Preparation: Learning From the Past

Heritage Presbyterian Church

April 7, 2019
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Scripture readings – Isaiah 43: 16-21 and Philippians 3: 4b-14

One of our greatest frustrations is that we know virtually nothing about the individuals who traveled with Jesus, lived and worked with him, watched his ministry unfold, witnessed his death and resurrection – and then dispersed and began to bring the Good News to the whole world.  The implication there is that nothing else is important when compared with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Still…sometimes it is tempting to imagine what one of the Apostles might have to say after traveling with Jesus for three years and then approaching Jerusalem, where Jesus himself said he would suffer and die.  What were their thoughts?

For our message today, I have taken the character of the Apostle Matthew and imagined what he might have to say…

I am Matthew, one of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, a great prophet, teacher, and healer.  He is an amazing man, unlike any other in all of Judea.  We, his followers, are often amazed at what he can do or what he teaches; other times, we do not fully understand and often debate his words quietly among ourselves.  Our lack of understanding is frustrating because each of us feels that we should be able to grasp his messages and his intent, but we are in awe of him.  Simon once stated that he was the Son of God, and the Master was so delighted that he renamed him “Cephas” – the Rock.  The rest of us were happy for Cephas, but we began to puzzle over the fact that this man we believed to be a wonderful prophet might be something much more.

Let me explain.

My own background began in the towns and villages around Capernaum in Galilee.  My father was a business man who owned some land and a business in the area.  I grew up working for him and learning numbers as easily as I learned to talk.  But as the Romans increased their crushing taxes on the people, gradually my father lost everything.  He died a broken man with nothing to show for a life of good work.  I found myself with no home, no work, no family, and no prospects. With few choices, I became a tax collector for the Romans.  I was then known as Levi the Publican.

It was job that I was good at doing, but my fellow Jews despised me.  I was seen as a sinner and a turncoat against my own people.  No explanation was enough to curb their anger and disgust against me. When I tried to keep the Sabbath and attend services, I was given hard looks and heard muttered expressions of hatred. I was lost…completely lost.

Then one day, the Master walked past my collection booth. It had been a particularly miserable day with the people expressing their hatred and disgust in their usual hurtful ways.  The Roman soldiers assigned to assist me were completely worthless men – standing around and sneering at everyone, not fit for any other type of work.  The emptiness in my heart was complete that day…until the Master caught my eye and said, “Follow me.”  Something in his eye… something about his loving face… something about him told me that God himself had not forgotten me.  Wiping away my tears, I followed the Master and never looked back.

I have lived and worked alongside him for the past three years. I have witnessed the miracles he has performed as casually as someone removing a splinter from a friend’s hand. I have seen him cast out demons with just a few words.  And I’ve sat beside him and learned all that I could – like my fellow disciples.

It has been a most curious journey.  I am very aware that I am not the only one Jesus healed with his loving heart.  All of his Twelve and all his disciples seem to be from various backgrounds.  Virtually all of us could be considered lost…

But the Master has a way of making the past irrelevant.

I have learned many things from him, and I suspect that I will learn a great deal more as we get closer to his goal of Jerusalem.  As I ponder them and discuss them quietly with my fellow disciples, here is what I know today:

First of all, the Master has made it clear to us that the people of God have fallen into the same thinking that our ancient ancestors did. Once the Lord led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, they slowly began merely going through the motions of faith.  They believed that just saying the ancient prayers, offering sacrifices, and following the letter of the Law would keep them in Yahweh’s good graces.  

The Master has made his challenges clear to the chief priests, the Pharisees, the scribes, and even the Teachers of the Law.  No matter their arguments, the Master turns their own words back on themselves.  He does not tell us that Yahweh will turn his back on us again as he did in the days of the prophets; he does not teach that the old ways will remove the Romans from our midst and usher in a new kingdom of David; instead, the Master tells us new things: that we are loved, we are cherished, but that we need to do so much more than just go through the motions of faith.  In living lives of faith, the people of God are constantly called to watchfulness – not rest, work – not complacency.  This is perhaps the greatest thing I have learned from him.

Another is that our faith as the Jewish people has become a tool in the hands of tyrants and oppressors.  Look no further than the way the Romans and the Sanhedrin work together. The Romans say that they want to protect the Jews, but they have an odd way of doing it.  They impose their own rules and regulations as they work closely with our own ruling elders to control the people.  They prop up Herod, who is their king – not ours!  The elders don’t seem to really care either; they are more interested in how they are treated by the people.  They care for the best seats in the Temple; they care for the most important chairs at any banquet; they insist that the Temple tax goes to serving the people, but they live opulent lives while the people starve and beg for food at the town gates.  Our faith is supposed to be an agent of divine mercy and justice.  Instead, it has become a corrupt and rotten thing that bears little resemblance to the ideal.  

Some in our midst, such as Simon the Zealot, insist on direct confrontation with the Romans; he believes that the Lord will be with us, as he was with our ancestors.  The Roman army will fall before us.  Most of us recognize that this belief is old thinking and nothing but a foolhardy death wish, and that beliefs such as this is what destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in the first place.  But we often ache for a military Messiah who would be the leader we need.

Instead, what I have learned from the Master is that this is not the type of Messiah we are going to receive from Yahweh.  We are taught to turn the other cheek, to offer more than we are asked to give, to love our enemies.  All of this is new and completely opposite to what I have known, understood, and believed strongly since I was a child.  But there is something about the Master’s words and actions that convince me he speaks for Yahweh.  

The old prophets always taught the people to “remember.” Perhaps what Yahweh is also telling us is that the past is the past.  Something new is coming.

Finally, although I often sit and puzzle over what the Master does and says, one thing is clear to me: merely following the Letter of the Law is not going to help anyone get any closer to what Yahweh wants us to do. Most of us are Jews, and most of us have been following the Torah for all of our lives.  We have done the ceremonies, we have attended our services regularly, we have kept the Sabbath as our ancestors did – we have lived as we thought we should.

It is not enough!  It is not enough!

Each time the Master confronts the Jewish authorities, he points out their hypocrisy.  They have yet to control a single conversation with him, and none of them are the teachers or healers than he is.  He asks questions they cannot answer.  He traps them with their own words and inflexible rules.  He challenges them with parables that clearly illustrate the love and mercy of Yahweh – instead of the punitive, inflexible master most of them seem to prefer.

So…here I am today, getting closer to Jerusalem and the Master’s final leg in this amazing journey.  I am greatly afraid of what will happen when we arrive, but at the same time…I find a reason to hope in my heart that the things of the past will be replaced by something new and more wonderful than we can imagine.

And if this is true, then may we be wise enough and loving enough to learn from the past’s mistakes and truly live as the people of God. 

That is my hope and my dream.  The Master calls us.  It is on to Jerusalem!

Hosanna!  Amen!