Practice Makes Perfect (or at least Better)

Practice Makes Perfect (Or At Least Better)

Mark 6: 9-13

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

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

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

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

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

The Disciples Practice Being Like Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We Need to Practice our Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Need to Practice as a Team

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

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

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

God Will Fill Us with His Spirit

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

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

We Seek People of Peace

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

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

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

God Will Provide the Harvest

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

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

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

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

Let’s go.

Amen

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

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

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

What Do Wisdom and Golf Have In Common?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Transitions: Last Words as we Cross into the Future

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

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

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

The Last Words and Challenge of Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are Able

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

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

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

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

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

We Must Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings are a Matter of Obedience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Matter of the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

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

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

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

Transitions: The Beginning of the Bridge

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

John the Baptist & Elijah

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

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

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

The Ministry of John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Beginning Means an Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Amen [4]

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

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

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

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

Transitions: Become a Star Follower

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

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

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

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

The Visit of the Wise Men

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

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

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

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

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

 Worship is the First Step in the Life of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

Tension with the World is Part of the Life of Faith

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

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

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

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

Once We See Jesus, We Travel a Different Path

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] See, Hare prev. cit. at 13-14.

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

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

Love and the End of our Longing

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

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

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

The Birth of the Messiah.

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

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

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

The Future is Always Unknown

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

Other than wives’ tales, Mary and Joseph had no scientific way of knowing for certain that Mary was going to have a son. (Although, the advice of angels is usually pretty accurate!) They had some idea when the baby would be born, enough to know it was soon when they started out for Bethlehem. In fact, it may be that Mary went with Joseph because they suspected the baby would come while he was away on family business. [2]You can bet that, as they made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, they wondered, “What will happen next?”  They did not know the future. They had to walk to Bethlehem by faith trusting God for their uncertain future.

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

We Trust God for the Future

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

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

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

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

Waiting on God for the Future

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

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

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

Loving Others as we Wait on God

One reason our culture experiences so much hopelessness is that we have lost our transcendent hope—a hope not built on human ingenuity or human work but upon the grace of One who loves us and who understands our weakness. We have lost the hope that comes from waiting on God. I am pretty sure that our politics would be less divisive and our business and economics less grasping if we really and truly trusted that God would take care of us whether our party wins, whether or not we get that new job, and whether or not we get this thing we think we want or need.

You see, Faith and Hope are completed in love. John tells us that, “God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have Eternal Life” (John 3:16). The birth Mary and Joseph received, and which we celebrate tomorrow, was a gift of Divine Love to the whole world. All the Christmas Trees, Christmas Parties, Christmas Presents, and Christmas Memories of this and every Christmas are but a small reflection of the love that God poured out on the world on that first Christmas.

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

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

Conclusion

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] Robert H. Stein, “Luke” in The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture Vol. 24 (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1992), 103-111. Ordinarily, Mary would not have been required to go with Joseph to be registered to pay taxes, though there were some exceptions to the general rule. Joseph probably took her because of the prejudice against her in Nazareth or because she was due and he wanted to be present for the birth. of the reasons.

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

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

Longing for Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

A Prophetic Longing

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

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
     and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them
(Isaiah 11:1-6).

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

The Leader We Long For

 The Prophet Isaiah lived in the times of two of the best kings of Israel and two of the worst. The prophesies of the historical Isaiah covers the period from the reign of King Uzziah (791-740 B.C.), the reign of King Jotham (750-732 B.C.), King Ahaz (736-716 B.C.), and King Hezekiah (725-687 B.C.). Uzziah and Hezekiah were good kings, but Ahaz and Jotham were not. Isaiah 11 was probably written sometime during the disappointing reign of Ahaz. [2] The prophet was understandably concerned about the future of his nation and about the quality of its leadership. Even Uzziah and Hezekiah, as good as they were, were not perfect leaders. They made mistakes.

