Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

The Week Begins

The Week Begins

It was the Saturday evening before Passover. Jesus is at the home of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus in the town of Bethany; about a mile from Jerusalem. Lazarus has become a bit of a local hero, seeing as how he had been raised from the dead. People were gathering at his house, not only to hear Jesus teach, but to see this man who had been dead and was now alive. So there is quite the crowd at that house in Bethany. Jesus is just wanting to spend this evening with those he cares about, with his friends, because he knows what the week ahead holds for him but as so often in his ministry, he is surrounded by a great crowd of people who wanted to hear him and perhaps see a miracle or two. The next morning Jesus gets up and he and the disciples, and many of the people who had been visiting the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, all began to walk into Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus sent a couple of his disciples to find him a donkey to ride, because the prophecy declared that the messiah would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Custom also said that kings of peace rode into town on the back of the donkey, kings of war would ride in on stallions. Jesus was announcing that he was entering Jerusalem as a King of peace. This was the day of gathering for Passover and pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean basin were traveling into Jerusalem to get ready for the Passover. Hebrew law required that everyone who was able was to come to Jerusalem for the Passover – this was the reason all these crowds were on the road. Everyone traveling is in a festive mood – they looked forward to all coming together during this celebration. You would come to see people you only saw once a year, you would gather for feasts and parties as the week would build up to the Seder meal and the Passover rituals near the end of the week. Think of a festival or gathering you go to every year that you look forward to and see people you only see there and everyone comes together and just has a fun relaxing time. That was Passover in Jerusalem. Jesus comes riding a donkey and the people are thinking the Messiah is going to come in and overthrow the Roman government in Jerusalem; they are singing Hosannas because they thought that Jesus was coming to give them back their land – to kick out the Romans and once again there would be a Hebrew king governing the people of Israel. So the celebration heightened as they did what you did for a King, - wave palm branches, lay your cloaks on the road, sang Hosanna. What a great time – the great celebration of Passover and just like the first Passover when they were released from slavery, they would now be released from the oppression of a foreign government! Into the city they go, rejoicing and having a great day! Jesus, the disciples and the crowds continue into Jerusalem under the watchful eye of the religious leaders who are leery of what is going on. All this allegiance to this wandering teacher was disturbing. The leaders were worried their power would be questioned. This teacher had the crowds all worked up looking for change. Change is never good when you are in power and the religious leaders were understandably worried. Even today we are cautious of new ways and new ideas and change;. Jesus was turning everything the Jews thought were absolutes and telling them there were new ways to look at what they thought was truth. New ways to understand their role as God’s people. The leaders thought everything was fine the way it was. They thought they were being obedient to God the way they were. By the afternoon, however, after everyone has entered the city, we see Jesus not joining in on the party, but sitting on top of the hill overlooking Jerusalem and weeping. He knows that this great celebration and this happy mood and these hopes of a new government will be crushed by the end of the week – things will not turn out as these people who are now so full of joy think it will. As the week goes along, the mood will quickly become dark. Jesus knows that everyone is going to turn against him and even his closest disciples would abandon him. On Monday, Jesus gathers his disciples in Jerusalem and begins to talk to them. Not just the 12, but many who had been following him. He begins to tell them parables to try and help them understand what is going to happen during this week. The disciples are still hopeful that Jesus is

going to do something miraculous and take over the city, throw out the Romans and Jesus and the disciples will ascend to the throne in the city. But Jesus’ parables aren’t heading that direction at all. He tells them the story of the owner of the vineyard. The story goes like this: A man owns a vineyard. He decides to go on a journey and turns the vineyard over to the workers. Sometime later he sends a servant to collect the receipts and the workers beat the servant and send him back empty handed. Again, the owner sends another servant and the same thing happens. The owner sends one more servant and this one they kill. But the owner is still hopeful and continues to send servants with the same results, some are beaten, some are killed. Finally the landowner sends his son saying, “Surely they will respect my son.” But the workers in the vineyard figure if they kill the son, the owner will abandon the vineyard and it will then belong to the workers. And that is what they did. They killed the son and threw his body out of the vineyard. And Jesus says, and now the landowner will come and throw out all the workers who are there and give the vineyard to others. Jesus told this story not only to his disciples, but there was a crowd standing around listening to this story. The Pharisees heard it as well and became very angry because they knew that Jesus was talking about them. But the religious leaders looked around and saw the crowds and were afraid of what the people might do if they arrested Jesus, so they left to look for another time to get rid of him. The next day Jesus comes again to the temple. Now, remember the temple is huge. About the size of 3 football fields. Around the outside perimeter of the temple were areas where teachers would gather students and teach. On Tuesday of what we call Holy Week, Jesus is at the temple teaching. But his teaching is much more serious than the people have heard before, much more about sacrificing your life, your time, your money for God. His teaching was about how one needed to put God first over everything else. About how choices were going to be difficult and about how no longer was being a descendent of Abraham enough to be part of God’s people. The Religious leaders came and questioned Jesus and they didn’t like his answers about how they had missed the point of what a life as God’s people was all about. The people who had crowded around Jesus and hung on every word he said began to drift away as well. He wasn’t saying what they wanted to hear anymore. He actually told them to pay their taxes to Caesar. He told them, give all they had left to God……. As the week progressed, Jesus continued his difficult teaching, telling the people who were left that if they followed him people were going to hate them. He talked about death. As the crowds left, so did one of his disciples. Like the crowds, Judas is disillusioned because Jesus is not doing what Judas thought he should do. Like the crowds, Judas wanted Jesus to do something radical. Like the crowds, Judas wanted Jesus to do something political and that wasn’t the direction things were going. So Judas thinks he can force Jesus’ hand by turning him in. Surely when they come to arrest Jesus, he will be forced to act in a different way; Jesus would be forced to start the coup against the government. And by Thursday, all the crowds had left. There was no one left willing to listen to Jesus. it was only his disciples who were with him. And not only did one of them betray him, but one would deny him, and all but one of the remaining 10 would desert him. Only John would remain with him to the cross. What a difference a week makes. Holy Week begins today. We began the service with the waving of palm branches and we end with the somber music and a somber mood to remember this is the way this week will go. It begins with celebration and ends with death. It began with large crowds and ends with Jesus all by himself as he goes to his death. A death of an innocent man, who dies for us; who spends the week trying to help us understand what being the people of God is all about; a man who still goes to the cross even though everyone has deserted him…. A man who goes to the cross and looks out over those who have beat him and made fun of him and have put a nail through his hands and feet and in his agony cries out for God to forgive them – and to forgive us.

Jesus and His Friends


When we think about Jesus, it is hard to see him as just a regular guy - a guy who eats and sleeps, who gets tired and sore, a guy who has friends…. We know about the disciples but they were more like students and helpers. Jesus was not only divine, he was not only God, he was human; he was just like all of us, someone who needed down time, someone who needed occasionally to relax, someone who liked to spend an evening with his friends. And we are told in the accounts of Jesus, that in Bethany Jesus would find the time to visit and relax and spend time with his friends - the sisters and their brother, Martha, Mary and Lazarus who lived in the town of Bethany.
We are almost done the journey with Jesus. Next week, Palm Sunday, we will reach our destination; we will enter Jerusalem. Jesus started this journey in Capernaum, traveled through Samaria, took the road to Jericho, spend some time at Zacchaeus’ home and today we travel with him to the small town of Bethany.
Bethany was just a couple miles from Jerusalem and still exists today by a different name. Bethany was the site of an almshouse for the poor and a place of care for the sick. It was also the site of one of the leper colonies that existed around Palestine. Bethany has 2 of the most sacred sites for Christian pilgrims - the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus which is believed to still stand today and the tomb of Lazarus. This is the Lazarus Jesus’ raised from the dead - who tradition said was killed by the Jews because he was a testimony to the power of Jesus who had brought him back to life. Bethany was believed to have been settled by travelers from Galilee who went to work in Jerusalem. This would explain how Jesus knew Mary, Martha and Lazarus since Jesus is from Galilee and why he and the disciples felt at home staying there.
We have accounts of Jesus being in Bethany many times staying with Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Martha is the old sister and is the go - getter, the busy one, the sister who is always up and moving and doing….. Mary is the quiet, reflective, softer of the two and as we know from one of the stories about Jesus, these two didn’t always see eye to eye with each other.
Jesus had sent word to the sisters that he was on his way to visit. Of course they were thrilled to see Jesus and Martha begins a flurry of work. No different than many of us when we find out we are having company. She began to dust the furniture and throw the best table cloth on the table and sweep the floors and pick up the mess and wipe down the bathrooms and put some fresh flowers around and when all that was done she would walk around her home and make sure everything was just so…..
then Jesus shows up and she takes him into the parlor where Mary is waiting for him and Martha fluffs the pillows and shows him a comfortable chair and leaves to go fix the meal - leaving Mary to stay with Jesus. Mary and Jesus begin to talk and Mary is fascinated by what he says and she is learning quite a bit when from the kitchen they hear the cabinets being slammed shut and the pots and pans being banged around and the drawers being loudly shoved closed and the door of the oven banging…. And Martha muttering….
You see Martha had left to go into the kitchen to fix a meal for her special company, fully expecting Mary to follow her into help. But Martha realized that Mary was not coming and she was pretty angry. “How dare that sister of mine leave all the work to me. Who does she think I am, the servant around here? After all who was it who cleaned the house and washed the bed linens and made sure everything was fresh and cozy for Jesus when he got here. Where was the ungrateful sister of mine who left me to do all the work. That’s all I do around here is work, work, work… While that Mary just sits around and does nothing. Well I have had enough…..”
And Martha stomps out of the kitchen banging closed the kitchen door and makes a loud entrance into the room where Jesus and Mary are talking and says, “Jesus! Don’t you care about me? Here I am slaving and working my fingers to the bone and she” pointing to her sister Mary “is just being lazy and not helping me at all! Jesus, make her help me!”
Now I envision a smile on Jesus face about right now with Martha standing over him with her hands on her hips and Mary looking from Jesus to Martha a little terrified of what Jesus was gong to say. And to both of their surprise, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha. Calm down. Mary has chosen the right thing, I came here to spend time with you both. A peanut butter sandwich would have been fine - I don’t need an elaborate meal… I’d rather have time to spend with Mary and with you.” The story ends here but i would love to know what happens next - Did Martha leave the room in a huff because her sister was praised and she was criticized? Did Martha say, “I’m sorry Jesus. I was just trying to do what I thought was right?” Did Mary say, “I’ll go and finish up Martha, you spend some time with Jesus.” But we will never know and what happened next wasn’t the point - the point was helping us to see the value in just spending time with Jesus. We don’t always have to be doing something - quiet time with Jesus is just, if not more, important than doing….
Jesus came back to Bethany on a later date. Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus had died and they had summoned Jesus to come but he got there too late. But the story reminds us that it is never too late for Jesus…. he goes up to the tomb, has the stone rolled away, and out comes Lazarus - alive! Of course the story was to be a foreshadowing of the events to come - just as they rolled the stone away and Jesus was alive!
And now, Jesus and the disciples journey to Bethany for one last time. This will be the last evening he can spend with his friends. He has dinner at the home of Simon the Leper where Mary Magdalene enters and anoints Jesus with much criticism from the disciples. How dare a woman enter this home and humiliate herself by pouring expensive oil over Jesus. The oil she used would have cost about a year’s wage. This is how important Jesus was to her that she was willing to sacrifice that much for Jesus. People would often buy nard as a type of retirement account - like people invest in a 401K today - so what she has given to Jesus is her future; her security. And the disciples just didn’t get it - why didn’t she just give you the Nard and we could have used it to help the poor or finance our ministry. It is just wasted now and is of no use.
Well, Jesus was pretty annoyed at the disciples at this point. “No” he said, “You are wrong” Just like he said about Mary when Martha was fussing at her, Jesus said, “She has chosen the correct thing. She has given me honor. This is her way of pledging her life and her trust in me. And she is getting me ready for my burial next week. And” he added as emphasis that Mary had done the right thing, “she will forever be remembered for honoring me as she has…” And he’s right - we are still talking about this sacrificial act to this day.
Even though Bethany was a place of rest for Jesus, we still can learn a lot from what happened in this small town at the home of Jesus’ friends. These are things that we need to consider as we think this Lent about our relationship with Jesus. We learned from Mary the importance of spending quiet, learning time and from Martha we learned that you don’t always have to be doing something. It is OK to sit down, to relax, to spend time with friends. We learned that Jesus cares deeply about his friends - in the account of the death of Lazarus we read that when Jesus saw how sad Mary and Martha were, even though he knew he was about to bring Lazarus back to life, he still wept for their pain - and he does the same for us. When we are in the depths of pain and suffering and sadness and loss - Jesus knows and Jesus weeps with us…..
And then we see where Jesus wanted to spend his last hours - with his friends.
Think about who we are as a church; as a congregation; as a family. What ties us together is this relationship, this friendship with Jesus and with one another. We are gathered here together to represent Jesus with one another - to love each other and to cry with each other and to care for each other and maybe like Jesus to occasionally fuss at each other when we get off the tract and forget what is important…
As we wind down these weeks of Lent, consider your friends here at Sweetwater - your family. Consider what we mean to each other; the relationship with have with one another; consider how, through Jesus Christ, we are a great family of God.


A Wee Man and a Big Faith

“A Wee Man and a Big Faith”

For whatever reason, Zacchaeus is one my favorites of all of the Bible Characters. It may be that he has a great song with a catchy tune or because there is something fun about a short fella who climbs a tree…. but would we like the story so much if we replaced Zacchaeus in this story with Bernie Madoff who is famous for cheating people out of billions of dollars; out of their very livelihood - who I don’t know if he was a short person - but Zacchaeus, in reality, was not a lovable little wee man, may would have been the Jericho equivalent to Bernie Madoff…
We continue our Lenten journey with Jesus as he continues his trip from Capernaum to Jerusalem. We have traveled with him through Samaria and on the road from Samaria to Jericho and now we reach the city of Jericho. Jericho has a rich history throughout the bible and still exists today. It is believed to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and it still has the famous wall that was originally knocked down by Joshua.
Our story however starts in a small town outside of Jericho where as usual a crowd gathers around Jesus and he begins to tell his stories. He starts by telling a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who go up to the temple to pray.
Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were hated by everyone. The Romans, even though they hired the tax collectors; they saw the tax collectors for what they were, greedy traitors who were willing to prey on their own people cheating them for their own gain, working for the hated Roman oppressors, robbing people of their livelihood and their means to support their own family. And the tax collectors own people, their Jewish neighbors hated the tax collectors because they were greedy traitors who cheated them - it was such a slap in the face for your own to work for the enemy. Tax collectors were very wealthy and for the most part were not shy about letting people see how wealthy they were - of course from funds taken from the people…..
And remember Pharisees were the professional religious people - the ones who were suppose to be outstanding citizens, above reproach, people you were suppose to look up to for your moral example….
So Jesus tells the story about a proper Pharisee and a hated tax collector who go up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him and lifts his arms to heaven and says “Thank you God that I am not like the bad people - like robbers and adulterers or like that tax collector. I fast and I tithe and I do all the right things.” And the tax collector stood at the back, bowed down and and would not lift his head or his hands to God in the typical way to pray and prayed, “God have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.” And Jesus says, “The one who is blessed, is the tax collector.” What a slap in the face to a group of people who thought the tax collectors were on the highway to Hell.
About this time a rich young man comes to Jesus and says, “I want to follow you!” And Jesus looks at him and says, “Fine. But first you have to give up all you have. Go do that and come back and you can follow me.” And we are told that the rich young man went away very sad, because he wasn’t willing to give all that wealth away.”
Remember these two people, the repentant tax collector and the reluctant young rich man as we go with Jesus into Jericho.
Jesus enters Jericho. News of his coming had preceded him and crowds had gathered to see Jesus as crowds did everywhere. Something had compelled Zacchaeus to go to see Jesus. But Zacchaeus was short - he was a wee little man - and with the crowds of people Zacchaeus was shut out - no one was going to help him; no one was going to move out of his way so he could see… so Zacchaeus does the only thing he can to be able to see Jesus which was to get somewhere above the crowd, so he climbs up a tree - a sycamore tree to be exact.

