Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday: Running into the Fire

Today is Palm Sunday. All over the world, Christian people are remembering the last time Jesus entered Jerusalem. You remember the story, don’t you? Jesus riding into the city on a colt, the crowds spreading palm branches before Him on the road. They were yelling, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” Those folks were read to make Jesus their King! Such celebration! And such a stark contrast with what happened just a few moments later.
As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes. The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides. They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.”
Oh, to have the vantage point of God! We see palm branches and royal procession! But Jesus saw in a moment the history and future of this great city. He saw how His own people had killed prophets. He saw how His own people had rejected God again and again and he also knew that they would reject God again in a profound way! In just a week’s time, this crowd, this city, God’s people would kill Him.

To me, here is the most amazing part of this story. Knowing what was to come, knowing they would arrest Him, knowing they would beat Him, knowing they would kill Him… Jesus went into that city anyway! And if Jesus had not gone into that city, next week, Easter, never would have happened. So, let’s celebrate that after Jesus wept over our sin, He went into the city anyway!

Have you ever known a firefighter? Ever since I was a little boy (maybe it’s a boy thing…), I’ve always been amazed by firefighters. I cannot imagine the courage it takes to do what they do. There was one firefighter whose name you might remember, Timothy Stackpole. Timothy was a firefighter in New York City. In 1998, he was badly burned trying to put out a house fire. He was trapped for over half an hour until help arrived! He survived and eventually went back to work. After 21 years of fighting some of the toughest fires in New York, Timothy Stackpole was made captain on September 10, 2001. Yes, one day before the September 11 attacks. In fact, he was one of the first to arrive on the scene at the World Trade Center. He led a group of firefighters into the building, and he never came out. An eyewitness to the 1998 fire that severely injured Timothy Stackpole said: “They just ran into the flames to save someone!” Who does that? Who runs into the flames to save someone? At its most basic level, folks, that is the story of the gospel. God watched what was happening here and instead of walking away, instead of washing His hands of us, God ran toward the fire and he pulled us out of certain death.

This entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is really a microcosm of Jesus’ entire visit to creation. God saw our predicament that we were a world on fire, and still God came anyway. This is the story of the Incarnation. As Jesus entered Jerusalem, people spread palm branches in front of Him welcoming Him as King! It is just like the time people welcomed Him into this world as King in Bethlehem. Not long after His birth; however, this world tried unsuccessfully to kill Him. Years later, as Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, that story repeated itself. Only this time, they succeeded. Who runs into a fire? God does. And God did that for you…never forget that!

You know, one of the truly amazing things about the Judeo-Christian story is the claim that we were made in the image of that God! So, we are most like God, we are who we were made to be (more than any other time), when we too run into fires. I witnessed a group of men who ran into a fire just this past week. Some of you might have noticed that I, along with John and Lance, were gone last week. Someone said we went to look at church planting opportunities. Well, not exactly. We went to see a bold, courageous step that was taken by five followers of Jesus. A few weeks ago, I recounted to you some pretty dire statistics. The church is having an extremely difficult time reaching non-Christians. The fact is, most non-Christians folks will not come into a building like this one. It doesn’t matter what name is on the sign out front! This reality has led many churches and church leaders to throw up their hands and say, “Well, that’s that! I guess we will just have to live with that reality!” But five guys in Nashville saw that “fire” and ran toward it.

They opened a coffee shop called The Well Coffee House. They serve excellent coffee. They provide a fantastic environment and tremendous service. And after they pay their overhead, they give 100% of their profits to drill water wells in impoverished African villages! And they do all of that, because they are followers of Jesus. They are living out their faith in a radical way. They’ve created a wonderfully successful business and they are not making a dime! Guess what? The community of Nashville has noticed. They’ve been so successful they’ve had to open two new locations. People come for the coffee and the service and the mission and when they arrive, many of them find Jesus. Their baristas are trained not only to make great coffee; they are trained to show Jesus to their patrons. They get to know their community and their community is drawn to them. Not too long ago, they opened a church right there in that coffee shop. They call it the Well House Church (or, the House Church that meets in the Well). What a radical idea! Those guys saw the same numbers and dire forecast as everyone else and they didn’t run away. They ran toward the fire!

Are there any fires in your life? How is your marriage doing? You know, there are some couples, that when times get especially difficult, they run away. That is…they run away from each other! What would happen if you decided today, this morning, to run toward the fire instead? Yes, there will likely be pain involved; there always is when you run toward a fire. But God has promised to meet you there. How are you doing in your finances? There are people in this room this morning that are in debt up to their eyeballs! You cannot wait until the next paycheck! You might even have bill collectors calling your house each week and it is tempting to just run away. What would happen if you decided today, this morning, to run toward that fire? What if you asked for help? What if you learned how to get on a budget and start using God’s resources in godly ways? You know, God has promised to meet you there. There are people in this room who are harboring grudges against other people in this room. Now, there is a fire! You won’t talk to each other. You won’t forgive each other. Sometimes, it is just easier to walk away, isn’t it? “If we just ignore it, it will all go away.” Church, that is not how fire works. If left unattended, fires do not go out. They grow. Before long, no matter how far you might run, that fire will catch up to you and it will consume you. That is not speculation, it happens every day.

Next week is Easter, the day of Resurrection. But if you are harboring bitterness and resentment in your heart, you will not be able to enjoy…I mean really enjoy Resurrection. Because Resurrection happens only after we die, when we let go of our pride, when we let go of our bitterness. So, here is my challenge to you this week. If you find yourself this morning with bitterness, resentment, hatred, or judgment in your heart against someone else, I encourage you this week to run toward that fire. Deal with it! It may not even be your fault. Let’s be honest…in most cases like this, there is enough blame to go around. Don’t continue to run away. Run toward the fire. You were made in the image of a God who oftentimes takes the difficult path. Because God knows that the difficult path leads to resurrection!

There was a moment in the middle of Jesus’ ministry that many scholars say was the crossroads of His ministry. Before this moment, everything was great! Crowds swelled, miracles were performed and Jesus was famous! But after this one moment, it was like someone flipped a switch. The crowds left, the pressure on Jesus amped up and he started talking about death and dying…a lot! This crossroads moment occurred not long after Peter declared that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. “Who do people say that I am?” Peter finally said, “You are the Christ.” The proverbial “cat was out of the bag.” And once someone made that claim, Jesus’ ministry changed. He had to show people what being the Messiah meant. You know at that point, Jesus could have called it quits. He could have gone back to heaven. He could have called the whole thing off. I mean, who wants to continue in ministry when the crowds leave, right? Instead, Luke 19:51 says…
As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, He determined to go to Jerusalem…
Another translation says, “He set His face resolutely toward Jerusalem.” In other words, Jesus ran toward the fire.

What about you? I want you to ask yourself a couple of questions. Where are the fires in your life? And which direction are you running?

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