Sunday, November 25, 2012

Adoption Through the Word: A Sermon on John 1:1-14 for Before Advent

You know, today's a weird day. Last Sunday we celebrated a time of thanksgiving. Next Sunday we begin the season of Advent. Advent is when we remember the long time that the people of Israel had to wait and hope and wait and hope for the Messiah to finally come to rescue them, and we wait for him to come back to complete the work he started. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. But today isn't quite part of either season. Actually, it's Christ the King Sunday, the end of the Christian year. But since we're gearing up for Christmas now anyway, we might as well take a look at the Christmas story according to John. So hear the word of the Lord:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world didn't recognize him. He came to his own, but his own didn't receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who had faith in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born, not of natural descent or of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God! The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:1-5, 9-14]

See, John's Christmas story is different. No manger, no shepherds, no angels, no star, no wise men. Not even a Joseph or a Mary! But did you see how it starts off? “In the beginning.” John starts where Genesis starts: at the first beginning of all beginnings, the creation of the whole universe. When John tells the story of Christmas, his Christmas isn't about one day a year. His Christmas isn't even just one season long. For John, the story of Christmas is wider than the entire universe and deeper than the depths of time itself!

And better yet, when John starts off at the beginning, he points back further, into timeless eternity 'before' creation. He points back to God alone. And what he finds there is this truth: “God is love”. Active love is the heart of who God always was, even before Genesis 1:1. God is love because the inside life of God was always a life of loving relationships. The inside life of God is a love between the Father and the Word, a love they together share with their Spirit. That insight into what God's inside life is like, is the teaching we call the doctrine of the Trinity: three distinct persons in relationship, who have always been and always will be just one God. That's what John is pointing us back to: the Word who was always with God the Father and who always belonged to the inside life of God.

John reminds us that in Genesis, God didn't have to build the world out of parts he found lying around. God created everything out of nothing – he did it by speaking, he did it by his Word. John says that there isn't anything in any universe that doesn't owe everything to the Word. God didn't need to create. It's not like he was lonely. He was filled with an eternal party of perfect love! But he created a masterpiece of art, designed to show off the glory of the God who made it. He created this universe because he was so full of life in himself that he wanted to create something to share it with. He created it out of love.

And then he made us to be his image in the world. That doesn't mean that we somehow looked like God; after all, God existed before there was space or time or matter. It means he made us to represent him to the rest of the world he'd made. God called us to rule the earth with care the way he would, to share his love the way he would. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we could become – all of that is God's gift. This was shaping up to be the happiest story ever.

But then we made it a sad story. The story tells us that, even though we should have been grateful for all God's free gifts, we wanted to take even more, and we wanted it on our terms, not his. That's still the attitude we have. We want to be in charge. We think we're enough like God that we can dictate our own rules to live by. That's called 'sin'. Sin is what ruined the big story in the first place. I mean, think about it. What happens when we confront the one who holds everything together, we look him square in the eye, and we tell him that we'd like him to just back off? We told the Way that he wasn't worth following. Is it any wonder we got lost? We told the Truth that he wasn't worth knowing. Is it any wonder we live in a world full of lies? We told the Life that he wasn't worth living up to. Is it any wonder that we get hurt and we suffer and we die? That's what sin does. That's what it means to damage the one relationship we were most made for. God gave us the entire world. And when we reached out for that tasty forbidden fruit, we let the world slip out of our hands. And it cracked.

The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that “everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one”. But the story doesn't stop there. It goes on when God picks a man of faith, names him Abraham, and tells him that his family will be a blessing to the whole world. When this people find themselves in slavery in a foreign country called Egypt, God reaches down, breaks their chains, and leads them into freedom. It's the story of the Exodus. But the Law God gives them becomes a spotlight to show just how big their sins really are. More often than not, God's chosen people were God's chosen problem. Eventually God had to let other nations lead them away into exile, because they wouldn't admit how wrong they'd gone. When they finally owned up to what they'd done, God brought them back and let them rebuild. But they still knew that they weren't free yet; they weren't truly home.

And then God did something awesome. Remember that Word who created the world? The Word full of life, the Word full of light? That same Word showed up in the world! The time had finally come. God dictated his own Autobiography to us as a human person. He pitched his tent at our campsite to be with us. Christmas came to town! That person, that 'God-with-us', was named Jesus – and he was the Chosen One, the Messiah, Christ the King. He came to show us what it looks like for a human life to match the love of God. He came to lead us in an exodus out of sin and into the promised land of new life. He came to bring us home from exile, back to the God we left.

He announced the kingdom of God. What that means is, God is finally taking charge of the situation in a new way, and he's doing it through Jesus. And because God is taking charge, it's time to give up on disobedience, time to give up on rebellion, time to give up on sin. And to deal with this sin, Jesus went to the worst death around: crucifixion. It was painful, it was bloody, it was designed to be humiliating and shameful.

Even while we were still treating God like an enemy, Jesus died on the cross for us. And then suddenly, his grave was empty. And Jesus started making visits of the kind that dead people just don't make. He visited people who believed in him already, and he even visited people who didn't – people like Paul and James. He convinced them all to spread the amazing news that God was fixing the world through what Jesus had just done. This was the story of a lifetime!

For most, it was an offensive story. Crucifixion couldn't be mentioned in polite company, so the idea of a crucified god from an obscure part of the empire wasn't exactly an easy sell. The message was a threat to everybody in power. If the story were a lie, stopping it would've been as easy as pointing to the body. They didn't, because they couldn't! So the followers of Jesus kept telling their true story. They knew the facts beyond a shadow of a doubt, and they gave up their comfort and even their lives to spread the good news: the Jesus who died on the cross is the same Jesus who rose from the dead to rule the whole universe!

Without the cross, without the resurrection, Christmas is nothing. But with the cross, with the resurrection, Christmas is everything. The Word was the light that came into the world, like the dawning of a new day, a fresh start. He invited his own people to receive the Word, which means trusting the Word and obeying the Word. That's what it always meant in the Old Testament to 'receive the Word of the LORD'. So he invited them to receive and accept him that way. After all, “there's no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey”. But his own people said no, which they pronounced, “Crucify him, crucify him!”

But what about those who do receive the Word? What about those who trust this Word made flesh, this Jesus, and put all their eggs in his basket? What about those who obey the Word's message about the kingdom of God here among us now? John's answer is, they can become God's children. None of us start out as God's children, but we can become God's children.

See, the thing that's important to know here is that people in the ancient world believed that who you were – your personality, your value, your character, your status – those were all things that you were born with. You got them from your parents. They stayed the same throughout your life. Who you were born to be is who you were always going to be. If you were born on the wrong side of the tracks, you were destined to live on the wrong side of the tracks. And that's a problem for us, because even the great King David says in the Psalms that we're born broken, born to be sinners from the very get-go

But that's why it matters so much when Jesus offers the chance to be “born again”. If our goodness and our status and our value are all stuck at birth, then being born again means literally getting a clean slate. It means that everything we inherited, including our sinful ways and crooked start, can all be rewritten. This is a change so radical that the only thing Jesus can compare it to is being born a second time around. It's a fresh do-over. John is careful to say that it doesn't come from human parents. Our new life, our new identity, doesn't come from any other person on this earth. It comes from getting God as our new parent. That's the promised gift to everyone who really receives the Word by faith in Jesus Christ.

That's why Christmas is so important! The birth of the unique Son of God on earth was to offer us a new birth that comes from heaven. Think of the Christmas carol: “Mild he lays his glory by, / born that man no more may die, / born to raise the sons of earth, / born to give them second birth”. We can be born into a new life that will never, ever fade and never, ever end. We can become the sons and daughters of God. We can be adopted as part of God's family, joining Christ the King to receive the whole world as our inheritance from the God we can finally call 'Abba, Father'. This isn't something we can earn. You can't earn adoption. Adoption is an act of grace. All you can do is accept it in faith.

Think about this: some people are the sons and daughters of criminals, some people are the sons and daughters of farmers, some are the sons and daughters of business managers, some are the sons and daughters of presidents and prime ministers.... but we can be the sons and daughters of God! That's what Christmas is for. That's the point of the Christmas story! Christmas means that we can be born again. Christmas means that there is nothing in our past and present that can't be redeemed. Christmas means that we can join the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit at the eternal Christmas party that's been going on since before creation. Because they're family now. And that's what Christmas is for.

But as we look forward to Advent this year, maybe there are some people here who have never received the Word. Maybe there are people here who aren't putting their faith in Jesus Christ and his finished work as the only thing that can give us all the blessings of God's family. If you're relying on anything else, any ritual or any good deed or any tradition, if you think there's any room for earning or meriting any part of this, that doesn't cut it. It's grace. And remember that faith isn't just a one-time thing. We can't just claim faith one time and then set it to the side. Faith is a continuous walk with God, a daily welcoming of the Word into our lives and surrendering to him. Now, I know we don't have the power to fully surrender on our own. We need the power of God's Holy Spirit to surrender, but Jesus wants to deck the halls of our hearts with that same Spirit. If we aren't living day-to-day by faith in Jesus Christ, if we aren't living through the power of his Spirit, then we aren't living as the children of God.

If that rings a little too true for you this year, I'm begging you: receive the Word, receive Christ the King. Become a child of God, and live as a child of God, a son or daughter who receives the Word into your life each day with open arms. Don't go through this Christmas season and miss the real power of Christmas to give you a slate as clean as the freshly fallen snow of a winter wonderland. Don't miss Christmas! We're going to have a time of prayer now. If there's anyone here who needs to receive the Word today – whether it's for the first time, or you just know you need God's grace to see how to live as child of God – I'd invite you to come forward so that we can pray with you and for you. There's always a place for you at God's altar here, and you can walk away with God's Christmas power changing your life, changing it into an everlasting time of thanksgiving to that one and only God who adopts us through his Word. Let's pray.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Wishing (for a) Well": A Sermon on 2 Samuel 23:13-17

“During harvest time, three of the thirty chief warriors came down to David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. David longed for water and said, 'Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!' So the three mighty warriors broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the LORD. 'Far be it from me, LORD, to do this!', he said, 'Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?' And David would not drink it.” [[2 Samuel 23:13-17]]

A long, long time ago, there was a baby born in the little town of Bethlehem. People from all over the world have heard his name. That name was 'David'. Have you ever wondered what life was like for him growing up? Can you imagine what the world looked like through David's eyes? He was the youngest of eight brothers, all strong sons of their father Jesse. Bethlehem was their life, their world. David spent his life outdoors in Bethlehem's fields; he knew the area like the back of his hand. When he was old enough, those fields were the fields where David tended his father's sheep. He spent his days out there, alone with his music and the sheep (and the occasional lion or bear). And when he or his sheep were thirsty, he knew just where to get water. It was from the well by the town gate, the well of Bethlehem.

When David was just barely into his teens, he was probably confused when Jesse called him out of the fields, away from the sheep, to come meet an old guy named Samuel who poured greasy oil all over him. But back to the sheep he went, until called away again and sent to entertain King Saul. But David still went back home as often as he could to care for his sheep. When his three oldest brothers enlisted in the army, David made sure to bring them bread from Papa Jesse in Bethlehem. And I'm sure, whenever David went home, he eagerly drank water from his hometown well and thought about his childhood.

But after that whole Goliath thing, the simple life of youth was over. He became best friends with the prince, he became a leader in the army, he became the king's son-in-law, he became a sensation. But celebrity has its drawbacks; it's not all glitz and glamor. When jealous Saul got in a murdering mood, David went on the run. David set up camp at a stronghold called Adullam. His family and all the men of the countryside who were unhappy with the status quo joined him. With his brothers there, with his cousins there, at last David had a little taste of Bethlehem, a taste of the home he missed so much.

But then the message arrived that the Philistines had taken over that little town of Bethlehem. Can you imagine how sick to his stomach David must have felt to learn that Goliath's family and friends were in his town? It must have gotten David thinking about the days of his youth, before Saul, before the Philistines – when everything was peaceful and innocent, when David was home. I'd bet that when David closed his eyes, he could picture it all perfectly. And his heart was filled with this longing, this nostalgia. Now I'm sure David had water there at Adullam, probably in cisterns that filled with rainwater. But this was the dry season now. The water left in the cistern had been there a while, stagnant and brackish. With every sip he took and winced, he got missed the familiar well of Bethlehem even more. One thirsty day, David was musing out loud about it. I'm sure all his soldiers from Bethlehem nodded their heads in heartfelt agreement. But three of David's top warriors loved their leader more than they loved life, and they decided that if David's thirsty for Bethlehem water, well then David will get Bethlehem water!

They fought their way for miles through the Philistine camps until they reached the well of Bethlehem. They went miles again back to Adullam. Can you imagine the look on David's face when they walked back into camp? No matter how much he longed for that water, he knew that he and his own satisfaction weren't worth the risk of human life. Only God was worthy of that. The water might as well have been their blood, and so he treated it that way: he poured it out to God on the ground as an offering. And David's words might as well have been, “Render unto David what is David's, but render unto God what is God's”.

There's a powerful lesson in that, about what it means to have our priorities in the right order, about what it means to make sure that our lives are caught up in giving the God-treatment only to God and not to any hero, not to any celebrity. But is there maybe, just maybe, even more going on here? I'm convinced there is. Henry Francis Lyte, the man who wrote the hymn “Abide with Me”, also once ended another poem this way:

There is a well in Bethlehem still,
A fountain, at whose brink,
The weary soul may rest at will,
The thirsty stoop and drink:
And unrepelled by foe or fence
Draw living waters freely thence.

Oh, did we thirst, as David then,
For this diviner spring!
Had we the zeal of David's men
To please a Higher King!
What precious draughts we thence might drain,
What holy triumphs daily gain!

A thousand years after David's time, there was a much more important baby born in Bethlehem. There is a well in Bethlehem still! It's the only well we'll ever need, the only one that can give us living waters. That well is Jesus Christ! All of us have thirsts in our lives, all of us are parched and filled with longing from time to time. Turn to Jesus and drink freely. No one bars your way. You don't have to fight through the Philistines to get to this well of Bethlehem. Jesus already conquered all our Philistines. No Philistine can ever separate us from the well of his love. Go to Jesus. Turn back to him again and again and again, rest by his side, and let him quench all your thirst. There is no water purer, no water freer, no water more satisfying than the water of salvation that he offers. But it works more than just a one-time salvation; this water is good for every need, every thirst. We don't need to stay content with sipping the mosquito-infested water of the world's cisterns, looking for fulfillment in all the wrong places. Just turn to Jesus. He satisfies.

When David was brought the water from the earthly well in Bethlehem, he poured it out on the ground. He poured it out because it was like blood, and he knew that he wasn't worthy of blood; blood was reserved for God. But look at this great reversal! The water that gives us life, the water from the heavenly well of Bethlehem, is the blood of Christ that was shed on Calvary, the precious redeeming blood that washes away every stain of sin and purifies the soul to stand in the presence of a perfectly holy God! The blood that means life and death belongs to God alone – and yet when God became flesh and blood, he offered us not merely the flesh and blood of an Israelite soldier, but the flesh and blood of God the Higher King. And he said that unless we ate and drank of it, unless we made him the sole source of our nourishment and our satisfaction, we should surely perish, because only in that costly gift could we ever have life everlasting! And he invites us: Come to the well and drink freely, for the bill has been paid in full already!

But as you come to this well, to this Jesus, don't keep the water to yourself. Look to the example of these three men. They went to the well of Bethlehem and out of love they brought that water to someone else. Friends, the world is full of Davids. The world is full of people who are incredibly thirsty, full of dry and dusty souls. Every person you meet is either drinking from this well already or badly in need of its water, even if they don't realize it. This is the only water that can satisfy. The world is full of Davids, full of people whom this water can make priests and rulers in Christ. Greater than David is the least man or woman in the kingdom of God!

There are so many lost and thirsty around us. Can we see that hope of glory in them? Can we find it in our hearts to love and serve them for the sake of our King of Kings and Lord of Lords? We're called to let no effort be spared in serving those around us for the love of God. And what better way to love than to bring the water of life? Bring them what you've found: this satisfaction, this refreshment, this healing from the wounds and scars and wars of this life. Bring them this precious Jesus, carried in the bucket of your heart that overflows with his love. Let this be our challenge: to see this whole community come to thirst no more, because they've turned from the stagnant water of this world's cisterns to gathering around the well of Bethlehem, filled with the water of our true home. Make no mistake: there is a well in Bethlehem still, and all who drink of it may have life, and have it to the full. Amen. Hallelujah and amen!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"No Survivors": A Sermon on Joshua 10:28-42

That day Joshua took Makkedah. He put the city and its king to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it. He left no survivors. And he did to the king of Makkedah as he had done to the king of Jericho. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it. The Lord also gave that city and its king into Israel’s hand. The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there. And he did to its king as he had done to the king of Jericho. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Libnah to Lachish; he took up positions against it and attacked it. The Lord gave Lachish into Israel’s hands, and Joshua took it on the second day. The city and everyone in it he put to the sword, just as he had done to Libnah. Meanwhile, Horam king of Gezer had come up to help Lachish, but Joshua defeated him and his army – until no survivors were left. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Lachish to Eglon; they took up positions against it and attacked it. They captured it that same day and put it to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it, just as they had done to Lachish. Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to Hebron and attacked it. They took the city and put it to the sword, together with its king, its villages and everyone in it. They left no survivors. Just as at Eglon, they totally destroyed it and everyone in it. Then Joshua and all Israel with him turned around and attacked Debir. They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to Hebron. So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded. Joshua subdued them from Kadesh Barnea to Gaza and from the whole region of Goshen to Gibeon. All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign, because the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel.” [[Joshua 10:28-42]]
If ever there were a 'hard saying' among Bible passages, this passage seems like it could be a finalist. Looking on the surface of it, it sounds so unpleasant. Conquer this, Joshua; conquer that, Joshua. No survivors, Joshua. You know, every now and then, when I'm reading the morning paper, there'll be an article there about a car accident, a train wreck, a plane crash. You know what phrase makes me sick? “No survivors”. How many times have you been glad to read those words? “No survivors”. But Joshua makes it sound like a good thing. “Hooray, no survivors”? How can we possibly grow in grace by reading books that are happy that there were no survivors?

Before we can see what God wants to show us here, we have to wrestle with a lot of discomfort. We have to see first where this fits in God’s story. Well, like a lot of things in the Bible, we need to retrace our steps back to a man named Abraham. God promised him that all the peoples in the world would get their blessings from God – through one family, his. Somehow, what God has been up to all this time is going to get funneled through Abraham. To do this, God promises Abraham a few things. One of those is that his family is going to own a nice plot of land called Canaan.

But God cautioned Abraham not to expect Canaan too soon. There were other people in the land, the Amorites or Canaanites. They wouldn’t be too thrilled to learn that God signed the deed over to somebody else. But Abraham doesn’t have to worry about that, God says. In a few generations, his family will take a detour through slavery in Egypt, and only after that do they get the land. Why so long? Well, God says in Genesis 15:16, it’s because “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure”. God isn't going to kick them out of the land without good reason. He’s going to give them a few centuries longer to get their act straight – and only then, after they keep refusing, will Abraham’s family get what God promised them.

And that's the plot of the story. Hundreds of years pass, and Abraham's family – a people called Israel, newly rescued out of Egypt – are standing at the border of the land, terrified to go in. Their spies came back with bad news. They think it's impossible, but Moses promises otherwise. Moses says if they step over that boundary line in faith, victory is a given. He says God will “subdue them before you” so that Israel can “drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you”. That’s what it says in Deuteronomy 9:3. Why do they get the victory? It isn't on account of Israel's strength or goodness, but “it is on account of the wickedness of these nations” and “to accomplish what [God] swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”.

Now who were “these nations”? These Canaanites were not a pleasant people to be around. Even the gods they worshipped were into adultery, incest, bloodthirsty violence, bestiality, and child sacrifice – and the Canaanite apple didn't fall far from that tree. These people make Romans 1 look like an understatement! They know, deep down, that what they’re doing is sin – but they crush their consciences so they can do their worst, do it with gusto, and cheer for everybody else to join in. And that's why Leviticus 18:25 warns the Israelites that it's for doing these kinds of sins that “the land was defiled” and “the land vomited out its inhabitants” – and when the Israelites later fall into the same trap, they get the same punishment. But for now, God has one command: go to Canaan and clear house.

So another generation passes. Moses is dead, and Joshua is in charge. He and the Israelites are done pitching their tents in the middle of nowhere. They move across the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. What kind of place do they find? They come into a land where most people don't live in cities. The cities are for soldiers, like military bases; most civilians live in the country. The Israelites come into a land that’s heard some rumors. Rumors about a new God on the scene who can beat even the gods of mighty Egypt. This new God can lead a people through land and sea, and this God who has clear intentions on Canaanite turf. They should know their time is up. But, disobediently, they ignore their final notice.

And that's where the Israelites come in. The first fortress they see is a place called Jericho. We know the story. They march around it in worship seven times to give Jericho a chance to surrender. The only one who does is the local hotel manager, a woman named Rahab. Jericho falls; Rahab lives. Those who listen to God’s last warning get brought into God’s people; those who don't, learn what happens when God’s centuries of patience have finally run their course. The Israelites can't let the Canaanites keep dominating the land. Later on, they'll have a hard enough time being faithful even with the Canaanites in the minority. Israel’s faith in God has to survive, or else the rest of the world can't be blessed through God's ultimate blessing, Jesus Christ – and yes, that includes even Canaanites who repent.

So the Israelites break down Jericho. The Israelites break down Ai. One place they don’t break down is Gibeon, since Gibeon made a peace agreement. But some other Canaanites want to make an example of Gibeon. So Joshua 10 tells the story of how the Israelites went the extra mile to save their new friends, and how God himself was committed to the cause. A few miracles: hailstones, omens in the sky… the usual. God has Israel's back. And so the army of Israel wins against five local generals who tried their hardest to teach Israel’s new friend Gibeon the wrong lesson. It happens at a place called Makkedah.

And that's where this passage comes in. Joshua and all Israel strike down a few bases in the south. Seven victories, just one campaign. The soldiers living in Makkedah, Lachish, Debir – they weren’t innocent. For hundreds of years they'd defied God with glee. When the last eviction warning came, and they had three options: give in, get lost, or go sour. Sadly, many picked what’s behind Door #3. With a target that was nothing if not guilty as sin, the survival of human history and God’s plan for it all had to rest on 'no survivors' just this once.

But even so, this isn't an easy passage to deal with in the church. It's hard to see what a monotonous litany of destruction and violence and carnage and mayhem could possibly have to do with our lives. But it gets clearer when we realize one important thing: when these verses talk about 'the LORD, the God of Israel', that God is our God. The God of Joshua is the God of Jesus. The God who crumbled the walls of Jericho is the God who through the cross crumbled the walls of sin that stood between him and us. The LORD God of Israel is the Lord God of the Church; and when we see that, it opens up the whole Old Testament to us in fresh ways.

Now, does that mean that God wants us to storm over to Rothsville and wipe it off the map? No, no, no. If that's news to anybody, we should talk after the service. So then what's the point? The point is, our warfare is not against flesh and blood, not against any city or fortress built by human hands – and yet there does remain a warfare for the people of God. And that warfare is against the spiritual powers behind the scenes, the strongholds of sin that clutter our spiritual life together. God may not command us to strike Makkedah, but he does call us to strike at pride in the church. God isn't sending this church against Libnah, but he is sending us against our own gossip and dissension. Our fight isn't against Lachish, but our fight is against our difficulty in forgiving each other. Our war isn't with Horam the king of Gezer, but we are at war with the king of all worldly ways, the devil who accuses God's people. Our battle may not be with the city of Eglon, but our battle is against spiritual stagnation, that hardening of the heart that clings more to our pet traditions than to the very grace of God. Our conflict has nothing to do with Hebron, but our conflict has plenty to do with our own petty anger and the damage it does to our relationships. And we may not march against Debir, but we are to march against the advancing forces of anything in our lives that keeps us from total devotion to the kingdom of God. In short, God wants to direct our church on a campaign for church holiness. And nothing less than a holy church will do.

But that's a huge challenge. Most churches are still cluttered with strongholds of sin. It was true in the days of Peter and Paul. It was true in the days of Martin Luther, true in the days of John Wesley, true in the days of Jacob Albright – and it's true here today. All of us brought baggage, myself included. But our mission is to tear down strongholds. I'll be the first to confess that my own human power isn't enough to tear down these strongholds in my own life, let alone the life of the church. This fight isn't just difficult. This fight is impossible... if we fight it without help. We can't forget is that this campaign is a commandment of God. And the commandment of God comes with the promise of God. The command is proof enough of God's faithfulness. Remember how the story ends? Verse 42: “All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel”. There's the key! There's the promise! Because they obeyed when the LORD commanded, the LORD fought for them. That LORD is our Lord. If we obey, if we set our sights to the bringing down of these strongholds, our Lord Jesus Christ will fight for us. He will lead us in victory. That's not a nice daydream; that's a promise.

But there's a reason this passage always says, “Joshua and all Israel”. This is not a private fight. We have to make war against these sins together. Our aim is to be one church united in holiness – and that means cooperation. It means sticking together. It means tearing down our walls and being vulnerable to one another's love. It means honestly letting each other into our business. It means sharing burdens, even the burdens of struggling with sin. It means all of us working on patching up this church's wounds and scars – every single one of us, without exception and without blame. The command of God is for all, and the campaign for holiness is for all. Just drifting along is not the Christian lifestyle. Everyone in this sanctuary right now is called to strap on the armor of God and enlist. Holiness is our victory, and we can accept no substitutes. That order doesn't come from me. It comes from the commander of the army of God, and that is Jesus Christ. And I leave you with this promise in his name: If we will fight on against this church's sin, and if we will fight that good fight in faith, in hope, and in love, then God will fight for us – and if God is fighting for us, then it doesn't matter what principalities and powers are standing against us! They will crumble before the awesome presence of our God – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who poured out his blood on the cross. Jesus died, not just to give us a get-out-of-jail-free card, but to make us one church and to breathe into us resurrection life through the Spirit of God-given holiness. And that God is the God who said, “I am the LORD your God: consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy”. By God's grace we can live it out – together and in the power of the living God. He is faithful, and he will do it when we join in the campaign. When it comes to sin in this church – not the sinners, but the sin – hear this word of the Lord: “Leave no survivors”. Let no sin survive in us. Amen.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wednesday Night Devotions: 1 Peter 2:11-12

Lately when I've been here, I've been focusing on working through one chapter of scripture: 1 Peter 2. Four weeks ago, we looked at the first three verses, and one thing we learned was how important it is for us to be challenged and forced to really think and ask the hard questions when we're sharing our spiritual thoughts with each other, even here at prayer meeting. If we don't do the hard work, we can't grow. And all of us need to grow. God wants to transform us, not leave us behind. God wants us to walk with him, and a walk means progressing forward. Two weeks ago, we looked at the next set of verses, and we learned that we're called to be the one holy temple and royal priesthood of God on the earth. All of us are responsible to be together a holy union where people can come to experience the glory of God in Christ and to receive the power of the Spirit. We don't have this kind of privilege and responsibility by birthright. We're sinners called from all walks of life. But now we form one temple, and we have to let God be manifest in our midst. We're called to offer up our praise and service to God as a priestly sacrifice, and to give thanks to God, because it's only as members of the body of Christ that we can be royal priests, not on our own.

Too often, all of these lessons pass us by. Too often, we Christians are content to live on milk for life and to take our limited spiritual food through the IV of broken-down devotionals. Too often, we fear stepping outside of our traditional comfort zones, and we let our complacency and our ways of doing church get in the way of maturing spiritually. Too often, we Christians make it almost impossible to experience God among us. Too often, we get in Christ's way with our division, our squabbling, our rabbit trails, our personal agendas, and our laziness. Too often, we reflect the secular rather than the sacred, instead of reflecting the sacred to the secular. Too often, we model our priestly service on Cain's offering instead of Abel's – we don't give God the firstfruits of our praise, the best of our service, but just toss him a few cheap afterthoughts and expect God to thank us for it as if we were doing him a favor. And too often, we forget the grace that saved us and look down on those who are where we all were – and especially those who commit the apparently unforgivable offense of doing sins that look different than our favorite sins! Too often, we forget that we're both unpolished blocks and the temple of God's presence for all the world.

We need to keep those lessons fresh in our minds. They're part of what God is teaching us through Peter. We sometimes think that we can just drop in on a passage of scripture without reading what else the author has been saying up to that point, and we can get into trouble by doing that. This week, remembering what came before it, we can pick up where we left off and see just how much Peter has packed into the next two verses:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” [[1 Peter 2:11-12]]

Peter has already been talking about our identity as far as Christ is concerned. Being in Christ means being royalty in the kingdom and a priesthood in the kingdom and a temple in the kingdom. Note: 'in the kingdom'. What about 'in the world'? What does being in Christ mean for our position in society? Look at the words Peter uses. 'Foreigners'. 'Exiles'. See, our citizenship isn't really in the world, not our first allegiance. When we look at the world around us, we aren't supposed to think of it as 'home' anymore. This world, as it now is, is not our home. It isn't our native country. We aren't citizens of this world in this age. We're citizens of God's monarchy. Or, as Paul says in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven”, not in earthly places. And, he continues, from heaven will come a Savior who will take our lowly bodies and make them glorious bodies like the one he already has.

So this world isn't our home, and our citizenship isn't here. We live in this world as nomads. We wander to and fro, passing through. Our investments aren't here, or at least they shouldn't be. Our allegiance isn't here, or at least it shouldn't be. We are every much as foreign here as someone who lives in this country on a temporary visa. We aren't the natives. We're ambassadors from somewhere else. And an ambassador of the kingdom of Jesus the sinless 'last Adam' is not supposed to live like a citizen of the kingdom of the fallen 'first Adam'.

Now, it's easy to misread what Peter is saying here. When I say “this world”, I don't mean “this planet”, the earth that God created. I do not mean that we don't belong with our feet on solid dirt. I do not mean that our goal is to leave our bodies behind and live forever as spirits with harps on clouds somewhere way, way out there, far away from this place. No, that's not what we're talking about. If we mean by 'heaven' the place where God is now, somewhere separate from the earth we're currently living on, then 'heaven' is not our end goal. The Bible teaches us that we will be resurrected, raised bodily from the dead when our spirits return to what remains of our bodies. (After all, we just quoted Paul saying that Jesus will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” [Philippians 3:21] – the body that was lowly ceases to be lowly and becomes glorious, so clearly what gets discarded is the lowly status, not the body itself!) That's why, while the Greeks and Romans who rejected the idea of resurrection sometimes cremated their dead, early Jews and Christians buried their bodies in the ground. It was the people of God's way of bearing witness to the world that there's no need to 'burn their bridges' with the body, because God isn't done with it yet! So even though they knew that God can raise a person up as easily from scattered ashes as he can from a skeleton or even a mummy, they wanted to use even death as a chance to point the world to what their real hope was.

So 'escape' to heaven is not the idea that we're working with in the Bible. We can see that plainly at the end of Revelation. The New Jerusalem comes down to earth. The presence of God will be on the earth forever. Earth is not something God will abandon, and it isn't something we will abandon. There will be no more divide between the world where God lives and the world where we will; all will be brought together as one. What God has in store is a healing for the whole earth, a redemption from the fall. God has given us some glimpses into earth-as-it-will-be, and one of our responsibilities right now is to be good stewards of the earth and to help it and everything in it become more like what's to come; our job is to bring a taste of the future 'heaven on earth' into the present world. So when I say, “This world is not our home”, I don't mean that this earth is not our home. I mean that worldly society as it currently exists, in this 'present evil age' (as Paul describes it in Galatians 1:4), is not the society we're made for in Christ. When it comes to that world, we're passing through as pilgrims. And when that world comes to an end at the Last Judgment, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”, says the author of Hebrews (12:28).

So here, we're 'foreigners' and 'exiles', we're 'pilgrims' and 'strangers', we're 'aliens'. Because of that, we have no reason to conform. Fitting in is not part of the Christian job description! People who are citizens of 'this world' give in to their sinful desires. Christians are foreigners who should not. Peter insists that we should “abstain from sinful desires”. If we really did that, wouldn't it be a lot easier to tell the difference between the people of the kingdom and the people of the world? Peter also says that these sinful desires “wage war against your soul”. Our yearnings to sin are not something neutral. They are not something we can establish a nice working relationship with. They are not our friends. In the war that wages in each of us, they are enemy combatants. They are the devil's footsoldiers firing away at our spiritual health, our relationship with God. Show the devil no mercy! Don't concede an inch of ground in your hearts to sinful desires. Don't take the free sample. Don't think that a little sip won't hurt. Sin is like a can of Pringles: once you pop, you just can't stop! Sin is intentionally addictive, and it results in soul decay. That one taste is a dangerous risk. That one taste is not abstinence. And abstinence from giving in to sinful desires is exactly what God calls for, and nothing less. Taking the 'a little bit won't hurt' approach to sin makes no sense. Not if we believe what Peter says about sin waging war against our souls. Who plays flirtatious games with the enemy army? Sampling sin is like letting an enemy soldier put a bullet through you because, after all, it's just one, and it's such a little thing. No one in their right mind would take that approach to any soldier who wages a war against our bodies. Why would we take that approach to what wages war against our souls?

But that approach is exactly the approach taken by many of those who don't believe. Some will relish certain sinful desires, because they don't see the war. They think the enemy soldiers in their souls are on their sides. When they look at their bleeding wounds from messing with sin, they blow them off as decorative! That's the way Peter's audience used to look at the world. They were in sin, and they were in sin deep. But now, Peter says they shouldn't even so much as dabble in it. It's a complete and total 180º.

Peter's advice is this: live good lives among the pagans, or among the non-believers. I think there are two really instructive things in those simple words. The first one is easiest to miss: “live … among the pagans”! There have been so many groups of Christians throughout history who have thought, “If only we could withdraw to our own place, we'd be free from this corruption. If only we had a place where just Christians lived, then we wouldn't have bad influences. We should get out of the bad part of town and spend our time with our new society, the church. If we associate with church people, if our friends are church people, if we work with church people, if we go grocery shopping among church people, if our restaurants are owned by church people, then we'll only have to deal with church people – nice, clean, decent folks we can trust. God's going to judge the world soon enough, and so we'd better withdraw now so that when the hammer falls and makes a big splat, we don't mess up our nice clean shirts with the splatter.” That's the way some Christians think, if they're being honest about it.

Back closer to Peter's time, there was a Jewish group called the Essenes – the ones responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls – who took the same sort of approach and pulled out into the wilderness to live together and wait for God to end the messiness around them. Our county is home to another group with many of the same tendencies: the Amish. But Peter says to live among the pagans. Christians are called to be separate (morally, that is), but not to be separatists. Separating ourselves that way is not a fully Christ-like life, because it misses out on the Incarnation. No, we're supposed to be living among the pagans. We're on a mission to them. Our whole lives are supposed to be caught up in this mission. You know what logically comes before being the hands and feet of Christ among people? The 'among people' part. We have to be very careful that we don't create our own little bubble of a Christian subculture and go live inside the bubble. Christ came to burst our bubbles.

But just saying to 'live among the pagans' isn't enough. The pagans are living among the pagans, and I don't see God patting them on the back for it. So why would God be happy with a person who refers to himself as a 'Christian' and lives among the pagans, but lives a pagan life? What God says here is that we should “live good lives among the pagans”. Remember faith, hope, and love? Remember mercy and grace? Those aren't just fancy church words. They're life words. They're the words for our lives among the pagans. Peter says that we should be living such godly lives that, even when the pagans accuse us of all sorts of nasty things (and, he says, they will), the charges won't stick. Their falsehood will be obvious. There's no guarantee that the pagans we live among won't continue to accuse us of every form of socially unacceptable behavior under the sun, but we can at least live so that no one can say that they have a point! People will see the way we live, and anyone with half an open mind will be able to see that we're motivated by love and grace and want to be a positive influence on the world, almost like we're salt and light or something. That's the way it's supposed to be, at least. That's the idea. God wants us to be mixed in all throughout the world as a living, breathing witness to what he can do with a human life. God wants our holiness to be visible – not so we can take credit for being righteous, like the Pharisees were fond of trying, but so that God can get credit for his holiness rubbing off on us. So how are we living among the pagans? Are we really living in abstinence from everything that wars against our spiritual health? Are we living intentionally in the midst of those who need to meet Jesus? Are we showing Christ's character undeniably in our lives – his holiness, his compassion, his truth, his love, his mercy, his grace? And, most of all, are we doing it all to see God glorified?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wednesday Night Devotions: 1 Peter 2:4-10

Two weeks ago, the last time I had the privilege of sharing some devotional thoughts with you, we talked about three verses from the second chapter of Peter's letter written to Christians in scattered communities in what's now Turkey. We learned a lot from those three verses. They challenged us to make sure that we're spiritually mature enough to chomp down on a wide variety of healthy spiritual food, and not just to settle for easy-to-digest milk that we can sip without any work of our own. Spiritual maturity is something we're all commanded to strive after, no matter what physical age we are. We can learn to chew and digest spiritual steak. And that challenges us to ask ourselves what kind of spiritual nourishment we're getting in our Bible studies and in our devotionals. Are we still working with the same kind of basics that we would have used a decade ago? If so, then we probably haven't stretched ourselves very much since then. We should remember to ask ourselves the hard questions. We should force ourselves to think. There's no retiring from spiritual maturity. There's no retiring from getting deeper into the things of God, even if it may be hard work. God calls us to the hard work; he just promises that in Christ, we'll find a healthy rhythm of work and rest. If the devotions we share and the prayers we pray are no more meaty than we could have handled years ago, then maybe we've been refusing to grow – and that's not God's plan for our lives. In the kingdom of God, “we've always done it that way” is not an excuse for refusing to grow; neither is, “That makes my head hurt”, and neither is, “But I don't want to”. We're called to serve a God who transforms, a God who wants us to grow and change even though it stretches and pulls and stings and hurts.

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him –, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” [[1 Peter 2:4-5]]

For in Scripture it says, 'See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.'” Now, to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,' and, 'A stone that causes people to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.' They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.” [[1 Peter 2:6-8]]

Now Peter turns a corner to give us some new teaching. He says that Jesus is like a stone who's alive. He's the foundational cornerstone in what God is building. When people in society try to build shelters from the world, or to build schools of thought, or even to build things that honor God, too often people assume that something else can be the cornerstone. Too often people imagine that Jesus Christ is expendable. Too often
we in our hearts pretend that Jesus Christ is expendable. But there is nothing expendable, nothing disposable, nothing optional when it comes to the one-of-a-kind Redeemer, the one and only Son of God. Jesus is the living Stone. The human builders rejected him. But in rejecting him, they trip over him and only hurt themselves more, because Jesus is the one chosen by the Father to be the centerpiece, the cornerstone, in his whole construction project. And there's no other foundation anyone can lay but this one. Jesus is not one option among many. Jesus is a necessity.

We can't afford to stumble over him. We can't afford to fall. Peter says that those who stumble over Jesus are stumbling and falling because they disobey the message. When they hear the gospel, they turn away from it. Maybe they think that there's no truth anyway, so there's no point in paying attention. Maybe they think that, when it comes to religion, one thing must be as good as another, and anyone who says otherwise is just being mean and intolerant. Those are popular objections these days. And they're both wrong. Jesus is the Truth. Not the Opinion. Not the Custom. Not the Truth-for-You-But-Not-for-Me. The Truth. More specifically, Jesus is the Beautiful-Truth-in-Holy-Love. There's nothing more loving than Jesus Christ. There's nothing more beautiful than Jesus Christ. There's nothing more holy than Jesus Christ. And there is nothing truer than Jesus Christ. We can say those things in a mean and intolerant and ugly and unloving way, but they themselves are not mean, they aren't intolerant, they aren't ugly, and they aren't unloving. They're what the world needs to hear, and what the world needs to accept. Because to not accept it is to stumble. But what's more, just hearing the message isn't enough. Just agreeing with the message isn't enough. Peter says that people stumble if they disobey the message. The message of Jesus Christ – that he died for our awful sins, that he rose again in victory and life, that he ascended on high as our great High Priest to intercede with us before the Father's throne, that he reigns even now as supreme authority over everything that happens in the whole universe, and that he's coming back to judge everyone both alive and dead – that's the message we're being given, and it has a lot of implications for how we live our lives. One would hope that all those in our churches at least are familiar with the message. One would hope that they all understand the message clearly. Sadly, that's probably too optimistic. But for right now, we have to ask the pressing question: how well are we obeying the message, obeying it with 'the obedience that comes from faith', as Paul says twice in Romans?

But while Peter is talking about Jesus as the living Stone, the one who's most precious to God, Peter says something else here. Peter is telling us that as we come to him, we're more living stones. We're part of what God is building! We aren't just observers. We're God's building materials. And as we let him put us together, what's the finished project look like? Peter says that it's a “spiritual house”. In other words, it's the one and only end-times temple of God, the temple where God's Spirit is living. We together, even we right here, are God's temple in construction. Or rather, we're already a temple, and the temple is growing. This temple is alive!

If we're going to be God's temple, that carries some serious weight. A temple is the place where God lives. A temple is the place where people go to meet him. A temple is the place where people go to serve him. And a temple is the place where people go to build up their relationship with him. That's what the temple was always for. Only, as we talked about in church this week, the new temple isn't a place. The new temple is us. But what kind of a temple are we choosing to be? If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, would they walk away thinking, “Wow.... God lives here?” If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, right now, would they meet Jesus personally? Would they be able to experience the presence of the risen Christ among us.... or would we get in the way? If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, would they be able to walk away feeling refreshed and connected with God? Or would they have to leave feeling distant from God still? If we're doing our job as a temple here, right here in this prayer meeting, people could come here and meet Jesus. People coming here could fall in love with God all over again. But would they? Are we being that kind of temple? Are we a temple of the veiled-but-visible glory of God? Or as a temple, are we named 'Ichabod' – “no glory”?

But Peter doesn't just say that we're a temple. He says that we're being built up into a temple. This temple is not static. This temple is not finished. This temple is supposed to grow. That means, for one, that we should be out there recruiting some more stones! But it also means that we should together grow to spiritual maturity. Like we discussed before, our job as a people is not to stay still. Our job as individual Christians is not to stay still in our walk. They call it a 'walk', not a 'standstill'! Our job is to grow. Our job is to go deeper, to see farther and wider, and to love harder. Are we growing? When we look back on our week, do we have to admit that we haven't learned anything new that we can use to understand God's word better? Or can we say that we've gotten closer to the heart of what God is saying? And if we can say that, then the next important question is, what are we going to do with it?

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” [[1 Peter 2:9-10]]

Earlier, Peter had already alluded to the fact that, as the temple of God, we're also the priesthood of God. A priest is someone who comes before God on behalf of others, and before others on behalf of God. A priest is someone sanctified for God's special service. In the Old Testament, there were plenty of priests, all descended from Moses' brother Aaron. Their leader was the high priest, and once every year, after some intense preparation, the high priest would get to pass through a veil in the temple into a room called the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept – and on top of that box was a 'mercy seat' representing God's throne, flanked by a pair of heavenly creatures called cherubim. The Holy of Holies was where God's presence was. Under the old covenant, there were a lot of priests, and they kept having to be replaced. None of them lasted. They had limited access to God, and what was worse, the offerings they made couldn't really fix the problem of sin. It was just animal blood and a hamburger or two. It wasn't good enough to clean us inside and out.

But we know that things are different now. Instead of there being many priests, there's really just one. Our Great High Priest is none other than Jesus. He's perfect. He's in God's presence all the time, in the real Holy of Holies in heaven. He's alive forever, so he never has to be replaced, nor is there anybody who could fill his priestly shoes. Best of all just as the change in covenants moved us from many weak priests to one perfect priest, so it moved us from many weak sacrifices to one perfect sacrifice – which Jesus made on the cross and then brought into the Father's presence forever.

So if the whole old priesthood has been replaced by Jesus, then what does Peter mean when he talks about us as not just the temple but as the 'royal priesthood'? Well, remember that as the church, we're the bride of Christ. A woman who marries a king gets to share in his rule through the marriage; so we, in being united to Christ, share in his royal rule and in his holy priesthood. As Martin Luther wrote in 1520, “just as Christ by his birthright obtained these two prerogatives, so he imparts them to and shares them with everyone who believes in him according to the law of the above-mentioned marriage, according to which the wife owns whatever belongs to the husband. Hence all of us who believe in Christ are priests and kings in Christ.”

See, we don't have a priesthood independent of Christ's, nor are just some people in the church priests. But all of us are royalty and all of us are priests – though only through sharing in the priesthood and the royalty that Jesus has. We weren't always a people. We weren't always united together like this, as a 'holy nation'. Before we met Jesus, we were outsiders to God's people and to his plan. We weren't living under mercy. But God is a God who invites the outsiders to become the inner circle. God is a God who takes a bunch of miscellaneous no-goodniks from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and makes them into one new people and one new family and showers them – us! – with undeserved mercy after mercy and blessing after blessing. Peter says that God did this so that we could 'declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light'. We aren't in the dark anymore, the way we once were. We're living in the light, as he is in the light. We've been given rescue from the dungeon. We've been called to be priests and a temple. And the spiritual sacrifice we offer in the new covenant is to praise God with our lips and with our lives for how incredible he's been to us:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
'Tis music in the sinner's ears,
'Tis life and health and peace.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.

On this glad day the glorious Sun
Of Righteousness arose;
On my benighted soul he shone
And filled it with repose.

Sudden expired the legal strife,
'Twas then I ceased to grieve;
My second, real, living life
I then began to live.

Then with my heart I first believed,
Believed with faith divine,
Power with the Holy Ghost received
To call the Savior mine.

I felt my Lord's atoning blood
Close to my soul applied;
Me, me he loved, the Son of God,
For me, for me he died!

I found and owned his promise true,
Ascertained of my part,
My pardon passed in heaven I knew
When written on my heart.

Look unto him, ye nations, own
Your God, ye fallen race;
Look and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sermon: "Christmas Is Just the Beginning"

Have you ever noticed that, after Christmas, you sometimes feel a bit deflated? We have all this energy and all this excitement and all this anticipation going into the Christmas season; we buy our presents, we put them under the tree, we get our families together, we organize parties.... and on December 26th, it feels like it's all over and done with. Christmas seems like an ending. But really, Christmas is just the beginning.

Last week, Rev. Vondran made some invaluable points. One that struck me was how Jesus reveals to us what God is like. Remember, Jesus is the Word made flesh. Christmas is nothing less than the celebration of God starting to dictate his Autobiography, not just in words on a page, but in and as a human life. Whoever catches a glimpse of Jesus has a window into the heart of the Father.

If the only glimpse we got was on that silent night, we'd understand far more about God than we ever would've without it. But the baby born in Bethlehem didn't stay in the manger. He grew up so we could see God in action on the human stage. Reading the Gospels, it seems like even just a week in his life would be biting off more than we could chew. But with The Story, we're zooming waaaaaaaaaaay out to get the God's-eye view of it all. Even in just the early days of his ministry, I see three broad lessons that Jesus gives us about God.

The first key lesson is that God identifies himself with God's people. When God thinks of us, he says, “These people are my people; they're with me, I'm with them, and we're sticking together.” The entire life of Jesus is a brand-new testament to that. Matthew especially wants us to see the life of Jesus as picking up on a whole bunch of themes from earlier chapters in The Story and weaving the threads together. When Herod's threats loom in the Holy Land, Jesus is taken into Egypt, just like Jacob's family at the end of Genesis. After Herod the Great dies, Jesus comes out of Egypt in a new exodus, back into the Holy Land.

Later we find Jesus at the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”. When it came to Jesus getting baptized, John the Baptist was every bit as confused as we are. I mean, the whole point of baptism seemed like it was a chance to turn away from your sins and start living a godly life. Baths are for the dirty – so why did the one and only clean man ask to go under? Well, if we had to go through it, Jesus didn't want to stand apart. He wanted to stand with us. That's just the kind of attitude God has. He doesn't hold himself apart from what we're going through. When we go through suffering and pain and tragedy in life, God wants us to be able to see as plain as day that he doesn't hold our bruised and battered hearts at arm's length. When we've rolled in the mud and we need to get wet, God's there in the river too. For us.

If he wanted to stand apart from messy human life, Jesus probably could've gotten away with skipping the river. He also could've skipped his forty days of wandering through the wilderness, which matched up with the forty years the Israelites lived as nomads in the Sinai. We go through our own wilderness times of temptation and trial on a regular basis. Jesus is God's loudest way of saying that he's with us in it all. If Jesus wanted to, he could have ended the contest with the devil pretty quickly. He could have said, “Satan, in case you've forgotten, I'm God, and I can't sin. To save us both some time, I command you to get lost.” But if he had, what lesson would there be for us? What hope for our struggles would we get out of seeing Jesus resist the devil in a way only God can?

Jesus deliberately chose not to go that route. Look at the way Jesus fights the devil off. Satan tells Jesus to satisfy his physical needs; Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:13. Satan tells Jesus to impress everyone with a self-centered miracle, and even twists scripture to do it; Jesus jabs back with Deuteronomy 6:16. Satan finally offers Jesus jurisdiction over the whole world in exchange for one quick act of outrageous sin; and Jesus sends him packing with Deuteronomy 6:13. There isn't a single thing Jesus said to Satan that we can't say, too. Jesus is God's way of showing us that we have exactly what we need. If we learn God's words that well and understand their spirit so we can guard against Bible-abuse, we're ready.

The second major lesson that Jesus teaches us about God is that God is eager to teach us one-on-one, no matter what level we're at. God will accept us and meet us wherever we are, though he won't be content to let us stay down there. Whatever our hang-ups, God has a message for each and every one of us, all of us in this sanctuary right now. There isn't one of us who could say, “God's word isn't for me”, and not be a liar. When we read about the start of Jesus' ministry, one catching story is about Jesus' secret visit from a bigshot Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a great rabbi. In Jesus' own words, he's a “teacher of Israel”. He's a top theologian, a knock-out preacher. If anyone has it all together, it's Nicodemus! But Jesus warns Nicodemus that he's on the verge of flunking out on the basics. Nicodemus is so clueless that on the first sentence out of Jesus' mouth, he gets lost!

