I Woke up One Morning and I was Me!

I Woke up One Morning and I was Me!

(I did not write this post. It just appeared on my computer screen. It seems that Adam himself got into my computer without my knowledge. He seems to want to tell his story.)

Before go on with this post, let’s  read a bit from the Book of Genesis. The first verse for the day is Genesis 1:26-28:

So, God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

The second verses I have been asked to read are from Genesis 2:15-23:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So, the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.  But for Adamno suitable helper was found. So, the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib[c]he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.’

 LORD God, as we hear again the story of Adam and Eve, help us to make it our story as well as their story. This morning, we pray especially that what is said here will both glorify you and conform to your Word.

The Glory of our Humanity

I really cannot tell you how it happened. I woke up one morning, and I was Me. That is to say, I woke up and I existed. God had created me—and I knew who I was. I was different from everything and everyone around me, for I was made in the image of God. I could think. I could reflect. I could choose. I had a will. I could create. Best of all, I was aware of all of this. I was me. Not just a part of the created order. I was part of the created order, but I was also part of the invisible, spiritual order of God’s mind and spirit. [1] I was not just another animal which God had created but I was me. I was capable of intimately knowing God the Creator. I understood his presence with me. We had unbroken communion with one another.

Theologians talk a lot about what it means to be created in the image of God. Actually, I never thought about it at all until God inspired the writer of Genesis wrote the words on the screen: “God created the human race in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26). What I know now, and what I knew then, was that there was something different about me. I was not just one of the animals. In an incredible way, God had breathed something of his own spirit into me, and I was, like God aware, conscious, able to think and to plan and to will and to do.

There was something else I knew, something that came from the fact that I had been made in the image of God. God intended me to be his steward over his creation. I was supposed to love God’s creation in just the way God loved his creation. The writer of Genesis put it in the form of “dominion or rule”. None of the other animals could really “tend God’s creation” and make it better or worse. They just did whatever came naturally. But, I was different. I could look at a little stream and think to myself, “Wouldn’t it be better if I dug it out so that it would pass closer to that little grove of flowers?” And once I got started I found that I could look at a stick and say, “This would be easier if I did this with that stick instead of with my hands.” I could invent new things, just like God.

That first morning, I woke up and I looked around and I thought to myself, “What a lovely creation I inhabit!” I lived in the garden of nature. Scholars argue as to where the garden was. To tell you the truth, I have been gone so long that I have forgotten its exact location. Scripture indicates that it was somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. [2] All I know is that it was lovely. There was every kind of plant and animal you can imagine. There was nothing I could want or need that I did not find in that garden.

For a long time, I just traveled around my garden eating and drinking and enjoying life. God showed me all the other animals, and I gave them names. I noticed that once I gave them a name, I could remember easily what they were like and which ones were good to eat and how to capture them. The same thing was true of the plants. Once I gave them a name, I could easily remember what they were like, and what they were good for. Amazingly, this act of naming made it possible for me to know a lot more about the garden than the other animals could know, because I was capable of remembering details and information by attaching it to a name. [3]

Over time, I noticed that, in the animal kingdom, there were male animals and female animals. Every animal was male or female. I did not for a long time (or so it seemed to me) have a partner. I was lonely. I asked God for a mate like the other animals. I knew God is a god of relationships, and I wanted someone to have a relationship with too. This leads me to my second awakening.

One morning, I awoke from a deep sleep and right there before me was a woman. I took one look at her and said to myself, “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). I knew in that first glance that this was the one who would be my helpmate and whose helpmate I would be. Over time, I learned that Eve, as I called her because I knew she would be the giver of life to our children, was just like me. She too was conscious. She too was able to think, to plan, to will and to create. Yet, I also learned that she was different. In some ways, she completed what was lacking in me, and I like to think I completed what was lacking in her. [4] We complimented each other in important ways. For a time, unfortunately a short time, everything was idyllic.

The Tragedy of Our Fall

As I said, the garden was lovely, and our life was in perfect unity with God and nature’s God. Eve and I were happy. However, because we were made in God’s image, we had the potential to separate ourselves from God, from Nature, and from each other. Although we lived in this garden, and this garden was our home, although we enjoyed a kind of fellowship with God that human beings have not enjoyed since, we did have the capacity to disobey God.

There were in our garden two trees. The first tree was the Tree of Life—the Tree from which we gain that Wisdom and Divine Life that creates in us the Image of God. The Second Tree was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is this Tree that was the source of our Fall. Because Eve and I were free creatures in the image of God, we had the capacity to choose. And, one of the things we could choose was to disobey God. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents our capacity to choose sin and evil, and sin and evil preeminently are disobedience to God. God asked us not to eat of that Tree.

Eve and I also knew, as you know, that we could be tempted to disobey God. Both inside of us and outside of us there are temptations. One of the temptations Eve and I faced was the temptation to cease being the stewards of God’s creation and to try to be the rulers of God’s Creation. We could also be tempted by our desires. One of those desires was to have things God did not want us to have.

One day, Eve was walking in the Garden alone. As she was walking in that Garden, she passed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. There, wound around that tree, just where you would expect him to be, was the Tempter in the form of a Serpent. [5]Eve heard the Serpent say “Did God really say to you, ‘You must not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Gen. 3:1).  Eve was thus drawn into a response where she admitted that we were only forbidden to eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3:3). The question itself is ridiculous. Of course, a holy and righteous God would not want his creatures to participate in or know anything about Evil. Eve and I knew that.

