He is Coming to Make All Things New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blessings We Receive from Internalizing Revelation.

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

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

There Are Times When We Need a New Creation.

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

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

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

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

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

The One Whom with the Power to Make Things New.

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

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

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

The One Who Can Protect and Change Us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Become a Radical New You!

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

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

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

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

“If Anyone Is in Christ…..

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

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

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

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

Dying Among the Living.

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

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

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

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

Living Among the Dying.

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing the New Life.

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

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

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

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

In 2017,  Be a New Creation.

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

The End of our Longing

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of the Messiah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guessing What is In the Package.

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

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

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

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

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

The Role of Faith in What Comes Next.

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

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

The Role of Hope in What Comes Next.

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

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

The Role of Love in What Comes Next.

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

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

Cheer for the Christmas Season.

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

Longing for the Light

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

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

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

Isaiah Longing for Light.

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

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

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

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

The Jewish People as they Longed for Light.

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

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

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

Christians Today Longing for the Light.

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

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

Surprise: True Light Has Come—Personally!

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

Longing for Comfort

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

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

The God of All Comfort.

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

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

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

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

The Comfort of Good News.

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

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

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

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

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

The Ministry of Comfort.

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

In Second Corinthians Paul writes these important words:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

Longing for Justice

 

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

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

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

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

A Day for Which We Long.

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

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

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

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

A Cold and Unjust World.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World We Long For.

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

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

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

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

This week, my facebook post was as follows:

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

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

The Work We Must Do in the Meantime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One Hope We Have.

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

Longing for Leadership

 

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

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

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

A Prophetic Longing.

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

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

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

images-2The Leaders We Too Often Have.

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

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

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

The Leadership We Deimages-1sire.

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

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

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

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

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

Getting There from Here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

The Gift of Thankfulness

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

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

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

Thanks at the End of an Era.

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

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

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

The Life of David.

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

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

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

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

Grace and Thankfulness.

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

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

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

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

The First Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

Our Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

Praying for our Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If my People…

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

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

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

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

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

The Vision of Solomon.

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

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

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

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

Prayer that Changes Things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Election and the Decisions We Face.

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

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

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

The People Who Need to Do the Praying: Us.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many Gifts: Live the LOGO

Today’s post is on I Corinthians 13.

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

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

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

The Priority of Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Giftedness to Agape.

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

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

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

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

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

From Faith and Works to Love.

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

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

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

The Reality and Power of Diving Love.

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

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

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

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

Live the Logo.

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

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

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

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

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

The Gracious Giving of a Gracious Giver

 

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

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

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

The Excellence of Grace.

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

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

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

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

The Eternal Giver.

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

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

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

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

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

Giving is About More than Money.

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

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

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

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

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

The Grace of a Cheerful Giver.

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

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

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

A Time to Think.

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

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

The Gifts that Keep On Giving

iconThis is the third in a series of blogs on Spiritual Gifts. The first installment had to do with the first gift of the Spirit: our salvation. The second installment had to do with the second gift of the Spirit: each other. In this blog, we are going to talk about the gifts of the Spirit God gives to build up the Body of Christ.

I am not a talented gift giver. I never know what to give Kathy or any of the children for Christmas. Most of the time, I don’t buy the right thing. Over the years, I’ve actually become kind of scared to buy gifts. I have gift induced anxiety.  I’m always afraid my gifts will be no good. God, however, is a perfect gift-giver. The Bible tells us that God is the “giver of every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17). As a perfect giver, God never chooses a gift for us that we will not enjoy or that others will not appreciate. We may not know exactly why God gave us the gift, at least in the beginning, but eventually we will see that the gift was perfect for us and for those around us.

There is more than one kind of gift. Some gifts are for pure personal enjoyment. Other gifts have a purpose. For example, if I give my wife flowers it might be just to make her happy. On the other hand, if we are going to a party and I buy her a new dress, there is a reason for the gift: I want her to look nice for our friends. There are also gifts that were meant to be shared with others. For example, if I give my wife a box of chocolates, I expect that she will not eat all the chocolates. She will share them with me! The gift was meant to be shared.

Spiritual gifts are the third kind of gift: they were meant to be shared. God gives us spiritual gifts with the expectation that we will use them to build up the body of Christ. In this blog, we are talking in a general way about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that God gives to every believer. There is no way I can possibly cover all of the gifts in depth in one blog. What I want to accomplish is to introduce the subject and get all readers interested to learn more. [1]

Paul’s Teaching About the Gifts.

Our text for this blog is from First Corinthians. Last week, we studied  the middle of Chapter 12 where Paul talks about the Body of Christ and how important each person is for the Body of Christ as a whole. This week, we are talking about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that Paul mentions at the beginning and end of the chapter. Hear the word of God as it comes to us from 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 (I Cor 12:1, 4-11).

Later on in the chapter, Paul gives an additional list:

 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts (I Corinthians 12:27-31).

