Living as Children of the Light

It is the Saturday before Easter.  I am taking a break from Salt&Light to meditate on Easter. As Matthew begins his description of the events of Easter Sunday, he records the following:

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men (Matthew 28:2-4).

The resurrection was accompanied then and now by the appearance of the Uncreated Light of God.

 The Importance of Light.

Light has always intrigued human beings. Almost all ancient religions have some form of Sun God, a God who is worshiped as a source of light. Light has also always been associated with the eternal. Light has always been associated with truth, when speak of “a light going off in our brains,” we refer to the experience of solving a puzzle. When someone knows a truth, we call him, “enlightened.” This word is used, in Buddhism to refer to a person who has come to understand the suffering of the world and the true and best way of escape. Jews and Christians have always thought of God as dwelling in light. We see this in the visions of Isaiah and Daniel in the Old Testament and in the visions of John at the end of the New Testament in Revelation, where God is pictured on a throne in heaven with lightning streaming out from his being. Paul is blinded at his conversion by an experience of the light of the Risen Christ.

The period of time which began in Europe about 300 years ago, when human beings first began developing modern science and technology, is often referred to as the “enlightenment,” because it was at that moment that humans shook off the superstition that was felt to characterize the Middle Ages and begin to be able to understand and manipulate the workings of the physical universe in a new and more powerful way using science and technology. The founders of the Enlightenment felt that the human race was experiencing liberation from the darkness of superstition.

This blog is about the Christian notion that God is Light, that the True Light of God was revealed to us in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ; that we  become children of Light by faith in Christ and can, therefore, live according to that Light. The empty tomb is the source of Light, for the dark door of death has been destroyed by the One who is the True Light of the World.

Walking in the Light.

In the  First Letter of John, he says the following:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1 John 1:5-10).

Father of Lights, in whom there is no darkness, come by the Light of your Word this Easter to enlighten our minds and warm our hearts, convict us, convert us, and make us wholly yours. In the Name of the True Light who came into the World and by whose power we may li e forever we pray, Amen.

The Bible Teaches that God is Light

I don’t know that there is a more important source of  encouragement  than the simple phrase, “God is Light and in him there is no darkness” (I John 1:5). As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, almost all religions in some way associated light with the divine, but in the Old and New Testaments we have a distinctly Judeo-Christian evolution of this notion. For the Jew, God cannot be represented by any created thing, there can be no idols, no visible symbols of the invisible God, so it came natural to the Jews that God was a blinding Uncreated Light. Light  is invisible until it touches and illuminates something. When we speak about the being of God in Three Persons, one of the images often used is the image of the Sun. God the Father, who cannot be seen is like the hidden nuclear reactions in the center of the Sun. Christ, the Word of God, is like the rays of light coming from the Sun. The Holy Spirit is like the heat of the Sun when it touches our face and arms.

The Apostle John begins his gospel by equating the Incarnate Jesus Christ with the Eternal Word, which is the Light of God’s perfect rationality:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5).

This equation of Christ with the uncreated Word of God, a Word that exists before time, and a word that enlightens the human race by showing us what it means to be truly and rationally human sits at the foundation of John’s view of who Jesus the Christ was (see, John 1:4, 5, 9; 3:19).  Jesus refers to himself as the “Light” (see, John 8:12; 9:5). Paul also uses the same image when he speaks of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). In all these passages, and more, Jesus the Christ is said to be, to actually be, the personal, physical manifestation of the Uncreated Light of God, an uncreated light. [1]

The actual being of God as Uncreated Light has deep implications for our notion of God. God is not capricious. If a God of Uncreated Divine Light created the laws of the universe,  the universe can expected to be  orderly. God is not without a witness.  So, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). Not only is the physical universe a scene of light, but so is the moral universe, for God’s light is seen in his law and in the moral order that he has created. So, the writer of Psalm 119 can declare, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).

There is no affirmation we make more important than the affirmation that God is Light, for that is our declaration to the world that it need not be a place of intellectual, moral, or aesthetic darkness, but a place of light. The God of Light has imbued his creation with Light, and has sent his Son as the True Light that shows us how to faithfully live within his beautiful and meaningful creation.

The Bible also teaches that we are Children of Light.

In today’s text, John urges Christians to “walk in the light” (I John 1:7). In Ephesians, Paul writes, “For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the Light” (Ephesians 5:8). In Thessalonians, Paul refers to Christians as “sons of the Light” (I Thessalonians 5:5). When Christians, by faith, receive Christ, we receive the Light of God into our hearts and minds. Our “conversion” is a conversion from darkness to light, from being children of the Fall, to being children reborn in fellowship with God, from being those who follow a way of darkness in self seeking, to those who seek the light in following Christ.

As a result of the Fall, we human beings have hearts that are darkened (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:18). As a result of our selfishness and self seeking, we walk in a kind of moral and spiritual darkness. When Christ comes into our lives, it is as if we have been removed from a dark room into light.

Years ago, when I was a camp counselor, we often went exploring in caves. Now, these caves were usually not very large, and we entered the caves through narrow passages in the land around the camp. We would squeeze trough an opening and crawl some distance in a narrow passage before entering the first room of the cave. There were often times when we could not even use a flashlight for a time as we wiggled our way through the tunnel. I can tell you, I hated it. But, when you got to the first room, where other counselors had already come, you could see in the light of their flashlights. If you were the first person through, your light suddenly light up the cave and you could see the lovely formations of stalactites’ and stalagmites.

The experience of opening up to the light of God is like entering that first room in a cave and turning on a flashlight. Suddenly we are able to see, really see the Truth of God’s Word, the Goodness of God’s Law, and the Beauty of God and of God’s creation. The presence of God in our lives acts as a light, illuminating the world and illuminating our lives, so that we can see the Good, the True and the Beautiful. By the power of the resurrection light of Christ, we can become illuminated with the wisdom of God, the goodness of God, and the beauty of God. All this is the gift of the True Light.

The Darkness that Remains is an Impediment to the Light.

Of course, if we are honest, we know that  the Light will expose something else: darkness. the darkness of our souls. John says, “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). To experience the Light is recognize its absence and the darkness that inevitably accompanies the absence of light. The Psychologist Carl Jung speaks of each person as having a “shadow self,” a dark side. This selfish, instinctual, driven, dark side is a moral problem. [2] Although this dark side can never be totally eliminated, it can be recognized, brought to the light, acknowledged, and integrated into the larger self.

For Christians, the process of sanctification is a process of overcoming the dark side, the sinful side, of our personalities. The first step, and a continuing step, is the process of acknowledging that it is there. For the light to do its moral work in our lives, we must allow it to illuminate the darkness.

Light has many qualities, one of which is that it is one of the very best disinfectants there is. When our family used to go to Montreal, North Caroline,  we sometimes rented cabins full of mildew. We could not live in a mildew infested house. When a house is infested with mildew, one of the best things to do is to get the sheets and the furniture out into the sun, for the sun will get rid of the mildew. Our sin is a lot like mildew. Once exposed and brought to light, it begins to die as Light of God’s presence strikes our souls and begins to warm our cold hearts to a better way of life. Once the light of Christ, exposes the smell of our sin, its light begins to remove the dark stink of the smell of sin in our lives.

Our Mission is to Share God’s Light.

Christian truth is not a merely abstract truth. Christian truth is an embodied truth. God did not send us an instruction manual for living. He sent us his Only Begotten Son, full of grace and truth. An embodied truth is one that must be lived, not simply understood. When John urges his readers to “walk in the light” (v. 7) he is saying to them, “Live your life in such a way that the world will see the light in all that you are and to in your day to day life.”

Scholars point out that when the Middle Ages ended, and the modern secular state emerged, gradually religion shifted from being the organizing principle of all of life, to being a matter of personal religious experience and choice. Gradually, ever so gradually, “faith” became something private, something connected to a person’s inner self. Faith lost its connection with the outer world of life, of business, of politics, and of education. Even those who claimed to be Christian lived and acted just like everyone else.

The great British founder of the Gospel and Culture Movement, Lesslie Newbigin, wrote a book under the title, “Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth”. [3] In this book, Newbigin reminds his readers that if we believe that the Incarnate Word is the truth made flesh, then we must live according to that truth, willing to be different than those around us, and we must be willing to proclaim that truth publically in word and deed, for truth that is not proclaimed is not a truth.

We have done a lot of talking about what it means to be a “missional congregation”. Being missional is not a matter of going on mission trips, though our mission trips are important. Being missional is not a matter of how much money we give to missions, though supporting our missionaries is important. Being “missional” is a matter of being about proclaiming in word and deed, in all of life, as we go from this place into our society our confidence that the love and mercy of God, which was revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate truth about God and forms the ultimate ground of what it means to really, truly human.

Conclusion

All advances in human civilization come with some kind of  cost, and no advance is without problems. In the case of our scientific culture, one cost of our overly analytical culture can be a loss of confidence that there is something that is true. When we doubt everything, it is hard to believe in anything. Beneath the ultra-competiveness of our culture, of our business, of our politics, even of our churches, lies a deep darkness. This darkness is born of the fear that nothing is true, that everything is really about power. It is about do I and those who agrees with me, get to have our way? In such a world, there is no greater gift Christians can offer the world than the gift of faith in the transcendent reality of the God of Light, who stands as the ultimate guarantor and source of all truth, a truth we can never know completely, but which he graciously reveals all honest seekers, and which became one of us in the person of Jesus.

At the end of the book of Revelation, when John talks about the new heaven and new earth, he says that there is no need of a sun in this new world, for God himself will be its light, “They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light” (Revelation 22:5). This is our ultimate proclamation, that in a world of confusion and darkness, where it is hard to know what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, what is just, what is kind, we can know that the Eternal Light of God is here, and will be here, and there will come a day, when our struggle with darkness will be over, and the world will be filled with his Uncreated Light.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Thomas F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002):15.

[2] Anthony Storr, ed, The Essential Jung: Selected Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983):91.

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Geneva and Grand Rapids, MI: World Council of Churches & Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991.

Life in the Ruins

This week the post focuses on the dystopic nature of modern society as the modern world decays. This decay is particularly important for Americans to understand because American culture is a direct result of the so-called “Enlightenment.” I am not sure that his chapter (this week is part 1) will be in the final book. Nevertheless, it is important for us to understand the cultural roots of our current cultural distress if we are to minister God’s love and mercy in our culture.

Although they  considered themselves to be wise, they became fools…. (Romans 1:22)

One features of many contemporary movies and literature is the prevalence of “ dystopic” visions of the future. When I was in undergraduate school, in my freshman year, I took a course entitled “Utopias and Disutopias. The word, “Utopia” literally means “Nowhere.” A “Utopia” is a vision of a better world that might be. By the same token, a “Disutopia” is a vision of a dark world that might be. Increasingly, the vision of progress that powered Western civilization for 300 years has turned into a dark picture of the world of decay, immorality, violence, chaos, and darkness. For example, recently there was a popular movie called, “Hunger Games.” [1] In his movie, a young girl is forced to participate in the Hunger Games, a competition in which villages send one particular person to compete for food. This movie exemplifies a distinctive feature of modern dystopia’s: fear of an emerging immoral elite (the one percent) who enslave the majority of the people.

Why is it that, at this particular juncture in history, many people, and especially intelligent, perceptive, artistic, and capable people are unable to find meaning and purpose in life? It is, as the Bob Dylan song has it, because, “The Times, They Are A’Changin:”

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’ [2]

When Bob Dylan wrote these words, a great culture upheaval was underway in American culture, an upheaval that would irrevocably change America, and the institutions of modern society. The United States, and indeed the victorious parties in the Second World War began the second half of the 20th Century with a sense of victory and endless possibilities. Neverheless, beneath the surface optimism and confidence, the pillars upon which Western Culture had been built for almost 300 years were rapidly being undermined.

The tumultuous events of the 1960’s and beyond exposed the hollow caverns of emptiness and despair that lurked just beneath the surface. Contemporary Western culture is a paradoxical mixture of Greco-Roman philosophical ideas and Judeo-Christian spirituality and ethics given its current form by the events of what philosophers and social critics call, the “Enlightenment.” About 300 years ago, under the influence of the emergence of modern science and technology, the nations of Europe entered a new era.

This era called, “The Modern World” was characterized by confidence in human reason, faith in the power of science and technology to both understand the universe and provide solutions to myriad human problems that had vexed humanity for millennia, a kind of secular utopian vision of a perfect world, and confidence that human ethics could be reduced to universally acceptable, reasonable principles upon which all rational people would agree. The deists promised a rational religion of peace. For a time, this World View and its program for progress seemed irrefutable.

The term “Enlightenment” was coined in France, which at the beginning of the 19th Century, under the impact of the radical implications of the Enlightenment attempted to create a perfect secular, post religious society. The result was slaughter and madness. Nevertheless, as the 19th Century progressed, problems began to develop in the Enlightenment program. Within a short period of time, certain philosophers noted that reason alone did not seem to satisfy the human need for meaning, and so a romantic revolt emerged emphasizing the emotional and physical importance of human life. Then, the philosopher Nietzsche engaged in a complete attach both upon the Christian religion and on the rational underpinnings of the Enlightenment, emphasizing the Will to Power. The modern world, with its dystopic leanings was born.

The early 20th Century ended whatever optimism was left that human reason and human technology could bring in a millennium of peace, health and plenty. The early 20th Century was punctuated by two World Wars, the second of which resulted in the development of a weapon that could annihilate humanity. The First World War began the destruction of the optimism of Europe and Western Culture. The Second World War, fought because of a brutal dictatorship that emerged in what was Europe’s most advanced nation, ended with Europe in ruins.

America was victorious in both the First and the Second World Wars. It emerged confident of the future and securely positioned to carry on the Enlightenment project. However, in the 1960’s that optimism began to dissipate. The Viet Nam War divided America and caused a generation of young people do doubt our American culture and values. The emergence of birth control and the sexual revolution undermined traditional sexual moral values and traditional family structures. The Nixon presidency and the so-called “Watergate Crisis” undermined faith in American politics and in the integrity of its political system.

In music, in movies, and in the media a kind of moral and cultural darkness began to emerge. We  now live in the ruins of Western culture. Among elites and many, many ordinary people a kind of spiritual and moral darkness has fallen. It is the mission of the church to enter this culture with a gospel of wisdom and love that can repair the ruins of our society.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Hunger Games, dir., Gary Ross; Wr., Gary Ross Suzanne Collins Starring, Jennifer, Josh HutchersonLiam Hemswort (Lionsgate: 2012). The movie is based upon a trilogy of books written by Suzanne Collins. In the novels a young woman confronts a terrible future in which the majority of people live in poverty and hunger. Food is at a premium. The annual games reflect the fears many people have about a manipulative and immoral future government ruled by an immoral elite, a common feature of dystopias.

[2] Dylan, Bob. The Times They Are A-changin'. Columbia, 1964.

Introduction: Crisis of Discipleship (Part 1)

This is the first of two weeks that the blog will contain the Introductory Chapter to the book in discipleship I am writing. Comments are much appreciated.

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published a book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1]At the very beginning, Bonhoeffer stated his thesis in a way that was prophetic for his own life and for the course of 20th Century discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he says, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] Bonhoeffer went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace which Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Bonhoeffer took up his own cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the war.

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s book became famous. Like many famous books, it is often mentioned, a few of its most famous quotes find their way into sermons and religious books, but Cost of Discipleship is seldom read and even more seldom put into practice. Part of the problem is that the book was written in German, and German is a hard language to translate into English, especially for reader that prefers short sentences and simple words. The book is not easy to read or digest.

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

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [3]

When a church, denomination, or group dispenses Cheap Grace it is dispensed like soda from a fountain at a child’s birthday party or beer from a keg at a party at a fraternity party. It costs nothing. Such preaching and such discipleship makes a mockery of what God was doing in Israel’s history, what Christ did on the cross, and what committed disciples of Christ live out each day.

Real, true grace is Costly Grace. Bonhoeffer characterized Costly Grace as like the pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in one of his parables (Matthew 13:44=46):

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

As the saying goes, “Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.” The one who confesses his or her sins to God, who repents (turns away from them with all their heart, and who turns to God with everything they are and possess, this is one who has experienced True Grace. True Grace changes everything.

In a culture addicted to “Cheap Grace” and easy religion, Cost of Discipleship is hard to read. An honest reader stands condemned by almost every word. If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and cheap grace was a problem for the church, the problem is exponentially greater today in the post-modern, Western church. Western churches, and perhaps most especially Protestant churches, are addicted to cheap grace.

