Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.
I’ve asked repeatedly how our church became such a mess. I've asked it so often you are probably getting tired of me posing this question. So I guess I should really give an answer already. It all boils down to human nature displayed in place of God's character.
We're very aware of how I haven't been a saint as the world defines it. While at times I may have been merciful, kind, and respectful, I haven't lived a life wholly given over to Jesus. There are times that, instead of merciful, kind, and respectful, I've been willful, stubborn, and if I'm being completely honest, a bit pigheaded. Having those characteristics cost me. Pride harmed me. Wounds broke me. Salving over my hurt with half measures was one of the worst decisions I could have ever made, regardless of the circumstances under which they were made. At some point in this process, you have to take a tally of all that has happened. What have I lost? More aptly, who has been lost? Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that doing the will of the Father stores treasures for us in heaven. All the treasure I may have stored up there in my own account, I would gladly give up if I could go back and say what I should have said, do what I should have done, all when I should have done it. One more soul experiencing the richness of God's love would be worth living for an eternity as a pauper in heaven. Unfortunately, that just ain't gonna happen because that's not how it works.
Maybe you've led a good life thinking that you're doing well right where you are, staying put, only to find that we're not just asked to go tell people about Jesus, but in actuality we're told to go. We can say to ourselves that we don't own the flock, and we'd be right. You can reason with yourselves that you're not pastors or bishops or deacons or certified lay speakers, and you'd be right. You're not shepherds in this church, your pastor is. Isn't that part of the name pastor? We pay our clergy to build our churches, so they should be the ones doing the building. That's what a lot of folks think. But I don't believe that you feel that way.
The long and the short of things is that we can ignore this question of who's responsible for the flock, or we can face it head-on.
Easy to ignore
You gotta admit, it would be easy to blow it off. We can justify ourselves in doing just that in so many ways. Maybe we can just get buried in the details of everyday life. Sorry, Jesus, the kids, and grandkids just have too much going on for me to spend any more time with you than Sunday.
That doesn't sound like you, though. Maybe some people, but I don't believe that accurately defines the people of this church.
Going beyond the details of everyday life means we go beyond the things that bind us to this earth and into the things that are about God. That's the shift of focus I keep talking about.
Granted, we have a little church, but I love to tell other pastors that in my church, almost half the congregation shows up for Midweek Meetup to discuss the Bible. We're a tiny church, alright, but per capita, this church shows boatloads of heart. This is why I know that once you learn why Paul was crying in this goodbye to the leaders of the Ephesian church, you'll do something about it.
You're not sitters. You're doers. Whether you know that or not doesn't matter.
As Paul explains later in this chapter, there will be wolves who come around, even from the inside of the church. If someone doesn't have the guts to stand up to them when they do, the flock will be decimated. Those are Paul's exact words.
Before we can sort out Paul's words and tears further, there are two big questions here that need some attention. One, who is the flock, and two, who are the overseers?
First, let's talk about sheep. Sheep are, to put it bluntly, kind of dumb. Compared to our definition of intelligence, sheep are downright blockheaded. Sheep don't drive cars or balance check books or gets stressed about mortgages or their retirement or their boss or ... Ok, so maybe they're not as dumb as we think. But sheep have a sense about them that keeps them alive, so they don't entirely lack knowledge. They just lack intelligence and the strength enough to survive in the face of a lion or a bear. When carried off in the teeth of a lion or a bear, a sheep's best friend is a gutsy little shepherd boy who said, "Not on my watch, dude," and proceeded to put a hurting on the two interlopers. That's King David, by the way. David loved his charges, and that's why he did what he did. Later on, his generational grandson Jesus f Nazareth would point out the difference between the love and devotion of a shepherd like David and a hired hand.
Real fast sidebar here.
Do you want to know why David was looked down upon by all his older brothers? It wasn't just because of his age. I think it was because he made them look bad. When you're a kid, and you drag home a slightly wounded lamb and a lion or bear pelt that needs tanning, it says something.
David was one bad dude, even as a boy. The sheep knew this.
People as sheep need someone like David. They need an army of Davids, in fact. When the enemy comes around, they need a David who will stomp a mudhole in the backside of the bad guy and then walk it dry. Right now, we have lambs being carried off in the teeth of much worse than lions and bears, and we're in dire need of a couple of hundred Davids that can oversee their return to the flock.
