Sunday, April 24, 2011

Don't Let Me Miss the Glory

9And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the LORD talked with Moses.  10And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door.  11And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.  And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.  12And Moses said unto the LORD, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people:  and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me.  Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight.  13Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, show me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight:  and consider that this nation is thy people.  14And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.  15And he said unto him, If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence.  16For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight?  is it not in that thou goest with us?  So shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth.  17And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken:  for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name.  18And he said, I beseech thee, show me thy glory.  19And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  20And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.  21And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:  22And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:  23And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.  Exodus 33:9 - 23 (KJV)

Do you sense the presence of God?  You're reasonably content with the material possessions God has allowed you to gain, your family, friends, job – BUT, something is decidedly missing.  You spend time wondering about the worth of what you do, and "who you really are."   Things you once enjoyed are now flat, empty.  You find yourself immersed in thoughts about reality, eternity and mortality.
What is the source of this unrest in the soul, this void?  It’s the absence of the presence of God.  It is that presence which guides, lifts, and makes the children of God what they are – different from the world, destined for the throne. 
There are times when God withdraws His presence.  The reasons are legion, but they all have one foundation – God will not share His glory with anything, any thought or anybody!  The Hebrew word is “Ichabod” meaning “the glory has departed”.
When God's children fail to worship Him, they run the risk of losing His presence.  The Israelites were captives in Egypt.  After a tremendously victorious exodus from the heavy hand of Pharaoh, Moses went up on the mountain to get the next set of marching orders for Israel.  In the space of a few days the people left off worshiping God, and set up a golden calf.  What was God's response to this affront?  He withdrew His presence:
"...for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people:                         lest I consume thee in the way.”  Exodus 33:3 (KJV)
What IS Worship?
Preacher, if worship is that important, define it – help me understand so I can be right with God!  Worship is no less than “communing” with God.  The word most often used to describe "communing" when connected to God, is a Hebrew word (dabar), meaning "to arrange things."  The sense of this is that we are standing in front of God to be arranged, according to His desires.  We listen, He instructs.  Note what God said:
"…I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat...                                                         I will give thee in commandment..." Exodus 25.22 (KJV)
When Moses knelt before the burning bush, the representation of God in person, God was arranging Moses' agenda.  And Moses was listening!  I believe it is sad that we have become a people in this country and in the church, of personal agenda, personal preferences, and private prerogatives.  There seems to be very little of that old sense of waiting on God and His time – His will.  Perhaps that is the direct cause of the lack of His presence with us nowadays. 
Only genuine worship will remedy this.  Only genuine worship will help us NOT MISS the GLORY! 
At this point let me bring in a second “glory” text from John’s Gospel and use it to draw some lessons for how we can keep a vital connection with the glory of God.
14And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.                   John 1:14 (KJV)
There are two words that will fuel our study, grace and truth.  John said Jesus was full of these…and it had something to do with “beholding” Jesus’ glory.  So….if we want to see the glory, we must understand his grace and truth.
The Bible says Jesus was full of grace.  By definition, grace is the unmerited favor, or undeserved forgiveness of God.  One day many years ago I was late to meet my wife for a luncheon date we’d planned that morning.  I forgot!  When I realized how late I was I raced to the restaurant.  The look on Elizabeth’s face made me realize just exactly how late I really was…Then the look softened, and I was forgiven.  (THAT’S GRACE!)  You’re forgiven when you don’t deserve anything.
I don’t know how a person could be forgiven…and thankless!  But that is human nature.  Jesus once healed ten lepers; only one came back to say thank you.
The reality is, grace (all by itself) will degenerate into thanklessness.  You see it all the time.  God’s hand has been on Billy Graham’s crusades for decades.  People respond to the offer of grace – to be saved.  When the crusade team leaves town, the follow-up begins by local churches.  Many of those who came for the grace won’t ever get involved in consistent worship and service in the kingdom – thanklessness.
