Apologetics and Preaching

While I consider myself an apologist, my primary role is that of a pastor of a local church. But I don’t find these roles to be contradictory. I try to include apologetics in my pastoral ministry.

There are many ways to do this but one way is through preaching. Often in the summer I offer a “You Asked For It!” series where I allow the people in the congregation to choose the topics/passages.

I find that people often choose apologetics-related topics. This is interesting as the “experts” tell us that this culture is not interested in apologetics.

Here are a couple of sermons that I have preached recently that have been related to apologetics:

They were well received and confirmed my belief that people are still interested in topics related to apologetics. If you want to find more of my messages, you can find them here.

If you are a pastor, I encourage you to not shy away from apologetics-related topics/passages.

Share

31 Days to Become a Better Pastor: Invest in Your Preaching

In smaller churches, pastors are equated with preachers. But even in larger churches, many pastors have preaching as one of their responsibilities, although perhaps not every week. After preaching for a number of years, it is is easy to get complacent when it comes to sermon preparation and delivery.

It would be a good idea for pastors to invest in our preaching. This can happen in a number of ways. Here are some suggestions to help take your preaching to the next level.

  • Listen to audio or video of your preaching to get a better idea of how you preach.
  • Attend preaching conferences.
  • Listen to other preachers. This could be listening online or in person on our Sundays off.
  • Invite a friend to come and listen and to offer their honest thoughts.
  • Experiment with different styles of preaching.
  • Take a course on communication.
  • Read some books on preaching.

Two books that I would recommend are:

Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Our Sermons by Matthew D. Kim

Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones

Share

A Simple Way to Make Your Church More Accessible

When you think about an accessible church, what do you think of? Perhaps the installation of an elevator or a wheelchair ramp. Maybe hearing assisting devices or specially designed washrooms.

Those are good but there is another way to make your church accessible and it will not cost you much, if anything.

Have you ever considered posting the audio and texts of your sermons on the church website? And what does that have to do with accessibility?

There are many types of disability and some of them include a form of social anxiety. For some people, coming to a crowded church is beyond their ability. Even if they come, they might not be able to concentrate on the sermon.

For others, auditory learning might not work for them. While some can listen to a sermon and absorb the content, others learn by other means. Perhaps they are more of visual learners.

We had a young man at our church who suffered from anxiety. He thanked me for posting my sermons on our website. His anxiety didn’t allow him to join us for worship in person, but he still wanted to learn about the Bible. My online sermons made that possible.

Some pastors might push back by saying they want to create an authentic community, something that cannot be done online. While I would also prefer that people gather personally for corporate worship, taking a strong stand on that does exclude certain people.

So when you are thinking about how to make your church accessible, consider how sermons are made available. You can find what I do with my messages here.




Share

Preaching With Cultural Intelligence – Review

Preaching With Cultural IntelligenceAs a pastor of a local church who preaches weekly, I’m always looking to improve my craft. This includes reading books on preaching. But how many ways can someone tell you to find the meaning in a text and communicate it in a relevant and engaging manner? I often fear that I’m just going to read more of the same.

It is for that reason that I really enjoyed Matthew D. Kim’s Preaching With Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Our Sermons.

Kim is an evangelical who affirms the importance of Scripture and the need to find the original meaning of the text. But he doesn’t stop there. It is very easy to be faithful to the text but not faithful to the nature of our congregations.

The heart of Kim’s idea is something called the homiletical template. This template includes hermeneutics (stage 1), homiletical bridge (stage 2) and homiletics (stage 3). Each of these stages are comprised of components that make up an acronym. These include:

Stage 1: HABIT

Historical, Grammatical and Literary Context
Author’s Cultural Context
Big Idea of the Text
Interpret in Your Context
Theological Presuppositions

Stage 2: BRIDGE

Beliefs
Rituals
Idols
Dreams
God
Experiences

Stage 3: DIALECT

Delivery
Illustrations
Application
Language
Embrace
Content
Trust

Having developed this template, Kim illustrates how this looks in different contexts. He includes how to use it when preaching to different denominations, ethnicities, genders, locations and religions.

One of the things that I loved about this book is that he finds a nice balance between theory and practicality. Kim develops the theory and lays a solid foundation. But then he takes that theory and shows how to use the template for different passages in different contexts.

I can honestly say that Preaching With Cultural Intelligence is one of the best books on preaching that I have ever read. I would recommend it for any pastor who preaches on a regular basis.


Share

Four Ways That I Structure Sermons

BibleOne of my favourite activities as a pastor is the writing and preaching of sermons. I love finding the intersection between biblical truth and the real needs of my congregation.

But what should a sermon look like? How many points should there be? My homiletics professor in seminary suggested that every sermon should have at least one point. That sounds like good advice.

I don’t have just one template that I use for structuring a sermon. I like to change things up and each passage lends itself to a different style. These are the four structures that I use most.

  1. I still use the three point sermons style from time to time. It has become a bit of a cliche but sometimes things are a cliche because they work. There are certain passages that include three movements or have three sub-points to the main point. I see no reason not to take advantage of this when it is appropriate.
  2. I sometimes use two points, with the first point being a discussion of the original meaning of the text and the second being the application. This works best when the passage has one simple point that is not clarified by breaking into sub-points.
  3. There are other times that I expand this structure into a four point message. The first two points are the problem and solution in the text and the third and fourth are the problem and solution in our context.
  4. I call this one the blog-style sermon, although it has been around much longer than blogs. It is structured as “Five things we learn about…” or “Six ways to…” and so on. I blog more like this than preach, but from time to time it works for a passage and it is a nice change.

I have done other styles as well. I have blended preaching with drama or monologue in the past, but not recently. I’m considering revisiting that style.

What about you? How do you structure your sermons?




Share

How Long Should a Sermon Series Be?

SermonI don’t think that there is any one answer to how long a sermon series should be. At the same time, there are some good decisions we can make to help our messages be most effective.

Part of our consideration should be how the content informs the length of the series. For example, I love the letter to Philemon. But a twelve part series on Philemon may be a little much. On the other hand, trying to cover all of Romans in two sermons might be difficult.

The nature of the sermon series can also determine what works for length. I once preached a year long series going through the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation (based on my book Genesis to Revelation). Because each sermon was based on a different book of the Bible, it never felt like it was dragging on.

I like doing short series of about four weeks. For example, at one church, my first sermons were four passages from Joshua that set the tone for where I wanted to go with my ministry. Four is a nice manageable length that is easy to tie together. The advantage is that the congregation still has a chance of remembering the first sermon by the time the series ends.

At the same time, I also like to do longer series. Traditionally, I have taken my church through Mark, as it is the shortest Gospel. I don’t preach verse by verse but pick a passage from each of the sixteen chapters. This gets the series finished in a few months.

At my current church, I decided to do something a little different. Instead of preaching through Mark, I’m going through Luke. With Luke being a longer Gospel, I didn’t feel the need to compress the series into a certain length. I have been at my church for almost two years and we are not quite half way through Luke. However, I don’t preach every week on Luke. I may preach four to eight weeks on Luke and then take a break. The break may be one standalone sermon or it may be a short four week series. I find that this helps both the congregation and myself to avoid Luke fatigue.

One of the most enjoyable things about pastoral ministry is the opportunity to experiment with different methods and styles. Each year of ministry provides new lessons and ideas that can be put toward improving future ministry.

What about you? How long of a series do you prefer to do?




Share

Why I Don’t Preach From a Manuscript

For many years I preached from a manuscript. There was no way that I was going up to a pulpit with a full manuscript. I actually introduced a welcoming time (passing of the peace) at First Baptist Church Meaford because I realized part way during the service that my manuscript was still on my desk!

I never thought I could preach without a manuscript but one funeral, my manuscript was taken by the person who did the eulogy and so I had no choice. People from my congregation commented on how much better my preaching was.

This is the point that I want to make. It is not just that I can preach without a manuscript. It is that I preach far better without a manuscript.

I still write a full manuscript. Writing a manuscript helps me to organize my thoughts and I eventually publish my sermons on my blog. I don’t intend to ever stop writing manuscripts.

There are two main reasons why I don’t bring the manuscript into the pulpit:

  1. Being without a manuscript improves my delivery. Every once in a while I experiment with bringing the manuscript instead of my notes to the pulpit. There is a significant decrease in the quality of my delivery. Using notes (I use a mind map) helps me to stay on track but allows my delivery to be more natural.
  2. Preaching without a manuscript provides more freedom. It is difficult to explain but I find that the word or phrase that ends up having the most impact is one that it is not necessarily in my manuscript. I’m not adding new information while I’m preaching but the way I express it in the moment is more spontaneous. I find that it is such times that the Holy Spirit speaks the strongest.

Share

The Secret to Living the Christian Life

A sermon based on Luke 6:43-49 preached at Queen Street Baptist Church.

Introduction

When I talk to skeptics about why they reject Christianity, their responses generally fall into two camps. One, which I’m not going to get into now, is that they believe the claims of Christianity are false. I have done a lot of work in this area and I believe that there is good evidence that Christianity is true and that there are solid reasons to hold to our core beliefs. But that is a message for another day.

The second reason is because of their experience with some Christians. You may have heard the claims. Christians are hypocrites. Christians are judgmental. Christians do not have integrity. There is much I would want to say about this, aside from what we are going to focus on in this message. The first is that even if all of that was true, that does not take away from the truth of Christianity or the fact that Jesus paid for our sins and rose again on the third day. Our desire to accept or reject Christianity should be based on the truth and not by how well we feel people are behaving as Christians.

Secondly, not all Christians are hypocrites. There are hypocrites represented in every worldview and tradition, including atheism. I have known many people who have lived out the Christian life and who just radiate with the love of Jesus.

Having said that, whether it is reasonable or not, people observe us and judge Christianity by how we live. I would suggest that this should not be our primary motive to live a Christian life, although we should take it into account. Our primary motive should be to please the God who has adopted us as children into his family. Still, if we can remove obstacles to faith for others, that is a good thing.

Before going deeper into this, I need to be completely honest. I know that there have been many messages on this topic that have led to legalism. Pastors have preached about what God hates and what God demands and people have walked away feeling like a failure and carrying the weight of their own weaknesses. My intention is to point us all, including me, in a way that leads not to guilt but to a desire to become better Christians.

Trees and Fruit

While there are some parts of the Bible that are difficult to understand, many of Jesus’ parables are very easy to understand. This is one of them. Good fruit comes from good trees and bad fruit from bad trees. If you want grapes, you go to a grape vine and not a brier. In the same way, good actions come from people who have goodness in their heart and evil actions from people who have evil in their heart. That all seems pretty straight forward.

Before digging a little deeper, it is worth noting that this idea of what we do as fruit is pretty common throughout the Bible. One of the best examples are the fruit of the Spirit as Paul teaches us in Galatians.

The idea of action as fruit makes sense and gets the idea across quite clearly. For one thing, fruit takes some time to appear. You cannot just plant a seed and expect a harvest next week. The tree also needs to be taken care of so that it will more likely provide fruit and a good amount of high quality fruit. When the fruit begins to appear, it takes some time to ripen before it can be enjoyed. Have you ever tried to eat a banana that was not ripe yet?

This really describes the nature of actions in the life of the believer. If we think of the seed being planted as the moment of personal faith, it takes time for that seed to grow into a fruit-bearing tree. I understand that many Christians have trouble identifying a moment of conversion, but that is not the point here. The point is that it takes some time for people to grow into what God has made them to be. For some people there is a very quick change that takes place and for others, it takes much more time.

The wonderful thing is that when we are developing as Christians, we do not have to and shouldn’t look to other people in comparison. Some people become Christians are immediately ready and eager to pray for three hours at a time. I don’t see that happening at any time in my life. What we should be looking for is what is appropriate for what is in our heart.

I need to make it very clear that I am not talking about earning our salvation or God’s love. It is all by the grace of God, accessed by faith alone. However, when we put our faith in Jesus, something should happen. Something should take place in our hearts. It doesn’t matter if we call it born again or something else. What matters is that there is a transformation of the heart.

But what happens if you are sure that you put your faith in Jesus and yet you are still doing things you wish you didn’t and are not doing things that you wish you were? What if the fruit is not what you want it to be? The truth is the speed of the appearance of the fruit of Christian living is not something we can predict. Notice what Jesus says, he says that the works come from where the heart is. What we need first is a heart check and not a weighing of fruit. What is your heart life? It is not about where you are at but about the direction you are going. You could be living on the outside a respectable and charitable life but in your hear you feel yourself getting colder and more hateful, then there is a problem. You could also be in a place where where you are struggling with some old habits but your heart is slowly warming in God’’s presence. The important thing is what direction we are moving toward.

What I want you to see is that is not about condemnation. Jesus is telling us that best way to get a heart check is look at our actions, specifically in the direction they are going. If there is no evidence of Christian behaviour, then we should be asking some hard questions. What is Christian behaviour? I’m glad you asked.

Building on the Foundation

We now move to the second parable. Again, Jesus is using imagery that makes sense. Houses that are built on a solid foundation are able to better withstand the storms that would destroy a building that was not. I remember as a child getting up one morning and noticing that our nice metal shed was not where we usually kept it, but was farther down the yard and on its side. Strong winds that night had ripped the shed out of the ground and sent it flying. What did my dad do? He hired someone to build a concrete slab where we wanted the shed and had a new shed firmly attached to its new foundation. As far as I know, that shed is still there.

Jesus tells us that is a picture of the Christian life. But what is our foundation? The foundation is not the church. As much as we should love the church, and by that I mean the people and not the building, Christians will always disappoint. Too many people have walked away because of being burned by people in the church. That foundation will crumble. Even our rituals and traditions are not good enough. They may give us comfort for some days, but when the storm comes we will be in trouble.

Jesus makes it very clear what the foundation is supposed to be. We are to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice. This is the only foundation that will get is through the storms of life.

The first part is that we hear the words of Jesus. This requires that we make an effort to know what Jesus taught. While it is great that we know that Jesus died and rose again, we need to know more than that. The teachings of Jesus are not just an opening act to warm up the crowd before the real concert of Jesus’ death and resurrection starts. What Jesus taught is important and we need to know it.

What are you doing to know the teachings of Jesus? What steps do you take to become more familiar with the Gospels? I will say that what you get on a Sunday morning is not enough. You need personal study as well. I understand that people have different personalities and learn in different ways and that is why you should choose based on who you are. For me, I read a chapter from the Bible every morning and evening. I used to read more than that but this is what works for me. Don’t feel the pressure to read the Bible in one year. If you read the Gospels in a year, you will have done well. There are some great Christian books that can help you in this but don’t let them take you from the Bible. Anyone can write anything about Jesus, you will not know what is good unless you know the Gospels well enough to compare. With the internet you can find audiobooks, podcasts and even audio courses to listen to while you are driving, walking the dog or doing things around the house. There are some tremendous resources on YouTube that can help you learn. It does not have to be high tech. You can meet weekly for a coffee with a friend and discuss a parable. There is really no excuse not to learn the teachings of Jesus.

But it is not just knowledge that we are looking at. The part of this is doing what Jesus taught, putting his teachings into action. Eugene Peterson, translator of the Message Bible, wrote a book titled “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” That is a powerful image for what discipleship is.

Again, I’m not talking about how to become a Christian or to stay a Christian or anything like that. What I’m saying is that Christian discipleship emerges out of knowing the teachings of Jesus and putting it into practice.

Now I understand that the word “obedience” has some strong connotations. We may have flashbacks to expectations of obedience as children. Before we get defensive about Jesus asking for obedience, we should ask about his motivation. Is it because Jesus thinks religion should be both boring and harsh and so he punishes us by taking all fun away? When we look at what Jesus teaches, we can see that the life he has for us in this world is one that will benefit both ourselves and the people around us. Being obedient to Jesus should bring us to that point of abundant life that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of John.

That is not saying that obeying Jesus will make our life easier. Assumed in this teaching about building our foundation is that there will be storms coming. The foundation does not prevent the storms from coming but it can prevent us from being broken on them.

Conclusion

So what is the secret of the Christian life? It is simple but it is not easy. The secret of the Christian life is that we learn what Jesus taught and we do it. How does this take place? In one way, the fruit should naturally come from having a relationship with Jesus. Don’t get caught up with how that new Christian is doing so much better than you. Look at your heart and reflect on how your actions are consistent or inconsistent with what Jesus is doing inside you. But there is another part of this which is simple obedience. Instead of worrying about the rules, ask yourself before an action or a word, is this loving toward God or loving toward people. If you know that you actions will disappoint God, then don’t do it. If you know your words are going to hurt someone, don’t say it.

What if you make a mistake or have a really bad day? Then you try to make amends and choose the better way. The point is that Christian life is not about living in fear of God and being hit by lightning when we mess up. The point is that we believe that basic creed of the Christian Church which is that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is Lord and we have real relationship with this Lord, we do what he tells us to do. We do it not out of fear but because it is the right thing to do.

Share

4 Things You Need to Know About the Resurrection

This is the Easter sermon that I preached at Queen Street Baptist Church.

Easter Sunday is by far my favourite Sunday of the entire year. Christmas is wonderful with all of the carols and nativities and everything else that goes with it. But it is Easter that really fills me with joy and gets me excited to worship. And it is not just because of the chocolate!

When it comes to the birth of Jesus, we really do not know when in the year he was born. Whenever it was, it is very unlikely that it was December 25. Why is it such a mystery? Because the early church did not celebrate Christmas. It is not the Christmas is bad or sinful, it is just that the birth of Jesus was not the foundation of the Christian faith.

But Easter is very different. Easter is grounded in history. The death and resurrection of Jesus took place during the time of Passover. We have a pretty good idea of when these events took place. It is not just because of the connection to Passover. The earliest Christians knew immediately that Easter, not that they called it that, was the foundational event for the Christian faith.

How do I know this? Christianity emerged out of Judaism and many of the earliest Christians really valued their Jewish heritage. There was some flexibility in how observant but the most outward aspect that people noticed was Sabbath observance on Saturday. But soon the time for worship was moved to the Lord’s Day or Sunday because of the resurrection of Jesus. Think about how difficult it is for some churches to move worship from 10 am to 10:30 am and then imagine moving worship from the Sabbath to Sunday mornings. That is a huge shift not just in tradition but in theological emphasis. It was saying that worship was no longer a response to the first creation, the day God rested, to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus was that important. I will add that people did not worship on their day off. At least in the Jewish areas, the Sabbath was still the day of rest. Christians would need to get up very early in the morning to worship before they went to work for the day. They would do this because they saw the importance of a weekly remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus.

What I want to do is to help you see the importance of the resurrection by looking at four things you need to know about the resurrection of Jesus. 

The Resurrection Does Not Take Away From the Pain of the Cross

There is a danger when we come to celebrate the resurrection that we have already forgotten Good Friday. Easter Sunday is about victory and life and resurrection, but all of that takes place in the shadow of the cross. I have heard people suggest that Jesus’ death on the cross was not so horrible because he knew that he would rise on the third day. That is simply not true.

First of all, crucifixion was and is one of the most terrible ways to execute a person. Is designed for maximum pain, shame and humiliation. Crucifixion was used by the Romans to make examples of people. It was not just to end a life. Jesus, Son of God as he is, still had a completely human body and felt the pain as much as any other person who was crucified on that day.

But there is something else. We should be asking why Jesus died. Was it because the religious leaders were jealous of him? Was it because the Romans wanted to remove a troublemaker? While there is truth to both suggestions, the real reason for Jesus to die was to take the penalty for our sins. Sin, not just individual things that we do wrong, but general rebellion against God separated us from God and the life that God wants for us. Jesus chose to go to the cross, to suffer and die so that we might be reconciled.

What I want you to get is that as the Son of God, Jesus was the creator of all things, including not only the wood of the cross and the iron of the nails but the very people who crucified him. Think of the emotional and spiritual pain of submitting to such treatment.

The resurrection does not erase any of this suffering but it does illuminate it. Thousands of people were crucified by the Romans in the first century. But only one man was resurrected. The resurrection of Jesus tells us that something more than a travesty of justice took place on the cross. The resurrection of Jesus reveals that God was working in that suffering and death to bring forgiveness and eternal life.

The Resurrection Really Did Happen

Something else that we need to know is that the resurrection of Jesus really happened. It is not uncommon for people to affirm the resurrection but in a very qualified way. They might say that Jesus was risen in that the first disciples felt his continued presence in a way that almost seemed like he was there. Jesus was alive in their hearts and memories. Jesus was alive because the disciples were continuing his mission. But that is not what Christians claim.

Christians believe that Jesus really died on Good Friday and really rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. Christians believe that before the resurrection, his body was in the tomb. After the resurrection, the tomb was empty and Jesus was interacting with people in a physical way. He was not a ghost. Luke’s Gospel presents a story of post-resurrection Jesus eating fish to demonstrate how solid he was. John’s Gospel has Jesus cooking breakfast for his disciples after his resurrection.

What is unique about Christianity is that it is the only falsifiable religion there is. If we went back in time with a camera, we could not tell if a particular religious leader was receiving a revelation or experiencing enlightenment. But we could tell if Jesus rose from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus is one of the most historically reliable truths of all religions. According to Paul, Jesus appeared not just to one or two people, but to over five hundred people. These people were from a variety of backgrounds, from Jesus’ close friend Peter to Jesus’ half-brother James, who was skeptical during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

I share all this to say that we need something solid on which to build our faith. Life is too hard to hope on something that may or may not have happened. There are many stories in the Bible that are hard to understand and uncertain in meaning. But the resurrection of Jesus is clear and demonstrable. This is something we can build a faith on.

The Resurrection Will Be Shared

What is Easter about? Is it just ancient history? Is it just a happy ending to the sufferings of Jesus? The truth is that Easter is something relevant to all of us today and it points toward something in the future, something will directly affect us.

Have you ever wondered why some of the disciples (not just Thomas) had trouble believing that Jesus rose from the dead? After all, they had seen Jesus raise Lazarus and a number of other people from the dead. Surely Jesus could rise as well.

The issue is that the disciples knew that the raising of Jesus was very different in kind from the raising of Lazarus and others. Each of those people had their bodies repaired, their spirits called back and their hearts began to beat again. They went on with their life, eventually got sick again and died. Those people were buried and their bodies are little more than remnants of bones today.

What was being claimed about Jesus was not a resuscitation of his body but a resurrection. There was a very strong belief within Judaism that one day God would raise up his people in new bodies that would last for eternity. The Jews even knew when this would happen. It would happen on the Day of the Lord, the day when God rights every wrong.

The problem is that Jesus’ resurrection did not take place then, as that day has not happened. This is significant, as Paul describes Jesus as the first-fruits of the resurrection. That is, the resurrection of Jesus is the promise that we too will experience the resurrection.

What happens when we die? Everyone knows that if you have put your faith in Christ, you will go to heaven. That is true and yet when we read what both Jesus and Paul taught in the New Testament, the focus is almost completely on the resurrection of the body. The idea of being forever a disembodied spirit for eternity is foreign to the Bible. Being only a spirit is limited to the time between our death and and the resurrection.

This is very important. There was a period in my life in which I was an atheist and one of the reasons was trouble over the concept of heaven. I am a concrete thinker and the idea of being a disembodied spirit was so abstract that I really struggled with the concept. I wish someone had told me about the resurrection of the body and that is why I am telling you about it now.

My children get this concept, especially our daughter faith. She can understand that God will rebuild our bodies into something that cannot get sick or wear out. One of my proudest moments was when I heard Faith give a biblically accurate description of the resurrection of the body to another child. And she did it, not to show off Bible knowledge, but rather to give hope to the friend who had a sick parent. That leads us perfectly into our final point.

The Resurrection Gives Hope

What is it that this world needs? Do we need more powerful smart phones? Faster computers? More complex cars? Do we need more toys?

My observation, through life and ministry, is that our world needs hope. What is hope? Hope is having a sense that we see right now is not all that there is, that there is something better coming. A child might live in hope that if they eat their vegetables, that there will be a tasty dessert at the end. A student might live in hope that all their studying will pay off with a fulfilling career after graduation. A parent might live in hope that restless nights and dirty diapers will pay off with being able to watch their children grow and become parents themselves. It is all about hope.

But we need hope in deeper areas of our life than enduring homework and changing diapers. There is real fear and pain that can grip us in a crushing embrace. We need hope.

We have already looked at the resurrection of Jesus as something that we will share in. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope in the face of death. We can be assured that there is something beyond death because Jesus has come back to tell us.

But the resurrection of Jesus is not about enduring a painful life only because there will be a nice afterlife at the end. The resurrection of Jesus speaks to every area of our life right now.

What took place at the resurrection. Jesus went from a broken and bleeding man nailed to a cross,, looking like the greatest failure to becoming the risen Lord, victor over sin and death. Nothing about the cross would have led those bystanders to believe anything else was going on. But something was going on with Jesus and something is going on with us.

I want you to think about the biggest stress that you are facing right now. What is the one thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night? It could be a health scare. It could be relationship problems. It could be a loved one who doesn’t want to hear about Jesus. It could be memories of past trauma or abuse. It could be a million different things.

What does the resurrection of Jesus Christ mean to any of these things? The resurrection of Jesus tells us that God loves us and that he works in powerful ways when all outside signs tell us everything is hopeless.

I am not talking about a name and claim it theology. My children have not been healed of autism, but we have some seen some pretty major miracles in our relationship with them. My father died from a serious illness, but a few weeks before he died, he prayed with a pastor friend of mine to receive Jesus as Lord. God is God and he does things his way and in his timing. We cannot predict how God will act in our circumstances. All we can be issued of is that God is real and God is at work. We can have hope.

Conclusion

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. We are here to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and we should celebrate it. We should sing the hymns and read the Bible passages. But in all of that, I hope that you remember these four things: 1) the resurrection does not take away the pain of the cross, 2) the resurrection really happened, 3) the resurrection will be shared and 4) the resurrection brings hope. You may be in a place where any one of these four truths are the one that you have to grab on to. Wherever you are, go in the power and love of the risen Jesus.

Share

Pastors Should Take a Compliment

thank youI remember the feelings that I experienced as I began my pastoral ministry, especially around the role of preaching. I knew that I had to work hard at writing the message and presenting it in a clear way. At the same time, I was very aware that I needed to trust in God through the whole process. I heavily rely on prayer right up to and including the time I’m preaching my message. Where things became awkward was after the service when I was greeting people at the back. Some people would compliment me with regard to the sermon and I had no idea how to respond. What I had seen modelled for me was that pastors should deflect such compliments. Receiving a compliment for a good sermon is robbing the glory from God.

But then something happened to me while I was preaching. I was referencing this passage:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)

I was talking about the power of words and the importance of saying things that build people up rather than tear them down. While preaching, my mind went to how I had been trying to refuse compliments. This left me with three options:

  1. Paul wants us to offer edifying words but not receive them.
  2. Pastors are exempt from what Paul is talking about.
  3. I was wrong.

It did not take much reflect to discover the answer. It is okay for a pastor to receive a compliment for a sermon or something else. I give a simple “Thank you” and receive it as it is offered. I do not believe God is threatened by a pastor giving a good sermon. God is bigger than that.

I have heard pastors attempt to respond to these compliments with: “That was all the Lord.” The best comeback I have heard is to say to the pastor: “If it was all the Lord, the sermon would have been way better than that.”

So pastors, if someone says something nice to you, be consistent with what you teach and receive the compliment. It will actually make you a better preacher.

Share

What is So Triumphal About the Triumphal Entry?

A sermon based on Mark 11:1-11 preached at Queen Street Baptist Church.

Introduction

I have been stuck in traffic many times in my life. Once I was even an hour and a half late for church when I was commuting to Toronto. But there is one traffic jam that sticks in my mind, and not just for the exotic locale. Amanda and I had taken a Mediterranean cruise and the trip finished with a tour of Rome. Of course there is much to see in Rome and we were looking forward to all the sights. But then the tour bus got bogged down in traffic. At first I thought it was just because Rome is a very busy city. We soon found out what was going on.

Everything was stopped because the Russian president was visiting and there is no rushing (no pun intended) his entourage of security and other personnel. Being that close to the Russian president (which really was not that close at all), made me think about how powerful this person was. This was not just another guy holding up traffic. This was one of the most powerful men in the world, one who could actually end all life on earth if he chose. A rather sobering thought.

This is as close as I can get to imagining what was happening with the triumphal entry and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Yes it is a fun scene in passion plays with children in bath robes waving palm branches. But to get back into the actual event and understand what was really taking place, not just on a local scale but on a cosmic scale.

This was very important for Jesus’ ministry, in fact it is one of the most important events. Of course everything in Jesus’ life and ministry was important, every sermon and miracle. We dare not neglect anything about Jesus. But there is a sense, even as Jesus travels through Galilee, that he must come to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny. Jesus was called by some the Son of David, that is the promised descendant of King David who would save his people. Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of David. But with the journey to Jerusalem, the Son of David enters into the City of David. If we imagine the Gospel as a movie, the pace is about to be turned up and it is time for us sit on the edge of our seat. Something big is about to happen. But what is it and what will it look like?

What People Saw

Let us try and transport ourselves back to that day almost two thousand years ago. Not as Christians who know the details and come from an Easter perspective but as observers on the road to Jerusalem.

It was not unusual that Jesus was going to Jerusalem, even though he was from Galilee and not Judea. It was time for the Passover and there were Jews from much farther away than Galilee who were making the pilgrimage for the feast.

How did Jesus make this journey? If we were thinking of Jesus as the Davidic messiah, the Saviour of the Jews, you might think that he might enter on a might warhorse or a chariot. But Jesus does not do that. Jesus enters on a colt, which is a young donkey. But it was not just any donkey, it was a borrowed donkey. Jesus could not even afford his own ride into Jerusalem. Notice that in this passage, Mark spends more verses discussing the arrangements for the donkey than anything else in the story. That seems strange. It would be like someone asking me about my recent induction service here at the church and me spending most of the time talking about the Mazda 5 that we drove to get to the church. Very strange but we will need to hold on to that thought.

So Jesus enters into Jerusalem. People seem to know that he is a descendant of David. A blind man had identified Jesus as such. But in what way was the Son of David entering into the City of David? It was not with an army. Even the disciples who were committed to Jesus were not armed with weapons. Instead of putting on armour, they took of their cloaks and put them on the colt or the ground. People took up palm branches and waved them. There was nothing very intimidating about this crowd.

What about the chanting of Psalms that accompanied Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? This was of course very important but it was also not that unusual. One of the Psalms that is quoted is Psalm 118. It was customary for the Jews to sing Psalms 113-118, what are known as the Hallel Psalms at Passover. People would have sang these Psalms even if Jesus was not there. Even the call of Hosanna or save us was something Jewish people would call out aside from any faith in Jesus. Again these things are important but their meaning is not so obvious to the casual observer.

I mentioned that it was strange that Mark spends so much time on the colt. There is something else that is strange about this story. There is all this build up for what we call the triumphal entry and then what happens? Jesus enters into Jerusalem, takes a look around and then leaves the city to go back to Bethany for the night. Very anti-climatic.

This shows us that we are dealing with history here and not fiction. If I was writing this story, I would have had Jesus enter the gates of Jerusalem and head directly to the Temple, knock over the table and do some damage. It would have been a lot more exciting my way. But Mark tells it as it was and the triumphal entry ends with some looking about and a retreat to Bethany. Very strange.

To demonstrate what a non-event this was on the outside, the Romans were ready and watching for anything out of the ordinary. They knew this was a dangerous time filled with religious fervour. Even a half competent religious zealot could cause problems if left alone. The Romans were there when Jesus entered Jerusalem and they saw nothing that concerned them. Nothing at all.

What Really Happened

Now lets go back with the eyes of faith and the knowledge of revelation to see what really happened. Let’s start back with that donkey that Jesus rode into. We already said that Mark spends much of his time on describing Jesus’ ride. He must have had a reason. We find that reason in an Old Testament prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,

humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) This is the way that messianic King was to enter Jerusalem. Jesus was poor and did not look particularly kingly but he was indeed the King. The King was coming not with outward power and intimidation, but with righteousness and humility. The King was coming not to bring destruction and conquest but salvation.

What I want you to notice is that Mark knew that this was fulfillment of prophecy, but he didn’t quote it. Mark wants us to think of Zechariah 9:9 but he won’t push it in our face. The reason being is that there are certain truths that are for the eyes that will see and the ears that would hear. For some people, Jesus was going to be just another pilgrim on a donkey, for others he was going to be the fulfillment of prophecy.

Before leaving the donkey, it is significant that it was a colt. A colt was a young donkey that had not yet been broken in. No one would attempt to ride such an untested animal at such a busy event. No one but Jesus. The colt, never having been ridden before was sacred for this specific task. And Jesus is the only who can keep control in the most hectic situations, something we will see on the cross.

Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna is Hebrew for “Save, I pray” or “Help please.” It is the Hebrew for the what we read in Psalm 118:25, “Lord, save us!” It is not very often that Hebrew words are given to us in the New Testament and so Mark is doing this for a reason. Mark wants us to be thinking about salvation.

Hosanna is not just an acknowledgment that salvation is important. It is a plea for salvation. Save now please! The question is about what we need saving from. I have known Christians who walk up to strangers and ask them if they are saved. Saved? Saved from what? There needs to be content to the salvation.

The Jews who were shouting Hosanna knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted salvation from the Romans. They want salvation from foreign occupation and taxes. They wanted salvation from all those who oppressed them and took advantage. of them. How do I know this? Because within a hundred years of this triumphant entry, the Jews would rise in revolt against the Romans, sacrificing thousands and thousands of Jewish lives, risking and losing the little freedom that they had. By the time they were done, no Jewish person was allowed within the city of Jerusalem.

But Jesus was still the King of Zechariah’s prophecy and he was still bringing salvation. The people were correct to call Hosanna, whether or not they understood God’s plan for salvation.

Jesus came in to Jerusalem exactly the way he was supposed to. He came in righteousness and humility. He came in weakness and not strength. He came not to overthrow the political and religious authorities but to suffer under them. Jesus came not for a golden crown or a Roman laurel wreathe, he came for thorns. Jesus would not be lifted up on a thrown for people to praise (at least not yet) but would be lifted on a cross to be pitied at best and mocked at worst.

Jesus would do all these things because he understood what the real need for salvation was. The real problem was not the Romans but rather the sin that separated us from God and also separated us from each other. Jesus knew that repairing a broken political system does no good if the should of the person is broken.

This would be a triumphal entry because Jesus was choosing to suffer the worst so that he could offer us the best.

Conclusion

I want to conclude with something practical. I believe that just about everyone here has come with a Hosanna prayer. Some are ready to shout Hosanna and others can only get it out under our breath. Remember that Hosanna is a plea for rescue. Hosanna is like those whistles that are on life preservers when a ship or plane goes down in the ocean. You whistle to let the rescuers know that you are there and that you need help. You blow the whistle hard and long because you need help now.

Hosanna. You may be here and you know that you are not yet right with God. You have been to church and know some Bible stories but you have not put your faith in Jesus Christ yet. Salvation is available. Jesus comes to you not in judgment but humbly on a donkey, offering life to you.

If you have been a Christian for years or decades, Jesus is not finished with you. You likely still have a Hosanna prayer. Maybe it is broken or breaking relationships. Maybe it is fear over health concerns. Maybe is the burden of past hurts. It could be anything. No need in your life is too big or too small.

I wish that I could offer a simple prayer and make the healing come instantly. If I could, I would do that in my own life. But what I find is that the triumphant entry is repeated in our own experiences. Sometimes Jesus rushes through the gates, takes a look around and then retires for the evening. But what we need to remember is that Jesus did return to Jerusalem, that he did come in and do what he needed to do, the surprising actions that brought the victory. It is not how we would write the story but we are not the author. Jesus has already won the victory on the cross. Let us open our hearts that he may bring victory in our lives in his own timing and his own way. 

Share

A Vision for Preaching

Now that I am back in pastoral ministry, I am doing some more reading in the area of preaching. One of the books that came my way was A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry by Abraham Kuruvilla.

Kuruvilla organizes this book around his definition of preaching, which is:

Biblical preaching, by a leader of the church, in a gathering of Christians for worship, is the communication of the thrust of a pericope of Scripture discerned by theological exegesis, and of its application to that specific body of believers, that they may be conformed to the image of Christ, for the glory of God—all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Vision for PreachingEach chapter of the book takes on a different part of this definition. This length definition allows the author to touch on a number of important subjects.

However, this strict definition may lead to some questions and even disagreements. For example, Kuruvilla argues that preaching must be done by an ordained pastor. Even a lay minister, if they are not ordained, is disqualified by the author. I disagree with this even if I do think that generally and ideally it is appropriate for an ordained pastor to preach.

Kuruvilla also argues that preaching should be done in the church to a group of believers. This raises the question of the role of evangelistic preaching, which is often but not always done outside a church building.

Despite these concerns, A Vision for Preaching is a thought provoking presentation of the nature of preaching and will be a benefit to pastors and those interesting ministry.

Share

Expository or Topical Preaching?

I have attended and visited churches that have different philosophies of preaching. Some churches seem to be purely topical. Each week is a topic such as mental health, finances, prayer and so forth. These can be quite popular.

Other churches are extremely expository. The preacher will pick a book and go through it verse by verse. I’m sure that there are pastors who could preach through Philemon in a year.

I find among many pastors a preference for expository sermons. The feelings are so strong they may hesitate to include a topical sermon in the category of preaching. I will confess that some topical sermons are pretty weak. They may end up being more a speech by the pastor with a little Scripture tagged on. This is not good.

I prefer expository preaching, especially going through a book. I am currently doing a series on the Gospel of Luke. However, I do not go verse by verse and I am not including every single passage. I am not saying that verse by verse is wrong, I just prefer to get through the book a bit faster.

What I love about expository preaching is that I let the passage choose the topic. This leads me to preach on things that I would not normally preach on. I preached on repentance on my second Sunday at my current church simply because that was the next passage in series. I also find that expository preaching helps both the congregation and myself to gain a deeper understanding of a particular book.

Having said that, I am not completely against topical preaching. This spring I will take a break from the series on Luke and will preach through the church mission statement. I will have an anchoring Scripture for each message but I am starting with the topic. I think that preaching on our church mission statement is extremely important.

So my preaching plan is to live in expository land and then take a few short visits into topical land. I believe that this combination will give the church a good biblical foundation.


Share

How I Write a Sermon

BibleI have been preaching sermons for almost twenty years. Hopefully my skills have developed during that time. I know that I have learned a lot, both through the good responses and the less than good responses.

How do I write a sermon?

It is slightly different if I am writing a sermon for a church I am pastoring or one that I am a guest preacher at. I may not have opportunities to preach a series as a guest and I may be able to retool an older sermon.

I will share how I go about writing a sermon in the context of being the regular pastor.

  • I prepare for sermons in two ways. The first is by reading widely all the time. If you check the books I am reading at the bottom of this blog, you will see I read different types of books. I also listen to a wide variety of podcasts. I consider this all part of my preparation even if I do not have a particular sermon in mind.
  • When I preach, I am aiming at a particular goal. I strongly believe in preaching a series to work toward that goal. That may be preaching through a book or it may be preaching on different passages that are related by some theme.
  • Do I preach expository or topical sermons? I prefer expository sermons but I am not against topical sermons on occasion. There may be something happening in the culture or community that needs to be addressed. Still I will aim for expository sermons as much as I can.
  • Having decided on a series, I break down each sermon according to how it will have a unique voice toward a common goal.
  • Having my passage, I read the passage over a number of times, including the paragraphs before and after for context. I often read the passage in a number of translations. If I have the time I may translate from the Hebrew or Greek myself. I do not mention this in the sermon but I have found that this helps me to understand the passage better.
  • I then go to the commentaries after I have an idea what the passage is saying. Never go to the commentaries first. Wondering what are good commentaries? Check out this site.
  • I then structure my sermon. I do this in different ways. I am old fashioned in that I often fall back on three points (my homiletics professor stressed that a sermon should have at least one point!). Sometimes I structure it by looking at one aspect of the passage and then looking at what that looks like today and then repeating that one or two more times.
  • I include some illustrations. Sometimes it is a number of short illustrations. I may also include a longer story. I know that some preachers believe we should just let the Bible speak for itself. Still, a good illustration may help the congregation to hear the Bible clearly. I usually use illustrations from my own life but do include historical illustrations as well.
  • I try to be careful with humour. A well planned laugh can be good but I do not include formal jokes. There is a danger that the congregation will hear the joke and not the sermon. I often look for a humorous twist at something I would say anyway or poke a bit of fun at myself (this can be taken too far).
  • I then write out the sermon in full manuscript form. I do not take the manuscript to the pulpit, but having the sentences written out helps in my delivery and it gives me something to post on my blog.

I hope this helps you if you are just starting out in preaching. If you do something different, I would love to hear from you.


Share

5 Ways to Preach Apologetically

It is important for pastors to prepare their congregations for apologetic encounters. It may be difficult to get people to an apologetics small group or Sunday school class, but a pastor can still make an impact through sermons. Here are five ways to preach apologetically.

1. Preach from 1 Peter 3:15. There is enough material in this passage for more than one sermon, a pastor could easily get a series out of it. The benefit of this passage is that even if one does not want to be involved in apologetics, 1 Peter3:15 makes it clear that it is important for everyone.

2. Preach from Paul’s apologetic encounters. Paul had numerous apologetic encounters, the most famous of which is his visit to Athens in Acts 17. You do not have to mention apologetics, just take them through the text.

3. Preach from books like 1 & 2 Timothy. My pastor is taking us through these books and it is amazing how much Paul talks about true and false teaching. It is incredibly relevant to our time in history. It demonstrates to congregations that Christianity is much more than just loving people (of course it is about loving, but loving includes truth).

4. Preach on passages that speak to our essential doctrines, things like the deity of Christ and the resurrection. These are the doctrines that are most under attack and by taking people through the important passages, they will be better equipped to respond to critics.

5. Preach on apologetic-related topics. The things that people are concerned about (even though they don’t know it is apologetics) are things like suffering, evil, hiddenness of God, etc. They will want their pastor to preach on these things.

Not every Sunday has to be apologetics Sunday but it would be good to set apart a number of Sundays a year that deal with apologetics, with the intention of equipping the congregation to be stronger in the faith.

100_0286

Share

Pastors, Congregations and Expectations

When people leave a church, the most common reason is, “I just wasn’t being fed.” So they go to some other church where they are fed, until they find another church that will feed them more. It happens all the time. With this in mind, I would like to share some biblical perspective.

I have looked in the Bible and no where have I found a passage where Christians should expect to be fed by their pastors. If anything, they should feed themselves with Bible study, worship and prayer. So what should Christians expect? The expectations are not what they should receive but what they should give. They should offer worship to God and they should offer their abilities and gifts for Christian service. That is it. If those two things take place, that is good church even if the pastor only burps from the pulpit.

Having said that, I want to speak to the pastors. Just because feeding the congregation should not be an excuse for Christians to leave does not mean that you do not need to feed your congregation. You must do this, but the expectation is not from the congregation, it is from God. If God has equipped you with preaching and pastoral gifts, you must use them. And use them properly. Sermons are not for keeping people entertained of impressing people with communication skills. Preaching is about communicating biblical truth in such a way that the people understand it and can implement it. Be faithful with what you have been given.

So congregations, stop complaining about your pastor. And pastor stop getting frustrated with your congregation. You both have jobs to do, so go and do it.

Share

4 Things for a Preacher to Remember

Pulpit ministry is both a tremendous privilege and responsibility. For many people in the congregation, it is their only interaction with the Bible. A pastor cannot take this lightly. It is not enough to just throw something together and fill up a chunk of time during a Sunday service. Here are four things that a preacher should remember.

1. Let the Bible speak. The point of a sermon is not for you to pick your favourite topic and then find some passages to support your view. Preach the passage and let the Bible speak. You may find that the passage actually challenges your own views.

2. Don’t rely on funny stories or jokes. It is good to have some effective illustrations. Some funny stories can be good as well. But what will  your congregation remember the next day? Will it be your joke or what the Bible said?

3. Use PowerPoint as a tool and not as the content of your message. PowerPoint can be good when used correctly as many people are visual learners. But some preachers focus too much on PowerPoint. Ask yourself if the message would be just as effective if the power went out.

4. Rely on God. Yes you have to do your homework. Study the passage, read the commentaries and write the best sermon you can. But when you walk up to the pulpit, give it over to God. The most well written speech without the power of God will be completely ineffective. Do not get overly confident in your own abilities. Trust in God.

Of course there is much more to preaching. But if we forget these four things, we will not be effective as preachers.

Share

Preaching With Powerpoint

I remember when PowerPoint was first introduced into preaching. All that mattered was that you had PowerPoint, it did not matter how you used it. Now people have seen it so often, they know the good from the bad.

Using PowerPoint or other programs can be helpful but it has to be done right. Michael Hyatt gives some useful advice on how to do effective presentations, whether that is a sermon or something else.

Share

Cross Bearing Disciples

Luke 14:27-33

Introduction

I’m afraid that the Church in general has not always been completely honest with the people that we have tried to bring in. I don’t think we have been purposely dishonest, but we have perhaps given a message that is not completely accurate. What kind of message do we give seekers and others interested in Christianity? Come and join us because church is fun and Christians are friendly and Jesus is great and life is awesome. It is true that my life is much better now as a Christian than it was before. My life is not easier, but it is better. Hopefully our Christian life will be joy-filled and happy. But there are no such promises that life is going to go well. What if a seeker came to us and asked what Jesus had to say about the Christian life? Would we tell them that Jesus compared discipleship to anticipating capital punishment? That is what he is doing when he calls us to take up our cross. It is not about displaying a beautiful ornamental religious symbol. It is about being that person who carries the means of their own death to the place of their execution. Not a very cheery message. The reason is that Jesus was not so interested in making church-goers as he was in making disciples. It is the discipleship where we see the cost. There are two things happening today that I think will help us to understand what a cross bearing disciple looks like.

Remembrance Day

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day and people all over the country will be gathering at cenotaphs to remember those who served, those who sacrificed and those who died. Having said that, there are mixed feelings within the Christian community when it comes  to veterans and those currently serving in the Canadian Forces. Some Christians see such service as patriotic and honorable, something to be respected. Other Christians disagree and argue that it is impossible for a Christian to serve in the military, that any such service is completely against the Jesus way. I am not going to tackle that one. What I will say is that there is something we can learn from those who serve, no matter what we think about war. Notice that Jesus tells us to pick up our cross. He does not say those who are in favour of capital punishment pick up your cross, otherwise find your own metaphor. Something can be true even if it makes us uncomfortable. Besides, there is a reason that Remembrance Day is on the anniversary of the armistice, the point is peace and not the glory of war. War brings the best and the worst out of people. We have heard the horror stories. We don’t hear about the man at my last church who lied about his age to get out of the orphanage that he had lived in all his life to join the army. He landed at Juno Beach on D-Day. Being dropped off far from shore and being burdened with equipment, he went right to the bottom when he was pushed out. He had the presence of mind to jump back up, take a gulp of air and hop his way to the shore, all the while bullets were shooting by him. Being a padre, I am fond of padre stories. On the night of 6/7 June, after the D-Day landing Padre Walter Brown and two other soldiers were moving up from the beach to a field hospital when they were captured by soldiers from the 12th SS Hitler Youth division. One soldier was killed, another was wounded and escaped. The wounded man described seeing Padre Brown, a non-combatant, approaching the SS soldiers with his hands raised. Brown’s bayonetted body was recovered weeks later. A padre, who could have stayed in safety, gave his life for what he believed in, which was helping soldiers, especially those who were wounded. Then there is the most famous Canadian padre, John Foote. Foote was at Dieppe, which had been held up as the great chance for a European foothold but quickly became a disaster. Foote worked hard in extreme danger to get soldiers to the boats during the retreat. When he was forced to go on a boat, he jumped off so his place could be taken by another. He felt that his place was to be among the men that were captured. For his courage, he received the Victoria Cross, the only padre to do so. I have not done anything brave, but I have gotten to know many soldiers who have served in Afghanistan. I have listened to their stories of fighting, not another standing army with identifiable uniforms, but people who looked just like the people they were trying to protect. I have heard stories of befriending old men who would come every day for months and then one day would detonate themselves in an attempt to kill as many people as possible. There is tremendous bravery among these young men and women. Why bring this up? What is a soldier? A real soldier? One who has a mission and who puts aside their own needs and comfort to accomplish that mission. As disciples of Jesus, we have a mission: the great commission, which is to go and make other disciples. This is not an option for those who feel led. It is the mission, a dangerous mission, an uncomfortable mission. But it is the mission.

Persecuted Christians

In addition to tomorrow being Remembrance Day, today is the International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church. I find it interesting that Canadian Christians feel persecuted. We complain because non-Christians don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer in school anymore. We complain because people get offended when we wear a Christian t-shirt or a Christian bumper sticker. We complain because the church does not have the same social clout that we did in the 1950s. Let me make it clear that we have no idea what persecution is about. Did you know that around the world, 200 million Christians suffer for their faith in Jesus Christ. There are more Christians being persecuted today than at any other time in history. At this very moment, a religious genocide of Christians in Syria is taking place; in China authorities are pressing in and raiding unregistered House Churches; in Pakistan Christians are being arrested for allegedly sending “blasphemous” texts – while the Western media is silent. Believers all around the world face violence, imprisonment and even death because of their faith in Christ. In Muslim countries, converts to Christianity risk their very lives for faith in Jesus. I have a friend in England who converted from Islam to Christianity, and even there she must be careful about who she tells her story to. Real persecution is going on. Think about the quality of faith that these disciples of Jesus have. They understand what it means to take up their cross and count the cost. A cross is not a piece of jewelry but a reminder that they are following Jesus in his suffering. What would we do if we were in such a position? What if church was not fun but was a place such as Egypt or Nigeria where we were in mortal danger? What if our families not just thought we were weird but reported us to the authorities? There would be no pew sitters. There would only be disciples who were all in, people who knew who they were serving and were willing to give anything for it. People who knew the mission and were willing to lay down their lives for it.

Conclusion

Jesus is not just looking for believers, he is looking for disciples. The image that Jesus gave for disciples is that of one who takes up their cross. That is one who will lay down everything for the mission at hand. We see this same courage in soldiers who have put their life on the line for their mission. Many died, many were wounded, many brought invisible wounds home. There is a courage among men and women of the military that goes beyond our debates over the nature war. That same courage is found among persecuted Christians around the world. The question we have to ask is what about us? We can observe the bravery of soldiers and martyrs and make note of it. But what does it mean to us? What can we take away? How can we be inspired? I hope that we can take this time to re-evaluate what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What is the cross that we need to pick up? What is the cost that we need to pay? Let us reflect on who we are and what means for us to serve Christ.

Share

A Vision For a Healthy Church

This is my final sermon a pastor of First Baptist Church Meaford.

Romans 15

Introduction

The time has come for my last message to the church.  I wanted to share something that would be helpful for the church as you look to the future and at the same time remain faithful to the passage we are looking at in Romans.  Thankfully, Paul as he concludes  his letter to the church at Rome, says the same things that I would like to say to you.  As I think about this church and where I have tried to bring you and where I pray that you will go, there is a clear vision.  Popular descriptions of what people want for their church usually revolve around more people and more money.  If only the pews were filled and the offering plates were filled.  These of course are good things.  We want these things to happen but they are not the ultimate goal of the church.  They are rather byproducts of what the church is supposed to be.  What is the church supposed to be?  The church is supposed to be healthy.  To focus on the outward signs is like taking an extremely sick person, dressing them up in the finest clothes and giving them the fastest car and suggesting they have an enviable life.  Without health, nothing else matters.  The same is true of the church.  In Romans 15, Paul offers a vision of what a healthy church should look like.  This is more than a sermon, this is my prayer for you.

Spirit of Unity

In Romans 15, Paul continues on from the previous chapter.  Once again, Paul brings up the subject of unity.  It is important to remember that this is not artificial uniformity but a spiritual unity based on the things that really matter.  Instead of trying to force people to act just like us, this unity comes from putting the needs of others before ourselves.  There have been many large and wealthy churches that have lacked unity.  These churches have been fooling themselves.  It is much better to be a smaller and poorer church and be united in our love for God and love for people.  Some of the most deadly diseases to ravage the human body are not the attacks from the outside such as viruses  and bacteria but rather the conflicts within, whether cancers or autoimmune disorders.  These diseases are terrifying because they are about the body attacking itself.  This happens all too often within the church.  Although we are a friendly and loving church, we can never get to the point where we are so confident that we allow these conflicts to creep in.  If this church is to be healthy, it must always strive for a spirit of unity.

Hope

This church is in a time of transition and that means that there is much uncertainty about the future.  What will the church look like in a year, five years or ten years?  We are not ignorant of our challenges, both of this local congregation and the Christian church in western society.  The times of just opening the doors of the church and having it filled with people are long gone.  People seem less interested and God and less willing to commit.  We can look at just the facts and begin to feel a sense of despair.  However, every generation has had its challenges even if the specific challenges have changed.  It certainly was no easier in the first century than it is in the twentieth-century.  So how have we survived as church?  Christianity is not a faith of despair, it is a faith of hope.  This is central to who we are as Christians.  Paul in this passage, describes God as the God of hope.  That is who he is and what he does, he brings hope.  Paul’s prayer is that the church would overflow with hope.  Not just to have a glimmer of hope in the face of an otherwise hopeless situation, but to overflow with hope.  What is hope?  Hope is the conviction that our future is not limited by the circumstances of the present.  How does that work out?  Think about the cross of Jesus.  People watched Jesus die a painful and humiliating death.  Logically, that should have ended the movement.  At the time, the disciples did not fully understand what was happening but they at least had faith God could do something.  And on the third day, Jesus was resurrected.  There was nothing on Good Friday to suggest that Easter Sunday was coming.  Nothing but the fact that God is the God of hope.  For you, for your family, for your church, you may feel some discouragement about the present.  God is the God of hope and he wants you to overflow with hope at the possibilities of what might be in the future.

Knowledge

Paul has a great desire that the church be complete in knowledge.  That does not mean that we know everything.  It means that we know what we need to know.  How deep does this knowledge go?  Paul’s expectation is that we be able to instruct one another.  The vision of the church is not that there be one pastor who is trained and the rest of the people listening to what they have to say.  The ideal is that everyone in the church is growing in knowledge and is instructing one another.  But does that not sound rather dry?  After all, church is not school and not everyone enjoys studying.  Besides, we want a relationship with God and not just all that “booking learning.”  I understand that but how can we have a relationship with someone if we know nothing about him.  We need to know who God is and what he has done for us.  If God’s greatest act of love is the giving of Jesus, we need to know as much as possible about him.  If we enter into a relationship with God through a specific way, then we need to know how we do that.  The knowledge we seek is not just a collection of theological concepts for the sake of studying, but knowledge of God and his will for us.  Living in a world that is continually offering alternatives to God and to the Bible, we desperately need this knowledge in order to know what is true and what is false.

Proclamation

One of the activities that Paul stresses is that of preaching the Gospel.  This is something that many Christians find intimidating and many non-Christians find offensive.  It would seem that we are agreed that it is a bad idea.  Except for the fact that it is essential to the life of the church.  I think the concerns of both groups are based on a misconception.  What both groups don’t want is a forcing of one’s beliefs on another person, as if we could convert a person by being pushy and aggressive enough.  That was not Paul’s style and it should not be ours.  What we know of Paul’s interaction with non-Christians is that he had conversations with them, he listened to their beliefs, he treated them with respect and looked for places of agreement.  That does not sound very offensive.  It is not the job of the church to go around and convert unwilling people.  It is the church’s job to proclaim the truth.  People are free to accept or reject that message and we must respect their decision.  But we cannot keep the truth of Jesus to ourselves.

Generosity

The final thing we see as a description of the activity of a healthy church is that of generosity.  This is something we see in a number of Paul’s letters.  Paul was involved in a project in which he was raising funds to bring back to the poor Jews of Jerusalem.  My interpretation is that this money was going to the Jewish Christians.  You might think that is less impressive because they were fellow believers.  We need to understand the context.  The truth is that Paul experienced much more trouble from Jewish Christians than he did from traditional Jews.  The Jewish Christians did not understand what he was doing with the Gentiles and they often sent teachers in to undo the work of Paul.  They did agreed with Paul’s practice and theology and they caused Paul great grief.  And yet Paul did not respond with revenge but with generosity.  The principle that we see is that the purpose of the church is not to use our resources to make our fellowship as comfortable as possible.  Our purpose is to wisely use the resources given to us by God to help those in need, to the best of our ability.  The challenge is that there are so many needs and the situation can be overwhelming.  But that is no excuse not to try.  The point is that we do what we are able to do to try and make a difference in the world.

Conclusion

If a doctor wanted to find out if a person was healthy, how would they do it?  They would perform certain tests, such as checking the heart and lungs and blood.  The expectation would be that you would have to pass all the tests to be considered healthy.  The same is true about a church.  Interestingly, the size of the congregation or the size of the budget are no more part of the determination any more than the style of the clothing for the doctor’s patient.  What is a healthy church?  A healthy church is one that is united in faith and purpose.  A healthy church is one that has a sense of hope, not because of our own abilities, but because God is the God of hope.  A healthy church is one that is growing in knowledge, one whose relationship with God is based on what we know to be true.  A healthy church is not one that keeps its beliefs to itself but one that respectfully shares the truth with others.  Finally, a healthy church is one that looks beyond its one needs to the needs of others.  Based on these tests, I believe you are a healthy church.  However, like physical health, church health is something to be maintained and not something to be enjoyed just based on an earlier diagnosis.  Keep examining yourselves, and seek to remain a healthy church.

Share

How to Disagree

Romans 14

Introduction

In John 17, Jesus prays a prayer for the future church, a prayer that is aimed at us.  In his prayer, Jesus prays for something very specific.  It is not for beautiful buildings or healthy budgets.  Jesus prays that the church would be one as the Father and Son are one.  Jesus prays for our unity.  We complain when our prayers are not answered the way we want, how is Jesus’ prayer working out for him?  I hear many complaints from both Christians and non-Christians about how divided the church is.  If Christians cannot get along with one another, why should we believe in Christ?  I have heard it said that the existence of the thousands of denominations is devastating to the truth of Christianity.  One source says that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations.  What do we do with that?  Last week, we had a combined Remembrance Day service with the other churches of Meaford.  If we had taken time to go through our beliefs, we would have found differences in belief about baptism, predestination, sanctification, spiritual gifts, music, church structure and many other things.  My question to you is: Was that service a sign of our unity or our disunity?  Before we go there, let us take it to the next level.  Not only is there disagreement between denominations, there is disagreement within churches.  Survey any local congregation and you will get disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, how to pray and worship styles.  You will get disagreements on acceptable forms of entertainment, dress, social drinking, playing the lottery and so on.  Do we just raise our hands and give up that this unity for the church is an impossible goal?  I would suggest that what Jesus had in mind in John 17 was not about uniformity, that is that we would all be exactly the same.  There is no evidence in the Bible that people were expected to do things in the same way and be copies of each other.  The goal is rather that we would be united in our faith in God and our desire to follow Jesus and our mission to love people.  There is plenty of room for disagreement within those areas.  So, the different denominations do not necessarily contradict the plan for unity within the church.  It may be about different organizational structures, different styles and different interpretations.  However, it all too often is about a lack of unity.  Not because we have differences but because of how we deal with our differences.  In this chapter of Romans, Paul provides some very practical advice on how to deal with differences.

Roman Situation

What was the situation that Paul was addressing?  The church was too new for there to be multiple denominations.  In fact, the way it was in the early church was that there was one church in a city.  There was the church at Rome or the church at Ephesus.  They did not necessarily meet all together as there were no church buildings but even in their different gatherings, they were considered one church.  But do not think that in the early days of the church that everything was pure and innocent.  There were plenty of disagreements and conflicts.  What was going on with the church at Rome?  One of the things that was happening was that there was a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles.  Each group had strong feelings about the way things are done.  Just because a Jew became a Christian, it did not mean that they easily gave up concepts of food laws, Sabbath and so on.  Not only would many of them want to keep those practices, it would bother them to see the Gentile Christians working on the Sabbath and then going home for a nice ham supper.  The Gentiles on the other hand would feel very strongly about their ways.  There was no reason for the Jews to be so legalistic and it would bother them that they were bound up by seemingly external rules.  And so there would be conflict back and forth.  I do not want to make this all about Jews versus Gentiles.  There would have been plenty of disagreements among the Jewish Christians and plenty of disagreements among the Gentile Christians.  The problem is not that they have disagreements.  The problem is how they deal with those disagreements.  The moment that Christians begins to condemn each other over minor issues, the church has lost its vision and is straying from its purpose.

Our Situation

It would be really nice if the problem of disagreements and conflicts died with the apostles.  The truth is that as society has become more complex, our disagreements have only multiplied.  Unfortunately, we have not grown in maturity when it comes to dealing with the conflicts.  As a result, it is even more important for us to take seriously what Paul tells us in this chapter.  So what do we learn from Paul?  The first thing we learn is that there are differences of opinion and that is okay.  Paul speaks of differences of what foods are allowed and the roles of certain days.  This is a likely a reference to the differences between Jews and Gentiles.  Paul does not come down on one side or the other.  They are acceptable differences within Christianity.  That does not mean everything is okay.  Paul would have said something if the differences were between believing in one God or twelve gods or between committed marriages and sexual promiscuity.  But within reason, there is room for disagreement.  The next thing Paul says is that it is not our role to push our convictions on others or to condemn those who are different from us.  This is difficult for some people.  Sometimes we feel like God is pushing us in a certain direction and it is hard for us to imagine how God could be doing something different with someone else.  I was talking with someone who felt as if God was leading him to give up all forms of entertainment, including television, movies and sports.  That is fine.  The problem was that he condemned all other Christians who continued to enjoy such entertainment because he understood his own convictions on the matter to be God’s general condemnation on this activity for everyone.  It does not work that way.  If the Bible is silent on something and you still have a conviction, do what you feel is right but leave others alone.  We are also to see the reasons behind the different behaviors.  Why is the person abstaining from meat or enjoying meat?  If they are doing either out of a desire to glorify God, then their actions should be respected even if we disagree.  We are all on a journey to serve God the best we can, and we might be surprised at how much we have in common despite the external differences.  Paul also tells us that we must hold true to our convictions.  Take for example that person who considered sports to be a worldly sin.  If they truly believed that and yet they saw people who seemed godly enjoying sports without a twinge of guilt, that person should still abstain from sports.  Sports by itself is not a sin.  But if a person believes it is a sin and engages in the behavior, it becomes a sin.  Finally, there is an important role in showing love toward others by our actions.  We can be fully convinced that something is acceptable to God and that we intend to do it for God’s glory.  But there may be times that we should abstain if those actions will cause another to stumble.  For example, I might feel that a heavy metal style of worship music is acceptable to God.  That is fine.  But how would that affect you in this church if I introduced it here?  Just because it is technically allowed and in fact may be appropriate in other contexts does not mean that it is good here.  There are times that we need to limit our own freedoms for the sake of others.

Conclusion

What is the future of the church?  It probably is not going to be about everyone completely agreeing on every subject and acting exactly the same.  What we need to learn is not how to agree on everything but rather how to disagree in a healthy and godly way.  Paul gives us some very helpful advice here.  First accept that we are going to disagree and understand that is okay.  It is good to hold convictions, but do not push those convictions on others.  Understand that things may be done that you disagree with that are done for the glory of God.  We must hold true to our convictions.  Do not change every time you meet a different opinion.  Keep your convictions unless you are genuinely convinced that something has changed.  Finally, keep love at the centre of it.  You may have freedom to do many things but that freedom does not give you the right to make others stumble.  If we follow these guidelines, we can still be that church that enjoys unity without having to be bound by an artificial uniformity.

Share

I Can See Clearly Now

Romans 13

Introduction

There are a number of moments in my life that were turning points.  One of them was when I got my eyes checked for the first time.  After being encouraged to get my eyes checked by a high school teacher, I finally went to an optometrist.  I had my eyes checked and sure enough I was near sighted.  The optometrist came up with a prescription and I tried on my very first pair of glasses.  To be honest, they were pretty ugly glasses and not a style I would wear today.  But it did not matter as for the first time in a very long time I could see clearly.  I was absolutely blown away at how crisp and clear everything was.  And I was still in the optometrist’s office!  When I got outside and could see the trees and grass and clouds and people it was amazing.  I knew my eye sight was not perfect, but I had no idea how much I was missing.  I was still self-conscious about wearing glasses but I was so glad that I had them and that at last I could see.  This is one of the things that Christianity is supposed to do.  Many people think that Christianity is supposed to make us act differently.  That is true but only indirectly.  What Christianity is supposed to do is make us see things differently and then because we see things differently, we should act differently.  Let us look at the examples that Paul gives.

Government

There are many things that differ among people and across cultures but there is something that binds us all together.  That thing is that we complain about our governments.  As Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  I remember growing up and hearing my dad talk about the government.  It was amazing that after each election, the wrong government was always elected.  It did not matter if all the major parties got an opportunity to govern, they were still the wrong government.  I cannot tell you the words that my dad used to describe politicians, but I will tell you that when one politician was on our street going door to door campaigning, my dad threatened to call the police.  Not everyone takes things this far, but most people do spend a significant amount of time complaining about the government.  At best they are inefficient and at worst they are corrupt.  It is unlikely that any of us pay our taxes with much joy.  I remind people from time to time that Canadian income tax was introduced as a temporary measure to fund World War One.  It is pretty natural for us to fall into complaints as the government is a pretty easy target.  However, as Christians we are asked to look at the government with a new set of eye glasses.  Instead of seeing the government as something that seeks to waste our taxes and limit our freedoms, he sees them in a positive light.  Governments are established by God’s authority.  What?!  Let us be clear here, Paul is not talking about church based governments or Christian led governments.  Paul is not talking about the Roman Empire being led by the Emperor Constantine who was the first Christian emperor.  Paul is talking about governments in general.  Think about the worst Canadian government that you have witnessed, federal or provincial.  There was some divine authority that was behind that government.  That does not mean that God gave his stamp of approval on everything that they did.  What it means is that it is God’s plan to have us ruled by governments and that the work of governments provide some God ordained order to society.  That does not mean that we should avoid voting against a party in power but it does mean that we should not seek a state of anarchy despite the savings in taxes.  Paul has some interesting things to say about how we respond to governments.  Many people have found themselves on the wrong end of the government’s wrath.  Paul gives us some general wisdom here as to how we are to act.  Paul shares the principle that governments are designed to punish the guilty and protect the innocent.  Wait a minute, we can think of dozens of if not hundreds of examples of the government punishing the innocent.  Paul was not stupid, he knew very well that happened.  In fact, ten years after writing this letter to the church at Rome, Paul found himself in Rome on death row and eventually being beheaded by the Roman authorities.  These things happened all the time.  What Paul was trying to say is that we should never give the government an excuse to punish us and as far as it is possible for us we are to remain on the government’s good side by being model citizens.  Perhaps in extreme circumstances we might be in trouble but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.  We should see the government as something to submit to and not something to fight against.  What about taxes?  We are sensitive about what we pay our taxes for.  Should Christians pay taxes if that tax money is used to fund abortions?  Paul tells us to pay taxes.  Jesus told us to render unto to Caesar what is Caesar’s, that is to pay taxes.  It is fair to ask what the Roman taxes went for.  It is safe to assume that the tax money went to many evil, violent and perverted causes.  In our modern context, it is good for us to vote for parties that will spend our taxes closer to what our Christian values are, but that does not get us off from paying taxes.

Relationships

There are two groups of people we like to complain about: politicians and everyone else.  There is some truth to this.  As much as the government may be an easy target, there are problems with just about everyone.  There is so much that we could complain about.  There is plenty of gossip to be passed around.  There are many people who could be insulted.  We see what people do and we logically think of how they deserve to be treated.  Paul asks us to put on those glasses again.  Those around us are not people to be despised but people to be loved.  Paul reminds us that all of the Law is summed up in the commandment: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  This is something found in the Old Testament, Paul, James and something taught by Jesus himself.  You see, what we find in the Bible are not random rules put out to have a proper looking religion.  What the Bible teaches is designed to lead us into a life of love.  Love one another.  Think about the most annoying people, those who have hurt us, those who have betrayed us.  It is not easy for us to love them.  But if I take my glasses off, it is not easy for me to see you either.  With my glasses, you are clear.  With the unlovable, we need to put on our glasses.  What are our glasses?  We put on Christ.  What does that mean?  It is not a mystical experience where you go to bed hating someone and wake up filled with love for them.  It is a gradual process that includes cooperation on our part.  God does not expect us to wait until we feel love before we start acting with love.  But as we act in faith, God works in that to change who we are on the inside.  Make the effort to see people, not as you would naturally see them, but to see them as Christ sees them.  Christ will not ignore your attempts but will energize them.

Conclusion

Can you imagine if no one ever thought to invent eye glasses?  If those of us who were far sighted or near sighted were doomed to see things blurry?  So much of this world would pass us by without us ever noticing.  Thankfully, someone did invent glasses and most of us can now see clearly as a result.  Can you imagine if we were doomed to see the world with spiritual blurriness?  If we were limited to our natural abilities and never saw things as they really were?  Thankfully, we are not left with bad eyesight, at least not spiritually.  Christ opens our eyes to see things as they really are, even if that clear sight makes us uncomfortable.  Everything from government to our relationships have a whole different perspective from what we normally see.  When we put on Christ we can see clearly.  This is something that is important for us to do.  As important as changing our actions is, we need to begin by seeing clearly.

Share

The Power of Love

Romans 12

Introduction

There are many things that people of different religions and philosophies disagree on but there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on: the importance of love.  It doesn’t matter of you are a Christian or an atheist or any other belief system, people instinctively know that love is important.  We see it in our music and television shows and movies and books.  People may disagree about what love looks like, focusing on either physical or emotional or spiritual aspects, but we agree love is important.  This is an important point of contact for Christians because love is central to our faith.  Love is not just an add on or is not just compatible, love is the essence of Christianity.  For myself, one of the reasons I became a Christian was because I saw the faith primarily about love for God and love for people rather than a list of rules.  One of the most beloved passages of the Bible is Paul’s love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13.  What people do not realize is that this is not Paul’s only love chapter.  He also has some great things to say about love in this chapter.  Let us take a look at what he says.

Living Worship

Before we get into love, let us look at worship.  As Christians, our role is to be involved in worship.  That is not controversial.  When a person walks into a church building, they may hope to find love, but they expect to find worship.  That is one of the differences between a Christian and a non-Christian.  It is not about how good we are or how nice we are but who we worship.  The question is: how do we worship?  Well that is simple, we worship with hymns and prayers and Bible readings.  Of course all of that is good but Paul has another concept of worship.  Remember as one raised Jewish, Paul’s concept of worship was shaped by sacrifice.  People would bring animals to the temple in Jerusalem and sacrifice them to God.  Since Jesus died for us, we no longer need to sacrifice animals.  But that does not mean that sacrifice is finished.  Paul tells us to offer our bodies as sacrifices.  In the temple a sacrifice required the death of the animal but here Paul specifies that we are living sacrifices.  Most translations say this is our spiritual act of worship.  That is strange because the Greek does not say this.  It literally says it is our logical act of worship.  You can see why they make it spiritual as that sounds much more uplifting than logical.  But what Paul is saying is that this type of worship logically flows from who we are and what Jesus has done to make us right with God.  If God showed his love for us by giving us his Son, we need to ask what kind of worship would emerge from that?  Paul points to the living sacrifice, that is the worship of living our lives.  Our next question is: what does that look like?

Humility

The first step in living a life of worship is to get a proper perspective of ourselves.  There are two extremes, that of making too much of ourselves and that of making too little of ourselves.  It is easy to see ourselves as as the centre of the universe, to focus on our own wants and to ignore the needs of others.  That does not lead very well into a life of worship.  The other extreme is to put ourselves down.  I call this worm theology.  It sounds spiritual but it is not.  We are not trash.  When God created humanity, he said we were very good.  As Christians we are adopted into God’s family.  What we need is a balance, one that sees us as we are and as God sees us.  Paul tells us: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Romans 12:3 NIV)  To illustrate this, Paul uses the example of the body.  This is the same image that he uses in 1 Corinthians 12.  The church is not just an organization, we are the body of Christ.  Each member has a role.  This is an incredible image.  This tells us that we are not worthless, as the body needs us.  But we are not everything, that is we need everyone else.  If we truly understand this, then we are in the proper place of humility.

Active Love

Once we are dedicated to worshiping God with our lifestyle and we are seeing ourselves in a healthy way, we are ready for our logical worship.  Our logical worship is loving people.  Not just believing love or even feeling love but acting in love.  What I appreciate about what Paul says is the acknowledgment of reality.  The truth is that some people are easy to love and others less so.  Certain circumstances make it more difficult to love.  Paul’s vision of love does not ignore this reality but meets is head on.  Look at what Paul says about love.  Love must be sincere.  It is not a mask so that you can get what you want or look respectable, it comes from the heart.  Love includes an element of hate.  That sounds strange but it is true.  We do not hate people but if we are filled with love, we should have deep hatred of evil.  We are to be devoted to one another, this is not just a casual feeling.  We are to honor one another before ourselves.  It is easy to get the tinge of jealousy when we see others accomplish the things we wished for ourselves.  Give them the honour due them apart from how much you wish you were like them.  Never lack in zeal and keep spiritual fervor.  Do you get a sense at how important this is for Paul.  He expects love to be more than a minor part of our life, it should occupy our thoughts and actions.  Joyful in hope, patient in affliction.  As we go through life together, we will encounter great difficulties.  We do not ignore suffering, nor do we give up in despair.  We have hope, we have patience, and most of all we have prayer.  We cannot abandon our friends to suffering, we must walk with them through it, confident that a powerful God cares about what is happening.  Love is supposed to be practical.  That means sharing out of our blessings.  Society says to accumulate for yourself, God says to give away to others.  We are to practice hospitality, that means inviting people into our homes and welcoming them as part of the family.  What about those bad people who give us a hard time?  Love them.  Bless them.  Paul understands that it is not always within our power to restore relationships and experience reconciliation.  But as much as it is in our power, we need to try.  Even if it looks hopeless, the fact that we try is a witness to the faith we have and the God we serve.  What kind of people should we be with?  The good, beautiful and respectable people?  We should associate with everyone, whether they hate us or if they are low on what society thinks is important.  There is so much in our world that will encourage us to act in bad ways.  We are told not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good.  Love will always be the stronger power.

Conclusion

Many of the new atheists are spending their time pointing out the evils of religion.  They tell us that religion poisons everything.  I don’t know about other religions, but what I know about Christianity is that it is about love.  Love does not poison.  Love is about making a difference in people’s lives, rejoicing in the good times and supporting in the hard times.  It seems to me that we need more of this in this world.  This is the type of worship God is looking for.  Not just hymns and prayers, but living a life of love as a natural outflowing of what God has done for us.  That is logical worship.

Share

Knowing Our Place

Romans 11

Introduction

Know your place!  Have you ever heard someone say such a thing?  Such a concept could be terribly abused.  In more innocent forms, it could be used by parents to try and control their children.  In harsher forms, it could be used to promote racism or sexism.  The idea of knowing our place has been a tool for those who are in power and those who insist on the status quo.  Men have used this for centuries to prevent women from having a greater impact on society.  Often times such people have used the Bible to try and keep women in their place.  In fact, the Bible has numerous examples of righteous women who stepped out of the place that men had assigned to them.  Other times, people of certain races have imposed restrictions on other races, hiding their hateful racism behind a false mask of natural places for the races and need for people to know their place.  This has been abused in economic terms.  The rich do not mix with the poor and the rich have an interest in keeping the poor poor because they make nice cheap labour to produce all the toys the rich enjoy.  Know your place.  This has been a tool that has produced so much pain over the years.  And yet there is a kernel of truth in the subject.  I do not mean in the examples that have been shared.  But there is a sense in which we belong to a certain context and that our lives should reflect that context.  Used properly, this concept can produce something good in us.

Israel and the Church

What is it that Paul is saying in this passage?  Paul is still dealing with the relationship between Israel and the Church.  For many centuries, Israel had been the means by which God had acted on earth.  Now, God had moved to using the church as the primary means of working.  This is not just a historical or a theological move, this is something filled with emotion.  While Israel was God’s servant, there was a tremendous amount of pride.  It did not matter how powerful militarily that Babylon or Egypt was, Israel was God’s people.  It was to Israel that God gave the Law and the prophets, to them that he allowed a Temple to worship him.  This made the people of Israel feel very special.  However, God made it clear why they were chosen.  “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.” (Deuteronomy 7:6–11 ESV)  What is God saying here?  He is saying that there was nothing special about Israel in the sense that they deserved this selection.  God did not look on all the nations and chose Israel because they excelled above all others.  God just chose Israel because he is God and he can make such choices.  But what else does it say?  Does it say that God would never stop using Israel and how does that fit with what we are saying about the church?  What God promises is to never break his covenant and the covenant included concepts of obedience and disobedience.  God has not broken this covenant.  Secondly, when we talk about about God moving from Israel to the church, it would be more accurate to say God moved from ethnic Israel to spiritual Israel.  There are a number of passages where the church is described as a spiritual Israel.  This might seem like a radical change, but Paul makes it clear that this is the way that God has always operated.  Using the example of Elijah, Paul reminds the Romans that there has always been a smaller righteous remnant among the larger group, even with ethnic Israel.  What has changed is that now that righteous remnant includes both Jews and Gentiles and not just ethnic Israelites as in the old days.  Now it is true that this remnant today is largely Gentile.  It was already moving that way in Paul’s day.  This could give rise to an unhealthy pride.  Just as the Israelites thought of themselves as pretty special, so the largely Gentile church could think of themselves as pretty special.  This is where it is important for us to know our place.  The kind of place we need to know is where we stand in how God operates.  God sovereignly chose Israel to be his servant.  God later sovereignly chose the church.  Later, God will bring back many of Israel, what that will look like we do not know.  In the meantime, the church should know that we are not the masters of what God is doing.  God explains it with the example of the olive tree.  The olive tree is the human means by which God works.  The branches are Israel.  God broke off some branches and grafted in some wild olive branches.  The wild branches are the Gentile church.  Our spiritual life comes not from ourselves but from what came before.  We are not better than Jews or anyone else, we are simply grafted in by the grace of God.  If we begin to be overcome with pride, we must remember that it is within God’s power to break off those wild branches and rejoin the natural branches.  That is not meant to fill us with fear but rather to fill us with humility.  We are the church not because we are great or are better than the Jews or are more righteous than anyone else.  We are here because of grace.  We must know our place in the way God is working and that place is not one that should lead to pride.

Church and the World

It is ironic how the church has responded to what God has done.  Christians do not hesitate to point out the sins of Israel.  They were warned, they disobeyed and judgment came.  We are happy to pick up the pieces and show Israel how it is done.  They may have messed things up but God has moved up to a whole new level of skill, ability and character when it comes to the church.  Or has he?  This is an example of where we really need to know our place.  The church is far from perfect.  Just about every mistake Israel ever made, we have done many times over.  But it is not just a comparison with Israel.  The church has looked at itself as being pretty special.  We have rights and deserve special respect.  At one time the church had an honored position in society and we are upset that has ended.  But have we asked why we are upset?  Is it because people are turning their back on God or because people are turning their back on the church?  Is it because we are special that we think that we need that special place?  The truth is that we are not that special.  We are in no way better than other people.  Very often I hear people speak of the problem with Islam.  People look at the terrible things that some Muslims are doing are very critical of people who belong to that religion.  Let me make myself clear: I believe Islam is a false religion, I do not believe that Muhammad is a true prophet and I am extremely confident that Christianity is the only faith that accurately points to God.  At the same time, we dare not fool ourselves into believing the church has a pure record, while Islam has a constant history of evil and violence.  The truth is that just about everything that Christians hate about the actions of certain Muslims, the church has been involved in the same things.  Forced conversions?  Yes, we did that.  Killing of people who convert from our religion?  Yes, we did that.  Killing of civilians in religious warfare?  Yes, we did that.  I am not condoning what Muslim extremists do.  But we are not innocent.  Did you know Protestants killed anabaptists for believing in believer’s baptism?  They thought the appropriate means of execution was drowning since these “heretics” wanted to get so wet in baptism.  Did you know John Calvin, one of the greatest leaders of the reformation gave the okay for a man to be executed for blasphemy?  The man had inadequate view of God and did not believe in the Trinity and so they killed him.  What am I saying here?  I am not saying that since Christianity is as bad as Islam that all religion is wrong and should be rejected.  In the twentieth century, more people were killed under atheistic regimes than all of the religious violence in the previous centuries.  The problem is not religion, the problem is humanity.  We as Christians are still human and that makes us no better than anyone else.  This is what it means for us to know our place.  We are sinners who are saved by grace.  We are not only saved by grace, we live by grace.  We must know our place, not as people who earned our position, but as people graciously invited to minister God’s presence to a needy world.  There is no place for pride here.  If we truly know our place, if we know who we are in relation to everyone else, we should be humble.  Our humility is not based on fear that God is going to punish us but out of natural reflection on who we are.

Conclusion

Know your place!  I don’t mean in terms of race, gender or economic status.  I mean know your place as a human being.  We are the church.  We should be glad that we are the church.  But we should not be proud, in the sense of thinking ourselves better than others.  The church is not better than Israel of old.  The church is not better than any other group active today.  The church is a group of people forgiven by God and who live by grace.  We will make as many mistakes as anyone else.  But we have Jesus to pick us back up again.  Let us know our place in the situation, but let us know our place in Christ, not as a means of boasting but as a means of living.

Share

Preach the Gospel

Romans 10

Introduction

Pastors are well aware that there are certain subjects that congregations do not like to hear sermons on.  One of those topics is that of hell.  The entire concept of hell is extremely unpleasant and few people want to hear about it.  That does not mean it should not be preached on, just that many people do not like to hear it.  Another topic that is not very popular is that of money.  As soon as the topic of money comes up, people are waiting for the pastor to encourage them to dig deeper and put more in the offering plate.  No one wants to hear this, except maybe the treasurer!  But there is another topic that may be even more uncomfortable than these.  When we hear about hell we can put it in a nice theological box and place it with our other doctrines.  When it comes to money, we can assure ourselves that we are at least giving something even if the church leadership would appreciate some more.  But evangelism is different.  Evangelism is not about getting you to believe in a doctrine and evangelism is not about getting you to do more of what you are already doing.  When pastors preach evangelism, we are often asking you to do something you are not doing and that you do not want to do.  I say that not as a pastor but as someone who remembers what it feels like to sit in a pew and hear that message.  If I was given the choice of either putting some more money in the plate or sharing the Gospel with a non-Christian, I would rather give the money.  And yet the message of sharing the Good News is found throughout the Scriptures and Paul gives a very strong challenge for this in Romans 10.  Let us look at what Paul says and see what we can learn from him.

The Need

Why do we need to preach the Gospel?  Does it really matter?  In context, Paul is talking specifically about the people of Israel.  Think about all that Israel had.  It was to Israel that God had revealed himself, it was to them that he sent the Law and the prophets.  It was from the Jewish people that God’s Son would be born.  The Jews had a tremendous advantage in many ways.  And yet they still need Jesus.  Paul has made it clear that we are all sinners, Jews and Gentiles.  Because we are sinners and we are unable to overcome this sin on our own, we need what Jesus did through his death and resurrection.  So what Paul is saying is, despite the long history the Jews have with God, the Jews are lost without Jesus.  This is his motivation to preach the Gospel.  If God’s chosen people desperately need to hear about Jesus, how about our friends and family?  We need to get things into perspective.  It is not about trying to make bad people good.  This is one of the things people find offensive about evangelism.  It makes it sound like we are saying non-Christians are bad people and that we want them to become good people like us.  Paul definitely thought that the Jews were good people and that they were sincerely going about their traditions.  However, he knew there was something missing and that was a right standing with God.  Religious traditions by themselves cannot make right with God, only accepting God’s free gift of Jesus can we be made right.  So when you look at your friends and family and see them as good people, do not think that gets you off the hook for sharing your faith.  Many non-Christians will be nice and good people, perhaps more generous and kind than many Christians.  That is not the issue here.  The issue is about who is in right relationship with God.  If we are Christians, that does not make us better people, but it does give us the added responsibility to share what we have experienced.

The Message

So we are supposed to share the Gospel with those who have not been made right with God.  But what exactly are we sharing?  This is where people stumble.  Is the message that Christianity can make you a better person?  This is probably one of the most popular forms of the message.  People may not be thinking of spiritual issues, but they likely want to be a better spouse, parent, employee or just a person in general.  So we come along and tell our story of how Christianity has made a difference in our life.  We used to be nasty and now we are nice, we used be a rascal and now we are respectable.  I have mixed feelings about this message.  On one hand I am sympathetic because it is often true.  When one experiences Jesus, there should be a real change in our life.  We should become a better spouse, parent, employee and so on.  But that is a byproduct of the Gospel, it is not the content of the Gospel.  Why is that?  Because a religion or a philosophy does not have to be true to make you a better person, it just needs to provide some motivation.  This is why people are attracted to religions like Buddhism or Mormonism, not because of their truth claims, but because their system provides motivation to be a good person.  The difference that Christianity makes in our life may be something that attracts people to Christianity, but it is not the content of the Gospel.  Somewhat related to this is the idea that Christians are nice people.  You encourage people to become Christians so that they can be around nice people like us.  We are compassionate, kind, generous and generally good people to be around.  Again, I hope all of this is true but that is not the Gospel.  Here is the problem.  We are human beings.  If our message is that Christians are nice, what happens when we lose our temper, get frustrated, pass on some gossip, become judgmental and so on?  That will happen because we are human.  And there goes our message.  We cannot have our message be based on how good we are, even though we strive to be all of these good things.  For others, the message is that church is fun.  There is a strong current in church ministry to make church really fun.  You should come out to church because we have rock music, our pastor is covered in body piercings and tattoos, we keep things lively and so on.  Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that church should be as boring as possible or that we should never change.  I like lively music and I enjoy having fun.  But what happens when that is the content of our message?  That is a shallow message and people will move on to the next thrill in no time.  So what is our message?  Paul makes it very clear that the message is “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,‘ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)  That is the message.  What is this saying?  The message is that people must confess Jesus is Lord, that is an act of allegiance.  In those days, everyone was expected to take an oath that Caesar was Lord, that was how the Romans maintained loyalty.  If a person refused to take that oath, the Romans knew what side that person was on.  The message we have to share is not that Christianity is great or church is fun but that people must acknowledge Jesus is Lord.  This is something very serious, it is making it clear that we are bringing ourselves under the authority of Jesus.  The second part is that we must believe that Jesus was raised.  Notice that it is not that Jesus was crucified.  Why?  Because thousands of people were crucified.  What is unique about Jesus is that he was resurrected.  There are many people who appreciate that Jesus died and see that death as an inspiring example of self-sacrificial love.  That is not enough.  When one accepts that Jesus was resurrected, that sheds new light on every part of Jesus‘ life and death.  There are many doctrines that we can argue over and debate about but the resurrection of Jesus is non-negotiable.  Paul says elsewhere that if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, Christians are fools to be pitied.  Our message is not just that we know a Jesus who was an inspiring religious leader but that we know a Jesus who conquered death.

The Response

So there are people that need to hear our message and our message is that Jesus is the risen Lord.  So what do want me to do about it?  Shouldn’t we leave this up to the professionals?  There are people out there who love to talk about their faith, they are natural communicators and they seem to know no fear.  Let them do it!  Except Paul does not seem to seem to give that option.  People can be saved only if they call on the name of Jesus.  If they are to call on Jesus, they need to believe.  If they are to believe, they need to hear.  If they are to hear, someone must preach.  If someone is to preach, they must be sent.  Who must be sent?  Is Paul speaking of himself?  Paul here is speaking specifically of the need for Jews to believe and yet Paul was the apostle the the Gentiles.  And yet Paul still saw a role for himself in bringing Jews to Jesus, not because he was an apostle or an evangelist but because he was a Christian.  The role of sharing falls upon all those who belong to Jesus.  I know this sounds intimidating.  In some ways, the word ‘preach‘ is an unfortunate translation.  We think of preaching as coming up with a twenty minute sermon with three points, a cute illustration, and based on hours of biblical study.  That is not what Paul is speaking about here.  The original word would be better translated ‘proclaim.‘  Proclaiming is simply passing on the message.  Proclaiming is something we do all the time.  Do you think your grandchildren are the best kids in the world?  You proclaim it.  Have you found a vitamin supplement that works great for your health?  You proclaim it.  That is what we do.  We have accepted Jesus as Lord and we know in our hearts he was raised from the dead.  What should we do?  Proclaim it!  This is not about shoving religion down people’s throats or forcing an unwelcome message on people who are hostile.  Just begin to share what you believe and watch what happens.  If people reject it, respect their decision and do not force it.  If they are interested, see where they are willing to go.  In Acts 17, Paul preached Jesus and the resurrection in Athens.  The results were some rejected the message, some were interested in more information and some accepted the message.  That is what we hope for.   Proclaim the message in the way that is natural for you, according to your personality and in the context of the person you are talking to.  But proclaim the message!

Conclusion

Paul was passionate about proclaiming the Gospel.  He looked at his own ethnic group, the Jews, and it broke his heart that they did not know Jesus.  He knew the message had to go out.  The message still needs to go out.  The people all around us need to hear the message as much as the people in Paul’s day.  What is the message?  The message is that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is alive.  You do not have to know everything, but you have to know this and believe it.  Who is to share this message?  All of us have to share this message.  This will happen in our own way and in our own context.  But we must proclaim the truth of Christ.

Share

Let God Be God

Romans 9

Introduction

It is very interesting for me to see the change in perspective from being a son to being a father.  This is especially true with regard to ideas of fairness.  Now things were a bit different for me growing up as an only child.  There never were questions about what I received compared to what my siblings received.  However, issues of fairness were still there.  In some cases, I was concerned about fairness by comparing my life with that of my friends.  Why did they have those toys and I did not?  Why could they stay out late and I could not?  In other cases, the comparison was not between myself and my friends but between reality and this abstract concept of what I thought life should look like.  Either way, it was about comparison and there were many times that life seemed unfair even if it was over minor issues.  Now I am a father.  What do I hear?  “Dad, that’s just not fair!”  With a family of five children, I experience a whole different dynamic than that of my parents.  On a regular basis, my children see our decisions and our actions as being unfair.  In certain cases, with Logan and Abby having autism and the need to sometimes react differently, I am sure that things do seem unfair.  However, in many cases it comes down to the children being upset about not getting their own way.  This is what I find very interesting: I just don’t care.  I assumed as a child that it was a priority of my parents to seem fair.  I now know the truth: parents just do not care about seeming fair.  It is not that parents enjoy being random in their behavior or about secretly changing the rules, because we do have plan.  The point is that parents don’t care if the children understand the reasoning behind the actions or if decisions actually look fair.  All that matters is that the right thing gets done from our perspective.  This is a great lesson to learn as a parent.  However, this is a lesson I am still learning as a child of God.  Even though I know what it is like to be a parent, when it comes to God I revert back to being a child and I want to demand fairness.  I have a picture of what life should look like and when life does not happen like that, I complain to God.  Life is just not fair!  Well, no one said life was going to be fair.  So how do we deal with this?  Paul gives us some tools in Romans 9.

Biblical Examples

Whenever we study the Bible, we need to start with the author’s intent.  It is very dangerous for us to start with what we think should be the truth and then look for Bible verses to back things up.  Why does Paul write this section?  This chapter is the first part of three chapters where Paul deals with the people of Israel.  Throughout this letter Paul has been dealing with conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  Each thought they were better than the other.  Paul has demonstrated that both are in the same boat since we all have sin and the only way out is by the grace of God as we place our faith in Jesus.  But this naturally leads to the question of all those Jews who never become Christians.  Paul is very concerned about them.  He states that he would be willing to give up his own salvation, if only they would be saved.  Despite what some Christians believe, Paul makes it clear that it is only through Jesus that people can be saved.  But what about Israel’s long history with God?  God had done so much with and through Israel over the centuries.  Now it seemed that God had moved from using Israel as his primary servant to using the church.  Is that fair?  After centuries of serving God, was it fair for God to move over to the church?  That did not seem right, at least not to those of a Jewish background.  It is in this context that Paul begins to reflect on why God does what he does and what happens when that does not look fair.  One biblical example is the story of Jacob and Esau.  Remember that Jacob was later renamed Israel and so this is still very closely connected to the fate of Israel.  Paul reminds us that Jacob and Esau came from the same parents and so they seemed equal.  There was no obvious reason for God to use one of them over the other.  If anything, the odds tipped somewhat in the favor of Esau.  Jacob was not very ethical and did not present himself as a pillar of moral strength.  And yet it was Jacob that God chose to be the one he would work through.  Why?  Where is the list of reasons?  Where is the discussion of why Jacob was better qualified?  No where.  God made the choice and he is God so he can make that choice.  That hardly seems fair.  Like children, our concept of fairness is based on how we think things should be.  This looks unfair.  But God made the decision.  This is not just an obscure proof-text, this is the way we see God operate throughout the Bible.  Job was a righteous man who served God and helped people.  He lost everything.  His friends, who operated under the expectations of fairness, accused Job of sin.  God punishing sinners was fair, anything else was unfair.  The reader knows that Job has not sinned, he is righteous, and yet he still suffers.  In the end, God appears to Job and refuses to explain his apparently unfair actions and simply announces that he is the God of all creation who can do this.  Jesus does not seem to be any fairer.  He tells this parable: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1–16 ESV)  We could spend a lot of time looking at what this means, but what I want you to see is that this does not seem fair.  Imagine two people.  One lives his entire life serving God.  He sacrifices his money and his time and his talents.  He works hard, both to minister in the church and to live a holy life by fleeing every temptation.  It is not an easy life but he sees it as worth it for the reward he will find in heaven.  The other man lives his life the way he wants.  He lies, cheats and steals.  He has no concern for morality and lives only for pleasure and personal gain.  After a life of abusing himself and abusing others, he picks up a Bible on his death bed and he finally sees the truth of Jesus.  He accepts Christ as his Lord and then dies.  Is it fair that both men would enjoy the same eternity?  No.  But God is God and if God says that is the way, that is the way.  Fairness, at least from our perspective, is not the determining factor.

Application

Let us go back to our experience of fairness.  We want life to be fair.  But life does not look fair.  Why do we enjoy plentiful religious freedom while there are Christians in other countries who are dying for their faith in the midst of persecution?  Why are there good people who suffer in sickness and poverty and yet there are wicked people who enjoy health and wealth?  Why are there children who are physically and mentally disabled?  Why are innocent people sexually abused?  Why do people cheat on their spouses?  Why are there a million random events that seem to fly in the face of what we understand fairness to be?  This is not just abstract theory.  There are many times that I feel like it is unfair for Logan and Abby to be born with autism.  They deserve a normal life.  It is not fair.  I can see many events in my life as an adult that seem very unfair.  My first instinct is to rush to God’s defense.  I want to explain away the difficulties and make God look as positive as possible.  But perhaps that is not the right response.  I am not saying that God is wicked or that he enjoys making our lives miserable.  Maybe we do not need to know the reasons behind what happens anymore than our children have to know the background to our decisions or actions.  Maybe it is as simple as letting God be God.  The problem with this is that sounds awfully close to fatalism.  Fatalism is the acceptance of all things and events as inevitable; submission to fate.  People who are fatalistic, simply submit to suffering and have no hope of future relief from that suffering.  That is not the Christian view.  I am not saying that we should take the darkest time in our life and assume that God wants that experience for us for the rest of this life.  I am saying that we need to get beyond questions of fairness.  If something bad happens, instead of getting hung up on the ‘why‘ questions, let God be God and acknowledge that God is allowing this suffering or pain at this moment for some reason.  But that is the point, there are reasons.  As much as Paul stresses that God is God, he also demonstrates that God has a plan.  We don’t understand it and we don’t have to.  It is okay because God is in the suffering with us.  So many people miss out on the best part of their life because they are so stuck on what is fair and what is not.  We need to remember that God is God and he is not required to explain his reasons.  However, God has also promised to be there with us and help us to overcome, perhaps in a way that we do not anticipate.

Conclusion

Life can sometimes be so unfair.  It is our temptation to complain to God about our situation in life.  Paul shares a powerful image of our relationship with God.  “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20–21 NIV)  Why is our life like this?  Because God is God.  Why would God move from Israel to using the church?  Because God is God.  This is not just a theological truth.  This is the key to moving forward in life.  If we hold onto to issues of fairness, we can never move forward into healing, joy and peace.  Let God be God.  Seek his help and his presence, rely upon his strength.  But remember that in the end he is the only true God.

Share

Abundance of Blessings

Romans 8

Introduction

What is Christianity all about?  Is Christianity all about bad news or about good news?  I have seen descriptions of churches that were completely about what they were against and not at all about what they are for.  It is easy to tear things down and much harder to build things back up.  I remember having people talk to me about Jesus and it all seemed negative, it all seemed to be a grasping for something in the moment of fear. To be fair, you can see where people get such ideas.  Paul has really spent a lot of time talking about sin and about how it has corrupted all of humanity.  It has not been very enjoyable to dwell on.  You could almost see Paul has having a completely negative view.  However, for Paul the good news is not really good news until it is seen in the context of the bad news.  In Romans 8, Paul unleashes the good news on the readers.  Paul has already explained that we are saved by faith and that it is only by the grace of God.  That is incredible news.  In this chapter, Paul goes into some more detail about what is in store for the Christian once they put that faith in God.  It is far, far more than just a ticket to heaven.  Let us take a look.

Freedom

The first thing that Paul mentions is the link to what Paul has just been talking about.  In the previous chapter, Paul talked about the trap of sin from which both the law and our human will were unable to free us.  It would be very easy for us to feel condemned in such a situation.  There is no lack of opportunity to self-condemn.  We know the mistakes we make.  We know the ways in which we fail.  Are we condemned according to God?  Paul teaches: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1–2 NIV)  How much condemnation is there left?  No more!  We are free.  Not free to sin, but free to overcome sin without having to lose hope along the journey.  How many people need this?  All of us.  All have felt condemned.  We need not live with the burden of our failings weighing us down.  We are free.

Holy Spirit

Freedom is a great gift but there is more.  God gives us his Holy Spirit.  “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11 NIV)  What is the Holy Spirit?  The Spirit is not just a tool or even a power.  The Spirit is one of the persons of the Trinity.  The Spirit is God and part of God dwells in us.  It is not as if we become Christians and then God abandons us until it is time to meet again in heaven.  God dwells within us by his Spirit.  I grew up in the church and yet this is a truth that escaped me.  I thought we were supposed to just be respectable little Christians.  I never considered that God would dwell in us by his Spirit.  No matter how alone you feel, you are never alone.  The Holy Spirit is within you.

Adoption

That is wonderful that we have the Holy Spirit but what does that mean?  One of the purposes of the Spirit is to testify to our adoption into God’s family.  “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15–16 NIV)  This is a theme that is found throughout the New Testament and yet so few Christians understand it.  God is not just looking for followers or even worshippers.  God is looking for sons and daughters.  God is looking for a great big family and he wants each one of us to be a part of that.  The truth is that at times we do not feel like a child of God, we do not feel like we deserve that honour.  The good news is that our relationship with God does not depend on our feelings.  The Holy Spirit is our rebirth certificate that testifies to the truth of our relationship apart from any feelings.  If you are a Christian, you are a child of God.

Hope in Suffering

One of the other blessings we receive is hope in suffering.  We are told: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18 NIV)  Christianity is not a religion that denies suffering, that pretends that everything is okay or sees pain as an illusion.  The most important event in human history according to Christianity is the death of Jesus on the cross, a moment of intense suffering.  Suffering is real.  However we have hope in suffering because we know that our current suffering is not the end of the story.  There is something better that is coming.  Just as Jesus moved from the old rugged cross to the resurrection, so we too will move from suffering to glory, from death to life.

Resurrection of the Body

What is this glory that awaits us?  It is the resurrection of the body.  “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23 NIV)  Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating in the clouds but to be resurrected beings with real bodies just Jesus had at his resurrection.  This is connected with our experience of adoption.  We are declared to be sons and daughters of God now, but our adoption is made complete at our resurrection.  There we will have bodies built for eternity and and will be able to enjoy our Father for eternity.  This is the hope that is held out to us in the present moment of weakness.

Resurrection of the World

We may know that our bodies will be resurrected, what many do not know is that our world will experience a resurrection as well.  “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20–21 NIV)  I often hear Christians say this world is not our home.  Actually, this world is our home.  Perhaps not the way it is now, but it will be changed just as we will one day be changed.  This is something that is talked about in Revelation as well.  What is interesting is that the new earth will be so amazing that God will come and dwell on earth to be with his people.  This world is not a dump waiting to be escaped from.  This world is a taste of the new earth that will take place at the resurrection.

Help in Prayer

The resurrection of the body and the resurrection of the world are great gifts.  But they will take place some time in the distant future.  What about right now?  I have to get through this day.  I have to get through this week.  How is that going to happen?  It is going to happen through prayer.  The problem is that I don’t even know what to pray about.  That is okay, because we still have the Holy Spirit.  “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (Romans 8:26 NIV)  This is one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible.  I know my inadequacy in prayer, especially when things are the most desperate.  But my prayers do not have to rely on my knowledge or eloquence.  The Spirit helps us to pray.  The Spirit knows our experience, the Spirit knows us and the Spirit knows God’s will.  It is very important that we rely upon the Spirit for prayer and we should be encouraged that we are not alone in prayer.

Love of God

There are many other blessings that we receive but I am going to conclude with our experience of the love of God.  “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39 NIV)  We are built to love.  We are made to both receive and give love.  However, in our humanity relationships often break down.  Love falls into lust.  Loyalty falls into jealousy.  We fear losing the love relationships that we have.  We may even fear that we will lose the love that God has for us.  There is no reason to fear.  God has adopted us into his family and he has declared his love for us.  Case closed.  God is not a fickle lover.  His love is guaranteed.  Nothing can break that love for us.  Rest in that love, enjoy that love, trust in that love.

Conclusion

What is Christianity all about?  It is not all bad news.  It is not all rules and laws.  It is about good news.  A lot of good news.  Not just heaven but blessing after blessing in this world and the next.  We receive so much, from the Holy Spirit to the resurrection.  We receive freedom and hope.  We are helped in our prayers and in our confidence in our relationship with God.  God is pouring out his blessings on us.  Receive those blessings and let that joy spur you on to share this blessed faith with the people around us.

Share

Trapped

Romans 7

Introduction

Look at your life.  Is it the way you want it to be?  I do not mean do you have the possessions you want or have you accomplished what you want.  I mean, how is your inner self?  Are you the kind of person that you want to be?  Do you find it easy to do the things you are supposed to and avoid the things that are wrong?  Sometimes living the Christian life is like trying to do something in the mirror.  You want to move your hand to the left, but you move it to the right.  When you try to fix your mistake, you just move it even more to the right.  It can be a frustrating situation.  We can find some consolation in that the Apostle Paul shares something similar from his own experience.  Paul has already shared that sin is something that affects the entire human race.  It is one thing to say that as a theological statement.  It is another thing to make it personal.  What does it mean for us as individuals to acknowledge our sinfulness?  Are we prepared to confess that even our good deeds are touched by sin?  And does admitting these things lead naturally to a hopeless situation?  Let us take a look at what this means.

Law

One of the things that Paul is really interested in is that of the Law.  This would seem to hold great promise for dealing with the sin problem that Paul has been talking about.  The Law was not something that some smart people thought up.  They were not just some nice religious ideas.  The Law was revelation from God.  The people of Israel had just escaped slavery in Egypt.  They were just about to begin their history as a nation.  Moses went up Mount Sinai and met with God.  God had no intention to abandon Israel after rescuing them from slavery.  God revealed to Moses the Law, a comprehensive set  of commandments that covered almost every area of life.  This Law has helped define the Hebrew people and continues to be central to Jews to this day.  Well, this would seem to be the answer to the sin problem.  We naturally sin.  God gives us a list of rules and all we have to do is obey.  We do the good things and avoid the bad things.  Simple.  But there are some problems.  One is that this is very hard to do.  But in another way, the Law seems to make things worse.  This is what Paul seems to be saying.  In a way, Law is responsible for sin.  If there were no rules to break, then there would be no wrong doing.  You would not know something is wrong unless someone told you.  I remember working for some Christians as I was making movement toward faith.  I was trying not to swear but one of the phrases that I used and saw as an innocent alternative was “O my God.”  I never thought anything of it.  Then my manager snuck up behind me and scared me and I yelled it.  He was horrified that I would say such a thing and I was surprised that he was offended.  I did not know it was against the rules.  If it was not against the rules, I wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong.  In a way, the rules were responsible for my sin.  If you drive at a high rate of speed on the autobahn in Germany where there is no speed limit, you are not doing anything wrong.  Rules help to define what is right and wrong and if there are no rules, there is no way to say someone has done something wrong.  But there is something else going on.  It is not just that the Law identifies sin, in a way it provokes sin.  How is that?  What is your first thought when you see a sign saying “Do not touch”?  I want to touch.  If there had been no sign, it would not even enter my mind to touch it.  It is the holding out of something forbidden that makes it desirable.  The rule awakens something in us, a rebelliousness that desires to go against the system.  So you can see why Paul does not present the Law as the solution to our sin problem.  There is one nagging question though.  Why did God give the Law if the Law does not help but makes things worse?  Well, the Law does do some good.  The Law provided limits to behaviour that was especially required as Israel began as a nation.  While the Israelites often broke the Law, their attempts at following the Law were at least better than if there had been no Law.  The Law is also good in that it points toward the holiness of God.  Many of the things found in the Law are not wrong simply because they are found in a piece of legislation.  Why is murder wrong?  Why is adultery wrong?  They were wrong long before Moses.  They are wrong because they go against the character of God.  The Law gives us a glimpse of that character.  Finally, the Law points us to the need for Christ and that is what we are now going to look at.

Will

We often hear people say “Where there is a will, there is a way.”  What does that mean?  All we have to do is put our will to something and we can make what we want to happen.  With enough effort and determination, we can take control of our destiny.  But is that the case?  Paul gives his view.  He tries to do what is right and it doesn’t work.  He tries to avoid what is wrong and it doesn’t work.  It is not about effort, it is about something deeper.  No matter how hard we try to be good, we will never achieve the standard we are aiming for.  We may do something completely selfless.  Then we notice that we did something selfless.  Then we feel pretty good about that selfless act.  Then an unhealthy pride creeps into our hearts and the next selfless act is done hoping that people will see and praise us for how selfless we are.  This is the trap that Paul is identifying.  We want to be better but we can’t.  There is something within us that brings us down.  The Law does not help us, it only shines a spotlight on what we already know.  We try and try and only dig our hole deeper.  This would seem to lead to a hopeless situation.  We get a sense of despair from Paul when he says “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24 NIV)  It is a terrible trap to be in but it is not a hopeless trap.  Paul does not go into detail here, but he does give us a quick answer to the question he asked: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25 NIV)  This is one of the uses of the Law.  The Law reminds us how sinful we are.  We try to remedy this by working harder.  We get frustrated that our hard work does not pay off.  We are put into a position in which the only answer is to rely on Jesus.  But that is a story for another day.

Conclusion

It is a terrible feeling to be trapped.  To be put in a place where you cannot escape.  Sin is such a trap.  There is the Law but the Law only provides definition to the trap.  It helps us to see the details of the bars of our cage but it does not provide the keys to unlock the cage. We are trapped.  The Law cannot get us out.  Our will cannot get us out.  But Jesus can get us out.  What Paul wants us to see is that we will not even want Jesus‘ help until we get to the place where we know how trapped we really are.  When we come to the end of our abilities, that is when the grace of God takes over.

Share

Being a Slave

Romans 6:15-23

Introduction

How do you understand your relationship with God?  Do you see yourself primarily as a worshipper?  That would mean that your main role would be to praise God.  Do you see yourself as a follower?  That would mean that you try to figure out the rules and follow them to the best of your ability.  Do you see yourself as a disciple? That would mean that you see God as your teacher and it is your role to learn.  Do you see yourself as friends with God?  Then you would see your relationship being about mutual sharing.  Do you see yourself as a child of God?  Then Christianity would be about enjoying our Father and receiving his provision.  There is truth in all of this.  But what about slavery?  Have you ever thought of yourself as a slave of God?  Slavery?  No way!  Who wants to be a slave?  When we think of slavery, we think of people in chains, people beaten and bloodied, people who are treated life animals.  We would all likely agree that slavery is one of the worst evils of human history, one unfortunately still plaguing us.  Slavery is bad.  But here is something to consider.  James and Jude were two brothers of Jesus and therefore people to be highly respected.  When they wrote their letters that are found in the New Testament, they did not promote themselves as half-brothers of Jesus.  They describe themselves as slaves of Jesus.  It is likely that your English translation says servant, but the Greek is really slave.  Everyone knows it sounds much more respectable to be a servant than a slave.  Our problem is that we have an inaccurate understanding of ancient slavery.  We think of slavery in the American south or human trafficking today where people are kidnapped and forced into slavery.  That was not the typical form of slavery in the ancient world.  There were people who were captured in wars and forced into slavery.  But in Rome at the time Paul was writing his letter, there slavery looked different.  Often slavery was instigated by the one who would become a slave rather than the slave master.  Why would anyone ever sell themselves into slavery?  For many people it was for financial reasons.  Once a person went into debt, there were not a lot of options.  You could not just declare bankruptcy and have a new beginning.  You still had to pay your debts and you still had to feed your family and that meant you had to do whatever you needed to do.  If you sold yourself into slavery, your master would take over your debt and you would work for him for free.  But there were other reasons to go into slavery.  There were not many opportunities for people to move from one class to another.  In our society, you can work hard enough and study hard enough that you can move up the economic and social ladder.  It was not so in the ancient world.  Education were for the rich only, the majority of people would not even learn to read.  However, there was one option.  You could sell yourself and your family into slavery.  Why do that?  Because masters were not just looking for general laborers.  They saw their slaves as an investment and they sought to improve that investment.  They would provide education for your family and train you for a specific trade.  People such as doctors and scribes and other trained professions were often made up of slaves that masters had invested in.  Since slavery was not necessarily a life long commitment, it was often worth entering into.  Once you were free, you had the option of remaining in the employment of your former master.  This is the background that we need to understand what Paul is saying about slavery in this passage.

Slave to Sin

The first type of slavery that Paul talks about is slavery to sin.  We all start off in this place.  We are born into this state.  Is it fair?  No.  But neither is it fair when a child is born into slavery because the father sold the family into slavery.  Fairness does not change the reality of the situation.  So what does it mean when I say we were slaves to sin?  It does not mean that we are completely controlled by sin, that is being forced to sin all day long.  Even in human slavery, the master does not control every thought, word and deed of the slave.  Rather the slave is in a position where they must submit their will to the master.  The master does not control everything but he does control the destiny of the slave.  When we are in slavery to sin, it mean that are identity is found in our sinful master.  We may want to do good and be a righteous person, but in the end we must submit to our master.  This is the situation that Paul has been describing.  Our father Adam sold us into slavery because of a debt.  Unfortunately that debt has piled up so high that it is impossible for us to ever pay it off.  There is only one way for us to escape that slavery.  If someone rich enough could pay that debt, then we could be freed from slavery.  That someone was Jesus and that payment was the cross.  By accepting what Jesus did for us, it is like walking up to our old master and handing him the statement of our emancipation.  However, like human slavery, we have the opportunity to continue to serve our old master by our free choice.  This is something that many Christians do.  We are freed from sin but decide to stay continue to serve the old master.  It is a bad decision and must be avoided.  What we must see is that there is another master to be served and he is not willing to share.

Slave to God

Our alternative to be a slave to sin is being a slave to God.  A slave to God?  That likely still sounds wrong.  But that is because we still imagine the brutal slavery of the American south.  It does not feel like God has captured us in chains and has beaten us into submission.  That is why we have to remember Roman slavery.  Roman slavery often began with the confession that the desired life was beyond the person’s own resources.  They could not work hard enough to get out of debt, they could never have the resources to get an education and receive training for a career.  So they would attach themselves to one who had those resources, they would become slaves.  We are left in the same situation.  We could remain as slaves to sin, but that way leads to death.  We have a huge debt of unrighteousness that we cannot pay off ourselves.  We do not have the resources to achieve the life that we want, to be able to have peace and rest and wholeness.  There is only one who has these resources and that is God.  We need to be his slave.  This is important.  Christianity is not about just believing a set of doctrines.  It is about submitting one’s life to God.  The earliest Christian creed was simple: Jesus is Lord.  We use ‘Lord’ in our prayers and songs and liturgies.  Do we realize that it means ‘Master‘ and we must be prepared to submit to our Master and Lord?  We should not take this language to lightly.  If God is our Master, then we are his servants or better yet, slaves.  Slavery does not mean we have no freedom.  In the ancient world, many slaves had more freedom than poor free people.  But it does mean that we ultimately submit to God.  When we feel like doing something, the final decision is not whether it makes sense to us or if it brings us pleasure.  The final decision is based on the will of God.  What does God want?  Does that feel humiliating?  Remember this truth: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:5–7 NIV)  The word for servant here is still that word for slave.  And what did Jesus pray in the garden?  “Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36 NIV)  Jesus, who was equal with the Father, became a slave and accepted submission.  And yet we are hesitant to take on that same role?  Remember that our slavery to God is not punishment but rather it ultimate leads to blessings beyond our imagination.

Conclusion

We do not like to talk about slavery today and that is understandable.  And yet it is a part of our experience.  We are born into slavery, slavery to sin.  Sin is our master we ultimately do its will.  However, Jesus came into the world to redeem sinners, to purchase us from our master.  But how do we respond to this?  Do we take our new freedom and voluntarily serve our old master?  Or do we embrace our role as slaves to God?  We are not mindless slaves that are unable to think for ourselves.  We are like the slaves of the old Roman empire, who in submission to their master, received a much better life.  Being a slave to God is good thing.  Even Jesus did it.  Let us humble ourselves and live in right relationship with God.

Share

Living in Grace Land

Romans 6:1-14

Introduction

I believe that there is one question that is essential for all of us to ask: So what?  You say you love your children?  So, what does that look like in reality?  You say that you care about the poor?  So what does that look like in practice?  There should be some connection between what we say and what we do, between what we believe and how we act.  What has Paul been teaching throughout his letter?  He has demonstrated that humanity is sinful.  We are not capable of pleasing God on our own.  Sin has touched every part of us and so even our religious activity is corrupted.  Our only hope is to be saved by grace.  Grace is an undeserved gift.  It is not based on how many good deeds we have done and it is not based on which religious rituals we have performed.  This is grace.  We are saved by grace.  There is no other way.  The question is: So what?  What does that mean for us on a practical level if we are saved by grace apart from what we do?  You can see how some people would be suspicious about too much emphasis on grace.  If you are saved by grace and not by what you do, why bother doing anything at all?  If good works can’t help you, it would seem that bad works can’t hurt you.  This is the way some people look at Christianity.  At some point you choose to be a Christian and you get baptized.  Everything else now is up to you.  Live like you want, commit whatever sin you want, you have your ticket to heaven and that is all that matters.  Some people think you still need to confess your sins after each transgression, but there is no need to actually change your life style.  Is that right?  Is that really what the Christian life is supposed to look like?  It is not.  But how do we avoid this and at the same time not fall back into trying to be good enough for God and working to earn his love?  It would seem that our only choices are to live an anything goes life or else live a joyless legalism.  However, there is a middle way and it all revolves around grace.  Grace is not about God feeling nice one day and deciding to give people a get-out-of-hell card.  Grace is defined and understood only through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Reflecting on Jesus‘ death and resurrection takes our understanding far beyond questions about rules of what we are or are not supposed to do.  By understanding this, we will truly know what it means to live in grace land.

Death of Christ

So what are we allowed to do or not allowed to do?  What are the rules?  What can we get away with?  If we believe that Christianity is really about grace, those are not the right questions to ask.  If Christianity is about grace, we need to ask where grace came from.  Grace came from what Jesus did and it can only be properly understood through the lens of Christ.  What did Jesus do?  Jesus died for us.  What does that mean?  We can look at in purely theological terms, that is he died so we can go to heaven.  But we need to think of it in a way deeper than a simple exchange.  What does it mean that Jesus died?  Jesus was God incarnate.  The Bible tells us that Jesus was involved in the act of creation.  This God incarnate allowed himself to be arrested, tortured, beaten, humiliated, condemned and crucified.  In the ancient world there were honorable and dishonorable ways to die.  Crucifixion was about the most dishonorable way to die.  Why would Jesus allow this to happen to him?  He certainly had the power to prevent it.  Jesus died this horrible and painful death because he loved us.  Why go so far as to die?  Because of sin and this being the only way to pay the price.  So what does this have to do with us?  Paul makes an interesting connection.  “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death” (Romans 6:4 NIV)  “If we have been united with him like this in his death” (Romans 6:5 NIV)  “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6–7 NIV)  Paul expects the death of Jesus to be more than placing a reservation for us in heaven.  Our life here and now should be shaped by the cross.  Why did Jesus die on the cross?  Because of sin.  What is our attitude toward sin?  We should never see sin as acceptable, nor should we see sin as desirable but technically against the rules.  We should hate sin because that is why Jesus died.  We should see sin as terrible not out of fear of punishment or out of a desire to look respectful but because we love Jesus.  When we feel the temptation to do something wrong, we should picture Jesus on the cross and reflect on why he died.  Instead of seeing the cross as giving us free rein to sin, we should put our sin up on the cross where it belongs.  Christ died to save us from sin, we should let that be our motivation to holy living.

Life of Christ

So we are inspired by the death of Jesus.  His self-sacrificial love should spur us on to righteous living and intolerance toward our sin.  But the death of Jesus is not the end of the story.  We are told that on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead.  Why is this?  If a person goes to heaven when they die, why not just have Jesus‘ spirit go to be with the Father and let the body rot in the grave?  Was the resurrection of Jesus just so we could have a happy ending and not conclude the story on a sad note?  The resurrection is essential to the story.  The resurrection is so important that in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that if Jesus was not raised, Christianity is a waste of time.  But again, this is not just a theological note.  I gave some verses earlier, but I did not give the whole message.  “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” (Romans 6:4–5 NIV)  The crucifixion is important, however, the resurrection is equally important.  The resurrection is the sign that life has conquered death.  When Jesus rose from the dead, resurrection life came flooding into the world, reviving all those who would receive its power.  What does this mean for those of us trying to live in grace land.  Grace land is a place of life and not death.  Grace does not mean we have learned to tolerate the stench of sin but that we have learned to love the beautiful smell of righteousness.  What does the resurrection mean for us as Christians?  It means that we live like we really are alive.  The Gospel of John tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.  If you remember the story, Jesus waited until Lazarus was dead four days before arriving.  That meant that his body began to decompose and he had the stink of death about him.  When Jesus ordered them to open the tomb, they did not want to because of the stench.  Jesus spoke the word and Lazarus came to life.  But when he walked out, he still had his burial cloths on.  I would assume that those wrappings still stunk like death.  That is understandable but Jesus told the people to remove those wrappings because that is no way for a living man to smell.  In a way that is a picture of us.  When we become Christians, that is Jesus calling us out of the tomb.  But when we first become Christians, we still stink like sin.  It takes a while to get those old grave clothes off.  However, we would never be content to stay stinking and so over time they come off.  If we have been raised with Jesus, if he has shared his life with us, we cannot be comfortable with sin in our life.  It is not just that it is against the rules, it is because that is not who we are anymore.  As Paul says elsewhere: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV)  Grace land is a place that smells like life and not like death.

Conclusion

So what does life look like in grace land?  First of all, I will tell you what it does not look like.  It does not look like legalism, where you are afraid that every little word or deed is breaking some obscure rule.  Nor does it look like freedom to indulge in any sin you want because of confidence in some past experience.  What does grace land look like?  It looks like Jesus.  It looks like Jesus dying on the cross and it looks like Jesus stepping out of the tomb.  The cross makes us understand the seriousness of sin and the price that was paid to free us from its power.  The empty tomb makes us understand that we have a new life that is filled with resurrection power.  Grace land is not about telling us why we are not allowed to sin but about why we should no longer want to sin.  Grace land is a wonderful place to live.

Share

Two Men and a Sin Baby

Romans 5:12-21

Introduction

Why do things happen to us?  Why do we experience some good things and some bad things?  In our society, we pride ourselves in personal autonomy.  We want to believe that things are within our control.  Do you want to get ahead in life?  Roll up your sleeves and get to work.  What do we tell our children?  You can be whatever you want to be.  This is a good thing.  We do not want to be like some cultures that just accept their circumstances, even extreme injustice, because they see themselves as paying off the sins of a former life.  Our society has benefited because there are people who have a dream and a vision and they are willing to work to achieve those goals.  We are blessed because there are people who could see beyond their current circumstances.  However, it is not completely true that each of us is in full control of our destiny.  It is not true that we can do whatever we want.  It is not true that the human experience is just a collection of individual choices.  We are affected by forces greater than ourselves.  In many ways, life is like being in a fast moving river.  We can move around  in the river, adjusting our position, moving around a bit, but we are still stuck with the current and with the twists and turns of the river.  People have made choices that affect our life.  This will seem very unfair.  I should be able to choose my own destiny, it is not right for other people to choose it for me.  And yet this happens all the time.  You could be working for a company, seeking to be a model employee, doing extra work and trying your very best.  That will affect you some.  But if the owner of the company makes some bad business decisions that lead to bankruptcy, you are affected by their decisions beyond what you try to achieve as an individual.  Is that fair?  No, but it would be reality.  What if the Prime Minister of Canada decided to declare war on the United States of America?  Would that affect you if we went to war with our neighbours to the south, even if you were not involved in the decision?  Of course.  Parents make choices that affect their children, spouses make choices that affect their spouse and the government is always making choices that affect us all.  That is the experience of life.  Then we should not be surprised that is true in our spiritual life as well.  Christianity is not just about a bunch of people, some choosing to be good, others choosing to be bad.  It is much more complicated than that.  Paul presents for us a picture of human existence and our relationship to God according to the choices of two men: Adam and Jesus.  It is interesting that Adam simply means man and Jesus’ favorite title was the Son of Man.  These two individuals, Man and Son of Man, made decisions that affect us all.  We cannot avoid their decisions, although we can choose which choice will rule our lives.  Let us look at the story of these two men.

Man

The first man was Adam.  In many ways, he was the ultimate parent.  Just as I can make choices that will affect my family, Adam was given the responsibility of choosing for all of his family, including us.  Adam was given a blessed existence.  Life was easy and life was good.  Adam had a close relationship with God, it was like two friends walking together in the garden.  There was the potential for a wonderful existence for the human race.  Then came the serpent.  It is easy to blame the serpent and it was certainly not innocent.  But the serpent did not make choices for the human race, Adam did.  What was the sin of Adam?  It was not eating the wrong kind of fruit.  There was something much deeper going on here.  The first thing he did wrong was lose trust in God.  God promised to care for him and bless him.  But Adam lost sight of that and wanted more.  Can you imagine being promised ninety-nine things and being upset about the one that is withheld?  We can imagine, because often that is our experience.  The other part of the sin was wanting to be more like God.  The serpent said that if the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil was eaten, the first couple would be like God.  Obviously the serpent was trying to manipulate them, but the trick worked only because they really wanted to be more like God.  When I say more like God, I do not mean they wanted to be more kind and loving and merciful and righteous and holy.  They wanted to blur the lines between the Creator and the creation.  They craved what God had and coveted his greater power.  If they had to disobey God’s one command so they could narrow the gap between God and humanity, then so be it.  How do we know this happened?  Should we be watching for an archaeological discovery of a man born without a belly bottom?  We know this story is true because this still is our story.    We are still on the same quest as our father Adam to push God off the throne.  People do this through new age mysticism in order to become a god or through technology, playing god in the laboratory.  What was the result of Adam’s choice?  He got what he wanted.  He gained the knowledge of good and evil, by losing the one and receiving the other in experience.  This brought death into the human race.  What kind of death?  Theologians disagree on some of the details but we do agree on is that this was spiritual death.  It was death in that humanity was now separated from God.  A huge wall went up that prevented God’s life power to flow back to us.  Death reigned, not just for Adam as an individual, but for all the human race.  One choice by one man, brought death into the world, all because he wanted to be more like God.

Son of Man

That sounds rather hopeless.  However, Christianity is anything but hopeless.  God had no intention of leaving humanity in its separation and in its bondage to death.  But how would such a thing be reversed?  Adam had the legitimate authority to choose the way for humanity and God would be breaking his own rules by arbitrarily overturning the decision.  In order for God to reverse the results of Adam’s sin, he would have to almost repeat the original setting and give us a second chance.  But who could take Adam’s place?  Not just any person would do.  After all, Adam went into this without a sin nature and everyone after him has a sin nature.  God needed someone who was not already bound to sin and so was free to choose one way or another.  The person who was chosen was God’s Son, born as a human being, coming into this world without a sin nature.  It is interesting to compare Adam and Christ.  Adam longed for what God had.  But listen to what Paul says about Jesus: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5–7 ESV)  Jesus already had equality of God and he refused to cling to that.  What Jesus did was much harder than what was expected of Adam.  It is one thing to decide that you are not going to pursue something, it is another thing to give up what you already have.  If time was rolled back fifteen years, it would be possible for me to choose to not have a family.  Many people make that choice and are happy with it.  But if I had to choose to give up my family, to lose my wife and children, I could not do it.  Experiencing it now, I would not be able to give up family out of ignorance.  In the same way, Jesus already knew what he had and what it meant for him to give up that to become human.  But it was not just about equality with God.  It was about obedience.  Adam brought death into the world through disobedience.  Life could come flooding back into the world only by a much greater act of obedience.  Adam had one commandment to obey: do not eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.  He failed.  Jesus has one commandment to obey: go and die on the cross.  Do you see the contrast here?  Don’t eat some fruit, go and die a painful death.  I know the commandment I would prefer.  And yet Adam could not obey the painless command, while Jesus was fully obedient to the painful command.  Do not think that Jesus was just going through the motions, that this was no big deal because he was the Son of God.  Read about Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, the night before the crucifixion.  Jesus really wrestled with this, knowing full well the price of obedience.  And yet Jesus was still able to say “Not my will, but your will be done.”  That was obedience!  The result of that obedience was as great as Adam’s act of disobedience.  Life came rushing like a flood back to the human race.  The opportunity to remove the separation from God suddenly was back.  The repair process from all the damage done by Adam had no begun.  What Adam as Man had done was bind us to death.  What Jesus as Son of Man had done was to free us to life.

Conclusion

This is an interesting story.  If we were looking at a piece of fiction, we might enjoy making the comparisons between Adam and Jesus on a literary level.  But this is not just a story.  It is literally a matter of life and death.   Adam chose death for the human race.  Jesus came and chose life.  But what does that choice mean?  It is not as automatic as what happened with Adam.  Adam’s choice had to be honored.  That means that death and separation from God are our natural direction.  What Jesus did was give us an opportunity to change destinies.  We cannot simply step out of Adam’s shadow, but we can step into Jesus‘ shadow.  By choosing Jesus, we can move out of death into life, out of separation and into relationship, out of darkness and into light.  We have only two options available.  We can be in Adam or we can be in Christ.  Which one will we choose?

Share

Peace and Joy

Romans 5:1-11

Introduction

I like it when things make sense.  I enjoy it when things are logical and reasonable.  This is the challenge of being a parent.  Amanda and I look at some of the bad things our kids do and instead of getting mad, we look at each other and ask: “why?!”  It is not as if they thought through what they desired and concluded they were willing to pay the price of punishment.  It is not as if they wanted to see how well they could avoid our observation.  They do something bad, without any real benefit to them and hardly any effort to avoid detection.  Why?  Somethings just do not make sense, at least not at first glance.  The same is true of the Christian faith.  If it was up to me to invent Christianity, it would not look like it does.  It would be much more logical, at least according to my logic.  It would fit with how we think and act on a daily basis.  But Christianity is not that way.  This is not just my opinion.  The Apostle Paul discovered this as he preached the Gospel.  Both Jews and Gentiles looked at it as foolishness.  It just did not make sense, at least from human reasoning.  We are going to have to come to terms with the fact that Christianity is just weird.  But at the same time, we better understand how it is weird and prepare ourselves to submit to its weirdness.

Peace With God

Paul has already made it very clear that the human race is separated from God.  Whether we are Jews or Gentiles, sin has entered into the human race and has disrupted our relationship with God.  We do not need the Bible to prove this, the sinfulness of humanity is the easiest doctrine to prove.  The real question is about what the results are.  Many people think humanity is sort of bad and our goal is to become sort of good.  Other people think we are not religious enough and what we need is to become more religious.  The Bible gives us a much more serious answer.  According to the Bible, humanity is in open rebellion against God.  Humanity has declared war on God by rejecting his call to holiness and righteousness.  God revealed his Law with all his expectations.  God has sent prophet after prophet to warn us and the world has not gotten any better.  We have done more than just mildly disappoint God, we have rebelled against him.  These are some serious charges.  Now, let us use our thoughts to come up with a solution to this dire situation.  One option would be for God to wipe us out.  God is infinitely holy, our sin is a crime against that holiness and therefore an infinite crime.  It would make sense for God to pour out his wrath on us and give us everything we deserve.  We know God has it in him to do it as this is pretty much what he did in the days of Noah.  That is an option that seems reasonable, although less than desirable.  Another option, more appealing to us, is that God could just wave his hand and forget about it.  God could close his eyes and plug his ears, a pretty big challenge for an omniscient God, to our sins.  He could treat us like a grandparent treats their grandchild when they take an extra cookie from the jar.  The problem is that does not fit who God is, it would actually contradict his nature.  God is a God of justice and righteousness and sin is not something he can just ignore.  So what can be done?  God is love and he does not want to destroy us.  God is holy and he can’t ignore our sin.  If only there was another option.  Well, there is another way, but it is pretty crazy.  What if God decided to save us instead of destroy us?  What if God decided to pay the price himself instead of just pretending nothing happened?  What if God appeared as a human being, not just any human being but appeared as a baby?  What if that baby grew up and preached the kingdom of God?  What if that man went to the cross and died, not as the result of an unjust charge but as a voluntary way of taking care of our sin?  What if the only reason this plan worked was because the person was both man and God and therefore was in a unique position to bridge the gap between humanity and divinity?  I told you it was crazy.  And yet, this is exactly what took place.  In the person of Jesus, God’s love and holiness came together and formed a cross.  If that was not strange enough, God decided to do this before humanity showed any clue of deserving this great gift.  “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV)  That would be like me having the most amazing gift for my children and right when they were misbehaving the most, handing it over.  That is crazy.  From our perspective.  But that is what happens when God’s love and holiness come together.

Joy in Suffering

That is weird that God chooses to save us by allowing his Son to die on the cross.  That is just strange.  But the strangeness does not end there.  Once we are reconciled to God, we begin a journey of spiritual growth.  Now if God asked me, which he didn’t, about how we are to grow spiritually, I would have some ideas.  I like the idea of growing spiritually by enjoying inspirational worship, by sitting in a nice comfy chair and studying the Bible, by listening to a well-worded but not overly long prayer.  That sounds like a great way to grow spiritually.  God does indeed use those things, however, he has some other methods as well.  God uses suffering to allow us to grow spiritually.  Does that even make sense?  What is wrong with using comfort to make us grow?  Paul says that we are not just to endure suffering but that we rejoice in it.  Rejoice in it?  I will tell you that when my van breaks down, I do not rejoice.  When my children get sick, I do not rejoice.  When I suffer, I do not rejoice.  However, what is worth rejoicing over is not the suffering itself.  It is what suffering produces.  Suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope.  These are the things that we rejoice over.  I recently had a friend ask what I thought about running.  I was very honest.  I hate running.  I hate the thought of running.  I hate the activity of running.  But I run because I like what happens after.  I like how with each run I am able to run longer and faster.  I like how I lose weight.  I like how my body feels and how my mind feels.  None of that could happen without the running.  Look at the results and not just the means.  I see this with Logan and Abby.  I hate that Logan and Abby have autism.  It really bothers me.  They should have a normal life.  They should be able to communicate like everyone else.  Abby should be able to live with us.  In all honesty, I do not rejoice at this situation.  However, I do see how this situation makes me a better person.  My character has grown far beyond what I would have been without the kids.  I am forced to rely on God, much more because of the autism.  There are a tremendous amount of things that take place because of what we experience.  I rejoice in that spiritual growth, even though I still have trouble rejoicing over autism.  Why does God use suffering to bring about spiritual growth?  That is just weird.  Why do such a strange thing?  Keep in mind this: How did God deal with the problem our spiritual separation?  With the suffering of his Son.  How does God deal with the problem of our spiritual immaturity?  Through our suffering.  This all seems crazy to us because we value comfort as the highest quality.  The truth is that for anything really good to take place, anything that will really make a difference, there is going to be some suffering.

Conclusion

Christianity is weird.  Really, really weird.  None of the things that we think make sense are at the core of the Christian faith.  God has a totally different perspective on how things work compared to our finite view.  There was a problem that humanity was separated from God.  There are many religious ideas on how to solve this but what God does is become human and die for our sins.  There was a problem in that we are spiritually immature and desperately need growth.  Instead of comforting us, God allows us to suffer so that we will grow and expects us to rejoice.  That is weird.  But it is true and it works.  The only way for us to be saved is through the death of Jesus.  The only way for us to grow is through suffering and the things that emerge from that suffering.  It might be weird, but it is the only way that actually works.

Share

Father Abraham

Romans 4

Introduction

I find family resemblances to be very fascinating.  Physically, I do not look much like my dad.  However, I am now at the age that my dad was when I have some of my earliest memories.  I find myself looking in the mirror and trying to see my dad.  How do I look like him?  How do I act like him?  I am starting to see more of my dad in me.  On the other end, I look to my children and see how we are alike.  There are certain things about my children, sometimes the annoying things, that I can look and say that is all me.  You would expect that there would be some family resemblance.  But this is not limited to a few generations of grandfather, father and son.  Family traits can be traced back over many generations.  Paul does this in this passage of Romans.  Paul has been dealing with the conflict between the Jews and the Gentiles.  An important way of dealing with this situation is to go all the way back to Abraham.  Why Abraham?  The Jews had a great love for Abraham, seeing him as the father of the Hebrews.  But Abraham was also the father of many Gentile nations as well, making him very suitable for bridging the gap between the Jews and Gentiles.  But Paul takes it a step further.  Abraham is not just the father of the Hebrew people or of the Gentile nations descended from him.  Abraham is actually the father of all Christians, being our father in the faith.  “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham.”  What I would like to do is to trace out what our family resemblance should be.

Justified by Faith

The main point that Paul is trying to make is about justification by faith.  Since the Jews look to Abraham, let us see how he was justified before God.  Was it by following a law and obeying some rules or by something else?  How does the story go?  Abraham was very old and his wife was both old and barren.  There seemed to be very little hope that they would have a biological child.  And yet God appears to Abraham and not only declares that they will have a baby but that Abraham will be the father of many nations.  Without any proof, Abraham believed that promise.  God saw that faith and declared Abraham to be justified, that is in right relationship with God.  How are we justified?  Same way.  God reveals an amazing story of his Son coming to earth and dying for our sins so we can have eternal life.  When we put our faith in that story that we cannot see the evidence for, we are justified.  Not by what we have done or accomplished, but like Abraham, by our faith.  Abraham’s faith, based not on what he could see but upon the character of God, should be an example to us all.

Gift of Grace

We also find that Abraham was a man who enjoyed the grace of God.  We build up Abraham as a hero of the faith.  In our minds, we probably think that Abraham somehow earned God’s promise for a child.  But is that the case?  What had Abraham done?  Nothing really.  He was a fairly typical person of that time, at least morally.  He had good points and bad points.  But Abraham had done nothing to earn this promise.  God simply came to him and offered the promise and Abraham accepted.  It was an unearned gift and so it was grace.  As I have mention perviously, grace is a difficult concept for us as we value what is earned.  It is interesting that the Jewish tradition added details to the story of Abraham.  They describe him as being in Ur long before this and taking an unpopular stand against the idols.  He went so far as the destroy the idols in his father’s idol shop.  The reason for this addition is that the story as presented in the Bible does not make sense.  There had to be a reason why God would choose Abraham.  Or does there?  Maybe God looked at Abraham, with all of his problems and weaknesses, and decided to give him a tremendous gift completed undeserved.  As children of Abraham, we too must rely on grace.  We cannot earn God’s love and we cannot accomplish enough good works to achieve salvation.  But we can receive a gift that God gives us.  That gift is what Jesus did on the cross.  We need to reach out and receive that gift through faith.

Right Religion

When people think about God, they often think about religious rituals.  There definitely is place for such rituals, even in the story of Abraham.  Abraham was given the sign of circumcision after receiving the promise of blessing.  But notice that it was after.  This is Paul’s point in this chapter.  People were arguing in the early church that the Jewish law was necessary for Christians.  For the Jews, the law and circumcision were closely connected, circumcision being the sign that you had taken on the law.  Paul wants the Romans to look at the chronology.  When was Abraham justified?  When was he circumcised?  The circumcision took place after Abraham had been justified by faith.  Therefore, rituals cannot save us, they are simply signs of what has already happened on a spiritual level.  As children of Abraham, the same thing is true of us.  As Christians, we have a rich tradition of ritual and ceremony.  We celebrate baptism and communion.  We sing songs and pray prayers.  These are all wonderful things and they are important.  But they are not things that get us right with God or grant us eternal life or bring about forgiveness of sins.  They are signs of what God has already done in us.  Trust in God and not in ritual.  But celebrate ritual for the way it testifies about God’s grace.

Resurrection Power

One of the interesting things about Paul’s description of Abraham is his use of resurrection imagery.  Why would he do this?  We do not read in this story about a death and resurrection of Abraham.  Paul is taking the resurrection and looking to the character of God who brings about this resurrection.  The resurrection is not just a future event, it also has many previews in this life.  Think of Abraham’s situation.  Extremely old and married to a wife who is old and barren.  When it comes to making babies, they are both as good as dead.  But God breathed life into death and allowed this miracle to take place.  As children of Abraham, we should be expecting resurrection power to flow in us.  Too often we talk about eternal life, we speak of the time when we die and go to heaven.  When we speak of resurrection, we speak of the moment when Jesus returns and God raises the dead and transforms the living.  Both are very important events.  But the power is active right now as well.  God is in the resurrection business.  He breathes life into death, light into darkness, truth into falsehood.  Christianity is not just a religion with rules and rituals.  It is a transforming experience and God wants to change us.  Whatever is your most difficult circumstance, God wants to invade that with his resurrection power.

Holding onto Hope

We are also told that Abraham was a man of hope.  What is hope?  Hope is not about fooling yourself or pretending that life is different.  Paul tells us that Abraham was well aware of his physical limitations.  True hope is informed of the challenges and does not live in ignorance.  But Abraham was able to look at those limitations and yet remain steady in his faith.  Abraham had hope for the future, not because he could control his own destiny, but because he believed in the God of great promises.  I saw this quote that puts this into perspective: “Hope . . . is the ability to hear the music of the Future. Faith . . . is the courage to dance it today.”  As children of Abraham, we are people of hope.  This is a world longing for hope.  They might not be longing for religion, but they are longing for hope.  We have something to offer to this world because we have hope.  No matter what circumstances come our way, we have hope.  We do not close our eyes and plug our ears to the problems that we experience.  We take a good close look and then hold on to the God of all hope.  God has made promises to us and he will be faithful to us.

Conclusion

As Christians, whether Jewish of Gentile, we are all children of Abraham.  There should be a family resemblance to father Abraham.  What do we know about Abraham?  He was justified by faith, he enjoyed grace, he kept religion in its right place, he experienced resurrection power and he held onto hope.  Those are our family traits.  If we are true children of Abraham, we should be seeing those things happening in our life.  Like other families, some traits may take a while to develop.  Let us continue to seek the God of Abraham and pray that we would be come more like what God wants for us.

Share

Now, the Good News

Romans 3:21-31

Introduction

What do you want first?  The good news or the bad news?  Whenever I am asked that question, the answer is very easy.  I want the bad news first.  There are a number of reasons why.  Sometimes the good news is the solution to the problem of the bad news.  Sometimes the good news is much greater than the bad news.  Even if it is not, it may at least take the edge of the bad news.  Finally, that which you hear last is what will stay most powerfully in your mind.  As we have been going through Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see that he indeed does start with the bad news.  The bad news is that humanity is sinful.  Jewish, Gentile, we are all lost in sin.  We may not feel particularly evil, but sin has touched every part of us and as a result we find ourselves separated from the holy and righteous God.  This is a big problem and it most definitely is bad news.  The good news is that justification is possible.  Justification?  That is a word that we do not often use.  You probably do not ask in casual conversation with your neighbour if they have been justified.  What is justification?  Justification basically means being declared innocent.  Imagine this situation.  You have been receiving a monthly cheque from the government ever since you were young.  Then you get a letter now that you are older that they were not supposed to give you that money.  All the past payments plus the interest come out to about a million dollars.  You do not have the money to pay off this debt.  Even if you got another job, you could not pay off this debt.  The government is demanding immediate payment and is threatening jail time.  What are you going to do?  Thankfully, a government official hears about your case and takes pity on you.  They arrange to have the debt forgiven and your record cleared.  You go in one moment from being in debt to being completely debt free.  That is the idea of justification.  When we are justified, we go from having to pay for our sins by ourselves, to having our sins forgiven and free from punishment.  That is good news.  But that is good news only if it is actually possible to receive.  This is what Paul begins to explain in this section and it is just as important for us to know today.

Faith

Human intuition would say that we can please God either by doing enough good deeds or performing the correct religious rituals.  But that is not the case at all. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:22 NIV)  Faith has always been what God was looking for.  This is true in both the Old and New Testaments.  Read through Hebrews 11 and the hall of faith that goes through many of the Old Testament saints and their life of faith.  Look at the life of David and Solomon.  Both were successful kings from a purely political and military perspective.  And yet David is described as a man after God’s own heart while Solomon’s reign is summarized from a spiritual perspective quite negatively.  Ironically, we are of told of David’s adultery and the murder of the husband of his mistress, while we are not told that Solomon committed many drastic sins.  So why does David get a better reputation?  Faith.  When you read through the stories of David and Solomon, you will find two people very gifted, but you will also find David much more than Solomon living a life of faith.  There is a sense of devotion and loyalty toward God on David’s part that you just do not see in Solomon’s life.  Faith continues to be very important in the New Testament.  One of the most famous verses is: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV) This gift of eternal life is not for everyone, but for those who believe.  But what does it mean to believe or to have faith?  Is it enough to believe in God or to believe that Jesus existed?  Can we just believe that Jesus died on the cross?  Can we even have a completely orthodox statement of faith?  All of those things are important.  But it is much more than that.  James reminds us: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19 NIV)  What we need is trust and reliance.  Faith is only faith if you absolutely need that person to come through.  If I ask you to put away your bulletins after the service, that is not faith.  If you don’t do it, it is not really a big deal and it will not really affect me.  But if I am expecting you to call 911 if I have a heart attack, that is faith.  If you don’t come through on that, if you break the trust, I would be in big trouble.  So we may begin with believing the facts about Jesus.  But we need to put our full trust in him.  This means acknowledging that we cannot be right with God on our own power and trusting that what Jesus did on the cross will reconcile us to God.  If Jesus does not come through, we are lost.  So when we trust that he will save, that is real faith.

Grace

What we are expected to do is to put our faith in God, trusting in what Jesus did on the cross.  Faith is the role that we have to play.  But what if God does not come through?  What if he sees our faith and laughs?  If we are going to receive the justification that we so desperately need, we need some sort of response by God.  That response is grace.  “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:22–24 NIV)  This is very important for us to understand.  It is not that God is obligated to save us because of our faith.  Faith is not a good work that earns our salvation.  Sometimes we act as if we are a priest and we are offering our faith as a sacrifice and that God must then respond with the gift of eternal life.  It is interesting that the one who operates as a priest here is actually God.    This sacrifice was performed before anyone had offered enough faith to receive it.  Paul says later in this letter: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV)  The sacrifice of Jesus was a free gift.  The same is true with justification.  We reach out to God and he saves us.  But it is not because our faith is a good enough deed to merit that salvation.  God’s response to us is not an evaluation of our quality of faith but rather grace.  Salvation is still a free gift.  If one of my children ask me for something that they need, my granting it is not dependent on how well they have behaved.  Even if they have been pretty good, I can find enough bad behaviors to justify my refusal.  Nor do I decide based on the quality of their request.  If there is something that they truly need and it is something that I can give them, I will give it as a free unearned gift.  On a much greater level, the giving of salvation is grace.  The best thing we can do is to give up on any hope for earning our way into God’s family.

Living

Let us assume that both of these things have happened.  We have reached out in faith and God has reached back with grace.  We have salvation, eternal life, justification.  What are the practical implications?  Does this exalt us over people who have not experienced this?  Are Christians better people?  Can we look down on non-Christians?  There certainly has been enough of this attitude in the history of the church.  The question is: How does God expect us to respond?  “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded.” (Romans 3:27 NIV)  If salvation is by grace, it robs us of every excuse to boast of our greatness.  Elsewhere, Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9 NIV)  This really summarizes what we have been looking at.  And notice that again, this should result with a lack of boasting.  How are we to live?  If boasting is the negative command, then the positive command would be to live in humble reliance upon God.  What non-Christians should see in us is not a smug and self-righteous attitude but rather a deep humility and realization that our reconciliation with God did not come by any hard work on our part.  We need to be fully reliant on God and completely aware of our dependence on God’s grace.  Boastfulness makes Christianity look ugly.  Humility makes Christianity look attractive, not as a marketing technique, but because it looks more like Christ.  Relying on grace is no more embarrassing than riding inside an airplane rather than on the outside.  It is an acknowledgment of our real limitations.  Let us humbly cling to that truth.

Conclusion

There is bad news.  Sin has entered into humanity and has corrupted us.  In this sinful state, we have been separated from God.  If something is not done, that separation will last into eternity.  Something has been done.  The Father allowed the Son to be an atonement for our sin.  This is the opportunity for our justification, the declaration that we are debt free and reconciled to God.  But how do we receive this justification?  From our perspective, we begin by putting our faith in God and what he has done through Christ.  This is not just a simple belief in facts but a trusting reliance on God in which we need him to respond.  The response that we need is grace.  For even after putting our faith in God, we are still sinful and still not good enough.  Even our faith is not a good enough work to save us.  We need grace.  We need God to give to us his life freely, unearned.  Once we have received this, there is no room for boasting.  There is only room for humility.  We live in the knowledge that we are fully relying on God’s grace.  That humility is far from our weakness, it is in fact our strength.

Share

So, How Bad Are We?

Romans 3:9-20

Introduction

So, how bad are we?  Now that is a dangerous question.  Do we really want to ask that?  Imagine putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and doing something outside your comfort zone.  Then you turn to someone, someone who is really good at what you just tried and ask them that question.  How bad did I do?  What if they tell you the truth?!  Just a few months ago, I spent a month on basic training.  Most of us were middle aged pastors and there were certain things that did not come easy.  I often found myself with the question of “How bad are we, really?” ready for our instructors.  What stopped me was the fear that they might tell me the truth.  What about as Christians?  If we were to go to God and ask him: “Now tell me the truth, how bad am I?”, what would he say?  There are basically two ideas on this.  There are some people who believe that humanity is basically good.  Sure some people make some mistakes now and then but as a race, we are pretty good.  Human nature is generally compassionate, charitable and peaceable.  The exceptions just prove the rule.  There are other people who believe that humanity is basically wicked.  Left to our own devices, we would tend toward evil, we would seek our own good, no matter who we had to hurt to achieve it.  Where is the truth?  I would hate to take either extreme, but on a continuum between good and evil, I would say that we would be about three quarters of the way toward evil.  Is that being pessimistic?  I don’t think so.  I am not saying each one of us is a murderer waiting for an opportunity.  But as a race, we tend toward evil.  Imagine if the government decided that they were going to disband the entire legal system and all police agencies with it.  If people wanted to murder, steal or rape, they could do it without any fear of legal repercussions.  Do you think society would stay as it is now?  Would people still be good without fear of police and jail?  We have seen examples, both in Canada and in other countries, where the removal of police and/or law has resulted in complete anarchy.  We know that today.  But Paul knew that two thousand years ago, even with the Pax Romana, Roman peace enforced by military strength.  If the Romans were wondering how bad they really were, Paul had a clear answer for them.  The answer is bad.  Very bad.  Paul pulls together a collection of Old Testament passages to describe how bad humanity is.  The fact that Paul uses Scripture to make this point tells us how serious he is about this.  Humanity is sinful.  But what do we do with this?  There have been preachers throughout the years that have used it to make their people feel guilty.  We should weep loudly and curl up into the fetal position out of the despair of our wickedness.  I don’t think that is healthy.  Nor do I think it is good to just pretend everything is okay.  I believe there is a positive message that comes out of the knowledge of human wickedness.

Even Playing Field

The first place we need to start is with Paul’s purpose for writing this passage.  It is not as if Paul was feeling cranky and so he decided that he would vent by expressing the evil of humanity.  What we find here is closely connected with what came before and leads in nicely to what he will say later.  What has Paul been saying?  Paul has demonstrated that the Gentiles, despite natural revelation (that is what we learn about God from nature), have disobeyed God and have sinned.  In the same way, Paul has demonstrated that the Jews, despite special revelation (that is the Law revealed to Moses), have disobeyed God and have sinned.  In some ways, this passage is summing up all that has gone on before.  Basically the only people who are sinners are those who are Jewish and those who are non-Jewish.  So what, if everyone is a sinner?  In the case of the church at Rome, it removes any boasting or condemnation between groups who think they are better than others.  You can almost imagine a parent between two fighting children and then screaming “You’re both wrong!”  This is what Paul is saying.  Forget the fighting, everyone is sinning and no one has a place from which to either boast or condemn.  This is just as relevant today.  Name a group that Christians may want to attack.  Atheists?  If we were honest, all of us at some point have lived as if God did not exist.  Muslims?  Christians have abused religion as much as Muslims and there are fanatics in every group.  Homosexuals?  Jesus says that even to look upon someone with lust is to commit a sexual sin.  This does not mean we cannot speak to truth issues or teach upon biblical values.  But it does mean we cannot feel superior as if we were righteous and the other people are the dirty sinners.  Paul reminds us that we are all sinners.

Demolishes Pride

A self-righteous attitude can be used to condemn other people but it can also be used build oneself up in an unhealthy way.  A few good successes, victories and accomplishments and you can feel pretty good about yourself.  That is not to say that it is wrong to feel good after succeeding at something you put your mind to.  But it is very easy to lose perspective.  Soon you can see all of your strengths and none of your weaknesses.  This is true of individuals and of societies.  In the nineteenth century, there was a tremendous feeling of optimism.  Technology had greatly improved in the areas of industry, transportation and communication.  There was a feeling that society could overcome every obstacle if we just applied reason and rational investigation.  It was at that time that people began to call for the end of religion.  The thought was that in the nineteenth century we were so technologically advanced that science would easily replace religion as our source of hope.  Of course today we have much greater technology and yet not only is religion alive and well, there is much less optimism among people.  What happened?  World War One.  Just before World War One, many people thought we were at the dawn of a golden age.  However, World War One saw 15 million killed and 20 million wounded.  Human intelligence that was supposed to end war, ended up inventing the technology that allowed armies to kill more people, faster.  This shattered the optimism of previous decades and the wars that took place during the rest of the twentieth century confirmed this.  What does this mean?  Before we get too prideful at our accomplishments, we need to remember human sinfulness.  This is true on an individual level as well.  How many times have we seen people successful in their careers, people who have all the right gifts, and who have a moral failure and lose their families?  Sometimes success can make us feel invincible.  A reminder of human sinfulness can bring some much needed perspective.  Enjoy those successes and accomplishments, but just remember there is some sinfulness always just below the surface waiting to wreck your celebration.

Longs For Grace

Is this depressing?  Does it bother you that the only thing we have in common with the rest of the human race is that we are all sinners?  Does it bother you that we cannot enjoy the pride that comes with being really good at something because our strength is matched by our weakness?  This is not meant to be depressing.  But it should help us see our limitations.  This could get depressing only if this was the end of the story.  It would be a sad story if the sum total of human existence was sin, sin, sin.  But that is not the end of the story.  The picture that Paul gives us here is of a humanity who cannot make it on its own.  There is no picking ourselves up by our bootstraps in order to overcome evil.  We cannot will ourselves out of the problem of human evil.  This message of human wickedness is not meant to make us feel hopeless but to push us into God’s grace.  Let us face it, we ill never be perfect enough for God’s standards.  Unless God has a way of bypassing our sinfulness and granting us life aside from religious accomplishment, we are doomed.  There is a way and that is the grace of God.  Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and we can receive the benefits of that sacrifice.  However, those benefits are not received by being good enough.  God’s grace means that it is a gift of God, something that is not earned.  However, unless we understand human wickedness, we are never going to want God’s grace.  In most areas of life we value things more if we have earned them rather than being given them.  What is better, to earn a gold medal in the Olympics or to have some athlete just give you one?  It goes against our nature to value what is free.  But if we realize there is no possibility to earn God’s salvation, there is no climbing out of the pit of human wickedness.  Then, we might be willing to receive his free gift.

Conclusion

So, how bad are we?  Really, don’t hold back, tell it like it is.  Pretty bad.  Wicked.  Evil.  We might not feel evil.  We might not think of ourselves as particularly wicked.  But there is no place in our life that is not touched by sin.  It is not about depth but of breadth.  The entire human experience has been corrupted.  But it is not all bad news.  Sinfulness is the lot of all humanity.  There is the potential for some compassion and tolerance here when we realize that we are no better than those other people.  We are all in the same boat.  The understanding of human sinfulness can bring some much needed perspective to our life and to our society.  There is much that we can accomplish with our knowledge and skills.  But we dare not let that develop into pride.  Human wickedness is always just under the surface.  Let that knowledge bring balance to the rest of life.  Finally, accept the fact that we are sinful.  We might not be deeply evil.  But at some level, we are corrupted and we will never be able to achieve moral perfection.  Thankfully, God is offering us grace.  But this grace is something that we will accept only once we have surrendered self-reliance.  The only way for a sinful people to be reconciled to a holy God is through the perfect sacrifice that is offered to us as an undeserved gift.  I would suggest that we accept that gift.

Share

Faithfulness of God

Romans 3:1-8

Introduction

Think about the people you know, your family and friends and acquaintances.  What are the virtues that you value and admire most?  There would be things like politeness and kindness and intelligence and humour.  All of these things are good and should be appreciated.  What about faithfulness?  How important is that?  It would be great to know that the people in our life would be always faithful.  To know that they would always be there for us and never turn their backs on us.  To know that when they say something, there would not be a last minute forgetting, change or excuse.  If only we experienced faithfulness in every area of our life.  What about our relationship with God?  Do we expect God to be faithful to us?  How can we live if God is not faithful?  I must be clear that not everyone believes in a faithful God.  Either God does not exist or God does not care or God is so independent that we can never know what he might do.  If any of those options were true, what kind of hope would we have?  Thankfully, the Bible reveals a God that is faithful.  But what does that mean?  Does faithful equate to Santa Claus and a God who will give us what we want, when we want it?  The Bible presents a different picture of faithfulness, one that is less comfortable and yet much better.

Faithful in Unfaithfulness

We are told in Genesis that God created humanity in his image.  The irony is that we tend to create God in our image.  We tend to project what we are like, both the good and the bad, onto our image of God.  This is one of the reasons that idolatry is condemned in the Bible.  We get annoyed by certain things and we assume that God is annoyed by them as well.  We are tolerant of certain things and we assume God is tolerant of them as well.  How does this fit with faithfulness?  We tend to interpret God’s faithfulness through our own faithfulness.  Since we know how unfaithful we can be, that leaves a frightening image of God.  Paul asks the question: “What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?” (Romans 3:3 NIV)  Paul has been describing the actions of some Christians and have shown those actions to be less than desirable.  Paul will soon begin a section that describes the sinfulness of humanity in general.  If God’s faithfulness is based on our faithfulness, then we are in much trouble.  But this is how we operate.  We sometimes put the pressure on ourselves.  Who God is and what he does is all based on our own performance.  God will remain faithful to the extent that we remain faithful and not a step beyond.  As soon as we step out of line, there is instant and harsh repercussions.  However, Paul answers his own question with a negative.  Our lack of faithfulness does not nullify God’s faithfulness.  When God says something, God will do it.  We cannot make a mistake and then discover that God has abandoned us.  God will remain faithful.  This is one of the things that attracted me to God.  I have told the story of my experience in Mexico.  Before I was a Christian, I was a heavy drinker.  As I was taking steps toward personal faith, I realized that abusing alcohol was against God’s will.  I even told my friend that I would not get drunk because of what I had been reading in the Bible.  I was going into this with knowledge of what God wanted for my actions.  So my first night, I got completely drunk and ended up in a Mexican jail.  This was a clear case of unfaithfulness.  I knew what I was not supposed to do and yet I did it anyway.  Out of desperation I prayed that God would get me out of jail.  If I was God, I might have left me there for a while.  But I was pleading in Jesus’ name, begging for mercy.  God heard my prayer and delivered me from that cell.  Aside from the joy of getting out of jail, it taught me a great lesson of God’s faithfulness despite my faithlessness.  I wish I could say that was the last time I was faithless, but I am thankful that was not the last time God was faithful.  Over and over God has demonstrated his faithfulness, apart from how good or bad my performance of the Christian life has been.  This is an important and sometimes expensive lesson to learn.

Unwanted Faithfulness

I share these stories and this encouragement with full awareness that this could be misunderstood.  It could easily look as if God’s faithfulness apart from our faithfulness means that God will always be nice to us no matter the circumstances or the things that we do.  It could look that way but that is not the promise.  The promise is that God will always be faithful despite our faithfulness, not that he will always be nice.  Paul asks the question: “But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us?” (Romans 3:5 NIV) The question is: why would a faithful God judge or punish his people?  That seems unfair.  God should just pour out his blessings, no matter what we do.  But that is not what faithfulness is.  Faithfulness is about doing what has been promised and acting consistently.  The question then is: what has God promised and how has he acted in the past?  God has not promised to give us everything we want and to shut his eyes to our sins.  God has promised to be a loving and merciful God.  But he has also promised to be a righteous, holy and just God.  God hates sin and injustice and wickedness.  It is true that God is very merciful and that he does not punish us the way we deserve, but he still cares about how we act and how we live.  What we must realize is that God acts not out of a bad temper or impulsive anger.  God acts out of love and that love sometimes is manifest in correction.  This verse will never make it on the top of people’s favorite verses and yet it is one of God’s love for us as his child: “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”” (Hebrews 12:5–6 NIV)  Parents know that the only way to raise an emotionally healthy child is to not give them everything they want, to say no, withdraw privileges and at times provide discipline.  Why should God be any different with us?  I understand the question many will ask: how do we know when God is disciplining us?  How do we know that the troubles we experience are not the random chance of life or even attacks from Satan?  Good question.  I have no idea.  All I know is that we can take any opportunity to check our life and make corrections and we need not the certainty that circumstances are God’s direct punishment.  We do know that God does correct his people, it is the story of the Old and New Testaments.  When things go wrong, it is not lack of evidence of God’s faithfulness, it might actually be evidence of God’s faithfulness.

Faithful to the Faithful

We have seen that God is faithful even when we are unfaithful.  We have seen that we cannot complain when things don’t go our way because God is still faithful, even when he is correcting us.  But we need more.  We need to know what our responsibility is.  What does God expect from us?  God expects us to be faithful.  Yes, it is true that God is still faithful when we are unfaithful.  But that is no excuse for faithlessness.  Would Amanda divorce me for forgetting our anniversary?  Probably not.  She would still show love to me, even if I was thoughtless.  However, it would be unacceptable if I took that as a reason to put our anniversary and every other important occasion out of mind.  It is no way to have a relationship by living to the extreme border of what you can get away with.  I cannot have a marriage where I stay just slightly away from whatever point Amanda would leave me.  Why would we ever want to live our life with God that way?  I hear people ask about a certain behavior, whether it is serious enough to change from heaven to hell.  That should not be our question.  Our question should be: what is it that God wants?  What does a life that is faithful to God look like?  If that seems overly complicated, then remember that Jesus summarized it for us into loving God and loving people.  Should we bother with a prayer life?  That depends, does communication with God indicate love for God?  Should I support that person who is going through a hard time?  That depends, does helping a person indicate love for people?  The test for this is not an absence of hate for God or people.  The opposite of love is not hate but apathy.  At the end of the day, we can ask ourselves if we lived in such a way that we loved God and people or did we live as if we just did not care.  Living a life of faithfulness is not an attempt to earn our salvation or earn God’s love but rather is a logical response to God’s faithfulness.  We have a simple purpose: live lives faithful to God.

Conclusion

We value faithfulness and well we should.  We should be encouraged that we worship a faithful God.  There is no need to expect surprises or fear random acts of rage.  God is a faithful God.  God’s faithfulness is not based on our faithfulness but rather is based on his character and the promises he has made.  That does not mean that God gives us all that we want or that his main purpose is to make us comfortable and happy.  There will be times that God corrects us and that he uses difficult circumstances to get us back on the right track.  That is not evidence of God’s unfaithfulness but his faithfulness.  Our response should be to live a life of faithfulness.  God may be faithful when we are unfaithful but we should still seek to be faithful to the one who is always faithful.  Our faithfulness should not be based in fear but in a loving response to the God who is faithful to us.

Share

Unmasking Religion

Romans 2:17-29

Introduction

How do people feel about religion?  My experience is that people are quick to dismiss “organized religion.”  They don’t mind faith in God or even spirituality but they hate organized religion.  There are all kinds of problems with this attitude, common as it is.  What is the God that one has faith in and how do you know it is the true God?  What do you mean by spirituality?  Spirituality is one of those vague terms that can mean almost anything.  Recently there have been books that have been written on atheist spirituality.  Whatever that is.  And of course, what is meant by organized religion?  How organized is too organized?  Where does one move from disorganized religion to organized religion?  And why is organization bad?  I am not trying to mock this attitude.  Christians instinctively know that there are differences in being religious.  What happens when people bring up the crusades or the inquisition as examples of the evils of Christianity?  We respond by stating that those people were not real Christians.  How do we know?  They were likely baptized, received communion and attended church regularly.  Yet when a person, even with those outward signs, does evil acts we know that there is something different between them and a William Booth or a Mother Teresa.  This is important for us to be thinking about.  We are going see religious people doing all sorts of things, good and bad.  We are going to see non-religious people making accusations and judgments based on those actions.  And we are going to be left knowing that there is something real to Christianity, even if we cannot explain why some people do what they do.  Thankfully, Paul reflects on these same things and he can guide us through this maze.

Bad Religion

So we know that there are bad examples of religion.  What does that look like?  Paul demonstrates this with the example of some Jewish Christians.  We must be clear that this is not Christian anti-semitism.  Paul was a Jewish Christian himself and so when he is critical, he is speaking of people with the exact same background.  Briefly, what was the problem with these Jewish Christians?  It begins with pride.  It was something that they bragged about and expected a certain response from other people.  These particular people were also hypocritical.  They spent their time teaching and preaching, lifting a high standard for others to keep.  They expected much from their listeners and were prepared to condemn failure, but had no intention of following the standards themselves.  We are also told that they were causing people to look down on God.  Their actions were making people think less of the God they were claiming to follow.  The final thing that we are told is that they heavily relied on the sign of circumcision.  Circumcision was meant to be a sign that they belonged to the covenant.  They felt that having that sign was their insurance that they would always be right with God.  No matter what they did or refused to do, they could always remember their circumcision as the reason that God was obligated to accept them.  We could be tempted to see this as a Jewish problem.  We see this kind of behavior among the Pharisees whom Jesus condemns and now among the Jewish Christians criticized by Paul.  We know that this is not a Jewish problem for two reasons.  The first reason is that there are many examples of faithful and sincere Jewish Christians.  The entire church began with Jewish Christians.  If it was not for those Jewish Christians, there would have been no Christian church.  The other reason is that all of the things Paul has listed continue to plague the church, at least in some form, now that the church is 99.9% Gentile.  Pride is a problem.  Not pride in being a Christian, but pride as a sense of superiority in one’s tradition or church or special group.  It is a pride that is based not in knowledge of truth possessed but in confidence of other’s inferiority.  Hypocrisy?  If you talk to people outside the church, one of their main criticisms of Christians is hypocrisy.  They would tell us to practice what we preach, to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk.  They would see Christians as more than eager to point fingers at others but much less willing to put faith into action ourselves.  I do believe that accusations of hypocrisy are overblown.  At the same time, there is a reason this has become an issue.  I remember as a new Christian seeing some flagrant examples of hypocrisy in the church and having to make a conscious decision to follow Jesus even if everyone in the church was a hypocrite.  Unfortunately Christians have sometimes made a bad name for the one we worship.  It was Gandhi who said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  For many, it is impossible to separate judgment between the Christian and the Christ.  Some people will reject Christ because they reject Christians.  Finally, Christians also rely on outward rituals.  For us, circumcision is not the defining sign.  Our comparative ritual is baptism.  But what is important here is that Christians can just as much rely on outward symbols.  Don’t criticize me for my lifestyle or my lack of devotion.  I was baptized, I receive communion, I hold membership in a local church, or sit on this committee.  Reliance on such things is dangerous.

Good Christianity

I do not want to get into differences between Christianity and religion.  Some see them as completely separate, I see them as having significant overlap.  What I want to do is distinguish between the bad and the good.  We have seen that there is a way to have bad religion, a religion that turns people off God and makes people want to avoid Christianity.  We do not want that sort of religious life.  How do we get the good life?  A good place to start is to do the opposite of what we have seen.  Instead of beginning with pride in self, begin with a proper humility.  The Bible is filled with warnings against the proud and commands to be humble.  You may feel that your tradition or way of doing things are the closest to God’s real truth.  That is fine, but hold that with great humility.  Do not shut the door to learning from people much different than you, and do not be afraid to change as your understanding of Scripture changes.  “True Christianity is never rooted in feelings of superiority, but in true humility and mutual vulnerability, following the example of Christ.” – Danut Manastireanu.  But how do we avoid hypocrisy?  Two ways.  First we must begin with a commitment to living out our faith.  This is a challenge in that we rely on God’s grace and we are sensitive to accusations of legalism and attempts to earn our own salvation.  But it is hard to get  around the fact that Jesus actually expected us to follow him.  We need to get away from questions of salvation and simply look at how God wants us to live.  When it comes to our words and our teaching on moral issues, we must do this with great care.  Be honest with where we struggle and do not teach as people who have made it but as fellow pilgrims on the journey.  Our goal should be for people to look at us and not reject God but to glorify God.  We represent not just ourselves but God as well.  What about those outward symbols?  Baptism and communion and everything else we do is very important.  But they should be outward signs of inward truths.  We do not rely on the water of baptism and the words of a pastor, we rely on the inward cleansing of sin that comes through Christ.  We do not rely on a piece of bread and a little cup of juice.  We rely on the real sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  Spirituality is used too frequently and too loosely these days.  But Christianity is a spiritual faith, one based on a relationship with God and a following of Jesus and a walking with the Spirit.  The signs and rituals are pointers that should deepen our spiritual faith.

Conclusion

There is bad religion and there is good Christianity.  I will be honest and tell you that bad religion is much easier.  But it is so empty and so destructive.  It is the thing that people reject as organized religion.  What we are looking for is not disorganized religion but rather a faith with integrity.  Integrity is something that is the same all the way through.  It is not about surface dressing hiding something corrupt.  Good Christianity should be humble, should bring glory to God’s name, should be something walked and talked, and should be an inner faith supplemented by outward rituals and not relying upon them.  That is the faith we should be seeking.

Share

A Bad Exchange Rate

Romans 1:18-32

Introduction

Paul’s letter to the Romans is very much about being in right relationship with God.  No matter what subject he is looking at, he connects it to our relationship with God and how it can be restored.  But why?  Why is this so important?  Why not just live our nice, happy and good lives here and then be pleasantly surprised when we encounter a loving God in the afterlife?  The problem is that humanity is broken.  There are some significant problems with humanity and those problems must be fixed before we enter heaven.  I must be clear here, heaven is not attained by discovering and applying a number of solutions to these problems.  Heaven is gained through Jesus.  However, Jesus is more than a ticket to heaven, Jesus is the solution to each of these problems.  Salvation is still through faith, but that faith makes practical changes in our life.  The question is: what are these problems?  Where is humanity broken?  In this passage, Paul gives us a snapshot of humanity.  In this picture, Paul points out three points of exchange, three areas where humanity has exchanged what is right for what is wrong.  This what we will focus on as we prepare for the Good News of how God repairs our brokenness.

Glory For Images

“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:22–23 NIV)  A large part of what Paul says here concerns the role of creation.  People often wonder how we can know that there is a God.  We can know because God has made it clear through his creation.  All things point to the existence of God.  When we look at Genesis 1 and the creation, we see God pronouncing each stage as being good.  We should agree with that.  Look at the beauty of creation.  Look at the provision within creation.  Creation is such an incredible gift to us, something that is to be enjoyed.  However, it is at the things that are most important that things go the most wrong.  Here, Paul points to the problem of idolatry.  As one brought up within Judaism, Paul was very sensitive toward idolatry.  There are numerous passages in the Old Testament that condemn idolatry.  We think of the event just after the exodus when Moses was on the mountain and his brother Aaron constructed a golden calf for the people to worship instead of the living God.  Why was this so serious?  Was it because these other gods were false gods and Israel’s God was the true God?  Partially but there is more.  Not only was it forbidden to worship the idols of the nations, it was forbidden to construct an image of Israel’s God to worship, even though he is a real and true God.  The problem is the idol and not just the existence or non-existence of the god being represented.  The problem is the blurring of the lines between the Creator and the creation.  For some religions, this is an official position.  Pantheism is the belief that all is god, that there is zero difference between creator and creation.  Most times the problem is much more subtle.  Notice the exchange that is taking place here.  It is an exchange of the glory of God for mere images.  What is being lost in this exchange is God’s glory.  What is God’s glory?  It is his worth, his praise, his value, it is what makes him worthy of worship and us unworthy of worship.  The embrace of idols is not just a religious mistake, it is an attempt to sidestep the glory of God and to replace it with something smaller, weaker and more like us.  Paul might have been thinking of the different pagan idols such as those of plants or animals but it goes much deeper.  The best way to explain is to give a modern example.  We do not struggle so much with idols of stone or wood used to represent pagan gods.  But our idols are still something that comes from creation.  What is our idolatry?  Some idols could be money, talent, skills, possessions, career, land, family or even church.  None of these things are bad in and of themselves.  But the moment we have exchanged the glory of God for these things that ultimately come from God’s creative power, we have crossed the line.  We have money, not because money is our god, but because God has given us the health and skill and opportunity in which we can make money.  Money should not point to the power of itself but rather should glorify God.  The same is true for all of these things.  The brokenness of humanity, unfortunately, continually attempts to exchange the glory of God for these created things.

Truth for a Lie

“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1:25 NIV)  Part of the problem with idolatry is the robbing of God’s glory.  However, part of what is at stake is a forsaking of the truth.  This is a key concept of biblical faith.  There really is such a thing as truth.  The things we do are not all about personal preference and taste.  Our actions should be shaped by our understanding of the truth.  The problem Paul focuses on here is the exchange of the truth for a lie.  This is a challenge for our society which does not like absolute truth.  So what if one person prefers to worship a banana instead of the God of heaven?  If that person feels fulfilled in his banana worship, that should be good enough.  But it is not good enough because it is not true.  A banana is truly not worthy of worship and God truly is worthy of worship.  Imagine two people who plan to go over Niagara Falls.  One has a special barrel, specially designed by scientists, one that has gone over the falls with a dummy covered in sensors that measured the impact and determined the level of safety.  The other person duct taped a few styrofoam coolers together.  Both feel good about their chances of surviving the plunge over Niagara Falls.  In this case: does truth matter?  I am a Christian, not because it happens to work for me just as Buddhism might work for someone else or atheism for someone else.  I am a Christian because I believe Christianity is true.  I really believe there is a God, I really believe Jesus died for my sins and I really believe Jesus rose from the dead.  It is not about how it makes me feel, it is about how Christianity lines up with reality.  Jesus described himself in this way: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV)  Jesus is the truth and because of that, he is worthy of worship.  There is a reason that we end prayers with ‘amen’.  Amen means truth and when we pray, we pray to the true God who truly loves us, not to the imaginary entity that makes us feel good enough to endure another day.  Humanity tends to exchange this truth for a lie.  We need to hold on to the truth.

Natural for Unnatural

“Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.” (Romans 1:26 NIV)  This passage could easily lead us off into a discussion about homosexuality.  Paul does talk about homosexuality here but I believe his purpose is to use it as an example of something much more general.  The first thing to note is that this is about behavior and lifestyle.  Many people miss out on this.  Some believe that God only cares about our belief system.  As long as we believe in God and believe what Jesus did for us, we can live our life the way we want.  But that is far from truth.  God wants all of us, our thoughts, our feelings and our actions.  This should not lead us into a legalism where there is a complex set of rules for every minor behavior.  But we should understand that God has some fairly broad perimeters in which he expects us to live.  These are not oppressive lifestyles that suck the joy and excitement out of life.  In fact, if we lived according to God’s will we should be experiencing the maximum joy and peace available.  This is what Paul means he speaks of what is natural.  However, there is a human tendency to exchange what is natural for what is unnatural.  This may be about our sexuality or it may be about any area of our lives.  If God calls us to live generous lives and we choose to be selfish, then we have exchanged what is natural for what is unnatural.  If God calls us to forgive and we choose to be bitter, then we have exchanged what is natural for what is unnatural.  Sexual lifestyles are only the most obvious form of a problem that goes much deeper.  Human tendency is to seek that which is unnatural and yet God calls us to hold on to what is natural.

Conclusion

Why do we need God to do something radical in our life?  We need God because we are broken.  We are broken in three ways.  First, we tend to avoid giving God his proper glory.  Second, we tend to embrace lies and falsehood, relying on what feels right rather than what is true.  Finally, when it comes to action and lifestyle, we tend to cross God’s natural boundaries of life and live unnaturally.  This is why we need Jesus.  What Jesus does is that he sorts out our worship.  Instead of looking to the physical things we can see, we look to the Creator who made all things.  Instead of being deceived by lies, we are set free by the truth.  Instead of seeking that which is unnatural, we discover the joy and peace that is found in God’s will for us.  The Good News is that in Jesus, that which is broken can be made whole again.

Share

A Gospel of Hope and Power

Romans 1:8-17

Introduction

What is it that you are really passionate about?  For many people, it would be family.  We love our spouse, our children and grand children.  Nothing makes us happier than to be with them and to see them enjoying life.  For other people, it is their career.  Their career is not just a job, not just a way to pay the bills.  Their career is the means by which they express their creativity and they thrive when they have opportunities to tackle new and difficult situations.  Other people are passionate about their hobbies.  They love gardening, model trains, comic books, wood working or whatever.  They endure work so they can get home and get back to doing what they really enjoy doing.  All of these things are good and it is important for us to have a passion.  What was the Apostle Paul’s passion?  Paul’s passion was the Gospel!  The Gospel?  That seems like a strange thing to be passionate about.  How could someone really be passionate about some theological doctrines or a few Bible stories?  The reason is that Paul did not see the Gospel as just a few interesting facts.  Paul had a real encounter with the risen Jesus Christ and he experienced the transforming power of the Gospel himself.  Paul knew the hope and power of the Gospel in his own life and was excited to share it with others, that they may receive the same joy.  Let us take a look at the nature of the Gospel and why Paul was so passionate about it.

Power

Many people see religion as being weak.  It is a weak option for weak people who can’t confront their own weakness.  Perhaps that is true for some forms of religion.  But that is not how Paul sees the Gospel.  As Paul explains why he is not ashamed of the Gospel, he does not say that it is because the Gospel is beautiful or precious or delightful.  The first thing that Paul says is that the Gospel is the power of God.  Power!  What is power?  Power is not something that we just look at and admire.  Power is something that is able to do things, to transform, to make into something new.  We have electric power coming into our homes, not because we enjoy paying Hydro, but because that power is useful for very practical things.  Paul understood this about the Gospel.  The Gospel is not weak.  It is not something light and fluffy.  The Gospel is about the power of God.  That power is something to be respected and treated with awe.  I remember as I was about make my faith personal that I feared the Gospel.  It was not an unhealthy fear as if God was going to do something terrible to me.  It was an awareness that the Gospel was going to change my life, that it was powerful enough to rip me out of my comfort zone and make me into something new.  That is power.  If people think Christianity is only for the weak, they are wrong.  Christianity is for those brave enough to embrace the Gospel of power.

Salvation

So the Gospel is the power of God.  That is great.  But it is not just general power that just sits there.  The Gospel is about the power of God for a specific purpose. Paul tells us this Gospel that he is not ashamed of is the power of God for salvation.  Salvation is one of those church words that gets thrown around all the time but rarely gets defined.  Salvation assumes that we are saved from something.  What are we saved from?  Many Christians will say that we are saved from hell.  There is truth to that but there is a problem.  Paul talks a lot about salvation but never talks about hell.  If Paul thought of salvation primarily in terms of hell, you would think that he would mention that.  So what are we saved from?  I would say that Paul sees salvation primarily as being saved from a broken relationship with God.  The letter to the Romans deals partially with relations between the Jews and Gentiles.  One of the questions is about who is connected with God.  The Jewish Christians have this long heritage of what God has done through Israel.  The Gentile Christians have the freedom of knowing Christ in faith rather than the entanglements of the law.  We will work through that in a later message, but for now realize that the question is about who is in right relationship with God.  What Paul is going to show is that salvation from a broken relationship with God comes not from being born either a Jew or a Gentile, but from the power of the Gospel.  Have we deeply reflected on this idea of salvation?  Do we understand what we have been saved from?  I once was lost, now I’m found, was blind but now I see.  We were far from God and he has come to us, not out of wrath but in love, desiring to adopt us as sons and daughters.  That is our salvation!

Righteousness

Within this conversation, Paul speaks of righteousness.  Paul says that from the Gospel,  a righteousness from God is revealed.  What is righteousness?  When some people think of righteousness, they think of holy living.  They think of living a religious life accord to the rules.  It is about people abstaining from worldly pleasures and focusing on religious pursuits.  Righteousness sounds like law-keeping, fun-avoiding and religion-thinking.  However, that is not the primary understanding of righteousness.  A study of righteousness in the Bible reveals the word is used to describe the nature of God’s activity.  When God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt, that was God’s righteousness.  When God brought victory to the Israelites as they are being attacked by a larger enemy, that was God’s righteousness.  As God side stepped human mistakes to make sure that his plan was carried out, that was God’s righteousness.  What God does, that is righteousness.  So why does Paul refer to a group called the righteous here, a group presumably made up of people?  If righteousness is what God does, how can people be righteous?  Well, it is not by following the rules closely enough.  Righteousness cannot be earned.  Righteousness is what God does.  What did God do?  God sent his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross so that our relationship with God can be restored.  That is God’s activity.  When we embrace what God has done, we are incorporated in that.  God invites us to be a part of what he is doing, and when we do that we are brought into his righteousness.  Our righteousness is not about how good we are but who we are joined to.  On any given day, I do not feel particularly righteous from the common definition.  But when I remember that righteousness is what God is doing, and I have joined with what God is doing, then things seem more righteous after all.

Faith

This brings us to the big question.  There is a great big Gospel out there.  It is a Gospel of hope and power.  In this Gospel we can find salvation from our separation from God.  This will bring us into God’s righteousness.  That sounds great.  How do we get it?  Can you imagine if I told you there was a way you could get free gasoline for the rest of your life but I didn’t tell you how?  Well, not telling how to receive this salvation would be much worse.  The first things that people think of when it comes to religion are rules and rituals.  There are long lists of things you are supposed to do and things you are not supposed to do.  Well, God indeed cares about the things that you do and don’t do.  These are important.  But you can not receive what God has for you through obeying the rules.  There are some rituals that we observe, outward signs that point to internal and eternal truths.  But you cannot receive what God has by participating in a ritual.  Paul makes it very clear as to how we receive the Gospel.  It is by faith alone.  This was turning point for the great reformer Martin Luther who had tried and tried to earn God’s love and approval.  Luther discovered faith and it changed his life.  Faith can change our life as well.  It is hard to do this, to just reach out and respond to grace of God.  We do not value something that is free.  We want to earn what we have, we want it to be because of our own hard work.  That is unfortunate because there is no way to get this on our own power.  Faith is the opening of our hand so that God can give us his grace.  I tried to find other ways.  I tried to be active enough in church.  I tried to learn enough about the Bible and about religion.  But it was only when I reached out in faith that I received what God has for us.  Faith is the only way.

Conclusion

The Gospel.  Are you bored of the Gospel?  You shouldn’t be!  Paul understood the truth of the Gospel.  The Gospel is about hope and power.  The Gospel is not weak, it is powerful beyond description.  That power is not just for display but rather is focused on bringing salvation from broken relationships with God.  That salvation makes a radical change by gathering us into God’s righteousness.  All of this is available to us only by faith.  Paul understood this and it was his passion.  May we have that same passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Share

Miracle of the Incarnation

Romans 1:1-7

Introduction

What is it that is essential for us to get right?  Do we need to get the style of our worship music right?  Do we need to get the balance of liturgy and spontaneity exact?  What about the architecture of our churches or the translation of our Bibles or the length of sermons?  There are things that we might think are important but really are not that essential in terms of getting things exactly right.  What about the identity and nature of Jesus?  Does it matter if we get that right?  In the early church, there was one group that denied the divinity of Jesus and saw him only as a human prophet.  There was another group who denied the humanity of Jesus, seeing him as a divine being who only pretended to be human.  Both groups were strongly condemned by the church, not because of religious intolerance, but because they got the most important thing wrong.  If we get the nature of Jesus wrong, then we have gotten everything wrong.  There is so much that we can be flexible on, the nature of Jesus is not one of them.  This is something that Paul understood very well.  From our understanding of ancient letters, this section should be a simple “From Paul, to the Romans.”  But Paul uses his greeting to set the tone of the entire letter.  It is all about Jesus Christ.  Not just a generic Jesus, a Jesus you can shape and adapt to whatever you prefer, but the real Jesus who is revealed as God incarnate.  Let us take a look at what Paul teaches us.

Son of David

Paul starts by talking about Jesus “who as to his human nature was a descendant of David” (Romans 1:3 NIV)  Why would Paul mention such a thing?  This is actually a very rich statement.  In one way, this is an acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah.  There were many understandings of what the Messiah was going to be like, but the most common was that of a son of David.  David was the greatest king of Israel, one who is described in scripture as a man after God’s own heart.  God had promised that there would always be a descendant of David to reign.  Even after rival dynasties came and went, the Davidic line seemed to keep going.  But then after a long period of disobedience, the line of Davidic kings came to an end.  But people held on to the hope that another king from the line of David would appear.  The prophets called people to hold on to this hope.  “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.   And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.   Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.   He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.   The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6–7 NIV)  “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old.” (Amos 9:11 ESV)  So when Paul speaks of Jesus as a son of David, he wants us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hoping.  But there is something else being said here.  There is more to David than a powerful king and warrior.  David was the one who was not even considered worth including when Samuel came looking for a king among the sons of Jesse.  There was nothing obvious about David that would suggest that God would use him.  This was the David, who when he stood before Goliath, was laughed at as one little more than a joke.  Even as a king, David was one full of vulnerability and weakness.  The best way to describe David is someone who is very human.  Jesus was in his human nature, a descendant of David.  While Jesus did not share any of David’s moral weaknesses, Jesus did share in David’s humanity.  Like David, people took one look at Jesus and dismissed him.  There was nothing obviously attractive about him.  The people of prestige and power despised Jesus.  It was primarily the poor and outcasts that followed Jesus because the movers and the shakers of society rejected him.  As Paul is writing to the Christians at Rome, he is speaking to Christians who live as a very small religious minority with few rights.  Paul is writing to a city in which less than ten years later, Paul will die for his faith.  The Roman church had very little about it that would seem to speak to strength.  We may read it today, very aware of our own weaknesses and limitations.  We may feel completely unworthy to be in the presence of Jesus or to even dare call upon him.  In these times we must remember that Jesus also had a human nature.  Jesus did not just pretend to be human.  He was really human, with physical weakness, emotional pain and he embraced the human experience.  Jesus was like David, not just as a king but as a human being.

Son of God

In our weakness, it is nice to know that Jesus had a human nature.  We can find comfort in that, we can feel a sense of solidarity with Jesus.  But if Jesus was only human, he would be of limited use.  We respect people like Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Paul.  They were good people, who had things to teach us and lives to inspire us.  But we do not receive hope from them.  We do not pray to them or worship them.  We have no sense that they have the power to change our life or to reconcile us to God.  But we do feel these things from Jesus.  Why?  This was something that I missed out on, growing up in church.  I had a sense that Jesus was slightly more powerful than other prophets, that he was better at miracles than the others, but I still did not understand who Jesus really was.  Paul reminds us Jesus “was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:4 NIV)  This verse needs some clarification.  Paul is not saying that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection.  Jesus was the Son of God all along.  Even before he was born of Mary, he was God the Son from eternity past.  During his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of God as his Father in a way that other people never did.  There was an intimacy between Jesus and God that could not be explained by being a good prophet.  So why does Paul mention the resurrection?  Any one could claim to be a son of God.  I am sure there are many people today who believe they are a son of God in some way.  How can you verify something like that?  In the case of Jesus, his resurrection was a sign that his claims of Sonship were true.  How?  Since people generally do not rise from the dead a couple of days after their death, we can safely assume God had something to do with it.  If Jesus had been lying by claiming to be the Son of God, we have every reason to believe that God would not raise him from the dead.  And yet on the third day, there was Jesus.  The resurrection, among other things, demonstrated God’s approval for the things that Jesus said and did.  In addition to mentioning Jesus as the Son of God, Paul confirms that Jesus is also our Lord.  This is extremely important.  One can believe on a theological level that Jesus is the Son of God, but it is something different to acknowledge him as Lord.  This is a part of my experience.  I came to correct theological conclusions about Jesus before I was willing to make him my Lord.  This is key.  Those who are approved on the day of judgment are not those who only can correctly answer a theology quiz, it will be those who know Jesus as Lord.  What does all this mean?  We know that life is hard.  We know that there are challenges beyond our ability.  To get through this, we need more than a human Jesus who can agree with us that things are indeed hard.  We need a divine Jesus who can actually help us through every trial.  The beautiful thing is that we do not have to lose that human solidarity in the process.  As God and man, Jesus has the power to help us and the experience to sympathize with us.

Conclusion

Why does Paul do all this?  Really, this section of the letter was just supposed to say who the letter was from and who it was to.  Did he really have to reflect on the incarnation of Jesus?  Yes!  By talking about who Jesus really is, Paul is defining who he really is and reminding the Romans of who they really are.  Who are we?  We are people who know Jesus.  Not just any Jesus.  We know the Jesus who is Son of David and Son of God.  We know the Jesus who is human and divine.  We know the Jesus who understands our weakness and the Jesus who has the power to help in our deepest needs.  That is a good reminder to have.

Share

Does God Still Heal?

James 5:13-20

Introduction

Each Sunday, we have an opportunity to share our prayer requests.  Very often people share requests for physical healing, either for themselves or for their sick loved ones.  Have you ever thought about what we expect to happen?  Is saying a prayer for a sick person, simply a show of solidarity, like when a person says they will keep you in their thoughts?  Or do we believe that God will intervene in some miraculous way?  There are a wide variety of opinions on this.  I have Christian friends who believe you just need to put in the request and God will heal every time.  Unless there is some deep sin or a great lack of faith, healing should be a regular occurrence.  There are others who strongly insist that God never heals anymore, it was a temporary measure until we had a Bible.  Others think that healing is technically possible but highly unlikely.  I have a friend who applied James teaching on healing out of obedience to the Bible but with full assurance that nothing would happen.  The Roman Catholic sacrament of last rites began as what James describes but since people often died right after it developed into last rites.  So what are we to do with all of this?  Let us work through James teaching on this.

Healing

The way James is describing the anointing of oil and the prayer of faith, it looks as if he expects this to be an ongoing part of the church’s activity.  There is no sense that it is an empty ritual.  Nor is there a sense that it is only temporary and that after the Bible was compiled that it would disappear.  We have to understand this in the context of the rest of early Christianity.  There are a few examples of physical healing in the Old Testament, but it is not a frequent activity.  But things change dramatically in the New Testament.  One of the things we see Jesus doing very often is the healing of the sick.  Jesus, replying to the doubts of John the Baptist, said this: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22 ESV)  It could be argued that healing was only a part of the activity of Jesus, a sign that he was the Christ and the Son of God.  Is there any indication that healing would be a part of the activity of Christians?  At one point, Jesus sent out the twelve disciples and this is what happened: “And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” (Mark 6:13 ESV)  When we get to the book of Acts, we see healing continuing to be a part of the activity of the church.  “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3:1–8 ESV)          We see Paul involved in the same sort of activity.  “It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” (Acts 28:8–9 ESV)  Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, includes gifts of healing as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit available to Christians.  The biblical witness is that healing of sickness does take place.  But what about experience?  Is there evidence that Christians experience supernatural healing?  While perhaps not as often as we would like, there are many examples of such experiences.  If you are skeptical after seeing healing evangelists on TV with people piling wheel chairs and sticks for the blind on the stage, I understand.  Unfortunately, there are some charlatans that take advantage of the desperation of the sick.  However, the existence of frauds does not mean that the real thing does not exist.  We know that there is counterfeit money but we don’t reject the reality of genuine cash.  I have heard many testimonies of people who have been healed.  Many were skeptical about Christianity in general and were shocked when they were healed.  Sometimes it was the person who prayed for the sick person who was the skeptic and they were the one shocked.  This happened to me.  I was asked to anoint a person in a Bible study with oil   and pray for their healing as the doctors seemed unable to help.  I had no faith that the prayer would help and yet the next week they reported that they had been healed.  We should, as James teaches, have an expectation that God will heal when we pray in faith.

Context

Wait a minute.  Why are there so many people in the hospital?  Why do Christians get sick and die?  Why are there disabilities?  What is going on?  It is one thing to say that God does heal and it is another thing, as some Christians claim, that God always heals.  A good reminder is this verse: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 John 5:14 ESV)  According to God’s will.  This is hard for us to take sometimes, but it is God who is in charge, it is his will that counts.  Unfortunately, there are times that God’s will does not include physical healing.  I am sure that Joni Earkson Tada prayed for healing.  While God’s refusal may have been disappointing, looking back we can see the working of God’s will, as she has been used and continues to be used for God’s kingdom in a way that could not have happened if she had been healed.  Some would say that it was a mistake on Joni’s part that she was not healed, as it is always God’s plan to heal.  That is why we have to go to the Bible.  There are a number of examples of people who were not healed but the best is the example of Paul.  “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9 ESV)  We don’t know the details of Paul’s thorn but we do know that Paul prayed for healing and was refused.  If Paul was refused, it seems strange that we would expect that we would always be healed.  The final point is a matter of logic.  The way our world works is that people are born and people die.  While we are deeply disappointed when certain people are not healed, what do we really expect?  Do we think that we can keep coming back and getting healed, indefinitely putting of death?  All those people that Jesus healed during his earthly ministry, all of them eventually got sick again and died.  That is the way of human existence.  Our question should not so much be why a certain person was not healed but rather why they were healed.

More Healing

Having looked at the biblical data, we may be more confused than before.  Does God heal or doesn’t he?  Yes.  Yes God heals and yes sometimes God does not heal physically.  Does that mean that we should pray for people with a doubting attitude, not really believing anything will happen?  No, we are told to pray in faith.  But how do we pray in faith if we don’t know if God is going to heal?  Look closely at what James says.  “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:15–16 ESV)  The sick will be saved and the sinners will be healed.  That is exactly the opposite of what we would expect.  I think that suggests that healing can look different than we expect.  It is not always as straight forward as a person has a disease, a prayer is prayed and the disease is gone.  Sometimes it is emotional or spiritual healing that takes place.  While that might not be our preference, sometimes it is more important.  My dad was sick for three years not being able to produce his own blood.  I wanted a physical healing for him but that did not take place.  What did happen was that a couple of weeks before he died, my dad prayed to accept Jesus after years of refusing to even talk about God.  That was far better than what I could have ever hoped for.  Remember what I said about the Apostle Paul praying for healing and God refusing?  That is not exactly accurate.  God refused to remove the thorn but granted Paul grace to endure.  Who are we to say that grace is not healing?  We need to pray for the person with cancer and we need to pray for healing.  That healing may include becoming cancer free.  Or it may include the healing of a relationship that had been broken for a decade.  That healing may include peace and strength for facing the challenges ahead.  The point is that when we pray, we must trust that God will respond with his healing power.  We might not be able to predict what that healing will look like, but we should have faith that God heals.

Conclusion

Does God still heal?  The Bible paints a picture of a church with God’s healing power very active.  That healing includes physical healing.  Physical healing is not a guaranteed blessing, despite what some groups teach.  The truth is that everyone will get sick and die.  But God demonstrates his love for us from time to time with special gifts of healing.  Sometimes, healing is about the mind, heart or spirit.  Sometimes healing comes in unexpected ways.  We can never predict the way God will answer our prayers.  But we must pray in faith, trusting in the Lord our God.  As James reminds us: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16 ESV)

Share

Things Are Not What They Seem

Luke 25:13-35

Introduction

Have you ever been really down in the dumps?  Have you had your plans, your expectations and things went the complete wrong way?  Have you ever been deeply disappointed?  I think that it is okay to feel that way.  This is one of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism.  Buddhism sees the problem of life as being suffering.  What is the best way of avoiding suffering?  Stop desiring, stop dreaming, stop making yourself vulnerable.  Buddhism, in its purest form does not even have a place for a close knit family.  The Buddha himself abandoned his wife and children.  When you put yourself in that place of desiring that loving family or dreaming of accomplishing something in the world, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.  Christianity, on the other hand, dares us to dream.  Christianity challenges us to enter into relationships, to take on projects, to do something big.  Yes, at the risk of failing and being disappointed.  Christianity does not teach us how to avoid disappointment, it teaches us how to respond to disappointment.  If you are going through a time of failed dreams, it is good to reflect on the Scriptures.  The Bible is filled with such stories as it reminds us that our plans rarely work out the way we expect.  Let us take a look at an example with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Grieving

We skip pretty quick from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.  Jesus dies on the cross and the next thing you know he is walking around, hanging out with the disciples, celebrating the resurrection.  We need to slow down a bit and appreciate what was really happening.  Jesus died on the cross.  Jesus died a horrible painful death.  Most of the disciples did not witness it.  They were afraid, they were hiding.  But they knew what was happening.  There was talk.  There were messages going back and forth.  And they knew what a crucifixion looked like.  They knew how people died.  How could this have happened to Jesus?  Jesus was the teacher, the miracle worker, the most amazing man they had ever met.  When they had entered into Jerusalem, the disciples likely got caught up in the excitement of the crowd’s reaction.  Maybe Jesus was going to kick out the Romans, despite those strange comments about going to die in Jerusalem.  Then Jesus went into the Temple and overthrew tables and chased out money changers.  Now that was exciting!  This trip to Jerusalem might be pretty good after all.  But soon things fell apart.  One of their own betrayed Jesus.  Arrested.  Tried.  Condemned.  Crucified.  It was devastating.  This might surprise you as Jesus predicted his resurrection a number of times.  All the disciples had to do was find a safe place to hide for a couple of days and then go out and greet the risen Jesus.  Only one problem.  The disciples seemed to totally miss this important point.  How?  The disciples do not seemed to have been picked for their intelligence but there may be more going on.  When a Jew heard the word ‘resurrection’, they automatically thought of the general resurrection when all of God’s people would be raised.  They had no concept of one person being raised and then much later the rest of the people joining him.  Perhaps they thought that by resurrection, Jesus was giving another of those confusing parables.  Resurrection was a symbol for something deeper.  Perhaps the grief of knowing the terrible death that Jesus suffered was so intense that it overwhelmed any sense of hope they had.  All we know is that they had hoped that Jesus was going to do something big and those hopes were violently dashed.  Can you identify with this?  Did you ever have plans and hopes and dreams?  Did life come out of nowhere and change everything?  Have you felt the sting of that deep disappointment?  Did it batter you down until you felt completely without hope?  If so, you are in good company as just about all of the founders of the Christian church felt the same way.

Teaching

As two of the disciples were walking along, heads bowed, grieving broken dreams, Jesus came along side them.  I would have snuck up behind them and yelled “surprise!” but Jesus had other plans.  Jesus began talking to them, asking them innocent questions.  These disciples had no idea who was talking to them.  Jesus had such an important plan that their eyes were closed to seeing the identity of their companion.  You see the problem with these disciples was much greater than ignorance about Jesus rising from the dead.  They had already heard claims that Jesus had risen but their despair was too great for them to feel hope again.  Instead of Jesus revealing his identity, Jesus revealed the Scriptures to the disciples.  It is not that they had never heard anything from the Scriptures before.  What Jesus did was take them through the Scriptures in terms of God’s big plan, the ways God worked through people, the place of suffering, and how all of it pointed toward the work of the Christ.  This was no boring Bible study,  the disciples described it as their hearts burning within them.  Jesus‘ words had the ring of truth, they were bringing order from chaos, they were pulling hope out of despair.  And still they did not know that it was Jesus!  I am not suggesting that we have an undercover Jesus walking among us.  But that does not mean that Jesus isn’t teaching us.  Sometimes Jesus teaches us the same way he taught the disciples, through the Scriptures.  But we need to be willing to be taught.  If we want, the Bible can be just an ancient book, a collection of respected traditions, just a part of our heritage.  Or we can let the Bible be the Word of God with the authority to change our beliefs and actions.  Do we recognize what Jesus is doing through this book?  Jesus teaches us in other ways.  He teaches us through the words of others, both Christians and non-Christians.  He teaches us through our circumstances, both good and bad.  Do we recognize that it is Jesus teaching us even if we don’t see a bearded man in a robe with a halo.  Or are our eyes as blinded as the disciples?

Rejoicing

The disciples having had their eyes opened to the truth of the Scriptures, the disciples now have their eyes opened to the identity of the teacher.  They had convinced Jesus to join them for a meal.  As Jesus breaks the bread, they see Jesus for who he is.  Some have suggested that the nail wounds in his hands were visible in the breaking of bread.  Others have wondered if they had recognized how Jesus performed the same action during the last supper.  Perhaps Jesus simply removed the blinders from their eyes.  What matters is that they recognized Jesus for who he was.  Try to imagine how that felt.  To go from the despair of the crucifixion to the understanding of God’s plan through the Scriptures to the witnessing of the risen Jesus himself.  Not only was Jesus alive, Jesus was alive as the fulfilling of God’s plans that had been taking place for thousands of years. The hearts that had been burning with understanding must now have been bursting with joy.  To see reality with resurrection eyes is the best way to achieve true and lasting joy.  This is what we are seeking.  Things are happening in our life.  Things we don’t understand.  Things we might not even like.  Our goal is not just for a change of circumstances to see things through resurrection eyes.  Just as the crucifixion was the necessary step to reach the resurrection, perhaps our difficulties are the means by which we will encounter something greater.  What we learn from Jesus is that it is God’s habit of overcoming death with life.  If we could only see the things happening in our life with resurrection eyes, we would have a reason for great joy.  Joy is found not by looking at the surface features but looking deeper, seeing God’s redeeming work.  Take a look at the events in your life.  Look at the relationships, look at the opportunities, look at the problems you are facing.  Then look deeper, deeper still.  Where is God at work?  What is God’s resurrection power doing?  How is God’s redeeming your circumstances?  God shines light in the darkest times, he breathes life where there is only death.  He is doing it already.  We only need our eyes opened to see it.

Conclusion

How bad do things look in your life?  Things may not be exactly as they seem.  The disciples saw some pretty grim circumstances.  But Jesus came to them, taught them with the Scriptures and revealed his resurrection.  Nothing had changed during their journey on the road to Emmaus except their understanding.  We experience the same reality.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is just as real to us as it was to them.  The tomb is still empty.  Life is still greater than death.  Our challenge is to move from seeing our circumstances with crucifixion eyes to seeing them with resurrection eyes.  Allow Jesus to teach you, to teach your through the Scriptures and through experiences.  Allow Jesus to reveal his resurrection power.  Then see, see with open eyes the risen Christ working in our life and bringing great joy.

Share

Patience in Suffering

James 5:7-12

Introduction

I want you to imagine the perfect life, the life of comfort and ease where everything goes  according to plan and you always get your way.  I want you to take that image and I want you to wake up.  It is never going to happen.  I am not a pessimist, I don’t expect that life is going to be horrible, every moment a torment.  But I am not an optimist either.  Life is not going to be all sunshine and roses either.  I am a realist.  Life is going to be a mix of joy and sorrow, of success and failure, of health and sickness, of life and death.  We are just going to have to accept that is the way life is.  That suffering will come, we cannot change.  What we can change is our attitude.  We can respond to suffering with anger and bitterness and resignation.  But God calls us to something higher.  The Bible teaches that we should respond to suffering with patience and perseverance.  That is easy to say, but much harder to put into practice.  James, with his emphasis on practical application, provides some guidance on how we can persevere in the face of suffering.

Patience in the Present

Why is it so hard to be patient in the midst of suffering?  The problem is that it is so present.  It takes over our experience, our reality.  It becomes all that we know.  Our first impulse is to make the worst of it, embrace despair, to complain to everyone who will listen.  However, the easiest way is rarely the correct way.  One of the greatest virtues is that of perseverance and patience in the face of suffering.  In the parable of the soils, Jesus teaches: “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” (Luke 8:15 ESV)  Paul taught: “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:25 ESV)  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience” (Galatians 5:22 ESV)  Paul’s prayer was “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11 ESV)  James reminds us: “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast.” (James 5:11 ESV)  Experience says that patience is the best.  We know that when we have patiently endured and emerged on the other side, it is always better than when we have imploded under the pressure.  The question is: how do we patiently endure?

Patience From the Future

One of the ways that James offers hope in suffering is by pointing to the return of Jesus.  This requires some explanation.  It is not as simple as telling your friend who was just diagnosed with cancer “Don’t worry, Jesus is coming back.”  We need a bit more tact than that.  What we need to remember is that James is a very Jewish letter written from a very Jewish perspective.  The Old Testament is very aware that things are not the way they are supposed to be.  Life is never as simple as the wicked suffering and the righteous prospering.  The way they made sense of this was by looking forward to the Day of the Lord.  The Day of the Lord was a time in the future when God would put the world to rights.  Not a lot of detail was given about this, just that God would right the wrongs of the world, that he would raise up the righteous and punish the wicked.  It would be a time of justice.  This belief is a part of Christianity as well.  However, we have a bit more information.  The Day of the Lord is actually when Jesus returns and makes his second appearance.  Today is Palm Sunday, the day when we remember Jesus‘ entry into Jerusalem.  The people were calling for Jesus to be their king.  They hoped that Jesus would gather the people and inspire and equip them to throw off the Roman occupation.  They were hoping that Jesus arriving in Jerusalem was the beginning of the Day of the Lord.  In a way it was but only as a hint of the far future.  What we call the triumphal entry that took place on Palm Sunday, is only a pale foreshadowing of the real triumphal entry that will happen when Jesus returns.  That is great, but how does that help us in our suffering right now?  It helps when we begin to question whether God cares about the injustice in the world or in our life.  God has decided to do something about what is wrong and has decided when he is going to do it.  At the time Jesus returns, injustice will stop, evil will be conquered, the dead will be raised and the world will return to its Garden of Eden state.  This is a reminder to us that what we see now, as bad as it might be, is not the final chapter.  God will make things right.  Guaranteed.  Of course waiting for Jesus to return could seem like just another thing to wait for.  James encourages them to look at the experience of the farmer.  If a farmer sat there and watched a seed, it would seem like it would never grow.  But when we place these things in God’s hands, it just seems to happen.  The same is true with the return of Jesus.  If we count down days, it is easy to get discouraged.  But if we trust that it will happen and then go on with the duties of life, our patience will grow.

Patience From the Past

For some people, the waiting for some far off future event is too uncertain.  They need something more concrete.  Looking for the coming of the Lord is not the only way James encourages us.  One of the ways to gain patience is to look at the experience of people in the past.  We can look at those who have suffered and yet have chose to persevere.  The specific example that James offers is that of Job.  Who is Job?  Job is someone who went through more than we could ever imagine.  He lost his fortune, he lost his children and he lost his health.  Even what he had left was not very helpful.  His friends continually told him that he was suffering because God was punishing him.  His wife’s loving advice was to curse God and die.  That’s a pretty rough life.  Yet Job refused to give up, as bleak as things seemed.  He wondered where God was and felt like God was being unfair, but Job held on.  By the end of the story, God turned things around and gave Job back all that he lost.  As a result, the patience of Job has become a proverb for later generations.  How are you feeling about the situations in life?  How do you feel about your financial situation, your relationships, your health?  Maybe its time to get a Job or at least read some Job.  We can learn from Job and from many other people from the Bible.  We can learn from the experiences of Christians who have lived in the past.  Read Christian biographies and be inspired.  Read the stories of the hymn writers.  Those who wrote the best hymns, often suffered the most.  There are people in this church who have suffered, who have persevered and who have overcome.  We need to hear from each other.

Conclusion

Are you having a difficult time?  Are your circumstances challenging?  Do you find the present difficult to endure?  One of the great Christian virtues is to face such times with patience and perseverance.  The Bible does not assume that is easy, but it does point us in the right direction.  First we look to the future.  Jesus is coming back.  When he does, all the bad things we see will be set right.  God has not given up on this world, he has not given up on us.  Secondly, we can look to the past.  We can look to people like Job and others, people who have endured suffering, people who have overcome suffering.  We can be inspired by their humanness, God’s grace and the faith that bridges the two.  You do not have to be defeated by the challenges in your life.  God has the present, future and past all covered with his love and justice.

Share

You Poor Rich People

James 5:1-6

Introduction

What is the purpose of life?  According to one bumper sticker: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”  Look at almost every area of life and it would seem to point in that direction.  Education is not just to broaden the mind or create well rounded people but to train people for a lucrative career.  People seek jobs, not that are the most fulfilling or provide flexibility for family time, but those that pay well and have the most potential for promotion.  Instead of seeking friendship, people pursue networking opportunities, contacts that will open up opportunities for further advancement.  Even some Christians see their faith, not as a way to become closer to God or to become more compassionate, but as ways to get rich.  Is the purpose of life to get rich?  Does being rich mean that we have reached the pinnacle of life, that we have achieved our purpose and are enjoying the ultimate blessing of God?  James provides a very counter-cultural answer to this by saying that the rich are actually in a very dangerous place.  Before going too far, I have to make some clarifications.  It is not a sin to be rich, nor it virtuous to be poor.  There are examples of godly people in the Bible who were rich.  At the same time, there have been some very sinful poor people.  The point of James‘ teaching is not that our ticket to heaven is determined by the money we have in our bank account.  Rather, James is exposing some of the dangers of being rich.  His harsh language is because he is thinking of a particular group of rich people who have already crossed the line.  In case we think this does not apply to us because we are not rich, let us compare ourselves not with millionaires in Toronto, but with the rest of the planet and we will see that in proper perspective we are among the rich.

Riches Rot

My dad used to tell me that there was nothing more important than money.  His reason was that he grew up in poverty.  He knew what it meant to go without, living in a family of twelve children.  There were many times that there was not enough to eat.  He never wanted me to go through that.  So he preached the power of money.  The truth is, it is nice to have enough money to pay the bills and feed the family.  I have never wished that I was poorer or that my family was less provided for.  As a church, we cannot go to our utility providers and say we don’t have money to pay the bills but our people really love Jesus.  A certain amount of money comes in real handy.  The problem is when people become over reliant on money.  It might feel at the time that money is a secure foundation to build a life but people can find out the hard way, that it is not.  During the recent recession, individuals and organizations saw their investments wiped out in the blink of an eye.  People who had the high paying jobs with all the perks suddenly found themselves out of work.  Buy that expensive car, build that huge house, dress yourselves in the most expensive clothes.  All of those things will disappear eventually.  Wealth will fail at some point or another.  You could be the richest person in the world, but when you are on your death bead, you cannot buy yourself out of death.  James tells us “Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded.” (James 5:2–3 NIV)  Jesus said something similar.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21 ESV)  The problem is not that wealth is the best we have but unfortunately it has limitations.  The point is that there is a much better foundation, a foundation of love and trust in God.  God’s faithfulness is the only thing that lasts and it is the only thing that we should trust in.

Riches Tempt

Okay, maybe riches will fail eventually, but that does not mean riches are bad.  We might as well enjoy wealth for what it is good for and it seems to be good for quite a bit.  So why is James so critical?  We have to understand that James has a specific kind of rich person in mind.  We are not talking about a person who has inherited a fortune or who has personally worked hard to make money.  We are talking about people who have decided to be rich and were willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.  You see there is an easier way to get rich than to arrange for your own birth to rich parents or to work really hard.  The easiest way to get rich is to take advantage of others.  That was true two thousand years ago and it is true today.  There is a reason that there are so many scams out there.  This was particularly effective in James‘ day.  There were no legal system, labour union or advocacy groups looking out for the poor working man.  If you wanted to rip off your workers, there really was no one who would stop you.  While there may be some limitations of this kind of abuse today, the principle remains the same.  Once we set as our life goal the amassing of wealth, it will continually tempt us to take advantage of others.  There is only so much wealth out there and so we have to take from others so we can have it.  Treat employees poorly.  Mislead investors.  Sell substandard products.  Whatever it takes, that wealth must be attained.  James warns: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” (James 5:4 NIV)  Paul understood the dangers of an all consuming love for money.  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:10 ESV)  It is not money that is the root of evil, it is the love of money which can tempt us to do things that we know are wrong.  Be aware of this temptation.

Riches Consume

As we reflect on the dangers of wealth, one of the things that we must think about is our motivation for gaining wealth.  For some people, the desire for a better job or a bigger house is very much about taking care of their families.  Others seek to start a successful business because they want to financially support the local church and other charities.  These are good motivations.  But let’s be honest, even if a person starts out that way, it is very easy for the quest to become about personal greed.  I want that better car, that better house, that more prestigious job, more new toys and more exotic vacations.  It may be all about pleasure or comfort or trying to impress others.  The point is that it becomes all about self.  What’s wrong with that?  The Christian message is that life is not about self, rather it is about loving God and loving other people.  It is not wrong to ever enjoy something for yourself.  The problem is when self-indulgence becomes our goal in life.  James puts it this way: “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” (James 5:5 NIV)  We can see a hint of this in this conversation between Jesus and a rich man: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”” (Mark 10:21–23 ESV)  Why is it so hard for the rich?  Jesus asks for devotion to himself and compassion for others.  How do you do that if you have trained yourself to use your energy and resources for your personal desires?  It is a challenge but thankfully not impossible.

Riches Judged

Why does James bring all this up?  Doesn’t he risk offending some rich people and losing some important tithes?  Perhaps, but there is a very important reason to take a strong position.  The kind of unhealthy attitudes toward wealth fall under God’s judgment.  It is not that God looks at these attitudes and actions and says “I personally wouldn’t do that, but to each their own.”  God takes a much tougher stand on this, especially when it includes taking advantage of the poor.  James reminds us: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.” (James 5:1 NIV)  Could James really mean this?  Could God really judge a person just because they focused on wealth and abused the poor? “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried,and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame. ’But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’” (Luke 16:19–26 ESV)

Conclusion

What is the point of all this?  Is it that our eternal destiny is dependent on the money, or lack thereof, in our account?  Not at all.  But the message is very important.  Society tells us that money is everything and we should do whatever it takes to make more,  God has a different attitude toward money.  God knows the limitations of wealth, he understands the temptations attached to wealth, he does not want our lives consumed by wealth.  If we go down that path, worshipping wealth, not only will our life suffer, we will find ourselves under the judgment of God.  That does not mean that we have to give away all we own.  It does mean that we must check our attitudes, reflect on our actions and determine to use our resources in a godly way.

Share

You Want to Do What?

James 4:13-17

Introduction

I am a person who always likes a plan.  By a plan, I don’t mean just some general hopes to one day do such and such.  I like timelines and concrete goals.  Having studied leadership, I know that there is wisdom in this.  It is good to have a short-term plan and a long-term plan.  While emotionally it is good to take one day at a time, in every other area of life, we need to have some future focus.  Why does a child go to school on any given day?  Because their parents make them.  Why do their parents make them?  So they can finish that grade, as a step to finishing school, as a step toward getting a job.  Why does a person go to work in any given day?  To make money to buy groceries for that week, to pay other bills for that month, to save some money that year and to prepare for retirement decades down the line.  If we only lived for the moment, our lives would be much different.  It should be obvious that there is a need to have an eye toward the future and to make plans accordingly.  At the same time, we all have likely experienced a time when we had carefully planned something and things worked out nothing like we expected.  I can think of all sorts of things in our family life that did not work out according to our plans.  That did not mean that they were all bad, just that the plan did not match reality.  This can seem like an innocent bit of trying to predict the future, but there is something deeper going on here.  How we look to the future, how we look to our future, says a lot about how we see life and how we see God.  James is very interested in this.  He gives some strong warnings, provides a negative example and gives guidance as to how we should plan our futures.

Bad Plans

James begins with the assumption that there are some bad plans.  The context is that of rich people making plans for gaining more wealth.  We would agree that planning for a certain level of financial stability is a good thing.  However, when it comes to the plan for our lives, I would suggest that James sees the starting place of amassing wealth to be wrong.  It is not that making money is wrong, but having that as our primary motivation can be a dangerous thing.  When I first applied to university, I applied for what I loved which was history.  However, my mind began to be drawn to the idea of money.  How could I make a living with a history degree?  So I switched to business.  I did not have a love for business, nor did I have natural talent in that area.  My motivation was solely about making money.  During my studies, I did not dream of a job that I would enjoy or would feel fulfilled in.  I dreamed of getting rich.  Guess how that worked for me?  The only business related job I ever had was the worst paying job I ever had and I quit after two months.  Being in ministry, money is no longer my motivator.  Bad plans may also include confidence in both short-term and and long-term timelines.  I believe that it is important to have short and long-term goals.  The problem is with the level of confidence put in those goals.  Are you talking about what you would like to see happen or are you stating what will happen?  There is a difference between planning well and an arrogant expectation that reality will submit to your plans.  The final part of the bad plan is not what is included but what is missing.  There is no talk of God here.  Bad plans leave God out of the picture.  The Bible says “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalms 14:1 NIV) This is not about modern atheists who actively argue against the existence of God.  In that culture, very few would actually deny the existence of God, at least with their words.  What we are talking about are practical atheists, people who deny God with their actions.  This is the danger in our plan making, that we suddenly become practical atheists.  When we just plot our whole lives, we can leave out any room for God’s plan.  My children have plans.  Those plans are for what games they are going to play and what shows they are going to watch.  That is fine.  But when we decide we are going somewhere or it is mealtime or bedtime, our plan overrides their plan.  We dare not ever feel so secure in our authority that we leave no room for God’s plan.

Good Plan

So there can be bad plans in life.  But that does not mean that there can be no good plans.  It is hard to see how we could survive, much less thrive, without some sort of planning in our life.  So what does that look like?  James tells us that starting place for planning is not in wealth seeking but in will seeking.  We start with submission to the will of God.  We have to begin with the attitude of “If it is the Lord’s will.”  I have to be clear what we mean here.  I am not saying waiting before a meal until God reveals his will that you should eat.  We should be going about the normal activities of life.  However, it may be that God would like you to skip a meal and fast.  But you don’t assume that ahead of time.  The point is, we live our lives with an attitude of being open to God adjusting our way at any time.  Here is another question: does God have a specific will for every part of our life?  Does God have a specific spouse planned for you?  Does God have a specific career path for you?  Should we work ourselves up, worrying if this is “the one”?  Many Christians would say yes to this.  I am not so sure.  It is true that God has a will for the kind of spouse you have and the kind of job you get.  But it does not take great spiritual insight to understand that it is not God’s will that you be a drug dealer or a mafia hit man.  However, God may not have specific concerns on whether you are an electrician or a plumber.  So you should not beat yourself up about making the wrong choice unless God gave you specific, clear guidance otherwise.  Also, God does not always give full details of his will, it may be just the next step.  When I first felt myself called into ministry, there were no details as to what that would look like.  Although I had a picture of what I thought it would be, I was way off.  Even after I actually started in ministry, what ministry looks like now is very different.  I could never have predicted the things that have happened since.  All I knew at the beginning was that it was ministry and that I needed training.  The next part in good plans is the acknowledgment of the fragility of life.  Before we ask if God wants us to marry that supermodel or move to Africa or start a new business, we have to reflect on whether we have another day to live.  Every breath we take, every heart beat is in the hands of God.  We need to rediscover the fragility of life.  It was three years ago at this time that our family made plans.  We were selling my parents house, preparing for my mom to move in with us, looking at building an extension on our house and dreaming of what life was going to like.  We did move my mom to live with us.  She spent less than twenty-four hours in the room we prepared and decorated for her, went into the hospital for two weeks and then was dead.  All of our plans are contingent on our own mortality.  This is not to be morbid but rather to give us a sense of humility in our plans.  Then and only then do we make our plans.  We reflect on our desires, look at our resources and skills, try to determine what is possible and beneficial and make plans accordingly.  Make short-term plans, make long-term plans.  But all of these are always ready for adjustment.  We confess that we are not the lord of our own life.  All of our plans must be according to our understanding of God’s will and in the shadow of our mortality, reflecting on the fragility of life.

Conclusion

To plan or not to plan, that is the question.  The truth is there are good plans and bad plans.  The value, is not so much in the content of the plan as it is in the attitude of the planner.  Do we start with a focus on getting rich and a confidence in our own abilities?  Or do we start with submission to God’s will and a thankfulness just for another day to live?  We need to make plans to use our resources wisely, to be faithful with what we have, to prepare for future generations and to live productive lives.  But those plans have to be made with an attitude honoring to God.

Share

How to Become a Muslim

James 4:1-12

Introduction

How to become a Muslim?  Did you come to the right place?  I want to reassure you that I am not preaching a form of Chrislam.  Chrislam is a view that puts Christianity and Islam on the same level, seeing them as equal paths to God and suggesting that they have pretty much the same message.  I do not hold to that position.  In fact, this sermon has nothing to do with Muhammad or the Qur’an or Arab religion.  The only reason that I even mention the word Muslim is that it is a word that means one who is submitted to God.  Muslims have one vision of what it means to be submitted to God, Christians have a different one.  In this section, James describes for us what a life submitted to God looks like against the background of a life in rebellion to God.  James describes the life of one who is envious, selfish and argumentative.  The antidote to this life is a life in submission to God.  We are going to look at the five pillars of a Christian submission to God.

Proper Attitude in Prayer

We would all agree that prayer is good.  However, James teaches us that not all prayer is good prayer.  Bad things that happen in society are often based on corrupt motives.  Why do people lie, cheat and steal?  Because they want something that they do not have and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get it.  We can look at such people and see their faults.  But what about us?  We take our needs to God in prayer.  Good.  But what is prayer for us?  For some people it is a means of manipulating God through positive confessions in order to get the stuff that we want.  James tells us to check our motives.  Why are we praying for what we are praying?  Are we discontent with the things we have?  Do we envy the possessions of our friends and neighbours and hope to be as affluent as they are?  Prayer may be seen as the means to achieve these goals.  But prayer was never meant to be the tools by which we keep up with the Jones.  Pray for other people, for the people whose basic needs are not yet met.  Pray for the salvation of loved ones.  Pray for peace for those who are hurting and are grieving.  Yes, you can pray for yourself.  You can even pray that you will receive something material.  But check your motive.  Is it so you can have what you need to provide for your family or so you can impress other people with your things?  Submitting to God means praying according to his will and according to Kingdom values and not according our own selfish desires.

Proper Relationship with the World

The Christian’s relationship with the world is a confusing and controversial subject.  First of all what do I mean by the world?  I do not mean planet earth.  When the Bible speaks of the world, often what it means is the value system of society.  Here is where the conflict comes between the church and society.  Society’s values change very quickly.  We are not talking about centuries, but rather over decades and even years.  The church on the other hand receives its values from revelation from God.  At times the values of society and church have overlapped some, other times not so much.  So what do we do?  Some Christians have seen the evils of the world and have withdrawn, staying to themselves, hoping not to be corrupted by what is around them.  Others have seen the importance of reaching out to the world and so have become like the world.  They wonder as they see society’s values changing that perhaps they are seeing something that we in the church are missing.  Perhaps the traditional values of the Bible are just cultural and that we need to update our morality in order to keep up with the times.  James speaks to this.  He warns Christians about seeking friendship with the world.  That is not a call to withdraw from the world.  The consistent message of the New Testament is that we seek to have a positive influence on society and that must mean that we are engaging society.  But we do not derive our values from society.  Our morality comes from God and if that leads to some conflict, so be it.  Submission to God requires a balanced relationship with society that engages it but does not compromise in order to be more appealing.

Proper Understanding of Ourselves

If Christians have trouble having a proper understanding of our relationship to the world,  we equally struggle with our understanding of ourselves.  Again, Christians often go to one of two extremes.  Some see themselves as children of the King and think of themselves as pretty important.  Some think they deserve to be rich and to live a life of comfort, after all they are royalty being adopted into the family of God.  There are others who adopt a worm theology.  They focus completely on their own sinfulness and unworthiness.  Their thoughts are consumed with how bad they are and how much they do not deserve God’s love.  They argue that no one can have a low enough self-esteem.  The problem with these extremes is that they are both true.  We are sinful and unworthy and we are also children of the King.  The proper position is that of humility.  Not a false humility where you are always beating yourself up or in boasting of your own great humility.  True humility is about seeing yourself in proper perspective.  We are sinners who are loved by a righteous God.  We should not see ourselves as being either better or worse than anyone else.  True humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.  What matters are the needs of other people and the glorifying of God.  If we focus on those things, humility is the natural result.

Proper Relationship With God

What is the purpose of Christianity?  What we are seeking is that which was lost in the garden.  After Adam and Eve sinned, God went looking for them but they hid from his presence.  Our goal is to regain that presence of God.  That may seem straight forward, but it is something that is often missed by religious people.  Ask a religious person why they are religious.  They want to be a good person.  They want to be faithful to their traditions.  It makes them feel better.  All of those are good things, but they are the results of what we are trying to do and that is to draw near to God.  James warns people to flee the devil, but not just to avoid evil, but rather so we can turn around and embrace God.  This is why Jesus came into the world.  The sermons were great.  The miracles were great.  But Jesus came to reconcile humanity to God.  When Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple ripped as a symbol of the new access we had to God.  If you are one who submits to God, you do that not just by following the rules, but by actively seeking God’s presence.

Proper Relationship With People

So we are to draw close to God.  That sounds good.  There are many people who would like to do that.  But at the same time, they have no patience for people.  God is great because he is perfect.  People are annoying because they are so imperfect.  They say the wrong thing, they do the wrong thing, it is just frustrating.  Their faults are just so obvious.  Why not speak against them?  Gossip about them and slander?  After all, there must be other people who are just as annoyed by them as we are.  There is one problem.  Submission to God.  Submitting to God is not just about how you relate to God, it is about how we relate to other people.  The basic Christian confession is that Jesus is Lord.  Not just Lord of our hymn singing and Bible reading and prayer.  Jesus is Lord of all, including our relationships.  We need to ask ourselves as we are speaking to a person or speaking about a person: “Do the words I am about to speak, point to Jesus as Lord?”  When we are about to do something or refuse to do something, does that point to Jesus as Lord?  Full submission to God means that we treat people the way God treats us, with grace.

Conclusion

Islam has its own idea of its five pillars.  Christian submission also has five pillars.  These five pillars are not things that we do that achieve salvation for us.  These pillars are descriptions of what a life submitted to God should look like.  Our attitudes toward prayer, toward the world, toward ourselves, toward God’s presence and toward other people should all be submitted to God.  This is not a call to be religious.  Many religious people miss out on all of these.  Jesus died, not to make religious people, but so that by faith in Jesus, he might become our Lord and Lord of every area of our life.

Share

So You Want to Be a Wise Guy?

James 3:13-18

Introduction

If you could have any of the God-given abilities of people in the Old Testament, who would you want to be like?  You could be like Abraham and Sarah and be able to have children at a very old age.  That does not sound good.  You could be like Moses and part bodies of water.  Might make fishing easier but not overly useful.  You could be like David and be able to take down really tall people with just a rock.  But you would likely get charged.  Many a child in Sunday school probably has wanted to be as strong as Samson.  But as adults we know we would always get called by friends who want help moving.  Probably, the most practical and most desirable gift of a person in the Old Testament is that of the wisdom of Solomon.  If only we had more wisdom!  Life continually brings challenges to us.  We are faced with decisions and problems and we need to know what choice to make.  This is an interesting time to be talking about wisdom as we live in the information age.  Many people of previous generations were not able to attend university because of distance, finances or not finishing high school.  Today, just about anyone can study at a university online.  Even if you did not seek a formal education, there is more information available to us today than we could ever take in over a lifetime.  The sad fact is that despite the overflow of knowledge available to us, there seems to be a real lack of wisdom in society, especially how the Bible defines it.  James is particularly interested in wisdom and his insight is as useful today as it was two thousand years ago.

What Wisdom Does Not Look Like

While wisdom may be lacking, what we do not lack are people who claim to be wise.  There are all sorts of people who think they have all the answers and are more than willing to share that with anyone who will listen.  It is interesting that we would agree that being wise is something good and desirable.  And yet if we hear someone being described as a ‘wise guy‘ we know automatically that it is a negative thing.  We naturally understand that there is a wisdom that is not real wisdom.  It is shallow, thoughtless, irrelevant and self-seeking.  That is not true wisdom.  James was very aware of this false wisdom.  Notice how James defines false wisdom.  His focus is not on a proper understanding of the facts.  James understood that a person could have a photographic and encyclopedic memory and yet still not be wise.  If is not just having wrong information, what is it that disqualifies some people as wise?  The key faults are envy and selfish ambition.  Why is it that you want to be wise?  Well, I want to be smarter than that guy, I want to be so wise that I can write my own ticket and be whatever I want to be.  These would be common motivations to seek wisdom and yet these traits disqualify whatever is attained from being wisdom.  Why is that?  Wisdom is not something to benefit you but something that makes you a benefit to others.  Unfortunately this is a mistake that Solomon made.  Solomon was given wisdom by God.  True wisdom.  But wisdom, like anything, can be transformed and perverted into something completely different.  In the beginning, things were going well with Solomon’s wisdom.  The wisdom he had was used to make him a good ruler.  He built a Temple for the Lord, the first ever Temple for the true God.  The nation of Israel was strengthened and became a real power in the region.  Solomon used his wisdom to make good judgments when people came to him on legal matters.  That sounds like good wisdom.  People respected and looked up to Solomon.  And Solomon enjoyed being respected and looked up to.  Leaders of other nations came to Solomon and Solomon enjoyed the attention.  He sent those queens and other leaders home with loads of expensive gifts, not as an act of charity but as a way to make obvious the wealth that he had accumulated.  I am sure that Solomon’s own people that were breaking their backs working to produce such wealth would have loved to have shared in it.  Solomon made some decisions that privileged his own tribe of Judah and attempted to break the leadership of the other tribes.  These decisions would lead to the splitting of the nation not long after Solomon’s death.  Solomon gathered much wealth to himself and gathered many wives as well, all despite specific warnings in the Bible to avoid such excess.  The result of Solomon’s misuse and ultimate abandonment of wisdom is that his relationship with God fell apart, his family fell apart and his nation fell apart.  The envy he had for the glamour of foreign rulers, his selfish ambition that desired power, wealth and respect for himself, completely contaminated the great wisdom that God had given him.  Solomon, despite great wisdom in the early years, is an example of what wisdom is not.

What Wisdom Is

So what does true wisdom look like?  In the movie Forrest Gump years ago, it was said that “Stupid is as stupid does.”  The same could be said of wisdom.  Wisdom is as wisdom does.  Wisdom is not something that is found in the brain.  Wisdom is about living a wise life.  James gives us some detail of what that looks like.  Wisdom is pure.  Nothing may feel pure but where James is going is that it is not something mixed with something else.  There is no room for wanting to be wise because wisdom will help gather wealth and will be useful in manipulating people.  Wisdom is peace-loving.  James is very interested in this because he concludes this section by saying “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”  Wisdom is vital in attaining peace.  Wisdom shows you how to have true peace with people, not a false peace based on ignoring what is bad, nor using knowledge to divide people in unhealthy ways.  Wisdom is being able to see the big picture and gathering people in under the things that really matter.  Wisdom is considerate.  How other people feel matters and you can not just go shooting your mouth off without thinking.  Wisdom is submissive.  Really?  We think of wisdom as a way to get power, but James sees wisdom as a way to be a servant.  Wisdom is full of mercy and good fruit.  Wisdom is not just how you can get for yourself but how you can give to others.  Wisdom is impartial.  Being partial means you have already decided the way its going to be and the facts can then be shaped according to that agenda.  Being wise means letting go of that agenda.  If an atheist is doing something good and your pastor is doing something bad, a wise person will acknowledge the truth and not get stuck with what only feels right.  Wisdom is sincere.  Wisdom means what it says.  It is not a disguise for something else, it is real and truthful.  I used Solomon as an example of what wisdom is not, I will use another son of David, this one farther down the family tree, to show what wisdom is.  The best example is that of Jesus.  That would seem to be obvious.  Jesus is God and therefore Jesus is wise.  Case closed.  Yes, but Jesus actually lived out this wisdom.  Since James is the half-brother of Jesus, it would be reasonable that James had Jesus in mind as an example of wisdom.  Think about Jesus as God incarnate.  He has the power and authority to beat down and humiliate anyone he encountered.  In fact there are early fictional accounts of Jesus that imagine what it was like as he was a child and they portray him in just such a way.  But that is not how the Gospels describe Jesus.  Jesus was pure and considerate.  He cared about other people.  He did not use his wisdom to hurt people but to help them.  Jesus was peace-loving.  This requires some comment.  Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34 ESV)  This does not mean that Jesus came to bring war or that he enjoys conflict.  Jesus is saying here that people who follow him will have to make a choice and that choice is going to bring them into conflict with others who reject him.  Jesus‘ peace is not a shallow peace where people pretend to get along.  Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27 ESV)  Jesus is offering real peace.  This is peace with God, which leads to peace within ourselves.  This also leads to peace with others, but it is peace that is deeper and more substantial than the popular idea.  By the way, do you know how Jesus describes peacemakers?  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9 ESV)  Jesus is merciful.  We rely on that mercy daily.  Jesus is impartial.  It did not matter if a person was a prostitute, a religious leader or a centurion.  The truth was the truth without any hidden agenda.  Jesus was even submissive.  Jesus went to the cross, not because all other options were unavailable, but because he submitted to his Father which meant he submitted to his enemies.  Jesus is the great wise man.  Wisdom is as wisdom does.

Conclusion

I often hear people say “I need wisdom.”  What they really mean is that they want someone to give them the answer to their problem that will give them the best solution.  What car to buy, what job to take, what person to marry.  That is not actually wisdom, although wisdom would be helpful in making those decisions.  Wisdom is actually a lifestyle.  It is not just what you think, but what you say, how you say it, why you say it and how you treat people.  The scary thing is if we were wiser, we might not recognize our lives.  Our priorities and values might be turned upside down.  And yet that is exactly what James is asking us to do.  Seek wisdom.  But seek wisdom that comes from above, wisdom that makes us more Christ-like.

Share

Dead Faith

James 2:14-26

Introduction

One of the distinctives of Christianity is that we believe that salvation is by faith alone.  There is no religious ritual or level of good deeds that will bring about our salvation.  The thief who died on the cross hours after meeting Jesus for the first time is just as saved as the missionary who preaches and cares for the poor for fifty years.  This is extremely important and we must hold on to this at all costs.  But if it is only through faith, we better have a good idea of what we mean by faith.  Many people describe the Christian religion as being about believing in God, or even more specifically believing in Jesus.  If you asked a person why they thought they were going to heaven, if they didn’t say because they were a good person, they would say that it was because they believed in God.  So all God wants is for you to believe that he exists?  James tackles this in the passage we are looking at.  If all it took was for someone to believe that God exists, then the demons would be saved because they have seen him face to face.  So if it is not just simple belief that God exists, what is faith?  Instead of giving a theological definition of faith, James does what a good preacher does and provides an illustration.  James holds up Abraham as a model of faith and expects us to follow that example.  There is one problem.  James looks to Abraham and finds evidence that faith must include works.  The Apostle Paul looks at the same passage about Abraham and concludes that it is all about faith apart from works.  What is happening here?  Are Paul and James contradicting each other?  The best way to deal with this is to look at the passage in Genesis about Abraham, look at what Paul says and then look at what James says.  Then we can put it all together and hopefully have some idea of what faith is supposed to look like in our life.

Abraham

Jews, Christians and Muslims all look to Abraham as a hero of the faith.  But what did he do that was so faith-filled?  There are many things that Abraham did.  He undertook long journeys and won military victories.  But there was a specific thing that made Abraham known for faith.  Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless.  That was a shameful thing in that culture.  People would rather die than be without an heir.  This filled Abraham with a deep grief.  Abraham would have done anything to have a child of his own, but he knew that with their age and Sarah’s barrenness, it was absolutely impossible.  In the midst of this, God spoke to Abraham.  “Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”” (Genesis 15:4–5 NIV)  God promised that Abraham would not just have a child, but that a large nation would come from Abraham.  Looking at the physical circumstances, how could Abraham possibly accept this?  But what happened?  “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6 NIV)  That is not to say that Abraham had no questions, he did.  But the believing came before the questions.  Abraham believed God, he trusted God, he accepted God at his word.  And as a result, God considered Abraham to be righteous.  Abraham did not do anything to earn the label ‘righteous’, he simply believed and it was a fact.

Paul

The story of Abraham was of interest to Paul, but not just as a neat Bible story.  Much of Paul’s challenges came from conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile (or non-Jewish) Christians.  Both groups agreed that faith in Jesus was important.  The question was: Were Christians also obligated to follow the Jewish Law?  Were there specific rituals and works that were required for salvation?  When false teachers tried to convince the Galatians that they needed to be circumcised and adopt the law, Paul responded: “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:5–9 NIV)  This came up again with the Roman church that was experiencing conflict between Jews and Gentiles.  Paul reminded them: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1–5 NIV)  Paul’s point is simple.  Do you want to know how to be considered righteous by God?  Abraham believed God and was considered righteous.  If we believe God, we will be considered righteous.  No works necessary for salvation.  Case closed.

James

Paul makes a pretty convincing case.  The trouble is that James quotes the same verse and concludes that works are important.  Why is this?  Some have suggested that James and Paul were in conflict and James is purposely attempting to refute Paul’s position.  Yet we find in Acts that James gave his blessing to Paul’s ministry and in Galatians, Paul describes James as one of the pillars of the church.  There has to be more going on here.  When we look closely at what James says here, we will find that the contradiction melts away.  It is true that James quotes the passage in Genesis where Abraham believed and was considered righteous.  That is from Genesis 15.  But James describes a story that takes place in Genesis 22.  Abraham was promised that he would have a son and indeed Sarah gave birth to Isaac.  It must have been a tremendous joy for Abraham to finally have his son.  But some years later, perhaps when Isaac was a teenager, God had another message for Abraham.  This time God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Imagine the emotional roller coaster to go from unbelievable joy to unbelievable grief.  Strangely, Abraham did not oppose God or even argue with him.  Abraham obediently took his son to the chosen place, lifted the knife and was about to sacrifice him.  Thank God (literally), Abraham did not have to kill his son, as God provided a last minute alternative in the form of a ram caught in a thicket.  What was Abraham thinking?  I can’t even imagine how I would react if God commanded me to kill one of my sons.  What we find here is an act of faith.  We read in Hebrews: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17–19 NIV)  This seems to be the same direction that James is going.  Abraham had reasoned that God promised him a son and that from that son would come a great nation.  Whatever else God was going to command, it could not take away from God’s initial promise.  Abraham probably did not know exactly how things would work but assumed that if worst came to worst, God would at least bring Isaac back from the dead so that the original promise could still be fulfilled.  The point is that Abraham was faithful when it was most difficult and that faith was demonstrated by what he did.  What does this have to do with Genesis 15 and Abraham believing and being considered righteous?  James understands faith not just as a momentary decision to join one team over another, but as the starting point for a life of faith.  James would not have disagreed with Paul about it being only faith that makes us justified.  Abraham did not have to do anything at that moment in order to be considered righteous.  But what if Abraham said he believed God and then later refused his command to sacrifice Isaac?  That refusal would be an indication that Abraham deep down did not really believe that God was going to use his son to bring about a great nation.  Faith is not really faith unless there is some evidence on the outside.  This is something that Paul would whole heartedly agree.

Conclusion

I would like to conclude by bringing this all together for us.  How is a person saved?  How does one receive eternal life?  How does one enter into the kingdom of God?  It is by faith.  But what do we mean by that?  I do not mean some evangelist gave an emotional appeal and all your friends responded, so you figured you should pray the prayer as well.  I do not mean that you believe the facts about Christianity and that you can recite theological doctrines without a flaw.  To be considered righteous by God requires real faith.  If I was to ask you if you believed that someone could walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls pushing a wheel barrow, you probably would believe me.  After all, there are people with the courage, balance, talent and experience to do such things.  What then if I asked you to sit in the wheel barrow while they did it?  You may be a bit more hesitant.  This is what James is talking about.  Faith without works is dead.  If what you believe does not affect you in a real way, you do not believe it.  Not really.  Not the way Abraham believed.  God said he would have a son and that son would become a great nation.  Abraham believed.  Years later, God told him to sacrifice Isaac.  Abraham still believed.  He believed so much that he lifted that knife over his son.  God accepted Abraham’s faith because it was real faith.  We cannot earn our salvation.  No amount of works or rituals will ever make us good enough.  But the faith that saves is the faith that transforms and shapes our life into a life of obedience.  That is a living faith.

Share

For Richer and Poorer

James 2:1-13

Introduction

I want you to imagine the perfect church.  New people would come in and the church would be completely oblivious to their outward appearance or circumstances.  I don’t mean we wouldn’t care if someone was in need.  I mean there would be no judgment as to value, there would be zero partiality.  The homeless person would be treated exactly the same as the millionaire.  The person overflowing with leadership and ministry potential would be treated exactly the same as the person who was an emotional wreck and could only receive ministry.  This is the biblical picture of what the church should like.  And yet to varying degrees, we all struggle to achieve this ideal.  Why is this?  The problem is human nature.  By choosing to fill the church with human beings, God has set us up for complicated problems.  James was well aware of this.  Remember that James was the head of the Jerusalem church, which had leadership role over all the Christian churches.  James had to deal with a lot of church politics, navigating between the needs and prejudices of various groups.  When James writes on this, he knows what he is talking about.

How We See the Rich and Poor

James goes right for the problem, describing what was taking place in the churches.  Remember, there were no church buildings at that time, every congregation met in a person’s house, leaving room as a valuable commodity.  When a rich person would come to the church, they would get one of the few precious good seats.  The poor person would get to stand, or even sit on the ground at the feet of a person more important than them.  Why would they do that?  The church started mostly among poor people.  So when a rich person came, it was big deal.  It was a validation of their beliefs, as even a rich and educated person would hold the same beliefs.  It was also a rare opportunity to greatly increase the resources available for ministry.  Their natural excitement led them to give preferential treatment to the rich.  What about today?  We would of course welcome homeless people, unemployed, sick, disabled etc.  But I will confess to you that we would be really excited if a few tithing millionaires came, if we had some people with natural leadership and ministry skills with the time, energy and motivation to use them.  I don’t know of any pastor that would be any different.  The poor are people who require ministry resources and the rich are people who provide ministry resources.  We would never remove a person from a pew to make room for a rich person.  Modern partiality is much more subtle.  I read a book a number of years ago by a well known Christian pastor who argued that we should only keep as friends those who have the resources and skills to move our careers and aspirations forward.  Think of how we speak of the rich, we describe them as being blessed by God.  While we may not take this far, there are whole movements within Christianity that preach that God’s blessings are measured directly by the amount of money in the bank.  What does that mean for what we think of the poor?  We need to check our opinions when it comes to the rich and poor.  How do we really feel?

How God Sees the Rich and Poor

Let me first of all say that God does not hate the rich.  God has used rich people like Abraham in very powerful ways.  And yet riches were always a danger.  Even before Israel had a king, there was this warning: “The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” (Deuteronomy 17:16–17 NIV)  This is exactly what Solomon did.  While his riches impressed the Israelites and the foreigners who visited him, that greed led Solomon away from God and into idolatry.  At the same time, the Old Testament is filled with commands to take care of the poor.  In Isaiah 1, God tells the Israelites that he hates their worship and the reason is they both abuse and neglect the poor.  The message does not change in the New Testament, and if anything the emphasis on the poor is strengthened.  A number of times, Jesus tells potential followers, especially when they are rich, to sell all they have and give it to the poor.  Jesus taught this: “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”” (Mark 10:23–27 NIV)  This does not mean that the rich will not go to heaven, but they have added obstacles in putting their full trust in God.  Think about Jesus.  He was born, not into a rich family but into a working class family.  There was not much of a middle class and so the family may not have been in abject poverty, but it was far from filthy rich.  Whatever income Jesus had as a carpenter, by the time he went into ministry, he relied on other people’s charity.  Jesus lived in poverty.  I have heard people claim that Jesus was rich.  Their reason?  Not any Bible verse but the assumption that money is the sign of blessing obviously Jesus was blessed.  Yes, Jesus was blessed and therefore we should rethink what blessing is.  As Jesus himself said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20 NIV)  In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus taught: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:37–40 NIV)  What we should see is that the poor have a special place in God’s heart.  That does not mean that all poor are right with God and all rich are hated.  Rather, God expects the rich and everyone who has the means, to care for the poor.

How We Should Live

So we have the following situation: People tend to be partial to the rich and yet God has a special love for the poor.  What then should we do?  James knows exactly what to do.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2:8 NIV)  It is interesting how the church has interpreted this.  Love for others is an option that you can include in your religious life if you are particularly spiritual and have tendencies toward compassion.  Christianity is about singing, learning the Bible, putting money in the plate, and if you want extra credit, you can choose to love your neighbour.  If God really wanted us to love as a matter of priority, he would have made it clear.  “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18 NIV)  “Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:19 NIV)  “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:39 NIV)  “The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”” (Romans 13:9 NIV)  “The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”” (Galatians 5:14 NIV)  So the Old Testament, two comments by Jesus and two comments by Paul, all agree that love for neighbor is essential and not just an option.  James‘ argument is that even if you take pride in following all the commandments and yet if you break this commandment, you have broken them all.  Loving our neighbor alone is called the royal law.  What does this tell us about how we treat the rich our poor?  Our primary purpose is not to fund the best programs or build the best buildings or hire the best staff.  Our primary purpose is to love our neighbor, and as Jesus teaches in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is very likely that our neighbor is nothing like us.  How we treat people who come into our church should be based on the question of how this will benefit our budget or improve our prestige in the community.  The only question that should come to mind is: Are we loving our neighbor?

Conclusion

Just this week, I saw quotes by some important American politicians.  President Obama stated “No one envies the rich.”  Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Rominey stated that he was not worried about the poor because they already have a safety net.  We can look at these politicians and conclude that they are out of touch.  What about the church?  Are we out of touch, both with reality and the heart of God?  We are conditioned by cultural values and value riches over poverty, and often the rich over the poor.  Brothers and sisters, this should not be so.  It is not a sin to be rich, nor is it a virtue to be poor.  But it is a sin to treat the rich better than we treat the poor.  The royal law is love our neighbor as ourself.  That should be the guide for all that we do.

Share

Hearing and Doing

James 1:19-27

Introduction

A long time ago there was a man who was very active in church.  He had a great desire to live a life pleasing to God.  There was only one problem.  He was all too aware that he was sinful and that he was unworthy of God’s love.  He tried everything, from performing religious rituals to punishing his body.  No matter what he did, he was all too aware of the tremendous gulf between himself and God.  Then one day he was reading Romans 1:17, where Paul quotes the Old Testament: “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17 ESV)  That’s it!  People are not justified by their own good works, they are justified only by faith.  That realization changed not only the young man, but the entire world.  That young man was Martin Luther, and what Luther discovered about faith was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a movement in which we also are included.  Why do I bring this up?  Luther had mixed emotions about the letter of James that we have been looking at.  Luther quoted from James and did praise the epistle.  But he also said that compared to the Gospel of John and Paul’s letters, James was an “epistle of straw.”  When opponents began to rely on James to teach that salvation required works, Luther said “I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove.”  I can understand how a person who is sensitive to legalism and a religion heavy with rules would struggle with James.  If you are looking for a text that will encourage you to sit back and just enjoy your ticket to heaven, James is not the book to read.  James is action oriented, describing the things we are expected to do and the ways we are expected to act.  James is not trying to teach a salvation that is based on how much we do or how hard we work.  But he is teaching that following Jesus means following Jesus and that must manifest itself in outward ways.  This section of the letter will give some practical on how a Christian should be.

Be Quiet

I spend a lot of time talking with skeptics and people of other religions or philosophies.  I also spend a lot of time with other Christians who also like to interact with skeptics.  I will tell you that it can very easily get quite nasty.  It starts with Christians making assumptions about what others believe and their reasons for being skeptical.  Being passionate about the Christian faith, they share their beliefs vigorously.  They then get frustrated when the person has not embraced in a few minutes what we have been taking in over years of attending church.  It is not just about the sharing of faith.  Look at any conversation about controversial subjects such as abortion or homosexuality.  How does that conversation take place?  Is it about sitting down and looking at the issues, working through logic and reason?  From my experience, such conversations produce much more heat than light.  James has something to say on this subject.  His advice is not to attack people who are different, nor is it to automatically agree with everyone we encounter.  James instead teaches “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19 NIV)  Yes we may strongly disagree with a person, their views may even seem offensive to us, but that does not give us the permission to shoot off.  The first step is to actually listen.  When you talk to people who are angry toward Muslims, homosexuals or atheists, it is common to discover that they have never sat down with one and heard their story.  There is a reason for this.  It is easier for to hate what we do not know.  We can set up our own caricature that is easy to dislike but might find that our response is different when we listen and discover that they are real human beings, not so different from us.  James tells us that we should be slow to speak.  Our temptation is to take over the conversation and keep things on our terms.  Perhaps the church would be doing better if we learned to just be quiet.  I often hear Christian leaders making harmful statements and I just wish that they would shut their mouth.  My preaching professor said that he had a prayer when he heard a pastor say something stupid from the pulpit: “Take him down Lord!”  Do not speak just because a thought came to mind or you see an opportunity to make the other person look foolish.  Before you open your mouth, ask the question: “What will the result be if I say what I am thinking?”  Is it a statement that will build a bridge, strengthen the relationship, open their eyes to a new perspective and pass on helpful information?  Or will it be an expression of your anger and frustration?  If it is the latter, then there are more productive ways for us to vent our feelings.  When we say something, we can never take it back.  So we better choose carefully.

Be Active

Christianity has always been a faith that has emphasized learning.  We are a people of the book, and wherever Christianity has spread, literacy has increased, often as people begin by reading the Bible.  Some cultures did not even develop an alphabet until missionaries had to create one to translate the Bible.  The church is in a constant mode of teaching, through sermons, Bible reading, communion services, hymns and even stained glass windows.  As a result, Christians value learning.  We read Christian books, attend Bible studies and go to inspirational conferences.  All of these things are good, but there can be a danger.  While most of the things that we take for granted were in their infancy in James’ day, the New Testament had not even been compiled, he saw the potential problem.  It is very easy for us to immerse ourselves in Christian teaching and then somehow neglect to put it into practice.  You could do a Ph.D. on the role of love in the New Testament church, with detailed research of the cultural, religious, theological and social contexts, and yet never show love toward another person.  You could study music, master every instrument, go through vocal training and learn the history of hymn-writing and yet never truly worship God.  At some point, we have to take what we have heard and learned and put it into practice.  Jesus spoke to this.  “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24–27 NIV)  The problem here is not ignorance of God’s Word but refusal to put it into practice.  Our challenge is not how to gain more knowledge but rather to figure out how to start doing the things we have already learned.

Be Merciful

If someone asked you if you were religious, what would you say?  You would have to have a clear definition of what you mean by religion and have some idea what they mean by religion for that question to mean anything.  What is religion?  For some people religion is a collection of rituals such as singing, prayer, meditation, sacred meals, candle lighting, reading of holy scriptures etc.  For others, religion is about the organization that takes part in these activities.  If rituals are seen as being boring by some people, the organizing of such rituals is seen as dangerous.  Think about how often people criticize organized religion.  It is okay to have an individual spirituality but it is bad to organize beliefs as a religion.  There is so much I could say about that, but instead I want to redefine religion according to James.  There are two parts to to religion.  One is about being unstained by the world.  This is not about keeping away from movie theaters, playing cards and rock music.  It means Christian religion should not be shaped by the moral values of society.  There is a thought that the church should stay with the times, adapting to what society thinks is right.  Many churches have done that.  Society says that what matters is our own comfort and material gain.  It is all about us.  So some Christians baptize that morality and teach a selfish Christianity.  If Christianity is not about adapting to society, what is the foundation of our morality?  James makes it clear that it is about visiting widows and orphans, in other words care for the poor and marginalized.  That has been the message of the Bible from Old to New Testaments.  The early church was very much focused on caring for the poor.  Think about religion as being about care of the poor.  The next time someone tells you that they do not believe in organized religion, ask them “Do you really want us less effective at helping the poor?”  Being a Christian also means being merciful.

Conclusion

Many people struggle with Christianity as an abstract and mystical concept.  That’s fine as James presents a Christianity that is concrete and practical.  There are certain things that belong with the Christian life.  First we need to learn to listen to people and hold back our words, especially when those words are fueled by anger.  We then need to take that which we have learned and put them into practice.  Christianity is no theory, it is meant to be action-oriented.  Finally, Christianity is meant to be merciful.  Instead of adapting to changing moral values, our permanent orders are to take care of the needy and poor.  This is an important description of Christianity that helps us to keep a proper perspective.

Share

Trial by Fire

James 1:1-18

Introduction

Why do bad things happen to good people?  It is a question that has crossed most of our minds.  We have all seen people, that from our perspective, deserve an easier life than they experience.  Where is God in all of this?  There are a few options.  One is that God cares but that he just is not able to help us.  Perhaps God sends trials to us to punish us for our sins.  Maybe God sends hardship because he just does not like us.  None of those options seem to bring much comfort.  Is there any other answer?  Thankfully, James teaches on this subject.  As a brother of Jesus, we should perhaps listen to what he has to say on the Christian response to trials.  Throughout this message, I am going to try and apply these principles to our experience with autism.  I do this not because we are the best example of good people but because practical examples may help this to seem less theoretical.  Let us see what James can teach us.

The Myth

One of the things that we must realize is that James understands something that we may still be confused about.  Many Christians assume that God’s primary concern is that we have an easy, comfortable and trouble-free life.  When this does not happen, we are left wondering what went wrong.  What likely went wrong was our expectations of God.  What makes us think God is primarily concerned with our comfort?  Is that how we raise our children?  Do we try to just give them an easy life, providing all the toys and candy they want the moment they want it?  Do we do their homework for them and when they become adults send them a cheque each month so they won’t have to suffer through a job?  Or do we try and prepare them for the trials that will and should come in order for them to mature?  James understood that trials in life are not a fluke but are a necessary part of life.  James knew this in a very unique way.  If trials were based on God’s correction or displeasure, then Jesus should have had the easiest life ever.  Yet Jesus faced trial after trial.  There was a constant stream of people trying to trap him, humiliate him and turn the people against them.  How did James know?  James, though the half-brother of Jesus, was one of those people.  James did not believe that Jesus was the Christ and not only did he lack faith, he publicly mocked Jesus.  It was not until Jesus‘ resurrection that James believed.  What James saw through the trials created by himself and others is that they did not destroy Jesus but rather strengthened him.  It is out of that experience that we understand James‘ teaching.

The Truth

So if the myth is that trials are to be absent from the Christian life, the truth is that God uses trials to transform us.  James gives us some very detailed teaching on this.

James says something surprising when he suggests that we should be joyful when trials come.  The reason for the joy is not that there is religious value in suffering.  The reason is that suffering actually produces a positive change in us.  James says that trials produce perseverance and perseverance matures us.  It is as we encounter the resistance of hardship that we grow as human beings and as Christians.

If God had given us a choice on whether or not our children would have autism, I would have taken a pass.  However, having dealt with autism over the last nine years, I will grudgingly admit that autism has made me a better person, a better husband, a better father, a better follower of Jesus.  I can honestly say that my growing moments have been when life was the hardest and not the easiest.

James then moves on to talk about prayer.  This is easily misunderstood.  James is not talking about prayer in general, but rather prayer for wisdom.  Even then, he is not talking about wisdom to pass that school test or about the kind of car you should buy next.  This is about wisdom in the context of trials.  What kind of wisdom?  Not wisdom about why this is happening.  Job wanted that information and God made it clear he was not getting the explanation he wanted.  The prayer for wisdom is for dealing with trials, to be able to see what we can learn, to make good decisions and to understand where God is active in our life.

Dealing with autism is not easy.  When we first discovered that Logan and Abby had autism, there were many dreams that were dashed.  We could have easily fallen into despair.  My first prayer was that the children would be healed.  Beyond that, my prayer is that I would be the best dad that I can in these circumstances.  I don’t know how to be the dad and husband I need to be.  But God does and he has continually guided me through this journey.

James then goes on to make a comment about the rich and poor.  This is a theme that is very important to James and it will appear again.  But why does James mention it here?  It is easy for us to judge our circumstances by outward appearances.  The clearest example is that of the rich and the poor.  The rich are blessed and the poor are cursed, it seems pretty obvious.  Except that is not the way God sees things.  In fact it is often the exact opposite.  In God’s economy, things are upside down as we see in the Beatitudes.  The lesson for us is that things are not always what they seem.

Any time you are going through a trial, it is easy to fall into “why me?” syndrome.  The fact that other people seem to have it so easy seems to reinforce this.

Especially in the early days of the children’s diagnosis, I would sometime look at other typical children with some resentment.  Why were their brains wired correctly and Logan and Abby’s not?  Why did all the other parents have such an easy life?  The truth is that things are not always what they seem.  Our three typical children have all talked back to us, Logan and Abby have never.  There are blessings where you least expect them.

Perseverance and endurance is a virtue, but how does one keep it up?  Why should we bother to endure?  I work out on a treadmill but I do not enjoy it.  Why don’t I quit as soon as I get tired?  Because I have a set time to work out and keep my eye on that time, knowing that at that point the work will be over.  James encourages endurance by reminding people that one day we will stand before God.  No matter how hard things are at the moment, they will not always be that way.  God has an eternal reward that will make up for whatever suffering we go through today.

If you were to talk to me the morning after a sleepless night or in the middle of a meltdown or during one of Logan’s escapes, you would not find me particularly cheerful.  But in quieter moments I can remember that this is not the way it will always be.  One day we will stand before God and Logan and Abby will no longer have trouble communicating or relating.  Everything will be made perfect and that hope gives strength for today.

Why is God doing this to me?  Have you ever asked that question?  Have you felt like a small animal or insect being tortured by a thirteen year old boy?  James brings perspective to these emotions.  Why is God tempting you?  He is not, that goes against his nature.  God is not someone who enjoys pushing you to see what it will take to make you give up.  Temptations do not come from God, they come from our own weakness and desire for comfort and gain.  God uses these trials to bring about spiritual growth but that does not mean he brings the temptation.  For example if my children have to deal with a bully, I will help them to learn from that experience but I am not going to hire a bully in order to facilitate a teaching moment.

Why do my children have autism?  I don’t think God is testing me to see if I will give up.  I think that they have autism because that is how their DNA worked.  At the same time, God uses this genetic disorder to work in my life and the life of my family.

My favorite part of this passage is “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17 NIV)  Again, this is a verse that we often rip out of its context.  In the midst of trial and confusion about God’s activity in our life, James reminds us that God only gives good things.  God has good gifts for us and those gifts will only get better.

What does God have for our family?  It is not punishment by severe autism.  The good gifts that God gives us are patience, strength, joy, laughter, love, hope, peace and numerous little miracles that remind us that God is working in the life of Logan, Abby and the rest of us.

Conclusion

Why do bad things happen?  Why do bad things happen to you?  God is not a sadistic bully that enjoys to introduce pain into your life.  But nor is he a jolly old grandpa that just loves to spoil his grandkids with all sorts of treats.  While we would love comfort and ease, that is not God’s priority.  God is more interested in who we will become than keeping the old us satisfied.  That growth come through trials.  Those trials are not sent from God, but they are not deflected either.  God works through those trials, strengthening and transforming us.  We may feel as if we see the full picture but we do not.  God sees far more than we do.  He understands what is truly happening and he sees how that fits with eternity.  You may be suffering right now but there is much more to the story.  You may not understand now but you can pray to God and the Giver of all good gifts will give you the wisdom you need.

Share

The Fruit of the Spirit

Galatians 5:16-26

Introduction

What should the Christian life look like?  That is not an easy question to answer and every tradition has struggled with it.  I can see this in my own church background.  I grew up in a church where there were no expectations about lifestyle or behavior.  There were no sermons about what the Bible taught about morality.  Later on, I attended a church were there were strong expectations about how people lived.  There were rules for everything from music to movies to the way you dressed.  There were regular sermons calling people to live a holier life.  This is the challenge.  Should the Christian life be about having a detailed list of rules and regulations to be carefully followed?  Or should the Christian life be an anything goes kind of attitude?  Is it live the way you want as long as you have your ticket to heaven?  Different people and different churches have gone from one to the other extreme.  There are problems with both.  There is no joy in legalism.  And if there is no difference between what it means to be a Christian and being a non-Christian, why bother?  What we need to do as a church is to learn to navigate between these two extremes.  Paul’s teaching on the fruit of the Spirit is a helpful way for us to do this.

Galatians

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22–23 NIV)  There is something about this passage that draws us.  Perhaps because we look at this list and long to have these qualities.  However, Paul did not just write a beautiful verse for us to put on a nice poster or bumper sticker.  Paul wrote an entire letter and it is in the context of the entire letter that we need to understand this passage.  Paul wrote to the Galatians not just to say ‘hello‘ but because there was a serious issue going on.  The Galatians had become Christians because they had heard the Gospel of grace, they had received in faith the forgiveness that Jesus had purchased on the cross.  That was good.  But after Paul left, some other teachers came around.  They taught that faith in Jesus was okay, but in addition they needed to take on the Jewish Law, symbolized by circumcision.  Paul was livid.  For Paul, adding anything to what God had already done was a war on grace.  Paul mentions grace eight times in this letter alone to emphasize his understanding of the Gospel being about grace.  Grace plus something else is no longer grace.  It would be like me saying to my children that I love them just for who they are but that if they wanted to keep my love, they better make me a sandwich.  That’s not grace.  It is in this context that we must understand the fruit of the Spirit.

Fruit

So what are the fruit of the Spirit?  It begins with love.  God is love.  Jesus boiled down true religion to loving God and loving people.  Love is the foundation of the Christian faith.  Next comes joy.  This may surprise people.  Some people may think Christianity is all about feeling guilty about how sinful we are and collapsing in a pile of sorrow and regret.  Both the Old and New Testament place a high value on joy.  It is not joy because all things are easy and trouble-free but because we know who we are in relationship with.  Peace is not what you think it is.  Peace is not tranquility and serenity.  Biblical peace is about wholeness.  We have peace with God, not because of absence of conflict, because of the presence of a healthy and loving relationship.  Our lives should be marked by peace, not in the sense of everything quiet but by having all that we need.  It is the ability to sit down, fully aware there are problems and difficulties and yet still find a sense of peace.  As the hymn writer says “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.”  Patience is an eagerly sought virtue.  We want patience and we want it now!  Why should we want patience?  Because God has treated us with patience.  When we have done bad things, we don’t duck lightning bolts.  God is patient with us as we grow.  We need to be patient with others as God is patient with us.  At the same time, we need to be patient with ourselves.  It takes time to become who God wants us to be.  Don’t condemn yourself.  Why does Paul include kindness, when he has already included love?  Isn’t kindness second rate love?  Not at all.  Kindness is love in action.  You can look at a person and feel something toward them.  It is another thing to disrupt your own schedule and help a person in their time of need.  That is kindness.  Goodness is about the overall state of the person.  There are certain people that we look at instinctively know that they are good.  It is hard to pinpoint it to a specific word or action.  It speaks more to the overall character of the person.  Faithfulness is about our relationship with other people and with God.  People should be able to trust us, not just to specific promises but see us as trustworthy person.  We must also be faithful to God.  Not just because faithlessness is against the rules but because we love God.  Faithfulness to a spouse is based in love and so should our faithfulness to God.  Gentleness is not the same thing as weakness.  Gentleness is not about being gentle because you have no other options.  Gentleness is a choice to treat a person the right way.  Someone does something that was wrong and you have every right to blow up at them.  Yet, you decide to treat them with gentleness.  Self-control is given last, not because it is the least important but because it summarizes all that has gone before.  Our nature is to do what we want, when we want.  But we do not have to give in to every urge or impulse.  Self-control is not about being shackled to rules but rather being free to be you, the you that deep down you really want to be.  Do you notice something about each of these fruit?  They all describe the character of Jesus.  It is as if Paul was just saying be like Jesus but actually giving us more detail.

Our Role

So we have a snapshot of what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  There are only two problems.  One is, I don’t know about you but I am definitely not all the way there.  Second is we still do not know how to get there.  Should we have a card each Sunday with this list and ask you to check off where you are at and we can discipline those with low scores?  But then again, these things are called the fruit of the Spirit and are contrasted with the works of the flesh.  If this is the fruit of the Spirit, maybe I can relax on the couch, put up my feet and passively wait for the Spirit to do his work.  If I am not loving or kind or patient, well maybe the Spirit has not got there yet.  It is true that we cannot make something grow simply by our will.  I can put a seed in a jar, but all my positive thinking will not make it sprout and grow into a plant.  But that does not mean that we are totally passive.  The fruit may be that of the Spirit, but that does not mean that we are uninvolved.  Paul calls on us to partner with the Spirit in order to provide the proper soil for this fruit to grow.  “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Galatians 5:16 NIV)  “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25 NIV)  “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7–9 NIV)  So what does this mean?  How does one sow to the Spirit or provide fertile soil for the Spirit?  The key is our attitude.  What is our focus?  If we are completely focused on our needs, wants and desires, we are not leaving much room for the Spirit to work.  If we are stubborn and inflexible, we are making the ground pretty rocky.  But if we can put our eyes on Christ, see his example, be moved by his obedience on the cross, we are moving in the right direction.  The Spirit begins to work in us and if we resist, he will not force himself upon us.  That does not mean we have to be perfect before God will do something in us.  Nothing would ever happen.  God knows our heart and whether we are longing to change and be transformed.  Some people are so humble that the Spirit works in their life immediately and they soon become tremendously Christ-like.  The rest of us need more time, we give in here and there, slowly trusting that God really loves us.  It is not easy work but it is better than trying to develop these virtues in our own strength.

Conclusion

So what does that Christian life look like?  It is not about the old life lived as we wish but with the addition of a free ticket to heaven.  It is not a legalistic bunch of rules governing every aspect of life, robbing of us all joy and life.  The Christian life is supposed to look like the fruit of the Spirit.  These virtues are not a new law, nor are they a bunch of things that we passively wait for, if God so chooses to give them.  Our role in this process is active as we seek to provide a fertile ground for the Spirit to do his work.  We do this by providing a willing heart and an open mind.  We humble ourselves before God, submitting to his will, not in terms of rule but of heart and relationship.  The fruit of the Spirit is the measure by which we understand where we are at.  It is not a measure to condemn us but to challenge us as to how we are walking in the Spirit.  Being a Christian is living in grace, but it is a grace that transforms us into something wonderful.

Share

The New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Introduction

I want you to imagine that you were in some serious legal difficulty.  You hire a lawyer and you discover that he is an expert in Canadian law and he has read every law and every related court case… up to 1920.  How would you feel?  Pretty good if you were living in 1920, but living in 2012 you might want someone more up to date.  Of course there would be much in common, between pre and post 1920 law, but the details of how the law has changed with the years would be very important, especially if it was going to affect your legal standing.  What about our standing with God?  God gave a Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.  It was a covenant between God and the people.  A covenant is an ancient form of a contract and was typically used between a king and his subjects.  It outlined the responsibilities and the rights of each of the parties.  In this case, God promised to be their God, to give them a land and provide for them.  In return, the people were expected to follow the Law.  Details were given as to the good things that would happen when they were obedient and the bad things that would happen when they were disobedient.  It is helpful for us to understand this covenant that was given to Moses.  But just as with criminal or civil law, we should know if there have been any important updates.  The passage we are looking at in Jeremiah is a prophecy about a new covenant that was to appear.  We are going to look at what Jeremiah said about the new covenant and what the New Testament says about the fulfillment of the prophecy.

Jeremiah

This prophecy came to Jeremiah at a specific time.  Why?  It is helpful to understand the context.  What was happening at the time?  The people had received the old covenant centuries before, with all of its commands to be obedient to God and warnings about the consequences for disobedience.  So what had the people done?  They had a long history of continual disobedience.  I don’t mean minor mistakes in Temple offerings or in the celebration of some festival.  Their disobedience was in worshipping other gods and in acts of injustice, especially against the poor and marginalized.  God sent prophet after prophet to warn them and the disobedience only went deeper.  So instead of just more prophets, God sent an army, a Babylonian army to take the people out of the Promised Land and into exile.  Jeremiah’s job was to announce this judgment and to explain its purpose.  This left people in a state of despair.  Had God really completely forsaken them?  Was all lost?  In the midst of judgment, there was hope.  It was not just that God was going to give them a second shot at the old covenant, he was actually going to give them a new covenant.  This is what the new covenant would be like.  In some ways it would be similar to the old, in that it was a covenant between God and the people and its purpose was to keep them in right relationship.  However, the form of the new covenant would be radically different.  It would not be a minor adjustment to a few rules, a tinkering here or there.  The new covenant would be different from the old covenant that had been broken by the people.  How would it be different?  Instead of a list of rules inscribed on tablets of stone or scrolls, this law would be placed on the people’s minds and hearts.  What does that mean?  Here is what it would be like.  Imagine I give you a task and give you a 500 page manual that explains how to complete the task.  You completely mess up and instead of giving you a new and improved 1000 page manual, I decide to enter into a relationship with you.  We will complete the task together, as I share my knowledge with you in the context of a friendship.  That is what the new covenant is supposed to be, an intimate relationship between God and the people.  The other part of this new covenant is that it would involve the forgiveness of sins.  Being a people on the edge of receiving a good measure of God’s wrath, this would be of interest to the people.  The wording of the forgiveness is important.  God would remember our sins no more.  This is not forgetting, as if God came down with amnesia.  Rather it is a choice by God to not remember, in the sense of having the sins in a file somewhere but choosing not to pull them out and go over them.  This new covenant had the potential to provide great hope.  Unfortunately, it seemed a prophecy for the unknown future.  What help is that for us?

New Testament

While the coming of the new covenant was the future for Jeremiah, it is a past event for us.  The coming of the new covenant took place with the work of Jesus Christ.  In Hebrews 8, the author quotes the Jeremiah passage and identifies it with what Jesus did.  While that is nice that we can thank Jesus for the new covenant, it would be nice to have a little more information.  Thankfully, the new covenant is mentioned a few other times.  Chronologically, the first mention of the new covenant is by Jesus in the institution of the Lord’s Supper as recorded in Luke and 1 Corinthians.  Here Jesus describes the new covenant as being in his blood.  When we were looking at the new covenant from Jeremiah’s perspective with a relationship with God and forgiveness of sins, it sounded very pleasant.  Now we see that there was a tremendous cost to the new covenant.  It was much more than God issuing a memo about a new covenant.  God’s own Son had to die in order to establish this new covenant.  The author of Hebrews connects the new covenant with the death of Jesus as well.  “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15 ESV)  As Christians we use cliches such as Christianity not being a religion but a relationship, or we are not perfect but we are forgiven.  There is truth in those statements.  However we can state them as if they were something we found in a fortune cookie.  The truth is that a relationship with God comes only by the blood of Jesus.  The forgiveness of sins comes only through the blood of Jesus.  The new covenant only comes through the blood of Jesus.  That should cause us to take these truths extremely seriously.  But there is one more mention of the new covenant that needs to be looked at.  Paul says something important.  “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:3–6 ESV)  There are two things we need to see here.  First is the active involvement of the Holy Spirit.  The new covenant is not just a belief that Jesus died, it is actually the work of the Holy Spirit in our life in response to our reaching out in faith.  This is how that law gets on our mind and heart.  The new covenant is not about doing whatever we want, it is about the Spirit working in us so that we will want what God wants.  Paul then speaks of himself and his colleagues as ministers of the new covenant.  This is a vital truth.  Not only has God done something amazing in the new covenant, he calls us to be ministers of the new covenant, that is people who share the new covenant with others, expressing both the joy of relationship and forgiveness and the seriousness of the blood of Christ.  I hope you understand what it means to be a minister of the new covenant.  It is not about shoving religion down people’s throats so they will be forced to follow some arbitrary rules.  It is about being invited into a relationship with full knowledge of what was needed to make that relationship available.

Conclusion

Have you heard what’s new?  The covenant is new.  The old covenant was and is important.  It gives us an important glimpse as to the nature and character of God.  It points us to his holiness and justice and challenges us on our own human limitations.  Israel struggled for centuries with the old covenant and eventually they failed, being removed from their land and sent into exile.  In the midst of that, God spoke through Jeremiah of a new covenant.  This new covenant was about a relationship with God and about forgiveness of sins.  That new covenant was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Not just in his birth or in his teachings but in his death.  The new covenant was birthed in blood, blood of the Son of God.  Through the death of Jesus on the cross, the way was opened for us to be in relationship with God and have our sins forgiven.  This is not just for our personal benefit, we are invited to be ministers of the new covenant, sharing this relationship with others.  The new covenant is literally good news.

Share

A New Start

Luke 19:1-10

Introduction

New Years is a time for people to think of new beginnings.  People think about losing weight, working out, quitting smoking, picking up a hobby and so on.  That is a good thing.  It is very good that we want to make positive changes in our life.  Unfortunately, we know too well how difficult it is to stick with a resolution.  I have no advice on how to lose weight, but the Bible gives us some guidance on how to make some lasting change in our life, on how to have a new beginning.  We will do this by looking at the story of Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was someone who needed a new beginning.  As a tax collector, he was hated by many people.  Tax collectors had contracts with the Romans to gather the taxes and they were paid by what they over charged people.  This put them on bad terms with many people.  Not only did they make their money by taking advantage of their own people, they were doing it to help the Roman occupiers.  But how would one get out of such a lifestyle?  The money was too good to give up easily and you were not left with too many friends to help you in the transition.  The story of Zacchaeus gives us some clues as to what real change looks like.

Desire for Jesus

Before anything else happens, we are told that Zachaeus wanted to see who Jesus was.  What was Zacchaeus looking for?  Was it as simple as having heard about Jesus, he wanted to check out the rumors and see what all the hype was about?  Perhaps.  We don’t really know the exact motivation.  What we know is that he wanted to know more about Jesus and that is a good thing.  If you want to see lasting change in your life, begin with a conscious desire to know more of Jesus before trying to make a change in your own power.  When people ask me how to make a change in their life or how to deal with a persistent sin, I always encourage people to get close to Jesus.  I am convinced that the most effective way to change is to get close to Jesus and that his presence will set off a chain reaction that will transform our life.  Zacchaeus, may have begun with insincere motives, but by choosing to seek Jesus, he chose the right path.  The moment he decided to see who Jesus really way, he was doomed, at least in terms of his old life.

Obstacles Will Come

In a perfect world, all we would have to do is want Jesus and the changes would automatically take place.  But this is far from a perfect world.  Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus.  Fine.  But he is short and cannot see over the crowds.  Being a tax collector, it probably is not a good idea to try and push his way through the crowd to get to the front.  He might find more than an elbow in his ribs.  Circumstances do not make this process easy for Zacchaeus.  This is an important realization to come to.  We too easily fall into the conclusion “I guess, it just wasn’t meant to be.”  As Christians, we may express it in more spiritual terms.  When things come easy, we see it as God opening the doors and when things are difficult, we see it as God closing the door.  We attempt to discern God’s will by how easy or difficult the circumstances are.  Where in the world did we get that from?  The Bible has very few examples of people who had things easy.  We grow when we encounter the resistance of obstacles, not when we effortlessly pass through times of comfort.  When I go to workout, it would be a lot easier if I didn’t put weights on the barbell or didn’t turn on the treadmill.  But what would the point of that be?  God’s plan for us is not that we would be comfortable but that we would grow.  So we should expect that obstacles would come our way.  An obstacle does not mean that God is trying to stop us going down this road, only that he wants us to get the most out of the experience by overcoming the obstacle.  A lack of height and a great crowd was not an excuse to quit but an excuse to climb a tree.

Make the Change

Assuming the power to change comes from Jesus, we are still expected to make a choice to change and to follow through with that decision.  There is Zacchaeus.  He wanted to see Jesus and he did see Jesus by climbing the tree.  But the story did not end there.  Jesus responded by noticing him in his perch and inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house for supper.  What happens next is very important.  Without needing Jesus to tell him what to say, Zacchaeus volunteers to make good the abuses of the past, to dismiss the love of money that ruled his heart and to take tangible steps to demonstrate the change that has taken place on the inside.  The first step is always to be close to Jesus but it is never the last step.  At some point we have to choose to change and then actually make that change.  Change is possible, no matter how hard it feels at the time.  There was a time when I could not imagine stopping the abuse of alcohol.  But that change has taken place, both by the power of Christ and my willingness to make that change.  I have seen this in many areas of my life.  The key is not to rely solely on our own power or just on a love of Jesus.  We need to be in the presence of Christ, as Zacchaeus was, and then let that power enable us to choose to change.

Becoming Who You Are

What is the purpose of change?  It is not to become to someone you are not.  I am not going to try and change and become a professional football player.  That goes against everything I know about who I am.  Zacchaeus gives us clues to this as well.  As Zacchaeus made his changes, Jesus announces that salvation had come and then he says something significant but often overlooked.  “Because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9 NIV)  What is Jesus saying?  Jesus is saying that Zacchaeus has not become something totally unexpected, he has in fact become what he was always meant to be, a son of Abraham.  The changes have simply brought Zacchaeus to a lifestyle more in line with what God has always wanted for him.  Zacchaeus has not become someone different, he has become a better, a more godly Zacchaeus.  Who are you?  For one thing you were created in the image of God.  That is already inside you.  Godly change will help bring the outside more like the inside.  If you are a Christian, you are already in Christ, connected to him spiritually.  Godly change will help make it obvious to others and even yourself that you are a follower of Christ.  As each change takes place, you are simply becoming a better you, you are becoming the person you were always meant to be.

Conclusion

As we start a new year, we may be contemplating some change in our life.  Some of this change be shallow, some of it may be deep.  There is a place for change, and not just change for change’s sake.  Rather this is about important life change.  To learn about this, we look to a tax collector, hated by most people, named Zacchaeus.  We see four important aspects of change.  Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, needed to overcome obstacles, made decisions on what the change would look like, and finally became the person he was always meant to be.  The same principle applies to us.  Our priority must be get closer to Jesus.  We should not be surprised or discouraged when challenges come our way.  As we spend time in the presence of Jesus, we gain the power and motivation to change.  But we still have to choose to change and to follow through with that choice.  The change that takes place is not to make us someone different than what we really are, but becoming the person we were always meant to be.  That is what godly change looks like and it is what we should be seeking.

Share

You Light Up My Life

John 1:1-13

Introduction

One of the things that I find very interesting is the near universal fear of darkness, at least at some point in our life.  We do not teach children to fear darkness, they figure it out on their own.  My children will ask to have their light left on or their door left open.  We don’t do that because it is too distracting for them and causes problems for them falling asleep.  Still, I feel bad because they express to me their fear of the dark.  I can remember back to my childhood, how I wanted my door left open so that I could have just that bit of light shining in from the dining room.  There seemed to be something terrifying about absolute darkness.  The truth is that there is nothing physically different between a room fully lit and a room completely dark.  Yet instinctively, we prefer the light to the dark.  How we feel about visual darkness may be a hint of something deeper.  The concept light appears in John’s prologue.  We have been saying that the Gospel writers begin their Gospels in such a way that we are given clues as to how to interpret the rest of the book.  That is true here as well.  Let us take a look.

In the Beginning

When I say the words “In the beginning…”, what do you think?  You likely think of Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  That is not an unfortunate distraction for John as he begins his work with the words “In the beginning”, it is exactly what he is hoping for.  As he starts off the story of Jesus with the same words as Genesis, he wants us to be thinking of the story of creation.  What happened long ago in creation is happening again in a different way with Jesus.  With Jesus?  I thought it was only God who was involved in creation?  You should be asking that question and John has an answer for us.  John speaks of Jesus before the incarnation as the Word.  He then gives a very important clarification of the relationship of the Word to God.  The Word was with God and the Word was God.  First see that the Word was God.  John wants us to know up front who Jesus is.  Jesus is not just a prophet or a teacher, he is God incarnate, God made flesh.  When Jesus forgives sins, he is really able to forgive sins.  When Jesus saves, he really has the authority as God to save us. By saying that the Word was with God, John is telling us that there is some distinction within God.  This is important.  When Jesus died on the cross, there is a reason that the universe did not explode with the death of God.  Jesus was not the only way that God was active at that time.  Christians believe that God is a Trinity, that he is Father, Son and Spirit, one God in three persons.  We do not fully understand it, but it is the best explanation for the biblical data we have.  Even at the original creation, Jesus as the Word was involved: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:3 NIV)  Think of the significance of calling Jesus the Word.  How did God create in Genesis?  Did he have a factory with machines producing each item?  Genesis says that God spoke and it was.  It was through word that God created, it was through the Word that God created.  What was the first act of creation in the Genesis account?  Let there be light!  Even before the creation of the sun and moon or stars, light appears.  John takes that image and shows how Jesus brings about light in the new creation.

Light

So Jesus comes into the world to bring light.  What does that mean?  I want to take some time to reflect on what kind of light that Jesus brings.  First, John speaks of light in terms of life.  Light is necessary for life, they are closely connected.  When we read the Genesis creation, the emphasis is much more on the appearance of life than that of land formations.  Jesus too, came to create life.  That life, in a way was a new form of life but not the way we often think.  The new form of life was a human being, one that looked liked any other human, but who was adopted into God’s family.  The new creation is one born of the Spirit.  The light of Jesus in this dark world will create such a life.  Secondly, the light of Jesus brings truth.  Darkness is ignorance and light is knowledge.  The kind of light that Jesus brings is not just facts and figures but understanding of who Jesus is and what God is doing through him.  As you go through the Gospel, you find that people are gradually coming to understand more and more of who Jesus is, until at the end you have Thomas exclaim “My Lord and my God!”  The light of Jesus is not on a switch but on a dimmer.  It is not that Jesus appeared and everyone understood but rather with Jesus appearing, there was a gradual growth in understanding.  By the way, just because the light of truth increases, does not mean that people will be open to the truth.  There will always be people who will plug their ears and close their eyes to the truth that is before them.  But in Christ the truth is made available.  Thirdly, the light of Christ brings hope to a dark and hopeless world.  The world two thousand years ago was no different than the world today.  People worried about how they would live and how they would die.  There seemed to be little reason to hope.  All you could do was hold on by your finger tips and pray that death would not be too lingering or painful.  Jesus came into the world to bring hope.  This was hope for this life and the life to come.  The central message of Jesus as found in John is that of eternal life.  Eternal life is not just a belief in some sort of continued existence after death.  It is about a quality of life that exists on both sides of the grave.  Jesus taught: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10 NIV)  That full or abundant life gives us a reason to hope beyond the specific circumstances that we might be facing.  Finally, the light of Jesus came to bring holiness.  Salvation is by faith and not be works.  However, that does not mean that God has no interest in how we live or what we think or say.  A part of the purpose of the light is to shine in the darkness of our hearts and reveal who we really are.  One of the significant events in the Gospel of John is when a large number of followers leave Jesus because they can’t really follow him.  John in his letter writes “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (1 John 1:5–6 NIV)  When the light of Jesus shines on us, we have two options: flee the light or allow the light to transform us and make us into the holy people we were always meant to be.

Conclusion

Christmas time is full of light.  We have lights on our trees and lights on our houses.  We light candles for Advent and enjoy candlelight services.  But light is not just a beautiful sight, it is an essential aspect of what Jesus does in our life.  Two thousand years ago with the coming of Christ, a new creation began.  Just as in Genesis God spoke and there was light.  So also, Jesus as the Word of God brought light into a dark world.  That light was life and truth and hope and holiness.  The light that was needed two thousand years ago is still needed in our life and in the life of our friends and family.  May that light shine through our lives as we live in the light of Christ.

Share

Have Some Faith

Luke 1:5-20, 26-35

Introduction

Growing up, I did not realize how easy my parents had it at Christmas.  Since I was an only child, not only was it cheaper to buy presents for only one child, it was also lacking in dangers of jealousy or competition.  As a father of five children, I have to take all of this into account.  Not only do I have to divide my Christmas budget by five, I have to anticipate how they will react to each other’s presents.  What I want to hear is “Oh mom and dad, thanks so much for all that you have given, it brings such joy!”  What I dread and will likely hear is “That’s not fair, how come they get that and I only get this!”  It’s not fair.  That should not be a part of Christmas.  And yet a reading of the Christmas story in Luke sometimes brings up questions of fairness.  The short story is that Luke begins his Gospel with angelic announcements of the supernatural conception of two babies: John and Jesus.  Gabriel brings this news to Zechariah and then brings this news to Mary.  The parallels demand that we read these two stories together.  The problem is that both Zechariah and Mary seem to question Gabriel on this and yet Zechariah seems to be punished and Mary seems to be praised.  That’s not fair.  Since they were related, you could almost imagine Zechariah complaining at family gatherings about how unfair it was that Mary was treated the way she was and he was treated the way he was.  We have been saying that the Gospels begin a certain way for a reason.  I believe that this is true of Luke as well.  The question is: Was Luke’s purpose to remind us that God is sometimes just not fair or is there something else going on?

Zechariah and Mary

While at first glance it looks like Zechariah and Mary are in the same situation and are responding in the same way, there are actually some significant differences.  Let us look at the situation more closely.  First of all Zechariah and Mary did not have the same background.  Zechariah was an old man and was a priest who served in the Temple.  His many years, it should be assumed, would bring wisdom.  As a priest, he should have a good idea of what God does and the traditions of Israel.  Mary was a thirteen year old girl.  She would have had almost no education and no experience.  It could be questioned as to whether Gabriel should have treated them the same.  Zechariah should have known better, Mary deserved a bit more patience.  Secondly, let us look at the content of the message.  Zechariah is told that his wife, who is both barren and old, will become pregnant.  Of course that is unusual.  But how unusual?  There is a strong biblical tradition of this in the Old Testament.  Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the unnamed mother of Samson, and Hannah who was the mother of Samuel, were all barren and required divine intervention to become pregnant.  Zechariah, as a priest, would have known this story and would have known that God does this sort of thing.  What about Mary?  Here we have a young girl who is engaged but not yet married being told she was going to have a baby.  Oh and by the way, this child was also going to be the Son of God.  How many examples of this do we have?  We have Mary and … well, just Mary.    While from our perspective both announcements seem unlikely, from a biblical point of view, it was much more likely that Zechariah was going to be a father than for Mary to become a mother in the way Gabriel was announcing.  Thirdly, Zechariah asked for a sign.  While losing the ability to speak was a manner of correction, it was also what Zechariah was asking for, and that was an immediate sign that this would indeed take place.  Mary does not ask for a sign, but she gets one anyway and that is she becomes pregnant.  And speaking as a male, I can say for myself that I would prefer a temporary loss of speech to having to give birth.  But that might be just me.  Finally, and most importantly, notice what Zechariah and Mary say.  They do not question in the same way.  Zechariah asks “How can I know this will happen?” while Mary asks “How will this be?”  Those are two different questions.  Let’s start with Mary.  Should Mary have already understood how this was going to take place?  Was it obvious?  We are familiar with the virgin birth but there was no Jewish tradition of a virgin birth for her to fall back on.  There is the prophecy of Isaiah but it was not obvious in the original context that it was talking about a virgin born Son of God.  It is a prophecy that we recognize after the events took place.  Mary could be asking two things here.  She might be literally asking how this was going to take place.  What was she supposed to do?  Was the angel suggesting that Mary go through with her marriage to Joseph and that one of their biological children would be adopted as the Son of God?  Or was something even stranger going to happen?  If you look, before Mary asks the question Gabriel has said nothing about a virgin birth.  It was a fair question.  But there is another way to understand this question.  It is an expression of awe.  Wow God, how could you do something so amazing?  That is not an expression of doubt, that is an expression of wonder.  Think about that word ‘wonder.‘  I wonder how something can happen.  Is that bad?  What is something that is full of wonder?  It is wonderful.  Mary wonders about the actions of a wonderful God, she is in awe of the awesome God.  Does Zechariah have that same sense of wonder and awe at the thought of finally becoming a father?  “How shall I know this?”  Zechariah is requesting some sort of confirmation to relieve him of his skepticism.  Zechariah is not thinking “Wow, God is so amazing!”  Zechariah is thinking “Have you seen my wife, I can’t believe that is going to happen unless you give me a really good reason.”  What Zechariah is showing here is a lack of trust, a lack of faith.  Zechariah can believe he is speaking with the angel Gabriel but he cannot believe that his wife will become pregnant.  Zechariah does not see God as wonderful or awesome but as unlikely to be actively involved in his life.  Zechariah was wrong.  His wife Elizabeth gave birth to John and Zechariah received his voice back.

You and I

So Zechariah made a bad choice.  He should have known better.  God had performed a number of similar miracles in the past and could do so again.  Compared to Mary, who was much younger and less experienced and was facing something much greater, Zechariah does not come off very well.  But what does that mean to us?  There are a couple of applications.  First, we might be tempted to interpret this as teaching to never ask questions.  That does not seem to be the case.  There are many examples throughout the Bible where people, facing incredible circumstances, asked the hard questions.  God does not ask us to abandon our minds.  When something unusual or supernatural comes our way, we should not pass it off as if it was an every day event.  Ask the hard questions but do it in the appropriate way.  Zechariah asks “How shall I know?”  The truth is that everything in life is about a mixture of fact and faith.  I truly believe that my wife loves me.  I have evidence of this based on what she says and does.  But how do I know that Amanda loves me?  I have never submitted her to a lie-detector or taken her to a mind reader or had the phone tapped to record her conversations with friends.  I suppose I could bring the relationship to a halt and insist that I don’t know she loves me in the sense of knowing every detail of what goes on in her mind.  However, I take the evidence as far as it goes and finish the way with trust and faith.  This is not blind faith, it is the balanced way that is the only way to live out our life.  We cannot know everything and we should not act out of complete ignorance.  This is the philosophy followed by Luke throughout his Gospel.  Luke writes his Gospel in the style of ancient history, using the methods of his contemporaries.  He presents the facts and details needed to get people started in the process of following Jesus.  Luke gives us reasons to believe.  But Luke also knows that we need more than facts.  At some point we have to acknowledge that we don’t know everything and we are never going to know everything.  But we have to do something and so we act on what we know, trusting in God, believing that he knows what we don’t know.  The rest of Luke’s Gospel describes people who, to a lesser degree, take the same steps as Mary.  Luke in turn challenges us to make the same choice.

Conclusion

Zechariah and Mary.  Two people who encounter God and are faced with something amazing.  On a surface level Zechariah and Mary have much in common.  On a deeper level, they are worlds apart.  Zechariah, despite age, experience and biblical training, has trouble believing that God could do for him what he has done for a number of others before.  Mary, despite a young age, lack of experience and no education, is able to with a sense of wonder and awe accept something that God had never done before and would never do again.  Where are we in this mix?  God has some amazing things for us as individuals and as a church.  We can look at this, knowing our weaknesses and the immensity of the challenge, and say with Mary, “How can this be?”  But may we never respond with the skepticism of Zechariah, “How shall I know?”  Reflect on what you know, try to understand what is possible and then make the leap of faith, trusting that God will accomplish his will.

Share

Sin is the Reason for the Season

Mark 1:1-8

Introduction

What are the images that we have of Christmas?  Probably the typical nativity scene.  We see a proud Joseph and Mary with adoring shepherds and wise men and submissive animals, all surrounding the Christ child sleeping peacefully in the manger.  We are left wondering what the purpose of all this is for?  You would almost think that all God wanted was to give us an image of peace in a world of chaos.  But is that really what God wanted?  We are going to try and discover the answer to that as we look to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.  That might seem rather strange as Mark does not give us a Christmas story.  There are no shepherds, no Mary, not even a baby Jesus.  Mark just jumps right into things with Jesus as an adult.  This is interesting because scholars believe that Mark is our earliest Gospel, so when people first started to read the story of Jesus, this is what they read.  We see that unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not have a nativity story.  I don’t think Mark was lacking in traditions about Jesus’ birth, I think Mark purposely starts the way he does.   We have been suggesting that beginning of each Gospel sets the stage for the rest of the Gospel.  That is true for Mark as well.

Good News

Where is Mark’s Christmas story?  Here it is: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1 NIV)  This is another example of us being too familiar with something.  Mark speaks of the beginning of the Gospel.  What is a Gospel?  We know what a Gospel is, it is a story of Jesus, we have four of them in the New Testament.  The only problem is that when Mark was writing, there was no genre called a Gospel.  No one would have interpreted Gospel as a type of writing.  They would have understood the word as what it literally means: good news.  The beginning of the good news about Jesus.  Good news had a very specific meaning in ancient times.  It was not just a fairly pleasant experience.  One would not use this word to express their happiness at finding that pair of socks you have been looking for or when the soup of the day is the kind that you like.  This word  really means the good news that one army has defeated another.  The good news was the message that was sent to the city waiting to find out if they were going to be invaded or if they were going to be enjoying the spoils of victory.  So when the readers came across Gospel or good news, their reaction would not be “Whatever” but “Oh boy, this is going to be good!”  Thankfully, Mark gives us a bit more detail.  It is the good news about Jesus Christ.  Remember, Christ is not his last name, it is a title that means the anointed one.  Mark is reminding us that this story is not just about any godly man or even a prophet, it is about the long awaited Christ, the one everyone was waiting for.  But this story is not just that.  It is the story about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus did not generally go around calling himself the Son of God, he was much more subtle than that.  He spoke of God as his Father in a way that was more intimate than the way the average Jew thought about God.  Mark portrays the disciples as never quite figuring out what Jesus‘ Sonship means.  In fact, Jesus is identified as the Son of God only three times in Mark’s Gospel but not by who you would expect: twice by demons and once by the Roman centurion on guard during the crucifixion.  But we as readers are supposed to see what most missed: that this was not a minor footnote in what God was doing, this was God sending his only Son.  That is good news.  But as the infomercials say: “Wait, there’s more!”  The good news is not just about who Jesus was, it was about his purpose in appearing.

Sin

Once Mark makes his opening statement about the Gospel, we would expect some story of how Jesus was born.  But that is not what we find.  Instead, Mark begins to describe the ministry of John the Baptist.  Excuse me?  Mark just said that this was the Gospel about Jesus, not the Gospel about John.  Why would Mark do such a thing?  Just as Mark wants no confusion about the identity of Jesus, he also wants us to understand clearly the mission of Jesus.  God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus, so it would make sense that if we understand what John was doing, we would have some clue as to why the Son of God was making his appearance.  The question is: What was John doing?  As the Baptist, it probably was something to do with baptism.  But we have to understand the meaning of baptism.  It was not like in some churches where baptism means its time to get your kid done.  It was not just a rite of passage.  Growing up Anglican, it was expected that we would get confirmed by our early teens.  I was confirmed, not because I had an incredible experience with God but because that’s what my friends were doing and I didn’t want to be left out.  That is not what John was doing.  He was not getting people baptized so they could say that had experienced the ritual.  We read: “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4 NIV)  John’s entire preparation was highlighting and responding to the problem of sin.  But what does that have to do with Jesus?  “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”” (Mark 1:14–15 NIV)  The message of Jesus was repent and believe the good news. Believe the good news yes, but repent first.  You see, God sent his Son not because he thought it was time to bring Jesus into the family business but because there was a very serious problem: sin.  The apostle Paul put it this way: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15 NIV)  The world thinks that Christmas is all about trees and presents and big meals.  The church thinks Christmas is all about family and church services and nativity scenes.  God thinks that Christmas is all about sin.  If there had never been a sin problem, there would never have been a Christmas, there would have never been a need for the Son of God to come into the world.  Things were so desperate, so divided between God and humanity that there was only one choice: the Son of God had to become incarnate and reconcile us back to God through his death on the cross.  The word Christmas comes from Christ Mass.  In the Catholic tradition, Mass is not just a church service but the remembrance and participation in the death of Jesus.  It is good for us to keep the two concepts of birth and death together.  John the Baptist understood this when he said: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV)  This is why Mark begins with the sin preaching of John the Baptist, he wants us to have this truth close to our minds as we read about every word and deed of Jesus.

Conclusion

We live in a world that desperately needs good news.  That good news needs to be greater than just a virgin giving birth, shepherds hearing angels or wise men bringing gifts.  The good news we need is that of victory over sin, a demolishing of the wall of sin that divides us from God.  Mark makes it clear with his opening verses that this is exactly what the Gospel is.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God came into the world.  The preparation by John the Baptist, a baptism of repentance, highlights the fact that Jesus came specifically to deal with sin.  As John says, what he does by water, the Christ will do by Spirit.  We often say that Jesus is the reason for the season.  That’s good.  But it would be more accurate to say that sin is the reason for the season.  It was for sin that Jesus came into the world, it was that sin that Jesus defeated on the cross and it is that truth which is good news for us!

Share

Which Way to Heaven?

Acts 16:25-34

Introduction

There are things about church that you just do not need to know.  You do not need to know why churches started using pews or organs or why other churches have stopped using them.  You do not need to know all the differences between all the different denominations.  You do not need to be able to read in Hebrew or Greek.  Nor do you need to be able to understand each and every verse of the Bible, although of course with this one we should at least try.  But there is one thing that we cannot afford to put off and that is understanding what we have to do to go to heaven.  We dare not die and stand before God with the excuse that we never got around to figuring out the afterlife because we were still working on our Greek and history of church organs.  The one thing that unites us all is that every one of us will die.  If that is the case, we must work through what God tells us about what we are supposed to do to prepare to meet him.  Many years ago I was involved in door-to-door evangelism.  After having the door slammed in my face one too many times, when one person told me he was not interested in heaven, I told him (as the door was closing) “You better be interested, you are going to be dead a lot longer than you are going to be alive.”  Not my gentlest moment but there is truth in that statement.  Let us take a look at this question by looking at the experience of the Philippian jailer.

Philippian Jailer

The story we are looking at takes place in the city of Philippi.  Paul and Silas have been thrown in jail for preaching the Gospel.  They are not overcome by fear, in fact they respond by singing hymns to God.  God responds by sending an earthquake that frees all of the prisoners.  The jailer arrives to see the doors open and the shackles on the floor.  This is not good, not good at all.  The jailer’s supervisors are not going to shrug this off. “Don’t worry, supernatural earthquakes free prisoners all time.  It’s fine.”  The jailer is so overcome with anxiety that he pulls out his sword to kill himself.  Then, if the earthquake was not strange enough, something stranger happens.  Paul stops the jailer from killing himself.  Paul and all the other prisoners are still there.  You would expect they would have ran at the first opportunity and yet they remained.  Amazed, the jailer cries out “What must I do to be saved?”  Was the jailer asking how to be saved from possible punishment from his bosses or how to be saved in terms of having a relationship with God such as Paul had?  Whatever his meaning, Paul took it as how to be saved in a spiritual sense, that is being right with God and having assurance of eternal life.  This is a question that people today continue to ask.

Myths of Salvation

Before we look at the answer Paul gave, let us look at some modern myths concerning salvation.  The first myth is that there is no need for salvation.  This could mean either there is no God, there is no afterlife or that God just opens up heaven to everyone regardless of belief or behavior.  If we take the teachings of Jesus serious in any way, we should reject this myth.  Jesus knew there was a God and even acknowledged him as Father.  Jesus not only taught there was an afterlife, he even rose from the dead, which gives him some pretty good qualifications.  Finally, Jesus taught that there would be judgment and not everyone would be included among those in heaven.  There is a need for salvation.  The second myth is that all you need to do to get to heaven is to be a good person.  I read a novel years ago that had death as the grim reaper with a scale that he would weigh souls for goodness and if they were 51% good, they went to heaven.  That was science fiction and yet many would hold to something similar.  Good people go to heaven.  First of all, the Bible teaches that no one is good when it comes to God’s standards.  Jesus taught “No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18 ESV) But even if relative goodness was accepted, what would be the cut off?  At which point is a person good enough for heaven and then just little bit worse disqualified for heaven?  Heaven is the dwelling place of God and he has decided that heaven is not something that you can get to by being good enough.  Maybe heaven is for religious people.  By religion, they mean religion in general.  They claim that there are many roads to heaven and each religion takes a different road but they all get to the same place.  That does not make sense.  This is the third myth.  Hinduism and Buddhism believe in Nirvana rather than heaven and even their understandings of Nirvana are different from each other.  Islam believes in a paradise with rivers of wine and female virgins available for the pleasure of the men, very different from the Christian heaven.  Religion in general is not enough.  The last myth is that you just have to attend church.  If you go to church regularly, sing the hymns, put money in the plate, and even participate in rituals such as baptism or communion, then perhaps you can get to heaven.  This is a huge misunderstanding, one that fools many people.  Here is the problem, what you do on the outside has nothing to do with what is on the inside.  For example, I have read stories of pastors of churches who are atheists.  Why would an atheist be a pastor?  Likely they didn’t start that way.  But they remain in the church because they appreciate the traditions, enjoy the beauty of the liturgy and frankly it is a job.  Surely, they are not going to be welcomed into heaven just because they participated in religious rituals.  Something else is required.

Truth of Salvation

So if none of these are the truth, what is the truth?  Paul explained “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 16:31 NIV)  What does that mean?  Not just that there was a person named Jesus who once lived.  There are specific things that belong to this calling out to Jesus and none of it is what we have looked at previously.  First of all, it requires that we acknowledge Jesus as the only way.  “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NIV)  This is not politically correct but think of the consequences if this is not true.  God sent his only Son Jesus to die for our sins.  Why would he do such a thing if there were numerous other options available?  The truth is that there is only one way and that one way is Jesus.  Secondly, it is accepting the sacrifice Jesus paid on the cross that provides salvation.  All of Jesus‘ life and teachings are important and deserve our study.  However, it was Jesus on the cross that took away our sins and opened the door for eternal life.  As sinners, there was a price that needed to be paid for our sins.  It is a price far too high for us to pay.  But Jesus, as the Son of God, could pay our price, and he did.  Paul tells us “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:9 NIV)  Because of Jesus on the cross, God does not look at us in anger over our sin but sees us as his adopted children in his family, coheirs with Christ.  It is at the cross where justice and mercy meet.  The question is: how do we receive the benefits of the cross?  If it is not by being religious or even attending church, what do we do?  Paul tells the jailer to believe.  Belief in this context is more than mental assent.  It is faith.  It is trust.  It is saying that we acknowledge we cannot do it on our own and that we are trusting Jesus for our life.  It is the kind of trust a skydiver has, knowing they cannot survive the jump on their own but trusting the parachute will get them to the ground safely.  There are no magic words, although there are prayers that are commonly used.  What is important is that we call out to Jesus and ask him to save us through what he did on the cross and by faith receive the forgiveness and eternal life that he has for us.

Conclusion

How do we get to heaven?  The jailer asked that question to Paul.  The jailer saw something amazing in Paul and his friends and he wanted what they had.  “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul did not respond by saying being good, being religious or even attending church.  Paul said “Believe in Jesus.”  By that Paul meant acknowledge Jesus as the only way, put your hope in the cross and reach out in faith.  Only by doing that can we have hope for forgiveness and eternal life.

 

Share

A New Kind of Worship

Nehemiah 8:1-3

Introduction

Imagine if I announced today that we were going to radically change the style of worship in the church.  I don’t just mean a change of songs, moving from traditional hymns to newer songs.  I mean a complete change.  We would remove all musical instruments from the sanctuary.  Not only that, we would cease all singing, audible prayer and even the sermons.  What we would do for an hour each week is sit in a circle holding hands, staring at candles and silently seeking the presence of God.  That would be a pretty radical change and all things considered a fairly unlikely situation.  However, a comparable situation was faced by the Jews when the Temple was destroyed.  Think at what the worship of Israel was like for centuries.  People travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem and offered sacrifices.  There were all kinds of sacrifices for different circumstances, but this was the foundation of worship.  Then the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple.  This was not just an inconvenience so that the Jews would have to find another building to sacrifice in, perhaps in Babylon where they were sent into exile.  That was not an option.  God had made it extremely clear that there was one place and one place only where sacrifices could be offered and that was the Jerusalem Temple.  No Jerusalem Temple, no sacrifice.  So what were the Jews to do?  They could not just give up on worship for the indefinite future.  As a result they had to create a radically new way to worship.  What did they do?  They turned to studying the Bible.  They gathered together as small groups and communities and learned about God as revealed to former generations.  These gatherings became known as synagogues.  There was sacrifice, but not that of animals.  The new sacrifice was that of time and dedication in studying God’s Word.  Someone who was very influential in this was the scribe Ezra.  Now to be fair, the passage we are looking at is after the dedication of the second Temple.  So the Jews were now able to offer animal sacrifices again after over seventy years of impossibility.  But something had changed.  During Solomon’s Temple, it seemed as if the sacrificial system of worship would last forever.  But after seventy years of exile without a Temple, forever did not seem like a very long time.  Things were a bit more uncertain now.  How did they know that another nation wouldn’t come around and tear down this Temple as well?  In fact a few centuries later the Romans did just that.  Because of the innovations in worship after the first destruction, the Jews were ready to continue through the study of God’s Law.  During the time of Jesus, just a generation before the second destruction, there was a group of professionally trained scholars, known the Pharisees and scribes, who led people in the study of the Law.  Today’s rabbinic Judaism is descended from this tradition of Bible study.  The Sadducees, who were completely tied to the Temple, simply disappeared after the Temple was destroyed.  They were not able to change.  What about us?  Christianity inherited the tradition of biblical worship, that is worshiping God through the study of his Word.  Throughout the years musical styles and liturgical traditions have changed but God’s Word continues to be central.  Still, many of us struggle to see how the Bible fits with worship as our tendency is to see them as two separate aspects of what we do.  Let us take a look at how they fit together.

Identity

What is worship?  Worship is ascribing worth to someone or something.  How can you worship what you do not know?  Worship is about saying that some characteristic of the object of worship is deserving of praise.  But if you do not know the characteristics, you cannot worship.  Think of it in terms of a relationship.  The relationship depends on some knowledge of the other person.  I once had a phone call in which the person asked specifically for me.  After fifteen minutes on the phone, I had no idea what the person was talking about nor did I know who I was talking to.  It ended up being a wrong number and it just happened that he was looking for someone with the same name as me.  We talked but we did not have a relationship as we knew nothing about each other.  What about God?  People can know some general things about God apart from Scripture.  They can know he exists from creation.  They can know that he desires us to be good people from the conscience that is within us.  But that is about it.  Think of the songs we like.  Holy, Holy, Holy.  How would a person know that God was holy apart from the Bible?  O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.  Jesus who?  If it was not for the Bible, he would not even be a consideration for inclusion in worship.  Ezra as he was leading the people in worship, began with a long reading of the Bible.  Why?  As they began a new era of their nation and religion, they needed to know who they were to worship.  When we study the Bible, we are not just gaining knowledge, we are discovering the one we worship.

Lifestyle

What is God looking for in worship?  Suppose we discover that God is a loving, just, holy, righteous, gracious and awesome God.  Suppose we learn that he sent Jesus to die for us and through him we receive eternal life.  So we begin to worship this God.  But once we leave church we live lives of excess, greed, selfishness, hatred and bitterness.  Would that be acceptable worship to God?  Even if we got all the rituals and traditions right?  Likely not.  God has always wanted our worship of him closely linked to how we live.  Worshipping God while treating others unjustly is actually more offensive than not worshipping.  So we are supposed to live lives that reflect who God is as a part of our worship.  But how do we know how to do that apart from studying the Bible?  Some might suggest that we would just naturally know how to be good people.  But is that true?  As society separates itself more and more from Christianity do we see morality increasing?  Do we see crime go down?  Do we see people more active in helping each other?  What about personal holiness?  We need to live lives that glorify God but that happens through the study of God’s Word.  When Ezra was reading the Bible to the people, he was not doing it just for fun.  Ezra knew that during the time of the exile people had slipped into many unbiblical practices.  They could have a new Temple with all the rituals they wanted, but it was meaningless if their lives did not reflect this desire for worship.  As Ezra read, the people began to weep for they knew how far short they were of God’s expectations.  We need to study God’s Word, not to feel terrible about how bad we are.  We must dig into the Bible to learn what God expects of us and find the spiritual encouragement to take those steps.  We are saved by grace and not by works, but God still wants our faith to inform our life.  As we work on a worshipful lifestyle, we will find that our formal church worship experiences will take on more meaning.

Response

The last thing that I wanted to talk about is not as obvious as the other issues.  Think of what the Bible is.  The Bible is not just a book of people’s thoughts and reflections on religion.  The Bible is God’s attempt to communicate with us by inspiring people to speak his words.  We read “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21 NIV)  Often we use that to say the Bible is authoritative for building our theology.  But think of it in terms of worship.  What if God took tremendous effort to inspire many writers to provide us with the Bible?  What would the worshipful thing be to do?  Put the Bible on the shelf?  That would be like a loved one spending years putting together the perfect present for you.  They are full of anticipation of how you will react.  But when you receive it, you simply toss it into storage.  Not a great idea for deepening a relationship.  When we receive God’s gift of the Bible and take it and study it, we are worshiping God.  We are responding to what God initiates toward us.  If worship is about saying God is worthy, what do we say if his book is not worth our time studying?

Conclusion

Ezra and his people had an amazing time of worship.  Ezra picked up the Bible and read it for hours to the people.  That may not sound like great worship and yet it was.  It was setting the foundation for all the worship of other forms that people would participate in.  We worship God but we need to know who this God is and what he has done for us.  The Bible tells us this.  We need to live lives of worship that match our worship through song and prayer.  The Bible tells us what God wants and how to reach this goal.  God has offered us something through his inspired Word.  By responding to that offer and using the Bible in the manner intended, we are participating in worship.  Make sure your Bible is central in your worship of God.

Share

The Big House

2 Chronicles 6:1-21

Introduction

I was raised as a church-going kid.  But even that statement says something about how we thought.  The Bible speaks of the church as the Christian people but in my mind the church was the physical building.  I do not want to go too far down that issue, except to say that for many Christian traditions the building is extremely important.  I can still picture my childhood church with all of its wood and stained glass and candles.  There was something about the physical space that told you that you were in a holy place.  I remember another kid spitting on the ground in the church building, not in the sanctuary but on the stairs.  I was horrified.  Would a lightning bolt come down?  How could you treat God’s house with such disrespect?  The most reverent that we feel about our Christian churches does not even come close to how the Israelites saw their Jerusalem Temple.  The Temple stood in Jerusalem, in two different versions for just less than a thousand years.  The Temple was the only place that they could offer sacrifices and it is the destruction of the Temple that prevents Jews today from performing sacrifices.  It was a magnificent building, one of the wonders of the ancient world.  But it was more than just a nice building in which to have religious activities, it was the place where God’s presence dwelt.  The Temple has been gone for almost two thousand years.  All that is left are the foundations stones on the western side, a place known today as the Western or Wailing Wall.  But the Temple continues to cast its shadow on our Christian faith.  In the New Testament, Temple imagery is used for the church, for our bodies and even for Jesus Christ.  It is helpful then to understand how the Temple shaped the worship of Israel and how that impacts us.  Let us take a look at the Temple, not in the details of what sacrifices were offered how, but in terms of how the Temple was understood as Solomon was dedicating it.

Touch

There was a real challenge as Solomon was building the Temple.  The actual construction was relatively simple.  Solomon had the resources and the manpower to physically build the Temple.  But they were looking for more than just a beautiful and well constructed building.  What they wanted was for God to dwell among them, for God to actually be in the Temple.  But there is a major problem with this.  As big as this Temple was, God is much bigger.  You can hear the sense of wonder in Solomon’s voice.  The heavens are not even big enough to contain God.  I like the was the Message paraphrases this: “Can it be that God will actually move into our neighborhood? Why, the cosmos itself isn’t large enough to give you breathing room, let alone this Temple I’ve built.”  And yet somehow this takes place.  God condescends to allow his presence to dwell in this human made building.  The Israelites understood God to be literally in the Temple.  Precautions were made to remove the body of a priest who died from being careless in the presence of a holy God.  When the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, many people were confused.  If God was actually in the Temple, it should have been invulnerable from any Babylonian attack.  In response, God gave the prophet Ezekiel a vision in which he sees God’s presence removed from the Temple as a result of the people’s sins.  What the Babylonians destroyed was an empty shell.  What I want you to see here is that worship, true worship of the God of the Bible, includes an understanding that God comes down and touches us.  Physical touch is a very important part of demonstrating love.  I love to hug and cuddle and wrestle with my children.  When I visit Abby, a huge part of our time together is her climbing on me and carrying her around.  God desires to touch us as well.  He does that by making his presence known.  We may wonder, like Solomon, how the God of the universe could come into this place.  But he has.  The Christian story is about God coming to us.  God became a lot more compact than the Temple when he appeared in Jesus Christ.  God poured out his Holy Spirit and places him in everyone who calls on the name of Christ.              In worship, reach out and touch the God who has reached down to touch you.

Hear

What I would expect when reading about the dedication of the Temple is a real emphasis on sacrifice.  After all, when I think of the Temple I things of the priests sacrificing lambs and bulls.  Of course that was very important.  But Solomon chooses to focus on something else.  Since the Bible says that Solomon was given special wisdom by God, perhaps we should listen.  Solomon speaks of this place as a place of prayer.  Solomon is praying this dedication, but he is also speaking of all the prayers that would take place after this.  Solomon’s prayer is that God would hear this prayer.  The Temple as a house of prayer?  Jesus seemed to think so.  When Jesus was cleansing the Temple, he quoted Isaiah by saying “My house shall be a house of prayer.”  Prayer?  But I thought the Temple was a place of worship?  To divide worship and prayer is artificial.  I am not sure how you could worship without some sort of prayer involved.  Even if you offered some sort of sacrifice, you would likely pray that God would accept that sacrifice.  They are closely connected.  But the prayer that Solomon has in mind is not an empty ritual.  He expects that God will hear this prayer.  If there is something that drives my children crazy, it is when I do not hear them.  They ask for something or want to show me something and I am so occupied with something else that I do not even hear them.  They want me to hear.  And we want God to hear.  I remember as an Anglican having a certain part of the liturgy dealing with prayer.  After each part of the prayer, we would say together “O God, hear our prayer.”  Even if we do not say that out loud, it would be a good idea for us in worship for us to have the inner desire “O God, hear our prayer.”

See

There is another very interesting part to this prayer.  Solomon prays “May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night.”  For Solomon, it is not enough that God would hear our prayers, as if they were recorded and played back at his leisure.  Rather, he wants God’s eyes on the Temple.  He wants God to be watching the people.  One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 121.  “He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.   The LORD watches over you— the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” (Psalms 121:3–6 NIV)  The Lord watching over us.  Why is that important?  Again, it speaks to the intimacy of worship, of the context of relationship.  Do we really want our worship noticed by some angel passing on a memo that this church fulfilled its worship obligation again this week?  Or do we want God to be watching us?  There is something special about watching the one you love.  There are times Amanda will ask me how she looks and I will respond quickly with “Great.”  Unfortunately, Amanda notices that I did not even look at her before responding.  It becomes an empty compliment.  My children love it when we watch them.  They perform shows, concerts, dances, races and acrobatic demonstrations.  It is not enough for them to know we are aware of their activity.  They want us to watch them, even if they do the same thing over and over again.  Do we have that same longing to be watched by God?  As people forgiven as a result of Jesus on the cross, we need not fear God’s gaze.  God looks at us, not to find fault, but to adore us as his children.  Part of worshipping is to desire to be seen by God.

Conclusion

The Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.  It was rebuilt only be destroyed by the Romans.  The Temple is gone.  But the words of Solomon’s dedication remain for us.  Solomon, wise man that he was, understood that true worship was about the senses.  It was about being touched, being heard and being seen.  These principles continue to hold true.  As we come to worship, we must long for God’s presence to be so real that he actually touches us. We should worship prayerfully, confident that God would hear us.  We should worship in the sight of God, knowing that he watches us as a Father watches his children.  Let us worship as the Temple of God.

Share

Worship Before the Temple

Genesis 12:1-7

Introduction

Everything gets more complex over time.  Even though technology improves and there are important advances, the fact is that things get more complicated.  We often hear people talk fondly about the good old days.  The truth is that the good old days were not necessarily better than today.  But they were likely simpler than what we experience today.  From time to time we find people longing for that simplicity and attempting to turn back the clock to get back to our origins.  This is true for worship as well.  We have two thousand years of Christian tradition with regard to worship.  Many things have changed, things added and things taken away.  Before that we had the Jewish Temple with all of its sacrifices and feasts and rituals.  But there was a time before that when worship was very simple, a time before rituals and traditions.  That is not to say that we should forget about all that we have learned from the worship of Israel and the worship of the church.  Those things are important.  But by taking a look at the early days of worship, we have an opportunity to get a fresh glimpse of what is really important.  We are going to take a look at an early worship experience.  There was no Jerusalem Temple to offer an elaborate sacrifice.  In fact the Israelites did not even possess Jerusalem, mostly because at this time there were no Israelites.  All we have is a man named Abram and his family, making a journey to what we know as the Promised Land.  Let us see how things work out.

God’s Initiation

How does worship start?  Well, we decide that we want to come to church.  We decide that we will leave our homes and travel to this building.  We come in and participate in this worship service.  We choose to sing and pray and read.  Worship is simply our decision to give God something.  Or is that all there is?  What if there were no denominations such as Baptists?  What if there were no formal religious organizations or church buildings?  Would we naturally know that we were to worship God in some way?  I am not sure we would if it was left completely up to us.  Let us look to Abram as our example.  Abram was originally from the land of Ur and eventually settled in the city of Haran.  In all of these places, there would have been many idols as well as a focus on astrology.  There is no reason that Abram would wake up and start worshipping the one true God, the Creator of the Universe.  No reason, unless God initiated it himself.  Abram’s father had been called to go to the Promised Land but got distracted in Haran and decided to abandon the journey.  God spoke to Abram and called him to finish what his father had started.  Abram must have believed that some thing special took place as he began this journey at the age of seventy-five.  This led Abram to a worship experience with God, but only after God started the process.  Why do we worship?  God has started something that led us to this place, to worship him now.  What has God done?  God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.  God is not just some strange force out there, he has made himself known in Jesus.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been invited into a real and intimate relationship with God.  This was God’s initiation.  “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV)  God has also given us the Bible.  Through the Old and New Testaments, we have many examples of people before us who worshipped.  Without the Bible, we would know almost nothing of God or the worship that is due him.  God has also started something in our lives.  You may have become a Christian as a child or as an adult.  It may have been through Sunday school, camp, conversations with friends or private reflection on the Bible.  However it happened, God did something in your life.  You experienced God for a first time, and unless God had done something then, you would never have wanted to worship him.  So when you come to church to worship, remember this is not just about you.  God has started something that has brought you to this place.

Thankfulness

So God revealed himself to Abram in some way.  However, this was not just “Hey Abram, I am God and I exist.”  The mere existence of God does not lead to worship.  We are told in Hebrews “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV)  What this means is that we worship a God who not only exists but who demonstrates his love to us in tangible ways.  What did this look like for Abram?  Abram is sent to the Promised Land.  But Abram received much more than just permission to visit a new place.  Abram was promised that this land would belong to his offspring.  That would be nice by itself to know that a certain land would be a permanent place of settlement for your descendants.  But the fact that Abram and Sarai had no children, Sarai was barren and both were old, made this promise all the more amazing.  In order for God to give this land to Abram’s offspring, God was going to have to give Abram some offspring.  Imagine the joy that must have filled Abram’s heart.  Why do we worship?  I remember talking with a friend just as I was coming out of a period of atheism.  I was prepared to believe in God but not prepared to be a Christian.  My problem was worship.  It seemed like the church was asking us to encourage God in his low self-esteem that he really was pretty good.  It just did not make sense to me.  Now I understand worship in the context of thankfulness.  When we come to worship, it is a fair question to ask: What has God ever done for us?  What has God done?  He has created this beautiful world.  He has given us life so we can enjoy it.  He has revealed himself to us.  He has sent Jesus to die for our sins.  He forgives our sins.  He gives us eternal life.  Plus we have all the answered prayers and daily demonstrations of his love.  It is worth taking the time and effort to work on the spiritual discipline of thankfulness.  I try to take a moment to thank God every time something good happens.  It could be anything from finding my lost keys to getting a good parking spot to having a fun day with my family.  The more we embrace thankfulness toward God, the better prepared we are to worship God.

Presence

Our passage says that Abram built an altar to the God who had appeared to him.  We do not fully understand how God appeared to Abram.  We know that God could not have appeared to Abram in his full glory without killing Abram.  Only Moses and Elijah caught glimpses of just a part of God.  Sometimes God revealed himself through the angel of the Lord who seemed to be an angel that somehow represented God’s presence.  God appeared as a burning bush to Moses.  Other times God revealed himself in a dark cloud.  The form is not what is important.  What is important is that Abram had an experience of God’s presence and this drew him into worship.  This is motivation to worship but it should also be an expectation of worship.  What is it that we want when we come to church and worship God?  We may want to see our friends and even sing some of our favorite hymns.  But we should want more.  We should want God to appear to us.  Moses understood this.  “The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:14–16 NIV)  Do you see how desperate Moses is for God’s presence and that it is God’s presence that distinguishes God’s people.  Jesus taught “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20 NIV)  We come here not just to perform rituals and to feel comfortable that we are doing what our parents and grand parents did.  We worship so that we might experience God.  How do we experience God?  We experience God when you have a fresh sense of God’s goodness, mercy and holiness.  When a hymn becomes more than a song and becomes the cry of your heart.  When you pray and you do not feel like you are speaking to air but know that the King of the Universe is listening.  That is what we must seek in worship.

Conclusion

As followers of Jesus, one of the most important things we do is to worship God.  What does that look like?  It is helpful to look to Abram, one of the earliest examples that we are given any detail about.  We are not looking to copy Abram but rather to understand the principles behind his worship.  Abram’s worship was initiated by God and not by Abram.  God took the first step and Abram responded.  Abram’s worship was an act of thankfulness based on the promise given to Abram.  Abram’s worship was also closely tied to the presence of God, as he worshipped the God who appeared to him.  We need that kind of worship, even if the outward form looks very different.  God continues to initiate worship by reaching out to us before we can ever reach out to him.  We have tremendous reasons to be thankful and that should drive us toward worship.  Finally, we seek God’s presence in worship.  We desire not ritual but relationship, relationship with a God that desires to be with us.  May our worship be a dress rehearsal for the promise found in Revelation: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3 NIV)

Share

What is Worship?

Psalm 95:1-6

Introduction

I remember being hired by my first church and being scared of one particular part of my job description.  One of the things that I was expected to do was to be involved in worship leading.  Why would that scare me?  In my mind, a worship leader was a person with a guitar or piano who led singing.  Not only did I not play an instrument, I am a horrible singer.  I have since had many opportunities to lead singing, although quietly enough to not cause too much damage.  However, I now understand where my mistake was.  I equated Christian worship with music.  Of course the church has a wonderful tradition of music that has enriched our worship.  But music does not equate worship.  You cannot say “I just sang a hymn, therefore I worshipped God.”  Nor can you say “I have not sang a hymn, therefore I have not worshipped God.”  It is wonderful when worship includes hymns and songs, but it is much bigger than that.  We are going to introduce the idea of worship, looking at part of what it is, and then over the next few weeks will look at a few biblical examples of worship.

Exclusive

What does it mean to worship?  First of all, it requires that we be exclusive in the object of worship.  I cannot worship God and chocolate and cars and nature and money and computers and everything else that I come into contact with.  If I am devoted to everything equally, then there is nothing that is actually being worshipped.  To worship is to lift something above all others and say that this is the one thing that is worthy of my devotion.  You might wonder how this fits with the ancient world.  After all, they were not that exclusive since they believed in many gods.  However, I am not talking about belief, I am talking about worship.  Even if an ancient person believed in dozens of gods, they would not worship them all.  They would likely worship just one or a couple of gods.  They might perform some ritual for more, but their devotion would be fairly exclusive.  It is the same today with Hinduism.  Depending on you count, there are between thirty-three and three hundred thirty million gods.  An individual Hindu does not worship all of them, usually they are devoted to one god.  The story of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is a call to decide who is to be worshipped.  Listen to these words of Joshua: “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14–15 NIV)  The same challenge is put to us.  The temptation may not be pagan idols but there are other objects of worship that seek our devotion.  How does God fit with money, power, popularity or pleasure?  Is God just one of many, or does he rise above everything else to receive our worship?  The first thing we need to think about as we worship is not what song we sing, but where does God stand in relation to everything else in our life.  Unless God is our exclusive object of worship, we are not really worshipping him.

Costly

What does it cost to worship God?  If worship is simply singing a song, the cost is not very high.  A little bit of exertion by the vocal chords and you are done.  But that is not what worship is about.  I did a search of the word ‘worship‘ in the Bible and do you know where the first appearance is?  The first appearance of worship is in Genesis 22.  The significance of this is that is the chapter where Abraham takes his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him according to God’s command.  Of course God ended up providing a ram at the last minute so that Isaac did not have to die.  But Abraham did not know that when he went up the mountain and told his servants they were going to worship.  Even though Isaac was not killed, this worship cost Abraham something.  It cost him in terms of radical obedience and trust.  Once formal ways of worship were developed under the covenant with Moses, we see that worship continues to cost something.  The people were not commanded to just nod their head or give God a thumb’s up.  They gave a portion of their herd or flock or crop.  They sacrificed from what they had and it cost something.  What does our worship cost?  Since tithing is a part of our worship, there is a financial cost.  There is a time cost, as you could be doing numerous other things on a Sunday morning.  But perhaps the biggest cost is an emotional cost.  As you are singing or praying or reading the Bible, we need to choose to make that more than an empty ritual.  We have to choose to make that a part of a developing relationship with the living God and that has an emotional cost.

Relevant

We live in a world that likes to compartmentalize everything.  This section of my life is for family, this section, for work, this section for friends, this section for entertainment and this section for God.  However, that is an artificial division of life.  The Bible certainly does not expect that we would keep things separate.  This is especially true when it comes to worship.  It would be easy to see how worship could be about one hour a week, singing and praying and reading.  Then we go our non-worshipping activity for the rest of the week.  One of the greatest challenges to this idea is Isaiah 1.  In this passage, God goes into detail as to how the Israelite worship makes him sick.  The strange thing is that the forms of worship that God indicates that he hates are the same forms that he commanded to the people.  What is the problem?  The people were keeping their worship separate from the rest of their life.  They would offer their sacrifices and then would either oppress the poor or at least tolerate the oppression by others.  They did not see how our love for God was related to our love for people and yet these two things are indivisible.  We read “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 ESV)  In the New Testament we read “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:11–12 NIV)  How should you worship this week?  Look for ways to make a difference in people’s lives, both locally and globally.  Fight for justice and comfort the hurting.  That is some powerful worship.

Conclusion

What is worship?  I will tell you what it is not.  It is not your general feeling for everything.  It is not cheap.  And it is not limited to what you do in a church building.  Worship is about acknowledging God as the only one worthy of worship.  Worship is about giving something of yourself, sacrificing something you value to glorify God.  Worship is something that spills out onto every area of our life so that when we love other people, we are actually loving God.  That is what Christian worship is.

Share

Love and Understanding

Philippians 1:9-11

Introduction

Most people would agree that love is one of, if not the greatest virtue.  Television shows, movies and music are all drawn to the notion of love.  But what is love?  Is love the emotional excitement as two people feel attraction and take the first steps toward relationship?  Is love a possessiveness that smothers the needs of the other person to keep them to yourself?  What is love?  Entertainment is not the only area that has an interest in love.  The Christian faith is extremely interested in love.  In fact, this is one of the things that makes Christianity unique.  It is not that love is completely absent from other religions, but Christianity is the only religion that makes love central to its faith.  Both the Old and New Testaments put love at its core.  So it is not surprising that when Paul prays for the Christians at Philippi, that he prays for love.  But Paul does not leave the Philippians wondering if this is the love a boy has at seeing a pretty girl for the first time or child has for a chocolate chip cookie or something deeper.  Paul’s prayer for love brings clarity and understanding to the topic.  This is a help for us in our own prayers, that we should seek precision in what we pray for.  Let us look at how Paul prays for love.

Love

If Paul had simply said “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more,” we would have an idea of what he meant.  We would assume that he is simply praying that people would become more loving.  They would have more smiles, say nicer things, be kinder and generally be more pleasant to be around.  But that is not what Paul prayed.  Paul prayed: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9 NIV)  This is not easy for us to understand.  One of the problems is that we see love and knowledge as being at best unconnected and at worst contradictory.  Paul himself seemed to think that.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV)  That is true.  There are people who are incredibly intelligent, and not only are they unloving, their knowledge of their own knowledge seems to make them less loving.  Perhaps you have had a doctor, who is brilliant on paper but has the worst bedside manner.  There are smart people who delight in making others feel stupid.  However, that does not make knowledge and love contradictory.  There is a type of knowledge that makes love deeper.  Have you ever wondered why Mother Teresa loved the poor and dying of Calcutta so much?  Was it just that she woke up one morning and her heart was filled with love?  Or was it because she experienced them?  Was it because she spent time with them and talked with them and learned from them?  I suspect that Mother Teresa’s love for the poor abounded because of the knowledge and depth of insight she had for how they lived and died.  What about us?  How can our love abound in knowledge?  Think about a person that you have difficulty loving.  Reflect on the fact that God created them in his image and that Jesus died for their sins.  How does that knowledge help you to love?  What if you spent time with them and discovered that they had a difficult family life, that they had a history of being betrayed by friends and had a deep fear of trusting someone?  Would that knowledge give you some more patience to love them?  Our love must abound in knowledge and depth of insight.

Response

Why is Paul praying this and what did he hope would happen?  Paul says: “so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.” (Philippians 1:10 NIV)  Paul expects that there will be more than just a feeling in the heart of the person.  Paul is looking for a change in the person.  Notice that Paul assumes that there actually is a best way to live.  This goes completely against the values of our society.  Society says truth is relative and you can live the way you want to.  This is not just about tolerance, it is a value judgment which says one way to live is no better than another way.  Paul disagrees by saying that we must discern the best way to live.  Why is this important?  Because one day we will stand before Christ.  The day of Christ is judgment day.  Everyone, even Christians will stand in judgment before Christ.  That is not to say that Christian salvation is so unsure that we should fear that we were not good enough.  Salvation is by faith alone.  But God still expects us to live according to his best and we will have to answer for what we have done.  Paul describes us as being pure and blameless before Christ.  This is sacrificial language from the Old Testament.  In the book of Malachi, we find that some people were sacrificing their worst animals, the ones that were not good for market.  They did not value what they brought before God.  We do not sacrifice animals but we do present our life as sacrifice to God.  Paul teaches: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1 NIV)  What makes that sacrifice pleasing to God is abounding love.

Measure

So how do we know if we reach this goal?  I am a firm believer in measurable goals.  I want a destination to arrive at and not just a direction in which to travel.  Paul gives us some information to know what we should be looking for.  Paul says we should be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:11 NIV)  That is not as abstract as it sounds.  What Paul is saying is that spiritual fruit should be appearing.  We cannot make fruit appear but we can make sure fruit does not appear.  Fruit does not grow in the middle of our living room.  But fruit does grow in our backyard where the soil, rain and sun create the necessary conditions.  Paul tells us elsewhere “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22–23 NIV)  These, are the character traits of Jesus.  Paul just told us this fruit comes through Jesus Christ.  What we are looking for is a gradual change where we become more and more like Jesus.

Conclusion

We all should pray for more love.  But not just a fuzzy kind of love.  We need love with understanding.  We need love that is based on knowledge, knowledge of who God is, of who we are and who the other person is.  Why should we care?  Because our purpose is not just to get ourselves a ticket to heaven but rather to present our lives as a pure sacrifice to Christ.  We know we are on the right track when we become more like Jesus.  That is what it means to pray for more love.

Share

A Pastor’s Prayer

Ephesians 1:15-23

Introduction

Who was the Apostle Paul?  Well, he was the author of much of the New Testament.  He was a church planter and missionary.  He was a theologian and a deep thinker.  But Paul was also a pastor.  If you read Paul’s letters, you will see that he had a cranky side.  He was not the Mr. Rogers type of pastor with the cardigan and slippers.  Paul was a call-it-as-it-is kind of pastor.  In fact, the times when Paul seems the must grumpy is when he sees his church threatened from without or within.  Paul had a pastor’s heart.  And that meant that he prayed for the Christians under his care.  But his prayer was not a simple God bless them.  Paul prayed a prayer that reflected how he felt for them, the dreams that he had for them as a church.  Paul says he remembers them in his prayers.  He does not mean that he is having his prayer time and then suddenly remembers that he is supposed to pray for some church.  What he means is he chooses to recall this church in his prayers, they are important enough for him to include in his communication with God.  We also see that this is a prayer of thanks.  But what is  really interesting is it seems as if he is asking God for something.  This is what is beautiful about this prayer, when things are right, even the prayer of petition is a prayer of thanksgiving.  Let us look at Paul’s pastoral prayer.

Knowledge

As children prepare to go back to school, we are reminded of the importance of knowledge.  I have an office that is full of books, not to impress people or to decorate my walls, but because I desire more knowledge.  The Apostle Paul was someone who valued knowledge as well.  Paul was from the city of Tarsus, a city famous for its Greek learning.  Paul was also trained by one of the top rabbis of his day.  It does not take long in reading his letters to discover that Paul was extremely intelligent.  It is no surprise that Paul would desire greater knowledge for the church.  However, Paul’s prayer is not that they would have more books.  His prayer is that they would have a spirit of wisdom and revelation.  What does that mean?  Does Paul envision a church that does not study but rather sits in meditation, waiting for revelation from above?  That is not what Paul did and that is not what he teaches elsewhere.  However, Paul knows that learning about God takes more than just reading a book.  We need guidance from God.  This is not a substitute for reading the Bible, reading other books, talking with Christians or reflecting on nature.  Rather, God’s Spirit brings these things all together and opens our eyes and our hearts to what we would not normally see.  Once, this is accomplished, what will we have?  The purpose is not just to gain new information about God.  The ultimate purpose is that we know God better.  What we are looking for is a deeper relationship with God.  However, that does not mean the we are only looking for emotional experiences with God.  Think about your desire to have a better relationship with your spouse, children or friends.  You ask them questions about what they are doing, where they have been, what is on their mind.  You take this information about the person and it gets processed into actually knowing them better.  The same is true with God.  You might be in your kitchen and see a glass of water with ice cubes in it while at the same time there is a kettle boiling.  Your eyes might be opened as to how one substance can be in three different forms at the same time and see a picture of the Trinity and how one God is the Father, Son and Spirit.  You will have a better understanding of the doctrine, but hopefully that is transformed into a deeper relationship with the God you know better.

Hope

We must come to know God better.  But there is so much more that we must know.  One of the other things that Paul prays for is that they might know the Christian hope.  We live in a day when atheism has taken aim at Christianity.  Atheists are writing best-selling books, speaking to packed auditoriums, putting signs on buses, offering camps for atheist children and recently even getting their own atheist Bible.  Some atheists look at us and do more than just disagree or even laugh at us.  Some atheists are calling for religion to be removed from society as a dangerous menace.  There is much that I could say about their truth claims.  Whatever the philosophical arguments pro or con for atheism, there is one thing that it lacks and that is hope.  Think of the atheistic worldview.  They believe in a universe that just popped into existence without any purpose.  Life on this planet began as a random mixing of chemicals.  We as humans are the result of a long process of evolution, the survival of the fittest, a world where virtue is the strong kill the weak.  The purpose of life?  There is no purpose for life.  All you can do is try and tip the scales in favor have having more pleasure than pain.  Even then, it really does not matter.  Then you die and that is the end.  Where is the hope in that?  What is the Christian worldview?  We believe that God created the heavens and the earth.  We believe that God created us in his image, that we are his workmanship, prepared for his purposes.  We believe in a God that raises up the weak and humbles the strong.  We believe that God has a purpose for our lives.  We can experience purpose in this life as we discover his call on us and seek to live that out in faithfulness.  Then we die.  But that is still not the end.  We will not be disembodied spirits floating around like wisps of fog.  We will be raised in the resurrection and continue to serve God for eternity.  Paul desires that the Ephesians know that hope.  Not just as a doctrine to mark off in agreement but to allow that hope to fuel their passion to serve God.

Power

We need to know God and we need to have hope.  But there is one more thing that Paul desires that the Ephesians know and that is God’s power.  How we live as a Christian reflects how we see God.  Is God a grandfather figure who sits up in heaven, rocking on his chair, watching life go on, nodding at our strange behavior, perhaps smiling when one of his children does something cute?  Paul reminds us here that God is a God of power.  Not just power but incomparably great power.  There is an interesting story in the Old Testament.  Moses was called to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery and this was to be accompanied by miraculous signs.  What is interesting is that the Egyptian sorcerers were able to duplicate to an extent the first couple of signs.  There are certain kinds of parlor tricks that can get some attention but that really do not matter.  That is not the kind of power that Paul is talking about.  To illustrate that, Paul points to God’s power that raised Christ from the dead.  What kind of power was that?  It was not like a doctor who gets someone barely alive or even someone who has been dead for a few minutes and then resuscitates them.  Jesus was really dead and he was dead for a couple of days.  God did not just get his heart beating and lungs breathing again.  Jesus was resurrected, that is transformed into a body built for eternity.  Jesus did not go off and get old and sick and die again.  Jesus was raised up to heaven and given authority over all creation.  That is the kind of power God has.  Paul’s prayer is that Christians would know that is the kind of power available to work in our life.  Do you feel weak?  Do you feel like you just do not have what it takes to survive?  Is life too much?  God’s power, the power that worked to raise Christ from the dead and to raise him above all authority, is available to work in your life. We cannot predict what that will look like, but we can trust that God’s power will be more than sufficient to get us through whatever we face.

Conclusion

I always struggle with what to say in conclusion.  So instead of just telling you what I just told you, I will pray for you.  I am thankful for you as a congregation to pastor.  It is easy for me to pray for you as you are close to my heart and I care about what happens.  As much as I want to pray for your practical needs, your sick loved ones, your friends and family going through a hard time, I also want to pray for you as Paul prayed for his congregation.  I eagerly desire that you know God.  Yes, I want you to know more about him, I want you to study the Bible and read good books and think about who God is.  But I really, really want you to know God.  I want you to experience him and trust him and know that he is there for you.  I want you to have hope.  There are mornings that all of us wake up in the morning and wonder: what’s the use?  It is easy to fall into hopelessness.  But I pray that you will know that there is hope.  God has a plan for you.  He created you for a purpose and that purpose will fulfill you more than anything else the world has to offer.  I also pray that you will know God’s power.  I know that you feel weak sometimes.  I know that you wonder if you have what it takes to get through another day.  God has power.  Mighty power.  Awesome power.  And that power can work in your life.  The incredible thing is that it is when we feel the weakest that God’s power is the most manifest.  I pray that you will experience this power.  None of this will happen in a day and so I will continue to pray for you.  May God’s knowledge, hope and power flow over you.  In Jesus‘ name.  Amen.

Share

Prayer of a Thankful Mother

1 Samuel 2:1-10

Introduction

Why bother praying?  Have you ever wondered how the first person started praying?  In Genesis 4:26, it says in the days of Enosh, son of Seth, son of Adam, that people began to call upon the name of the Lord.  Was that the first prayer?  If so, we are not told the circumstances of the prayer.  However, I have never felt myself, nor have met anyone, who just decided to pray for the sake of praying.  Even if there was no great physical need and there was just a desire to pray, that desire is normally born from an intention to become closer to God and therefore has a reason.  It is worth taking time to look at the context of our prayers.  In the same way, when we look at the great prayers of the Bible, we should look at why people prayed those prayers.  Hannah was one of two wives of a man named Elkanah.  The other wife had given birth to children for Elkanah but Hannah had not.  The other wife did not miss an opportunity to torment her rival.  It was extremely painful for Hannah, not just because of the verbal and emotional abuse, but because in that culture there was great shame in not being able to have a child.  Hannah did what was natural and she prayed for God’s help.  Hannah walked around praying silently but moving her lips as she prayed.  Elkanah saw her and sharply rebuked her for being drunk in public.  Can you imagine baring your soul to God over your deepest pain and having your spouse accuse you of being drunk?  Hopefully Elkanah felt a bit guilty after he discovered the truth.  As it worked out, God heard that prayer and Hannah gave birth to a baby named Samuel.  Samuel went on to become one of the greatest prophets in the Bible and he was the one who anointed David as king.  But before we get Samuel all grown up, let us look at Hannah’s response.  For Hannah, prayer was not something to just get what she wanted from God, it was a way of life and it was natural for her to pray a prayer of thanks.  We are going to look at that prayer and attempt to learn something for our own prayer life.

Personal

Prayers have something in common with hymns and poems.  Some of the Psalms are prayers and even this prayer is sometimes called a psalm.  However, there is something that distinguishes a prayer from other forms of religious language.  Prayers are personal.  Hannah begins by speaking of her heart and her mouth.  It is not enough to speak of what other people say or feel.  Prayer is between you and God.  Sometimes, people say that Christians are spiritually weak because we have “I” problems.  It is about I, I, I, me, me, me.  Of course that can be a problem when you are completely focused on yourself to the exclusion of the needs of others.  But it is not wrong to make things personal.  I think of the story of Jesus asking the disciples who people thought he was.  Then Jesus challenged them by asking “Who do you say that I am?”  It is not enough to speak in generalities.  Hannah, in her prayer does not speak only of herself, in fact it is a small part of her prayer.  However, Hannah makes it clear at the outset that this is not just theory, this is something that is deeply personal to her.

Praise

Once Hannah gets her opening statements out of the way, she should be prepared to get down to business and to ask God for stuff.  But Hannah does not do that.  Hannah begins to speak beautiful words of praise to God.  Why?  This is prayer time, not worship time.  Except there is no biblical division between worship and prayer.  Worship should be prayerful and prayer should be worshipful.  Do not get me wrong, it is not wrong to petition God for what we need or even what we want.  Hannah got to this point because she asked God for a baby.  But when Hannah received her answer to prayer, she did not end communication with God.  It was natural for Hannah to transition from petition to praise.

Perspective

Hannah praises God in general but then she takes it in a new direction.  Hannah begins to speak about people.  We have set ideas of those who are strong and those who are weak.  We acknowledge that wealth, power and influence are good.  But Hannah seems to turn this upside down.  All the people that from a human perspective we would say are blessed are in fact in a bad position.  Those who seem to suffer are in fact those who are truly blessed.  How did Hannah get to this radical position?  It was not through reading some great book or hearing some inspiring speaker.  Hannah learned this through prayer.  People think they have their destiny in their own hands.  But when someone places their life and future in the hands of God through prayer, things change dramatically.  How important is this change in perspective?  If you read in the New Testament the prayer of Mary as she discovered she was pregnant with Jesus, you will see the same themes.  In fact these two prayers are very similar.  The point we need to get from here is that prayer does more than just get us things.  Prayer changes our perspective so that we can see where power truly lies.

Promise

It is relatively easy to dwell on the past in prayer.  We can look at our past hurts and ask God to heal them or at least make us forget them.  We can look to our present situations and seek God’s intervention.  But what about the future?  Of course it is easy enough to worry about the future but can we pray in confidence about the future?  Hannah in her prayer uses some ‘will’ and ‘shall’ language about God.  Is she telling God what to do?  Of course not.  But Hannah has come to know God through prayer.  She has come into relationship with him.  She has come to believe in the promise of God.  The promise of God is about hope, hope for today but hope for tomorrow as well.  We believe in God’s promises, that the one who has helped us in the past will be present in the future.  How deep have God’s promises gone into you?  Do you have a sense of what God will and shall do?  Does that give you hope?

Conclusion

Hannah was a thankful mother.  She prayed in the midst of abuse from others and received her hearts desire.  As a result of her answered prayer, we have an opportunity to learn from her prayer of thanks.  We are reminded of the importance of keeping it personal.  We are challenged to include praise in our prayer.  We are pushed to change our perspective on what is strength and what is weakness.  Finally, we need to keep God’s promises close to mind and allow them to infuse hope into our life.  If only we would pray like Hannah.

Share

ABCs of the Bible

BibleI love the Psalms.  I love the Psalms for numerous reasons.  There is the beauty of the language.  I am not sure there is anything that is more beautiful than the 23rd Psalm.  I love the raw expression of feeling.  The Psalms do not hide emotion, when the Psalmist feels forsaken by God, he shouts it loud and clear.  Everyone has their favourite Psalm.  I have already mentioned Psalm 23.  I also love Psalm 121, with its encouragement to look to the Creator of the world in our times of need.  I love Psalm 139, with its reminder of how God carefully crafted each one of us.  But one of my favourite Psalms is one that rarely gets read and that is Psalm 119.  It is rarely read because it is so long, in fact it is by far the longest chapter in the Bible.  The Psalm is all about the value of God’s Word.  I call this the ABCs of God’s Word because each section begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  But why is it so long?  Could the Psalmist not just say that the Bible is good and we should obey it?  Yes, but there is a deeper appreciation for the Bible in this Psalm than that.  We are going to take a look at some surprising things about the Bible, perhaps some things that you have never thought about before.

Obedience

This may surprise some people but we are actually supposed to obey God’s Word.  The Psalmist says “Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.” (Psalm 119:2)  Is this really that surprising?  I think so.  Ask people about the value of the Bible.  The Bible is our religious heritage.  It is a book that we can proudly put on our shelf and know that it helped shape our culture.  The Bible is a source of history.  What did the Israelites or the early Christians do?  Read the Bible and find out.  What are the correct beliefs that we need to have?  The Bible will tell us.  Does Jesus love us?  Jesus loves me this I know because the Bible tells me so.  But how many of us pick up the Bible with direction of how to live our lives?  Do we seek guidance on what we should say, what we should do and what the Christian life should look like?  As Christians we focus on grace and that we cannot be saved by works.  Is it not enough to just love Jesus?  Sure it is enough to love Jesus.  Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15 ESV)  Even the Psalmist links obedience to seeking God with all our heart.

Power

One of the reasons some people avoid the Bible is that it seems to just reinforce how bad we really are.  Why read this book and feel even more crummy about ourselves?  There is an assumption there that what the Bible teaches is impossible.  But is it?  The Psalmist says: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalms 119:9–11 NIV)  The Psalmist seems to think there is some power in following God’s Word and that it is not about feeling guilty.  Of course the Psalmist balances this with confessions of weakness.  We will never be perfect, but we can be better.  I remember as a new Christian reading the Bible and thinking that I could never do these things.  And yet over the years as I have immersed myself in God’s Word, I have seen how my life has been shaped and I look forward to that continuing in the years to come.

Joy

Closely connected to this is the idea of joy.  What attitude do we bring to the study of God’s Word?  Oh well, I guess I better read and study the Bible.  I suppose that is what God or the church expects.  So there we reluctantly plod through the pages, hardly remembering a thing.  How does the Psalmist approach God’s Word?  “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.” (Psalms 119:14 NIV)  The rejoices, both in the study and application of God’s Word.  It is something that brings great joy, the kind of joy of one who finds riches.  Imagine you are doing some gardening.  Your spade hits something hard.  You dig around and discover an old chest that is just filled with hundreds and hundreds of old silver dollars.  You probably would be pretty happy and would be on the phone telling your friends and family.  What happens when you read the Bible and a parable comes alive or some saying of Jesus finally makes sense?  Do you have that same joy?  There is joy to be found in God’s Word.

Relevance

Another reason that people avoid the Bible is that they think it is irrelevant.  No wonder people do not find joy in it, who cares about the intricacies of the finer points of doctrine?  The Bible is for theologians and other scholars who have nothing better to do.    But what does the Psalmist say?  “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” (Psalms 119:50 NIV)  The Bible is not just for when you are listening to a sermon during a church service.  It is for when life is falling apart, when sickness comes, friends die, riches fail.  It is when we hit bottom that we really need to hear from God’s Word and be reminded of he is and what he has promised.  I love this verse: “Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge.” (Psalms 119:54 NIV)  Where we lodge means our place in life, whatever is happening with us and to us.  To allow God’s Word to be the theme of our song is the ultimate acceptance of the relevance of the Bible.

Limitations

So far, I have been looking at the limitations that people place on the Bible and the need to overcome them.  But we also need to place a limitation of the Bible.  Some people see the Bible as a magic book that will give us all the answers to all the questions of our life.  But the Bible puts a limitation on itself.  “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” (Psalms 119:105 NIV)  God’s Word gives us guidance and helps us on our way.  But it is lamp to our feet.  That is, it gives us enough light to take the next step or two.  It does not provide all the details for everything that will take place.  But why not?  Would that not be nice if everything was provided, that we would know exactly how family life would go, how our friends would treat us, whether or not we would get sick and when and how we would die?  There are those who attempt something along these lines.  They would say that God has already provided a way that we need not experience poverty, sickness or heartbreak in our families.  The problem is that this does not fit with the Bible.  The Bible describes messy lives with a mix of every imaginable victory and defeat.  What we know is that God does not leave us alone in this.  He is there with the light of his Word, giving us enough light for that next step.

Conclusion

From time to time, people ask me what I am preaching on at church.  I often respond sarcastically by saying “The Bible.”  Well, this time I really am.  When I read Psalm 119, I find my excitement for God’s Word increasing.  This book is not just a collection of histories and reflections.  This is God’s Word, something that is powerful and life changing.  Read what the Psalmist says.  Get a sense of the joy and wonder that he has for God’s Word.  Let that excitement infect you and begin to look at the Bible in new ways.  Thank God for the Bible!

Share

What Does It Mean to Be Alive?

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

(Revelation 3:1–6 NIV)

Introduction

What does it mean to be alive?  What does it mean to be dead?  These would seem to be easy questions but like a mirage on the road, the easy answers seem to disappear as we get closer to them.  It is still a challenge for scientists and philosophers to define life in unequivocal terms. Defining life is difficult—in part—because life is a process, not a pure substance. Any definition must be sufficiently broad to encompass all life with which we are familiar, and it should be sufficiently general that, with it, scientists would not miss life that may be fundamentally different from life on Earth.  There is equal difficulty in defining death.  When does one die?  When they stop breathing, the heart stops or the end of brain activity?  While doctors generally use the cessation of brain activity, that is not without controversy as under certain conditions brain activity can stop temporarily.  What about those of us who believe in an afterlife?  How does the spirit and the body affect our definitions of death?  We could take this discussion in a number of directions, but we are going to focus on what the Bible says about life in terms of the church.

Sardis

Sardis was an important city.  It was a city that prided itself on its strength.  It sat high atop cliffs that were extremely difficult for an army at climb.  Once there was an army that was attempting to invade Sardis.  The people of Sardis remained confident that no one could get up the cliffs to attack them.  One enemy soldier watched the walls and cliff, racking his brain on how Sardis could be taken.  Then he saw a soldier on the walls of Sardis drop his helmet.  The enemy soldier watched as the man climbed down a path to get his missing helmet.  The enemy soldier took note of the path and that night took some other soldiers up the cliff and found the walls completely unmanned.  Sardis was taken because of the overconfidence they had in their own natural strength.  It seems as if some of that pride had entered into the Christian church at Sardis.  Unlike some of the other cities that we have looked at, it does not seem that these Christians were in danger from persecution due to refusal to worship the Roman emperor.  They may have looked at their position of strength in terms of religious freedom and felt truly alive.  Perhaps they were respected by their non-Christian neighbours and they may have been doing better financially than their Christian brothers and sisters elsewhere.  Whatever the circumstances, they had a reputation for being alive.  However, Jesus saw right through this and declares them to be dead.  I want you to imagine if Jesus wrote a letter to our church.  The last thing we would want to hear from Jesus is that we were dead.  Jesus was talking about something different from outward appearances.  Jesus was talking about a vitality in relationship with God, a passion for people and a spiritual fire.  The image of life is used for these things throughout the Bible.  In the book of Ezekiel, God brings Ezekiel to a battlefield filled with dead bodies.  Ezekiel was feeling bad enough as his land had been invaded, may people including Ezekiel had been sent into exile.  Things looked extremely dismal for the people of Israel.  However, God used this battlefield to show what he was capable of.  As Ezekiel watched, the bones were joined together, covered with muscle and skin, and when God breathed spirit into them they were returned to life.  In the same way, God was going to breathe new life into the seemingly dead Israel.  In the New Testament, we find the idea of life very often, especially in the Gospel of John.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV)  The thing to realize is that eternal life in the Bible is not just about the continuation of life beyond death but a quality of life to be experienced now and continued in the afterlife.  Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10 NIV)  When Jesus describes himself, he speaks of the “bread of life” (John 6:48), “resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) and “way, truth and the life” (John 14:6).  Jesus‘ purpose was to bring life, and to bring life to every area of our being.  Anything less than that was death and that was where the church at Sardis was.

We Need Life

What about us?  We cannot leave this as hypothetical.  We need to know if we are alive or dead.  As evangelicals, part of our heritage is that of the revivals.  But what are revivals?  Revivals are not just more frequent church services, loud preaching and exuberant worship.  Revival is when life is breathed in and we know that we stand before Christ fully alive.  Here are some ways that we need to be alive.

Physically Alive

We as a church need to be physically alive.  What do I mean by that?  As a congregation, we need to have some people here or we are a dead church.  All of us are getting older, and so we must continually bring new people in.  By inviting your friends and family, telling people about what we do, you are helping us to have a physical presence in this community.

Emotionally Alive

It is great that we have some living bodies here, but we need more.  We need to be emotionally alive.  By emotionally alive, I mean we must care about what happens to each other.  We must choose to say words that build up rather than tear down.  We must pray for one another and take care of one another’s needs.  We must have a love for our congregation.  But we must have a love for our community and for our world as well.  We should feel as if we have an investment in other people’s lives and that we mourn and rejoice with others.

Mentally Alive

We need to have people and to have people who care and love.  But there are other people who do these things who are not Christians.  We need to be alive in the sense of knowing the truth.  Mentally we must be growing as we learn more about God and what he wants for us.  We should be more aware of God’s presence in what we see around us and new understandings of Scripture should be coming to us.  We should be getting more confident in our faith, able to answer more questions and better able to explain what we believe.  Jesus said “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32 NIV)  When we say ‘amen‘ at the end of a prayer, we are not just saying we are done praying.  We are saying that we have just prayed is truth.  This truth is not known just by the emotion of the moment but our knowledge of who God is.

Spiritually Alive

We could have a group of people together.  We could love one another and have a good understanding of the Bible.  But that would not mean that we are necessarily alive fully the way Jesus wants us to be.  We need to be spiritually alive.  This means that we have a vibrant and loving relationship with God.  We can sing hymns and songs with the best voices and the best instruments, but if we do not mean the words, it is a waste of time.  We can pray the most beautiful prayers, prayers filled with Scripture, prayers that would put poetry to shame, but if we do not know the one we are praying to, it is a waste of time.  We can have encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, but if we do not see it as God’s revelation to us, his reaching out with his love, then it is just another book.  We must be fully alive spiritually.

Conclusion

What does it mean to be alive?  It is more than outward appearance.  Think about the city of Sardis sitting upon those cliffs.  Strong and alive.  But all it took was the dropping of one helmet and that city was defeated and dead.  Here we are as a church.  It is easy for us to look alive, but Jesus sees the truth.  We need to be alive physically, bringing in new people.  We need to be alive emotionally, having love for one another.  We need to be alive mentally, knowing the truth.  We need to be alive spiritually, loving the God who loves us with an immense love.  That is the abundant life that God has in store for us.

 

Share

Naked Souls and Minds

“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:

These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold on to what you have until I come.

To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—

‘He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’— just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

(Revelation 2:18–29 NIV)

Introduction

One of the most popular trends today is that of Internet social media.  Social media allows you to connect with people all over the word.  I have found it to be a great resources as I have reconnected with people from my past and made many new friends.  Overall, it is a very positive thing.  There is a danger however.  A part of social media is what is called a profile.  This is where you choose what information you want to share with others.  Here is the key: you choose what you want to share.  You pick the picture that makes you look the best, you can put whatever you want for your career or education.  You could even lie about your name or where you live.  This is an issue when it comes to Internet predators that seek victims for their lusts.  But there is a more subtle danger as well.  Because I choose what I share, even for normal guys like me, there can be a distortion of who I really am.  You will not see me when I am frustrated with my children.  You will not see me when I am grumpy or feeling anxiety.  What people see of me on the Internet and what someone like Amanda who knows me well, may not be exactly the very same thing.  Even if you are not on the Internet, these principles are still at work.  There is a you that you put on the outside.  You dress yourself, express yourself and speak in a certain way to give off a specific impression.  You likely do not share at church or the grocery store all of your inner fears, insecurities and doubts.  This is very normal.  You can give a three hour answer every time that someone asks you how you are doing.  Some share with a few select friends and family, others try to hide their inner self so deep that even they will not find it.  What we need to know is that there is one who knows every part of us.  Our souls and minds stand naked before God.

Thyatira

When it comes to the church at Thyatira, we find ourselves in one of the least important of the seven cities of Revelation.  Sometimes we think that we can go unnoticed in the less famous places.  That is not is not always the case as we find that to this least important city, Jesus sends the longest letter.  The concern is that the church is tolerating the teachings of a woman named Jezebel.  Jezebel was a symbolic name for one who corrupts through seduction and deception.  The nature of what was going on however is not the issue.  What is the issue is that Jesus knows what is going on.  These people who were following Jezebel may have though they were only making slight compromises in their faith.  God will not care, after all he is busy running the universe.  Why would God be concerned if they only were a little unfaithful or compromised a little?  But God did notice and did see.  Justus‘ favorite song is I Can See For Miles by the Who.  These lyrics are something that God could have said to the Christians at Thyatira.

I know you’ve deceived me, now here’s a surprise

I know that you have ’cause there’s magic in my eyes

I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles

Oh yeah

If you think that I don’t know about the little tricks you play

And never see you when deliberately you put things in my way

Well, here’s a poke at you

You’re gonna choke on it too

You’re gonna lose that smile

Because all the while

I can see for miles and miles

Jesus warns them that there are consequences to what we do and as a result: “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” (Revelation 2:23 NIV)

God Sees Us

This is not something that is unique to Thyatira.  This is the story of the human race and goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve were naked, not just physically but mentally and spiritually and they were comfortable with that nakedness.  When sin entered the world, the first thing that happened was that they felt shame over their nakedness.  They hid from God and God called them to come out of hiding and show themselves.  This not just about wearing clothes.  It is about sin making us want to hide who we really are from God, feeling shame for our sin and weakness.  One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 139.  It has beautiful words about being known by God.  “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” (Psalms 139:1–4 NIV)  Near the end of this beautiful Psalm are these harsh words: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” (Psalms 139:21–22 NIV)  The reason that the Psalmist says these things is that he knows that he is naked before God.  God knows the hatred in his heart and so he is honest about it.  This is such an important truth.  You can fool your neighbors.  You can fool your pastor.  You can even fool your family.  But you cannot fool God.  He sees your soul and mind.  Here are a few things that God knows about you.  God sees when you lust or are envious.  All of us have at some time wanted something that was not ours.  God saw that.  God sees when you hate or dislike people.  We may put on happy faces, but God sees when we have absolutely no use for some people.  God sees when we are self-focused.  People may look up to us for some great thing we have done and yet God sees when we are enjoying the stroking of our egos and secretly planning what other charitable activity will get us attention.  God sees when we are anxious.  We may pretend that we have it all together but God sees when the millions of things in our lives are pulling us in every direction.  We may show up every Sunday in our best clothes and sing hymns with our best voices but God sees us in the middle of the night when we doubt, when we doubt if God exists, if we are going to heaven, if God loves us and so much more.  These are the things that we hide from others, sometimes hide from ourselves and even try to hide from God.  Stop it.  Your mind and soul are naked before God.  Do not be like Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes, be like the Psalmist who presents everything to God.  Allow God to do his work in you by no longer trying to clothe yourself in deception.

Conclusion

There were Christians at Thyatira that were going in the wrong direction.  They were listening to a Jezebel.  Whatever the error, it sounded so seductive and enticing.  Would God even notice?  Jesus reminds them that “I am he who searches hearts and minds.”  Jesus sees our hearts and minds as well.  This means two things.  Forget about any idea of secret sin, because it is already known in heaven.  But it also means that God knows our areas of weakness and fear.  God is not looking to clobber us.  Even in cases of sin he seeks to correct us.  But even fears and insecurities are things that God wants to work his power in.  Stop hiding and allow God to shower his love on your minds and souls.

Share

Rich and Yet Poor

“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”

(Revelation 2:8–11 NIV)

Introduction

If you were given the choice to be either rich or poor, for must of us it would not be a difficult choice.  In general we would agree that being rich is better than being poor.  There is truth in that but it is much more complicated than that simple statement.  Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.  One of the people currently in the news is actor Charlie Sheen.  Sheen would seem to have all anyone would want.  He has fame and fortune.  Son of well known actor Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen has been successful in both comedy and drama roles.  Charlie Sheen is actually in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest paid television actor at $1.25 million per episode.  Despite all of that wealth, Sheen’s relationships have been broken, he has children removed from his home, his television series has been cancelled, he is wracked with drug addiction and he has become the laughing stock of Hollywood.  Another name currently in the news is Muammar Gaddafi.  He too seemed to have all one would want.  Gaddafi relinquished the title of prime minister, he has been accorded the honorific “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” (or more concisely as “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution”) in government statements and the official press. With the death of Omar Bongo of Gabon on 8 June 2009, he became the longest serving of all current non-royal national leaders and he is one of the longest serving rulers in history. He is also the longest-serving ruler of Libya since the country became an Ottoman province in 1551.  Gaddafi is alleged to have amassed a multi-billion fortune for himself and his family.  Gaddafi actually rose to power just a few years after graduating from military school.  Gaddafi would seem to have it all.  An yet now his country has risen up against him.  His palace has been destroyed by an angry mob and even his military and political leaders are turning against him.  Two people who have had more money and power than we could ever imagine and yet their lives are a mess.  It challenges what it means to be rich or to be poor.

Smyrna

Wealth is measured by the context that you live in.  You can take someone living under the poverty level in the west and place them in another part of the world and suddenly they would be rich.  The passage that we are looking at today is about the church in Smyrna.  The city of Smyrna was rich in a number of ways.  It was a financially affluent as there was much trade and commerce that passed through their harbor.  They were rich culturally as Smyrna was the birth place of Homer, the Shakespeare of the ancient world.  Smyrna was rich politically as they supported Rome before they were a major power, were the first to have a temple to Roma, the goddess of personified Rome, and they were the first to have a temple to worship one of the Roman emperors.  Smyrna was rich religiously in that its gods had magnificent temples.  Contrast this with the church at Smyrna.  They would have had no building but their small homes.  They were not very rich, probably having cut many financial ties by their conversion to Christ.  They were on the bad side of Rome because they refused to burn a pinch of incense and declare caesar as lord.  The Christians would seem very poor.  Jesus acknowledges this but at the same time declares them to be rich.  They are rich in faith.  Jesus sees that they are slandered and persecuted and yet they remain strong.  The faith in Christ that makes that happen is richer than any full wallet.  Jesus reminds them that they have wealth in eternal life.  The Roman empire would one day fall, the temples to the gods would crumble, bank accounts would be left behind at death.  But the Christians at Smyrna were rich in life, they had the hope that death could not ultimately defeat them.  Their physical bodies might die, but they would continue on past death and when they stood before God, they had no reason to fear.  The church at Smyrna is one of only two of the seven churches that had a completely good report from Jesus.  It sounds like they were quite rich after all.

Our Situation

Are we rich or poor?  Well we live in a rich culture.  Our culture is technologically rich.  Medical knowledge is great.  There is a high standard of living.  We sponsor a girl overseas and we were told not to send pictures taken indoors as pictures of the things we own would be discouraging to those poor in other areas.  We live in a rich land.  But are we rich as Christians?  There are some things we are poor in.  There are ways in which we could end up financially poorer, since we can not lie, cheat or steal.  We could be poor in freedom.  People of other traditions and faiths are invited to share their beliefs because that is being multi-cultural.  When we share, we are just being intolerant and offensive.  We may be poorer in terms of respect.  People may look down on us because of our beliefs.  They may think we are foolish or superstitious or irrational.  Being a Christian in the west is not near as respectable as it once was.  As Christians, we may not feel particularly rich.  But we are rich.  We have a relationship with God.  The creator of the universe has adopted us into his family.  We are not just servants or worshippers (although we are that too), but we are sons and daughters of God and co-heirs with Christ.  We have the Bible.  The Bible is the Word of God, inspired revelation of how to be right with God and what God wants for our life.  We have Christian fellowship.  God’s plan was for the church, a group of people together following Jesus.  We are never alone, we can always support one another.  We have forgiveness of sins.  We all have our problems and weaknesses.  We do what we do not want to do and do not do what we want to do.  Yet because of what Jesus did on the cross, we can have forgiveness of sins.  We have eternal life.  The one thing that we all know is that we will all die.  Within forty years, most of us will be in the grave.  For some that could lead to hopelessness.  Yet we have the hope of eternal life, that we can spend eternity in God’s presence without fear of death or sorrow.  When we think of all of these things, we should be encouraged that from the proper perspective, we are filthy rich.

Conclusion

When you are looking at a letter, it is worth looking at how the author describes them self.  Jesus in this letter described himself as the one who died and came to life again.  This is important.  Jesus is saying that he has experienced what it is like when appearances are deceiving.  When Jesus was taking his last breath on the cross, it was looking very grim.  People would wag their heads and pity such a man.  But this was part of God’s plan to reconcile us to him and Jesus was to rise again.  In the same way, there may be circumstances in our life that seem to suggest that we are poor.  We may experience poverty financially, socially, emotionally, educationally and so on.  But when we take a look at the things that we truly have in Christ, we can discover that we are in fact incredibly wealthy.  When you wake up in the morning, do not dwell on the things that you do not have, but say a prayer of thanks that being poor you are yet rich.

Share

Falling Out of Love

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands:I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

(Revelation 2:1–7 NIV)

 

Introduction

I have always said that I am not a baby person.  Whenever people look at a baby and say ‘how cute,’ I think the kid needs to grow up a bit.  It is not that I hated babies, but I was looking for an increase in maturity so that I could interact with the child.  I was looking forward to talking with and playing with my children.  I still hold to that.  What I did not take into account as I was looking at these babies and looking forward to a couple of years down the line was that there would come a time for correction.  As much fun as I have with the children, at certain times I have to correct their behavior.  I do not like doing this, but what is the alternative?  If the children got away with everything, they would end up hurting themselves and likely each other.  In some ways, the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 are like that.  These are letters of encouragement, but not just a simple ‘good job‘ and a pat on the back.  Jesus wants them to be the best possible church and so he is not afraid to correct them or if necessary rebuke them.  Each letter ends with a challenge for those with ears to hear.  This is our invitation, despite the fact that we are reading other people’s mail, to learn from their mistakes and victories and to adjust ourselves and our church accordingly.  Let us begin with the church at Ephesus.

Good News

My experience is that then you need to correct someone, unless they are really really bad, it is better to start with what is going well.  If you start with a long list of everything they have done wrong it can easily build a wall, stopping the correction from being effective.  The Ephesian church was not perfect, but they were not horrible.  There were a few areas that they were strong in.  The first area was that they were hard working.  This is important.  Being the church is not about being passive, just taking in the blessings of God.  We are expected to be doing something.  That is not to say that we try to earn God’s love, nor are we to burn out by overworking.  We need to find that balance of what we are supposed to do.  The test is to ask the question: would the community notice if we ceased to exist.  The second area that they were good with was the area of truth.  From the very beginning there have been those who have tampered with the truth.  This was something that the Ephesians had to watch for.  The apostle Paul gave this warning to the Ephesians as he left them: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”  (Acts 20:28–30 ESV)  The Ephesians were good at this, able to discern the good from the bad, the true from the false.  This continues to be an important quality in churches.  There are certain doctrines in which we can have some flexibility with.  There are others that we need our eyes open, watching for subtle changes.  Doctrines like the Trinity, the incarnation of Jesus, salvation by grace and the authority of Scripture are vital.  Television shows, movies, books and the Internet are always trying to whittle away  at these doctrines.  It is not the crazy ideas, the wild systems such as Scientology that we need to worry about.  It is the subtle changes, the ideas that are 90% true and 10% false that we have to watch for.  We can learn from the Ephesians when it comes to staying strong with regard to the truth.

Bad News

So far things looks good.  To be a hard working church that knows their faith so well that they can detect false teachers seems like the ideal church.  What more could anyone expect?  Jesus does expect more.  Jesus tells them that they have lost their first love.  That is not to say that the Ephesians were filled with hate.  There is a love that is there at the beginning that without effort can diminish over time.  The opposite of love is not hate but apathy.  One can get to the point of going through the motions without any true feeling.  This happens in marriage all too often.  There is a vivid picture of what took place at Ephesus.  Amanda and I travelled to Ephesus a few years ago.  All that we heard about Ephesus was the importance it played in the ancient world as a harbor time.  However our cruise ship did not dock at Ephesus.  We landed at Smyrna and then took a long bus ride to Ephesus.  When we arrived at Ephesus, we looked in every direction and could find no water.  Long ago the harbor was filled in with silt and it has gone from being a coastal city to being an inland city.  That was not something that happened overnight.  The silt deposits were a regular occurrence and they needed to be taken care of constantly.  Once it was let go, the city was on its way to losing what they had.  That is the case with human relationships and our relationship with God.  We do not go one day loving and the next not.  The silt begins to build up as we neglect the work that is needed to keep love going.  How do we keep our first love?  First of all make the choice, do not depend on feelings.  Be aware of the human nature that allows love to decrease.  Listen to the other person, this also goes for our relationship with God.  Finally, keep an attitude of self-sacrifice, putting the needs of others before that of ourselves.  These are the things that the Ephesians did not do and are the exact things we must work on.

Conclusion

The Ephesians were pretty good.  They were hard working and they knew the truth well.  But Jesus is looking for more than just pretty good.  We are never going to be perfect, the one thing that we can never let slide is love.  When Jesus had to summarize the law, he spoke of love for God and love for people.  The love we need is not just a gentle contentment that we are not at war.  Jesus wants our first love, the love that we have when we first fall in love.  Have we fallen out of love?  Take the steps to recapture that first love.  Do not neglect the other things, but keep your eyes on your love level.  God still has his first love for us, let us keep our first love for him.

 

Share

Tearing Down Stumbling Blocks

“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”

(1 Corinthians 8:1–13 NIV)

Introduction

Imagine that I was going to offer $10,000 to three people.  The first person had to bite their own left ear lobe.  The second had draw me a square circle.  The third had to levitate for sixty seconds.  Those would be some significant stumbling blocks to them achieving the goal of the money that I was offering.  The same is true when it comes to the Christian faith.  This can take two forms: those coming to faith in Jesus for the first time and those who want to continue in the faith throughout their lives.  There are certain things that can cause some people to stumble.  Some of those things are beyond our control.  There is not much that we can do when sickness or disaster or violence causes someone to stumble.  We can respond in compassion, but we cannot prevent these things from happening.  However, if we talk to people who have stumbled, we might find a number of people who could identify the church as providing the block over which they stumbled.  This has been a danger from the beginning of the church.  Let us look from Paul’s helpful teaching at how we can remove these dangerous blocks.

Blocks in Corinth

If we were to take some time to look at some potential stumbling blocks, we would be able to come up with a quick list.  We might think of hypocrisy, cliques, gossip, intolerance and so on.  The one thing that would not likely make the list was the one major stumbling block at Corinth: knowledge.  How could knowledge be a stumbling block?  We present information about the Bible each week at church so that you will gain knowledge.  We send young people to school to gain knowledge.  We read books and newspapers to gain knowledge.  How could knowledge possibly be dangerous?  How could knowledge become a stumbling block?  You have to understand where the Corinthians were coming from.  Corinth was very much a pagan city filled with idol worship.  Even the meat in the market was dedicated to idols.  There were community banquets where the Corinthians would gather to eat and drink to the honour of the gods.  It was in this context that the church in Corinth began.  People discovered that there was only one God and that God had brought about salvation through Jesus Christ.  We should not underestimate the culture shock conversion to Christ would be for the Corinthians.  Today, many people who come to faith have to get up a bit earlier on Sundays.  Back then, it was an entire new way to do life.  It was not a secular culture that could be filled with Christ, it was a religious culture that needed to be replaced with Christ.  One of the things that  needed to take place was a radical break with idolatry.  This required much commitment and courage.  In the midst of this, a group of Corinthian Christians had a bit of a revelation.  The real situation was not that there was one good God, the God of the Bible, and then a bunch of bad gods, such as from the Greek and Roman religions.  The truth was that there was absolutely only one God.  When someone bowed to an idol, they were bowing to a piece of wood or stone not to an actual god.  This also meant that they could rethink participation in the pagan festivals.  Whereas once they avoided these places like the plague, now they were not looking so bad.  They could eat the meet dedicated to the idols, they could lift their cup in honour to the gods and it did not matter because those gods did not exist.  There were others in the church who could not believe that these Christians would dare participate in pagan ceremonies.  It is at this point that Paul weighs in.  Paul tells the group that gained the knowledge of the one God that technically they are correct.  There is only one God and these false do not exist.  Meat that is dedicated to idols is still only meat.  This means that technically there is nothing wrong with these Christians going to these pagan banquets.  But whenever we start speaking of ‘technically’, we should start to get cautious.  Paul challenges these Christians to look at things from a different perspective.  Instead of focusing on the absolute limit of what you are allowed to do, consider the effects on others.  There were Christians in the Corinthian church who were really stumbling over this.  They were trying to make the needed break with idolatry, and here were other Christians eating and drinking to the gods.  Who knows where this could lead?  Paul suggests that when it come down to knowledge and love, love always trumps knowledge.  The number one goal for all Christians was to encourage each other in the faith and if something was causing a problem, it had to go, no matter how much it was technically correct.

Blocks Today

What does this look like today?  We do not often eat meat dedicated to idols, so our context is going to look different.  One of the first comparisons that people make is that of drinking alcohol.  The Bible does not ban all consumption of alcohol, although it clearly condemns drunkenness.  This means that technically it is acceptable to drink alcohol in moderation.  But what does that look like when we are with people who are struggling with alcoholism, or with young people trying to make right choices or with people who have experienced families ripped apart by alcoholism?  Do we say to these people that we have the Bible knowledge that says that it is acceptable, or do we try and prevent this knowledge from becoming a stumbling block.  Paul is asking us to always put the needs of others first.  I remember once sharing some information about differences between Bible translations.  I was doing it, to be honest, to show off my knowledge.  Unfortunately, I was showing off to a new Christian, and this became a stumbling block to his faith.  Here is the problem.  The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace and not by works.  So that gives the Christian a tremendous amount of freedom.  But at the same time, that freedom is meant to be given shape by love.  I am not saying that we should live a life where every decision is based on pleasing others.  First of all, it is impossible, secondly it will destroy you.  But we can live a life that is guided by love.  Words have to be said.  We can say things that are petty, critical, slanderous or obscene.  But we can also chose to say things that are encouraging, kind, helpful or wise.  We have to do things.  We can try and test the limits of Christian freedom, doing the absolute most that God will let us get away with.  Or we can choose to do things that will build others up in the faith, that will attract seekers and will deepen the Christian walk of others.  The choice is ours.

Conclusion

The goal of life should be to find peace with God through faith in Christ.  Unfortunately, there are going to be things that get in the ways of people’s faith.  May we not be one of them.  Jesus had some strong things to say about this.  “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:7 NIV)  The Corinthians felt completely justified because they were acting out of knowledge and yet they were creating huge stumbling blocks to the faith of others.  What are we doing?  There are people in our community who need to meet Jesus for the first time.  There are people in our congregation that need to go deeper in their faith.  Are our words and actions putting up stumbling blocks or are we tearing them down?

 

Share

What About Sin?

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”

(1 Corinthians 5:1–13 NIV)

Introduction

There are two sermons that people do not want to hear: sermons on money and sermons on sin.  When it comes to sin, the church really does not know what to do.  I grew up in a church that never spoke about sin.  I remember hearing from the pulpit that there was no point in parents telling their children not to have premarital sex because they would anyway.  The attitude was that people could choose to do whatever they want to.  There was no sense that God might disapprove of anything we do.  I then switched to a more conservative church.  There was a very different message preached here.  Almost every detail of life had to be regulated.  God had very specific opinions on the music you listened to and the television shows you watched.  It took a while to find out what exactly was allowed and what was not.  I am not sure that either of these two extremes are healthy.  However, it is fair to ask: in our society that values toleration as the highest good, is there any place for discussion of sin?  Before we look at what the Bible says, I want to make one point.  We use the word tolerate as if we mean that we think all choices are equally valid.  But the word tolerate really means that you reluctantly accept, at least temporarily, something that you do not like.  For example, you tolerate Buckley’s if you have a cough, but you never think of it as being equally as good as chocolate ice cream.  In our current series, we are looking at the nature of the church.  What we find in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is that Paul saw sin as something that very much affected the church and needed to be addressed.  Let us look at what he had to say.

Sin at Corinth

I am almost hesitant to describe the nature of the sin that Paul was addressing, not because of its horrifying nature, but because today we too often equate sin with sex.  For the sake of context I will explain what was happening.  There was a man within the church at Corinth who was in a relationship with his step-mother.  Paul was shocked by this.  This was a type of sin, that even non-Christians thought harshly of.  But the nature of the sin was not the biggest shock, it was that the Corinthians were accepting of it.  You have to understand how the Corinthians thought of themselves.  They were not just regular folk who happened to believe in Jesus.  They saw themselves as spiritual people, Christians no longer worried about sin because their spiritual experiences testified to the special status they had with God.  Since they were so spiritual, there was no reason to deal with this situation.  Paul was absolutely livid.  The Corinthians were boasting of their spirituality and Paul thought that they should be mourning, that they should be weeping over what was taking place in their church.  Paul has some very definite opinions about what to do.  Paul, in his pastoral compassion, argues that they should hand over the man to Satan.  What does he mean by this?  Paul says that this man who is in deliberate rebellion against God, should be released into the world where Satan is their leader.  But Paul’s purpose is not to punish him or to take vengeance on him but to rehabilitate him.  Paul’s hope is that if the man is forced to see that there consequences, he will rethink his choices and come back to God.  Paul continues by comparing the situation to two linked festivals in the Jewish calender.  Passover and the feast of the unleavened bread were celebrated together.  Paul compares sin to leaven.  The Hebrews would remove all leaven from their homes.  If some leaven was introduced, it would leaven whatever it came into contact with.  That is the way sin is.  You cannot just have some sin within a church family sitting over there on a shelf, not affecting everyone else.  If you choose to embrace sin, you are making that choice not just for yourself, but you are choosing to affect everyone else.  When sin is ignored, it too will affect us some time down the line.  Paul includes in this discussion a mention of the Passover.  The Passover was a Hebrew celebration of the sacrifice of the passover lamb so that God’s judgment would pass over.  Paul makes note that Jesus is our Passover lamb.  This is important.  Sin is so serious that God sacrificed not some nameless animal but his own Son.  If that is the case, how can we take sin lightly?  But how are we to deal with sin, especially the sin in other people’s lives?  After all, Jesus tells us to judge not, lest we also be judged (Matthew 7:1).  First of all, we must understand what Jesus was addressing.  He was confronting hypocrisy, people who were attacking others without reflecting on their own weakness.  It would be like a habitual liar being critical of someone else’s falsehood without being willing to have their own words examined.  Paul says, in the proper way, we are actually expected to judge.  But what he says is far from how the church has judged.  If you talk to people outside the church, they might say that Christians are too judgmental.  By that, they mean we judge people outside the church.  Paul tells us that only God will judge those outside the church.  Our job is simply to judge within the church.

Sin in the Modern Church

It would be really easy for me stop there.  We can look at how Paul and Corinth dealt with sin and see it as an interesting situation.  But what does this look like today?  Do we start a new committee called the “sin police” who would regularly hand people over to Satan?  Do we start offering rewards for people who identify sins in other people?  Or do we just forget about it and enjoy our worship services and programs?  There are some principles here that we must apply.  First of all, we need to regain the sense of horror when it comes to sin.  In general the church has lost this.  There have been numerous pastors in recent months who have revealed involvement in sin.  Whereas even ten years ago there would be a sense of shock, now all it did was get them some free and helpful media exposure.  How do we feel about sin?  I am not just talking about sexual sin.  Earlier in this letter, Paul said: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17 NIV)  Destruction of the temple of the church comes about when the church divides, often by the words we use.  If we see sin active in the church, we need to mourn as Paul tells us, and not boast at how accepting and tolerant we are.  So what is the purpose of identifying sin?  Is it to point fingers and to reassure ourselves that at least we are not as bad as that one?  Are we to be God’s punishers?  Not at all.  Our goal and only goal is to help the person.  If you hear someone gossiping, help them to see the destructiveness of their words and walk with them as they attempt to change.  I believe that the best way to deal with sin in our context is to provide a culture that balances grace and holiness.  The Christ of this church, just as the Christ of Corinth, died for sins.  We must take sin seriously.  But we can do that as a family would deal with any issue.  It can be made clear that we are not looking to humiliate, punish or attack any one.  We take seriously the spiritual health of both the church and the individual and we want to work together to get all of us where we want to be.  We do not want to be a church where we are snooping into each other’s lives but a church where we trust each other enough to confess our sins one to another.  We want to be a church where we can challenge each other to greater holiness because we are giving permission for people to keep us accountable.  As your pastor, I will not be naming sins from the pulpit and pointing fingers.  What I will do is push you toward a holy God and pray that all of us (including me) will be changed in his presence.  I will be one of the many people in this church to walk with you as we seek greater holiness.

Conclusion

Sin is the sermon that I do not want to preach.  Sin is, at the same time, the sermon that I must preach.  If we pretend that it does not exist, or pride ourselves in our tolerance, or just keep to ourselves, sin will appear, it will thrive and it will destroy.  We can not force people to stop sinning, we have enough trouble stopping ourselves from sinning.  But we can build a culture of grace and holiness.  We can see sin as a serious issue, something so serious that Jesus had to die.  We can be reminded that God expects a level of holiness.  But we can do this with grace, helping each other as we are aware of our own weaknesses.

 

 

Share

Divided We Fall

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas’”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10–13 NIV)

Introduction

As we look to the early church, it almost seems to be a golden age.  We have so many problems that developed over the years, but back then they knew what they were doing.  They were not dealing with denominations or church splits, they could just focus on pure Christian ministry.  That would be a nice idea, but it is completely false.  Almost everything that we have to deal with was a problem back then as well.  That includes the problem of divisions in the church.  The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about this very issue.  We know from other things that Paul writes in this letter that it was a serious problem.  The divisions that Paul identifies are those who align themselves with Paul, Cephas, Apollos and Christ.  We are going to take a look at what was going on in Corinth and how these principles apply to divisions in the church today.

Temptations to Divide

We have to wonder why people are prone to divide.  Did the Corinthians sit around and conclude that they were too united and reluctantly divide under the names of these various leaders?  Not likely.  There is a human tendency to do this sort of thing.  One of the things that unites most people is a leaning toward pride.  Pride manifests itself sometimes by desire to always be on the right side.  It is nice to be able to say we are a part of the group that has the full truth, the best leader and is the envy of everyone else.  Let us look at the specific divisions that were going on.  We have one group that put their loyalty in Paul.  You might think that Paul would appreciate that but he did not.  This kind of loyalty can be a double edged sword.  In my previous two churches, I was an associate pastor.  As a new pastor, I enjoyed it when people would encourage me at how well I was doing.  Unfortunately, some of this encouragement led to criticism of the senior pastor.  They were saying nice things to divide the leadership.  I was becoming a banner under which people could speak ill of the senior pastor.  Paul was not going to let the Corinthians get away with this.  Apollos was another leader that a group looked to.  We are not as familiar with Apollos, but he was an important leader in the early church.  He was known as a powerful speaker.  He was a Billy Graham, who when he spoke, people flocked to listen.  In this, Apollos was contrasted with Paul, who was not known as a powerful public speaker.  Another group looked to Cephas, also known as Peter.  Unlike Paul and Apollos who became Christians later, Peter was one of the first followers of Jesus.  There was something prestigious about aligning oneself with the apostle that Jesus seemed to put in charge.  Then there was the Christ group.  Finally some people who knew where to put their loyalty.  However, these were probably the worst group.  There is nothing more dangerous that a group that sees their authority coming right from the top.  What about us?  This can manifest itself in various ways.  Some people put full loyalty in their local church.  That is good as long as it is not taken too far.  I attended a church where some people seemed slightly confused as to why people would attend a different church, and seemed to reluctantly see others as Christians.  This can work in terms of prejudice toward different denominations.  It can also manifest within a local church.  We have interests, agendas, visions and so on.  People who are different better either join us, or get out of the way.  No harm is intended, but we want to be seen as part of the most important group and no one is going to stand in our way.

Results of Division

People might start off innocent enough, but these type of divisions create terrible damage.  First of all, divisions significantly limit our effectiveness.  What would happen if every group within the church demanded priority when it comes to our financial, spiritual, time and volunteer resources?  What if all our energy went to disagreeing with one another rather than doing the ministry God calls us to?  Divisions also hurt people within the church.  When divisions arise, it is not just about a cause or a label.  Real people are hurt.  The church is a family and a family cannot survive divisions.  Imagine if I divided my children according to who was biologically mine and treated them differently?  If that is inappropriate, why would it be in a church family?  Divisions also hurt our witness to a skeptical world.  Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35 NIV)  The implication is that people will not recognize us as disciples when we do not love each other.  I hear from non-Christians who ask why they should become Christians if Christians cannot get along with one another.  It is a fair question.  Finally, divisions in the church break the heart of Jesus.  When we look to what Jesus has to say to us, we usually do it by applying principles to us from what he taught people in his own day.  However, once he spoke directly about us, specifically in a prayer.  Listen to how Jesus prays for us: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20–21 NIV)  If that is what Jesus prayed for us, how do you think Jesus feels when we put our own pride before the needs of others.  If we are truly Christians, we will put the will of Christ before our own desires.

Avoiding Division

We can see that division within the church is dangerous, but how do we prevent it?  It is no good to just diagnose a problem, we must prescribe a cure.  Thankfully, divisions are not an incurable disease.  First of all, the answer is not for everyone to be the same.  Imagine if everyone in this church were exactly like me?  It might be conflict free, but it would be extremely unhealthy.  I need people different than me to help me to see what I cannot see by myself.  So what can we do?  A good place to start is listening.  Before assuming that someone different or someone in another group has nothing to say, take a moment to listen.  We can also look to the common task that we all have.  If you had sat down Paul, Apollos, Peter and Jesus and asked them what was important, they would have all agreed.  They may differ in approaches, but the would agree in the overall vision.  We need to see how people different than us, compliment the work we are doing for God’s kingdom.  We must also value respect for one another.  Treating other people with respect goes a long way toward keeping unity.  I am friends with many people who have different opinions than me, and yet I respect them.  Humility is also extremely important.  I feel that my positions are correct and those who disagree with me are wrong.  That is why I believe what I believe.  But I could be wrong.  In fact I have seen my faith evolve and change as I have learned more about the Bible and God.  Before we seek to divide, let us approach our differences with humility.  Finally, remember the prayer of Jesus.  So often we look to Jesus to answer our prayers.  But when it comes to unity, we have the opportunity to answer his prayer.  When you are tempted to divide, think of Jesus.

Conclusion

God has only one Church.  It has many denominations, it has many local congregations, it has many individual Christians.  We are all different.  It is natural that we would all want to be in the right and to be confident that our interpretations are correct.  But let us never allow that to divide us.  We need to be aware of the temptations to divide, of the forces within us that can cause so much damage.  Be aware, but take the steps that are required for unity.  Let us live our lives in humility, respect and love, working together for the sake of the kingdom of God.

 

Share

Twelve That Changed the World

“He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:1–4 NIV)

Introduction

Churches are not mentioned often in the news.  When they are, it is either because there is a controversy or the church is doing something very good.  Those that are doing something really well and catch the media’s eye are often what are called mega churches.  These are churches with thousands of people, multiple services, multiple sites and often more pastors and staff than we have people in our church.  Sometimes people have simply accepted that is what church is supposed be like.  If you are going to do anything for God, you better have a multi-million dollar budget and thousands of people.  I would never deny that these churches are doing something great for God, but I would like to look at this from another angle.  As we try to understand what it means for us to be the church, we may find that beginning of Christianity looks somewhat different from what we think of today.  When did the church start?  It is generally agreed that the church started on the day of Pentecost.  Yet there is value in going back somewhat to what Jesus was doing.  In many ways, the twelve apostles are a picture of what the church could be.  What we have in this passage is the calling of the disciples.  There were more disciples than this and these twelve were disciples before this moment.  What we have here is the calling of twelve to a particular task, in some ways similar to the way we belong to the larger Christian church but are called to minister in this specific congregation.  Let us see what we can learn from these twelve.

Small

Jesus calls twelve.  He could have called more and at another time, he sent out seventy disciples.  But Jesus calls twelve for an ongoing mission.  Would it not make sense to have more?  God’s habit is to use small groups.  In the story of Gideon, we find that God kept decreasing Gideon’s army until it got small enough for God to be truly glorified.  When it comes to God, size does not matter.  God plus one is always a majority.  But there was more to this than just breaking the rules of logic.  Jesus was looking for more than breadth, he was looking for depth.  There was a place for the larger groups but with these twelve, he could really pour himself into them.  Jesus could take the time to go much deeper with twelve.  The group was based not on an organizational structure or a constitution but on a family structure that emphasized relationships.  This is where we as a small church have an advantage.  I once attended a church of close to a thousand.  For the first year, I never sat beside the same person twice.  I could walk in and walk out without ever talking to anyone.  It was not until I joined a small group within the church that I could grow.  We have an opportunity as a small church to go deeper, deeper in our relationship with Jesus and deeper in our relationships with each other.

Continuity

Have you ever wondered why twelve?  We have already established that it had to be small, but why not eleven or thirteen?  There is a very good reason for this.  The history of God’s people revolved very much around the twelve tribes of Israel.  There were differences in which twelve were included, but it had to be twelve.  Eventually Israel divided and later, ten of the tribes were exiled, never to reappear.  Many held out hope that somehow, God would reconstitute the twelve tribes of Israel.  Jesus did this with the twelve disciples, he symbolically demonstrated that the promises to Israel were coming true.  This was not just a new thing, this was a part of what God had done in the past.  We experience this as well.  Here we are as a group of Baptists in the twenty-first century.  But we are connected.  We are connected to the people who started this church over a century ago.  We are connected with the Baptists who began the movement four hundred years ago.  We are connected with the Reformers before them and the Catholics before them.  We are connected with the earliest church and with the disciples.  We are part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Normal

Jesus need to pick twelve disciples.  But once you get past the number, it is hard to pin down why he picked who he did.  If you have ever been in the position of hiring someone, you know you look for the best of the best.  However, there is not much about these twelve that stand out.  In fact we do not know much about each.  Of the top three, this is what we know: Peter almost always said the wrong thing and even denied Jesus, James and John were so compassionate that they offered to bring down fire to consume an unbelieving village.  But here is something else, there is so much we do not know about these individuals.  Even Andrew, the brother of Peter, is not given much space to tell his story.  Than we have Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus to his death.  This is the way I describe them: the famous, the infamous and anonymous.  What is the church supposed be like?  Hopefully we will not have the infamous.  But we will have a lot of people working behind the scenes who will not make the headlines.  Scholar Leon Morris has said: “When Jesus chose his Twelve he did not choose supermen; God does not need outstanding people to do his work, and it seems that, while some of the Twelve were very able men, others were very ordinary.”  That is what we are.

Power

It is true that the church is made up of a bunch of normal people.  But the church is not normal.  Notice that even before Jesus names the twelve, we are told that he gave them authority and power.  This is not political power where we can dictate public policy.  This is spiritual power.  In the case of the disciples, it was the power to cast out demons.  We may not be comfortable with that, but the principle remains.  We have been given power to confront the forces of darkness.  This is the darkness that corrupts, that destroys hope, that weakens.  By the power of the Holy Spirit we can fight against that darkness and bring light.  Jesus, quoting Isaiah said this: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19 NIV)  By sharing the Holy Spirit with us, Jesus invites us to join with him in this task.

Conclusion

We are unlikely to ever be a mega church in the common sense of the term.  But we are a small church that can have deep relationships with Jesus and each other.  We, like the twelve, are connected with those who have gone before us.  We, like the twelve, are just a bunch of normal people who will remain anonymous in church history.  But we too, have been given power and authority.  This is not for our glory but to bring light to a dark world.  In terms of spiritual power, perhaps we are a mega church in a spiritual sense.

 

 

Share

Back to the Basics

My “Back to the Basics” message series is now available in its entirety on my web-page.  There are so many things that people talk about when they discuss religion or the Bible. But what do we really need to know? What are the basics? This series looks at the basic questions that we need to wrestle with when it comes to God.  You can find the audio for this series here.

1. Does God Exist?

2. Is God Good?

3. Did Jesus Exist?

4. Was Jesus God?

5. Was Jesus Human?

6. Did Jesus Really Die and Rise Again?

7. Is Jesus Really Coming Back Again?

8. How Do I Get Right With God?

Share

5 Questions for Effective Communication

CommunicationI have been enjoying Andy Stanley’s leadership podcast.  It is a great resource that I would highly recommend.  One of the podcasts that I particularly enjoyed was on effective communication.  This would include preaching as well as other forms of communication.  Andy offers five questions that should always be asked when you are trying to effectively reach an audience:

1. What do they need to know?

2. Why do they need to know it?

3. What do they need to do?

4. Why do they need to do it?

5. How can I remind them?


Share