You see, that's why Paul was crying. Paul was on sort of a farewell tour and was leaving for Jerusalem from Miletus. He'd bypassed Ephesus but still called their leaders to him because he knew he would never see the Ephesians again. Paul's love for the Ephesian church was the result of three long years of ministry. He would have loved to stay with the Ephesians, but he knew that wasn't going to happen if he wanted to reach his goal of getting to Jerusalem before Pentecost.
Now, the Ephesians were a pretty good church, one that Jesus tells us in Revelation 2 was full of promise, so why was Paul crying? Why wasn't Paul happy and resting secure, knowing he'd done an excellent job and they were in good shape? Because Paul had a lot of skin in the game. If you don't know what that phrase means, it means you put yourself under some sort of risk through your involvement in a particular venture. In the second chapter of Revelation, the church at Ephesus was described as a busy church, doing what it should do. It was a church that was working hard and doing it's best to be obedient. But they were going through the motions of being a church. That isn't surprising to discover as they were worn down by the endless need for endurance in their persecution. They had forgotten why they were called to do the work they did. Love was that reason. So who suffers when that happens? The flock suffers. The same congregation they were sent to increase through the spread of that love.
Appointments in our district and conference of the United Methodist Church last anywhere between three to five years. That's three to five years to do the work of a pastor within a church, to build up a body of believers there. This can be challenging for a pastor because some churches will lay the burden entirely at the feet of a pastor. The catch to this is, pastors, don't spread the gospel nearly as effectively as the church does. A pastor is only one person, but the church is much more than a person in a pulpit. A church is also more than the people in the pews. There's a reason the UMC is a laity-led denomination. The church was intended to be the body of believers. They were called to do their work of lovingly spreading the gospel among the community in which they lived. When we talk about our liturgy in the United Methodist Church, it is laity-driven, people-driven, because it is the work of the people in worship. That mindset has to spill over into their community involvement, or we end up a lot like the church in Ephesus. They were so busy on the inside. But Ephesus had forgotten entirely about the love for those outside its walls it had when it was young.
A pastor may be in a church for a short time, and then be called to go elsewhere, just as Paul was. But the leaders of the church and the rest of the church body remain there.
Think for a second about all that happens in your life over the span of 3 to 5 years. You could watch your baby grow, you could pay off a car, you could get a better house, you could graduate college. Is any of that worth crying over? Agonizing over? Of course, and with good reason. Now think of that timespan for the church, putting your frame of reference there. What is it that could cause us to cry or agonize from that point of view?
Make absolutely no mistake. We are in a fight. And this fight? This fight is treacherous. I've often thought that the worst thing that can happen to a person in this lifetime is to become successful. Jesus believed that way as well, and its because your comfort here directly relates to how you view storing up treasures in heaven. If I have wealth here, why should I bother with the treasure in heaven? I can't see heaven. I can't smell, touch, or taste heaven. But I can see my big house, and I can smell my 50-acre front yard that was just mowed, touch the keys to my Lamborghini and taste that 5-star meal I eat every night. While some folks can indeed absorb success, success is more likely to absorb those who encounter it. Success tends to remove us from the real reason we're here, the real reason we need Jesus and his Holy Spirit. The real reason Paul was crying.
This commandment from the apostle to the leaders of the Ephesus church wasn't given lightly. When I read it, as a pastor, this is a challenge directly to me to put up or shut up.
Paul gives me, again, as a pastor, an example of just what kind of personal investment I need to have in my church if it is to be successful. There's no room for half-measures in this fight. There's no room for sorta, kinda, maybe. Paul made that clear in the hard work he did in Ephesus teaching in the synagogue and at the school. It was a point he made with much agony out of the example he'd set for the leaders of Ephesus.
Breaking out of our human nature exposes us to the seriousness of the work. In it, we're exposed to the greatness of God. For the fight Paul faced, he modeled the skin he had in the game after Christ. When we do the same, we get a completely different viewpoint of the purposes God has laid out for our lives. And it will change you.
Paul called the leaders of Ephesus overseers. The word he used is "episkopos" and its where we get the word "episcopal" in reference to a church or denomination headed by a bishop. Its made up of two Greek words, epi, which means "on" and skopos, which properly means the end marker of a foot race. Put together, they mean something like "on target," with the broader meaning of guiding the flock to their target. Figuratively used here, it means the objective in their life of faith. Some commentaries say that is the individual reward God gives to each believer when He returns. I think it's more than that. I think it's the reward we get when we seek God's will, loving Him and all those around us. I think that's what Paul had in mind in the third chapter of the letter he wrote to the Philippians. "I press on toward the goal - skopon - to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."
Translated literally, this passage doesn't mean we are only are called heavenward, as some sort of final outcome because once you have that, why sweat it by continually running? Why cry like Paul was? I think Paul knew that the upward calling could be fulfilled on earth in the two commandments Jesus told us to pay the most attention to. After all, once people are saved, that's not the end of the line. Loving our neighbors as ourselves doesn't end at their salvation. This is long-game thinking.
Why should I care?
There are two reasons you should care about this. The one who died for you, and the one who died for those around you. OK, so that's really one reason, but honestly, it's the only reason we need. The sovereignty of Christ has to be the place we begin to equip ourselves for this fight. Without that, we go into this fight unarmed. The power Jesus has to do what he said he would do is the center point of every promise God made to us. If you recall, it was the promises of God that started us on this journey out of our perceptions.
In the story of the lepers, which of the ten would we be like? Would we be the ones who were just there for the transactional healing of their diseases? Are we just here to get ourselves to heaven, and once that's done we just live this American Dream as best we can? Are we reducing Jesus to just a legal transaction because we got in trouble with the law of God? Or are we the leper who returns, healed, wanting to praise God along with the one who healed him? That leper completed the path to a relationship with Christ. The others didn't. I don't know about you, but I want more of Jesus. I want to be the leper who returned. I want to go and tell other people about Jesus but only after I have returned the love he gave to me in healing me.
If you hear nothing else from this message, hear this. Take this call to a relationship seriously. Paul did because Jesus did. All the law and the prophets hang on it, he said. Love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself. It's about relationship first with God and then with others. We've talked about our spiritual disciplines, and we need to be actively involved in them to as high a degree as possible. Because it builds a relationship with God. We've started a challenge of spreading the love of Christ in little ways in the lives of as many people as we possibly can. That's because it builds a relationship with others. Loving God through relationship. Loving others through relationship.
That's Jesus's commandment right there.
According to Jesus, loving everyone we can reach carries a reward. In the latter half of Luke 6:35, we hear Jesus say, "Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." Being in that close of a relationship with God is a pretty great reward.
"Reward" is translated from the word misthos, which means "a wage or recompense that appropriately compensates a particular decision or action." Bear in mind, that's a two-edged sword, and in Matthew 5, Jesus shows how it cuts both ways. We're called to love everyone and reach out to everyone, which is why I challenged you to do exactly that. The contrary recompense is called out in Matthew 5 when Jesus said, "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 and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
That perfection is our goal, doing the will of God in a relationship with Him. Finding a relationship with the flock, and loving on them is how we guard, guide, and properly shepherd them. Mercy, kindness, and respect, the hallmarks of sainthood, are the tools at our disposal for this work.
The best reason
"Gettysburg," a movie based on Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels, unfolds three of the most horrifying days in the history of our country. In a scene just a couple of days before the epic battle at Gettysburg, the movie shows Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment (played by Jeff Daniels). He's just discovered that his regiment is going to get a reinforcing boost of 120 Union soldiers. The other shoe falls when Chamberlain learns these are men who mutinied previously. The colonel also learns he is given permission to shoot any mutineers who don't cooperate with the coming battle. As part of a longer speech, Daniels' character says, "This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you'll see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them, or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free."
"It's the idea that we all have value — you and me. What we're fighting for, in the end, we're fighting for each other."
That's why Paul was crying. That's why Paul was fighting.
That's the kind of skin Paul had in the game. I challenge you, as Paul challenges me to put up or shut up.
Because putting up or shutting up isn't for my sake or for yours. It's for those whose eternal fate hangs in the balance.
It's for their salvation, yes, but it's also for their healing and happiness here on earth.
As a pastor, the beautiful part for me is I am blessed to know the hearts of the people in much church. I'm blessed to see the power God has placed inside each of them. I already know how they'll answer that challenge. I understand as a church how we have to fight. I know this church can fight. And whether you realize it yet or not, I know this church is a church that doesn't back down from fights.
For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. Psalm 37:18.
