Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Centurion's Faith

This morning's Sunday school lesson, from Luke 7...

A lot had happened in Israel since the days of the Kings in the Old Testament. Israel and Judah were both taken into captivity, and Judah was eventually allowed to return to their land. But it was never the same. By the time Jesus was born, Judea was a province of the Empire of Rome. The emperor Caesar ruled Rome, and he appointed governors to the provinces. The Roman army had generals called centurions. They were called that because they each commanded centuries of 100 soldiers. (In this case, a century is a group of soldiers, not a group of years.)

Le Centurion (The Centurion),
By French painter Jacques Tissot
Painted between 1886 and 1894
Brooklyn Museum

After Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, He traveled around the area, teaching and healing. During this time, He picked twelve men to teach and become His disciples: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot.

Peter lived in Capernaum, and Jesus liked to hang out there a lot. Most of the people in Capernaum were Jews, but there were also people from other cultures who lived there, such as an important Roman centurion. Roman soldiers weren’t very nice to the Jews, and they made them pay taxes. In fact, John the Baptist had to tell the soldiers not to take more in taxes than they were required to take. The Jews hated most centurions, but this one was different. He actually cared for the people in the town, and he even built a synagogue for them! That’s pretty amazing since he probably worshipped Jupiter and the rest of the Roman gods at first. He was also unusual because he cared for his servants. He had a very important servant who was very sick, so sick in fact that he was getting close to dying. The centurion heard that Jesus had come to town, and he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask Him to come quickly to help his servant.  When they found Jesus, they didn’t just ask Him to come…they begged Him! They told Him about how this guy had done so much for them, and he really cared. This was not just any Roman centurion.

Jesus followed them, but before He got to the house, the centurion sent some messengers to say, “Don’t bother coming. I sent others because I wasn’t worthy to come to You myself, and I’m not worthy for You to come to my house. But I know that You are very powerful. You can just say the word, and poof! My servant will be well. I am under authority myself, and I have authority over my soldiers and servants. I tell them ‘Come!’ or ‘Go!’ or ‘Do this!’, and they obey me.” The centurion understood that Jesus had authority that he didn’t have. No matter how much he ordered his servant to get better, it would be impossible. But Jesus had authority over the sickness, and He could command it to leave.

When the messengers passed on the word, Jesus stopped. He was amazed. This guy wasn’t even a Jew! He said, “Wow! I haven’t seen this much faith in all of Israel!”

When the messengers got back to the centurion’s house, they discovered that the servant, who had almost died, was well!

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Finish Line

I wrote this poem back in January of 2005 in memory of our former pastor Brad Smith, who died rather suddenly from a stroke, but I thought in light of the tragedy today at the Boston Marathon, it was appropriate.

This poem makes reference to 2 Timothy 4:7-8, 1 Corinthians 9:24, Philippians 3:14 and John 14.


With a firm conviction and a strong faith
He ran the race
With all his heart, he encouraged and challenged many
To press on in the race of life
And to follow God earnestly

With a tender and steadfast love,
He was a wonderful husband to his wife,
A superb father to his children,
And a caring shepherd to his flocks.

A godly man,
He challenged us to remain in God's vine
And to pursue Him whole-heartedly
A humble yet goofy man,
He endured pie in the face and the dunking machine
And he made no secret of his disdain for lima beans.

He ran the race so as to gain the prize
And he guided many along the way
He lived his life in service to God
And sooner than anyone expected,
He triumphantly crossed the finish line.

In one stroke in time,
He finished the course
He has gained the prize
For which God called him heavenward
And in white robes and a glittering crown,
He bows before the Master.

He broke the ribbon on the finish line,
A ribbon we all must break some day
May we learn from the way he ran the race
To fix our eyes firmly on our Savior
And in His power, in His time,
We will triumphantly cross the line
And run straight into the loving arms of God.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Jesus Rejected in Nazareth

This morning's Sunday school lesson:

Jesus was very young when He moved from Egypt back to Israel with His parents. In the years that followed, Mary and Joseph had other children, and the growing family lived in Nazareth. Joseph was a carpenter, and he taught his trade to Jesus.

When Jesus grew up, He was baptized, and then He wandered for 40 days without eating, just praying and wandering. Near the end of this time, Satan noticed that Jesus was really super hungry and decided it was time for some mischief. He told Jesus, “If you’re really God’s Son, turn this rock into bread!” But Jesus quoted scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone.” Then Satan took Jesus to a high place and showed Him all the riches and kingdoms of the world. He said, “If you worship me, I’ll give you all this.” But Jesus quoted scripture again: “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only!” This time, Satan decided two could play at this quoting-scripture thing. He took Jesus to the roof of the temple and said, “OK, then. If You’re really God’s Son, jump off! Scripture says that ‘He will command His angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” But once again, Jesus quoted scripture: “Scram! It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!’” So Satan left.

