Monday, December 27, 2010

From Advent To Atonement

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you." And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Here am I and the children whom God has given me." Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989
The cradle of Bethlehem often gets in the way of us seeing the cross on a skull-shaped hill. Throughout Advent we explore the expectation and birth of our Savior. Sometimes, despite our most disciplined efforts to remain balanced during all this concentration on the sweet babe in a picturesque manger, the cross of Golgotha almost disappears.
It happens innocently enough; the cross becomes camouflaged in the wrapping paper, lights and tinsel. Unwittingly we rush through the malls and online gift-getting, all the while not suspecting the insidious capture of our focus; we are turned away from the violence of the sacrifice to the sweet caresses of Away in a Manger and Little Drummer Boy. Turned to the dark side, Skywalker!
For some of us in the “Grinch category” (and I can be that way without provocation), our trip away from Christmas’ true meaning means becoming worn-out and testy, grumping our way through the buffet lines of cookies and fruitcake.
But, for all of us, sentimentalists and grumps alike, Advent and Christmas can become a test of endurance – almost an Iron Man Triathlon event; we may wobble a bit, but if we’re still standing, physically, emotionally and financially on December 26th, we claim victory and vow it will be different next year! Sure it will!
We can be like the small boy whose family had just come home from another endless gift-hunt; it was way-past dinner time The little guy was instructed to say the grace over a micro-waved plate of leftovers; he prayed, thank you, God, for this...stuff, and forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.
Personally, I am more likely to wind-up frazzled than enamored with the crush of holiday activities. But, either way…whether you’re partied and pumped, or over-amped and pooped, this time of year calls for a course correction.
The writer of Hebrews uses a word (v.17) that calls us back to the genuine focus of Christmas – hilaskomai is translated as “atonement” (ἱλάσκομαι - to conciliate, that is, (transitively) to atone for (sin), or (intransitively) be propitious:—be merciful, make reconciliation for.[1]). With that word we move from the Christmas tree to the cross. Atonement is what happened to our sin problem on the cross; it is what blotted-out the stain of original sin. God was merciful towards all human beings in doing something which was impossible for us to do – forgive our sin. To be forgiven is not something anyone can do for himself; it has to come from the outside.
The “simple” definition (if there is to be anything simple with so complex an issue) is that we are all guilty of sin – God knows it and, because of His righteousness, must judge it – but God chooses to forgive us by grace. The “debt” of sin is still a reality – someone must “atone” or pay the price; God decided to do just that by coming to us and dying for us.
That’s what the manger was about; that’s the reason for the cross! God came in grace and mercy to do something about our sin. He didn’t come so we could sing about the sweet little baby, born in a stable – he came to die a violent sacrificial atoning death…so we could live!
The Difference
Two true stories illustrate the difference between life with or without the forgiveness Jesus came to bring with his Advent and Atonement:
Life without Forgiveness
In Bristol, England nearly 20 years ago… 10 ten year-old boys led a little toddler down a railway embankment and smashed his head in, leaving his body on the railway line. The story of the killing of Jamie Bulger was one of those events which made everyone look again at what it means to be human. These were just children, yet they were capable of this. Neither were they psychotic. Nor were they any more disturbed than many other children. The anger and desire for vengeance that came up against them was almost tangible…. Now there is a chance that they may be released. They were children at the time of the murder. They have spent the rest of their childhood away from their families in an institution, locked away from the rest of society. Jamie Bulger’s mother wants them to be locked up for the rest of their lives — arguing that her child cannot walk free back into her arms. They took her son’s life, they should not have their lives. Even if they are released, there is a strong risk that they might get killed by vigilantes, so in one respect they will never be truly free.[2]
Our sin is just as “first-degree” as that group of boys who snuffed out the life of a toddler. And, we are just as captive by the penalty of our sin as they are of their prison made with iron bars. Without forgiveness, we are slaves to sin and death; no chance of parole from eternal death! Forgiveness requires atonement.
The Forgiven Life
The second true story is from Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a famous plastic surgeon:
One day, a woman came to see Dr. Maltz about her husband. She told the doctor that her husband had been injured while attempting to save his parents from a burning house. He couldn't get to them. They both were killed, and his face was burned and disfigured. He had given up on life and gone into hiding. He wouldn't let anyone see him - not even his wife. Dr. Maltz told the woman not to worry. With the great advances we've made in plastic surgery in recent years, he said, I can restore his face.
She explained that he wouldn't let anyone help him because he believed God disfigured his face to punish him for not saving his parents. Then she made a shocking request: I want you to disfigure my face so I can be like him! If I can share in his pain, then maybe he will let me back into his life. I love him so much; I want to be with him. And if that is what it takes; then that is what I want to do.
Of course, Dr. Maltz would not agree, but he was moved deeply by that wife's determined and total love. He got her permission to try to talk to her husband. He went to the man's room and knocked, but there was no answer. He called loudly through the door, I know you are in there, and I know you can hear me, so I've come to tell you that my name is Dr. Maxwell Maltz. I'm a plastic surgeon, and I want you to know that I can restore your face.
There was no response. Again, he called loudly, Please come out and let me help restore your face. But again, there was no answer. Still speaking through the door, Dr. Maltz told the man what his wife was asking him to do. She wants me to disfigure her face, to make her face like yours in the hope that you will let her back into your life. That's how much she loves you. That's how much she wants to help you!
There was a brief moment of silence, and then ever so slowly, the doorknob began to turn. The disfigured man came out to make a new beginning and to find a new life. He was set free, brought out of hiding, given a new start by his wife's love. It's a dramatic expression of human love that gives us a picture, however faint, of the saving love of Jesus Christ, what we call the Atonement.[3]
That’s what this table is for…atonement, because of the great love Jesus has for you; it brings forgiveness and freedom…for you! So, come and dine…In the name of the Father, because of the Son, cooperating with the Spirit. Amen.
[1] Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries ©2003, QuickVerse
[2] quoting Paul Roberts, “Sacrifice of blood and lives,” November 19, 2000, Cothan Parish Church Web Site, Reprinted with permission.
[3], quoting Maxie Dunnam, This Is Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 60-61.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Asking the Hard Question

Matthew 11:2-3
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
James 5:7-8a
7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also must be patient.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989

Have you ever wondered at some point in your life, Am I doing the right thing, making the right choice? How do you know if you’re doing right or choosing well when it comes to that job or a major decision that affects your family? How do people make the right choices when the doctor says there’s no hope? We wonder, don’t we?
John the Baptist wondered too. He had just gotten done preaching how Messiah would come in power and judgment, harvest-sickle flashing and slashing. Now Jesus has come; John has declared Him the Son of God – and, instead of cleaning house Jesus is preaching love your enemies and turn the other cheek. It is little wonder John had doubts!
Where was this Messiah who was going to set everything right and punish sinners? Marc Axelrod wrote:
But instead of preaching brimstone, Jesus preached grace. Instead of punishing sinners, He reached out to sinners. Instead of ushering in a political kingdom, Jesus preached about a heavenly kingdom.
And John was confused. “Why is Jesus letting the Herods of this world get away with murder? Why is he letting an innocent man like me sit here in this prison? Why is He letting my life come to an end like this? Are you the One who was to come? Or should we expect someone else?”
We do have those kinds of questions, don’t we?
Questions reveal what’s inside; like running to the water fountain reveals your need to quench a deep thirst after playing basketball for four hours straight. Honest searching questions about (or to) God – do not reveal a lack of faith; they reveal a longing for faith to be strong.
I believe God had Matthew write this account of John the Baptist’s struggling faith because the main focus of the Gospel is faith in Jesus. We begin life in the Spirit by faith, and the Bible tells us in at least three of Paul’s writings[2] that we continue that life by faith.
The Bible’s message on following Jesus is all about faith! So, let’s focus on the faith that drove John’s question, and the answer Jesus gave him.
I. John’s Question is Like Our Questions
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:2-3 (NRSV)
One commentary posed an interesting question about John’s question: Isn't it fascinating to realize that if John was going to believe Jesus was the Messiah, he would have to do so the exact same way we do: by believing what OTHER people report about Jesus and his ministry! John himself was not able to hear Jesus' words directly nor could he witness a single miracle in person. John would just have to believe the testimony of the disciples, which is all we have to go on, too. We have to believe that what the disciples claim they saw and heard is the truth.[3] So our questions are exactly like John’s.
The real issue is – what drives such questions? In our Wednesday Conversation this week we focused on John’s reasons for questioning Jesus. John asked, “Are you the one?” John was expecting a political ruler as well as God’s spiritual Messiah; he was looking for someone who would literally sit on David’s throne. Jesus just didn’t fit that mold and it probably confused the Baptist no end.
Perhaps John’s question was designed to help Jesus get back on track, or even force his hand. John may have imagined that a little shove in the right political direction was all his cousin may have needed to pick up God’s ball and carry it.
A man was driving the winding mountainous road home late one night. He swerved on one hazardous turn and the car crashed through the guard rail and went sailing off into the night over the cliff. The man was thrown from the car and he managed to grab onto a small branch growing out of the mountainside. When he caught his breath and realized he wasn’t dead he began to check out the surroundings.
Holding tight to the branch he looked down at a straight drop of 300 feet; he looked up at a 20-foot climb with nothing to hold onto. There he dangled between heaven and the hard earth.
The man figured he was done-for, so he began crying out to God: “Hello, God. Are you up there somewhere? If you can hear me, I’m sorry I ever doubted you. If you’ll get me out of this mess I’ll be good. I’ll go to church and serve on committees; man, I’ll even tithe!” Suddenly a voice from above said,
“I hear you, my son – and I will help you…let go of the branch”.
“Uh, Lord, it’s a 300-foot drop.”
“I know – trust me and I’ll help you…let go of the branch.”
--- a 10 second pause followed, and the man then said:
“Is there anyone else up there?”
“Are you really the one?” John asked. “Or is there anyone else up there? If I stake my life and eternity on you, can I count on you, or am I hollering down a dry well?”
What drove John’s question was the same thing that drives ours – fear. Trusting someone else is hard enough when it’s something little like repairing your car or fixing the garbage disposal. But having confidence in the decision of all decisions – what do I do with my soul? – now that makes us fearful…or it should.
So…it comes down to this about your soul – you can ask “is there anyone else up there” – or you can decide to trust what Jesus has done for you and trust your eternity to Him.
It’s a leap of faith…because it comes down to either believing and being saved…or back-pedaling away from faith, and being lost forever! Salvation through faith is available to anyone who asks, but it is most certainly everyone’s individual decision to make.
John’s question was asked so he could get off the roller coaster of doubt. His was the kind of question a man asks when he doubts; but it is a kind of holy question that wants to haul that doubt onto the examination table to deal openly with what causes him to doubt. Jesus gave John an answer that spoke to John’s faith.
If we will listen, it will speak to us too, because…
II. Jesus’ Answer is Still His Answer
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Matthew 11:4-5
John is in prison and has one simple question for Jesus – Just answer this one thing and I can die a happy man; Are YOU the Messiah? And what does Jesus say…He tells the condemned man to figure it out for himself! Really great, eh?
I used to wonder why Jesus just couldn’t give his poor imprisoned cousin John a straight answer; just tell him “yes” or “no” Jesus! But we serve a God who never wastes an opportunity to increase our faith. Had Jesus just given a simple “yes” John would have been in the same spot, and still wondering to this day! But, by pointing to the evidence, Jesus kept the issue of faith and personal decision in the forefront. John had to exercise his faith in Jesus, or be content with his unbelief.
Jesus’ indirect answer to John helps us understand the very same answer today because Jesus asks us the same question he asked the disciples….Who do YOU say that I am?
In other words, Jesus tells us mortals, prisoners of our own sinful nature and this lost world, that our task here on earth is to consider the evidence…which is:
Jesus has done it all – healed the deaf, blind, disabled and even raised the dead…and by Easter morning his sacrifice would be the final proof that a dead man really would live again. The sacrifice would make it possible for us to know God, and to be saved from our sins.
Our task is to come close to God and experience his love just as certainly as the blind, deaf and dead felt the compassionate touch of Jesus two thousand years ago. The Psalmist gave us the same advice:
O taste and see that the LORD is good; Psalm 34:8a
Jesus isn’t hiding, but if you want to find out how good he really is, you’ve got to taste that goodness personally…nobody else can use your taste buds!
John’s Question is Our Question
John was waiting, along with all the other Israelites, for a Messiah that would come and take over – politically. He wanted Jesus to come and clean up the mess that is our world. How is that any different twenty centuries later?
Nothing much has really changed in that department. Every four years we elect a president, hoping that this one will be different, but they’re not. We hope against hope – but even the most politically-adept of men fall short. We are disappointed again! And so we look upward; and we hope that Jesus will come back and clean up the mess. We’re the same as John. John’s question is also our question; and so…
IS He the ONE? I mean, is He the ONE for YOU?
But John wasn’t the only one who asked questions on that day. Jesus had a question for the people …he asked, what did you think you were going to see when you went out to see John? He asks us the same question about why we’re here today; what would you tell him?
· Did you come here today because there is an emptiness in you that drove you here?
· Do you experience tiredness with the things of this world; does it leave you ragged and hopeless? All that Christmas hustle and rush?
· Are you wondering if it’s all true – the cross and empty tomb?
· Have you tried everything else and now there’s nowhere else to turn?
Answer to the Hard Question in a Silent Movie
Charlie Chaplin was the great silent film star. In one movie he plays a prisoner being transported to jail, but the boat shipwrecks. At the film’s beginning he is sitting on a beach looking at the clasp around his leg attaching him to a ball and chain. The whole film is about his relationship to that ball and chain, and his attempts to escape from its grasp.
First he tries telling jokes to distract his captor leg irons; then, when its guard is down he tries to run away, but at the end of the length of chain, he falls face-down in the sand.
Then he tries to outsmart it, nonchalantly walking away…again he falls down in the sand. Then he tries to reason with the ball and chain – he talks to it! Down again!
Finally, at the end of his patience, he pretends the ball and chain are not there. He kicks sand over it, and for a while it looks as if his problem has vanished. Thinking he has solved his dilemma, he strides to the end of the chain. Down he goes!
At this point the insight finally dawns. Like a light turning on in Chaplin’s head he realizes that he cannot solve the problem alone. If he is going to be helped, it has to come from the outside. The movie closes with him looking upward for rescue.[4]
If you’re struggling, go ahead, look upward, and ask the question –
Are you the one…or is there someone, something, some experience that’s better?
Let me assure you, you’ll get the same answer John got – God’s big enough to handle your questions, so go ahead, judge for yourself…
You judge; whatever you CAME here to see, our prayer is that you will not LEAVE here before having chosen to believe in Jesus Christ; Look upward, and take a leap of faith.
In the name of the Father, because of the Son, cooperating with the Spirit.
[1] Mark Axelrod, Second Thoughts About Jesus, on
[2] Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38
[3] This Week in Preaching at The Center for Excellence in Preaching

Sunday, December 5, 2010

December 5, 2010

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' " 4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989
Parades are inevitable; they are part of our culture. When it comes time to celebrate it is mandatory that we form a line and everybody gets to see the show as it marches by. I’ve watched a lot of parades, and been in a few. Parades are fun; the floats are elaborate, sometimes tacky. The uniforms and marching bands are entertaining. Best of all are the balloon characters!
There is, however, one character you will never see in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade or the Christmas Rose Bowl parade - You will never see a John the Baptist balloon figure!
He probably doesn’t show up at many holiday parties either.
One author characterized John as the kind of Advent guest that forces you to wonder either what in the world is wrong with HIM or what in the world is wrong with YOU.[1]
John the Baptist was many things –
· Exciting – the crowds followed
· Entertaining – people love a good show
· Eccentric – loved the camel-hair suit (but, John, eating locusts?)
· Enigmatic – hard to figure out his style why he lambasted both the spiritual and political leaders of his day…but most of all John was just plain…
If there’s one thing that is certain about John’s message, it’s that to whomever he speaks, John is requiring change, metanoia. Metanoia is the Greek word translated “repentance” in our text. It’s much more than just feeling sorry for what you’ve done in the past – it is a turning away from that past. Everything is affected…all you think, all you love, all you want and don’t want – everything! [2]
Everything about John’s preaching was about “repentance”. His was an unsettling message; he was an unsettling man. He is the epitome of (supposedly) what a preacher must be – he brought comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the “comfortable”!
Now, the Pharisees were the comfortable – the “fat cats” of society. And this begs the question before the house…and I so move it…
Why Were They There?
Of course the “they” includes two different groups…the general populace as well as the religious rulers. Why did people go to John? In our Wednesday conversation this week our group explored three possibilities:
1. There were those who were Curious – many people understood their need of being forgiven, and this would have been the main reason common folk followed after John. It was typical for an Israelite to be looking for the Messiah. John’s preaching was announcing the coming of Messiah’s kingdom. People believed!
2. There were those who were Critical – of course this would include unbelievers of the common class, but mostly here we see the Pharisees who rejected John’s message outright.
They were educated in the Scriptures enough to understand that John was quoting Isaiah and other prophets, but John’s message of repentance had “Pharisees” written all over it, and it ruffled their feathers!
Some of them got it, and eventually changed (Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea to name a few). But the more critical were those who were looking for an opportunity to discredit John (the same thing they later tried to do to Jesus). One preacher offered a graphic word picture of the response of John to the Pharisees who approached him:
Of course, like all preachers, John didn't get through to everybody. Some who came to the Jordan with no intention of getting taken in by this man stuck to that determination pretty fiercely. The religious leaders provided John the opportunity to cut loose with his strongest language. "Sneaky snakes!" John fairly howled! "Somebody set the field on fire and out slithered you all! Well, I'm here to tell you that the days of resting on your laurels are over. Don't whip out your Members Only temple gold card – your theological credentials cut no ice with me! Don't tell me about your spiritual lineage or that you are Abraham's children because if God wanted more children of Abraham, he'd turn the stones into a whole bunch of them. But that's just the problem, isn't it? Your hearts are as dead as stone already. God wants living trees producing juicy spiritual fruit. If I were you, I'd get serious about that because I'm here to lay the groundwork and clear a path for Somebody big and strong who is coming any minute now. He's coming with a very sharp axe in his hand and he will chop down and burn to ashes dead trees like you all!"[3]
The religious professionals got dressed down like a ten year old boy whose father just caught him smoking behind the barn. John pulled no punches. As a 21st century “religious professional” I make it my business to read this passage often enough to keep a good perspective on what God thinks about religious professionals!
Some were curious, some critical, and…
3. Everybody was Cautious – This group would include both of the two previous groups…everybody. In fact, it includes us. The ones who submitted to John’s call to repent were obviously cautious for their souls; they wanted to be right with God.
But, those who outright rejected John’s call to repent…they also knew that they stood in need of God’s forgiveness. We are born, as St. Augustine wrote, with a God-shaped hole on the inside; we cannot be at rest until that is filled – and it cannot be filled with anything but a right relationship with God.
So that is the main reason why they were there…they were cautious, worried about their souls…and that spawns a larger question which the truth begs:

If That’s Why They Were There…Why Are We Here?
And an even more important corollary…
How Will We Go Away From Here? What Decisions Will We Make Today?
The answers are pretty much the same for this century as for twenty centuries ago….some will resist God and some will submit. We came here today curious and nervous, or critical and negative…but deep-down inside we all showed-up cautious, knowing that inner, eternal part of us (that part which defines who we are, and how we will spend eternity), needs attention – needs to have a right relationship with God to fill the void inside….that emptiness, without God, hurts – and we know that only God can heal that emptiness!
John told all who would listen what to do – metanoia (repent). That’s an inside job…has nothing to do with outward appearances, what people think of you, or even whether you’re a Methodist, Baptist or Episcopalian. It has to do with whether you will submit to God as God; will you take yourself off the throne and give Him glory? Repentance is knowing – and acknowledging with your life – who is God….and who is NOT God. Here are the only two choices before you…
Choice #1: Resist like a Pharisee
The chief resistance is a refusal to change – or more accurately, to let God change you. The Pharisees had no intention of humbling themselves to change things so that the poor would not be so poor, or the powerless would not be so helpless; they liked the status quo. They resisted the Spirit of God, and thereby distorted God’s mission to serve their institution. To them, their institution, the temple and all that power, was more important than God. That was the main reason John told them their “status” as Abraham’s descendants meant nothing.
Bottom line…if you won’t humble yourself to God, if He doesn’t come first in everything….no matter how uncomfortable it may be to make the changes He requires…you’re not worshiping God, you’re worshiping yourself.
Choice #2: Submit to His Baptism
If metanoia is an inside job, this is the outside – this is what people will see. This baptism – of becoming part of the visible church – is humbling. When you join the church you are asked if you repent – metanoia; if you will turn your back on your previous life like it is a corpse to be buried and left that way.
You are asked to promise to give financially, give your service, pray, worship faithfully and be God’s witness in this world by the way you live and in your relationships with others.
Now, God, and every human being with the common sense of a turnip know you cannot keep every one of those promises perfectly – some you can, but you will mess up, and there will be more “metanoia” in your future. But the point is that it is a beginning point. Baptism is a dip in the cold water of reality; living-out that baptism is a daily journey that stretches out into eternity, day-by-day!
That means there will be changes along the way; the churchy word is transformation. And that is different than reformation. To have re-formation is to rearrange some things, like dusting the furniture….you stop smoking, drinking, and all the other bad habits (except the ones you really enjoy, and can get away with if nobody’s looking). Trans-formation is when God changes you.
John Wesley had mega doses of reformation – he worked so hard to be right with God. He studied languages, theology….served as a missionary and preacher. He did all he could; yet it took a humbling moment at Aldersgate one winter night to teach him that it was God who did the transforming, not Wesley. It warmed his heart – a strange experience for a methodical, hard-working zealot of reformation!
You and I are here today because we care for our souls. The transformation of God is available…we must simply submit….inside-out. And that’s how he changes you…from the inside-out…you will feel it, and others will see it.
C.S. Lewis once said, Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.[4]
That’s why they were there – and that’s why you’re here, to make an infinite, eternally-important choice
In the name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit
[1] Scott Hoezee, The Center for Excellence in Preaching,
[2] See Ben Witherington, Asbury Theological SeminaryWilmore, Kentucky on
[3] Scott Hoezee, The Center for Excellence in Preaching,

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jesus; Preeminent

11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989

A preacher once spoke on what Paul said about “giving thanks to the Father”. After the service a woman leaving the church said to the minister, “I enjoyed that sermon.” The minister replied to her, “Don’t thank me. Thank the Lord”. She said, “It wasn’t that good!”[1]
Paul’s “sermon” to the Colossian believers paints a graphic picture of just who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means to us. Paul holds up for us the preeminent Christ.

What does it mean when you say that “Jesus is preeminent”? Primarily it means that (as Paul says in verse 18) Jesus has first place in everything. That’s what it means when we use the medieval term “Lord” as applied to Jesus. Consider just how appropriate that term “Lord” is:

Jesus is the lord over the universe, because He created it. The scripture says that "For by him all things were created....and in him all things hold together." Jesus is lord over HIS universe.
Zig Ziglar is a successful salesman and motivational speaker. I attended a service where he told of seeking God for an answer to his questions. He later saw a shooting star, and understood it to be God's answer to him, planned out years ago, when the star actually burned-out. He said, "That seemed to be saying to me, 'I Am...I created and I control...And don't you forget it!'"

The fact that Jesus controls is sometimes forgotten; especially for believers. We see such heartache, and wrong - we forget He's still in command. And He's not worried; He is LORD over the universe.

The reality of the church is that it was ESTABLISHED by Jesus' death and resurrection; He is Lord of it. Jesus is enthroned because he established HIS church.

A young man went to a preacher and blurted-out in great distress, "Pastor, can you tell me what I need to do to find peace?" The minister replied, "Young man, you’re too late." "I'm too late to be saved?" "No," said the preacher, "but you're too late to do anything. Jesus did everything that needed to be done twenty centuries ago." That is why He is in charge.

He is Lord of the universe, and Lord of the church. Yet, in spite of all His grandeur, power, and authority, He has still ordained that it is up to each of us, individually, whether...

With the entire universe to rule, and the right to do anything He wants, why does Jesus want to be lord over my heart? Well, quite frankly, it has to do with love. Note in John 3:16 that God loved us so much He sent Jesus to be our Savior. God had a purpose in mind; and that purpose is found in Col 1:20 (Making peace between the Creator and the Creation), and Col 1:22, cleansing us, making us free from accusation. God loves us so much He wants to take away the guilt and shame of our sin, and replace it with joy, love and peace. WHAT A DEAL!

There is a prerequisite to receiving that peace. It tells us in Paul’s letter[2] that all people were alienated, enemies of God because of sin. That means that reconciliation must take place.

When families come to me for counsel because there is a dispute, there must be reconciliation. I tell them that someone must make a way. One of the family members HAS to take the first step in loving the others. Until there is movement, no one can get closer.
With the sin that separates us from God, He took the first step. Paul says[3] that the bodily death of Jesus provided the way of reconciliation with God. Our only step is to receive that.

The barometer of Christianity is relationship to the Master – and that is based upon reconciliation. Lordship is the final description of who Jesus is to Christians. A most appropriate illustration of this is the Lord's Prayer. We say, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done." It is not wishful thinking ("I hope Your kingdom will come soon, Lord")....Rather it is a statement of what we want to accomplish this day ("Father, I want to obey Your will completely today, and be right in the center of Your kingdom!") That is Lordship!

You might say, I don't want to make that kind of resolution to belong to Jesus; I might not be able to keep it. Good news, friend...None of us can keep it. It is HE who keeps us! We all fail. Resolutions don't reflect your ability, they reflect your heart. And that's what the lord of the universe, the church, and millions of hearts is after....just our hearts!

You can begin – right now…today - a lifetime of relationship to the preeminent Lord of the universe and church. You simply entrust all of who you are to Jesus with a simple prayer.
It can be as simple as this, Lord, be Lord of my heart.