Let us pray: O God who is the giver of every good and perfect gift, please come in our time of worship so that we may more clearly know you and the love you have for us. Come by your Holy Spirit to enlighten, inspire, and empower us. In Jesus Name we ask it. Amen.

 Gifts are …. Gifts!

imgres-2I have a box I sometimes use to illustrate God’s Grace, especially at Great Banquet Weekends. It used to be wrapped as a Christmas present, and now it is wrapped as a birthday present. Why do I use my box? Because the word for grace in Greek is also the word for a “gift.” This word is also the word at the root of the idea of Spiritual Gifts, which are gifts of grace. [2]

The idea of our spiritual abilities as gifts is an important one to grasp. Once again, there is more than one kind of gift. Some gifts, like business gifts, we give with the expectation because of what another person has already done for us. I always used to enjoy getting Christmas gifts from clients but they were business gifts. I did something for them they did something for me. Some gifts are like business gifts: They are  given with the expectation of  something in return. Once again, these  kinds of gifts are earned.

We don’t earn the best kind of gifts. Gifts that are given to us by someone who loves us and cares about us, and who gives us a gift which we haven’t earned, are the best gifts of all. This is the kind of giver God is. God knows our weaknesses. He knows that we cannot earn our salvation. He knows that we cannot earn the fellowship of the Body of Christ. God he knows we cannot earn the gifts of the Spirit. He gives them to us anyway.

Although God expects us to use our gifts, just as a parent would expect a child to use a bicycle he or she that was given for Christmas, God isn’t giving us gifts of grace expecting something in return. However, like all givers, God hopes we will use the gift the way it was intended to be used. This does not mean that we earn our gifts of the Spirit. It means we appreciate our gifts and use them the way the giver intended.

Gifts are Meant to Be Enjoyed.

imagesIn just a few minutes, I’m going to talk about sharing our spiritual gifts. However, before I talk about sharing our spiritual gifts I want to talk about enjoying our gifts. People often ask how they can know what their spiritual gift is. Of course, there are spiritual gift inventories. There is one available in the lobby for those of you would like to take the test. However, these are relatively recent inventions. We don’t need them.

There are a number of signs that I have a spiritual gift. One sign we don’t talk about a lot is simply to ask, “What it is that God has me doing already?” Long before I was a preacher, I was asked to preach from time to time at the Star of Hope Mission in Houston Texas. It’s not surprising that preaching was a spiritual gift since I was already preaching the gospel before I knew what a spiritual gift was!

If you are already teaching a Sunday school class, and you enjoy it, it’s probable you have the gift of teaching. If people are constantly coming to you for advice, it’s likely that you have the gift of wisdom. If you already help people whenever you get the chance, it’s probable you have the gift of helps. If every group you are and asks you to be the administrator, you probably have the gift of administration. If you share your faith regularly with other people, it’s probable that you have the gift of evangelism. You get the idea: the first thing to think about is, “What am I already doing?”

A second a sign that you have a spiritual gift is whether or not you get joy from exercising that gift. [3] For example, I have always loved teaching. I’m always happy when I’m teaching a Bible study. It’s not surprising that I regularly test very high for the spiritual gift of teaching. Teaching gives me joy! If you really enjoy helping other people, then you might have the gift of mercy. If you really enjoy helping other people financially, you might have the gift of giving. If you really enjoy counseling other people, you might have the gift of discernment. You get the idea: We should and do enjoy what we’re doing when we are exercising our spiritual gifts. God gives us our gifts so that we can enjoy the use of our talents.

This does not mean that it will always be easy or fun. Some sermons are easy to prepare, and I’m full of ideas all week long. Some weeks, I’m tired, sermon doesn’t work out as planned, or it is sheer drudgery to get ready to preach. Yet, in the end, I do feel a certain satisfaction. That’s the joy of exercising a spiritual gift.

Perhaps my readers remember the movie, Chariots of Fire. [4] In the movie, the Scottish runner Eric Liddell is talking with his sister who thinks he should stop running and concentrate on becoming a missionary. Liddell wants to be a missionary; however, he also wants to run. In response to his sister he tells her, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” There is a tremendous truth in that scene of the movie. When we use our spiritual gifts, not only do we experience joy but we experience the joy that God feels in the use of our gifts.

Spiritual Gifts Are Meant to Be Shared.

images-1We have a member who each year around this time of year brings our staff Pumpkin Donuts from a place in the Frazier neighborhood that makes the best pumpkin doughnuts in Memphis. Normally, he delivers them to me. However, it is his expectation that I won’t eat twenty-four doughnuts. He expects that I will share them with the staff. In the same way God gives us spiritual gifts intending that we will share them. This is not a form of works righteousness. It’s the natural result of having received a gift meant to be shared with others. Once again, I enjoy teaching. It’s not hard for me to teach. I enjoy sharing new information with people. It may be work, but it’s fun. If I didn’t teach, I wouldn’t be sharing my spiritual gift, and would miss out on all the fun.