Jesus goes straight to the tree where Zacchaeus had climbed up, stopped and looked up and called Zacchaeus by name. How did Jesus know that Zacchaeus was in that tree? How did Jesus know that Zacchaeus was his name? Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down! I’m going to go to your house.” ‘There is so much wrong with this considering the social norms of the day. First of all it was not socially acceptable to invite yourself to someone’s home, even if you were the visiting celebrity and it was certainly tabu for a good Jew to go to the house of a tax collector. Entering a tax collector’s home would make you ‘unclean’ and very unpopular.
Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree and takes Jesus to his house. Can you imagine the surprise and the disgust of the people who hear this exchange and who see Jesus walking with this man, this tax collector, this greedy traitor. The crowd couldn’t understand how Jesus could actually share a meal with this sinner.
But Jesus didn’t see Zacchaeus as the citizens of Jericho saw him – Jesus saw someone whom God loves. Jesus saw someone who is precious, someone whom He has come to save.
What a contrast it would have been for Jesus, this plain, simply dressed former carpenter, to enter into this fine, luxurious, home with its rich furnishings and elaborate tapestries on the walls. The food would have been the top of the line, gourmet offerings, the finest of wine.
Jesus and Zacchaeus sit down and talked. We don’t know what the conversation might have been, but by the end of it we know that Zacchaeus’ life was transformed. He looked at Jesus and said “Today I am giving half of everything I have to the poor and the people I have cheated I am going to pay back 4 times over!” Amazing what Jesus can do - and did you catch the difference between Zacchaeus and the rich young man who couldn’t follow Jesus because he wasn’t willing to give anything up for Jesus?
Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Zacchaeus, I knew when I saw you up in that tree that you had a true desire to change your life. I knew that if you went to that effort just to see me, there was a desire within you to get to know me, to understand what I was all about….. Zacchaeus, today you have understood the grace God has showered on you.”
Jesus then looked at the crowd and said, “This is why I came. I came to seek and find the ones who have lost their way; to show them there is a new way, a better way to live. To find those that have lost their way and just need some help getting back on track.”
Zacchaeus serves as evidence of all the possibilities present in the presence of Jesus. Everything about the story of Zacchaeus seems impossible -- that a chief tax collector would want to see Jesus; that Jesus sought him out and knew his name; that Jesus would stay in his home; that it would be revealed that this sinner exceeded what the law required as restitution for the money he extorted by his generosity to the poor and the people he cheated; that Jesus would declare not just him but his whole household saved because of Zacchaeus’ transformation. Yet just earlier Jesus declared that what is impossible for mortals is nevertheless possible for God (18:27). Perhaps Zacchaeus is one more example of the impossible possibility that Jesus embodies and regularly manifests.
Maybe for us Zacchaeus represents what Jesus can do in our lives. As we get caught up in all our physical needs - clothing, shelter, food, even fun and work - we forget about our spiritual needs, our need for a relationship with God, the need we have for Jesus in our lives in a real way, in a way that will transform us and help us to grow into the people Jesus knows we can be - just like the man he knew Zacchaeus could be.
This Lent, take time to consider the spiritual side of your life, listen as Jesus calls your name….