It is like a man who professes faith in Christ…receives grace.  He breathes a sigh of relief because his name is written in the Lamb’s book of life.  He leaves the church meeting, crosses the parking lot to his Mercedes, lights up a cigar, pops open a brew, guns the accelerator, running-over a nearby homeless person in a hurry to get out of there and cruise the streets looking for a prostitute before going home to beat his wife and kids.
What’s wrong with the picture?  Grace received – but no subsequent change of life.  Grace alone is degenerative, inadequate.  Jesus said it was like a seed planted too shallow in the ground – it comes up weak; there is no root.  The weak plant is scorched by the strong sun, and wilts away. 
If you have received grace, the forgiveness of God in Christ which you KNOW you didn’t deserve, that’s good – but it’s not all….
The other side of grace is truth.  Truth is the lens through which we see the righteous side of God, the Almighty judge of men’s souls.  Many people have told me over the years they cannot believe in a God of judgment – a God who could destroy all those people in the Old Testament.  They would rather have the “love your enemies” Jesus of the New Testament.  But, remember, Jesus himself said he came to bring a sword to divide mankind.  Figuratively, that means he came to show us the truth – that we are not basically good, with little splotches of mistakes to clean up in our character. 
Jesus came as a picture of what good really is – so that there is no question that we cannot attain goodness.  He came to show us we are separated from the goodness of God by our sinfulness.  As Isaiah informed us, there is none righteous, no not one!                Not even the preacher?  No…certainly not the preacher!  And not you!
To the Pharisees (who were a very good bunch) Jesus said, the whores and thieves will get in heaven before you!  Whoa!  If the most religious people can’t get in heaven, who can?  The truth is nobody can get in heaven on the merits of his own goodness.  We get in only on the merits of Jesus’ goodness, and his forgiveness.
Now – that’s the truth….and it is a hard thing for most of us to accept.  Like the Pharisees, or the rich young ruler, we want to know what good thing must I DO in order to inherit eternal life…just tell me, and I’ll do it right now!  Jesus said it plainly – you cannot DO anything.  All you can BE is a sinner standing before God – a sinner who believes in God and trusts Jesus, that He will do what’s necessary to make you right with God.  That’s how grace (undeserved forgiveness) and truth (righteous judgment) get together.
Truth without grace is hard.  There’s no joy.  But grace without truth is only a warm fuzzy…there’s no gratitude that makes you useful in the kingdom.  Jesus was full of BOTH grace and truth; that was His glory…and some people see it…
Some people see His glory
The glory of Jesus was the perfect tension between grace and truth. 
s  He told the Rich Young Ruler the truth – Give up your hold on things, come follow me.  It was a truth he needed to hear…and it was so hard he went away sad.
s  His grace is seen in a heartbroken Jesus, looking out over Jerusalem, sinful Jerusalem, crying, How often would I have gathered you under my wings…but you reject me!
s  He told Nicodemus the truth – You can’t be godly unless you’re born again.  You’re trying to understand how the wind works and where it comes from; I’m telling you, just feel the wind, Nic.  Do it God’s way, man!  Truth…HIS way, not yours, even if you can’t understand it all.
s  His grace is seen in withered hands being straightened, crippled feet being strengthened and leprous skin being made as clean and smooth as a baby’s bottom!
s  There is a fiery blaze of truth from Jesus’ eyes – a laser devastating the religious leaders of his day:  Woe to you scribes and Pharisees…hypocrites!  You flim-flam the poor and then bow your head in prayer?  You are more the sons of Satan than God.
s  His grace is seen as Almighty God incarnate, spread-eagle, nailed to crossbeams on the town garbage dump, as he strains to gather enough breath to cry upward, Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.
Jesus…total grace, total truth, held perfectly in eternal tension…that was His glory!
Finding that God of Glory
Most people try to find God.  They look for Him in a variety of ways.
s  They look for Him in nature.  But in nature you can only see the tracks of His glory.  That is His work, not His nature.
s  They look for God in mankind.  Sadly, you won’t see Him there either.  Certainly we were created in the image of God – but that image has been so corrupted by sin, you can only see the imitator – the evil one.  Can you look at the news reports of what violence we do to each other in this world and tell me that’s God?  (I don’t think you could do it with a straight face).
s  Some look for Him in literature or art, or the sweet expression of a toddler’s na├»ve eyes.  Some would say “that’s God”.  No…that’s not God, its’ just our hopes and dreams projected onto a sweet image…but it’s not the glory of God.  A child’s sweetness, someone else’s kindness….these may be as close on earth we can ever be to knowing the glory of God with our natural senses.  But our natural senses aren’t enough.  The Apostle Paul said, “…the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit… (1 Corinthians 2:14 (KJV))  You won’t see his glory with flesh and blood eyes!