As Isaiah thought and prayed about the situation, God revealed that what was needed was not better leaders of the kind that Israel had already had, but a new and different kind of leader. Such leadership would be Spirit-filled, loving and caring for people, wise, knowledgeable about the world and about the ways of God, insightful about the motives of people and the potential of situations, just, and righteous. Here are just a few of the Messianic descriptions of Godly leadership Isaiah contains:

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

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

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

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

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

The Unexpected Leader We Receive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

What is Next? Longing for a Word from God

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

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

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

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

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

The Word of God from Isaiah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary’s Story

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

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

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

Our Story

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, we are like that Cajun.

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

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

A Thanksgiving Week Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

 

Thankful for Salvation

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

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

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

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

Text and Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise of Salvation

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

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

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

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

The Reality of Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Response of Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

Will we be Leaves on the Tree of Life?

Revelation 22:1-6

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

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

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

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

Text and Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

The River of the Spirit and the Tree of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Life Centered in Christ

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

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

A Life Shaped in Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Life Sent into the World

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

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

The Big Question

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

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Amen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Body Gifts

Selections from I Corinthians 12

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

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

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

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

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

Text and Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Giver of the Gifts

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

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

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

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

The Gifts of the Giver

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

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

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

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

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

The Motive of the Giver.

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

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

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

The Goal of the Gifts

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

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part,but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love(I Corinthians 13:1-13).

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

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

Amen.


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

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

Generous Living

A “Sermon on the Amount”

There is no character in Scripture more fascinating than Abraham. For those of you who don’t know his story, a brief introduction will help you understand what a wonderful passage we are studying in this blog. The story of Abraham begins with the death of his father. Terah. Abraham’s father was the head of what a Bedouin-like tribe we know as the “Hebrews.” They had begun their journey near Babylon, in the Ur of the Chaldees. In Haran, near today’s Damascus, Terah died (Genesis 11:27-32).

Abraham was now the head of the family. By now, Abraham was well-along in years. He was comfortable. He lived in or near a relatively wealthy city. However, Abraham had a problem: he and his wife Sarah were without children. He had no heir to whom to leave his property, position, and responsibility. 

One day, when Abraham was already an old man, the Lord came to him and told him that, if he would go from his home to a land which God would show him, the Lord would give him descendants and bless the whole world through him (12:1-3). Scripture tells us that Abraham believed God and so by faith and trusting in God went from Haran in order to receive the promised blessing. This action of Abraham resulted in his becoming a hero of the faith, whose trust in God is used over and over again as a symbol to faith all believers should have (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; Hebrews 11:8-10, 17-19).

When Abraham left Haran, he took with him Lot, his nephew. He also took along his cattle and sheep all of his belongings his wife and his family. Anyone who’s ever seen a travelling Bedouin group can imagine many people walking through the desert with camels and donkeys carrying their belongings as they led their herds of goats and sheep along the Fertile Crescent south towards what we today know as “Israel.”

Eventually, Lot and Abraham had so many sheep that their herdsman were constantly fighting for grassland and water. If you remember from our series on the 23rdPsalm, sheep graze land almost to the stubble of the grass. Therefore, it is necessary to move them from field to field. You just cannot have too many sheep grazing together in a single area.

Therefore, it was necessary for the Lot and Abraham to separate (Gen. 13). Given the choice by Abraham, who might have chosen the best land for himself, Lot chose a fertile area in southern Judea near the Sodom and Gomorrah. He eventually moved into Sodom. Later, the king of Elam and his allies made war against the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and their allies (Gen. 14). (These kings were really little more than chieftains who controlled a particular city and the surrounding land.) Eventually, Lot was captured with his belongings and wives and taken into captivity (14:11).

Upon hearing this, Abraham gathered up 318 men and fought a battle, rescuing Lot, recovering his belongings, and capturing himself a great deal of booty. Today’s text takes place after that battle, as Abraham meets a mysterious figure called “Melchizedek” on his way home.  Melchizedek, whose name means “King of Righteousness,” was the king of Salem. We think that Salem was in the same location as modern Jerusalem. Their meeting probably occurred somewhere near that spot.

In the New Testament, Jesus is called a “Priest after the Order of Melchizedek.” You see, Melchizedek was not in an Aaronic priest of the law of Moses. He lived hundreds of years before Moses. Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God prior to the Law being given and prior the Jewish priesthood. Similarly, Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi; he was of the tribe of Judah, in the line of David. Yet, on the cross, he demonstrated himself to be our High Priest. Jesus is a King of Righteousness, having fulfilled the law by his life and sacrificial death.

Text and Prayer

With this long introduction, let’s read and hear the word of God as it comes to us from Genesis chapter 12:

After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abraham, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
    who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Then, the king of Sodom said to Abraham, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”

But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth,that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.” (Genesis 14:17-24).

A Tithe of Friendship and Gratitude

When people talk about tithing, and when pastors preach on tithing, they often begin with the later biblical passages after the law of Moses. They forget that tithing existed before the law of Moses. People have expressed their gratitude to God for the blessings of life since Cain and Able at the beginning of Genesis (Genesis 4:3-6). These were offerings of thanks and gratitude for the harvest God had provided. It is important that we remember that giving and tithing begins with gratitude.

In today’s passage, Abraham has fought a great battle against kings with superior numbers and better trained armies.  On his way home, he met Melchizedek, the King of Salem, a Priest of the Most High God and King of Salem. When they met, Melchizedek brought out wine and bread and they shared a fellowship meal.  The same elements Jesus used in the Last Supper as he instituted the meal as a symbol of our new fellowship with God by faith in Christ.

As was pointed out several weeks ago, hospitality is a big part of Middle Eastern culture. When Melchizedek, reached out in hospitality and friendship to Abraham, Abraham responded with gratitude by giving a tithe to Melchizedek. In this way, these two men were bonded together as friends by the terms of their culture. This is a wonderful picture of our relationship with God.

Abraham recognized that his victory was not of his own doing. He realized that God had delivered him from his enemies. That’s what Melchizedek, says in his blessing. In response, Abraham tithed to his new friend. Our act of giving should be motivated by the same features that characterize the relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek: God has opened up his heart to us and provided salvation to us, bringing us into his household. We’ve been made friends of God. In joyful gratitude for all that God has done, we open our hearts to God and give back to God from what we have been given by his grace.

A Tithe of Blessing

Wisdom literature teaches that we should honor the Lord with the first fruits of our wealth. When we do this, God promises we will receive a blessing in return. Here is how it is put in Proverbs 3:

Honor the Lord with your wealth,
    with the first-fruits of all your crops;

then your barns will be filled to overflowing,and your vats will brim over with new wine (Proverbs 3:9-10).

Wisdom literature is not a law or set of rules. Wisdom literature contains observations by the wise men of old about the results of human behavior given the nature of the universe and how God acts. [1] The wise men observed that generous people frequently received a blessing in return for their generosity. This was certainly true of Abraham!

Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to talk a number of our members about experiences they have had where God responded to their act of generosity by restoring to them as much or more of what they had given. Now, this isn’t a necessary thing. It doesn’t always happen. However, I can tell you, that in my life, I’ve been surprised how frequently exit generosity lead to blessings.

A Tithe of Trust/Faith

As time went on, the law of tithing was incorporated into the Torah. The word “Torah” is the Hebrew word we translate as “Law”. This is a good translation, but it leaves something out. The word Torah also means “Instruction”. If one reads the five books of the Old Testament known as the “Torah,” one immediately notices that the majority of the text is an historical narrative. It’s the story of God’s people as they live out the life of faith. The instruction we receive from the story is not law in the sense of rules. It is a way of life lived in faith and trust in the living God.