And then, since He’s Lord of the universe, the church and your heart, he is also Lord of the table; come, the table is for you!

In the name of the Father
Because of the Son
Cooperating with the Spirit
[1] Robert S. Smith, Kane, Pennsylvania, Christian Reader, “Lite Fare.”
[2] Colossians 1:21
[3] Colossians 1:22

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Small....But Included

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and, "The time is near!' Do not go after them. "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989

The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson wrote about an experience of a man and his eight year old son. They were driving through the dark night of Arkansas. As they looked up at all the vastness of the sky and millions of stars shining bright, there was silence, so the father asked the boy, "What are you feeling?" His young son responded, "I feel small but included."[1]

Included in God’s grand scheme; that is an awesome thought you would not expect from an third-grade boy. I think perhaps we’ve all felt the smallness of being just one little person amongst billions; so small in the eternal, unending universe…but, included? That is a VERY deep eight year old!

If you will, imagine another scene – Jesus and his disciples have been hanging-out at the Temple, the most venerated place in Hebrew culture, and Israel’s most central hub of identity as the people of God. To a Jew the Temple was everything; it marked the place of God – the place where the presence of Jehovah came to meet with them. It was the place where you could find forgiveness and hope. It was there they felt most “included” in God’s great plan for humankind.

Jesus’ followers were not city dwellers; they gawked at the hubbub of Jerusalem and the Temple like Gomer Pyle in New York City….Sha – zaam! Gol-leee! They asked Jesus, “What about all this? Isn’t the temple incredible? Jesus, did you see those stone walls and the altars; did you notice the architecture?”

But Jesus was not pleased! And with the seriousness of a friend, who was about to risk losing his best friends, Jesus warned the disciples that, soon…every stone holding that Temple together would crumble to the ground.

Catching the Wind
For the disciples, understanding Jesus was like “catching the wind”. If standing near the Temple they were like tourists at Disney World, just think how they must have looked at Jesus after he punctured their bubble; they thought he had lost his mind! Jesus told them they were in for a rough ride. The Temple would be destroyed and they would be persecuted outcasts – misfits in society and even betrayed by some in their own families. Following him would cost them everything; for some it meant they would be executed, martyred for bearing the name of Christ. Had I been Jesus’ campaign manager I think I would have advised him to go easy on the “Black Friday” predictions. His image was beginning to slip!

In our day we can see the rest of the story through the eyes of perspective. We know that Jesus didn’t have the earthly Temple in mind, but rather a New Jerusalem that would be far superior to anything we can imagine.

The disciples had no PhD’s, but neither were they stupid; Jesus was merely re-directing their focus; he told them to get their eyes off the Temple – it was in the process of crumbling. He discussed the end of time, but that wasn’t even his main focus.

Instead, Luke tells us[2], Jesus focused his attention and teaching on a widow who brought her tiny offering to the temple. Remember the widow’s two “mites”? What could be so interesting or noteworthy of one insignificant little woman dropping a nickel in the offering plate? Why did Jesus make such a big deal of it?

That’s the hard question here, isn’t it? Consider the proportions – a widow’s tithe, less than a blip on the radar screen of high finance, but highlighted and underlined in red by the Savior. Consider that against the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple and the national survival of Israel itself? Jesus…where is your sense of history, of priority…what are you thinking? Here’s what he was thinking:

The widow was small…but included; the Temple – was huge…but excluded!

This is the re-direction we often find as a Christ-follower. Jesus was trying to get his disciples to get their mind’s-eye off the padded pews of the Temple and look at the genuinely-sacrificial discipleship of this woman, who probably went unnoticed every day of her life. Forget the magnificent Temple walls; they’re only a frame for this woman’s love of God.

Our Re-Direction

Sometimes, in all the busyness of what we do around here, I get caught-up short with the Temple syndrome…programs, attendance, staff issues, meetings and the like. Then…along comes the tinkling sound of a widow’s mite in the offering plate; it wakes me – no – it startles me! Sometimes it shakes me (as it should) from my gaze at the pews, programs and budgets, and makes me focus on the mission…instead of all the things that are frames for the mission.
The tinkling – or rattling – this time was our Bishop’s call in this year’s Charge Conference for us to do something revitalizing. (I do hope Bishop Goodpaster will forgive my comparison of his leadership to a widow’s nickel! But that is how “small” things wind up including you). Our Administrative Council kicked it around for a whole meeting several weeks ago, exactly how we are going to work on allowing God to revitalize us. We had to meet a second time (and get some outside help) to focus on what to do. After hours of deliberation and weeks of prayer we settled on using a five-week process for helping us re-focus. It’s called, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.

Importantly, this process meets the criteria for goal-setting – it is do-able for everyone, comprehensive, measurable and sustainable. In short – we can do this! And, if we cooperate, it will have lasting positive effects on us, which can have a transforming effect on our community.

Although we will begin this emphasis just after the first of the year, I want to give you a brief “thumb-nail” sketch[3] of what this renewal focus is all about, so each of us can begin to focus our thinking in these directions. This outline is like an appetizer before a five course meal…a foretaste of great things to come:
1. Radical Hospitality
Congregations that practice Radical Hospitality demonstrate an active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ. Radical describes that which is drastically different from ordinary practices, outside the normal, that which exceeds expectations and goes the second mile. We can do this!

2. Passionate Worship
The word passionate expresses an intense desire, an ardent spirit, strong feelings, and the sense of heightened importance. Congregations who practice Passionate Worship offer their utmost and highest; they expect worship to be the most important hour of the week. We can do this!

3. Intentional Faith Development
Intentional Faith Development refers to all the ministries that help us grow in faith outside of weekly worship, such as bible studies, Sunday School classes, support groups, and prayer teams. Congregations who practice Intentional Faith Development offer opportunities for people to learn in community for people at all stages of faith. They offer ministries that help people grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. Intentional refers to deliberate effort, purposeful action, and high priority. We can do this!

4. Risk-Taking Mission & Service
Mission and Service refers to the projects, efforts, and work people do to make a positive difference in the lives of others for the purposes of Christ, whether or not they will ever become part of the community of faith. Risk-taking pushes us out of our comfort zone, stretching us beyond service to people we already know, exposing us to people, situations, and needs that we would never ordinarily encounter apart from our deliberate intention to serve Christ. We can do this!

5. Extravagant Generosity
Generosity describes the Christian’s unselfish willingness to give in order to make a positive difference for the purposes of Christ. Congregations that practice Extravagant Generosity provide ministries that address our spiritual need to give in ways that exceed all expectations and extend to unexpected measures. Fruitful congregations thrive because of extraordinary sharing, willing sacrifice, and joyous giving out of love for God and neighbor. We can do this!
For the disciples there was one up-side to the whole bleak picture – Jesus told them it would be OK…even though they would go through a rough patch, and life would get dicey and hard, he would be with them, and it would come out better than they could imagine. And then he gave them the punch-line: there was a purpose to it all! All the bad stuff, obstacles, opposition, sacrifices and frustrations were going to have a payoff; notice verse 13…This will give you an opportunity to testify.
I know they didn’t say it out loud, but can’t you just imagine what Peter, John and Bartholomew were thinking: “Sure, easy for you to say, Jesus; we’re gonna get creamed, busted and maybe killed, and you’re saying we’re gonna have an opportunity to get the executioner saved before he brings the axe down on our necks; we feel so much better now.”
And that’s what it’s like when you’ve got your eye on the Temple instead of the kingdom; you forget that the kingdom is all about the small klink of widow’s mites faithfully hitting the offering plate week after week. It isn’t the spectacular – it’s the small that Jesus includes; it’s what our Bishop called “God-Sightings” – traces of the hand of God in individual lives, transformed to become faithful disciples, when congregations, made up of people acting in radical hospitality because of passionate worship and intentional development of their faith, take risks to do mission and service with extravagant generosity! That is what a FRUITFUL congregation looks like!
I want to finish with an encouragement to you all about what our Administrative Council has mapped-out for us in choosing the Five Practices.
This past Monday I was in a meeting with other pastors and our District Superintendent. One of the pastors was Sonny Reavis, pastor of Ward Street UMC. Our church took part in a “God-sighting” there earlier this year as men from our church helped in the renovation of their mission house. Sonny shared with the gathered pastors how when he and his bride were first married they lived in an apartment. They wanted a pet, but knew an apartment pet would have to be different than for a house or farm. They went to several different pet stores to ask about apartment pets. They got a consistent recommendation….so they got a skunk! It was de-scented, of course, but not everyone knew it.
Skunks are nocturnal, so this one slept in the bathroom all day and came out after dark to haunt the apartment. One evening, just before dark, an uninvited door-to-door salesman knocked at the door. He was pushy! Sonny and spouse are nice people so they let the man in. After an hour or so of presenting what he wanted to sell, he asked to use the bathroom. Sonny didn’t tell their visitor about the bathroom also being a nest. It only took a few seconds after the salesman went in – he came OUT, picked up his stuff and left without a word!
A God-sighting is the evidence that God is on the scene, working to save, heal, educate, love, and to challenge his children to do the same. The difficulties we face in doing ministry and what we might fear in this world are the same things people have always feared, and they are exactly what Jesus said would give us the opportunity to testify of His great love and grace and mercy.
We have a big job ahead, and, frankly, the world with all its troubles, poverty, sickness, racism, sexism and perversion smells a little like it’s full of skunks hiding everywhere….but it’s just our invitation and opportunity to testify!
We are small…but included in God’s great plan. We are especially included in Franklinville. A child who hasn’t eaten in six days isn’t particularly concerned with where that next meal is coming from; she is worried that it won’t come! She isn’t concerned about replacing her wardrobe for this fall; she’s thinking about keeping warm tonight. She probably wouldn’t care what kind of music we played here today, inside these walls; but she just might consider coming inside these walls if it meant a warm, safe place to sleep. She feels so small….she wonders if even she is included in God’s plan. Is there someone here who will tell her…you are!
These walls are not the church; they are but the frame for the church. You are the church. Each of us is small…but included. All of what we did forty years ago to minister to this community and world are reminders of what we must do now; they are frames for how we will respond to the need of this community.
We talk of God-sightings….may it be that God HAS sightings of us, radically-hosting our community, passionately worshipping Him, intentionally seeking out ways of developing our faith, undertaking mission and service no matter the risks, with the most extravagant generosity.
Like the woman who rushed to the feet of Jesus…may our pathway be strewn with broken alabaster boxes, anointing the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, by serving and loving as He came to love us…the small…but included!

In the name of the Father
Because of the Son
Cooperating with the Spirit

[1] The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson,, Promise and Paradise
[2] Note verses 1-4
[3] This outline list is from Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Bishop Robert Schnase, Abingdon Press, 2007

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Stand Firm In Your Faith

1As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 (NRSV)
13But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. 16Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word. 2 Thessalonians 2:13 - 17 (NRSV)
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989

We live in an age of uncertainty and stress. There’s a lot of confusion in our culture; our mental state is always up for debate. The numbers on sanity tell us that one-quarter of Americans suffer from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends; if they're okay, then it's you.[1]

In the early church there was a lot of confusion about the return of Jesus – when, how, where would it be? After the resurrection, Jesus had told his disciples that he would return; many were convinced it would be right away, just a matter of weeks or months. Some were doubting that Jesus would ever come back; it was causing the kind of confusion that corrodes faith. It’s hard to stand firm in your faith when you’re confused about what to believe.

In our text today we read how Paul gave the church some information about the second coming to help calm their worries. To go along with the explanation, he gives them an exhortation to help them stand firm in their faith.

We can benefit from Paul’s advice, because it is ageless; first he tells them:

1. Let Faith INFORM Reason

The believers at Thessalonica were familiar with Old Testament prophecies about the Day of the Lord. They had heard Paul talk about the Good Shepherd coming back for His sheep, and an eternal state of happiness. But, increasingly, political pressure and persecution in Thessalonica made some of the church folk think they must have slept right through the rapture, and now they were in the middle of the Great Tribulation. They were worried and upset (I would be also)!

In a church I once served there was generally a staff of three in the building: Patsy the secretary, Sandy the youth and children’s minister, and the warden, me. One day, at a particularly still and quiet moment, there was an incredible BOOM that shook the building. Sandy and I hit the hallway at the same time – we looked like two “does in the headlights”. Patsy was nowhere to be found. We called her name, checked her office, and went upstairs to look for her in the sanctuary (or anywhere) – nothing! I never admitted it to anyone, but as we continued our frantic search I remember thinking to myself, “Oh MAN…the rapture’s come and the only one who made it is the church secretary!” We later found her outside, gazing over to the far reaches of the church property where they were excavating with dynamite; she was just taking a break.
When it comes to our first instincts, most of us do the opposite of what Scripture teaches, which is to let our faith in God govern our decisions.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;[2]

Instead, we tend to let our “reason” (common sense) take over; that always causes faith to fizzle. That happened in Thessalonica, and it happens today. Back then there were church members who looked around at the persecution and tough times and reasoned, in their minds, that the great tribulation was at hand. But their “reason” was working against their faith!

Jesus had told the apostles the truth about the last times; he said there would be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famine and more[3]. The apostles had passed that information along to the churches. Unfortunately there were those who wanted to question and doubt everything Jesus had clearly said. They had more faith in their intellect than faith in what God had said.

The apostle Jude called believers who trust their mind (rather than their God) “scoffers”, following their “mere natural instincts”[4]. Mere natural instincts! That’s what happens when your “reason” governs your faith. We do that because it’s simply easier to deal with our powers of reasoning, which is based upon that which we can see. We trust what we can see. Faith, on the other hand, is the evidence of the unseen. We can’t see an apple in a seed, but in faith we trust enough to plant it!
We need to learn to trust the truth of the faith once delivered to the saints.[5] How do we do that? How do I learn to exercise faith when my mind is screaming...“Hey, dodo, where’s the proof?” If you’ll excuse the slang, it just takes a flying leap! Really!

I am not talking about faith being totally-blind or uninformed walking around like a zombie expecting radio waves from some unseen planet giving you guidance. Faith, for each individual, is a matter of investigating all that God has said on an issue, and, (because most faith issues can’t be proven with our reasoning ability), then you just have to take a step out into unsupported territory and believe…because you choose to believe; faith is an informed and trusting flying leap into God’s care!

There is something of a parallel in golf. When you swing the club, you’re supposed to keep your eye on that little white ball. If you try to peek where the shot is going to go before you actually swing the club, you will mess-up your swing; you’ll hit it wrong, or miss it altogether! Keeping your eye on the ball is a matter of trusting your swing. Nobody can prove to you that it will be better that way…but it is! Faith in your swing has to inform your reasoning about wanting to peek.

Paul told the folk at Thessalonica that faith has got to govern your reason when it comes to standing firm in Christ. He also said:

2. Let Faith INTERPRET the Times

Paul reminded the people to beware of deceivers. The word “deceive” means to seduce or turn.[6] The expression, don’t let her turn your head comes to mind. Deception is what turns our eyes away from the truth. Con men count on deception; shell games deceive the eye; Avon and Mary Kay hide the years; larger jeans and sweat shirts hide our changing waistlines! There is also the chief deceiver, Satan, who wants to deceive followers of Christ to make them powerless in their faith.

In the case of the Thessalonian believers some folks had been deceived by those who were circulating rumors about the end of time. In every century since Christ’s resurrection there have always been those who have set dates for His return, and deceived many. Check out this little list of faith deceptions:

· In 1874 Charles Taze Russell, founder of the sect that became Jehovah's Witnesses, studied both the Bible and the mystical messages of the Great Pyramid, and concluded that the Second Coming had already taken place. He declared that people had 40 years, or until 1914, to enter his faith or be destroyed. Later he modified the date to "very soon after 1914."

· The 16th-century seer Nostradamus is said to have favored 1999 as the year of a Martian invasion [7]

One preacher I read has a unique term for this stuff; he calls it Pin the tail on the Anti Christ[8].

Paul talks about a man of lawlessness. This is the Anti Christ, the lawless one. Throughout the last two thousand years people have tried to guess his identity. God gave us his identity (not in name, but character) through the prophet Daniel

“The king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods. He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed, for what has been determined must take place. Daniel 11:36 (NIV)

Now the main point is this man is being restrained, held-back until God’s timing is right. Until he sits in the temple and proclaims himself God, all guessing as to his identity is futile. However, the scripture[9] tells us that while the man himself may not be on the scene yet, his spirit is hard at work. All you have to do is consider the times, and your faith will interpret what kind of spirit is at work. As we allow our faith to interpret the times, it is important to remember that it is not the evil upon which we are to focus. It is tempting to try to figure-out who the Anti Christ is; however, our real occupation is to look for the blessed appearing of the real Christ.

Let your faith inform your reason and interpret the times, so that you are not deceived – but don’t let the times throw you into despair…you are called to be victorious! So this was Paul’s exhortation:

3. Let your Faith ILLUSTRATE God’s Glory

We are called to share in God’s glory. Wow! That is an astounding fact. Even more astounding is the awareness that we are to be the chief illustration, or picture of God’s glory for the world. Sinful human beings are destined to be part of the glory of God.

I have trouble taking that in. I’ve often wondered how-in-the-world can somebody like me, born to a simple existence, raised on a dirt road in a no-place little town, without the slightest trace of royalty in my blood, be part of God’s glory? But God’s glory is always worked-out in the simplicity of saving people (common folk like you and me) by His grace and mercy.

It’s a challenge to stand firm when the world tries to turn your attention from Christ. Life can be difficult and scary; there’s plenty of temptation to try to make it on your own power instead of trusting God. A businessman was asked to tell what his personal faith meant to him. He reached back to his boyhood experience. He recalled walking with his father one day, having to reach up to hold on to his hand. After a while he said, Dad, I can't hold on any longer; you'll have to hold on to me for a while. And he remembered the moment when he felt his father's hand take over. That, he said, was the way it felt to him to have faith in God. And that was precisely an act of grace.[10]

Reason would say the challenge isn’t worth it. But followers of Christ who stand firm in the faith let their faith inform their reason and interpret the times. And, in the simple task of living life every day, all day we trust…and the Father’s hand takes over… we are carried by His grace!

In the name of the Father,
Because of the Son,
Cooperating with the Spirit

[1] Rita Mae Brown, Church Champions Update (11-26-01, adapted),
[2] Proverbs 3:5
[3] Mt 24-25
[4] Jude 1:18a-19
[5] Jude 3
[6] Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary
[7] Adapted from "Facts and Fallacies," Reader's Digest (1988); Clark Cothern, Tecumseh, Michigan,
[8] Timothy Peck, Confidence In the Face of Rumors,
[9] 2 Thessalonians 2:7

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Restoration Promises - 10-24-2010

O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989

Joel’s message is incredibly timely for us; he speaks of hope in the midst of dire circumstances:
· We are in the midst of either a recession or depression (either way it’s depressing!).
· Our church has seen a more than our share of good friends and family pass away this year.
· We have had a severe budget shortfall the past two years to go along with friends and families losing jobs, or suffering severe under-employment.
· Attendance is lagging down somewhere with chins scraping the floor. Sometimes I think you would have to use a morale indicator that can register in the red!

Hope in the midst of really severe circumstances is hard to muster when all you can see is the circumstances.

It was that way for the folks in Jerusalem where Joel spoke the word of God. There was a shadowy element to Israel’s plight; their circumstances were self-inflicted. They were under the judgment of God for failing to live out their covenant; they were God’s children, but not living like it! Even though Joel preached a message of restoration, of joy and God coming-in to save the day – God’s promise was conditional; restoration of Israel would happen IF they changed their ways and turned to him.