So how?

This morning I stand here and affirm to you that the only place you will ever genuinely see the glory of God is in His Son, Jesus, who is the Christ.  He was perfect grace, perfect truth, and he came to Bethlehem for us to behold his glory!
A wonderful Anglican scholar, William Barclay put it this way: 
In Jesus Christ the distant, unknowable, invisible, unreachable God                                has come to men; and God can never be a stranger to us again.
 The classic movie “E.T.” is a storyteller’s way of depicting Christmas and Easter in just under two hours.  The little extra-terrestrial comes to earth, and is hounded until he dies.  He is placed in a coffin-like chamber to be transported to the lab; there’s a window in the chamber and you can see the little cold, lifeless body, so pale in death. 
Just when hope is gone, through the chamber’s glass window you see the alien’s heart begin to glow – faint at first, then vibrant.  Color returns, the heart beats, he moves, talking, joy – wonder!  E.T. will live again!
Such is the story of God’s glory.  We were lost, the world dark and empty in sin.  All of us were dead, in a spiritual void.  We were marking time till the autopsy, when in death our bodies will slowly decay.  There is no life, no real joy.  There is only a coldness and fear about the finality of life’s demise.
Then there is a manger, a cross, and an empty tomb.  Suddenly the source of life is no longer an idea, a force, some natural phenomena…God the PERSON has broken-through….in grace and truth.
And there is LIFE!    GLORY !!!!
Have you been to the grace?  Good.
               Have you seen the truth?  Very Good.
                           But, have you been to the glory?
It’s important that you accept Him – in all His grace, in all His truth, so that you see His glory.  Because He is going to do it again – he is going to pitch his tent with us again:
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying,                                                                Behold the tabernacle of God is with men,                                                                                 and he will dwell with them,                                                                                                and they shall be his people,                                                                                                   and God himself shall be with them,                                                                                       and be their God.                                                                                                             Revelation 21.3 (KJV)
What do you want to do with this?  The Apostle John’s Gospel (11:40) has the words of Jesus recorded to Martha.  Lazarus had died and Martha, his sister was grieving.  She had sent for Jesus to prevent a death in the family.  She just KNEW he could do it.  But he was late; then he showed up…too late!  “If only….” She began.  Jesus said, Martha, did I not say to you that if you would believe, you would see the glory of God?  And what God said to Martha, he says to us…only believe. 
A person can accept God’s grace…and live under it.  We must also accept his truth…and live by it.  It’s what the old Gospel song says about following Jesus, “Trust and Obey”.  And when that happens in a human life we become what the Apostle Peter called a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed.  (1 Peter 5:1)
Grace and truth – Don’t miss the glory!
Lord, our hearts and lives starve for lack of your grace and truth; and it isn’t your fault.  Teach us to TRUST and OBEY…and watch our hearts burst with joy over your presence…the GLORY!
We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mixed Signals

   The reality of ambivalence in our society grows each day.  We are bombarded with mixed signals.  It's more than conflicting opinions; it's the weariness and wariness that accompanies too many choices.
   I just finished reading Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's "The Wisdom of Stability".  I met Jonathan last year at Duke.  He's an interesting young guy, travelled, educated at Duke and really centered.  He started a monastic movement based on putting down roots in an urban area of Durham.  Engaging the community where you are will mean transformation for that community when believers "live in ways that speak to the deeper yearnings of the human heart."  Even well-known author/speaker/professor/theologian Tony Campolo wrote on the dust cover about this book calling Wilson-Hartgrove's approach "like the prophets of old..."

