Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Mind to Work: Sermon on Ezra-Nehemiah

About three thousand years ago, David and Solomon ruled over Israel's golden age. After Solomon died, his son Rehoboam continued Solomon's worst policies, promised to raise taxes higher still. General Jeroboam led a rebellion, and most of the tribes seceded to form the northern kingdom, called Israel. Rehoboam was left with a couple tribes in the south, now the country of Judah. 

Nearly three centuries passed. Israel never had a decent king, so around 722 BC, the Assyrians came and wiped them off the face of the map, replacing many of them with pagan settlers who intermarried with the remaining locals. Judah had a few good kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, so God put up with them a while longer. Around 596 BC, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar came and deported the best and brightest – people like Ezekiel. Ten more years passed, and Nebuchadnezzar came back, ended the kingdom of Judah, demolished Solomon's Temple and the city of Jerusalem, and took many more of the people into exile.

Decades went by, and we read plenty about it in the book of Daniel. Jeremiah warned the exiles to put down roots and get used to living in Babylon, because they'd be there for a while. In time, though, the Persians conquered Babylon – that was 539 BC. Cyrus the Great was on the throne – Cyrus, a king Isaiah foresaw and liked enough to call him “Messiah.” 

Within a year or so, Cyrus gives an Edict of Restoration: whoever you are, if the Babylonians kidnapped you or your parents, you're welcome to go back home; we'll help send you along, even pay costs for rebuilding. During this time, many Jews leave Babylon to go back home. They restore worship, and around 535 BC they lay the foundation for the temple. But opposition stops them.

Cyrus dies five years later. His son Cambyses rules for eight years. After a confusing fraudster takes power for a few months, Cambyses' third cousin Darius overthrows that guy and takes the throne, late in 522 BC. Darius divides the kingdom into not just satrapies but provinces. And the area around Jerusalem becomes Yehud Medin'ta, the “province of Judah,” within the satrapy of Eber-Nari, “Beyond the River.” 

Yehud needs a governor, and who better than Zerubbabel – a Jewish prince, grandson of the last king, who had already helped lead the Jews back home? And yet all this time, the foundation of the temple was just sitting there. God raises up prophets, like Haggai and Zechariah, to challenge the people: all this time they've been focused on their own personal homes, and they've neglected God's temple! 

So Haggai delivers his prophecy in person to Zerubbabel and the high priest Jeshua, and they get to work. Five years later, the Second Temple is finished and dedicated, seventy years after the first one was destroyed. The Persians supported and funded it, just like they did with temples elsewhere in their empire.

The story goes silent on what happened next. After Zerubbabel, archaeological finds tell us the names of at least three later governors of Yehud – there was Zerubbabel's son-in-law Elnathan, and then men named Yehoezer and Ahzai. 

Meanwhile, Darius dies after a 36-year rule, and his son Xerxes takes Persia's throne. Xerxes leads a massive war against the Greeks, but in the Bible he's better known for marrying a woman named Esther – a Jewish queen at the side of Persian power, thwarting Haman's deadly plot to exterminate the Jews. After twenty-one years, Xerxes is assassinated in the year 465 BC, and his son Artaxerxes takes the throne.

About seven years later, as part of a policy to shore up the western provinces to guard against the Greeks, he wants to send someone to reinforce Jewish law in Yehud, just like Darius had equipped an Egyptian priest named Udjahorresnet to do that in Egypt. And who better than a brilliant scribe and priest named Ezra? 

So Ezra goes to reinforce the Law of Moses, and he brings a couple thousand more Jews as well as extra treasure to upgrade the temple and its services. But in the meantime, there's still opposition, and the Persians have a heavy hand when it comes to taxes.

Around thirteen years later, the king's cupbearer – a Jewish eunuch named Nehemiah – dares to look sad in Artaxerxes' presence, which could be a capital offense. He asks to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and gates, and Artaxerxes says okay. So around 444 BC, Nehemiah makes his trip. As the newly installed governor of Yehud, he and some friends undertake a secret inspection of the rubble, then address the people, propose a rebuilding project – and everyone agrees and does it.

Not that they had an easy time. Some villains show up in the story, most prominently “Sanballat the Horonite” and his cronies “Tobiah the Ammonite” and “Geshem the Arab” – all three of whom are mentioned outside the Bible. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria. And while his own name was pagan – it meant, “the moon god has given life” – his sons Delaiah and Shelemiah had good Israelite names that honored the LORD. Sanballat was well-steeped in his people's historic rivalry with the southern kingdom, and he didn't want to see Jerusalem thrive. Sanballat is probably the one who built the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim; and to get priests for it, married off his daughter to the grandson of the Jewish high priest Eliashib, so that his own grandsons would be full-fledged priests under the Law. No wonder he was so full of schemes! He opposed everything Nehemiah did. 

So did Tobiah, the governor of the Ammonites. One wonders where he came from: he's got a Jewish name, he married a daughter of a Jewish leader named Shecaniah, and he married off his son Jehohanan to the daughter of another Jewish leader named Meshullam. He gained plenty of influence in Yehud and leveraged it to his profit. And Geshem, or Jasuma, was an Arab chieftain who also felt threatened by what Nehemiah and the Jews were up to. 

But the people of Jerusalem refused to let Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem win. With faith in God, with vigilance, and with action, they rebuilt Jerusalem's wall and ensured the city's survival down through history – past the Persian era, through the days of Alexander the Great, down past the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, to the days of Hasmoneans and Herodians and the Holy Son of God.

That's a fine history lesson – but what good is it today? It's been over 2400 years since Nehemiah left the earthly scene! We're talking ancient history. But remember: “All scripture is inspired by God” – literally, God-breathed – “and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). These books of the Bible were relevant for the believers in Paul's day, and for Augustine's day, and for the days of bright Constantinople, and the days of Martin Luther, and the days of John Wesley, the days of Jacob Albright, and the days of you and me.

What was true for God's people then is true for God's people now. The stories of Old Testament history, the challenges of Old Testament prophets, haven't lost their impact. In the New Testament, two ways the church is depicted are as a living temple and as a new Jerusalem. What Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah built up – well, that foreshadows our own time. 

Up 'til today, the new temple is under construction. The Apostle Peter tells us that its stones, its “living stones,” are people like you and me, made alive in Christ. And they grow – the temple grows – as living stones are added and mature, as they more and more resemble the Chief Cornerstone who conquered the cross (1 Peter 2:4-6). Evangelism, outreach, invitation – that's all going out to the quarry to mine more living stones. Salvation – that's installing living stones into the temple, a work of God. Discipleship – that's chiseling, smoothing, expanding, beautifying living stones as they form part of the living temple.

First and foremost, the temple is the church universal. But these words aren't for a church far away. They belong to Pequea just as much. They tell our story. The words of Haggai, Ezra, Nehemiah – they have relevance here! Our church – yes, this church – needs to be built up. I'm not talking about the physical building – though, come to think of it, it ain't for nothing we take up offerings for the building fund! But our church needs to be built up as the ministry of a living temple, a present Zion, firm and steadfast, reaching out, calling out.

The story of Nehemiah is for here and now. Nehemiah, when serving in Artaxerxes' court, wept at the thought of a Jerusalem whose best days seemed behind her. Her current state was one of decline – not as bad as it had been in the hour of Nebuchadnezzar's power, but decline even so. The walls were broken down; the people were poor and few; there was rubble all over. Ask any resident of Jerusalem in the fifth century BC when the city's glory days are – and they'll correct you: “Were.” The glory days “were” long gone. Jerusalem's current state isn't defensible. She's subject to the fluctuating whims of her mightier rivals. She looks like she'll never amount to much, never be used for great things in the service of her God ever again. Those days are done. That's why Nehemiah's tears drip and gush. 

In hindsight, we know that's not true. We know the greatest was yet to come, when “great David's greater Son” appeared in the temple Zerubbabel refounded. But to Nehemiah in the court, and to plenty of his contemporaries, it was hard not to look back for the lost best.

Doesn't that speak to us? The American church in general is addicted to nostalgia, all the more now as we live increasingly in the shadows of institutions and ideologies with greater political and cultural clout. We see ourselves as freshly embattled; we make myths of a golden age six decades dead. 

And what of Pequea? We have to admit: we're smaller than we once were. There was a time when this sanctuary was nearly packed. The present decade is not that time. We're less busy, maybe less active, than we once were. Do we even have gates to invite our neighbors through – gates, ministries meant to bridge the life that's in here and the need that's out there? Or is Pequea in our day maybe a bit more like Nehemiah's time than we'd care to admit? Yet admitting it is the first step, a step that opens the opportunity to follow Nehemiah's example.

But the story of Sanballat is also for here and now. Sanballat sees what Nehemiah sees – counts the same bricks, measures the same paces, uses the same maps, reads the same journals, attends all the same conferences. But Sanballat doesn't see what Nehemiah sees. Sanballat doesn't see hope – for he doesn't have faith in a living God who loves Jerusalem. Sanballat doesn't see hope – because he doesn't want to see hope. He wants to see failure. Sanballat is scheming – he wants to demoralize the Jews, he wants to keep Jerusalem out of the running, he wants to take advantage and profit from any point of weakness. So he hatches plots, he sows doubt and discord. He tries to challenge their loyalty: “If you commit yourself to this project, then you're a bad Persian citizen.” He tries to undermine their hope: “This will never work. You're too weak. You're too few. You've got nothing to work with. It would take more time than you've got. It will never last.” Sanballat is the master discourager.

Can I be honest with you? We EC pastors love to get together. We love to talk about our churches, about what we see God doing. So I've had many an occasion to share our statistics, to describe our church culture, to plenty of colleagues. But a few of them – some very esteemed and experienced church leaders – have asked me tough questions. More than one has asked me if there's a point to me being here – if any ministry can happen at Pequea. More than one has feared that we're a church that's obsolete, that has no role to play in our community, that maybe could even be called a “dying church.” More than one has seen in us something like what Sanballat saw in Jerusalem.

I'm not sharing this because I want to discourage you. I'm not sharing this because I plan to throw in the towel. I'm not sharing this because I agree with their assessment. Just the opposite! I'm sharing it because maybe, at some level, some in this congregation have taken the same view of their own church – and if we have, we need to name that, confront that, heal that. 

Maybe when you form a mental picture of a lively, busy Pequea, you feel like that thought is just an idle daydream – fun to indulge, but not practical, not realistic. Maybe, if you were pressed to put on paper what you really think our plan for the next year should be, it's all about maintenance – keeping what we've got, gathering together with your friends for social fellowship so we can all call ourselves Christian and feel good about it and then go back home until next week, or some other week if it's hunting season or football season or if we're just hungry. Not that you'd ever say that, but it may be the unspoken assumption in the way you view church. Anyone can fall into that mindset. Plenty of believers do. Choir leaders do. Sunday School teachers do. Board members do. And yes, pastors do, too.

But I'd like to suggest that, if we buy into those assumptions, that outlook, then we're at risk of falling under Sanballat's spell. Sanballat says, “Once a shrinking church, always a shrinking church.” He says, “Some churches are just unnecessary.” Sanballat says, “There's no such thing as turnaround. Not from this. You're too far gone.” Sanballat asks, “Why bother? Why not be content to farm in the rubble? Isn't that a good enough life? Don't you have better things to do?” Don't listen to Sanballat.

I say all this to point out a sobering truth about the story we read this morning: If the Jews had not put Nehemiah's plan into action, if they hadn't confessed faith in a God who cherished Jerusalem and hadn't backed up their faith with the sweat of their brow – then Sanballat would have been right. They would not have restored things, would not have sacrifices, would not have revived the stones (cf. Nehemiah 4:2). Jerusalem's walls and gates would have lain in ruins. Very possibly, invading armies, or the mere ravages of time, would have dwindled the population to zero. And today, it would be a dry and barren hill, loved by none but the occasional archaeologist.

But the Jews of Nehemiah's day weren't content to farm in the rubble! They didn't forever neglect their temple, their walls, their gates. They didn't resign their city to a historical footnote. They refused to let Sanballat win, refused to let him poison their minds or distract them or get in their way. How on earth did they ever turn the tables on Sanballat's sour soothsaying? 

It's simple. First, there was praying. The story makes that clear. From the beginning, before he even left the king's court, Nehemiah fasted and prayed for days, asking God to be attentive to “the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name” (Nehemiah 1:11). In the middle of speaking to Artaxerxes, again Nehemiah “prayed to the God of Heaven” (Nehemiah 2:4). And so his vision was shaped by God – it was what God had put into his heart to do (Nehemiah 2:12). In the face of Sanballat's mockery, Nehemiah prays again (Nehemiah 4:4-5). As Sanballat schemed further, we prayed to our God” (Nehemiah 4:9) – not just Nehemiah, but the whole people.

Second, there was strategizing. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, and he made a survey. He didn't do it alone – he had “a few men” with him (Nehemiah 2:12). He made a careful inspection. He assessed the damage. And he conceived of a response. In the end, when he enlisted support, he probably assigned tasks to each person, drawing on what they told him of their strengths. So the whole third chapter of his book is taken up in detailing who did what. When Sanballat's interference complicated things, he equipped them to resist.

And third, there was working! Nehemiah is very clear: The project succeeded precisely because “the people had a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6). Do we? Nehemiah's talking about more than a general “work ethic.” The words of Haggai are for here and now, too. Remember, the first resettled Jews, nearly a century before Nehemiah's time – they worked. Sure, they worked. They worked at building nice paneled houses for themselves, for their own comfort. Each family enjoyed the fruit of their own soil, the shade of their own roof. But God wasn't happy. The people built their own private dwellings, but they neglected God's house, a house meant for everyone (Haggai 1:4). “My house lies in ruins, while you hurry off to your own houses,” God judged them (Haggai 1:9). Each person poured him- or herself into shaping a new family life, grasping anxiously after the Judean Dream. Imagine how they'd defend themselves: they've got their own fields to till, their own time-cards to punch, their own bills to pay, their own kids to raise. Aren't they busy enough already? Who has time for more? Who has time to work on the temple? Their own house comes first.

The words of Haggai are for us here, for us now. We in America are a lot like that generation. We have our private lives, our households to run. Our work is all used up by our personal pet projects. Our labor is invested in our interests; our activity is engaged by our agendas. Our own “houses” so often come first – and so often come last. 

Now, nowhere does God condemn these Judeans merely for having houses of their own. But when our houses get built up before God's house, that's trouble brewing. Our problem, like the Judeans', is that our “houses” have come unhinged from their rightful place a few slots further down on the to-do list. They've catapulted up the priority chain. They've become idols. Our pet projects belong further down – secondary to the Divine Project, the one mission we all share here as a team, as the family and people of God. 

Our houses may be nice, there may be many good things we do – but woe if we persistently put them ahead of God's house for all nations, the house where mission happens, the roving dwelling where Jesus touches lives. Woe if, for the sake of our paneled houses, we neglect the temple of the LORD. Woe if we don't have “a mind to work.”

Nehemiah's generation remembered Haggai's words. They learned his lesson. They were neither slothful nor self-serving. When Nehemiah said they had “a mind to work,” he spelled out for us what he meant. He didn't mean that each of them was enthusiastically working on his or her own house. He meant that the whole people “committed themselves to the common good” (Nehemiah 2:18). 

Those are his own words! They “committed themselves to the common good.” Their hands weren't busied with their own individual personal projects, things that benefited only themselves and their own families. They didn't leave the temple, or later the synagogue, telling everybody else, “See you next Sabbath!” Their lives in between sabbath days weren't an untold, unshared mystery to those who worshipped to their right or left. They didn't neglect their own houses, but they knew how important it was that they worked together on something that would benefit everyone, not just their own family.

Before this morning ends, we're going to be holding our annual congregational meeting. Think of it like Nehemiah's survey. We're going to assess our church. We're going to reflect on where we've been this past year. But most important of all, I hope we look ahead. I hope we jump-start a collective brainstorm. What do we need to be effective, as a church, in bringing the kingdom of God, the active presence of Jesus, to our slice of Lancaster and Chester Counties? Where do they need the gifts God has already sown among us? Where, when, and how will we let the Spirit of Jesus carry us into an encounter with those who need him? 

