Transformed: A Tale of Two Women

 

For those of us who like to read, there are always a few books make all the difference in the world. For me, C. S. Lewis’ books have always been important. Mere Christianity was instrumental in my conversion to Christ. His Space Trilogy, and That Hideous Strength, have been important. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien formed my yearly life as a Christian. Our children grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia. One of my favorite books, which I read every so often is The Glass Bead Game by the German writer, Herman Hesse. (One day, I would like to be like the Music Master of that book I fear that I may be more like Joseph Knetch).

The first book to make a difference in my life was Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, which I read in 7th Grade. A Tale of Two Cities is about two men in love with the same woman during the French Revolution. One of the men, Charles Darney, is a French aristocrat living in exile in England because he dislikes the aristocracy of his nation. The other man, Sidney Carton, is a drunken and morally dissolute lawyer’s assistant.  Darney and Carton happen to look exactly alike. The woman they love, Lucy Mannette, is the daughter of a French physician. Lucy eventually marries the handsome, good, and dedicated Charles Darney.

Eventually, Darney undertakes a mission of mercy to France and is arrested as an aristocrat. He is unfairly condemned to die. Lucy Mannette and her father seek his release. They fail, and the evil Madame LaFarge plots to have Lucy and her young daughter killed. The night before Darney is to be executed and Lucy arrested, Sidney Carton arranges to change places with Charles Darney in his prison cell in the Bastille. The next day, Darney and Lucy escape France, while Carton dies in Darney’s place. His life is redeemed in the end. Carton’s last words are these: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

At one point in the book there is a line about Sidney Carton that forms me to this day. It goes like this:

Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away. [1]

Sidney Carton is a lost soul. When I first read the book, in fact the moment I read the line I just quoted,  it seemed to me that I might become a man like Sidney Carton. I might be a person of good abilities and good intentions, incapable of their exercise for my own good. It is a warning and insight that has haunted me, followed me, and warned me throughout all the years since.

A Tale of Two Cities, describes the power of our choices. It is about consequences and redemption. The character of Sydney Carton is a warning—or at least it was to me. Every day we make choices about the kind of person we will be–and upon those choices the happiness or unhappiness of our live depends.

A Tale of Two Women.

In this blog, we are thinking about “A Tale of Two Women.” Every month for almost forty years, on the ninth day of the month, I read today’s text. It is, in some ways, my favorite chapter of my favorite book of the Bible, Proverbs. Here is  the word of God as it comes to us from the voice of the Wise Men of israel:

Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars.  She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, “Let all who are simple come to my house!” To those who have no sense she says, “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight.” Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you. Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life. If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you; if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer. Folly is an unruly woman; she is simple and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, calling out to those who pass by, who go straight on their way, “Let all who are simple come to my house!” To those who have no sense she says, “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead. (Proverbs 9:1-18)

God of Wisdom Who in Wisdom Created All Things and Us Included: Come by the power of your Holy Spirit so that your Spirit of Wisdom and Love may enter and transform our hearts. Amen.

 The Call of Wisdom.

In Proverbs, wisdom is often personified as a woman calling to the human race. In today’s text, Lady Wisdom builds her home, fills her table with delicacies, and invites all who will to come to her banquet (9:1-6). In the earlier chapters, wisdom is personified as a woman sitting at the city gates, offering blessings to those who will hear. For example, the previous chapter begins as follows:

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gate leading into the city, at the entrance, she cries aloud: “To you, O people, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, set your hearts on it. Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are upright to those who have found knowledge Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Proverbs 8:1-11).

We live in an overly-concrete, materialistic age. We have trouble understanding the deep truths embedded in proverbs, parables, stories,  images, art and literature. The wisdom writers of Israel wanted us to see that,  just as a person responds to the call of an attractive person of the opposite sex and/or intuitively seeks to acquire precious jewels and metals, wisdom calls our to us to develop the practical ability to respond to the challenges of life with grace, intelligence, and discernment. Depending upon how we respond to that call, our lives may be better or worse, successful or unsuccessful, happy or miserable.

The single greatest problem our society faces is a loss of faith in traditions, in religion (Christianity included), in traditional wisdom, and in the reality of invisible qualities of character, such as righteousness, justice and  wisdom—qualities that we cannot be successful in life unless we develop. If our children and grandchildren are to have lives even a fraction as good as the life we have enjoyed, we need to recover our confidence in the existence of truth, of goodness, of justice, of wisdom, of fairness and find ways to teach the next generation about these qualities. Nevertheless, even in our society, wisdom is not without a witness. Wisdom is calling. The question is: “Are we listening?”

Trust-Faith: The First Big Step.

Chapter Nine of Proverbs is important for, among other things, the way in which the writer set the central teaching of Wisdom right in the center of the poem that makes up the chapter: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10). Over and over again in Psalms and in Proverbs this central teaching is repeated: The first step in becoming wise is to develop a healthy respect for God.

We modern people do not necessarily believe fear is a virtue, but it is. We human beings were given the capacity for fear in order that we might avoid things that are dangerous. Courage is not the absence of fear in dangerous situations; it is the ability to manage and overcome fear where necessary.

When I translate this saying, I often phrase what is being said something like this: “A Deep and awe-filled Respect for the Power and Wisdom of God is the beginning of wisdom.” [2] The idea is not that we should fear God as a we might fear a bad person. We ought to fear God as we fear the consequences of misbehavior as a child. More importantly, we ought to respect God. Coming to understand that failing to follow God’s ways is injurious to ourselves and others is the single most important, first step in becoming a well adjusted, wise, and successful human being.

I have mentioned before that my father had an old fraternity paddle that Tim, my brother, and I got to experience once in a while if we were very, very bad. (I had many more experiences with that paddle than did my brother!) My father never used the paddle unless it was absolutely necessary to make a point about really bad behavior. And, as a practical matter, one trip to his home office was enough to correct whatever bad behavior in which we had engaged. (Just to give an example, we once decided to see if we could derail a train on a Boy Scout camp out and very nearly succeeded. This was an offence that my father believed merited the paddle. After 52 years or so of thinking about it,  I now think he was correct.)

This “fear” or “deep awe and respect” a believer has for God reveals itself in relationship of faith and trust—a faith and trust that allows the believer to experience the love and wisdom of God. In other words, just as the faith and trust a child is supposed to have for a parent enables the child to live based on the love of the parent, so also our faith and trust (respect for God’s wisdom, love and power) opens our lives to the wisdom God gives us for living.

The Importance of Resisting Temptation.

There are two women described in Proverbs 9. The  beginning of Proverbs 9 describes Lady Wisdom. The end describes her opposite, Lady Folly. If Lady Wisdom builds her house and prepares a banquet of wisdom which will result in blessing for God’s people, Lady Folly brings the results of folly. The gift of lady Wisdom is the blessed life. On the other hand, Lady Folly seduces the human race into behavior that can only end in suffering, destruction, and death.

Once again, if repeatedly Proverbs describes Lady Wisdom as seeking to influence humanity by reason and good sense,  Lady Folly is described as a kind of seductress attempting to seduce the human race to embrace folly. By using the image of a beautiful but dangerous woman, Proverbs reminds us that wisdom is not always attractive or apparent nor is folly always ugly and obvious. When the original Star Wars movie was made, and the character of Darth Vader introduced, I made a comment that the only problem with the character is that evil is not always ugly, obvious or scary as Darth Vader. Some of the most evil and dangerous people I have  known were handsome, engaging, and fun. They were not scary. They were seductive. This is the message of the end of Proverbs 9.

Wisdom teaches us to look beneath the surface of things to see things as they really are.  Modern media, and particularly visual media, has created in most people a tendency to look at the surface of an image for truth, for beauty, for goodness, for love, and the like. The surface of things does not necessarily reveal the reality of the thing. Things that look good on the surface often do not look good once we pierce beneath the surface.

One danger to young people is that our young people are often not experienced enough to evaluate the images they are seeing in movies, on TV, etc. Today, our young people are subjected to temptations at an age when prior generations would not have permitted the contact. Perhaps unfortunately, computers, the internet, and cable TV have made it almost impossible for parents to fully protect their children from dangerous images. I don’t have an answer to this problem, which Kathy and I have faced.

The Blessings of Wisdom.

We began this series with a quote from Revelation: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (Revelation 1:3). As the early Christians remembered the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus they early on began to see in Jesus the very wisdom of God incarnate. When John wrote his gospel he described Jesus as the Word or Wisdom or Reason of God made incarnate (John 1:1). Paul describes Jesus as the very wisdom of God (the icon of God’s glory (Colossians 1:15).

To a Jew, wisdom was not some unearthly, mystical thing. In Hebrew, the root word underlying the word “wisdom” is the kind of shrewdness needed by a trader in a Middle Eastern bazaar. It is the ability to make wise choices in the practical things of life.

Proverbs is important as a source of God’s wisdom, but we must never forget that Christ is the ultimate source of our understanding of the wise life. As Jonathan Edwards said, “Christ is the true light of the world. It is through him alone that the true wisdom is imparted the mind.” In Christ we see something that no human being could possibly write down in such a way to transform our lives.

At the Cross, we see the wisdom and love of God revealed in such a way that we cannot help but be transformed as we trust in Him. In Jesus, the love of God and the wisdom of God are joined in such a way that we cannot just understand but also experience that love and be transformed by it. The Cross of Christ was so unexpected by the wise men of Israel and of the Greco-Roman world that it seemed to be a kind of foolishness, but that foolishness was in fact the Deep Wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1-2).

It is a mistake to hear the words of Paul as if it were meant to nullify wisdom or to indicate that God’s wisdom is a kind of foolishness. Instead, what Paul means is simple: While the deep wisdom of God may seem to be foolishness to the wise of this world, it is in fact the most practical thing of all. Why? Because in Christ, wisdom and love are,  and will be, the most powerful  force in all the world.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The quotes are from Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. Because my books are all packed for our move, I cannot give you pages and other citation information. You can find these quotes easily on the internet.

[2] “Fear, as applied to God is the kind of deep awe, respect, reverence or piety appropriate to the God of Israel, the creator of the heavens and the earth, and the one God among all the false gods of the surrounding nations.” G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 246.

Transformed Living in Hard Times

 

Many people don’t remember Neil Armstrong. He was the first man to step onto the moon. Even those who remember who he was may not know how he got to be the first man on the moon. Neil Armstrong flew seventy-eight missions over Korea during the Korean War. During one low level bombing run in September 1951, his planc was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire. While trying to regain control, at an altitude of twenty feet, his right wing stuck a pole shearing off three feet of the wing. Armstrong managed to nurse the damaged plane over the ocean where he ejected safely.

After the war, Armstrong was a test pilot for the F-100, F-104, X-1B and X-15 programs, among others. He entered the astronaut program in 1958 and was assigned to the Gemini 8 mission. This mission tested the ability of astronauts to rendezvous and dock with an unmanned target vehicle, a skill necessary for a lunar landing. When Gemini 8 docked with the Agena rocket, a control rocket malfunctioned, and both vehicles began spinning out of control. On the verge of blackout, Armstrong detached from the Agena, diagnosed the problem, switched off the maneuvering rockets, turned on the re-entry rockets, and used them to regain control of the capsule.

Based on his strong record of facing difficulties with intelligence and calm, Armstrong was selected to command Apollo 11—the first manned moon landing. During training, Armstrong was piloting a lunar landing simulator when it started pitching out of control. Armstrong was forced to eject. Later analysis concluded that had he ejected a half second later, he would have been killed.

During the lunar landing, Armstrong noticed that lunar craters were passing by too quickly and the landing computer had malfunctioned. Armstrong returned the lander to manual control. With one minute of fuel left, the lander started kicking up dust, so Armstrong chose a different, safer landing site. With Buzz Aldrin reading off the amount of fuel left Armstrong set the lander on the surface of the moon with less than 40 seconds of fuel left.  [1]

Armstrong was ready to command Apollo 11 because of the pressures and problems he endured over many years. In today’s blog, we are going to be talking about how our faith grows under pressure.

Those who Persevere.

Last week, we looked at the image of the Lamb of God as Christ is portrayed in Revelation 5. Revelation 6 deals with the sufferings of the human race, which we will briefly talk about in a few minutes. About three years ago o July 4th, I preached a sermon and wrote a blog called, “When the Four Horsemen Ride the Sky.” [2] I don’t want to retread ground I’ve already covered, so in this blog we will be skipping to Revelation 7. This chapter begins with the salvation of the 144,000, which most scholars believe communicates to a reader the salvation of all those in the New and Old Testament people of Israel. [3] Then, we read the following vision of heaven:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:9-17).

Prayer: Lord God of History: Help us to understand these words not just as your words to the ancient church as it faced pressure, but to us, today, in our society. Amen.

We Live in a Broken World.

One misunderstood part of Revelation has to do with the four horsemen and the meaning of six of the seven seals. In this blog I am only briefly reviewing the major teaching of Revelation 6:  We live in a broken world. As Revelation 5 ends, the Lamb of God has taken the scroll with seven seals from the hand of God, and in Revelation 6, the scroll is unsealed. In the beginning, four horsemen, sometimes popularly known as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” are loosed upon the earth. These four horsemen represent conquest, war, economic dislocation, and disease and death. [4] When the fifth seal is opened, we are given a view of the suffering of the Christian martyrs under Domitian, who receive white robes in heaven for their suffering (6. 9-11). The six seal opens to a time of cosmic upheaval (vv. 12-14). In the end, all the peoples of the earth, the powerful, the wealthy, and ordinary people cry out because of the wrath of the Lamb (vv. 15-17).

What are we to make of all this? Is the loving Christ now punishing the world for rejecting him. No. The best explanation of these scenes of suffering is that John is describing for us the character of life in our fallen world. In this world, there is and will be suffering, war, economic hard times, disease, and death. There will be times of war, famine, persecution, cosmic upheaval, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. In such a world, people suffer. [5] We live in a broken and imperfect world—and in such a world bad things often happen to good people. Bad things happened under Domitian and bad things happen even today. As a result, people suffer.

This is a good place to stop and remind ourselves that Christians are not exempt from the common sufferings of humanity, nor are we necessarily spared the sufferings of injustice and persecution. For the first time in our history, the American church is coming to grips with a culture in which persecution is a reality. Like the early church of Revelation, we now must learn to maintain our faith and our way of life in a society in which they are often not popular.

God’s Love Saves His Beloved.

As Revelation 7 opens, there is a pause before the seventh seal is opened and the end of history commences. The four angels that surround the throne of God hold back the winds of history long enough for “144,000 people” to be saved. This number is 12 times 12 times 1000 and can be interpreted to mean that God stays the end until every single person who is supposed to be saved is saved. [6] When the period of salvation ends, John sees a great multitude that no one can possibly count before the throne of God, people from every tribe and nation, from every ethnic group all wearing white robes because all these have been saved. All of them together are worshiping God with the twenty-four elders, the four heavenly creatures and the angels of heaven (7:9).

Who are all these people? They are those who have come out of the “Great Tribulation.” Most of us have at least heard about the “Great Tribulation.” However, so that we can better understand its meaning for us today, I think it is a good idea to learn a little more about the term. In Greek, the word we translate “Tribulation” comes from a root word that means to “press,” or “apply pressure,” “press together,” or “compress.” [7] Therefore, instead of calling it “The Great Tribulation” we might call it “The Great Pressure.” When things are refined, or made pure, they are often placed under pressure or compressed to purify them. Human beings are no different.

At the time Revelation was written, the Emperor Domitian was putting the church under great pressure, hoping to wipe out the church or at least make it subservient to the rule of the Roman Emperor. The idea of his pressure was to cause Christians to lose their faith or compromise with Rome. The pressure, however, had an opposite effect: instead of causing the Church to die out, it caused the faith of the people of God to be purified and strengthened. The Church came out of this time of persecution stronger than ever before.

This is true of our own day and time. In Communist China, the government of Mao tried to eliminate Christian faith by persecuting the church. Throughout the late 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s this persecution continued, as it does to some degree even today. In the midst of this pressure, the church grew and became much stronger. The same thing has happened in Russia, Iran, and other places where faith has been put under pressure. Today, in our nation, our faith is under pressure. Those who are putting it under pressure hope that the church will lose influence and die. That will not happen. What will happen is that the Church will emerge purified, strengthened, and more clear in its mission and proclamation to take the Gospel into every family possible.

In our own denomination, we have a minister who has been unfairly imprisoned in Turkey. Andrew Brunson is in prison, but throughout America churches like ours are praying for his release, working for his release, and waiting for the day in which Andrew comes home to his family and our nation. This very week members of Advent have written congressmen, signed petitions, and prayed for Andrew. [8] (Please read footnote 8 for information concerning how you can help achieve Andrew’s release.)

There is a Blessing for those Who are Saved.

Preaching on Revelation on Valentine’s Day Weekend is a stretch, I admit. Yet, as I was thinking about and preparing this sermon, I started thinking about the deeper meaning of the text. In the end, the Bible is a love story. It is about the love of God, a love so great it would endure a cross and terrible death in order to rescue his beloved creation and its people. It is about a God who in mercy often delays what we perceive as judgement in order that we can have time to turn our lives around and receive his blessings. When I was a young Christian an older, more mature Christian gave me some advice that I have never forgotten: “God is just and in the end God intends to show us and everyone in the world as much mercy as possible.” [9]

In response to the Love of God, God calls into eternal fellowship with Him those who are willing to give up their self-centeredness and by faith accept God’s offer of forgiveness, mercy, and grace. He does not just make this offer to good people, or fundamentally good people, but to everyone. History is unfolding and someday history will come to an end. However, for the time being, the angels of heaven are busy holding back the winds so that the message of God’s love can be preached to all the nations and to all the people in all the nations.

It would be nice if that could be accomplished without suffering, but unfortunately that is not the case. The Cross of Christ is the great symbol and reminder of the fact that the Kingdom of God is free, but the price paid for it was the ultimate price. The Lamb had to be slain, not just once, but from the very foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). This means, among other things, that God’s church must from time to time suffer so that God may rescue from sin his beloved, fallen world.

Here are just a few of the blessings that we Christians receive from times of pressure:

  1. Our faith is strengthened.
  2. Our sense of purpose to share the Gospel is reinforced.
  3. We learn to be obedient under pressure.
  4. We come to rely totally upon God for our life and salvation. [10]

None of this is easy, but you can see that,  just as Neil Armstrong was tested and refined by the difficulties he faced over many years so that he could be successful in leading the first moon landing, we also are strengthened by our sufferings and the pressure of being different in our society so that we receive the blessing God promises those who are called by his name.

The Lamb that Shepherds and Washes Away Every Tear.

Our text today ends with a promise that is found here and at the end of Revelation: The Lamb of God, the One who died for our sins, does have a blessing in store for believers if we will only stand firm:

Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7: 16-17). [11]

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  Ken McCarthey, “Grace under Pressure” in Quora, April 27, 2014 (“www.quora.com/What-are-some-great-stories-of-people-staying-cool-under-pressure,” downloaded February 7, 2017). I have quoted this article almost verbatim. The members of the flight control team were amazed at his actions.

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, “When the Four Horsemen Fly” (Preached July 7, 2013 at Advent Presbyterian Church). There is a blog version of the sermon available to read at www.gchristopherscruggs.com.

[3] It is common among some commentators to teach that the 144,000 related only to the Jews. See footnote 6 below for the reasoning supporting my view.