With as background, I want to talk a little bit about individual gifts of the Spirit. Each Christian has a gift given by God for the glory of his kingdom and to build up the Body of Christ. These gifts were not given for our own self-glorification but to glorify God and to build up the Kingdom of God in the world. In the middle of chapter 12 of First Corinthians, which we studied last week, Paul teaches us that all Christians were meant to use all of their gifts in unison and concert to build up the body of Christ and to show God’s love to the world.

In the letters of Paul, and in one of the letters of Peter, there are various lists of the gifts of the spirit. Here is a kind of graphic rendition of the lists:

Table 1: Gifts of the Spirit

Romans 12:3-8 I Corinthians 12 Ephesians 4:11-12 I Peter 4:10-11
Wisdom
Knowledge
Faith Faith
Healing
Miracles
Prophecy Prophecy Prophecy
Discernment
Speaking in Tongues
Interpretation of Tongues
Service Helping Others Service
Teaching Teaching Teaching Speaking
Encouragement
Generosity
Leadership
Mercy Helping Others
Apostles Apostleship
Pastors

The lists are not identical. This is important. It means that the list of spiritual gifts we find in the Bible are not exhaustive of all the gifts that God gives by the power of the Holy Spirit. The lists are simply some of the manifestations Paul saw in his own churches. He lists the gifts of faith, wisdom, knowledge, apostleship, prophecy, service, helps, teaching, pastoring, encouragement, discernment, generosity, leadership, mercy, healing, generosity, evangelism, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, and leadership. Any attempt to group the gifts is artificial; however, it might be useful for me fit in a few categories so we can think more clearly about how we can use our gifts:

  • Gifts that create and build up the church, such as apostleship, evangelism, prophesy, teaching, leadership, and the like.
  • Gifts that share God’s love in powerful personal ways, such as healing, miracles, service, generosity, and the like.
  • Gifts of wisdom and counsel, such as discernment, wisdom, knowledge and the like.
  • Gifts of worship, such as prophesy, preaching, the ability to make music, and speaking in tongues.

None of these gifts were meant to be used for our own personal benefit. They were meant to be used for the benefit of one another and the body of Christ.

Go for It.

People sometimes ask whether or not you can lose a spiritual gift. I don’t know whether or not I can give you a definitive answer to that question; however, the following would seem to be true: Our spiritual gifts are just like any other gift. If we don’t use them eventually we do lose them. I may have a tremendous gift for music, but if I never practice and never play I won’t be any good. The same thing is true of our spiritual gifts: If we never use our spiritual gifts we get rusty and we eventually lose them.

It’s important for us to remember that God intends for  us to experience the joy of using our spiritual gifts and for us to use them in a way that enhances the Body of Christ. If we don’t use the gift, we don’t need a gift. There is also a reverse truth: If we set out to serve God and if we need a gift to complete that service, God will give it to us. Just his week, in order to help someone, I had to use a gift I rarely have to use these days. God, whoever, was with me when the time came and gave me the ability to share God’s mercy in a helpful way.

The second thing that I was asked to mention is the following truth: our spiritual gifts involve a power of God. They build upon our natural gifts and enhance them. Like any other power, spiritual gifts can be misused. A parent can give a child a gun so the child can go hunting, but that same gun could be used in a destructive way. There is a constant temptation to misuse our gifts, especially those of us who have leadership and related gifts. The apostle Paul wrote a good part of First Corinthians because the Corinthians were misusing the gifts that God had given them. The Corinthians had power, but they were not using that power to build God’s kingdom of love.

The third and final  caution I want to give has to do with pride and Spiritual Gifts. If we become proud of our gifts, we will almost certainly misuse them. Pride and love are contrary to one another, When our pride gets out of control we may think we have gifts and abilities we do not have. We may ignore the gifts of others. We may tend to take on responsibilities God never intended us to have. When that happens the peace and shalom God intends our Spiritual Gifts to produce becomes impossible. The result is the kind of chaos the Corinthians experienced.

We live in a time in which the world needs Christians to use their spiritual gifts. The world needs people who are sharing God’s wisdom in God’s love in life transforming ways. We need to go out into the world and use our gifts, whether our gift is evangelism, or mercy, or teaching, or sharing, or praying for the lost, or whatever. When we use our spiritual gifts properly and wisely, the light and love of Christ come into the world.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  There are many good resources on the Spiritual Gifts. One book I like is Erik Rees, Shape: Finding and Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose in Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006). If any one reading this blog goes online, they will find multiple resources, spiritual gift inventories, and the like, available from many resources. As mentioned, this particular blog is not intended as a substitute for personal study, talking with pastors and others, and other ways in which we discern and begin to use our gifts.