As I began writing this sermon, it occurred to me that All Saints Day was the Friday before I would preach this message. The Sunday I preached this to my congregation at Brimfield United Methodist Church was All Saints Sunday. It wasn't much of a stretch to start the This Holy Fight series on saints. And honestly, it makes sense because fights, holy or otherwise, always have a target in mind. Why not target sainthood?
We think of a saint and our minds instantly flash to awestruck visions of these unbelievably holy people who are honored by many different Christian denominations. According to the Collins English Dictionary, "A saint is someone who is recognized and honored by the Christian church because his or her life was a perfect example of the way Christians should live." How on earth can we ever match up to the kind of ideal saint we think of on a day like today? That’s what we’re called to do after all. That thought always gave me anxiety, how about you? Maybe it causes you to squirm in your pew, even just a little bit.
American Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper wrote a story about the Samaritan woman from the city of Sychar. We know her better as the woman at the well in John, chapter 4. While I liked his examples of grace here, I was really kind of gut-punched at the judgment Piper exhibited in one of the words he used to describe the woman. Piper identified her as a harlot. Now, if you call the average person's mama a harlot, you better be able to stick, jab, bob, and weave because it's not going to go over well. Calling someone a harlot isn't exactly a term of endearment.
I know the term is generally defined as a prostitute, and I was reasonably confident there was nothing in this passage about being a hooker. Giving Piper the benefit of the doubt, I looked up the reading and all words associated with it in Greek. No mention of any unsavory exchanges there, so Jesus never called her a prostitute. So, in the interest of due diligence, I looked up the word in the dictionary, because there are often meanings we don't realize are associated with words. I discovered the word possibly meant that this woman was given to being rather unselective in the number of men with whom she kept intimate acquaintance. OK, so that kind of fits. After all, she'd had five husbands, and the man she was with now wasn't her husband. So Piper's judgment of her was accurate, yes? Well, not really. She'd been divorced five times, right? Well, we don't know for sure, because it just said she had five husbands, it didn't say how she acquired them. Regardless, I'm pretty sure there's a possibility that she was divorced for a good reason. There's just as good of a chance that she was widowed. Or that her husband put her out for any variety of reasons that would make us cringe. For example, maybe she didn't want to allow him the "benefits of conjugal visitation." Yeah, that means what you think it means, and for us, wouldn't be grounds for a divorce. You could also be divorced if you spoiled dinner for your husband. Maybe she was just a lousy cook? Like, a terrible cook? The point is, we don't know. We jump to conclusions as to what was going on in this woman's life. Just like we do with regular people around us.
We see smiles in the sanctuary that completely hide the lives falling apart behind them. We see lives falling apart, and we don't see the generations of brokenness that have normed the self-destructive behavior that is killing a person. And we blame the person who is broken for their own brokenness. Are they complicit? Yes. But Jesus called us to clothe, feed, water, visit and just generally love on people. He didn't call us to sew scarlet letters on them in sermons on the internet. He actually told us to use the word of God to free the oppressed like the Hebrew people in Babylonian captivity when this Psalm was written.
So was she a prostitute? Was she a woman who slept around? Does it even matter? She was simply a broken woman, looked down upon by her whole community. That might be why she was coming for water at the 6th hour and not at daybreak. After all, it was less hot at dawn... when all the other women of the village were there. Maybe even judging her. She was a woman who was thrilled about the idea of never being thirsty again because that meant she would never have to be shamed at a well again. Ever. Whatever her shortcomings, she wanted this water because she was so over her brokenness. Every step to the well and every step home shattered those little fractured pieces into even smaller pieces. A very broken heart could know peace in that living water. A very defeated woman could find order made of the chaos in her life with that water. The order created out of chaos is what justice means in the Hebrew pictograph here, by the way.
I have not lived the life of a saint. I could never be a saint by any of those definitions. I don't even know if I could have been as friendly and polite as she was when confronted by Jesus. She answered his questions politely, though the very act of drawing water at that well at that time of day probably spoke volumes to anyone who saw her there. Me personally, I doubt I'd have said a word. I'd have just hunkered down in my shame shed and tried to get past this man's question so I could go about my meaningless day. I've not been what Collins defined as a perfect example of the way Christians should live.
