"We Have Been Bar Coded"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 4/9/2000
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
We have been told that very soon we will carry a card that will be filled with our vital information. When we are visiting a physician for the first time, we will no longer have to complete the preliminary paper work. One swipe of our card will automatically enter into the doctor's data base our complete medical history that contains everything from our blood type to our insurance carrier.
In recent years we have learned more information about ourselves. Each of us carries information that is unique only to us. We are learning, for example, why some of us have a facility for foreign languages, while others become poets. We are discovering why some people thrive on numbers and spreadsheets, while others are not happy unless they are studying the stars. We are "wired" differently.
I find the study of God consuming much of my thought and time. Someone else may be consumed by thinking about new methods for performing surgery, flying at a faster speed, or running our automobiles on something far more cost efficient and environmentally friendly than gasoline. The mustard seed Jesus repeatedly used in his teaching has been bar coded to grow into a large shrub where birds can build their nests. Why would we be any different?
During our generation, we have learned that we are coded with an accuracy that is still being uncovered by researchers. Just this past week the bio-tech company, Celera, announced that it has successfully completed the mapping of the human genome. Everything about us is already coded into every cell. In fact, once our DNA has been thoroughly decoded and understood, we will be able to trace our individual ancestry back to the beginning of the human race.
Just recently scientists have discovered something interesting. DNA samples taken from the remains of a mummified Neanderthal infant found in a cave have offered for the first time conclusive proof that we did not descend from their race. Their DNA is vastly different.
Why am I giving you this review of recent discoveries? And why is such a discussion relevant to our walk during Lent? My hope is that by understanding life as a process of unfolding and growth, we may gain significant insights not only into the events of Holy Week but also into Jesus' mission for coming.
On the cross, Jesus was completing a process he started much earlier as a young boy. As we will discover from our Scripture lessons, all of us have been bar coded to live in the Kingdom of God. We already had the capabilities to be kind and compassionate, but it took Jesus' coming to guide the human race in the direction of that discovery.
This concept can be found in each of our lessons this morning. Both of them describe a process that goes further than what science has uncovered thus far. These lessons suggest that we have been bar coded by God for great things. This message is unmistakably clear. Listen to what Jeremiah has God say: "The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. None of them will have to teach a neighbor to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the greatest to the least." (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
If we turn to the second lesson, we will find that John recorded these words from Jesus: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me." No one could be drawn to Jesus' level of consciousness unless they already had the ability to do so. The potential has to be in us. Jeremiah knew this thousands of years ago. Furthermore, Jesus would not have invited us to grow if such growth were impossible to achieve. Acquainting us with our destiny was Jesus' mission.
Let us turn back the pages of history for a minute. When did this process of discovery begin for Jesus? The writers have scattered the Lord's experiences throughout their Gospels so that it is difficult to determine their exact sequence. But maybe we can hazard an educated guess.
A number of you may have different answers to these questions. Was Jesus "The Christ" as a 12-year-old when he amazed the rabbis with his wisdom at the Temple? Was he "The Christ" during the eighteen years he was a carpenter where his home town people apparently did not know him? While watching him teach one day, they said to each other, "Is this not the carpenter's son and are not his brothers and sisters with us? Where did 'this man' get all this?" (Matt. 13:55f) At what point did Jesus become "The Christ"?
Jesus' growth toward being "The Christ" appears to have been a gradual one. There was the period of hesitancy in the wilderness when he was being challenged with the question -- "Who do I want to be?" There was a time when he asserted his will over others. He overturned the tables of the money changers and used very caustic language while talking to the Scribes, Pharisees, and Teachers of the Law. His own frustrations with religious leaders was showing.
There was the period when he preached and healed. There was the period when he trusted God with the outcome of everything. Then the time came when he was crucified and he said, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." It took him an estimated three years to polish his diamond so he could access what God had placed within him. The beginning of his climb up the staircase started with his conflicts in the wilderness and ended with his ability to love his enemies through his nail-pierced body. Let us consider the value of being in the wilderness.
Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a woman whom I have known for close to twenty years. Her words portrayed a person who was bleeding emotionally. Her mother had sent her a lengthy letter that was filled with frustration and resentment. In essence the letter said, "If you can not straighten out, I am going to write you out of my life. I have had it with your foolish mistakes in judgment! I simply cannot take it any more. You have to stop being driven by your needs!"
The daughter was devastated. She wrote, "I sat there and cried for hours. I could not believe my mother would say such things to me. She had everything wrong. She assumed the information others had given her was correct. It was not. I don't know if I can ever forgive her for what she wrote."
What we have here is a woman in a wilderness. It is a time of uncertainty. Our circumstances have been different, but all of us have been there. Her relationship with her mother and her mother's love is being tested. What I said to her will probably be difficult to accomplish in the beginning.
