He’s just a young guy in his mid twenties, but somehow I never fail to learn something profound when Jesse Phillips, our pastoral intern, is in the pulpit on Sunday morning. As a side note, it still amuses me no end that I used to go hear his dad, Benny, preach when I was a teenager living in Virginia (the state, not the person, which would be me). Benny and his wife Sheree weren’t much older than Jesse is now. Now we get to hear both father and son preach (as well as our other pastors) and that’s a good thing!
Another thing that amuses me about Jesse is that we have a teddy bear with the same name. Mary got it as a gift from my mother-in-law, Ann, when she was born in 1987. She loved Jesse so much that she chewed off his nose, and I had to get out my sewing kit to repair him. Once, she left Jesse at a park and I had to go retrieve him on a dark and rainy night. Then, she accidentally left him home when she went to my mom’s house overnight to get ready to be the flower girl in a wedding the next day. Mary was so distraught that my mom took her to the mall and bought her another bear, Benjamin. (She sure has had some Hebrew sounding bear names, which is good since she is transitioning into the messianic Jewish lifestyle with her upcoming marriage!) Mary still sleeps with Benjamin Bear (maybe that will have to stop next month!), but she passed Jesse Bear along to her little brother Benjamin, who just the other day affectionately gave him to his little sister Melody. I hope she doesn’t chew noses, or what is left of them…
Oh, where was I? A sermon? Yes, Jesse’s sermon this morning. How I digress!
I scribbled notes fast and furiously this morning — the sermon ones on the main part of the page — and random (but related) notes to myself in the margins. And I made a mental note to recap just a little of it briefly on my blog today.
In “A Revolution of Forgiveness” Jesse retold the story of the scandalous lady in Luke 7:36-50 who crashed a dinner party where Jesus was the guest of honor, broke open an outrageously expensive jar of perfume, cried buckets of tears on his feet and wiped them dry with her hair. This ticked off starchy old Simon the Pharisee, who was more concerned with his own pristine reputation than anything else in life. And yet Jesus, in Matthew’s account of the story, said it was a “beautiful thing” that she had done — one that would be heard and remembered all over the world. (I guess that’s true, or I wouldn’t be telling this story!)
What was his point? Simon figured if Jesus was any sort of prophet he would have known “what kind of woman she was” (probably a “lady of the night”). Well of course Jesus knew! He knows everything, even the deepest secrets of our hearts! Yet he had some pretty direct words of rebuke for self-righteous Simon, and some very kind ones for the soft-hearted woman. In the last analysis it didn’t make any difference what their reputations were. What mattered is that the woman knew she had been forgiven much — so she LOVED much in return. The Pharisee wasn’t receiving God’s forgiveness because he refused to admit that he needed it. But the clincher is this — we all do!
We have all screwed up horribly, even if we tend to think of ourselves as “generally good people.” One look at the Ten Commandments (and our utter failure to keep them) leaves us all completely condemned and deserving wrath instead of any mercy. There is absolutely NOTHING we can do to earn our way to eternal life. Our best attempts at righteousness are just like filthy, stinky rags in his sight. Fortunately, the “scarlet letter” of shame is washed away by the scarlet flood of the blood of his sacrifice for our sins. And that’s what God sees when he looks at one who has trusted in Christ — he sees that our sins are covered and they are no longer counted against us. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us — or, as Corrie tenBoom is quoted as saying, he has taken our sins, buried them in the deepest sea and posted a “no fishing” sign! Now that is good news! Now, if we have been so mercifully forgiven when we did not at all deserve it, shouldn’t that make us eager to forgive others, and not get caught up in bitterness, gossip, fault finding, and self-righteousness? If we do get stuck in these symptoms of unforgiveness, a bit of authentic humility and repentance will unlock the prison doors. But we have to acknowledge even such “white collar” sins as these, which are so noxious to God. Sometimes he has to open our eyes to this in painful ways to get our attention, but from experience, I can tell you that it is a deep mercy when he does. (That’s where my poem “Rhapsody in M” came from — you can find it in the Easter poems post, along with the “Alabaster Jar” poem about the scandalous lady.)
One of my marginal notes is the name Tom Clinkscale. A few weeks ago I met the husband of my friend Shannon, who works at the YMCA where we work out. He is a pastor of a tiny little Baptist church as well as a college professor, so I put a classic question to him. “Tom, how do you reconcile the wrath of God that we see in the Old Testament with the mercy of God that we see in the New Testament?” I know that is a sticky point for so many people. It even bothers me sometimes. Tom gave the wisest answer I have heard for that. He told me that the one event in which God poured out his fiercest wrath was also the one where he poured out his most lavish mercy — on the cross where Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins.
Another of my marginal notes: “He paid a debt he did not owe…” When I went to Scotland with TMI in 1979, our group often sang this little ditty: “He paid a debt he did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay! I needed someone to wash my sins away. And now I sing a brand new song, amazing grace! Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.”
That, in turn, reminded me of another old hymn that I jotted in the margin, which, by divine coincidence, we then sang after the sermon, “Jesus Paid it All”: