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The Difficult Task of Being Free

kennedy61On January 19, 1961, it snowed in Washington D.C. and there was a suggestion that the presidential inauguration scheduled for the next day would need to be cancelled. But the morning of the 20th dawned bright, clear and cold. The inauguration of the 35th President of the United States would take place as planned.

In November of the year before, Senator John F. Kennedy had been elected president by the tiniest of margins. Richard Nixon took 49.6% of the vote. Kennedy took 49.7%. It would not have been surprising if the country remained politically divided during Kennedy’s first term. However, that did not happen. The political parties worked together!

Some of the credit for that involved the things Kennedy said on that freezing January morning. So many remarkable quotes come from that address. It is considered by some to be in the short list of the most important inaugural addresses (along side Abram Lincoln and F.D.R.).

We remember, “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Who could forget, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Perhaps the quote that is most remarkable, foreshadows the sacrifices that Kennedy and the country would make.

Early in the speech with his breath steaming in the cold, Kennedy said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose an foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Whether they agreed with his politics or not, Americans understood that freedom would continue to have a price.

The saying is, “freedom isn’t free.” Kennedy proved that was true. America has seen the truth of that over and over again. We saw that truth on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. We saw it again on September 11, 2001 in New York, Washington D.C. and in the Pennsylvania countryside. Thousands of Americans have experienced that truth in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Freedom has a price. That is true in geo-politics and it is true in the spiritual realm as well. John 8:36 says, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

And again in Galatians 5:13, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Do not misunderstand me, your eternal salvation is a freely given gift from God through the sacrifice of Jesus. It is free but will cost you everything! Your spiritual freedom, like our geo-political freedom has a cost; perhaps we should “count the cost!”

There is a good example of the cost in 1st Corinthians.

1CO 8:1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But the man who loves God is known by God.

1CO 8:4 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. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 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.

1CO 8:7 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. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

1CO 8:9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 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? 11 So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 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.

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

Here is one of the ways that we know that “first” Corinthians as we know it was not actually the first letter between this troubled congregation and the Apostle Paul. Paul directly referred to a question that they had asked. “What about eating food that has been offered as sacrifice to heathen idols?”

The city of Corinth had 16 temples and shrines. Some of them had dining facilities and meals were regularly served. An offering of food or meat was divided into thirds; one third was burned, one third was given to the priest and one third was given back to the person making the offering. Because of this, there was an abundance of food available that was the residue of heathen sacrifice. It would have been difficult to avoid!

The Corinthian Christians were asking, “is this food spiritually contaminated? Is it wrong to eat it?”

Paul’s answer is, “It’s complicated! You may think you understand the obvious answer. Before you say NO, stop and think it through.” Paul said, there was only one God, so the food sacrificed to idols was really no different than any other food.

Then in verse seven, Paul threw them a complication. Some people were so used to the sacrifices to false gods, that they could not see it any other way. If they thought eating that food was sinning against God and they did it anyway, then it was sinful! To take it one step farther, if they thought it was sinful and they saw other Christians eating in the temple restaurants, they would be encouraged to do something that they viewed as sin!

Then Paul pointed out who the real sinner was. He told them that if they used their freedom in a way that caused others to stumble, then they were the sinner!

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 (v13).

Paul taught a principle here. Their love for their brother or sister in Christ should be the motivating factor in making decisions about their own Christian liberty. Their “head” knowledge had to be overruled by their “heart” knowledge. If they loved God, then their understanding of freedom would be tempered by their compassion for others.

Well, I have not seen any of you eating at the heathen temple restaurants! Paul was dealing with a very specific problem caused by the interaction of Christian faith and secular culture. While you and I do not have the specific problem (food offered to idols) the broader question is certainly still there!

You know that because of the gift of grace through the sacrifice of Jesus, you have freedom from the punishment of sin. How do you use that freedom? And what is the cost of that freedom? Paul said to the Corinthians that the cost of that freedom was their self-interest! Because of our freedom in Christ, we must be willing to set freedom aside in an effort to aid others in seeking Christ!

Perhaps you have heard the old adage, “Love Christ and do as you please.” When you love Jesus, your desire will be to do what he finds pleasing and those things that lead others to him. Christians are constantly being told that they are hypocrites, and with good reason! We so often fail in our attempts at being Christ-like. We know we are forgiven but the world does not!

The person who passes you on highway 50 may have a “honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker, but when you respond as requested you might get a “salute” from that car that you did not expect! When the people around you are aware of your faith in Jesus you are a walking example. You are Christ’s ambassador. Flawed as we are, we must continue to show Christ’s love to the world.

The price of our freedom in Christ is placing the needs of others before ourselves. It is a challenge; a challenge worth accepting!

Sealed With the Spirit

sealedIn Memory of Alice Robinson.

Over 3,000 years ago in the city-states around the Mediterranean Sea merchants were looking for a way to prove that their shipments had arrived at their destinations without tampering. They wanted the recipients to be able to be certain that what they were receiving was exactly what had been sent without alteration.

The solution to the problem was a type of soft wax that could be applied to a scroll or container so that if the item was opened before delivery, the tampering would be obvious. In addition, they began making impressions in the wax that identified the sender. Today, those seals are an oddity, but the signet rings and stamps that marked the wax are very collectable.

Although personal paper mail is rapidly fading away, we still find ways to identify and secure both our physical mail and our electronic mail. But in the first century following the resurrection of Christ, the wax seal was the standard of proof for ownership and authenticity.

We can read about that kind of seal in the book of Ephesians. Turn with me if you will to Paul’s letter to the Christians at Ephesus: Ephesians 1:3-14.

EPH 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 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.

EPH 1:11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory.

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

The first verses of this chapter are in the form of an ancient Jewish blessing. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” could also be translated, “Blessed be the God and Father.” The word here means literally so blessed that the subject is praiseworthy. Paul told his readers that God was praiseworthy and had blessed them in some astounding ways. He had chosen them as his from the beginning. Jesus the Messiah was his method of accomplishing this blessing.

Through Jesus God’s grace had been freely given. “The riches of God’s grace” were “lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” Lavished is a wonderful word that we do not often use. It means to give great amounts without limits. That is how God gave his grace to those he had chosen for himself. Paul said he gave his people blessings they did not deserve and he gave them without limitation! Think about that for a moment.

But that is not really the portion I want to focus on today! I could not leave that out, but what I want to focus on is really verses 11-14. Allow me to read those verses again.

EPH 1:11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory.

When Paul said, “we were also chosen,” he means himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ. “We,” he says, were the first to hope in Christ. There is also an undercurrent here. Those who first hoped were Jews; the “chosen.” Remember, Paul was writing to gentiles. He said clearly that gentiles who heard the good news and believed in Jesus were “included in Christ.”

Israel had been the chosen people, but now, Paul said the criteria for being chosen had changed. That is what Jesus did! God’s chosen was very different because of Jesus. The simple act of birth into a community no longer was the ticket! The important factor was belief. When they heard the gospel (good news) they were included because they believed. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. At the moment they believed, they received the stamp; the stamp of the spirit.

Just as those ancient merchants had marked their property with a identifying seal, so Paul said these believers were marked a belonging to God because of Jesus. Certainly not with a physical mark, they were sealed with the Holy Spirit. Paul said that they gained no simple mark, but the Holy Spirit would be active evidence in their lives. He referred to the Spirit as a “deposit” on your spiritual inheritance. At the end of all things, God would redeem his pledge and somehow go even farther than “lavishing” blessing on believers.

You and I should be reading these verses in jaw-dropping awe! Sometimes I think we read Paul’s convoluted sentence structure and miss what this really means.

There was a time when people like us (gentiles) were simply outsiders and there was little or no opportunity for this kind of eternal blessing to be extended to us. We were hopeless! But because of Jesus we have more than hope! We have assurance from a faithful God that with our belief we are marked out as his! We have been sealed with his mark: the Holy Spirit.

Yet, we seldom act like it! While we should be confident in the assurance of God’s blessings, we are too often timid about our faith and stingy with the love of Jesus. It has been “lavished” on us! When you are given something without limits, should you not feel free to give it away?

These last few weeks have been very difficult. When someone you love so much is removed from your life there can be an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss. I saw remarkably admirable traits in Alice Robinson during these last days. Her sense of peace and her willingness to put herself into God’s hands showed an inner strength.

How does a tiny, frail woman show such strength? She could do it because she was marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. What an astounding legacy she left for us! May you be aware today that you too, are marked with the Spirit. We, like Alice, belong to him. Let us live our lives showing that that is true.

Christmas in Their Eyes

nativityscene

Christmas in Their Eyes: Mary

She was so tired: tired, sore, uncomfortable and still frightened. This donkey seemed to be tired too, because he had begun to stumble over the rocks and cracks that crossed their path. Each jerking movement strained her heavily pregnant body. Joseph walked on, leading the donkey and assuring her that Bethlehem was not far; it would not be long now. He had been saying that for days.

She had been afraid since the day the man came to her and told her she would have a baby. A baby, yet she had never been with a man. He told her that it was from God. She was little more than a girl, but she knew that was not normal. In the village, girls that got pregnant without a husband were cast out or even stoned to death. She wanted to do what God intended, but it was so strange! The man had said her child would be a king! How could a girl from Nazareth give birth to a king?

