Sermon for Sunday, April 5, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani
I AM THE WAY
John 14:6, Matthew 21:8-16, 23
1. We have lost our way.
Around 400 A.D., when Augustine led the church in Hippo, bishops served as judges settling legal disputes between Christians. Quarrels about inheritances were especially painful and Augustine kept hand-written scrolls of Scriptures at hand to share the principles he used in judging and the principles they should use to govern themselves. It's still wise to consult Scripture about our decisions!
Augustine wasn't too hard on his people. He lamented their passion for wealth and their willingness to quarrel over it, but he knew he suffered the same passions: sensual appetites, foolish curiosity, the desire for fame or self-gratification. He also knew that there was more to it than selfish desire. He knew that the human heart has a desire to rebel.
In his Confessions he describes the night when he and his friends, sixteen years old, with time on their hands, set out on a caper – to steal pears from a neighbor. He was not compelled by hunger or poverty, "but through a strong impulse to iniquity. “For I pilfered something which I already had… and of much better quality. I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself."
The tree was "heavily laden with fruit.” Late one night Augustine went with "a group of young scoundrels… to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart -- which you pitied. I loved the error itself… seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.”(2:4-10)
Augustine names two types of sin. First, a misdirected love of earthly goods. We try to find satisfaction in transitory things – wealth, security, food, thrills, whatever. We seize something that is not ours because we want it. It makes us feel good even if it hurts someone else.
But not all sin is like this. Augustine stole not to eat his neighbor's pears, but for the thrill of doing evil. He wanted to flaunt his power or autonomy as he broke God's law. This is the dark mystery of sin for the sake of sin.
Most sin is reasonable; an excuse, a rationale can be given. Things aren't what they seem; we can explain. Yet in final analysis, there often is a confrontation between doing what we please and doing what is right, loving and pleasing to God. It's self-love against love for God. This is the theme of Romans 1.
“In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.' The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness”. (1:17-18)
Is humanity in such bad shape? Isn't it a too dark to speak of wickedness and wrath? Must we live by faith? Surely we can do something good to please God. Paul explored the question of human ability at some length and concludes with a series of quotations from Psalms. Notice that Paul mentions concrete sins, especially of the tongue, then moves to the ultimate issue:
"There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away…" This is the general indictment. Then Paul lists particulars: "Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit… The poison of vipers is on their lips…. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness…" Finally: "There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Romans (3:10-18)
In general, no one seeks God. In particular: Our tongues practice deceit. Our lips are poisonous. In general: There is no fear of God.
2. We cannot, by ourselves, recover the way.
I spoke to a former Buddhist recently. Trying to be engaging I said: "There are significant similarities between the Buddhist ethic and the Christian ethic: Don't covet, don't harm others. No lying, harsh speech and gossip. Persevere, live in the present. Self-discipline instead of self-gratification."
He gave me a look: he's pretty naïve. "Yes, but the motives and world view are completely different. The goals of the Buddhist are enlightenment through meditation," then Nirvana, the end of suffering. He lived on an ashram: "The Buddhists I know don't pursue righteousness, don't seek God. They want to avoid suffering," maybe become a little deeper. They seek strength from within.
This is the debate: Plato said there is a universal human frailty. Confucius said humans are fundamentally good and perfectible. His disciple, Mencius, said human nature is inherently good, but is corrupted by external factors so that we must cultivate our capacity for the good. Other Confucians assert that human nature is evil. Who is right? How shall we decide?
Pelagius was a monkish, disciplined man. He was appalled by the corruption of Rome, which claimed to be a Christian city in 400 A.D., when he visited. He thought the idea of human corruption, inherited from Adam, was false. It contributed to moral laxity. It kept people from working as hard as they could. It gave sinners an excuse for sin.
Pelagius said: “God commands holiness so we must be capable of it. If God commands a thing, we must be able to do it. We must break bad habits and resist sinful customs. Our will is powerful. We can stop sinning, become perfect.”
Is that right? Can you perfect yourself if you get the right moral code and work hard at self-discipline? Or is there a tendency to rebel? Is there a tendency to do what is wrong, even though we know it's wrong as we do it? The world's religions have solid moral codes, full of justice, respect, enlightenment and love. Can we follow these codes or not?
Pelagius: humans are basically good. With insight and discipline, human goodness can flower. Augustine: There is pervasive, inborn evil and rebellion, which we cannot overcome by our efforts. What does the Bible say?
The testimony of Scripture
The Bible says we cannot reform or perfect ourselves. Jeremiah: "Can the leopard change its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil" (Jeremiah 13:23, New International Version). Jeremiah again: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, sick and corrupt: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9, Revised Standard Version).
Moses records God's appraisal of humanity after the fall: "Every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood" (Genesis 8:21). Not that we plan evil all the time. There are two issues. There are particular sins: selfish desires, coveting, gossip, slander and deceit. We turn away from neighbors in need. We cover our sins instead of confessing them. We pretend we are better than we really are. We imagine others are worse so we'll feel better about ourselves. Behind this lies the tendency to sin – or the law of sin.