This is where we get to the next principle of stewardship and tithing: By the time of the prophets, the people of Israel were no longer respecting God, seeking the blessings of God, and responding to the grace of God by trusting God in all of life. Therefore, the prophets questioned the people and warned them about the consequences of their unfaithfulness and lack of trust.

Several weeks ago, I was in a prayer meeting on Thursday evening with a small group of people. One of those people was Margie Townsend, one of the members of our Pastoral Search Committee. At the meeting, we talked and prayed about our church and giving. Margie reached into her Bible and gave me a card that Hu Auburn handed out in 1999, almost twenty years ago!! On that card is printed Malachi chapter 3 verse 10. It reads as follows:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it(Malachi 3:10). 

Often, this verse is used to talk about the law of tithing. Notice, however, that obedience to the law is not the focus of the prophet’s words. What’s mentioned is the blessing of living joyfully in faith and trust in God, giving to God and expecting that God will meet our needs because we are his friends, his children, members of his family and tribe! Once again, there is a law, a teaching, and we ought to follow it. But, that is not the fundamental reason to give. The reason to give is in response to the blessings we have received from God, personal, spiritual, emotional, and material.

Jesus and the Tithe

Finally, this morning I want to talk about Jesus and tithing. Often, preachers, scholars, and others say that the Old Testament practice of tithing no longer applies in the New Testament or to Christians. For a number of reasons, I don’t think that’s correct. Fundamentally, the reason I don’t think it’s correct is because God hasn’t changed between the Old Testament and the New Testament. God wanted to bless his people and have fellowship with his people in the Old Testament, and God wants to bless his people and have fellowship with his people today! 

God wants to bless us to be a blessing to others today just as he wanted to bless Abraham. God wants us to be joyful members of his family as much today as he wanted the ancient Jews to be members of his family, so that they could be a blessing to others! He wants to bless the world through our faith, just as he wanted to bless the world through Abraham’s faith. God is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

In a passage in Luke, Jesus was doing mighty deeds of power, driving out demons, and teaching with great wisdom. The crowds were coming to him, and of course the Pharisees weren’t always thrilled by his teaching or action. At one point, Jesus says the following:

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone(Luke 11:42).

This passage undercuts those who believe that Jesus abrogated tithing as a practice for God’s people. Jesus is not criticizing the Pharisees for tithing. He is criticizing them for legalistically tithing, but neglecting to love others and do justice and love God first. 

Last week, John Murtha said something in our worship service that is very important: “We can give without loving but we can’t love without giving.” That’s exactly what the Pharisees were doing! They were giving without loving. They didn’t really love God or other people. What Jesus is saying is we should give, not legalistically, but out of the abundance of the joy of Christ in our hearts and the love we have for God and others!

Living as Grateful Friends of God

I want to leave us this today right where we began: Once upon a time there was a man named “Abraham”. God promised Abraham that if he would walk in trustful faith, he would bless him. Abraham responded to God in faith. God responded to Abraham’s faith. In the end Abraham received the blessing of the promised son. But he received something more, Abraham became a friend of God. Over years and years of walking by faith, Abraham’s personality became such that God called him his “Friend.” When we live like Abraham, walk in faith and living by faith, we also become friends of God. Tithing, you see, is simply a part of being a friend of God.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


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

Don’t be a Fool Like Me!

Selections from I Samuel 25.

Once again, I did not write this. It just appeared on my computer screen. I must have some problem with my WordPress or computer!

Good morning. My name is Nabal, and I’ve been asked to tell you my story as it appears in First Samuel. I’m going to read a small portion of chapter 25 before I tell you the entire story. It might help to give you a little bit of background: The first king of Israel was named “Saul.” Saul started out well, but he disobeyed God. Therefore, God had David anointed to be king (I Samuel 16). David didn’t become king right away. It took a long time. David first came to public prominence when he killed the giant, Goliath of Gath (I Samuel 17). After David killed Goliath, he became a servant of Saul and sang to Saul when an evil spirit came upon him.

