Monday, September 15, 2014

The Gospel (Good News)



    I would like for you to consider this one tidbit of thought this morning as I begin my sermon.  Just about every major philosophy and religion in this world operates with the same basic premise.  Do you know what that basic premise is?  I will tell you.  The basic premise is: if you do certain things, then you will receive the rewards.  For instance, if you go to school and get good grades, then you will get a good education and have a better shot at getting a good paying job.  If you adhere to the eight fold path in Buddhism, then you will experience enlightenment.  If you follow the teachings of the Hindu Scriptures, then you will escape the endless cycle of reincarnation.  If you follow the Laws of the Koran, Allah will bless you.  If you work hard at your job, the company will reward you with adequate compensation and benefits.  I could continue ad nauseam with these examples.  They are very easy to come by because this is exactly the way the world works.  It’s exactly the way the world operates.  Do the right things, and you are rewarded.  Do the wrong things, and you are toast.

    We see this in operation day after day after day.  I was particularly struck by the story this week which has hit the National Football League–the story surrounding Ray Rice’s physical assault of his then girlfriend Janay Rice.  After the video of him punching her in the elevator became public, there was all sorts of uproar.  To an extent, it is justified.  The public disdains seeing someone who is physically superior to another bully and beat a smaller, weaker person.  Ray Rice was actually prosecuted for this event; although many are quick to point out his legal punishment doesn’t seem to fit what happened in that elevator.

    But now take a look at the extra-legal punishment doled out to Ray Rice.  At first, he was suspended for two games.  After the video, he was released from the team; he was barred indefinitely from being in the NFL; his family was dragged into the spotlight–even as he admitted wrongdoing and the fact that he and his wife have sought counseling.  Ah, but for some justice still has not been satisfied.  Keith Olberman went so far as to call for the resignation of Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, the assistant NFL Commissioner, the NFL’s legal counsel, the president of the Raven’s organization, and the Raven’s general manager.  Olberman also condemned anyone who would watch the Ravens on television or attend a game until such time all of these guilty parties were forced into resignation. 



    There are a couple of things to note here: as long as Ray Rice toed the line and did what he was supposed to do, then he was rewarded and handsomely.  He was making millions of dollars a year.  However, make one mistake–even an egregious mistake, and your entire life and the lives of others are demanded as payment.  This is the way the world works. 

    And we spend tons of time and energy living out our lives in this world.  We spend tons of time and energy justifying ourselves in our jobs; in our families; in our schools; and in our private lives with friends.  I used the term justifying ourselves purposely–for that is exactly what we are trying to do.  We are trying to appease others over and over and over.  We are trying to satisfy the wishes of others over and over and over.  We are trying to satisfy their desires, and we believe by satisfying them, then we too will become satisfied.  We too will reap the rewards and benefits.  If I sacrifice myself enough, then I will earn my due.  Does anyone here this morning disagree that this is the way the world works?  Does anyone here this morning disagree that this is the game played out almost every day of our lives? 

    And because this is the way the world works, how do most of us live our lives?  Wait a second, let me clarify that question a little bit.  What do most of us feel deep down within ourselves as we head to the daily grind?  What do most of us feel deep down inside when we consider the actions we are going to take at our job or in our families?  What do most of us feel deep down inside when we think about how we relate to others?

    I will submit to you this morning, we usually have two main feelings: fear and anger.  We are fearful that we will not live up to others’ expectations.  We are fearful we might slip up and cause damage to our lives and those we love.  We are fearful that at any given time, those above us might not see our worth and our value and therefore decide we are unnecessary.  We fear these things because we know retribution can be swift and merciless.  Fear dominates.  As does anger.  Yes, anger.  We get angry at those who do not work as hard as we do.  We get angry when we put in hour after hour after hour and our work does not seem to be rewarded.  We get angry when we try to live by the rules, and it doesn’t seem like the promises we were made get kept. 

    You may ask me why I say such things.  I respond: because it is exactly what I felt to a great extent.  Yes, even as a pastor who proclaims the Word of God–who taught and teaches that Jesus said, “Don’t worry;” who taught and teaches trusting the Lord brings peace.  Yes, I taught and still teach these things, but deep down inside, I didn’t believe them.  I didn’t truly get them.  I still lived in fear.  I still was angry.  I did not have the peace that passes all understanding.  Why?  I was trying to justify myself.  I was trying to live by the world’s rules–even as I worked out my calling to serve Jesus Christ.

    How did this happen, you might ask?  Well, I believed I had to make a congregation flourish–I bought into the notion that I needed to justify my ministry by racking in new members right and left.  I believed I had to have a full and overflowing church.  I believed the church had to have programs going on all over the place and people clamoring to be there every Sunday–full parking lots; full classrooms; overflow seating.  I read all the books on growing a church and sought all the techniques I could implement which would make this happen.  And I worried about what might happen should something go wrong.  I worried about people becoming angry with what I said or did.  I worried about how a particular statement would be taken.  I worried a lot.  Fear.  And I would get angry.  If people didn’t show up for worship, on the surface, I would say, “Fine,” while deep down inside, I would seethe.  When people left the congregation, I would become depressed and angry.  When programs failed and people didn’t show up to an event, I thought, “These people just don’t care.”  And at the heart of it was not righteous anger; instead it was anger that you weren’t helping me achieve my justification.  I was driven by fear and anger.  Perhaps, some of you can relate.  Perhaps some of you can’t.  I understand.  I never really knew I was driven by fear and anger until I burned out.  I never really understood the depths of my own brokenness and my own sin until I was confronted by the reality that the world will eventually try to eat you up.  I never really understood the depths of my own fear and anger until I realized I couldn’t justify myself and I was at the mercy of forces much greater than myself.  I never really understood how sinful trying to justify one’s self really was and how it only led to more frustration; more anger; more brokenness.

    But at some point, I realized my brokenness; I realized my sinfulness; I realized that trying to justify myself through my ministry and through the way the world worked was an exercise in futility.  And when this happened, I was captured by something completely and utterly foolish–completely and utterly foolish according to the world’s standards.

    Remember how I started this sermon?  Remember how I said, just about every single philosophy and religion of the world had an underlying premise: do this and you will be rewarded?  There is one religion–one philosophy which says the exact opposite.  There is one religion–one philosophy which has at its heart the notion–you are already made right with God; you are already justified with the ultimate being in the universe; you are already accepted even though you are broken; fearful; angry; and sinful.  You already have the greatest reward one could have, and because you have this, now live into that freedom with thanksgiving. 

    I want you to think about what I just said for just a moment.  Every other philosophy and religion says, “Do this, and you are accepted.”  Christianity says, “You are accepted, now do this.”  Do you find Christianity foolish?

    You might say, no, but really, I want you to think about what the world would be like if Christianity was the norm.  I want you to think about what it would be like in raising your children.  I want you to think about what it would be like to work in your job.  I want you to think about what it would be like to live in your family.  Want an example or two?  Christianity is like giving your children their favorite dessert before the meal and then saying, “I’ve given you the dessert, now eat your broccoli.”  Christianity is like an employer writing you a two million dollar check and then saying, “Work for me for the next 20 years.”  Christianity is like getting the toy you wanted for Christmas and then having your parents tell you, now be good because you got the toy.  Let me ask you again, do you see how foolish Christianity is?!!

    Do you at least see why St. Paul writes what he does in our second lesson this morning?  18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’  20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  

    No one operates this way.  No one.  Except God through Jesus Christ.  On the cross the rewards were handed out.  You were justified.  You were accepted.  Despite your brokenness and imperfection; despite your sinfulness; despite your unwillingness to follow the commands of God, Jesus died for you.  Jesus endured the wrath of God meant for you.  Jesus turned the way the world works upside down and said, “I will show you another way.”  For many this is still complete and utter foolishness.  It is complete and utter craziness.  How in the world will someone ever be motivated to do what needs to be done without fear and anger to drive them?

    What could ever replace those two emotions to lead us to work hard at our jobs; in our families; and in life?  How about love? 

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”  This is the Gospel.  This is what God has done.  You no longer need to strive to justify yourself.  You no longer need to live in fear.  You no longer have to be dominated by anger.  You have acceptance, now love with the same love you have been given.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Only Once a Month?

I wish I would have saved the reference so I could note it in this blog post, but perhaps the reference isn't as important as the reality to which it pointed:

MOST FOLKS IN THE U.S. DEFINE THEMSELVES AS REGULAR CHURCH ATTENDEES IF THEY ATTEND ONCE A MONTH.

Sorry for shouting, but it's an important item to wrestle with.  I cannot remember if the article I read referenced PEW or Gallup, but the point is the same no matter who conducted the survey.

The majority of folks interviewed considered themselves regular church attendees if they attended worship only once a month.

This is quite different from a decade or so ago when regular church attendance was considered three or four times a month.  Now, it's only one, and even though I don't like it, it did jar me with my experience as a pastor even in rural Texas.  Even in my congregation, I think I can safely say a good chunk of people in my congregation fit this trend.

There are many things to wrestle with in regards to this trend.  I have already breached the topic with my staff, and will be visiting with the congregation council about this matter at our next meeting, but I hope to spend only a few moments bemoaning and griping and wondering why.  We can speculate and gripe and wonder 'til Kingdom come, and that does no good.  The trend is not only in Cat Spring, TX--it is nation wide.  The trend is caused by multiple factors, not by a simple cause and effect.  Deciphering what is "wrong" and trying to give it a quick "fix" will not happen--even though we like to think we are capable of "fixing" such matters or people.  What I hope to accomplish is get people thinking about the reality of church 1) if this is the trend and 2) what really must happen if the trend is to be reversed.

