company a few decades ago doing quality control. I would go to a bunch of contracted parties that were located relatively near one another and check to see that the disc jockeys were doing their job. I would watch from a corner to see if they were entertaining, appropriate and if they were giving the clients all the services in the contract. I talked to the client to make sure that they were happy, and I spent a few minutes with the disc jockey to see how they felt about the party.

This particular job meant that I drove a lot in one night. I might have to visit five or six parties, located at great distances. The parties were always in cities with which I was unfamiliar, and finding the buildings was always challenging since I was going at night. I didn’t have the internet to help me establish a route or to print detailed maps. I usually had the simple, not always reliable, instructions from the client. I was working mostly in eastern New Jersey, where the small towns had merged so it was hard to tell when you left one and entered the next.

I usually managed to find the parties, since the halls were very often located right along the major highways or roads, but I remember one that was impossible. I had the right general area, but nothing looked right. I drove around the block numerous times, checked street names, and looked for the landmarks. I was able to find the road, but not the building. I was frustrated. Just as I was going to make another pass through the neighborhood, I decided it was silly to keep driving in circles. I found a gas station and asked for help.

Unfortunately, the attendant had no idea where it was. He was unfamiliar with the area, despite working there. I asked a few other people and I finally found someone who could direct me to the right place. It seems I was driving through the wrong town, that the neighboring towns had similar street names. A few minutes later I was pulling into the parking lot, extremely late and frustrated. I had to change the rest of my schedule for the evening, and I ended up with a smaller paycheck because I didn’t see as many disc jockeys at work.

I probably should have stopped to find directions much sooner, although we never really know how lost we are until we just can’t deal with it anymore. I’m sure we can all come up with examples of times when we waited until it was almost too late to deal with a problem. We try to do it ourselves. We try to hide our pain and suffering and confusion, sure that we can overcome alone. We become frustrated and exhausted doing so, until we reach the end of our rope and then we finally go for help. This is true not only in those mundane problems of life, but also in the eternal problems of our spirits.

I don’t doubt that most of you are people of prayer. I imagine that you pray daily and that you seek God’s help for those you love, for the people who ask you to pray, for the world and everything in it. Yet, all too often when it comes to our own needs especially that of our spirits, we tend to try to deal with it on our own. Are we embarrassed to take our problems to God? Do you we think that our problems are inconsequential compared to those of our neighbors. After all, why worry about a little doubt when our neighbor has rejected God altogether?

The psalmist understood this human tendency to go it alone. It was not until he was overwhelmed with trouble that he cried out for God’s help. “The cords of death compassed me, And the pains of Sheol gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.” He had reached the end of his rope, he could not deal with it alone. But even though he waited so long to seek God’s hand, God was ready to answer. “Then called I upon the name of Jehovah: O Jehovah, I beseech thee, deliver my soul. Gracious is Jehovah, and righteous; Yea, our God is merciful.”

We are human and despite the graciousness of God, we still have a nature that is wrapped up with sin. We still fail to live as God created and intended us to live. We still make mistakes that hurt others. We still ignore God. We still reject Him when we think we can do it better. We go our own way and forget that God is ready to help us whenever we need it. It is only when we reach the end of our rope, when there is nothing left that we can do, that we turn to Him. And though we’ve ignored Him all along, He is there and ready to respond to our cries.

The Jews had three festivals that were tied directly to agriculture and the harvest. These festivals were celebrated throughout the year as a constant reminder of God’s presence among His people. The celebrations also remembered the history of God’s people; they were thanking God for His daily care and for His goodness to them throughout the ages. Passover occurred first, and was a remembrance of the Exodus. On the third day of Passover, a sheaf of the first barley was given at the Temple as a wave offering. The priest literally waved the sheaf toward God so that He might accept it and bless it. No one was allowed to eat any of the barley wheat before the wave offering. This was also called the Feast of First Fruits.

The third feast was called Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. This festival occurred for a week in the fall and it celebrated the harvest. During this festival the people remembered the journey from Egypt to Canaan and thanked God for the productivity of the fields of Canaan. The religious life of God’s people went from Passover to Sukkot, just as the agricultural calendar went from planting to harvest. The people identified God’s deliverance and His provision by celebrating the harvest of their daily bread and the remembrance of their past.