Today, the church faces a crisis of discipleship that would have been almost unimaginable in Bonhoeffer’s day. The radical individualism of Western Culture has resulted societies in which everyone and anyone decides for him or herself what they will believe and not believe and how they will and will not act. [4] In such a culture, it is not surprising that many people deny by word or deed those parts of the Gospel which they find difficult to obey or hard to understand. The tremendous growth of media ministries has not helped the problem. When there is a lot of money to be made watering down the Gospel, it is not surprising that some people do. Further, it is in the nature of discipleship that it cannot be accomplished sitting on a couch listening to a televangelist. One must get up and follow Jesus. Grace requires a change of life and action in response to its power. It requires participation in a community of faith within which a person can learn and see modeled the Christian life.

The Command To Make Disciples

Jesus gave the Church a commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis added). Making disciples is God’s supreme goal Christ set for believers and for the church. Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, going to where people are, helping them enter the life-transforming fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them respond to God’s grace by live a life pleasing to God. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers to do while everyone else watches and listens. It is for every Christian to be and do.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. As Christians, we learn about God and wise living from the Bible, from our personal relationship with God in Christ, from teachers, and from fellow Christians. However, Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. We believe that Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person and a relationship with that Person in which we become transformed to be more like that person who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Because being a disciple involves being in a relationship with a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in fellowship with that person. Being a disciple is like being a professional athlete or a physicist. A person who admires professional athletes or physicists, but who never enters into a relationship of learning and emulation with one, is not a disciple. At most, they are a fan or admirer.

Christians do our best and live wisely and well when we simply emulate Jesus Christ. It is not enough for us to proclaim that we believe in Christ or to bring people to declare their belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for their sins. To be a disciple is to become more like Christ daily and help others become more like Christ. In particular, we must be willing and able to help people live with the same integrity and love that characterized Jesus when he ministered to his disciples and the people of Israel. This means that we incorporate into our lives the same divine wisdom and steadfast love that characterized Jesus of Nazareth. This is the result of Costly Grace.

The modern world, from which we are now emerging, was characterized by and abstract understanding of knowledge. In such a world knowledge can be measured by tests and by one’s ability to answer questions, write essays, and regurgitate information in various ways. Wisdom is different. To be wise is to know some information. However, more importantly, it is to apply such information and embody such information in a human life. Discipleship is a life-style, a way of life, an embodied knowledge. The test of whether we are good or bad disciples is found in how we live and what kind of people we are in the depths of our being.

The Community of Jesus

Jesus did not just preach, teach, and do signs and wonders. Jesus brought people to himself and spent his earthly ministry in a small group of people he was actively discipling. Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” [5] Christ chose twelve ordinary men and lived in relationship with them for his entire ministry. We believe that he also lived in close community with a larger group of men and women with whom he shared his life and teachings. Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus and their time together that propelled them to carry the Good News on a continuing journey to the ends of the earth, as they understood it.

Jesus promised us that, “where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). If we are to meet Jesus, a group of people (disciples) must introduce us to him. If we are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, we must be mentored by people who are further along the path of discipleship that we are. If we are to learn of Jesus, we must spend time with his people as a part of his community. We must see what it means to be a Christian lived out in the lives of others. This means that we need to be a part of a fellowship that is trying to spend time with God in Christ. One way we do this is when we become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those who try to follow Christ alone, without belonging to his fellowship and without accountability for their life of discipleship, inevitably fall short or fail.

The way the early church grew was by reproducing who Jesus was and what Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. The book of Acts is largely the story of how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples lived as Jesus lived, doing what Jesus had done and facing the same opposition Jesus faced. This is important to us. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in our communities and around the world is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, growing in discipleship together, calling people into authentic community, training new believers “to obey all Christ commanded,” and continually reproducing this process through generations of people.

To be continued!

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] Id, at 45.

[3] Id, at 47.

[4] See, Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979).

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

Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship

My wife and I have had a life-long and ministry-long interest in evangelism and discipleship. Recently we published a study guide and workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [1] The study is an attempt to provide interested Christians with some of the reasons why America desperately needs ordinary Christians to join a Disciple Making Movement (DMM) and share the Good News as well as one training method to accomplish this goal.. The Great Commission was not given to just twelve first century men, or just to professional clergy, or just to exceptionally gifted laypersons. All  Christians are commanded by Scripture to share the Good News of Christ with others and make disciples of those who respond.

Salt & Light is but one of many ways to share the Good News. The book I am now writing shares the theory behind any Disciple Making Movement, and Salt & Light in particular. It is hoped that interested people can more effectively lead disciple making small groups, including Salt & Light Groups.

Early in the book, the reason for its title becomes obvious: In the 1930’s the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote his classic, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he spoke about the dangers of Cheap Grace. [2] Today, we face a Crisis of Discipleship. As a friend put it to me recently, “We have already lost an entire generation in the Church, and we are in danger or losing another.” One of my mentors in ministry, co-pastor  and friend, Dave Schieber, used to say, “the Church is always only one generation from extinction.” The church in America and in the West generally is in bad shape. This problem can only be addressed as individual fellowships of Christians become committed to following Christ and sharing his love with a broken world.

For the next twenty weeks or so, chapter by chapter, I intend to share Crisis of Discipleship on this blog. Please read and respond. I intend to be more conversational in responding to comments—and I intend to incorporate comments and corrections into the final draft.

Join with me in a conversation as we seek to think about ways to communicate God’s love to others in our culture.

Chris

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

Entering the New Heaven and New Earth

In Numbers, there is a strange story from the life of Moses. As the people of God were suffering without water in the wilderness, the Lord told Moses to gather Israel together and speak to a rock so that it would pour out water (20:8). In response, Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, gathered Israel together, spoke, struck the rock twice with his staff, and water gushed out (20:9-11) Unfortunately, Moses did not do exactly what God commanded and failed to give proper credit to God, so the LORD would not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land (20:12).

This is a story that ought to have meaning to all Christians—and it should also hold some hope for all of us as well. All human beings make errors and do not fully follow God’s will. It is only fitting, then, that we should not enter the Promised Land, so to speak, in this life. Nevertheless, before Moses died, God took him up to a high place and showed him the Promised Land (Deut. 34:1; Num. 27:12-13). I am sure that Moses thought it was enough to just see the Promised Land before he died. There is a Promised Land for every church and every group of Christians. No one Christian or pastor enters the fullness of that  Promised Land. We only experience some of it and glimpse the remainder from afar.  It is enough, however, for each of us to see a bit of it and enter a bit of it with a congregation.

Kathy and I are happy to have had almost eighteen great years with Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, Tennessee. Advent has been our Promised Land in ministry. We have seen a good bit of the Promised Land of our congregation, but now another Promised Land beckons for us and for our congregation. We are leaving to begin a new life and ministry, but the Promised Land for Advent lies ahead. We cannot enter it. We can only glimpse it from afar. Yet, I believe that Advent’s best years are yet to come. This is not just true of Advent, but of every congregation and every group of Christians: None of us are worthy of seeing the Promised Land in full, but God by his mercy and grace gives us glimpses of a reality that awaits the final consummation of all things.

The Vision of St. John.

In this blog, we are looking at the final chapters of Revelation. We began this year with a new theme, “A New Creation.” [1] In Isaiah, God promises that he will create a New Heaven and a New Earth (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). At the end of Revelation, John has a vision of the New Heaven and New Earth Isaiah foretold coming down from Heaven (21:1). Paul tells us that Christians are new Creations in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). We are not alone. God intends for the universe, Heaven and Earth, to be recreated. In part, this New Heaven and New Earth is created by God as the Bride of Christ, the Church, descends from Heaven to make all things new. let’s read a bit of this promise:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5).

Finally, let us read a bit from Revelation 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (22:1-2).

Eternal, All-Wise and All-Loving God: We come to you asking that you come today to confirm our past and open to us our future as we anticipate the coming of your Kingdom into our lives, our church, our community and our nation. Amen.

The Vision of a New Creation.

As John ends Revelation, he communicates to his readers a final series of visions in which we receive a glimpse of the final consummation of the victory of Christ over sin, Satan, evil, and death. In the first vision, John sees the Holy City of Jerusalem descending from heaven like a bride dressed for her husband. In the second vision, John sees a vision of a River of Life flowing from the Temple of God into the world in which grows a restored Tree of Life. This River energizes the Tree of Life,  creating new life,  bearing fruit, and healing the brokenness of the world. [2]

To understand these visions and their implications, we need to remember the condition of the church in the time Revelation was written and why John wrote the book in the first place. The church of Revelation was a church under siege. The secular leaders of the day were persecuting the Church. The government of Rome wanted to be supreme, the lord over every aspect of people’s lives. To do this, Rome desired to eliminate all voices that would not recognize the supremacy of its power and the divinity of its emperor. Christians worshiped Christ as Lord of the Church, which was the earthly presence Kingdom of God, superior to all earthly kings and kingdoms. Christians would not worship Caesar because it would have caused them to worship a creature and not the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.

