Sunday, March 11, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Steer Clear o' the Crags (Titus 3:9-11)

A darkened taverna just fifty yards from the water. Outside, seagulls caw and cackle, the waves lap and lash the shoreline. Inside, the earthy plumes of smoke mingle with the salty sharpness of the air. Can you see it, smell it, taste it? A gaggle of Greek sailors sit, solemnly drinking wine and tsikoudia, as one, scarred of face and thick of beard, warbles a lecture to the others. He swears he heard it once – resisted it with all his might, but heard it, really heard it.

They all know the stories. Out on the sea, he says, when one gets near certain rocky outcroppings, one hears the call of strange beings – the sirens. Half-woman, half-bird, they live in meadows amidst the cliffs and rocks and crags, the sharp points of stone that jut out from the water, and they sing a song that captivates the hearts of men, luring them toward the sirens – only to make them wreck on the crags and rocks and cliffs.

Not without cause, the grizzled sailor insisted, did the Argonautica warn that “many a traveler, reduced by them to skin and bones, had forfeited the happiness of reaching home.” Not without cause, he said, did the Odyssey warn to “keep clear of the sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers.” In the stories, Odysseus only survived by plugging his crew's ears with beeswax; in the stories, Jason and the Argonauts only survived because Orpheus outsang the sirens and drowned out their haunting strains. And the grizzled sailor insisted the stories were true, insisted he'd heard them once at a distance, and steered clear o' the sirens and clear o' the crags.

Had the apostle been in the taverna, he might well have scoffed. Inebriated seafarers and ancient poetic license aside, such beings were fiction. Oh, Paul surely knew the Argonautica. Paul surely knew the Odyssey. So Paul undoubtedly knew the legends of the sirens. And, no doubt, as he spent time in the company of pagan sailors – and, especially in the latter part of his travels, he surely did plenty of that – well, he no doubt heard of them tell their tall tales, and perhaps he could sympathize with their great fears. But though there were no sirens to truly fear out there in the water, yet there were crags that could wreck a ship if one didn't steer clear. And as on the open sea aboard ships of wood, so too on the voyage of the church, Paul might well have pondered: Just like the sirens of the myths, there are some who come to the churches and would beguile believers into wrecking on the rocks, crashing on the crags.

And so Paul bids us in his letters to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the teaching you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery” – not unlike the smoothness of the sirens' song – “they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:17-18). That's just what sirens do, you see: they smoothly 'deceive' us into crashing into the obstacles, like crags jutting from the water. And Paul has the same advice to share a few years later with Titus, whom he'd commissioned to direct the fleet of local churches in Crete.

Paul observes that there are false teachers infiltrating these Cretan churches – that “there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10). The duped are led to “devote themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14). They engage in “stupid inquiries, genealogies, strifes, and wars about the Law” (Titus 3:9). And we have to admit, we don't totally know what's going on here; Paul doesn't give us the play-by-play. Paul talks about their foolish controversies, their 'stupid inquiries' – these people, he says, are just incompetent – the very questions they ask are dumb and beside the point, and they go chasing their rabbit trails. Some ancient writers like Polybius observed that popular pagan writers would compose fake histories for various cities, indulging in “the question of genealogies and myths” (Histories 9.2.1). And just the same, Jewish teachers seem to have been going to Christian churches, passing off their pet theology, and boosting its credentials with fake histories like that. Maybe they complained about the purity of church leaders' families. Probably they obsessed over their speculations on hidden spiritual meanings in the Old Testament – allegories tucked away in the biblical family trees, legendary stories about biblical heroes, secret demands lurking beneath the rules and regulations.

In the century before Paul wrote, you started to see just a flood of new Jewish books being written, re-imagining and reworking the biblical genealogies and laws. I've read bunches of them. There was one called Jubilees, a retelling of the genealogies and laws but structured around jubilee cycles of seven years. And in it, you'll find all sorts of tidbits. You'll hear that Hebrew was the first language, the “tongue of creation.” You'll hear that Adam and Eve lived seven years in the garden before the serpent approached them. You'll hear that the animals – cows and sheep and cats and snakes – all used to speak Hebrew, but stopped when Adam got the boot. You'll hear names for Cain's wife Awan and Seth's wife Azura and plenty of other unnamed characters. You'll hear legends about the life Enoch lived with the angels, and myths about fallen angels mating with human women who give birth to giants. You'll hear of Jewish feasts like Pentecost being set up after the Flood. You'll hear Noah spend chapters giving monologues of his teaching. You'll read stories of Noah battling demons through his secret mystical knowledge. You'll be told the Tower of Babel was 8,150 feet high, and you'll read stories of the young Abram chasing flocks of crows away, and preaching, and burning down an idol temple in the night. You'll get shades of the Book of Job when the demon-prince Mastema challenges God to test Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac. You'll be told that the sabbath is woven into the very fabric of history, and be told that circumcision is “an eternal ordinance ordained and written in the heavenly tablets,” and that anyone not circumcised is “to be destroyed and annihilated from the earth.”

And then there were other books. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, had plenty to say about the genealogy of Cain. He found plenty of allegories there. Cain, he said, signifies the human mind apart from God. Cain's wife is his doctrine that 'man is the measure of all things,' and their son Enoch represents everything being seen as a gift of the human mind. Enoch's son Irad represents the soul degenerating into a collection of 'irrational powers' that wander aimlessly. Irad's son Mehujael shows “that a man who lives in an irrational manner is separated from the life of God.” Mehujael's son Methushael signifies that irrational passion leads to “the death of the soul.” Methushael's son Lamech signifies humiliation, that is, the torture of the soul under its fatal disease. Lamech's son Jabal shows that such instability leads to “changing the limits which have been affixed by nature to every thing,” and so on, and so on, and so on.

And then there were other books. They wrote apocalypses portraying hideous angels carrying the souls of the wicked, weeping angels in heaven who write down all your sins, and so on. They wrote testaments, imagined instructions of all the patriarchs from their deathbeds. They wrote astrological tracts like the Treatise of Shem, explaining what it supposedly meant if a year started under this or that constellation. They wrote little biographies of Adam and Eve, of the patriarchs, of the biblical prophets. And then came the rabbis, who could argue any point – they could turn words to numbers and numbers to words, could tell you which days were free from Satan's power, could divide over the slightest points of Hebrew grammar, could give you a rule for each and every occasion – and give you five other opinions while you're at it.

Any and all of that could be the sort of speculative Jewish teaching that was infiltrating the churches in Crete. It was dangerous, because using methods like that, you could 'prove' just about anything; and in an atmosphere like Crete, it was painfully apparent that some Greek teachers used the same tactics to justify any and every act by making up stories about the gods indulging in it. The result of all these 'stupid inquiries' about 'genealogies' and 'Jewish myths' and 'human commands' was that people in the Cretan churches were getting all stirred up about these new special so-called insights. Paul warns in our passage about the 'strifes' that were ensuing all over the map. Folks heard these ideas, these speculations; they were exposed to the arguments; and so they'd start bickering about the right way to see behind the Bible for its inner meaning. Anybody here remember the 'Bible Code' craze from a few years back? If not, count yourself fortunate. But the result of what was taking place in the Cretan churches was that these arguments were distracting people. They were distracting people from what was really important. It wasn't shedding helpful light on the Bible at all; it was just giving off smoke and a dizzying heat – that's why Paul talks about “wars over matters of the Law.” Getting such a heat up wasn't a tough task in first-century Crete, and it was dividing churches! And no one really won such wars – so Paul calls them “unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9).