There is another side: "When Gentiles who do not have the law do 'by nature' things required by the law… they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts." God gives people an innate sense of what is right and fair and we often follow it - but never perfectly. Unless the Lord touches us, we never do it to please him. There is a dose of selfishness in the best things we do.
Paul says human nature has both weakness and perversity in it. Sometimes we hear a command and we want to disobey it, simply because God commanded it. He says "sin seiz[es] the opportunity afforded by the commandment" (Romans 7:12).
Some missionaries went to a land troubled by sexual promiscuity, so they often warned it. One region had a different culture - no promiscuity. But the missionaries kept denouncing promiscuity. The people began to wonder: "Why do they keep going on about this?" Before long, there was a problem with promiscuity. The prohibition created a problem. Humans are rebellious.
Beyond that, we are weak. We make resolutions, but we ignore and violate them. Paul again: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." (Romans 7:15). Paul is near despair as he contemplates this:
When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I [am] a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!"
He asks, "Who will rescue me?" Jesus! "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, joined to him by faith." This is the starting point for the biblical teaching that Jesus is the way.
Look at the life of Jesus globally. He was born, He lived, He died and rose because we could not restore, rescue or redeem ourselves. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." We need him. We need him.
Evidence from the first Palm Sunday
Today is Palm Sunday. I am always struck by the gap between the hymns about Palm Sunday and John 12:16, which says that even "His disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize" what it meant and why it happened. The hymns get it right, the people then did not.
A week before Easter, Jesus entered Jerusalem, with a crowd (mostly) of Galileans –from his region of Israel. Some, especially those who had seen His miracles, heard He was coming and went out to meet Him (John 12:13,17). They were enthusiastic about His teaching, healing. They traveled beside the celebrity to the temple to worship at Passover.
Jesus decided to enter the city on a borrowed donkey, and a demonstration broke out. Why? Someone recognized a prophecy: "Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt" (Zechariah 9:9, John 12:15).
Next, members of the crowd "took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel! Hosanna in the highest!" (John 12:13, Matthew 21:9). Then things happened.
First, the whole city was stirred and asked (rightly), "Who is this?" Then they gave the wrong answer! The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee." Well, Jesus is a prophet but more, he is king, priest, son of Man, Son of God, Savior and Lord.
What did they miss? "Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is the King" was a nationalistic slogan. They looked to Jesus to rule like David, driving out Rome. But that wasn't His purpose. He came to seek the lost, to give His life as a ransom.
The children who praised Jesus did better. They offered innocent praise. Sadly, the authorities – who were supposed to know better, criticized Jesus for letting children praise Him. He replied, "Have you never read (don't you realize - God is delighted when children praise me) " From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?”
Second, they resisted Jesus' authority. Here is how: After Jesus entered the city he inspected the temple – it's his temple – and found it wanting. So he judged it and set things right. He "entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers" (21:12). Why did Jesus do this? Why act with force this one time?
There is nothing wrong with exchanging currencies or selling animals. The problem isn't commerce, it's commerce in the temple. The temple is supposed to be "a house of prayer [and worship, instruction] for all nations" (21:13, Mark 11:17).
But the priests set up a Starbucks and video rental center in the worship area itself. So they make the back rows – the rows for the Gentiles – uninhabitable. It is fine to buy and sell, but not in the temple itself.
When Jesus threw out the money changers, he corrected the priests who allowed such corruption. He briefly shut down the sacrifices. Instead, "The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them" (Mark 11:16, Matthew 21:14). That is, he ministered to the marginal Israelites, the back row people whom the priests were squeezing out.
God welcomes all people, Gentiles included. God says, if any foreigner will "hold fast to my covenant, I will give them an everlasting name... For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:3-7). So the Lord calls Gentiles and outsiders.
By taking decisive action, Jesus asserted his authority over the temple and corrected the priests who allowed the corruption. We know that people who are in authority don't like to be questioned. They have expertise and think they have things right. Still, the chief priests were corrupt. They got rich by collaborating with Rome. A little commerce in the temple couldn't hurt if it meant more money. And who cares about Gentiles anyway?
They had to know they were wrong. Yet they didn't even discuss the issue with Jesus. They didn't ask, "Are you right?" They said, "Who gave you the right" to interfere. They talked about procedural questions. Procedures! I plead with you, resist this mistake. Never dwell on procedures when the truth is at stake!
The children got it best that day, in contrast to the adults. Understand, Even religious people can lose their way. Our religious activities can be as corrupt as anything - stealing pears. The temple had become corrupt. It was the place to meet God. But when Jesus, God Incarnate, comes to the temple, they criticize Him about His procedures. There is a better way – Jesus is the way.
3. Jesus is the way
The work of Jesus. A couple days later, Jesus has a discussion with his twelve disciples. He says that he goes to prepare a place for them. Be fearless, Jesus says, "You know the way to the place where I am going."
Thomas, a courageous man but a doubter, replies, "Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Ah, Thomas, you do know the way. Jesus replies, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:4-6). Jesus is the way to God.
This isn't a new idea. John the Baptist said he is "a voice of one calling in the desert: Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him." Then he pointed to Jesus (Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:4).
Thomas asked, "How can we know the way?" Jesus said, "I am the way" so "the way" is our prime concern. Jesus does not simply blaze a trail and command others to take it. It is not “this is the trail I took; you follow it, too”. He doesn't point to the way, he is the way.
The way. Jesus is not the way in the sense that he is the example of the right way. Some say: Jesus is the Savior in that he demonstrates the way to be fully open to God, totally one with God's purposes. He shows us how to yield to God, to act and speak for God, even if the authorities just might kill us for it. Remember our discussion of sin. To say Jesus saves by His example is to offer a salvation no one can attain. We cannot achieve it.
Jesus is Himself the Savior, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He speaks and the dead hear His voice and live. He mediates God's truth and life. He alone can say, "No one comes to the Father except through me." The Greeks and Romans had many religions as Jesus knew. He is not one way among many, not even the best among many. All the rest are dead ends, ending in death. None can bring people to God. Jesus is the Son of God. As we believe in Him, worship Him, we have life in His name. (20:31)
The way and the truth. Truth has a supporting role: Jesus is the truth of God, he embodies the truth, His life is the supreme revelation of God. If you see Jesus, you see God, hear Jesus, you hear God. "No one has ever seen God, the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known" (John 1:18)
Jesus made the Father known, explained him. The Greek is “exegeomai”. This word gives us the term exegesis – the explanation of a text, especially Scripture. The word can also mean to narrate, tell a story. Jesus' life tells the story of God. Just as Jesus gives life and is life. He gives bread and is the bread. So also, He speaks the truth and is the truth. He speaks the word because He is the word.
Way, truth, life. Jesus also gives life and is life. He has life in himself (5:20). He's the resurrection and the life (11:25). He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20). Jesus so fully presents the truth and life of God that he is the One who can rightly say, "I am the way… No one comes to the Father except through me" (14:6).
Let's apply this. First, this is the true source of evangelism. Penn Fraser Jillette is the loud half of the eccentric comedy duo, Penn and Teller. He is also an avowed atheist. He tells of a man who approached him politely after a show, told him how he enjoyed it, and offered him a Bible – with a phone number, if he wanted to talk. Penn was moved by this. He added: this makes perfect sense if someone is a Christian. "You have to hate someone not to tell them about the love of God. You have to hate someone to fail to tell them that one day they will live in either heaven or hell." Christians who believe this ought to look for the best way to present the faith to friends. Think of one person today: how might they hear the claims of Christ? You, a Bible, an event, Easter?
The work of the Spirit
But before we tell others about Jesus, we must believe. I hope that everyone here takes Jesus' claims seriously and believes them. I know it's not easy for outsiders. Jesus makes complex claims that make sense within a set of ideas: The universe has a purpose, given by a Creator who is personal and cares personally – even emotionally - about its course, its progress or regress. It is beautiful but broken, corrupted. That corruption proceeds from rebellion against the Creator. Think of the pears again. A fellow theologian remembers the time, at age four, he stamped on his mother's flower garden because she said "be careful."
We all do things like this! Will you admit it? You should. Can you believe that this God still wants to be reconciled to us? He sent his Son to restores us to Himself, for He created us in His image. There are a lot of claims there.
It's easier to be agnostic: "I'm not sure" or an atheist: "It's all the product of matter time and chance." Unbelief, hesitation, let me think – is easy. Believe!
How does one believe? The Holy Spirit must persuade that these things are true. And we must be open, yielding. He must humble us so we see our tongue is bitter, that we don't seek God, that we steal pears for the wickedness of it.
I hope you all understand: the gospel is not just for unbelievers. Jesus remains the way for all the life of a believer. We never find another way. Prayer and sacrifice are good and necessary, but they are never the way. Jesus is. Thomas A. Kempis paraphrased Jesus' words: I am the way, the truth and the life.
Without the way there is no going.
Without the truth there is no knowing.
Without the life there is no living.
I am the Way you must follow, the truth you must believe, the life for which you must hope, the inviolable way, the infallible truth, the never-ending life, the straightest way, the sovereign truth, life true, blessed and uncreated.
What then? We read the gospels, read or listen to the life of Christ, so we know His ways, His life and truth. Because Jesus is our way, we turn to Him in prayer as we go our way. We pray with Jesus– not just running through requests.
We need to remember and confess daily that we've lost our way. We steal pears, we defend our turf the way the priests did, not asking about right but about my rights. We get lost after we believe, too. Sin's grip is lighter, but it's real.
We get right with Jesus by faith. Then we strive to grow, to serve, but let's not think of duty and duty, obedience and obedience. We are not Pelagians, we’re not Buddhists. Every hour, in all we do – home, work, friends - Jesus is still our way.