When times are tough, there is always a temptation to compromise. If hard times go on long enough, there is always a temptation to desert the true faith. By the time of Revelation, there was only one of the original Twelve left—John. In this book, John wanted to encourage the disciples of Asia Minor and assure them that God was in control and that God would be victorious in the end. As Billy Graham memorably puts it, “I have read the end of the story and God wins!”

The book of Revelation ends with the assurance that God will be victorious over all the powers and principalities that seek to destroy the testimony of Christ and the Church. John wants the churches of Asia Minor, and us, to know that God intends to defeat the powers of evil and build his Kingdom in the world. Surprisingly, it turns out, God intends to so this by the power of the Holy Spirit through us—the members of the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the Church!

In the first vision, John sees a Heavenly City descending from heaven. This city is described in two ways: First, it is described as a beautiful, completely symmetrical, jewel encrusted city with streets of gold (21:10-21). Second, in the first vision John describes the Heavenly City as a lovely bride (21:2, 9).

We often think of the Heavenly City as a symbol for Heaven or a restored city at the end of time. The metaphor of a bride should bcorrect our thinking. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and this means that the Heavenly City is best understood as the Church coming down from heaven. [3] This has practical implications for us. Each of us is a citizen of the Heavenly City and a part of the Bride of Christ. This is not just for pastors or religious professionals. We are all a part of the Bride of Christ. The New Heaven and New Earth is coming down in and through us!

Not so long ago, I had a chance to do my last little bit of premarital counseling. Let me tell you that the bride was excited about the wedding to come! She was excited about the details and excited about her groom. Her life was about to change in unknown and unknowable ways, but that did not limit her excitement. She was looking forward to the future, and so should we who are the Bride of Christ. We don’t know what is next for Advent, for our family, or for the Body of Christ in the world, but we do know it will be good in the end!!

The Means of the New Creation: The Holy Spirit of God.

In the second vision, John gives us another glimpse of the Heavenly City. When Revelation 22 opens, John has already disclosed to us that there is no Sun, Moon, or Temple in the Heavenly City. God is present in the Heavenly City, and His Divine Light renders all other lights unnecessary.In other words, the Heavenly City is where God dwells in the midst of the hearts of his people, another indication that the Church is the Heavenly City.

Down the center of the Great Street of the Heavenly City, there flows a great River of Life, and beside that river stands the Tree of Life bearing twelve crops of fruit every month, twelve times a year. [4] In the ancient world, it was common to have a “Great Street” in the center of major cities. [5] This great street was often the center of life and commerce. [6] There was such a street in Jerusalem. Today it has been restored as a shopping area.

In Revelation, the Heavenly City has a Great Street. The Great Street of the Heavenly City is however, unique. The Great Street of the Heavenly City has a Great River flowing from the Throne of God into the city. [7] The Great River is the Holy Spirit flowing from the throne of God.

This River irrigates the land along its banks so that the Tree of Life grows along both sides of its banks. This tree of life bears twelve crops twelve times each year.

This image can be confusing. We think of trees growing on both sides of the banks of a river. This Tree of Life is one tree growing on both sides of the city. How can this be? Our Presbytery sponsors what is known as the “Aspen Church Planting Network.” When Eugene Scott, its leader, explained to our Session the image of the Aspen tree, he reminded us that Aspen trees grow by the extension of roots systems from one part of the tree to another sprouting of new life. An entire Aspen Grove is one living organism.  [8]

As we have mentioned before in our study of Revelation, the number twelve is extremely important. It normally refers to the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles. It is often used as a symbol for the people of God. The symbol even appears as a doubling of the number, for the continuity of Old Testament Israel with the Church of the New Testament

The Heavenly City in John’s vision has twelve gates and twelve foundations (21:12, 14). The Twelve Foundations are explicitly identified as the Twelve Apostles. This is another indication that the Church is the Heavenly City, for it is built upon the testimony of the Twelve Apostles. [9] The Twelve Crops each of Twelve Months is the fruit of the Testimony of the Apostles, i.e. the church through the ages is one Church that must be faithful the testimony of the Apostles to the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ, who is the Groom of the Bride of Christ.

Like an Aspen Grove, the Church of Christ is one living organism nurtured and fed by the Holy Spirit which flows through the life of the People of God. This tells us how important prayer is to our Christian life, to our church, and to the Church of Christ throughout the world. Prayer is the means through which the Word of God in Christ and in Scripture becomes real to us and energizes us to live the Christian life. We cannot live—the Church of Christ cannot live—without the River of Life that the Spirit is for us.

Our Role in the New Creation.

Finally, in John’s vision the Tree of Life produces fruit, twelve crops each month, and the leaves of the Tree of Life are for the healing of the nations (222-3). You may remember that, in Genesis, humankind was cast out of the Garden of Eden and a flaming sword barred their way back into the Garden for fear that, having misused the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, humanity would misuse the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:23-24). Sin as one of its consequences doomed humanity to physical and spiritual death, cut off from God and from its intended fellowship with God. Now, in the restored City of God, the Tree of Life is back. Humanity is restored to its intended eternal fellowship with God. Because of what Christ did on the cross, we have a way back into fellowship with God, with others, and with creation.

In Revelation, the Tree of Life is bearing fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. If the Heavenly City is the Church built upon the foundations of the testimony of the Apostles, if the River is the Holy Spirit, what is the fruit? The fruit is the fruit of the Gospel—people converted lives changed, sins forgiven, and characters healed. We are the fruit of the Tree of Life and those we bring to Christ are also fruit of the Tree of Life.

We Christians are often not grateful enough for what God has done for us in Christ and through the intercession of other Christians. We receive the love of God through Jesus Christ, but we often do not share that love and allow that love to heal us, our relationships, and our society.

This is where I would like to leave us today: It has been a privilege to be a Presbyterian minister for the past almost quarter of a century. It has been a privilege to serve the Bride of Christ, to counsel, teach, and share the Gospel with people. This past two years, Kathy and I have deliberately tried to create a way to disciple others so that there will be more fruit of the Tree of Life at Advent, in Cordova, in Arlington, and in our city and area, even to the ends of the earth as our lives and the lives of other people touch other lives for Christ.

The future we are all walking into will not be like the past. There will be new leadership, new ideas, new programs, new ministries and missions. This is as it should be. Nevertheless, some things will not change. Christians still be fruit of the Tree of Life, a restored part of God’s creation. We will still be leaves on God’s tree, part of the City of God, which he has placed here to heal a broken world. We will still be subject to the Great Commission Christ gave his Church before he ascended to Heaven, from which he will come again—indeed I believe he is coming in the person of his Church when it loves a fallen and needy world.

Amen

Next week, I intend to begin a new series in this blog. I am writing a book on discipleship that is a companion to Salt & Light, the discipling curriculum that Kathy and I have written and which is soon to be published by Innovo Press.  I hope to share a draft, chapter by chapter, for the next twenty weeks or so. Please comment upon these new posts, as they involve the next project we hope to complete as Kathy and I enter a new phase of life!!!

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Becoming a Radical New Me! (preached January 8, 2017 at Advent Presbyterian Church, Cordova, TN).

[2] As is often the case, I cannot possibly cite in this brief blog all the sources to which I owe a debt of gratitude. I am especially grateful to have read from Eugene Peterson, Reverse Thunder (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1988), Robert Mounce, “The Book of Revelation” in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), Leon Morris, “Revelation” Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983, and William Barclay, “The Revelation of John: Part 2” in the Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1976).

[3] The Old and New Testaments are filled with allusions to the people of God as a bride. See, Hosea 2:19; Isaiah 54:3; Jereemiah31, 14, 32. In the New Testament the same simile is used for the people of God (Matthew9:15, 25:1-13; John 3:29; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:21-33; Rev. 19:7, 21:2; 22:17). The symbol of the Heavenly City/Bride should be a symbol of the people of God in an intimate relationship with their Groom/God.

[4] This is another image pregnant with references to the Biblical witness to God and to Christ. Jesus told the woman at the well that there would come a time when people would not need to go to Jerusalem to worship for people would worship God “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:21-24). There is no need for a Temple in the Heavenly City because God is now being worshiped in Spirit and in Truth. The Water of the River of Life flowing through the Heavenly City is the Holy Spirit of God, God’s own presence with and in the people of God.