Over time, David was so successful as a soldier that Saul became jealous of him (I Samuel 18). Eventually, Saul tried to kill David (I Samuel 19). David fled, and for many years lived in the wilderness with a band of men (I Samuel 20ff). During those years, David lived as a kind of Robin Hood-like figure. During this time, on and off, Saul chased David around the countryside and tried to kill him. David spared Saul’s life on more than one occasion (I Samuel 24, 26). On one occasion, David lived near my home.

This is how the story is told by the writer of First Samuel:

Now Samuel died, and all Israel assembled and mourned for him; and they buried him at his home in Ramah. Then David moved down into the Desert of Paran.  A certain man in Maon, who had property there at Carmel, was very wealthy. He had a thousand goats and three thousand sheep, which he was shearing in Carmel. His name was Nabal and his wife’s name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings—he was a Calebite. While David was in the wilderness, he heard that Nabal was shearing sheep.So, he sent ten young men and said to them, “Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name.Say to him: ‘Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours!  “‘Now I hear that it is sheep-shearing time. When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing.Ask your own servants and they will tell you. Therefore, be favorable toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.’” When David’s men arrived, they gave Nabal this message in David’s name. Then they waited.  Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days.Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?”  David’s men turned around and went back. When they arrived, they reported every word. David said to his men, “Each of you strap on your sword!” (I Samuel 25:1-12).

Let us prayGod of Wisdom: Today, we ask that from this story and the words of Jesus we might become wise, not necessarily as this world defines wisdom, but in the true wisdom that comes from above.

Introducing Nabal

As I mentioned at the beginning, my name is “Nabal,” at least that’s the name that everyone knows me by (I Samuel 25:25). In my native language, Hebrew, Nabal means “Fool.” Since it’s unlikely that anyone would actually named their child “Fool,” I probably had another birth name. But, that was a long time ago. For most of my life, I was known as “Nabal the Fool,” and because of the story I am about to tell you, I am afraid I will have that name for all eternity. [1]

I lived around the year 1000 B.C. in the land you call “Israel.” [2]Our land was called Israel during my time too. A few years before I was born, my people entered the Land of Promise. My forbearers received an allotment of land near Mount Caramel, where the Prophet Elijah would eventually confront the priests of Baal (I Kings 18:20).  Over a few generations, we became wealthy. Your Bible remarks that I was so wealthy that I had 1,000 thousand goats and 3,000 sheep. That was a lot of sheep and goats in my day! I had a lovely home and a beautiful and intelligent wife. Unfortunately, I was ill-tempered and mistreated everyone around me.

During the reign of King Saul, the time of our judges was nearly over. In fact, the last judge, Samuel died right at the beginning of the end of my life story (I Samuel 25:1). For most of my life, Israel was attacked constantly under the leadership of the judges. That all changed when Saul became king. I was happy with Saul as king because I felt safer, and he was good for business.

In your day, you don’t study wisdom literature very much. [3]  But, in my day, we did. We had a whole class of people called “Wise Men.” Eventually, they would write the book of Proverbs in your Bible. In our culture, Wisdom was valued and respected. To the north of us, those who lived in the land of the Chaldeans also respected wisdom—that is where the Wise Men in your New Testament came from (Matthew 2:1-12). To the south of us, Egypt was renowned for its Proverbs. In fact, a portion of your book of proverbs is based upon wisdom written in Egypt! [4]

The reason I’m mentioning this is to let you know that I was without an excuse for my foolishness. I lived in a culture where people respected the wisdom of their elders and of the past. We believed that wisdom was a gift from God (Proverbs 1:7; 8:12-31; 9:10; 15:33). Therefore, I knew it was a mistake to speak harshly to my servants, and especially to someone like David! I knew that a soft answer turns away anger but a harsh answer causes anger (Proverbs 15:1).

