The Present Kingdom (8-13-06)

(Transcript of a sermon given on 8-13-06)

John 6:35-51

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

[Pastor Max Ramsey] May God’s Word be a seed in the soil that is your life. May it grow there and blossom and bear good fruit, and will you pray with me, a sinner.

God of  All,  you have prepared us to hear your Word today. If that is not true, then we will not hear your Word today. We pray that you open our hearts, that you open our ears, not to my words but to Your Word. We have come here as we are, broken, tired, in need of living water. Only you are the source of that. May a blessing fall on all who come here and may that blessing be by Your hand.

In Jesus’ name we pray,

Amen.

Good morning! I love this passage even though it’s kind of hard to follow. You know those maze games you find in kids’ menus and elsewhere, where you sort of find your way around the maze?  Well, the language of this text kind of works like that. But one of the things that I really like about it, is that in a troubled world where we’re killing each other over religion, this emphasizes a counterpoint in our faith that sometimes we miss. Everyone picks up on, “No one comes unto the Father but by me.” But often we miss the other part that’s found in this passage, where it says that God prepares us to understand and receive his Christ. God prepares you and me to meet Jesus and to understand that Jesus is no ordinary carpenter’s son, but is, in fact, the Messiah. And we cannot meet the Christ until God has prepared us to meet Christ. And if we have met Christ, then it is because God has prepared us to do so. Christ is the pathway to God’s heart because Christ is God’s own heart come here to live among us. Only Jesus Christ has come from God and so only Christ can take us home to God.

So many of the people we encounter in our mission field are like the Pharisees in our story. They will say that they believe in God, and when they say that, what they will mean in their heart is that they believe God exists. And they will be in pain and they will be hungry, not because they don’t believe God exists, but because they don’t know God personally. It is that personal relationship that fills us up and makes us whole. That is what makes Christianity so different and so powerful. As our passage suggests, God is not fully knowable. Take a minute and think about that. The immensity of the divinity is beyond our scope but Jesus gives us access to God’s own heart because Jesus is God’s own heart come to life in our midst.

In our passage Jesus has been rejected by those who claim to have known him his whole life. Jesus has made some audacious claims. He has claimed to be the Christ, and the people of his town think he’s lost his marbles. How can he be the Christ, this same squirrelly kid who grew up among us, the son of the carpenter down the street? But Jesus doesn’t stomp his feet and demand belief. He says that those whom God has prepared to know him, will recognize him. He says to his disciples that he has not come down from heaven to do his will, but to do the will of the one who sent him. Who sent him? GOD…creator God. So he has come to do God’s will. An aspect of the Christ that we sometimes miss in our culture, or intentionally underplay, is that Christ’s perfection includes obedience to the will and the voice of God.

Jesus goes on to say that the will that he is obedient to has called his people to eternal life. We have to be careful because for too long, “eternal life” has been interpreted as life on the other side of the river—life after death. But the actual wording here is life in the age to come, and he’s speaking about it in the present tense, not the future tense. So what Jesus is telling us is that to believe in him is to see the Kingdom of God in this world, and to intentionally live in it in this life. It is that Holy vision that dispels our hunger because it frames our hunger in a new and very different light. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” And it is that Holy vision that eases our suffering because we see pain and suffering as a passage instead of a destination.

When we see Jesus and know that he is the Christ, then we see the Kingdom of God that is all around us. It may be in the midst of things that are not of God’s Kingdom, but it is a present Kingdom nonetheless. This has been a tough week. I have shared tears with you and I have seen tears come from you. I know of two young fathers who died suddenly this week—one hit by a car and the other from a sudden heart attack. And I was personally touched by the murder in Pewaukee that took the life of a mother at the hand of her son.

There are several people in our congregation who are facing very hard choices. There are difficult relationship issues going on in our lives this week. When the rain comes, and it will come, and when the tears come, and they will come, God’s Kingdom is very present. Even in the midst of this kind of excruciating journey, the Kingdom is very present.

That brings me to my first story for today. On our mission trip, we were working in a little town in Louisiana just across the border from Mississippi called Bogalusa. Can anyone tell me why Bogalusa was in the news a lot in the late 1960’s? That’s right, a lynching of a young black man. The KKK was very active in Bogalusa, and a young black man was lynched there. At the same time that they were arming themselves, the black community was arming itself as well. And so this town was on the verge of an explosion and the President had to order the Governor to send in the National Guard. So that National Guard had to put down what would have been an armed civil war in this little town of 8 or 9 thousand that most of us had never heard of. Does that sound like the Kingdom of God? NO.

Our small multicultural team was called to go into Bogalusa to labor in the home of a woman who had lost her husband just a few months before, probably due to extended exposure to mold in their flood drenched home. He had refused to leave the home because it was his family home. There was a level of poverty in that home and in that section of town that we do not see here in Milwaukee very often. The house had lost its center beam in the storm surge and was inundated to three feet with foul floodwater. A year after the storm, it had not yet been mucked out. We went in to build a structure within the structure so that when the old house fell away, which was an “any day now” kind of possibility, the new structure would be in place to build around. We went in without judgment, and you would have been so proud of Immanuel’s kids, the way they pitched in to help this women who had seen so much, and had so little. And there was genuine communion and fellowship in that home as we ministered to each other. We broke bread together and we talked to God and about God together. And we prayed together. And God was as present in that rat-infested home as God is present anywhere else in the world. Does that sound like the Kingdom of God? YES. And we went because we were called to go. We went because we believed.