[5] Roman planning fully integrated urban defenses with the city plan and the street system. The walls and the streets were laid out concurrently as part of the coordinated planning of the city. The main streets led directly from the center of town to the gates, and the ‘pomerial’ road ran around the city immediately inside the walls. http://historylink101.com/lessons/farm-city/roman-city.htm (downloaded March 15, 2017).

[6] The last time I was in Israel, we visited a now underground shopping area that once was a Great Street, the center of Jerusalem during a portion of the Roman occupation. After the Jewish quarter was destroyed in the war, archaeologists excavated a huge area and found the Roman cardo – or colonnaded Main Street. They have left some as an excavation with shops up above, some had been reconstructed and some is a plaza open to the sky. Interestingly, today this street is still a center of the tourist trade and very active. Even today, we speak of “Main Street USA,” a metaphor for the businesses that line the main streets of towns and cities all over our nation.

[7] This river is like a river visualized by the Prophet Ezekiel, a river flowing from the Temple of God into the Israel (Ezekiel 47:1-12). Like the heavenly city, this river through the restored Jerusalem into the world and crops grow beside the river for the healing of the nations.

[8] [8] See, Meghan Bartels, “This Looks Like a Forest, But It’s Actually Just One Tree—and It’s One of the oldest and Largest Organisms on Earth” Business Insider (July 8, 2016, downloaded March 16, 2017), at www.businessinsider.com.

[9] This is one reason that Orthodox, Roman, and other Episcopal church groups choose leadership by apostolic succession through ordination by Bishops. Apostolic succession from the twelve original apostles to the church today is guaranteed by the laying on of hands in succession from the original Twelve. Prayer is the means through which the Word of the Gospel in Christ and Scripture becomes real to us and energizes us to live the Christian life. This is a major point Calvin makes in his Institutes: The word of God becomes real to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. See, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 1 ed. John T. McNeil, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press), 1.7.4.

Nicodemus: Entering the Lamb Light

I decided to take a break this week. I am getting ready to retire, and so I  invited a guest blogger. It took some doing, but I was able to get Nicodemus to give his testimony!

My name is Nicodemus. I have been asked to come and visit with you today so that you can hear firsthand my personal experience of Jesus. By your standards, I am not an old man. But,  by the standards of my day, when life spans were shorter, I was an “elder,” a respected leader of my people, a man in my prime when I met Jesus.

In Scripture, I am described as a “Pharisee and a Ruler of the Jews” (v. 1). In my day, there were two major parties in my country: the “Sadducees,” who tended to be from wealthy families allied with the priestly class, and the “Pharisees,” of which I am a member. We Pharisees were very scrupulous in matters of faith and morals. I studied the holy books of my faith and the writings of the Rabbi’s until I became a skilled interpreter of the law of Moses. Furthermore, I did not just study the laws of my people, I was diligent in applying them to my life.

Your Webster’s Dictionary defines the term Pharisee as “someone who is extremely self-righteous.” There is some truth to that charge, but it is basically unfair. We Pharisees, like you Presbyterians, were a people who understood that God is holy and just, and we tried to live as the Holy God of Israel commands in the Laws and in the Prophets.

As to what we believed, we were a lot like you Presbyterians. We believed in one God who is the creator of the heavens and the earth and the deliverer of his people. We believed that God is all powerful and in control of the destiny of men and nations. We believed in angels and in demons. We believed that human beings have immortal souls and will be resurrected from the dead at the last day.

Like you Presbyterians, we were known to be hard-working, successful, and generally honest people. Unfortunately, that also meant that we often put too much faith in ourselves and in our own righteousness and not enough faith in God.

I am also described in your Bible as a “Ruler of the Jews,” meaning that I was a member of the ruling council, the “Sanhedrin”. The Sanhedrin was made up of seventy-one of the most important leaders of our people. It was as a member of this elite group of people that I first became aware of my great need for God.

Good News for the World Weary.

  1. The Dead End of Self Sufficiency. To tell you the truth, my success was my undoing. I managed to work my way to the top. becoming a leader of my profession as well as of my country. Along the way, I made a lot of compromises. Being a lawyer, I have an ability to parse the law carefully, and in my personal life I was able to do the same. My friends used to speak of me as a “righteous man;” but, after a time, I found it difficult to think of myself in that way. If others saw how good I was in comparison to them, I saw how bad I was in comparison to God. Worse, I knew how little love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and self-control I enjoyed when no one was looking.

By the time I heard about Jesus Bar Joseph, a reputed worker of miracles and teacher, my life was no more than going through the motions. When I heard of his mighty deeds of power and about his teachings that the kingdom of God was near at hand, I determined to meet him to see if he was a fraud or a true religious leader. But, being a careful man, I determined to go at night when I would not be seen. I did not want to undermine my position in the council, and I did not want my presence to give this Jesus any more popularity with the people than necessary for fear that he would create an uprising.

Some of you may be in the same situation that I was in when I met Jesus. You aren’t a particularly bad person. You try to do your best to act in a moral way. But, two things disturb you: (i) you aren’t as good as you pretend to be and (ii) your religion has become dry legalism, and you know it. If so, you are like me. So far as my spiritual life was concerned, I had reached a dead end.

  1. The Necessity of New Birth. I tried to be as diplomatic as possible with Jesus when we met. I acknowledged that he was a good man and that he had proven his status as an anointed teacher by his wise teachings. I felt that a compliment would set his mind at ease that I was not an enemy or hostile as so many of the religious leaders of our people tended to be

I expected him to return the compliment, or at least be flattered by my attention. Instead, he did the most extraordinary thing. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I tell you the truth: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (v. 4). Well, I was completely taken aback. Here I was, a Jew among Jews, and this country preacher was telling me something that I could not understand.

Perhaps I was subconsciously trying to deflect his point, but I responded in what I can see was a foolish way by saying, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb a second time?”  Of course, I did not mean this literally. What I meant to say was that I could not understand how a person of my age and accomplishments could possibly begin all over again. I did not think I needed to “start over.” I thought I just needed to do better.  I was after new ideas about how to become more righteous. The idea of needing to be born again never crossed my mind.

Jesus looked me straight in the eye and replied, “I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (v. 5-6). Jesus was telling me that my works and the self-righteousness that came from my works was not saving me. It was keeping me from God. What I needed was for God to give me a new life by the Holy Spirit.

At the time, I could hardly understand what Jesus was saying. Now, I realize that Jesus was telling me that human beings are more than blood and sinew, physical beings. We are physical beings, but we have the capacity to be more than merely physical beings. We have the capacity to have a spiritual life as we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives.

In my case, I knew the law, and I had the natural ability to obey a great deal of it, but I lacked the spiritual life that God and God alone can give. I knew about God, but I did not know God personally. Jesus was offering me a tremendous gift – the gift of the Spirit and the New Life the Spirit of God brings.

Let me give you an example from the life of my colleague in the Sanhedrin, Saul of Tarsus. I knew Saul, or St. Paul as you call him, before he became a follower of the Way. He was a brilliant scholar and Pharisee. Yet, even then I could see that he was a deeply unhappy person. He tried hard to obey the law. In fact, he was a fanatic. He hated the Christians, followers of Jesus and the Way of Grace. One day, he came to the Sanhedrin and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that he might go and persecute the church there. You could see that there was a deep struggle going on in the soul of Saul. That is why he was so opposed to Christianity: He sensed that the followers of the Way knew God in a way he knew was impossible by merely following the law.

As Paul later described it, God came to him on the road and revealed  that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God and that, by Grace through faith, he could have a new life. The inner conflict he felt, and his sense that he could not know God by the means he was using, was resolved when God took the initiative and revealed himself to Saul. [1]

That is the idea of the experience of being born again. The New Life we receive in Christ is not something we do, just as our human birth is not something that we do. It is something that God bestows upon us, it is a new birth given to us as we open ourselves to God. The Holy Spirit is like the wind: it cannot be controlled by human power, although it has a powerful impact on human life (John 3:5-6). At the end of this service we always give people an opportunity to receive the New Life Christ can bring.

  1. The Grace of God in Christ. Jesus went on a little later in our conversation to explain what this grace of God was all about. He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). You are Christians, and many of you grew up in Christian homes. This verse is very familiar to you, and perhaps that is not all together a good thing. To me, this verse represents the most inconceivable thing about Jesus.

