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  • Adam Schell

Coming In Last


Lent: More Like Jesus

As he stood in the doorway, he took a deep breath before taking his next step. Soon the smooth stone flooring under his feet would be replaced by the rough dirt of the arena. But he wasn't a baseball player preparing to run out onto the diamond, it was actually the guys beside him who carried bats as they stood guard over their prisoner. And he wasn’t a football player preparing to charge the gridiron in full gear, the only gear he wore was a tattered old robe and shackles around his wrists and ankles. He wasn't even a gladiator led to the Colosseum to earn his freedom behind the point of the sword, but soon he would find the sword of another pointed directly at him poised to take his life.


As he slowly let his deep breath escape from his lungs, the magnitude of the moment would’ve been enough to make even the most rugged and courageous tremble. But as he shuffled his feet onto the floor of the arena, he did so with a slight smile on his face. As his guards prodded him toward the center of the arena, his eyes looked over the entire crowd. But this wasn't the crowd of the famed Roman Colosseum – that massive 6-acre structure, that held 87,000 spectators. No this was just a small regional arena more than a thousand miles away from the capital of the empire. But that didn't mean the crowd gathered was any more forgiving. They had come to see blood spilled. And I'm sure that this poor old man couldn't help but wonder exactly how he ended up in this predicament.


But this moment was more than 40 years in the making. Not because this man was an elusive criminal who always managed to escape the long arm of the law, but because of a legal precedent that was set a generation before. This precedent was set by Rome's Emperor at the time, a man named Trajan, who was asked by one of his local governors how to deal with the growing problem of Christianity in the Roman world. Trajan responded by saying:


It is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. Christians are not to be sought out; but if they are accused and convicted, they are to be punished. But with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it – that is, by worshiping our gods – even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.


And that's why this poor old man, named Polycarp – who was the bishop of Smyrna – had been drug into the arena. Polycarp had been accused of being a Christian, and now he stood before the Roman proconsul of Asia with one last chance to deny his faith. The proconsul promised that if he would only worship the gods of Rome Polycarp would go free. But the bishop – the last living link to the 12 apostles – stood firm, and he told his captors, “For 86 years I have served the Lord, and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?”


But the proconsul persisted. He threatened to unleash wild beasts on the old bishop, but Polycarp refused to recant his faith. Then he threatened to burn Polycarp at the stake, but Polycarp told the proconsul that his fires would only burn for an hour while God's punishment of the ungodly would burn forever. 


And that was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. The proconsul ordered Polycarp's execution and had him tied to a stake and burned. But, according to church tradition, the flames of the fire did not burn the bishop of Smyrna. Those who watched said, “He was in the midst of the fire, not as burning flesh but as gold and silver refined by the fire.” Because the fire didn’t kill him, the executioner was ordered to stab Polycarp with his sword, killing the last remaining student of the apostle John and adding one more name to the list of martyrs of our faith.


But martyrdom, which is when someone willing dies for their faith, is something that most of us can’t really wrap our minds around. I mean, none of us had to sneak inside the doors of the church today because we were afraid that we were going to get arrested. None of us had to try to hide our IP addresses or go on the dark web to watch this service because the government forbids us from worshiping online. 


And because of this, we struggle to understand what it means to sacrifice for our faith.

We struggle to understand what it means to sacrifice for our faith.

But even if we struggle to understand what it means to sacrifice for our faith, our faith still has a lot to say about sacrifice. Throughout the Gospels, we hear Jesus saying things like, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Or, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” Or, right before the passage we’re going to be taking a closer look at today, Jesus says to the crowd he's teaching, “Look! Those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last.” 


But even though Jesus frequently talks about self-sacrifice that doesn't mean it sat well with a lot of the people who heard him. And we’re going to see this play out in the passage of scripture I want us to take a closer look at today. So, if you’ve got a Bible close by or a Bible app on your phone, go ahead and open it to Luke 13. Luke 13.


And, as you’re finding it, I just want to point out that the book of Luke is basically a biography of Jesus. So when you’re reading the book of Luke, you’re going to be able to read all about Jesus’ life. And in the passage we’re going to look at today, we’re going to see what happens right after Jesus tells the crowds who had gathered to hear him teach that the first will be last and the last will be first. So let's take a look at Luke 13, and see how the rest of this story goes. We’ll start reading in verse 31, where we’re told:


31 At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”


32 Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. 33 However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’


Luke 13:31-33 (Common English Bible)


Whenever I stop and read these verses, they feel so ominous to me. In this passage, Jesus leaves us with no doubt that he knows who he is, and that he knows what’s waiting for him. He has come like the prophets of old, declaring the coming of the kingdom of God, and he knows that the fate of the prophets awaits him. But even though Jesus is fully aware that the road to Jerusalem will lead to his demise, his words seem so casual.


When I try to put myself in Jesus' position, I just can't imagine reacting the same way. If I knew death was waiting for me in Jerusalem, I think I'd run as far away from Jerusalem as I could. If I knew that prophets of old got killed, I think I'd stop acting like a prophet. If I knew that the government had it out for me, I think I'd flee to another country. But I'm pretty sure the last thing I'd do is casually talk about my pending doom like it was no big deal.