[4] See, Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992, 2006), 55-57. There is a controversy as to whether there are Three or Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first horseman could be the Risen Christ come to retake his rightful possession. See, William Hendricksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1940, 1976), 93-96 for a very good defense of this view.

[5] Id, at 57: “The way God’s power is manifested in the world is that the misuse of power brings on suffering and disaster.”Those who are familiar with the work of John Polkinghorne will recall that the price we pay for a world of freedom is the potential for natural and moral disasters.

[6] Interpreters that see this as applying only to the Jews are probably mistaken. The names of the tribes are not the actual names of the twelve tribes. In addition, by the First Century, ten of the tribes of Israel were long gone, having been disbursed and destroyed by the Assyrians when they conquered the Northern Kingdom. The best explanation is that John is symbolically assuring his readers that the end will not come until everyone is saved who can and should be saved. The 144,000 is a symbol of completeness and of the salvation of God for all people in the Old and New Testament churches. 12 (tribes of Israel) times 12 apostles (the New Testament Church) times 1,000 equals 144,000.

[7] Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Dictionary: For a Deeper Understanding of the Word (New Testament) (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1992), 736-740). “Thlipsis” means to crush, squeeze, or break. It is used figuratively of afflictions or tribulations, natural our man-made.

[8] This week, we are asking members and friends to go onto the White House Web-Site and register support for Andrew Brunson. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has launched a “Forgotten American in Turkey” petition at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/forgotten-american-turkey. The EPC would like to get 100,000 signatures by March 6, if possible. While a high bar, the EPC believes it is reachable if we all take a minute to sign and get the word out to our friends. In addition, you can contact the White House directly at www.whitehouse.gov/contact#page.

[9] John Mawhinney was an elder at First Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas who has now gone to the church triumphant. We were in a Bible study many years ago together when John shared this insight. I was a new Christian and hearing this from a more mature Christian was important.

[10] See, William D. Black, MD, “Seven Ways God uses Tough Times to Shape our Lives” Christian Broadcasting Network www1.cbn.com/seven-ways-god-uses-tough-times-shape-our-lives (Downloaded February 9, 2017).

[11] See, Revelation 21:4 and for the history of the promise see Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8. The early church did not think of the “Tribulation” in quite the way we do today. While there is a connotation of suffering, the suffering involved was for the Early Church, the sacrifice that had to be made to share the Gospel of life with others even if it involved martyrdom. Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Dictionary: For a Deeper Understanding of the Word, at 737.

Imitate the Lamb

There is an old Indian parable about six blind men who are trying to describe an elephant. It goes something like this: One day six wise blind men went for a walk. Along the way, they ran into an elephant. Their leader, first blind man, walked right into the side of the elephant. He put out his arms to either side, but all he could feel was the big body of the elephant. The first blind man. “We have walked into a wall.” The second blind man accidentally touched the elephant’s trunk. He quickly let go and shouted, “This isn’t a wall. This is a huge snake!” The third man touched the animal’s tail and exclaimed, “This is neither a wall or a snake. This is a rope.” The fourth blind man ran into the elephant’s legs. He concluded that the elephant was a huge column, and they must have run into a temple. The fifth blind man felt the animal’s two long tusks. He said, “It seems to me that this object is made up of two spikes.” The sixth blind man scratched his head and thought but could not understand what in the world they were confronting, so he asked a passing wise man. “My friends and I can’t seem to figure out what this thing in front of us is. One of us thinks it’s a wall; one thinks it’s a snake; one thinks it’s a rope, one thinks it’s a warrior’s spike, and one thinks it’s a column from huge temple. “You are all correct, the wise men said. This elephant seems like something different to each one of you. The only way to know what this thing really is like is by sharing what each of you knows and understands.” [1]

As we humans try to understand God we are like the six blind men: There are so many aspects of God that to understand God we must share and combine different understandings. During our study of Revelation, we are going to see many images of the Risen Christ. Each of them will tell us something important about him. Today, we are going to study the most important images of Christ from the Old and New Testament.

Two Sides of Jesus.

Two weeks ago, we read John’s first vision of the Risen Christ. This vision bears a lot of similarity to a vision given to the Prophet and Wise Man, Daniel (Daniel 7:9-14;10:5-6). In this vision, the Risen Christ is seen with a golden sash, pure shining white hair, flashing eyes, and bronze feet. This vision is of the risen, royal Christ filled with the wisdom, holiness, and power of God. In this blog, we see that vision reinforced and deepened.

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then, one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne, the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

Then, I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 5:1-14).

Prayer: God of Wisdom, Love, and Power: Come to us this morning and let the image of the Lamb that Was Slain enter into all of our hearts. In Jesus Name, Amen.

The End of history is in God’s Hands, Not Ours.

Two weeks ago, I introduced the congregation (and my readers) to the importance of the number seven in John’s writing. [2] In Revelation 4, we are introduced to the seven lamps that are the seven spirits of God, symbolizing the perfection of God’s Spirit. [3] Revelation 5 contains a continuation of the vision of Revelation 4—a revelation of God on this throne in heaven surrounded by the patriarch’s, the apostles, and the heavenly court, all worshiping God. There may be trouble in the seven earthly churches, but that trouble is not to be found in heaven. In heaven, God is on this throne and everything is fine.

As the vison continues, John looks and sees the right hand of the One on the Throne of Heaven holding a scroll with writing on both sides. This scroll is sealed with seven seals. Once again, if seven is a perfect number, then the scroll is perfectly and permanently sealed because it contains important information that only a worthy person should know. In fact, no one on our earth is entitled to see what is in the scroll. It will take a special person to undo these seals! Soon, we shall see that the scroll is a very important and powerful scroll. The scroll contains the secret to the future and to human destiny. What any of us would give to have such a document.

As John looks around, he realizes that no one in heaven or on earth comes forward to open the scroll because no one is worthy to do so. He begins to weep. There is no one to open the document and answer the deepest question of the human heart: “What does the future hold for me and for my loved ones?”

Imagine the power of knowing the future. The movie is old now, but in the second of the three “Back to the Future” movies you may remember that Marty McFly goes into the future where he purchases a magazine containing the winner of all sports events from his time until the time in the future where he is an adult. [4] Biff ends up stealing the magazine with terrible consequences: He becomes fabulously wealthy by using the magazine to gamble. The future of Hill Valley and of Marty’s family is damaged almost beyond repair until he undoes his mistake.

The movie illustrates a fact that is so important to remember: We human beings were never intended to know the future. In fact, we cannot know the future. [5] We can study the past, we can study and live today, but we can only live wisely by faith regarding the future. Therefore, I like to say that Revelation, Daniel and other apocalyptic literature are a kind of wisdom literature—wisdom operating at its limits where only metaphors, images, and symbols are possible. [6]

History is fortunately not in our hands or in the hands of any single human being. I always dislike it when politicians speak of themselves as being on “the right side of history” and of their opponents as being on the wrong side of history. We human beings simply do not know the future, where it is headed, or where it will end. What we do know is how God expects us to behave in the meantime. God expects us to live with wisdom and with love towards others in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The One Who Is Worthy.

As John is weeping because there is no human being worthy of opening the scrolls, he hears the voice of one of the elders saying, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev. 5:5). So far, there is nothing unusual about this vision. Every Jew knew that one name for the Messiah, the Anointed One, the one who would reestablish David’s kingdom and rule forever on David’s throne was the “Lion of Judah” (Genesis 49:9). However, what comes next is totally unexpected. When John looks, he does not see a lion. He sees a lamb looking as if it had been slain.

This too is a symbol that Jews would have found familiar and which the early church readily adopted. As far back as Exodus, God had instituted Passover, a night that remembers the deliverance of the people of God from slavery in Egypt. On Passover, God asked the Jews to sacrifice a Passover Lamb and place its blood over the doorposts of their homes. When they did so, the angel of death, which was to punish Egypt for its sins, would “pass over” them and they would be spared the death of their first born (Exodus 12:1-50).

The early Christians almost immediately saw the Passover Lamb as a kind of type or symbol for what Jesus had done on the Cross. Because of the death of Jesus, the perfect lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), the angel of death passes over the sins of the people of God and in mercy makes them righteous before God. This understanding made sense of Isaiah 53 where the prophet said:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment, he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:4-9)

In Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the King of Kings, the True Heir to David’s throne, was revealed to be a suffering, sacrificial lamb who died for the sins of his people.

A Lamb Like No Other.

As John describes the Lamb Who Is Worthy, it turns out that this is a lamb like no other lamb you have ever, ever seen. This lamb has seven eyes and seven horns. The seven eyes are the same seven spirits we discussed earlier—a symbol for the Holy Spirit. It turns out that this lamb is no ordinary lamb; it is a lamb that perfectly possesses the fullness of the Spirit of God. In other words, this is a lamb symbolizing God as the Second Person of the Trinity, the Christ, the One who is uniquely filled with the Holy Spirit, the very wisdom and love of God.

The Lamb also has seven horns.  In the Old Testament horns are a symbol of power. This is obviously an unusual lamb, and it is worth thinking a bit more deeply about the meaning of the image, for it will impact how we read the rest of Revelation and how we live our Christian lives. There is a kind of “pop eschatology” that implies that in Christ God was meek, lowly and loving to give humanity a chance and time to repent. Nevertheless, in the end, God is going to come with a universal violent judgement to put those who do not repent in their place. This would be the Lamb that became a Lion. The image, however, is of a Lion, the Lion of Judah, revealed to be the Lamb. Jesus was, is and always will be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and he represents a God of love who has and will always act in love. [7]

A Lamb We Are Called to Imitate!

The Paul in Philippians tells us that we should have the same kind of mind that Jesus had (Philippians 2:4-11). He goes on to spell out what that means. Jesus, though he was in the very form of God did not grasp and maintain that royal position. Instead, he was willing to be humbles and take on the form of a servant becoming obedient to the Father even unto death, death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). If we are to have the same mind as Christ, then we too must become lambs willing to be slain for the sins of the world—not as Jesus was but in our own way.

The first six months of each year we train elders. Recently we met on a Saturday to cover a portion of the training. There is a lot of information to cover, but the message of today is the most important message: Those who follow Jesus follow the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world, a lamb that is in fact the greatest truth about God—the most powerful force in the world, the force behind all other forces, is self-giving love. As his children, we are to be transformed into the image of the Lamb and give ourselves for the world just as Christ, the Lamb of God, gave himself for the world.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, the Blind Men and the Elephant, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant (Downloaded, January 30, 2017).

[2] As mentioned before, the number seven appears in John in the form of the seven signs around which the book is structured and the seven “I am sayings” that occur in the book. The seven signs are generally thought to be the changing of the water into wine (2:1-11), healing the official’s son (4:46-54), the healing of the paralytic (5:1-18), feeding of the 5000 (6:5-14), walking on water (6:16-24), healing of the man born blind (9:1-7) and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45). The seven I am’s are: “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:22), “I am the sheep gate” (10:19), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25-26), “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:16), “I am the true vine” (15:5), In Revelation, the number seven appears fifty-four times. There are seven churches (1:4) seven lampstands (1:12), seven stars (1:20) seven spirits (1:4), seven seals (5:1), seven bowls of wrath (15:7), seven trumpets, (8:2) and some imagery is often repeated as in the letters where the seven lampstands and seven angels appear and reappear. See, William Hendricksen, More than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1940, 1967), 23.

[3]  The seven lamps (or torches of fire) symbolize the Holy Spirit of God using symbolism adapted from Zechariah 4 in which the prophet uses the same symbol for the Spirit (Zechariah 4:2-6).

[4] Robert Zmeck, wr. Back to the Future Part II Dir. Robert Zemeckis, starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson (Universal Pictures, November 22, 1989).

[5] Matthew 24:36, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Evangelicals often forget that this saying does not mean “No one knows the day nor the hour until they read Revelation. It means no one ever will know. We can only read the signs of the times and live faithfully.

[6] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2014), 195-204.

[7] I am thankful to M. Eugene Boring, “Revelation” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), 109.

The Place Where Transformation Happens

Last week, we looked at Revelation 1, which  ends with a vision of the Risen Christ walking among seven golden lampstands while holding seven stars in his hands. We are told that the seven lampstands are seven churches of Asia Minor and the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. In the ancient world, earthly realities were thought to have angelic counterparts. [1] The seven angels are the heavenly counterparts and protectors of their earthly reflections, the churches of Asia Minor.

Following this vision, John records seven letters of Christ to the seven churches. No one knows whether the seven letters were written for seven individual churches (which did exist) or the seven letters are meant to be letters to all the churches suffering under the persecution of Domitian. In any case, today these letters are for all churches and all Christians to read.

As I mentioned last week, John loves the number seven. [2] The book of Revelation, and the Gospel of John, are often structured around sevens. In the case of Revelation, we see seven stars, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven bowls, so that the book itself is structured around the number seven. To the Hebrew mind, perhaps because there are seven days in a week, the number seven connoted perfection. It may be that these seven churches, which historically form a kind of semi-circle of cities in Asia Minor, were meant to symbolize all the churches of Asia Minor to whom John desired to communicate. [3] And, because seven is a perfect number, it is also likely that John had mind that many others would read his letter and profit from it.

Letters to God’s People.

Today, we are looking at the seven letters as a group to discern their meaning for contemporary Christians. While I am going to refer to all the letters and their common teachings, we will be reading from the first and the last letters. First, from the letter to Ephesus:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God (Revelation 2:1-7).

Now hear from the last letter to Laodicea:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 3: 14-22).

Prayer: God, by the Risen Christ you in our midst this morning, holding the stars in your hands and wishing to bless us. Please come now so that we can hear and receive the blessing you intend from the reading and hearing of your word. Amen.

Get Among the Lampstands.

When Jesus began his public ministry, the Gospels record that the first thing he did was to call the twelve disciples who would become his closest followers and eventually carry the Gospel into the entire world. By the year 100, the gospel had been spread throughout most if not all the Roman Empire. The fact that Jesus began his ministry by calling together a group of people who he would disciple, lets us know that the church was part of God’s intention from the very beginning. We know that many people followed Jesus and were his disciples. In addition to the Twelve, there was a much larger group of people who share the earthly ministry of Jesus. [4]

Paul, as he began his ministry, followed the same pattern as Jesus. He seldom traveled alone. He normally traveled with the group of fellow missionaries. When he arrived in a city, he would go to the synagogue (the church of Israel), teach the people of God, develop a group of disciples, build leadership among those disciples, turn over leadership to them, and go on to the next city. In other words, Paul planted churches, including some of the churches to which John writes, using the same method of discipleship that Jesus used.

It is, therefore, not surprising that John begins his vision of the Risen Christ by placing him among seven lampstands symbolizing the church as the place where the Spirit of God is poured out on people. [5] For John, Paul and the other apostles, the church was the place where the risen Christ could be met, experienced, and worshiped.

In the modern world, with our excessive individualism, we tend to think of religion as a personal matter. We also tend to think that we can be Christians without the church or at least outside the church. Some people think that they can be outside the church only some of the time, others believe they can be outside the church nearly all the time, or even all the time. The book of Revelation does not support this kind of thinking. Instead, we are to see that the Church of God is the most important place where Christ is heard, seen, felt, and followed. It is in among the fellowship of believers that we are discipled.

Step One: Remember Your First Love.

The first letter John writes is to the church in Ephesus. The Ephesian church was planted by the apostle Paul. He spent more time in Ephesus than in any other place he ministered. After Paul left, scholars think that Timothy was for a time bishop of the church. Finally, scholars believe that John himself ministered in Ephesus church and had an important role in all of Asia Minor. [6]

The Ephesian church was one of the great churches of the ancient world. It was the most important mission center in the early church. It was the home of great thinkers, of whom Paul and John were two. The church was diligent in its ministry and orthodox in its doctrine. As is sometimes the case, however, as time went by this church began to “lose its first love” (Rev. 2:4). What do you suppose this happened? Was it because they just began to get a little bit bored with the way things work? Was it because they’d been working so long that they began to get tired? Was it the persecution they were experiencing? Was it all the above and more? Probably it was all the above and more. [7]

There are times in the life of every Christian and every church when we must remember our first love. I’ve been preaching for a long time now. Quite frankly, sometimes it’s work. I’ve been a member of a small group for the past seventeen years or so. Frankly, it’s not always as exciting as it was the first day we began to pray together. Over the years, I’ve had to address a lot of problems, and addressing problems is not as much fun as it was in the beginning. Over twenty-five years of Christian ministry I’ve been to a lot of church services, and not all of them were exciting. In more than thirty years as a Christian, I have belonged to many Sunday school classes and not every one of them was taught by the best teacher in the world. I’ve belonged to many small groups, and not every one of them was successful. Sometimes I detect my first love failing.

As anyone who’s been married knows, the kind of excitement we experienced when we were first married seldom lasts for fifty years. There are times in any good marriage when, if it is going to endure, the spouses must remember our first love. Churches are no different. There are times in our lives when we are not going to experience the same kind of excitement in going to church as we did when first we became Christians, or when we were young and at vacation Bible school, or when we were in youth group. This is particularly true during times of stress that we need to remember our first love.

Step Two: Avoid the Bad Stuff.

The seven letters generally contain both praise and warning for the churches. The Church of Ephesus is praised for its endurance and its devotion to the truth, but is warned about its loss of first love. The complaints of the Risen Christ generally fall into two big categories:

  1. Bad Doctrine and
  2. Bad Morals.

The exact heresies that afflicted the seven churches are not necessarily important to us today. They involved teachers who dominated their church and who taught things that Jesus had not taught. The early church had many of the same problems we have today. The church was always under pressure to conform its teachings and its morals to the society around it. Some leaders tried to conform Christian faith to Greek philosophy and went too far. Some teachers tried to conform Christian morals to the morals of the Roman Empire.

Several of the letters refer to the “Nicolaitans”  (2:6, 15). The term is never defined by John, but it seems that a leader named Nicholas, who apparently was a strong leader and may have been the deacon referred to in Acts 6, took upon himself to teach things that were in error. Probably influenced by Greek philosophy, he began to teach that it did not matter what one did with the body. Greco-Roman culture was very sexually decadent. Apparently, the Nicolataitans began to behave shamefully, including at “love feasts,” which were an early form of communion. John complains about the Nicolaitans and about a woman whom he calls “Jezebel” more than once in the letter, who apparently taught a similar error. [8]

We live in a similar time. Christians believe things that a materialistic culture finds hard to believe. We believe in a transcendent personal God who loves and cares for each of us and who exists in a relationship of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We believe in a kind of moral purity that our culture does not easily or universally accept. We are also made fun of sometimes, and we must get used to being made fun of. Like the ancient Christians, we must learn how to maintain or faith in a culture that does not agree with our faith or our morals.

Step Three: Open the Door of Your Heart.

The final letter to the seven churches contains one of the most famous images in all Christian history. During the letter, Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sup with him and he with me” (3:19-20). The church in Laodicea had become lukewarm. Like Ephesus, the Laodaceans had allowed their faith to grow lukewarm, no longer hot and vital. Jesus gives them, and us, a recipe for renewal. He just says, “Look, I am here. I am always here. I am always knocking. I always desire you to come in and be your friend and share fellowship with you.

Result: Receive the Blessing.