First, I am a Jew, and I can tell you that what Jesus said was revolutionary! As a Pharisee, my primary idea of who God is had to do with the law. To me, God was primarily the God of justice who judges sin and who gave his Torah, his divine commands, with the expectation that his instructions would be followed or there would be consequences. Perhaps some of you feel this way. God is primarily the Great Rule Maker and the idea that God is primarily a lover who loves the world with a disinterested love is totally revolutionary.

My God was a god of judgment. Deep in the way my people thought of God was the idea of God as a judge. Later in in our conversation, Jesus described his idea of judgment. He said that the judgment is that God sent his Son, the Messiah, to save the world, and that the way that people are judged was by whether they accept or reject God’s loving gift of the forgiveness of sins by faith (v. 18). Instead of righteous works being the way a person comes into fellowship with God, good works are the result of what God does in the life of a believer. What a mystery!!

Second, the idea that God was the giver of a sacrifice for my sins was revolutionary. I lived in Jerusalem, and daily I went by the temple where the people brought their sacrifices for sin. In my religion, God did not do the sacrificing. We did. If I sinned, I gave a sacrifice. The idea that God, motivated by love, determined to undo the effects of my sin was beyond anything I had ever dreamed.

My idea of the Messiah was that he would be a political leader who would retain the law and the sacrificial code of Israel. Jesus had a completely different idea. Jesus’ idea was that as the Messiah he would love Israel and give himself for Israel. Jesus was the Lamb of God by which God demonstrates his unfailing love for his people by rescuing them from their sins.

I was weary because I had taken on my back the responsibility for my own salvation and for the works of righteousness that I knew that God wanted of me. Jesus’ idea was that God did the work. I could see that, if this was true, the solution to my spiritual weariness was at hand. I did not have to do anything more! God would do it for me! I could relax and let God do the work of giving me his Divine Life.

Conclusion.

I am sure that you are asking, “What happened to Nicodemus?” When Jesus was condemned, John records that I protested the unfair treatment of the Galilean early in his ministry (John 7:50-52). When Jesus was killed, I took spices for his anointing (John 19:40). Unfortunately, I never publicly declared my faith in such a way that the writers of your Gospel recorded my faith. As I said, I am a careful man, perhaps too careful.

The Gospel of John does not say whether I became a follower of the Way of Jesus, and I am not going to tell you today. [2] It is better the way that John leaves the story. For, during my life, I had to struggle with faith and with whether Jesus was the messiah, and so will you. I had to make my decision concerning whether to accept Christ and become his disciple, and you must make yours.

Each of you must ask yourselves the very same thing I had to ask myself: Am I willing to become like a child again and in humility and repentance ask God to do for me what I cannot do for myself? What you call, “Good News” is good news precisely because God has done something for us we could never do for ourselves. God has given each of us a way to have a new life and a new kind of life. The only question is, “Will we accept it?”

Amen.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The ideas behind this interpretation of what happened to Paul come from James Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 21ff. This is one of my favorite books and well worth reading. It has shaped my ministry since I first read it during seminary.

[2] “Nicodemus” in New Bible Dictionary Second Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1962, 1993), 834, There are many legends regarding what happened to Nicodemus. Personally, I think he did become a follower of Jesus. His participation in the anointing of Jesus is strong evidence. Nevertheless, the historical record is unclear.

Living in Lamb Light

Last week, I mentioned that I grew up at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri.  I mentioned how much Westminster meant to my spiritual growth. What happened after I left Westminster was not the fault of Westminster. When I left home for college I drifted away from the Christian faith. I majored in philosophy in college, and in the process drifted intellectually, morally, and spiritually away from my parent’s Christian faith.

During college, a girlfriend gave me a copy of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. [1] It sat unread on my bookshelf for a few years. One day, during a time of personal suffering, the book fell off my bookshelf at my feet. (This is one of two times that God has acted in my life by having a book fall at my feet!) I picked up the book and began to read. Over the course of the next few days, because of Lewis’ logic, I came to see that Christianity makes sense. A bit more than two yeara later, on a Sunday morning, while reflecting on the sermon and a worship service, Christ came into my life.

Our theme in this blog is the surprising revelation of the love of God that the wisdom of God  became manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is a personal God of Wisdom and Love.

The Lamb Light Has Come.

John is much different than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew and Luke began with the birth of Jesus. Mark begins with the ministry of Jesus. In all three of what are called the “Synoptic Gospels,” the writer gradually reveals who Jesus is—the Son of God. Especially in Mark, the disciples never figure out what’s going on until after the resurrection. John begins his gospel by telling us exactly who Jesus is: Jesus is the Word of God, God, in human form.

Matthew is a Jewish gospel. Mark is a fisherman’s gospel. Luke is a gospel for the Gentiles. John is a philosophical gospel designed to show Greek thinking people that Jesus is the word (or reason) of God made flesh. John, as he does in Revelation, often speaks in metaphors and images, he reveals details other Gospels leave out, and he structures his gospel in a unique way.

Our text comes from the first chapter of John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5).

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (vv. 9-13).

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (v. 29).

Prayer: Light of the World: Come to us with your uncreated wisdom and love to transform our hearts and minds into the image of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

The Creative Light of the World.

Scholars love to remind us that people in the ancient world did not think in the same way we do. This is true. However, there are some aspects of human nature that never seem to change. For example, as far back in history as we know, people have gazed at the sky and wondered. When I was young little boys and girls like to lie in the backyard and stare at the sky and look at the stars. When our children were young they liked to look at the stars. When I was a little boy one of my favorite gifts was a telescope with which I could look at the moon and the stars. When my son was a little boy one of his favorite gifts was a telescope with which he could look at the stars and the man. (In fact, Kathy and I still have that telescope.)

I am not mathematical. However, from the beginning of human history, men and women have looked at the sky and noticed that there are regularities in God’s creation. Most of us know the term, “Pythagoras’s Theorem:” “The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the other two sides.” [2] Pythagoras even developed a theory of the universe based upon his theorem. His theories evolved into a philosophical school and a religious community. Deep, deep in the Greek mindset is the idea that the universe is rational.

When the Jews describe the creation of the universe, they also intuited that the universe was deeply rational. Listen to the beginning of Genesis:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:1-3).

The Jews believed that a Personal God, who is wise and rational and knows all things, created the world by through His Word. The world was “Spoken into Being,” so to speak.  Of course, only people speak and so the Jewish Creator God is in some way personal.

The Greek word for “Word” is “Logos.” When the Greek followers of Plato described how it was that the world was created they used the word “Logos” to describe the rationality of God. John hit upon this word, Logos, to describe the Word of God through whom the world was made and which became manifest in Jesus. The difference is that for John, this Logos of God is personal, characterized by love, and became personally present in Jesus Christ. We serve a personal God who personally loves us.

The Embodied Light of the World.

At this point, we come face-to-face with another interesting fact about religious history: Throughout history, human beings have been fascinated by light. The ancient people were fascinated by light and often thought of light as a gift of the gods. The Greeks often used light as a symbol for rationality because light illuminates and reveals, just as our human reason illuminates and reveals the world. During the Renaissance, painters were fascinated highlight. It was during the Renaissance that painters first began to experiment with painting light and shadows and variants of color based upon light.

At the end of the Renaissance, there was a period called “the Enlightenment” as the modern world and modern science developed. Interestingly, it is light, and the characteristics of light, that helped bring about our postmodern world. Einstein was fascinated by light. His Relativity Theory assumes that light is the only invariant part of our universe, the only constant. It was when we discovered that light has the characteristics of both particles and waves that post-modern quantum physics developed. [3] It is the nature of light that caused physicists to enter what we call the postmodern world.

Light fascinated the ancients and it fascinates us as well.
As John and the other apostles pondered the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, they concluded that, in Jesus, the Word of God that created the world, the Rationality of God that characterizes the world, the Light of the world that makes life possible, all this was revealed  in one human life. Jesus was a Personal Word of a Personal  God. This Personal Word created the world, created humanity and gives us true life by the light of his presence.  [4]

You may ask, “How does all this changed my life?” The simple answer is this: if Jesus is the Logos of God, the reason of God, the light of God, the rationality of God, then we will be acting in the most rational way if we only behave like Jesus. Let me say this again because it’s so important: if we behave like Jesus we will be acting in the most rational way possible. This means that it is worth our time to learn about Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to begin to think and act like Jesus.

Living Centered in the Light/Love of God.

How are we to live centered in the Light and Love of God? How are we to embody the wisdom and love of Jesus? It is not enough just to read the Bible. For a lot of years now, His Handmaids, our dance group have periodically danced to an Amy Grant song called, “Fat Baby.” In part, it goes like this:

I know a man, maybe you know him, too.
You never can tell; he might even be you.
He knelt at the altar, and that was the end.
He’s saved, and that’s all that matters to him.