[2] The root word in Greek is “Charis,” which means something that delights causes joy. Such delight is the result of a disposition of the giver. In the case of Spiritual Gifts, God’s love causes joy and new life. The word for gift, “Charismata” comes from this root and implies that gifts are a result of God’s grace, which cause delight in us and in others who experience our gifts. They are also a sign of God’s favor upon his people. See, Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament G. Bromily, Abridged Edition Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), 1301-1307.

[3] See note 2 above.

[4] Chariots of Fire, dir.Hugh Hudson, wr. Colin Wieland, starring ben Cross, Ian Charelson, Nicholas Farrel (Warner Brothers, 1981).

The Gift of One Another

This week our text is I Corinthians 12:12-28 and the subject is our need to recognize that the Church, God’s people and the relationships we have is a gift of God. There can be no wise living without living in community with a group of people one loves unconditionally.

Somewhere around 1960 a group of young couples in their 30’s formed a Sunday school class at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri. The last Sunday my mother attended church, that class was still meeting although it grown quite small and very old. Throughout fifty years, this group of people had met together, studied the Bible together, prayed together, had fellowship together, raised children together, developing deep lasting relationships. I can remember Sunday school picnics that occurred over fifty years ago.

Last week, while we were in Houston, we were talking about a Sunday school class at First Presbyterian Church of Houston. My in-laws were members of this class. This particular class began in another form during and after the Second World War and still exists as the Fellowship Class today. Once again, while the members are old today, the class began as a group of young couples who were getting married, forming families, having children, raising families, putting children through college, and then losing spouses to old age and death.

dscn0310When Kathy and I got married, the first Sunday after we returned from our honeymoon we joined a Sunday school class known as the “Carpenter’s Class.” The Carpenter’s Class was formed by couples in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Once again, we enjoyed our young married lives together, had children together, went through the problems of middle life together, until that class disbanded during a church conflict. Nevertheless, to this very day, if we returned to Houston, we have dinner with members of that class. We remain close to this very day.

This blog is about the gift of one another we receive from God by the Holy Spirit. If the first gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of our salvation, the second gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of Christian community. There is nothing so important in the Christian life than a deep, personal relationships with other Christians. The church is not an organization. The church exists as an organism as people live together in what Paul calls, “the Body of Christ.” The church is a living thing made up of relationships among real, living people.

The Body of Christ.

In First Corinthians, the apostle Paul uses one of the most famous metaphors for the church. He calls the church the “Body of Christ.”  body-of-christ-4If the phrase, “Kingdom of God” emphasizes the church as the place where Christ rules, and the phrase “Family of God” emphasizes the church as a family, a phrase “Body of Christ” emphasizes deep peaceful, relationships that should constitute the church. Paul wrote First Corinthians to a church that was in danger of falling apart. Therefore, he emphasized for them the deep personal relationships that ought to characterize the church.

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

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (I Corinthians 12:12-27).

Prayer: God of Community, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has called us into community with one another, come by the power of your Holy Spirit this morning that we might be bound together in a community of love with other Christians.

The Gift of One Another.

It is sometimes hard for contemporary Christians to think of a church of 1,000 as a “Body of Christ.” It is much easier to realize that my Sunday school class or small group is a body of Christ. I know who the heads, hands, and heart of my small group are. I know how much I care for people I know intimately. I can feel that I’m a part of them and they are part of me. body-of-christ-5This is why we urge every member of our church to be part of a small group. It is in these kinds of groups that we first and most powerfully experience the power and privilege of Christian fellowship.

At a couple of meetings recently I asked people to think about the time they grew the most in their spiritual life. Interestingly, it was almost always in a relatively small and intimate group of Christians on a military base, in college or high school, in a small group Bible study, or a prayer and support group. This week, one of our staff members wrote me the following email: “I was intrigued by your question at staff mtg. “what group of Christians made the biggest single difference in my life”. After thinking a lot, I think it was my youth group experience growing up. We were a tight knit group that sang together, did mission trips together and had Bible classes in age groups. We laughed, played, studied, experienced new places TOGETHER. . .all in the name of Jesus. Even though I drifted away from my faith foundation for a while (although I still attended church!) these experiences were so impressive that it made me want to return to a lifestyle where community in Christ.”

In America we often speak of “joining the Church.” At Advent before most people “join the church” we have a new members class that they attend. When we talk like this, we open ourselves to two mistakes:

  • We begin to think of the Church as a volunteer organization, like any other that I choose to join or not join.
  • We eliminate any hope of understanding that the Church is a gift from God.

Often, when our young people go away to college, they stop attending church. I think most of them stop because they either (1) never understood that the church was a gift, that their Sunday school class is a gift, that their Christian friends are a gift, that their small group is a gift, and so they treat the church is something they can give up or (2) they forget that great truth. Unfortunately, I think we give the impression that the church is like the Kiwanis Club: I enjoyed being a member for a while but now I don’t. We can never be the people God intends us to be or experience the life God wants us to experience without the Body of Christ. Part of living wisely and lovingly is belonging to the Body of Christ.