We cannot begin our walk up our staircase until we have the staircase in front of us. We cannot begin the process of using "what God has written on our hearts" until we are faced with a situation that requires its use. We already know the responses that will sharpen our abilities. We also know the responses that may destroy ourselves with hurt, resentment, and rage.
In attempting to offer her an alternative, I suggested that she must forgive her mother. Further, I told her that forgiveness was not for her mother; it was for her. I said, "Right now, you must begin the process of deciding who you want to be. Never believe that your current feelings have the power to limit your choices. You can be the victim or the healer, the wounded daughter, or the bridge builder. How you decide will either increase or diminish who you are." Judgment at this level is swift. In truth, we either grow or we live in the Hell we create.
Holy Week gives all of us the opportunity to watch how Jesus graduated to being "The Christ." The Gospel record is dramatic at this point. He experienced broken promises. Jesus experienced betrayal from one of his chosen. Jesus experienced abandonment. He experienced a mock trial where false charges were successful in bringing a conviction. We could go on and on. The reversals that occurred during Jesus' final days brought a collapse of everything he knew except his bar coding! He successfully detached himself from his circumstances so he could live what he had been preaching.
We can tell ourselves, "Well, we know how he accomplished it. He was 'The Christ.'" We can also say, "I could never do such a thing because Jesus was special. He was and is the Son of God." If we think such thoughts, we have missed completely what he came here to teach us. His life was not about him, it was about us. He never said, "Worship me." He said, "Follow me."
Jesus was growing during the period when few people knew him. Jesus was maturing when he was behaving aggressively with the money changers and the religious authorities. Perhaps during his moments of solitude in the hills of Jerusalem, Jesus wrestled with thoughts like these: "Is this who I want to be? When I talk about my Father's Kingdom, do I want my followers to remember me the way I was today? This morning I had a whip in my hand as I kicked over the tables of the money changers. This afternoon I cursed the spirit by which the righteous live? Is this the picture of the Kingdom that I want to show them?"
If there was anyone who was perfectly justified in having feelings of being victimized by injustice, by being abandoned, and by being abused, it was Jesus. The Gospel record describes what happened in vivid detail. But it also describes Jesus' responses as if he were a person who could not possibly be one of us. He did not respond with outrage. Rather Jesus accessed what God had already written on his heart and he asked us to follow.
What more could Jesus have done to teach us how to live with each other? He gave us his words and then he demonstrated what was possible with his own life. Anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount and cannot see the map on how to follow him has completely missed Jesus' mission for coming.
Remember this: Judgment and peace are opposites. No one can tolerate the strain of constantly judging others. Such thoughts make our lives miserable. Jesus taught, "Do not judge anyone, because the judgment you use will announce to the world who you are." Jesus did not judge from the cross and because of that we are able to see who he was. Jesus could not have made life's goal any clearer. But he got there one step at a time.
Knowing this should inspire us each time we are confronted with a staircase. The staircase will not go away. We can ignore it, curse it, run from it, or climb it. Jesus was being faithful to all the teachings of the prophets when he said, "Follow me." He found the doorway to the Kingdom and extended the invitation to follow. Are we doing that every moment of every day?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and always present God, we long for the vision that would keep you ever before us. Yet we confess that we cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. We cannot recognize you in the experiences that challenge us, nor do we see you as we are being blessed by the unexpected. Only in hindsight do we see your footprint in the events where we were sure we stood alone. As we continue to follow your son, mold us to trust you as he did. Inspire us to select faith over fear. Enable us to sow our seeds so that our words heal, our deeds inspire, and our spirits encourage. And when we feel weak and vulnerable, help us to remember that we do not have to understand why life unfolds as it does. When we created the darkest of days, you took a cross and turned it into an empty tomb. We thank you, God, for your faithfulness. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
How wonderful life is, O God, when we consider all the personal gifts you have given us. We can mix them into any combination we wish. Yet, we confess that we are resistant to change. We look at mountains and convince ourselves that we cannot climb them. We find people in our midst that we believe we will never love. We believe that our past often determines our future. We forget how you give us one new day after another and created us with the ability to change.
Why is it, O God, that we do this to ourselves? Why do we look at our deficits rather than our gifts? Why do we seek excuses and reasons for accepting life as it is instead of experimenting with change, challenging ourselves, and trusting you with the outcome? We sometimes wonder if what we call "faith" communicates our trust in you or simply remains another set of rules that governs how we live.
Challenge us to rise above old scripts and patterns of reasoning so that our hopes and dreams might include being surprised by the unexpected and finding acceptance of those things that we do not understand. May we learn to love without counting the cost. May we radiate the spirit of willingness rather than resistance. We thank you, O God, that Jesus got our attention not only by refining who he was but also by inviting us to follow him. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .