The Blessed Life

We live in a curious age. Never in human history have people in the developed world had so much material wealth. Paradoxically, never before have people suffered from so much anxiety about the future, life, their ability to continue to consume at or above their current level, and the meaning and purpose of their lives. Young people in almost all Western democracies, but notably in the United States, the so-called “leader of free world,” demonstrate a lack of trust in the way of life and institutions that provide the highest standard of living and the most freedom experienced anywhere in human history. Sadly, among Christians, fewer and fewer people live as fully committed disciples. Churches in Europe are nearly empty, and those in the United States and North America are rapidly following the European example.

Numerous social commentators, Christian and non-Christian, liberal and conservative, traditionalist and radical, note that there is something troubling about our society. Commentators do not agree on what is wrong, how serious the problem is, or what to do in response to the problems they see—they just agree there is a problem. No significant period of time goes past without someone publishing an article with a title something like, “Are America’s best days behind her?” [1] These articles focus on indications that something is deeply wrong with our culture. Many of the commentators see at the root of our society’s problems the reality that material wealth, prosperity, pleasure, consumption, leisure, and the like cannot provide meaning, purpose, love, or inner strength, and security. In fact, the relentless search for meaning and purpose by the means advocated by our society result in increasing loss of meaning, purpose, love, inner strength, and security. The result is pervasive loneliness, isolation, neurosis and anxiety.

One reason we have so much trouble resisting the temptations of our culture is that most of us have a deeply ingrained, culturally formed notion of “the Good Life.” The good life involves feelings of personal pleasure and happiness. Most people believe that hard work, healthy habits, exercise, pleasurable experiences, travel, recreation, hobbies and other forms of self-actualization are important to achieving to this good life. Some people believe that government can and should arrange to create this good life on behalf of its citizens. Other people believe it should be created by private industry and personal initiative, but nearly everyone believes in some kind of earthly paradise in which all our human expectations and desires can be and are met. [2]

Jesus and the Blessed Life

Interestingly, Jesus never talked about the desirability of seeking to live to old age, attaining a degree of physical beauty, staying fit and healthy, acquiring wealth, getting ahead financially, consuming increasing amounts of goods and services, traveling, pleasurable experiences, or any of the other preoccupations of our day. Jesus did, however, speak of what he called “the blessed life.”

The Blessed Life Now and For Jesus

Jesus’ teachings concerning the blessed life are completely at odds with what our culture considers blessings. When people in our society use the word “blessed,” in almost any of its forms, it usually involves something concrete we have received. We say, “I am blessed with good health.” “I am blessed with a strong heart.” I am blessed with a wonderful spouse.” “I am blessed with four healthy children.” “I have been blessed financially.” “I am blessed with a new job.” “I am blessed with a promotion.” The list of our blessings could go on and on, but they have this in common: they relate to physical blessings that contribute to our sense of emotional and physical well-being.

On the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are the humble.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Worst of all, Jesus says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” In Luke, the words are even less palatable to modern ears. [3] In Luke, Jesus is recorded has having said, “Blessed are the poor,” not just the poor in spirit. He says “Blessed are the hungry,” not just those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He says, “Blessed are those who weep,” and repeats, “Blessed are you when men hate you, exclude you, and insult you.” [4] Jesus seems to be saying that everything the modern world believes leads to the blessed life does not.

Jesus challenges our human presuppositions about what it means to be blessed. For Jesus, the blessed life is not something exterior to ourselves we acquire. Instead it is something we experience within ourselves. Moreover, because of the nature of the blessing, the blessed life is not something we naturally seek, but can only receive as a gift from God. The exterior life, upon which modern people place so much emphasis, is secondary. It is our relationship with God and with his plans and purposes that is primary in life. In other words, Jesus thinks our society has things completely backward!

Secular reason does not permit us to see and understand the truly blessed life without the intervention of God. It was true in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. [5] The blessed life is received by faith in God and in his Word. We cannot discover it on our own. Someone, under the inspiration of God, has to tell us about this blessed life in Christ and show us what it looks like.  Someone must help us overcome our cultural addictions to power, pleasure, and possessions. That is why Christ came. In the end, the Spirit of Christ must work in us so that we can receive by faith what God has promised.

The Old Testament and the Blessed Life

The Old Testament reflects an understanding that the blessed life, like all of life, is a gift from God. The Hebrew word “Baruch” implies a kind of all-completeness and wholeness that can only come from God. In the creation story, God creates the human race, and then immediately blesses them (Gen. 1:27-28). The blessing God gives to Adam and Eve implies that the human race was intended to occupy and enjoy God’s good creation as a creature that can joyfully appreciate and participate in the completion of God’s gracious intention for that creation.

The story of the fall reflects the human race falling away from its divine destiny of blessing (Gen. 3:16-19). The curse of the fall described in Genesis is not the abusive action of an angry God. It is the natural result of the human race leaving the path of fellowship with God, creation, and other people for self-centeredness and self-seeking—a path that inevitably leads to alienation, misguided behavior, and suffering. The human race, meant for communion with God, nature, and one another has forfeited its divine destiny and now restlessly roams the earth in search of a restoration of its blessings.

Blessings and Noah

In the story of Noah, God saves a righteous man in the midst of a catastrophe of sin and alienation that engulfs the entire world. When the flood is over, Noah departs from the ark, builds an altar, and praises God. God in return blesses Noah in language that reveals God’s desire to restore the blessing lost in the garden of Eden: “Then God blessed Noah and his children saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 9:1). [6] Even in judgment, God is seen restoring, renewing, and blessing the human race.

Blessings and Abraham

The story reaches a decisive moment when God calls Abram into a new and special relationship of blessing. When the Lord calls Abram to leave his country, his people, and those of his household left behind, he promises:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth   will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

The blessing God gives to Abram (Abraham) is not just for his genetic family. It is a blessing for the entire world and every tribe and nation. It is a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. This blessing flows from the trustful relationship Abraham and his family are intended to have with God. Over and over again throughout Genesis, God blesses the family of Abraham. As the story unfolds, the blessing of Abraham is extended from Abraham and his family to the entire world (See, Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 28:14). This blessing through the kind of faith Abraham demonstrates continues to this day.

Blessings and the Wise Life

The book of Psalms begins with a blessing:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,  but the way of the wicked leads to destruction (Psalm 1, ESV).

By the time Psalms was written, the people of Israel understood that the blessed life is achieved by following the teachings of God. The psalmists realize that God has revealed in nature and his word a way of life that leads to blessing. The blessed person not only receives the blessing of fellowship with God, but also physical blessing that comes with obedience to the God’s instructions. The blessed life is achieved by following the way of blessing God has provided for the human race.

Those who follow the way of wickedness (i.e. act contrary to God’s will) can never be blessed. They have chosen a path that leads away from blessing. Those who follow God’s will and become wise in good living, receive the blessing a fellowship with God. Those who follow the way of holiness and righteousness are recreated into the image of the God who created them in the first place and received the blessing of that re-creation.

Wisdom literature affirms this same idea: the blessed life is lived according to the wisdom God has imbedded in the universe, a wisdom that is revealed for the people of God in God’s instructions and laws (Proverbs 3:13-18). [7]For wisdom writers, the blessed life is the wise life. Those who follow the path of wisdom (adapting their lives to divine and created reality), find a path that leads to peace and plenty. It is a way of life that leads to increased blessings. For the wisdom writers, the blessings of God are received by those who develop a wisdom God imbedded in the universe. The Path of Life is the Path of Wisdom and is the most valuable blessing a person can receive in life, and it is the ground and source of all the other blessings of life. [8]

The blessed life is filled with the kind of wisdom that comes from God and from life in fellowship with God. The blessed person listens to the voice of God’s wisdom, and waits for God’s revelation of the proper course of action in the practical affairs of life (Proverbs 8:34). Ultimately, the wise life is a life of wise, loving, trustful, and faithful conformity to God’s character and will (Proverbs 16:20). It cannot be achieved without the deep reverence and respect for God that that Bible terms, “the fear of the Lord,” which is the beginning of wisdom and of the blessed life (Proverbs 1:6, 9:10; 28:14). [9]

Blessing and the Prophetic Life

If wisdom literature emphasizes that the blessed life is the result of wisdom, the Prophets teach that the blessed life results from following the will of God and walking in his chosen path. The end of the Kingdom of David, the failure of Israel to retain its freedom and independence, their defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the exile to Babylon were interpreted by the prophets as a judgment on Israel’s lack of faithfulness to the God of Abraham. As a result of their failure, God removed his blessing, and allowed judgment to come upon them. The people of God forfeited the blessed life.

If the recipe of the wisdom writers for a return of blessing was to forsake foolishness and wickedness and return to the “Path of Life,” the recommendation of the prophets was that Israel return to faith in the Living God and live according to God’s instructions and will. [10]Their message was one of religious and national revival. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). If Israel returned to faithfulness to God, they would be restored to their land and the kingdom of David would be restored. [11]

Old Testament writers were not unaware of the role chance, good fortune, and bad luck play in human life. [12]Nevertheless, they believed that God was the fount and source of the good life and all the blessings of life, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The restored Kingdom of David was, even in the early stages of its development more than a restored earthly kingdom, but a kingdom of blessing from God. It would be revealed in a kingdom of wisdom, righteousness, and peace.

The New Testament and the Blessed Life

 By Jesus’ time, the religion of Israel had developed in a disturbing way. In terms of religious observance, the blessed life was achieved by participating in religious rituals and making proper sacrifices. In terms of behavior, the blessed life was achieved through understanding the law of Moses and following its details as interpreted by the rabbis. The Pharisees, and teachers of the law (those who took the Old Testament seriously) developed detailed understanding of what it meant to follow the law in every area of life. For the religious few, this form of life gave life meaning and purpose. For the average person, temple religion had become a matter of mere external form, and the religion of the scribes and Pharisees a complicated and unachievable set of rules.

Certain forms of modern Christianity resemble the religious situation of Israel at the end of the Old Testament. People continue to go to church. A few continue to study the Bible and attempt to organize their lives “according to biblical principles.” Sometimes their understanding of these principles is quite detailed. However, for the majority of people the life of discipleship has become a dim memory. Just as with the ancient Israelites, the life of faith seems complicated, unrewarding, and unachievable. [13]

The Change Jesus Made

When Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called twelve ordinary people to become his followers, he revealed something new: The blessed life is not achieved by external religious observances, devoted study of the law, or even dedicated obedience to the law. Instead, discipleship and the blessed life is a matter of a living relationshipwith God who is the source of wisdom and love. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through that relationship, into a personal relationship with God. As with any relationship, the defining characteristic of Jesus’ new way was a personal commitment to be in relationship, a commitment that we call “faith.” The faith of the original disciples was reflected by their decision to follow Jesus. Our faith is no different.

Just as in a marriage (or any other human relationship) not every day, week, month, or year is characterized by good feelings, the same thing is true of our relationship with God in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Perhaps even more challenging was Jesus’ warning that following him entails sacrifice and even suffering. “If anyone would come after me, they must take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). Following Jesus involves not just discomfort, but suffering and sacrifice. There will be blessing, but that blessing will not necessarily eliminate the reality of suffering, even undeserved suffering.

The Disciples’ Long Period of Misunderstanding

It took the disciples a long time to understand that the blessed life Jesus promised was not a promise of uninterrupted health, success, pleasure, or victory over opposition. The crucified Messiah revealed a kind of blessing that transcends human experience wisdom or experience (I Cor. 1:16ff). This is why Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The blessing (Shalom) that Jesus offers is a kind of blessing that cannot be achieved by simple religious obedience or ritual. Is a blessing that may only be found in a personal relationship with the Living God.

The Truly Blessed Life

So then, what is the blessed life? First, the truly blessed life is lived in fellowship with God, nature, and other people. It is lived in solidarity with the external world as human beings recover the stewardship of creation for which the human race was created. It is a life of restored interpersonal relationships, as the alienation caused by pride, selfishness, and self-seeking is overcome. The blessed life is a life of spiritual and emotional wholeness. It is a life of restored communion with God.

The person who lives in communion with God, creation, and other human beings achieves emotional and spiritual wholeness. The blessed life is a life of humility and acceptance of others, because the wise and blessed person recognizes that human beings are fallible, finite, and capable of wickedness. Blessed life is also a life of steadfast love, because those who live in relationship with the God of steadfast love exhibit that steadfast love in their own day-to-day lives.

When I was a young Christian, the missionary, evangelist, and social theologian Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the condition of Western society as dominated by a definition of the good life as achieving personal peace and affluence. [14]Certainly, our society is dominated by the individualistic search for things, for experiences, for recreation, for a sense of happiness and peace. In the midst of this search, we experience a high level of dysfunction.

Why is this so? Is it because the “Blessed Life” cannot be found in having more things, achieving success, experiencing pleasures, and the like? What if the blessed life can only be found in the humble search for wisdom in daily living and in loving service to God and others? What if our society and every other society always have been and are misguided at a deep level concerning what constitutes the blessed life? [15]

Jesus knew we human beings seldom change our behavior until we experience what life might be like if we adopted another behavior pattern. Therefore, he was not content to simply talk about the blessed life. Jesus lived the blessed life for all the world to see. He called disciples to live with and observed him. They did not know it at the time, but they were experiencing the blessed life and being trained to share that blessed life with others.

If people in contemporary society could achieve the blessed life by reading about the blessed life, our society would indeed be a blessed society. There are many, many self-help books. There are books about how to lose weight, gain weight, exercise, take vitamins, diet, think and grow rich, retire early, become more physically able to defend ourselves, find peace with God or the Ultimate (however you visualize it)—there are books about anything and everything we might do to achieve the blessed life on our own terms. It is been my experience, and the experience of most people who’ve tried these books, that they don’t permanently work. Why?

It is because we human beings do not need more than information to achieve the blessed life. We need to experiencethe blessed life. We need to experience what it is to live wisely. We need to experiencewhat it is like have healthy relationships with other people. We need to experiencewhat it is like to love others with what the Bible calls “steadfast love” or “agape love,” the self-giving, long-suffering, faithful love of God. In order for people to experience the blessed life, there must be disciples who follow Jesus and how to live the blessed life know not just from reading books but from experience.

The disciples, like people today, did not immediately understand what Jesus was showing them. Like us, they did not learn all at once but only after a long period of observation and personal interaction. It was not until after his cross and resurrection that they understood. Although Peter was inspired to say that Jesus was the Christ, the son the living God at Caesarea Philippi, his inspiration was temporary. He would still deny Jesus and go back to fishing until his time of discipleship was complete. It was only after he saw the risen Christ and experienced the power of the resurrection that Peter became capable of living the blessed life. [16]

We cannot expect people in our time to be any different. Relational understanding comes slowly. It requires time, practice, mistakes, correction, teaching, patience, and all the other attributes of discipleship. The reason Jesus created and lived in relationship with his disciples during his entire earthly ministry was because relationships are the way, and the only way, people can truly change and be transformed. In our day and time, we are experiencing a crisis of discipleship precisely because we have not done a particularly good job of discipling others into a living relationship with God. The crisis will not abate until we give up the idea that better marketing, worship, or programming can achieve real change. Real change involves a return to Way of Jesus.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A brief survey on the internet demonstrates the truth of his proposition. See for example, Farid Zakaria, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” Time Magazine, Thursday, March 3, 2003 http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2056723,00.html(Downloaded, June 22, 2019); Eduardo Porter, “America’s Best Days May Be Behind It” New York Times, January 10, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/20/business/economy/a-somber-view-of-americas-pace-of-progress.html(Downloaded June 22, 2019). Patrice Lewis, “Why Our Best Days Are Behind Us” WNDhttps://www.wnd.com/2016/01/why-our-best-days-are-behind-us/(Downloaded June 22, 2019); Nigel Barber, “Are America’s Best Days Over?” Huffington PostMarch 18, 2017 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/are-americas-best-days-ov_b_9487770(Downloaded June 22, 2019).

[2] This point is made powerfully in lay language in W. T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good(New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 109ff. In the modern world, we are all subject to a culturally reinforced worldview that considers progress to be an automatic result of human striving. Recent history casts doubt on this view. What is needed is a new kingdom not the result of human striving and schemes.Just as the Jews were mistaken to reduce the promise of the Messiah to an earthly kingdom run by a new and improved “Son of David,” when we reduce the gospel to a personal, economic or political agenda we are always wrong. In our culture, Christians need to be prepared to show people the error of expecting God’s kingdom to be just like our kingdom only wealthier, politically stronger, and more defensible. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, and was accused of opposing Caesar, he replied that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to bring his kingdom into this world; it just means there’s more to God’s kingdom in this world will ever know.