Eve knew the correct answer and gave the correct answer, but the Tempter continued to badger her. Eventually, she looked at the Tree, and what seemed to be such lovely fruit and ate (Gen. 3:4-6). Later, she gave some to me, and I ate (Gen. 3:6). I want to stop here and correct a kind of misunderstanding. Some people think that it is significant that the woman ate of the fruit first, as if somehow women are the source of the Fall. I have had many, many years to think about this since that day, and I think I can assure you that if I had been the one at the tree that day, I would have eaten of the fruit myself.

The Harshness of Our Judgment

In your Bible there is a verse that reads, “When the eyes of both of them were opened, they realized they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). Once again, there are those who think that the first sin involved sex and that is why this verse is in Scripture. It is true that Eve and I fell from innocence in our sexual identity that day. But, the reality is, for the first time we realized how vulnerable we were and are. Our nakedness and our need for clothing was almost a symbol or a symptom of our realization that we were frail, naked creatures, vulnerable to disease and violence and death. We had become separated from nature and no longer understood and appreciated our Garden as we once had. We were fearful of the future for the first time in our lives.

We knew about death; we had seen other creatures die. But we never feared death because of our relationship with God. We believed and knew that we would always be with God in a life everlasting. Now, we knew we had disobeyed God. We also knew that the penalty for that disobedience was death. We thought it was a physical death we would experience. But, the truth is, we were already dead—dead spiritually. We were now alienated from God, from Creation, and as we soon learned, from each other. [6]

That evening, Eve and I became aware that God was walking in our garden. Before, we enjoyed a kind of uninterrupted fellowship with God. When we sensed his presence, we ran to find Him. We opened our hearts to receive Him. On this day, for the first time we hid from him. I want you to think about that—what would have made us believe we could hide from a God who is everywhere and knows everything? I think in our hearts we knew He already knew of our Fall and its consequences. But you see, we were already separated from God.

Eventually, God called to us, and we went into his presence. We admitted what we had done. Before this moment, we did not know a thing about God’s justice. All we had ever experienced was his Wisdom and Love. But now, now that we had violated his commands we learned that God is just, and we would suffer consequences for our disobedience. If God was angry at us, he was even angrier at the Snake, that Tempter who caused us to Fall. We did not know it at the time, but it turns out that the Tempter was a fallen angel who was deliberately causing trouble in Paradise—something he still does (See, Revelation 12:9; 20:2).

I don’t want to get too deeply into the details of the curse today. But our judgment was a terrible one. The happy relationship between Eve and me was forever disturbed by her wish that I would not try to dominate her and my will to dominate. God’s creation would no longer be a place of blessing, but we would have to work hard and resent that work. Having children would be a hardship and painful. Worst of all, we were cast out of our Garden, never to return (Genesis 3:23). Now, we would make our way in a dangerous and violent world. The Tree of Life, our assurance of Eternal Blessedness with God and of God’s Divine Life within us was barred from us forever. We would die and return to the dust with no assurance of an eternal life with our Creator. It has been that way ever since.

In the end, because of our failure to resist sin and alienation from God, we lost the most important thing of all, our relationship with God, with Creation and with each other. That is a harsh judgment indeed.

The Hope of our Intended Savior

Those of you who saw the movie,The Passion of the Christ, by Mel Gibson may remember a scene in the movie what was not in the Bible. [7] In the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was praying to the Father that the Cup he was about to drink would be taken from him there was a snake which Jesus finally crushed under his feet. That scene was put in the movie because of a prophecy made to the Tempter by God. God let the Tempter know that throughout all of human history, the snake of sin and its consequences would strike at the human race, but eventually, God would raise up a son of Adam who would crush the snake (Gen. 3:15). Jesus was that someone.

When we left the Garden, we had children—two boys who we hoped would be our saviors so that we would be able to return to the Garden, or at least the curse we had brought upon ourselves would not continue. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. But, Eve and I continued to hold onto that hope, the hope of a Savior. God’s people, the Jews held onto that hope for generations and generations. Until one day God came in human form, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. It is in his life, death and resurrection you believe and I believe that our road back to the Tree of Life may be found. He is the one who trampled the serpent under his feet and it is because of him we have the hope that we will experience that redemption ourselves (Romans 16:20).

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This post does not take sides on the issue of in what sense is the Genesisnarrative concerning the creation of the human race is true. It assumes that the narrative is a true picture of the human condition. The point is, however God created the human race in his image, immediately or as part of a process of evolution, human beings are conscious beings with unique intellectual, moral and personal abilities.

[2] Although the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are known to us, the other two rivers are not. Therefore, it is impossible to locate the garden on the basis of Genesis. The description may, as Sib Towner suggests, simply be a way of saying the entire then known world (“then” meaning when the story was first recounted.) See, W. Sibley Towner, “Genesis” in The Westminster Bible Companion(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 35. Dr. Towner was one of my professors. He says much with which I agree—and much with which I do not.

[3] The story of naming in the Garden points to the uniqueness of the human being and our powers of observation. The naming in the Garden is the beginning of our intellectual capacity to examine, identify, and seek a deeper understanding of nature.

[4] In Genesis, God announces that it is not good for the man to be alone; a “helper” is needed for him (Genesis 2:18). The word for “helper” is one which means “one who completes what is lacking”. Another equally good translation might have been “helper as partner, which would have further underscored the fundamental equality of both sexes. See, Bill T. Arnold, “Genesis” in The New Cambridge Bible Commentary(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 62. In Genesis 1, “man” and “woman” are both created “man,” or “human”.  There is no distinction in innate humanity or human capacity and rulership is given to both. Similarly, before the Fall and the introduction of sin into the world, there was no indication of inequality of any kind. Close attention to the narrative discloses that Genesis 2 does not state that the fundamental equality has been altered. Sin has simply created a new and sinful situation.

[5] Genesisspeaks only of the serpent. In Revelation 19:9, Satan is revealed as “that ancient serpent who leads to whole world astray.”  Serpents are universally feared because of their stealthy movements, speed, and sometimes poisonous bite. Whether the legend recorded in Genesis is mythological or based upon an actual event, it reflects the truth we all know concerning temptation: (1) it comes upon us stealthily by a subtle temptation from outside of us; (2) it often is accompanied by a kind of rationalization by which we convince ourselves that what is actually evil will turn out for the good; (3) the ultimate pain and poison of its bite are to be feared for the pain and suffering it ultimately can cause. Thus, the story is true, whatever its origin.

[6] Emil Brunner helpfully speaks of sin as rebellion (violation of God’s order), as apostasy (disobedience and distrust of God), as total (involving the entire human being, and as universal (infecting all human beings). See, Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and RedemptionDogmatics vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1952), 89-100.

[7] Benedict Fitzgerald & Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ dir. Mel Gibson (Icon Productions, 2004).

Standing Firm In the Light

During the Second World War (and published after the war’s end), the British Christian author, C. S. Lewis wrote a book entitled, that Hideous Strength: A Fairy Tale for Adults. [1] It is the last in the Lewis’s famous Space Trilogy. In this book, his hero, Elwin Ransom, and a small group of British academics and others face an evil spiritual invasion. The scene is a small college in rural England. Before the novel is over, Merlin and a host of other characters appear. The climax of the book occurs when angelic beings from heaven descend to do battle with the powers and principalities. What strikes me is how clearly Lewis foresaw modern world and the intellectual and spiritual darkness of the late 20thand early 21stcenturies.

This morning, we complete our study of Ephesianson being equipped as disciples. It is appropriate that we should end the series as Ephesians ends, with a discussion of our calling to stand firm amidst the spiritual forces that divert us from living wisely and with the love of Christ.

It would be nice if the Christian life were a walk in the park, but it is not. We face spiritual conflict both within and without in living the Christian life, and it is important to understand how to face it.

Standing Firm in the Light

As we conclude our study, we need to think about what we have learned as we read together the ending of Ephesians. Paul begins the letter exalting both God and the Son of God, through whom God reached out in love to reconcile the whole world to himself (Ephesians 1:4; 2:14-18). Christ is the very wisdom and power of God, who saved us by the power of the Cross while we were still under the power of sin (2:4). Because of this great work of Christ, both Jews and Gentiles can become members of the household of God, a household built on the testimony of the prophets and apostles. Because we have become children of God and members of God’s family, Paul urges the Ephesians to live differently. Christians are to be spiritually different than those outside the family of faith. We are to be different our holiness and in how we live our lives in loving submission to one another. We are to live as “children of the light” (4:17ff). [2]

At the end of Ephesians, Paul lets the Ephesians (and us) know that we must be prepared for the inevitable conflicts that will occur as we attempt to live as children of the light in a world that, too often, seems consumed by spiritual darkness. Here is the word of God as it comes to us today from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.  In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;  and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,  praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,  and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak(Ephesians 6:10-20).

Prayer:God of Light, in whom there is no darkness: Come among us by the power of your Holy Spirit that we might know and sense the power of your Word entering our lives and transforming them. In Jesus Name, Amen

The Conflict We Experience

The subject of Spiritual Warfare is difficult. We can make two equally important mistakes: (1) We can over-spiritualize the subject to the point that people think we are seeing things or (2) we can over-psychologize things to the point that spiritual warfare becomes a subset of human psychology. [3] Our world is mysterious, and one of the mysteries has to do with the non-physical realities, good and not so good that we all encounter day in and day out. There are times in the Christian life when we face temptations and difficulties that are deeply spiritual in nature. There are times when institutions and authorities seem lined up against God and Christ.

When I was in seminary, I was asked used to preach all over the southeast near Richmond Virginia. When I was preaching, I often asked the pastor if they had ever seen something in their ministry that look like spiritual warfare. 100% of those I asked responded, “Yes.” After twenty-five years in ministry I would agree. Most of us have had experiences that seemed inexplicable, as if there were a dark power at work above and beyond our normal experience.

There has been an increasing interest in the powers and principalities in recent years. Frankly, the horrors of the Second World War caused many scholars to place the name evil on the Nazi regime. In his lecture, “The Church is Dead,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

How can one close one’s eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over the rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have here made an awful conspiracy and could break out at any moment?—How could one think that these demons could be driven out, these powers annihilated with a bit of education in international understanding, with a bit of goodwill? [4]

The Conflict We Experience

It is easy to see the potential for dark powers and principalities in the activities of people like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, or Mao Tse Tung. The millions of lives taken during their rule testifies to a kind of madness that transcends the ordinary. Paul was familiar with this. In the world in which Paul lived, the activities of the Roman Empire and some of its rulers illustrated to anyone with eyes to see the potential for dark forces to work in human history.

This is all true, and we should all be aware that there do exist outside of us powers, principalities, spiritual forces of evil, and the like. Unfortunately, if we spend too much time looking for these powers and principalities outside of us, we forget that our spiritual battle is largely against our own tendency to be under the control of spiritual forces that can lead us astray. Pride, lust, greed, gluttony, and other spiritual diseases do have power over us and they are spiritual in nature. [5]If we focus too much on the powers as they are at work in the lives of other people, we miss the reality we need protection from our own involvement with the powers.