She went to Elizabeth, fearful of what Joseph would think. Would he blame her? Would he think that some soldier was really the father? Her older cousin had been very reassuring. By the time she came back, she was obviously pregnant. Yet, Joseph had taken her hand and pledged he would still marry her. The same man had appeared to him in a dream. When the village elders began to talk and the women of the town began to glare, Joseph came and told her they were leaving for Bethlehem. Mother and father would be left behind and a new life would begin. There was so much to be afraid of in that uncertain future.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” she told the man that day, months ago. She was determined to do God’s will. “May it be to me as you have said.”

“It won’t be long now,” Joseph said one more time. The donkey stumbled and when she thumped against his backbone, she felt a pain that started low across her stomach in spread into her back.

“It won’t be long now,” she repeated and knew that it was true.

 

Christmas in Their Eyes: Joseph

The place stank of animal manure and rotten hay. What kind of place is this to bring a baby into the world, Joseph wondered. The condescending owner of the inn had pushed them back to the lean-to barn, told them it was the only space left and then held out his hand for payment. Once again, he felt cornered. He had felt that way since he had discovered that his intended wife was pregnant. First, he felt anger, knowing that he was not the father. Then he was afraid, for both Mary and himself. The punishment could be terrible.

Then he dreamed of a man who said it was the fulfillment of God’s will. “Do not be afraid,” the man in the dream said. “What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” It was just too strange to be believed and yet, somehow, he did believe it. He wanted to believe it. Mary would be the end of his loneliness.

Now here they were in a filthy barn. He leaned on the wooden pitchfork and wiped the sweat from his forehead. In the dream, the baby would grow to be the savior of the people. That was a long way to go from this dung-filled place. At least the animals would help keep the place warm when the night chill came in off the surrounding hills.

This was certainly not the way he had thought his life would go. He had a skill that he had nurtured until the village saw him as a craftsman. It was a good way to support a family. All of that had changed. Family; that is what he had wanted. Now he would be a father to a child that was not his. Could he do that? Would they really be a family if the child was not his? He felt determined, at least, to try.

He spread fresh straw in the only empty stall, filled the manger at the back with the sweetest hay he could find and then went to Mary who was sitting by the door. She was so young, he thought as he reached out his hand to her. Her face showed a hint of fear and a crush of pain as a contraction tightened across her stomach.

“I’ve made a place for you,” he said. “It isn’t much. But it’s what God has provided.”

“Then it will suffice,” she said taking his hand.

 

Christmas in Their Eyes: Shepherd

The boy remembered what people had told him about being a shepherd. “Days of boredom and moments of terror,” they had said. After this night, he thought, that was a perfect description. He had spent his short life working beside his father watching over the sheep as the herd scoured the scrub-covered hills around Bethlehem. The days were hot and the nights were cold. Mostly, however, both were boring. The last predator had been killed here decades ago and so their job was mostly to make sure the sheep stayed together and did not wander off.

Tonight he had taken up his favorite spot on a rocky point overlooking the sheep. The stars had seemed particularly bright and with a sliver of moon, there was enough light to see their sleeping forms. He remembered pulling his cloak around him as the first night breeze slipped over the hilltop, when the sky erupted in white light. Shielding his eyes, he could make out the shape of a man and perhaps others behind him.

“Do not be afraid,” he thought he heard and as he remembered now, how absurd that seemed. What else would he be but afraid? Of course he was afraid. And then the voice said, “a Savior has been born to you; he is Messiah the Lord.” He thought he had dreamed it all until his father said they were going to town to look for the Christ.

Bethlehem’s few streets were quiet but for a few dogs barking on the edge of town. They both remembered clearly that they would find the baby, of all places, in an animal’s feed trough.

“This is crazy,” he said to his father as they looked in yet another out building. “Shouldn’t he be in a palace in Jerusalem?” Just as he asked the question, they heard unmistakable cry of a newborn.

“Here!” his father called to him as he ran across the street to the next building; a barn behind the travelers’ inn. They pushed open the door and there in a stall was the baby, wrapped up against the night air just as the voice had said. “Are you well?” his father asked.

The young mother looked up from the baby’s face and seemed to radiate joy. “We are well,” she said. “Have you come to see our baby? He’s perfect and we will name him, Jesus.” She invited him closer and of all the things the boy had seen that night, he would always remember that baby’s face. He had been bored. He had been terrified and now he was overcome with joy, all in the same night.

 

* * *

All of the central characters of the Christmas story were simple average people. It is not a story of the wealthy and powerful. It is a story of people humbly trying to honor the will of God. Each one fought their own battle with fear and they all had reason to fear. God used these unassuming people because they were willing to step through their fear and do as God desired.

God can still use people who are willing to serve him even though they are afraid or uncomfortable. Tonight, we celebrate that night so long ago when the love of God broke through into the world of average people. Tonight, joy is in the world in the person of Jesus the Christ.

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.

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