See, the truth is, some arguments, some debates, some issues – they just aren't useful. Even if you're totally right about them, you don't gain much. It makes no fruitful difference. It's not a good investment of time. It only distracts from what's really important, like faith, hope, and love. There is such a thing as a dumb question, Paul's saying. And these teachings that folks are introducing into the Cretan church – they're just rumors, they're hoaxes, they're fake news, they're pointless and insignificant and a waste of breath!

And yet how fond we can be in the church about arguing over and dividing over things like this – over myths and genealogies and wars about matters of the Law. Sometimes we argue about creation. That we were created, no Christian doubts; exactly how it played out, how we're supposed to read those first chapters of Genesis, is a hot topic in the church. There are Bible-believing Christians who insist in a literal six-day creation six thousand years ago, based on careful math tallying up lifespans in the genealogies. One archbishop once calculated the universe was created on the night of October 22, 4004 BC – around six PM, but he declined to specify a minute. There are Bible-believing Christians who find gaps in the story, or who interpret the seven days as long ages, or who see the seven days as days where God explained to Moses what had happened. There are Bible-believing Christians who accept evolution. But to hear the different sides bicker, you'd hear that one group is secret heathens and the other are blatant ignoramuses. How many churches have been inwardly divided when differing views on creation came to the fore? How many ministries have been derailed by this fight? How many good works has it distracted believers from? Not that it's unworthy of calm discussion now and again, but how easily have we gotten sidetracked from bigger and brighter things?

Or sometimes, we argue about the other tail of history – the end-times. People build elaborate theological and doctrinal systems based on their synthesis of bits and pieces of this book, that book, all the prophecies hither and yon. They transmute days to years, add them, count them, write histories of the future before the fact. How many different dates have been set for the end, I've surely lost count. Each one as plausible as the last. You've probably heard of signs and portents – “wars and rumors of wars,” and signs in the sky, eclipses and 'blood moons' and all that jazz. Folks in the church take every conceivable angle: preterist and historicist and futurist and idealist, premillennial and postmillennial and amillennial, pre-wrath and mid-wrath and post-wrath. Odds are, folks in any given church differ widely on all of those, or even whether some of the questions are sensible. How many churches have been divided? How much energy has been expended on 'prophecy ministries' that go nowhere and only feed our weird obsessions? How many good works has it distracted believers from, and how many divisions has it fostered? Back when I was choosing a seminary, there were seminaries I couldn't attend because I couldn't in good faith dot the i's and cross the t's on their official position on the end-times. How does that help the work of the kingdom?

Oh, oh, and the arguments scattered all over history! Nearly a thousand years ago, the western church and the eastern church formally cut ties. There were an assortment of issues there, but you know what one was? The East accused Western Christians of being repulsive azymites; the West retorted that the East were prozymites. What are those? It all comes down to using leavened versus unleavened bread in Communion! Or think of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli battling so heatedly, ruining the ties between their followers, over the exact nature of what happens in Communion! And tell me, church: who ever trusted God more, who ever had more hope, who ever loved better, for being either a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian? Anybody? Show of hands?

Today, of course, there are some important issues that divide churches. Some of those are fair disagreements about things that really matter. Others are disagreements about things that matter but should have been off the table, by the teaching of Old and New Testaments and the consensus of the church. In the nineteenth century, denominations split because, in spite of the longstanding witness of the church that slavery was evil, some folks in American churches wanted to tolerate and defend it – and so there emerged Northern and Southern Baptists, there arose a Methodist Episcopal Church North and a Methodist Episcopal Church South, and so on. Just the same, today, on issues of sexual ethics – all very important – many have broken with the longstanding witness of the church about homosexual practices and other sexual sins – there are folks in American churches wanting to advocate for its tolerance and acceptance, and churches and denominations are dividing over this alien and unchristian doctrine. That's what heresy does – it tears and devours, and it impairs our love by condemning people to the slavery of their temptations and their passions and their faulty vision and darkened thinking.

But there are plenty of more frivolous issues that divide churches today, issues that aren't a matter of biblical faithfulness. Political squabbles, for instance. We've especially seen that in the past few years. Whole churches have divided – arguments have started, trust has withered, people have left, congregations have split – over how people react to the man who currently works from the Oval Office. I won't say politics doesn't matter, in some relative sense. And, look, I'm sure we run a wide range of positions even in our church here. But could a little difference of opinion over any prince of men be warrant to rip apart the unity of Christ, who tells us to place not our trust in princes? How much Christian witness has been sabotaged by importing secular partisanship onto holy ground? How many good works have we been distracted from by Satan's siren call?

And then there are the pragmatic issues. Churches divide over music style, don't they? Even if it's just adding an extra service so that the people who like the organ don't have to worship next to people who like guitars and drums, that's a division. I've seen plenty of division over people's musical idolatries. Haven't you? Oh, and churches divide over personality conflicts – that happens all the time. Our denomination's history bears witness – such was a major factor in the split in the Evangelical Association in the 1890s. Churches divide over fairly petty matters of legal procedure – that's what split the United Evangelical Church in the 1920s, after all. Churches divide over silly things – all the way down to carpet color.

Don't believe me? One church leadership expert (Thom S. Rainer) did a survey on Twitter the other year. He wanted to hear the craziest true-life stories behind church fights, some of which did actually split churches outwardly, but surely all of which divided churches inwardly and distracted from kingdom work. Ready to hear his twenty-five favorite?
  1. People fought over whether to sing “Happy Birthday” each week.
  2. People fought over a proposal to require all church staff to be clean-shaven.
  3. People fought over the appropriate length for the worship pastor's beard.
  4. People fought over whether the worship leader had to wear shoes during the service.
  5. People fought over whether people were allowed to wear black T-shirts to church, since don't you know that's the devil's color?
  6. People fought over who had access to the copy machine.
  7. People fought over who had authority to buy postage stamps for the church.
  8. People fought over a ten-cent discrepancy in the church's budget.
  9. People fought over whether to add gluten-free communion bread.
  10. People fought over using a cranberry/grape-juice blend instead of pure grape juice.
  11. People fought over the youth group daring to use an otherwise-unused crockpot from the church kitchen.
  12. People fought over what kind of green beans to serve at the church dinner.
  13. People fought over whether deviled eggs were appropriate for a church potluck.
  14. People fought over whether to call it a 'potluck' or a 'pot blessing'!
  15. People fought over what brand of coffee to stock – and, yes, folks really left that church over that!
  16. People fought over whether adding vanilla syrup to coffee looked too much like adding liquor.
  17. People fought over whether fake plants should be removed from the podium.
  18. People fought over whether to keep or remove a clock from the worship center.
  19. People fought over whether the church should buy a weed eater.
  20. People fought over whether to put stall dividers in the women's bathroom.
  21. People fought over which filing cabinet to buy.
  22. People fought over which painting of Jesus to hang in the narthex.
  23. People fought over whether to use their plot of land to build a children's playground or a cemetery.
  24. People fought over somebody hiding the church's vacuum cleaner from somebody else – and, believe it or not, that church actually did split over it!
  25. At one church, two deacons argued over an anonymous letter – and they settled it with a fistfight in the church parking lot!
We laugh! We laugh precisely because it's so obvious that none of this is worth wasting breath on. We laugh because it's so pointless, so trivial. And yet how many times has something as trivial as this caused a division in our church? Maybe not this year, maybe not last year, but over the last few decades? How many times has some 'stupid inquiry' or some 'strife,' some frivolous 'war over the Law' or some other closely-held myth or pet idea or speculation, distracted us from being “carefully devoted to good works” (Titus 3:8)?