I have a dear friend who is a strong Christian. My friend has worked in a variety of law firms, large and small. When we get together, it’s easy to talk about the political intrigues and other behavior that characterizes any large social organization. In my case, it’s easy for me to remember a day and time in which I play the game just like everybody else. I was on a search for position, power, and success just like everyone else I knew. In some cases, the powers and principalities did not just have power over others or the firm—they had power over me! We all need to confront this reality. We all need protection because we are all vulnerable. We all need the armor of God, because we are all on the same battlefield Paul was on!

The Equipment We Need

Our military, like militaries all over the world, spends a lot of money developing what is called “body armor.” In my former church we had a lot of ex-military people. Some of them and served in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. A few of them even had injuries caused not by the enemy but by the amount of safety equipment they wore! Modern helmets, for example, are designed to withstand high velocity bullets. Until they were re-engineered, a good many soldiers who jumped out of airplanes and did other athletic things wearing such helmets sometimes got neck injuries from the weight of their armor!

I’ve already indicated more than once some of the silliness that goes on in the Star Warsmovies. One silliness has to do with the idea that lightly armed, unprotected, Wookies can withstand the attack of armored, highly armed, Imperial Storm Troopers. There’s a reason why Roman legions wore armor, carried shields, and had certain kinds of swords: they won battles that way against more lightly armored opponents. Paul knew this. That’s why he used this metaphor in speaking to the Ephesians. If the Ephesians wanted to stand up against the spiritual forces they were faced with in the First Century Roman Empire, they needed armor to withstand attack.

Before we talk specifically our armor, I want to mention something about the Greek used by Paul. When we read “put on the armor of God,” we think we are the ones putting on the armor. Paul begins by returning to his theme of God’s provident grace. He first says, “be strong in the LORD” (v. 10). Then he says, put on the armor of God. However, he does so indicating that our role is by faith to allow God to put armor on us. [6] It is God that provides the strength, and it is God that provides the armor.

Today, I don’t want to go through the specifics of the armor. It’s enough to say that Paul describes the armor of the Roman legionnaire, what would be called the “panoply” of the Roman soldier. [7] To be armored for spiritual warfare, we need the truth of the Gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith because God loved us enough to send his son to die for us (6:14; John 3:16). We need to avoid immorality, the kind of evil that will injure our hearts—the breastplate of righteousness (6:14). We need to stand firm in the Gospel of Peace with God that will enable us to resist temptation (6:15). We need to continue to have faith, the kind of faith that will allow us to endure in hard times (v. 16: Hebrews 11). We need to be sure that the helmet of salvation is protecting our thoughts and minds from attack (v. 17). We need to carry the sword of the spirit as we pray for ourselves and others (v. 17-18). We need Christ (the Word of God) and the Bible (the written word of God) to bring us into truth (v. 18). We need spiritual armor that can protects us.

Community of Believers

As with all of his letters, Paul ends Ephesians with a greeting. This reminds us of an important point we have discussed before. Christianity is by its very nature a communal faith, as we model the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the world. Paul writes to the Ephesians to remain faithful not just individually, but also as a community of faith.

By the time Paul wrote these words, the churches of the first century were beginning to be persecuted by the Roman authorities. Paul was in prison. He will eventually be martyred. People are beginning to fall away from the Christian faith. And addition, some people are finding the demands of the Christian faith too much to bear. Paul can see that the little churches are now fighting for their very existence and they need to be armed for the battle. He writes them as a community so that they can help one another withstand increasing persecution.

Just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer could see Powers and Principalities become evident in Germany in his day, we need to be aware that the powers and principalities, spiritual forces beyond our control, are at work in our day. We see ever increasing signs of intolerance and persecution of Christians in government, in private businesses, on university campuses, and elsewhere. We will not be able to withstand these pressures without our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Military thinkers often point out that in the heat of battle, minute and women rarely fight solely for abstract principles. They fight for their brothers and sisters. They fight for that little platoon, the people with which they have personal relations. A similar reality is true in the life of faith. Although we should fight for the abstract truth of the gospel in for Christian morality, more concretely we fight for our children and our grandchildren, for our friends and neighbors, for our Bible study partners, and for fellow Christians all over the world. As I mentioned earlier, all of the pronouns in the second person or in the plural in Ephesians. Paul is writing not to individuals in solitude but to a community of love. We need each other in the life of faith—and in particular in times of testing.

The Victory We Are Promised

When Billy Graham was asked how he thought the world with end, he said, “I’ve read the last page of the Bible, it’s all going to turn out all right.” [8]Jesus told us that in this world we are going to have some trouble, but not to worry because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). We need to rest in this assurance: in the end, the battle is ours if only we remain faithful.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength(York, NY: Scribner Classics, 1996 [orig. 1945]). George Orwell, who wrote 1984, was one who appreciated Lewis’ understanding of the drift of modern science and technology, as well as the drift of the mindset of many in government and academia.

[2] This notion of believers as “children of the light” is a theme Paul returns to throughout his apostolic career (see, I Thess. 5:5; Eph. 5:8; Romans 13:11-14; Col. 1:9-14). Jesus also uses this imagery for disciples (Matt. 5:14-16; Luke 16; John 8:12). Throughout the Bible light and darkness are used as symbols for the truth of God (light) and falsehood (darkness), the wisdom of God (light) and foolishness (darkness), the moral truth (light) and immorality (darkness).