Throughout my life, I have been constantly reminded of that. I've been dissected. I've been disdainfully discussed behind my back when people didn't think I was listening. I've been made to sit and listen to self-righteous people recount what they believe my worst sins are. I love the way George Whitefield addressed this when someone called him out for his failings. "Thank you, sir, for your criticisms. If you knew about me what I know about me, you would have written a longer letter." If they'd have known what I know about me, the sit-downs would have involved blocking out hotel rooms for a week, and perhaps a conference center.
In short, by that definition, I'm no saint. At best, I'm an ain't. Maybe an "ain't plus" on a good day.
There are, however, people out there who have lived really great lives. And maybe that's you. Knowing that honestly makes my heart soar. You've been obedient, and that's awesome. You were born into a family that built you into a stable, ethical, honorable human being. But I wasn't. And that's not the kind of life I've lived. And neither have a lot of people who we're called to reach for the gospel. I told Bob Groeper not long ago that the first four letters of the word "Pastor" spell "Past." All pastors have one, and some of ours aren't pretty.
The perception of broken people, and remember what I taught you about perceptions, is that they will never be good enough for church, so why bother? If they hold that perception, the church is to blame. We get the blame because while we can't define a lot of things, we do get to outline our actions as a body of Christ, and as individual humans.
The difference is, if we can get past this perception issue, we can see the love of Christ bloom in their lives.
We can effectively help them move from a life where there is brokenness to wholeness in the only way they can be whole. A relationship with God.
The Hebrew word that we translate into English as a saint doesn't mean flawlessness or blamelessness like Paul says he has in Philippians 3. By the way, Paul said all the characteristics he could boast on like his blamelessness were garbage and with good reason. The Hebrew word actually means "kind" and "respectful" and is rooted in the Hebrew chasad, which means merciful. Merciful. Kind. Respectful. Paul counted the blamelessness characteristics as garbage because those characteristics don't get it done in the end. You can obey the law and not be truly merciful. You can give a coat to a freezing child and not genuinely care. You can bow to a governmental dignitary and still not respect him. But rooting your actions in mercy, kindness, and respect? That's the hot set up for holiness because that is seeking after God's will. I believe it's interesting to note, these are characteristics of the woman who was giving Jesus water at the well. This "harlot" was displaying the qualities of being a saint. But how? Because in her interaction with Jesus, he didn't address her situation, he approached her heart and brokenness. He effectively said, "Little sister, I don't care where you are or what you have done, I can show you a way out it that is permanent."
We often translate the word here for the saint as righteous. Over the centuries, that idea has shifted from made righteous by God to being made righteous by deeds because, well, let's face it, we're human, and we do stupid stuff. We continuously have to return to the fact that isn't what Jesus said, and it isn't what God said, and that is precisely what people need to hear.
When that little fact really hits you, it's like a freight train of great news. The bad news is we have a whole lot of people who are under the opposite impression being hit by the train that requires human righteousness to be accepted. That impression has been reinforced into a wall that is difficult to get past. Walls are tricky things, though, if you remember Sardis.
Here's the situation they face, in the latter part of that Psalm. The word "wicked" here means "one who has turned from the correct path." It's not that they are living a life of premeditated deliberately evil activity. These people turn from the correct path as a product of their situation. Shoot, some folks didn't even know there was a path.
Still, we use the word "wicked," and it is part of the wall that has been made and placed between God and these people. The church was often the one putting it there. The path they have turned from isn't some works-based path to righteousness; it's the path that Jesus carved for us back to the Father in the dragline of his cross on the way to Calvary. You remember Calvary? That's the hill upon which he would conquer death, hell, and the grave because we sure couldn't. In case any of us have forgotten, it's available to everyone, even harlots. Even pastors with pasts. Even you and even me.
We have to take a message of love and reconciliation to people vs. condemnation. If I translated this passage based on the concepts I read in my sources, it would sound like this. "The same God that loved and created you loves to make order out of chaos, sort things out, and heal the tough hurts you face, no holds barred, no ifs, ands or buts. If you step into a relationship with Him, you will be His personal, unique child. I promise you, you will finally be treated with the love and kindness that you have always wanted. As that kindness grows within you and you heal, it will never be taken away from you so long as you stick with Him. But if you choose not to stick with Him on a path to healing and love, there will come a time when it's too late to go back."