The Holy Spirit had come on Jesus when He was baptized, and He was still there after Jesus was done being tempted. He traveled throughout Galilee teaching in the synagogues (Jewish churches), and people started talking. Word was getting around that there was a great teacher who was helping people to understand what the scripture said. Word got back to Nazareth, and one day, Jesus decided to go home. That Saturday, He got up in church and read the words of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then He rolled up the scroll and sat down. Everyone was watching Him, so He kept talking. “Today, that scripture has been fulfilled!” The townspeople were surprised by what He said, and they wondered, “Wait a minute… Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?” They were impressed!

Jesus went on, “You’re probably going to say, ‘Doctor, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we’ve been hearing about you doing in Capernaum! But no. Prophets aren’t accepted in their hometowns. Remember what you learned about Elijah? There was a famine for three and a half years, and Israel had lots of widows. But God didn’t send Elijah to any of them. He sent him to a widow in the town of Zerephath, which wasn’t even in Israel. Then later, lots of people in Israel had leprosy, but God didn’t send the prophet Elisha to any of them. He sent the Syrian general Naaman to Elisha to be healed.”

This really got the Nazarenes steamed. “What do you mean? You won’t save us? You’ll save foreigners instead?!” But they missed the point. Jesus wanted to do miracles in Nazareth, but the people didn’t understand what the widow in Zerephath and Naaman understood. You have to believe. Those two foreigners from so many years earlier believed in God. Their lives were changed because they believed God could heal them. The Israelites in Jesus’ time thought the Messiah would only be for the Jews. But Jesus was saying that the Messiah was for everyone! They didn’t want to share their Messiah with anyone else.

Nazareth was built at the top of a hill. The Nazarenes were so furious with Jesus that they got up and chased Him out of the synagogue, out of town, and to the edge of a cliff so they could throw Him off! But when they got there, Jesus walked through the crowd and left. If the Nazarenes weren’t gonna listen, maybe people from other towns would.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Jesus' Baptism

Today's Sunday school lesson, from Luke 1-3 (with bits of Matthew thrown in)...

The big day came! Mary and Joseph had gone on a difficult journey with a donkey and their supplies to Bethlehem for a census, only to find no place available to stay. So they found a stable, and their bouncing baby was born. It was a big deal. On a tip from some angels, a group of shepherds visited them. Pretty soon, people started leaving after the census, and Mary and Joseph were able to find a house to raise their new son Jesus. A couple years later, some rich wise men came and brought expensive gifts. But on their way, they stopped by the palace in Jerusalem and talked to King Herod. Herod wasn’t too happy about this new King of the Jews, and he secretly plotted to kill Jesus. But an angel warned Joseph about it in a dream, and the family got up and fled to Africa. Maybe you know the country in Africa where they went? It’s called Egypt. They lived in Egypt until Herod died and it was safe to go back home. So after returning from Egypt, Jesus grew up in Joseph’s hometown of Nazareth. Many years passed, and Jesus turned 30.

Back up a little more than 30 years.

Mary was pregnant and scared. She went to her cousin Elizabeth’s house for a while because she heard that Elizabeth, who was too old to have children, was also pregnant. An angel had appeared to her husband Zechariah and told him they would have a son, and they should name him John. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel at first, so God made him unable to speak, until one day when his neighbors were having a discussion about John’s name, and he wrote on a tablet, “His name is John.” Zechariah prophesied that John would be a prophet, and that he would prepare the way for the promised Messiah that Israel had been awaiting for centuries.

The big day came! Elizabeth gave birth to a son, and they named him John. He was born a few months before Jesus, and when John grew up, he lived in the desert. There wasn’t much to eat there, except maybe some delicious locusts and honey. Yum!!

John became a preacher and prophet, just like his dad had prophesied. He often preached and baptized by the Jordan River, and he had an interesting message. He called the people snakes! He told them they needed to change how they acted. They needed to ask God to forgive their sins. They should share their food and their clothes. Tax collectors should only collect as much in taxes as they were required to collect. Soldiers shouldn’t ask for bribes or accuse people falsely. “Oh, and there’s this guy coming. I’m baptizing you with water, but He’ll baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.* I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals,” something that slaves normally did. Pretty soon, 30-year-old Jesus came to His cousin John to be baptized. John was a little reluctant at first since he thought Jesus should be the one baptizing him, but Jesus convinced him to do it.

When Jesus came out of the water, something amazing happened. Heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove! A loud voice from heaven boomed, “You are My Son. I love You, and I’m so proud of You!”

Jordan River, near a location where people are often baptized. 
I did not show this picture in class, but it shows a place 
where it's likely this happened.

So that was how Jesus began His ministry. He got baptized by His cousin John, and He showed publicly that He was different from anyone else.

I showed this picture of a shamrock before the lesson, as 
St. Patrick's explanation of the Trinity is the best I've heard.
We serve one God, who has three parts. That's confusing,
even for adults. As St. Patrick explained it, a shamrock
has three leaves, but it is still one shamrock. That's similar
to how the Trinity is three parts: the Father, the Son and the 
Holy Spirit, but only one God. All three parts showed up at 
Jesus' baptism.

* The prophecy about Jesus baptizing them with the Holy Spirit and fire came true 3 years later in the book of Acts.

All pictures are in the public domain, and I got them from Wikimedia Commons.