[3] For those interested in the deeper implications of the subject, there are two works I recommend: Walter Wink, Naming the Powers(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1984) and Clinton E. Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters(Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Press, 1992). Wink is a liberal theologian and Arnold more conservative. One of my favorite writings on the subject is, Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers(Scottdale, Pa.: Herald, 1977 [orig. 1953])

[4] See, Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, ed A Testament of Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer rev. ed (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, 104); found in Robert E. Moses, Powerful Practices: Paul’s Principalities and Powers Revisited(Unpublished Dissertation: Duke Divinity School, 2012).

[5] The debate between liberal and conservative theologians tends to over whether the powers and principalities have a reality separate and apart from the social structures and people who demonstrate the behavior one associates with the powers. Wink, for example, often seems to want to make of the powers merely the inner reality of social, economic, political and military structures and thought-forms.

[6] The Greek wordἐνδυναμοῦσθε (“be empowered”) is in the middle or passive voice indicating that we (the word is in the second person plural, once again indicating the whole church) cooperate with God or allow God’s work of protecting us against the powers.

[7] For a specific description see, Leon Morris, Expository Reflections on the Letter to the Ephesians(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 204-208; R. C. Sproul, Focus on the Bible: Ephesians(Fern-Ross, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), 151-159.

[8] Billy Graham, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/148871-i-ve-read-the-last-page-of-the-bible-it-s-all(Downloaded August 2, 2018).

Mrs. Cleaver is Dead—Long Live Mama Mia: Ephesians 5: 18-23

When I was young, our family often watched a television show, “Leave it to Beaver.” [1] It ran from 1957 to 1963. The show depicts the life of Ward and June and Bond and their two sons Wally and Theodore, who was known as the “Beaver.” The show reflected the hopes and dreams of those who lived through the depression and World War II and came home from the war to build modern American families. Ward was the loving and wise father. June was a perfect mother who often gave loving grace to her undeserving son. Wally was the perfect older brother. Beaver was the boy we all actually were—imperfect and often in trouble. Interestingly, by the time the show ended America was already in that great transformation that would occur as a result of birth control, no-fault divorce, and the Vietnam war.

Recently, Kathy and I went to see the sequel to the movie “Mama Mia.”[2]For those of you who haven’t seen the original movie, Mama Miais based is the story of the wedding of a young girl whose mother is a single parent who did not know who her father was. In the sequel, the daughter is now pregnant out of wedlock, separated from her boyfriend. The sequel fills in some of the blanks left by the original and continues the story to a sweet ending.

Leave it to Beaverand Mama Miaillustrate social changes we have endured and the situation we are in today in America and the West. Vast numbers of people have no interest in traditional marriage. Even among conservative Christians, traditional  marriage and family life are waning. In such a situation, some people might think Paul, writing 2000 years ago, has very little to say to us today. Nevertheless, I think we will find that Paul has a lot to say to our situation.

Christian Families in the 21stCentury

Paul social teachings in Ephesiansare interesting. Some scholars take the view that Paul is retreating from this strong doctrine of grace and his strong commitment to equality in Christ. To these people, the Paul of Ephesiansis not the Paul who proclaims in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I think that these scholars are incorrect. What Paul is doing in Ephesiansis applying the doctrine of Christ to the circumstances of everyday life in the First Century. With this in mind, let us hear what Paul has to say in Ephesians 5:18-23:

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a]28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Let us pray: Eternal God: As we consider the subject of Christian marriage and family life this morning, let your Holy Spirit come and dwell in all of our hearts, so that we can be transformed into the image of Christ who gave himself for us and for our families. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 Principle 1: Everyone Always Imitate God All the Time.

At one point this week, I was talking to someone on staff about the service and made the comment that at twenty-seven, the week before Kathy and I got married, I could have led a really good Bible study from Ephesians on marriage. I would have been quite confident that I understood the passage and knew what a Christian marriage was like. After forty years of marriage, I’m not quite as certain I know what I am talking about!

Ephesiansis not an easy book. For our purposes, we need to revisit two passages: First Paul begins by reminding the Ephesians that they were saved by grace because of the unimaginable love of God by faith, not because of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). This means, of course, that living out a Christian marriage and family life is primarily a matter of Grace, not of works or obedience to the law or set of rules.

Second, in Chapter 5, Paul by asking the Ephesians to:“… be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). In the end, we all know that most of the problems of life, and most of the problems of marriage and family life, would disappear if we all loved one another as God loves the world and as Christ gave himself up for us on the cross. This pretty simple to understand; it is just impossible to do.

The cross was not easy for Jesus, and the crosses we must bear for our families and loved ones are no less easy. This week, I had the opportunity to share the story of a couple. When young, they were brilliant and good looking. Unfortunately, one of them had a serious, hidden disease. The couple been married now for over fifty years. It has not been an easy marriage. It hasn’t been a fun marriage. It has involved a lot of sacrifice, physical, mental, and emotional. But, it has lasted and blessed many people, including their children.

Principle 2: Everyone Be Submitted in Love to One Another All the Time.

This brings us to the second and the most controversial passage about marriage in the Bible. Paul asks wives to “submit” to their husbands. It’s often missed that, before Paul asks wives to be submitted to husbands, he asks Christians in general to be submitted to one another. He begins by asking everyone to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). This is important. Paul is not saying, “Husbands you don’t have to submit; but wives you must submit.” He’s not even saying, “Husband you have to submit, but wives you have to really, really, really submit”. He is saying, “Wives you should submit as everyone has to submit.”

I think it help to understand a bit about this word, “submit”. The word literally means to “stand under.” A person submits to another person when they yield their own desires to the needs, not demands, of the other. The idea of submission does not mean, “Be stupid” or “Allow others to abuse you.” It means that, in day-to-day life, consider the needs, hopes and dreams of the other to be as important, or even more important, than your own.

