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Will You Hold God’s Feet to the Fire?

I am sorry to say that our culture thinks of God in the same way that they do Aladdin’s genie. If you rub the lamp, say just the right words, then God will grant you wishes!

I am sorry to say that our culture thinks of God in the same way that they do Aladdin’s genie. If you rub the lamp, say just the right words, then God will grant you wishes!

I never have a problem finding something to focus a sermon on. The trouble I usually have is picking the topic or scripture. This week, the topic picked me. It arrived in an unusual manner; it came to me via Facebook! I think that the Facebook message I received was actually directed to my wife. You will see why immediately.

Here is what the message said.

This is for u :).Read till the end! I sent an angel to watch over you last night, but it came back and asked “why?” The angel said, “angels don’t watch over angels!”

That is how I knew it was for Jeanie and not me. It goes on.

Twenty angels are in your world. Ten are sleeping, nine of them are playing and one is reading this message. God has seen you struggling with some things and God says it is over. A blessing is coming your way. If you believe in God send this message to 14 friends including me, if I don’t get it back I guess I’m not one of them. As soon as you get 5 replies, someone you love will quietly surprise you. I am not joking. Pass this message on. Please don’t ignore it. You are being tested and God is going to fix two big things tonight in your favor. If you believe in God drop everything and pass it on. Tomorrow will be the best day of your life. Don’t break this. Send this to 14 friends in 10 minutes. It’s not that hard. Whoever sent this to you must care about you. You don’t know how to send it? LOL just hold your finger on it n it should say forward.

There was so much wrong with that message that I simply sat there wondering, “who writes this stuff?” It tells me a few things about the person who wrote it and the people who do forward it. I am not going to cover the writer’s concept of who angels are and what they do. That is too big a topic. But, did you notice that there are 20 angels in the world and 19 are just hanging out! The only one who is doing anything is monitoring Facebook! Unbelievable!

No. What I want to focus on is a much more important: the nature of God. In this Facebook message, God can be manipulated into doing good things for you. All you have to do is forward the message 14 times and God (as if by contractual agreement) will fix two problems in your life. Apparently, God is allowed to choose which two! “You are being tested!” You can prove that you love God and care about the sender if you just forward the message.

I sat there shaking my head in wonder and then it occurred to me; this is the way we treat God all the time! Before we do some self-examination, I want you to be reminded of who God is and what his fundamental nature is.

Please listen to some scriptural samples that give us a glimpse into the nature of God and his relationship with us his creation. I will start with two portions of the Book of Isaiah.

Isaiah 40:3-5 and then verses 25-26.

ISA 40:3 A voice of one calling:
“In the desert prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness
a highway for our God.
ISA 40:4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
ISA 40:5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

And skipping down to verses 25-26.

ISA 40:25 “To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
ISA 40:26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

Then, the beginning verses of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

EPH 1: 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will– 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment–to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

So many passages would be appropriate to a discussion of who God is. In fact, the entire Bible is one long description of God and his works among his created. The Westminster Catechism says that, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

Isaiah understood this and God chose him to bring a message to his people. God wanted his people to know that he would bring them back from the punishing exile they had been experiencing.

In chapter 35, Isaiah said that the people would come to God on a road called the Way of Holiness. Here in chapter 40, he said that nothing would stop God from bringing his people home. No mountain, no rugged ground would hinder that task and the whole world would see that God loved his people. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. When John the Baptist arrived, he announced the Christ in the same way. God would allow nothing to stand in the way of his relationship with his people. We know now that he would even sacrifice his son.

God is spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable. He is wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. His love is so central to who he is that nothing can separate us from his love. Hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword? No, nothing in all creation, “…will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)

Who can compare to the God that created and loves us? Isaiah said, no one and no thing can compare. The God that created you also set each star on its path. Our Jesus, Paul said,

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

Our God is in control of all things and has shown us through Christ that nothing can separate you from him, except you. When Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesis, he told them that at the very beginning, at creation, God had selected them for adoption into his family. Roman law said that those who were adopted enjoyed the same status and privileges as a child of physical birth. God had “lavished” grace upon them through Jesus Christ. When the time was right, God had included them in a plan that was so remarkable it could only be called “mysterious.” All of this would be “put into effect” in the fullness of time and Jesus will be in charge of the future. God had allowed nothing to stand in his way!

Those are just two small examples of scripture passages that speak of the grandeur of God and his willingness to go any “distance” to be reconciled with his created loved ones.

Do you remember the Facebook message? Can you compare the creator and sustainer of the universe with the god described in that message? The god described in the message is a part of a “quid pro quo” deal that involves sending a message to 14 people (who used to be your friends) and in return, he will fix your problems.

I am sorry to say that our culture thinks of God in the same way that they do Aladdin’s genie. If you rub the lamp, say just the right words, then God will grant you wishes! That sounds ridiculous, but it is not too far away from a description of many people’s pray life!

 “God, I prayed to you the way I am supposed to. I even ended the prayer in Jesus’ name, now you need to come across! I will hold you to it, God!”

This is a dangerous path to tread. Thankfully, God abounds in love and is patient with our shortcomings. You cannot bully God into “fixing things” in your favor! Attempting to do that simply tells him that you do not really understand how much he loves you. How much better is it to humble yourself before the creator and express your gratitude for the saving power of Jesus? Ask him, “How can I better serve you?”

I probably should not have done it, but I responded to the person who sent me the Facebook message; no, I did not forward it to anyone. But, I did say to that person,

I realize that this just for fun, but the underlying understanding of who God is and how he interacts with his creation is so distorted it is unbelievable. Who starts these things?”

The answer I got back made me laugh.

“I’m sorry,” the sender said. “I never meant to send it to anyone except the [expletive] who sent it to me! Lol.”

You and I serve a God that is beyond compare. He has allowed nothing to get in the way of drawing us close to him; not even the sacrifice of his son. We simply cannot allow ourselves to show him less than our love and our humble respect!

Focus on the Good

ikeamirror

In Walt Disney’s 1937 production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there is an enchanted mirror that answers questions; and it answers those questions honestly. The villain of the story, the wicked and vain queen asks every day, “Who is the fairest in the land?” When it gives an answer that she does not like that is when the trouble begins!

The poor woman just needed some positive reinforcement! That mirror, however, seemed to take pleasure in the unwanted truth! Do you need positive motivation when you wake up in the morning? Now, with the progress of technology you can have it! Please do not “fact check” me with your smart phones now; wait till after church and look up IKEA motivational mirror on YouTube. I kid you not! Here is the link: http://youtu.be/W30-HQXhB-E.

IKEA has developed a mirror that offers you compliments when you gaze into it! Stand in front of the mirror and words appear on the surface and a friendly voice says things like, “Your eyes are mesmerizing,” or “I love what you’ve done with your hair. Have you been working out?” The high tech mirror used sensors to assign appropriate compliments so that you ladies will not have to hear “What a beautiful beard!”

IKEA was inspired by statistics in Britain that said 49% of the people never hear anything positive about themselves. 43.6 million survey responders said that they were self-conscious about how they look. Personally, I would rather hear the truth than a computer generated compliment! “You could stand to lose 20 pounds” or  “Your side-burns are crooked, try again.” Those would be more helpful comments!

It is true however that appropriate kind words from a real person are affirming! All of us could use a more positive state of mind. All of us would benefit from focusing on the good that is around us. At least that is what the Apostle Paul told the church at Philippi.

This morning we will look at Philippians 4:4-9. I think you will find the scripture more edifying than IKEA’s mirror! Turn with me to Philippians 4:4-9. Here is what it says.

PHP 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

PHP 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

May the Lord his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Philippi was a small city in Macedonia, what we know today as Turkey. It was the first of Paul’s missionary churches; the first “church plant” in Gentile territory. There was a strong emotional bond between Paul and these Christians. He clearly loved them. In this letter, he was writing to them to thank them for their gifts. Along with his thanks, he admonished them to humility, joy and steadfastness.

They should REJOICE!

The letter is saturated with joy! He begins this section with joy, in fact, the idea of “rejoicing” is in this letter 16 times. These people were under attack from people who were teaching them false doctrine. There were disagreements among members of the congregation. They were a tiny religious minority and most of their community assumed they were Jews who were not well liked. Add to all that a brutal Roman government that would not stand for religious extremists and you have a group of Christians that were under tremendous stress.

You can almost hear them ask, “Rejoice? Are you kidding?”

The repetition of “rejoice” makes it clear that Paul wanted Christians to maintain their joy in the Lord.

They should demonstrate GENTLENESS.

Verse 5 has some translation difficulties. The New International Version says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” Other versions use other words for “gentleness.” This is one of those Greek words that does not translate well into English because it has a multifaceted meaning. Translations vary. KJV says “moderation.” ESV uses “reasonableness.” RSB says “forbearance.” Let your humble tolerance be evident to all. That is the SSV (Scott Smith Version) and it is not “authorized.”

Paul told them to let the world around them see that they were willing to yield their personal rights in consideration of “all.” Everyone! They could afford humble tolerance because the Savior would return and their “sacrifice” would be justified.

They should find comfort in PRAYER.

He told them to replace anxiety with prayerfulness. Do not “fret” over things but offer it all up to God in prayer and thanksgiving. By being active in prayer they would find that their anxieties would be replaced by the “peace of God;” a peace that is so deep and rich that it is beyond human understanding.

They should focus on what is EXCELLENT.

As Paul signaled the conclusion of his letter, he think about what is excellent. Whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, these things are worth their focus.

He asked them to remember the doctrines that he had taught them. What is implied in these last two verses is that there were competing ideas; things that had not come from him things that were not part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those ideas were not worthy of their attention. It is a daunting list of virtues! Every one of these virtues could have been used to describe the nature of God.

True, meaning reliable and honest.
Noble, or worthy of respect.
Right, measured with God’s standards.
Pure, meaning morally wholesome.
Lovely, that which is pleasing and amiable.
And, admirable, that which is worthy of praise.

Paul knew that if these Christians could center their minds on thoughts like these, they would be living as Christians should live.

Here, my friends, is where the guy up front “stops preachin’ and goes to meddlin’.” I am required to ask you the questions you may not want to answer! Paul admonished Christians to live lives of purposeful joy, humble tolerance, continuous prayer and lives focused on the excellent.

How is that going for you? Do you find yourself nursing an angry edge? Do you often feel that you have been done an injustice? Is prayer a place you go only when your worries are nearly out of control. Do you spend your time focused on whatever entertains or are you really seeking the good; the excellent? If you are honest with yourself, some of those questions should make you uncomfortable. They certainly are difficult for me and I suspect they are for you too.

Now, make sure we understand what I am saying. Living a life of virtue will have no eternal salvific effect. Virtue cannot save you! You can be true and noble, righteous and pure, lovely and admirable, but if you do not believe that Jesus was the Christ, you are lost. If you do not believe that Jesus sacrificed himself so that you could be in relationship with God then all your effort to focus on the good is only momentary.

Jesus must be first. When he is first, then your efforts toward a virtuous life will have benefits for the Kingdom of God and for you. You do not need computer-generated compliments or the power of positive thinking to give you the illusion that life is good and that you are OK. You need the love of Christ flowing in and out of your daily life.

I challenge you in this week ahead, to focus on the good. Read good books. Listen to uplifting music. Shun the manipulation of our materialistic and political culture. Find small ways express humble tolerance in your relationships. If you can cultivate those actions as a habitual way of living, then you will discover that your life has become a witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Rethinking Your Treasures

The Magistrate of Brussels by Anthony Van Dyck

In 2001, the Rev. Jamie MacLeod found a painting in a local antique store. The priest thought that the painting might help brighten up his church’s retreat house. Later he decided to sell the picture when they were having a fund-raiser to refurbish the church’s bells. He decided to take the painting to The Antiques Roadshow when it came to his community.

Fiona Bruce, who presents the British version of the popular weekly show thought the picture might be worth more than the $575 the priest had paid at the now-closed antique shop. She was right! When the restored painting was researched by expert art historians, they found that it was, in fact, the “Magistrate of Brussels” painted by Anthony Van Dyck in the 1600s. What was its estimated market value? $660,000! Rev. McLeod said that the painting would make the bell-tower restoration a reality.

I watch the Antiques Roadshow occasionally and it happens often that people discover that the item they brought is worth much more than they thought. The whole premise of the show is based on the idea that people do not really know what their possessions are worth. Each week, you can see the stunned looks on their faces when they discover how much grandma’s old teacups are really worth. However, behind the joyful surprises is a line of people holding their “surely valuable” toy or pottery, lamp or Bible, piece of furniture or scrap of paper. Most of time, the vast majority of the time, those people leave surprised that the item they have hoarded for 20 years is absolutely worthless. Those items are not given air-time, except for a brief moment at the end of the show when people say things like, “I had fun anyway. Glad I came.” I have always wondered if there are large trash bins on the way out the door.

We often fall into that error; thinking that our possessions are extremely valuable. In fact, people self-destruct every day over material things or earthly achievements. Usually, too late, they discover that they have worked all their lives for things that do not hold ultimate value. The Apostle Paul could say, “I told you so!” because that is exactly the warning he issued in the scripture we will look at this morning.

Turn with me to Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, Philippians 3:4b-14. Paul issued them a warning; to watch out for people who put their faith in the old ways. Specifically he warned them about those who wanted to enforce Jewish law upon Christian believers. In this case, it was the law about circumcision. Paul said that they put their confidence in the flesh. I begin with his full thought in the second half of verse 4.

Listen to what he says about what the world values!

4b If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

PHP 3:7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

PHP 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Paul said that if anyone could have confidence in the accomplishments of man it would be him. As a rhetorical device, he took on one of his opponent’s attitude and listed all the so-called advantages that he could claim as a Jew. He called those who were trying to push followers of Jesus into a Jewish mold “Judaizers.”

In verse 5, he began his Jewish resume. His birthright was solid. Every legal ritual had been observed. He knew every Jewish law and enforced them with zeal. He had made a reputation for himself as the leading persecutor of the earliest Christian groups.

Then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus and everything changed. In one moment, his physical eyes were blinded and his spiritual eyes were opened. In that epiphany he realized that everything he thought was valuable was trash! His whole life had been focused on obeying the law and at that moment all the so-called gains he had made were a waste of time.

If your goal is false “progress” toward is not progress at all, but a waste of your time! All of his efforts toward righteousness had been wasted. His achievements were absolutely nothing compared to the “surpassing greatness” of knowing Jesus as Lord.

“I consider them rubbish” (v8). Literally translated that word “rubbish” means something that is so worthless you should throw it to the dogs; the opposite of anything of value. With his life swept clean of worldly trash, what did he value with his new way of seeing things?

10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul let them know that his desire to “know” Christ was not complete. “Made perfect” here means “complete” or “mature.” For him, knowing Christ was a process that would go on for eternity. He said he would step away from everything else so that he could focus on Jesus. He would forget his disreputable past and focus on the goal, “to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

This passage shouts the honest truth to 21st century Christians! Perhaps more than other times and places, we are driven to pile up our treasures. Our culture is driven by a desire for more; more things, more power, more money. Now, there is nothing wrong with attempting to provide your family with needed security and a level of comfort. But, I can testify from personal experience that the question must be asked, “How much is enough?”

There are years when my children were small where what I know about their growth and development came to me via Jeanie. I was not there. I was at work focused on mortgage payments and car payments. I can also attest to fact that eventually there is a wake-up call; when God asks the question, “What is important to you?”

The things of this world are illusory. What is real is Jesus! You cannot “know” him by focusing on right living. Your “righteousness” will be to him rags. It is difficult for us to understand, but it is only in giving up everything that we “think” is valuable that we can find what has true worth. I am not tell you to sell all you have and become a hermit in the hills. I am asking you to do an attitude check. Examine your attitudes carefully. Do you think you are good enough for God? Do not kid yourself. It is in Christ alone that we can come into the presence of God.

So go out Monday, and get back to work. But never confuse your efforts in this world with knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection. Consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.

 

Profound But Not Complicated

Have you ever been involved in a simple daily activity (perhaps something that is repetitious) and then forgotten why you were doing it? Or maybe the way you do something becomes more important to you that what you are actually doing. When habit becomes extreme it becomes compulsion.

melvinIn the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays a writer with an extreme case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Nicholson won an Oscar for his portrayal of Melvin Udall. When he entered his apartment, he felt compelled to lock and unlock the door three times before he finally locked it. Each light switch had to be turned on and off three times. He washed his hands with a new bar of soap then threw the soap away and started again with a new one. He put his foot in and out of his shoe three times before he finally put the shoe on. This goes on and on and watching the film you realize how devastating these compulsions are. He is living in repetitive hell and cannot extricate himself.

It is natural for each of us to have specific ways of doing things. Habits can be comforting; they can make us feel secure. But when we get to the point of being upset when a habit is broken, or feeling distress and anxiety when something is different, then there may be illness involved. Sadly, this is also true in our Christian lives. The way we worship is often repetitive and we become accustomed to the order. We like it and take comfort in it. It can be upsetting when it changes! Even so-called “contemporary” worship, which began as a way of “doing worship differently” has quickly fallen into a pattern that is repeated again and again.

But it is not just in worship. For some Christians there is near compulsion about specific “belief” structures that are required for “authentic” Christians. These are usually exhibited in external things. If you do not dress in the right way, or eat the right things, or worship on the right day, or use the right expressions, then it is obvious that you are not one of “us.” And we, of course, have the true belief system!

I find it incredibly ironic that some Christians have fallen into this trap of habit. Why? Because it is the exact problem Paul was working against in the first century. Christianity was breaking traditional rules and it was making many very uncomfortable.

Listen to what Paul told the Romans in Romans 10:5-13.

5 Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, `Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or `Who will descend into the deep?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: 9 That 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. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Paul reminded the Christians in Rome of the law that Moses recorded in Leviticus. Leviticus 18:4-5 says,

4 You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. 5 Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.

To be right with God under the Old Testament law, a person had to comply with God’s “decrees and laws.” The man who obeys would live by them. Paul has already told his readers that the Children of Israel could not achieve righteousness through the law of God and so they substituted their own. That would only bring them self-deception, pride and failure!

But then, Paul refocused on Deuteronomy 30:11-14.

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

There is a distinct difference in attitude in these verses that Paul quoted. The first was focused completely on obedience. The one who obeyed lived! The second was more positive. There was a “heart desire” expressed.

“…the word is very near you;
it is in your mouth and in your heart
so you may obey it.”

Then Paul nearly hung a sign on it! Here was his message! Here was the “word of faith we are proclaiming!” Verse 9.

9 That 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.

His statement leaned on that passage from Deuteronomy. The word needed to be in both their hearts and mouths! If they believed with their hearts and confessed with their mouths they would be saved. The word “confess” here means to express faith publically, as they often did at baptism.

Did you notice what they “confess?” Jesus is Lord. That simple statement became an important declaration of faith for the church. It was not focused on the work of Christ, but on the person of Jesus. “I believe in Jesus.” This was to be the solid rock of Christian faith.

He was quoting Isaiah 28:16.

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who trusts will never be dismayed.”

God’s promise was sure; as certain as a rock. Paul emphasized “anyone” who trusts to make it clear that this promised salvation was available to both Jew and Greek. There was no difference between them before God. Finally, he quoted Joel 2:32, reminding his listener that, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” With a firm footing in Old Testament documents, Paul made it clear that because of Jesus, there was a better way than repeated failure in obedience.

The Christian faith is deep. Paul even called it mysterious. You can spend a lifetime studying the teachings of Jesus and only begin to scratch the surface of understanding it. But in this passage, Paul made it clear it is not complicated! Churches, with their belief statements and systems, religious practices and requirements have certainly muddied the water! Many denominations, church groups and individual congregations think they have this faith “thing” right. If all those other Christians could just be more like us!

And yet, …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.

There is an old story about a man who dies and goes to heaven. When he arrives there, Peter is showing him around the streets of gold. Just as he imagined it, there are “many mansions.” Peter points to a huge home and compound and tells the man, that is where the Catholics are. Farther down the golden street, Peter points to another place and says, that is where the Methodists are and over there is where the Lutherans are.

Finally he comes to a compound with a gate and on the gate there is a sign that says “quiet please.” The man asks why and Peter says, “This place is for Christians who think they are the only ones here. We don’t want to disturb them.”

When I first heard that story, it had the name of a denomination assigned to the group that thought they were the only ones. I will let you put a name on that group yourselves. Maybe it is your own!

It is sad but true. Many Christians think that their way is the only way. But the Bible is clear.

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.

The Marvelous Valuable Expanding Kingdom of God

doughIn the world that we live in, when you need a loaf of bread you simply go to the store, stand in an isle with hundreds of loaves of many types and varieties and you pick what you want. Most of us are not so far removed from reality, however, that we do not know where bread comes from.

During this last week, our friend Natasha made pepperoni rolls[1] at our house. Through the day, the dough sat on the stove. No one touched it, but it was hard at work! That dough just kept getting bigger and bigger. I must admit, at one point I thought, “I hope she knows what she’s doing, because that dough is taking over the kitchen!”

Well, she knew what she was doing and the pepperoni rolls were great! But, I was reminded of the wonder of active yeast. On your skin at any given time there are millions of tiny microorganisms. One of the most common is a fungus called saccharomyces cerevisiae. Somewhere in the distant past (perhaps in ancient Egypt) someone was making flat bread. It would have been much like a common Mexican tortilla. But something happened. The dough, infused with saccharomyces cerevisiae from the baker’s skin went unused for hours. During that time, the fungus began to feed on the sugars in the dough. It reproduced, rapidly. As this fungus fed on more and more sugar, it produced two bi-products; alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide caused the flat bread to rise and the alcohol flavored the bread before it cooked out in the heat of baking.

By reproducing those circumstances, people learned how to use yeast in bread, wine, cheese, beer and many other food products. By the time of Christ, yeast in baked goods was one of the most common technologies of the day. It was so common, that Jesus used yeast as a visual image. The people listening to his teaching had all seen yeast working. Jesus used it to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The book of Matthew is dotted with Jesus’ parables. Today, I want to look at four very short ones. The four parables are from Matthew 13, verses 31-33 and verses 44-46. Here is what it says.

Matthew 13:31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Then skipping down to verse 44, we read this.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

That is four parables in just six verses! Now, these visual snap-shots are so short that there is a danger of over thinking them. We will look at each very quickly.

The first is the parable of the mustard seed. The mustard plant was commonplace in Jesus’ place and time. The seed was the smallest that they would have been used to seeing. It was merely a speck. When Jesus used the mustard seed, he wanted his listeners to think of the smallest thing they could imagine. The mustard plant, however, was quite large. The plant we get mustard from is a waist-high field crop, but the Middle Eastern mustard that Jesus was talking about was a shrub tree standing six to 10 feet tall.

The parable is rather simple. The Kingdom of God had very small, humble beginnings; the people knew this they were at its beginnings. Jesus was telling them that it would spread and grow. The kingdom would expand!

Next is our yeast parable. What happened to the “large amount of flour” that the woman was preparing for baking? She mixed yeast into it and it infused through the dough.

Do you see the subtle difference? The kingdom not only would grow in magnitude, but it would grow from the inside out. The first growth seems to be a measure of quantity; the second is a measure of substance. The kingdom is about growth.

The first two parables are about growth and the next two are about worth. The third parable is one verse.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

There was no banking as we know it in Jesus’ time. Jewish law would not allow it. Because of this, burying wealth in the ground was common. People buried their savings and often either forgot it or died leaving it in their fields. In this parable, the man became aware of the value of the field. In order to get the money to buy the field (with its buried treasure), he had to take the risk of selling all he had. The implication of the story is that it was a very profitable thing to do.

The fourth parable is the parable of the pearl of great price. The most valuable gem of that time was the pearl. The merchant did not stumble across a valuable pearl. No! He was out looking for it. Like the man with the field, this man knew the value of this item. He sold all he had to gain the pearl of great price.

These last two parables were about knowing what was valuable. When what was of greatest value was found, both men put everything they had into claiming the prize.

What picture did Jesus paint for his listeners? What was the Kingdom of God like as he described it to his listeners? It looked to them like a humble thing, but Jesus told them that it would grow; it would grow ever larger. It would grow bigger and it would grow greater. That is difficult for us to fathom. I think that Jesus meant that believers would be more like God, living Godly lives and spreading his qualities to those around them.

Finally, Jesus told them that there was nothing in their lives more valuable than the kingdom. No wealth and no worldly pleasure could come close to the eternal value of the Kingdom of God.

Now you and I are not at the beginnings of the Kingdom of God. We have seen it expand until millions of people around the world have accepted the fact that Jesus is the son of God. We recognize that the prophecy of Jesus (that the Kingdom of Heaven would grow into something huge) was absolutely true. We also know that it has not stopped growing!

Just like Jesus’ listeners, we cannot know what will come in the future, but we have scripture that they did not. We know,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

What is our role in God’s expanding kingdom? What place do common people have in a movement that has spanned 20 centuries? What place does a small country church have in a faith of 2.2 billion people?

The remarkable thing is that we, like every Christian in 20 centuries, are in the same place as Jesus’ listeners when the parable was first told. That is because Spirit of God works through believers to grow the kingdom.

Each day, we have opportunities to represent Christ to our hurting world. The Kingdom of God does not grow by mass movements. It grows by the faithful actions of everyday Christians. We are the yeast! We are the saccharomyces cerevisiae.

What will you do today; what will you do tomorrow, to share the love of Jesus to a hurting world?

[1] “The pepperoni roll is a snack popular in West Virginia and some nearby regions of the Appalachian Mountains. A pepperoni roll consists of a soft white yeast bread roll with pepperoni baked in the middle. During baking, the fats in the pepperoni (which are hard at room temperature) melt, resulting in a spicy oil suffusing into the bread.” (Wikipedia.com)

Guilty? Who, Me?

prisonIt was January of 1999 and I found myself plodding up the stairs of the county jail in Leavenworth, Kansas. The wind was gusting and I was cold outside and in. I was coming to make a pastoral call on a young man in an orange jump suit. Before Christmas, we had had a Bible Study for a dozen young people in his apartment with his girlfriend and their friends.

Now, he was on the other side of thick safety glass. “What in the world happened?” I asked him.

“There were cars parked on the street,” he answered. “A long line of them, and we thought it would be fun to break some glass.”

“How many,” I asked him.

“20, 30; I don’t know,” he said. “We smashed them baseball bats.”

I am sure my mouth hung open but I asked him, “What were you thinking?”

“I don’t understand it,” he answered. “I knew it would be trouble. Sometimes I just don’t understand the things I do.”

Sometimes I don’t understand the things I do. In my head his voice became the 7th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Turn with me if you would like to Romans 7:14-25a. Here is what it says.

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

That young man in the Leavenworth County Jail and the Apostle Paul writing to the church in Rome, were both talking about the same truth. There is a struggle going on in each of us!

Who was Paul really talking about here? There has been considerable debate among students of the Bible about this topic. It looks to be autobiographical. On the surface that seems clear. The whole passage was written in the first person; For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” There are many, many “I”s in this passage!

It only takes a few moments of thought, however, and we can recognize that while there are certainly autobiographical elements here, Paul was describing something about the human condition.

The other question is even more hotly debated. Was he talking about a person before they became a Christian or after accepting salvation? The early church fathers said this could not be about a Christian because a person “in Christ” could not have this kind of struggle with sin.

Well, they are not here to argue with me; so, I can disagree with them! For me, it seems obvious that those who are without Christ seldom struggle this much with sin. It is like asking a person who abuses alcohol if they have a drinking problem.  “No,” they’ll say. I’ve got that pretty well figured out.”

The person awash in sin does not resist sin. They do not struggle with sin; they revel in it! But the person Paul described here was aware that God’s law (or the righteous behavior that God demands) was right and good. In verse 14 Paul said that God’s law was “spiritual” but that he was “unspiritual” (literally of the flesh). Paul described a person who had been convinced (convicted) of the sin in their lives. Only the Holy Spirit can bring conviction. This was about a Christian who loved God, knew his ways were right and good and still could not be consistent in doing the right thing!

This passage is about me, a Christian who loves God, knows his ways were right and good and still cannot be consistent in doing the right thing! This passage is about me! I knew that the first time I read it when I was 14 years old. He was talking about me. I remember thinking, “if the Apostle Paul struggled with this maybe there is hope for me!”

He was talking about me and he was talking about you, too! When Paul cried out in agony, “What a wretched man I am,” you should be hearing your own voice. It should remind us of Isaiah 6:5.

5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

The more you know about God, the more you come into his presence, the greater should be your conviction in the face of his perfection. Paul asked, Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Thanks be to God!

The human being that is aware of God’s perfection is torn in two by his or her own limitations. The realization that God, by his grace, has loved us in imperfection is astounding and humbling! I am convinced that this inner struggle will continue as long as I continue to mature in Christ.

You and I cannot (by our own effort) remove the sin from our lives. As we continue on our Christian journey, some transgressions become less difficult. We may move beyond them but, sadly, there are always more. We are imperfect. Flawed. But, “Thanks be to God!” He has provided rescue through Jesus Christ our Lord! There is deliverance available. Because of Jesus’ triumph over evil, we have assurance that deliverance is there for us.

The world that we live in, has nurtured some ideas that I am sorry to say have even become common in the church. This passage can put them to rest. You may have heard it said that you must simply overcome your bad habits. You may have heard it said that human nature is essentially good. You may have heard it said that if you live a moral life; if you can just be determined to do “right” then you will be victorious.

None of this is true. What is true, is that…

… our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21)

You and I are not different from that young man in the orange jump suit. We are lawbreakers, tried in God’s court of justice, found to be guilty and convicted.

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!

In the cosmic court of justice, Jesus has already served our penalty and you and I have been set free!

The Pressure of Fatherhood

Picture these situations. You spend 45 minutes sweating and grunting in the backseat of a car. You struggle with straps and a belt. No! It’s not what you are thinking! When you are finished, the new car seat is installed. You are a father.

fatherhoodYou rush home from work so that you can spend three hours watching children dressed as flowers, birds and fish cavort across a stage. The poor little things have no idea how to dance and then she comes out and you are mesmerized. You are her father.

It is late at night. You are watching TV and your son comes to the top of the stairs, whining. “What do you want?” you ask. No answer. “Come down here,” you demand. He obeys and stands in front of you. “Well?” you ask and then he throws up at your feet. You are his father.

You do not even flinch as you hand over the credit card to buy another stroller and it costs more than your first car. You are a father.

You are driving down the highway, singing along with the CD and thinking how good the new car stereo sounds and then realize you just sang all the verses of “Laurie’s Got a Pig on Her Head.” You are their father.

At Christmas time you put together toys that should require an engineering degree. You remember all the batteries and you quietly throw away the parts that are left over. You are a father.

You pull up your Netflix “most watched” list and it is all animated. You are a father.

There is a crayoned picture on your refrigerator of a man with a lopsided face, hair like a Trappist monk and mismatched eyes. You are happy to be that man.

You cannot stand going to weddings because it is too soon and he is not good enough for her. But she puts her arm through yours and you start down that isle. You are her father.[1]

Being a father is a difficult job. It is a pressure packed job. Why? Because there is a role model to follow that simply cannot be avoided and the standards are set incredibly high. We read about that in this morning’s scripture.

Psalm 103:7-14. Turn to that Psalm if you would like to follow along.

PS 103:7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
PS 103:8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
PS 103:9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
PS 103:10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
PS 103:11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
PS 103:12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
PS 103:13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
PS 103:14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

The prophet Samuel called David a man after God’s own heart. In a time when God’s relationship was with a nation more than with individuals, David was unusual because of his intimate connection to the God of his fathers. David knew God well and he thought of God in terms of fatherhood.

In seven concise verses, David told his readers about the God he knew well. And he did it in terms of fatherhood! The list of Godly attributes is remarkable Compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, loving and forgiving. David said that if you thought of the greatest distance imaginable, that was how deep God’s love was. That was how far away God took his sin. David knew, because he was imperfect. David was a sinner! He was a murderer and adulterer. Yet God was forgiving.

Verses 13 and 14 say,

PS 103:13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
PS 103:14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

David said that his God knew the intimate details of his creation. Because God knew the most basic truth of David’s life, he had compassion on his creation.

Compassion. It is an extremely complex word. In Hebrew it is “rachem.” The King James translates that word in this verse as “pitieth.” Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him (Psalm 103:13 KJV).

The meaning of the word “pity” has evolved in English since the King James Version was “authorized” in 1611. In other places the word is translated “love” or to have “mercy.” In modern English, “compassion” is associated with “empathy.” In fact, it is all these things and more. The Hebrew word “rachem” implies an active desire to relieve suffering.

David wanted to describe all of these complex qualities that he understood to basic to God’s nature. The earthly concept that he thought would most closely communicate that idea was… fatherhood.

In the Judeo-Christian world, we almost universally think of God as “father.” Those who are more focused on the Trinity would say that it is much more complicated than that. But, it would safe to say that most in our religious tradition think of God as Father.

When you stop to think about it, we realize that the idea that God would have a male sexual identity is ridiculous. God is all-knowing, all-present (everywhere) and all-powerful. In other words, God is completely and absolutely perfect. Ladies, does that sound like men? We recognize that God is not really male, but the concept of a loving father helps us to understand his nature. Unless, of course, you have no concept of a “loving” father. Here is the source of a problem for Christians.

According to a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 3.2 million children were abused in America in 2012! The vast majority of those by parents. 1,640 died of that abuse. With numbers like that how do we communicate a loving father to a sinful world that is experiencing so much pain? Do you see the challenge for Christian fathers? The measure of fatherhood is set at divine heights!

So, fathers, we have our work cut out for us! In our human condition we must emulate the perfect father so that the world around us can see the love of God. You may not have thought of it dads, but when you are a good father, you are showing those around you the nature of God! And it is not just in the way we deal with our own children but in all our life’s activities.

You have the opportunity today not just to show off your new Fathers’ Day necktie, but to show the compassion that The Father has for his children. The pressure is on dads! This is your opportunity and you can do it!

 

[1] Inspired by the writing of Steve Johnson, who is the father of two sons and a writer from Oak Park, Illinois.

What Should We Think?

The following is intended for Seventh Day Baptist readers since it concerns our denomination’s “Statement of Belief.” It may, however, have content of interest to others.

judgement van

People have been claiming to know a date and time for the second coming of Jesus since the first century.

Edgar Whisenant was a NASA engineer and a student of the Bible. He has been credited with writing two books. One was entitled, On Borrowed Time and the second was 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. 4.5 million copies of these books were sold across America. His contention was that Christ’s return would happen between September 11 and 13 in 1988.

Whisenant was quoted as saying, “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town.” He also said, “I would stake my life on Rosh Hashana 1988.” He was so influential in some Christian circles that Trinity Broadcasting Network interrupted their programming during the late summer that year to tell people how to get ready for the rapture. On September 14, 1988, their normal programming resumed.

Whisenant, went on making 2nd coming predictions until he went to be with the Lord in 2001. He was devoted to Christ and so I am certain that he is with the Lord now, but he still does not know when Christ will return!

We have spoken of those who desire to set a date for Christ’s return before and I have pointed out that this is nothing new. Christians have been doing this since the 1st century. The temptation to “know” a date that Jesus said could not be known seems to be more than some can resist. Some desire to gain power over others by their so-called secret knowledge. This was the problem the Christian church suffered in its first few centuries and it continues today. Others are well meaning and simply want to encourage those who are need of a savior!

Today, this “date-setting” has appeared in many churches and Seventh Day Baptists have taken steps so that everyone will know what we think on the subject. Our “Statement of Beliefs” is designed to cover what we commonly agree upon and is not a creedal statement. It is intended simply to describe who Seventh Day Baptists are. The first section of the statement is about God and it is divided into sections; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Last year at Conference sessions they voted to make a change to the section entitled “Son.” It currently reads:

“We believe in God the Son, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. He gave Himself on the cross as the complete and final sacrifice for sin. As our Risen Lord, He is the mediator between God the Father and mankind.”

The change that has been through a first reading would simply add a sentence. Here is the addition as it was voted.

We believe that Jesus Christ, in keeping with His promise, will return suddenly, personally and visibly, at a time known only by the Father.

Now, as this comes to a second reading there is a push to change the word “Father” to “God.” It may seem a very small change. But, to many it is an important one. The phrase “only by the Father” is actually a scriptural quote. Jesus said in Mark 13:32, No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Those who want the change to “God” would say that the risen Christ, who has returned to the Godhead is now the same as God. Saying that only the Father knows, after the ascension, suggests that the portions of the trinity are not “one” or are not unified. The choice of one word over another could, in some people’s eyes, make a significant difference.

Perhaps, however, it obscures the point of the change. You are not God! You cannot know when Christ will return! And, you have other things to think about!

