Equipped By Grace

I was pretty young the first time I went to camp as a child. [1] At some point before camp begins, a list of items that needs to be brought arrives. In my case, the Boy Scouts provided that list. It includes the things needed for the week, like a sleeping bag, toiletries, etc. I grew up after the Second World War and Korea. There were hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of duffel bags in Army Surplus stores. Each boy was supposed to bring a duffel bag packed with everything he needed. The first year, my mother packed my duffel bag—it was an act of pure grace. The second year, she helpedme pack the duffel bag. After that, she made me pack my own. Her act of grace was to help me learn how to pack a duffle bag, but it would not have been an act of love if she had continued doing so until I was twenty one years old!

Over the years, I’ve been on a lot of mission trips. I have a backpack I take on those trips. I always pack my own pack. I like to shave when I wake up in the morning on an airplane, so I always have my shaving kit in my backpack. I always pack a granola bar or two. A good bit of the time I pack some medical supplies in case someone gets hurt.

Kathy and I are leaving just after church to go to General Assembly, and I’ve already packed my backpack. Guess what the most important items are? My Bible, My Prayer Journal, and my devotional guide. In the Christian life, it is hard to be prepared and equipped if we never read and meditate on the Bible or pray. This morning our theme is going to be about how we are initially equipped for our Christian life by grace. Grace is the beginning of our equipping. Studying the Bible, prayer, worship, the sacraments, etc.are means of by which we grow in grace.

Equipped by Grace

Our text is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.[2] Ephesus was one of the great cities of the ancient world. Itwas a Greek city, located on a very fertile valley, established to be a port city, and became a wealthy and important commercial center. It was the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a temple of the Goddess Artemis or Diana. Therefore, it was a pagan city when Paul first visited there. As a pagan center, sacrifice and mystery cult activities probably formed the center of their religion. The Greek religion, like most religions, was about doing thingsto experience and appease the gods.

Ephesiansis one of Paul’s “Prison Letters,” written late in his career. [3] It contains Paul’s mature ideas about Christ, the Christian life, and the church. Therefore, let’s listen tothe word of God as it comes to us today from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in ChristJesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. …

 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.(Ephesians 2:1-10, 19-21).

Let us Pray: God of Love, send your Spirit upon us today that we might be filled with your presence and your love, empowered to live differently because of what you have done for us.

 Human Beings Are Separated from the Father

Father’s Day is a difficult day for some people and a great day for others. Many people have good fathers, and they love to celebrate Father’s Day. Other people had poor fathers; for them, Father’s Day can be painful. I have a friend who grew up without a father. There was a time in the 1960s and 70s, when during divorce fathers were often told that it would be best for the children if they separated themselves from the family. We now know this advice was not correct in most cases. In my friend’s case, the father left an alcoholic marriage in order to get sober and get his life together. He did. However, the children were left in a chaotic household. Unfortunately, it took many years, a few bad relationships, and some therapy before my friend found stability and happiness. Perhaps for that reason, my friend has always worked hard at being a perfect parent.

Unfortunately, we human beings are allby nature separated from our Heavenly Father.In today’s text, Paul puts it this way: just like everyone else, to a greater or less or degree, all of us failed to obey God and follow the spiritual forces of our age, what Paul calls “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:1-3). The New Living Bible puts it this way:

You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature(Ephesians 2:1-3, NLT).

I didn’t grow up in a perfect family, but I did grow up in a Christian family; and, my parents tried very hard to see that we were raised in a good and healthy way. I had a good father. Despite my parent’s best efforts, however, there was a time a time in my life when I followed “the prince of the power of the air,” and it is only by grace that I am here today.[4] I might have continued to follow my own desires and the standards of our culture and age. But, God had other plans. [5]

The Grace of the One True Father

You see, Paul wants to eliminate any idea we have that good works form the basis for fellowship with God. For Paul, Christ is the center of God’s revelation to the world. Christ reflects the image and being of God. Christ is the center of God’s saving action in history (Colossians 1:15-20). Christ is the love of God incarnate. It is through Christ that God created the world. It is in Christ that we find our salvation.  It is in Christ that we see the Love of God, the Grace of God reflected fully, completely and without any blemish. What Christ did on the cross reflects God’s grace, his underserved gift of salvation to the human race. Christ and Christ alone is at the center of our restoration to fellowship with God.

Paul wants the Ephesians (and us) to know that we can never overcome our human self-centeredness and sin by our own power or by our own religious activities. All of us are naturally selfish and self-centered. All of us by nature try to satisfy our own desires and cravings. By nature, we find it impossible to escape our own self-centeredness. That is why he says“it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 24-7).It was not Paul that escaped Paul’s selfishness. It was Christ who rescued Paul from his selfishness. The problem of human selfishness is so serious that it is only the cross and the power of the resurrection that can save us.

Fortunately, God loves us and desires for us to escape our selfishness and experience the joyful life that Christ experienced. This is why Paul goes on to say, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves—it is the gift of God not by works so that no one can boast”(vv. 8-9).Our escape from self-centered selfishness is an act of pure grace. It’s a gift from God. It’s a gift we receive by trusting God, allowing the power of the resurrection to enter our lives and transform us. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers us to escape our own self-centeredness and live an “other-centered” life like Christ. The idea behind these verses and many like them is that God does the work, not us.

This Christian insight separates Christianity from other world religions. We all need to pray, read our Bibles, serve other people, and attempt to control our worse desires. There’s nothing wrong with meditation, or stretching, or being mindful, or anyone of a number of other spiritual disciplines. However, none of these can really overcome our basic alienation from God.

God’s Grace Has a Purpose

This is the point at which we might just stop—and many sermons do stop here with God’s grace. Paul, however, does not stop with his unconditional affirmation of God’s grace. He says: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”(Ephesians 2:10). God did raise us from our personal death in sin to a new life in the Spirit; He did not do so in order that we remain the same or relax.  God’s grace draws us into God’s church so that we may participate with the church in God’s great mission to make sons and daughters of all the peoples of the world. It is like my mother not stopping with packing my duffle bag. She went on to help me grow up to be independent and to be able to raise my own children!

It might be a good idea to unpack this just a little bit. The idea Paul has been expanding goes something like this: because of our sinfulness we were all dead in our sins and separated from God. It’s as if we were in a grave of our own making. By the unmerited grace of Christ, God has taken our dead self and made it alive. Our life in Christ is God’s handiwork. We are something that God has made by grace. [6]However, God did not make us new people just to look at us like a statute on his shelf. He made us with a purpose: to live and to do those things for which God created us.

My brother is a retired executive. He was a very senior executive at British Petroleum. He was also a very fine a chemical engineer. Today, he gets up every morning and goes to the Lutheran Church to which he belongs. Because of his background, he is capable of fixing anything, especially heating and air-conditioning. He’s also capable of understanding any engineering problem the church has. He’s also capable of understanding their books and records. So, he’s become kind of an unofficial unpaid janitor in church financial officer. He likes to say that all of his professional career was preparation to be the janitor at his church!

That should be true of all of us! All of our life, all of our experiences, and especially all the grace we have received from Jesus Christ, has prepared us for some ministry to share God’s love with others. After my father retired, he became active in our hometown. He was involved in many ministries. He was involved in the United Way. Eventually, he became a City Councilman and mayor. All of his life was a preparation for those years of service to others.

Good Works: Having Many Brothers and Sisters

One of the weaknesses of American Protestantism is a tendency to end the Christian life with personal salvation. Unfortunately, this leaves us with and unbiblical view of salvation. In Chapter 2 of Ephesians, over and over again, Paul uses the words “you” and “we”. These are all plurals. We were not saved by grace to have a merely personal relationship with God. We are saved to be a part of God’s family, God’s community, God’s kingdom. In Christ, all of the divisions which divide the human race find their healing. That is why Paul says:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.(Ephesians 2:19-21).

God created us to be in community with other people. It is if he were building his church as a kind of interrelated temple in which all of us find a place in which all of us find a purpose.

Building anything is kind of complicated. It takes a lot of tools. It takes a lot of machinery. It takes a lot of building materials of all the types. To build an office building you going to have metal, steel, stone, sheet rock, and a host of other building materials. It takes a lot of the equipment to build a building, and it takes a lot of equipping to get the building crews prepared to build. Yet, there is nothing more important than the foundation. I have a friend who is a general contractor. She builds some pretty big buildings. The only part of the building that they actually build themselves as the foundation—because, it is on the foundation that the rest of the building will depend. It is the most important part of the building of all.

The same thing is true of the Christian life. We need a lot of equipment and a lot of equipping to live the Christian life. However, our lives will never be right, they will never be plumb, if we do not get the foundation right—and the foundation of our discipleship is Christ and the grace of God shown and made available to us in Christ.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I would like to dedicate this sermon to my father, George Columbus Scruggs, Jr. and to my mother, Betsey Purnell Scruggs. They will both be mentioned during the sermon and blog. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!!

[2] The Ephesian Church was founded by Paul on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:19) around 52 A.D. Paul, John, and others. Paul stayed at Ephesus longer than any other church, and it is to the Ephesian elders that Paul says “farewell” before his last journey to Jerusalem (Acts 20:17-38). It was also one of the great missionary churches of the First Century and an important church in the first 500 years or so of the Christian movement. In Revelation, John the Revelator describes the city as having deserted its first love (Revelation 2:4). The Roman Emperor Theodosius convened an ecumenical council there in 431 A.D. This Third Ecumenical Council condemned the Nestorian heresy. The city fell into decline after an invasion of the Goths (250 A.D.) and an earthquake destroyed the city and it never recovered (614 A.D.).

[3] For the Biblical background for this sermon, I am indebted to William Barclay, “The Letters to Galatians & Ephesians” in The Daily Bible Study Series2nded. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1958) and especially to Peter T. O’Brien, “The Letter to the Ephesians” in The Pillar New Testament Commentary(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[4]  It is unclear how we are to understand the phrase “prince of commander of the air”. Paul does mean a conscious power that draws human beings away from God (see, Genesis 2). The Greek god’s were essentially anthropomorphic representations of the powers of the universe and the human psyche, which the Greeks attempted to control by their religious rites. Paul wants the Ephesians (and us) to know that this strategy is doomed to failure. The New Age and similar movements in our day have the same strategy. When we make God’s of natural or supernatural powers, we are inclined to appease or “channel” them. (The new age channeling phenomenon is not different than the ecstatic mystery cults of Paul’s day.) Biblical religion sees God as beyond these powers, who are created, not divine.

[5] The centrality of Grace in salvation is inextricably tied to some form of predestination. In Ephesians 1, Paul says, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:11-12). This sermon and blog are not about predestination, but there are a couple of things that might be pointed out: First, Election fundamentally is a matter of love not “eternal decree.” Second, it is Christ, the love of God incarnate that we find our election. Third, our election is not so much individual as corporate, “we” were chosen. God’s plan was to create a new chosen people to share his love with the world. Finally, our election is a part of God’s glorious plan to reconcile all of creation to his love.

[6] Paul repeatedly uses the phrase “in Christ,” in Ephesians 1. In Christ, we find our salvation, our calling, our knowledge of God, our hope, our fellowship in the Church, the power to be new people.

The Attitude of a Reluctant Disciple

 

The ending of Jonah is mysterious. The story of Jonah begins with a reluctant prophet fleeing from God to avoid going to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire.  He gets thrown overboard in a great storm, eventually ending up in the belly of a huge fish (Jonah 1). God hears Jonah’s prayers and delivers him from the belly of the whale (Jonah 2) Once delivered, Jonah obeys God and goes to Nineveh, the capital of a fierce enemy of Israel. He prophesies to the Ninevites and is successful. The Ninevites, including their king, repent and God withholds judgement (Jonah 3). You would think Jonah would be ecstatic at his unexpected success. Instead, as we will see, Jonah is depressed and angry at God because God has delivered his enemies from wrath and judgement.

Jonah is not much different from us. There are people in this world we really aren’t very interested in seeing experience the love and mercy of God. There are people in this world that we would be just as happy not to be with in the kingdom of God. Perhaps in our day the equivalent of the Ninevites would be ISIS terrorists in the Middle East . It’s helpful, therefore, to remember that God loves everyoneand desires that all people be saved (I Timothy 2:4).  God wants his kingdom of wisdom and love to be shared by everyone. This may not be possible, but the heart of God is a heart of love for all people. This is why an often favorite Bible verse is John 3:16:“For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

In this meditation, we are going to center our meditation on our calling to bear with one another in love and reach out in love to those whom we do not naturally love.

Learning to Love the Unlovely

Let’s reflect on God as he speaks to us at the end of the story of the Prophet Jonah:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So, Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”(Jonah 1:10-2:11, ESV).

Prayer:God of Mercy and Love: We come to you this morning anxious to be remade into your image—to become little Jesus’ for our families, church, community, and world. We confess to you that we do not always reflect your love and mercy in the way we relate to others. Forgive us. Come in this hour of worship and make us new by your Spirit. Amen.

God is Different

Over the past few weeks we’ve learned that Jonah was a reluctant prophet. When God asked him to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian nation, he fled west towards Spain. The Assyrians were fierce enemies of Israel. Just as today Israel shares a border with Syria, in Jonah’s day, Israel shared a border with Assyria. In Jonah’s day, Israel was relatively strong—it had extended its influence north towards Damascus. Nevertheless, Israel feared the Assyrians. The Assyrian military were brutal and heartless. They were more than capable of utterly destroying their enemies. When they finally defeated Israel, they deported a good number of the lost tribes of Israel and brought in other nations to create the land that in Jesus’s day was called “Samaria.” Based on this, we might conclude that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh solely because he hated the Assyrians.

In today’s text, however, we learn that the basic, underlying reason that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh was because Jonah feared that God would relent and show mercy on the Assyrians! That is why he tells God, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).

This is important! Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he feared that God would actually look with mercy upon the Assyrian people. Jonah knew from his study of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings of his people that God was full of grace, merciful towards enemies, slow to anger, and overflowing with unflinching and unfailing love even for God’s enemies!

In other words, Jonah knew that God is different. God does not take sides in our human conflicts. He sends the rain upon the good and the wicked alike (Matthew 5:45). He provides for all people. He lifts up nations from obscurity and casts nations down into defeat (Isaiah 44). [1] We cannot understand God if we desire God to be guarantor of our personal, tribal or national preferences.

God Wants Us to be Different

In the Old Testament, God told his people that he wanted them to be holy as he is holy (Leviticus 11:44; 11:45; 19:2; 20:7; Isaiah 35:58). In the New Testament, Peter repeats this call to the church: “Be Holy because I am holy”(I Peter 1:16). The Hebrew word for “holy” might be translated “to be different”. [2]God is utterly different from us; and God calls his people to be much different from other people.

What does this difference mean? Well, our text today gives us some clues. God wants us to be gracious not unkind or harsh. God wants us to be merciful towards others not judgmental. God wants us to be slow to anger not temperamental. God wants us to love people sacrificially and not be self-centered. In other words, God wants us to be like Jesus! He calls us to represent his self-giving love and secret wisdom in a broken and often violent world.

In my experience, this is easy to say but hard to live out. The fact is, every day, we have to live in a world that does not necessarily play by God’s laws. In that world, we face pressures to fit in. We face pressures to be like everyone else. It’s not easy to be different. It’s hard! Every so often, we meet someone who we feel is intuitively or naturally Christlike. But if we get to know those people, we learn that it was no easier for them then it is for us.

One of my favorite stories has to do with Mother Theresa. It is said that once she was with a group of women who were discussing their husbands and how difficult men can be to live with. One of the wives expressed the opinion that Mother Teresa would not know what it was like to have a difficult husband because she was in then. Her response was, “I have a difficult husband, and Jesus is not easy to live with.”

In 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa had two years of extraordinary closeness to God. In the end, she heard his call to go among the poorest of the poor. Like Jonah, she did not want to go. But, for the love of Christ, she went. It was not easy. She experienced many years of spiritual struggle.  It is not easy holding sick children, lepers, the unclean, and the dying in your arms day in and day out. It is not easy living in constant poverty. But, Mother Teresa was willing to be different for Jesus. [3]

Who Jesus Calls Us to Be

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts our calling this way:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect(Matthew 5:43-48).