Think of a mother of small children. Kathy is a normal person. She likes to be around her friends. She likes to go out to lunch. She likes to go to Zumba lessons. She enjoys travel. But, when our children were young, she spent most of her time caring for the needs of our children. It wasn’t that her desires and wants were unimportant or wrong. It was that love motivated her to care for her children. She submitted her personal desires to her children out of love for them.

Years ago, I counseled a young woman who was abused by her husband. Her pastor counseled her to submit to the abuse. Her friends sent her to me. It was one of the few times when I had to tell another person to ignore their pastor’s advice. Submission does not mean behave stupidly or submit to mental or physical abuse. It means Christians are called to consider the needs of others as just as important as our own needs and desires.

Principle 3: Everyone Always Love Like Jesus

This brings me to our final teaching. After Paul teaches wives to submit to their husbands and respect them, he tells husbands to love their wives. But he doesn’t just say love your wives. He doesn’t say be romantically attached to your wife. (Most husbands don’t initially have any problem with romantic attachment.) Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her….” (Ephesians 5:25-27). In Paul’s world, husbands were the absolute rulers of their families. Telling wives and children to respect and obey was not radical advice. It was expected. However, what was completely unexpected was to tell husbands to love their wives, and not just a love them, but to love them enough to go to the cross and suffer and die for them. What was radical about Christians was not that they spoke a lot about love, but that they used a word for love that referred not to attractive love or affectionate love or brotherly or sisterly love, but to self-sacrificing love. Sacrificial love was radical then and is still radical today.

The love that God wants Christians to have for one another, for Christian wives to have for their husbands, and especially for Christian husbands to have for their wives, is a love that does not demand or require submission but gives everything for the sake of the other. This is not an easy love or a natural love, it is a supernatural love. It is the love that creates and makes possible all other loves. It is the love by which God created and sustains the universe, his people, and his church.

Not all marriages are easy. It so happens that Kathy and I do not have a particularly easy marriage. We are very different people. We have different fundamental values. We generally prefer different things. We don’t agree on restaurants, food, clothing, or even lipstick! We have some close friends who agree on everything! We’ve been friends since the day we got married. We are exactly the same age. We have raised our children together. There’ve been times what it would have been easy to look at their marriage and conclude that Kathy and I had made a mistake getting married. Then, several years ago, something happened. All of a sudden, I realized that Kathy and I actually had the better marriage. Despite all of our differences, despite all of our arguments and disagreements, somehow through the events of life, our marriage has been a greater protection and encouragement to personal growth for both of us. I wanted to say this today for a simple reason: to encourage you. Just because a marriage is hard doesn’t mean it’s a bad marriage. Just because your children are difficult to raise, doesn’t mean your family isn’t a good family. Sometimes, God takes the most difficult things and makes them the most beautiful things of all.

Be Willing to Live in a Mystery

Christian marriage will always be a mystery because God is a mystery and God’s love is a mystery. Paul ends this teaching with these words,

 “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:31-33).

One of my favorite books is by British clergy W.H. Vanstone. It is called, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to God. [3]This book, written by an ordinary British clergyman, has been the subject of conversation by people from ordinary pastors like me, to counselors, to quantum physicists.  There’s nothing fancy about the book, but it is profound. At the center of the book, Vanstone makes four points:

  1. Love does not set limits;
  2. Love acts for the benefit of the beloved, not for the benefit self; and finally
  3. Love is vulnerable and can always be hurt, betrayed or fail.

Love, in the end, is a great mystery. I want to close with a quote from Vanstone that says it all:

Where the object of love is truly the ‘other’, the activity of love is always precarious. Between the self and the other there always exists, as it were, a gap which the aspirations of love may fail to bridge or transcend. That which love would do or give or express may fail to arrive—through misjudgment, through misunderstanding, or through rejection. Love may be frustrated: its most earnest aspirations may come to nothing: the greatness of what is offered may be wholly disproportionate to the smallness of what, if anything, is achieved. Herein lies the poignancy of love, and its potential tragedy. The activity of love contains no assurance or certainty of completion. The progress of love must always be by tentative and precarious steps: and each step that is taken, whether it succeeds or fails becomes the basis for the next and equally precarious step….

A happy family life is neither a static situation nor a smooth and direct progression: it is an angular process, the endless improvisation of love to correct what it has created. [4]

In the end, both “Leave it to Beaver” and “Mama Mia” promise a happiness that cannot be delivered, not by an historic cultural norm or a commitment to violate those norms in the name of romantic love. Neither a romantic or traditional view of marriage will work. Love is the answer, but it is the self-giving love Christ showed on the cross that works in life and in marriage, not a romantic or legalistic love, but the love through and in which the world was made.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]See, Leave it to Beaverhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leave_It_to_Beaver(downloaded July 26, 2018). This particular sermon is an update of one that I preached many years ago. I could not find the original, and I am glad for that. Most young people today do not even know what Leave It To Beaver refers to!!

[2]See, Mama Miahttps://www.imdb.com/title/tt0795421/ (Downloaded July 26, 2018) and Mama Mia: Here We Go Againhttps://www.mammamiamovie.com/(Downloaded July 26, 2018). Both movies are quite cute and the music and dancing is great.

[3]W. H. Vanstone. Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God(London. ENG: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977). This is a book I recommend to everyone. It’s not easy, but it’s transforming.

[4]Id at 46-47.