God never intended for any of us to think of the church as optional or as a club to which we belong so long as we get something out of it. When Paul says, “You are the body of Christ,” he is saying that, at the moment of our salvation, we have become part of Christ’s mystical body, which is also really and physically present in the persons who surround us and make up our little church. We are meant to remain a part of that body, as it exists on this earth, as long as we live.

Last week, we had a Men’s Great Banquet weekend. This week, we are having a Women’s Great Banquet Weekend. I have been on the women’s team this year, but we meet together with the men’s team to prepare for the weekend. On the men’s team, there was a man, Robert Rooks, with whom I have been friends and in ministry since the first day I came to West Tennessee in 1994. For a time, we met every week in Brownsville on Sunday mornings. Although it’s been almost eighteen years since I left Brownsville, Robert and I are still bound together in the Body of Christ in a real, important, and life-transforming way. The people God brings around us are not incidental or an accidental parts of our Christian walk. They are the very body of Christ of which we are a part.

Different Folks, One Body.

A large part of First Corinthians 12 deals with  problems that can occur in the Body of Christ if people do not exercise their gifts and/or if people do not respect the gifts of others. If every Christian does not use his or her spiritual gift, then the body of Christ cannot function in the best possible way. It is like a human body that is missing one or more of its members. This is the problem most preachers spend most of their time talking about. However, there is an equally dangerous problem. This is the problem of a lack of mutual respect. This is like a body that has lost its ability to coordinate action and function in a healthy way.

In the church in Corinth, there were a lot of spiritually gifted people. People were speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, prophesying, leading, teaching, and the like. The problem that concerned Paul most was that there was no coordination or mutual respect. For example, those who spoke in tongues were speaking in tongues in an uncontrolled way. They were disturbing the worship of others. Those who were gifted in teaching were fighting among themselves as to who was the better teacher. Those with the gift of leadership were dividing the church into cliques, each following their chosen leader. The result was chaos.

Therefore,  Paul goes out of his way to make two important points:

  • First, whatever my gift might be it must be coordinated with all other gifts.
  • Second, whether my gift is large or small, is important and deserves respect. In fact, the least important gifts are to be given a greater respect.

Giving respect to all gifts is an essential element of servant leadership. Whatever my gift is, I didn’t get it for my own benefit. My gift is for the common good. If I’m truly serving the interests of others, then in humility I consider their gifts to be just as important as my gift. In fact, the Gospel teaches us that they are as important as my gift. Why? Because all of the spiritual gifts were given to bring glory to Christ in the body of Christ not to give glory to any individual person. The gifts were given to us to use for the common good, not for our own good or our own advancement.

The Great Need for Caring for One Another.

One of the greatest needs in our culture is for caring community. Every week at Advent we have the opportunity to help someone enter by modeling caring community. This week was no exception. Our members were visiting people in the hospital. Some members were helping people financially. Other members were counseling people that needed help with budgets and other items. Still others were running carpools to help families in trouble get their children to school and attended church events.

imgres-1One of the most powerful witnesses we make as Christians in our culture is when we love one another. People today often live a great distance from family members. Young couples often have to raise children and navigate the early years of their marriage without the kind of social support that was available in prior generations. Single parents, in particular, have to juggle multiple responsibilities, making parenting very difficult. Children grow up with less social support than in prior generations. All of this creates a need for caring mission in the church.

It has been eight years since the financial crisis. Although the economy has grown, many people are still without savings, without equity in their homes, and without the financial resources to withstand a crisis. Because of the materialism of our culture many families are economically stretched. At Advent, we have sponsored Financial Peace and other programs to help people learn to deal with their finances. We even have a few people who sit down privately and help people who need one-on-one attention. This is an important carrying ministry in our church and in every congregation.

America has experienced a loss of community over the last fifty years or so. The growth of extremely large metropolitan areas, and the migration of many people into large cities, has caused a loss of real community. It’s important for people to have friends who’ve known them over a period of years, who understand their problems, who accept their failings, and to support them in times of need. Small towns and small churches used it to supply this caring ministry. Today, many people live lives of quiet loneliness. They need a caring community. In most cities, the church is the only body that can possibly meet this need.

Caring within the Body of Christ.

Jesus commanded us to love one another (John 13:34). Jesus also told us that he wanted us to have a special kind of love for one another—self-giving love—what the Bible calls “Agape Love.” On his last night on earth Jesus reminded his disciples that the greatest kind of love is the kind of love in which we die to ourselves so that others may live a more abundant life (John 15:13). For Jesus, this meant physically dying. For us, it’s physically easier, but perhaps morally more difficult. We have to learn to die to our own selfish egos so that we can build the kind of community that will shine like light in our world and draw people to Christ.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The First Gift of Love: Gift of Salvation

 

iconToday we  begin a series on the Holy Spirit, which I am calling, “Many Ways of Giving.”  Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with believers (Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:49; John 15:26-27; Acts 1:8) . His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven marked a new chapter in history. Through Jesus, God promised to be with his people in a new way. Today, we are talking about the first gift we receive and share with ohters  by the power of the Spirit: Salvation.

Of course, God has always been present by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Genesis we learn that the Spirit of God was brooding upon the waters of chaos even before creation itself (Genesis 1:2). Throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit of God came upon prophets, spiritual leaders like Moses, and even kings like David. In the New Testament, John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit to be a prophet of God (Luke 1:14). Jesus, of course, was endowed with the Spirit in a special and unique way (Luke 1:35; 3:22). Nevertheless, at Pentecost, the Spirit became present to ordinary people in a new and powerful way (Acts 2:1-42).

There had been prophecies that this would be so. In Joel, in a passage quoted by Peter on Pentecost, God promises to pour out his Spirit upon the people in a new way in the last days:

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.

Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved;…
(Joel 2:28-32).

In this blog,  we are talking about the gift of the Holy Spirit as God comes by the Spirit with his saving power.

The Spirit Comes.

As Acts tells the story, the disciples went back into the city of Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, where they had celebrated the Last Supper. For many days they waited and prayed that the Spirit would come upon them. imgresThen, on Pentecost, the Spirit came like a violent rushing wind and with the power reflected in flames of fire (Acts 2:1-3). They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Church of Jesus Christ was born.

For a while after Pentecost, the disciples ministered in Jerusalem using the Upper Room as their headquarters. After Stephen was stoned (7:54-60), however, a persecution broke out. Like all persecutions, the intent was to destroy the church, however, like all persecutions, the result was to strengthen and expand the church. [1] Two things wonderful things happened as a result of this first persecution of Christians:

  • The greatest persecutor of the church, Saul of Tarsus, became a Christian (Acts 9)
  • The gospel was first preached to Gentile believers (Acts 10).

Acts 9-11 are three of the most important chapters in the New Testament. In these chapters, we learn of the spreading of the Gospel from Jerusalem and the reaction of the church and its leaders to this new development. Of these chapters, Acts 10 is, perhaps, the most important. [2] I’m only going to set out in this blog a short portion of it; however, I recommend that every reader of this blog read it for yourself. In this chapter of Acts, Peter is called to witness to a Roman soldier, Cornelius. Here is what happens at the end of the passage:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days (Acts 10:44-48).

Savior God: We come to you this morning with a desire to sense your saving and empowering Spirit in our lives. Come to enlighten our darkened minds, warm our cold hearts, and change us until we are more and more like Jesus. Amen.

Receiving and Sharing the Gospel.

As we all know, a distinctive feature of Jesus’s ministry was that he was not a part of the religious elite. He was not a Pharisee, a Sadducee, a Scribe, or professional teacher of the law. He was a carpenter and itinerate rabbi. The people he drew around him were also not religious professionals. Jesus took a group of ordinary people and made them into disciples who would change the world. He wants us to be and do the same. He wants people who are filled with the Holy Spirit and have the power of God, not the power of human wisdom, as the source of their teaching (I Corinthians 2:1-5).

Because of the persecution the church experienced after the stoning of Stephen, many believers had to leave Jerusalem, which meant that outlying areas began to be evangelized. Philip, for example, evangelized in Samaria, where he converted Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-13). Peter and John went to Samaria and prayed for the new converts, who like the disciples at Pentecost, received the Holy Spirit (8:14-17). Philip then went south and met an Ethiopian Eunuch on the Road to Gaza (8:26-40).

Peter went from Samaria south where he ministered in in Joppa and stayed at the home of Simon the Tanner (9:32-43). images-1About forty miles to the north of Joppa, in the beautiful port city of Caesarea, there was a Roman Centurion named “Cornelius.” In the ancient world, there were Gentiles who admired the Jewish faith. They admired the lifestyle, morals, and reasonableness of the Jews. They also admired their orderly God. In a world in which there were many pagan gods, most of whom behaved in an immoral manner, thinking people truly admired the Jewish faith. Some of them actually began to believe in the God of the Jews and tried to emulate Jewish morals. These people were called “God Fearers.” Cornelius was one of these (v. 2).

We also live in a pagan world. If we keep our eyes open, we will see people who are seeking to know more about God and who admire Christian morals. They will especially admire us when we are willing to live differently in the way we raise our families, conduct our business, and go about our daily lives. These people are our version of God Fearers—or as Jesus called them, “People of Peace.”