Jesus didn't come to condemn. He was the only one that could condemn, but he never did, even telling us that wasn't his work. Jesus sent us his spirit for a reason. Remember that spirit is translated as his breath for a reason. Adam came to life when God breathed His breath into him. Is our witness one that breathes life? If it's not, then we have some work to do.
I watched a video recently of a man doing some street preaching. This man was preaching in an area known for its LGBTQ population, and his message was very condemning of this group of people. And you know what? They listened intently. Many broke down, cried, exclaimed how foolish they were to have been tricked into sinfulness and repented on the spot.
I'm just kidding. The crowd actually had a horn section play so loud the man could not be heard. I kid you not, trombone, saxophone, and I think a tuba, even. One of them was also riding a bicycle and playing. They played loud, and it didn't matter what this guy said, they didn't hear any of it.
First off, it doesn't matter what we think of this sin or that sin or another sin, sin is all sin to God. It doesn't matter what your opinion is on homosexuality, as there are a host of other sins we all exhibit that convict every last one of us. Secondly, when we try to draw out one person's sin as being evil and point that flaw out in their lives without acknowledging our own, there's a word for that. Hypocrite. You know who used that word? Jesus. You can stand there and tell someone they are a sinner from the perspective of someone covered by the blood of Jesus, and still not be a hypocrite, though. We do this by not so much talking about the sin, but rather about the hurt. If we don't treat the wound where the sin got in, people will just keep medicating it. The first step to treating it is to acknowledge it exists and that it matters. Because people, let me tell you now, we all have hurt, and no one feels like dealing with theirs in the face of someone who is targeting that hurt and carrying a giant salt shaker and a brillo pad.
This definition of sainthood, someone who is kind, literally "bowing the head" in respect, is the type of person people want to be around. For some of us, we've had a hard time with self-critique. Someone told us we weren't up to snuff, and they carried enough cache in our lives for us to adopt that same critique. Many people have taken it to the point that they don't listen to the God who made them and give His words the credence they deserve.
How do we witness then? Just tell your story and share the love Jesus gave you. They're actually the same things. Last week I challenged you to make a point of speaking or doing something in love for every person you come in contact with. If you followed through on that challenge, even once, I want you to realize that your kindness shown to someone else is an extension of God. Let that sink in deeply. Your kindness is God working not just in you, but through you, to create order out of chaos in the life of someone else. Remember, God loves making order out of chaos, and by that, I mean he thoroughly and intimately loves it. This isn't something that He just sort of thinks is cool, this is something into which He puts His whole self. That being said, He doesn't love justice nearly as much as you. Isaiah 30 tells us that God wants justice for us, making order out of the chaos in our lives. When we bring people to the one that can create order in their lives from the chaos of where they are, we're passing on the part of what God gave us.
There's a saying that I love to use regarding my ministry. I'm just a broken bucket carrying God's water. The reason God uses broken buckets to carry His water is that when all the water arrives unspilt, everyone glorifies God, not the bucket.
Let's never forget that we're all just broken buckets. Let's never forget to praise God for still using us in our brokenness. That attitude is where we'll find our mercy, kindness, and respect. Finding those is how you get to be a saint.
To the one who conquers, I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. - Revelation 3:21,NRSV
Did you ever play king of the hill as a kid? I wasn't a large guy when I was little, but I think this is how I discovered my knack for wrestling, as well as some rather sneaky strategy skills. The basic premise of the game is simple. You get one person or a team atop a hill, and you have to knock them off. For the people on the hill, you hold the high ground and a lot of benefits. From the perspective of those on the bottom, you hold only two possible advantages. Sheer strength, or sheer cunning.
This leads me to a seemingly disconnected question. But I promise it's connected, just bear with me. How did our denomination get into such a mess? I mean, really, why is the Christian church itself seeing a decline in attendance over the past 20 years? Let's bring some numbers here so we can get an idea of how big this issue is.
So why are we declining still, if there are real mental, emotional, and physical benefits to worship?
In 2012, the European Social Survey found that one-third of European Christians attended worship at least once a month. Contrast that with twice that number of Christians in Latin American in worship monthly or even more. The World Values Survey stated that 90% of Christians in just 5 major African nations worship regularly. Gallup International, conducted a telephone survey to conclude that only 37% of Americans report attending religious services near-weekly in 2013. That number declines if you specify the attendance has to be weekly. In Illinois, for example, only 44% of those who claim the Christian faith attend church weekly. Not 44% of the population, 44% of Christians. There's an exception to this, though.