Brothers and sisters, when Christians gather together, our vocation is not to argue. Yes, there is a place for real teaching, healthy teaching (Titus 1:9; 2:1). Yes, there is even a place for correcting and rebuking (Titus 1:13; 2:15). But these take place within our prime vocation, which is to unite worshipfully around “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), the core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's to unite around the reality that our good and loving God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, being justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). These are the things Titus is told to be insistent about: they matter, they count, they bear fruit, they have functional relevance for Christian witness and life (Titus 3:8).

Such key truths, which Paul calls 'healthy teaching,' 'sound doctrine,' are worth clinging to and defending. And then there are other issues that are worth serious discussion. And then there are still others that can be fun to toss about in your downtime – (how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, after all?) – just as long as you don't take it too seriously and don't waste too much time and effort on it. But then there are issues that are just pointless, and some stances that are simply beyond the pale. These things are “unprofitable and useless,” and Titus is cautioned to “avoid” them (Titus 3:9). 

But others will harp on them, sure enough. They will throw everything out of joint, blow everything out of proportion. A 'divisive person' always finds a hobby-horse to ride, and a hobby-horse's hoofbeats have a way of clouding the air with dust and ash. Their quibbles don't lead to a clearer understanding. Their quibbles won't help you see God any better. Nor will their quibbles equip you to trust more tenaciously, to hope more audaciously, or to love more ferociously. So Paul tells Titus to kindly give them attention once and then twice, in hopes of correcting their behavior and refocusing their attention – but if they persist in their fruitless obsession, to reject them (Titus 3:10).

Because the church has important things to do. We all, as believers, have important things to do – a veritable smorgasbord of good works spread out before us, with more variety than Shady Maple ever boasted. And these quibbles, all the “myths” and “stupid inquiries, genealogies, strifes, and wars over the law,” are a distraction and a detriment that dare to divide the divine deposit of our doctrine. Such is all heresy, and such is schism, and such is our perpetual foolishness.

But distracting our brothers and sisters with frivolous fights and asinine arguments is not merely inadvisable, Paul says here. It is a serious sin, to threaten the health and integrity of the fellowship of the people of God: such a divisive person is “warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:11). We dare not distract the church with our petty agendas, our idiosyncratic views, our closely-held myths. Don't listen to their siren temptations. Steer clear o' the crags! Rather, let us instead insist on keeping the main thing the main thing, “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves” – devote ourselves – “to good works” (Titus 3:8). In this “excellent and profitable” path over the waves, sail on, church. Sail on. Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: The Washing We Needed (Titus 3:3-8)

It was a hot, humid day in the Caribbean and in the West Indes. Safe havens abounded – even for crews like this. And, most people thought, thank God there weren't too many crews quite like this. Calico Jack was at the command. Other feared names had been, were, or would be aboard his ship. Right now, though, no one was aboard his ship. They'd lowered their insignia – the rectangle of black fabric with the crossed swords and the leering skull. They'd found an isolated cove and run the ship just barely aground during high tide. And now, at low tide, with fortifications on the beach and their cannons ashore, they tilted the ship toward its side, exposing half the hull to the open air. In short, they careened their vessel. And they set to work.

The hull, you see, was afflicted. Some of the wood was rotten. Other wood had holes from cannon fire. Some of the hull was infested with shipworms – tiny mollusks that love to burrow into the wood from the sea. Some was covered with barnacles that needed to be chipped off. Some was spattered with spots of mold. And across the whole, trails of seaweed, sickly green, streaked and dangled. And that wasn't good for the ship. It was bad enough that such afflictions hastened the deterioration of the wood and made it precarious to sail. But with so much build-up on the hull, so much junk sticking to and clinging to it, the roughened surface slowed the ship's top speed to half what it ought to be. Not good when your line of work is all about being faster than your prey and faster than your pursuers. And so it wouldn't do to leave the hull like that. Merchant vessels could use dry-docks to get their chance to deal with the like problems. But not an option for this crew – for these pirates. And so they did what they could. They careened it – and they cleaned it.

Even today, with ships made of different materials and affected differently by the water, conscientious owners will still find ways to clean their boats. And the days of wooden vessels were, in principle, no different. While resources had to be replenished – old maritime narratives often made reference to ships being “wooded and watered” – the cleanliness of the hull needed to be addressed. One old British parliamentary record, recording the words of naval leadership, remarks that 'cleansing the ship' is “a most necessary and most important consideration.” And so it's unsurprising that the book that put crews like this on the map, 1724's heralded General History of the Pyrates, speaks of how just such crews came to a cove and “there made preparations to careen; they carried ashore all their sails, and made tents by the water-side, where they laid their plunder, stores, &c., and fell to work … employ'd in heaving down, scrubbing, tallowing, and so forth.” There's a lot of work to do to a ship when the hull is afflicted so.

Over the past six weeks, we've been exploring a letter from Admiral Paul to Vice-Admiral Titus, given charge over a fleet of churches based in first-century Crete. Those seas were choppy. They were also toxic. And so not only was it important to have a sure anchor in God's truthfulness – not only was it important to see the twin beams from the lighthouse of Christ, blazing grace from his first appearance and glory from his appearance that is fast turning 'round – not only was it important to navigate by the star-chart whereby the Scriptures describe the pattern of Christ our Sign – not only was it important to sail steadily onward toward the harbor of God's embrace – not only was it important to have good officers at the helm to steer the ship right – not only was it important to have good rations administered to keep spiritual scurvy at bay – we also heard how important it is to keep swabbing the deck clear of the toxicity of any compromised half-gospel.

But the hull of each church is still in contact with the culture and everything it contains. Which isn't inherently bad. After all, if the culture weren't there, we'd be marooned on the sea floor! And yet, sailing on choppy waters full of such dreck, there's a problem: a ship is going to get dirty. Out there, on your private dinghy, you'll find the very same problem. Barnacles will attach themselves to your hull and drag as you try to go. Seaweed will wrap you up and trail behind your bow. Shipworms will burrow their way in and weaken your defenses against the pressures of the cultural and circumstantial waters surrounding you. Holes and rot and mold will form, the signs of prolonged and untreated exposure. The result will be hindrance and deterioration.

And I'm sure, as each of you reflects on what you've endured in your life, or maybe what you're facing right now, you can think of some ways you feel like you just can't get those barnacles off, like you just can't get untangled from seaweeds and grasses, like you just can't resist the burrowing shipworms, like you're ready to fall apart at the slightest touch and rot and chip away. Have you ever been there? I'm sure all of us have. I know I have. That's just the effect of exposure to what's unhealthful in twentieth- and twenty-first-century America, like any other culture. Paul, writing to Vice-Admiral Titus, lists some of the afflictions of our private vessels: “Foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).

And here's the problem. Like the pirates, you can look for safe places to run aground and try to deal with some of this – chances to rest and regroup, chances to wash off the muck and chip off the hindrances and cut through the weeds and carry out some repairs on your life. But those safe places are very few and very far between. The wood of each of our private dinghies has been hopelessly rotted for thousands of years – ever since teeth sank in fruit that wasn't for tooth and tongue to touch. It's true of every mere mortal who's ever lived: the ship of their personal, individual life is doomed to fall apart and sink into the miry deep. None can resist the toxicity of the world. There is a hopeless rot that cannot keep out the dirt. Try as we might, even when we get a chance to try our hand at repairs, even when we observe best practices for boat maintenance, even when we baby it as best we can – we're at a loss to save our ships.

I'm speaking, of course, of the rot of sin – the rot that we cannot cure. As much as we can try to manage it with virtue – as much as we may make an effort to replace bits and pieces of the rotted hulls of our lives with intact wood – we find it swiftly exposed to the very same infection and affliction. All around you, you see folks adrift on the choppy seas of life, and whether they can see it or not, beneath the waterline, they're falling apart. And so, on our own dinghies, are we. Most of us seldom peek below our waterline – we just don't have time, don't have space, don't have a safe place to get it exposed to the light of day.