The perfection of Jesus is the perfection of the mercy, grace and self-giving love of God.

We Can Be Involved

Bay Presbyterian Church is a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Long ago, the EPC made the decision to center its mission efforts on the Muslim world and on the least reached people of the world.  Our missionaries go to some of the most difficult mission fields on the globe. In some cases, as with the case of Andrew Brunson for whom we have been praying, our missionaries are in physical danger because of the ministry for Christ they have undertaken. We can’t thank them or support them enough.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been talking with Greg Kopan, one of the elders at Bay Presbyterian Church, about a people group called the “Uyghurs.” This people group is located in western China. The Chinese government fears this group because of a few terrorist related incidents. Because the Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim, and not Han Chinese, this people group is often persecuted by the Chinese people. The Uyghursare suffering and need to experience love and peaceful wisdom of God. [4]The Kopan’s felt called by God to go and to minister to this group of people. We need to thank them.

There may also be people closer to home that we don’t feel terribly comfortable ministering to. There are people in various parts of Cleveland or San Antonio, Texas that I fear and with whom I don’t necessarily want to have personal contact. It helps to remember that God loves these people and wants us to reach out to them. God wants us to be his instruments not just for the salvation of  people we like and to whom we can relate, but for the salvation of those who are our enemies or to who we cannot relate as well.

Hanging Around with Jesus

The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Teachers of the Law often complained about Jesus and about his habit of hanging out with the unclean, the impure, the unlovely, and the sinful. Jesus’ response was that he didn’t come to minister to those who already knew God and were mature in their faith, but to those who needed his spiritual healing to become citizens of the Kingdom of God and members of God’s family (Mark 2:6).

The church in America is dying. We are following the example and course of the church in Europe, which saw a devastating decline after the Second World War. Thus far, most churches have been unable and unwilling to make the adjustments necessary to minister in a post-Christian world, filled with people who did not grow up in the church and have no memories of being a part of the family of God. Frankly, when we divert ourselves from the task of reaching the lost in order to be more comfortable in our building, in our worship service, in our small group, in our Sunday school class, or whatever, we do the Kingdom of God and our King a great disservice. We are reluctant prophets just like Jonah. I’ve mentioned this before during my stay with you, but it’s important for all of us to remember that the church does not exist for us, but we exist for Christ and his church.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]The story of the Old Testament reflects the constant rise and fall of various empires. Under the leadership of David Israel became a great nation. It broke apart into two kingdoms. First the Northern Kingdom was defeated by Assyria. Then, the Babylonians defeated Assyria. The Southern Kingdom (Judah) was defeated by the Babylonians.  The Medes and the Persians then defeated the Babylonians. The Greeks supplanted the Persians, and Rome supplanted Greece (Daniel). The mere fact of being God’s chosen people was not a barrier to the flow of history in Biblical times, nor in ours.

[2]The Hebrew word, means utterly separate or unlike. God is holy, utterly different that his creation and human beings. We hear his image, but he is utterly different and above us.

[3]David Van Biema, “Mother Teresa’ Crisis of Faith” Time Magazine(August 23, 2007) at http://time.com/4126238/mother-teresas-crisis-of-faith/(Downloaded May 31, 2018). See also, Tom Hoopes, “Mother Teresa’s Marriage Advice” at Gregorian Institute (August 30, 2016) at https://www.thegregorian.org/2016/mother-teresas-wedding-advice(Downloaded May 31, 2018). After much looking, I could not find the original source of the quote about marriage to the Lord.

[4]See, Daniel Byler, “Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth During the People’s War” (December 5, 2017) https://livingotherwise.com/2017/12/05/love-fear-among-rural-uyghur-youth-peoples-war/(Downloaded June 1, 2018); Life Inside China’s Total Surveillance State” Wall Street Journal Online (December 19, 2017) https://www.wsj.com/video/life-inside-chinas-total-surveillance-state/CE86DA19-D55D-4F12-AC6A-3B2A573492CF.html; Stephen Jiang, “Thousands of Uyghur Muslims Detained in Chinese ‘Political Education’ Camps” CNN Online https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/02/asia/china-xinjiang-detention-camps-intl/ (February 2, 2018, downloaded June 2, 2018).

The Prayer of a Reluctant Disciple

I like Bay Village, Ohio and especially  like walking up Lake Road and looking at Lake Erie! From up on the bluff, the lake normally looks peaceful—that’s why it was surprising when one of our members told me he had some stairs that lead down to the lake and a shed destroyed by the waves of a recent storm. As I’ve talked to members who are sailors, they tell me that Lake Erie is subject to rapid changes in weather that can be quite dangerous. You can go out when the weather is nice and not be able to get back to shore to avoid a bad storm.

This reminds me of a story about some young sailors in Galveston Bay. A group of young men who loved to sail had a boat they kept on Galveston Bay. One morning, they went out together. It was a beautiful, sunny, hot Texas Gulf Coast day.  Naturally, they drank a few beers as they sailed out into the Gulf of Mexico. They kept on partying and sailing, not noticing some dark and menacing clouds rushing in from the south. Then, one of them looked up and saw the approaching danger. Although they reversed course and headed for safety, they did not make it to the bay before the storm overcame them. One of them told me later it was the worst experience of his life. He thought he was going to die.

Life can be like that. We’re sailing along, not paying attention to what we’re doing, engaging in our favorite sin or avoiding some ministry or mission we know God would like us to undertake, thinking God will never catch up with us, when suddenly we run into a storm. In these times we feel as if we have been thrown overboard on the ship of life and swallowed by a whale.

The Prayer of a Reluctant Disciple

Jonah was a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II. Jeroboam II managed to expand the Northern Kingdom of Israel all the way to Damascus, near the border of what is today Iraq and was then. Assyria. [1] Jonah heard the voice of God commanding him to go to Nineveh, which is today on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq (Jonah 1:2). The Israelites feared and hated the Assyrians, so Jonah did not want to obey God. Therefore, Jonah ran south and west to Joppa (the opposite direction), and bought a ticket on a boat to take him as far from Nineveh as you can get, west to Tarshish near the Straits of Gibraltar. [2] In the middle of the voyage, God sent a storm—a huge, dangerous storm; and, Jonah was faced with the consequences of his actions. He ended up thrown overboard into the crashing sea in order to save the lives of the crew of the ship.

Our text comes from Jonah 1:17 through all of Chapter 2. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us through the story of the Prophet Jonah:

Now the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said: In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me,the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’”And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land(1:17-2:10).

Let us pray: God of Grace and Mercy we need to hear the message that you not only listen to our prayers when we are in your will—but you listen to our prayers when we are not in your will. Come by the Power of Your Spirit that we may be convicted, converted and made wholly yours. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Great Prayers of Reluctant Disciples are often Born in Bad Circumstances

Years ago, I posted a comment on Facebook that went something like this:Life can be like the experience of Jonah: We sin, we get thrown overboard, and we think things cannot get worse. Then we see the whale….”We, like Jonah, often continue on avoiding God and God’s will until we can’t avoid it any longer. We often talk about people who only pray when they’re in trouble in a kind of critical way. It’s true we should not just pray to God we were in trouble, but it’s also true that many of us pray our most life-changing prayers when we are in trouble.

When Chapter 2 opens, Jonah is in big trouble. He has disobeyed God and  been thrown into the sea to drown. We can imagine that, after being thrown overboard, Jonah struggled to keep his head above water. His efforts were doomed. Sooner or later, he was bound to drown in the raging sea. Perhaps, he was at the edge of drowning, having given up all hope when he saw the open mouth of a huge fish. What happened next is unimaginable: Jonah ended up in bad circumstances in the belly of a giant fish.

None of us likes to suffer. None of us likes to deal with the consequences of our sin and brokenness. None of us likes to be confronted by our failure to follow Jesus and be devoted disciples. None of us likes our time in the belly of a whale. Yet, when you ask people when during their life they grew the most spiritually, it is common for them to refer to a time of danger, struggle and suffering. Often, it’s a time when they suffered or struggled as a result of their own poor decisions or behavior. In my own life, I can say that times of great spiritual growth have often been times of stress and failure. We may not like times in our lives when we have to sit in the belly of a whale, but we can be sure that Christ brings us to those times for our own good. We cannot necessarily control our bad times, but we can grow in them.

Great Prayers Focus on our Sinful Circumstances

Most of Chapter 2 is taken up with a long prayer, sometimes in the past tense. Like us when we are in trouble, Jonah confronted  suffering and approaching death in the face in the belly of the whale and was moved to pray. Surrounded by stomach acid and seaweed, Jonah prayed fervently, and he was changed and his life was changed as a result. Some scholars question the prayer because it is the past tense. I can’t resolve the scholarly issue, but to me it is obvious that Jordan didn’t have a piece paper and pencil (or clay tablet and stylus) in the belly of the whale. He prayed in the belly of the whale, but he wrote down the prayer later. [3] It was a prayer in which Jonah acknowedeged his circumstances and his need of God’s mercy. 

None of us likes admitting that we are sinners. God, of course, knows we are sinners. God is pleased when we come to him with a humble and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).  One of the most amazing statements of Scripture is that David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). David was not a perfect person. During the course of his life, he committed some serious sins. Nevertheless, David was open with God. After his sin with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, he went to God and confession and with faith that God would forgive him (Psalm 51). God did forgive and restore David. God loves us when we are open to God about our sins, brokenness, and shortcomings. This is a part of becoming a person after God’s own heart.

Years ago Kathy and I were going through a difficult time. Not only did we have our own four children to take care of, we were taking care of a couple of others. As a result, Kathy did not have a lot of time for me. I just taken a new job and was under quite a bit of stress, and did not have much time for her. During those years, I used to take off one day a month, go to a special place, and pray. One Friday, I took a day off and went to pray. And I began to pray a great prayer of confession—for Kathy’s sin in ignoring me! In a moment, I heard God say in my mind, “You jerk!” For the rest of the day, I focused on Psalm 51!

Recognizing that we are sinners and in need of God’s salvation is an important step in spiritual growth. Often when things go wrong we focus on what someone else is doing instead of what we’re doing! The first step to getting our prayers answered is to be open with God about ourselves.

Great Prayers Recognize that God is a Great Savior

This is a good place to stop again for a moment and think about what the Bible says about that huge fish: it says that God sent the fish to swallow Jonah. God sent the fish. I am sure Jonah was terrified when he saw this fish. The Jews were not a sea faring people. They feared the sea and they feared the huge fish of the open sea. The Hebrews even had a name for the most fearsome of the Big Fish of the Sea: Leviathan. [4] That name is connected in Scripture with the presence of the power of evil. But, was this fish evil? I don’t think so. This fish is a result of God’s love for Jonah.

Jonah was about to drown. God sent the fish not as an instrument of suffering but as a way to save Jonah’s life. God sent the fish to swallow Jonah because he loved and wanted to save Jonah. If God had not sent the fish, Jonah would have drowned. So often when we sense that we have sinned and God sends something unpleasant or dangerous into our lives, we think of it as an evil. We think God is punishing us too harshly. We feel deserted by God.  When this happens we need to think for a moment—perhaps our whale is God’s way of saving our life.

As Jonah prayed in the belly of the whale, he recognized God as his Savior (Jonah 3:9). Like us, the Jewish people had some mistaken ideas about God. Like us, they didn’t always understand who God was or what God is really like. Sometimes, they forgot that God is a God of the entire universe and loves everyone and everything he has made. It was only slowly and over time that they understood that God loves everyone and everything he has made, including us when we are separated from God by our sin and self-centeredness.

Jonah got on the ship thinking he could out-run God. Perhaps God could not find him in far off Tarshish. He learned that God is everywhere, even in the belly of a whale. In the process, Jonah learned that God is a great God of salvation with the power to save people even from the belly of a whale. The Jewish people, in their captivities in Egypt and in Babylon learned that the God of Israel was everywhere and able to save them from anything.

This means that God can save us from anything, even from the raging seas we have brought upon ourselves by our sin and disobedience. God can use us no matter what we’ve done, even if by our sin we’ve ended up in the belly of a whale. This is really good news.

The whale was sent to save Jonah, and sometimes we get swallowed by whales of our own as we flee from God. When this happens, it’s important to recognize that the God of love is working and love to save us.

Great Prayers Result in a Great Deliverance

In his prayer, Jonah recognized that he had been cast into the deep—really into the grave, to the place of death itself. In this time of darkness and dereliction, Jonah felt that God had abandoned him to the grave. But, God had not deserted Jonah.

Instead, there in the belly of the whale God forgave Jonah and brought his lifeup“from the pit” (Jonah 2:6). The last verse of Jonah 2 tells us that the whale “vomited Jonah onto dry land” (v. 2:10). Jonah was delivered from impossible circumstances. He had sinned. He ended up thrown overboard into a raging sea. He was certain to die. Then, he was swallowed by a great fish, a symbol of chaos and violence of nature. Out of these circumstances, he was saved.

Jesus refers to Jonah and his three days in the whale as prefiguring his own release from death. In Matthewand Luke, the following is recorded:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here (Matthew 12:38-41). 

The deliverance of Jonah prefigures the deliverance of Jesus from the grave, and our deliverance from sin and death because of what Jesus did on the cross.

Conclusion

Today is Pentecost. It’s appropriate that we study Jonah’s prayer during Pentecost. In the Upper Room, the disciples prayed together as they waited the gift of the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost, God answered those prayers sending his Holy Spirit upon the disciples in order that they could be sent into the world to share the Gospel. We are in a time in our church’s life when we are in an Upper Room of sorts, awaiting God’s answer to our prayers. Last week, we had a special service. It was wonderful! Everyone who came felt the power of the Holy Spirit as we worshiped together in the Sanctuary, walked the building praying together, and had communion together in Auburn Hall.

We have many opportunities weekly and monthly to pray for our members, for our church, for our families, for our nation, and for the needs of our world. We have morning and evening prayer groups. There are stations set up around the church, where you could come and pray for specific needs as you walk the halls. We have a special early-morning prayer time, where people can stop and pray on their way to work. We’re praying for a lot of things: we are praying for the pastoral search committees, for unity in our church, for our worship time together, for our missionaries, and especially for Andrew Brunson,and  for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all of us and our congregation.

AMEN

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Jonah is recorded has having prophesied in the reign of Jeroboam II, somewhere around 793-753 B.C. This period included a time of Assyrian decline, which allowed Jeroboam II to expand his kingdom. See, G.J. Wenham, et al, The New Bible Commentary21stCentury ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 815).

[2] Most scholars believe that Tarshish was a Spanish city on the Atlantic outside the Straits of Gibraltar. In other words, the writer of Jonah wants to let us know that Jonah didn’t just avoid doing regarded as he went in the opposite direction to the farthest place possible, as far from Nineveh and God as he could possibly get.

[3] Scholars often down to the originality of the prayer, some thinking that the entire book is a kind of parable about Israel and its disobedience and others that the prayer was inserted later into the story of Jonah. Most of us would not write a prayer in the belly of a whale. We would just pray. Later, we might sit down and remember what we said or thought as we prayed in our distress. The point of the scholars can be important as we recognize that the book was important to the Jews as it related to their own history and to their sin, disobedience, judgement and deliverance. The importance to the Jews of the story of Jonah is shown by its reading on Yom Kippur.

[4]  Interestingly, the word used is not the Hebrew for “Leviathan.”  The word used means “big fish.” Nevertheless, the book contains imagery designed to bring that image to mind. See, Scott B. Noegel, Jonah and Laviathin: Inner-Biblical Allusions and the Problem with Dragons” http://faculty.washington.edu/snoegel/PDFs/articles/noegel-jonah-2015.pdf(downloaded May 17, 2017). As I often mention, because the Jews were not a seafaring people, they feared the wild raging seas, they also feared sea creatures. The whale in Jonah is a concrete example of this fear. This is not in the least impact the truthfulness of scripture or its power to bring us closer to God. This story brings us closer to God as we apply apply it to our own lives. Its inspiration is proved by its power to bring endless generations closer to God.

Shaped in Community

Last weekend, Kathy and I spent time with a couple in whose home I attended a Bible study through which I became a Christian. It was  about forty-one years ago last week. We were together to celebrate the engagement of their youngest child. Their youngest son is getting married and will live in San Antonio, Texas. Many of the people who attended the party are young members of a church and small group in San Antonio. These young couples in their 20s are growing in Christ under the leadership of a young pastor—almost exactly like the small group we attended years ago.