Pew Research Center did a study that found there is a "sharp increase in church attendance around the two most significant Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter." That's where we get the term "Chreasters" by the way. Now here's the twist. On Christmas, which is a significant holiday in any Christian denomination, "six out of 10 Americans typically attend church," according to LifeWay Research. That's a considerable increase over the high 40% of just the Christians who attend church that are included in that Christmas attendance.
Even with the added health benefits of church attendance, such as happiness, a decrease in depression, a reduced risk for Alzheimer's, better blood pressure, church attendance is falling off. But mental health issues continue to rise. Let’s look at those benefits for a second.
A researcher named Doug Oman published a study in 2002. It showed, "infrequent (never or less than weekly) attenders had significantly higher rates of circulatory, cancer, digestive, and respiratory mortality, but not mortality due to external causes." Yet medical issues persist in our society. A team led by researcher Jennifer Glanville found "that religious attendance promotes higher intergenerational closure, friendship networks with higher education resources and norms, and extracurricular participation." Yet our country has never seemed more polarized. Research available from the Harvard School of Public Health shows "that regularly attending church services together reduces a couple's risk of divorce by a remarkable 47 percent." And our divorce marches on undaunted. It seems to me there are a lot of reasons you would want to actually attend a church and be involved with what's going on there, right? Sort of seems to me that God is good for what ails you.
So why are we declining still, if there are real mental, emotional, and physical benefits to worship? Well, we have some great examples in this chapter written by the apostle John.
In the third chapter of Revelation, we have three different churches listed, and Jesus hits each of them reassuringly as well as critically. As we examine the word here, we go back to what I said before. This has all happened before, and will all happen again. Take Sardis, for instance.
Sardis is a case of history repeating itself, not only in the same place but in multiple locations. This hustling and prosperous city was located on a hillside in present-day Turkey. It was vitally important in Biblical times. It was highly defensible, having cliffs around it that were hard to climb. In the Bible, there are a couple mentions of cities on hillsides. Notably, Jesus talking about the city on a hill from Matthew 5:14. Archeological experts believe he was likely thinking of the city of Sepphoris when he was speaking of people who are called to shine a light before the world. With Sardis, we have a church called to do just that in a position to be just that. So how did they fail?
Now, I feel like I see historical parallels and patterns about as well as the next person. There are some easy-to-see parallels and patterns here because our church has not guarded a wall thinking that it was unnecessary. Spoiler alert, as we are about to find out with Sardis, it was necessary.
With this particular church, we find a similar situation to how David initially conquered Jerusalem, another city on a hill. The wall that Joab climbed the water spout to defeat the defenses of Jerusalem for David was virtually unguarded because it was thought that no one could climb the cliff. Sardis had this happen as well, not just once, but twice. When Cyrus conquered Sardis in the 6th century BCE, it was because one of his soldiers watched a defender climb down a secret path to retrieve a helmet he had dropped. You could forgive them for not knowing what happened in Jerusalem, which took place 400 years before Cyrus sent his soldiers up this secret pathway. For them to have it happen 200 years later when Antiochus the great did the same thing is a case of "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." Even if our church doesn't know the story of Sardis and its complacency in guarding the back door, we do have the account of Jerusalem and David's conquest. One would think we would learn a lesson about being vigilant. After all, no one less than Jesus himself tells us how important vigilance is when he tells us how suddenly the kingdom of God will come upon us.
Honestly, though, vigilance is just not prominent in human nature.
You see, the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are not just church bodies as we seem them. They are a characterization of the people attending worship services there. We experience different characteristics and issues. Still, we cannot look at the Revelation churches as a whole until we address them as individual people. Likewise, we cannot solve our broader church needs until we address our individual situations.
Our little church in Brimfield, Illinois began with a large congregation. It was almost the size of the larger churches in our United Methodist Church conference. We wonder how we went from attendance in the hundreds to the tens. The questions we have to ask are hard, and they can hurt to ask. So it's not surprising that sometimes we don't ask them. The reason they hurt is that they aren't questions that need to be asked about the church, these are the questions we need to ask of ourselves. We have to ask them because if we don't, we won’t overcome, and then Jesus won't let us sit that throne with him. To be clear, we don't just climb up there, we get placed there by Jesus himself. He will confess us to God almighty, who is, by the way, the owner of that throne.