See, what Jesus has to teach Nicodemus is that it doesn't matter who you are – you could be a down-and-out loner or an all-star rabbi – our old life isn't what makes God happy. Our family tree has its roots in bad soil. We need a new one, one that has roots not in a pedigree of human bodies, but only in the Spirit of God. We need to be born all over again, this time with God as our parent. Jesus tells him about how much God loves the world that rejects him. God loves God-haters so much that he sent the very best, his Son, to die. He sent his Son to be lifted up on the cross so that whoever looks at him in faith will be cured of sin. It's that look in faith that makes all the difference. Anyone who put all their eggs in Jesus' basket is in safe hands; those who'd rather hedge their bets are in for a rude awakening. Faith is the one thing that makes the difference between life for those who have it and condemnation for those who don't. Faith is inseparable from being born again. And that's exactly the message that Nicodemus needed to hear.

Later on, Jesus leads his disciples into a place they'd rather not be: Samaria, a region the Jews of his day went out of their way to avoid. The Jews couldn't stand the Samaritans. He sent his Jewish disciples off to buy some food in a Samaritan town while Jesus waited outside at a well – probably because if they stuck around, they'd just have gotten in the way. Jesus finds himself talking to a sexually broken Samaritan woman who may have felt like an outcast even among other Samaritans, let alone when talking to a Jewish rabbi. Jesus crosses all sorts of barriers to have a conversation with her. He reveals, bit by bit, that he knows exactly what sort of life she's lived – and he wants her to know that, no matter what worldly lines in the sand are drawn between them, he wants her to come to him and find a healing that lasts.

As she's working her way up to realizing that Jesus is the promised Savior, she comes to see that Jesus has a hotline with God. So she asks him to settle one of the controversies of the day. Everyone knows that for the one God, there can be only one valid temple. The Jews worship God at the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and reject all the others. But the Samaritans worship God at the temple on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria and reject the one in Jerusalem. Jesus tells her that it doesn't matter any more. Worship used to have to do with geography, because the temple was a place. But if our God is spirit, there's no reason why his temple has to be a place – and Jesus tells this Samaritan woman that from now on it won't be. The new temple isn't a place, it's a people – it's us!

Now it doesn't matter where we stand when we bring our offerings to God. It doesn't matter if we get together to worship God between these panels of stained glass and those panels. It doesn't matter if we worship God without so much as a shard of stained glass in sight. It can be in our homes, it can be in the park, it can be at the side of the road in a bad part of town. What matters is whether we're living out our worship as though we're really God's temple. We need to live like the temple where his Spirit of Truth dwells to bear its fruit in our lives. God calls us to worship as the temple where people can come to meet him – and when they meet him here in Christ, in our midst, then they can have the Spirit flowing through their lives like a raging river that never runs dry. And that message is exactly what the woman at the well needed to hear.

The woman went back into her village and spread the word. They invited Jesus in, and many of them learned for themselves who Jesus is. But the disciples were complaining... as usual. When they tried to distract Jesus with lunch, he told them that he had everything he needed right there already. They thought maybe Jesus got some take-out while they were grocery shopping. They didn't understand that food is nothing compared to carrying out God's mission. They were so bogged down in earthly things and earthly meanings that they were blind to what was most pressing of all.

You know, when I picture this conversation, I imagine Jesus grabbing Peter by the shoulders and shaking him. “Don't you see? Open your eyes! Open your eyes and look, look at that field of people! They're ripe for harvest for the kingdom!” That was where the heart of the Father was. The heart of the Father wasn't with what the disciples bought in town. The heart of the Father wasn't in staying on schedule to get out of Samaria. The heart of the Father was in rejoicing in the chance to share the gospel with people who were starving spiritually and were ready and willing for the meal of God's love to be served to their souls. No one shows the Father's heart like Jesus – and if Jesus went to such desperate lengths to reach the Samaritans, I wonder how we can ever look at the unsaved in Akron and Ephrata the same way again.

The third crucial lesson that the start of Jesus' ministry teaches us about God is that God values the humble faith of outcasts more than the self-satisfied morality of the 'in-crowd'. Early on in the Gospels, we get the sense that if there's one thing that the Pharisees and Jesus most definitely are not destined to see eye-to-eye on, it's how to treat people who don't have it all together. The Pharisees were convinced that they were on top of it. They were so proud not to be like, you know, those people. You know the ones I mean. The ones who feel afraid to darken church doors because they don't feel good enough.

Jesus didn't avoid them the way the Pharisees did. He did lunch with them. The Pharisees and others got upset when Jesus ate with – gasp! – 'tax collectors' and 'sinners'! Jesus fell in with bad crowds – on purpose. The Pharisees and their friends judged Jesus for it. How can this traveling teacher not know what kind of people these are? Hasn't he ever heard that bad company corrupts good morals? Doesn't this Jesus guy understand that he's setting a bad example? Clearly if this man is the sort of man who would spend his time with thieves and adulterers and traitors and prostitutes and terrorists, he isn't someone any self-respecting Pharisee would want his children around! But a main point of Jesus' life is that God is the sort of God who would spend his time with haters, with abusers, with bullies, and with the broken – and if we need any more proof, all we need is to remember that God somehow still wants anything to do with us.

Jesus reminds the Pharisees that when a doctor's at work, he doesn't surround himself with healthy people who don't want to see him. A doctor dives headfirst into the midst of the sick and the dying because they're the ones who need him and know it. The irony is that the Pharisees are worse off, because they're so proud of their own goodness that they can't see that their goodness 'falls short of the glory of God'. Even if the Pharisees came a few inches closer to God's standards, just a few, they fell miles away from God's values. And one of the greatest dangers for the church today is if we miss this. It's easy to give lip-service to grace and mercy. It's hard to live as someone who depends on it completely. A church that doesn't remind itself that they'd be miserable sinners without God's grace, a church that forgets that it's called for an active mission of grace to the hurting and the impure and the lost – that is a church in grave danger of becoming the neighborhood Pharisees' Association instead of the church that God wrenched out of Satan's hands through the priceless blood of his one and only Son.

Every natural inclination of our hearts is to be a Pharisee. But Jesus came to show us that that's not where God's heart is. If we believe the good news that God is really Christ-like, then we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about our methods in God's mission. We have to ask ourselves, if God isn't above identifying himself with the people, who are we to hold ourselves above the muck and the mire of the day-to-day lives of the lost? We have to ask ourselves, if God's teaching through Jesus is true, then do we really get what it means to trade in everything about who we are in order to get a completely new identity from God? We have to ask ourselves, if God is willing to have a bunch of rescued sinners serve as his holy temple, are we really being a temple where people can meet Christ and get healing? And we have to ask ourselves, if God's heart breaks and burns and chases down the hungry lost, then what's wrong with us when we put anything worldly, even good things, ahead of our God's all-consuming passion? Those are uncomfortable questions. They make me uncomfortable. I squirmed when I wrote them. I'll probably still squirm in a week, or in a month. But when we come to see that Jesus is the one who makes the heart of the Father known, even in the earliest days of his ministry, then we can't not know that every 'if' in those questions is a guaranteed fact. And we can't pretend that it doesn't have a drastic impact on who we are as the church. And that's just the start of Jesus' ministry! Over the next few Sundays, we have the awesome chance to explore what else Jesus can show us about the heart of God. Because Christmas was just the beginning of the new chapter in God's story.