Life has come full circle: Forty or so years ago, when Kathy and I were young Christians in our mid- to late twenties, our lives were shaped by a small group of people at First Presbyterian Church of Houston. Now this young man and his wife in their mid-to late 20s are being shaped by a similar group at First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio Texas.

I’ve had opportunities before to write about the role small groups played in our early Christian formation and in the formation of our marriage. It so happens, that is the theme today: Shaped in Community.  As Christians, we become deeper and more Christlike as we are shaped in relationships of love and discipleship with other Christians.
There is a graphic used to describe this process of Growing Upinto Christ, In to the Body of Christ, and Outinto the World. [1] If we are to be Great Commission Christians, we must grow deeper into a relationship with Christ and with other Christians and then into a deeper relationship with the world.

Shaped By the Word in Community

Today, we are looking at the final chapter of Romans:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.Greet Andronicus and Junia  my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles,and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brotherswho are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you(Romans 16:1-15).

Prayer: God of Community, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we ask that you would be with us today and fill us with the desire and ability to share in our church fellowship some of the same love and partnership in the ministry that characterized the early church. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Jesus and Paul Shaped and Taught People in Community

For many years, I delayed preaching a series through Romans, waiting for the perfect time. Then, I retired and it was too late! (It still wasn’t the perfect time.) Today is not the perfect time to begin a series on Romans, but it is a perfect time to write a blog post on Romans 16. More than once over the past months I’ve mentioned texts that show how committed Jesus was to discipling people in community. Jesus called the disciples as a small group into whose lives he invested himself (See for example, Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-29; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:35-42). He taught them. He prayed with them. He ate and slept with them. He walked with them. He did miracles with them. They watched an experienced Jesus in a small group. [2] The first disciples were shaped in community.

Paul was no different! In Acts, we learned that a man named Barnabas was responsible for Paul becoming a leader in the early church. At a time when the church in Antioch was growing, and the people needed to be taught the truths of the Christian faith and shown how to live Christian lives, Barnabas went to Tarsus, where Paul was living at the time, and brought him to Antioch where he lived and taught the disciples there for a year (Acts 11:19-30). [3]

When the church at Antioch had been strengthened, Paul and Barnabas set off on the First Missionary Journey together as a team. When the Second Missionary Journey began, Barnabas and Paul separated, each taking someone with them (Acts 15:39-41). Paul took Silas. Barnabas took John Mark. On the Second Missionary Journey, Paul picked up a young man named Timothy, who became his son in the Lord (I Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2). Later, Paul picked up Luke, Titus and others (Acts 16: 1-5;17:13-15; 20:1-6). Paul always discipled others in community and was himself shaped by the little communities of disciples he formed..

I can’t go over every person mentioned in today’s text, but the passage reveals how important people and community were to Paul. [4] He mentions Phoebe, a woman that he had known in his ministry (Romans 1:1-2). He mentions Priscilla and Aquila, people who were important friends of Paul and in whose homes churches met (v. 3-4; Acts 18:2-30; I Cor 16:19). He mentions friends he has made along the journey of being an apostle, he mentions relatives, he mentions people that have made an impression on the early church. It’s clear that Paul was discipled in community (Acts 9:1-11; Galatians 1:11-23) and also discipled and shaped other people in a community that, though separated by time and space, continued to be a source of strength and support. [5]

We make Disciples in Community

This is important to contemporary Christians. The biblical way of making disciples is to make disciples in community. All of us need other people to grow in Christ. Our church (the church I am now serving temporarily as a coach and transitional pastor, Bay Presbyterian Church)  recently adopted a new mission statement, “Centered on Christ, Shaped in Community, Sent into the World.” After our Session approved the work of the various committees and adopted the mission statement for the congregation, we made a graphic to show how this works.

We begin our Christian journey by coming to Christ and being centered in Christ. We begin worshiping God in Christ. Week by week, we gather to worship God, and we want to bring our friends Christian or non-Christian who do not have a church home to our fellowship so that they may hear and grow in the Gospel. As people hear the word of God and experience worship, they grow.

However, there is more to becoming and growing as a Christian than just listening to teaching and memorizing Scripture. Discipleship is lived as much as it is learned. Most people do not come to Christ because of a sermon or an evangelistic crusade, they come to Christ because someone they respected or admired shared the Gospel with them in an informal setting. A lot of those informal settings are one-on-one. At staff meeting this week, one of our staff members shared a wonderful experience of this type. Eventually , however, we hope people will become a member of a small group where they can meet other Christians, learn, and watch and see how Christians behave. (Hopefully we will be well-behaved!) In a small group, we can grow and achieve our potential as a disciple of Christ.

Discipleship in Community

This week, we had a College of Elders meeting at Bay Presbyterian Church. This particular meeting was on mentoring the next generation of leaders. Mentoring is a process of helping someone grow and achieve their potential in some area of life. Discipleship training is really a kind of mentoring process. It requires a more experienced Christian to take another person under their care and mentorship. The goal is to grow in Christlikeness.

Barnabas was Paul’s mentor. He introduced Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem. He recognized Paul’s leadership abilities. He understood Paul and loved Paul, even when other people doubted him. He gave Paul his first chance to be a leader in the early church. As time went on, Paul would become an even greater teacher and mentor—but this might not have happened without Barnabas.

At my table during our College of Elders meeting, a young woman made a very important point: There are instances where mentoring and discipleship require a formal relationship or a formal activity, like a Bible study. But, most mentoring takes place informally by spending time with another person. Going to the grocery store. Having coffee. Going to the park with the children. Taking some time out to play golf. Going to a Cav’s game or a Browns game, or an Indians game. The list of various mentoring and discipling activities is endless. The important thing is to be connected in a caring, teaching relationship with another person.

The husband of the couple we visited with last weekend was one of my early Christian mentors. When he and his wife were having their second child and moving at the same time, a group of men spent time together painting his house at the last minute before the baby came. I was the last person to leave and we talked and became friends.  This person later hired me to be his attorney in connection with a business transaction. We worked together and ate together. He expressed his opinion about how Christians should behave in business. He showed me not only how to be a good lawyer and businessperson but also a wise and loving Christian at the same time. Neither of us was perfect, but we were learning together!

Over the years, I’ve been mentored by a lot of people. Sometimes I remember incidents that meant a lot to me at the time and mean a lot to me today. I’m sharing this because discipling relationships have been a great blessing, and I desire that blessing for each of you! I still am being mentored. Nevertheless, I’m at the age and level of experience were sometimes I have the opportunity to share what I have learned. That’s also a blessing.

This week, I had an opportunity to talk about two or three men who meant a lot to me in my Christian journey. They are now gone to be with the Lord. But, they won’t really die so long as I am alive, because their work and ministry will continue as long as I live. The ministry of the apostle Paul continues to this day—that’s why we are here! Guess what: Your ministry, your discipleship, your mentoring of other Christians, young  and old, will last beyond your life as well.

Opportunities for Discipleship in Community

Before we conclude, I want to share how Christians grow in community from another perspective. When we first come to Christ, we normally begin attending worship. Then, slowly but surely, begin reaching out for a deeper relationship with Christ. At our church, we have levels of activities for people with different levels of desire, time, and commitment. An easy way to become involved and grow is to become a part of the Men’s Ministry, or Women’s Ministry, or Older Adult Ministry, or Marriage Ministry, or Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), or a number of other larger groups. Frankly, in some ways, this is easier because you don’t have to immediately be in close relationship with a small group of people you don’t know well.

Nevertheless, we know that people grow and mature best in small groups. In addition, they will experience God’s love more frequently and more directly in a small group of Christians who love and care for one another. Therefore, we hope people will eventually join a small group. It could be a men’s group, a woman’s group, a couples’ group, a ministry group, a reunion group: it can be whatever group it needs to be for you so long as it’s a group of twelve to eighteen people meeting together and sharing their lives in a meaningful way as they study Scripture and live out the Christian life in the world. [6]

The graphic inserted in the paragraph above illustrates the process: people come into a Christian  fellowship in a variety of ways. But eventually, they end up in a local church. When they become involved, it is often a good thing for  them to being by joining  a larger group opportunity to grow. This is pretty non-threatening. Eventually, it is hoped that they will form or be part of a smaller, more intimate group led by a more mature Christian. [7]

But we don’t want the process to stop there! We hope people will then to go out into the world, that is out into wherever God takes them and share the love of Christ. This brings us back to the first graphic: The Goal of the Christian discipleship is not to make Bible scholars or worship groupies. The goal of our discipleship training  is to make self-replicating disciples who share God’s love in the world wherever they are and wherever they go.

Conclusion

If I had not accepted an invitation to be in a small group Bible study one Friday evening more than forty years ago, if those people have not loved me, if I had not been exposed to good Bible teaching, if I never been given a chance to teach the Bible, if my friend Danny and others had not befriended me, mentored me and shepherded me, if the church had not given me opportunities to grow and lead, I would not be here today.

All over America, indeed all over the world, there are those who need to be drawn into the sphere of Christ’s work and family, to experience unconditional love, forgiveness of sins, new life, and growth. We have to have the eyes to see them and the willingness to reach out with the care and compassion of Christ. They need to be loved, mentored, shepherded, and sent into that same world, which desperately needs both them and us.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  I want to give credit to Mike Breen and others for the “Up, In and Out” notion. See, Mike Breen, Building a Discipleship Culture 3rded. (Dallas, TX: 3DM Publishing, 2017).

[2] Lesslie Newbigin famously observed that Jesus, unlike Mohammad, did not write a book. He created a community. In so doing, Jesus established that Christian faith is not a set of infallible truths we accept uncritically, it is a personal relationship with God formed and sustained in communion with God and the community God personally created. See, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1989.  No one has been more important in my thinking about evangelism and discipleship than Newbigin.

[3]  This footnote ended up out of place.  Paul was mentored by Barnabas and was surrounded by Christian believers during his entire ministry, except when he went to be alone (Galatians 1:17). The list of people Paul lists in Romans 16 shows how committed he was to shaping other disciples and being shaped in  community.  Among others listed Priscilla and Aquila were tent makers, the same profession that Paul practiced. They accompanied  Paul on the part of his missionary journeys (Acts 18:18). In Ephesus, they met Apollos, whom they instructed and discipled. He became one of the great leaders of the early church and may be the author of Hebrews.

[4] For a scholarly discussion, see William Hendricksen, Romansin “New Testament Commentary” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980-81), 498ff).

[5] In Galatians, Paul is anxious to show that he is a true apostle, having received the revelation directly from Jesus his conversion. Nevertheless, his chronology shows that he spent time in other places. In addition, we know that Barnabas, his colleague and friend, this was the person who introduced him to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). In other words, while Paul received a direct revelation from God, he was in community with other people and was learning from them as well as by direct revelation.

[6] Small group experts believe that this is the best size, since if a group gets much larger people to not interact informally in the same way that permits the intimacy of smaller groups.

[7]  Bay Presbyterian Church has a number of these groups, the leaders of which of been trained and meet together periodically for mentoring in what we call “Huddles.” In different churches this is handled differently, but the key is continued training, support, and accountability for small group leaders.

Party Time: Jesus is Alive

Mark 16:1-8; April 1, 2018

There are times when we hope and pray for a personal Easter. There are times when life has been hard or unfair. Perhaps you are in that situation today. There are times when we are under a kind of judgment and/or time of suffering we wish would end. The message of Easter is simple: God’s Love and Grace will ultimately prevail. We have hope and because of our resurrection faith.

The Catholic church celebrates Monica,  the mother of Saint Augustine, as a  saint. Monica was born and raised as a Christian. Her husband, however, was an unbeliever.  Augustine grew up in a faith conflicted home. Early in his life, he joined what we would call a cult. He was also in a bad relationship. His life was chaotic. Saint Monica prayed for her son for many, many years, as many mothers pray for their wayward children. She urged Augustine to leave the Manichaean faith and his mistress. She witnessed to her faith in Christ. We can imagine that she often felt hopeless. Shortly before Monica’s death,  Augustine became a Christian. Monica was filled with joy and celebrated her son’s salvation. Her prayers were finally answered. [1]

The First Easter

 Last week, most Christians meditated on the cross and death of Jesus, which John tells us embodied God’s love for the world—a love so deep and so powerful that it endured the cross (I John 4:9-10). The cross represents God’s judgement on sin. The resurrection represents God’s validation of the sinless life and sacrificial death of Jesus, by which our sins are forgiven, through which we can have a new and eternal life (I Corinthians 5:17). Our text is from Mark 16:1-8:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:1-8).

Prayer: This Easter, O God, we ask that the power of the Risen Messiah, Jesus, the Christ, would come into our hearts and minds. Give us all a new outpouring of your Holy Spirit this day and each and every day. In His Name we pray, Amen.

God’s Preparation for Easter

There are celebrations that require a long time of preparation. Those who have had daughters get married know that there is often a long, expensive, often tedious time of preparation between the announcement of an engagement and the wedding! It always amazes me how much preparation there is for a  wedding. Counseling, showers, parties, trips to the dress-maker and to the flower shop, time with pastors and musicians, rehearsals, dinners, and receptions. Once I spent almost an entire summer getting ready for a wedding.  A big wedding takes time to prepare, but it’s worth it.

The last week of Jesus’ life was filled with growing opposition, gloom, disappointment, and gathering darkness. Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey, a symbol of his continuity with Solomon and other “Sons of David” who sat on the throne of Israel, was the highpoint of his last week. Thereafter, all week long until his arrest, trial, conviction, crucifixion, and death, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Priests and the Teachers of the Law opposed and plotted against him. In the end, he was betrayed and deserted by everyone. Even Peter denied and deserted him. Finally, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. There was no appeal process. He was scourged and marched to Calvary, where he was crucified. Near dusk on Passover Friday, he died. Joseph of Arimathea quickly claimed the body and buried him in his personal tomb (Mark 15:42:46). It was a long, tedious, anxiety producing week of growing darkness. No one expected any joy or celebration to come from that last week of Jesus’s life.

The last week of Jesus is life was not the beginning of God’s preparation for the joy and celebration of the first Easter. When the human race first sinned, God revealed that, one day, Satan would be defeated by a descendant of Adam (Genesis 3:15). Eventually, God chose one family, the family of Abraham, through which He would bless the entire world (Genesis 12:1-3). Later, despite the sin of Israel, God raised up David and promised that it was through his heirs that God’s Kingdom would come (I Samuel 7:12-17). Isaiah foresaw that the Messiah would be a person of sorrow who would suffer for the sins of God’s people (Isaiah 53). After the last of the prophets, there was a long wait—hundreds of years of silence, suffering, and waiting. All that time, God quietly prepared for Easter Sunday and His defeat of sin and death.

Easter, like any great event, like any great party, like any great change for the better, took a lot of time, planning, waiting, work, and quite a bit of suffering. Sometimes in our lives it takes a bit of waiting before our Easter expectations and our prayers for a personal Easter are answered. Like God, we have to prepare and wait, sometimes for a long, long time.

Human Expectations

After Jesus’ death, his disciples were scattered, hiding in fear, afraid of the authorities and what might happen next. The events of Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, and Good Friday (the crucifixion and death) depressed, demoralized and disillusioned them all. No one had any extraordinary expectations for that first Easter Sunday. The women planned to return on Sunday to anoint his body. They knew Jesus was dead, and they knew that dead people do not return to life. The expected life to go on as it had before they met Jesus.

All of us have a way we see the world. We observe things happening and not happening. We conclude that things that happen over and over again will keep happening. We conclude that things we do not see happening will not ever happen. Sometimes, we are glad we know these regularities. Sometimes we are not so glad. For example, when we suffer for a long time, we sometimes conclude that our suffering will never end. This was the condition of the followers of Jesus Friday and Saturday before the first Easter. The disciples had no expectation of his being resurrected.

Fortunately, this was one of those times when the expectations of the disciples, and of the human race in general, turned out to be wrong. [2]

A Surprise Announcement

All four gospels record that the women found the tomb empty that first Easter morning (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). They came expecting to finish embalming Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1). They knew there was a large stone capping the tomb that would have to be rolled away (16:3). They were not sure that they were strong enough to roll away the stone and, because it was very early, wondered if anyone would be around to roll away the stone for them.

