Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Question of Lent: Sermon on Isaiah 58

We're now several weeks into the season of Lent – this is the third Sunday, isn't it? But we haven't had a chance to really talk about Lent until now. The first Sunday was Valentine's Day, and so we took time to focus on that instead. The second Sunday – well, that was last Sunday, I was away in Greece, and I trust Rev. Wagner gave a great sermon on the church being one body. And now here we are, confronted with addressing Lent. And what is Lent, really? What's it all about, at the heart of it?

I think we have to go back to Ash Wednesday to answer that. I mean, that's how Lent kicks off – with Ash Wednesday. Weather prevented us from really observing Ash Wednesday this year, unfortunately. And that's a great shame, because Ash Wednesday is so crucial. The first truth is pretty obvious: Ash Wednesday is about ashes. Lent is a season of ashes. And in those ashes, we're reminded of two very important things. The first one is the fact of our sin. Let's face it, we are sinners. “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “All of you sinned against the LORD and did not obey his voice” (Jeremiah 40:3). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

And the second thing figured in the ashes is our mortality. Each and every one of us, left to our own devices, will die. That's the harsh, difficult, very unpleasant truth. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). When God takes away our breath, we “die and return to [our] dust” (Psalm 104:29). Being dust, “to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). “All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). We are sinful; we are mortal; we are fragile, very fragile. The tiniest thing can precipitate the departure of our breath and our dissolution back to dust. “I fade away like an evening shadow; I am shaken off like a locust” (Psalm 109:23) – that's a Lenten confession from the psalmist right there.

If we don't think it's true – if we don't think we're fragile, and our world is fragile – then we haven't been paying attention this week. I'll be honest: this has been a hard week. It's been hard for me not to be here with you, to share in shouldering the burden. A very dear and beloved friend of ours – a mentor to me, a brother and shepherd to us, Pastor Greg – commenced his journey back to dust. And because he was so dear to our hearts, our hearts are torn and broken – a piece of them has fallen to dust as well. We know that he's departed to be with Christ, and that lets us grieve with hope – but it's still grief. That's natural – Jesus wept over Lazarus – and we have to accept that it's okay to grieve with hope. 

And then just a day later, our destabilized lives were rocked again when a tornado thrust itself into our church's life, touched our building. Look at the stained glass in the Sunday School room. Look up at our roof, our rafters. Survey the cemetery and the shed. We are fragile.

And by the way, I don't think it's a coincidence that, during my absence, we were hit by two tragedies like these back-to-back. No, I don't think that's a coincidence for a second. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Satan is active. He despises the people of God. A complacent church is no threat to him; like Mose Dissinger said, in a complacent church he'll take a snooze right in front of the pulpit. But in a church on fire for the mission of the kingdom? For a church looking out beyond its walls? The devil can't abide that. He opposes those who pose a threat. 

And I believe that the past week has shown that we are rising on his hit list because we are moving in the direction Jesus wants us to move. And so the devil took advantage of our situation to bring a disaster our way, in hopes of inflicting a setback and taking our minds off our mission, demoralizing us and derailing us.

I am convinced his scheme will backfire. We will not be demoralized, for God is with us. We will not be derailed, for God is with us! What Satan means for evil, God means for good and will use for good (cf. Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). If the devil wants to shake us, well, he's only put us more and more in the public eye. Our church is in the newspapers. I've been getting calls and e-mails from people interested in helping us. People are watching in ways they weren't before, giving us an opportunity to witness by following Christ's example. And if the devil wants to destroy – and he does, for “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10) – well, he'll only remind us of the very truths that Lent is meant to hammer home.

Because we're sinful and because we're fragile, we are unworthy and unable to live everlasting life. Everlasting life, eternal life, isn't just a length of life without an end point. It is that, but there's more. It's life that has the character of God's unshakeable new creation. It's the kind of life that would be fit for a different kind of world, a less dusty place. 

But we look around us. We look into ourselves, we examine our hearts. And we see a mismatch. The world we're in, isn't very new. It isn't unshakeable. And if it were, we – the people we are – wouldn't belong there. It'd be too much for us. We're fragile. And we'd stain that fresh, clean world with our sin. And so we fast.

That's why we need Lent. Because Lent ritually reminds us, every year, just how poor, just how sinful, just how fragile we are – how desperately we need the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. Like Isaiah says: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1). 

We are so, so forgetful. We love to think that we can make it on our own – that we're capable of pleasing God – that we can build something that will last forever, like a legacy carved in stone, a tower unto heaven. But we can't. Towers to heaven don't stand tall (cf. Genesis 11:8). They don't amount to much. “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6). Lent is the church's way of obeying what God told Isaiah: to announce cold, harsh reality to the self-deceived – which is all of us, from time to time.

Lent compels us to admit that we're poor and needy. That's literally what the psalmist says: “For I am poor and needy, and my heart is pierced within me” (Psalm 109:22). How did he get to this realization of his physical and spiritual poverty, his radical contingency? Because of his fasting. When we fast during Lent, whatever a good kind of “fasting” might look like, it has to be a way of honestly and truly admitting that we and our world are hopelessly, helplessly in need of grace. 

We fast during this season as a way of protesting ourselves, protesting our world. We fast in protest at a world that falls so short of God's glory. We fast in protest because we look inside ourselves, and we see the root of the problem there. But our protest can be a hopeful one, because of Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection makes a way beyond the dust and ashes into a new world and a “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28) – no matter how fast the wind blows. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work” (1 John 3:8).

Fasting confronts us with our weakness of body and our weakness of will. It unmasks our comfort. If you've ever tried fasting for a while, I'm sure you've had a run-in with your limits – that place where it just feels like you can't hold out anymore. I remember back in college when I set a rather ambitious fast during Ash Wednesday: I decided I'd go for twenty-four hours with no food at all, no water at all – nothing. I think I chugged a bottle of water and wolfed down a doughnut at 12:01 AM on Thursday morning! I was forced to admit that my body was weak – and throughout the whole day, as I felt the lures of temptation threatening my resolve, I had to admit that not only was the flesh weak, but maybe the spirit was less willing than I'd like to tell myself. Like the psalmist says, “My knees are weak through fasting; my body has become gaunt” (Psalm 109:24). 