THE GRIPING
  • First, just a few moments of bemoaning, griping, and wondering why.  In my estimation, there is little wonder the definition of regular worship attendance has slipped and is slipping.  Society has shifted from setting aside Sunday as sacred--a day of rest to focus on God--to a day of work for retail and service industries and recreation/play time for others.  No longer do most businesses shut down on Sunday.  The need for more profit drives them, and workers' religious affiliation be damned.  Folks who work in this area of society generally are living paycheck to paycheck, and they cannot afford to tell their bosses and supervisors, "I want to go to church."  When the choice is bring home less income and decide whether or not to pay utilities, basic needs will win out just about every time.  And as the sacredness of the day gets diminished by the god of money, so then other gods find it easier to chip away.  
  • The gladiators of the ancient Roman Coliseum could not imagine the overwhelming draw of sporting events in our day and time.  A pastor friend has remarked numerous times, "Society shows you what is most important by the biggest buildings it constructs."  In the middle ages, it was the churches.  Then the universities became prominent.  Then the skyscrapers of business.  Now, the stadiums.  Sports offers all sorts of promises to parents and children.  Some of them are true, but a great deal are false.  Sports supposedly builds character, but I know from my own personal experience, it doesn't change a heart.  
  • Our technological society doesn't help either.  More and more we "connect" to each other via electronic means of communication.  Even this blog and the posting of my sermons is a testament to this.  If I miss church, I can read and hear pastor's sermon online.  There is no need to really and truly attend.  I can hear/read God's Word right from my bedroom in my pajamas, and I don't have to deal with the messiness of human relationships.  (Hey, I can even skip putting a few dollars in the offering plate.  It's a huge win!!!)  
THE IMPLICATIONS

Are there more factors: absolutely, but I told you, I don't want to focus too much on griping.  Onto the implications--or rather, what are some major questions of implication?

  1.  How in the world does a congregation run a Sunday School or youth program in such a cultural climate?   If regular attendance is once a month at worst (even that is stretching it for some) and two times at best, how can students learn much about the faith?   How can congregations with less than a certain amount of members find enough teachers who attend on a hyper-regular basis (3-4 times a month) to staff their teaching positions?   How can teachers build from one lesson to another if children are constantly missing--akin to teaching mathematics when a kid is present for simple addition and then next shows up for division?  Is it possible to have well attended monthly activities any longer?  What does the role of a youth director look like in such a society?  More of a program director?  More of a mentor?  More of a person who seeks kids out at home in the evenings?   Tough questions.
  2. How in the world do people connect to one another and have a sense of fellowship and familiarity?  How do people become more than a gathering of strangers on Sunday morning?  This is a fresh question since a family in my congregation decided to pull their membership in favor of another congregation down the road citing a lack of feeling "connected."  It's not surprising.  They fell squarely into that "once a month" demographic.  Given that there are an average of four Sundays in a given month, when your once a monthers are spread out over those four weeks...there is no way you can ever be connected unless you associate with fellow church members at other times on a weekly basis.  Plus, it takes time...sometimes lots of time to connect.  I am embarrassed to say that I have had quite a bit of difficulty remembering a particular congregation member's name.  I keep getting confused between "Bob" and "Bill."  I am sure it is more than frustrating for him--and it is for me too; and the sad part is, Bill is no once a monther.  We need personal contact between one another to connect and have relationship--it's part of human nature.  When we consider ourselves regular attendees while only coming once a month, we shouldn't expect to feel connected.  We simply can't with this irregularity.  Makes being in community truly difficult.
  3. How in the world do you put together a choir?  A bell choir?  A children's choir?  Getting individuals to sing shouldn't be a problem, but a group?  For the same reasons youth and Sunday School become problematic, so does choir and musical ensembles.
  4. How do you have a united sense of mission and ministry when so few are truly connected to a congregation?  
  5. How do congregation members care for one another if they do not know one another?  How does a congregation prevent pastors from becoming burned out since he/she is the only one who has direct contact with people on a regular basis?  (The same can be said for other church staff in their appointed areas.)
I am sure these are only the beginning questions of implication.  They are tough.  Really tough. 

THE SOLUTION?

Solving the "problem" goes far beyond logistics.  This is not something that can be cured by making sure a congregation is warm and friendly; or has a website, Facebook page, Tweets, podcasts its worship services and has the latest technology; or has great programs; or has a dynamic preacher; or has a central authority; or who focuses on the right doctrine; or so on and so forth.  This is not a problem which can be solved by a quick fix of tweaking something here or changing something just to be changing it.  It's not about trying harder and working one's self or one's congregation at a fever pitch.  Those will not change society.  Those will not change people's hearts. 

I am convinced only the change of hearts in people can make a difference.  I am convinced that unless the Gospel fundamentally changes people and leads them to be in a church community more often, we will, as congregations struggle mightily with this issue.  And the problem with this approach: it takes a lot of time before the Gospel affects this kind of change--a lot of time.

I am 40.  I can say that it is only in the past year that I have finally come to begin to truly understand the Gospel--that it isn't about what I do but what God has already done.  For so long, I was trying to justify myself and worship false gods.  I thought I would get a sense of satisfaction and wholeness through such pursuits.  You would have never, ever convinced me of this at the time.  I thought I was doing God's work.  I thought I was doing the right things.  I thought my priorities were in line.  I was and am a pastor, for heaven's sake!!

But I was wrong.  Dead wrong.  And I had to be fundamentally confronted with my sinfulness--my wrongheadedness before the Gospel could begin its transformational work.  That's started.  I know the Gospel's power.  I know it can change things and mightily.  But it takes time.  A lot of time, and with a huge chunk of people coming to worship only once a month, it will take an abnormal amount of time before change is affected.  Do we have patience? 

I hope so.

I hope so.

Monday, September 8, 2014

If You Have Anything to Say to Me...


    Our Gospel lesson this week is actually quite a bit longer than the designated text for the day.  The designated text put together by those who do the Revised Common Lectionary is actually Matthew 16: 15-20.  Next week, we are supposed to get Matthew 16:20-35; however, as I looked over these lessons, I couldn’t help but realize, these texts really should not be separated.  They demand to be put together because it is in holding them together that we truly get the Gospel revealed to us and lead us toward reconciliation and forgiveness.

    The text begins with instructions on how to handle reconciliation.  If someone in the church sins against you, you are to confront that person one on one.  If the other does not listen, you are to take two or three witnesses.  If the person does not listen, you are to bring them before the entire assembly, and if the person does not listen to the entire assembly, they are to be treated as a Gentile or tax collector.  This is very straight forward and simple, is it not?  I mean there isn’t much wiggle room in how we are supposed to handle a situation like this is there?  No.  There isn’t.  Except...

    Except no one follows this teaching.  No one.  Even those of us who are pastors and proclaim God’s Word Sunday after Sunday don’t follow this teaching of Jesus.  I mean, let’s be honest with one another when it comes to talking about reality.  Whenever we get upset with something someone has done to us or if they have done something in the church we don’t like, we don’t go directly to that person.  We either stew about it and stop attending church because “I don’t want to see that person anymore because he or she hurt me”; or we start talking about what that person did with anyone else who will listen.  “Did you see what color they painted the fellowship hall?  Oh the horrors!!  Why couldn’t they have just painted it white?”  If I can get someone, anyone to agree with me, well, then I feel justified in my position.  And, believe me, this is not something exclusive to congregation members.  We clergy jump on this bandwagon all the time.  We talk about our church leaders.  We talk about other Christians–other pastors.  Rarely, if ever do we go directly to someone and confront them with something they said or did–despite our knowing better.  I mean, even those who don’t follow Jesus have their own way of putting this.  You might have even said it yourself.  “If you want to say something to me...say it to my face.”  We know what we are supposed to do, but we just don’t do it.

    Why?  Well, of course, it’s easier not too.  I don’t have to face them directly.  But there are also the consequences that must be faced.  For whenever we confront someone with wrongdoing or confront another with hurting us, we are usually met with a harsh response. “How dare you confront me?  Do you think you are such a goody two shoes that you can tell me what I’ve done wrong?”  That’s just one of the responses.  I mean, oftentimes when we confront another, we come across as extremely self-righteous and arrogant.  This does not lead to reconciliation.  Furthermore, there are more than a few who have adopted the self-esteem gospel–that if we just let everyone know they are loved and perfect just the way they are they will work hard; do good things; and be productive.  Except that doesn’t work.  It actually leads to a sense of entitlement and narcissism.  And if you confront such a person with hurting you, it will fall on deaf ears because they don’t believe they are capable of doing wrong.  And even if you were to follow the teaching Jesus offers them, they would simply say, “I’ll just go find another church where I won’t have anyone mess with me.” 

    Do you see the difficulties involved with following Jesus teaching here?  Do you see why many people refuse to operate in such a fashion?  It’s too difficult to face another person, and the consequences are generally poor.  It’s a teaching which is almost too difficult to bear.

    Perhaps this is why Peter comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, how many times do I really have to forgive someone?  As many as seven times?”

    Some of you might think seven times is too small a number, but let me ask you this: would you let someone steal from you up to seven times?  Would you let someone slap you in the face seven times?  Would you willingly let someone take advantage of you seven times in a row without some sort of recourse?  No.  No one here this morning would think of such a thing–generally.  Seven times is a pretty generous number, but Jesus says, “No.  You are thinking too small.  As many as seventy-seven times.”

    And here we get to the important crux of the matter.  Here we get to why Jesus teaches what He teaches regarding reconciliation and forgiveness.  Here we get to why Jesus begins this segment with what to do if a member of the church sins against you.  Here we get a parable of God’s mercy and justice–a parable that leads us to the cross.

    Jesus tells us of a servant who has wracked up an incredible debt.  10,000 talents is the figure given.  Let’s translate this into dollar signs.  Let’s say an average laborer earns $30,000 per year.  A talent would have been 15 times that, so $450,000.  Take $450,000 and multiply that by 10,000.  That’s a lot of zeroes my friends.  By my calculations it would be $4,500,000,000.  This servant owed the modern day equivalent of 4.5 billion dollars!!! 

    Now, I want you to ask yourself: who in the world wracks up that kind of debt?  Who in the work borrows that much money–I mean aside from certain governments...  How in the world do you wrack up that much debt?  Any clue?  The best I can come up with is someone who is so totally irresponsible and so consumed with money that they get as much as they possibly can regardless of any sort of consequence or conscience.  This is the kind of guy Jesus talks about.

    Second question: what kind of lord loans that kind of money to this kind of servant?  I mean really.  Which one of you would have loaned that kind of figure to someone?  The lord must be extremely wealthy and not care what happens to that kind of money, that’s for sure.  Either that, or this lord must be somewhat crazy.  No one would even think of doing such a thing.  But apparently, this one did–at least in the parable.

    The lord comes one day to settle accounts, and he is furious at what is owed him.  He threatens to sell the man and his family as slaves to pay off the debt–this was considered quite acceptable in the world during that time.  The servant doesn’t want this to happen–not in the least, so he begs and pleads with his lord.  “Do not sell me.  I will repay you!”

    Interestingly enough, there are a couple of things to note here.  Unless one is very wealthy, this kind of debt cannot be paid off in one’s lifetime.  The guy is making a promise which cannot be fulfilled.  Secondly, it’s an obvious comment to save his own skin–a skin which was in trouble because of his irresponsible behavior in the first place.

    But the interesting stuff doesn’t stop there.  The lord, moved by pity forgives the debt!!!  He doesn’t work out a payment plan.  He doesn’t reduce the debt and work things out; he says you are off the hook.  You are free.  You are clear.  Go!

    Now, what would you and I do at this point?  What would you and I do if we were suddenly told that a huge amount of debt has been forgiven us?  Would we go out and do the same thing again?  Or would we be filled with joy at the fortune which had befallen us?  Would we be consumed with anger and greed, or would we have hearts full of gratitude?

    You would expect the latter, but this servant just doesn’t seem to get it.  He comes across a guy who owes him a pittance compared to the debt just forgiven him.  The actions of the lord had absolutely no effect on this guy.  He is still completely self-centered and selfish.  He is still as self-absorbed as before, and there are drastic consequences.  The lord will not let such actions stand.  Let’s try to understand why.

    A few months ago, I listened to a Timothy Keller lecture on Youtube, and he shared the following illustration by Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones.  Dr. Jones said that in order to understand the Gospel, one of the things I needed to understand was the size of the debt forgiven me.  In a sermon, Dr. Jones said, “Let’s say I come home one day from vacation and my neighbor, who was checking my mail told me, ‘While you were gone, a bill came, and I paid it for you.’  In order to know how to properly respond, I need to know how large that bill was.  If it was postage due, then I can say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’  But if it was that bill from the IRS which says I owed thousands of dollars that I didn’t have, well, that’s another story.  But until I know the size of the debt you paid, I don’t know whether to say thank you or to fall down on my knees and kiss your feet.”

    Think about that for a minute as you consider what Jesus did on the cross.  For it was on the cross that Jesus incurred and paid the debt you had accumulated with your sinfulness.  It was on the cross that Jesus died as a payment to remove that which kept you from being on good terms with God.  It was on the cross that Jesus endured the wrath of God so that you don’t have to.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.”  On the cross, Jesus reconciled the world unto God.  Jesus reconciled you unto God when there was this huge outstanding debt that you had accumulated through your sinfulness. 

    And if you realize, first off that you were sinful and had accumulated debt.  Then, if you realize the size of the debt that Jesus paid for you.  Then, if you understand that He did this to wipe out anything that stood between you and God, you will get to that point where you say, “Man, I want all my relationships to be this way.  I don’t want anything to be in the way of how I live with others.  I want to be reconciled with them just like I am reconciled with God.”

    And so, if someone has sinned against me, I don’t wait for them to come to their senses; I don’t sit on the pain and just let it fester; there is something wrong, and if God took the initiative to fix it, then I want to take the initiative to fix it with whoever has wronged me.  And I will go to the one who hurt me, not in a spirit of self-righteousness because I needed forgiveness too, but in a spirit of humility–in a spirit of reconciliation.  I will go to that other saying, “I am not here to point out your wrong because I am so right; I am here because there is something between us that is keeping us from living out our relationship to the fullest.  I don’t want that thing to be there.  I want to be reconciled with you but I cannot because there is this hurt you caused me.”

    And if the other party does not agree, then, because you want this reconciliation so badly, you will involve others–ultimately the entire church because reconciliation is that important.  And if in the face of the church the other party does not repent–treat them as a Gentile or tax collector.  Which we need to ask–how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He ate with them.  He healed them.  He associated with them and worked with them for the express purpose of proclaiming to them the Gospel.  He wanted them to know the marvelous power of God so that their lives would be changed–just like our lives are changed by what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.  Such forgiveness–such reconciliation from the heart is a difficult thing until you realize what Jesus has already done for you.  He’s forgiven your debt, and now He asks you to do the same.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Objective Truth

I came across a quote the other day while watching a lecture by Don Carson on Youtube.

Within it, he said the following, "There is objective Truth, but we cannot know it objectively."

His argument is quite coherent, I think--and it makes sense, to me at least.

I will attempt to apply it in regards to the Christian faith and in particular to the person of Jesus.

Jesus makes the straight forward claim in John chapter 14, "I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."  For the purpose of this post, I would like to simply shorten what Jesus says to, "I am the truth."  I am not purposely trying to pick and choose or remove Jesus' words from the context.  Lord knows there are enough times when I and others do such a thing to further our own philosophical/theological positions.  However, in this case, I believe shortening Jesus' statement will be productive in illustrating Dr. Carson's statement.

Can we know Jesus?

The answer is yes and no.

There are things I think we can absolutely say that we know about Jesus.  If we trust the gospel narratives, there are things we can say He did and said.  Through His words and actions, there are aspects of Jesus we can most certainly say we know.

Aside from those who push for an absolutist minimal approach (who might as well give up the pursuit of ancient history), we can say Jesus did some quite astounding things.  He healed.  He preached.  He performed acts witnesses regarded as miracles.  He taught about God.  He received and accepted worship.  He saw Himself as the Son of God.  He revealed what the Kingdom of God was like.  He went to Jerusalem.  He found Himself on the short list of enemies of the state.  He was killed.  His followers believed He was raised from the dead. 

This list is far from exhaustive.  These are some of the basics.  We could delve further and add much, much more, especially if you trust the biblical narratives to have reported accurately the things Jesus said and did.  (For the sake of brevity, I will not go into the arguments among scholars who claim the gospels warrant a high degree of historical trust and those who believe they warrant a low degree of historical trust.)

Point being--there are things about Jesus the person we can say we know--unequivocally.

And yet, we do not know everything there is to know about Jesus. 

As one reads the New Testament and what Jesus says repeatedly, new insights and thoughts continually are revealed.  If one delves into the Greek and into the historical situation in which the gospels were written, one uncovers even more understanding.  There seems to be a never-ending stream of learning more and more about this person who walked the earth so long ago.

It's not surprising.

It's the way relationships work. 

We know people.  As we spend time with them, we come to know them even more, but we never, ever fully know them.  We never, ever can say, "I know this person inside and out.  I know the way their mind works.  I know what actions they have taken and will continue to take.  There is nothing about this person that can or will surprise me ever again."

No one I know of is capable of making this statement about another human being.

And so, we can say, "I know a person, but I don't fully know a person.  I know much about him/her, but I do not know him/her fully."

And so it is with objective Truth. 

Jesus claimed to be the Truth.  We can know it, but we can't know it fully.

Just as a mathematician (as Don argues) knows mathematics, but he/she doesn't know if fully.

Just as a chemist knows a lot of chemistry, but does not know everything in chemistry.

Just as a mechanic knows a lot of mechanics, but does not know how to fix everything.

And so on and so forth.

Which brings us to another important aspect of getting closer to the Truth--we need interplay between one another to bring a fuller picture of the Truth.

It is quite amazing what others oftentimes see in us that we do not see in ourselves.  It is quite amazing to talk to someone about a book one has read or a show one has watched to find that you missed something. 

I remember well reading Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.  I remember having a discussion about the movie trilogy versus the book--particularly about the battle for Minas Tirith.  One of my friends commented about how ludicrous it was to have the Army of the Dead show up at that battle in the movie. 

"It wasn't in the book," he said.

I thought him daft.  I thought I remembered reading that in the book, so I went home and consulted.  My friend was correct.  He saw it.  He remembered it.  I didn't.  I didn't see it until it was fleshed out by another.

Even though it was written in black and white in that book, my brain had constructed something very, very different, and it needed correcting.  It needed the input of others to help me grasp the reality.  And, I must humbly say, I still do not fully know the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy even though I have read it a dozen times or so.

Just like I don't know Jesus fully.

Just like I don't know the Gospel fully.

Oh, I know some of it.  I've studied it thoroughly.

But there is still much to learn.

And there always will be when one pursues objective Truth.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Your Own Personal Jesus


(Note: the podcast on Youtube is a little different from the written text following.)

    Our Gospel lesson today is so rich, it’s so deep that much could be said about it.  Much could be written about it, and it has.  Volumes have been written about taking up one’s cross and following Jesus.  There is not enough time this morning to do justice to this text and its implications for our lives, but never-the-less, we are called to wrestle with it this morning, and we shall.

    This snippet from the Gospel of Matthew follows another very important snippet, and I think we need to visit it for just a moment as well.  Let’s look at the verses directly preceding our appointed text for this morning.  From Matthew 16:

    13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

    Now, immediately after this episode–immediately after Peter’s declaration, Jesus begins telling the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, endure persecution, be killed, and be raised.  Peter is not happy with this.  Mind you, this is the same Peter who has just had loads of praise heaped upon him by Jesus just a few verses earlier.  I don’t exactly know what was going through Peter’s head.  I don’t’ know if Jesus’ praise earlier emboldened him or gave him the idea he could confront Jesus about what he was saying.  I’m not sure why he suddenly thinks that as the student he could correct the teacher.  But what I do know is that Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  Now, rebuke is the word used in English, but perhaps it doesn’t quite fit.  The Greek word is epitimao, which has as its basic meaning to properly assign value as fitting the situation.  I want you to think about this because Peter is doing exactly that to Jesus.  Remember, Peter had just said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.”

    And what was the expectation of the Messiah?  You’ve probably heard me say this more than a few times in preaching here.  The Messiah, according to Jewish tradition, would be God’s representative on earth.  He would be an earthly king who would establish Jerusalem as the city of God.  The Messiah would establish Israel as the kingdom of God and wipe out Israel’s enemies–this particularly meant the Romans at the time.  The Messiah would then issue in a time of peace, prosperity, and justice for Israel.  All nations would look upon Israel as a place of power and prestige and honor.  This was what the Messiah was supposed to do, and yet, Jesus had just said, He would go to Jerusalem, be persecuted, die, and be raised.  This did not fit the Messianic narrative.  This was not what Jews expected of their Messiah, and Peter was taking it upon himself to “properly assign value as fitting the situation.”  Peter was letting Jesus know what He was supposed to do as the Messiah.  Peter wasn’t letting Jesus be Jesus; Peter was trying to make Jesus fit into a particular box.  Jesus isn’t too thrilled with Peter, but we will get to that in a moment.

    Because here we need to recognize something about ourselves.  Here we need to recognize our own desire to put Jesus in a box.  We need to recognize how we oftentimes construct our own, personal Jesus–with apologies to Depesche Mode.  We need to recognize that many times we construct and find a Jesus to suit our needs, our wants, and our desires.  We construct and find a Jesus who makes us feel good–who meets our expectations; who comforts us and makes us feel good about ourselves.  It is not Jesus who impacts and changes us–it is we who make Jesus in our own image to justify ourselves and our wants and expectations.

    As you can imagine, Jesus doesn’t exactly relish this thought.  Jesus doesn’t relish being turned into something to be used by others.  Jesus doesn’t like being told what He has to do and how He has to do it.  I mean, apparently, He doesn’t even let Peter get very far into the argument.  The text says, “Peter began–BEGAN, to rebuke Jesus, and Jesus turned his back on Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan.  For you are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  We will come back to this in just a moment because it is important.  But let’s continue for just a moment with Jesus’ teaching because He then turns to His disciples and says, “If anyone wants to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

    Lots to unpack here.  Lots.  First, let’s start with Jesus’ response to Peter.  “Get behind me Satan!”  This is a harsh word–a very harsh word.  “For you are a stumbling block to me.”  Why is this reaction so harsh?  Do any of you remember the story of when Jesus was tempted by the devil in Matthew chapter four?  Do you remember when the Devil took Jesus to a high mountain, showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these I will give to you if you would bow down and worship me.”?  Do you remember this episode?  You might not, but I am sure Jesus heard those echoes coming through Peter’s voice right here.  I am sure Jesus heard the exact same temptation He faced when the Devil came to Him in the middle of the desert.  Same temptation.  Different voice.  And Jesus responds appropriately.  “I told you once, Satan.  I tell you again.  No.  You are a stumbling block to me because you are setting your mind on earthly things and not on divine things.”  See how that ties together?

    And Jesus nails not only Satan, but He nails Peter–and all of us.  For you see, most of us like to use Jesus as a means to an end.  Most of us like to use Jesus as our ticket to the things we think will make us happy.  I am sure you have heard one or more preachers proclaim that if you believe in Jesus, you will have all that you desire.  You will have health, you will have wealth, you will have victory in your finances, in your life, your relationships will be perfect, and you will be completely happy.  You see, if you adhere to this kind of belief, you really don’t want Jesus.  You want health; you want wealth; you want happiness; you want the perfect family; you want all these things, and you want Jesus to give them to you.  You want your own personal, Jesus.  And Jesus says, “No.”  “Get behind me.”  “You are setting your mind on earthly things, not divine things.”

    Which begs the question, how do we set our mind on divine things?  Jesus says, “If anyone wants to follow me, let them take up their cross and follow me.  For if anyone wants to save their life, they must lose it; and if anyone loses their life for my sake, they will find it.” 

    Now, it is at this point where those of us who are pastors and preachers usually start talking about what it means to live a Christian life.  We start telling you that taking up your cross means doing all the things listed in our second lesson from the book of Romans.  I will not read this text in its entirety, but I will read a couple of verses, “9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  That’s four verses.  There’s a lot more.  Let me ask you this: have you managed to do those things listed in those four verses very well?  Have you managed to let love be genuine?  Love one another with mutual affection?  Outdo each other in showing honor?  Probably not.  None of us do–at least to the extent we know we should.  In fact, if we focus on trying to do all of these things.  If we try to follow the Law in order to please God as if this will save our lives, we will actually lose them.  How, you might ask?  Aren’t we supposed to do these things?  Aren’t we supposed to love and honor and be generous?  Yes, we are, but if you place these things as the ultimate things in your life, it will lead to despair and death.  What do I mean by that?

    Just this: you are not trying to get Jesus–you are trying to save yourself.  You are trying to achieve perfection. And when you put anything other than Jesus as your ultimate goal, you will not have life.  You will find death.  And I am not simply talking about hell.  No.  I am talking about this life right here and right now.  You will spend your entire life in frustration becoming angry and bitter and upset and burned out and tired because you will be chasing a rabbit down an endless hole–never catching that rabbit; never feeling like you have accomplished enough.  If you believe in Jesus so that you can get wealth; you will never get enough wealth.  If you believe in Jesus so that you can get health; you will never find yourself healthy enough, and when you start declining, you will become bitter.  If you believe in Jesus so that you can get happiness; you will be miserable when bad things happen to you.  If you think Jesus makes you try to be perfect and do all the works of the Law, you will tire yourself out trying to follow them; you will never think you’ve done enough; and you will become resentful toward God and toward those who aren’t trying hard like you.  In all of these instances, and many more, divine things have been shoved out, and earthly things have consumed your mind.  And you’ve lost your life.  You aren’t really living.

    “If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose their life. And if anyone loses their life for my sake they will find it.”  How is this possible? 

    If we follow Jesus, where will it eventually lead?  If we follow Jesus where does He take us?  To the cross.  Not where we die, but where Jesus died.  Not where we earned our salvation, but where Jesus stretched out His arms and bought it for us.  Not because we lived the perfect life and did all the right things, but precisely the opposite–because we were constantly setting our mind on earthly things and neglecting the things of God. 