So Like Us
This is so like our day as well. Nationally, we are as putrid in the nostrils of God as was Israel. We have claimed our status as a “Christian nation” while all but banning God from public acknowledgement. The church in America attends worship services, but largely “goes through the motions”.

We have failed to have a positive impact in our communities (that a healthy church would have) because we have been playing at church – and then we wonder why God doesn’t bless our efforts. We are paying the price of judgment in just the same way Jerusalem experienced it 2,800 years ago!

An Unpopular Message
Now, honestly, there are not many people today who wish to acknowledge this, or even hear how foreign today’s church is from what God said we ought to be; it’s not popular to be honest with this prophet’s message. Many would rather hear a message from the “other Joel” – the one with the positive prosperity gospel in Texas. But that is an empty promise – clouds without rain, blossoms without fruit; it’s a false gospel! The real Joel – unpopular, but Godly!
Joel has a timely message of restoration for our nation and our church. It’s all about the kind of restoration of the genuine image of God on our hearts and in our lives. Notice the two basic realities about what God requires:
I. Restoration is ALWAYS preceded by Repentance
God’s conditions for any blessing at all is always clean hearts and hands. Our heart is what we think about things; our hands is how we act. And the hands always follow the heart. We get saved by a change of heart that has an intention to allow God to change the hands.
II. Repentance ALWAYS involves change
In the “clean hearts/clean hands” department, getting right with God demands both. First there is a change of heart which says, “I’ve been thinking wrongly; I’ve been ignoring God.” To repent in your heart is to change your mind – confess to God that you have not been honest with him, and that you will now begin to cooperate.
Secondly there must be a change of actions – that’s the clean hands part! It isn’t so much that you have an emotional or religious “experience” here today. You could go home after crying your eyes out at the altar and making promises to the preacher, the whole church and God – but if you don’t change in your life, what good has it been?
When a change of heart (or attitude) is real, the change of hands (actions) will be just as real and noticeable.
What does that look like?

Methodists are well-equipped with what “heart-holiness” looks like.

In our “other Bible” (the Book of Discipline[1]) there is a sentence that adequately describes what a life of surrender to the holiness of God looks like. The sentence is part of our membership vows; we vow to God and each other to accept God’s freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression – to put our trust in Christ and to serve him as Lord, and to remain faithful members of the church as we serve all mankind. The working-out of that begins in the local church with these five practical promises (again to God and each other). They are such that anyone can accomplish them if they simply hold them as priority:
To faithfully participate in [the church’s] ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness;
A closer look at our promises

1. Prayer
Prayer is for each other, that we might live resisting evil and oppression, and that we might be individually and corporately the strong, healthy congregation God has called and gifted us to be. Prayer is both for private devotion and times of corporate gathering; see you Wednesday night!

2. Presence
Presence means just that – you join with the congregation for worship, Bible Study and prayer and efforts to serve our community. Your presence is important for both the morale and uplift of your fellow believers, and for YOU. You need to be in worship for the sake of your soul. If you neglect worship, you starve your soul. Don’t do that!

Regular worship is like regular breathing; it has as much to do with your spiritual life as breathing and eating does for your physical life. What’s regular? Regular worship is anytime you’re not sick. Many people let an awful lot of things come before worship. Are those things really more important than your relationship with God – and your vow to Him?

3. Gifts
The tithe (10% of your income) is holy unto the LORD. That means it belongs to Him, not you. Do we do that? The general consensus is that many do, and a few don’t. The general consensus is wrong. We actually have less than 10 tithing families in our church. Do the math….our church received approximately $120,000 in “tithes” last year. With an average attendance of 110 people, the average person in this congregation lives on about $12,000 a year if we’re tithing.

Now please pay attention – if you’re a visitor, please do not go home and report that the only thing we talk about here is money – that is blatantly untrue. But we must talk about sometimes, because there are some, perhaps many in this congregation who are being dishonest about stewardship. God is never pleased when we are disobedient. It is the reason Israel suffered so much; and we are under the same responsibility to respond with honesty towards God.

If you’re not a Christian, God doesn’t require a cent. But if you’re a believer the tithe is your minimum standard of acknowledgement that He is God and you are not. When you refuse to be honest with that, you’ll refuse to be honest in more important ways!

And, just for clarity, let me remind you that if you are a member of this local congregation, this offering plate is what the Scripture calls “the storehouse” where you are to bring that tithe. Once you have given your 10% here (without strings attached…not to the building fund, cemetery or buying butter for the kitchen…but dropped in the offering plate with a cheerful smile and knowing God will see to its’ correct use)….after you have given your tithe, then other gifts, if you are able, can be given to other charities and needs.

Let’s be very clear – as a member of this church, you promised to give your gifts, your tithes here!

4. Service
To serve is to be at the heart of Christianity. Christ left heaven to serve the need of sinners – us! Are you enrolled in service here…at YOUR church? We can accept a position of service, and then ignore it like it’s optional.

Jesus told a parable about a man who had two sons. He told them both to go work in the fields; one said, “not me” but then thought better and went anyway. The other answered “sure, Pop” and then he, too, thought differently – he decided to goof off and take a nap. Jesus asked, “Which one did the will of his father?” Serving your church and community means you will roll up those sleeves and pitch-in.

5. Witness
This last promise, or vow of church members is really a summary of who we are and how we live. Every part of prayer, presence, gifts and service are a reflection to the world of who we are, and Whose we are! With our lives and with our lips we must be about the business of telling the world who Jesus is. The question is, “can your neighbors, family and everybody who knows or meets you read Jesus in your life?”

What do I think about these 5 promises?

You are here as either a member of this church, or not a member. While this message may sound rather harsh and condemning, it is for everyone here, including me. Here are the choices about what to do with these 5 promises you once made, or might consider making.

Choice #1
If you cannot conceive of rearranging your life to reflect this kind of living, do yourself and the church a great service – remain lost. Don’t join if you refuse to change.

Choice #2
If you are a member of the church and disagree with this kind of living, be honest and remove yourself from membership in the church. Don’t stay in the church if you’re just going to go on breaking your vows.

Choice #3
If you are confused and cannot imagine how you could ever live up to this kind of standard, but are willing to trust God to help you try – you are exactly the person Joel was talking about when he laid out the grace promise of God’s blessing….member or not, you jump in with both feet and watch God bless your socks off!

Repent, believe the gospel and be converted.


[1] The United Methodist Book of Discipline¶217 (Nashville, UMC Publishing House, 2008), 143