Walking in the Way of Wise Love

Twice this past year, I followed on Facebook as friends walked what is called the “Camino the Santiago,” or “Way of St. James,”  in Spain.  One of them went to high school at the same time I did. The other is a Presbyterian pastor in Huntsville, Alabama. Ever since I saw the movie, The Way, I’ve loved the Camino and wanted to walk it. [1] For centuries, Christian pilgrims have walked, among other routes, from southern France, across the Pyrenees into Spain, and on to the city of Compostela, in which the Apostle St. James is reputed to be buried.

Along one of the routes there is an old Roman road that winds down the side of a mountain to a ravine where it crosses an old Roman bridge. Then, the road winds up the other side of the mountain. Over centuries, thousands of people, including hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims, have walked that narrow path on their way to the grave of St. James. Centuries of pilgrim have worn the path deep into dirt and stone.

Our lives are a kind of pilgrimage from birth to death, and the paths we choose to take in life profoundly impact who we become by the end of the journey.

The Path of Wise Love

The apostle Paul was a learned rabbi and member of the Jewish ruling council before his conversion. He studied under the Rabbi Gamaliel, and was familiar with the Old Testament—as familiar as any human being could possibly be. He was familiar with the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. He was intimately aware of the way in which the notion of human life as a journey in which we human beings must choose the path we will take—the path of wisdom or the path of foolishness, the path of righteousness or the path of wickedness, the path of life or the path of death, the path of light or the path of darkness (see, Proverbs 1:20-22; 27,32;2:7; 12-13; 4:18-19; 9:13-18). [2]

This is important because in today’s text Paul uses this same imagery to talk about the Christian life. Our text is from Ephesians 5 beginning with verse 1. Hear the word of God as it comes to us from the Apostle Paul in the book of Ephesians:

Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them;  for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light  (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.  But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible,  for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:1-21).

Let us Pray: God of Light in Whom there is no darkness, come now and enlighten us and show us your ways. Allow us to know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly. In Jesus Name, Amen.

It is All About Wisdom and Love

This sermon could be summed up in a single quote from today’s text: Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph. 5:1-2). In the end, the Christian life is about following Jesus and developing a way of life patterned on the life of Jesus. If we can be more or less pattern our lives after Jesus, if we can walk through life the way Jesus walked through life, then we are equipped disciples.

Christian life can be overwhelming. We go to church we after week, we hear sermon after sermon, we go to Bible study after Bible study, we read passages after passage, we have quiet time after quiet time—we learn all this information. We learn about all the wonderful things Jesus did and all the wonderful things Paul did and all the wonderful things the great heroes of the faith in the Old Testament did, and we think to ourselves, “Its hopeless!”

In First John, there are two descriptions of God: First, “God is light and in him there is no darkness” (John 1:6). Second, “Anyone who does not love does not know God for God is love” (I John 4:8). In the end, the fundamental principles of Christian life are simple: Live wisely and unselfishly love one another along the way. The problems of human life are complex. The consequences of bad decisions can be enormous. The solution, it turns out, is not all that difficult to understand. It is just incredibly hard to do! We just have love as Jesus loved and be wise. Jesus was loving, but he was also wise. He was wise in what he said, in what he did, and in who he trusted. [3]

Love and Purity: Two Sides of the Same Coin

In recent years, it’s been interesting to watch Christian pastors dance around the subject of moral purity. It’s easy to preach about Grace. It’s more difficult to preach about our Response to what God has done in our lives. It is the founding principle of Christian life that God loves us unconditionally and saves us by faith and not as a result of anything we do (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is not the same as saying God doesn’t care what we do. Jesus, when he was on earth, constantly critiqued the silly rules of the Pharisees. But, he never indicated for a second that the moral law did not matter. In fact, he said things like, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).[4]

When we say Christians should live wisely and love one another and other people, we are not saying that His love is something different from His wisdom or that morality is separated from Faith, or anything of the sort. Just as God is both wisdom and love at the same time, so also the Christian life is a wise life of moral purity and grace. Love and purity, faith and morality, are two sides of the same coin. If we are filled with the Spirit of God, which is the Spirit of Jesus, then in our day-to-day lives, we will live as God wants us to live, which is as Jesus lived. God is love and God is light, and there is no ultimate discontinuity between the two.

In researching the sermon this week, I found the following quote from George McDonald, who had a great impact on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein:

Love loves into purity. Love has always in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete … it spends itself to make more lovely that it may love the more; it strives for perfection. [5]

There is no greater gift we can give our society than to simply live out our Christian faith as best we can in our ordinary, day-to-day lives and try to resist the pressures of our society to follow our natural desires for position, power, pleasure and plenty to their ultimate end.

Walking the Walk

This gets us back to the central metaphor of today’s text. Paul urges us to walk as Children of God, to walk in the Love of God, to walk in the Light of God, and to pay close attention to our walk. As I mentioned at the beginning, in the Old Testament life is often analogized to a journey, and we have to choose the path we will take.

One of my favorite poems is by the American poet Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. [6]

It makes al the difference what path we take in life. The earliest name for the Christian movement was “the people of the Way” (Acts 9:2; 11:26). In the Old Testament, those who followed the way of the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom writers, followed the way of Moses.

In the new Testament, those who followed Jesus and lived according to his teachings were followers of the Way of Christ. This new way was not a way of obedience to rules, though there is a moral law and there are are rules; it is a way of life patterned after the One who lived and died for our sins and to restore and renew his followers in the image of God. [7]

The One Great Sign

Jesus encouraged his followers to love one another as the sign that their preaching and Way of Life were true and right when he told them to “love one another,” and in the same passage told them that the way the world would know that his teachings were true and right would be because of the love his disciples have for one another (John 14:33-35).