Stability....sounds really firm!
   Then, last week's Christian Century (Apr 5, 2011) came in the mail.  One of the pages had Luci Shaw's poetry, entitled "States of Being":
Stability is greatly
               Why would I ever want to sit
                              still and smug as a rock,
                                        confident, because of my great
                                          weight, that I will not be moved?
               Better to be soft as water,
                         easily troubled, with
                         at least three modes
                             of being, able to shape-
                                  shift, to mirror, to cleanse,
                       to drift downstream,
           To roar when I encounter
           the rock.
   So, my ambivalent friends, is stability smug or wise?  Or is being fluid, soft and pliable the way to go?  Both sounded pretty good when I was reading.  Maybe real wisdom is to let some things cook a little longer.  Extremes are what's overrated - except maybe for what God did for us at Calvary.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dogwood Time

Is it ever "dogwood time" in North Carolina.  Elizabeth and I live on a street that's part of a circle.  Most mornings we try to get a couple of laps in.
This morning I took the camera and snapped pics of a few reasons why I sneeze a lot these days.

 More coming
 More coming
More coming
 More coming
 More coming
And notice the other blooms:


These are just in my neighborhood - and how wonderful it is to behold how overwhelmingly gracious God has been to us.  There is beauty everywhere - even in tough times.  

Oh....and by the way.....
the grass is also growing.  Better check the gas in the mower for this weekend!

God, that we might have eyes to see your handiwork in everything our eyes behold!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

In Church (....and still HAPPY)!

1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:1 - 11 (NRSV)

Talk about extremes!  The very best place to be is in a church that is unified and handling well the threats to unity.  The very worst place to be is in a church that is continually-filled with personal power struggles and bickering.  The unified church is a healthy, risk-taking place, where people care deeply, but are also caring.  In a splintered church factions center on personal preferences rather than mission and ministry.

Paul wrote to the Philippian believers, specifically requesting they be unified in their relationships and purpose.  Paul wrote to humans; he knew there would be threats to unity.  Common sense tells us that where there is good, evil will eventually show-up and there will be a conflict.  Throughout the last two thousand years churches have had only one real problem – disunity.