[3] In at least one modern translation of the Beatitudes, the term blessing is translated “Happy.” The Old Testament makes clear that, while happiness may result from the blessed life, the blessed life is not constituted by feelings of mere happiness. The blessed life depends on the grace and mercy of God. God is the source of all true blessings. To be blessed is to receive a state of wholeness and holiness that only God can provide. It is a gift, an act of mercy, not a reward.

[4] See, Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22. The differences between the Matthean and the Lukan descriptions of the Sermon on the Mount are significant, but not for the purposes of this book. In both cases, what Jesus is saying is at odds with what the vast majority of the people in our society see as blessings.

[5] This insight sits behind Paul’s observation in I Corinthians that the world cannot understand or accept the wisdom of God. It seems like foolishness to the human reason without the intervention of God (I Cor. 118-2:16).

[6] The language of Genesis 1 and 9 are nearly identical, indicating God’s divine intention remains the same for the fallen human race as it was for the human race at its creation.

[7] Thus, in Proverbs 3 we read: “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:13-18).

[8] Thus, wisdom writers go on to say:“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:19-20).

[9]T he term “fear of the LORD can be difficult for modern readers. When I translate the phrase, I use the term “Deep Respect,” which captures the Biblical idea that God is so much greater than human beings that the only proper response before his wisdom and power is a kind of obedient, humble, and absolute respect. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), at 37

[10] It is important not to draw too great a distinction between the wisdom and prophetic writers. Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, are deeply influenced by and in substantial continuity with the wisdom writers and many of their writings could easily be classified as wisdom writings.

[11] Isaiah speaks of a coming “King of Righteousness,” who will usher in a time of blessing for Israel (Isaiah 32:1). In the time of the Messiah, the people will learn to live wisely and receive the blessings of justice and righteousness (v. 2-5). They will finally be led by one under whose leadership they can receive the fullness of blessings for which they longed.

[12] I have written about the awareness of the Old Testament writers that the wise and good life does not guarantee happiness: Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms speak of this awareness. Nevertheless, the Old Testament writers believe that God is the source of the blessed life and that it cannot be achieved without following God’s laws in faith. See, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers, 165-193.

[13] In my first church, one member of a local congregation criticized me to one of my members for cutting my lawn on Sunday afternoons and coming to the bank in my running shorts. For this person, the “law of Christ,” just like the law of the ancient Jews prohibited any physical work on Sunday and for a religious person to expose himself in any way to others. In other words, this person was, for all intents and purposes, a modern Pharisee.

[14] Francis Schaeffer, HowShould We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and CultureRev Ed. (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1976), 205.

[15] In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people desired to experience the blessed life. In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people had misconceptions about what it is like to live blessedly. The Jews, like modern Americans, were inclined to suppose that those with sufficient material blessings and economic and political security to relax and enjoy life would experience the blessed life. They, just like many modern Americans, were inclined to believe that if only their own particular political opinion and preferred form of government could be achieved, their lives would be blessed. Jesus came to deconstruct that entire way of thinking.

[16] One important characteristic of the Gospel of Mark is the way in which it shows Peter and the other disciples as frequently either not understanding or misunderstanding who Jesus is and what Jesus has come to accomplish. They do not understand his Messianic Kingdom, the means by which the Kingdom of God will be established, or the kind of leadership they will be required to exercise in order to accomplish the tasks the Messiah is giving them. It is only in light of the resurrection that they can understand the mission of Jesus and the mission Jesus is giving them.

The Crisis of Discipleship 1

 

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1]The thesis of the book was prophetic for his life and for the course of 20thCentury discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he said, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] He went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Cheap grace is the offer of forgiveness of sins in a way that costs a believer nothing and requires no faithful response. During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Bonhoeffer took up his cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the Second World War. [3]

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s book became famous. Like many famous books, Cost of Discipleshipis often mentioned, a few quotes find their way into blogs, sermons and religious books (like this one), but Cost of Discipleshipis seldom read outside of college and seminary classes, and even more seldom internalized. Part of the problem is that the book was originally written in German, and German is a difficult language to translate into English, especially for readers who prefer short sentences and simple language.  Part of the problems is that Bonhoeffer was not a popular writer even in his own day. He was an academic, and his writing shows the influence of an academic mind. The book is simply not easy for modern people to read, fully understand, or digest.

The problem of Cheap Grace and its consequences for a church that dispenses it, is the message of The Cost of Discipleshipand of Bonhoeffer’s life. Here is how he describes “Cheap Grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [4]

When a church, denomination, or other Christian group dispenses Cheap Grace, it dispenses God’s promise of forgiveness and new life like soda from a fountain at a child’s birthday party or beer from a keg at a fraternity party. Discipleship characterized by cheap grace makes a mockery of what God was doing in Israel’s history, what Christ did on the cross, and how committed disciples live out the Christian life all over the world, sometimes in danger and persecution. Unfortunately, in one form or another, the gospel of Cheap Grace is too frequently the gospel of Western religious groups. [5]

Real grace is “Costly Grace.” Bonhoeffer characterized costly grace as like the Pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in one of his parables (Matthew 13:44-46):

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. [6]

As the saying goes, “Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.” The one who confesses his or her sins to God, who repents (turns away from sin in the heart), who turns to God with everything he or she is and possesses, who takes up his or her cross in obedience to Christ and his teachings, and who lives a holy life in response to what God has done, is a person who has experienced true grace. True grace does not leave us as we are. True grace changes everything. The response of a human encounter with real, true grace, is a transformed life.

If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and cheap grace was a problem for Christianity, the problem is exponentially greater today in the increasingly “postmodern,” Western church. Western churches, and especially American churches, are addicted to cheap grace. In church after church, in sermon after sermon, in Bible study after Bible study, God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and redemption in Christ is preached without preaching God’s judgement on sin and the new life into which disciples are called by Christ. Building strong disciples is impossible if difficult passages and problems in Scripture are ignored or explained away. [7]The result is a weak, declining, and impotent Christianity.

I have been a disciple of Christ for over forty years. There is no question but what the condition of American Christianity is worse today than at any time during my lifetime. Tremendous cultural changes have deeply impacted American Christianity for the worse. Even unhealthier is the American propensity to value size and external and economic success, which has accelerated the development of a shallow form of Christian faith. The result is a crisis of discipleship.

The Command to Make Disciples

Jesus’ last act was to commission his disciples, saying: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age”(Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commission was his last word and directive to his disciples then and now to carry out God’s program of salvation and new life that Jesus began during his earthly pilgrimage Making disciples is the supreme goal Christ set for believers and for the church. It is the reason for the existence of the Church.

Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, having a heart for people, going to where people are, helping them enter the life-transforming fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them respond to God’s grace by live a God pleasing life. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers to do while everyone else watches and applauds. True discipleship is for every Christian.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. As Christians, we learn about God and wise living from the Bible, from our personal relationship with God in Christ, from teachers and mentors, and by observing our fellow Christians day-by-day. Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person and relationship with that person in which we become transformed into the likeness of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In order to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ, we must become imitators and obedient children of Christ. As the New Testament so often puts it, we Christ must dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

Because being a disciple involves a relationship with a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in fellowship with that person. Being a disciple is like being a professional athlete or a physicist. A person who admires professional athletes or physicists, but who never enters into a relationship of learning and emulation with one, is not a disciple. At most, such a person is a fan or an interested onlooker. Disciples observe, emulate and become like the one they are learning from and into whose image they are being conformed (Romans 8:29).

Christians do our best, and live wisely, when we emulate the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing his divine life to permeate our entire personality. It is not enough to proclaim that we believe in Christ or to bring people to declare their intellectual belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for their sins. To be a disciple is to follow Christ, become more like Christ daily, and help others become more like Christ. Christians today must be willing and able to help other people live with the same integrity and self-giving love that characterized Jesus when he ministered to his disciples and the people of Israel. This means we incorporate into our lives the same divine wisdom and steadfast love that characterized Jesus of Nazareth. It even means that we are willing to suffer for the gospel as Christ suffered for the human race. This is the result of costly grace.

The modern world, from which we are now emerging, was characterized by an abstract understanding of knowledge. The world and God were objects to be studied and mastered not things and persons to be loved and cherished. In such a world, knowledge is measured by tests and one’s ability to answer questions, write essays, and regurgitate information. The object of such knowledge is mastery of a subject and increasing control over reality. To the modern mind-set, any kind of knowledge that was not “scientific” or “objective” was not really knowledge at all.

Wisdom is different. To be wise, one must know some information. More importantly, one must apply and embody that information in everyday life. The earliest name for Christians was “people of the Way” (Acts 19:23, 24:22) To be a way is to be a path, road, highway, or boulevard that must be traveled on. Christian faith is a way of life. Discipleship is a life-style, a way of life, a path of wisdom, a road that leads to life, a highway to a better relationship with God, a boulevard to holiness, an embodied knowledge of God. [8]The test of whether we are good or bad disciples is found in how we live and what kind of people we are in the depths of our being.

The Community of Jesus

Jesus did not just preach, teach, and do signs and wonders. Jesus brought people to himself and spent his earthly ministry in a small group of people he was actively discipling.Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” [9]Christ chose twelve ordinary people and lived in relationship with them for his entire earthly ministry. He also lived in close fellowship with a larger group of men and women with whom he shared his life and teachings (Luke 8:1-3; 10:1; 14:25). Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus, and their time together in a discipling relationship, that propelled them to carry the Good News of his life, death and resurrection on a continuing journey to the ends of the earth as they understood it.

Jesus promised that, “where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). If people are to meet Jesus, a group of people (disciples) must introduce potential disciples to him in a community in which Christ is present by the Holy Spirit.  If new Christians are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, they need to be mentored by people who are further along on the path of discipleship. People need to see what it means to be a Christian lived out in the day-to-day lives of other disciples. This involves being part of a fellowship that spends time in fellowship with one another and with God in Christ. It is so important for new believers to become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those who try to follow Christ alone, without belonging to his fellowship, and without accountability for their life of discipleship, almost inevitably fall short or fail. Those who belong to a fellowship of believers have a better chance of succeeding in the Christian life.

The way the early church grew was by reproducing in community and in individual lives who Jesus was and what Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. The book of Acts is the story of how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples lived as Jesus lived, did the kinds of things Jesus had done, and faced the same opposition and suffering Jesus faced. [10]

This is important. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, calling people into authentic community, growing in discipleship together, training new believers “to obey all Christ commanded,” and continually reproducing this process through generations of people. The reason for the crisis of discipleship we face is that most believers either never know or have largely forgotten how to do the task of making disciples.

The Commission to Make Disciples

According to Matthew, when Jesus ascended into heaven he left his disciples with a job to do and marching orders to do that job. Matthew ends his gospel with an important commission for his disciples (and for us):

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus did not say, “Go have huge worship services with big organs or praise bands.” Jesus did not say, “Go build large buildings in which many people can come for one hour a week.” Jesus did not say, “Go build impressive institutions to continue your way of thinking about God.” Jesus did not say, “Have wonderful programs for children and youth.” Jesus did not say, “Have a program for every sort of person in your community. Jesus did not say, “Support that party or social agenda that you believe most compatible with Christian faith.” He said, “Go make disciples.”

If there is a crisis in the church today, it is a crisis of discipleship. The church has been too concerned with worship services, programming, numbers, money, institutional maintenance, sustaining the American way of life, creating a moral majority, reforming government, and the like. Christians have not been concerned enough at what sits at the center of what we have been asked to do: Make Disciples. If the Christian community is to exit its current decline, it will not be because of large worship experiences, crossless sanctuaries, focus on technique, programs, consultants, fund-raising, or new and greater institutional capacity. It will be because ordinary Christians have rediscovered what it means to make disciples.

I do not watch much football. However, I have noticed that, when a team gets in trouble, the coach often tells reporters, “We are going to concentrate on the basics.” The church in the West is in trouble. If the church is to survive into the emerging postmodern world, Christians must, like a football team, turn our attention back to the fundamentals. We must concentrate on the ‘blocking and tackling” of the Christian faith, and the blocking and tackling of Christian faith is disciple-making. To recover from the current crisis, we must be about being and making disciples.

The slow process of one-by-one disciple-making will not immediately seem the most successful or swift solution to the problems our churches and society face. However, in the end, it will be shown to have been the best and only solution to the current decline of faith and practice in the West. As with all real change, it will begin slowly and silently, but in the end will be shown to be fruitful, not primarily for the institutions of Christianity, but for the changed lives and vibrant faith of Christians.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipRev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963). The book was originally published in 1937. Bonhoeffer wrote the book while a pastor in Spain after graduating from graduate school. In German, interestingly for the theme of this book, the title is literally, “The Act of Fallowing.” The theme of this book is that true Christian discipleship is following Jesus Christ, and the Great Commission of the church is to create followers of Jesus.

[2]Id, at 45.

[3]Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945 by order of Adolph Hitler, one of his last acts before his own suicide and death on April 30, 1945. By the time of his death, Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned since April 5, 1943, or just over two years.

[4]Id, at 47.

[5]Western popular Christianity, liberal and conservative, is addicted to just the kind of cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer warned.  Modern evangelicalism, in particular, has fallen victim to a popularization of Christian faith that focus on grace to the detriment of emphasis on the response to grace in faithful living.  Cheap Grace is everywhere the forerunner of a watered-down form of Christianity in which Christians, like the Corinthians of old, cannot tolerate the meat of the gospel, being addicted to the milk of salvation by grace alone (1 Cor. 3:2). One reason for this book is to encourage local fellowships of Christians in America and the West to begin to seriously build small groups of committed discipleships within their fellowships.

[6]Cost of Discipleship, at 47.

[7]A recent comment by a well-known mega-Church pastor is but an example. Since the time of the early heretic Marcion (85-160 A.D.), the church as always recognized the continuity and validity of the Old and New Testaments for Christian faith and practice. The difficulties are not new; they are as old as the Christian faith. It is easier to unhitch ourselves from the old testament than to learn to understand the way in which Christian faith emerged from First Century Judaism, incorporated the Torah into its emerging Scriptures, and to understand the depth of the inheritance Christianity has from the Jewish Scriptures. This is not said to enter into a debate with this or any other pastor, but to give a concrete example of the temptation to avoid the hard work of discipleship. See, Steve Warren, “Christians need to Unhitch the Old Testament from their Faith: Andy Stanley’s Sermon Draws a Backlash” CBS News.Com May 11, 2018, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2018/may/christians-need-to-unhitch-the-old-testament-from-their-faith-andy-stanleys-sermon-draws-social-media-backlash( Downloaded July 23, 2019)

[8]This embodied knowledge of God is what the Orthodox Church refers to as “theosis,” or becoming like God. If Christ is the image of God (Colossians 1:5), then in the process of discipleship disciples become like God by becoming like Christ.

[9]Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans, 1989), 95, 227.

[10]The Book of Acts consciously or unconsciously shows the apostles recapitulating in their lives the same mighty deeds, messages of power, and persecution and rejection that Jesus experienced in his life.

Beginning a New Series on Discipleship

The Beginning of a New Journey

Several weeks ago, I mentioned that I would begin a new series of weekly posts after Labor Day. It is after Labor Day! For the next eighteen weeks or so, I am going to be posting essays that form chapters of a book I have been writing on discipleship. I solicit comments, suggestions, etc. This is probably as far as the project will go, but I am hoping that people will be energized and enlightened by the work. Good Reading.

In the 1930’s the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a Christian classic, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he spoke about the dangers of “Cheap Grace.” [1] Today, perhaps because the institutional churches in the West did not take seriously the implications of The Cost of Discipleship, Christians face a “Crisis of Discipleship,” which is the theme of this series of essays. As a friend put it to me recently, “We have already lost an entire generation in the Church, and we are in danger of losing another.” We cannot overcome our crisis of discipleship unless every Christian is motivated to be an authentic disciple of Christ, not simply a “believer.” For this to happen, the leadership of Christian congregations must take the Great Commission and discipleship training seriously.

My mentor, co-pastor, and friend, Dave Schieber, frequently repeats a refrain, “The Church is always only one generation from extinction.” [2] The church in the West is shrinking in numbers and influence. The impact of Christian faith in the lives of individuals and society has been dwindling for some time, longer than most people realize. Today, even so-called “evangelical” groups that grew rapidly during the post-World War II period, are shrinking in numbers and spiritual influence. The growth of larger, so-called “Mega-Churches,” has not prevented the decline, because much of their growth is from other Christian fellowships.  We are now within a generation of a collapse of authentic Christian faith and practice in America and the West.

Denominations, churches, pastors, and others have devised programs and strategies to stem the decline, with mixed results at best. The problem cannot be addressed effectively by worship strategies, programs or advertising savvy. It can only be addressed as individual Christians become committed disciples of Jesus, sharing God’s love with a broken world in obedience to the Great Commission.

My wife and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, she was in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study of young people, who were new Christians or seeking God in some way. (I was one of the seekers.)  Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical study guide and workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [3] Salt & Light was (and is) an attempt to provide a simple lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to learn to make disciples in an orderly and effective way in contemporary culture.

The Great Commission was not given just to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. All Christians are intended to share the Good News of Christ and make disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship: The Way of Love and Light for 21stCentury Disciple-makers(the name for this series of essays) builds on the practical guidance of Salt & Light, clarifies causes of the crisis of disciple-making, and shares a deeper theory to guide contemporary disciple-making, and Salt & Lightin particular. Hopefully, readers will understand the crisis of discipleship in the West and more effectively lead disciple-making groups as a result of these essays.

In successive essays, Crisis of Discipleship will look that the crisis of discipleship in our time, its causes, the culture from which the crisis emerged, and the challenges our culture poses for those sharing their Christian faith. Having set the stage for the current crisis, Crisis of Discipleship shares a Biblical understanding of how Christians can reach out and share their faith with others. All the essays address the implications of the Great Commission, which might be paraphrased, “Go everywhere and make disciples of everyone you are able, bringing them to faith and teaching these new disciples to follow the teachings of the Messiah, who will always be present with those who go about the business of making disciples.”

This series of essays is intended for any reader who wishes to learn more about the Way of Jesus and how to share it with others. The collection is not a theological treatise. It is a compilation of practical discipleship theory and practice. The essays are designed to help those who desire to understand the barriers our culture places in the path of those who desire to share the Way of Christ in the contemporary world. There will be a brief analysis of the emerging postmodern world—a culture that is rapidly becoming world-wide due to the globalization of Western, and particularly American, culture in the late 20thCentury. Once this has been accomplished, the goal is to speak of the way in which small groups of Christians can learn to reach out within their network of relationships and make a difference in the lives of people.

Please join with me in a journey and conversation as we seek to think about ways to communicate God’s love to others in our culture. Perhaps we can have some small amount of the dedication Paul reveals when he told the Corinthians, who were much like contemporary people”

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

May the Lord bless and keep each reader.

Chris Scruggs

Labor Day 2019

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[2] Dave embodies the relational mode of evangelism and discipleship that this book is intended to illuminate. He began with six persons and built Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, TN into a 1,500-member congregation all through a deep love for people and a willingness to enter into their world in a loving and wise way,

[3]  G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship(Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017). The book can now be advanced ordered.

Practice Makes Perfect (or at least Better)

Practice Makes Perfect (Or At Least Better)

Mark 6: 9-13

(This is a version of a sermon I have given in the past in Memphis and Ohio.) It has been posted here before in a different format. 

I recently up golf as a serious matter. I returned to San Antonio from helping a church in Ohio on March 1 this year.  Our family spent most of March and April welcoming a new grandchild and caring for her parents. In May, we had two graduations, and so our time was filled with more grandparenting and celebrating two new graduates.

On June 1, we began what I call the “Scruggs Golf Camp.” I can’t afford to spend a month at Hilton Head or Palm Springs, so my strategy was to watch videos and read golf books at night, and then put into practice what we learned the next day at the course or the driving range. We also needed lessons, so, my wife and I took a few.

Since June, I’ve played or been at the range every day, read books by famous golfers, and watched endless instructional videos. I am not good, but I am getting better. What does it take to learn to play golf? It takes study, observing golfers play, hours of practice at the driving range, playing several times a week, and swinging a club sixty to 100 times a day for a long time.

Golf is hard, but being a disciple of Christ is much harder. Like golf, faith is not merely knowledge in our heads. [1] If that is all it is, it is a dead or inadequate thing (James 2:7). In order to be active disciples of Jesus, we need to practice our faith daily. Furthermore, we don’t need to practice a little. We need to practice a lot—more than we need to practice golf.

The Disciples Practice Being Like Jesus

In our text, Jesus is traveling through the villages of the Galilee teaching (Mark 6:6). The disciples were in a kind of intensive Bible study and small group experience with Jesus—a kind of Christian golf camp. Day in and day out, they were with Jesus, watching Jesus, listening to Jesus, and sometimes running errands for Jesus. One day, Jesus was going to send the disciples to the ends of the earth sharing the Good News of the Kingdom and making disciples themselves. Therefore, he wanted them to practice being like him and doing the things he did.

Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from Mark 6: 6-13:

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

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

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

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

 We Need to Practice our Discipleship

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

Returning to my analogy between golf and discipleship, when I began to play golf, I could not just read about golf or watch Tiger Woods play golf. As great a golfer as Tiger Woods is, watching him play is not enough to become a good golfer. To become a good golfer, you have to play golf a lot.

Jesus knew his disciples would not get the business of making disciples right the first (or even the second, third, fourth or fifth time). He knew that their “spiritual swing” was not going to get better without practice. He knew that it would not be a good idea for him to do all the teaching, healing, and casting out of demons, and then one day, BANG, send the disciples to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20). Therefore, he trained the disciples and made them practice what he had been training them to do.

One Sunday day in 1977, I was walking by the pastors’ offices on a Sunday morning between services. Dick Drury, who was the young associate pastor in charge of evangelism in our church, called me into his office. He explained that he was scheduled to speak at the Star of Hope Mission in Houston that evening but could not make it. He asked me to speak for him.

I’d been a Christian only a short time. I can’t tell you how scared I was. That afternoon I wrote a sermon and practiced it as best I could. I didn’t have time to write it out. All I could do was an outline. Then, with fear and trepidation, in front of a bunch of drug addicts and drunks, I preach my first sermon. I even did my first altar call! For a Presbyterian, I was way out of my comfort zone. However, I would not be here today, if Dick had not then, and frequently thereafter, asked me to substitute for him at the mission. [2]

There is an important lesson here: We will never become the disciples Jesus calls us to be unless and until we get out of our comfort zone and put our faith to work. We need to put what we know about Jesus into practice. We need to be doers of the word in addition to hearers of it (James 1:22-25). When we do that, we will grow as disciples of Jesus. The best way to get out of our comfort zone is with other Christians, who can love and support us.

We Need to Practice as a Team

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

About a decade ago, our church realized that we needed to do a better job of evangelism. We initially did what good Presbyterians do: We formed a task force. Luckily, two of the people on the task force were in sales.  They really did not like long boring meetings, but they did not mind visiting with people. Therefore, they decided that what the group needed to do was to practice evangelism rather than just talk about evangelism. The group divided itself into smaller groups of two and three and visited every visitor to our church every Sunday afternoon. Guess what” We grew!

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

God Will Fill Us with His Spirit

In today’s text, Jesus commissions the disciples to go on a practice journey, and as he did so he blessed and endowed them with the power to face sickness, demons and evil. In other places, we learned that, when Jesus sent out the Seventy-Two, they returned with joy because the Spirit of God had been working in and through them on their journey (Luke 10:17).

One of the great promises we have from Jesus is that he will be with us as we go in his name (Matthew 28:20). This doesn’t just apply to people who go to Third World countries, although it does. It applies to us whenever we get out of our comfort zone. The promise applies when we pray with co-workers. Wherever we go, the Spirit of Christ goes with us. In fact, one of the blessings of putting our faith into practice is the joy of the Spirit we experience on the journey.

We Seek People of Peace

Many people have problems with the advice Jesus gives near the end of today’s passage. Jesus says to the disciples that, if they come to a place where they are not welcome, they should shake the dust off their sandals and go on (Mark 6:11). In the beginning, this statement seems harsh. In other passages, Jesus more clearly spells out what he is talking about. In some places Jesus is that we should look for people of peace as we go (Luke 9-10). People who welcome the Gospel are “people of peace.” [3]

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

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

God Will Provide the Harvest

When the disciples went out and preached the gospel, they did mighty deeds of power (Mark 6:13).  In the same way, when we go out with the power of the gospel, filled with God’s love, and share that love wherever we go, God goes with us and provides a harvest. It does not matter whether we go across the street, and a neighbor comes to Christ after many years, or whether we go to the ends of the earth and an entire people group are touched by the Gospel through our work. God provides the harvest.

That first night when I preached of the Star of Hope Mission, I gave the worst altar call ever given by anyone in human history. It was so clumsy that the men just sort of stared at me for a while. Then, perhaps because he felt sorry for me, one man came forward and then another. I really don’t remember how many came forward. But a few did. Let’s just suppose it only one of those stayed sober and turn their life over to Christ. My lost afternoon and busy early evening were worth it.

When we share with others the love that Jesus shared with us on the cross, when we give up a little bit of our safety and security to go out of our comfort zone and share God’s love, we receive the blessing of Christ. Along the way, the more we practice, the better disciples we will be.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a friend who plays golf to tell him that I was much improved. I am now terrible. Before, I was horrible. There is a saying among golf teachers that golf rewards the patient. Discipleship is the same. God blesses those who just go out day after day and put their faith into practice, doing a bit better that day.

Let’s go.

Amen

[1] Both the Greek and Hebrew roots for the words we translate “faith” in English connotes both faith and trust. Trust implies an action. We don’t trust by knowing or accepting somethings as true. We trust when we put our knowledge into action. I might think I know how to safely go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I trust myself when I do it.

[2] For years I took the Sunday that was previously held by the Rev. Dr. Charles L. King, the long time and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas  and a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUS).  Then and now , I regarded as a great honor to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps.

[3] Evangelists, church planters and missionaries all speak about people of peace. Fundamentally, people of peace are those who are open to the gospel, respond with curiosity when approached about Jesus, listen attentively to the gospel, and then share that word with their own family and friends. The New Testament gives many examples: the twelve disciples responded to the call of Jesus. For example, the Samaritan woman listens to Jesus, responds, and tells her friends (John4:1-30).

What Do Wisdom and Golf Have In Common?

I am a very bad golfer. This is not surprising, since I seldom play golf and never practice. While I was in High School, my brother and I played golf just often enough to learn the basics of the game. I never played in college. Since college, I have only played occasionally in tournaments for various charities or church events. Even my closest friends do not like to play with me because I am terrible. My failures as a golfer are all traceable to a series of defects: I don’t regularly think about golf, learn about golf, practice golf, or play golf.

Golf is a skill, not a science. A person has to play golf to be good at golf. A person has to play with a variety of other people, watching how they play the game. A person has to practice driving at a driving range. Most of us need lessons from someone who has played longer and is better than we are. We call these people “Golf Pro’s.” They are really good, so good that they can make a living playing and teaching people to play golf. When you do take a lesson with a Golf Pro, you don’t go into a classroom. You go onto a golf course or a driving range.

Life is a lot more complicated than golf. Therefore, it should not surprise us that the primary way Americans train their young people to face the challenges of life—sending children to school—does not work well. Going to school gives a person mental skills and head knowledge. It does not teach a person how to live. In order to learn to live successfully, we need to be mentored by someone who has lived life successfully. Ideally, that person would be a parent, grandparent, or other person who loves us deeply and is willing to put up with our foolishness and failures until we can take care of ourselves. Children especially need more than teachers. They need “Life Pro’s.”

Along the journey of life, we all need to be mentored by “Life Pro’s” from time to time. We need to play the game of life for a time with someone who has played longer than we have played, is a better player, and can show us how to play the fame of life successfully. We all need mentors: in business, in family, in child-raising, in saving for retirement, and in every other area of life.

Trial and error, as important as it can be, is really not a good way to learn how to live. The problem with trial and error is that there are a lot of errors we can make. Some of them ruin our lives for a long time or even forever. A person who repeats every foolish behavior of human history in order to learn how to live will almost certainly never attain a happy life.

Just to give two examples: it takes the average woman five years to recover from a bad marriage and divorce—if they do recover at all. Assuming there were a few unhappy years before the divorce and for a period of time after the divorce, it means that the average divorcee suffers over ten percent of her life just as a result of a bad marriage. Better to have avoided the entire experience. In our church, we have ministered to more than one young person who ended up psychologically damaged as a result of a bad drug trip. Better to avoid mind-altering drugs altogether. (I avoid politics, but this casts grave doubt upon with wisdom shown by those states that are legalizing such drugs.)

Wisdom literature, and the historic way children were raised until the modern era, were based upon this single insight: Children need to be mentored by prior generations so that they do not repeat the foolish life damaging, happiness destroying mistakes past generations learned to avoid.

 

 

Transitions: Last Words as we Cross into the Future

How many of you have ever dived off a high dive? Do you remember the first time? I am not very coordinated and a bit fearful of heights, so I do remember that first dive.  I was also a lifeguard for a lot of years, and so I remember the look on many young faces. When you teach someone to dive, they begin on the low dive, move to the intermediate dive, and then eventually learn to dive off the high dive.

When your time comes, you begin by standing in line to climb up the ladder. You don’t really want to do it, but your mother, father, or instructor says you must. You also don’t want to wimp out and be embarrassed in front of your buddies or a girl you secretly like, so you reluctantly keep going up the ladder until it is your turn. After the long climb, you reach the last rung on the ladder, and the person before you dives off (hopefully not perfectly). You slowly and carefully walk to the end of the board, look down briefly (against good advice), pace back a couple of steps for the approach, then you pause, getting up your courage. Finally, you just close your eyes and jump.

Today is my last sermon/blog as the transitional pastor of Bay Presbyterian Church. Our theme is “Bridges” or crossing over into the future God has for us. As we prepare to cross the bridge into the future , some of us may feel like we are on a metaphorical high dive. Today, I have just a few last words for the congregation and readers, as we get ready to take our collective plunge into the unknown!

The Last Words and Challenge of Moses

Deuteronomyis one of the most interesting books in the Old Testament. It is the last book of the first five book of the Bible, what we call the “Pentateuch.” It was written as the Last Will and Testament of Moses, containing his last words to Israel. Moses, if you remember, was the founder of the Jewish religion, and their deliverer who led them out of captivity in Egypt. He led Israel for  forty years as they wandered in the wilderness because of their sin. By the time they arrived on the east side of the River Jordan, he was an old man, ready to die. Furthermore, due to an incident early in their wanderings, God advised Moses that he would not enter the Promised Land. [1]

Since coming to BayPres, I have joked a kind of half-truth: Like Moses, I am not allowed to enter the new future you will soon enter. I must leave. Two weeks ago, I let you know that, like John the Baptist, my joy is complete because the preparations for the future are finished, and the church is ready to cross into its future. All that is left are a few last words as this wonderful congregations enters into a new era.

Our text comes from Deuteronomy 30:11-19. Hear the Word of God this morning from the voice of Moses:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

See, I have set before you today life and death, good and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:11-20).

We are Able

I love this passage! As the scene is set, Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River. The people of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land. A new day is about to arrive. Their current leader, Moses, is old and about to depart. Moses cannot enter the Promised Land with the rest of the people and soon will die. Therefore, he calls the people together and gives them some last words to guide them as they enter the Promised Land.

You see, Israel is about to experience a great change in their national life. They’re going to have a new leader, Joshua. They’re going to be in a new country with unfamiliar people. They are going to be surrounded by people with different customs and religions. Moses wants to remind them what it is they must do to experience the blessings of God in their new situation.  [2]

Moses begins by recounting what God has done, the laws God has asked them to obey, the ceremonies God wishes them to perform, and he lets them know that what God is asking them to do is not too hard for them (Deuteronomy 1-30). God is able to bless the people of Israel and will bless the people of Israel—if they remain faithful and are obedient to the way of life to which God has called them. They are able to do that God asks. Whether they will be obedient or not is a matter of the heart. If their hearts remain centered on God, then they will be empowered to obey. The same thing is true for us.

There are times when we can misunderstand the impact of grace on our lives. God forgives us, restores us, and gives us new life because of his sheer unmerited grace. [3]  This does not mean that we will no longer experience the consequences of our behavior. I can be a wonderful Christian, but if I never save for retirement I’m going to be poor when I retire. I can be deeply committed to Christ, but if I drink on the job I will still get fired sooner or later. Grace does not eliminate the need for obedience and wise living. God initiates the Christian life by grace, but we are able to make our own choices and responsible for them!

The first part of our Mission Statement as that we intend to be a people Centered on Christ. This is important! If we’re going to have the heart of God, then we need to have hearts centered on Christ.  God’s grace is the foundation of our faith. Through Christ, God has rescued us from sin and death just as he rescued Israel from captivity in Egypt. However, we would be presuming upon God’s grace if we did not change as a result of all He has done for us in Jesus Christ. We are sinners. All of us are finite. We all need grace to become the people God calls us to be and accomplish all that God would have us to do. But we are able, and we are responsible to respond to God’s grace in faithfulness.

We Must Choose

It’s an interesting historical fact that the book of Deuteronomy was discovered in the temple late in the history of the nation (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chronicles 24). They were already practically doomed to go into captivity. In addition, the book seems to have gained its importance after the captivity in Babylon, as people recognized that they had been unfaithful to God and had in fact received the judgment that Moses prophesied.

In what I think is the most dramatic part of today’s text, Moses gives the people a choice concerning their future and beseeches them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:37). In early portions of the book, Moses has already prophesied that the people will be judged if they are not faithful to God. In today’s chapter he reminds them that they are capable of remaining faithful to God. They must choose to orient their hearts toward God and be faithful to the way of life to which they are called. Moses is reminding the people of Israel that they must choose God above all else!

This is important for us as well. We must choose whether or not we are going to remain faithful to the God that has brought us to this point of new life for ourselves, for our families, and for our church. We must choose Christ daily.

The words of Moses were delivered to Israel as a people. This reminds us that we are to be Shaped in Community. I’ve had an opportunity before to make this important point: if we do not gather together as the people of God in worship and in small groups, we are unlikely to continue to choose to follow the way of Christ. Jesus called the disciples around him and taught them in a community. Moses taught the people of God in the community. We must continue to be a part of that community to which we have been called.

No one is able to choose Christ all by themselves over the long run . We need one another. The people of God needed Moses, Joshua, and Godly leadership.  Just as importantly, they needed one another. We also need one another to be Shaped in Community to be the people we are called to be. I have watched many, many people fall away from Christian community and then end up also falling away from God.

Finally, as anyone who has been married knows, when we are part of a community, we all experience the blessings and suffer the failures of that community. This is true of families, churches, and nations. We both need one another and to some degree are responsible for one another. This is why Jesus reached out to those who had fallen away from God and told the parable of the Lost Sheep. Everyone is important in a community of Christ.

Blessings are a Matter of Obedience

Often, in a kind of simplistic way, the people talk about the Old Testament is being a testament of works in the New Testament of being a testament of grace. This is true. However, we need to understand that Grace gives us a heart for God and connection to God that enables obedience. We can’t live the Christian life without grace. We also can’t live the Christian life without being willing to walk in the way of Jesus.

This week, I  read one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told.  It is the story comparing those who build their lives on the rock of the Word of God and those who  build their lives on the sand of what how other people live and natural desires. The story goes like this:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

We remember the distinction between the man who built his house upon the rock in the man who built his house upon the sand. We forget that this is how Jesus introduces the story: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house upon the rock”(Matthew 7:24).  A little bit earlier, Jesus tells his disciples in the gathered crowd that he did not come to abolish the law but to complete the law (5:17).

In other words, how much of the blessings of the Christian life we experience is dependent upon how much we open our lives to the transforming power of the Gospel of Christ,  the presence of the Holy Spirit, and then actually live out the Gospel in our daily lives. The word translated “law” in the Old Testament can also be translated “instruction.” It’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one. God’s rules for wise living are not rules and regulations imposed by a heavenly bureaucrat to make us do things his way or else. They are gracious gifts to us so that we might experience the abundant life. [4]

Early in my ministry with you, I mentioned that the earliest name for the Christian faith is the “People of the Way” (Acts 9:2). The Way we are to follow is the Way of Jesus, who showed by his life what it is to live according to the instructions of God in the way God intended in the first place. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, are a part of that Way of Jesus (I Corinthians 13:13). The fruit of the Spirit of joy, patience, kindness and self-control are a part of that that way (Galatians 5:22-23).

As a pastor, over the years, I have watched many people do harm to their own lives and the lives of their families by what I would call “presuming upon the grace of God.” These people, and many like them, are Christians, but they don’t necessarily live or act like Christians. They don’t manage their money like Christians. They don’t raise their children like Christians. They don’t conduct their family relationships like Christians. They are forgiven; but, they’re not transformed. In the end, these Christians don’t experience a quality of life any different than their next-door neighbor who has a different religion or no religion at all.

Jesus says that the wise man builds his house upon the rock of a relationship with him and of putting his words into practice daily. The wise man not only hears the words of Jesus the Messiah, but also obeys them. When we do,  we are like the man who built his house upon the rock. Our church, especially, should understand this truth: Faithfulness does not mean that we will not have problems. Human life is filled with problems. Faithfulness means that we are building our life on the rock of God’s wisdom and love for us, and we face the problems of life wisely with faith, hope, and love because of the foundation we have in Christ.

It’s a Matter of the Heart

The same God wrote the Old and New Testaments. In today’s text, God says that his commandments or not too difficult or beyond our reach. They’re not in heaven or in the depths of the sea. No, he says, the word is very it is in your mouth and in your hearts so that you may obey it.

The word of God made flesh is in the heart of every believer. What  God asks of us is not so high that we cannot reach it or so low that we cannot touch it. It is not so far away that we cannot find it.Today’s proverb for me was this from Proverbs 3:1-2, which reads:

 My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but keep my commands in your heart,
for they will prolong your life many years
    and bring you peace and prosperity.

By the grace of God, the Word is in our hearts, and will bring us blessing after blessing.

Today I leave you with these words: In a world that is constantly choosing death, choose life!

Amen

[1] Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of an act of disobedience to God during their wanderings. Instead of speaking to a rock to release water, he struck it in an act of anger against the people. This particular act of disobedience may not seem great to the reader, but it seems to have involved more. In any case, Israel felt the incident explained why Moses did not enter the Promised Land with them.

[2] My analysis of the book is based upon Peter C. Craige, “The Book of Deuteronomy” in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1976.

[3] One of the great reformation Principles is “Sola Gratia,” or “By Grace Alone.” We are not saved by good works. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Israel did not deserve to be saved from slavery Egypt, God saved them by an act of sheer mercy.

[4] The law is not an imposed thing; it reflects the way God created the world and what makes life best. Wisdom literature and the law are really one thing: The gracious gift of God to his people. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

Transitions: The Beginning of the Bridge

I have a friend who once said, “It’s always hard to live between the times.” Our nation, our economy, our politics, and our church are living between the times. We talk a lot about “postmodernism.” However, what we know as “postmodernism” is probably no more than the end of the modern world. We are entering a new age in human history, but we really don’t know where we’re going!  All the churches of the world are entering this new age, and all are struggling to discern how to adapt. Here at Bay Presbyterian Church, we are entering a new era in the life of our church family. Change can be a scary, and you may feel that way about your own family, career, and friends as you try to live in today’s world!

John the Baptist & Elijah

 One of the most interesting people in the Bible is John the Baptist. To understand John, we have to go back to the Old Testament. As we studied last month, the prophets foretold the coming of a Messiah. About 400 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Malachi prophesied that, before the Messiah came, the prophet Elijah it would return (Malachi 4:5-6). To fully understand this prophesy, it will help if we  know a couple of things about Old Testament history.

First, Moses, the deliverer of Israel from Egypt and founder of the religion of Judaism, prophesied that God would eventually send a greater leader than him for God’s people. The Gospel of Matthew reveals Jesus as the One Greater than Moses. He is the New Moses that will restore the story of Israel in a completely unexpected way!

Second, although we often think of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the Jews thought of Elijah as the greatest of the prophets. [1] During the reign of the worst king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife, the evil Jezebel, the prophet Elijah prophesied mightily. He confronted the false prophets of the false gods of Israel and its evil king and queen. In the process he did mighty deeds of power.

The Ministry of John

Shortly before Jesus began his public ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, emerged. John centered his ministry near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. He was a colorful character. He wore a tunic made of camel’s hair and ate locust and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). He probably lived close to Qumran.  This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the late 1940’s. He seems to have been influenced by the Essene sect of Judaism. His ministry included baptism. The Essenes were very concerned about ritual purity and practiced baptism in a major way. Those who have been to Israel may have seen a giant baptismal pool near  Qumran where a group of Essenes lived. They were strict followers of the Jewish law, lived extraordinarily holy lives,  and felt the Messiah would return soon. [2]

John was no respecter of persons. When the Scribes and Pharisees came to see him, he called them a brood of vipers, or poisonous snakes (Matthew 3:7). As you might expect, people came from all over Jerusalem and Judea, to see this dramatic, new prophet. The common people immediately saw John’s ministry as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would return before the Messiah came, and Jesus confirmed their understanding (11:7-14).

The message of John was the message one would  expect of the New Elijah: The day of the Messiah is coming, and it is time to get ready! In Matthew, John tells the people that he is the one who was sent to “prepare the Way of the Lord” (3: 3). The way the people were to prepare was to repent, be baptized (or cleansed) from their sins, and be ready to welcome the Messiah with a clean heart. This is good advice for us as well.

For the last several years, our church has been preparing for a day that will soon arrive. We’ve been preparing for the time when we will be led by our new pastor. He will be moving to Bay Village late this month. Around March 1, our new pastor will be present on a daily basis, leading our congregation. We’ve already done a lot of preparation, but there’s just a little bit of preparation left to do.

A few weeks ago, we had an evening in which we talked about what we can do to welcome a new pastor. I believe the video can be found on our website, and it’s worth listening to. This morning I want to mention three things we need to remember:

  1. First, our new pastor does not know the 2,000 or so names of our members and regular visitors. It will take him a long time to remember all those names. Every time you meet our new pastor, please give him your name. Many of you have noticed that I’ve been here over a year, and I still don’t know everyone’s name on sight!
  2. Second, give the new pastor time to get established and get a sense of who we are and where we are headed. It takes time to get to know a congregation. Before you form an opinion, or make a request, give the new pastor a chance to get acquainted with the congregation. In a big church, this takes months—a year at least.
  3. Third, remember that, as hard as it is to be a new pastor, it’s even harder to be the spouse and children of a new pastor. Our new pastor’s wife and children are leaving behind their home, their schools, their friends, their existing relationships, and the church to which they are accustomed. Welcome them with open arms. Take time to get to know them! Help them make friends in our community! This is really important.

If you go onto our website, you will find additional suggestions. The bottom line is: share God’s love with our new pastor and his family just like you would with your best friend.

Part of preparation involves repentance. Before we can make Jesus our best friend, we have to repent (or turn away) from our sins. This is the first step in becoming a disciple, and it is a life-long process after we become disciples of Jesus. We need to get rid of all the things that keep us from being a child and friend of God (See, Genesis 18:16-19; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23).

Our new pastor is not God. However, there are some things we all need to remember to turn away from. Our new pastor had nothing to do with the past of our congregation. He is not like any leader of the past. We should not expect our new pastor to be like any former leader, and we should repent of any bad feelings we have against any former leader, whoever they may be. We also should not expect our new pastor to be like the leader from the past we like the best. The word “repentance” means “to turn away.” It means get healed. It means let bygones be bygones. In this context, “repent” means today is a new day and we need to make it a new day, free of the past.

If I can say a personal word: You all know that I love you. You know that I’ve been here for more than a year. I’ve heard every story anyone can hear.  The former leaders of this church were, whether you appreciate them or not, trying to do the will of God as best they knew how and were able to lead. They may not have led way we like; they may not have led the best way. But they were trying. They were human just like we are, and everyone makes mistakes. It is time to just let go and let God. God is in charge, and he can (and has) worked everything out for the good (Romans 8:28).

Every Beginning Means an Ending

You may have noticed that, unlike any sermon I’ve preached you before, we have not yet read the Scripture—and we’re almost finished! That’s because I saved the reading of the Word to the end this week. In all four Gospels, we learn about the ministry of John the Baptist. In John, we learn a new story. After Jesus began his ministry, the crowds that followed John began to dwindle. Some of John’s followers were distressed that this new guy on the block was taking away from the ministry of the old guy on the block. They came to John to complain. Here is what John said in reply:

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”(John 3:27-30).

In order for Jesus to proclaim and enact the new era of human history that would begin with his life, death, and resurrection, it was necessary for John’s ministry to end. John knew this. He recognized that his job was to prepare the  way of the Lord. He knew his ministry was nearing completion. He realized that a new day was dawning, but could not fully dawn until his ministry ended. He was not sad. He was not depressed. He was not angry or resentful. He was filled with joy (John 3:29).

This reminds each one of us that there are times in our lives when we or those we love are going to go through a change and passing to a new time. This should be a time of celebration and the joy of a new beginning. Things are always changing, and the wise person learns to adapt and find joy in the past, present, and future.

I want to leave you this morning with the following: My joy is complete. It has been a great pleasure being with your church for the past fourteen months. Kathy and I have enjoyed getting to know you, and we love you dearly. When I came, however, I knew one day I would leave. The nature of transitional ministry is that you come, prepare the church for a new day, the day comes, and you leave.

Today begins a new time in my ministry with you. I won’t be in the pulpit often. From time to time, I may not even be in the city. It’s important that I make way for your new senior pastor. This is a gradual process that will last until the end of February.

Conclusion

As I close, I want to highlight a few things that are going to happen. I’m going to preach my last sermon on February 3. The following week, Jeff Jeremiah, the Stated Clerk of our denomination, is going to be our main preacher. Please be here for that day.  On February 17, John Murtha is going to share his thoughts on transitions. The last week in February, we are having a special, elder-led service as we complete our series on transitions. There are going to be other wonderful things happening during February.

The leaders of our congregation know that I’ve been teaching principles of servant leadership for the entire time I’ve been at Bay Presbyterian Church. Some of you know that I once wrote a book called, Centered Living\Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love. One of my favorite chapters contains the following:

“This is the way of the wise leader: accomplish a work, and then humbly withdraw and go on to whatever task comes next.”  [3]

Jesus knew this great principle. He gave his life for us, and then went on to what came next. What came next was the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, the world-wide mission of the Apostles, and a new day of Spirit-empowered ministry lasting until now. What is coming next for our church is a new, great day of Spirit-empowered ministry as we share God’s wisdom and love with everyone we meet.

It is to the Table of the One who loves us unconditionally, and who gave His life so that we could enter a new era,  become children and friends of God, and live with him forever, that we now come.

Amen [4]

[1] The story of Elijah is told in I Kings 17-through II Kings 2. See, Paul R. House, The New American Commentary on the Old TestamentVol. 8: “I-II Kings” (Nashville, TN: Holman and Broadman, 2003), 209-250. I cannot tell the great story of Elijah in this sermon, but it is a great tale that is important to understanding John the Baptist and his ministry.

[2] The Essenes were essentially a very strict monastic version of Phariseism. They practiced baptism, obeyed a very strict dietary code, and observed the law with great scrupulousness. See, Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary“Essenes” in R. K. Harrison, ed (Chicago, Moody Press, 1957). My description is drawn from this source.

[3] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Memphis, TN: BookSurge Publishing 2016), 18. This book is a Christian adaptation of the Tao Te Ching and is based on a meditative lifestyle and servant leadership. The book can be purchased from Amazon. BookSurge is Amazon’s publishing arm.

[4] I want to thank Elder and Member of the Pastoral Search Committee, Stacy Windahl for her reading of the first draft of this sermon and for her insightful comments, which I have tried to incorporate into the text. Stacy Windahl, Private Email (January 10, 2019).  I also want to thank Sharon Brumagin, who is the Bay Presbyterian Church Executive Director, and who gave me a copy of a book on transitions that has been extremely useful in thinking through the transition for Bay Pres. The book is, Tom Mullins, Passing the Leadership Baton: A Winning Transition Plan for Your Ministry (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015).

Transitions: Become a Star Follower

While we were gone, Kathy and I did a little traveling. Eventually, we went to Houston. On New Year’s Day, the couple we were visiting took us to a family farm west of Houston. Our friends took their car, and we took ours because we were going on to San Antonio later in the day. I should have expected this, but my friend drives a bit faster than I do. (Texas as a rule think that the term “Speed Limit” means the minimum speed you should drive.) As we got closer and closer to the vast metropolis of El Campo Texas, he was far ahead. We were headed for a farm his mother owns several miles outside of El Campo.

As we left Houston, I noted that we no longer have a map of Texas in my car. In today’s world with GPS’s, we don’t need a map very often. Our friends called us and gave us a long and complicated set of instructions, from the Interstate Highway to State Highway to County Road, and went ahead to open the gate. We didn’t need to pay that much attention to the instructions because we have our cell phones!

As we went further and further into the country-side, Kathy notified me that her GPS did not work, and we could no longer get information by phone. Of course, we thought we remembered what to do, so we went on. Unfortunately, our memories were not perfect. In addition, some friendly neighborhood young person had driven over a sign that marked one of our turns. In the end, we ended up miles out of our way. Eventually, we got back cell phone coverage, called our friends, and got new instructions. Part of these instructions involved them coming to get us!

This little trip is a metaphor for the way many of us live our lives: We don’t take along the most important road map for life we can have. If we have one, we don’t read the Bible. We don’t stop to ask God for directions until we are good and lost. Eventually, God has to mount a rescue mission.

The Visit of the Wise Men

Today, January 6, is Epiphany, the day we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men from the East to worship the Baby Jesus. The word “Epiphany” means a “revealing”. The Wise Men were the first Gentiles, that is non-Jews, to whom the Messiah was revealed. For anyone who celebrates Epiphany, it is also the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Our text is a familiar passage from the Gospel according to Matthew:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route (Matthew 2:1-12).

Let us Pray: God of Light in Whom we can find perfect guidance for our lives: Come by the power of Your Holy Spirit. Show us your will and give us the human will to accomplish your purposes for our lives. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 Worship is the First Step in the Life of Faith

            When Jesus was born, far off to the east, probably near Babylon, there were Magi (star gazers, astrologists or astronomers, as we would call them), people who studied the stars, believing that the future and meaning of events could be understood in this way. [1] Because of their great learning, they often became influential, sometimes advising Persian kings. Around the years 8-6 B.C., some of these Magi saw a star in the West and deduced that it was an omen that a king had been born in Palestine, the land of the Jews.[2] They decided to travel to far off Palestine and pay homage to the newly-born King of the Jews.

At this point, we see a difference between Matthew’s day and our day and time. If we had seen such a star and thought it meant there was a new born king of the Jews in Palestine, we would have said to one another, “Let’s go see if we are correct—let’s have an experiment and see if we are right.” The Wise Men, however, did not go to Judea to test a theory; they went to worship and pay homage to a king. The ancients were different, and perhaps we need to recover some of the difference in our own lives.

The first step in the Christian life is worship. It is not the only thing: Bible Study, Prayer, Service, and other holy habits are important. But, worship is usually the first thing we do. Before we do anything else, we must, as our Purpose Statement says, Be Centered on Christ. As time goes by, we will learn that there is a lot more to the life of worship than attending church. In Romans, Paul reminds his readers:

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

Our lives ought to be a kind of Physical, Mental, Moral, Emotional, and Spiritual worship of God. Wise living begins with recognizing God and worshiping God.

Tension with the World is Part of the Life of Faith

Not everyone was as excited as the Wise Men to discover that there was a new-born King of the Jews. King Herod the Great, for example, was a less than thrilled to hear the news, since he was not the father of a new child. Herod was an Idumean or Edomite, not a Jew, although the Roman authorities did not, in all probability, understand or make this distinction. The Jews never accepted his kingship. He was definitely not of the line of David, and any Jew of David’s line had a better claim to the throne of Israel, including Jesus.

Herod owed his kingship to his friendship with Caesar Augustus. He was called the “Great” because he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and made many other improvements in his domain, including building the lovely port of Caesarea and the Fortress Masada, which tourists visit even today. [3] At the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod was near the end of his reign, a time in which he showed increased signs of paranoia and madness. He was not above murder or persecution—even against members of his family.

The Herod’s of this earth are always with us. They are those who understand the system and know how to use it. [4]  They make powerful friends, though in reality they have no friends. They are attracted to power, and they are more than willing to do what it takes to acquire it. They are also willing to say and do whatever it takes to keep power. They are not necessarily wise, but they are shrewd—and it is their shrewdness that makes them dangerous. One of the challenges of the Christian life is learning to navigate in a world filled with big and little Herod’s.

One facet of American life is the extent to which we have become a post-Christian society. Many leaders in the media, in academia, in government, and business no longer even pretend to be Christians or support Christian faith and practice. In some cases, they are explicitly anti-Christian. This means that we, like the early Church, must be willing to bedifferent and experience the tension resulting from being outside the mainstream. In particular, we need to be willing to serve those outside our faith in love, waiting for other people to see what a difference Jesus makes. Today, more than ever, we must live our faith, not just proclaim it with words.

Once We See Jesus, We Travel a Different Path

After Herod visited with the Wise Men, he conferred with his advisors. On the basis of the Old Testament prophesy from Micah,they advised that the child was probably born in Bethlehem in Judea, a few miles down the road (See Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2:5-7). Herod then sent the Wise Men to find the boy with the request that, if they found him, they should come and tell him where the boy was so he could come and worship him (Matthew 2:8). Of course, Herod has no such intention; he intended to kill the child. [5]

The Wise Men went on their way until they found the boy. They followed the star until it rested over the place where Jesus was (Matthew 2;9).  The text does not tell us exactly where the boy was when they found him, though the context indicates it might have been Bethlehem. [6] We do know that, when they found him, they worshiped him and gave him gifts: Gold symbolizing Royalty, Frankincense, symbolizing the Holy Spirit and Myrrh, symbolizing his Death. [7] Although Herod had asked the Magi to report the boy’s whereabouts to him, the Wise Men were warned in a dream not to do so. They departed and went home by a different path. We hear no more about them in the Bible.

When and if we truly experience the love of God and presence of Jesus in our lives, we can never be the same again. A person can read or hear the story of the birth and remain exactly the same as before. Each year, people do. But, a person cannot experience the birth and see the Son of God and be unchanged. A person cannot truly worship the Baby Jesus and remain unchanged. It just is not possible.Believers should always leave Christmas by “another way” (Matthew 2:12). As we leave this Christmas, and move into a new year and a new time in the life of Bay Presbyterian Church, we might ask ourselves this question, “Now that I have been to Bethlehem and seen the child, what will I do differently in 2019?”

One of the names for Jesus is the “Bright and Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16). Jesus shines throughout the universe as the reflection of the glory of God, the true light that shines into every dark place in our lives. He is the light that will lead us out of those dark places not the light of his will and his joy. When we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, and are gradually changed into the image of Jesus, we too begin to shine. In this world, we do need to proclaim Christ, but we also need to reflect his glory in our lives. [8] As St. Francis said, “Share the gospel constantly, and where necessary use words.”

Conclusion

The Wise Men, like people today, lived in a time of transition. The Wise Men did not know it, but they left their home in the East just as the world was about to change forever. A new era was beginning. The ancient, pagan world was about to die, and what we know as the Judea-Christian world was being born. We also live in a time of transition. The modern world, with its materialistic presuppositions and radical individualism, is dying. What is emerging, for better or for worse, we call the post-Modern world. In our church, and in all the churches of America and the West, a new era is dawning.

When a new day comes, we have two choices: We can fight it (and many do) or we can with faith, hope, and love walk into that future. The better course is, as Henry Blackaby put it in his book Experiencing God,“Find out what God is doing and join him in it.” [9] A new year is here and a new day is coming to Bay Presbyterian Church. The best things we can do is see it, and join God in what God is going to do next.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Magi were probably wise men of Median origin found in positions of honor in Babylonian and Persian royal courts. These wise men were interpreters of the stars and dreams. See, P.A. Michlem, The Gospel According to Matthew” in Westminster Commentaries(London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1917): 9.

[2] It is impossible to identify this “Star” precisely. Halley’s Comet is reported to have appeared around the year 11- 12 B.C. See, Ulrich Luz, “Matthew 1-7” in Hermenia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress press, 2007): 105 and Douglas R. A. Hare, “Matthew” in Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching(Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993): 14. The Biblical interpretation in this blog is based on these commentaries and the one mentioned in footnote 1.

[3] See, D. J. Harrington, S. J. “Matthew” in Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier Books, 1991):41,

[4]  See, Stanley Hauerwas, “Matthew” in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible(Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006): 36. Hauerwas says that Herod is the very type of many truth-denying, love-denying leaders to come.

[5] This is made plain by the so-called “Murder of the Innocents” described in Matthew 2:16-18.

[6] In the next verses we learn that Herod had all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem killed, but that does not mean that this is the place where the Magi found him. It may have been there, in Nazareth, or even in Egypt. There are legends that support several locations.

[7] See, Hare prev. cit. at 13-14.

[8] There is a lot contained in this statement. One of the primary principles of post-modernism is that all statements are bids for power. Furthermore, all such statements only reflect the grasping for power of the speaker. In such a world, it is nearly for people to accept Christ on the basis of words alone. They have to see the difference that faith makes in the lives of believers. If we do not “walk the walk” in addition to “talking the talk,” we will make to progress in sharing our faith with others. As Paul says in Philippians, we need to shine as lights into a dark world (Phil. 2:15),

[9] Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2004).

Love and the End of our Longing

One of my favorite Christmas stories comes from the book, “Love’s Endeavor/Love’s Expense.” [1] One Christmas, Eve, a Rev. Vanstone was preparing for services when he heard a noise outside the church door. It was a young alcoholic—a wasted life. He helped the young man as best he could. Later, as he waited for the final service of the day he fell to sleep. While asleep, he had a dream. A rubbish collector brought a huge pile of waste, stones, cans, waste paper, and scrap metal. He asked the pastor what he was to do because there was a face at the bottom of the waste heap. The face was the face of Christ, the Son of God. The dream symbolized the love of God sitting under our lives redeeming all the waste and loss we create by sin.

Our theme this Christmas is, “What is Next?” Life is not a sermon series. Sermon series come to an end. In real life, each moment, a “Next” arrives and a new “What Next” emerges. We always wonder what is coming next.  This morning, we celebrate the ultimate answer to the ultimate “What’s Next?” What’s next is the love of Jesus the Christ, the Word of God made flesh.

Today we celebrate that God’s self-giving love is the final end of our deepest longings. Having been a pastor for a long time, it is remarkable to me how important love is. Many emotional and moral problems that adults have in later life stem either from a lack of love or a perceived lack of love as children. The universe seems to have been created by God with a deep relationality that holds within itself the potential for love. Human beings are wired for love. We will never find true happiness until we find that love that will not let us go.

The Birth of the Messiah.

Our text comes at an important moment in Isaiah. It comes as God’s judgment moves to mercy in the life of God’s people. Listen together for the Word of God from Isaiah, Chapter 40, verses 28-31:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
     but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint
.

Dear Lord and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, come in our hearing and our meditation to give us faith, hope and love.Let the words from scripture be words of our hearts as Your Word convicts us, converts us, and makes us truly yours. In Jesus Name, Amen.

The Future is Always Unknown

Wondering about the future is a part of human life. We are born wishing we could know the future. All children love to try to guess what is under the Christmas tree. Some months ago, we found out that we are going to be grandparents. We are currently busy guessing the gender of our new grandbaby to be. It used to hard to know the sex of a baby. Except for wives’ tales, like girls are carried higher than boys,” there was no way to know. With the advent of “Ultrasound” and other tests, all this changed. Now there is no guessing unless you want to guess, which our children so far do. Kathy and I always guessed, and I was never right, not once. This time, I am restraining myself because I am sure I will be wrong.

Other than wives’ tales, Mary and Joseph had no scientific way of knowing for certain that Mary was going to have a son. (Although, the advice of angels is usually pretty accurate!) They had some 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. [2]You can bet that, as they made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, they wondered, “What will happen next?”  They did not know the future. They had to walk to Bethlehem by faith trusting God for their uncertain future.

Most of the time, we have no choice but to trust God for the future. The birth of children is one of those times. No marriage is ever the same once children are born. We can wonderthat is next. We can planfor what is next. We can hopefor what is next. But, we cannot know for certainwhat is next until the time comes. Raising children (and especially teenagers) is an opportunity to wait upon the Lord while asking, “What comes next?” Life is one big wait for the future to be unfolded.

We Trust God for the Future

I am a planner, and I like to plan what is coming. I have, however, learned that no one can possibly know for sure what is coming next. In this life, we cannot live by sight (knowing); we have to live by faith (trusting). Since “What Comes Next?” is a perennial question of human life, if we don’t trust in the Ultimate Love of God, we will always be filled with worry. The future is simply not under our control. We have to walk by faith not by sight. 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.

Mary and Joseph were in such a situation as they walked toward Bethlehem just before the first Christmas Eve so long ago. As they walked towards Bethlehem on December 23, 0000, they must have been wondering, “When will the baby be born?” “Will the delivery be easy or hard” “Will the baby be healthy?” “Will it turn out that the angel was right, and our Son will be the Messiah?” You can go on and on.  Mary and Joseph had many questions. They, like us, wondered, “What’s Next?” But, because they were believers, and because they knew that God is faithful, so they walked with hope towards Bethlehem.

Every moment of our lives is an uncertain moment.We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We are often concerned about the future. We are concerned about the economy, the stock market, jobs, the President, the Congress, the Courts, and especially the Cleveland Browns! There are always hundreds and thousands of things for us to worry and wonder about. Recently, the stock market has been declining just as I am about to reenter retirement. No one knows how far it will fall. Every moment of every day is an opportunity to either trust God or worry.

In the midst of all of our wondering’s in worrying’s,” it’s a good idea to remember that those who wait upon the Lord will be given the strength and the wisdom to meet the demands of the future (Isaiah 40:31). In every area of life, we have to wait and trust God for the future.

Waiting on God for the Future

Joseph waited on and trusted God for the future. As he walked towards Bethlehem, he had no idea Herod would try to kill his baby.  He had no idea that his family was not going back to Nazareth, but instead he was going to flee to Egypt for a long time. He had no idea that he would leave his wife a widow. He had no idea that his first son would die young and leave Mary without the comfort of an oldest son to care for her. We don’t know all of what was going to Joseph’s mind as they traveled south to Bethlehem. What we do know is that Joseph and Mary were waiting on God and trusting that God was loving and faithful. We are no different.

Every December, I read the end of Proverbsaround Christmas. Many proverbs are about planning and the limits of planning. This week, I noticed something. One ofthe proverbs for this week goes like this, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps”(Proverbs 16:9) This is so true! We all have hopes, dreams, plans, and the like; however, because we cannot know what will happen tomorrow, we must have faith and hope in the love of God. God gave us minds and imagination. It is important that we use them.

We need to plan. But, we do not control the future. We can only respond by living wisely, working hard, and having faith in the love of God as we wait for the future to unfold. As we wait, we can know that the God of love will give us the strength to rise up and meet the future like eagles. We may be young or old, strong or weak, in every situation, God will give us the energy and power to rise up and meet what is next. [3]

Loving Others as we Wait on God

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 weakness. We have lost the hope that comes from waiting on God. I am pretty sure that our politics would be less divisive and our business and economics less grasping if we really and truly trusted that God would take care of us whether our party wins, whether or not we get that new job, and whether or not we get this thing we think we want or need.

You see, Faith and Hope are completed in 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 Mary and Joseph received, and which we celebrate tomorrow, was a gift of Divine Love to the whole 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.

This is where I must make a confession. Kathy and I are hooked on Hallmark Christmas movies. Although the plots are similar, but it is always a sentimental love story, although they’ve taken most of Christ out of Christmas in the stories, Story still reflect that love that God shown on the Christmas Eve so long ago. A love so great that it would die on a cross for the beloved came in human form. The world can deny his divinity, but it cannot escape his love. That great love changed and continues to change everything, even among those who deny him.

The greatest thing about faith and hope is that they free us to love others. We are free from the anxiety of thinking that the outcome of our lives is totally up to us. We can relax, enjoy life, do our part (of course), all with love for others. Jesus could love other people unconditionally because of his uninterrupted fellowship with God that freed him from the fears and anxieties that warp our lives. We can love others because God loves us, and can be trusted to give us the deepest desires of our hearts in every circumstance.

Conclusion

Tomorrow night, we come together to celebrate the Manger. It is at the Manger that we find the ultimate answer to all of our questions and the ultimate end of our waiting. What’s Next this week is the birth of a baby—God’s gift of love—whose life changes the world and us, if only we hear his call and follow Him. We wait in faith with hope and love, because “Love has Come.”

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] W.H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor/Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God(London, ENG: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977), 71.

[2] 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. of the reasons.

[3] Waiting for God does not mean being passive. We must work, plan, and act while we are waiting. While on the grace of God can bring us the future we hope for, we still must work for it. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centering Leading; The Way of Light and Love(San Antonio, TX: Book Surge, 2016). The concept of active waiting is inherent in wisdom.

PS: Kathy and I want to wish all of our friends a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of New Year’s!

Longing for Leadership

The subject of leadership increased in importance during the late 20thcentury. In the aftermath of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and many national scandals and failures, hundreds of books have been written on leadership. In the church, the scandals of the recent past and the decline of many congregations resulted in hundreds of books on church leadership. Today, every year there are more books written on leadership than any leader could possibly read! Did we just discover a new interest or is there something wrong with our society that we are so focused on leadership!

Some people are born leaders. Others struggle. Many times, the best leaders are people who have labored in obscurity for a long time, failed, and finally become the leader they are capable of being. Abraham Lincoln is an interesting case in point. During his life, he was not respected as a leader. He was not handsome. He had a high-pitched, annoying voice. He had a habit of telling jokes during cabinet meetings that many cabinet officers found offensive. He was vacillating a good bit of the time. His life involved a lot of failure.

A common list of the failures of Abraham Lincoln contains the following:

  • 1831 – Lost his job
  • 1832 – Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
  • 1833 – Failed in business
  • 1836 – Had nervous breakdown
  • 1838 – Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
  • 1843 – Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
  • 1846 – Elected to Congress (success) but a bid for reelection
  • 1849 – Rejected for land officer position
  • 1854 – Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1856 – Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
  • 1858 – Again defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1860 – Elected President (success) [1]

When Lincoln died, Edwin Stanton looked down at has body and said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” His commitment to the Union, freeing of the slaves, his willingness to suffer for the nation, and gentleness with people had made of him the greatest of our national leaders.

A Prophetic Longing

Our theme for Advent this year is, “Longing for What’s Next.” This morning, our meditation is on the theme, “Longing for Leadership.”  Our text is from the prophet Isaiah. The early church valued Isaiah because it contains a foreshadowing of the birth, character, ministry, and sacrificial death of Jesus the Messiah. As the early church read Isaiah, it saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the promise God had made to David that he would never fail to have an heir on the throne of Israel (9:7; 11:10). Let’s read together God’s word from Isiah 11, verse 1-6:

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 this morning by the power of your Holy Spirit 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.

The Leader We Long For

 The Prophet Isaiah lived in the times of two of the best kings of Israel and two of the worst. The prophesies 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 was probably written sometime during the disappointing reign of Ahaz. [2] The prophet was understandably concerned about the future of his nation and about the quality of its leadership. Even Uzziah and Hezekiah, as good as they were, were not perfect leaders. They made mistakes.

As Isaiah thought and prayed about the situation, God revealed that what was needed was not better leaders of the kind that Israel had already had, but a new and different kind of leader. 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. Here are just a few of the Messianic descriptions of Godly leadership Isaiah contains:

  • The Messiah will be a wonderful counselor, a Mighty God, a Prince of Peace, an Eternal King, whose kingdom will not end (9:6-7).
  • The Messiah will be filled with the Holy Spirit, respect and fear God, delight in God, and have supernatural, Godly insight and wisdom (11:2-8).
  • The Messiah will be just and righteous to an extraordinary degree (32:1).
  • The Messiah will be a liberator, who will free God’s people from captivity (41:2-4).
  • The Messiah will be the Servant of the LORD, filled with God’s love and gentleness, he will not even break a reed without cause and will patiently bring about God’s kingdom of peace (42:14).
  • The Messiah will be the suffering servant of God who will liberate people from the burden of their sin and spiritual brokenness (53:4-6).

From the time of Isaiahforward, the people of Israel longed for that new kind of leadership. Over time, the vision of Isaiah and other prophets resulted in a hope for a Spirit-filled leader the prophets called, the “Messiah,” or “The Anointed One.” [3] By the time of Jesus, this hope was fully worked out in the minds of most Jews. Unfortunately, the way they worked it out was not correct. They made of the Messiah just another King David, only more moral and without some of David’s most serious shortcomings. They lost the fact that this king was so unusual that his leadership could not be contained in any single human being. Only the Son of God could be such a leader.

Over the years, I have come to realize that too often pastors, church professionals, Sessions, and church members want church leaders who model the leadership style of their favorite leaders in business, government, the military, and other areas. The problem is that secular leaders always disappoint, and church leaders, who are just like secular leaders but nicer, are bound to disappoint us as well.

Alternatively, we want leaders who are wise. Sometimes the church can exalt a leader who demonstrates a kind of otherworldly foolishness. I was visiting this week about a nationally recognized leader who goes around giving advice to young people that is, frankly, silly. At fifteen, a young person may celebrate that advice. Years later that same young person will leave the Christian Faith on the theory that Christianity is foolish and supports foolishness. Christian leaders need to demonstrate a wisdom that is greater than human wisdom, not a wisdom that is, in fact, silliness.

An important thing to remember is that God never gives a church or society better leaders than they want and deserve. Leaders reflect the society that creates them. If we want impossible things from our leaders, then we will get leaders who promise impossible things. This is true in business, in government, and in the church as well.

The Unexpected Leader We Receive

We should yearn for better leadership. At the same time, we have to realize that no human being is capable of satisfying our deepest longings. Even the most Spirit-filled leaders, even the most caring leaders, even the wisest leaders make mistakes. If we get into our minds the idea that our leaders will not be fallen, limited human beings, who make mistakes and fall short just like we do, we will always be disappointed. More importantly, we will make foolish decisions about our leaders seeking for a perfection that no one can possibly achieve.

In the end, we will not make real progress in Christian leadership unless and until the transcendent example of Christ forms in our hearts an ideal for which we strive. The leadership we long for can only be found, and our longing satisfied, in Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Only Immanuel, God with us, could possibly fulfill the human desire for better leadership. Because of this, we need to remember our human leaders are not Jesus.

The last few election years have been times of tension and conflict. I wonder sometimes if we don’t put too much importance our elections. In fact, I wonder if our focus on politics is an indication of a lack of trust in God and a foolish hope for a kind of leader that does not and cannot exist in fallen, sinful, human history.  During the 2016 election, I wrote the following mediation:

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 those who lead us. One strength of faith is that it provides an unchanging and humanly unreachable moral goal in all our striving, including our striving to be good leaders. This strength can become a weakness unless it is coupled with grace. [4]

This is an important time. Our church is about to elect a new pastor. The success or failure of our church will depend to a certain degree upon that person. On the other hand, we can expect too much. Our new pastor will be a human being. He will have strengths and weaknesses. He will have good days and bad days. He will make good decisions and not-so-good decisions. That is the way of human leadership. There are no perfect human leaders. Only Jesus is the perfect leader. The rest of us are fallen and flawed.

The Session has dedicated next week to prayer and fasting. There are going to be opportunities each day for you to come to the church and pray for the decision we will make next week. Please take some time to pray or fast in some way, giving up something for the week as we pray for our new pastor. In addition, please take the time to come to the church and pray in the prayer room. How can we pray?

  • First, we can pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and our new pastor in a mighty way (see, Isaiah 41:2-4).
  • Second, we can pray that we and our new pastor will be filled with the love of God, and will be a selfless, servants to those around us (Isaiah 53).
  • Third, we can pray that we and our new pastor will have that hidden wisdom of which the Apostle Paul speaks (1 Corinthians 2:6-8). We can pray that he and we will be able to see beneath the surface to the true causes of things and situations (Isaiah 3-4).

Conclusion

This morning is Communion Sunday at Bay Presbyterian Church. Communion is a reminder that, when the Messiah came, he was so much different than what everyone expected that his own people rejected him. He was submitted to God and did not always please people. He was filled with a kind and unusual wisdom that did always give people what they wanted. He emptied himself of pride and self-seeking and demanded that both he and those who followed him take up a cross.

It’s at the cross, and at the table of the One who went to the cross for our sins that we see revealed the deepest and most important kind of leadership for which we long—the leadership of the Living God at work in human hearts. Crucified on a cross, Jesus looked to be a weak and defeated leader. But it wasn’t weakness that kept Him on the cross, it was strength– and a kind of leadership the world had never seen before.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The internet is filled with such lists. While the listing of the failures of Lincoln may be overdone, the reality is that he experienced failure. See https://www.school-for-champions.com/history/lincoln_failures.htm#.W8tj6BNKiGgfor one such list. Lincoln’s leadership was not recognized during his life. Only at his death, was his true greatness recognized, especially by the elites of his day.

[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.”

[4] The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi in his book, Science, Faith and Societyspeaks of the frequent moral inversion of the modern world, especially in socialistic societies. The moral ideal of Christianity cut free from a recognition of human sinfulness, creates in modern (and even more alarmingly, postmodern) people a rejection of present human society and a desire for a perfect society cut free from a realization of human limitations. This enables such people to commit horrible injustices in the search for a perfect society, as has been experienced in Russia, China, Cambodia, Germany, and other places. See, Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society: A Searching Examination of Scientific Inquiry. 2nd ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946).

What is Next? Longing for a Word from God

St. Augustine is one of the most important figures in Christian history. Although he died over 1500 years ago, he was, in many ways, the first modern, or even postmodern, person. He grew up in a decadent time, and lived to see the fall of Rome. His mother was a devout Christian. His father was a pagan. Augustine’s life as a young man was characterized by loose living and a search for answers to life’s basic questions. He followed various philosophies, only to become disillusioned. He experimented with various religions.

Around the year 386 A.D., Augustine was teaching rhetoric in Milan and heard the eloquent preaching of Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. Over time, the Bishop’s preaching led Augustine to a new understanding of the Bible and Christian Faith. Sometime in the year 386, while outdoors in a garden, Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song, the words of which were, “Pick up and read.”

Realizing that the song might be a command from God to read the Scriptures, he located a Bible, opened it, and read the first passage he saw, words from Romans: “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh”(Romans 13:13-14).

Augustine had received a personal word and revelation from God. He went on to become a priest, a bishop, a great theologian, and the founder of the Augustinian Order. Later, reflecting on this experience, Augustine wrote his famous prayer: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. [1] 

Today, we are talking about our need for a word from God for our lives.

The Word of God from Isaiah

For the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at a selections  from the Isaiah that are important for Christian faith and understanding what God was doing in Jesus Christ. Isaiah is the most important of the Old Testament prophets. Augustine himself was told by Abrose that he should read the book. The only reason he did not as a new Christian was the complexity of the book makes it difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the early Christian church, and Augustine, saw in Isaiah the clearest picture of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant, revealed in Christ. This morning we’re going to be looking at the call of Isaiah. Hear the word of God as it comes to us from Isaiah chapter 6 verses one through eight:

 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”(Isaiah 6:1-8).

Let us pray:God of Wisdom, who has spoken to us by the prophets, by the apostles, and most definitely, through the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, please come to us this morning and open our hearts for your Word to us. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.

Isaiah’s Story

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Isaiah is one of my favorite books in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah lived around the year 750 B.C. His ministry began, as today’s text says, in the last year of King Uzziah, who was a good king who came to a bad end. In his later years, God judged Uzziah for his pride and overreaching. By the time Isaiah began to write, it was clear that Judah and Israel were decaying and that Assyria was the emerging world power. In 731 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered and Judah was directly threatened. At this pivotal moment of Middle Eastern history, God called Isaiah to be a prophet.

If you’ve read Isaiah, or studied the book, you almost certainly have been struck by some facts. First, Isaiah, with Ezekiel and Jeremiah is a major prophet. The book is long and complex, just as Jeremiah and Ezekiel are long and complex. Second, Isaiah contains some of the most beautiful literature and poetry in the Old Testament. Third, and this is not so obvious, Isaiah is deeply influenced by Old Testament wisdom literature. The book is filled with wisdom from God.

We don’t know a lot about Isaiah, but we do know that he was both a great man of God and a great literary artist. We know that Isaiah was uniquely gifted with a clear vision of who Messiah would be, and what the Messiah would be like. It is in Isaiah that we learn that the Messiah is not going to be so much a conquering hero as a Suffering Servant. In Isaiah, we learn that the Messiah is not going to be a man of violence, but a man of peace. In Isaiah, we learn that the Messiah is not going to be so much of man of action, as a man of wisdom. In Isaiah, we learn the Messiah will be God with us, and not just another human being.

In today’s text, we see a young man, probably a priest, at the very beginning of his career. One day, he received a vision of the living God (Isaiah 6:1). In all probability, Isaiah was praying for a word from God about the condition of his country. In the midst of his prayers and worries, his thoughts and meditations, God appeared. Amidst the decay of his own society, in the midst of the death of his own people, at the time of the death a king, Isaiah received a vision of God high and lifted up, lifted up above all the problems and perplexities of our world, ruling in wisdom, power and love.

Many years ago, the author J.B. Phillips wrote a book called, Your God is Too Small. [2] Sometimes, we think of God as if he were a little old man far beyond his best years, without the capacity or the ability to really interfere in our lives or the world for the good. We think of God is a little bit like George Burns in the movie, “Oh God.” – a bumbling old man who is more or less out of it. [3] This is not the God of the Bible nor the God of Isaiah!

The God of the Bible is filled with glory, wise beyond our understanding, powerful beyond our imagination, good beyond our ability to comprehend, and loving beyond any possible human imitation. The God of the Bible sits on the very throne of heaven. Sometimes, God may seem not to be in control, but God  is always deeply in control of events. The God of the Bible is surrounded by angels and archangels and rules the universe and human history with endless wisdom, power, and love.

If you are like me, when times are tough or difficulties arise, I often forget this great truth: The God of the Bible is in control of history and of our lives. God loves us and will care for us, no matter what. God is never too small for the problems of our life. In fact, God is bigger than any problem we can have now or in the future. We can trust God in every circumstance. If there is anything we can get from this passage it that we have a big God.

Mary’s Story

This is the first Sunday of Advent. Often, we begin Advent with another message from God. One day, more than 700 years after Isaiah’s vision, a young woman in Nazareth was visited by one of those Seraphim who surround the throne of God. [4] She was not a scholar. She was not a priest. She was not from a wealthy or powerful family. She was not highly educated. She was not old and experienced. She was a girl about fifteen or sixteen years old. She was a Jew, and as a Jew she had waited for many years in hopes that the Messiah would come. She had been to the synagogue many times and heard the words of Isaiahthat one day that would come a son of David, the Prince of Peace, and everlasting God, the person who would save her nation and rule with wisdom and justice. I’m pretty sure that Mary never thought one moment that she would have any part in the story other than a person it would be rescued with everyone else.

As she was going about her daily life, another angel, this time Gabriel, which means “One Who Stands in the Presence of God,” appeared to her. He began with a strange greeting: “Hail to you most favored one” (Luke 2:28). Mary had no idea what to think of this. She had no inkling that an angel would ever appear to her, and she was afraid (vv. 29-30). You see, peasant girls in ancient Israel did not expect to get a personal message from God.

The angel went on to tell Mary that she should not be afraid, indeed she was honored, because the Spirit of the Lord was going to come upon her and she was going to be the mother of the Messiah (vv. 30-33). From Mary’s perspective, this was impossible (v. 34). Nevertheless, after the angel explained what was going to happen to her Mary simply said, “I am the Lord’s handmaiden” (or servant) (v.38).

Our Story

The stories of Isaiah revelation and of Mary have real importance for us. Here are a few things we can take from these stories about our own relationship with God:

  • God appears to those how are seeking God. Both Isaiah and Mary were people of faith. Both were devout. While God does sometimes appear to unbelievers, most of the time he appears to those who are already seeking God in faith.
  • God appears to humble hearts. Both Mary and Isaiah were awestruck by their revelations. They did not feel worthy and they made that known to by their response to the revelation they received. God most often reveals himself to the lowly of heart who truly depend upon God and not upon their own wisdom.
  • God appears to those convicted of their own sin. The scene in Isaiah where a hot coal touches the lips of the prophet is a scene of cleansing and the burning away of all that separates the recipient of the prophecy from God (Isaiah 6:5-6). Conviction of sin and repentance from it are important. This does not mean that we’re not still sinners. It means that we know were sinners and are repentant.
  • God appears to those willing to respond to God. When Isaiah responds to God, “Here I am, send me!”(6: 8), and when Mary responds to God, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord”(Luke 1:38), they are expressing a willingness to follow God where God leads.
  • Finally, God appears to those who are willing to suffer for God. Just after the passage we read this morning, God reveals to Isaiah that, although he is going to prophesy to the people of Israel, they are not going to listen (Isaiah 6:9-13). Mary was going to be slandered and thought ill of because she was going to be an unwed mother. Her betrothed, Joseph, was going to doubt her truthfulness. She was even going to live long enough to see her firstborn son die a terrible death. This reveals something that we don’t want to hear but need to know: God normally reveals himself to those who are willing to do God’s will and accept any resulting suffering.

Conclusion

The book of Hebrews begins with one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. Here’s what the writer of Hebrews says about Jesus:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. And, after he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrews 1:1-3).

At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that, although God will speak to each one of us at one time or another and ask us to do one thing or another, we have already received the most important word of all from God. He has sent us Jesus. In the manger, we see the one who created the world by his wisdom who redeemed us by his grace. That is enough.

You probably have a story like this in Ohio, but in the South we have a story to go something like this: Once, there was a great hurricane down in Louisiana. A poor Cajun was in the floodplain. The water rose and rose until the Cajun was forced to crawl  onto the top of his little shack to keep from drowning. He began to pray that God would save him. In a little while,  a family came by swimming  by together as a group. It looked terribly unsafe. A few minutes later, a small fishing boat, old and leaking, came by with the person in it. It looked terribly unsafe. He continued to pray, and a helicopter flew over, but the Cajun and was afraid of heights. Finally, the waters covered the house, and he drowned. He went to heaven and appeared before God, angry and wet. Immediately, he said, “Why didn’t you save me?” God replied, “I sent a family, and you didn’t jump in with them. I sent a boat and you wouldn’t get in. I sent a helicopter, and you wouldn’t wave it down. What more could I do?”

Sometimes, we are like that Cajun.

In my earlier years, I often prayed that God would reveal to me a path to ministry. What I learned was that God would never reveal himself to me until I was willing to respond in faith. The same is true today. We are not really listeningfor a word from God until we are willing to respondto God and do what he asks us to do. We should be thankful for the example of Mary and Isaiah: They heard and obeyed.

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Midwest Augustinians, “Conversion of St. Augustine “ https://www.midwestaugustinians.org/conversion-of-st-augustine/(downloaded November 27, 2018). The quote is from the Confessions of St. Augustine.
[2] J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small(New York, New York 1952, Touchstone Edition, 2004).
[3] “O God,” Dir. Carl Reiner. Wr. Larry Gelbart, Avery Corman, Starring John Denver, George Burns, Teri Garr (19777).
[4] Gabriel, with Michael and Raphael, are archangels or seraphim, who are variously described in Scripture and non-canonical works. See, Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael www.catholicism.org(downloaded December 1, 2018).

A Thanksgiving Week Prayer

Gracious God of History, whom we are pleased to call “Father” or “Daddy” because of the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus:

We come to you as a thankful people. We are thankful for our salvation. We are thankful for those you have called to be our leaders over the past 101 years of the history of Bay Presbyterian Church, and we are thankful to be a part of the history of this great congregation. We are thankful for all the leaders of the Church Universal from the Resurrection until today. We are here because of their leadership.

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we are thankful for the little band of Puritans who left the comforts of home, braved the Atlantic Ocean, endured hardship and in many cases death, and who founded one of the first settlements of what would become the United States of America. We confess, O God, that we often forget the sacrifice made by them and by countless others who came here seeking religious, economic, and political freedom.

In the words of a famous national hymn we can pray:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

We pray, O God, that we might have some of their passion for You and for freedom, some of the strength of character that enabled them to make sacrifices for their freedom and for ours. With the writer of the hymn, we pray for a mending of our national flaws, self-control, and respect for the rule of law, all of which have been under attack in our recent past. We pray for your mercy upon the over 300-year old experiment in freedom that is our national history.

Holy God: we know that no people or nation can have leaders better than those whom they lead. Therefore, we ask your forgiveness for our national sins and flaws, for the way we have sometimes mistreated the stranger, the foreigner, those brought here without their consent, and those here before most of us who were disenfranchised in our past. We ask for your forgiveness and your mending of these and all our national flaws.

We thank you, O God, for the leadership of our nation. By your Word, you ask us to pray for those in authority (I Timothy 2:2), and we do pray for the President, the Congress, the members of the Courts of our nation. We pray for the Governor of Ohio, for the legislature and for the courts of our state and county. We thank you for the leadership of the city of Bay Village, and particularly for our Mayor and member, Paul Koomar. We thank you for the leaders of all the neighborhoods and communities of our nation. We ask that you would protect them, watch over them, and give them all wisdom and love for the citizens of our nation, state, and community. We also pray for the leaders of all the other nations of the world, even for our enemies, that you would give them wisdom and love for their peoples and peace among all peoples.

Finally, O God of Travelers, who came from Heaven to Earth: We do ask that you would protect all those who will be traveling this coming holiday week. Send your holy angels to surround and protect them, and bring them back home safely when our holiday is over.

We ask these things in the Name of Your Son and our Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Amen

 

Thankful for Salvation

As I write this, we are recognizing and celebrating the 100th  Anniversary of the end of World War I. A hundred years is time enough to forget. After 100 years, most Americans have less understanding of World War I than most people alive in 1965 had of the Civil War. The Civil War was fought on American soil and the scars were deep; World War I was fought mostly in France. In addition, the United States entered World War II only near the end and suffered fewer causalities than our allies.

Nevertheless, for England and France World War I was the defining event of the 20thcentury. There were 40 million casualties. 15 million people were killed. In England, an entire generation of leaders was obliterated. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, two Christian writers, both fought in the war. One of them remarked that, when the war was over, he had not a single friend from before the war left alive. A generation was decimated. In Europe, the aftermath of the First World War was a gigantic loss of faith. Both sides proclaimed that God was on their side. One side engaged in military tactics, such as the use of gas, that were contrary to Christian values.

In the end, all of the great monarchies of Europe were destroyed. The primary world leadership of France, Germany, and England came to an end as the United States, the least damaged by the war, emerged as the most powerful Western nation. Finally, the terrible reparations that were forced upon Germany led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and to the Second World War.

In America, November 11 is Veterans Day, during which we recognize the veterans of all wars. In England and France, the day remains an important remembrance. The President is in France today for the remembrance. In England this morning all of the churches, in fact the entire country, will enjoy a two-minute moment of silence in remembrance of the sacrifices made. We’re going to join them today. We are going to have two minutes of silence as we share with other nations in remembering our veterans and thanking God for their sacrifice. (Silence)

Text and Prayer

Our theme today is being thankful for our salvation. One great quality we can develop as Christians is thankfulness. In one of his earliest letters to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “We always give thanks to God for you and pray to God for you” (I Thessalonians 1:3). In his last letter, he writes to Timothy, “How I thank God for you, Timothy” (2 Timothy 1:3). In between, Paul often—almost always—gives thanks to God. In Ephesians, he says, “Always give thanks for everything to our God and Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”(Ephesians 5:20). Paul learned to be thankful in all situations and conditions of life (Philippians 4:11-12).We live in a land of unbelievable prosperity; but few are thankful, truly thankful, to the One who made it all possible. This is too bad because thankfulness is a virtue and a gift of the Spirit of God.

Our text is Isaiah 12. The part of Isaiah we are reading from primarily relates to the judgment of God upon the people of Israel for their disobedience. In the midst of prophesying a judgment, Isaiah also the shares the people of Israel that their salvation will come.  Hear the word of God as it comes to us today from Isaiah chapter 12:

In that day you will say: I will praise you, Lord. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; He has become my salvation.” With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  

In that day you will say: Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,  for great is the Holy One of Israel among you” (Isaiah 12:1-6).

Prayer: Lord God, we thank you for Jesus and for the salvation you have provided for us in this name. Please be with us now in our time of thinking about your Word. In Jesus Name, Amen.

The Promise of Salvation

Isaiah 12 is one of my favorite life texts. Many years ago, at a time when everything looked as bleak as could be, God gave me these verses as an encouragement. I was a young lawyer with three children. I opened a practice with a small law firm at just the time when Texas went through its oil crisis, real estate crisis, and banking crisis. My practice was not only in the affected areas, but in the most affected parts of the crises. I had a mortgage, business loans, a wife, and three small children to support. Frankly, I was scared as I could possibly be. One day in my quiet time, I opened my Bible to these verses. It was one of those moments when you know that God has given you a special grace by revealing a particular set of verses on a particular day. I marked the day in the margin of my Bible, and over the next several years, as I continue to struggle in the crisis, those versus became a constant source of encouragement to me. I still read it on many days.

The first part of Isaiah primarily involves God’s judgment upon the people of Israel for their infidelity. [1] The Kingdom of David had split into two parts, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Both kingdoms were in a state of moral and spiritual decay. The kingdom of the Assyria was about to invade the Northern Kingdom and take into exile little Israel. It would never recover. Into this situation, the prophets spoke a word of judgement. God was going to punish Israel for her sins.

However, this word of judgment was not the end. Although there would be a suffering, although there would be punishment, there would also be forgiveness and salvation. This message is important for us. There are times in our lives when we have done something that is not right. There are times in our lives when we are not in the right place. There are times in our lives when we are going to suffer for decisions and choices we have made. This is true of all human beings, nations, organizations and nations. However, judgement is not the final word of God. The final word from God is one of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and salvation.

Many people are worried about our nation and its future. People are worried about their families. Whatever our future, God is prepared to save us and be merciful. What know that God loves our families and will show mercy on our families, even if we are in a time of suffering.

The Reality of Salvation

At the very beginning of chapter 12 of Isaiah, the prophet says:

“I will praise you, Lord.
    Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
    and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.” (Isaiah 12:1-2)

As Presbyterians, we discourage what is called a “name it and claim it”theology. There is danger in a theology that involves claiming God’s promises for financial affluence as a given if we obey God. However, there is an element of truth in such thinking. We can claim the reality of our salvation before we receive it. At the time Isaiah 12 was written, there was no reason to praise God for salvation, because Israel was experiencing judgment not salvation. In this passage Isaiah is claiming the promise of salvation even though he is not yet received it.

Back to my story. Many of you know that Houston is subject to massive flooding. This is not just during hurricanes, because tropical storms can also dump enormous amounts of water on the city in a short period of time. A feature of the Houston freeway system is that, if you’re between exits in a low spot without proper drainage during a tropical storm, your car can get flooded.

As part of my legal practice, I often had to work late into the night. One night during a tropical storm, I was driving home in the middle of a terrible storm. I was at one of those spots where you cannot exit the freeway. The freeway was stopped. There was flooding ahead. The water was slowly rising around my car. In addition, I was tired and upset. I was praying to God saying, “I can’t keep doing this.” I had reached a bottom.

In that moment, I could almost feel the universe shift. I felt that God had answered my prayer and that a time was coming when I would go to seminary. It didn’t happen right away, but within a year or so God revealed his salvation. That night, I praise God for his revelation of my salvation. I felt my heart lift. I claimed a salvation that I did not see for some time. But, in a way, it had already become real because God had already put into motion his new plan for my life.

If you’re here this morning and going through a difficult period of time, listen with all your being for that sense that God has heard your prayers. When that happens, have faith in that answer. When you feel that answer, move out in faith and do what God is calling you to do, even if it is scary. The answer may not come at once or soon, but it will come. In the case of some prayers, it may not even come in your lifetime. But it will come.

The Response of Salvation

I’m not musical, and I can’t sing, but this is one of those sermons that you really wish that you could sing the verses and the sermon! As chapter 12 goes on, the prophet is filled with the Spirit of God and proclaims, not just himself but to the world, “Sing praises to the Lord for he is done gloriously let this be known in all the earth!” (v. 5). Of course, this is connected to the prior point: Isaiah is singing about God’s salvation at a time when he is not yet experiencing that salvation. In point of fact, we don’t think Isaiah lived to experience that salvation! He would have been 200-plus years old when Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return home.

How many answered prayers have you kept to yourself? I’ve heard people say that my faith is personal, and I don’t share the answers to my prayers. Well, there are some prayers that we should probably not share. There are prayers the answer to which is private. Nevertheless, there are a lot of answered prayers that we ought to proclaim to the whole world. What if Isaiah had not shared God’s promise of salvation in Isaiah 12?

In Acts 3, there is a wonderful story about a healing involving Peter and John. One day, Peter and John were going to the Temple to pray. As they came to the Temple Gate, there was a lame man. When the man saw Peter and John, he asked for money. Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, look at the man and said, “Silver and gold have I none but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk”(v. 6). Then, he took a man by the hand and lifted him up and the man was healed. The story ends like this:

“He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him”(vv. 8-10).

The result of this man’s willingness to respond to God’s healing by walking, jumping, and praising God was that not only did hereceive a blessing, but everyone who knew himreceived a blessing and a sign that God was present. If we keep our Christian faith a secret, if we keep what God has done for us a secret, then we’ve been blessed what the world has not beenblessed. If we are willing to share all that God is done then we are blessed and the world is blessed.

We should never be afraid to share our faith. We should never be afraid to share what God has done for us. We should never be afraid to “walk and leap and praise God” for the salvation he has promised us. Members of this church have participated in what is called “Tres Dios.” In Memphis, it’s called the “Great Banquet.” As a part of the weekend, I have the opportunity to hear many testimonies. The Biblical content of the talks on a Great Banquet weekend are actually outlined for us. We have to say what is supposed to be said in the talk. On the other hand, we are asked to share a portion of our personal testimony as a part of our talk.

Now here’s an interesting fact: I have given a lot of talks, and I’ve heard hundreds of talks. I don’t remember the content of many of the talks. However, I do remember almost every personal testimony. I remember every story of salvation. I remember every marriage that was healed, every addict healed from addiction, every criminal who went straight, every housewife who prayed for a child, every man who ever prayed for a spouse. Those testimonies are more important to me theological content of the talk.

When we tell others about our salvation, we are doing a great thing.

Today’s message is about being thankful for our salvation. We need to be thankful.  And, we need to remember to tell others just exactly how thankful we are!

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Isaiah has three basic focuses, Chapters 1-39 primarily deal with the fall of the Northern Kingdom, which occurred about 721 B.C. The Second Part, chapters 40-66 deal with the fall of the southern Kingdom (608 B.C.) and the end of the exile around 531 B.C. In other words, Isaiah covers a period of nearly two centuries. This has led some scholars to see multiple authors writing in different times. Other scholars retain the view of a single writer. In my view the authorship debate is not material for Christians, who read Isaiah primarily for its prophesy of the nature of the Messiah. The historical references herein are impacted by John H. Oswalt “The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986)

Will we be Leaves on the Tree of Life?

Revelation 22:1-6

Week before last was one of the best weeks I’ve had since coming to Bay Presbyterian Church. On Tuesday, we had a luncheon with one of our missionaries. This young lady grew up in our church and now works in a primarily Muslim country. She told a group of us her story of growing up at BPC, being a part of our youth group, thinking she would have a lucrative and successful career, and then feeling called into the mission field. She has served in two of the most difficult countries in the world to be a missionary. It was so touching.

On Wednesday, we went to the Family Ministry Center for staff meeting. We heard presentations from the Bridge Avenue School, Garden Christian Academy, Scranton Road Ministries, and the Nehemiah Collaborative, all of which we support through our ministry here and at the FMC. Julie Jones filled us in on what is happening in other areas of the FMC. We had a wonderful lunch of food from the area  created by a local ministry/business. It happened to be my one -year anniversary at BPC.

Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to be with one of the MOPS groups. It was held in a private home filled with young mothers, some of whom don’t go to our church. On Thursday morning Sally Gerycz and I had a wonderful meeting about the Evangelism Ministry of our church. 

We began our series on the theme of “Made for This” in the Garden of Eden, learning that we were created to be stewards of God’s creation. We then learned that foolishness, fear, and sin keep us from being the people and stewards we were created to be. We learned that Jesus wants us to trust him, live by faith and be cheerful, loving stewards of our gifts from God. We learned that we can’t be filled with God’s love without giving[1] We also learned that how we use our spiritual gifts matters to God—and in learning that we remembered that the least gifted person at BPC filled with God’s love is important for the world. [2] Last week we heard from several members on the importance of giving to spiritual growth and health. This week we are concluding with an encouragement to be all God calls us to be.

Text and Prayer

Our text is from Revelation, Chapter 22, verses 1-6. [3] Revelation  is  the subject of controversy in the church, much of which is directed towards understanding its meaning for the end of human history. Too often, people fail to recognize that Revelation had meaning for the first Christians who read it, and who may have read it differently than we do.

The book begins with John on Patmos receiving a vision of the Risen Christ with messages for the churches of Asia Minor in the midst of persecution. This is important! Revelation is primarily designed to be read as an encouragement to the church of Jesus Christ to be faithful. This message is as important to the Church today as when it was first written. We can be faithful because God is faithful. We can trust God because God is trustworthy. 

The majority of the Book begins with Chapter 4 and a series of visions which take place at the Throne of God surrounded by the people of God. This section ends with today’s verses. Let’s take a look at the Word of God as it comes to us through the voice of John:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever. The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

Prayer: Living God. Source of Life. Come among us this morning. Send your Holy Spirit to upon us that these words might not be simply words spoken long ago in a distant place, but Your very Word to us this morning.

The River of the Spirit and the Tree of Life

At the end of the Revelation, John returns to a theme that runs throughout Scripture from beginning to end. In Genesis, a River flows from the Garden of Eden, functioning as the headwaters of natural rivers.  Within the Garden is the Tree of Life, a symbol of God’s life-giving and life-sustaining power (Gen. 2:9-10). In Ezekiel, the prophet records a vision of the river of the Spirit flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem—a river that produces abundant life and trees which have healing properties (Ezekiel 47:1-12).

In John, Jesus identifies himself as the source of Living Water. Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me,asthe Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”[4] Jesus is the personal presence of the River of Life in history. He is also the personal presence of the Tree of Life in human history.

In Revelation, John records a vision of the people of God as a “Heavenly City,” a New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-6). He also has a vision of a great river, “the river of the water of life” flowing from the throne of God and of Christ, the Lamb of God, down the middle of the Main Street of the Heavenly City. The Heavenly City is clearly the people of God, the Church of God, made up those who have been called out of the world to become God’s children, God’s people, those who have felt the grace of God (22:1-2). [5]

In the vision, the great River of the Holy Spirit flowing from the Throne of God passes through the city.  On each side of the river is the Tree of Life—that tree of Divine Life, the Divine Life from which Adam and Eve were separated by their sin in the Garden of Eden. The tree John sees, is the Tree of God’s Love in Christ. As the River of the Spirit travels through the City carrying the testimony of the Twelve Apostles, it bears fruit each month—twelve times each year. The leaves of Tree of are for the healing of the nations—for the healing of the ancient curse of the Fall and its terrible consequences in human history. [6]

One of the interesting things about this vision has to do with the Tree. Note that there is one great tree, the Tree of Life, that occupies the banks of the River on both sides. This tree is the fruit of the apostolic testimony to Christ. It is one tree because the people of God are one people. 

In Colorado they have Aspen trees. Aspen trees are all connected. In fact, an Aspen grove is actually on organism. If one part of the grove is short on water the trees on the other parts shift nutrients through the interconnected root system to the part in need. The body of Christ is just such an interconnected system.

The river of Revelation is nothing less that the Spirit of Christ, proceeding from the Father and the Son passing through the church into the world carrying the healing power of the Gospel of Christ. Earlier, in Revelation, John gives some idea of the kinds of healing we can expect when he says that, in the Heavenly City, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:4). All those aspects of human history which result from our sinful human nature, war, greed, poverty, starvation, hunger, lack of water, and the like, all these things will pass away.

The Life Centered in Christ

In February , our congregation adopted a new vision statement establishing that we wish to be Centered on Christ, Shaped in Community, and Sent into the World. Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches, without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Returning to the metaphor of leaves on a tree, a leaf on any tree that become separated from the life-giving power of the tree and its root system withers and dies. If we do not remain centered in Christ and connect to God by the power of the Holy Spirit, we too begin to wither and die.

Our Session has organized itself in a way focused on helping our congregation be Centered on Christ, Shaped in Community, and Sent into the World. Regular attendance in worship, a personal prayer life, daily Bible reading, and meditation on the word of God are essential for all of us to continue to be filled with the life-giving power of God. You can commit today to live a life Centered in Christ, in worship, discipleship, and prayer.

A Life Shaped in Community

We cannot remain centered in Christ unless we are being shaped in community with other Christians. One misconception of modern Christianity is the notion that we can be solitary Christians. Human beings were born for relationships, which means we were born to be part of a community. In point of fact, we are all members of multiple communities! We are born into a family. We go to school. We join clubs. We become citizens of a city, state, and nation. All these communities we belong to shape who we are.

If you don’t believe that, go to another country and notice the subtle differences between the way people live and think and the way we live and think. (Kathy and I lived in Scotland for summer. We almostspeak the same language as the Scots! Nevertheless, their history and culture are different and they live and think differently.)

If we want to live and think as Christians, we must remain connected to the Body of Christ. This means we must be connected to a church and a small group of people inside of the church who are growing in Christ together.

Since I’ve been with you, we have had two studies designed to help grow the small group network in our church. This Christmas, we are encouraging those who are not one group to get together with one or two other people to join as a group to discuss this year’s Advent Devotional. Why? Because people grow in community. Small groups are not only the best way for people to grow in Christ—in prayer, in Biblical understanding, and in service to others, they are also the very best way for a church to grow as people are drawn into the fellowship of believers. [7]

Last week, one of our members, Jack Dannemiller, came to see me. He gave me a book by Presbyterian minister Irving R. Stubbs, called Dialogue a Way to Live. [8] In the book, Dr. Stubbs, who is a retired Presbyterian pastor and friend of Jack’s, describes his own experience with the transformational power of a small group early in his ministry.

I can also testify that a small group of people made a great deal of difference in my early Christian growth—and since then, many small groups have made a difference in my life, including groups right here at BPC. There is nothing you can do that is more important to your spiritual growth than to be a part of a small group to help you be shaped in Christ in a loving, open, Christ-Centered community.

A Life Sent into the World

There is an old saying that “Christ has no eyes, but our eyes, no ears but our ears, no hands but our hands.” Our text reminds us that we—the members of the Body of Christ—are the vehicle through which God as chosen to impact the world. We are the leaves on the Tree of Life, created by God to heal the world of its addictions to power, to pleasure, to foolishness, violence and evil. God heals the world as we allow the Spirit to flow into us, to heal us, and through us into the world as his fully-committed disciples.

Although it’s hard to get people to commit their lives to Christ and trust Christ, it’s harder to encourage a commitment to be a part of a small group of believers and to share at a deep level. It’s hard to encourage people to join with others to overcome their bad habits, their self-centeredness, their selfishness, and other failings and shortcomings to become the people God has called them to be. However, it’s even harder to get people to get out of their comfort zone and move into the world to share the love of God with others. This requires a commitment of time, talents, and energy. It requires sacrifice and a love that is not natural but supernatural.

The Big Question

I love the end of Revelation. John sees that, despite persecution and troubles, God has acted in Christ, and Christ will be the victor. He sees that the Church is God’s chosen vehicle to share the Gospel in human history and renew God’s creation. He sees that we are the bearers of the life-giving power of the Tree of Life.  The  real question is simply this: “Will we allow the River of the Water of Life to run through our lives into the community around us?” “Will be carriers of the Gospel of Life into the very places where God takes us, whether to the ends of the earth or around the corner?” “Will we be leaves on the Tree of Life?”

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Amen

[1]John Murtha’s great comment, “You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.”

[2]My comment on November 21, “The least gifted person in our church using their gifts with love is greater than the most gifted person using their gifts without love.”

[3]The technical aspects of preaching on Revelationare daunting to say the least. I am grateful for the following commentators, William Barclay, “Revelation” in the Daily Study BibleVol. 2 rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976); William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of Revelation(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1940, 1967); Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The Book of Revelation (London, ENG: Intervarsity Press, 1990); and Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation  (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993).

[4]See, John 4:13-14, Proverbs 18:4 and Isaiah 55:1 for examples of the way in which God’s blessing is associated with water.

[5]See, David E. Aune, “Revelation 17-22” in Word Biblical Commentaryvol. 52c (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1177.: “The “trees of life” in Paradise are metaphors for the faithful.” The river is certainly the river of the Holy spirit flowing from the Triune God into the church of Christ.

[6]William C. Weinrich, ed. “Revelation” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testamentvol. XII (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005): 387-393. The tree of life is a wonderful image. It is one tree, but also many trees, the fruit of the testimony of the apostles. This is a beautiful relational image of how we as Christians are both one and unique individuals!

[7]It is extremely difficult in our secular, individualistic and fragmented society to remain united in Christ and with other Christians. Our culture is so individualistic that creating community is the hardest thing pastors and leaders do.

[8]See, Irving R. Stubbs, Dialogue: A Way to Live(Richmond, VA: The Living Dialogue Ministries, 2018). For a more academic view of dialogue, see, David Bohm, On Dialogue(New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).  Bohm, a well-known quantum physicist, spent the later years of his life working towards a dialogical way of thinking. For a powerful adaptation of dialogical thinking to business and leadership, see Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization(New York, NY: Doubleday, 2006).

Body Gifts

Selections from I Corinthians 12

Many years ago, Kathy decided that our church in Houston, which had not had a Vacation Bible School for many years, needed to have one. We had a small daughter of the age to go to VBS, and Kathy wanted her to have the experience she had as a child. Therefore, she organized the first VBS in our church in about a decade. She discovered she had the gift of leadership.  About five years ago, she went to a Missions Conference and learned about a disciple-making program. She came home, began what is now Salt & Light, and discovered that she has the gift of evangelism.

More than forty years ago, a young associate pastor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a person recognized to be on the fast-track to a large church, began an evangelism program. Another Presbytery found out about the program. The other Presbytery asked him to found a new church in Memphis, Tennessee. He went and the church grew. My friend didn’t know that he had the gift of apostleship, but he did.

We have a dear friend who, after years of Bible study, growing up in a Christian home, marrying a Christian husband, and raising a family, began to pray for people to be healed. Interestingly, a significant number of those people experienced healing. My friend discovered she had the gift of healing.

Shortly after the Second World War, a young soldier came home. After a few years, he began his own business. Over time, the business was able to support his family. He gave to the local church. He participated in stewardship, building campaigns, and other projects. When his church created something like our Family Ministry Center, he was a contributor. The choir of the inner city ministry sang at this funeral. He didn’t know it, but he had the gift of generosity.

This morning, we are talking about spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are important to the Christian life, and it’s important for us to have a handle on our spiritual giftedness. 

Text and Prayer

First Corinthians is one of the earlier letters of Paul. The Corinthian church was wealthy and charismatic. It was also undisciplined, self-centered, and unspiritual. Paul wrote First Corinthians to instruct the church how to overcome some of its problems, including the misuse of spiritual gifts.  First Corinthiansis a great text for churches in America, because we too are often wealthy and gifted, but self-centered and unspiritual.

Our text is from chapter 12. I’m not going to transcribe all of it, but only those portions that are pertinent to begin this blog. Hear the word of God as it comes to us through the Apostle Paul:

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. … There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized byone Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (I Cor. 12:1, 4-13).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, we thank you for the Spirit of Jesus that comes to us to save us, to perfect us, and to give us every perfect gift we need for the Christian life. Please come to us this morning and allow us to become ever more faithful children of the Father. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.

The Giver of the Gifts

In order to understand spiritual gifts, we should spend a few moments remembering that spiritual gifts are gifts of God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, sent by the God the Father through God the Son. In other words, the Spirit is God present with us. The Spirit is not something sent from God or an emanation from God; it’s God. The Spirit of God has always existed. It was brooding over the face of the deep before the world was created (Genesis 1:2) The Holy Spirit is the same spirit that inspired the Moses to write the Law, the Prophets to speak words of warning to people, David to be a good and faithful king, and Jesus to be born of Mary and to live his sinless life. 

Secondly, in First John we also learn that God is love (I John 4:8).  The word used is “Agape.” In other words, the Spirit is the unselfish, self-giving love that Christ showed on the cross, the same love that is faithful and redeems his people even when they do not deserve his love. This is important! God is love and always works for the benefit and best interests of others. Therefore, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit always works for the best interest of God’s people.

In First John we learn that God is light (I John 1:5). In other words, God is full, complete and perfect wisdom, the same supernatural wisdom through which he created the heavens and the earth and by which all things are sustained even until today. Because the Spirit is the Spirit of the creator God, we can be sure that the spirit always works in wisdom and never works in confusion, over-emotionality, or self-centered behavior.

We demean the Spirit if we make of the Spirit just a power, as people sometimes do. The Holy Spirit is powerful, but it’s much more than power. The Spirit is the wholeness of God come to be with us, save us, perfect us, and empower us. Just as the Father and the Son are persons, the Spirit is the personal presence of God with us..

The Gifts of the Giver

The precise gifts of the Spirit are another area in which there is often misunderstanding. In Romans 12, in First Corinthian’s 12, and in Ephesians 4, there are lists of gifts of the Spirit. In various other books of the Bible there are references to gifts being given to the people of God (See for example, Exodus 31:1-6 and First Peter 4:10-11). Interestingly, the lists are completely not identical. In other words, all of the lists represent major some of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit. No list is exhaustive. There are gifts that some people recognize that are not listed. For example, the supernatural ability to create worship music or art in worship is a gift, but it’s not in any of the lists. [1] God gives many different to his people.

This morning I want to look at some of the major gifts our members might have found in today’s passage and affirmed in other places in Scripture.

  • Wisdom is the ability to understand the way the world works and discern practical, achievable solutions to the problems of life. 
  • Knowledge is the ability to understand the deep things of Scripture, of God’s nature, and of God’s creation. 
  • Faith is the ability to look at discouraging circumstances and uncertainty while maintaining the confidence and trust in God. 
  • Teaching is the ability to communicate the truth of Scripture in ways that people can understand. 
  • Prophecy is the ability to apply the truths of Scripture to world events. 
  • Discernment is the ability to discern good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. 
  • Speaking in Tongues is the ability to speak in a heavenly language. 
  • Interpretation of Tongues is the ability to interpret to understand the deep things spoken in a heavenly language. 
  • Helps is the practical ability to help other people in need. 
  • Leadership is the ability to lead people towards a common goal. 
  • Administration is the ability to manage the business of the people of God.
  • Encouragement is the ability to encourage those who are discouraged so that they can live out the Christian life. 
  • Generosity is the ability to give above and beyond what would be expected of a normal person to meet the needs of others. 
  • Apostleship is the ability to plant new churches to allow the kingdom of God to grow. 
  • Pastoring is the ability to shepherd God’s people.

If you want to know more about your own spiritual gifts and how they might be used, in the email of the week from our church there is a link to a spiritual gifts inventory. If you go on the Internet, there are many such inventories. [2]

Years ago, I took my first spiritual gifts inventory. Not surprisingly, my number one gift was teaching. As the years have gone by, God has given me other gifts, including the gift of prayer, counseling others, and pastoring a local congregation. Just because you have a particular gift today does not mean that that it is your only gift, or that God does not intend to give you other gifts in the future. God is a perfect giver—and God never stops giving gifts to his people (James 1:7).

The Motive of the Giver.

Most church leaders who have led for any length of time, including charismatic pastors, have a degree of suspicion about some people as regards spiritual gifts. Sometimes, the existence of a gift makes a person proud or difficult. Sometimes, the existence of a gift will make a person think that they are better than others. Paul experienced the very same thing!! The church in Corinth was a gifted church, but their gifts had made them proud. Those who had special gifts thought they were better than others. Part of the reason Paul wrote the Corinthians was to remind them that all gifts are necessary for the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:7).

This is why humility and love are so important in using our spiritual gifts. In Romans, just before Paul speaks of spiritual gifts, he warns the Romans not to be puffed up about the gifts, but instead to serve one another in humility (Romans 12:3). This past week, I was visiting with a friend from another state about a person we both know well. This person has leadership gifts. Unfortunately, after years of leadership, he is still immature. He’s left more than one church. He has divided more than one congregation. This highly-gifted, intelligent individual is not yet capable of using his gifts to build up the body of Christ without causing problems.

You see, God has a reason for giving spiritual gifts: God wants to build up the body of Christ. The gifts are given so that the entire body of Christ might reflect the nature of God. We are giving gifts of wisdom because God is the only wise God Romans 16:27; Jude 1:25). We are given gifts of prophecy, because God is the god of the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). We are given gifts of pastoring, because God is the good shepherd (John 10:11). We are given the gift of mercy because God loved us so much that he said his Son to save us (John 3:16). All the gifts are necessary. None of us has all the gifts, because God wants to create a family in which everyone is necessary. The gifts of the Spirit are given to build up the body of Christ and to show us how dependent we are on one another.

The Goal of the Gifts

At the end of today’s chapter, Paul urges the Corinthian’s to earnestly desire the greater gifts, especially love (I Cor. 12:31). Here is how Paul concludes his teachings on the gifts of the Spirit:

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 Corinthians 13:1-13).

This reminds us to end where we began: with love. Love is the source of the gifts and love is the goal of the gifts. The gifts are nothing without love.

Without love, none of the gifts are worth anything. The least gifted person in our church with the most love is greater than the most gifted person with the least love. Let me say that again: the least gifted person in our church with the most love is greater than the most gifted person with the least love.

Amen.


[1] Spiritual gifs inventories often differ depending upon what group or denomination is preparing to list. Those who are secessionist (believing that the sign gifts ended at the when the Bible was completed) often leave out healing, speaking in tongues. etc. Charismatic groups almost always include the so-called “sign gifts.” Nearly all mainline spiritual gift inventories include music and other spiritual gifts that are not listed in the Bible.  This seems to me to be consistent with Scripture. The lists contained in Holy Scripture are illustrative of the giftedness God intends for his people.

[2] See, http://gifts.churchgrowth.org/spiritual-gifts-survey/ (Downloaded October 20, 2018). There are many fine inventories online and in books and pamphlets. In my experience, despite the differences among them, there is a consistency of result. For example, I still test highest for teaching in most inventories.

Christian wisdom for abundant living

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