His spiritual tummy, it can’t take too much.
One day a week, he gets a spiritual lunch.
On Sunday, he puts on his spiritual best,
And gives his language a spiritual rest.

He’s just a faaa…
He’s just a fat little baby!
Wa, wa, waaaaa….
He wants his bottle, and he don’t mean maybe.
He sampled solid foods once or twice,
But he says doctrine leaves him cold as ice.
Ba, ba, ba, ba…ba, ba…ba, ba!

He’s been baptized, sanctified, redeemed by the blood,
But his daily devotions are stuck in the mud.
He knows the books of the Bible and John 3:16.
He’s got the biggest King James you’ve ever seen! [5]

This song beautifully illustrates an important fact about the Christian life: We don’t become more Christ-like just because we have a big Bible and go to church all the time! It’s not enough to read the Bible once in a while. We must truly meditate on the word of God. I find this very hard. It’s hard to take time before work to meditate. It’s hard to take time during the day to meditate. It’s hard to take time at night before bed time to meditate. It’s just hard to find time to allow God’s word to sink into your life. But we need to try. A Personal God wants us to have a Personal Relationship with His Word.

Second, it’s not enough just to read the word of God. We need to pray. By now, almost everyone at Advent knows that one of my favorite parts of Greek is what is known as the “Spherical Dative.” When Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ is they are a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), the phrase “in Christ” is a spherical dative. It is as if Paul were saying to us that we need to be surrounded by the word of God. We need to be so surrounded by the Word of God that we spiritually live inside of Christ and the power of God revealed by Christ. This means, among other things, that we need to be surrounded by other Christians were trying to live the Christian life. I need to live my life day by day as part of a Christian community. But most importantly I need to pray and meditate and allow God to surround my life. A Personal God wants to personally communicate with His people. Jesus Christ is the symbol and source revealing God’s personal communication to us in the most intimate way: by becoming one of us.

Finally, “Fat Baby” reminds us that it is not enough to read the Bible and pray. We need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Jesus is not interested in creating biblical scholars. He is not interested in creating people who pray but have nothing to do with the salvation of the world. God loved the world so much that he sent his son to save the world and he wants Christians to be a part of that salvation. Our Personal God personally present in Jesus wants us to join Him in personally sharing the Gospel with others.

The Sacrificial Light of God.

This is where we come to the greatest mystery of all. Early on John alerts us to the fact that the word of God, the light of God, the very life of God, was also absolute, unconditional, steadfast, self-giving love.
The Personal Love of our Personal God doesn’t just love the world enough to give us a few good ideas. He loves the world enough to come and be one of us and give himself for our sins. The light of the world is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. [6] The love of God is not just any old kind of love. It is the greatest most wonderful love we could possibly imagine. It is a love that will not let us go, that loves us despite all our sin, our brokenness, and our betrayals. It is the Steadfast love of the LORD. It is the self-giving love of the great artist who created the universe.  It is the Sacrificial Love of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World.

Amen.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1952). There are many versions available.

[2] The Pythagorean Theorem bears the name of the Greek mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras. It is a statement about triangles containing a right angle. The Pythagorean Theorem technically states that: “The area of the square built upon the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares upon the remaining sides”. Stephanie J. Morris, “The Pythagorean Theorem www.jwilson.coe.uga.edu/emt669/Student.Folders/Morris.Stephanie/EMT.669/Essay.1/Pythagorean.html (downloaded March 2, 2017).

[3] It is my view that Newtonian physics is inherently modern, since it posits a disinterested observer, while quantum physics is inherently postmodern because it denies that aspect of modern physics.

[4] The Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer refers to the Christian God as the “Infinite Personal God,” which lets us know that the person of God is not like a human person, but an infinite personal being. See, Francis Schaeffer, He is There and He Is Not Silent (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1972).

[5] Amy Grant, “Fat Baby” written by Keith Tomas and Amy Grant (released, January 18, 1991).

[6] I want to note that the research and conclusions I reached in researching and writing, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. ed (Cordova, TN: Booksurge, 2016) form the basis of the last two sections of this essay.

Transformed by Generosity

Both my parents have died in the years since I came to Advent Presbyterian Church. About three years ago, my mother died. Dad  died years before. Mom and Dad were members of a small Presbyterian church in Springfield, Missouri. That church was the center of our lives as I was growing up. We were active in Sunday School, worship, youth group, and the ministries of the church. The fellowship and friendship of Westminster Presbyterian were among the most important formative aspects of my childhood and youth. Although I strayed from God during my college years, by midway through Law School I was beginning my long and painful trip back to God. I returned to God during my first year practicing law.

In the years leading up to Mom’s death, Westminster aged and declined. Nevertheless, Mom was a constant giver to the church. Until the day she died, she gave generously to Westminster. Occasionally, she made special gifts so that the church could afford something the leadership felt was needed. Tim and I did not always agree with the purchase, but Mom was always adamant about helping. The only specific request she made before she died was that Tim and I pay off her pledge and give something from her estate to Westminster. Her final gift made possible a special project of the congregation.

Mom grew up on a farm; Dad was an FBI agent. They were hit by an uninsured motorist early in their marriage. The result was financial ruin. They worked their way back from the debts of Mom’s long hospitalization, put two boys through college, helped one get through law school, and saved every day of their lives. Mom was giving and saving more than ten percent of her income at 94 years old, just a few weeks before she died. Along the way, for fifty years, Mom and Dad supported Westminster. In good times and bad times. When the church was growing and when it was declining. Mom and Dad still gave. Like many depression era people, my parents were frugal and careful with their money.

Generosity is an important Christian virtue. It is also a virtue in decline. This week I read an article that disclosed that American generosity has been in decline for more than the past 50 years. It is interesting that the decline in American generosity parallels the decline in Christian faith. The problem is not getting better. It is getting worse.

A Community of Generosity.

At the beginning of Acts, we are given a picture of the life of the early church (Acts 2:42-47). We see that the early church was Biblical and gospel centered. The people listened constantly to the apostles’ teaching. The early church was a vital community of love. They shared their lives in deep ways. The early church was filled with the Holy Spirit, and miraculous things happened. One aspect of this miraculous Spirit-filled fellowship was that it was generous. The world saw the love and the generosity of the early church, and the result was growth. We see the generosity of the early church described again in Acts 4, where Luke records the following:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 2:32-37).

Let us pray: Generous God, fill us with your Spirit. Fill us to overflowing. Allow us to become little Christ’s filled with the life of our Lord. Amen.

The Spirit of Generosity.

This  blog is based on my last stewardship sermon at Advent Presbyterian Church. Nevertheless, it is more than a stewardship sermon. This is a blog about the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives to make us more wise and more loving. On Pentecost, God sent the Spirit upon the church in Jerusalem. Before Pentecost, the believers had been living together in a kind of community of prayer, Bible study, and love (Acts 1:12-26). On Pentecost, that community of love became a gift to and  for the entire world. By the time Luke wrote Acts, the Gospel had spread throughout the Roman Empire, and a new generation of leaders was emerging as the original disciples passed away.

Paul was probably in custody of some kind when Luke wrote Acts. [1] When Luke looked back at the first Christians, he recorded their memories of the transformational fellowship that characterized the early church. The Christians that experienced Pentecost experienced a wonderful, life-transforming fellowship brought about by their baptism by the Holy Spirit. The early church was evangelical. It was socially active. It was caring. The life of the early church was so different than what people were accustomed to that the people of Jerusalem were astounded.

One area in which the people of the early Church were different than the surrounding culture was in the area of generosity. The early Christians were generous; to their own members (Acts 7), to surrounding churches, and even to churches that were distant from them (2 Cor. 7-9).  This was so unusual in the Greco-Roman world that people took notice.

Jesus and Generosity.

It has been said so many times that it almost does not bear repeating, but Jesus spoke a lot about money and generosity. [2] For example, one day Jesus was at the temple praying and watching what was going on. He saw rich people giving large sums of money and then a poor widow who only had a mite (a very small sum). He announced that the woman who gave the mite was more generous because she gave much more as a percentage than did the rich people (Luke 7:9). Jesus spoke about the dangers of wealth in the story of the rich young ruler, who was a good and generous person and an observant Jew, but who was in love with his money and could not bear to give it up (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-23). Jesus spoke about the greed of the Pharisees, which they masked by a hypocritical public display of righteousness (Luke 11:42).

