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).

Standing Firm In the Light

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

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

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

Standing Firm in the Light

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

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

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

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

The Conflict We Experience

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

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

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

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

The Conflict We Experience

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

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

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

The Equipment We Need

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

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

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

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

Community of Believers

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

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

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

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

The Victory We Are Promised

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Families in the 21stCentury

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

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

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

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

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

 Principle 1: Everyone Always Imitate God All the Time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principle 3: Everyone Always Love Like Jesus

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

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

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

Be Willing to Live in a Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

[4]Id at 46-47.

Walking in the Way of Wise Love

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

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

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

The Path of Wise Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is All About Wisdom and Love

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

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

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

Love and Purity: Two Sides of the Same Coin

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

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

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

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

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

Walking the Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One Great Sign

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

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

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

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

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

The first line and chorus goes like this:

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

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

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Equipped By Grace

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

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

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

Equipped by Grace

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

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

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

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

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

 Human Beings Are Separated from the Father

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

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

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

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

The Grace of the One True Father

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

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

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

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

God’s Grace Has a Purpose

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

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

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

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

Good Works: Having Many Brothers and Sisters

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Attitude of a Reluctant Disciple

 

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

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

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

Learning to Love the Unlovely

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

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

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

God is Different

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

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

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

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

God Wants Us to be Different

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

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

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

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

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

Who Jesus Calls Us to Be

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

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

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

We Can Be Involved

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

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

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

Hanging Around with Jesus

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

The Prayer of a Reluctant Disciple

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

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

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

The Prayer of a Reluctant Disciple

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

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

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

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

Great Prayers of Reluctant Disciples are often Born in Bad Circumstances

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

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

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

Great Prayers Focus on our Sinful Circumstances

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

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

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

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

Great Prayers Recognize that God is a Great Savior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Prayers Result in a Great Deliverance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

AMEN

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

Shaped in Community

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

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

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

Shaped By the Word in Community

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

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

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

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

Jesus and Paul Shaped and Taught People in Community

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

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

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

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

We make Disciples in Community

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

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

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

Discipleship in Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunities for Discipleship in Community

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Party Time: Jesus is Alive

Mark 16:1-8; April 1, 2018

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

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

The First Easter

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

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

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

God’s Preparation for Easter

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

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

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

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

Human Expectations

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

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

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

A Surprise Announcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this Means for Us.

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

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

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

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

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

A Strange Ending and New Beginning

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

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

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

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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