In Caesarea, one afternoon, Cornelius had a vision (v 3). In his vision, an angel of God told him to send his servants to Joppa, to the home of Simon the Tanner, and bring Simon Peter to him. The servants set off on their journey (vv. 4-8). Around noon the next day, Simon Peter was on the roof praying when he had a vision (v. 9).  He was hungry, and in his vision he saw a sheet coming down from heaven and on the sheet were many animals the Jews regarded as unclean and inedible. God asked him to eat, but he refused (vv. 13-15).

Three times the dream was repeated. and three times Peter refused to eat any unclean food (v. 16). When the visions ceased, Peter was still unclear about the meaning of what he had seen and heard. At the very time Peter was pondering the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived (vv. 17-18). After hearing them, Peter invited them into the home of Simon the Tanner– something he would never have done only a few weeks earlier (vv. 22-23). Already, the old prohibitions of Jewish custom, in this case allowing  a Gentile into your home, were beginning to go away in the lives of the disciples.

The next day, Peter and the servants of Cornelius set out for Caesarea. They arrived the following day (vv. 23-24). As Peter was welcomed into the home of Cornelius, he finally realized that God was doing a new thing (v. 28). Before, as a Jew, he could have nothing to do with Gentiles. In particular, he was not supposed to welcome a Gentile into his house nor was he supposed to enter the house of a Gentile. Now, Peter understood that his vision was a  declaration by God that the Gentiles were not to be deprived of the gospel (vv. 27-29). We need to hear that same message: God wants all people to hear the Gospel of Christ, and we cannot restrict to whom we are willing to witness. We need to be on the lookout for People of Peace and be willing to share with them.

As Peter and Cornelius began to talk, Peter learned of Cornelius’ vision (vv. 30-33). Then, Peter shared the Gospel with Cornelius and his family and friends. I want to share this with you because it is a simple, accurate, easy way to share the Gospel with others. It is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. Here is what Peter said:

I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 35-43).

When Peter finished giving his testimony and sharing the Good News, Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit and the gift of salvation from God.

A Vision for What God is Doing.

imgresYears ago, our congregation studied a wonderful Bible study by Henry Blackaby entitled Experiencing God. [3] One of Henry Blackaby’s most famous pieces of advice in the study was to find out what God is doing in the world and join God in doing it. That is exactly Peter’s experience! As a Jew, Peter was to have no contact with Gentiles. As a Jew, Peter thought that the Good News of the Gospel was for Jews—after all, Jesus was a Jew and the Messiah was for Jews!

Then, Peter had his vision from God and his invitation from Cornelius. He realized that the Gospel was not just for Jews, but for everyone (vv. 14-15). Peter didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time he received the vision. In fact, he struggled to understand what God was doing for many years, but Peter follow God in what God was doing in the life of Cornelius. [4] This is a reminder to us that we may not always understand what God is doing. We may not always agree with what God is doing. However, if we join God and what God is doing, we receive a blessing.

This week I was at a mission meeting and conference. As a part of this mission conference, we heard the testimony of three Christians who had converted to Christianity from Islam, one from Iran, one from Iraq, and one from Africa. In the Muslim world today, it is common for Muslims to have visions of “Issa,” which is their name for Jesus. During the conference, when asked about these visions, each one of our panelists was able to describe a specific instance in which a person converted to Christianity as a result of a vision.

To me, the most touching story concerned a young man in Iraq. He had a dream in which he was asked to go and see another person who sent him to a Presbyterian pastor in Iraq. Because of the danger involved, the pastor did not immediately baptize him. Instead, he checked out his story and discipled the young man. Eventually, it became obvious that his conversion was real. He was not a spy. The young man was baptized. He then went into southern Iraq where he spoke against Islam. He was killed and became a martyr.

Our panelists encouraged us not to be discouraged by the evening news. We see pictures of wars and demonstrations against the United States. Some of these demonstrators are paid to demonstrate. Our panelists told us that in little house churches all over the Middle East people are coming to Christ, and we should not be discouraged. God often works most powerfully where the church is in persecution. We just need a vision of what God is doing in the world and be willing to join God in what God is doing. It is not nearly as hard for us to witness to Christ in our culture as it was for Peter or is for Christians in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and a lot of other places.

God’s First Gift.

Acts 10 ends with Cornelius and all those gathered in his household becoming Christians and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 44-45). The Jewish believers who had traveled with Peter to Caesarea were astonished! (vv. 45). They could not believe their eyes! It never occurred to them that the Spirit of the God of Israel would come upon the Gentiles. Sometimes God will surprise us as well.

imagesThis is a series about the gifts of the Spirit of God. We don’t think about it very often, but the first gift each of us receives is the gift of salvation. The joy that filled Cornelius and his family on that day is a joy that every Christian should feel and remember. It has been many years since I became a Christian; however, I can still remember the joy of that first day. In addition, we need to remember that there is no joy greater for those of us who have already received the gift of salvation then sharing that gift with others as we are able.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I do not have time to record all the instances of this truth. In the 20th Century the Chinese and others have tried to wipe out or suppress the church with the opposite result. As a result of the Chinese Communist oppression, for example, millions of people came to Christ in the underground, house church movement.

[2] William Barclay, “The Acts of the Apostles” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976). I have relied upon Barclay’s analysis of the chapters and their importance. See also, Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation Vol. 2 (Minneapolis, MN: Augsberg Fortress Press 1990).

[3] Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God (Nashville, TN, 2008).

[4] We know from Galatians that, even after his defense of Gentile Conversion in Acts 11:1-18, Peter vacillated between his support of Gentile conversions and his uncertainty as to whether Gentile Christians should have to obey the law and otherwise follow Jewish customs after conversion (Galatians 2:11-21). This continued to be true at least until the Jerusalem conference recorded in Acts 15:1-29.

A More Centered Life

This week, I am taking a break from the normal blog to write something different. When I did my Doctor of Ministry degree, I began with an interest in Spiritual Formation. However, just as I began my studies, I moved to Advent Presbyterian Church, where administrative and leadership skills were needed. Therefore, I entered a program known as, “The Beeson Leadership Program” at Asbury Theological Seminary and did a more generalized doctorate  on leadership. As a part of this program, our group was exposed to some of the finest and most successful pastors in America. I have never regretted being a part of the Beeson program.

Over the next several years, I was able to study some of the most successful pastors in America and in our local area. When it came time to write a dissertation, however, I returned to my earlier interest and wrote on the Spirituality of Christian Leadership. I used to joke that one could summarize my dissertation with the advice, “Just be like Jesus.” Actually, I think that this is pretty good advice for pastors and other leaders. Leadership is not necessarily about success (thought that helps!). it is about doing the right things for those one leads.

A couple of years after I completed my work, a denominational group with which our church was associated entered a period of crisis. I was a leader of one of the groups. One day,, after a bitter meeting, I went to a hidden bookshelf in my office to look for a book. I did not find that book. Instead, a copy of the Tao Te Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom, fell at my feet. I began to read the book and found it helpful. I was reminded of the similarity between Christian and Taoist ethics. The Tao warned me that who I was and  who I was becoming was much more important than whatever success we had in the dispute at hand.

Centered Living imageI liked the Tao so much that, in my quiet time each morning, I began to paraphrase the book for Orthodox, Trinitarian Christians. It took a long time, but eventually I completed what I published under the title, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love.

This work was a  labor of love. I wrote another book on wisdom after Centered Living/Centered Leading, a book on wisdom literature called Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers. Although I like and am proud of Path of Life, I continue to use Centered Living/Centered Leading in my daily quiet times, and especially during times of crisis, confusion, and conflict. It never ceases to caution, warn, and calm me in the midst of doubt, pressure, and indecision.

The underlying idea of the book is quite simple: We do not have the luxury as Christians of being one person at home, another at work, another in the church, etc. This leads to the fractured personality of the post-modern person. God wants us to be whole, to have integrity, to be wise, loving, and filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ. In our hearts, we long for spiritual, mental, and moral wholeness. Therefore, we need to embody the wisdom and love of God both in our private and public lives. Put simply, we need to become more like Jesus.

This has implications for leaders: We cannot be one person when we are off-duty and another person when we are leading others without ending up spiritually wounded and sick.  Centered Living/Centered Living can help a reader acquire spiritual wholeness and health. It has helped me in that quest. (The search for spirtual wholeness is never quite over on earth. We have to just keep making progress.) One fundamental principle I find in the Tao and in the Christian tradition is the importance of meditation and prayer before making difficult decisions, especially when under pressure. It is a struggle for most people to take them to meditate and pray, but it is worth the effort.

coverThis year in my spare time I have been preparing a new edition of Centered Living/Centered Leading. I have tried to clarify a few things and eliminate some irritating typographical errors I am ashamed to find. It is my hope that Centered Living/Centered Leading can help others besides me. The other day I got an email  from a London cab driver who had managed to get a copy of the book and loved it. I cannot tell you how much that email meant to me!

It takes a little work to get into a more mystical, proverbial style of writing. It took me some time in the beginning as well. Nevertheless,  the time and effort are worth it. I hope some of the readers of this blog will take time to enjoy the quest for wholeness and wisdom through Centered Living/Centered Leading as well. Many of my friends wish that I had written a more didactic, teaching, Western-mind oriented book. Unfortunately, true wisdom cannot be learned with the mind alone. It is a matter of the heart. This is one reason for the mystic and sometimes indirect way in which wisdom literature works. One has to find the truth for oneself in one’s own heart under the leadership of the Spirit of God. A book can only act as a way of stimulating a relationship with God and deep spiritual change.

If you like this blog and especially if you purchase the book (It is available on Amazon), please recommend it to a friend or family member. I would love of people to forward this blog to friends.

Next week, I am returning to the general pattern of the blog and to the subject of the Holy Spirit!

Yours in Christ,

Chris