Those are the questions we need to take up. But the final question that rests before us: Do we have “a mind to work,” a commitment to the common good? Do we have “a mind to work” on God's mission, to serve him as Pequea EC from Monday to Saturday as well as on Sunday? God invites us to choose, and to make our choice known by how we live, and not just what we say. 

I believe with all my heart that there is a future God wants to give to Pequea EC, and it is not about shriveling, it is not about the status quo. I believe that we can do effective ministry here where we are. But it will require “a mind to work.” May we choose as Nehemiah's Jerusalem chose. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Praying in Colossae

Good morning, brothers and sisters! “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Colossians 1:2). We've been starting off the year strong, haven't we? Two weeks ago, we talked about revival – the new life of God sown among us. Last week, the bishop was here to remind us of the importance of community, and how we need to gather to encourage each other to acts of love and good works. And now this morning, I'd like to suggest that in these twelve verses we've just read from Colossians 1:3-14, Paul teaches us volumes about prayer.

First, Paul teaches us about the purpose of prayer. To whom are we praying? When it comes time to turn to a source beyond this world for help, when it comes time to humble our hearts and kneel and beg, are we looking for assistance from Thor? From Ganesh? From Apollo? Are we trying to wheedle a favor out of a generic god who lives to indulge our fantasies, who makes no demands on our lives? Or, on the other hand, are we begging abjectly from a stern god whose heart yearns to torment us, to make life miserable for us for the sake of his sadistic viewing pleasure? 

None of the above. Paul reminds us that when we pray as Christians, we're praying to “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Colossians 1:3). We pray to a God who makes himself known in relationship – a God who reveals himself in and through the historical and present presence of Jesus, whose character we know, we read, we experience for ourselves. He's a God who loves us enough to send his Son, the greatest treasure of eternity, to be a sacrifice to redeem us. That's not a god who thirsts for our misery; that's not a stern tyrant who rules by capricious whim. 

And he's a God who led his own Son to the cross because of how seriously he takes the state of our world. That's not a heavenly Santa Claus who forgot his naughty list when he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque! That's not the god of the most pervasive American religion, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which cloaks itself under the Christian name in so many of our churches. Nor is it the god of many religions, a god reachable by many roads. We pray to a God made accessible by his Son: no one comes to the Father except through him (cf. John 14:6).

And for whom are we praying, first and foremost? In a way, if you wanted to take the Lord's Prayer as an example – and the Lord's Prayer is just an outline on how to hit the right bases in the right order when we pray together – who's the first person for whom we pray? Is it you? Is it me? No, actually. In the Lord's Prayer, the first person for whom we pray is the person to whom we pray: God – when we pray that God's name would be sanctified, set apart; that he would reign as king; that he would accomplish all that he desires on earth among human society, just as he does in heaven among angelic society (cf. Matthew 6:9-10). 

But Paul understandably skips past that here. For whom are we praying, after that? Paul is praying for the church; he's praying for the saints; he's praying for believers. Not believers individually – like he prays for Epaphras' tired and bruised feet from hiking from city to city to bring Paul a message, and then for Apollos' sore and strained voice box from preaching and debating for hours and hours, and then for Luke who caught something from the last patient he doctored, and so on. No, Paul prays for the believers collectively – as a whole, as a community-within-a-community. All the other stuff comes later, in a rightly ordered prayer.

And to what end are we praying for the believers? For just themselves, so that they can enjoy all God's blessings, so they can meet up once a week (or less, if they've got hunting trips to go on or if there's a solitary snowflake on the lawn), savor as much of God as they can consume, and then go home to live their own private lives for their own private benefit? Is that what Paul has in mind as he's praying for them? 

If you think that, you may need to get to know Paul a little bit better. Paul prays for the church, prays for believers, so that they can do something with what God gives them – and that something isn't just for them. It's for the world. It's for their neighbors who don't yet believe, who haven't encountered the faith-fueling grace of God that saves. It's through the church community for the as-yet-unchurched community.

If you were here to hear our bishop preach last Sunday – and if you weren't, you really need to watch the video – you might remember him saying toward the end of his message: “This community then has an impact on that community that's outside these walls.” You might remember him talking about how, if we've experienced the love of Jesus, then we must live out that love with the people around us – at the grocery store, at Turkey Hill, at the fire hall, soccer practice, dance class, anywhere we go. 

And that's not just in a private capacity. We need to go as the church, as a believing presence tied together by our relationship ties that run straight through Jesus, so that we can bring the saving, redeeming, restoring goodness of God to transform the world, starting all around us here. We pray to God the Father through Jesus his Son by the Holy Spirit for the church for the sake of the world. That's Paul-style prayer! And that's how God invites us to pray.

Second, Paul teaches us about the persistence of prayer. Prayer is not something you can do and get it over with. Prayer is not a milestone, a daily chore to cross off your to-do list. Prayer is a lifestyle. So often, we complain about God not seeming available for a relationship with us during the ten minutes or so we pray over the course of an average day. But how available are we to him during the other 1430 minutes of the day? Paul says that he prays this kind of prayer “always” (Colossians 1:3), that he has not ceased praying this prayer from the first moment he had the information available right up to the time the letter's being written to tell the Colossian Christians all about it (Colossians 1:9). 

Maybe you were here two weeks ago, when we talked a bit about Jesus' story of the widow and the unjust judge – how the widow unrelentingly pestered the judge for justice, and how God will be even more eager to answer our persistent prayers. And yet so often, we pray once and move on. But I believe that if we intentionally drenched this church in prayer – prayer to God through Jesus by the Spirit for this church for the sake of our community – then if we persevered, we might just see this drenched church be flooded by the Spirit until our cup runneth over and the whole neighborhood be swept up with glory.

And third, Paul teaches us about the priorities of prayer. How does Paul start out his prayers? Does he start with, “God, please do this, please do that”? No, he doesn't. Have any of you men in the congregation ever come home from work after your wives, and you immediately asked her what's for supper within the first minute of being there? Not exactly a recipe for success, was it? And that's because leaping straight from invocation – “Hi, honey, I'm home” – to petition – “Food, please!” – isn't really relational. It isn't treating your spouse as a person who's had a day of her own, with its own struggles and trials and joys and stories to tell. It's treating her as a background character in your own day's plot, or worse, as functionally just a machine or a tool to get what you want. We do the same thing with God, though: treat him as a tool or as a background character, while we're the hero of our story.

The way around that is to postpone petition, to demote it, make it secondary in importance. Between invocation and petition comes another step: praise, thanksgiving. That's the stuff relationships are made of. It shifts the focus away from ourselves, from our wants, and recognizes that our lives are not a one-man or one-woman show. Try it in your marriage: spend more time in praise than petition. Try it in prayer: thank God, praise God, see God as the star of the show. That's what Paul does. After he names God as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he immediately starts sharing what he's thankful to God for.

And logically first among those things, Paul is thankful for salvation. I mean, just look at the way Paul describes it! “The Father … has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-14). Isn't that amazing? We were in the clutches of the power of darkness. But God the Father swooped in, reached down, rescued us! 

The Israelites of Moses' day weren't the only ones with an exodus. We were led in our own exodus out of the power of darkness. And he reached down to do that through Jesus Christ. Through him, God bought us back from our chosen slavery; and all our sin has been canceled out, blotted away, erased, forgiven. But God didn't pull us out, give us the thumb's up, and walk off. He brought us into something new, made us citizens of his Son's kingdom, and even assigned us a portion of the inheritance. Out of darkness, into the even stronger light. It's new, it's revival! Praise God! That's how to start a prayer.

And then Paul is thankful for what he sees going on in the Colossian Christians' lives as well (Colossians 1:4-5). He praises God when he sees that they've got faith in Jesus Christ – they trust Jesus, they depend on Jesus, they publicly confess Jesus. How often do we mention that in our prayers: “Lord, thank you for the faith that they have in Jesus”? Paul praises God when he sees that they've got hope in the heavenly promise – not a promise of going to heaven, which is a very minor theme in the Bible, but hope in all the things that God has stored in heaven like a warehouse, to be brought down to make everything new when Jesus comes back. Heaven is the Lord's “rich storehouse” (Deuteronomy 28:12), where we invest our treasures (Matthew 6:20), until God raises us from the dead, glorifies us in renewed bodies, and brings all those treasures with him to dwell with us in a new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:3). 

Because the Colossian believers trust Jesus, they cling to that hope – that all God's promises, everything stored up in heaven for them, will last. They persist in that hope, and Paul thanks God when he sees it. How often do we mention that in our prayers: “Lord, thank you that they hold fast in hope to your promises of what awaits us”?

And Paul praises God when he sees that they have love for “all the saints,” for all the believers – not just the ones in Colossae, not just the ones in their little house church, but the ones in far-off cities, in distant lands; the ones who are Jewish, the ones who are Greek, the Roman ones, the Egyptian ones; the ones who think like them, and the ones who think in different ways while still adhering faithfully to the same gospel. But the Colossian Christians love them all. That's not something you could say about the Corinthian Christians, who broke up into warring denominations at the drop of a hat. The Colossian Christians, though – their love is the stuff of Christian unity. And their love isn't just a warm, fuzzy, theoretical thing; it's active. They actively seek to live in the best interest of the whole church, starting in their own little community but by no means stopping there.

To be like the Colossian believers, we'd have to show active love for our brothers and sisters at Pequea Presbyterian Church, and First Baptist Church of Pequea, and Meadville Mennonite, and at Limeville United Methodist, and Petra Christian Fellowship. We'd have to love Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Lutherans, Brethren, Anglicans. We'd have to show active love for American Christians, and French Christians, and Nigerian Christians, and Chinese, Syrian, Russian, Iranian Christians. We'd have to show active love for Christians who don't speak English, Christians who can't read or write, Christians who yearn to read the Bible but don't yet have one, Christians who need a place to stay, who need food and clean water, who need rescue from danger. Because that's the kind of love that the Colossian Christians had. They had their faults, sure – they were tempted by strange teachers with bizarre ideas, they needed to be refreshed with instructions – but in their brighter times, they had “love for all the saints” (Colossians 1:4). And Paul thanked God for that. So should we, when we see it or hear it.

And finally, Paul thanked God for what he saw God doing with the gospel. The good news about Jesus as Lord and Savior and King wasn't just written down in a book and put on the shelf. It wasn't debated over a dinner table for a moment before the topic switched to sports. The good news was bearing fruit! And it wasn't just bearing fruit in Colossae, among this little cluster of believers. It wasn't staying inside their church walls. The good news was “bearing fruit and growing in the whole world (Colossians 1:6)! The gospel had been spread, set free, unleashed! “The word of God is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9). The Colossians weren't trying to chain it, to keep it to themselves. They were out running after Jesus, following the Spirit as it breezed through streets and alleys, across hills and valleys, over the river and through the woods to the homes of any who needed to hear the best news ever! And people heard, and people believed, and there was flourishing and fruitfulness. Praise God! Thank God! Paul sure does – he praises and thanks God.

It's only after all that, and because of all that, that Paul finally turns to petition. Notice how church-centered, how kingdom-minded, all of this thanksgiving has been. And what he asks God for is no different. Paul prays for about five or six things that the Colossian believers are going to need to be a kingdom-minded church, a mission-minded church – and any church with its mind elsewhere is a failing church. 

First, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would be “filled with the knowledge of his” – God's – “will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). They need to know what God wants. They need to have a clear idea of who God is, what God is like, what God is doing, where they fit into God's story, and how to navigate it. That's something that only the Spirit gives, so Paul asks God to go ahead and fill them with it. But the Colossians need to be open to it – studying the word, listening to it proclaimed, thinking together, putting it into practice by stepping out in faith.

Second, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would be “made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power” (Colossians 1:11). Paul isn't looking for a weak, feeble church. He also isn't looking for a church that thinks they can do it all on their own. He isn't looking for a church that's despondent, nor a church that's impressed with itself. The Colossian church needs to be reliant on and receptive of God's strength – and so does each believer. Depend on him – let his strength be magnified in your weakness, and grow strong in his strength.

Third, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would “be prepared to endure everything with patience” (Colossians 1:11). Later on, he exhorts them to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Patience is something they must choose to have; it's also a gift that Paul can pray God to give them. They're going to need it. They live in a rough world. They might be hassled for being Christians. They might be excluded from civic life. Their children and children's children might be imprisoned or even executed for living out their faith in the public square. And in their own lives together, or their lives as households, hardship might come as the devil and his minions try to dissuade them from pressing on; or, sometimes we go through trials precisely so that we can be made stronger, be purified through God's discipline. So from all sides, there's a lot the Colossian believers might have to endure. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the most famous German pastor executed by the Nazis, once said, “No one has to go through so much anxiety and fear as do Christians. But this does not surprise us, since Christ is the Crucified One, and there is no way to life for a Christian without being crucified.” Bonhoeffer was right: the life of the church means lugging a cross through the valley of the shadow of death. For all that, the Colossians need patience. In our own day, we need to be able to endure everything with patience. Like Paul, we can pray for each other and for our whole church to be equipped to do just that.

Fourth, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would have a spirit of thankfulness – that, even in the midst of all the things they might have to endure, all the laments over their culture's wayward ways, all the suffering and illness and shame and persecution, through it all might shine joy and gratitude – “joyfully giving thanks to the Father” who brings them through it all into salvation (Colossians 1:11-12). Their thankfulness and their joy does not depend on worldly circumstances. It doesn't come and go with the chemicals in their brains. It doesn't wax and wane with the phases of the moon or the changing of the seasons. It doesn't fall to pieces when their bodies shrivel, when friendships fade or careers crumble. It does not hinge on who governs their province, or even which emperor sits on the Roman throne. Through it all, Jesus is king. Paul's prayer is that their joy and gratitude would be anchored unchangeably on heaven's throne, where the Lamb joins Divine Majesty.

Fifth, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would live in a way that follows God's design and God's desires – that with the knowledge God grants them of his will, they would latch onto it and use their God-given strength to “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Colossians 1:10). Faith isn't meant to be an inert thing, entombed in the mausoleum of our hearts. Faith is meant to live; faith is meant to work. We aren't saved by those works – but we are saved for them, and one day Jesus will reward us in accordance with them. When you know what God wants you to do, and you've got God's Spirit living the life of Jesus in and through you to give you power to do it... what's holding you back? Lead a life worthy of being written down in God's own autobiography – one he can read with a smile. That's Paul's prayer for the church.

And what's the end of it all? What do the believers need this strength for? Why do they need to press on with patience? What kind of life is at the heart of God's will? What is it that's pleasing to him? We come back full circle: Sixth, that “you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). Fruit and growth – that's what the gospel does when it spreads successfully to receptive hearts, minds, bodies, souls, neighborhoods, tribes, nations. 

That's what Paul is ultimately praying for. That's his rendition of, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (cf. Matthew 6:10). And not his alone – he always says 'we' here, because the letter is from Paul and Timothy, and with them a whole community of believers who are caught up to God's throne in a shared life of prayer. We know that the Colossian church leader Epaphras, who taught the Colossians the gospel and then came to join Paul and bring him news about how well it all went (Colossians 1:7-8), is part of that prayer life: “He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills” (Colossians 4:12).

I know I'd like to be your Epaphras – teaching, working, praying, rejoicing because of how avidly you take to the gospel of the kingdom. I want to see Pequea EC be filled with the kind of prayer that Paul models here, and to receive the blessings he prayed down on the Colossian church. Do you want that? I want that – I want to see the grace of God leap and bound as revival shakes us awake. And there's no way to get that without prayer, without gathering for prayer, without committing ourselves to prayer. 

I know some of you were able to make it to the prayer meeting we held earlier this week. I know for my part, I think that was in many ways the best prayer meeting I've attended in quite some time, because everyone there prayed like Paul, like Timothy, like Epaphras. We prayed for this church; we prayed for our community; we prayed for the gospel to bear fruit. And the Spirit of God made himself known. 

That's the invitation I want to give you. Let's continually “devote ourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving,” praying that God would open doors for us to share his word and to “declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:2-3). Because God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is faithful to his people's faithful prayers. Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Revive Us Again: A Sermon for the New Year

Merry Christmas! And a Happy New Year, everyone! Isn't it refreshing to be able to say that? The great thing about a new year is that, while we're making our resolutions, while we're joking about not having seen each other since last year, while we try to train ourselves to write a different digit on our checks, when we toss the old calendar and hang up a fresh one – through all that, we get to marvel at the prospect of a new beginning. A new year is about being able to breathe free and having a fresh start.

The gospel is a lot like that. The gospel is about new beginnings. Admittedly, you wouldn't think so, to hear the way some people present the gospel. I think I've told the story before – or maybe I haven't; I can't remember – of when I first was saved. My mom and I had gone to an evangelistic drama called Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames. It started with a little scene presenting the crucifixion and the resurrection, with special focus on the harrowing of hell. But most of the presentation, they kept acting out pairs of absurd vignettes showing perfectly saintly people who believed in Jesus being welcomed into heaven with much fanfare, while flagrant sinners and other non-believers were shown being dragged into hell to an ominous soundtrack by a cackling Satan. Subtlety may not have been their strong suit, is what I'm saying!

The way they presented the gospel, it was barely anything more than taking out a fire insurance policy. There's really all there was to it, the way they were teaching it. But they did at least hint at the subject of having our sins forgiven. And that's important. Too often, we reduce Christianity to being entirely about the forgiveness of our individual and personal sins. Don't get me wrong: that is a vital aspect of the gospel message. When the Apostle Peter announced the good news to the kindly Roman centurion Cornelius, Peter concluded by saying that “everyone who believes in him” – Jesus Christ – “receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). And forgiveness goes beyond just the merely personal. That's why the psalmist sings to God, “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin; you withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger” (Psalm 85:2-3).

At the same time, the same psalmist reminds us that there's more to salvation than being forgiven. There's value in forgiveness, because forgiveness cleans our slate. But why do people like clean slates? Why do artists buy blank canvas? To write, to draw, to paint something fresh! Now, when I was young – I know, I know, many of you think I still am – but when I was younger still, my favorite comic strip in the Sunday paper was Calvin and Hobbes. Did any of you ever read that one? I think it's still good – its quality hasn't gone down with age at all. It's the only comic strip I ever read that used the word 'Weltanschauung'. I remember the very last strip ever drawn, Bill Watterson's farewell to his beloved characters. It came out on New Year's Eve in 1995 – a Sunday morning just like today, a little over two decades ago. Calvin and his tiger Hobbes waded out into a thick blanket of freshly fallen snow; Hobbes marveled at how the world looked brand-new, Calvin proclaimed the new year a “fresh, clean start,” Hobbes compared it to “a big white sheet of paper to draw on,” and Calvin proclaimed it “a day full of possibilities” – and then they sledded off into the woods to make something of the blank canvas they'd been given. Calvin's last words were: “It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy. Let's go exploring!”

Salvation is about an end to the old sinful life, but salvation is about more than an end; it's about a beginning, the start of something new. “Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation” (Psalm 85:7). Salvation is looking on with gleaming eyes as God joyfully pronounces, “I am about to do a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19). And nothing is more important: like Paul says, “a new creation is everything” (Galatians 6:15). New creation is what happens in Christ: “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Everything has become new.... Jesus brings new life into fruition; and the word we might use for that new life is a word that comes from the Latin for 'new life,' and that word is “revival.” Salvation brings revival, and revival brings joy! “Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6). “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18).

On a personal level, revival is first and foremost about the new life of Jesus being born within us. That's why Paul compared himself to a mother or a midwife: “I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Just like we sang this morning: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, / descend to us, we pray! / Cast out our sin” – does the verse stop there? No, it doesn't. You remember how it finishes; there's more than that: “Cast out our sin and enter in; / be born in us today.” New life isn't just our rebirth; new life is the birth of Jesus' life in our souls. That's why it's so fitting that the Christian year really runs, in a way, from Advent until Christ-the-King Sunday. We always begin with the story of Christmas, because all our hope of new life hinges on the birth of Jesus – in Bethlehem first, but because that happened, in our own lives as well when we receive him. Our new life comes from Jesus being present in our flesh and our blood. The “something new” that starts when we get a new beginning in Christ is none other than a life that belongs to Jesus instead of to us, a life subject to his command and not our control. It may not be safe, but isn't it holy and good?

Just the same, the psalmist isn't speaking as an individual. When he says “revive us again,” he doesn't mean just an individual work in each individual life. He means a revival as the people of God – new life for the whole community of faith together. What would it mean to have revival in a church as a whole, or a community as a whole, and not just as a collection of little individual revivals? If revival at a personal level is the new life of Jesus being born within us, revival at a communal level is the new life of Jesus being born among us. Jesus is born into our midst, his life takes up residence in our midst: we actually live as one body owned and operated by one Spirit, filled with the power of Jesus, shaped by the character of Jesus, heaven-bent on the mission of Jesus with the fiery determination of Jesus to band together and be the living presence of Jesus in the community – spreading his new life wherever we go, like glitter from a Christmas card that just will not go away! (I'm sure you got some; you know what I mean.)

This past year, we've been looking plenty to the past. We've talked about what God has done for each of us in our various-numbered years on this earth. We've contemplated our history: what God has done for Pequea EC through nearly a century and a half here. It is good to remember. It's good to reorient ourselves. But God is not a prisoner in the past. God beckons us forward into the future he's weaving. God calls us to look ahead to what's new, not just what's old. Our God is the God of New Creation. Our God is the God who makes all things new, who does a new thing and insists that we look at it, perceive it, get in on it. And our God sent his Son into the world to tell us, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). We have to decide now, while the year is still newborn, if we want 2016 to be called “The Year of God's New Thing” here at Pequea. Put it another way: Do we want revival? Do we want revival? “Choose this day...” (Joshua 24:15).