That's what Lent is meant to be for. It's a means of stripping off our delusions. Lent is supposed to be about a radical correction to our spiritual sight – instead of looking at ourselves through rose-colored glasses, we take a deep breath, see clearly, admit the truth, and discipline ourselves to do something about it. That's the point of Lent.

You could say that, in Isaiah's time, whatever Lent-like fasting tradition the people of Judah had, they were doing it wrong. They had no desire to take off the glasses and ask the hard questions. Now, if we had a time machine and could plop ourselves down in the early sixth century BC, if we could wipe our minds of every trace of Isaiah's teaching and all the benefits of clearer sight that the gospel's brought us, we could be pretty easily tricked into thinking Isaiah's targets were the good guys! I mean, listen to what God says here: “Yet day after day they seek me, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” (Isaiah 58:2). To catch a snapshot of them on Sabbath morning, they're the spiritual superheroes; they're just that impressive! They're the kind of people who are in church whenever it's open – at least, so long as people can see them strolling in through the door.

To see them in those moments, everyone in Judah would assume that they hunger and thirst for God. I mean, just look at them! They seem desperate to get closer to God – they're spending all that time in church, right? Don't they seek him day in and day out? “They delight to draw near to God” (Isaiah 58:2)! And all they ask of God is just one simple thing: justice, justice, justice. “They ask of me righteous judgments” (Isaiah 58:2). Sounds like a good thing to ask!

But not so fast.  They say it has to be on their terms. See, they understand the covenant to be a ceremonial deal: they give God the right rituals, the right words, the right gestures at the right time, and in turn, God praises and honors them and treats them really well. I mean, doesn't that just make sense? Isn't that what God's looking for – for them to give up candy for forty days, and in exchange he'll owe them some favors? It's only fair! “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3).  For all the investment we've made in this religion, aren't we owed a better result? It's like God's ignoring all their religious activity! It's unfair! Or so they think.

God disagrees. They have not held up their “end of the deal.” Because there is no 'deal'! This is not a business arrangement! The covenant isn't signed on Wall Street; it's signed in a wedding chapel. It's about a relationship, about our souls, about our hearts, not about some quid pro quo

The problem with these “spiritual superheroes” of Judah is that their fasting has nothing to do with real humility. It isn't meant for confronting them with weakness of will and body. It's meant to make them feel good about themselves – or, more importantly, to make others admire them. They claim they humble themselves, but all their Lenten piety is just grandstanding to flatter their own pride. They practically admit, in so many words, that all their religion is for show.

The fasting psalmist prayed to God, “Deal well with me for your name's sake” (Psalm 109:21). The psalmist is humble. The psalmist says to God, to himself, to his community, that if God has a reason to do anything nice for him, that reason has nothing to do with the psalmist's worthiness and everything to do with God's mercy. The psalmist here knows no works-righteousness. The psalmist's prayer is a quest for grace. 

But the “spiritual superheroes” of Isaiah's Judah – the ancestors-in-heart of generations of Pharisees, including within the church – would never think to seriously pray, “Deal well with me for your name's sake.” If they prayed a truly honest prayer reflecting the state of their souls, it would be, “Deal well with me, because I've earned it from you, and you owe it to me!”

That's their mindset – that they've earned it. They've earned it through being “religious.” Now, look at how they understand being “religious” – because there's a right way and a wrong way, and they like the wrong way. To them, their religiosity, their piety, is defined entirely by rituals. They wear the Lenten outfit of sackcloth. They show up in the right place, the temple. They bow at just the right time, keeping rhythm with the rest of the congregation, maybe even setting the pace. They go up and get the ashes on their heads. They change their diet for the season, and everyone knows it. They keep all the rituals. And by Thursday night, they've gotten in a drunken bar-fight. “On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers; your fasting ends in quarreling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists” (Isaiah 58:3-4). Because their religion begins and ends with rituals that, like Shakespeare's “tale told by an idiot,” signify absolutely nothing in their lives.

When they fast, they have no intention to mortify the flesh. They aren't looking to discipline their bodies, to keep them out of the way of their relationship with God. When these “spiritual superheroes” fast, they have no intention to mortify the passions. They aren't looking to challenge who they are on the inside – all the bundles of feelings and desires tugging them this way and that, seizing the reins of control from their hands. We know we're full of passions – the word literally means “sufferings,” we suffer from disturbance with these yearnings that lead us where we might not want to go, we suffer from being ruled by them – and when these people fast, they aren't aiming to put their passions back in their place.

When these “spiritual superheroes” fast, without mortifying the flesh or the passions, they end up with no change at all in their social and relational conduct. They don't confess the truth. They don't reform their ways. They contribute nothing toward making a less fragile world, a less sinful world. In fact, they use Lent as an excuse to go the opposite path. 

They look at Lent as being like a carbon credit – you know, where companies pay money to supposedly offset their atmospheric pollution, and then use all the cash they throw around as an excuse to produce even more greenhouse gases, like how a certain former vice-president justifies his mansion and private jet while crusading for environmental causes? That's the way these “spiritual superheroes” view their fasting: it buys them an indulgence to, well, indulge themselves even more. So instead of working toward a less fragile, less sinful world, they justify themselves in their violence, and so they keep contributing to breaking the world, breaking other people, breaking their own selves. That's what Isaiah's saying – really, that's what God's saying, using Isaiah to do it.

Reading that, it's easy to shake our heads at Judah. Can't they see? Don't they get it? We read these words, and Isaiah lays it out so convincingly, so clearly, that it all becomes so obvious. So we instantly think judgmental thoughts. But is their false fasting so different than the way a lot of fellow believers – and maybe we ourselves – live today? Does it differ so many from the way we “do church”? Is it that separate from our own behavior during Lent? 