Turn with me if you will to the Book of Acts and we will “listen in” as the author (Luke) speaks to his reader(s). Acts 1:1-9.

AC 1:1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

    AC 1:6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

    AC 1:7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

    AC 1:9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading of the Word. Luke’s gospel covered Jesus’ earthly life and ministry and his Acts of the Apostles covered the work after Jesus’ resurrection. He began with the instructions that Jesus gave before his ascension. His followers were to wait for the Holy Spirit’s baptism.

But his followers still did not understand what the true purpose of Jesus’ ministry had been. They still thought he would “restore the kingdom to Israel.” It must have been frustrating for Jesus. After all he had gone through they still did not understand. They were like men standing in the dark with only one pool of light around them. They could not see outside their own circle of life’s experiences.

Then, Jesus gave them instructions that are pertinent for us!

AC 1:7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

He told them to refocus on what was most important! It was not “times or dates.” That was God’s business. They had a task to do and would be given the power to accomplish the task. They were to be witnesses to the person of Jesus everywhere they went; even to the “ends of the earth.”

Should Christians be spending time and effort attempting to know when Jesus will return? Jesus made it obviously clear in these (his very last) instructions that “date-setting” is an incredible waste of time! You cannot know and you need not know! If followers of Jesus are to be true to the savior’s wishes, they will focus their attention on being his witnesses, not calculating his return.

What should we think about the “2nd coming?” What should we be doing about it? If Jesus’ parables are an indication, our instructions are to wait patiently and be ready. The homeowner and the thief in Matthew 24:42-44 is about being ready for the unexpected. The good and wicked servants in Matthew 24:45-51 is about continuing the work while we wait. The parable of the 10 virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 concerns making ourselves ready. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 tells us to boldly use what God has given us for the growth of the kingdom.

So, no matter what carefully worded statement we agree upon, the important thing is that we fulfill the Great Commission and use the gifts God has provided to reach the world around us for Christ! Calculating dates and times cannot accomplish that, only the love of Jesus can!

 

Facing Confrontation

Around-the-world-many-believers-are-persecuted-imprisoned-even-killed-for-their-faith.-Since-Jesus-laid-down-His-life-43-million-Christians-have-become-martyrs.Today, in Khartoum, Sudan, 26-year-old Meriam Ibrahim is in prison. Shackled. Her sentence is death by hanging, but the execution has been postponed because she is pregnant. First, she will be allowed to give birth and then nurse her child before she is hanged for her “crimes.”

What “crimes” did Ibrahim commit? She has been charged with marrying a Christian and committing adultery because she bore his children. It is illegal in the Sudan for a Muslim woman to marry outside of her religion. She says she was never a Muslim, but the authorities disagree. Her husband, who is a U.S. citizen, has been attempting to intervene along with human rights organizations. The Sudanese government, however, has a history of enforcing religious laws selectively, focusing on women and ethnic minorities. Meriam Ibrahim is being asked to renounce her faith to save her life. So far, she has refused. I pray today for God’s mercy in her situation.

This is only one example of the difficulties that Christians face in many nations where government and religion are tightly connected. All over the world Christians are persecuted because of their faith. Many in the United States complain that there is a social “war” being conducted in our country against Christianity. Some voices in America speak about “persecution” because they face ridicule for their beliefs or non-beliefs.

Considering Ibrahim’s situation, clearly we should be celebrating our freedom! What is being described as a “war” is simply the secular nature of our society pushing back against a faith that they do not understand.

Whether it is real persecution or simply the inconveniences of living a life of faith, Christians should know how to respond to these pressures. We should know because the New Testament gives Jesus’ followers specific instructions on the matter.

If you would like to turn with me I will be reading from Peter’s first letter: 1st Peter 3:13-17.

1PE 3:13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Peter’s first letter has a number of central themes. Early in the letter the theme of facing confrontation is in the background. In chapter one he said that he knew that they had been suffering “grief in all kinds of trials.”

But by the third chapter Peter brought the theme to the fore. He admonished them to be respectful of each other and to “live in harmony with one another.” They were to repay evil with blessing! Then he quoted the 34th Psalm telling them to turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (1 Peter 3:11).

It is clear in verse 13 that if they were eager to do good they could expect good in return. The other shoe drops in verse 14. “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.”

Paul reminded the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Here, Peter warned his readers that all may not go well in the short term! But, righteous living would still bring a blessing. They should not be surprised when the world treated them badly. They should not be frightened by it either! Instead, they should prepare for it. Do not be afraid of people that oppose you, he said, but acknowledge Jesus as Christ the “Holy One” and that fact would anchor their lives. He told them to be prepared to give an answer.

The implied question is, “Why do you have hope?” Their attitude in giving the answer is directly from Jesus’ teaching. “Do this with gentleness and respect.” In that way, they could hold their heads high and no matter what anyone said, they could know that they had acted rightly. If after all of that “right” behavior they still suffered for doing good, there was no disgrace in that. There would be no sin behind the suffering and who could tell, their good behavior might stir another person’s conscience.

Now, I have already said that you and I do not really know anything about persecution. By the grace of God, we live in a place time when we have religious freedom. Our ability to follow the faith of our hearts is unhindered by anything but our own weakness. I have no way to measure our freedom but it is undoubtedly greater than any other time and place!

When you think about Meriam Ibrahim shackled in her prison cell, our ineffectiveness while in possession of freedom is actually embarrassing. What have I done with my religious freedom? Not enough!

Although we do not face persecution, you and I both know that there are times in life when we come face to face with those who do not value our faith. There are those who resent anything like “eagerness to do good.” Peter’s instruction here applies to us even in our sheltered situation!

The most common responses to a person who challenges your faith or belittles your faith are fight or flight. Do you stand up and fight or do you turn and walk away?

Fighting with someone about what you believe is wasted breath! Paul instructed the Ephesians 4:31 to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” A heated argument about the value of the love of Christ is foolishness! It simply invites the anger we are told to shun!

Perhaps it is better to walk away. If all you can do is express anger and cause hurt, then walking away may be better. One of the blessings of living in our culture is that it is possible for us to walk away. But, while walking away may lessen the damage to others, it also abandons an opportunity.

I find it interesting that on the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, this scripture’s author Peter tried both of these methods of handling confrontation.