But then again, Jesus' trip to Jerusalem is not simply about his death...it's about his sacrifice. 


Now, I know that I’ve already used the word sacrifice a lot during this sermon but we haven’t taken the time to talk about what that word really means. So I could tell you that the word sacrifice comes from the Latin word sacrificium and that it literally refers to an offering made to a God. But the word sacrifice means so much more than that. So what is a sacrifice? A sacrifice is when you give up something important for something that is even better.

A sacrifice is when you give up something important for something that is even better.

And that’s what Jesus does in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Jesus will lay down his life so that he can bridge the gap between us and God. So Jesus' journey to Jerusalem isn’t about the end of a life, it's about Jesus giving his all for us so that we may experience the full love of God. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is all about sacrifice.


And if we really pay attention to this passage from Luke, we can begin to see this theme of sacrifice playing out before our eyes. As I've already mentioned, when this passage begins, Jesus has just finished teaching a crowd. And apparently, the Pharisees were sitting in the crowd the whole time, but they didn't speak up, they didn't interrupt, they didn't say anything at all. That is they didn’t say anything to Jesus until Jesus said, “Those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last.” When Jesus says this, we're told that at the same time the Pharisees “warn” him about Herod's intentions.


Now, make no mistake, Herod wanted to kill Jesus, just like he had killed John the Baptist – but the timing of their “warning” is more than a little coincidental. The Pharisees heard something they didn't like, so they chimed in and tried to scare Jesus off and get him to leave town by telling him that Herod was out to get him. And why did the Pharisees try to scare Jesus off? The Pharisees were used to being first…so they didn’t want to hear Jesus tell them they needed to be last.


And we do the same things the Pharisees did when people tell us that we need to make sacrifices for our faith too. Now, we may not try to run the person out of town, but we do try to tune out the preacher when he starts telling us that we need to “take up our cross” in a sermon. And we may not make death threats, but we do start daydreaming whenever our Sunday School teacher brings up the story of the widow's mite and the reality that she gave everything she had to God. And it’s all because we want to come first not last.

We want to come first not last. 

But Jesus sees straight through the Pharisees' attempt to run him out of town. And Jesus sees straight through us when we attempt to avoid his calls to sacrifice. He knows that we've been stingy with a tip...even though God has blessed us with all that we have. He knows when we refuse to stop and help a stranger pick up her groceries when one of her bags broke on the way out to her car...even though Jesus stopped everything and gave up his life for us. And he's there constantly reminding us what we have to do to be more like him.


And that’s what we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks at Melbourne Heights as we’ve been making our way through the season of Lent. Lent is a time when we reflect on who we are and who God wants us to be. And in Romans 8:29, we’re reminded that God wants us “to be like his Son” Jesus. So Lent is a time when we commit to be more like Jesus.


And, if we want to be more like Jesus we have to be willing to give our all for him because Jesus gave his all for us.

If we want to be more like Jesus we have to be willing to give our all for him because Jesus gave his all for us.

And that’s something we can easily forget this time of year, as Easter draws closer. During this time of year, we can spend a lot of time in our Bible studies and Sunday School classes talking about the crucifixion. We focus on the 7 last sayings of Christ while he hung on the cross. Or we consult medical books and blogs to figure out exactly what the crucifixion was like. But we forget that there was a reason why Jesus ended up on that cross, and that reason was God’s love for us...all of us. We see this deep love expressed as we continue in the book of Luke. In Luke 13:34-35, Jesus says:


34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. 35 Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.'”


Luke 13:34-35 (Common English Bible)


Only one sentence before Jesus begins this statement, he has just declared that he's headed to Jerusalem to be killed. But right here, Jesus is calling out to Jerusalem – not with anger or hatred – but with love and affection. Jesus isn’t too concerned by the fact that the cross awaits him, but he’s tormented by the reality that the people of Jerusalem need him. They need him to gather them just like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. They need him to protect them, to care for them, to love them.


But how in the world can Jesus care so deeply for these people when he knows that they will take his life? Because Jesus doesn't see people the same way we do.

Jesus doesn’t see people the same way we do.

Jesus doesn’t see the people of Jerusalem as his enemies. Jesus doesn't see them as inconveniences in his life. Jesus sees them as children of God, created in the image of the divine, instilled with infinite value and worth. And that's how we're supposed to see people, too.


But the truth is we tend to get too focused on ourselves. So we don't see that waitress serving us our lunch as a single mother trying to feed her children on less than minimum wage, we see her as the person that stands between us and our food. We don't see that woman whose grocery bag just broke as a person in need of help...we see her as the lady who slowed down the checkout line. We don't see anyone through the eyes of Jesus...we see them through our own broken eyes.


But that can’t be how we act if we want to be more like Jesus. If we want to be more like Jesus, we can learn a lot from Mother Teresa who once explained how she was able to minister and serve people that no one else in the world seemed to care about by saying that she realized that everyone around us is “Jesus in disguise.”


And if we can learn to look at everyone that we encounter – from our family, to our friends, to the stranger we pass in the aisles of the grocery store – like they’re Jesus, we’ll be willing to put ourselves last. We’ll be willing to make sacrifices for others. And we’ll also start becoming more like Jesus.


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