Between those two festivals was another. Fifty days after Passover, the people celebrated the Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavu’ot or Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the harvest by giving offerings from the fruit of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Just as the people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain, so too do the people stopped briefly during the year to thank God for the blessings He has already given and to hear once again the words given to them on the mountain. The giving of the Law occurred fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, so it occurred fifty days later in the yearly remembrance of God’s mercy. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.

The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.

Today’s first lesson is part of Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost. Remember, the crowds thought that the disciples were drunk with new wine when they began speaking in tongues, but Peter told them it was the power of God. Imagine if you were in the crowd on that day, hearing the strange words coming out of the disciples’ mouths. You surely had heard of what had happened during the Passover festival with Jesus. Rumors would have been all over the city about the lost body of Jesus. Some might have been in agreement with the Romans, who claimed that the body was stolen by the disciples. Only fifty days had passed since that first Easter morning.

It could not have been easy for Peter to give his first sermon to those pilgrims who were in Jerusalem to hear the reading of God’s Law. It was bold and courageous. He was offering them a new promise, a different promise. As they heard his words, the people were “pricked in their heart” or “cut to the heart” and they wondered what they should do. Peter told them to repent—not only of the sins they had committed, but also of the way they were doing worship and living their lives of faith. He told them to be baptized so that they would be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. He said many other things, testifying to convince them of the truth. His boldness brought the word of God, Jesus, to thousands of people in one day.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “…that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to about five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also.” We know also that Jesus appeared to Mary and the women. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus appeared to the men on the road to Emmaus. It is unlikely that Jesus could have appeared to so many without word spreading through Jerusalem. Visitors must have heard the rumors in the marketplace. They may have heard the stories from other travelers passing them on the road. The people there on that first Pentecost may not have realized that Peter and the disciples were connected to the stories when they heard them speaking in tongues, but it is no wonder that they were cut to the heart when Peter spoke. The Word had already been planted in their hearts; Peter simply watered the seed.

We don’t know much about the crowd, but I wonder how many of them may have been there on the day of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Were they among the crowds who once waved palm branches? Were they also among the crowds who called for Jesus’ crucifixion just days later? Imagine the confusion and frustration! It is so hard to know what to believe. Faith is something we can’t achieve on our own. It takes the hand of God. That’s what happened on that Pentecost Day. God took the seeds that were planted, He brought order into their confusion, and He set their hearts on fire with faith so that they could believe.

We see this in a more personal way in the Gospel story for today. This encounter took place on the first Easter Day. Some of the disciples, including ten of the eleven, stayed in Jerusalem, hiding in the Upper Room. But others left; even Thomas was missing in action. In this story, two disciples were walking home to Emmaus. These disciples had been with Jesus and learned from Him for some time, possibly most of His three years of ministry. They did not understand how everything fit together. The crucifixion of Jesus did not fit their expectation. The witness of the women that Jesus had risen confused them. They could not make the puzzle fit together because there was something wrong with some of the pieces.

Jesus explained the scriptures to them and corrected their errors during their walk. He showed them how the pieces fit together. He revealed the whole picture in a way that they could finally understand. When Jesus revealed Himself to them later that evening in the breaking of bread, the men wondered how they could ever have doubted.

When it comes to our faith in Jesus Christ, a misunderstanding about the scriptures can mean the difference between salvation and death. It is no wonder that so many people in Jerusalem were confused before Peter explained things in his sermon on Pentecost. When we do not have a good foundation in the Word we are easily blown by every wind. Many people have rejected Jesus as their Lord and Savior because they do not see how it all fits together. They are confused by the seemingly inconsistent messages of the scriptures. The Bible is not faulty, our understanding of it is. God does not leave us alone and confused. He corrects our error and shows us the truth so that we might know Him fully and be saved.

We inherit from our past so many things: health, tradition, culture, finances, property, business, personality, habits, politics, biases, debts, feuds, religion and interests. Some of these things can be good and are worth continuing into another generation. However, some of the things we inherit from our past have no value and can actually be harmful. There are things that we have to set aside to become the person we are meant to be. Jesus made it possible, redeeming us from the failures of our past. The sacrificial system had little value because it was not lasting. Jesus, as the perfect Lamb of God finished for all time the need for atoning sacrifice. In His grace, we are called to trust in God, love one another and living according to the world of God.

God does not always come to us in dramatic and forceful ways. Sometimes He comes to us slowly at first, carefully laying out His story so that when He is fully revealed we will recognize him. Though some Christians have extraordinary experiences of Jesus, like Paul on the road to Damascus, most of us learn about Jesus through Sunday school teachers and our parents. Slowly, but surely, we hear the stories laid out before us until one day we finally see Him and understand. Even then we wonder how we could have not seen, just like the disciples. “Was not our heart burning within us?” we ask. But in the stories of God’s grace we see that we are just like those who were there at the beginning, learning and growing in grace each day.

Those people who heard Peter’s sermon had good reason to be confused. It is hard to discern the difference between truth and rumor sometimes. Even the disciples who had been with Jesus for a long time were scared and frustrated. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know where to go. The disciples didn’t believe the witness of the women who met Jesus in the garden. Some ran away. How can we expect that the crowds in Jerusalem to believe when they had nothing but rumors?

We are so much like them. We are rattled by so many ideas. It has been said, “Ask twelve theologians the meaning of a biblical text and you’ll get thirteen answers.” The bookstores are filled with commentaries and devotionals that will give the seeker seemingly contradictory advice. I can understand why so many non-Christians are confused. It doesn’t make sense if you can’t put it all together.

The psalmist sings, “Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.” The Lord God is gracious and merciful. He hears the cries of His people and He answers their prayers. Our psalm was used as part of the liturgy for the religious festivals throughout the Jewish year. It is a hymn of thanksgiving and praise for God’s deliverance from death. The worship of God was tied up in many aspects of their lives. Each festival had significance at several levels. They were times of remembrance and looking ahead, times of feasting and fasting, times of joy and sacrifice. They worshipped God with their hearts, their minds and their resources, bringing Him into their ordinary world.

That’s why our New Covenant experiences include the sacraments. God did not simply speak to us; He gave us ordinances that were connected to very real, very tangible things of this earth. In Baptism the word is joined with water, reminding us of all those times when God used the water to make the world clean while cleansing us for the future. In the Eucharist the word is tied to the bread and wine, reminding us of the last supper, Christ’s death on the cross while also giving us a foretaste of the feast to come. In this way God’s story has woven together the ordinary with the extraordinary, reason with mystery, the past with the future, the grace of God with our response.

When they arrived at their destination, Jesus tried to keep going but the disciples invited him inside. It was late and they were probably very curious about this man they met on the road. He had so much knowledge of things they should have known; they wanted to learn more. I am sure they found comfort in His word. They sat down to eat and Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it for them. At that moment, they saw Jesus.

This is the pattern of Christian fellowship that we continue to follow today, as disciples gathered around the word and sacrament. There we see the risen Christ. We listen to the word as it is read and preached and then we gather around the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine. Notice that it is not only in the word that Christ was revealed to them, but that it was in the sacrament that they could see Him. It is in that cup that we receive His forgiveness that leads to gift eternal life.

I think, perhaps, we have lost touch with the reason for communion; in many churches it is not the center of the worship. It is an occasional practice, a imposition on the altar guild and worship planners who have to work it into the program. Some people would rather not have communion on a weekly or even monthly basis. “It takes too much time.” “It is not as special if we have it too often.” “Visitors won’t understand and they’ll be turned off if we don’t give them plenty of entertainment and music.”

Peter writes, “…knowing that ye were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from your vain manner of life handed down from your fathers; but with precious blood, as of a lamb without spot, even the blood of Christ…” The cup bears the very blood of Christ which was offered for our sake on the cross. “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” Christ did this for you. And there at the table Jesus Christ is revealed in that cup. We are made new every time we receive that gift, forgiven, transformed and purified by His Word so that we can go forth another day to trust in God and live in love. Why would we want to diminish the place this has in our experience of God?

We forget how much we need God. We try to go our own way. We think we know better than God how to get through our problems. It isn’t until we reach the end of the road, when we finally accept that we are lost and need His help, that we finally turn to Him. Then we approach God recognizing our need for His mercy and grace.

Each time we gather around the table, we are calling out to the Lord for salvation. We find life in His answer as we remember the cross of Christ. His love is revealed in that breaking of bread. There we see Jesus revealed for us. The Psalmist sings, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of Jehovah. I will pay my vows unto Jehovah, Yea, in the presence of all his people.” When we finally cry out to God, He is right there to do for us all that He has promised. How much better is it that we approach the throne of grace even before we need God’s help, seeing His salvation in that which He has already given for us? He is revealed anew each time we take the cup and drink, receiving the forgiveness for which Jesus paid such a high price. And when we do so, we are His witnesses, sharing the truth of God’s grace and revealing to the world the Living Christ.

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