God tells us through the Paul’s pleading message that – to remain in God's will you must be unified.  Our question, naturally:  How in the world do you do that?  The answer to unity isn't easy, but it can be easily stated:  Be Christ-like!
We want to be a unified, loving church; and so, today we look at Paul’s description of what constitutes Christ-likeness in a church congregation.
1. Communion  (in Christ)
It is impossible to ACT LIKE Christ if you do not WALK WITH Christ!  This above all things could solve the problems of churches around the world in any age.  Believers who get away from a close walk with the Master cannot reproduce Christ-likeness by human effort.  Paul said that the encouragement (strength) the Philippian church had was from being united in Christ; it’s a gift of the Spirit.
Belonging to Christ and walking closely with Him daily will produce a natural "belongingness" with other believers, which will hold our sinful nature in check, and promote genuine Christian communion in the church.
The spiritual principle is that it is impossible to be in genuine fellowship with the Christ, when you are out of fellowship with anyone for whom Christ died.  Say it another way; when you’re in fellowship with each other it will only be because you’re humbling yourself before Christ, and being obedient.
2.  Compassion  (sharing in the Spirit)
Tenderness and compassion are the same word in Greek.  They are from the root word which in English is "spleen."  That little organ helps purify your blood.  It is located in the visceral area, and the ancient Greeks thought of it as the center or seat of emotion.  After all, when you get upset, the first place you're liable to feel bad is the mid-section.
Christian compassion is a matter of being vulnerable enough with each other and the needs of the world's lost people, so that we are moved viscerally to do something about those needs.  Our methods may conflict at times, but our goal will always keep us united.
In 1988 the USS Vincennes shot-down an Iranian airliner with 290 people aboard.  It was a mistake.  Public opinion polls showed most Americans were opposed to giving compensation to the families of the victims.  The cruel treatment of American hostages was still fresh in our minds.  But [then] President Reagan approved the compensation.  He was asked by reporters if such payment could send the wrong signal.  He said, I don't ever find compassion a bad precedent.  You cannot be Christ-like without compassion.  Jesus had compassion on sinners – if we would be like him, we must [at least] start with Christians.
3. Cooperation    (be of the same mind)
When I think of cooperation my mind always flashes to the scene where the old time film legends, Laurel and Hardy are attempting to move a piano.  They're in the middle of steep footbridge.  Oliver Hardy says to Stan Laurel, Stanley, put a little muscle to this thing or we'll never get it up these stairs.  Stanley gives a puzzled look and asks, UP?
It is critical for us to be on the same wavelength if we will be the kind of church Christ calls us to be.  We don’t all have to think or do everything exactly the same way…but we should all be pushing in the same direction.
4. Consideration    (regard others)
The word "humility" comes from two words, "dust" and "midriff."  You get the drift?  You can't call yourself humble unless you're willing to crawl through the dust ...for the least of these my brethren.
Paul says we should look to the interests of others.  He doesn't mean we ought to be nosy busybodies.  Rather that means we ought to see the needs of others and press forward with actions that will be meaningful in meeting those needs.
5. Cross-Bearing    (same mind…humble to the cross)
Paul reminds the church that the man who died on Calvary wasn't like any other man.  HE was God!  Paul says Jesus emptied himself.  The picture is one of sacrifice.  In the temple a sacrifice of an animal was made for sin.  The blood and water were poured on the altar – an emptying.
In heaven Jesus was in perfect fellowship as God the Son, with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  This might be a very inadequate analogy, but like a glass contains water and can be emptied, so God poured Himself into the form of a man and became our sacrifice.  W. E. Orchard said, It may take a crucified church to take a crucified Christ before the eyes of the world.
If a church is to be Christ-like (and therefore unified) it will be through cross-bearing.  Our comfortable seats in our air-conditioned auditoriums are not cross-bearing.  Paying our tithes is not cross-bearing.  Serving on committees, workdays and kitchens aren't cross-bearing.  Cross-bearing is dying for others.
Christian people are called by Christ to be living sacrifices.   That’s not a pretty thought; however we are reminded of what great Christian leaders have always agreed upon:  when Christ calls a person, He bids him, come and die!
When the church of Jesus Christ gets that right it leads to the exaltation of Jesus Christ, or as Paul writes, there is now not just cross-bearing, but…
Paul uses a play on the sound of words in verses 8 and 9.  The words "humbled" and "obedient" come from the same root; while "exalted" sounds just  like them.  There is a definite and proportionate relationship to humbling yourself in obedience and being exalted.  The principle is as follows:
YOU WILL BE LIFTED BY CHRIST IN HEAVEN                                                                  
TO THE SAME DEGREE                                                                                                                
YOU HAVE LIFTED HIM HERE ON lifting other people
Don't forget that the spiritual far outweighs the material or natural.  In the spiritual realm, things are always reversed from the way they were in the natural.  That which was high will be made low.  The first shall be last.  The rich, self-indulgent man went to Hades, the poor beggar Lazarus went to Heaven.  And ...whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
Christ-likeness is the goal.  If friends, or a family, church, or even a nation would be unified, enjoying genuine fellowship, then Christ-likeness is what we seek.
A.J. Gordon wrote:
Two little saplings grew up side by side.  Through the action of the wind they crossed each other.  By and by each became wounded by the friction.  The sap began to mingle until one calm day they became attached.  Then the stronger began to absorb the weaker.  It became larger and larger, while the other withered and declined till it finally dropped away and disappeared.  And now there are two trunks at the bottom and only one farther up.  Death has taken away the one; life has triumphed in the other.
Consider the same beginning with a slightly different outcome:
Every time I come to this church I park in the spot that says “reserved for pastor”.  I get out of my car under an old oak tree that is just like that pair of saplings.  At some point, many years ago, there was friction that caused two close limbs to rub, “bleed” a little and then be joined.  But, instead of one absorbing the other, these tree limbs have managed to attach so that one limb helps the other.  The limb going straight up lifts the one going straight out.  The one needed help to stay connected to the trunk.  It was growing wild – would have broken off without some help.  Now the two branches and the main trunk form a triangle – the strongest configuration in nature.
If this church, or any church, can get to the point where we can love each other enough to forgive the “rubs” – the petty stuff that divides us – we will find we’re not only in church…and still happy…we’ll be a force that will change the world for the sake of Christ.
Father, we would have the mind of Christ Jesus; instead, too often we are more like James and John, sons of thunder.  Teach us to be in communion with You and with each other.  Without that holy communion, all else we do is maddeningly pointless.  We spin liturgical wheels and wind up deeper in our theological hole.  Save us from attitudes that cripple; help us to remember with humility the love you displayed as our sacrifice – and then, give us courage to pick up our crosses and follow. 
We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!