In the first two centuries of the Christian movement, many segments of Roman society, including many of the aristocracy and ruling class, were hostile to Christianity. Nevertheless, Roman society took notice of the fact that Christians loved each other with a sacrificial love unknown them. The Christian apologist Tertullian reported that the Romans would proclaim, “Those Christians, how they love one another.” [8]

Our society will also take notice if we love each other as Christ first loved us, and reach out into our world to share that same wise love with others as we experience it in our own lives.

This gets us to the conclusion of our text today, where Paul tells us that truth and morality blend into songs of beauty and health. He urges is to sing  songs and hymns and spiritual songs making melody with our hearts–for the heart is the seat of our goodness and of our search for truth (Ephesians 5:19-20). It is out of a heart transformed by love that such songs emerge.

Today, we are going to close with an old praise chorus, “They will Know We are Christians by our Love” because it states the basic truth of Christian faith and the best way we can reach out as we are sent into the world. [9]

The first line and chorus goes like this:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity, may one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians,
By our love, by our love.
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Way, dir. writ. prod. Emilio Estavez, starring Martin Sheen (2010). In the summer of 2015, I waked a one week version of the Camino, during which I saw the old Roman road mentioned.

[2] This section is based on G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[3] In Matthew and Luke Jesus says,  “one greater than Solomon” is among them (Matthew 12: 42; Luke 11:31). In John, we are told that Jesus did not trust himself to certain people because he “knew what was in them” (John 2:25). Jesus was no fool. In fact, he embodied a wisdom greater than human wisdom (I Cor. 1:18-25).

[4]  In John, Jesus says: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19; see also John 14.) In John 13:23-24, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.”

[5] George McDonald, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/535735-love-loves-unto-purity-love-has-ever-in-view-the (Downloaded July 14, 2018).

[6] Robert Frost, “The Road not Taken” from Collected Poems of Robert Frost (Dover Publications, 1997). Every person should own a copy of his poetry.

[7] This is the One of whom John said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” John 1:1-5).

[8] See, History of the Christian Church, “Love without Condition” (http://earlychurch.com/unconditional-love.php downloaded July 12, 2018); Tertullian, Against Heresies Chapter 39 (n.wikiquote.org/wiki/Tertullian, downloaded July 12, 2018).

[9] Peter Stoltes, They Will Know We Are Christians By our Love” (1966, Lorenze Corp). Stoltes wrote the hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” while a parish priest at St. Brendan’s on the South Side of Chicago. At the time, he led a youth choir and was looking for an appropriate song for a series of ecumenical, interracial events. When he couldn’t find such a song, he wrote the now-famous hymn in a single day.

 

Equipped By Grace

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

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

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

Equipped by Grace

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

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

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

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

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

 Human Beings Are Separated from the Father

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

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

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

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

The Grace of the One True Father

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

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

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

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

God’s Grace Has a Purpose

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

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

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

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

Good Works: Having Many Brothers and Sisters

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Attitude of a Reluctant Disciple

 

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

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

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

Learning to Love the Unlovely

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

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

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

God is Different

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

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

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

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

God Wants Us to be Different

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

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

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

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

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

Who Jesus Calls Us to Be

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

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

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

We Can Be Involved

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

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

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

Hanging Around with Jesus

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

The Prayer of a Reluctant Disciple

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

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

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

The Prayer of a Reluctant Disciple

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

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

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

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

Great Prayers of Reluctant Disciples are often Born in Bad Circumstances

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

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

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

Great Prayers Focus on our Sinful Circumstances

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

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

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

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

Great Prayers Recognize that God is a Great Savior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Prayers Result in a Great Deliverance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

AMEN

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

Shaped in Community

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

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

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

Shaped By the Word in Community

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

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

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

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

Jesus and Paul Shaped and Taught People in Community

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

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

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

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

We make Disciples in Community

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

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

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

Discipleship in Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunities for Discipleship in Community

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Party Time: Jesus is Alive

Mark 16:1-8; April 1, 2018

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

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

The First Easter

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

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

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

God’s Preparation for Easter

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

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

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

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

Human Expectations

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

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

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

A Surprise Announcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this Means for Us.

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

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

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

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

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

A Strange Ending and New Beginning

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

Practice and Preparation

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

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

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

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

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

The Disciples Practice Being Like Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We Need to Practice our Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Need to Practice as a Team

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

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

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

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

God Will Fill Us with His Spirit

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

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

We Seek People of Peace

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

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

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

God Will Provide the Harvest

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

Preparing for the Party

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

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

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

Preparation and Presence

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

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

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

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

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

 Expectation

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

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

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

Preparation

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

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

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

The Kingdom Christ Brought

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a Kingdom Citizen

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

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

Preparing for Easter

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

Amen

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

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

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

[4] Isaiah 9:6-7.

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

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

[7] See Revelation 21:1-6.

Heart of Worship: Transformed in Managing Money

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

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

Our Call to a Life of Stewardship

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

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

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

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

Principle One: We are Stewards not Owners!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harmony of Transformed Hearts

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

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

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

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

“In your relationships with one another,

have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God

something to be used to his own advantage;

He made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

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

From Disharmony to Harmony

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

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

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

 Eliminating Disharmony

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

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

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

Achieving Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

Music and the Divine Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Heart of Worship: Keep the main thing the Main Thing

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

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

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

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

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

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

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

What is Worship, Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship Leads to Action: The Great Commission and Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship: Music and the “Heart of Worship”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankful for the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

Here I am, Send Me.

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

Here is how Acts describes the event:

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

Preparing for the Spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Clear about the Spirit.

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

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

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

Pentecost Comes Today

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

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

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

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

Where Do We Go from Here?

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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