When they arrived to their surprise, the stone was rolled away (Mark 16:4). They were also faced with another amazing fact: There was an angel in the tomb waiting for them to arrive! This angel made the most famous announcement in human history:

“Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:6-7).

Upon hearing this, the women were completely amazed—flabbergasted!

Over the years, Kathy has given a lot of great parties. One of the most memorable was a surprise party on our 30th Anniversary. She arranged for people from all over the country to come to Memphis and celebrate. I did not have a clue what was going to happen.  We had friends we had known all of our lives and some new friends that we had made in Tennessee. There is a picture of the look on my face when I walked into the party. It’s a look of complete shock and amazement!

That was the way the women felt that first Easter morning. They were in shock. They didn’t know what to say or do. Something completely outside of their expectations had occurred! In the case of my surprise party, the world came back to normal in a couple of minutes. But in the case of God’s Easter Surprise Party, nothing would or will ever be the same again—not just for the women, but for the disciples and for us as well. Life on this side of Easter is never the same. With God, all things are possible.

What this Means for Us.

There is hope for us in the words of the angel that first Easter Sunday morning:

  • First, at Easter God vindicated Jesus who died for our sins on the cross.
  • Second, by the resurrection, God’s judgment against sin and provision for our reconciliation was and is complete. We need only accept God’s gracious gift.
  • Third, God is not finished with the disciples nor is he finished with us. By the power of the resurrection, God draws us into His future.

By the resurrection, Jesus was restored to his disciples. The fellowship they had during his earthy ministry would continue, not just for a time, a few weeks while he walked the earth in his resurrected body, but forever. God said and is saying to the world (and to us) that Jesus is alive and we can have confidence because life is more powerful than death, not the reverse. Jesus is alive and with us today by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, Jesus rose from the dead is a sign of God’s power to forgive sin,  create new life and to make us new creations in Christ (I Corinthians 5:17). This is not something we experience once, when we come to believe in God, but something we can always experience. His forgiving love is always there for us when we fall short and fail. His cleansing power is always there to cleanse us from guilt and shame. His power to overcome the past and bring new life is always there for his people.

Third, God is not ever finished with us. One of my favorite lines in Mark’s story is when the angel tells the women to go tell the disciples and Peter that he is risen (Mark 16:7). When someone betrays another person, a relationship is broken. By his denial, Peter removed himself from being a disciple of Jesus. With his simple request to go tell the disciples and Peter, Jesus offers to restore him. He makes the same offer to us as well. We can never drift so far way from God that he is not there to redeem and restore us.

A Strange Ending and New Beginning

 The hardest part of every Easter sermon is how to end it. Mark, I think, had the same problem. Mark’s gospel ends with the women afraid to tell anyone about the empty tomb, perhaps from fear that people would think them crazy. Their fear is often our fear. We are often afraid to share our faith and the Easter promise with others.

The women overcame their fear and tell the disciples and Peter. We know this because the other Gospels (Matthew 28:8-16; Luke 24:9; John 20:1-3) tell us they eventually told the disciples! We know because the disciples went from being cowards in hiding to being apostles who carried the Gospel to the ends of the earth. [3] We know because generations of Christians have shared their faith with others and continue to share their faith today.

Just like the women, we must overcome our fears. We too must go and proclaim to our own generation the Good News that sin and death do not have the final victory. In the end, God’s amazing grace wins. In the end, God’s wisdom and love are more powerful than armies. In the end, our sins can be forgiven, and we can have a new and eternal life. This is a message we and our dying and violent world desperately need to hear again and again. [4] In the end, Divine, Resurrection Life was,  is, and  will be victorious, and for this reason we can party today!

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The conversion of Augustine  from Manichaeism to Christianity, brought  joy to Monica. She was present at his baptism. In 387, on her way to Africa with Augustine she died unexpectedly. See, Saint Monica www.midwestaugustinians.org/st-monica/ (Downloaded March 31, 2018).

[2] Scientists speak of “singularities.” Singularities by definition happen but once. The creation of the world is such an event. It can’t be observed. It was a one-time only event. Often in our lives, at our conversion and at times when God does a miracle, we Christians experience such singularities: Times that are unique, important, unrepeatable,  and which leave us changed forever.

[3] One of the often mentioned proofs of the resurrection is the change the behavior of the disciples. Generally speaking, when a famous person dies, his disciples scatter overtime. Precisely the reverse happened with Jesus. After the resurrection, the disciples, who had scattered, came back together and boldly proclaim the resurrection even to their own death. This is a powerful indication of the truth of their proclamation.

[4] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1986), 99. In writing this, I am also indebted to Thomas Torrance, Space, Time, and Resurrection (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1976 and John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).

Practice and Preparation

Lent is a time of preparing for the great celebration of Easter, when Christians proclaim the victory of Christ over sin and death. This week’s blog is about practicing what we are learning from Jesus about the Christian life and mission in the world.

practice makes perfect – a motivational slogan on a green stocky note

The term “practice” means the actual practical application of an idea, belief, method, or knowledge. When we practice something, we repeat the action time and time again until we get good at it. This is why we speak of practicing medicine or law. Professions, like sports, are not just areas of knowledge; they involve practical application of knowledge as a skill.

Imagine a basketball team that never practiced. How good would it be? It has been many years since I played basketball, but I have watched young men in a church gym practicing shooting and rebounding for years, beginning when they are quite small. The ones who become good, and play in high school and college, practice shots and dribbling for hours and hours each day. Even professional basketball players practice in the off-season. They continue to hone and develop their skills.

Our Christian faith is no different. If our Christian faith involves merely a sum of knowledge we have in our heads, then it is a dead or inadequate thing (James 2:7). In order to be living breathing disciples of Jesus, we need to put our faith into practice in our day-to-day lives and in how we live and relate to people.

The Disciples Practice Being Like Jesus

In our text, Jesus has been traveling through the villages of the Galilee teaching (Mark 6:6). The disciples have been in a kind of intensive Bible study and small group experience with Jesus. Day in and day out they have been with Jesus, watching Jesus, listening to Jesus, and sometimes running an errand or two for Jesus. Jesus already knows that one day he will send them to the ends of the earth sharing the Good News of the Kingdom and making disciples themselves. Therefore, he asks them to practice what they have been learning.

Lets look at the Word of God as it comes to us from Mark 6: 6-13:

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.  And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them (Mark 6:6-13).

Prayer: Eternal God, Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Come  and inspire our hearts to become more like you and to follow our Lord Jesus, even when we must get out of our comfort zones to do so. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 We Need to Practice our Discipleship

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the way in which Kathy prepares for parties. I mentioned that parties are always a lot of work, and I’m pretty good at avoiding most of that work. Inevitably, there comes a time when Kathy asks me to go to the store and get something for her. She sends me on an errand. In San Antonio, most of the time, these errands take me to H-E-B stores. H-E-B is the largest supermarket chain headquartered in San Antonio and run by a fine Christian family. The initials H-E-B stand for “Howard E. Butts,” who founded the chain in Kerrville, Texas. It is nice, air-conditioned and cool. I am not in any danger at the Alamo Heights H-E-B. In fact, it is kind of fun.

On the other hand, I am always somewhat nervous. You see, I am not an experienced shopper, and I am very cheap. I am always afraid I will buy the wrong thing, which I often did in the early years of our marriage and still do from time to time! Today, however, after many, many years of careful coaching, practice, and an occasional second trip to the store, I am pretty good at getting the right thing. My party game is improving with practice!

Jesus knew that his disciples would not get the business of making disciples right the first time. He knew that it would unfair for him to do all the teaching, healing, and casting out of demons, and then one day, BANG, send the disciples to the ends of the earth to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Therefore, he trained the disciples and made them practice what he had been training them to do.

One day, years ago, I was walking by the pastors offices on a Sunday morning between services. Dick Druary, who was the young associate pastor in charge of evangelism in our church, called me into his office. He explained that he was scheduled to speak at the Star of Hope Mission in Houston that evening but could not keep his committment. He asked me to speak for him.

I’d only been a Christian only a short time. I can’t tell you how scared I was. All that afternoon I wrote a sermon and practiced it as best I could. I didn’t have time to write it out. All I could do was create an outline. I remember to this day how nervous I was. Then, with fear and trepidation, in front of a bunch of drug addict’s and drunks, I gave my first sermon. I even did my first altar call! For a Presbyterian, I was way out of my comfort zone. Yet, I would probably not be here today, if Dick had not then, and frequently thereafter, asked me to substitute for him at the mission. [1]

There is an important lesson here: We will never become the disciples Jesus calls us to be unless and until we get out of our comfort zone and actually put our faith to work. One reason why our Lenten study gives us things to do each week is that we need to get used being more than learners of the Bible. We need to put what we know into practice. We need to be doers of the word in addition to hearers of it (James 1:22-25).

We Need to Practice as a Team

Jesus knew that his disciples would have difficulty going on this first mission trip. He knew there were going to be future times during which the disciples did not know what to do next. He knew they needed the courage that comes from experience. Therefore, he sent them out two-by-two. In other words, they went out in teams.

Bay Presbyterian Church participates in something called, “Living Waters for the World.” It’s a water ministry bringing clean water to places where there is no clean water. It’s really interesting. First of all, down near Oxford Mississippi, where the novelist William Faulkner was from, there is a camp, Camp Hopewell, where those who lead church teams go and learn about the purification units used in the ministry, about the importance of clean water, about how to teach people about the necessity of clean water, and other elements of how to do a mission trip. Students actually practice what they will do on the field. Those who have been trained work in teams. Over the years, I’ve been on several trips, and they’ve been successful! Why? Because everyone practiced as a team!

My former church actually had a water purification board on which they put together and took apart units before they actually installed them! Often there is someone from a church that has already done an installation along on that first trip. My former church often helped churches get started in installing Living Waters projects.

It’s really important that we take seriously the example of Jesus and the disciples. Often, we think that we will someday engage in some ministry for Jesus when we have learned enough, when we’ve studied enough Bible, when we’ve become a better Christian, etc. If we think that way, we will never go on a mission trip! Part of learning is doing! We all need to go on training missions for Jesus. It may be as simple as your family  making a meal for a sick neighbor and sharing God’s love  in your neighborhood or as hard as making a trip with others to a third world nation . Where we go does not matter as much as that we go and grow as disciples in community.

God Will Fill Us with His Spirit

In today’s text, Jesus commissioned the disciples to go on their practice journey, and as he did so he endowed them and blessed them with the power to face sickness and demons and evil (Mark 6:7). When Jesus sent out the Seventy-Two, they returned with joy because the spirit of been of working them on their journey (Luke 10:17).

We’ve already spoken about the Great Commission this year. One of the great promises we have from Jesus is that he will be with us as we go in His Name (Matthew 28:20). This doesn’t just apply to people who go to Third World countries, although it does. It applies to us whenever we get out of our comfort zone. The promise applies when we pray with co-workers.  It applies to us when we go and help in a local mission. It applies when we go to Guatemala, or even to much more challenging places like the Congo. Wherever we go the Spirit and power of Christ goes with us.

We Seek People of Peace

Many people have problems with the advice Jesus gives near the end of today’s passage. Jesus says to the disciples that, if they come to a place where they are not welcome, they should just shake the dust off their sandals and go on (Mark 6:11). In the beginning, this statement seems harsh. In other passages, Jesus more clearly spells out what he is talking about. In some places Jesus is that we should look for people of peace as we go (Luke 9-10). People who welcome the Gospel are people of peace.

Does Jesus mean that we should only go to receptive people? No! In other places, and particularly in connection with the Parable of the Sower, Jesus makes it clear that we should always be sowing the gospel of God’s love for the world (Mark 4:1-21). We should sow the Word on rocky soil and on shallow soil. We should sow it among the thorns and in the deep soil.

However, once we are rejected, once we learn that the soil is hard, once we know that in order to continue on we would be interfering with another person’s privacy, we go on our way until another day. This doesn’t mean we don’t come back to that person later. This doesn’t mean that, if the subject doesn’t come up for a while and then comes up again, we don’t repeat what we said before. It just means that we don’t force ourselves on other people; when we are rejected, we go along our way and seek out people of peace.

God Will Provide the Harvest

When the disciples went out, and preached the gospel, they did many mighty deeds of power (Mark 6:13).  This reminds us of a very important point. If we go out with the power of the gospel, if we are filled with God’s love, if we share that love wherever we go, then God is going to go with us and provide a harvest.

It does not matter whether we go across the street, and a neighbor comes to Christ after many years, or whether we go to the ends of the earth and an entire people group or touched by the Gospel through our work. God provides the harvest. That first night when I preached of the Star of Hope Mission, I gave the worst altar call ever given by anyone in human history. It was so clumsy that the men just sort of stared at me for a while. Then, perhaps because he felt sorry for me, one man came forward and then another. I really don’t remember how many came forward. But a few did. Let’s just suppose that  only one of those men stayed sober and turned their life over to Christ. My lost afternoon and busy early evening was worth it.

We need to hold onto this truth. When we share with others the love that Jesus shared with us on the cross, when we give up a little bit of our safety and security to go out of our comfort zone and share God’s love, we receive the blessing of the one who died for us, and to whose table we now come.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  For years I took the Sunday that was previously held by the Rev. Dr. Charles L. King, the long time and pastor of the congregation and former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUS).  Then and now regarded as a great honor.

Preparing for the Party

Our Lenten Series at Bay Presbyterian Church is entitled, “Preparation.” Over the next six weeks, the congregation will be looking at the Gospel of Mark and learning about our Christian discipleship from Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ ministry. Libbie Peterson and others have prepared a special congregational small group study to go with the series. (Actually, the series has been designed around the study!)

As I was preparing, I looked on the Internet for images of the kingdom of God. I made the most remarkable discovery. Almost all of the descriptions were highly abstract, many of which involved a single individual looking at the Earth or an image of the kingdom. There’s something pretty obviously wrong with this! The very word, “kingdom” implies a king and subjects. A king that had only one citizen of his kingdom would not be much of a king! Nearly all of these graphics were from sermon series preached in evangelical churches like ours. This tells us something very important about a problem with evangelicalism in America today: We are excessively individualistic.

Too often, we portray Christian faith as “between Jesus and me.” While my Christian faith is between Jesus and me, there is much more involved. The Bible tells us that, when we come to Christ, we become part of his kingdom (Colossians 1:13), his family (Galatians 3:26), his household (Hebrews 3:6), his very body (I Corinthians 12:27). All these metaphors tell us that there is something deeply relational about the Christian faith. [1] Christian faith was never meant to be lived by disconnected solitary individuals, except under unusual circumstances. [2] That is why we are having the small group study in connection with our Easter series this year. Relationships matter. Community matters.

Preparation and Presence

Today, we are looking at John the Baptist’s preparation for the Messiah’s coming and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Our text is from Mark, Chapter 1:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,‘Prepare the way for the Lord,make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:1-15).

Prayer: King of Heaven and of Heaven’s Kingdom: Please come among us that we may see more clearly than ever what it is you desire our world to be like and for us to be like. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 Expectation

From the Babylonian Captivity until the coming of Christ, the Jewish people prayed for, hoped for, and worked for the reestablishment of the kingdom of David. [3] The prophets had visions of a time when God would restore the Kingdom of David, place one of his descendants upon his throne, and institute a time of peace, justice, and plenty. Over time, this notion of a New Kingdom of David came to contain a vision of a future Kingdom of God in which the evils of this world would not be present (Isaiah 40:10).

The Messiah was to be a king and his kingdom would be a restored Israel (See, 2 Samuel 7:16; Isaiah 60:1-22; Micah 7:11-20; Zephaniah 3:14-20). He would lead the people of God. He would possess wisdom and be a wonderful counselor (Isaiah 9:6). He would be the Son of God, filled with the power of Jehovah God. He would be a prince of peace, ushering in a world without war (Isaiah 96). He would be the true son of David. He would be just and righteous. [4] His kingdom would have no end (Isaiah 9:7).

The prophets predicted that the Messiah would be spirit-filled and have divine wisdom and understanding. He would respect and fear God. He would have a spirit of justice and see into the reality of things, not being misled by prejudice. He would care for the poor and needy as much as the rich and powerful. He would be faithful to God. He would conquer the world with his wisdom and teachings. He would institute a time of peace where the lions and the lambs will lay down together and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. He would not only gather the remnant of Israel, but would also assemble the ten lost tribes of Israel. His teachings and his justice would be so compelling that the entire Gentile world will rally to his side rest in his peace. [5]

Preparation

In the Old Testament, it had been foretold that, before the Messiah came, the prophet Elijah would return to proclaim his coming (Malachi 4:5). Sure enough, just before Jesus arrived on the scene a prophet like Elijah did appear on the scene: John the Baptist. He came announcing that the Messiah was about to come and Israel needed to get ready. He came urging people to repent, be baptized and become ready for the Messiah.

Whenever Kathy decides to have a party I know two things instantly: It is going to be expensive and it’s going to be a lot of work for her (and perhaps for me). It has been my experience that any party requires multiple trips to the store to get ready. There is food to be bought. There are flowers for the table. Sometimes there is wine to be purchased. There are seasonal decorations to be purchased. There is a lot to do before the party. While I am an expert at avoiding any work related to parties, inevitably there are things I must do.

This is an especially important thing for me and others to remember this Easter Season. Bay Presbyterian Church is getting ready for the future. We just finished a congregational analysis and a new Mission, Vision, and Values statement. We have been raising money to take care of some long deferred maintenance before a new pastor arrives. We’ve been working on deepening our sense of community. We’ve been healing old wounds and addressing old problems. Why? Because we are getting ready to throw a big party when this interim time is over! We have to get ready! We must be prepared when a new era begins.

The Kingdom Christ Brought

One day, more than 500 years after the prophets began to speak about the Messiah and his Kingdom, a young rabbi from Nazareth, came preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15). His name was Jesus bar Joseph. When he came, he showed unusual devotion to God, unusual wisdom in his teachings and parables, and unusual power in the way he healed the sick, the lame, and the mentally ill. He also periodically made unusual claims. He proclaimed that the Day of the Lord the prophets had foretold was here. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand—and he was its king (Mark 1:18). He even claimed that, in some mysterious way, he was the Kingdom of God (Matthew 12:27). In other words, in him, the Kingdom of God was present. Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). [6]

He also made the astounding claim that the Kingdom of God could not only be in him and created by him, but it could be within each one of us. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he said (Luke 17:21). In other words, the wisdom, the love, the peace, the power, the eternal life, which is the essence of the Kingdom of God, can be felt in each of our lives if only we will respond to the gracious call of Jesus, which is the Good News of the Gospel. It can, in fact, be with us each and every day of our lives.

This kingdom Jesus brings is not like the kingdoms of this earth. It is not like the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the British Empire, even the Pax Americana the world has enjoyed since 1945. These kingdoms are doomed to rise and fall.

Jesus’ kingdom will not end with our death, for we will be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43). He also promises that he will come someday in an unimaginable way and finally defeat the foes of God, of Truth, of Justice, of Righteousness, and establish a perfect kingdom that will last forever—a kingdom in which there will be no more death, or disease, or war, or pain. [7]

A couple of times in our marriage, Kathy and I have gone to look at timeshare units. Often, the people who develop them offer free weekends, where you can come and live in a timeshare in, say, Destin, Florida for a few days, spend some time at the beach, and dream about what life would be like if you owned a timeshare. God is a bit like a Timeshare developer. We do not have to wait until heaven to have a kind of foretaste of the kingdom and experience for just a little while what God’s kingdom is like. Paul tells us that we Christians are already citizens of God’s kingdom, which is the Church of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:21). When we accept Christ as the king of our hearts, become a part of the Body of Christ, and begin to behave as if we were in heaven, we experience in some small way what heaven is like.

Becoming a Kingdom Citizen

There has been a lot of talk recently about citizenship. Historically, citizenship required that you either be born in our country or pass a test after a period of preparation to become a citizen. In other words, you don’t just automatically get to be a citizen of a kingdom unless you are born a citizen—and none of us is born a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

So, how can we become a part of that kingdom? In today’s text, Jesus tells us how we can do this. He says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). To be a part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus, we have to repent. We must turn around, look at ourselves, recognize how far we really are from God, and then turn from the kingdom of this world to his kingdom. We will never repent unless we believe, and so we must believe to enter the kingdom of God. In other words we must believe and put our trust in the gospel that Christ proclaimed: that God loves us, sent his son to die for us, wants us to be his children, part of his family, members of his kingdom (John 3:16). Once we have that kind of faith, we must listen to God in our hearts and his word, Holy Scripture—because God’s children listen and hear his voice (John 10:27). Finally, having become hearers of the word of God, we must also become doers of the word of God (Mark 3:35, James 1:22-27; Romans 2:13). If we repent, believe, listen, and obey, we will be a part of the body of Christ and experience with other believers a foretaste of what heaven will be like right here on this earth.

Preparing for Easter

Lent is a time of preparation. We are preparing to celebrate Good Friday when the Messiah died for our sins and for Easter Sunday when the Messiah rose from the dead, demonstrating God’s power over sin and death. When that day comes, we are going to have a celebration. In the meantime, we must remember that Jesus did not come because we did not need a savior. He came because we need a savior and need to be rescued from ourselves, our selfishness, and out sinfulness. This is what Lent is all about. We are preparing for a better day.

Amen

[1] See, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1985) for a deep analysis of the importance of communion to the being of God and of the Church where he speaks of the church a the “community of the kingdom of God.” Id, at 232-233.

[2] The Westminster Confession makes it plain that, while it is possible to be saved outside of the church, the church is the ordinary vehicle by which God works salvation. Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 25.2, Governing Documents of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Constitution Vol. 2 Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, Livonia, MI EPC 2013), Chapter 25.2 p. 44.

[3] Some of the Old Testament references include Isaiah 35:1-4, 8-10; 40:9-11; 52:7-10; Jeremiah 23:3-4; Daniel 2:44; 7:13-14; Zechariah 14:9; Psalm 89. See, https://www.ligonier.org/blog/kingdom-god-old-testament-prophetic-hope/ (Downloaded, February 17, 2018).

[4] Isaiah 9:6-7.

[5] Isaiah 11:1-12 describes all these qualiites.

[6] Jesus’ exact claim can be looked at in two different ways, both of which are a part of this sermon. The claim can be and seems to be that Kingdom of God is in him and can be within each of us. See, William Barclay, “The Gospel of Luke” in the Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 220.

[7] See Revelation 21:1-6.

Heart of Worship: Transformed in Managing Money

Kathy and I were in Houston last weekend to celebrate a Sunday School Class that spawned a series of smaller groups and to thank the woman who sponsored us when we were young, immature, Christians. We joined the Carpenters Class the Sunday after we returned from our honeymoon. It was in the Carpenters Class, which included and spawned many small groups, that we first learned about Christian marriage, Christian child-raising, and how to manage our money. Members of that class were a part of our first Crown Ministry study on Christians and their money. Members of that class helped us with our first attempt at budgeting, tithing, and planning for retirement. We have been with each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow, in success and in failure, in good times and bad, in hard times and in easy times.

This group and its members have enriched my life in many ways. We Americans like to think of ourselves as independent individuals. We are individuals, but the individuals we become is powerfully impacted for good or ill be people with whom we share out lives. In our case, in every area of life, we have been blessed with friends and small groups of friends that helped us be faithful spouses and faithful stewards of the gifts God has given to us.

Our Call to a Life of Stewardship

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a series of parables concerning the Kingdom of God and our responsibility as citizens of that Kingdom. [1]When confronted by the Gospel and the gracious invitation of God to receive his gracious offer to become citizens of the Kingdom of God, some people reject it. Some people don’t reject God’s offer, but they fail to become very good citizens of that Kingdom. They fail to be constantly filled with the Spirit, live a careful life of stewardship of their time, talent and energy, and don’t care much for those who are suffering. [2] Today, we are going to be visiting about the parable of the Talents. Hear the word of God as it comes to us from Matthew 25:14-30:

For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Prayer: Eternal God, You are indeed the owner of everything and you have graciously bestowed upon us the privilege of being placed in Charge of your creation. Use this meditation to enable us to become better stewards of your riches. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Today, I want to give my readers there short principles that can help us in managing our money:

Principle One: We are Stewards not Owners!

When I began writing the little two week devotional that goes with the next two sermons we are having in Bay Village, Ohio, I was struck by the relevance of today’s text. All of us want to be “good and faithful servants” and none of us want to be a “lazy and wicked servant” of Jesus. If we do not, then we need to learn a few things. Although the text is about all of life stewardship, all of our time, talents, energy, and money, it not insignificant that Jesus told the parable about money. [3]

We human beings were created for stewardship (Gen.1:28-30; 2:13). From the beginning, God intended us to be careful, diligent, hard working stewards of Creation. Of course, because of the Fall, we are not able to fully become the good stewards God intended us to be. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, we can become much better stewards than we are today!

Many years ago now, Kathy and I went through what became the great oil and gas and real estate collapse in Texas. Up to that time, we had never really had to think seriously about how God would have our finances managed. Then, my income fell, we had three and then four small children, business was not good, and we were in debt. It was at that moment that we began to tithe and to study how we could better manage our finances. One of the members of that Sunday School Class and I were in a small group Bible study together, and he mentioned to me the Christian writer Ron Blue. I purchased Ron Blue’s book and began attempting to put our financial house in order. [4]

The first step I had to take was to recognize that my income, house, cars, bank accounts, possessions, etc. were gifts of God, no matter how hard I had worked to get them. This gets me to the first step we must all take in the life of stewardship: we have to recognize that everything we have, no matter how hard we work or how smart we are or how diligently we plan, everything is a gift of God. We don’t own our lives; we are given them. We are born by God’s grace, we live by God’s grace, we have the abilities and talents we have by God’s grace, and we get the breaks in life we get by God’s grace. Therefore, we are all called to manage those gifts out of the gratitude we feel to a loving God for all he has given to us, however much or little that is.

Principle 2: We Will Never Become Good Stewards unless we Take Stock.

Jesus was, among other things, the wisest teacher in the history of the world. Sometimes we forget that he was both the Wisdom and the Love of God in human form. One of my favorite of his parables goes like this:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:28-30).

In America, we rarely run out of money when we’re building a new house. We borrow the money from the bank. But in the ancient world, and in much of the world today, people have to build their houses as they earned the cash to do so. Those of us who have traveled in third world countries have seen many half-built houses. Jesus and his hearers would have been familiar with many such homes. In Jesus’s world, only a fool began to build a home that he was unable to complete.

In managing our financial affairs, many of us don’t take that first step of wisdom. We don’t figure out where we are, and we don’t plan and budget so that we can get where we want to go. This is the second point of the day:  If we want to become better stewards of our resources, the first thing we have to do is take stock of where we are and what we can afford!

If Kathy were here today, she would tell you that for a guy that has limited mathematical ability, I am capable of creating an enormous number of spreadsheets. Many years ago, before I knew how to use a computer, I purchased and accountant’s tablet and begin the painful process of creating a balance sheet and income and expense statement for our family. I even created a first basic future financial plan for retirement. Once we had a computer, I begin to use a computer program that no longer exists! Today most of the time I use Excel . I’ve learned it for free I can download almost any kind of template I need to plan retirement, create a budget, find out what our assets are, and solve any other financial problem I want to think about if I look hard enough. For those of you who don’t want to look, there are a lot of programs out there. [5]

I guarantee you that there is not a single person in this room with less native mathematical ability than I have!  If my High School Math teachers were here today, they would stand up with one voice and declare that I have no mathematical ability. However, after years of hard work, I taught myself what I need to know–and so can anyone else in this room.  Figuring out where we are and making a budget and plan does not take a lot of ability, it just takes a lot of hard work and concentration.

Principle 3: We Will Never Save or Give Unless we find Contentment.

Sometimes, people think that pastors are exempt from the feelings that ordinary people have. That’s just not true, especially when your pastor used to be a lawyer! This is where I get to make a confession: I’ve always wanted a Jaguar.  Like all men, I like cars. I even like fast and expensive cars, even though I’m one of the slowest drivers on the face of the planet. When I was a lawyer, I used to think that people made fun of me because I drove less expensive cars than the other members of the firm. It always made me feel inferior. About two or three years after I buy any car, I passed by a new Jaguar and I begin to wish I could have one. It is then I have to remember to be content with what I have!

This is the third and last principle I want to lift up for you this morning:  We will never live within our means, save, or develop generosity until and unless we learn to be content with what we have! In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus puts it this way:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Matthew 6:25-34).

When I began this week’s sermon, I learned that the Greek word for lazy has within it the element of fear. [6] The lazy servant was a fearful servant who did not know or trust in the loving care of God for his people and so is not enabled by grace to live in the Spirit of Wisdom and Love. He failed to see the love and mercy, the grace of God, and so fearfully hid his talents. That is why he was not faithful. The same can be true of us. Until we can accept the loving care of our Heavenly Father, we will always worry about and misuse money.

Our society is restlessly materialistic. It’s also restlessly anxious and fearful. As Christians, we can give no better witness to our faith then to live joyfully and contently with what we have. This does not mean that we don’t work hard, plan for the future, try to earn more, or enjoy the good things of life. It means that today we are content with what we have today. Therefore we are not filled with worry.

Conclusion

I’ve been a Christian for more than thirty years, a Christian leader for almost as long, and a pastor for a quarter of a century. I can testify that how we handle our money impacts our marriages, our level of anxiety, our happiness, our health, and our ability to withstand the inevitable difficulties of life, and our future happiness on this earth and in the world to come, I suspect. Financial issues sit behind many divorces and other problems in our society. Therefore, it is important that Christians learn to manage our finances wisely.

Those of you that are in small groups may want to talk about the contents of the devotional and of the sermons for the next two weeks. If you’re not in a small group, please try to take advantage of our emphasis this month and next month on small groups. After Easter, you might want to think about doing a Crown Ministry study with your group or another group. [7]

Most of us think of the life of stewardship as a remnant of the law: Something to remind us of how far short we fall and how sinful we are. There is an element of truth in this. The Torah (Law or instructions of God) was given as a standard by which we may judge ourselves. But, that aspect can blind us to a deeper reality: The life of stewardship is just a part of the life of grace. We will never be the stewards God calls us to be until and unless we open our hearts and allow the grace of God to fill us with the power to be the people God has called us to be.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] These parables are: the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), the Parable of the Talents (vv. 14-30), and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (vv. 31-46).

[2] The variances of responses to the Gospel are a constant theme in Jesus’ teaching. The parable of the four soils (or “Sower” s it is sometimes known) is about these different responses. See, Mark 4:1-20). In Matthew 25, we are confronted with the problem of foolishly forgetting to be filled with the Holy Spirit and constantly watchful (the Parable of the Ten Virgins), the problem of being poor stewards (The Parable of the Talents), and the problem of being so concerned with our own affairs that we do not attend to the suffering of others (the Parable of the Sheep and Goats).

[3] Carl Blomberg, “Matthew” in The New American Commentary vol. 25 (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1992), 375.

[4] Ron Blue, Master Your Money: A Step By Step Guide for Experiencing Financial Contentment (Nashville, TN: Thomas and Nelson, 1986, 1991, 1997, 2004, 2016).

[5] Most people are familiar with quicken and other basic programs. There are so many that I am not going to note them all. The advent of tablet computers has spawned numerous apps that can be purchased or downloaded. They are all good if a person will use them. Just take the time to find the one you will use.

[6] Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew” in the New American Commentary, footnote 3 above at 373-375.

[7]Crown Financial Ministries is one of the best programs and the one used at Bay Presbyterian Church. In my former congregation, the leadership preferred Dave Ramsey. What you do is not nearly as important as doing something. See, Crown Financial Ministries at https://www.crown.org/ and Dave Ramsey at www.daveramsey.com. Each of these organizations has multiple programs for different groups.

The Harmony of Transformed Hearts

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s, The Silmarillion, creation is depicted as an act of divine music-making. [1] There is a great harmony, then disharmony, then the harmony grows louder and louder and finally the harmony of creation emerges victorious. It is a long, lovely meditation on the creation of the world and the harmony God intended, which has been marred by sin, evil, and distortion. Tolkien managed to create a metaphor that is both consistent with the Biblical story of creation (Tolkien was a devout Christian) and in many respects consistent with what the science of his day believed about the creation of the world.

The ancient Chinese felt that the music of an era was an important factor in its growth or decay. Here is one quote that summarizes their view:

Music is the harmony of heaven and earth while rites are the measurement of heaven and earth. Through harmony all things are made known, through measure all things are properly classified. Music comes from heaven, rites are shaped by earthly designs. [2]

Music is important. The Bible is full of references to music. The entire book of Psalms contains poetry, most of which was sung in the worship of the Jewish people. We know that music was a part of Jewish and early Christian worship. Music has always been a part of Christian worship from the early church forward. [3]  Paul quotes early hymns or praise songs on occasion. For example, in Philippians the familiar “Christ Hymn” may originally have been a song early Christians sang:

“In your relationships with one another,

have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God

something to be used to his own advantage;

He made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).

From Disharmony to Harmony

Near the beginning of Colossians, Paul describes in detail who Jesus Christ was and what Christ has done for the human race. Christ, Paul says, is the image of the invisible God, the first-born over creation (Colossians 1:15). The fullness of God is present in Jesus (1:19; 2:9-10). By him everything was made and is before all things, and in Christ all things find their proper place (Colossians 1:15-17). Christ is the source of our salvation by his sacrifice on the cross (1:14-23). Jesus is the head of the church (1:18; 2:12ff). Paul goes on to speak of the implications of what he has said: We must put to death all in us that is contrary to the Gospel and to the spiritual wholeness God has for us (3:1-10). Then Paul tells the Colossians (and us) that we must “put on” the new life of Christ. Here is how Paul puts it:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).

Let us pray: God of peace and wholeness, come into our hearts that we might find that peace that passes all understanding that we can find only in You. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 Eliminating Disharmony

 In The Silmarillion, Tolkien uses musical dissonance for a reality we all experience: There is some disharmony in all of us, a kind of spiritual and moral brokenness that distorts our lives and prevents us from being as healthy, happy, whole, balanced, and harmonious as God intended. It is as if we are a slightly flawed piece of music!

Every pastor observes people who rightly have a kind of anger because of mistreatment they endured as children. As understandable as that anger is, it still impacts their human relationships, their businesses, families, congregations, and the like. Years ago, I was in a leadership relationship with someone with a lot of anger against authority figures because of a damaging childhood. My position required that I be in many meetings with that person. I often came home tired and irritable. I could understand and love the person, but that did not eliminate the relational damage that person occasionally inflicted on others.

Paul urges the Colossians to put away sexual and other immorality, greed, uncontrolled desire, anger, rage, malice, slander, and the like (Colossians 3:1-12). So long as we are dominated by our natural desires and our fallen human nature, we will always be without the peace of Christ. This begins with how we think. Not so long ago, someone was in my office and said something so very important: “Every negative thought has bad consequences.” Every time we allow negativity, anger, prejudice and the like to rule in our hearts and minds, we not only injure our own harmony, but we injure the harmony of the world around us. Therefore, we need to get rid of it. We cannot find harmony we desire if our lives are ruled by immorality, uncontrolled desire, greed, anger, rage, malice and all the rest.

Achieving Harmony

It is not enough to just do away with our negative habits. There is a place in Matthew where Jesus has healed a demon possessed person (See Matthew 12). This healing gives him an opportunity to talk about the Evil One and how he operates. Near the end of the teaching, Jesus makes this observation: When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it goes away. However, it will come back if nothing replaces the darkness and dysfunction. And when it comes, things maybe worse than they were before (Matthew 12:43-45).

In this teaching, Jesus is making a shrewd observation. I’ve had to deal with a lot of people with addictions over the course of my ministry. In many cases, for a short period of time, a person may achieve some kind of sobriety. However, if that person doesn’t achieve a true healing for the addiction, often it returns—sometimes, worse than before. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people relapse and end up worse than they were before or even die. You see, the demon returned, found the house empty, and walked right in.

This is why Paul tells us that it is not enough to do away with negative spiritual qualities: Once we come to Christ, we still need to put on some new spiritual qualities! It’s like getting dressed for a party. It’s not enough for me to come home and take off my jeans and other clothes before a fancy party. I need to put on a Tuxedo!

Once we’ve taken off judgmentalism, we need to put on compassion. Once we have taken off rudeness, we need to put on kindness. Once we’ve put off pride, we need to put on humility. Once we’ve taken off greed, we need to put on generosity. Once we’ve taken off being irritable, we need to put on patience. Once we’ve taken off being unforgiving, we need to put on forgiveness. And above all, we need to put on love, because it is love that binds together all the virtues (Colossians 3:12).

When we put on these virtues, the spiritual qualities of Christ, Paul tells us that peace begins to rule in our hearts. Paul was a Jew. The Hebrew word for peace is “Shalom.” Shalom is more than the absence of conflict. Shalom is a state when things are in harmony as they should be. Those of us who have been married have experienced arguments in our marriages. And we all know that when the argument is over, and we have made up a kind of peace enters our marriage, as marital harmony is restored. The same thing is true in every area of life. When we get the disharmony out of our life, we gain a kind of harmony. And in that harmony, we can experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control and all of the other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

Music and the Divine Harmony

At the end of our reading, Paul urges the Colossians to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as the Word of God comes to dwell in their hearts and transforms them. We are to be singers of God’s harmony, not just here but everywhere. Our lives need to become a hymn of worship to God. Nevertheless, if we cannot achieve it here, it is unlikely we will achieve it anywhere.

We are in a series called “Heart of Worship.” There is a lot in the title. Worship is not primarily a matter of what we do. It’s a matter of the heart. The “Heart of Worship” is a heart oriented towards God. The heart of worship is a heart that is filled with the love of Christ, that is the self-giving, self-sacrificial love God showed us when he died for our sins on the cross. The love of God sometimes requires that we give up our own personal preferences in worship in order to serve our fellow church members or others. I can’t say it any nicer, because that is the fact.

I am not musical. When I listen to the radio in the car, which is seldom, I listen to whatever Kathy wants to listen to. If I’m on my own, I usually think or listen to classical music. I was forty years old before I experienced contemporary worship. It wasn’t something I was initially attracted to. When I went to my former church, they had a leading-edge contemporary worship service. For the first time, I was confronted with drums in worship. Because of where I sat during worship, those drums were three feet away from my ears. In the beginning, I really didn’t like it. Over the years, I got to know the drummer well. He was one of the finest drummers in the City of Memphis and a strong Christian. He was a gentle and kind soul. After a while, I wasn’t even aware of the drums. I was aware of my friend who was playing them.

I’ve told the following story more than once of the past few weeks: In my first church, we had a young man with musical ability. He learned to play the piano. Occasionally, we had him play the piano during worship. It wasn’t perfect, but we all liked it. Then, he decided to learn to play the violin. At the beginning, he was pretty bad. If you think drums are hard to listen to in worship, a new violin player is infinitely more difficult! But we had him play many times. Today, this young man is a choir director and church organist who plays the piano, organ, and violin.

In my second church, we had a young man who was majoring in guitar at the University of Memphis. On my first Christmas Eve, at the most traditional midnight communion service, we asked him to play “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Frankly it never occurred to me that he would do it with an electric guitar, but he did! In addition, he was in that stage, which at least one of my children went through, where he liked to play loud, use the guitar pedals a lot and distort the music as much as possible. (I call this the “Jimmy Hendrix stage”.) During this phase it’s been my experience that a lot of grimacing goes on as the guitar is being played by an emerging rock star. I got some complaints after that service. But, I supported what he’d done. He graduated from college, went to one of the most prestigious musical graduate schools in America, and today is a choir director, song writer, a worship leader, in of one of the largest churches in our denomination. To be quite frank, I did not particularly appreciate that first guitar piece I heard him play. But I did love him. I did love his family. And so, I supported what he was doing.

This past week, I addressed the College of Elders on the subject of servant leadership. I shared with them some facts about our culture. We went through some of the differences between the world in which I grew up and a lot of you grew up and post-modern America. I reminded the group that not all of post-modernism is bad. [4]

Musically, our culture has changed dramatically since 1960. Since 1960, a new genre or genres of music that we tend to lump together as “Contemporary Christian music” has emerged. For those of us who can appreciate what is going on, it is unbelievable the volume of Christian music that has been written. Much of it is quite good. It may not be to my taste, but it’s quite good. We old-timers need to remember this, and the younger generation sometimes needs to remember that the Christian musical tradition has created some wonderful music.

Conclusion

One of my favorite novels is The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse. [5] My favorite character is the Music Master, who is the protagonist’s mentor. The music master finds young Joseph Knetch, who will become the Master of the Glass Bead Game, as a young lad. He loves and trains the boy. Knetch is a talented musician, but he decides not to become a musician as the Music Master had hoped. Yet, over the years, the music master helps Joseph. Near the end of his life, the Music Master becomes a kind of musical saint, as the music upon which he has meditated all of his life transforms his soul into a silent harmony.

As Christians, this is what God wants for us. He wants us to be transformed by the word of God—that Word that became flesh in Jesus. He wants our worship, our prayers, a reading of the word of God, our music, are singing, everything that we do not just here but in all of our lives to become one great him of praise to the living God.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Jr.R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion Christopher Tolkien, ed (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1977). The first part describes as the creation of Tolkien’s literary universe in which his hooks, including the Lord of the Rings will be set.  The beginning of the Silmarillion describes the creation of the physical universe, the creation of angelic beings, how one of them fell (Melkor, and describes some other characters that appear in the Lord of the Rings, including Gandalf and Sauron. See, http://fourletternerd.com/the-silmarillion-and-the-creation-of-middle-earth/. See also, Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.

[2] William Maim, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, “Chinese Music”  Updated November 16, 2017). www.britannica.com/art/Chinese-music  (Downloaded January 19, 2017).

[3] See, Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013). This excellent book focuses on the way in which the love of God is reflected in creation. Carol Rettew brought this book to my attention this week.

[4] Some of characteristics of postmodernity can be: loss of the transcendent (No God), critical thinking taken to extremes (No Truth), reduction of everything to material powers and human will. (No Transcendent Spirit), deconstructive, revolutionary thinking about society, morals, families, etc. (No Rules), the state and other institutions taking on an importance previously reserved to God (No Human Limits), extreme individualism combined with ethical nihilism. (No Real Community). This is, however, an oversimplification.

[5] Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (New York, NY: Holt Reinheart and Winston (Picador Press), 1990). In some American translations this book is titled “Magister Ludi” so do not be confused by a different name.

Heart of Worship: Keep the main thing the Main Thing

This is  Epiphany when we remember the coming of the Wise Men, who fell down and worshiped the Baby Jesus and brought him precious gifts (Matthew 2:11). The Wise Men were not Jews. They were Magi from the East, probably from around Babylon (Matt 2:1-2). Christians celebrate Epiphany as the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The Wise Men included the first non-Jews to see the Messiah. When they came, they fell down, worshiped Jesus, and gave him precious gifts. We are called to do the same. We are called here week by week to fall down before the Risen Christ. We are also called to bring him gifts, and two gifts he wants most are for us to obey his commandment to love one another and his commission to share the good news and make disciples until he returns.

It is no secret churches struggle for unity in the area of worship styles. Don’t feel bad if this characterizes your congregation. Frankly, I am surprised that some churches went along so long without experiencing tensions between those who prefer contemporary and more traditional Christian music. Most congregations experienced it in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

When I was in my early 30’s the young people in our church requested permission to experiment with “Contemporary Worship.” The service was held on Sunday evening and attended by about 200 or more people, not all young. Not unpredictably, a bit of conflict developed between proponents of the two worship services. When I went to Advent in 1999, they had two very different kinds of worship experiences and the two groups were in tension. It was while studying The Purpose Driven Life as a congregation that we finally reached unity about this issue. [1] When thinking about worship, it helps to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

Our text is from the last chapter of Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20).

Let us Pray: God of All Wisdom, Love, and Hidden Power: Come among us as we begin a new year. Allow us to be filled with your Spirit and, like Jesus, always about our Father’s business, wherever we may be. In Jesus Precious Name, Amen

What is Worship, Anyway?

Our text begins by reminding us that, when the disciples came to receive the Great Commission, the first thing they did was worship Jesus. The word used in this passage literally means to fall down or bow down and worship, to pay homage to and to submit to as a sovereign. [2] To the Jewish and Christian mind, God and only God is worthy of worship, and when the disciples fell at the feet of the risen Lord and worshiped him they were recognizing that Jesus was the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, of one being with the Father.

When we come to worship, we come to bow down before God, to pay our respects to God, to pray to God, to listen to the Word of God, to hear again the commandments of God, so that we may leave renewed in our devotion to God and in our commitment to follow God’s word and leading in our daily lives.

Whenever music, or a preacher, or a worship leader, or anything else takes the place of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our worship, we are doomed to division until we remember what true worship is. This has important ramifications: We cannot and must not make a person, a theology, style of music, a particular liturgy, or anything else our primary concern. God revealed in Jesus Christ is our primary concern in Christian worship.

Just as importantly, when we worship we are not religious consumers of religious experiences. We are bowing down, offering ourselves to God. We are acknowledging that God is God and we are not God. We do not come to worship primarily to hear a message, listen to music, recite a liturgy, or whatever. We worship to offer ourselves to the Living God.

Worship and Christian Community: It is Not about Me (or You)

Our text tells us that the “Eleven” came and worshiped Jesus. The remaining disciples, after Judas betrayed Jesus, when the time came for Jesus to ascend into heaven, came together and worshiped Jesus. We can too easily pass over this fact: Jesus called his disciples into community and they worshiped him then and always since as a community. Worship is essentially communal. The Jews worshiped God at the Temple and in synagogues as a community. Since the beginning, Christians have worshiped God in community.

The word for “Church” is a Greek word that literally means those who have been gathered out of the nations to worship God. [3] When Paul speaks to Christian believers he almost always does so in the plural. [4] God did not call each of us into a merely private relationship with Him. He calls Christians to enter into the Divine Fellowship of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a divine fellowship that has an earthly counterpart. That earthly counterpart is the church of Christ as it exists in a real, concrete form in real concrete places all over the globe.

In churches today, with multiple worship services, in more than one style, with people who either do not know each other or do not know each other well, this can be hard! However, we must always remember that we were called together, in different services, with different liturgies, from different families, communities, jobs, social backgrounds, etc. to worship Christ in loving community!

Worship just cannot not be completely divorced from community. Worship is a part of, and flows from, Christian community and its long, rich history. Jesus called twelve people to become his disciples in community. He discipled them in community during his earthly ministry. His last commandment to them was to love one another (John 15:12; I John 3:11). We are called first and foremost to love one another in a deep, life changing community that mirrors the community God has, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the first and most important thing God wants of us. This next year, the most important thing Christians will do or can do is to build community, real authentic Christian community in our congregation.

Worship Leads to Action: The Great Commission and Worship

It is no surprise that, immediately after the disciples recognized Jesus for who he was and fell down at his feet to worship him, at that moment, he gave them the Great Commission. The Great Commission is not some minor add-on to the Gospels. It is central to the Gospels. All four Gospels and Acts contain the command of Jesus to carry the Good News into the entire world. [5]

Today’s text is the most famous of the renderings:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20).

Because Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is and what God intends to do in history, because in Jesus Christ the wisdom (Word) of God and the self-giving love of God is revealed in human form, because God vindicated Jesus by revealing in him God’s eternal life, because all the hidden, secret, power of God is present in Jesus, and because the Gospel is Good News of God’s love for everyone, we are to go and make disciples, followers of Jesus who have heard, learned, and internalized his word and live out in their daily lives the divine life of Jesus, sharing that Good News in word and deed wherever we and they may be or are doing.

In Romans, Paul speaks of this outward-focused aspect of worship when he says:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Our truest worship of God is what we do because we come to to worship Him week by week, because we are in community with other believers, because we have heard the Great Commission and Great Commandment, — because of all this, we give ourselves wholly to God in our average, day to day, lives. And, what should constitute the primary focus of our daily lives? Sharing the love of God and the Good News of the Gospel with others as we are able.

Worship: Music and the “Heart of Worship”

Life changing worship has been an important part of Christian life since the beginning of the Christian movement, and not surprisingly, not everyone agreed even in the early church about worship. The early Church struggled with questions like, “Who should be able to lead in worship?” “How big a role should be played by speaking in tongues, prophesy and the like?” “How should communion be shared and when?” [6]  The questions of music in worship, how much music and what kind of music should be heard has frequently cropped up during the course of Christian history. [7] When Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and composed the music for the hymn, his music would have been considered contemporary music, and far from the chants with which the medieval church was familiar. [8]

It helps if we remember to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing: Jesus is at the heart of our worship. Jesus, not our preacher, our music, our liturgy, is the main thing. We do not come here for any other reason than to worship Jesus and Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing in our lives.

This message takes part of its name from the Christian song, “Heart of Worship” written in the late 1990s by Matt Redman. [9] The song began with Redman’s pastor deciding that music had become a barrier to worship within Matt’s home church, “Soul Survivor,” in Watford, England. “There was something missing in their worship, so the pastor did a pretty brave thing,” he recalls. “He decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season, and we gathered together with just our voices. His point was that we’d lost our way in worship, and the way to get back to the heart would be to strip everything away.”

Reminding his church family to be producers in worship, not just consumers, the pastor asked, “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” [10] The question initially led to an embarrassing silence, but eventually people broke into a-cappella songs and heartfelt prayers, encountering God in a fresh way. Redman goes on to say that “Before long, we reintroduced the musicians and sound system, as we’d gained a new perspective that worship is all about Jesus, and He commands a response in the depths of our souls no matter what the circumstance and setting. “ The Heart of Worship’ simply describes what occurred.”

I’m not very musical, but my wife is. When we first dated she had a grey Mercury Monarch, for those who remember that can. One of our first dates, we took her car and she was playing an old Willie Nelson album called, “Stardust”. On that album, there is a song called “All of Me,” which really does not give terribly good dating advice, but we fell in love listening to it so it is meaningful. This secular song, however, has a message we all need to sing to Christ: “All of me, why not take all of me/ Can’t you see that I’m no good without you”. [11]

God wants us to worship Him, and we do when we give “all of me” to Christ

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

[2] See “proskyneo” in Gerhard Kittle, et all, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 948ff; Spiros Zodhiates, ed. The Complete Word Study Dictionary (New Testament) (Chattanooga, TN: AMG, 1992), 1233. The term means literally to fall down before, to worship, to pay respect of homage to, to show reverence towards, to adore, etc.

[3]  The Greek word, “eckaleo” literally means those called out. Just as the ancient Jews were called out of slavery to worship God, so we are called out from the false God’s of the world to worship the One True God of Love.

[4] The Greek language, like most others, makes a clear distinction between singular and plural forms. In English translations, however, the word “you” is used for both singular and plural pronouns. Christians addressed as “the light of the world” (Mt.5:14), “the salt of the earth” (Mt. 5:14), “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor.3:16,17; 6:19), and “the Body of Christ” (I Cor.12:27), are all in the plural. In other words, all these are communal statements. Our being designated as “the light of the world” (Mt.5:14), “the salt of the earth” (Mt.5:14), “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor.3:16,17; 6:19), and “the Body of Christ” (I Cor.12:27), are all in the plural. See The Pioneers New Testament: pioneernt.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/word-study-142-you-you-all-and-each-of-you/ (Downloaded January 4, 2018).

[5] Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8.

[6] The Books of First and Second Corinthians contain many passages showing that the early Church struggled over many of the same issues with which we struggle, such as “What should the role of women be in worship?” How should people of lower social classes be treated?” “How big a role should the gifts of the Spirit and especially speaking in tongues play in worship?” and other questions.

[7] We forget that the church has always had elements, such as some parts of the Church of Christ today, that do not believe that music should be a part of worship. At every great musical transition in history, there have been those who did not think that the new music was appropriate.

[8] Most scholars think Luther wrote the hymn between 1521 and 1529, with the majority of scholars settling on 1527–28 during a period of personal crisis. It was written as a hymn version of Psalm 46, and was put to a popular tune. It may not, however, have been a beer hall tune unless an existing tune was incorporated into the hymn tune. See, “Luther and the Bar Song: The Truth Please” Issues (Downloaded January 3, 2018).

[9] Matt Redman, “Heart of Worship” (Thankyou Music, 1999). The introduction to this sermon is based on an article at Crosswalk.com and can be found at: https://www.crosswalk.com/church/worship/ song-story-matt-redmans-the-heart-of-worship-1253122.html. (Downloaded January 4, 2018). The most well-known version was recorded by Michael W. Smith. The Lyrics read, “I’m coming back to the heart of worship/And it’s all about You all about You Jesus/ I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it /When it’s all about You all about You Jesus.

[10] One reason churches can have issues with the so-called worship wars is that American Christians, probably subconsciously, sometimes adopt a consumer view of what we do in worship. This was the problem Matt Redman’s pastor saw. When I was in seminary our evangelism professor once made a comment that contained an unfortunate element of truth: He felt that American worship had become a private form of religious entertainment, focused on celebrity pastors and musicians, both in traditional and in newer contemporary congregations, with the excellence of the preacher, or the music, or whatever, being the reason people came to church. We don’t need to feel particularly condemned by this. In consumer society, it is no surprise that a consumer, entertainment oriented kind of worship is a constant temptation. If worship is between Jesus and me, then what I desire in preaching, praying and music is what matters. However, if I am called to be a part of a fellowship of Christians, then what matters is the needs of my fellow Christians as well as my personal needs. We do not have to like everything or everyone or approve of everything. We just have to sacrificially love everyone and sacrifice our preferences for them out of a center in God’s love. This is hard in contemporary society.

[11] Gerald Marks/Seymour Simons, All of Me lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Round Hill Music Big Loud Songs, Marlong Music Corp. (First recorded by Billie Holliday, 1949).

Thankful for the Spirit

Any first year in ministry is difficult. When I was called to my first congregation, the church had experienced conflict. It was in a small, rural, area. Over the years, it had dwindled from 300 or so members 100 or so.  Worship attendance could be as low as thirty-five people, and about eighty people were present when the vote was called to approve me as their pastor. When Kathy and I arrived, there was a need for a tremendous outpouring of energy. As a result, by the end of my first year, I was completely exhausted.

The next summer, we took the children to Montreat, North Carolina.  If you’ve never been there, it’s lovely. The mountains of that area are just tall enough for a plant called “Galax” to grow. Galax has a unique quality. You can pick Galax in July, and as long as you keep it in water it will release a fragrance all the way to Christmas.

One day, we took the children on a hike up Grandfather Mountain to pick Galax.  About halfway up, we reached a place where Galax grows. It was a lovely spot, a little glen through which a stream flowed. It was a rocky stream, surrounded by fallen trees and boulders.  As I remember it, there was an area where the water fell for just a few inches. As it flowed over the rocks, it made a wonderful sound.

While Kathy and the children picked Galax, I sat on a rock and watched the water flow down the stream. Suddenly, I experience a filling of the Holy Spirit.  It was as if all the worries, all the concern, and all of the exhaustion of the past year dissipated in a single, wonderful moment as I watched water flow down that stream and thought about the way in which water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  This never has happened to me since, but I treasure that day.

This morning, we are going to be visiting about the way in which the Holy Spirit has fallen and continues to fall upon us and upon the Christian community.

Here I am, Send Me.

If you are not a Christian, you may be wondering, “What is Pentecost?” Pentecost is fifty days after Passover. It was the Jewish “Festival of Weeks,” a day of remembering the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, thought to have occurred fifty days after Passover. The symbolism is important. On Sinai, God gave the law to Moses. At Pentecost, God gives the Spirit that enables us to fulfill the Law by giving us new hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jeremiah 31:33).

Here is how Acts describes the event:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:1-12).

Preparing for the Spirit.

Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus meeting with his disciples. For forty days after the resurrection, Jesus spoke with his disciples (Acts 2:3). Jesus asked them not to leave the city of Jerusalem, but instead to wait for a gift—the Gift of the Spirit (v. 4). Jesus promised that when they received the Spirit, they would witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (v. 8).

As discussed in Acts 1, what God has asked us to do while we wait for an infilling of the Holy Spirit is to:

  • Build a unified community,
  • Pray diligently,
  • Study our Bibles, and
  • Prepare for the future.

Some years ago, there was a famous revival in Wales. The Welsh Revival was a part of the greater Methodist revivals of the 19th Century. One evening, a young man who had received a mighty calling from God went to his own church. He asked a few people to stay after the meeting and visit with him. He asked them to pray. Here are the specific things he asked them to do:

  • First, he asked them to confess their own sins and ask for forgiveness from God.
  • Second, he asked them to remove from their own lives anything that was not in accordance with God’s will.
  • Third, he asked them to be totally yielded to the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Fourth, he asked them to publically declare their faith in Christ.

There are things that precede true revival, and personal prayer,: confession, repentance, changed lives, and sharing the Gospel are some of the central elements.

Getting Clear about the Spirit.

As we pray for the Spirit of God to come upon us, it is a good idea to think carefully about who it is we are asking to come for dinner in our lives and congregation! For many people, the Spirit is either “Casper the Friendly Ghost” or a kind of disembodied power, like the Force in the Star Wars movies. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. It is the presence of the living God. Therefore, we can be sure that the Spirit is the same Spirit present when God created the world (Gen. 1:1).  It is the rational presence of the living Word of God that became flesh in Jesus Christ. (Proverbs 8; John 1:1).

As Christians, we believe that God was fully revealed in Jesus the Christ God loved the world and the human race so much that he sent his Only Begotten Son to dwell with us full of grace and truth (John 3:16; John 1:14). In particular, we see the love of God made visible form in Christ, and in particular in Christ on the cross. Paul and the apostle John also tells us that we know what love is because while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8; 1 John 3:16).  The reason that we cannot think of the Holy Spirit as a force or a power is that, when God wanted to reveal exactly who he is and the nature of his power, he revealed his presence and power by personally dying on a cross, giving his life to save his fallen, helpless, lost people. God’s power is a hidden, secret power.

When God reveals himself, he reveals himself as goodness, truth, and beauty. He reveals himself in the order of the universe and in his silent, secret power, the power of God’s Wisdom and Love that underlies all the powers we see around us.

Pentecost Comes Today

I did my Doctor of Ministry degree at Asbury Seminary. On February 3, 1970, the students at Asbury seminary gathered for chapel. The service was scheduled to last for one hour. Instead, it lasted for 185 hours, 24 hours a day, for a week. It began with a time of testimony in which one student after another came forward to talk about their Christian life. Gradually, students and faculty members found themselves weeping. People formed small groups in the chapel and began to confess their sins to one another, ask for forgiveness, pray and sing. The President of the Seminary, Dr. Kinlaw, was out of town and both fearful and skeptical about what was happening. When he returned, he went to the chapel, which seats about 1500 people. Before he left, he was convinced the experience was real.

My friend remembers people praying all night in dorm rooms, confessing sins, and sharing deep hurts with one another. News of the revival traveled around the nation, and people flocked to the little town of Wilmore, Kentucky. When the service was over, students from Asbury shared their story in other places, and sometimes revival broke out there as well.

Many of the students who were present went on to become pastors, missionaries, and church leaders. Those who were present testified that they could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. Dr. Kinlaw put it this way:

[Y]ou may not understand this, but the only way I know how to account for this [the revival] is that last Tuesday morning, about 20 minutes until Eleven, the Lord Jesus walked into Hughes Auditorium, and He’s been there ever since, and you’ve got the whole community paying tribute to His presence.[1]

Where Do We Go from Here?

A lot of Christians are worried about a lot of things right now. Some folks are concerned about our nation. Some folks are concerned about our economy. Some folks are concerned about their families or homes or neighborhood. Some folks are worried about our church. Here is what I hope we can remember from today:

  • First, we have a promise from God that he will send his Spirit if we wait and pray.
  • Second, we know that God only sends his Spirit in response to unity, study, prayer, confession, changed lives, and changed behavior.
  • Third, we know what to look for—Changed Lives and our own personal life first of all.

As we prepare for a new day in our lives, communities, churches, nations and world, we need to build community (which we will talk about next week), pray, confess, and change. God is coming. We just need to get ready.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A Revival Account Asbury 1970 The Forerunner (March 31, 2008). My account is based on this article at www.forerunner.com/forerunner/X0585_Asbury_Revival_1970. Dr. Kinlaw’s story is on U-Tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qOqitIKUNs.

Labor Day Meditation: The Eternal Value of Good Work

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10)

This past week, one of my meditations from Bonheoffer had to do with work. In his book, No Rusty Swords, he talks about work: “God has called each one of us to do His work in His time.” [1]

In his later years, Bonheoffer came to realize the importance of lay ministry and the ministry of the people of God in the world. In commenting on the passage I just quoted,  Charles Ringma, says, “We are not simply to be guardians of the good things that God has done in the past, nor are we only those who pray for what may happen in the future. We need to be intimately involved in the issues of our time. Different members of the Christian church will identify what these issues are differently. But however we arrange our priorities for our world, we must include caring for God’s creation, encouraging good government, sharing the Gospel, and proclaiming justice and righteousness.” [2]

This passage gives us some very deep and important teachings. First, Christians cannot just worship on Sunday, study our Bibles, and pray about the problems of our world. We have to work on making the world a better place as the Kingdom of God enters into the world through the live of believers. Second, we cannot wait complete agreement among Christians before we act. Different believers will see the world differently. Finally, we must all share our faith we must all speak out for justice and righteousness, public and private. We must all care for God’s creation. We must all work for better government. We must all tend for the garden that God has given us, whether it be large or small, important or insignificant.

The Bible begins with the human race in a garden we call “Eden.” Some Christians speak of Eden as if it was a place where there was no need to work. Genesis paints a somewhat different picture of this “garden,. Listen to two quotes from the Bible: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Genesis 2 puts it this way, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15).

This afternoon Kathy and I went out and bought some plants for our new home. We have a small back yard that was well kept by the former owners, but parts of it need a bit of care and new plantings. When we got home, I did not plant bed we are working on. It was mid-day and hot in San Antonio. I did not want to be sore tomorrow.

When I was a lawyer, I hardly ever worked in the yard. As a seminary student, I had no time. Then, we moved to Brownsville, Tennessee and our first church. Surrounded by farmers and gardeners on every side (and with plenty of guidance, advice and good counsel at hand, for which I am eternally thankful), I planted a garden in the back yard of the manse. When we moved to Memphis, my training in Brownsville allowed me to do most of the landscaping for a long time. Based on all this, I can convey to my readers one certain truth: Gardening, even in paradise, is hard work, especially on a hot, muggy, summer day.

The garden of Eden was never meant to be a place of leisure. God created the world. We were intended to be about the business of making that world more beautiful, more orderly, more just, and more productive. We human beings were made for work. We were made for the work of making the world a better place. We were made to till the garden of God’s good creation. We were made to expend the energy, strength, and brains that God has given to us in the precise way that we can best do that. We were made, and we are remade in Christ, “for the good works God prepared for us beforehand to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

This is Labor Day Weekend. It happens to be one of my favorite holidays. This is the weekend we celebrate the working people of America. Labor Day reminds us of all the endless generations of farmers who built a nation of plenty out of a wilderness. Labor Day reminds us of those who opened the West, built the transcontinental railways, created the greatest manufacturing nation in the world and made of our nation, the “Arsenal of Democracy” at a time of great danger to freedom. Labor Day reminds us of those who even today work and sweat that we might live in peace and plenty.

Those of us who have jobs we call, “White Collar” need to approach this day with a bit of humility. Interestingly for me, Jesus does not seem to have wanted to enter history either as a religious professional or as a “teacher of the law,” the two careers I have embraced. In fact he speaks ill of them both from time to time. He was content to be born and trained as a carpenter. Jesus was a laborer; and, his life, death and resurrection sanctified all laborers and all honest labor.

One reason that I did not work in the garden today was simple: I am waiting for Monday.

PS: Our hearts go out to all those who are suffering from Hurricane Harvey. Many people have asked about our family. We are fine. The hurricane really never caused any damage in San Antonio.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonheoffer, No Rusty Swords (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1977). This book is a collection of Bonheoffer’s writings on a variety of subjects. Many years ago as a law student, this was a favorite work of mine.

[2] Charles Ringma, Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonheoffer (Colorado Springs, CO: Pinion Press, 2000), reading for August 25.

Avoiding the False God of Convenience

Since retirement, I have been using a little devotional guide by Charles Ringma called, “Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  Each day has a short quote from Bonhoeffer, a Bible verse, and a reflection by Ringma. I intend to use this little devotional guide for the first year of my “post-Advent Presbyterian Church” life. The devotional is very different than the devotional life I had as a pastor. Thus far, I am enjoying doing something a bit different devotionally. I don’t know how long this will last, but I am enjoying it and intend to finish my year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This week, one of the devotions had to do with our human tendency to seek God’s actual presence only when we have exhausted all human avenues to accomplish something we desire to accomplish. All of us, pastors and non-pastors, have a tendency to call on God and seek God most passionately when all else fails. Ringma reminds us that, “God is not not a god of the gaps when we have run out of human resources or explanations. God is not be called on only when human wisdom fails. He is not waiting in the wings to be called on only when things run into difficulty. He is there at the center–central to our wisdom, to our answers, to our very life. His wisdom is not geared for a life of religious escapism. It is sufficiently comprehensive to embrace family and political life, personal faith and social transformation.”

This morning, as has become our custom, we attended two different churches. In one of them, the pastor was talking about the false God’s we rely upon a lot of the time. One of them, partially responsible for some of our social tensions is the “God of My Tribe,” that racially and socially acceptable God that defends MY PEOPLE. There are a lot of false God’s in our culture. Perhaps most importantly, the God of MY Personal Peace. This is the God of wealth, health, perpetual youth, and personal fulfillment.  This is the God of pleasure, of security, and of affluence. There is no such God. It is an idol we have created in our own minds–and like all false gods, it must surely fail us and our culture.

The text for this morning’s sermon at one of our churches was from Second Corinthians. It reads like this,Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” II Corinthians 1:3-7).

Over and over again, Paul talks about “comfort.” To the modern ear to talk about “a God of comfort”  seems to mean that God is a God who makes us comfortable, at ease, without problems. This misunderstands what Paul is saying. The Latin word that we translates “Comfort” is made up of two words that mean, “To come beside and strengthen.” This puts an entirely different perspective on what Paul means. What Paul is saying is that God is the God who comes beside us to strengthen us so that we can face difficulties, aging, loss of vigor, disease, loss of jobs, of meaning, even of life itself. The ONE TRUE GOD is not a god who allows us to escape life, but the ONE TRUE GOD who comes beside us and strengthens us for this life. This God is always with us, in life and in death, and in every circumstance in between.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God came close to the human condition and suffered with and for us all that we can suffer: injustice, betrayal, disease, death. In Christ and in the resurrection, God demonstrated his power over our circumstances. Sometimes he will deliver us from them when we cry out to him. Sometimes, he simply walks with us through them.

Bonhoeffer knew such comfort. He was not delivered from the Nazi’s. They ultimately killed him. But he had a powerful understanding that God was with him in his circumstances empowering him to face them. Those around him at the end understood this and remarked on his remarkable calm in the face of suffering, injustice and death.

 

Amen.

When Everyone Does as They Please

If there is one single value that underlies American culture, it is the ideal of freedom. When our forefathers and mothers came to America, they came in search of freedom. The societies of Medieval Europe were highly structured. One’s social and one’s economic status was almost entirely determined by birth. The kingdoms of the Middle Ages were ruled by hereditary elites who owned and controlled most of the farm land. This was at a time when land was the primary source of wealth. There was little freedom of religion. Most European nations had state religions to which everyone had to subscribe. Economically, most children followed the career of their parents, which for most people meant what we would call “tenant farming.” Most people would never own their own land or leave anything to their children.

The early settlers of America wanted “freedom.” But by this freedom they did not mean “the right to do whatever I want so long as it does not obviously hurt anyone else”. They meant “the right to worship as I decide, to work at the job I desire, and to own a piece of property to leave to my heirs, as opposed to being tenants of a lord”. Today, we often misconstrue the founding principles as “the right to do whatever I please”—and in so doing we create a kind of social chaos as millions of Americans try to get what they want and do what they want without much regard for others.

In this blog, we are thinking about the time of the Judges and about what Israel learned between the death of Joshua and the ministry of the final judge, Samuel. This was a time of great social upheaval and period suffering for the people of Israel. It was also a time of periodic religious and moral decay. Unfortunately, Israel of the time of the Judges was not so different from America today: It was a society that lacked a coherent governmental, moral, religious, and cultural base from which to defend itself and provide security of its people.

Text and Prayer

Our text is from the second chapter of Judges. If you remember from two weeks ago, after Moses died, Israel was ruled for many years by the great military leader, Joshua, after whom Jesus was named. [1] Joshua led Israel as the reentered the Promised Land after over 400 years of slavery and wandering in the wilderness. One would think that Israel would remain faithful to God as a result of seeing the great miracles of their deliverance from Egypt and entry into the Promised Land. But, that was not the case. Here is a passage from the Word of God as it comes from the sixth book of the Bible, Judges:

After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.  In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them.  But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways (Joshua 2: 6-19).

Let us Pray: God of History: we come before you today asking that you would give to us a word for our lives, for the lives of our children and grandchildren, and for the future of our nation. Convict us, convert us, and make us wholly yours. In The name of the King of King and Lord of Lords we pray, Amen.

The Mistake of Joshua

Moses managed the transition between his leadership and Joshua’s in a magnificent way.. Moses picked Joshua when he was still a young man. Joshua was with Moses at many of the most important moments of Moses’  ministry. Joshua led Israel in a battle against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-15). He accompanied Moses on the Mountain to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:13). He guarded the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:11). He observed the Spirit of God among the people—and saw times when the spirit was misused (Numbers 11:17-29). He was one of the spies sent by Moses into the Promised Land the first time they entered it (Numbers 13:8; 14 6-38). Joshua was ready for leadership because he had been mentored as a leader by Moses. [2]

Unfortunately, it does not seem that Joshua did as good a job of preparing the people for his absence as did Moses. When Moses died, the people had not yet entered the land, and they knew they needed strong, experienced, competent leadership. Joshua provided that leadership. But, as Joshua grew older, and as the Jewish people conquered more and more of Palestine, the tribal leaders wanted to stop fighting and enjoy their new homes. So, Joshua distributed the land among the tribes of Israel near the end of his life, leaving a bit more land to be conquered. This was a mistake. I allowed the Jews to intermarry and adopt pagan customs. It also gave the enemies of Israel time to regroup. When Joshua died, he did not leave the a single successor. This was also a mistake.

When you are Number 1 it is easy to forget what made you Number 1. When you have had strong leadership, it is easy to forget that leadership is hard and necessary—and that good leaders do not grow on trees. When you have profited from sound judgment, it is easy to forget what a rare quality sound judgment is—and the terrifying consequences of bad decisions and bad leadership.

Problem: Our Short Memory

When the Jews left Egypt a good number of the people quickly forgot what it was like to be in slavery. They began to long for what they mistakenly remembered as the “easy life” as slaves. They remembered the food, the spices, and the waters of Egypt. They remembered the god’s of Egypt and began to long for them. Similarly, after the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they began the process of forgetting the price of their freedom. Judges records that the generation which fought with Joshua continued to hold fast to the faith of Israel and remembered what God had done for them (Judges 2:7). But, the next generations forgot the price of their freedom and the requirement of holiness and faithfulness to God, and so Israel entered a time of social decay. So, Judges records:

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them (Judges 2:10-12)

I am afraid we human beings have a problem—we suffer from short memories. One reason it is so important that one generation tell another generation of the mighty acts of God (see Psalm 145:4) is that, if they do not, the next generation will forget the lessons prior generations have learned in toil and sweat and blood.

My parent’s generation was not perfect, but they understood the necessity of hard work and how quickly human society can degenerate into chaos. The generation that went through the Depression and fought World War II saw the consequences of overspending, of high living, and of economic and financial foolishness. They felt the consequences of a lack of preparedness as the nation suffered the attack at Pearl Harbor and the early losses of the Second World War. Consequently, for as long as they were the majority of Americans, they made sure that, whichever party was in power, they managed our national finances more or less wisely, remained unified on foreign affairs, and prepared for conflict should it become necessary. I am afraid that, as they have grown old and passed on, we’ve forgotten the old truths they knew.

Solution: the Example of Gideon

Judges describes a cycle that occurs over and over again in history. The people of Israel fell away from God and suffered economic and military hardships. They were then placed into slavery and underwent oppressions by the surrounding tribes, but particularly by the Philistines. In addition, they suffered a lack of internal security due to their loose confederation. Finally, the people repented and cried out for salvation. Ultimately, a leader arose—a charismatic military leader who provided temporary relief. Unfortunately, some of these leaders were little more than thugs, and some of them ended up as mini-dictators. And, as soon as the danger ended, the people forgot the price of their freedom and went back to worshiping false God’s. In Judges this story is told over and over as it applies to Israel. [3]

Gideon’s story is a good example. When we first meet Gideon, he is hiding in a winepress threshing wheat (Judges 6:11). The Midianites are harassing the people of Israel as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God (See, Judges 6:7-10). Gideon is not the most impressive possible leader. He is from a small tribe and the least member of his family (v. 15). Yet, he is the chosen of God so that through this weak man, God can show his power (v. 16). After testing God, and seeing proof of God’s power, Gideon agrees (vv. 19-22). To make a long story short Gideon cuts down the pagan altars, raises and army, and sets out to defeat the Midianites. He does so in an unbelievable way, winnowing his already inadequate army down to a size that has no chance of defeating the Midianites without the help of God (See, Judges 7). After his victory, Gideon led Israel for forty years, but eventually he grew old and died—once again without mentoring a leader (Judges 8:28-33). So, the people of Israel slipped back into worshiping false god’s and pretty soon Abimelech, his illegitimate son and a would be dictator, rose up and the people suffered again (see Judges 8:28-9:59).

Those of us who are inclined to wonder what in the world made the Jews act like this should perhaps take a look at the recent history of our own nation. We too have forgotten many of the principles that resulted in our freedom. We have forgotten how hard it is to earn freedom and how easy it is to lose it. We too have worshiped the false God’s of Personal Peace, Personal Pleasure and Affluence. [4] And, we too suffer the consequences. We too need to remember our past, repent of our present, and be restored.

When Everyone Does as They Please

At the end of Judges, the author pronounces his judgment on the period of the Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25 [NIV]). The very same phrase appears in Judges 17:6 and parts of the phrase in other sections of the book (See, Judges 18:1). In the end, the period of the Judges was a disaster for Israel. The dispersed tribes, largely disconnected and unified occasionally by charismatic leaders, could not defend itself against internal violence or external threats. Just as examples, a terrible rape and murder in Judges almost ends in the extermination of the tribe of Dan. Over and over again the Amorites, Ammonites, Midianites, and Philistines made war against Israel, causing untold suffering. The author of Judges blames the people themselves for the problem: they were not faithful to God, the degenerated morally and spiritually, and they suffered the consequences.

The term “Bedlam” applies to disorder, tumult, chaos, clamor, turmoil, commotion, pandemonium. It is sometimes used in connection with lunacy. The word “Bedlam” is a Middle English form of the Hebrew word, “Bethlehem,” which means “House of Bread”. The word got its current meaning because it the name “Bedlam” was given to an English hospital for the insane that had a terrible reputation. [5] I think this derivation has a point to make to all of us: When we forget the one born in Bethlehem who came to us to give us the Bread of Life in the form of the Wisdom, Love and Forgiveness of God, we degenerate into Bedlam. The current state of our society is a good example of this truth.

Message of the Judges

Is our situation hopeless? I don’t think so. The message of judges seems to be that, while we human beings have short memories and often degenerate into sin and foolishness, if we repent and ask for forgiveness, we will be restored. God will forgive us. This also seems to be the message of II Chronicles 7: 14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (II Chronicles 7:14 [NIV]). This need for humility, repentance and prayer was not just a need of the ancient Jews; it is our need as well.

Copyright, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua,” which means “savior” in Hebrew.

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Entering a New Era: Passing the Torch (September 30, 2012): 5

[3] See, Jacob M. Myers “Judges” in The Interpreter’s Bible vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1953): 688.

[4] Francis Schaeffer often spoke of the two values of our culture as being personal peace and affluence. See, “How Shall We Then Live” in The Collected Works of Francis Schaeffer Vol. 5 (Wheaton Ill, Crossway Books, 1982): 211.

[5] See, “Bedlam” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Online (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02387b.htm, October 11, 2012.

 

Putting It to Work

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Luke 10:1-2

 One of the most exciting things concerning the Christian life is the opportunities we are given to “be Jesus” in the life of other people. As important as the church is, as important as being part of a small group of disciples is, membership in the group is not all there is to the Christian life. Once we know, we need to share. We need to exercise our spiritual gifts and thereby share the wisdom and love of God with others.

Jesus formed the disciples as a community and enjoyed a wonderful, life transforming fellowship with them. Nevertheless, for the entire time that he was with them, he was also in ministry to others: healing the sick, teaching the multitudes, confronting sin, and showing people what the kingdom of God was really like. Then, he sent the disciples (and us) out to do the same. Mark records it his way: Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them (Mark 6:7-13). What Jesus was doing, they were now about to do. In other words, Jesus was empowering his disciples to do the very things that he was doing.

Expanding the Reign of God’s Love

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:23-24). Later, in Chapter 15, he gives his command: “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17).  Finally, in John 20, after the resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples that, just as God sent him into the world to reveal the wisdom (Logos) and love (Agape) of God, so Jesus was now sending the disciples into the world to do the same: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21). Sending was always a part of Jesus’ plan for his disciples. It is also his plan for us.

The heart of Christian discipleship is simply this: to spread the love of God as we have seen it in Jesus Christ. This sharing of God’s unmerited forgiving and restoring grace, what Paul called the secret wisdom of God that the world calls foolishness is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We were not called merely to have private religious experiences of God’s love. We were not called merely to enjoy the life transforming nature of a Christian community. We were called also to go into the world and to share the Good News of God’s mercy, love and grace with others in word and deed.

Our Sending

This week, several times the Lord brought the importance of serving others to my attention. Robert Mulholland defined Christian spiritual formation as the process of becoming more like Christ for the sake of the world. A small group study Kathy and I attended focused on the four aspects of this: our life in Christ as

  1. A process
  2. Of being formed
  3. Into the Image of Christ
  4. For the sake of the world. [1]

Too often we think of our salvation as something God has done for us, and we stop there. It is true that God saves us because of his great love for us. But we are saved so that we can become more like Christ. Therefore, Paul can say things like we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”—i.e. Our salvation in Christ is a process that is worked out in some way over time. The “working out” is the process of becoming more like Christ. Not just like Christ on the outside (that is hypocrisy!), but like Christ inside and out. Like Christ in his relationship with the Father. Like Christ is our moral and spiritual being. Like Christ in the way we react to people and situations. Every serious Christian knows that this is a process that takes a long time—our entire lives and is complete only in heaven.

This process has a purpose. John begins with “For God so loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son” (John 3:16). John ends his gospel with, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Jesus was sent into the world to proclaim and live out the Good News. We are sent for the same reason. God is still in the process of loving the world and saving the lost. His Spirit is present empowering people to turn from sin and selfishness to God. For the sake of the world, God has now sent his people, the church, the ecclesia, those called out of the world into God’s kingdom, into the world. He is sending you and me.

God created the human race in his image. The Bible reveals what we all know deep in our hearts—we have defaced that image in selfishness, self-centeredness, and sin. In Christ, however, God has provided way for that image of God to be restored. (II Corinthians 5:17-18) Those of us who were estranged from God have now been “reconciled” with God, brought back into a relationship with God through Christ. We in turn, in our everyday relationships with people, are called to continue our own journey into Christlikeness not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world God loves, a world God loved enough to send his Only Begotten Son to live, minister, and die for.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] M. Robert Mulhollland, Jr,  with Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation Expanded Version (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Press), 1993

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