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    This was the divine mission of Jesus.  This is what He came into the world to do.  Anything else was a stumbling block.  He came to reconcile the world unto God–to die for you because He loves you.  Set your mind on this.  Let it be at the center of your heart.  It will change you.  You will die to yourself, and you will find abundant life.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It's a Heart Thing; Or, If you Want to Lose Your Salvation, Make Your Deepest Desire Something Other than God

There are many who struggle with the concept of grace.

I understand--more than one might realize.

For it is only after really starting to get what the Gospel is all about that I can now look back and see where I was and how I preached a modern day type of Pharisaism.

Did I believe Jesus died for our sins?  Absolutely.
Did I believe we were saved by grace through faith in Christ alone?  Yep.
Did I believe that Jesus' death and resurrection were totally and completely sufficient for my salvation?  Nope.  I didn't.  I believed there was still something I had to do.  I had to maintain my salvation by living a life worthy of my justification.  And I thought it my duty to inform others that they had to live such lives as well.

You see, I believed in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, but I didn't believe that I was clothed in His righteousness.  I didn't realize that not only did Jesus die the death I deserved, but He lived the life I was supposed to live.  And since He fulfilled the Law, I am no longer under its discipline.

1) How in the world could I say such a thing?  2) Aren't we supposed to do good things?  3) Aren't we supposed to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?  4) Aren't we supposed to love our neighbor as we love ourselves?  5) Aren't we supposed to strive for moral righteousness?  6) Won't we end up receiving God's wrath if we don't seek such things?

First (1), I didn't say such a thing.  I'm parroting St. Paul.  Galatians 3,

 23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

Second, (2) yes, (3) yes, (4) yes, (5) yes, and (6) no.

But, you might point out to me, St. Paul says that we will endure God's wrath and will not inherit the Kingdom of God.  He is straight forward in 1 Corinthians 6:

9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. 
First off, please note the sequence to which Paul addresses:  These folks will not inherit the kingdom of God.  Period.  Short list.  Followed by, "And this is what you used to be."  Used to be.  But because of God's grace.  Because of Jesus life and death, you ARE NOW WASHED, SANCTIFIED, and JUSTIFIED.  You are now no longer these things because you are looked at differently.

"But," you might say, "What if I still am greedy?  (Anyone out there NOT want more money?  If you want more money to live on, you are exhibiting greed, even if it is slight.)  What if I still am an idolater?  (If you love anything more than God at any point, you are an idolater.  Most of us fit here easily.)  What if I lust after another?  (Most people still do this thereby breaking the Sixth Commandment and the direct teaching of Jesus.)  Will I still inherit the kingdom of God, or am I on the outs?  Do I still have my salvation, or have I lost it?"

Let's read verse 12 because it is vastly important.  "12 ‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything."

The key word here, I think is dominated, or in the Greek: exousias.   The word connotes power and authority.  St. Paul says, basically, I will not come under the power of or be subject to the rule of anything--anything, that is, except Christ.

Paul is addressing the desire of one's heart, and all the things he lists in verses 9 and 10 have to do with the condition of one's heart.  "You used to be these things," because these were the deepest desires of your heart.  You wanted more money, more sex, more pleasure; these were your idols.  These were your gods.  But now, Christ reigns in your heart.  These things might rear their ugly heads from time to time, but Christ now is your ruler--you are subject to and dominated by Him.

Paul echoes Jesus here.  For Jesus explicitly talked about the nature of one's heart in regards to sin and salvation:

Matthew 5: 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Now, we know an eye does not cause a person to sin.  Neither does a hand.  What causes the eye to look and the hand to grab?  The condition of one's heart.  If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  But it is not the hand.  It is not the eye.  It is the heart.  And lest you think I am simply explaining Jesus' words away, please note, He says so Himself a little later in the book of Matthew.

Matthew 15:18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’ 
The deepest desire of your heart is that which dominates you.  It is that which rules you.  It is that which keeps you hungering after more and more and more.  And, unless that deepest desire is Jesus, it will never, ever be satisfied.  Never.  For all eternity.

For this is the kicker to the whole deal.  God loves you so much, He will allow you to pursue your deepest, heart's desire for eternity.  If your desire is to be separated from Him, He will grant it.  If your desire is to pursue sex for eternity, He will grant it.  If your deepest desire is for money, He will grant it.  Here's a frightening one: if your desire is to perfectly follow God's Laws so that you will not lose your salvation; God will grant this too.  If you build your identity upon these things, God will see to it that these things are yours forever.  And you will never, ever be satisfied.  You will always be hungry.  You will always need more and more and more.  Forever.

This, my readers, is hell.  Absolute hell.  Read Dante's Inferno to get a little more insight if you choose.

And speaking of choice, this is how you can ultimately lose your salvation.  Not by committing sins.  Everyone sins.  Day after day after day.   No one perfectly follows the commands of Jesus or the Old Testament Laws.  No one fulfills them.  This why we are saved by grace.  This is why our salvation is maintained by grace.  Not by our own doing, but by Jesus' doing.  And this is why we pursue Him; not the Law.  For when He is our deepest heart's desire, our salvation is absolutely assured.