But if we could, we'd see the problem in plain view. We'd get a clear sight of the rot of sin. We'd behold the tiny pricks eaten by all the worms. We'd cast our gaze on the barnacles and the weeds. We'd run our fingers over the holes in our own life that make us take on this toxic water below deck. Yet even if we could, the best we can do is patches that change nothing of the ultimate outcome. The rot will spread. The barnacles will cling again. The seaweed will once more dangle and tangle. The shipworms will eat, and one way or another, our boats will be destined for the junk pile – fit no more to sail on, never to dock at last in the good harbor where the coconuts are sweet and the scene is always beauty in God. Our own dinghies can never get us there. There is just too much hopeless rot; the vessels are too junky and dirty. Zu viel schmutz.  Zu viel schmutz...

We have so little chance to even interact with our own hulls, and when we do, we can scarcely chip off the barnacles and peel away the seaweed and patch up the holes and the rot, but the rot will spread anyway, and frankly we can just as easily make it worse. There is no hope that we can make these little boats truly seaworthy after all. If there could ever be any hope, it could not come from our own cleanliness; it could not come from our scrubbing and chipping; it could not be found in our repairs; or, to use the biblical idiom, it would not come from “works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5).

If only,” we dream, “if only there were a ship we could board. A ship bigger than our own private dinghies. A ship with a hull impervious to these waters. A clean ship, a safe ship, stable in storm and secure at sea. If only there were a ship that would not rot before it reached the bright harbor. If only... oh, if only...”

But hear these words! “When the kindness and philanthropy of God our Savior appeared, he saved us” (Titus 3:4-5)! Paul writes to Titus in words he knows Titus will know. In the days of Roman rule, there were many patrons who sponsored the bettered lives of individual clients; there were many benefactors who sponsored the bettered lives of whole towns, provinces, the empire as a whole. And the common praise for such a patron or such a benefactor was this: that they displayed 'kindness and philanthropy' in doing for others what others could not do for themselves; in giving to others what others could not attain for themselves. And so Almighty God shews forth a sweet kindness and a love for all the human wreckage he surveys with pity. And he rescues us – he appears precisely as 'God our Savior.'

We know – or we should know – that our rescue could never come from the repairs of our hands. Nor can we swab away filth by filth, nor can we free ourselves from the barnacles and weeds and worms, nor can we cure ourselves of rot, turn back the clock of decay. Human history is full of toppled monuments to our efforts to do just that. The crumpled pages of philosophers offer prescriptions. All at best slow and stem the symptoms. The great artifacts propose something that will never rot away. But they will, just the same as all the rest. In our own lives, we can see these things. We cannot sanitize the hull with alcohol, we cannot layer over the barnacles with concealment, we cannot patch the holes with self-improvement, we cannot rid ourselves of rot by any means – and so even if we could make it to harbor, we'd be forever quarantined outside, so contaminated are we by our blight! If God is to save us, it cannot be “because of works done by us in righteousness.”

No, it will have to be a radical act of change. It may well mean the dismantling of our ruined boats. It may well mean abandoning our rotted project wholesale, and boarding a ship not our own. It may well mean – in fact, it does just mean – receiving passage where we have no right in ourselves to be. It means enlisting in a crew that none of our past mismanagement could ever qualify us for. But none among the crew were qualified at their enlistment. The most fiendish pirates have found a place; the chronically seasick rest easy on this deck. We must receive passage on a ship not our own, where we have no right in ourselves to be. And that is being saved “according to [God's] own mercy” (Titus 3:5).

This ship is the body of Christ – the church. The mercy of God brings us aboard – we abandon our rotted lives alone and join a greater crew. Because God chooses to favor us, in spite of our past mismanagement of self and all, he enrolls us in the crew. Paul calls that being “justified by grace” (Titus 3:7). And so we're on this ship, the ship of the church, which sails the seven seas of the world but aims for the harbor we dream of. And yet we know so well all the problems of life at sea. We know how much can happen under the waterline. We've tasted the rot, we know the holes, we've brushed the barnacles and been tied by the weeds and hated the worms as they burrowed in. Every other ship we've seen has been afflicted by the same rot. How can this be any different?

Because of one thing. Our old dinghies, our feeble rowboats of our own manufacture and maintenance, needed desperately to be cleansed from the rot, from the dreck, from the parasites and all the rest. The solution escaped us; it was beyond our reach, nor did we even conceive of it, so obsessed were we in mismanaging the problem by replacing this bit and that bit, by scrubbing pitiably away here and there. We needed a shower of something potent, something to burn and dissolve away the parasites, to wash off the dreck, to seal the hull in pristine condition. There was a very special washing we needed.

And so, Paul writes, God saved us “according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). In its internal dimension, we know this as the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, who enlivens faith to bring about a change of heart. In its external dimension, we know this as baptism – a literal washing outwardly with water, which is of one piece with the inward 'washing' of the soul. It's two sides of the same coin; we've spent too long trying to get out of it. Baptism isn't a work we perform; it's an act God does to us, not something we do ourselves. It's no mere symbol; it's the outward dimension of one and the same washing with the Holy Spirit. God was not stingy with the Holy Spirit. He did not sprinkle you with a droplet. Through Jesus Christ our Savior, God unleashed the Holy Spirit lavishly on us. We experience him in baptism, the other dimension of the same act whereby we're born again.

Paul calls this baptism – this Holy Spirit bath, experienced tangibly in water as we re-enact the death and burial of Jesus Christ and rise free from our drowning – he calls it here “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” And that's a fascinating choice of words. 'Regeneration' – it's an unusual word for Paul, but it's the word that another Jewish author named Philo shortly before had used for what the Flood of Noah did to the earth. When the floodwaters came and went on the earth, baptizing everything, this was a “purification … of all things beneath the moon,” Philo said, with “the earth being washed and appearing new again, as it was when it was first created along with the entire universe, … they became the founders of a regeneration” (De vita Moses 2.64-65). Just as Genesis describes the land emerging from the waters when God said, “Let there be...,” so Genesis depicts the land emerging fresh and clean from the waters again. The earth is renewed. The earth is reborn. Everything is started over without the baggage of the past. It's fresh, fresh as the dawn of Eden, clean and pure. The baptism of the earth in Noah's day made, at least physically, for a new creation, Philo's saying.

And what Paul is saying here is that baptism – not just the outward form, but the whole act of the Holy Spirit in external water and internal grace grasped by faith – this baptism, this “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” it's the same thing. The ship of the church is the body of Christ, and “if anyone is in Christ,” if anyone is genuinely aboard and enrolled in the crew, then “he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). As a part of the church's crew, you are totally new. You are not dirtied by the pollution around you; you have been washed clean, as fresh as Eden's dawn. It's not anything you could achieve yourself by any works you could do. It's only an act of God's mercy, and we received it only by faith – by accepting passage in Christ, entrusting our lives and souls and selves to him.

And the Holy Spirit didn't just wash the surface of the hull. The Holy Spirit infuses the hull with sealant, the likes of which you'll never find in a store or mix up in your garage. The Holy Spirit is the sole efficacious seal against all rot and against all mold, against all shipworms and all barnacles. So this ship will never rot. So this ship will not be hindered as we sail toward harbor. So this ship will not fall apart on the voyage. We need not fear. This was exactly the washing we needed, this baptism of water by Spirit. And we continually return, by faith, to swab the decks and bathe ourselves anew in the same pure waters, the same Holy Spirit. “The one who has bathed” with this baptism inside and out “does not need to wash, except for [the decks], but is completely clean – and you are clean,” our Lord told his disciples and, by extension, us (John 13:10).