Over the 3000 years since my death, I’ve had the opportunity to study wisdom literature. Over and over again, the Bible describes two ways of life: the way of life, characterized by wisdom, and the way of death, characterized by foolishness. Sometimes, the two ways are described as two women who fight for the souls of people (Proverbs 9). Unfortunately, I followed Lady Foolishness not Lady Wisdom—and I paid the price for my decision.

My Encounter with David

This is where we get to the heart of my story. As I said, I was a wealthy man. Some months before my encounter with David, David came to live in our area (I Samuel 25:4ff). He protected my people from outlaws and bandits and never once took any advantage of my herdsmen. I knew that he had guarded my herdsman when they were out in the fields protecting my flock.

This is important. In my culture, if a person did you a favor you owe them hospitality. This is still true in the Middle East today! It’s one of the best parts of Middle Eastern culture. When David sent his men to ask me to give them a little lamb meat for the holidays, not only did I owe this to him as an act of kindness, I owed it to him as an act of hospitality in the culture in which I lived (vv. 6-8).

Unfortunately, this is where the worst part of my personality ruined my life. Instead of giving a little food to David in response to his kindness to me, I sent away his messengers with harsh words (vv. 10-11). I’m afraid that my greed got the best of me. (I was a pretty greedy person at heart.) When David heard this, he became extremely angry and determined that he would kill me, my sons, and all my male servants (vv. 12-13). It would have been a disaster for our family. Worst of all, as I knew, David was perfectly capable of doing this. What was I thinking?

David’s Encounter with Abigail

One problem with having a bad temper and treating people harshly, especially when you are a leader, is that, eventually, people become scared of you. This was true of my servants (v. 17). Because they were afraid of me, one my servants went to see my wife Abigail (v. 14). As I mentioned earlier, I had a wonderful wife who I did not appreciate. Her name was “Abigail,” which means “joy of her father.”  Abigail’s father loved her, and I think he was probably was sorry she married me. Abigail was beautiful. More importantly, Abigail was gentle, smart and wise. If I had been a wiser man, I would have listened to my wife more than I did. [5]

When my servants went to see Abigail, they told her of David’s kindness to our shepherds, and the debt we owed him for his kindness (vv. 15-16). My wife immediately recognized the danger to our family (v. 18). Therefore, she made arrangements to go to David with a generous gift. She took 200 loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep, an entire bushel of grain, and 100 roasted cakes of raisin and 200 cakes of figs, which are sort of like your “Fig Newtons”  (v. 19).  It was a gift fit for a king, and it  shows just how wealthy I was. David was so impressed with my wife, and wise enough to listen to her good advice. Therefore, he did not kill me (vv. 22-35).

God’s Judgment on Me

Last week, you heard from my distant relative Adam. He was the first of our people to sin and act selfishly. You learned that sin has consequences that can harm your life. My story reveals that stupidity, ignorance, and foolishness also have consequences. In my case, the consequence was terrible. This is why Proverbs and wisdom literature generally calls the Way of Foolishness, the Path of Death. In my case, it was literally the path to my death.

I didn’t mention it earlier, but I had a bit of a drinking problem (vv. 36). At the very moment that my wife was saving the life of my family and servants, I was busy hosting a giant party for my friends. When she returned home, I had had too much to drink, so she did not tell me what had transpired. When she told me the next day, I had a heart attack! Ten days later I died.