In Revelation 1, Jesus says that he will bless those who hear the word, internalize the word, and put the word of God to work in their lives (1:3). In the seven letters, John and the Risen Christ give a blessing to those who hear the word and respond to the Word of Jesus. In the letter to the Ephesians, he tells them that those who resist the temptation to fit in, live the Christian life, and are faithful to the end will receive the tree of life (2:7). This is a reference to the tree of life in Genesis, which is a symbol of eternal life with God. At the end of the letter to the Laodiceans, the risen Christ says that those who conquer will be seated with him on his throne (3:21). Both images teach us that we need not fear difficult times because if we are faithful there is a blessing to be received, a blessing that extends to all eternity. In hard times, we can hold onto the promise of Christ that “Blessed are those who  hear these words and take to heart what is written” (1:3, paraphrased).

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] William Barclay, “The Revelation of John” in The Daily Bible Study Bible Study Vol.1 (Westminster Press, 1976), 53-55.

[2] The number seven appears in John in the form of the seven signs around which the book is structured and the seven “I am sayings” that occur in the book. The seven signs are generally thought to be the changing of the water into wine (2:1-11), healing the official’s son (4:46-54), the healing of the paralytic (5:1-18), feeding of the 5000 (6:5-14), walking on water (6:16-24), healing of the man born blind (9:1-7) and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45). The seven I am’s are: “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:22), “I am the sheep gate” (10:19), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25-26), “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:16), “I am the true vine” (15:5), In Revelation, the number seven appears fifty-four times. There are seven churches (1:4) seven lampstands (1:12), seven stars (1:20) seven spirits (1:4), seven seals (5:1), seven bowls of wrath (15:7), seven trumpets, (8:2) and some imagery is often repeated as in the letters where the seven lampstands and seven angels appear and reappear. See, William Hendricksen, More than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1940, 1967), 23.

[3] A major issue among scholars concerns whether the letters were writing to seven actual churches or to seven churches as a symbol of all the churches of Asia Minor. Without going into detail, it is my view that the best way to think of it is that there were seven churches with the problems associated with the seven churches, but that John also chose the seven as illustrative of the kinds of problems all the churches had. Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993, 2006), 29. Once again, I cannot for reasons of space give you all the citations to all references on this debate or that inform this blog.

[4] In addition to the Twelve, we know that there were Seventy as recorded in Luke 10:1–24. There are also references to a group of disciples who met in the Upper Room recorded in Acts 1. Finally, Paul refers to 500 witnesses to the resurrected Christ in I Corinthians 15:6.

[5] Lamps and oil are symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture. See Matthew 25:1-13 for a teaching of Jesus that illustrates these usages.

[6] See, J.P.M. Sweet, “Revelation” in the Westminster Pelican Commentaries (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1979), 79. Barclay, Revelation, Vol. 1, 58-61.

[7] William Barclay, The Revelation of John Vol. 1, 57-61; See also, Metzger, Breaking the Code, at 30-32; Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, at 60-63.

[8] John refers to Jezebel, the Nicolaitans, and Balaam, seem to be symbolic of references to a group of similar errors that afflicted the churches of Asia Minor.In fact, the meaning of Balaam and Nicolaitan are similar, one being Greek and one being Hebrew. It may be that one error is being referred to by John.  In a time of persecution, the fact that Christians would not attend pagan feasts, where food offered to idols was served, would not worship the emperor, and embraced Hebrew sexual morality that excluded much of the decadence of Rome caused the church to stand out and become a target for persecution. There is also some indication that the Nicolaitans were a personality cult and what is being warned against is “clerisy” or the excessive power of charismatic religious leaders. In the ancient world (and today) some leaders  find ways to accommodate the culture and end up theologically and morally compromised. Eugene Boring, “Revelation” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), 92-93.

He is Coming to Make All Things New

There are a lot of folks who make a living prophesying that the market is going to crash, that capitalism as we know it is going to disappear, and that we are going to go through another depression. One writer I occasionally read writes what is referred to as the “Doom, Boom, and Gloom Report.” [1] He constantly predicts economic catastrophe. Over the years, I have noticed that, if you prophesy anything about the Stock Market long enough, sooner or later you will be right—but a lot of the time you will be wrong. The same thing is true of people who over prophesy our ultimate human destiny. We need Godly wisdom in evaluating these claims!

Revelation is one of the most read and least understood books in Holy Scripture. Many of the Reformers, including John Calvin, did not think that the book was helpful because it is so subject to misinterpretation. In every generation, people have seen in the book signs that their time was the end time. Over the history of the church, the candidates for the position of anti-Christ have been many: Nero, Domitian, Diocletian, and other Roman emperors, Atilla the Hun, Napoleon, Hitler, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Brezhnev, and various Russian leaders, Saddam Hussein, and others. So far, everyone, 100 percent of the prophets of the anti-Christ have been wrong. This experience should make us careful in thinking about the end of the world. We need to remember the words of Jesus: “No one knows the day or the hour” (Matthew 24:36).

Revelation was read by its first readers as a word from a divinely inspired leader of the church, speaking to the church in a time of persecution. The writer’s intent was to encourage and strengthen the church and Christian believers, so that they could face a time of persecution. [2] In my view, this is the first and best reading of the book today: Revelation, should encourage and strengthen us in times when our faith is challenged and we feel discouraged. [3]

A Word from the Once Who Can Make Us a New Creation.

Many people are discouraged about the condition of our nation and our world. Many Christians are concerned about growing persecution of Christians in our nation and world. All of us are concerned about the future and desire to be renewed in Christ and to be with Christ in eternity. We are concerned about our children and grandchildren. Therefore, Revelation is important to all of us, and especially when our faith is challenged. With this very brief and inadequate introduction, hear the word of God as it comes to us this morning from the book of Revelation.

The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.  John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen.

 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:1-8).

Lord God of History: As we come this morning to look at the most difficult book in Scripture, we do pray that you would open our minds to your Holy Spirit. If anything is said here contrary to your will, snatch it from every ear. If anything is said according to your will, please burn it into all our hearts that we may leave here changed and transformed. In Jesus Name, Amen

The Blessings We Receive from Internalizing Revelation.

Some months ago, I received a request to preach on Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.As we begin, then, let us consider three things about this particular verse: First, Revelation was not written to scare us or make us fearful about the future. It was written to bless us. It was written to give us joy and happiness in times of trouble. Second, the blessings are not automatic. We must read the Word of God, internalize it, take it to heart, and be changed by it or it will do us no good. If it does not change how we live and our priorities today, not just at the end of time, we will miss its blessing. Finally, the time is near. This is the most difficult thing for most of us to grasp about the book, but this third point will help us with the other two points. While the book does deal with the end of all things, we need to remember that the time of God’s coming is always near and the book is also relevant to our day to day lives.. [4]

God is not just coming at the end of history. He is coming now, today, this minute into our lives. The time is near because God is constantly coming into our lives to bless us, change us, correct us, make us new people, etc. One key to keeping our New Year’s resolutions to change and become knew people is to recognize the Jesus is coming, now, today, and soon!

There Are Times When We Need a New Creation.

When Jesus appeared to John and he wrote Revelation, John was in trouble, and the church was in trouble. [5] No one knows exactly when Revelation was written. Some scholars think it was written early, perhaps during the reign of the Emperor Nero (58-68 A.D.). It is believed that Nero persecuted the Christians after the great Fire of Rome in 64 A. D. perhaps attempting to place the blame on the church because he was widely thought to have begun the fire for his own purposes. Peter and Paul were martyred at this time, but the persecution was not general.

Around the year 100 A.D., the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) instituted a general persecution of Christians, including the Christians of Asia Minor. Most scholars believe that Revelation was written during this time. Christian historians record that, during this persecution, the author of Revelation, John, was imprisoned on the island of Patmos, which is just off the coast of modern Turkey near ancient Ephesus. The Romans often used the isle as a place to intern people they desired to banish. John was, therefore, banished to the little Island of Patmos, no more than ten miles long and about four miles across. It was there that John probably wrote the book. [6]

Times of persecution are hard on those who are persecuted. Obviously, people who are not really committed to a church leave during times of persecution. Individually, people who are accustomed to thinking of God being on their side often react to persecution by concluding that God is not on their side. They lose their faith. Related to this, is the fact that, as any organization struggles, there can be bad teaching, poor moral behavior, and a host of other problems. As John pondered the state of his churches in Asia minor while in prison on Patmos, and as he heard from the leaders of those churches, he was greatly disturbed. He wanted to do something to encourage the churches so that they could resist the pressures they were under. While he was praying, and worrying and thinking, what we know as the “Revelation of St. John” came to him.

I think we live in a similar time. In the 1970s and 80s, there was a burst of enthusiasm for evangelical Christianity. The evangelical movement grew and prospered. Many people came to Christ, myself included. Young people felt called to go into the ministry to serve the cause of Christ as evangelical churches grew. In the suburbs, new churches were planted. Some of them grew to be quite large. There was a lot of religious triumphalism in the air among evangelicals.

This time of enthusiasm and growth continued until just a few years ago; however, by the early 2000’s something was changing. Society was changing dramatically. The children of the baby boomers, who were the primary leaders of the evangelical movement during the 70s and 80s, often did not return to their parent’s churches. In addition, the hostility of the media, higher education, and cultural elites to conservative Christianity caused many Christians, young and old, to leave the movement. For the first time, Christians were persecuted for their faith in America. The church began to decline. Therefore, just like the church in the day of John, we need to hear a word of encouragement and hope.

The One Whom with the Power to Make Things New.

Right at the beginning, of Revelation John lets us know the reason for our hope: Jesus the Messiah given by God. He begins with, The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (v. 1-2). If we read a little further, we learn that the giver of the revelation is the “Alpha and Omega, who is, was, and who is to come” (v. 8). Finally, near the end of chapter 1 we hear the following: “I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One. I was dead, and behold, I am alive for ever and ever” (v. 18). Taken together we can see that this is the revelation of God the Father, given through the Risen Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we want to be changed into new people, then we need to listen for the voice of God day by day. God in Holy Scripture, in the preaching of the Word on Sunday mornings in worship, and in the prayerful and humble study of the word during the week to give us all the information we need to become new people. This is the first and most important message we can receive from this book: If we want to be new creations, we need to listen to the One who created the heavens and the earth, who has lived from all eternity, who knows the beginning (Alpha) and the end (Omega) of all things, and who loves us and, as the book says, has given his life for us.

The Book is dedicated “To him how loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (v. 5-6). This is important! Right at the beginning of the book, John proclaims the Good News to his readers: God loves us, died for our sins in Christ, and was risen from the dead to bring us into his kingdom.

The One Who Can Protect and Change Us.

This is a great place to begin talking about the imagery of the book. John tells us that he was on the Island of Patmos, because he was experiencing the same sufferings that the churches named are suffering. As he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, suddenly, he heard a voice and turned and saw a figure (vv. 9-12):

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand, he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance (vv. 12-16).

First, the phrase “one like a Son of Man” is a quote and reference to the book of Daniel, where the prophet Daniel has a similar messianic vision. (Daniel 7: 13). Revelation is filled with quotes from the Old Testament. Of 404 verses in Revelation, over 250 of them quote, or make some allusion to the Old Testament. John quotes Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. He refers to Exodus and the Pentateuch. [7]

Second, the vision is of a person unlike any person you’ve ever seen. He has a royal robe reaching down to his feet and a golden sash—a symbol of royalty. His head and hair are white as snow, a symbol of holiness and purity. His eyes are like a blazing fire, a symbol of Godlike perceptiveness, intelligence, and power. His voice is like rushing waters. He walks among seven lampstands, which are seven churches (v. 20). This is someone we need to pay attention to!

The risen Christ walks among seven stars and seven lamps. We are told that the lamps are the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom he is writing, and the seven stars are the angels of those churches (vv. 19-20), In John’s time, it was common to think of stars as angels, and this is the source of this vision. In addition, lamps and oil are symbolic of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, and the church is the source of our experience of the Holy Spirit. John frequently uses the number “Seven,” his favorite number in Revelation, which in Hebrew numerology is a perfect number. As you read and study Revelation on your own or with a group, it is important to take some time to understand the meaning of some of the symbols and their source, for they often point to an aspect of the book God is trying to symbolically convey.

All of this is designed to let us know, right at the beginning, that the One who is the source of the vision of John is to be trusted for he is powerful, wise, good, and loves us. The description of the risen Christ reinforces the earlier statement of John that the source of the vision is the One who died and rose from the grave for his people.

If we want to become new people in 2017 or any other time, if we want to find new life, if we want to face the challenges of our own day, we can trust the One who is the lord of history who can “make all things new” (Isaiah 43:19; Rev. 21:5). If we are serious about becoming new people in 2017, then we must be willing to hear the Word of the One who makes all things new, who came and who died for our sins so that we could become new people. We must internalize the message of the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and who is always near to us and who can be trusted to come to us with his love, wisdom, and power in times of need.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Mark Faber, Doom, Boom and Gloom Report (www.gloomboomdoom.com, downloaded January 14, 2017). There are many “prophets of doom” in the stock market and other aspects of our culture. I like this writer and am using him primarily because of the evocative nature of the name, “Doom, Boom, and Gloom Report”!

[2] See, Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 15. I recommend this book to any student of the book as a brief, readable introduction to their own study.

[3] It is my view that the book should not be read primarily as prophesy, but as a book of wisdom that can give us encouragement, hope, and guidance during times of difficulty and stress. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 195-205.

[4] The obvious fact that the author felt that some very important things were about to take place is made apparent right at the beginning. The book is, “The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1).

[5] See, M. Eugene Boring, “Revelation” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989). This is a good place to note that I cannot footnote everything. All the commentaries agree on a good deal of the book, and I am not going to cite everything for which I am indebted!

[6] Movies often portray the imprisonment as a kind of torture in a penal colony. This is not necessarily what arrest on Patmos would have generally involved, although any Roman imprisonment was difficult and hard. Metzger, Breaking the Code, 25; William Barclay, “Revelation” in the Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), 14, 39-41. However terrible the imprisonment, the book indicates that John had the leisure to pray and meditate “on the Lord’s Day” (Sunday) when the revelation was given to him (Rev. 1:9-10).

[7] Eric Lyons, “Revelation and the Old Testament in Apologetics Press” (www.apologeticspress.org, downloaded January 11, 2017). See also, Martin Rest, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine: Introduction and Exegesis” in The Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 12 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1957), 358: “It has been estimated that 278 verses out of a total of 404 contain reference to the Old Testament.” The author was familiar with the Greek and the Hebrew versions of the Old Testament and obviously had pondered their meaning deeply. Once again this emphasizes the importance of studying the Bible.

Become a Radical New You!

Last year, our theme was “What’s Next?” This year, our theme is, “A New Creation.” For the next several weeks, we are  looking at passages from Second Corinthians, Revelation, and other books of the Bible, passages that help us understand how we can hope for a New Creation, become a new creations, and participate in God’s business of renewing the world and everyone in it. This week, we are talking about becoming a new creation in Christ.

Deep in every human heart there is a longing to become something we are not, to grow, develop, and become new people. This is a part of the image of God implanted into each one of us. God is always making things new, and we have an inborn desire to become new. An important part of the Gospel is that God can do what we cannot do: He can make us a new creation!” In the depths of our hearts, we want to be new people, and we want to help others become new people.

Almost everyone goes through times in life when they wish they were a different person. During teenage years, we sometimes wish we were taller, shorter, heavier, skinnier, had a different nose, or different ears. We are obsessed with being a physically different person than we are. In middle-age, we sometimes doubt the wisdom of choices we made when we were young. We wish we had chosen a different career, gone to a different college or gone to college in the first place, studied harder, etc. We wish we had chosen to live in a different city. At my age and beyond, people often wish they had taken more risks, saved more money, lived differently. In every stage of life, we desire to be different and better. The old saying is true: We are either growing or dying!

Just as God is always active creating a New Heaven and a New Earth, supervising the movement of history into an unknown future, we human beings understand in a profound way that we are capable of being more than we are today. It is part of the image of God in each one of us that we understand that we have sinned, the fallen short of God’s plan for our lives, taking wrong paths. Therefore, we all need to change. In Christ, we have a hope for change and a new and better future.

“If Anyone Is in Christ…..

Our text for this meditation happens to be my favorite scripture. When I was a new Christian in the 1970s this is the first verse I memorized. The center of our text is one of the most famous verses in Holy Scripture. I’m going to begin reading at Second Corinthians 5:16. Hear the word of God:

So, from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:16-21, NIV).

Let us Pray: Eternal God: As we enter 2017, we want to be new people. We want to experience the new life we can only have in you. Therefore, we ask that come now into every heart, so that we can be changed and made new, like little children and live today that life that will never end. In Jesus Name, Amen.

If you were to go back and read Second Corinthians, you would find that a central theme of the first few chapters involves “life and death” (see, 2 Cor. 5: 5-9;2:13; 3:9; 4:10, 15, 16; 5:1, 7). Paul understood that his life before Christ involved a kind of spiritual death. Paul had been a persecutor of the church. He had been a self-righteous and self-centered Pharisee. He had obeyed the exterior requirements of the law, but never, before his salvation, experienced the life of God. As a missionary, he had been threatened with physical death on numerous occasions, yet Paul understood that he already possessed an eternal life in Christ. Even if his earthly body was dying, he knew an eternal life was growing within him (4:16). Paul came to understand that in Christ he had a kind of life that was more important than his physical life. In Christ, Paul had experienced a new life that changed everything. In addition, Paul knew that the new life he experienced was not for him alone. Potentially, this new life was for every human being.

Dying Among the Living.

This may seem odd, but I think most of us, most of the time, think we are living among the dying. We understand that someday we are going to die, and we know that we are living amongst a lot of people who will eventualy die (some today), but today we are alive and other people are dying. I am in a Facebook group involving my High School graduating class. Over the past few months, a majority of posts have been about one of our classmates who has died. It was not until recently that it occurred to me that I will end up as one of those posts! Today, I may be dying among the living!  What if today we are dying? More importantly, what if what we call our daily life isn’t really and truly life at all? What if we’re dying among the living instead of living among the dying?

One of my favorite parables is the parable of the rich fool with many barns (Luke 12:13-21). It goes like this: There was a rich man who owned a lot of good farmland. He had such a large crop that he didn’t know where to store it all! So, he developed a retirement plan: “He said to himself, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and building are ones, and there I will store all my grain and all my goods, and I’ll say to myself: ‘You have many good things later for many years take life easy, eat drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, “You fool! This very night, your life will be demanded of you.” (Luke 12: 18-20). The Rich Fool thought he was living among the dying; but he was wrong. He was really dying among the living.

There are a lot of people, Christians and non-Christians, who are dying among the living. The apostle Paul, when he was a persecutor, thought he was living among the dying when he persecuted the early church. He was living and other people, like Stephen, were dying because of his activities (see,  Acts 8:1). On the road to Damascus, Paul learned that the reverse was true—he was dying among the living. Christ reached out to Paul and gave him a new life (Acts 9).

Most of us a lot of the time are busy building many barns. We are building bigger houses, trying to afford more expensive cars, trying to learn new hobbies, getting more stuff, trying to find better jobs, growing our IRA’s, and the like. We do this under the mistaken belief that, if only we had more money, more muscles, more leisure, more rest, more square feet, and the like we would finally experience the good life. But, whether we live five more minutes or five more decades none of those things are really living: They are just ways of dying among the living.

Living Among the Dying.