Now, revival isn't something we can just snap our fingers and bring about. Revival can't be ordered off a menu; we can't ring up a restaurant and ask the delivery boy to drive on over and hand us revival in a box – thirty minutes or your money back, guaranteed. Revival can't be built by the sweat of our brow and the callouses on our hands. Revival doesn't come by self-driven resolutions. Revival doesn't come by works. But we desperately need revival! We always need revival! As we look around at our pews; when we look at our streets; when we glance through our neighbors' windows; when we sit down to people-watch at Walmart or Yoder's – what's missing? What don't we see – something we could so easily forget because we don't know it enough to miss it when it's missing? What our community is missing is to see the kingdom of God unfolding powerfully in our midst, bursting through the seams.

An honest Pharisee named Nicodemus wanted to know how he could feast his eyes on the new life of the kingdom. Creeping through the darkened streets while the sun was distracted across our earthen globe, he went to Jesus and wanted to know what all these signs meant. Jesus had brought something new. Jesus had disrupted all his old traditions, everything his father and his father's father had taught him. Jesus was doing kingdom things, the sort of wonders to which all the prophets testified. The other Pharisees were wrong to rationalize him away. This teacher came from God – and didn't that mean the kingdom was here? What was Nicodemus missing? New life (John 3:1-3).

That's what Jesus told him. But Nicodemus was perplexed. He heard the words coming off Jesus' lips, but he didn't get it (John 3:4). How can that happen? How do you repeat birth? How can an old life be made a new life? How does the kingdom of God show up? How could there possibly be such a thing as revival? Too often, I'm afraid, the church in America is in Nicodemus' shoes. The church – especially smaller churches – doesn't really believe there can be such a thing as revival. Through lack of faithful vision, a church can easily resign itself to insularity and insignificance, can look on itself as a hopeless case, can scale the goal down into something small. A man picks up a bow and arrow, aims at a target, fumbles; the arrow drops to the floor at his feet; he sighs, takes a paintbrush, paints a target there where the arrow landed, just inches away; tells himself day in and day out that that's all he was ever meant to do, until one day he wakes up believing that he was never meant to reach anything past arm's length from where his feet touch the ground. That's Nicodemus before that fateful night. Sometimes, that's us.

How can there be something like revival when I haven't been to archery practice in so long? How can there be revival if my eyes have faded and I can't see the original target anymore? How does revival come? The key is that new birth, new creation, new life, revival – this happens when the Spirit of God fans our lukewarm embers back into flame – because the Spirit blows where'er he wills (John 3:5-8). Revival comes not by works, but by prayerful and obedient faith that's eager to work in love (cf. Galatians 5:6). That's what new creation looks like. That's what the life of Jesus born in and among us looks like.

But to get there, we have to want it – not just think it would be a nice idea, but we have to want it, like a hungry man wants a meal, like a man in the desert wants a drink of water. We have to have hearts to receive it. We have to reject the target we've painted at our feet. We have to clear the scales from our eyes and gaze ahead to the real goal. We have to trust that Jesus will lend strength to our arm as we pull back that string. We have to trust that the Spirit will carry our arrows where they need to go. We have to want it badly enough to have faith in the God who wants us to want it.

If we do want to see revival, then we need to pray. We need to be like Habakkuk: “I stand in awe, O LORD, of your work. In our own time revive it! In our own time make it known!” (Habakkuk 3:1-2). Or like the psalmist: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation” (Psalm 85:4). This isn't a prayer to be put on a list, recited alongside other items on a letter to Santa, muttered and forgotten. Do you think the psalmist prayed this just once? Did Habakkuk pray, stand up, shrug his shoulders, and say, “I did what I could”? No! They cried out day after day! In prayer they latched onto God like Jacob and refused to let go until he blessed them! They hammered unrelentingly on heaven's door, banging and causing a holy racket! Jesus told the story of a widow and a judge, and at the end, Jesus asked, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:7). The answer was no. Just the same, won't God grant revival to his children who cry to him day and night? If God won't withhold justice, will he withhold new life? Will he keep revival in the warehouse? No! But we have to pray like Habakkuk, like the psalmist, like the widow.

So “choose this day.” Do we want the target at our feet, or the target on the horizon? Do we want to watch familiar old reruns, or do we want the premiere of God's blockbuster? Do we want to be a self-contained social club, or do we want to be as evangelical as it says on the sign outside? Do we want tame, calm, and family-friendly, or do we dare to sink to our knees and beg the explosive Spirit of God to rage in our midst like a tempest? Choose this day: Will we settle for the status quo, or will we implore God for revival? Will we go home satisfied with a routine, or will we “pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1)?

This morning, we're invited to meet God over a table – to encounter him in the bread and in the cup; to eat and drink with the Lord of New Life. With this holy meal, he refreshes us, he feeds us, he sustains us, he infuses the life of Jesus into us. But so often, we settle for a symbol in lieu of the substance; we clamor for a morsel and shun God's bounteous feast. If you want revival in your own heart, in your church, in the community where you live and work and play, then search your soul this morning, step forward, grab onto Jesus the Spirit-Sender, and pray like new life depends on it – because it does. Hallelujah – his is all the glory – O God, revive us again – so we can go exploring, seeking, and find.