I mean, let's take a step back and try to look at ourselves as keen-eyed as Isaiah would see us. Maybe during Lent, we pick a thing to give up for forty days. But by the end of the forty days, what's changed in our lives? Does Lent make a difference? Or is it just a ritual – a thing we go through once a year, so that we can say we did the 'religious' thing, and oh good here comes Easter, now all that's over and done with? Are we more God-focused people now than we were on Fasnacht Day? Does love fill our lives and define our character more now than on Fasnacht Day? Or was it all for show – if not to convince others of our goodness, then to convince ourselves?

Isaiah's fake “spiritual superheroes” maybe aren't so foreign after all. In the antebellum South, they were the countless men who'd go to church Sunday morning and whip their slaves half to death twenty-four hours later. Throughout more recent history, there have been countless supposedly “God-fearing” men (and women) who showed up to church every Sunday, and then spent their weeks using their twisted theologies to justify cruelty to their spouses, unleashing the belt on their kids, stealing from work, yelling at their workers, badmouthing their neighbors.

Maybe that sounds extreme – but there are a lot of little ways we show that attending church services or observing Lent hasn't really changed us, hasn't led us to face ourselves in the light of God's truth. Who here has ever grumbled insults at another driver while you're on your way home from church? I'll be honest – there've been some Sundays in my life when I've had a hard time not doing it before I even make it out of the parking lot! (Not here, of course, you all drive great.) 

Who here has ever done anything the week after church that you'd never want people to see you do on a Sunday morning at church? I know I'm not exempt. I doubt any of us live perfectly consistently throughout the week with the faith we profess on a Sunday morning. We lapse back into the same old habits – and sometimes, when we observe Lent or come to worship, we aren't even that well-intentioned. We don't mean to be challenged, don't mean to have demands placed on us, don't mean to be changed.

And through Isaiah, God says to the people of our day: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4). In other words, if this is what Lent looks like, then the only wings it puts on your prayers are wax wings like Icarus'. They'll never make it past the sun to reach God's ears. If our Lent looks like mere ritual without a heart-change, if it's soaked in hypocrisy, then God awards us no points, and may he have mercy on our souls. This kind of fasting, the way Isaiah describes it, is honestly no more helpful, no more God-honoring, then just skipping the whole thing altogether. It will not entitle us to anything. It will not bring us closer to God. It is not the fast that God has chosen.

So it's no surprise when God asks, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen – only a day for people to humble themselves?” (Isaiah 58:5). Is that it – just a day, just a season, and then back to ordinary life without a difference? On the day of our fasting, do we do as we please, as our flesh pleases? There's got to be more to Lent than this rubbish – got to be something else. “Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?” Is it really just about the ritual, and nothing else? It can't be! But what else is there? What kind of fast really does something about our fragility? What kind of fast exposes the truth? What does it look like to have a fast that actually addresses our sin and the sin of the world? What kind of fast has God chosen? That's the big Question of Lent. And for the next two Sundays, we'll be taking up what Isaiah has to teach us.

This may not seem like a very comforting message, at a time when our church may be more in need of comfort than we've been in the past decade. What am I thinking, sticking to the sermon I believe God led me in advance to schedule for today? I wrestled with this: should I preach sometime that seems more timely? Something less challenging, less convicting, less pointed? Up through this morning, I prayed to God about that. 

But I believe that this sermon is for this season; that God knew what he was doing all along. I have to trust that. God reminded me that our suffering is not devoid of meaning. Lent is about accepting that the Christian path is the road of the cross, yes – but the road doesn't end at the crosses in our lives. It does not stop at the grave; it is not ripped away by a twister. No matter how fast the winds blow, the road of the cross goes on beyond them. “Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13)! “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ” – and this week, we certainly have – “so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). 

Lent is not comfortable. It is no easy thing to tread in the footsteps of the cross-bearing Jesus. But the fast God has chosen will lead to the feast God has prepared. That's a promise from heaven. You can bank on it. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Better Than Wine: Sermon for Valentine's Day

The Song of Songs isn't really a common one to read in church, is it? You don't hear too many sermons on it. But today's Valentine's Day, after all. We can't ignore that. Now, we have to admit: Valentine's Day as a holiday doesn't go back very far. In the late 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem depicting the feast-day of St. Valentine of Genoa, May 2, as the day when the goddess Nature would summon birds to choose their mates. He probably did that because that day – May 2, 1381 – was the date when a treaty was signed, promising that the teenage Anne of Bohemia would one day marry Chaucer's royal patron, the teenage King Richard II. 

Most of Chaucer's readers didn't get the reference to a very obscure saint, and they confused the line about “Saint Valentine's Day” as meaning the more familiar St. Valentine of Rome, a third-century martyr who was honored every February 14 – and so this became the day to celebrate love, collecting plenty of traditional practices, legends, and folk customs along the way. 

But long before either the Roman or the Genoese saint ever walked the earth, God's people have always considered it important to honor romance, sexuality, marriage, love. The Song of Songs is proof enough of that! And if you'll stick with me this morning, I'd like to unpack, or at least mention, seven key lessons that the book can teach us about what real romance, healthy romance, looks like.

First, there's the obvious. The Song of Songs shows us that real romance enshrines a love that devotes one man and one woman toward life as one flesh. The images in Song of Songs look back to Eden for inspiration about what a romantic life is meant to look like. And in the beginning, God made one man, one woman, and joined them together as one flesh – the origin of marriage. 

Today, that's a counter-cultural statement. Honestly, it was pretty counter-cultural back then, too. Remember, the age of the old covenant was one in which the Law tolerated polygamy and divorce. In the dawning days of the new covenant, Jesus waded into the Jewish debates about marriage, and he took up the argument against polygamy that some Jews had started making: that God took two people and made them one flesh; it wasn't a combination of three, four, five people. That was pretty explosive in his day.

Jesus also argued with some more liberal Pharisees who offered no-fault divorce; Jesus' view of marriage held it as more sacred than everyday contracts, not less. Jesus, and later Paul, didn't deny that there were a few legal reasons for divorce – though they encouraged people to waive those rights and press for reconciliation whenever possible, like Hosea did with Gomer. 

The point is, the Song's view of romance is the same as Jesus' view of romance and marriage: one man, one woman, united in commitments of love and support with the intent of a lifelong covenant, being joined by God as one flesh. Anything else – polygamy, serial monogamy, homosexuality and the other sexual sins banned in Leviticus and elsewhere – it all falls short of what the Song holds out. Even if the man in the Song is King Solomon, which isn't totally clear, all the other women fade into the background so that Solomon's focus falls on just one woman – and hers falls on him and only him.

Second, the Song of Songs shows us that real romance doesn't “awaken” before its time. That's counter-cultural too. Three times, the woman in the Song advises the daughters of Jerusalem: “Do not stir up or awaken love until it's ready” (Song of Songs 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). But sadly, so many people, both in the church and especially outside of it, do exactly that – they stir up passion and intimacy beyond what's healthy for that level of commitment, beyond what the Bible tells us. They decline the biblical counsel to be patient. And that's on the rise. It's become the cultural norm for our day. I could soliloquize all morning, draw on plenty of articles and books that unveil just how dysfunctional the modern “hook-up culture” has become. Whatever our culture's professed experts tell us, whatever the media pipes into our homes, it isn't how we were meant to live.

We like to imagine it's new, but really it isn't. During the Founding Generation of our country, single women in New England were much more likely to have sexual relations outside of marriage than they were to belong to a church – over a third of all firstborns were born less than nine months after the wedding. “A garden locked is my sister, my bride; a garden locked, a fountain sealed” (Song of Songs 4:12) – that verse didn't apply to all that many then, either. 

That's sad, because it sets the stage for some of the most beautiful imagery in the song: “Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits” (Song of Songs 4:16), she says; “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk” (Song of Songs 5:1), he answers. 

And let's be honest: studies show that devoutly religious wives – especially conservative Protestant married women – are the most likely of any women in America to report extreme satisfaction, both emotional and physical, if you catch my drift. Sociological studies are unrelenting in bearing out the wisdom of the Bible: outside of marriage, it just doesn't measure up to what's in store through what the Bible offers.

Third, the Song of Songs shows us that real romance is, at its heart, a match of equals. That may surprise a lot of people. Throughout history, there have been a lot of times that well-meaning Christians – and some whose meanings it's a lot harder to give the benefit of the doubt – have misused the Bible to portray marriage as a more one-sided affair: the husband is the boss, the head, and the wife does what he says. The wife submits to him, the wife is limited, the wife is less important, and anything the wife needs to do or say to others, she can do or say through him, if she gets his say-so.

Even today, there are segments of American Christianity that veer in that direction. Here's an example. Earlier in the last century, there was a fundamentalist Baptist evangelist named John R. Rice. I'm sure he did plenty of good things in the Lord's cause. But he was a hardline fundamentalist – the sort, I mean, who broke off ties of friendship with Billy Graham because he thought Graham was compromised. In 1946, Rice wrote a book about a Christian view of life in the home, and in it, he announced that “there will never be a case where God will call upon a wife to disobey her husband.. He repeatedly compares a wife's subjection to her husband with a teenage child's subjection to his or her parents. It's a profoundly disturbing and dysfunctional line of thinking.

So it comes as no surprise that his daughter also wrote a book some decades later. My best friend found a copy in a church library while he was on a service trip once. It's called, Me? Obey Him? – and the answer to the title is meant to be a 'yes, always, no matter what.' In it, the daughter echoes her father's teachings, proclaiming that “the Scriptures say, without qualification, to the open-minded reader, that a woman ought to obey her husband” – even that “she is to obey her husband as if he were God himself,” and that her husband's every command is as good as God's will. She doesn't say it outright, but it's hard to see what distinguishes her view of marriage from the relationship between a slave and a master.

But that's not what Song of Songs shows us. Who's the first speaker in the Song? Her – the woman. Who's the last speaker in the Song? The woman! In fact, the majority of lines in this entire biblical book belong to the woman. If anyone has the dominant role in the Song's saga of romance, it's not him – it's her! She's the one running the show, if anybody is! Does he praise her beauty? Yes – and she praises his. Does he pursue her? Yes – and in just as many scenes, she pursues him. Does he express desire? So does she. Does she submit to him? Yes – and he submits to her. 

A lot of people quote what Paul says in Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” That verse has been so misused for centuries by tearing it away from the more universal statement that comes right before it, addressed to men and women: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). It's no surprise that John Rice began only with verse 22, selectively quoting scripture to suit his patriarchal ends.

But verse 21 is necessary if we're going to describe the sort of relationship we see in the Song of Songs. And it really is possible to work together as equals, without one always being the leader and the other always being the follower – without one being always active, the other always passive. In submitting to one another, in sharing freely and openly with each other, in finding a healthy and loving dynamic where both are active, both taking turns, the man and woman turn back the tides on the curse of hostility in Genesis 3. 

That's not to say they never argue, not to say they never bicker, not to say they don't get their feelings hurt or make mistakes. But both are equally committed to desiring one another, both devoted to resolving their issues, and in equally coming to share all of themselves with each other, they find freedom from fear and from shame.

Fourth, the Song of Songs portrays a real romance that is inviting, not demanding. Neither this man nor this woman are self-serving, self-seeking. They don't give each other orders. They give invitations. And every step of the way, each of them is thinking of how to best bring enjoyment and delight to the other one. What would it be like if you could say that of your marriage?

Fifth – and here's a big point – the Song of Songs portrays real romance as something to be savored! Can there be any doubt that both characters in the Song are enjoying themselves? Real romance isn't characterized by dry, dutiful distance, like we often imagine the Puritans must have done. (Actually, the Puritans were a lot more positive about it than we think.) In the Song, the man and the woman delight in each other, they enjoy each other, they savor each other. 

It's hard to think of a way to be more passionate than the Song portrays! The images are sensual and strong. There's no matter-of-factness about lines like, “You have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,” or, “Your lips distill nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:9-11). When the Song wants to describe the enjoyments of love, it draws from the most luxurious and indulgent scenes available to an Israelite's senses. Experiencing the loved one is “better than wine” (Song of Songs 1:2). And it isn't for nothing that the Song says: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love” (Song of Songs 5:1). Maybe our prelude was a bit shocking this morning, when Derek Webb sang the line, “Take a deep breath, 'cause I feel a little drunk,” but that's from the original Song. Love is intoxicating, love is inebriating – that's the way it's supposed to be! “I am faint with love” (Song of Songs 5:8), she says.

Sixth, in the Song of Songs, real romance requires effort. The man isn't perfect. Neither is the woman. Both of them, for all their earnest trying, are sinners beset by temptation. Neither of them is destined to coast along on an easy emotional high for the rest of their lives. Our brain chemistry changes over time. The Song knows that. It isn't presenting a Disney version of marriage as just a “happily ever after” – as if, with the closing credits and the fade to black, all the hard work is done and over, and the characters can just coast from there on. That just ain't so. Love is not just an emotional high. Love is a commitment to pressing through the emotional lows. Love plunges headfirst into the messiness and grittiness of real life – the hard times. It's not always for better; sometimes it's for worse. Not always richer; sometimes for poorer. Not just health, but even through sickness, love persists. 

And no marriage is without its arguments, its hard places, its rough patches. The Song admits that. It bids the trusted counselors to “catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom” (Song of Songs 2:15). No vineyard of love on earth can keep all the foxes out, keep all trouble at bay, keep harmony always – but those foxes can be caught, with work. And when the embers of passion are cooling, they can be stoked again. There's always room for “new as well as old” choice fruits (Song of Songs 7:13).

And seventh, most important of all, I think: The Song of Songs depicts romantic love, the kind of romance here, as being inspired by God. It isn't something we developed by chance or by necessity. It isn't something that we invented while his back was turned! Romance is a gift. Love – love in general – is a gift. It was given to reflect the eternal life of God, which is self-giving, other-centered love flowing between Father and Son and Holy Spirit from before the universe began and with no end ever. 

The phenomenal truth is that the Song of Songs points powerfully toward God. It may not seem like it. I mean, in the text of the Song, God really doesn't seem to be mentioned, right up until the end. But that's the point: the climactic chapter revolves around the nature of love. “Set me as a seal upon your arm” – love is personal, love is permanent. “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” – love persists despite the odds, in the face of opposition. “Love is stronger than death, fiercer than the grave” – love outlasts both (Song of Songs 8:6-7). 

And in fact, 'Death,' Mot, was a Canaanite god: Love wins in divine combat with the god of the underworld. Love is “the flame of Yah,” “the flame of the LORD” (Song of Songs 8:6). It burns so brightly because it burns with God's own fire! Whoever the poet is, he just name-dropped the God of Israel – not a generic god, but the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Rachel, of Moses and Zipporah, the God of the Exodus – in what would otherwise have been a sweet love poem like so many others. And this God, this all-consuming fire, is Love – and all human love, especially the love of a husband and wife, is his flame.

What's more, here's something interesting I learned recently. The Hebrew word for “my beloved,” dodi, the woman's favorite designation for her lover, shows up twenty-six times in the whole poem. The ancient Hebrews loved number games, and twenty-six happens to be the numerical equivalent of God's name, Yahweh, Jehovah. It isn't clear until the very end, but the presence of God is encoded into the whole story of romance! All the eager longings to spend time in the Beloved's house, the enthrallment with the Beloved's beauty, the desire to be taken into his House of Wine – the divine double meaning was there all along, hidden in secret until that clever twist is revealed. (Incidentally, the next book of the Bible, Isaiah, refers to God as “my Beloved” at the outset of chapter five.) That doesn't lessen the human meaning to the poem, a story of love, romance, intense physicality, marriage; but it means that there's something else there, too. We shouldn't neglect either.

And the rest of the Bible doesn't, when it looks back on the Song and its themes. The descriptions of the risen and glorified Jesus at the start of Revelation – those are inspired by the way the Song describes the Woman's Beloved. And all throughout the Bible, the story of redemption is portrayed as a divine love story – between God and his people Israel, or between Christ and his renewed, expanded Israel, the Church. Paul's pretty clear on that! It isn't an accident that the Bible ends with a wedding. 

And that, maybe, is why the Song of Songs ends in a way that no other ancient love poem does – not with a consummation but a cliffhanger! That last verse: “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices” (Song of Songs 8:14) – shows that the story of romance isn't done after these eight chapters. Whatever these ideal lovers have, there's something more, something that transcends it. Built into the song is an open-endedness, receptive and waiting for the consummation of a Cosmic Romance when our Beloved makes haste and alights upon the mountains, returning for us.

Maybe at the start of this service, you were wondering what the Song of Songs could possibly have for you, if you aren't in a married state of life right now. Maybe you're young and unwed yet. Maybe you're divorced. Maybe you're widowed with no plans of marrying – you wait to see your departed spouse again amidst heaven's beauty. 

But even if you aren't sure what to do now with the Song's human level, there's plenty of spiritual truth that's good for you as much as for anyone else. The Song shows exclusive commitment between the lovers – and that means that, just as Jesus only has eyes for the Church, our heart is all for him. Our devotion is to him and no rival – not to Mammon, not to Success, not to Comfort, not to a car or or a flag or a house or a political party or a football team or any other so-called god or idol out there. Our Beloved is ours; let us be his, and his alone. 

The Song shows that, to use the cliché, “true love waits” – really, it does – even when most filled with desire. And just like that, Christ is eager but patient to woo us. If it takes all your life, he will woo you. If you turn away from him down some dark and desolate road to the wilderness, if you waste years in dissolute living or simply dropping out, still he's patient, still he won't give up! And just like the woman in the Song, who pined for her beloved when he was away, so we pine but pine patiently while our Beloved makes a place for us. We wait eagerly but patiently for his return, for the Second Coming, when he'll bring us at last to the wedding feast.

The Song shows its lovers as equals, both fully devoted to one another in mutual submission. And as we devote ourselves to Christ, as we pour out our love and service to him, he showers us with love and care too. Our ability isn't as strong; we aren't nearly as faithful; but he tenderly washes us, embraces us. And yes – the Bible portrays Christ, at the Last Supper but in many other ways and places, submitting to the Church. That's what “servant leadership” is all about. 

The Song shows the lovers inviting each other, pleading with each other. Just like that, Christ invites us to come to him for all we need – he'll warm us with his never-failing love; he'll rescue us from from the danger of our sins; he'll feed us with his word, his body, his blood; he'll clothe us in his own righteousness, in robes of white; he'll shelter us, he'll move us into his own house – he's off getting things ready even now, after all. And he'll never deprive us of divine intimacy. And we, in our turn, invite Christ to dwell in our hearts, to visit us with his Spirit, to be near to us as we draw near to him.

And finally, as the Song shows a romance that's meant to be enjoyed, we really delight in Christ – and he enjoys us! Isn't that a wonderful thought? Christ doesn't just tolerate us. He doesn't view saving us and providing for us as just one of his responsibilities. He actually cherishes us, actually loves us, actually desires us – even more than we desire him! Blessed assurance – Jesus is ours – O, what a foretaste of glory divine! We are the apple of his eye, the object of his passion. Our relationship with him is meant to be enjoyable. We are meant to find real delight in his presence. But since we couldn't bear his full passion, he holds back patiently, easing us into the fullness of his love. 

What we can say, even now, is this: that Jesus offers us a love that really is, in every conceivable (and inconceivable) way, “better than wine” – more joyful, more intoxicating, more fulfilling. Nothing can compare to his beauty, his grace, his love. If we're going to savor love today, and we should, let's not neglect the greatest love St. Valentine ever knew: the passionate, fiery love of Jesus Christ, our Beloved.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Going, Going, ...Going?: Sermon on the Great Commission and the Apostolicity of the Church

Short of John 3:16 and maybe the Lord's Prayer, no verses in the Bible may be more familiar to Evangelicals than three closing verses in the Gospel of Matthew. We love the Great Commission! We love it so much, we gave it its own special nickname: “The Great Commission!” How many other verses have their own nickname like that? 

But here's something interesting for you. In Matthew, Jesus does not actually say “go and make disciples.” In what he says, there is only one verb in the imperative, only one direct command. And that word is “disciple.” He doesn't outright say, “baptize” – he says “baptizing,” to explain how to disciple, how to train fellow Jesus-followers. Same with “teaching.” And when our Bibles say “go,” the Greek actually says, “Going.” As in, “As you're going, disciple all nations.” More literally: “Having gone, disciple all nations” (Matthew 28:19). 

The Cotton Patch Version gets this one right. You ever hear of that, the Cotton Patch Version? A Southern paraphrase from back in the sixties. The translator, Clarence Jordan, who corresponded with Martin Luther King Jr. and whose Koinonia Farm gave rise to Habitat for Humanity, has Jesus closing the Gospel of Matthew with these lines:

Every right to rule in both the spiritual and physical realms has been given to me. As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you. And you know, I am right in there with you – all the time – until the last inning.

There it is again: “As you travel,” “As you go.” Whatever you might find in the other Gospels, Matthew's Jesus doesn't have to tell you again to go, by this point; Matthew's Jesus assumes that by chapter 28, you're already heading out the door! You're already on your way! 

Is that so surprising? I mean, just look at all the movement in the Gospel of Matthew. First there's Jesus – he starts in Bethlehem in Judea, goes to Egypt (probably to Alexandria), comes back to Nazareth in Galilee, goes to the Jordan River and to the wilderness, returns to Galilee, goes to Capernaum, walks all through Galilee from village to village, goes up a mountain, walks down again, goes to Capernaum, sails across the lake to the Gentile Decapolis, goes back to Capernaum, walks around to “all the cities and villages” (Matthew 9:35), talks for a bit before making yet another tour of the towns, goes for a walk in some fields, goes back into town, goes back to the lake to tell some stories, takes a trip to Nazareth, goes out to the deserted countryside, takes a hike across the lake to Gennasaret, walks to Tyre and Sidon, goes back past the lake up a mountain, walks to Magdala, walked to Caesarea Philippi, went up another mountain to chat with Elijah and Moses, walked back to Capernaum, finally quit Galilee to walk south to Judea, passed through Jericho, went to the village of Bethphage, finally went into Jerusalem, shuttled back and forth between there and a village called Bethany, went to the temple, went away from the temple, walked up the Mount of Olives, went back down to Bethany, returned to Jerusalem, walked to the Mount of Olives and then the Garden of Gethsemane, got arrested, went to the high priest's house, went to Pilate's fortress, walked the Way of Sorrows carrying a cross up to a hill called Golgotha, died, was taken to a tomb – and still he refused to stay put for more than three days there! Amen? I feel exhausted just thinking about how Jesus was always on the move!

And then there's what Matthew's Jesus actually says. What does he say when he meets Andrew and Simon at the lake? “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He tells them, “Hey, I'm on the move, come be on the move with me.” Within the next six verses, a big crowd all wants to be on the move with Jesus – they may not know where he's going, but they know they don't want to stand still and watch him walk away just yet (Matthew 4:25). 

Four chapters later, Jesus kicks Legion out of its host and sends the demons into a pack o' pigs – and the pig farmers go running into town to tell the story (Matthew 8:33). They saw what Jesus did, and whatever they thought about it, one thing they couldn't do is stand still. Jesus inspired them to get a move on! And then Jesus runs into Matthew himself, says, “Follow me,” and just like that, now Matthew's on the move too (Matthew 9:9).

With the pack of twelve key students rounded out, Jesus authorizes them to get on the move in their own right: he tells them to “go” to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” – and then he describes what they'll do as they're going: “Proclaim the gospel: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near'” (Matthew 10:6-7). And they do just that. Later that chapter, he says that unless you follow him, unless you're on the move in his way, the way of cross-bearing, then you aren't worthy of him (Matthew 10:38). 

Nine more chapters of travel, and he tells a prospective disciple, “If you want to be perfect, go … and then come, follow me (Matthew 19:21). Sadly, that man would rather stay put with his nice house and all his fancy toys. After that, Jesus keeps talking about going to Jerusalem, and then he does. And even after he kicks death to the curb, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to go to where the other disciples are, and to tell them to go to Galilee, which is where the angel already told her that Jesus was going (Matthew 28:10). We've got a going gospel going on here.

By the time we get to the Great Commission, Jesus doesn't have to tell them to “go” again – he already told them to “go” when he sent them out on their Jewish mission (Matthew 10:6). It comes as no surprise that they're ready to go – or, in Luke's rendition, will be as soon as the Holy Spirit joins up with them (Luke 24:49). They have the example of their Master Teacher. And he already told them to get going on the Jewish mission. All that the Great Commission really changes is to extend what Jesus already instructed them. Back then, they were limited in going just to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” not even to the Samaritans or the Gentiles – though Jesus branched out into reaching both even then. Now, what they did for the Jews first, they do also for all nations: disciple them as they go.

And that's just what the Twelve did. Tradition tells us that Andrew went to what's now Turkey. Thomas went to Syria and even ended up in India. Peter ended up in Rome, but his prize student Mark, the Gospel-writer, went to Egypt. Philip may have ended up as a missionary to Carthage in north Africa. Bartholomew – well, who knows? Various traditions send him to India, to Armenia, to Ethiopia, to southern Arabia.... And then there's Simon the Zealot, who went perhaps to Persia; John, who of course went to Turkey and was buried at Ephesus, where his tomb is still marked to this day – I know, I've been there, I've seen the engraved words, “Tomb of St. John” – and Judas' replacement Matthias joined Andrew on a trip to Syria. Matthew himself may have gone to Persia and Ethiopia on his missionary journeys. I wish we had a few more volumes of Acts, describing all the stories and experiences of all the apostles! But ever since then, believers have often gone on foreign missions – traveled to distant lands, whether on short-term trips or for much longer stays, even for life. Talk about taking the Great Commission to heart!

Now, maybe you're thinking, “Whoa, hold on just a minute! I can't drop everything and go off to some other country! I'm not called to foreign missions! My home is here, right here in Pennsylvania. This is where my kids and grandkids live, where my house is, where my parents and brothers and sisters are buried. I'm just not up to jetting off to Timbuktu! I don't think God is really asking me to do that.... is he?” Maybe that's what's going through your mind, there in the pews.

Well, alright, you caught me. All of that may be true. God may not be asking you to go into foreign missions – though it's probably worth asking him, just in case. Not every Christian is called to that kind of service. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4). In fact, I will grant you this: the Great Commission is addressed, first and foremost, mainly to the Twelve. That's who was standing there, listening to Jesus, when they heard it with their own ears. They were the ones who had been living a lifestyle of 'going' throughout the whole Gospel of Matthew. They were the ones who'd been following Jesus around for a few years. They were the ones commissioned already with the Jewish mission that was now opening up beyond Judea and Galilee and Samaria to stretch out to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). They were the ones sent to disciple all nations, to baptize in the Trinity's one name, to pass on all the words that Jesus had been drilling into them over those years of strict training in his school on the road.

We know that most first-century Christians did not go out on “mission trips.” Most people were not Paul. In fact, his letters are littered with the names of house-church leaders and other local believers – folks like Nympha in Colossae (Colossians 4:15), Philologus in Rome (Romans 16:15), Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Philippians 4:2), and of course Philemon (Philemon 1:1). Most of them were probably born and bred in those cities, and most of them never traveled with Paul on one of his journeys. That was home. Paul didn't drag them off to the northern coasts of Africa, didn't take them with him to Arabia, didn't book them a one-way ticket to Spain. They were not commanded to be what we'd call foreign missionaries. 

But does that mean that the Great Commission wasn't for them? That they'd be expected to read the Gospel of Matthew, walk away, and think, “That was a nice story about the Twelve,” and not have to do anything with it in their own lives? No way! The Gospels end with some version of the Great Commission for a reason – because the writers, and ultimately Jesus himself, want us to know that our Christian lives need to be shaped by it!

Or think about this: how has the church, for nearly the entirety of its history, described itself in the greatest statement of faith we've ever written up, the Nicene Creed? Now, if the name doesn't ring a bell – our bad. Actually, in a large part of the Christian world, they recite it every Sunday, and for good reason. At the first ecumenical council in Nicaea nearly 1700 years ago, a meeting of the leaders of the whole church, they approved this statement of faith to guard against some very bad ideas that tried to make Jesus into something he isn't. At another meeting fifty-six years later, they freshened it up into this declaration; we should all be familiar with it:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages – Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made: who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets. And I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Amen.

Wow – I get excited every time I read it, every time I hear it, every time I say it. That's the faith! That is what Christians believe, there in a beautiful nutshell! And toward the end, did you catch how they describe the church? Four words – the church is “one,” the church is “holy,” the church is “catholic,” the church is “apostolic.” Don't be scared of #3, by the way: the word “catholic” – little 'c,' not big 'C' – is from a Greek phrase that means “belonging to the whole” – it can sometimes be translated as “universal” – the church is for everyone, the church is defined by things that all believers are called to share. The gospel isn't some hidden message for people in just one place; it isn't just for a few clever folks who managed to figure out the secret for themselves. The gospel is for everybody, and it doesn't leave out any pieces to appease our naturally narrow tastes. An edited gospel isn't a catholic gospel, isn't a universal gospel, isn't a gospel “belonging to the whole.” Real catholicity, in the Lausanne Covenant's words, is for “the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” The church teaches all that Jesus commanded, and teaches it to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20).

But I'd like us to look at the fourth word there: “apostolic.” Now, what on earth does that mean, to call the church “apostolic”? Partly, it means the church is defined by how it continues what Christ's apostles taught. The church doesn't go changing its basic doctrines, swapping them out for whatever notions it blindly swipes from the culture's bargain shelves. No, for all our differences over some minor points, the church as a whole clings to the basic faith that the apostles were sent out to teach. Do we mess up now and then, here and there? Absolutely we do – just like don't always act as one, we don't always live as holy, and we aren't always very focused on “belonging to the whole.” 