As the Apostle Paul thought about his own conversion, and his own growth in Christ, he concluded that, instead of dying among the living, Christians should be living among the dying. We should be living out a new life, an eternal life, as we pass through a dying world. Paul clearly understood that the meaning of the Gospel is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus enable us to live a new, eternal kind of life today, right now, in this world, even in circumstances that are less than optimal.

All of us can be judgmental. All of us find it easier to see the sin, sickness, and death in others than we do in ourselves. Paul, who I think was a pretty shrewd person, was familiar with this human propensity. That’s why he begins today’s text with the words, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16). Paul recognized that, so far as his physical body was concerned, the earthly tent in which he lived was in the process of being destroyed (5:1).

Paul understood that a lot of the things we, and all other human beings, think give our lives meaning and purpose do not do so. Success, money, power, health, beauty, good looks, good social skills, good intelligence, and all the rest are passing away just like our physical bodies. In the end, they cannot give our lives permanent, unassailable meaning and purpose. Even though Paul clearly saw this, he did not become negative. He sympathized with the human condition. He adopted a Divine Point of View. He viewed people not as they are, but as they could be by the power of God.

This past year, as I have been preparing for my “first retirement,” I have had the opportunity to ponder the truth that our careers and professional accomplishments do not last forever. They cannot give our lives eternal meaning and purpose. This is true even of pastors and religious professionals. Our careers, like our physical bodies and the rest of the world are doomed. This is why we cannot give ultimate meaning and our ultimate allegiance to our bodies, our careers, our friendships, our nation–to any created thing. All created things are passing away. They are dying among the living.

Into this dying world, Christ came not only preaching the gospel but also living it. Jesus, who had no sin, allowed himself to be treated as a sinner so that we, who are sinners, might experience new life (2 Cor. 5:21). In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Paul puts it this way: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all that those who should not no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (5:14-15). Paul understood that sin, human shortcomings, human limitations, human laziness, do not have the last word. The last word is this: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation: the old is gone and the new has come” (5:17). Death does not have the last word for those who are living among the dying. By the power and mercy of God, those who are dying among the living can become the living among the dying. This life, the life we have in Christ, is eternal. It never ends.

Sharing the New Life.

In the same sentence in which Paul talks about the new life he has in Christ, and how he is reconciled to God because of what Jesus did on the cross, Paul goes on to say that, because of what Jesus did on the cross, God gave him (and us) the very same ministry Jesus had (5:18). A part of our new life is to share with others the reconciling, forgiving, life-giving, restoring and renewing, life of God as we have already experienced it in Jesus Christ (5:20). Our life among the dying is not simply to live ourselves in a world that is passing away. Instead, our new life involves becoming ambassadors for Christ, sharing the good news of the gospel with others.

In the past year, we have had a lot of experiences at Advent and among congregational members, in which we’ve shared the new life of Christ with others. We’ve had Great Banquets, Salt & Light Groups, and other opportunities. We baptized more adults in 2016 than in any one of the prior twenty years. Our members have shared the new life of Christ with people in need more frequently than ever before. Over the last year, at least once a month, someone has called me to tell me of some circumstance in which they were able to help another person experience the new life of Christ.

Sometimes, we underestimate the impact the gospel can have on another human being’s life. A simple sharing of the gospel by word and deed can make an enormous difference in the life of another human being. We never completely know what is going on in another person’s life. All around us, every day, there are people who’ve been betrayed, taken advantage of, failed in some area of life, suddenly understanding that they are not going to live as long as they thought, and these people are experiencing a kind of death. When we overcome our fears and self-consciousness and share the good news with them, allowing them to see the difference it has made in our lives, we give them the opportunity to experience what it means to be a new creation.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to be a part of sharing the gospel in another city and in another place with someone who had been abused. [1] This person was extremely introverted, isolated, and lonely. Over time, attending a local church and being a part of the Sunday school class, this person experienced the new life we have in Christ in a deep and powerful, life-changing way. Today, this person is happily married, has children and grandchildren, is socially active with a large group of friends, and has a great life. Perhaps most importantly, she knows that the life she has today is not going to end with her physical death. It will go on forever. My friend knows what it means to be a new creation.

In 2017,  Be a New Creation.

Last week at Advent Presbyterian Church, Cindy Schwartz challenged our congregation to think about making a commitment to be regular in worship, to grow in Christ, and to serve others during 2017. A new year gives all of us an opportunity to think about the new life we desire. There is no commitment we can make more important that the commitment to worship God, to grow in Christ, and to serve others by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The beginning of a new year involves the chance to change. I’ve made a lot of New Year’s resolutions over the years. Some of them I’ve kept, and some of them I’ve not kept. I’ve never felt bad about the resolutions I kept, and I’ve never felt good about the resolutions I failed to keep. There’s something about writing down on a piece of paper exactly what you want to accomplish that helps make the future possible.

My question today is simply this: do you want to be the same January 1, 2018 as you are today? Without new life, you will have the same sins, the same shortcomings, experience the same failures, live with the same guilt and shame, as you do today. Do you want that to happen? Or, do you want to be radically different? If you want to be radically different, experience what it means to have a new life in Christ.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This story is a combination of two stories that were very similar.

The End of our Longing

This is the last Blog for 2016 and the first for 2017. The theme of 2016 was, “What’s Next?” The overall theme for 2017  will be, “A New Creation.” If we wonder much of the time what God will be doing next in our lives, what challenges we will face next, and whether we are able to face them wisely and with love, we also experience the reality of becoming a new creation. Deep down inside, all of us desire to be more than we are. This is the image of God longing to be fulfilled within us. We can’t get there on our own. Fortunately. the Triune God is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20)!

Certain experiences that are not necessarily meaningful at one state of life are extremely meaningful at another. Some months ago, Kathy and I learned that we were to become grandparents this next spring. At sixteen, when some older couple made such an announcement, it meant little to me; and, I did not understand what all the fuss was about. Now I know.

Having children is always a big event, and it is especially a big event when the couple has had trouble conceiving. We have good friends whose son is now grown. They tried for a long time to have children. They even adopted a child. They were told by doctors that they could never have children. Then, one day, she discovered that she was pregnant. To say that she was excited would be a tremendous understatement!

When other people have children, the pregnancy does not seem to last too long. When it is you and your wife, it seems to last forever. In my experience this is especially true of first children. You have nothing to judge things against. When Hilary (our first) was born, to me Kathy looked ready to have a baby after the first three months! From that moment on I kept wondering, “How much longer can this go on?”

Our theme this year has been “What is Next?” This is the last sermon of the year and of the series. Life is not like a sermon series. We will all continue to wonder “What comes next?” from time to time for the rest of our lives. Yet, at each state of life a “What Comes Next” does arrive. This morning we celebrate the end of our longing, the answer to our prayers as we think about the answer to the prayers of the Jewish people and of Mary and Joseph.

The Birth of the Messiah.

Here is the story of the most important birth in all of history as it comes to us from the Gospel According to Luke:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them, and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (Luke 2:1-19).

Dear Lord and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, come in our meditation on these very familiar words from Scripture that we might hear them anew and be changed as were the shepherds who first heard the proclamation of angels.

Guessing What is In the Package.

As you might expect from the son of an F.B.I. agent, I am pretty good at guessing what is inside of a Christmas package. Guessing what is in a package is like solving a crime. You consider what the giver is like, what stores the giver is likely to have visited, what kind of gifts they like to give, and what kind of lengths they have gone to cover up the gift. It is all “Motive, Means and Opportunity.” If you just read enough Sherlock Holmes short stories, you will eventually be able to guess with s fair amount of accuracy what is in a Christmas package.

It used to be a bit harder to guess the sex of a baby. Except for wives’ tales, like “Girls are carried higher up than boys,” there was no way to know. With the advent of ultra sounds and other tests, all this changed. Now there is no guessing. We already know the sex of our grandson to be.

Mary and Joseph were not so fortunate. Other than wives’ tales and gossip, they had no way of knowing for certain that Mary was going to have a son (other than the advice of angels, which is usually pretty accurate). In a pre-scientific age, they had a good general idea when the baby would be born, enough to know it was soon when they started out for Bethlehem. In fact, it may be that Mary went with Joseph because they suspected the baby would come while he was away on family business. [1] You can bet that as they made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem they wondered, “What will happen next?”

There are times when we have no choice but to wonder how our lives are going to change. The birth of children is one of those times. No marriage is ever the same once children are born. We can wonder that is next. We can plan for what is next. We can hope for what is next. But, we cannot know for certain what is next until the time comes.

This has been an election year. For most of the year we did not know who the next President would be. We could hope. We could speculate. We could worry. But we could not know the future until it arrived. Now we know who the next President will be, but we cannot know what exactly he will do or whether his policies will work. We will continue to worry about and think about what comes next. “What Comes Next?” is, you see, a perennial question of human life.

The Role of Faith in What Comes Next.

It is just because we cannot know exactly what is coming next that we must have faith. We need faith in God for the future. The “faith” we need is hard when our prayers are not answered according to our timetable or exactly in the way we hope and imagine. One of my Proverbs for Christmas week was, “The plans in the mind of a human being are many, but it is the will of the Lord that will be established” (Proverbs 19:21). This is so true! We all have hopes, dreams, plans, and the like; however, we cannot know what will happen in the future. We must have faith in God. We need faith in not any God, but the God, the One who created the heavens and the earth in wisdom, love,  and power. Only a God of infinite wisdom, love and power can be trusted to care for us and show us the proper way to live.

We are told that Mary and Joseph were people of faith. Both faced difficult decisions and responded as people of faith. They listened for the Word of God and they tried to follow that word as far as they could understand it. We are the same. We can only know so much. We can only listen for the voice of God, study the scriptures, and pray. The future is in God’s hands not ours. What we must do first and foremost is have faith, a faith that trusts God to care for us, protect us, guide us, and make our ways straight.

The Role of Hope in What Comes Next.

One natural result of faith is hope. One reason our culture experiences so much hopelessness is that we have lost our transcendent hope—a hope not built on human ingenuity or human work but upon the grace of One who loves us and who understands our weaknesses. I am pretty sure that our politics would be less combative and divisive, and our business and economics less grasping and frantic, if we really and truly had faith that God would take care of us whether our party wins, whether or not we get that promotion or new job, and whether or not we get this new possession we think we need.

Not every Jew remained faithful to God during the long years of awaiting a Messiah. Many, many people lost their faith, gave in to hopelessness, and went along fitting in with the world around them. Mary and Joseph were people of faith and they continued to hope. It just so happens that in their relationship that hope they had was fulfilled.

The Role of Love in What Comes Next.

The faith and hope of Israel was completed in an act of love. John tells us that, “God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have Eternal Life” (John 3:16). The birth we celebrate today was a gift of love to us and to the entire world. All the Christmas Trees, Christmas Parties, Christmas Presents, and Christmas Memories of this and every Christmas are but a small reflection of the love that God poured out on the world on that first Christmas.

The greatest thing about faith and hope is that they free us to love others as God has loved us. We are free from the anxiety of believing that the outcome of our lives is totally up to us. We can relax, enjoy life, do our part (of course), all with the love for others that issues from faith and hope. Jesus could love other people unconditionally just because of his uninterrupted fellowship with God that freed him from the fears and anxieties that warp our lives. The goal of the Christian life is love. Paul tells us, “Faith, Hope, and Love, these three; but the greatest of these is Love” (I Corinthians 13:13). This is why in our congregation our goal is to share God’s love with others as we have experienced it in Jesus Christ.

Cheer for the Christmas Season.

A week or so ago, on a not very good day, I found a poem by one of our members, Michael Bowman in my inbox. I would like to share the last part of it with you:

I hope this has brought you some cheer/To help you clear away some drear. So, go out now with faith in your eyes,/ And maybe see a miracle that shines through the lies. For earth is just filled with terror and fright/So, we Christians must be God’s Holy Light.

Wisdom without Faith, Hope, and Love is no kind of wisdom at all. The relentless materialism, hedonism, and decadence of our civilization is a testimony to the fundamental truth that without faith, we degenerate into the worst kind of foolishness–and the smarter and more capable the person, the worse the decay is likely to be. However, if we can just remember our humanity and find humility, then “The Fear of the One Who Is and Will Be is indeed the beginning of wisdom.”

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Robert H. Stein, “Luke” in The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture Vol. 24 (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1992), 103-111. Ordinarily, Mary would not have been required to go with Joseph to be registered to pay taxes, though there were some exceptions to the general rule. Joseph probably took her because of the prejudice against her in Nazareth or because she was due and he wanted to be present for the birth. There is no way to be sure of the reasons.

Longing for the Light

Sometime during High School, I learned that our human capacity to see is made up of two kinds of receptors in our eyes. Some of these receptors enable us to see black and white. Others enable us to see color. The ability to see in black and white is important for night vision. People who do not have highly developed capacity to see variances of black and white have difficulty seeing at night. I happen to be one of those people. If we are driving at night looking for a home that we’ve never visited before, I must slow down and turn on my “brights” every time I try to read a street sign. Even then, most of the time I can’t see clearly enough to read the sign. A week or so ago, Kathy and I went to visit people that we know very well and whose house we’ve been many times. I got lost even though I had been there earlier in the day!

It would be nice if our lives could be lived in an eternal, bright, and sunny summer in which the past, present, and future stand before us with perfect clarity of understanding. It would be nice if we always knew what to do and how to do it. It would be nice if there were  no problems in life we cannot understand, accept, and face with wisdom and courage.

Unfortunately, we all go through times of mental, emotional, and spiritual darkness. We all go through times in which it is difficult for us to discern right from wrong, a good decision from a bad decision, wisdom from foolishness, and the like. During these times, we feel like a person with my level of night vision. Things that were clear in good times, filled with the color of happiness and joy, are no longer clear. Instead, we feel that we are stumbling around in the dark unable to see the world the way it is and unable to adjust to our changing environment. At such times, we long for some kind of light to illuminate our way. Fortunately, in Christ, God has made available to us that light we need in the dark times of life..

Isaiah Longing for Light.

When Isaiah wrote his book, the Jews were in a time of spiritual and moral darkness. The enthusiasm with which they began their national journey had ended. The “Good Ole Days,”represented by the kingship of David and Solomon, were over. There were no good kings in Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and only a very few in Judah (the Southern Kingdom). The religious purity of their temple worship became obscured as the Twelve Tribes melded their worship of God with worship of the gods and goddesses of the nations around them. The Jews (like us) were tempted to worship fertility gods and goddesses—the gods and goddesses of sex. They lost their distinctive culture and began a period of national decay. Religious people longed for light.

Let us ponder for just a few moments to these familiar words from Isaiah 9:

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest,as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. 
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this
(Isaiah 9:1-3; 6-7)

Prayer: God of Light, in Whom there is no Darkness: Come into the darkness of this evening and reveal again to us the True Light of Christ. Amen.

The Jewish People as they Longed for Light.

We Americans are impatient. Sometimes, this is an asset. However, when there are big problems that take a long time to solve, impatience is a big liability. Impatience is not unique to our nation. I think that most human beings, most of the time, are impatient. One quality of the wise life is learning to walk in darkness from time to time while keeping your faith intact. Once upon a time, I was a pretty impatient person, and sometimes I still am. It has been my experience that when God wants to teach us patience, he gives us a long period of suffering. It’s unfortunate, but true.

The Jewish people were not much different than we are. When their nation began to decay, and the prophets spoke the words of warning, they were impatient. Moreover, they didn’t immediately see any big problem. They were like the proverbial “Frog in a Kettle.” Then, the Assyrians came and conquered the northern nation of Israel around 730 B.C. This conquest meant the loss of the fertile areas in the northern part of Israel we call Galilee. In Isaiah, they are referred to as Zebulon and Naphalti. This area of Israel was always, as it is today: a wealthy, fertile, beautiful land—the most fertile in Palestine. The destruction of the Northern Kingdom was a big wakeup call in the midst of their national spiritual and moral nap.

A few years later, King Nebuchadnezzar came from Babylon, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and conquered Judah, the Southern Kingdom. He took representatives of the remaining two tribes into captivity. Even after they returned, they were conquered again and again. Alexander the Great conquered the Jewish people, as did the Roman general, Pompey. [1] These were dark times. Throughout it all, the Jews longed for a Messiah. They longed for some word from God, for some indication that God was going to fulfill his ancient promise to David. 400 years of waiting will make a nation patient. They longed for a light in the darkness of their national decay and destruction.

Christians Today Longing for the Light.

Christians today are concerned about our nation, about religious liberty in our nation and other nations, about the growth of terror groups, and about many other things. Just to give one example, recently our church and denomination has been praying for Andrew Brunson and his wife. The Brunson’s have lived in Turkey for more than twenty years, where Andrew pastored a little church with the knowledge of local authorities. At the time of Brunson’s detention in October, his activities were suddenly alleged by the Turkish government to be “against national security.” No other reason was given for Andrew’s incarceration and no formal charges were filed. He was held without charges for sixty-three days. In more than two months of detention, Andrew was permitted only two U.S. consular visits. His attorney was not permitted visits until just before a final hearing. On December 9th of this year, there was a hearing, and Andrew was imprisoned. [2] Andrew Brunson and his wife are probably longing for a light to come into the darkness of his prison cell and relieve the darkness of their family situation today.

Of course, the Brunson’s are a particularly  dramatic case. There are, however, many people in our congregation, among those who visit our church regularly, in our neighborhoods and city, that live in darkness. It can be the emotional darkness of family problems. It can be the personal darkness of bad health or job losses. It can be the slow darkness of a terminal illness. There are a lot of ways people struggle in the darkness and long for the light. Many, if not most, of us come to Christmas Eve night filled with expectations and with a longing for God to come into our situation.

Surprise: True Light Has Come—Personally!

In the Gospel of John, John tells us right at the beginning that, “The true light that gives light to every person has come into the world” (John 1:9). The True Light did not come as a principal, or as a book, or as a philosophical system, or as a flash of insight, or as an energy or power; the True Light came as a human being, as a real flesh and blood person ordinary people could see, touch, and feel. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Tonight, we celebrate the coming into the world of the only light that can permanently banish our personal darkness and the darkness of our world—the Light of Christ.

There are some things that we human beings can learn in the abstract. Mathematics is one of them. Practical things, like how to play baseball or how to build a house cannot be learned that way. Life cannot be learned that way. Discipleship cannot be learned that way.  Where life is concerned and reality is concerned, we must see another person do the thing, practice the thing, and learn by doing. God knew this important fact. God knew that for us to be saved, to grow in becoming more like God, and find the true light, he was going to have to personally show up on the scene and show us how to think, feel, and behave. There was no other way for all human beings to “get it.”

Therefore, a child had to be born. A Son had to be given. The wisdom that made the universe had to be distilled down to the life of one single human being. The Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, had to come as a little baby, so fragile, so frail, so dependent that a night of freezing cold might take his life.

There had to be a mother (Mary), a father (Joseph), a long time spent growing up, learning to be a carpenter and a rabbi (his life in Nazareth). There were Bible verses to memorize and wisdom to be gathered, stories from the Old Testament to be learned. There were disciples to call and train. There were enemies confound.  Finally, the True Light was arrested, tried, and executed by his own people—all this was necessary if the True Light was to come into the world in such a way that the people of God, the people of the ages, and the people of today might be able to be in a relationship with that True Light, a light so unusual, so unexpected that we might miss it. This is a the True Light and True Wisdom that the Apostle Paul recognized would be seen as foolishness by a whole lot of people (I Corinthians 1:18-25).

On Christmas Day we gather to celebrate the birth. On Christmas Eve, it is enough to stop and ponder the darkness of our world, the darkness of the world of Jesus, and the darkness of the ancient world and marvel at a single fact: into this darkness the Wisdom of the Ages came not in power, not in majesty, not in a blinding physical light like some atomic explosion, but in the first cry of a new born baby, a cry that could even be heard a half a block away. His coming was like a flickering candle in the night, but it changed everything. The true light that can enlighten every single human life had come into the world (John 1:9; 8:12; 9:4).

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alexander the Great took control of Israel about 332 B.C. In 63 B.C, the Roman general Pompey conquered the land of Israel, ended the Hasmonean state and bringing Palestine into the Roman Empire.

[2]  This is based upon an article in the Presbyterian Layman entitled, “Imprisoned American Pastor Formally Charged in Turkey which can be found at www.layman.org/imprisoned-american-pastor-formally-charged-turkey/ (December 15, 2016). We have been asked to not disclose Andrew’s wife’s name though it as been revealed in other media.

Longing for Comfort

The word “comfort” is an interesting word in the English language. Here in the South, we talk and about “comfort food,” by which we mean food that fills you up and makes an empty stomach feel full. imgres-2Comfort food has plenty of carbo’s, starches, protein, and especially bacon grease (an essential element in all comfort food). In the intelligence world, they speak of giving “comfort to the enemy.” Comforting the enemy means betraying your country and helping someone else. If we have enough money and a nice house and plenty of food we talk about “living comfortably,” by which we mean our needs are met. When we comfort a child we hold them in our arms and speak softly with love and encouragement.

The root of this word “comfort” are two Latin words meaning “with” and “to strengthen.” [1] The “fort” part of comfort is the same word from which we get our English word “fort” or “fortress.” A fortress is of course a safe place. Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “Comforter.” The Greek word being used there has a similar connotation. It means “helper” or “advocate,” because an advocate is someone who helps another person through legal proceedings. When we are in legal trouble, it is comforting to know we have a capable attorney to help us. To comfort is come beside another human being and supply a strength that, for the moment, they need.

The God of All Comfort.

images-1The book of Isaiah falls into two general parts. Chapters 1-39 are chapters of judgement, as the prophet warns the nations, and especially Judah, of coming judgment. It often makes hard reading because of the constant disclosure of sin and coming suffering. Chapter 40 begins a second section. [2] This section begins with a message of comfort encouragement and assures the Jewish people that God is a God of Compassion who will save his people from their sins and national humiliation. It is in this section that many of the famous Messianic passages and disclosure of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant of Israel are found. In other words, the book of Isaiah begins with judgement and ends with forgiveness, restoration, and new hope. It ends with the hope that God will create a new heaven and new earth in which the problems of our world are absent (Isaiah 66:22).

Here are some famous  words of comfort we find in Isaiah chapter 40:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm (Isaiah 40:1-10).

Prayer: God of Comfort, come by the power of the Holy Spirit, your great comforter, to convict us, convert us, and make us wholly yours. Amen.

The Comfort of Good News.

I’m sure we’ve all had this kind of experience: We are worried about something. We fear something bad is going to happen. Then, we get a letter or phone call or a visit from a friend. They bring good news. Suddenly, our worries are gone. I remember worrying about business problems. I remember being afraid of our family’s financial future. Then, one day an envelope and arrived at the office. It contained a check! Good news! Good news is comforting. It’s comforting in all the ways I mentioned earlier. Good news takes the gnawing fear from our stomachs. It fills us up. Good news reminds us that were not alone. We have friends and allies. Good news reminds us that we have some protection and things are not going to be as bad as we feared. It reminds us that God has not forgotten about us.

Of course, the very most important good news is the Good News of the Gospel. The Good News of the Gospel is that God himself  acted in the life, death, and resurrection to save his people from their sin and brokenness. When Paul and the apostles speak of  Good News they are always speaking of the good news that God, in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as provided for our salvation and eternal life.

The book of Isaiah contained  Good News for the people of his day and for the people of our day. Isaiah doesn’t deny the reality of sin and judgment. Isaiah doesn’t deny that God’s people  suffer  consequences from sin. However, Isaiah is clear: In the end, God is going to remove sin, end suffering, restore his people, and bring the time of peace and plenty. Isaiah 40 is comfort food for the soul!

imgres-3Isaiah promises us four forms of comfort in Chapter 40 of the book:

  • First, the comfort of Good News, this good news of and end to suffering comes from the most reliable source possible: God.
  • Second, the personal  comfort of the Presence of Immanuel, God with Us, as our comforter is on its way. Like a parent who personally hold a child and comforts the child, God intends to come to comfort us personally.
  • Third, the comfort is the promise of  the all wise  God, who conceived and designed the heavens and the earth. The God of perfect knowledge has promised us our salvation. The God who promises our salvation knows everything he needs to know to accomplish it.
  • Finally, the comfort of knowing that the source of our comfort is the all-powerful God who made the heavens and the earth and is in control of all things. The God who has designed our salvation is able to provide us the comfort and salvation we need and desire. His power and might will accomplish what He has promised.

The Ministry of Comfort.

Most of us know that the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Comforter” in the Gospel of John. Jesus promised to send us the Comforter  who will lead us into all truth (John 14:15-16; 25-26; 16:12). This Spirit of Truth will also permit us to testify to the world about the salvation God offers, just as Isaiah was empowered by the Spirit to testify to the comfort and salvation God was going to provide his people Israel.

In Second Corinthians Paul writes these important words:

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 (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

In this passage, Paul uses the Greek term for Comfort nine times. [3] Nine times! In the person of Jesus, whose birth we will celebrate next Sunday, God has “come beside us” not abstractly, but personally to remove the curse of sin, to restore our damaged psyches, to renew our worn spirits, to give us victory over sin and death, to give us new life—a new life that will last into eternity.

Several years ago, I was injured and became sick in a new and somewhat strange city. I was unmarried and all alone. A Christian I did not know very well came to visit me as I was recovering. He came beside me—literally beside my bed and figuratively beside me in this moment on injury and illness. This person has been special to me ever since. He had been comforted by Jesus. Now, he was sharing that comfort; and in sharing that comfort, he was sharing the Good News of the Gospel.

imagesHis example is an example to all of us: We have been comforted by Christ or we would not be here this morning. Now it is our turn to share the Good News that the Messiah is coming—indeed he has already come. He did come as we expected. It is better than we expected. He came as a Suffering Servant to share the hidden wisdom and compassion of God with the entire world. The night to which we are coming in a few days is the night that God came close to us, like a mother comforting a child in the night, with a strength and a power we lacked then and lack now. He came to save us now and for life eternal.

Amen.

[1] The root word is “fortis,” a word that means “to strengthen.” The “com” is based on the Latin “cum,” that means “with.” When a friend comes to be with you and encourage you they are “with you” to “strengthen you.”

[2] Scholars are divided about how to understand Isaiah. Conservative scholars hold to a single author writing at the time of the Assyrian conquest or thereabouts. Liberal scholars believe that there are multiple authors, sometimes referred to as “Isaiah,” “Second Isaiah,” and “Third Isaiah.” Moderate scholars often hold to a single author whose work underwent editing from a “School of Isaiah.” This is an instance where, in my opinion, Christians do not have an essential “dog in the hunt” concerning who is right. Whenever Isaiah was written and by whomever it was written it was written centuries before Christ and its prophesies of the Messiah are truly prophetic of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

[3] In this passage, Paul uses the very same term John uses in his Gospel, “parakaleo,” or “one called beside. This Greek term, among other uses, can be used for an attorney who is called beside his or her client to defend them in a time of accusation or conflict. This word means encourage, help, strengthen (the comfort root) assure, reassure, exhort etc. See, Geoffrey W. Bromley, ed. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament Abridged Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 778-784.

Longing for Justice

 

When I was in undergraduate school I took a class in Political Philosophy. One question we discussed was, “Is there really any such thing as justice?” Some don’t believe in a separate thing called, “Justice.” They believe that the only thing that really exists is power. Later, in law school, I trained to be an officer of the court system, which theoretically seeks justice. Interestingly, we never, ever had a single discussion about the subject of justice. We were training to win cases, and we just assumed that justice was something that happened if we all played by the Rules of Civil Procedure. Later on, every so often  I would wonder, “Is there really anything called ‘justice’ or is ‘justice’ just the name we give to the opinions of whoever wins in a social or legal conflict?” [1]

imgres-2Then, we had children. The subject of justice never came up so long as we had one child, the apple of our eyes and of the eyes of her grandparents. Our lucky first child got pretty much whatever she wanted. Then came our second child; and when they got old enough, we would hear one or the other claim, “That is not fair. _____ got more than I did.” By the time we had four children, we heard this a lot. For a time, we tried to be fair about everything, but no matter what we did someone would think that someone else got a better present, a bigger room, or whatever.

At some point every parent has experienced the claim that what he or she is doing is not fair. What interests me about the claim is not whether it is true or false, but the fact that children and adults have a natural idea of justice and fairness,  We complain when we are not treated as we believe we deserve or when we feel that we have not received what we deserve. In other words, the idea of justice seems to be an innate part of human nature.

We human beings do not necessarily agree about what justice is in any particular situation, but we long for justice. We want ourselves, our people, our family, our religion, and our friends to be treated fairly. People have always had such a longing. This longing for justice alerts us that there may be (and almost certainly is) something called “justice” out there for which we long. Similarly, our longing for God is an indication that God exists and has implanted this longing within our hearts.

A Day for Which We Long.

Injustice is a fact of human existence. The Jews have always possessed a heightened sense of injustice. The history of the Jewish people is filled with instances of great injustice. After being invited to enter Egypt, they were enslaved for over 400 years. After they escaped that captivity, they were frequently attacked by neighboring tribes and nations. After the kingdom of David divided, the ten northern tribes were subjected to dispersion and terrible treatment by the Assyrians. After Judea was captured, it was subjected to captivity by the Babylonians. The Jews were mistreated by the Greeks and Romans. Throughout history, anti-Semitism has been a terrible problem. The Jews have been mistreated in the 20th century, especially in Germany under Hitler.

images-1The prophet Isaiah longed for a just society. A major theme of Isaiah is the theme of justice and injustice. Isaiah believed that the punishment of God was coming upon Judah partially because of social injustice (See Isaiah 1:21 and 59:4-8). Repeatedly, the prophet speaks of the injustice of Jewish society. The prophet also looks foreward to a day in which there will be justice for all.  Our text this morning comes from Isaiah, chapter 32, verses one through eight. Hear the Word of God to us this morning from the Prophet Isaiah:

See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the Lord; the hungry they leave empty and from the thirsty they withhold water. Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. But the noble make noble plans, and by noble deeds they stand (Isaiah 32:1-8).

God of Justice and Mercy: Grant us the eyes to see the world as you see the world and the desire to bring justice to our world, just as you desire to bring your justice, and did bring it through Jesus Christ, in whose Name we pray…. 

A Cold and Unjust World.

imagesSeveral years ago, our church’s Christmas season was themed after movies made from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. [2] In the first book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are magically transported into the world of Narnia. When the children arrive, Narnia is ruled by an evil witch, who has arranged for Narnia to be perpetually frozen in winter. In her Narnia, it is always winter and never spring, and Christmas never comes. The witch is cruel and powerful, and everyone who opposes her is immediately frozen by her magic wand. There is no justice in Narnia.

Of course, Narnia is meant to be a magical rendition of the Planet Earth. Just as Narnia is under the rule of the White Witch, our world is often under the domination of an evil king—that spiritual reality or person we sometimes call “Satan.” Just as the White Witch has made of Narnia a cold place, so also our world is not as God intended it to be. Just as there is no justice in Narnia, there is a lot of injustice in our world. There is social injustice, racial injustice, prejudice against all sorts of people, including Christians and Jews, laws that discriminate, judges that do not do justice, and a host of other kinds of injustices. None of this makes God happy.

The same thing was true in the time of Isaiah. Here is how he describes his own day and time:

No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue evil schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths (Isaiah 59:4-8).

The situation as Isaiah saw it was just as difficult as the situation we often see around us. And, just as our own prophets foresee trouble if we do not change our national ways, Isaiah foresaw suffering if the Jews did not change their national behavior. Sin, it seems, has consequences—something we sometimes forget.

Our world is a place in which injustice too often occurs. This is not “just the way things are.” Instead, as Lewis would have us see, it is a sign that there is something deeply wrong with our world. We live in cold place and we need the warmth of justice and of the Spirit of God so that we can be freed from this cold world of injustice and enjoy the justice for which we were created.

The World We Long For.

In the Narnia books, the true King of Narnia, Aslan—who is a Christ figure—is coming. One indication that Aslan is coming is that the long Narnia winter is slowly ending, and spring is coming at last. (Even Santa Claus arrives on scene to give the children gifts before spring arrives!) In Isaiah, the prophet also uses an image of nature being changed because of what the Messiah will do when the Messiah comes as a symbol of the spiritual healing of the land of his people (see, Isaiah 35). In Isaiah 11, after speaking of the supernatural justice of the expected Anointed One, the prophet has the following vision:

Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11: 5-9).

The idea is that nature is impacted by justice and by injustice. Human beings and human life are changed for the better when we seek justice and live peacefully with others. [3] Isaiah sees a spiritual and moral spring arriving when the Messiah comes, ushering in a time of peace and plenty as old antagonisms and alienations are overcome.

imgres-1Whether or not we visualize the future in poetic terms, we all long for a just world and we all believe that a just world would be different and happier than the world we live in. Unfortunately, most all of us also desire for our injustice to remain in that world. We want the injustice that impacts us to be removed, but we do not feel so strongly about the injustice we inflict on others. God will not have it this way. God wants to get rid of all injustice, the injustice of the rich and the poor, of the powerful and of the powerless, of the insiders and of the outsiders. God desires a perfectly just world.

This week, my facebook post was as follows:

Human nature is paradoxical. We long for things to stay the same as to things we like, but we also long for a day in which the things we don’t like change. Too often, we forget that we cannot eliminate the injustice of others while holding fast to our own. Our longing for a day of universal justice requires a New Heaven and a New Earth filled with the wisdom, love, and justice of God.

We long for justice, but too often we long only for the justice that will benefit ourselves and those like us. Unfortunately, that is not what God intends. God intends justice for everyone.

The Work We Must Do in the Meantime.

Of course, we are not going to have a perfectly just world, at least not for the foreseeable future. Our world will always imperfect. Just as the Bible gives us a humanly unreachable standard for leadership, the Bible also gives us an unreachable standard for justice. We are not God, and we are not gods and goddesses. Therefore, on this earth we will never have a perfectly just world or society. This does not mean we should not work towards one. [4]

imgresNot so many years ago, Kathy and I had the opportunity to meet the singer Sarah Groves. She sang for a retreat we were on. I learned that she donates a bit of her time to an organization called, “International Justice Mission” or “IJM.” IJM is an international justice mission dedicated to eradicating slavery worldwide. We do not like to think about it, but there are more slaves today than ever before in history. In particular, many women are essentially enslaved in the prostitution industry. Some of these women are kidnapped, drugged, and sold into the trade. In poorer countries, families may sell one member into slavery to provide for the rest of the family. IJM attempts to expose, halt, and assist in the prosecution of this kind of slavery.

Not so many years ago, one of our elders, Georgia Smith, and some other people from our denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, went to Cambodia to study and learn about the problem of sex trafficking in that nation and in the Far East. They spent twelve days or so learning about this serious problem and ministering to those who were escaping this injustice. As they learned more and as they helped and served the women who had been enslaved, they served both Christ and the cause of justice.

We had an Adventurers’ luncheon Thursday, and Kathy talked about Casa Mami, an orphanage we support in Mexico. At least some of the girls Casa Mami helps would otherwise be on the streets of Reynosa and other cities of Mexico. We help in a lot of ways. We help with operation ID downtown. Many people cannot get basic social services help unless they have an ID. By helping the homeless get ID’s we are helping them find a justice in our city.

There are so many examples of injustice in our world that this blog could consist of nothing but examples of injustice. Right now, however,  I want to point out some things we can all do to bring justice into the world as we await the time in which God will act to fully and finally bring justice upon a “New Heaven and New Earth.” Each of us in our hearts know of some area in which there is an injustice that we would like to overcome or help others to overcome. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite the Risen Lord into the situation. We can pray that God will intervene and that God’s wisdom and love will come into situations of injustice.
  • Resist the temptation to defeatism and negativity. It is easy to complain. It is hard to do something positive.
  • Study the Bible and the specific injustice you are interested. Gaining a Godly perspective and a worldly understanding is a part of learning to overcome injustice.
  • Act. For a long time, we have been talking about Worship, Grow, and Serve as three pegs of the Christian life. Doing something is part of serving.
  • Be patient. No problem, and especially no serious problem, is quickly or painlessly overcome. We should hang in there.

It is a strength of Christianity that we look forward to God’s help in overcoming injustice. We need to hold onto our need for God’s help. Nevertheless, we cannot give up on working for justice, because that is what God would have us do in the meantime.

The One Hope We Have.

This week at staff meeting we were talking about the human search for justice. We were, of course, noting that we cannot possibly be completely sure of what justice is in this world. We also cannot know completely that our actions are bringing about justice. Often in liberal churches sight is lost of the fact that we cannot bring the Kingdom of God upon the earth solely by our own actions. Conversely,  in conservative churches we sometimes forget that God has created his church upon the earth to assist God in bringing in the kingdom until Christ returns.

imgresThe cross is the great reminder of the reality that God suffers injustice with everyone who suffers injustice. Christ was arrested unjustly, tried unjustly, and crucified unjustly. God knows and understands the reality and power of injustice. The cross is where the mercy and justice of God collide—and it is a reminder that God is with us when we suffer injustice. The resurrection is a reminder that God will have an ultimate victory over injustice. The king has come. Our moral winter may not be entirely over, but spring is coming.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] One major issue in modern (what I would call the decadent phase of modern society is the pervasive loss of belief in invisible and spiritual realities, of which justice is one. This is not the place for a philosophical analysis, but a loss of faith in the reality of justice inevitably reduces political and legal disputes to power plays and power politics. Such a development is not consistent with the requirements for a free and just society and ultimately leads to injustice and suffering on a massive scale. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012014). My analysis is as always reliant upon the critical realistic work of Michael Polanyi (see Footnote 4 below) and others. ‘Justice’ is real and the search for justice, when fairly and consistently engaged in, progressively reveals an ever deeper and inexhaustible content to human beings. Justice’s reality is shown in its power to create a better world as it is progressively revealed to those who believe in it and seek it diligently. Justice is “real,” though its reality is different in kind from physical reality. Its reality is intellectual and spiritual and must be known according to its character by faith, diligent inquiry, and constant revision of our ideas. See, Tomas F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology (New York, NY: T&T Clarke, 1980).

[2] The Chronicles of Narnia are published by Harper Trophy, A Division of Harper Collins, New York, New York. The first book in the series is, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

[3] I have more than once noted in the past that I think we modern people too often discount and fail to recognize the impact of sin on the world we inhabit and its consequences even upon those with whom we have no direct impact. Just as in the physical world there can be “spooky action at a distance” in the subatomic world, in the macro world I am convinced that spiritual realities “act at a distance.” As a pastor, for example, I have noted that when our nation is at war there is a level of anger and violence among those whom we counsel that is absent in times of peace. As our society has deteriorated, there is not question but what we have seen more crime, more dysfunction, and more anxiety among people.

[4] Last week I made mention of the fact that some philosophers, like Michael Polanyi, critique conservative Christianity because its unreachable moral ideal often results in a kind of fanaticism. This fanaticism is especially dangerous when it emerges in its secular form unrelated to the love and mercy of God, as it does in Communism and other secular movements. This is Polanyi’s concern. This danger is ameliorated if we remember that our world will always be characterized by some degree of injustice. We cannot even by our best efforts eliminate all injustice, and those who try often engage in the most serious forms of injustice imaginable, as Stalin and Lenin demonstrated. The unattainability of our goals to perfect society should not keep us from seeking that better world. See Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith, and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946) and Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Il. University of Chicago Press, 1958).

Longing for Leadership

 

What's-NextOur theme for this blog and our church this year is, “What’s next?”. Our theme for  Advent season 2016 is, “Longing for What’s Next.” Most of us, when we think of longing for a word from God, think of longing for some message in human speech or language. While it’s true that we often need a verbal message from God, more often we want a relationship with God. The “Word” we want is the Word Made Flesh, Jesus. We need a person not just words. The longing we have is not just for information but for a personal relationship with a person (God) who can bring us to the next stage of life.

Because this year was an election year, most of us have thought about the subject of leadership. We long for a world in which we have better, more ethical, godlier, and more caring leadership. Of course, in the end our longing for better leaders cannot be fulfilled except by Christ. All human leaders fail. All human leaders fall short of our expectations. Only God can give us leadership we desire in the depths of our hearts. The frailty of our human leaders does not, however, mean we don’t need good and godly ones.

This blog is about the longing we all have to be led by leaders who truly care for us and lead is wisely. This longing is part of our human condition. Human beings have always longed for better leaders. This longing especially comes to the surface during election years or other times like the one our church is experiencing: times when we are thinking and looking for new leadership. It may help us to know that people have always longed for new leadership in times of transition and in troubled times.

A Prophetic Longing.

images-2Our text for this blog is from the prophet Isaiah. The early church valued Isaiah more than any book of prophecy. They saw in Isaiah a foreshadowing of the birth, character, ministry, and sacrificial death of Jesus. As they read Isaiah, the first Christians saw revealed and understood in a deep way the life and ministry of Jesus. Isaiah foresaw that a virgin would conceive (7:14), that the Messiah would be hidden and not attractive to the wealthy and famous (53:2), and that he would sacrifice himself for the sins of his people (53:6-8). They also saw in Jesus fulfillment of the promise God had made to David that he would never fail to have a family on the throne of Israel (9:7; 11:10). Here is a part of what Isaiah prophesies on the subject of leadership:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:1-6).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, King of Heaven, Lord of Hosts: Come to us by the power of your Holy Spirit so that we may understand the kind of leadership that pleases you and become such leaders in our families, businesses, schools, clubs, friendships, and other places we minister your grace. In Jesus Name, Amen.

images-2The Leaders We Too Often Have.

We often complain about poor leadership in our culture—and for good reason. Recently, I went on the internet to look for a few examples of bad leadership. I found many, many examples from 2016 alone. Here are just a few examples of bad leadership from 2016:

  • The CEO of a large internet company who was hired to turn the business around, became a celebrity, and proceeded to lose even more money than her predecessor.
  • The leader of an emerging economic power who ran for office on an anti-corruption ticket and then proceeded to act in a corrupt manner.
  • The CEO of a growing software company used dubious and illegal business practices to grow a company and his leadership style included highly inappropriate conduct by himself and his employees.
  • The CEO of a drug company that bought a generic drug and then upped the price, hurting seriously ill people.
  • Another CEO of a drug company who misstated the results of tests on a new company drug.
  • The CEO of a car company ignored signs that certain tests required by the federal government were not accurately reported.
  • The mayor of a major American city afflicted with crime flip flopped on an alleged act of police violence, losing the respect of voters, police and social activists alike.
  • The governor of a state claimed not to know of a blatantly illegal and politically motivated action of two of his subordinates. [1]

Frankly, too often we settle for bad or incompetent or immoral or dishonest leadership not just in our government, but also in private industry and charitable organizations. If we do not think and work carefully to develop good leaders, we must live with the leaders we get. Therefore, it is a good idea to think about the kind of leadership we desire for the institutions of our society.

The Leadership We Deimages-1sire.

The Prophet Isaiah lived in the times of two of the best kings of Israel and two of the worst. The prophesy of the historical Isaiah covers the period from the reign of King Uzziah (791-740 B.C.), the reign of King Jotham (750-732 B.C.), King Ahaz (736-716 B.C.), and King Hezekiah (725-687 B.C.). Uzziah and Hezekiah were good kings, but Ahaz and Jotham were not. Isaiah 11, quoted above, was probably written sometime during the disappointing reign of Ahaz. [2] The prophet was understandably concerned about the future of his nation. The vision of granted Isaiah is a response of God to his longing and praying for a better kind of leader. He needed a word from God on the subject of leadership, and he received that word he needed.

As Isaiah prayed and thought about the situation, he recognized that what was needed was a new and different kind of leadership. Such leadership would be Spirit-filled, loving and caring for people, wise, knowledgeable about the world and about the ways of God, insightful about the motives of people and the potential of situations, just, and righteous.

From the time of Isaiah forward, the people of Israel longed for that kind of leadership. Over time, the visions of Isaiah and other prophets resulted in a hope for a Spirit-filled leader the prophets called, the “Messiah,” or “The Anointed One.” [3] In other words, what Israel hoped for was a leader filled with the Spirit of God, and so empowered to rule in a godly manner. By the time of Jesus, this hope was fully worked out in the minds of most Jews. Unfortunately, the way God’s people had worked it out was not accurate. The Jews made of the Messiah just another King David, only more moral and without some of David’s most serious shortcomings.

God had a different idea. In God’s mind, the Messiah was to be a totally different kind of leader. I have a doctorate, and my doctorate happens to be in leadership. In the beginning of my research for my degree, I was attracted to the study of some of the most successful and most popular leaders of the church of the 1990’s. By the time of my dissertation, I had come to realize that too often pastors, church professionals, sessions, and church members want church leaders who model the same leadership styles as their favorite leaders in business, government, the military, and other areas. The problem is that secular leaders almost always disappoint, and our search for church leaders who are just like secular leaders but nicer is also bound to disappoint. If we want the kind of leaders for which we long, then we need to pray for Spirit-filled leadership. Truly Christian leadership is leadership that emulates Christ before everything else.

All human leaders human institutions must in some way adapt their style to the culture in which they lead. All leaders must adapt their leadership to the realities of the challenges they face and to human nature. However, we cannot make progress, real progress in leadership unless and until the transcendent example of Christ forms in our hearts an ideal for which we strive.

Getting There from Here.

This blog has been scheduled for almost all this year. When it was scheduled, I had no idea that the election would be so divisive or that there would be so much ill-feelings about the candidates. A few days ago, I wrote the meditation for last week. It was as follows:

This year has been an election year. Therefore, most of us have thought about leadership at least once or twice. One thing most of us long for is a world in which we have better, wiser, more ethical, godlier, and more caring leadership. This longing for better leaders cannot be completely fulfilled except by Christ. All human leaders fail. All human leaders fall short of our expectations. All human leaders are like us: they are flawed, finite human beings. Therefore, we can come to expect too much from them. Only God can give us the leadership we desire in the depths of our hearts. Only Christ can give us the self-giving, servant leadership for which our spirits made in the image of God long. Only the Spirit can help us come closer to being such leaders.

Christians can and should be in the forefront of demanding and seeking good leadership from ourselves and from those who lead us. One of the strengths of our faith is that it gives us an eternal and humanly unreachable spiritual and moral ideal to guide us in all our striving, including our striving to be good leaders.

Our culture is chronically disappointed in its leaders because we do not have a clear and realistic moral ideal of the kind of leader we want. As we have become a secular culture, the ideal of a servant leadership has been cut off from its roots in Christ, the revelation of the Word Made Flesh. The Bible, however, reveals such a vision and ideal—a vision and ideal first set out in Isaiah and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

During the most recent election, I had an experience I want to share. For whatever reason, beginning I did not initially feel called to pray for the victory of any candidate. I did feel called to pray for the character of the candidates. I felt called to pray that one particular candidate, win or lose, would become a better person. Interestingly, I feel my prayers were answered! As Christians, we know that we will never fully achieve the kingdom of God on this earth. We know that our leaders will to some degree fail us. In fact, the attempt to seek a merely human messiah always ends in failure, as Hitler, Lenin, and Mao among others abundantly proved. We cannot have perfect politicians. We can and must, however, pray and work for better political climate and better politicians.

What would better leadership look like? Our passage from Isaiah gives us some clues of what we should pray for:

  • First, we should pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and upon our leaders. The book of Isaiah speaks of King Cyrus of Persia (see, Isaiah 41:2-4). Cyrus, was not a Jew, was not a Christian (of course), and in so far as we know, died a pagan. Nevertheless, Isaiah speaks of Cyrus as anointed with the Holy Spirit in the decisions he made, giving religious freedom to the Jews.
  • Second, we can pray for our leaders, whether or not they are Christians, in such a way that we can live quiet and peaceful lives. Paul in his Second Letter to Timothy urges us to do exactly that when he says, “I urge, then, first, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Many Christians only pray for those leaders they like or voted for. This is a mistake. We must pray for all those in authority.
  • Third, we can pray that our leaders will make good decisions inspired by the Holy Spirit. Isaiah envisions a king who will decide wisely and with true understanding of people, situations, and the options available (11:2). Such a leader will have a kind of wisdom that begins with deep respect for God and humility, a quality that is necessary for true godliness (Proverbs 1:7; 10:9; and 15:33; Isaiah 112-3). One characteristic of such leaders is that they do not merely judge on the exterior, but look deep into reality with a mind attuned to invisible moral and spiritual realities of a situation (Isaiah 11:3). Such leaders will especially care for the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten (v. 4).
  • Finally, we can pray that our leaders, Christian or not, be filled with the love of God, and will be selfless, servant leaders. Cyrus, as mentioned earlier, was not a Jew nor did he necessarily believe in the God of Israel. He supported all possible god’s and let people worship as they pleased. Nevertheless, Isaiah sensed that Cyrus was, in many ways, a godly leader and a servant of God’s people and God’s intentions in history (Isaiah 44:24-28; 54:1-13).

As Christians, we can and should pray that our leaders will have that hidden wisdom of which the apostle Paul speaks (1 Corinthians 2:6-8). We can pray that they will be wise in such a way that they can see beneath the surface to the true, hidden causes of things (Isaiah 3-4). Finally, we can pray that they will be righteous and do justice, especially toward the poor and the oppressed (vv. 4).images We can pray that our leaders will serve us with a humble spirit of service, and not simply with a desire for more and more power. We cannot achieve a kind of leadership that promotes the healing of the world by our own powers. If lions are to ly down with lambs, we need the power of God, the power shown on the Cross, to allow that to happen.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Fortune Editors, “The World’s 19 Most Disappointing Leaders” Fortune Magazine (March 30, 2016) downloaded November 16, 2016. I could go on and on with examples. Originally, I was going to use Enron as an example, but it seemed outdated. When I went on the internet I found so many contemporary examples I could not believe it.

[2] See, Gary V. Smith, “Isaiah 1-39” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2007), 233ff. Most likely this section is related to the time period of Isaiah 7:14 (“A virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son”). The reign of Ahaz had been disappointing to the prophet and many other religious Jews. In such times, there is a longing for wholesome, renewing leadership.

[3] The Hebrew term “Messiah” is “Christ” in Greek. In English, the translation for Christ is “Anointed One.”

The Gift of Thankfulness

This week I had the opportunity to read an article from the November issue of Christianity Today. It was about the Christian author Ann Voskamp. [1]. Ann Voskamp lives on a farm in Canada. Her husband, is “The Farmer.” Her book, One Thousand Gifts, has become a national best seller. Ann Voskamp’s the story is important and touching. She grew up in Canada as the daughter of a farmer. When she was quite young, her younger sister wandered into a farm lane, where she was hit by a truck and killed. Their family entered decades of trauma. Both of her parents were emotionally and spiritually wounded. Her father stopped going to church. Ann was also emotionally wounded and had difficulty trusting God or feeling any joy in Christian faith.

After years of suffering, she had a revelation about the importance of thankfulness. As she was studying her Bible she recognized how many times Jesus gave thanks in difficult circumstances. She then discovered how often the apostles gave thanks in difficult circumstances. She learned that the word for thanks in Greek comes from the same root word, “charis,” as “”grace” and “gift.” She began to find things to be thankful for in the midst of suffering and hard times. She became thankful for fresh jam, for a baby’s breath, for the harvest, for all the simple things of life. One day, one of her friends noticed the change in her, and she recognized that her practice of giving thanks for the little blessings of life had begun to overcome the darkness and the bitterness that pervaded her life. Even her friends noticed that she was a changed person.

imgres-2Thanksgiving is an important holiday. At Thanksgiving, we celebrate and remember the gifts of God. In modern society it is harder to remember to be thankful for the harvest because we no longer live close to the soil. That’s too bad. The fact that we are here this morning, that we have enough to eat, that we have family and friends, – all of these are gifts of God.

Thanks at the End of an Era.

Last week we studied Second Chronicles. The book covers the period from the ascension of Solomon to the throne of Israel to the Babylonian exile, a period of about 400 years. Today’s text is from the end of the reign of King David, or around 970 B.C. [2] It was written hundreds of years after David’s death. By the time First Chronicles, was written, David was a distant historical figure, somewhat like George Washington is for people today. Let’s listen to David’ final prayer:

 imagesDavid praised the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly, saying, “Praise be to you, Lord, is what the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power  to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks,  and praise your glorious name. “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. Lord, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you. And give my son Solomon the wholehearted devotion to keep your commands, statutes and decrees and to do everything to build the palatial structure for which I have provided.”  Then David said to the whole assembly, “Praise the Lord your God.” So they all praised the Lord, the God of their fathers; they bowed down, prostrating themselves before the Lord and the king (I Chronicles 29:10-20).

Prayer: Eternal God: Give us thankful hearts this morning. Fill our hearts with thankfulness for the simple things of life and for the nation we are privileged to live in. Give us thanks for those who sacrificed for our freedom—and for those who are sacrificing for us this very day. In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

The Life of David.

Oh I wish I had time to preach a sermon series on the life of David!  Years ago, a Presbyterian pastor I know preached an ingenious series of sermons called: “The Life of David: God’s Soap Opera.” David’s life often reads just like a soap opera. Most of us know the outline of the story. David was the youngest son of Jesse. His great-grandmother was Ruth the Moabitess. He was the youngest son of his father Jesse. Through God’s miraculous intervention in his life, he was anointed king of Israel to succeed Saul. As a young boy, he fought the giant Goliath armed only with a sling. He won a great victory.

imgresAs a result of the victory, he was brought into the court of King Saul. Because of his talent as a musician he was called upon to sing for Saul when Saul was depressed or in a dark mood. He became a great soldier, eventually the greatest soldier in Saul’s army. Saul became jealous of him and for many years David was an outlaw wandering in the wilderness of Judah trying to stay one step ahead of his kingdom. All along David remained faithful to God and trusted God even in his desperation.

After many years, Saul was killed in battle, and David became king of Israel, first in Judah and then in Jerusalem. As king, he continued to provide security for his people. Then, he had a notorious affair with the beautiful Bathsheba. In the process of trying to cover up his affair with Bathsheba, David committed murder. The son conceived as a result of the affair died shortly after childbirth. As a result of these events, God brought a terrible judgment upon David. From that time forward he faced revolt and revolution from within his own family. He saw two of his children die violent deaths. He had a grand daughter who was molested by one of his own sons. One of his children led a rebellion against him. As an old man who could barely lift the sword he had to return to the battlefield. He was victorious in that battle.

After these events David entered a season of peace. He had a son by Bathsheba whose name was “Solomon.” Solomon turned out to be the most brilliant and capable of his children. Therefore, he determined that Solomon would replace him as king. At the end of his life, for a period of time, he and Solomon ruled together. David wanted to build the temple in Jerusalem. God did not permit him to do so because he was a man of violence and had shed blood. In today’s text David looks back upon his life and realizes that every good gift he has received: his positions came, his wealth, his power, his family, – all these things – came from God.

Grace and Thankfulness.

As part of preparing for this blog I wrote this week’s meditation posted on Facebook:

Thankfulness and grace go together. If we think we are entitled to the gift of life and to the things we want and need, we will never be thankful. It is only when we realize that everything we have as individuals, as a church, and as a nation are gifts of God’s grace that we can be truly thankful—and thank the One who bestowed them upon us.

 This is the last week of our series on many ways of giving. As we have every week, we are returning to the subject of God’s grace. As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the interesting parts of Ann Voskamp’s spiritual healing was recognizing that grace and joy and thanksgiving go together. The Greek word “charis” is at the root of our word for grace, thanksgiving, gift, and joy. If we do not develop a gift of thankfulness, we will never experience the joy that God desires us to have as Christians. It’s only when we recognize that all of life is a gift that we can truly experience the healing power of God and the joy of God in our lives.

One thing I hope we have all gotten out this series of blogs is the importance of recognizing how dependent we are on God and on the love and mercy of God not just for our salvation but for all of the blessings of life. We cannot be thankful until and unless we put our own wisdom, our own work, and our own striving into perspective: No matter what I have done or accomplished, it is still because of God’s grace that I have accomplished it. When I have this realization, I am released to be be humble, open, wise, loving, and thankful.

The First Thanksgiving.

images-2Last week I mentioned how important it is for our country to remember something of our history and traditions.  The Pilgrims left England for America because they did not have freedom of religion in England. People who belonged to the free church movement, the Puritans, who took their faith very seriously, were unable to practice their religion with freedom. They were persecuted not just by the government but by the people of their day. They left England and went to Holland for a short period of time. They did not find Holland a good place to live because their children were developing Dutch customs and speaking Dutch at the expense of English. They learned that they could move to America, have religious freedom, and remain British citizens. So, they embarked on a voyage to the New World in a sailing ship that would fit into the sanctuary of our church. Many of the pilgrims died on the voyage. They landed late in the year and many died during that first cold, dark, dangerous first winter.

The following spring, the survivors began building their colony and planted a crop. They were aided by members of a local Native American tribe. Their first harvest was successful; and in November the group’s leader called for a feast to celebrate. Hunters were sent into the wilderness to hunt game for the event. Members of the local Native American tribes were invited and brought deer meat to add to the menu. The celebration lasted for three days.

We can learn some lessons from that first Thanksgiving. The survivors of that first time in the New World were not wealthy. They had not been terribly successful. They had barely enough food to make it through the next winter. Nevertheless, they were thankful. We don’t have to have everything that we desire to be thankful. To be thankful is to recognize that everything we have is a gift. In a society in which we feel entitled to happiness and success, it is hard to realize that even our failures involve God’s grace and we should be thankful for what we’ve been given.

Our Thanksgiving.

images-4In a little less than two weeks, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. I hope that all of us will take some time to think about what we are thankful for before that day. Perhaps we can develop the habit of Ann Voskamp of taking time every day to think about what we are thankful for, even amidst the problems and difficulties and stresses of that day.

Some years ago, I was witness to a very touching moment. An elderly gentleman was near the end of his life. He managed to take care of his family, raise his children, and put away little money for retirement. He knew that he had very little time to live. There was a meeting in which he made some final arrangements for his wife, who would be left behind, his children, and his grandchildren. When the meeting was over, he looked up and said, “Oh God thank you that I was able to do this.” This man, like many members of his generation, have lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. He had had medical problems and business problems and all the problems that we have. Now, he was dying. Yet, he was thankful.

In many ways, David had a hard life. As the youngest son, he had been relegated to the most menial tasks on his father’s farm. As a young man, he had to fight wars for a mentally unbalanced king.  That king had ultimately feared,  persecuted, and tried to kill him. He spent many years in danger, fleeing from place to place trying to save his life. Even after he became king, he was in constant danger for a long time. When he managed to defeat most of his enemies, he made a mistake that followed him every day for the rest of his life. As an old man he saw two of his sons die. He might have been bitter. Instead, he made arrangements for his son Solomon to replace him, to build the temple in Jerusalem, and to be successful as a king. Then, he thanked God for the blessings of his life.

This week, and between now and Thanksgiving, perhaps we all could focus on three questions:

  • What should I be thankful for?
  • What have I forgotten to be thankful for?
  • What are my hopes and dreams for my family, for my children and grandchildren, my church, for my city, and for my nation? And, what arrangements should I be making so that these dreams can come true?

I am not by nature a thankful person. When I read the article in Christianity Today about Ann Voskamp, and when I read her book on gratitude, I realized that this is a great spiritual weakness. She’s very right: we will never grow into the people God wants us to be until we learn to be thankful for the little things of life. And, we will never learn to be thankful until we learn to be thankful like Jesus even in the midst of the difficult circumstances of life.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Katelyn Beaty, “Contemplative Activist” in Christianity Today (November, 2016), 50-52. Ann Voskamp’s first book from which I quote below is, One Thousand Gifts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).

[2] See, The Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 3.  “Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job” Vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1954. This is a Methodist commentary with a fairly progressive Biblical studies background and tilt. This commentary would place the work at around 350-250 B.C. or much later than the time of Ezra. By the time the book was written Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians, the Persians had captured Babylon. Cyrus of Persia had released the Jews, and some of them had returned home.

Praying for our Nation

This post is inspired by 2 Chronicles 7:14. I am posting it a bit early because of the election. It is much longer than the related sermon. I am publishing the blog early this week so that people can ponder it as they consider the choices they will be making next Tuesday and pray for our national day of decision. You may share this as you feel called.

My theme in this blog is praying for our nation. imgres-1This weekend, our church had a twenty-four-hour prayer vigil for our nation as we vote this coming Tuesday. As I begin, I want my readers to clearly understand that it is not my purpose to influence readers to vote in a particular way or for a particular person. Instead, I want to encourage all of us to pray for our nation, for those in authority, and for decisions we must make about the future of our nation. This week, we will vote for the next President of the United States and other public officials. At such a time, it is appropriate to think about prayer, its power, and its impact upon our nation and our own lives as citizens. It is also appropriate to consider the factors that might guide our prayers.

Normally, there is a great similarity between my blog and the sermon of the week. This week, there is a larger than normal difference. Because of the importance of this election, and the limited time I have on a Communion Sunday, this blog contains reflections not found in the sermon. I hope that the blog can help Christians ponder how to pray for our nation more effectively and to vote wisely.

Early this past week, a group of us went on a silent retreat to a Catholic retreat center in Cullman, Alabama. It is Benedictine retreat center, and so there is a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict in each room. I began my retreat by reading the prologue to the Rule. Here is what I first read:

We should begin every good work praying that the Lord God will bring our good work to completion. Since God is good, has called us his children, and wants good things for us, we shouldn’t grieve God by doing wrong or asking for wrong things. To the contrary, Christians should listen for the voice of God so that we may receive the good gifts God desires to give us. In this manner, Christians will not experience God as an “angry father,” “harsh task-master,” or “rigid judge” who punishes, but as a wise and loving parent who gives to his children every good and perfect gift. [1]

This part of the Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that, for Christians, every good work should begin in prayer. This reading was particularly important to me during our retreat, because I went on the retreat partially to pray about the next stage of life. Renewing our lives and families begins with prayer. Renewing our neighborhoods and churches begins with prayer. Renewing our nation begins with prayer. For Christians, every good work, of whatever type or nature, begins with prayer.

We live in difficult times. Our nation is divided. This election has highlighted that division. When a nation is divided, it is easy for harsh language, bitter personal attacks, emotionalism, and violence to rule the day. Unfortunately, good decisions are almost never made in anger, in bitterness, with harsh language, with deceit, or with violence. The experiences of the 20th century, and the horrible dictatorships founded on class warfare, bitterness, and deceit in Germany, Russia, China,Venezuela, and other places around the world  should remind all of us that our nation is on a dangerous path.

If my People…

images-2Our text for this meditation comes from Second Chronicles. This is not a book we study often in Protestant churches, so let me briefly introduce it. There are six books in our Bible that tell the story of Israel and Judah from the time of the Judges until the fall of the Southern Kingdom (Judah): I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, and I & II Chronicles. Of these, Chronicles is the least readable and the driest of the three sets of histories. Therefore, it is the least read. Nevertheless, a portion of todays text (II Chronicles 7:14) is among the most famous passages in Scripture.

The reign of Solomon is reported in both I Kings and II Chronicles. Today’s text is from the period when Solomon finished and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. As you read, listen to the Word of God as it comes to us by the Chronicler:

When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, the Lord appeared to him at night and said:

I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 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 I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. As for you, if you walk before me faithfully as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor to rule over Israel. But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. This temple will become a heap of rubble. All who pass by will be appalled and say, “Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?” People will answer, “Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why he brought all this disaster on them” (2 Chronicles 7:11-22).

Let us pray: God of History, we stand at one of those moments when we wonder what you are doing in the history of our nation and of our civilization. Help us to hear these words  as if they were written to us, as your very word to each of us. We pray for our nation and for the election to be held next Tuesday. We pray for the candidates and for their safety. We pray for the integrity of the election process. We pray for wisdom and discretion as we and our fellow citizens cast our votes. Finally, we pray that your will would be done and that we would come together as a nation after the election. In Jesus Name, the Name of the King of All Kings and Lord of All Lords,  Amen.

The Vision of Solomon.

As mentioned a moment ago, the historical books of the Old Testament tell the story of Judah, the tribe of King David, and how Israel was founded as a nation with a king and ultimately disintegrated and was destroyed by outside conquest. I & II Chronicles tells the story from the time of Adam until the fall of Judah, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. The story ends with Israel and the House of David having disobeyed God, drifted from faith in the God who led them out of captivity in Egypt and into a “land flowing with milk and honey,” and taken once again into captivity, this time in Babylon.

There are two shining figures in the national story of Israel: King David and King Solomon. There were, of course, other good kings, Josiah and Hezekiah among them. In Chronicles, both Solomon and David are portrayed as heroes. In Samuel and Kings, their failures and weaknesses are revealed. David, the founder of the dynasty of the House of David, is portrayed as its greatest king and loyal to God, but emotionally and morally flawed. Solomon is portrayed a bit differently. In I Kings, Solomon is portrayed as a man who begins well, but is not fully faithful to God at the end of his life, and who, at the end of his life, sows the seeds of the decline and fall of the House of David (I Kings 11). [2]

Second Chronicles was written after the fall of Jerusalem, probably near or after the time of the return of Ezra and Nehemiah. [3] By the time the book was written it had become obvious that neither Solomon nor the people of Israel had been faithful to God. They had forsaken the love of God, the laws of God, and the ways of God. The result was the fall of Judah and the enslavement of the people of God. The Chronicler set out to tell the story of God’s people as reflecting certain great truths: There is a God, who is the maker of Heaven and Earth, who is to be worshiped by all who call on his Name. God has instituted a moral law, and we human beings violate that moral law at our own risk. Finally, if we violate the laws of God, we can expect suffering. These are truths that remain important to us today.

This blog begins with a serious and important point. God is love (I John 4:8), and as we discussed last week love is at the center of the Christian life—not just any love but the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of God shown by Christ on the Cross. God’s love is, however, a special kind of love. It is Self-giving Love indissolubly united with Truth, the Divine Light of God. It is absolute love  revealed to us in the laws of God, laws God has written not in human words, but into the fabric of the universe and on the human heart. [4] When we follow God’s ways, we experience that love as blessing. When we ignore God’s ways, we experience that love as judgement. God is always Divine Love, but the way in which we experience that love depends on our thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

Prayer that Changes Things.

Since we are all sinners, and none of us can fully live out the love and laws of God, if it were not for God’s grace this blog and the Bible would end on a hopeless note. Our nation would be doomed, just as Judah was doomed. Fortunately, verse 14 of today’s text shows us that the mercy and grace of God is available even when we have sinned and fallen short. God promises Solomon that, “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 I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14). God makes the same promise to his people today.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was thinking about this message, I wrote these words out in my journal as a formula. The formula is simple. The first word is “if.” In other words, everything that follows is conditional upon some action by God’s people (those called by has Name). There are four actions that God asks of us:

  • First, we have to humble ourselves.
  • Second, we have to pray.
  • Third, we have to repent.
  • Finally, we have to turn around our thoughts, our desires and our actions. We have to stop sinning, confess our sins, and move forward in the will of God.

If we do these things, then, and only then, God makes certain promises to us:

  • He will hear our prayers from heaven.
  • He will forgive our sins.
  • And finally, he will restore our land. [5]

images-3The formula God gives to Solomon may be simple, but it’s hard to live out in real life. It is hard to give up our human pride and recognize that we are fragile, fallen, and weak creatures. It is hard to pray with broken hearts about our own sin and about the sin of our people. It is hard to repent of our sin (especially sins that we love). It is hard to turn our lives around and begin to act and live differently. Unfortunately, if, and only if, we do this, will God restore our lives, the lives of our families and loved ones, the lives of our churches and our neighborhoods, the life of our nation, and the lives of all the nations of the world.

Our Election and the Decisions We Face.

At this point, it would be easy for me to make a long laundry list of our national sins and shortcomings. At least one person I talked to while writing this blog suggested that I do exactly that. (I think this person believes that I’m a coward for not doing so!) Instead of making a long laundry list, however, I’d like to focus on some general reflections about which I think most of us can agree, things that we need to consider as we pray for the election and as we cast our own votes:

  • First of all, if anything has been made clear during this election, it is  that our nation is troubled and deeply divided. It is clear that the dysfunction of our society is slowly creating generations of people who are angry and have difficulty differing with others without crude language, devious behavior, over-emotionalism, and sometimes violence. We need to pray for more rational and more peaceful elections.
  • Second, the politics of negative sensationalism, often focusing on sex, prevents us from having a conversation about serious national problems. It is easy to win office by trying to prove that the other person is a worse person than you are. It is a bit harder to prove that you can actually solve the problem with our healthcare system or the budget. We need to pray that we and all voters will focus on what matters and not primarily on sensational disclosures.
  • Third, there is a massive lack of understanding of the fundamental principles upon which our nation and our way of life is based. A people who do not know and cannot remember their national history, the sacrifices made for their freedoms, their Constitution, and who do not possess a fundamental level of political and economic knowledge, simply cannot make good decisions about the problems we face. This makes it even easier for the media and elites to manipulate voters. We must take time to be educated and we must see that our children and grandchildren are properly educated. This is the only way democracy can work effectively.
  • Fourth, there is a lack of discrimination about what is possible and what is not possible. We cannot find or elect a perfect person as President. Only Jesus fills that bill. We all have character flaws, but some flaws are deadly in a democratic leader. A lack of respect for people, for the moral law, for the laws of our nation, and for the fundamental rules and responsibilities of public office are central character flaws. Good people make mistakes and have character flaws. Bad people and bad politicians could care less about the constitution, the laws of our nation, the  moral law, or character. Persistent criminal behavior is different from moral lapses. David, Solomon, and other rulers in the Bible, were flawed, but they were trying to be faithful to God.  Ahab and Jezebel were evil and were not trying to be faithful. Because there are no perfect people, voters in a democracy must always weigh the character and the character  flaws of each candidate, recognizing that no candidate is perfect. We will have to wait until Jesus returns for that to be the case. Nevertheless, it remains true that “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rule, wise people go into hiding” (Proverbs 28:12). To elect a person of bad moral character as president is to risk terrible consequences, as those of us who lived through Watergate can remember,
  • Fifth, where a people no longer believe in the existence of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, politics descends to the simple search for power. This election has clearly revealed a kind of “anything goes” mentality. The media seems no longer to believe that their role is to assist the voters in understanding and casting a wise vote. Instead, they see their role as manipulating public opinion one way or the other depending on their political beliefs. Where a people lose faith in the existence of truth, justice, the good and the like, a kind of tyranny is never far away. This is perhaps the most serious problem we face, because the loss of belief in truth is a big part of what is sometimes called “postmodernism” and is rampant in our colleges, universities, governmental agencies, courts, and other elite institutions. People who no longer believe in the Good, the True, the Just, and the Beautiful capable of anything. [6]
  • Sixth, we have to be realistic about what can be achieved and what will and will not be achieved by the candidates. It is true that we elect a President and the character and ability of the President is of great importance. But, a President also appoints judges, works with the leaders of Congress, appoints members of his or her own administration, and makes many decisions based upon the advice of others. If those the President appoints are unskilled, incompetent, immoral, and the like, then the President will not make good decisions and the nation will suffer. No President can or will accomplish all the things they promise during an election. A President, however powerful, must work with Congress, the Courts, other state and local governments, the media, business interests and others. Wise voters remember this.
  • Finally, we voters have to be willing to make sacrifices. Both of our candidates have made many promises that imply that there is an easy way out of our national problems—a way that involves no sacrifice on our part, or on the part of our social class, or our business, etc. This is unrealistic. Solving hard problems always involves sacrifice. We cannot balance an already unbalanced budget without impacting someone’s taxes or social services. We cannot the reign in the cost of medical care without restricting some procedures, either by regulation or by the free market. In the real world,  problems created by pushing back a day of reckoning cannot be solved without experiencing at least a part of the day of reckoning. The question is what is the best and fairest means of solving the problem with the least amount of suffering, particularly among those without the resources to avoid the full impact of the sacrifice to be made.

If our nation is going to be renewed and restored, we all must be willing to do a lot of hard work to change some of the negative aspects of our society. We all have to pray. We all have to work. We all have to repent. We all have to change the way we live and conduct our public business, not just those with whom we disagree.

The People Who Need to Do the Praying: Us.

I was preparing this blog, I read a sermon that was critical of most sermons preached on this text. The point the pastor was trying to make is simple: we Christians often read this text and preach this text as if all Americans needed to pay attention, humble themselves, pray, repent and change their behavior. We don’t need to change, everyone else does. This ignores the very beginning of the conditional statement. The Chronicler begins, “if my people who are called by my Name.” In other words, God did not believe that the Babylonians, or the Persians, or the Greeks, or any other nation  except the Jews  needed to humble themselves, pray, repent and behave differently. God’s people needed to change.

imagesThis applies to us. We cannot expect people who do not believe in God, do not believe in the loving Word of God, do not believe in the revelation of Scripture, do not believe in God’s power in history, and/or do not believe in the moral law, to humble themselves,  pray, repent, and change their behavior. We are the ones who must humble ourselves, pray, repent, and turn from our wicked ways. When we do this, slowly but surely, the world and our nation will change. It will change because we have changed. As we become more like Christ, as we become more filled with God’s love, as we are filled with the Spirit of God, and as we live God’s Spirit of Love and Wisdom out in our day-to-day lives, America will change because we’ve changed and the people whose lives we touch are changed.

I suppose everyone who goes on a retreat as a favorite moment. It so happens that my favorite moment during this week’s silent retreat was a moment in which everyone was talking. At some point during one of the classes our teacher said something that provoked a conversation. Several ladies, including my wife Kathy, began to discuss what was said. The discussion was about what to do if a child comes home wanting to share a bedroom with their boy or girl friend. The point was made that the parent should say, “I love you and I will always love you. Nothing you can do can change how I feel about you. But, I don’t agree with what you are doing, and I don’t feel comfortable with you doing it in my home. That does not mean I don’t love and respect you.”

The conversation then turned to the way in which Christians, about a number of moral and political issues, need to be so filled with the love of God that our families, friends,  neighbors, and fellow-citizens will recognize that we love them, will always love them, and will always serve them. We do not need to change what we believe is right and wrong. We do not need to compromise what Christ and the Bible clearly teach.  We do not need to change the way we live or our values. In fact, we need to be sure we do not change our core beliefs and core values as Christians. However, we need to communicate and act on our beliefs with such unselfish love that others can see and know that Christian faith makes a difference and that the key to their own happy future is to become a part of the loving Kingdom of God.

Self-giving love changes the world. We know this because God became one of us in Jesus Christ. He embodied the love through which God created the heavens and the earth. In his life and in his sacrificial death, he showed us a way to return to fellowship with God, be filled with God’s love, and slowly but ever so slowly bring the Kingdom of God upon the Earth. With this in mind, we might rephrase today’s text like this, “If my people who are called by my Name will only remain faithful to me and be humble and meek as I was humble and meek on the in my own life with them and on the Cross, if they will pray to the Father as I prayed to the Father on behalf of the whole world, if they will turn from their selfish self-centeredness and serve the needs of others as I did, then God’s  Kingdom will come into the world and their lives will be changed and sold the lives of everyone they touch to the ends of the earth.”

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue in contemporary language and as paraphrased by the author. For a strict translation. see, Timothy Fry, ed, The Rule of St. Benedict (Collegeville, MN, 1982).

[2] The reign of Solomon is portrayed in I Kings 1-11 and in I Chronicles 28-II Chronicles 9). In preparing this blog I have been guided by J. A. Thompson, “1, 2 Chronicles” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1994), Robert C. Denton, “The First and Second Books of Kings and the First and Second Book of Chronicles” in The Layman’s Bible Commentary (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1964).

[3] As in so many areas liberal and conservative scholars differ on the dating of the book. Traditionally, most people held that Ezra, the author of Ezra and Nehemiah, was the author of Chronicles. Modern scholars have sometimes disagreed. As in so many other areas, there is no way to absolutely prove one way or the other who wrote Chronicles and in what time period. I tend to accept the tradition under these circumstances.

[4] I have written on this in two books, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. Ed. (Booksurge, 2016) and Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[5] The formula is this: If and only if (≡) my people humble themselves (H1), pray (P), and turn from their wicked ways (T), then (→) I will hear from heaven (H2), forgive their sins (F), and heal their land (H2) or” ≡ (H1+P+T) → (H2+F+ H2).”

[6] I have dealt with this at length in my book, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers previously cited. I am always dependent upon the work of the philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, and his version of “critical realism” for the insights of my book and for the insight that we must believe in the reality of truth before we have any hope of finding it. See, Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946 and The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1951).

Many Gifts: Live the LOGO

Today’s post is on I Corinthians 13.

One sign that you are getting old is when movies you saw as new releases can only be watched on Turner Classic Movies! Our church’s confirmation class sometimes watches portions of a movie from the 1980’s called, “The Mission.” [1] images-2The Mission portrays the struggle of the Jesuit Order to bring Christian faith and Christian values to the Indians of South America. Early on, the audience is introduced to two characters: Father Gilbert and Mendoza. Father Gilbert is a courageous and loving priest who conquers natural obstacles and life-threatening situations to win the respect of the natives. Then, he wins their hearts with music, symbolizing the harmony of man and nature to be found in faith. Father Gilbert is a man of peace and at peace with God, nature, and others. His personality exudes Divine Love. In the movie, Father Gilbert is a Christ-figure.

Mendoza is a different sort of person. He is wild, moody, and impetuous. He murders his brother in a jealous rage and ends up in a monastery founded by Father Gilbert. Mendoza is a person of profoundly disordered loves. [2] Driven by guilt and shame (not love) Mendoza is converted while reading First Corinthians 13 and watching divine love in action as reflected in Father Gilbert’s life and ministry. Mendoza is driven by human desire. In other words, Mendoza is one of us. Mendoza is not a natural Christian, he does not naturally love others; he is naturally violent and self-centered.

The Christian life is a journey from self-centeredness to other centeredness from love of self to others, from Eros to Agape. Divine love, the grace of God, is the beginning and the end of our journey of faith. We human beings, like Mendoza, are people of disordered love, prone to love things we ought not love and fail to love things we ought to love.

The Priority of Love.

Our text today is from First Corinthians. I Corinthians 13 is so familiar to contemporary Christians that we have difficulty understanding it. First, the passage is so poetic and lyrical that it is easy listen to the beauty of the words and miss the underlying message. Second, the passage is so frequently read at wedding services and other celebrations of human love that it is easy to miss the actual point being made. The passage is about how self-giving love, that can only come from God, is the goal of the spiritual life and the only way to avoid spiritual gifts creating chaos.

images-1This is the word of God as it comes to us from the Apostle Paul:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (I Cor. 13:1-13).

Prayer: God of Love, who in love created the world and us, please come and be with us this morning so that we may understand your word, be filled with your spirit, and be changed into your image. We asked this in the name of the one who was the Word made flesh even Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

From Giftedness to Agape.

Over the past several weeks, we have been studying the Gifts of the Spirit using First and Second Corinthians as our primary source. The Corinthian church was a prosperous and gifted church. The problem with the Corinthian church was that the Body of Christ was not healthy because the gifts were neither used in love or producing love. The faith of the Corinthians was producing strife. In some ways, the problems of the Corinthian church were the problems of every church in trouble:

  • The leadership was divided (1:10-2-3:23);
  • There was immorality in the church (5:1-5);
  • Worship services were chaotic (11:1-34);
  • People were using their spiritual gifts in chaotic ways instead of for the good of the whole church (12-14); and
  • People were teaching false or inadequate doctrine (15:1-38).

The Corinthians, very much like modern Americans, had difficulty understanding the deepest truths of Christian faith. Their problem was partially religious. The patron goddess of Corinth was Aphrodite (Venus in the Latin), the goddess of human love. Of course, the worship of Aphrodite was inevitably erotic. Many Corinthian church members had participated in the erotic rituals of Aphrodite worship. As a result, there was a tendency to mistake ecstatic, emotional, mystical experiences, such as speaking in tongues, with life changing faith.

In English, we have one word for love. The Greek language has several words for love. It has the word “Philios” for brotherly or sisterly love. It has the word “Eros” for romantic love. It has the word “Stergo” for affection among family members. Finally, in Greek there was a word “Agape” that was the least used word for love. In classical Greek, the word “Agape” originally meant “to honor, or welcome.” It was most closely-related to the word “Philios,” which may explain the common reference among Christians as being “Brothers” or “Sisters.” Among Christians, the word came to be strictly identified with the love of God shown by Christ on the cross. [3] Agape love is God’s unique, self-giving, sacrificial love.

Although America is different than ancient Corinth, we are also tempted to mistake emotional or other experiences with the goal of the Christian life. Like the Corinthians, we need to remember what kind of love we are talking about when we talk about the love Christians are to embody. We need to remember that to be spiritual is to reflect the love of Christ shown on the cross. The love of God is a gracious, self-giving, sacrificial, steadfast love.

From Faith and Works to Love.

If we are to understand the importance of Agape Love, we must begin with Grace. Grace is the unmerited Agape Love of God freely given by Christ on the Cross to save the world that becomes available to us through faith (Ephesians 2:9). We are saved by grace. Faith is how we receive that grace. All of our spiritual giftedness, all of our spiritual growth, all of our becoming more like Christ, is founded on the gracious, unmerited love of God.

Paul begins his teaching about love by telling us that love is more important than our spiritual gifts (I Cor. 13:1). No matter how dramatic our spiritual gift of speaking may be, if we don’t have love ur words are empty. He reminds us that love is more important than knowledge (v. 2). A person who understands all the mysteries of the Christian faith and can see how to apply them into the distant future is nothing without love. Love is more important than what we are able to accomplish as a result of our faith (v. 3). Paul tells us that if my faith is so huge that I can move mountains or give up my body to be martyred, or give all my positions to the poor, it still isn’t important if I don’t act in love. In other words, those who think faith is a feeling or an ecstatic experience all wrong. Those people  who believe faith is a special kind of knowledge that gives us the special understanding of the future are wrong. Those people who believe faith is something that enables a person to do mighty works are wrong. What matters is whether faith produces love.

As Protestants, we have always emphasized faith. We believe in salvation by faith alone, but that does not mean salvation without grace. In the Reformation, Christians emphasized the role of Christ on the Cross (Christ Alone), Grace (Grace Alone), and Faith (Faith Alone). [4] Everything we believe and becomes begins with Christ as the full revelation of God, who is love. God’s love was before our faith and is more important than our faith. Faith is how we begin the Christian life. It is important. But, faith is finally the way we receive God’s grace and are able to grow in the love of God. In order for us to become the people we are called to be, we have to grow in grace, being filled with the love of God.

The Reality and Power of Diving Love.

Earlier this week, Don Kerns and I were speaking about our passage today. Recently, Don used the passage as part of the wedding ceremony. His meditation began by noting that most of us find the words of this passage beautiful to hear but impossible to live out in our lives!images I noted that, when Kathy and I go to weddings and I hear these words, I seldom feel encouraged. They forced me to consider how far short I fall in the Christian life. First Corinthians 13 can often be like an exotic diet or a very strict exercise scheme that we learn about while reading a magazine. It all sounds very good, but in the end, we don’t have any intention of living on soybeans or exercising ten hours a day. Many times, the diets and exercise regimes that we read about finally strike us as impossible.

Interestingly enough, I do not think an impossible goal was the intention of Paul in writing these words. Paul knew that the kind of love that Christ demonstrated on the cross is impossible on a merely human scale. But, where grace is present, Paul not only believes we can live out the words of First Corinthians 13, he expects us to be able to live out these words.

There is so much in this passage that it’s impossible to completely and fully teach the passage in one lesson. The love of God is not like any human love. It is not jealous, or boastful, or proud (v. 4). It does not seek its own pleasure or its own desires (v. 5). It is not angry when it does not get what it wants (v. 5). It does not scheme to get what it wants (v. 6). It is content with the truth. The love of God transforms the human character as we become more patient, kind, humble, giving, truthful, trusting, hopeful, and patiently enduring (vv. 4-6). When we are transformed by God’s love, we stop being the people we would have become by nature, and we become the people we can only become by God’s grace.

We have a lot of gifted people at Advent and in all the churches in America. We also have a lot of active people. We have great Sunday school teachers. Every one of them is important. Nevertheless, what is most important is whether or not our faith is producing the kind of love inside of us that allowed Christ to go to the cross on behalf of the world.

Live the Logo.

imgresAt the end of The Mission all of the good works of Father Gilbert are destroyed as Spain, Portugal, and the Catholic Church conspire to get something that they want at the expense of the Indians and the little mission Father Gilbert has created. Father Gilbert, however, is faithful to the end. He dies as a man of peace acting in love, refusing to fight. Mendoza ultimately deserts the way of love and goes back to being a soldier. He dies in a final battle. The movie ends with the question of which way, the way of love or the way of violence, is best. What the movie fails to understand is that love is not a means to an end. We cannot love our enemies as a means to victory over them. Love is not a means to any end. Love is the end. Love is the Goal. Love is the victory.

Our Scripture reminds us that all of our human achievements will pass away. In the end, our Bible knowledge and our ability to apply that knowledge to life will be unnecessary, because we will see God face to face (v. 8). Our ability to persevere and endure suffering through hope will pass away, because we will have received our reward in heaven. In the end, faith hope and love are the greatest of Christian virtues but love is supreme, because love will last forever (v. 13).

heartLast week, Kathy and I were able to entertain a friend for most of a week. She loved our church and its programs. One morning I went out to run wearing my Advent T-shirt. My friend saw the T-shirt and asked if she could have one. I happen to know that we had a T-shirt very much like mine in the proper size for a woman.  On the last day she was here, just before she left, we gave her one of those T-shirts. When I gave her a hug and handed her the T-shirt, I said “All you have to do is live the logo.” Well, that was the moment I got the idea for today’s sermon.

In truth, our church is lucky to have our logo, because each time we look at it we look at the central truth of the Christian faith. We remember that God is love, that he died for us, that he saved us in his grace, that he gave us one another, that he wants us to share our spiritual gifts with others, and that he desires for us to become filled with his love until we are like him, sharing that love of God we have already seen and experienced in Jesus Christ.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] The Mission, dir,. Roland Joffe & Robert Bold (Kingsmore Productions, 1886, 125 minutes).

[2] St. Augustine diagnosed the human condition as characterized by disordered loves. We love things that are secondary instead of things that are primary, especially God. For Augustine, the life of faith is a life of re-ordering our loves to mirror the intentions of God. In his work, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine puts it this way: “He is a just and holy person who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love nor fails to love what he ought to love….” (1.27.28).

[3] In passages like John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gives his Only Begotten Son…,” love is now being used to specifically mean the love of Christ on the cross “Agape” was the least used and specifically defined word for love in classical Greek. Christians took this word and gave it a very specific meaning. Christians altered the meaning in ancient classical Greek so that the word specifically refers in Christian thought to the self-giving, sacrificial love shown by Christ on the Cross, an action that revealed the very nature of God to be this Agape love. Paul emphasizes the qualities of agape love as part of redefining this term as a Christian world referring to God’s love.

[4] The Five Sola’s of Reformation faith are: (i) Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone, (ii) Sola Fide (“faith alone, (iii) Sola Gratia (“grace alone”), (iv) Sola Christus (“Christ alone), and (v) ‘Sola Deo Gloria (“God’s glory alone”).

The Gracious Giving of a Gracious Giver

 

iconLast week we talked about the various spiritual gifts that God gives us. This week, we are talking about the virtue of generosity—and about the way in which generosity flows from an experience of God’s grace. God not only wants us to use our spiritual gifts, God wants us to use our spiritual gifts generously. He wants us to be so filled with his grace and his Holy Spirit that we can’t help but allow that love to overflow into the lives of others. Last Sunday night in our Salt & Light study, we heard two wonderful testimonies about God’s grace. Interestingly, both people indicated a desire to share the grace that they had received because of the impact God’s love has had on their lives.

When we speak of generosity, most of the time we think of money. In this blog, I will mention money, but the focus is on the way the Holy Spirit empowers us to be generous people, inside and out, in all areas of life. As I begin, I want to make a confession: I am not by nature a generous person. Kathy is by nature a generous person (although she does not like to share food with me when I try eating off her plate!). I have friends that are naturally generous. They love to throw parties. They enjoy giving away money. They gladly attend fundraisers. They never hesitate to give to a needy cause. They love to go to soup kitchens and feed people. Perhaps it’s my Scottish blood, but I don’t work that way. I have to work on being generous.

My father-in-law was a naturally generous person. He was in the food business, and it was virtually impossible to be around him for any length of time without receiving and eating a whole bunch of food. He was the kind of person that thinks four people need twelve eggs for breakfast! He loved to feed people! When he retired, he would get up and drive his Buick station wagon to a local bakery and then deliver bread to a local charity. He just loved giving people food to eat. Perhaps it was because he grew up during the depression.

The Excellence of Grace.

36618_all_062_01Today, we are going to spend one blog in the book of Second Corinthians before returning to First Corinthians next week as we finish this series.. [1] I don’t have time to tell you the entire story of First and Second Corinthians; however, the two letters are related. This morning we’re going to be looking at selections from chapters 8 and 9 of Second Corinthians. Here is the background in brief: Near the middle of the First Century, there was a terrible famine in the Holy Land. Paul wanted to take up a collection to relieve the suffering of the church in Jerusalem. His strategy was to get the churches in Greece, and probably in Asia Minor, to give generously for this effort. The Macedonian church, which was poor, made a very generous gift. (Macedonia is a poor region even today.) After the Macedonian church make their gift, Paul worked on other churches in the region. Corinth was a wealthy city. Therefore, he hoped they would give a substantial gift. This portion of Second Corinthians is all about that gift.

Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the voice of the Apostle Paul:

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.  For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-15).

Prayer: Lord God, the giver of every good and perfect gift: please come by the power of your spirit that we may overflow with your grace and be filled with your love. In Jesus Name, Amen.

The Eternal Giver.

night-sky-hugOver the past few weeks, I have tried to begin each blog with a return to the basis of our life in Christ and our Spiritual Gifts. Everything we have is a result of God’s grace. God, in an act of sheer love, created the heavens and the earth. God in his eternal wisdom, created the human race and each one of us. We are each unique, made in the image of God, and able to both appreciate the wonder of God’s creation and to participate with God in showing forth his wisdom and love in creation.

This week, I read Psalm 139 where the psalmist said:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful; I know that full well (Psalm 139:14).

We cannot talk about generosity unless and until we recognize the generosity of our God. God is generous. He created the majesty of a universe that so vast, so beautiful, and so intricate that we can only look at it in wonder. When we look at this earth, so lovely, so filled with beauty, we can only wonder at the God who created it. When we look at the human race, with all of our capacities, we can only wonder that we were given this ability to see the wonder of God and experience the beauty and elegance of his creation (Psalm 8).

We ended last week’s blog with this observation: Not only is the universe beautiful—not only is the earth beautiful—you are beautiful. Each person in this world, each human being is fearfully, wonderfully, and beautifully made. Each person has natural and spiritual gifts. When we have faith in Christ, we receive a special, new capacity to share the love and grace of God with others in unique and irreplaceable ways.

Giving is About More than Money.

To understand what it means to be generous, we have to recognize that generosity involves more than money, and the root of generosity is much deeper than simply managing our money wisely. Our text today was from Second Corinthians chapter 8. Paul’s thought, however, stretches through chapters 8 and 9. Here is how Paul ends his message:

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 9:12-14).

 images-1We can easily miss what Paul is saying here. He is thanking the Corinthians in advance for supporting this offering for the hurting church in Jerusalem. However, he is also reminding the Corinthians that their generosity is going to overflow in many, many expressions of thanks to God, all flowing from the gospel of Christ and a willingness to share what God is done for us with others.

I am in the process of slowly cleaning out my office and going through things. This week, I came across an illustration so old that I can’t remember who exactly I was talking about. The story, however, goes like this: Years ago, I knew a person who was fairly successful in his business. He became aware of a charity and gave a little money to that charity. Then, he got interested in the charity. He volunteered. He began to help them in many ways. In the end, his life was changed. He spent the last years of his life working with this charity.

Some years ago, Andy Jordan and I were in Ghana together. We were able to meet with a gentleman from the United States. He was a Christian businessperson who had become interested in economic development in Third World countries. He was in the real estate business, and so he began to do a little work with ministries involved in Africa. Eventually, his daughter moved to Africa to work on micro-business investing. When we met him, he was making arrangements to take a sabbatical from his business in order to donate more of his time to the development of Ghana in West Africa. I don’t know what became of this man but he made a deep impression on us. What began as a small financial gift ended as a transformed life. The generosity he experienced was not just a generosity of money but of time, talents, and energy. Most of you do not know this, but Andy has been exceedingly generous in giving of his time, talent, energy, and money to support the people of Ghana.

The Grace of a Cheerful Giver.

Some years ago, I saw Nicholas Cage movie entitled, It Could Happen to You. [2] In the movie, Cage plays a New York policeman who purchases a lottery ticket. In order to get a cup of coffee, he promises the waitress half of it. A short time later he finds out he won $6 million. The first thing Cage has to do is decide whether or not he’s going to tell the waitress about his winning and share the winning with her. Against the advice of his wife, he gives away half. That gift begins a change in his life. He begins to give away more and more of the gift. Finally, the gift means nothing. In the end, Cage does not become wealthy, but he does find love.

This movie could be a metaphor for the spiritual life. When we begin to use our spiritual gifts, when we begin to be generous with our possessions, when we begin to allow God to change the world through us, we do not necessarily become rich (as some cults promise). Instead, we find love. We do not necessarily find human love; we find the love of God welling up in our hearts. When that happens, our lives are changed forever.

I talked about Ghana a few moments ago. In our own congregation, we have a person who began to go on trips to Honduras. This person fell in love with the people of Honduras. Currently this person is building a house in Honduras so that he can spend a part of the year there helping others in the name of Jesus Christ. What began as a small gift, some money, a few days away from work, has ended up in a completely changed life. The grace of God is being show in a life transforming way.

A Time to Think.

Our text tells us that God loves a cheerful giver. The reason why God loves a cheerful is  simple: God is a cheerful giver. God gave himself so that we might be saved. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. There was suffering. But the love of God overflowed in what Christ did on the cross. Hebrews tells us that it was because of the joy set before him that Christ endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). That’s why in Second Corinthians  we hear that, though Jesus had everything in unbroken fellowship with the Father, he was willing to become nothing for us. Jesus didn’t do that reluctantly. He did it because of the overflowing Love of God.

images-2For the last twenty-five years I’ve always preached the stewardship sermon on stewardship Sunday. This year, I decided to do it a bit differently. Next week, the sermon is going to be from I Corinthians 13 on love. If our salvation is the first gift of God, and if each other is the second gift of God, and if our spiritual gifts to be used in the body of Christ for the third gift of God, and if an overflowing of generosity in our hearts is the fourth gift of God, all these gifts have a goal: love.

What I hope all my readers will do this week is take some time to pray, meditate, and think about the generosity of God. We need to think about the grace we were shown in our own creation. We need to think about the grace that Christ showed us on the cross. We need to think about the relationships we have with one another, here and in attending other Christian groups to which we belong. We need to think about our spiritual gifts and the opportunities we have to use them here at Advent and beyond. Then, each person needs to think about what it is they want to do to supply the physical needs of their own local church.

Our physical needs are not our only needs. The need we have to undergird the finances of our churches is only one of our needs. It may not even be the most important need. Our greatest need is to see the love of God poured forth day by day in the ministries and lives of our members. Many of you give generously of your time, talent, and energies more than one time a week, and I thank you. As you consider your generosity, think about how you might use your time, your talent and your energy in ways that will give glory to God. There a lot of important things in this world, but the most important is love.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The sources for this are the Bible, the New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Barclay’s Commentary on I and II Corinthians, The New American Commentary Vol. 29, 2 Corinthians, and The Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 10 Corinthians.

[2] Jane Anderson, wr. It Could Happen to You dir. Andrew Bergman. Starring Nicolas Cage, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez (!994).