In Luke, just after Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, he discusses God’s generosity (Luke 11:1-13). He put it like this: Suppose on of us had a friend who came around midnight and asked for three loaves of bread. Probably, even though we were put off by it and did not want to do it, we would get up and see what would could do just because he had the audacity to come and ask. If one of us had a child that asked us for a fish, we would probably give it to him. We certainly would not give our child a poisonous snake! Then, Jesus gives the punch line: If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

God is a generous and loving God and can be trusted to generously give us the Holy Spirit, and other good gifts if we only ask. For example, in the New Testament,  Jesus repeatedly does miracles in response to requests for healing. If we are going to become like Jesus, then we need to think about how we can ask God to send us the same Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Jesus) that transformed the lives of the earliest disciples and made them, among other things, generous.

Principles of Generosity.

This is not the place to give a complete outline of Jesus’ teachings on stewardship of the full extent of the Old and New Testament teachings on the subject.. What I want to do in this blog is outline a few basic principles we glean from the Bible:

Be Humble. Last week we looked at Proverbs, and especially at the theme of Proverbs which is that a deep, awe-filled respect for God, for the power, wisdom, and goodness of God is a prerequisite for wisdom (Psalms 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10).  Humility and and a deep respect for God allow us to experience a deep faith and trust in God. The first step to generosity is understanding just how great and generous God is!

When we recognize that all we have, life itself and all the blessings of life, are from God, then we will be struck with awe and be able to love and trust God. When we are humbled, and recognize how imperfect and how flawed we are, we understand that we need God’s grace. When we realize we need God’s grace, we cry out to God, and God sends his love upon by the Holy Spirit—and then we have taken the first step towards become as generous as God is generous.

Give Yourself Fully to God. In Acts, we learn that our attitude about money is not the only thing that God uses the gift of the Holy Spirit to change in us. When we give ourselves fully to God and are filled with the Holy Spirit, God makes us wiser and more interested in his Word. God empowers us to pray. God gives us other people, the Body of Christ, to love and care for. Perhaps most importantly, God gives us Spiritual Gifts to share with others and build up the Body of Christ (I Cor. 12). God desires to see all that we are and all that we can be fully and completely devoted to Him.

Recognize the Power and Potential of Money. When I was a young Christian, I read a book by a French Christian called “Money and Power.” [3] The basic message of Money and Power is this: Money is power; and money not only gives us power, it has power of over us. Our lives can be warped and controlled by money and the love of money, however much or however little we have. Until we become aware of the power of money for good and for ill in our lives, money will control us, sometimes unconsciously, and often in destructive ways.

Become a Good Steward. Once we realize that we need the grace of God, that all we have and all we will ever have (however hard we worked for it), then we come to another conclusion: God is the owner and we are his stewards. One way we break the power of money over our lives is by realizing we aren’t the real owner of our possessions. God is. Once again, this is one of Jesus’ favorite points to make, and he uses this point to make a lot of other points. He often refers to God as like an absentee landlord who turns over his properties to his servants (stewards) and lets them run things in his absence (See for example., Matt 24:45-51; Lk 12:42-48 Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-19, 27). When God is the owner and we are only giving away someone else’s wealth, giving gets a lot easier!

We will never be good stewards until we get our financial affairs under control. Kathy and I are reasonably good managers of our finances, but that has not always been the case nor is it always the case even today. Just last week, we learned of a mistake we had made that involves our finances. Being a good steward requires constant life-long work. People need to learn to budget when we are young, when we have our families, when we retire, and when we are near the end of life. The challenges and the dangers of each time of life are different and there is not a time when we don’t need to learn more. There is never a time in life when we don’t need to exercise financial discipline. Discipline does not just mean not purchasing wasteful or unnecessary things; it means learning when we cannot afford nice, good, and even necessary things. Spiritually speaking, learning to be simple in our wants and needs is part of becoming a wise steward.

Generosity is Part of our Love Transformation.

Often stewardship sermons focus on tithing. I do not mean by this blog to indicate that tithing is unimportant. It is. However,  underneath any Christian idea of giving is the notion that, as God so loved the world that he gave his Only Son for our salvation, and as God has given to each of us life and all the blessings of life because he loves his creation and each of us, so also, we are given by the power of the Holy Spirit the capacity to become a part of God’s community of self-giving love. That community of self-giving love will change us in a lot of ways. One of the ways God is going to change us is in how we view giving and in how generous we are.

Some weeks ago, our small group talked about giving and generosity. In the lesson, Kathy writes the following:

“Dear Reader:

I like this little ditty: ‘A greedy heart cannot be satisfied. A grateful heart cannot be robbed.’ Greed. Gratitude. Generosity. Grace. Four ‘G’ words that explain it all. “We love because God first loved us (I John 4:19).” He gave us the garden; he gave us our first clothes; he delivered us from slavery; he gave us the law for our protection; he gave us a Savior. He has taught us to be givers, if we will only respond.

When we left Houston for seminary, friends came forward to support us with their finances. It made me cry. It also made me quit spending in areas that were not necessary. The generosity of our friends was humbling. At some point, I recognized that I had given up most of my personal dreams (many of which were materialistic and not in Jesus’ interest). The more I gave up, the easier it was to give away.

Around this time, I began supporting Casa MAMi MX. Sister Elma began the ministry over twenty years ago simply by sharing the gospel and feeding people on the streets of Reynosa, Mexico. Today, the home houses street children; has a day care, school, and parent education program. When gifts are received, there are two important things that happen: Sister Elma teaches the children that God touched hearts to send gifts so they praise God and ask God to bless the givers; Secondly, they share their blessings with poor people living the garbage dump. The children learn to be grateful and generous. God gives us opportunities to practice generosity every day.

Peter understood this: “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk. (Acts 3:6).” [4]

Amen.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Luke and John Mark probably wrote their gospels and Acts just about the time Peter and Paul were martyred somewhere near the year 64 A.D. The first draft of Acts was probably created while Paul was under house arrest in Rome.

[2] Howard Dayton, founder of Crown Financial Ministries together with a friend, recorded the number 2,350 verses that refer to money and possession in the Bible. I have a copy of the list. This number has been disputed, and may contain numerous quotes that are only metaphorically about money. See, Crown Financial Ministries at www.crown.org.

[3] Jacques, Ellul, Money and Power Reprint. (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 1984, 2009). This book is not easy to read, but it is very good.

[4] See, Chris and Kathy Scruggs, Salt & Light: A Discipleship Curriculum (Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017) (In Process). We hope that this curriculum will be complete in the next few weeks.

Transformed: A Tale of Two Women

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Women.

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

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

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

 The Call of Wisdom.

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

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

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

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

Trust-Faith: The First Big Step.

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Resisting Temptation.

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

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

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

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

The Blessings of Wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

Transformed Living in Hard Times

 

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

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

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

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

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

Those who Persevere.

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

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

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

We Live in a Broken World.

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

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

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

God’s Love Saves His Beloved.

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

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

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

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

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

There is a Blessing for those Who are Saved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lamb that Shepherds and Washes Away Every Tear.

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imitate the Lamb

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

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

Two Sides of Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One Who Is Worthy.

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

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

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

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

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

A Lamb Like No Other.

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

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

A Lamb We Are Called to Imitate!

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Place Where Transformation Happens

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

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

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

Letters to God’s People.

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

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

Now hear from the last letter to Laodicea:

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

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

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

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

Get Among the Lampstands.

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

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

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

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

Step One: Remember Your First Love.

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

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

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

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

Step Two: Avoid the Bad Stuff.

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

  1. Bad Doctrine and
  2. Bad Morals.

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

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

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

Step Three: Open the Door of Your Heart.

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

Result: Receive the Blessing.

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is Coming to Make All Things New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blessings We Receive from Internalizing Revelation.

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

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

There Are Times When We Need a New Creation.

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

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

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

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

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

The One Whom with the Power to Make Things New.

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

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

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

The One Who Can Protect and Change Us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Become a Radical New You!

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

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

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

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

“If Anyone Is in Christ…..

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

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

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

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

Dying Among the Living.

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

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

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

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

Living Among the Dying.

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing the New Life.

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

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

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

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

In 2017,  Be a New Creation.

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

The End of our Longing

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of the Messiah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guessing What is In the Package.

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

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

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

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

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

The Role of Faith in What Comes Next.

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

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

The Role of Hope in What Comes Next.

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

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

The Role of Love in What Comes Next.

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

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

Cheer for the Christmas Season.

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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