Baptism is a hard thing to wrap our minds around. We're so tempted to domesticate it, belittle it. And we've surely seen the danger when mere outward washing, the work of men and not the act of the Spirit, is given the same title and assumed to be the same thing. But in real baptism, where true faith meets true Spirit in the water, where death is dealt to death and all lifeless things dissolve, what's left behind is a new creation, fresh as Eden's dawn, and clean as clean can be, and sealed tight against all rot.

The church doesn't always meet smooth sailing. Seldom, in fact! The seas are choppy because the prince of the power of the air is enraged against “the kindness and philanthropy of God our Savior,” by whose mercy we are saved (Titus 3:4-5). And when you are out in your rotting rafts and dilapidated dinghies, you will find the seas unbearable, and you will be in grave danger. Return to the mothership. Sail aboard the church, and not in your own private vessels. The seas are not smooth, but the wind and waves can never prevail against her hull and her prow as she slices forward on the water.

Don't neglect this ship that's granted you passage. Don't neglect the washing of regeneration that made this ship – that made you – what you are. This baptism you experienced – it's the Holy Spirit's work on you and in you. It is the outward dimension of you having been born again, “born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), born to “become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). And “you must be born again,” for “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5-7). Don't think you can be clean otherwise. Don't think you can in any other way be free from the rot, free from the dreck, free from the parasites and the entangling weeds. Don't think there is any other way to reach the harbor of God's embrace.

But on the flip side, if you are born of water and the Spirit, you are born again! You are renewed! You are truly regenerated, fresh as Eden's dawn! Whom the Son sets free is free indeed (John 8:36)! You are a new creation, no longer subject to the laws of rot and rubbish that once defined you – so don't sail like those rafts and dinghies you once called home! Trust in the God of this ship, the one who gave you passage and sealed you in mercy, and dedicate yourself – ourselves – to productive sailing. Live in your baptism; live in the Spirit; live in and as the church; live to “devote yourselves to good works” born from the same faith that gave birth to us all (Titus 3:8). Sail on in your cleanness and wholeness, church. Sail on. Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Discipline on Deck (Titus 2:15--3:2)

The crew of sailors howled and jeered, hooted and hollered, crooned and spat. The lot of them were drunk. John was used to it. He was one of them. He'd seen it on every ship he'd been on, and ever since he was a teenager, he'd been on plenty. He'd been a halfway-decent kid when he started out. But being around sailors like these, well, he thought about it as the 'ruin' of his principles, their 'ill example' set for him. Bearing their whip-scarred backs as a badge of pride, they drank, they caroused, they were vulgar and filthy, they ran hither and yon, they cultivated smut like it was their garden, they cursed like it was an Olympic sport and they were aiming for the gold, they dreamed of a pirate life and from time to time whispered of mutiny.

John was notorious for the same. He remembered his penchant for composing dirty songs mocking the captain and secretly teaching all the rest of the crew. He remembered the day he was slow to get out of bed, so another midshipman sliced the cords to his hammock and dropped him unceremoniously to the deck. He remembered how his youthful faith had been snuffed to ashes by the schemes of clever atheists aboard the vessel. He recalled that evening of drinking where he'd gotten so wasted, drinking rum concoctions from a seashell, that he'd “danced about the deck like a madman” and tried to hurl himself overboard. And he'd seen the rest of the crew do nothing less. They blasphemed, they mocked, they were drunk so very enthusiastically. Even in the wake of near destruction, they soon forgot all about it, took no thought to the implications of their mortality. John alone did, and he had “reveled in all the sottish debaucheries and in all the murderous brutalities in which the crews of such vessels engage.” John was the sole sailor who let his heart be moved, though he was “notorious amongst rough and godless sailors for his blasphemy and cruelty.”

So John was unsurprised as he watched the sailors howl and jeer, hoot and holler, croon and spit, as they mocked everything. They mocked God, they mocked Christ, they mocked John, they mocked each other's mothers and fathers, they mocked the captain and the midshipmen, they mocked the wind and the waves, they mocked kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers – they had a crude epithet for everything under the sun, not to mention the sun and every higher thing, too. They were quite as toxic, quite as grave a mess, as any bilge-scum that polluted the brig, as any rats that gnawed their rations or any scurvy-spotted bloody stain.

In time, John would learn the Scriptures – he had to, before he could sing of the sweet sound of God's amazing grace – and no doubt his memories of crews like that resonated with Paul's description of some people as “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating each other” (Titus 3:3). Paul was writing, of course, to Titus, the admiral he'd appointed over the fleet of churches they'd built together in Crete, a large island of the Mediterranean, south of the Grecian coast. And over the past five weeks – this will be our sixth – we've been considering Paul's letter to Titus as something like a naval manual, something like an injunction to Vice-Admiral Titus for each ship in the fleet to take to heart.

And as we sail over the choppy waters of our own twenty-first-century American culture, just as Titus tried to bolster his fleet for the choppy seas of first-century Cretan culture, well, there's plenty for him to teach us. We've learned the importance of maintaining a sure anchor in a God who never lies – God whose promises cut through all the untruth and half-truth and 'post-truth' nonsense swirling around us. We've learned the importance of the radiant light of Christ, who shines from the lighthouse with twin beams of grace accomplished at the cross and glory turning 'round our way. We've learned the value of looking up to the star-chart laid out in the Scriptures, the pattern of Christ written as a Heavenly Sign by which to navigate toward the harbor of God's embrace. And given how toxic and diseased the waters are, we've learned the imperative of swabbing the deck clean from any compromised half-gospel and of having good officers at the helm who can steer the ship right and administer healthy teaching to keep spiritual scurvy at bay.

And given that we – each of us, Paul says – had rather too much in common with the sailors of John Newton's acquaintance, these ships' officers are charged to announce the grace and truth of Jesus Christ authoritatively, definitively, life-savingly, life-changingly. And they are charged with the responsibility to wield that same hefty burden of authority to correct and direct, to challenge and guide, all the sailors on this new churchly ship. That's why Paul says to Titus, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15). He wants to underscore the authority that Titus rightly wields to discipline his fleet, and which those whom Titus appoints as officers on each ship in the fleet will rightly wield to discipline their crews as they share in Titus' commission. Because it's very important that there be discipline on deck. The church cannot afford to be staffed by the sort of sailors Newton knew, at least without them being brought to heel and changed inside and out.

So what does it look like for a church-ship to have discipline on deck, discipline from port to starboard, from bow to stern, and in the bunks and the mess as much as up on deck, for that matter? First, Paul says, the spirit of mutiny has to be put to death. And Titus knew that was going to be a hard sell to the churches of Crete. Crete was infamous as a haven of rebellion. Centuries earlier, one Greek writer named Polybius commented that the populace of Crete was famously “engaged in countless public and private rebellions, murders and civil wars.” Polybius said that, “with few exceptions, you could find no habits prevailing in private life more steeped in treachery than those in Crete, and no public policy more inequitable” (Histories 6.46-47). The spirit of mutiny thrived in ancient Crete – and, I dare say, in modern America no less, which routinely sees its share of “public and private rebellions, murders and civil wars,” if not always the literal bloody kind. And is the American church really, truly immune from the spirit of mutiny, as it ought to be? I don't think anybody could believe it is.

And so the Apostle Paul, writing with Luke, commands Titus, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient” (Titus 3:1). No doubt Paul is including the realm of civil society. The Christians of first-century Crete aren't to join in the rebellious frenzy of their neighbors. They're to set an example of orderly life, respecting and deferring to the governors sent there by the Roman Senate, even though the Cretan people had no hand in choosing them. They didn't ask for Lucius Turpilius Dexter, who ruled the island as proconsul when Paul wrote this letter to Titus; neither would they ask for Lucius' successor, Titus Atilius Rufus, or any of the rest before or after. How much more should we then have a healthy and respectful attitude toward the politicians of our days, advising and exhorting as need be but in a spirit of respect and not of mutiny?

And yet the American church is hardly known for being a mediating and peacemaking force in politics and civil life. But we should be. Paul says so right here, in black-and-white. We may well disagree vehemently with the policies and behavior of any civil ruler or any civil authority. We may well, as citizens of a republic, be the theoretical source of the authority any elected official wields. But does that negate the force of Paul's words? Does that release us from the obligation to bear witness by the attitude we bring into our engagement with civil rulers, civil authorities, and the law of the land?

But Paul probably has more than just civil rulers and civil authorities in view. He's writing this letter through Luke, and Luke used the same combination of words once: “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12). Luke probably talks here about synagogue rulers, religious authorities. And in this letter, it comes right on the heels of talking about Titus' authority, which he is commanded to enforce. Titus must remind the churches to be submissive and obedient to church authorities, like himself and the overseers he appoints (cf. Titus 1:5-9). Let's face it: church discipline is not a popular topic today. We withhold support, we rebel, if something doesn't suit us. We balk at the idea that anyone has any authority to correct and direct us, least of all by imposing discipline on us. We don't like obedience. But, well, there it is, isn't it? In our denomination, one of the questions that must be asked to candidates for membership is, “Will you submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you are found delinquent in doctrine or life, will you submit to its discipline?” To which, if you are a member of the church, you answered, “I will, the Lord being my helper.” That was right before you promised to “seek to be faithful by attendance, and participate in public worship, fellowship, study, and service opportunities of this congregation.” Are you loyal to those promises? We have a God above to answer to.

But Paul's directions for discipline on deck go beyond submission to rulers and authorities. He also insists that the church's crew “blaspheme no one” (Titus 3:2). John Newton saw many sailors crudely curse God, Christ, the captain, each other, slandering everything holy and reputable. Paul forbids us to be like that. Not only must we not blaspheme God, which I hope we understand, but we may not blaspheme anyone – we may not drag any name through the mud. We may not rant and rave our abusive complaints about anybody. And that's hard for us – we're fond of griping. Younger generations are fond these days of blaspheming the older ones; and, just as in every age, older generations routinely blaspheme the younger ones. Democrats blaspheme Republicans, and Republicans blaspheme Democrats. Urbanites blaspheme country folk, and country folk turn around and blaspheme city-slickers. Move aside, baseball: blasphemy may be our new national pastime. But the church's crew is meant to be totally free of it. Scripture reports that even the Archangel Michael, the heavenly prince charged with Israel's protection, didn't dare to blaspheme even Satan (Jude 9). How can we justify blaspheming any earthly thing and drag its name through the mud? Blaspheme no one; slander no one.

Paul goes on. He says that the church's crew must “avoid quarreling,” or as the King James has it, “to be no brawlers” (Titus 3:2). I like that rendering. It's the opposite of what John Newton saw among sailors in his day – fistfights breaking out, fighting words blasting forth from gnarled lips, recreational violence as a cure for the boredom of oceanic monotony. No doubt some in the Cretan churches, before their conversion, were literally brawlers – belligerent people, ready to pick fights. For the most part, rural and small-town Lancaster County has a different culture. But perhaps there are some among us who, if not physically violent, nevertheless always seem to pick a squabble with somebody. Paul tells us to be no brawlers, and that includes verbally, emotionally, relationally. He tells us not to pick fights – and if our personal lives are perpetually full of them, maybe it's us.

And then Paul tells us “to be gentle” (Titus 3:2). That's an attitude. It's a civil attitude, a reasonable attitude, an attitude of moderation – exactly the sort of thing John Newton didn't see often on deck. It's an attitude and an approach of relaxing the letter of the law to fit the spirit of the law. It's an attitude that's fair, that's mild, that's suitable for the occasion. It's, well, gentle. 'Gentle' may not be a word you'd use for those who sail the seven seas, much of the time, but it's the word Paul wants used for those who sail aboard the HMS Church! Are we gentle? Are we fair and even-handed? Do we take into account the challenges that others might be facing, and treat them accordingly? Are we ready to lift up the fallen and cheer the faint-hearted?

Paul then tells us to “prove meekness to all people” (Titus 3:2). Some translations render it as 'show perfect courtesy.' Others try 'gentle' here. Still others go with 'humility.' But the idea is one of restraint. Our conduct is to be a proof that, whatever strength and energy we have, we have it under control. We restrain our strength, we restrain our energy, we restrain ourselves, out of consideration for others. When we have a tendency to go too fast, we slow down. When we have a tendency to get ahead of ourselves, we hold up. When we have a propensity to steamroll, we take a step back. When our first instinct is to push hard, we restrain ourselves. And that is a demonstration, a display of visible strength visibly under control, visibly tamed by the gospel. Have you been tamed by the gospel?

It's important that we are, because the one other direction Paul gives us is “to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1). God has a lot of work that needs doing on this earth, and for those of you who farm, have you ever tried to catch a wild horse and hook him straight up to the plow? Good luck with that! They need to be tamed, broke, domesticated, before they have a share in the labor. So must we. But once we're visibly tamed by the gospel, there's work to be done. All sorts of work, as a matter of fact. All sorts of good work out there. Sharing the gospel – there's a good work. Offering shelter to the homeless – there's a good work. Nursing the sick back to health; encouraging the downcast; feeding the hungry; setting free the captive; forgiving the hurtful; showing mercy to the offensive; sharing the good things of creation with those who lack – those are all good works. And there are many more, countless forms of the works of mercy and works of piety.

Paul tells us here that we do not each have a certain limited subset of good works we should be on the lookout for. I don't get to drive down the street, see someone hurt and bleeding by the side of the road, and think to myself, “Well, my good work is forgiving people, not dealing with that.” Nor do I get to hear someone express spiritual anguish and think to myself, “But my good work is feeding the hungry and offering hospitality, not talking about Jesus.” Paul talks about “every good work” here, for all of us. We don't know what opportunities for good work God will put in each of our paths. It could be this one, it could be that one. It may suit our specialty, or it may not. But whichever one it is, Paul tells us we need to be “ready.” Vigilant. Prepared. Fit for the circumstance, whatever the circumstance will be. That's a hard thing! That's a whole-life thing, to really be ready for every good work. And without the resources of the Spirit in us, we can't do it. But when the Spirit fills our sails, we – each of us, and the church together – can be ready for every good work.

Submissive to rulers and authorities. Obedient. Ready for every good work. Blaspheming no one. Avoiding all quarreling. Gentle. Demonstrating full meekness toward all people, knowing what a difference it made that we were saved from our former slavery and foolishness by “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” (Titus 3:4). These are all things Titus has to insist on, “so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” that are “excellent and beneficial for people” (Titus 3:8).

John Newton knew full well, and we can readily imagine, what a ship looked like when the sailors were vulgar and uncouth and brawling and blasphemous and rough and filthy and undisciplined. And such a ship is a brutal mess. That is not the sort of fleet Paul wants to see. Nor is it the sort of fleet Jesus wants to see. Christ longs to see a fleet full of ships that have discipline on deck. Only with discipline on deck can the ship itself be ready for whatever maneuvers the Lord commands; only with discipline on deck can the ship offer a true alternative to the storms of chaos that roil the air and sea outside; only with discipline on deck can the ship sail safely and securely for the good of crew and cargo and for the attainment of her mission. May we be just such a ship, with just such discipline on our deck; may you be the kind of crew Paul prays for the ships of this fleet to have. Take heed, O church, to these words – and sail on. Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Lighthouse Ahead! (Titus 2:11-15)

I'm sure you've heard this story before, or something like it. I know I have. It was a dark and stormy night. Well, not so much stormy as foggy. The choppy seas sloshed beneath a sopping wet blanket of fog, thick and heavy. There was a great big ship, trying to make it through the fog. They had their own lights, trying to slice a way through the black shroud. But they could scarcely see a yard in front of their own faces, even with their lights at their brightest. With the fog so heavy, they couldn't see heaven. With the fog so heavy, they couldn't see ocean. With the fog so heavy, they couldn't see earth, with all its threat, nor any other ships on the water.

Suddenly, in the distance, they saw a light that looked so much like theirs. It was directly out in front of them – in their path! The captain grabbed his radio and signaled ahead. “Warning: We are headed in your direction. Please change course to get out of our way.” The captain watched the sole spot of light in the fog. It had no flicker, no deviation. The radio crackled. “Negative. Change your course.” The captain was not used to this. He was a decorated veteran. This was a military ship, and a big one, too. It was hard work to turn it, and beside all that, the captain was proud. He fired back, “Negative. You change your course. We will not be changing ours.” He glared at the light, daring it to stand still. Which it did. The radio crackled again. “Negative. Again, change your course.” Now the captain was irate. He snatched up his handset and yelled into the radio, “This is Captain Reginald T. Waterstreet of the H.M.S. Leviathan, the second-largest ship in Her Majesty's Royal Navy. On the authority of the Crown, I order you to change course this instant!” The captain fumed. Sweat rolled from his brow. Silence; all was still. Then the radio crackled. “Greetings, Captain Waterstreet of the H.M.S. Leviathan. Message received and acknowledged. This is a lighthouse – you change your course!”

Well, don't that just beat all? That's the thing about being on course to a lighthouse. You have to react. It won't be moving for you, no matter how hard you bluff and bluster, no matter how you flail and fume. No matter how much sweat, blood, tears you add to the equation, it makes no difference. The lighthouse is a constant. And yet how awful it would be for the lighthouse to not be there! For us to be abandoned in the darkness of the night, beneath the oppressive load of that isolating fog, with no glimpse of reality anywhere we turn! Many a captain, thinking clearly and setting aside his pride, has been mighty glad for the life-saving service rendered by many a lighthouse. Because the lighthouse shineth into the darkness, and the darkness and the storm and the fog and the waves and the wind – well, the lighthouse shineth in, and all this darkness has not overcome it.

So it is on many a shore. And so it is in matters of the spirit, matters of the soul, matters of the world. Friends, the waves of our culture are choppy. The waters can be plenty toxic. That's the truth about this life. The world is awash in brackish water, churned into a frenzy. So little out there makes for smooth sailing. In and of itself, it is dark out there. It is foggy. It is just plain impossible for us to see a yard before us, beside us, behind us, whichsoever way we bend our benighted gaze.

How often have you sensed the darkness and the fog descending in your life? I know I've run up against it my fair share in mine. A loved one dies, interrupting or abbreviating a relationship you thought would last a lot longer. Thus thickens the fog. A plan fails, a hope shatters. The fog thickens. Precious cargo plops overboard, lost to the waves. Fog thickens. Sickness infects the body, turmoil afflicts the mind. Fog, thicker fog. Chaos seems to reign. Everyone, everything seems so confused. It's all incoherent,, all jumbled and put together wrong. Elementary truths are forgotten out there. Fog, thickest fog, all so dense, all so heavy. And this very moment, so many around us – maybe we ourselves – are scratching at each other's throats, at our own throats, running around and flailing, because we're feeling claustrophobic with so much fog 'n smog clogging the air.

Ever since the swords swished at Eden's gates with us on the wrong side and no key, thick fog has been the natural environment of humankind. It didn't take long for us to forget where we were. Sometimes we thought we were so far away when we were so close. Often, we thought we were so close when we were so far away. You can see it in our sordid lot of religious endeavors; you can behold it in our cultural enterprises. We think we can build a tower all the way up to the very top, and we've misjudged the distance so badly, because we're working blind. The radio is not silent. It crackles, it hisses, it speaks. But most of our story is the history of willfully tuning it out. We drift in the fog, lost and feeling alone; when the fog thickens harder, we feel isolated from even our own shipmates, if we have them, let alone everyone else; and yet we sense the prospect of threats out there in the great unknown.

We build the tower – it collapses into fog. We maintain empires – they collapse into fog. We prostrate our soul and mind before lifeless things – the dark'ning fog blinds us to what they really are in the light of day. From our pyramids to our great walls, from our fast-paced hippodromes to our huts and houses and holy shrines, there's just so much fog. We knew not whence we came from; we knew not whither we were headed; we dreamed up eight billion dreams, but lost in the fog we were, and at our better moments we knew it. It was a dark and foggy night, so bitter cold. Long had the radio crackled. But few had ears to listen.

And then, from far away, photons leapt faster than any fog-bound thing! A blessed ray pierced through the cold night. It slashed the fog to ribbons where'er it went. When there was no other way of finding our bearing, no stable point of reference, the light shined in the darkness, the light shined in the fog, and all the fog and all the darkness could not overcome it (John 1:5)! The light fell upon our faces, shining bright, coming from straight ahead, puncturing our path and letting us not only see it, but finally catch a glimpse of each other.

You see, amidst all the pervasive fog, there stands a lighthouse. And a lighthouse has bulbs stronger than your ship. A lighthouse has one purpose: to save your ship from destruction; to guide your ship to safety; to give you the gift of sight, the gift of getting your bearings about you. And friends, however lost you have ever been, however astray you have ever drifted, however dark has been the night where you found yourself, however thick has been the fog settling on your heart and mind and soul, however dense has been your confusion, know this: there is a lighthouse ahead!

For “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people” (Titus 2:11). That is just what I mean! As with the radiance cast forth from a lighthouse into the foggy night, the grace of God has appeared, slicing through our soupy skies, clearing a path in the darkness, which, however much it may resist, cannot but give way to such a powerful beam. All once was doom and gloom; but now there is a light shining. All once was wrapped in fog; but now there is a light shining. This light brings rescue and security to all who will but open their eyes and see things in its light, all who will see where it illuminates and be responsive to it. This light is called the grace of God. It is God's favor, God's gift.

As I said last week, when the grace of God appears, it is the opposite of God looking on you with contempt or dismissal or hate or indifference. If God shows you his favor, it means he is not opposed to your best interests, nor does he act without regard to you. You are very much in his consideration, as a positive factor. God acts for you, not against you, not apart from you. It's grace. It's his favorable disposition to bless you, not to curse you; to rescue you, not to abandon you; to welcome you, not to shut you out; to gift you, not to rub you; to build you up, not tear you down.

The grace of God has appeared,” slicing through all our fog, all the fog of this world. Though we sail on wild seas – and go ahead and look at twenty-first-century America and tell me the seas aren't heaving and churning, tell me the fog hasn't gotten in people's heads, go on, tell me that – yet still the light shines and is not overcome, still the grace of God leaps forth into our darkly foggy world and our darkly foggy lives and our darkly foggy hearts and leavens our thickness with its lightness and brightness. But whence comes this grace of God? How does it appear?