It is important to understand that when the rain comes, and it will come, and when the tears come, and they will come, that it doesn’t mean that the Kingdom has slipped away. Behold. It is simply a reminder that we are not in charge here. God has prepared us to see Christ at work in the midst of all things—good and bad. When the call comes that a friend has died, you go to their family because God has called you there and because you believe. And in the midst of that horrible grief you search out Christ because God has prepared you to find him. The deepest of connections are made, and prayers are offered up to God, and love is shared. Does that sound like the Kingdom of God? YES.

What I haven’t told you is that in Bogalusa we went out of the waters of Baptism right into the war for souls that I’ve been telling you about over the past few years. Three of our team members were just baptized last spring—two here and one in Missouri. They have drawn their line in the sand and have sided with Christ and his Kingdom in the most tangible of ways. In that devastated home in Bogalusa, Louisiana was the presence of God, and with that presence, the Kingdom of God. But less than fifty feet away was a fully functioning open-air drug market complete with 10-year-old lookouts on every corner, and buyers driving through making purchases. And the war shook the very ground. The gates of Hades were being stormed. The choice was never so clear. Choose the Kingdom and the Christ, or choose the crackpipe and pistol. When we were packing our gear—no more than 30 feet from the open air drug market—one of the drug kingpins, a very large man of about 25 years old came up to one of our kids from Immanuel Community church and said, “You came all the way down here from Wisconsin? What for?” And the young man replied calmly, “We came down to help.” The drug dealer replied with a mocking laugh, “You’re a fool.” But as I stand here today, I tell you that a seed was planted—maybe not in him, but in someone who was watching. And I tell you that the soil was good. And something of the Kingdom will grow in the hearts of those in that crack house who witnessed God’s presence that day. They never bothered us. They never harassed us or stole from us. They never threatened us, because, I believe they know God exists and that we had come in the way that his Son would have come, as his Son taught us to. They kept selling drugs, but there was an eerie something in the air that day. And I think that it was this. To say that I believe in God as to mean that I believe that God exists is to say nothing at all. I saw the mocking face of Satan that day in the face of that young drug dealer. You see, even Satan believes that God exists and even Satan knows that God has power over every living thing. But what makes Christ and his followers different is that when we say that we believe in God, we mean that we know God’s heart so well, through our personal relationship with Jesus, that the will of God is becoming our will in ever growing ways. Christ gave up his autonomy to be God’s servant in the world and to call us—each personally—to do that same thing. Satan believes that God exists, but serves only his own interests and uses others to further those interests.

And so the Christ that God has prepared you and me to know is perfect in all ways, including and importantly in his understanding of and obedience to the will of God. And the Christ that you and I now know is calling us to grow in him in that way as well.

And that leads me to my second story from our mission trip: The woman at the gas pumps.

Hattiesburg, Mississippi is about an hour and a half South of Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson, Mississippi is where they murdered Medgar Evers—shot him in his driveway. Hattiesburg, Mississippi had three lynchings between 1965 and 1968. And we stopped for gas in Hattiesburg, Mississippi because we had to have gas.  Well, there was that whole bathroom thing, too, but that’s a story for another time (Laughs).  Now we all know that getting institutional Christians to let go of their money is like pulling teeth. They just can’t let it go…and for a thousand different reasons. Anyway…so here I am pumping gas into my pick-up truck loaded down with tools and supplies while my wife is pumping gas into the church van down in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We’re minding our own business (which is a very good idea when you have Wisconsin plates in Hattiesburg) when this well- dressed, well-kept, well-heeled Caucasian woman appears from around the front of my truck. She asks me is we’re on a mission trip down into the Gulf region. I reply that we are. She says that she’s been behind us on the highway all the way down from Jackson, MS. I’m thinking she’s about to read me the riot act for driving too fast or something. She reaches out and hands me an envelope and says that she can’t go down there, but God put it on her heart to give me that envelope. It turned out to be a hundred dollars. I said, “You don’t know me from Adam and you just put a small fortune in my hands. Why?” She said that God had been speaking to her a lot lately about being obedient, and that she heard God tell her to do this, so she did it. She said it didn’t make sense to her, but she really felt like she needed to be obedient. I thanked her. I asked her name (Amy) and I said that I would pray for her. She thanked me for that and said that she needed it. She disappeared as quickly as she came in a shiny new SUV with Mississippi plates. I used the hundred dollars to buy lumber for a building project in the home of that woman of color from my earlier story. Bogalusa is in Washington Parish, Louisiana, a parish where three lynchings of young black men occurred in the 1960’s. This Christian journey sometimes is a weird journey, but it’s a beautiful journey. A hundred bucks to a stranger builds little bridges to the Kingdom that God has prepared you to see.

Amen.

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