But at our heart, this is who Jesus called us to be: the apostles' church with the apostles' faith and doctrine. For some Christians, calling the church “apostolic” also requires that our leaders descend from the apostles themselves in a chain of ordinations: the apostles ordained Bishop So-and-So, and Bishop So-and-So ordained Bishop Such-and-Such, all the way down to your bishop and pastor today. I'm not going to touch that controversy here.

I want to suggest, though, that there's one other big meaning in calling the church “apostolic.” What does the word “apostle” mean, after all? Does anybody know? There's a reason that “apostle” sounds so much like “epistle” – and it's not because the epistles were the apostles' wives! An epistle, a letter, is something you send to somebody. An apostle is someone you send – it's someone who gets “sent out.” Jesus is called an apostle in the Bible – “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1) – because the Father sent the Son into the world. 

And then Jesus sent his own apostles – the Twelve, sure, but also Paul and a few other folks named as “apostles” – to go around spreading the message from land to land. You could just about translate the word “apostle” as “missionary.” Paul gets the nickname “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Remember how Mary Magdalene took news of the resurrection to Peter, John, and the rest? That earned her the nickname of “Apostle to the Apostles.” St. Patrick was called the Apostle of Ireland. St. Boniface was the Apostle to the Germans. And so on.

Why does the creed, the statement of faith, call the church “apostolic”? It means that the essence of the church is missionary! The church is a sent-out people, a people on mission! Whenever we recite those time-tested words, we're confessing that we are committed to being a missionary church, a church that goes. Now, what could that possibly mean for a congregation in ancient Ephesus, ancient Corinth, ancient Philippi? What could it mean for a local church like ours, in Lancaster County in the early twenty-first century?

You're right: you may not be called to transplant to some other geography. Certainly, our whole church probably isn't supposed to pick up and go to South Korea. (For one, it's gotten to the point that South Korean churches are sending missionaries to the United States – we have to get used to thinking of right here, not just 'over there somewhere,' as the mission field.) We are the church here. How do we be the church here, and still be a missionary church? Supporting missionaries is part of it, and we do that, and we can keep doing that. But there's got to be more – and there is.

The Great Commission is for here. The Pequea Valley, the Welsh Mountain, needs Great Commission Christianity. Gap, Kinzers, Narvon, Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, Paradise, Gordonville, New Holland, Honey Brook, West Chester, Coatesville – they need the Great Commission, they are covered by the Great Commission. We are called, just like the Twelve were, to disciple “every nation” – you could paraphrase that, you know. “Every nation,” ta ethne, every people-group – you could paraphrase that to, “every demographic.” 

Every ethnicity, every generation, every culture and subculture, every club and institution. German-Americans – disciple 'em. Welsh-Americans – disciple 'em. African-Americans – disciple 'em. Senior citizens – disciple 'em. Baby Boomers – disciple 'em. Teenagers – disciple 'em. Kindergartners – disciple 'em! Amish, English – doesn't matter, disciple 'em! The historical society – disciple it! The Lions Club – disciple it! The township board of this, board of that – disciple it! 

You get the picture, right? Disciple each and every demographic, every family, every club, every institution, within our reach, in this area where God has called us to live, this field that God has placed within our stewardship.

And do it, “as you are going.” Yes, we still have to go. But we don't have to put too much mileage on our cars to do it! As you're going into town... disciple. As you're going into a store... disciple. As you're going to the hospital or doctor's office... disciple. As you're going to a restaurant... disciple. As you're going to a farm or a park, to a library or a school... disciple! Most of us already go to those kinds of places, don't we? But we need to go in Jesus' name and with Jesus' purpose. 

What's more, for those places and for the other places we may not go as much, we can start going as a church. We have the chance to move into the community in new and exciting ways! I know it may not be easy. I know we've had our share of hardships recently. I've had some close calls, and several of us have had hospital stays just this past week. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Enemy ain't too thrilled at the idea of us getting out on the move and getting to work. I vote we disappoint the devil. Nothing scares Satan like a prayer-soaked, Christ-centered, Spirit-driven, Great-Commission-minded church on the move!

Let me say this: We are called to follow Jesus. We read it, we say it, we sing about it. But try to look in the Gospels and see how long Jesus seems to stay still, to put down roots. If the church isn't on the move, then either Jesus has stopped in his tracks, or we've gotten sidetracked from the journey. Like Thom Rainer says, “A church without a gospel-centered purpose is no longer a church at all.” Have we gone? Are we presently going? Or have we been on pause? 

Recently, we have started a conversation here at Pequea EC about how best to do this – where to go first, what to do when we get there. We need your prayers, we need your voice, and we need your will. We need your movement. Don't look at me: I'm not the one who first said, “Go.” Jesus invites us to be going, going... let's go. 

For our prayer today, I'd like to close with the words of a hymn by Frank Houghton, a diligent servant of the Lord through the China Inland Mission and eventually its general director. Let this be our prayer, our resolution, our commitment:

Facing a task unfinished
    That drives us to our knees,
A need that, undiminished,
    Rebukes our slothful ease,
We who rejoice to know you
    Renew before your throne
The solemn pledge we owe you
    To go and make you known.

Where other lords beside you
    Hold their unhindered sway,
Where forces that defied you
    Defy you still today,
With none to heed their crying
    For life and love and light,
Unnumbered souls are dying
    And pass into the night.

We bear the torch that flaming
    Fell from the hands of those
Who gave their lives proclaiming
    That Jesus died and rose;
Ours is the same commission,
    The same glad message ours;
Fired by the same ambition,
    To you we yield our powers.

O Father, who sustained them,
    O Spirit, who inspired,
Savior, whose love constrained them
    To toil with zeal untired:
From cowardice defend us,
    From lethargy awake!
Forth on your errands send us
    To labor for your sake.