We hear the call over the radio, not with so much static as before: “Jesus Christ … gave himself for us” (Titus 2:14a). That's the beam we see. There was a great trade. That was the gift. The gift given in God's grace is Jesus himself. He gave himself in our place, unto shame and pain and death and wrath and all the due penalty, all the due isolation, all the due wreckage and drowning – he gave himself for us. That was how the grace of God truly appeared: when, as a sign and seal of God's favor, and to secure it for us forever, he gave himself for us, so that he could forever give himself to us. What did all that accomplish?

He “gave himself for us, to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14b). In the world Paul was writing to, it was known that there was one good way a slave might get set free from a harsh master. There were temples that had a standing offer. They would pay the ransom price. They would buy a slave from his master. They said they were merchants negotiating the sale on behalf of the god they served, the god to whom they as a temple were dedicated. And so they would buy the slave. Legally, the slave would be sold out of human bondage to become a servant of the god – which was freedom from all those former chains. And that was how many slaves were redeemed: by legally becoming slaves of a god, and of no man.

We were slaves to many things, before the grace of God appeared. We were slaves to our bitter Mammon, and its greedy clutches. We were slaves to our desires and our lusts. We were slaves to political forces, religious forces, economic forces, that kept us on a short leash. Paul sums all this up by suggesting we were slaves to lawlessness – slaves to the culture's haphazard ways of ordering human life, slaves to all the waves that tossed us to and fro, slaves to our idols and our images, slaves to every rough thing, slaves to the criminal impulse that lurks in each of us and holds sway all around us, lawlessness masquerading as law, lawlessness that no mere law can uproot. And we were slaves.

But Jesus Christ, the high priest of God, yea, even the temple of God, made a standing offer. He wanted to get you away from this harsh master called Lawlessness. And that was the trade. He paid the price. Lawlessness unleashed all its chaos against him, in a storm of fury and mockery and agony and blood. The redemption price was paid. “You were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 7:23). So with a price, you were indeed bought. You were sold out of bondage to those former things, to become a servant of Jesus' God – which is freedom from all the former chains that bound you, the chains of shame and human esteem, the chains of greed and lust and pride, the chains of all prevailing ideologies, all dominant principalities and powers, earthly or otherwise. The chains you yourself forged – even those, he bought you away from. To “redeem you from all lawlessness.”

What's more, Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14c). Many teachers have come and given you a pitch of what else you must add in order to be really pure, to be really acceptable to God. Many teachers have offered you this law or that law, this twist or that twist, this rule or that rule. But Jesus gave himself to purify you, and to purify you entirely; in merely hearing his word of grace and receiving it into yourself, he pronounces you already clean, already pure (John 15:3). You have need of nothing else than more of this word. Any time you have ever felt dirty, any time you have ever felt unclean, any time you have ever felt unworthy, know this: he gave himself to purify you; it's accomplished. Simply live out in your life the purity already granted to us by his decree.

But the text does not merely say that he gave himself for us to purify for himself a person here, and a person there. We read that he aimed to “purify for himself a people for his own possession.” Paul remembers here the promise to Israel long ago: how, if they were faithful to the covenant, they would be a people, a corporate body, exalted above all nations as a collective royal priesthood, a holy presence in the world (Exodus 19:5-6). Jesus did not come to purify for himself an aggregate – a mix-'n-match batch of individual Christians, all leading their separate lives.

We are so fond of saying that you don't need to be part of the church to be saved. I don't know where anybody ever got that. Perhaps a delayed overreaction to fights picked in the sixteenth century. But Jesus did not come to purify for himself individual souls and individual lives disconnected from all the rest. We read here that he came to purify a people – a whole people, drawn from many scattered tribes and different tongues, from myriad walks of life, but forged into a new organic unity – once called 'no people,' now called 'my people.' Jesus came to purify for himself a people, whose organized expression we call 'church,' the body politic of the kingdom of God. Don't let the fog of do-it-yourselfism get in your brain; don't let the fog of stay-homeism or even of pew-sitterism get the better of you. We are purified together, to live together now, as one organism, one entity, one coordinated active expression of the body of Christ in our community.

Wait, look! The lighthouse has not just one beam, but two; it rotates 'round, we see something new! Where one beam emanates from the past, from the redemptive work of Jesus accomplished outside Jerusalem in the first century, the other beam is cast from the future, perhaps the near future. For we read here that not only do we live in the light of what Jesus has done, but also in the light of what he will do. We are “waiting for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

This, too, illuminates our darkly foggy worlds, lives, souls. The grace of God has appeared, but his glory will appear. Jesus Christ is “our great God and Savior” – yes, you heard that right. Let there be no doubt: Jesus is the real deal. He is God and fit to be worshipped. He is the God who is mighty to save. And so he is our Savior. Many emperors, many kings, touted themselves – or have been touted – as 'god and savior.' Hellenistic rulers bore that title. It was applied to Julius Caesar in his memory. But they are a pale parody of what in Jesus is brightness and majesty. What so many kings, so many priests, so many politicians and economists and scientists and journalists and philosophers and theologians and celebrities and athletes and activists have cast themselves as, in olden times and in our day, they fall short, because they merely parody the real deal. Jesus is our great God and Savior. He will appear with glory. We are waiting expectantly for that, for its potentiality at every minute, every moment. And this will be our “blessed hope,” tethering us to our sure anchor in the God who does not lie, the God whose every word is truth and who shouts and sings grace, grace, wonderful grace.

In the meantime, while we wait, we live amidst the present age. That's the world around us. The world as we see it – or, rather, as we see the swirls and structures of fog in the dark. We live amidst the fog, we sail through the fog and over the choppy seas, but we sail in light of the grace that has appeared and in light of the glory that is turning 'round our way. We live between the salvation that's been brought and the salvation that's up ahead – they're of one piece, they shine from the same lighthouse, the same source, in twin beams that come our way. This is our hope – the hope that is the answer to all the plight of all our fog. All the confusion, all the chaos, all the questions implicit or explicit in our loss, our grief, our trial, our stress, our languishing darkness – all of it has, as an answer, “We wait for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” And in the meantime, the grace of God has already appeared, already smiled on us with favor, already lit up our rescue and beckoned us to safety.

As we wait, we catch word that light is tantamount to learning. The grace of God appeared, “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and pious lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Not only has grace appeared, but we are to be educated by grace. It's an education for all people, we read; you don't have to pass a prerequisite course to enroll in grace. But the light of grace will teach you – teach you to renounce, to forsake all those former masters, and to serve God alone in the way he bids, as the example of Jesus models for you, for us. He did, after all, come “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14d). By no means are we saved by good works, but his end goal was to get a version of us who burn hotly to do 'em. Not just any kind of works, but the good kind, the kind that belong in the light for good.

On our voyage, we have to admit, much remains foggy. We don't have all the details of the answers; but we do have the Answer, our great God and Savior. Grace has already appeared to poke a hole in our fog, and the beam of glory is turning 'round. No matter how dark or how obscure things get, no matter how confused you may be, no matter how distressed or weary, no matter how sick, no matter how dead, rest in the light; it shineth for thee. The light fell on you when our great God and Savior gave himself for us all, to redeem us away from our harsh old master Lawlessness and into the freedom of his temple. The light fell on you when Jesus blasted away all impurity from this whole people, as a people. Real purity isn't following a rule. Real purity isn't submitting to a ritual. Real purity is being part of Jesus' people, the people purified as his own possession. And as we wait for that glory beam to turn 'round on us, we respond to this grace, this redemption, this purification by learning what the light came to teach us and by being zealous for good works – just like Jesus wants. We cannot keep to our old course. That's why the lighthouse shines for us. No matter how big or bad we think our ship is, we have to move – as the light shows us the way for spiritual sailing. The light is shining. No darkness, no fog, can ever overcome it. That's the grace we have and the glory we wait for. Sail on, church. Sail on. Amen.