JN 18:10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.

LK 22:60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.

He tried fighting and he tried turning and walking away. His instruction to believers gives us another option that perhaps Peter learned the hard way.

First, “set apart Christ as Lord.” Verses 14 and 15 are references back to Isaiah 8.

ISA 8:12 “Do not call conspiracy
everything that these people call conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.
8:13 The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
8:14 and he will be a sanctuary;

Peter said, when you face confrontation, do not focus on your advisory. Instead focus on Jesus. Set apart Christ as Lord. You need to be prepared to have an answer to the question. “Why do you think Jesus is important?”

Have you thought about that in advance? Certainly the Holy Spirit will help you find the right words, but that is no reason to not prepare! Can you tell someone today what the love of Jesus has done in your life; what it will do in your life?

Finally, remember that it is Jesus that is important, not you! Peter said to treat these confrontations with “gentleness and respect.” You are an ambassador for Christ. That means you must love the person you are confronting!

I pray today that Meriam Ibrahim will not suffer the end that the Sudanese government has planned for her. But Christians who suffer for Christ have the assurance that they are blessed.

Could You Be Blind?

John 9:1-16

Satire is a very popular form of comedy in American culture. From shows like Futurama and The Simpsons to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, satire is everywhere in our entertainment programming. It is always meant to be funny (although it often fails dramatically) but often, satire has a subplot of social criticism.

We come by a love of satire through our Western European roots. But, its beginnings in “media” go a long way back. In 1568, Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel produced a painting entitled, The Blind Leading the Blind. Many art historians consider The Blind Leading the Blind to be one of the “masterworks of painting for its fine, accurate detail and dynamic composition.”

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel

It is the earliest surviving painting to depict the Biblical of the blind leading the blind from the Gospel of Matthew (15:14). But, the painting is also political satire! It speaks to a time when the Spanish were attempting to enforce rule over the Netherlands and suppress the rise of Protestantism. As with all satire that is based on current events, the farther away from the events you are, the more difficult it is to understand. No one is really sure if the painting was in support of Protestantism or the Catholic church.

The story at its root, however, is unmistakable. Matthew relates an episode in Jesus’ ministry when the Rabbi said something that offended the Pharisees. When his disciples asked about it he said, Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

“Blindness” was one of Jesus’ favorite themes. This morning I want to look at an example that is found in the Gospel of John. Turn with me to John 9:1-16.

JN 9:1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

JN 9:3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

JN 9:6 Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

JN 9:8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

JN 9:10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they demanded.

JN 9:11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

JN 9:12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

JN 9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

JN 9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” So they were divided.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

You should be aware that this passage follows soon after Jesus’ statement in 8:12,  “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus had healed the blind previously, but this man was “blind from birth.” It prompted the disciples to ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” It seems a callous question, but reflects the Jewish belief that if a person suffered from an ailment, it must have originated with the sin of their parents or grandparents. This is based on Exodus 34:7, which says, “he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

But, Jesus was having none of it! From his viewpoint this was not a punishment but an opportunity to glorify God! His “night” was coming soon and Jesus was not going to miss this opportunity to heal bodies and minds! Jesus was certainly capable of healing this man without the mud mixture he used on his eyes. Perhaps it was an aid for the man’s faith. The blind man now had a reason to be a faithful participant in his own healing. He had to go and wash. Notice that Jesus did not even tell him that he would be healed! The walk to the Pool of Siloam was a walk of faith!

The man’s healing was so dramatic, so life-changing that people that knew him questioned if it was the same man.  “No, he only looks like him.” His change was so startling, that he had to reassure them that he was the man they knew! His testimony of the events was very simple. Just the facts! I did what Jesus said and then I could see!

Here is where the story takes a turn. The neighbors (perhaps fearing something was wrong) took the man to their leaders. What did the Pharisees notice about this event? What was important to the Pharisees? Not that the man was healed. Not that this Rabbi had incredible power. No! This Rabbi Jesus had (once again) broken the Sabbath law. Their unswerving adherence to their own understanding of Torah law brought them to one conclusion. “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” Their suspicions were confirmed. He does not understand our religion the way we do, so, therefore, God cannot be in what he does.

I do not know if you hear it, but I hear a familiar voice in this passage. Someone asked,

“How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” That voice sounds like Nicodemus to me! We have no direct evidence of that. Except that Nicodemus had already spoken up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin in John 7:50-51. When he came to Jesus he said, For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him. This moment of compassionate healing gave the blind man an opportunity to express his faith. It also gave another  (perhaps Nicodemus) an opportunity to stand for Jesus.

This is one of those scripture passages that could be the foundation for many, many sermons. Luckily for you, today I am preaching just one! But, there are three lessons I want to point out.

First, Jesus asked the blind man to participate in the healing. Jesus called it the work of God;  “the work of him who sent me.” In order for God to be “displayed in his life,” Jesus asked him to walk across town with mud on his face. This was no small task for the blind man. That act of obedience bolstered his faith and gave him a message for unbelievers. Jesus can and will heal you of the “blindness” in your life! But do not surprised when he requires your participation! Take an active part in the spiritual life that Jesus has for you and you will able to testify to the love and care of God!

Secondly, when the hand of Jesus opens new spiritual eyes for you, do not be surprised if your friends and neighbors do not recognize you anymore! Under his healing hand, you have become a “new creature.” You will have work to do with which they are not familiar. You have the opportunity (while it is still day) to speak directly of the change Jesus has made in you. Do it boldly, because that is God being displayed in your life.

And third, when we become convinced that we know all the spiritual truth, there is a temptation to use our religious assumptions as a hammer! The men who were truly blind in this story were the Pharisees! They were so confident that they understood exactly what God wanted that they did not know the Son of God when they looked him in the face. As my favorite singer once said, “they forgot to remember, you might be wrong!”[i]

Using your spiritual assumptions to alienate and categorize people is a symptom of spiritual blindness. I am not saying that you cannot have certainty in your faith in Jesus Christ. What I am telling you is that we must be living lives of faith that express spiritual humility.

Participate in your salvation. Be prepared to be a new person! And live a life of spiritual humility and you will be a part of the work of God in the world.

 

[i] From the song You Might Be Wrong on an album entitled Pimps and Preachers by Paul Thorn 06/21/2010

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