God’s Blessing on Abigail

When she visited David, Abigail interceded on my behalf in the most diplomatic and wise way (vv. 26-31). She pointed out that it was beneath David, who would one day be King of Israel, to kill someone like me. David listened to Abigail, blessed her for the advice, and followed it (vv. 32-35). In so doing, he showed that he had a kind of wisdom not necessarily common among warriors and men of violence. Out in the wilderness, chased by Saul, God was molding David into the king he would one day be. When he heard that I had died, he recognized that God had judged me for treating him with contempt. (v. 40). [6]

In my culture, it would have been common for my wife Abigail to fall into poverty as a result of my death. David, of course, knew this. Therefore, he invited Abigail to become his wife, somewhat like Boaz, his great-grandfather, asked Ruth to become his wife years earlier (Ruth). Abigail agreed, and so she became a queen. She was not David’s favorite wife, Bathsheba was. However, my wife was his wisest and best wife (I think). She and David had a son named Daniel, perhaps a forbearer of the prophet my the same name! (II Samuel 3:3).

As a result of my behavior, my family disappeared from history. David, however, became a great king, the greatest of all of Israel’s kings. Abigail became the wife of the greatest king of Israel. Eventually, one of the children of David would become the messiah of Israel. You know him as Jesus.

Jesus and My Story

Jesus grew up in a Jewish household; and, of course, he probably knew my story. Later, when he was a man, he told a story of a man just like me. The story appears in Luke. It goes something like this: Once upon a time there was a rich man who was blessed with a large farm with fertile soil. One year, his land produced a wonderful crop. The crop was so large that he needed additional storage barns for the crop. This man decided to tear down his existing barns and build larger ones.

In these new storage barns, he intended to store all the grain he had produced. When this project was finished, decided that he would retire from farming and take life easy, because he had enough to last for many, many years. He said to himself that he would “eat, drink, and be merry” for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, that very night he died. Jesus said that this is exactly how it is for anyone who is rich in the things of this world but not rich in the things of God (Luke 12:13-21).

As I have reflected upon my life, and upon this story from the New Testament, I see that I was very much like the Rich Fool. I had everything a man could possibly have. I had good parents. They left me a good inheritance. I expanded on that inheritance. (Despite all of my faults, I was a good businessman). I had a wise and wonderful wife. She was more beautiful and smarter than the wives of any of my friends. She was a true “Proverbs 31 wife.” I had every earthly blessing a man could ask for.

Unfortunately, I had two character flaws: (1) I was greedy and (2) I did not know how to control my tongue, both of which are condemned by Scripture. [7] Perhaps in your day and time you would say I had a low self-image, and therefore created a False Self that was angry and defensive in the extreme. Or, you might just say that I was a jerk to everyone around me. My servants feared me. My friends called me a fool behind my back. My wife was constantly covering up my mistakes.

In the end, I wasted the gifts that God had given me. I never became the man God made me to be. I hope you won’t make the same mistake.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


[1]For more information, see Bill T. Arnold, “First and Second Samuel” in The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2003). This sermon was informed by this commentary’s treatment of the story.

[2] David’s kingdom was formed  around this time. Saul may have ruled from about 1050 to around 1025 B.C.

[3]For an introduction to Jewish Wisdom literature for Christians, see G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene, OR: Wiph & Stock 2014).

[4]See, Derek Kidner, An Introduction to Wisdom Literature: The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes(Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 32 &44ff. 

[5] See, “Abigail” at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abigail(Downloaded, September 13, 2018).

[6]One feature of this story is the comparison between Nabal and David. David, though just as impulsive by nature as Nabal, stops when Abigail speaks to him, listens, and follows her advice. This is made more important by the fact that Abigail was a woman, and a person like David would not necessarily have followed her advice in that culture.

[7] This is the meaning of the Parable of the Rich Fool. See on greed: Psalms 10:3; Romans 1:29; I Corinthians 5:10; Mark 7:21-22; and Matthew 15:19-20. As to controlling the tongue, see:  Proverbs 10:19; 15:5; 12:6-7, 13-14, 18-19; 15:1-2, 28; 17:19; 18:1-8,  27-28;  21:23; Matthew 15:11, I Peter 3:10; Colossians 4:6; Ephesians 4:29; Titus 3:1-2; James 1:19-26.

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).

Christian wisdom for abundant living

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