The very sobering thought is, if he doesn't do that, we may not have a place to sit. And frankly, I'd like to take a load off after this life.
Take a gander at the current initiatives organizations like the Unstuck Group are starting within many churches. If we could transport these renewal groups back in time, we would find that the same issues we have in our modern day were present in the churches of the Apostle John's prophecy. As I said, this has all happened before. In Sardis, they let their guard down once and were conquered because of it. They let their guard down again, and they were overcome again. The truth is, our global church has been complacent in outreach as a whole. The cause of that was apathy and affluence, just like Sardis. The effect is that grace and compassion are in short supply resulting in an increasingly broken world. Cause, effect, result, repeat. That has got to stop.
What's more, is that this didn't happen because someone out-fought us. This happened because we thought we were doing well enough and started looking inside to our own needs and wants instead of looking outside to the needs and wants of others. This is actually one of the primary points of contention for groups like Unstuck. They didn't originate the idea, though, Jesus did when he addressed the church at Sardis. We've dealt with this to some degree or another for centuries. The common factor here is the human heart.
Even in light of all of this, Jesus never once said he would abandon Sardis, so long as they conquered. He made that promise to us as well. What are we conquering, though? Where is this battle? Who are we up against? What weapons do they bring to this battle, and what weapons do we carry? Do we even stand a chance of winning?
Newsflash: we are fighting ourselves.
We're not fighting the outside world, we're fighting the old authority inside us. Just because God installed a new operating system doesn’t mean the devil doesn’t want to roll you back to the old one he liked so much. All the way back when I started us down this path, I broke out the need for God to create in us a new authority through His Holy Spirit. The reason for this is that our old authority is what got us here. If we're not careful, our former authority will get us disinvited from a throne.
Time for a show of hands. How many of us have had an opportunity to share the gospel with someone, but didn't? How many of us have had a chance to give our full tithe, but didn't? How many of us have had an opportunity to serve, but didn't? You'll notice mine was the first hand in the air. It's not to give you an example of putting your hand in the air. It's because I have failed in all these ways in the past. Every last one of them, I have blown. Times I should have gone down the correct fork in the road when I faced Jesus, I failed him. Blew it utterly. You know what, though? He still gave me another chance at the next fork where I would encounter him. There was always another Sunday to worship. There was yet another opportunity to fast, to tithe, to take communion, to speak the truth in love to a broken person who just needed to hear that someone, ANYONE, loved them.
The reason is man's fallen nature, which is what we fight. All by ourselves, that's a fight we cannot win. Our own power is nowhere near complete enough to put up any kind of a struggle against our fallen nature. We have got to step into God to find that kind of power. "I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?" Psalm 121 gives us a clue.
If we want to change the outcome of this fight, we have to shift our focus up to the hill. Focus matters. Here’s an example. If we are plowing, and we focus on the plow going into the dirt, the line won't be straight. Shoot, we may not even be in the same field by the time we get done. But if we keep focused on achieving the end goal, the furrow will be straight, and the land will be correctly planted, ready for growth and harvest. This harvest has to happen. It has to happen here, and it has to happen now. But it first has to happen in our own hearts with help and guidance from the Holy Spirit.
The reason we start here is that this is where overcoming is done. Like Rocky Balboa said, "That's how winning is done." This is where we conquer, where we go from losers to winners. The battle that we are told to fight was never meant to be fought without Holy Ghost fire support.
Look, I have news for you that probably isn't news. The enemy made it over our walls some time ago. But just because that happened doesn't mean the fight is over. We don't roll over and we definitely don’t play dead. There's too much at stake for that. We shift our focus and we fight back. We know what our spiritual disciplines are. We fight back by doing them. We know that people need the love of Jesus, so we fight back by pouring it out like a firehose.
When I met with the church council during my intake meeting, I told them that I have no desire to preside over the death of the church I was appointed to because I serve a living, risen savior. He brought me back from the dead. When he died on that hill outside Jerusalem, everyone there saw a dead man. What they didn't realize is that on that hill was where a king conquered. Look up to that hill because that is precisely from where your help comes.
It's great that we're in church every Sunday worshipping because we are holding our ground. We've been a very pesky thorn in the side of the enemy, but we weren't called to be an annoyance. We were invited to be conquerors. We have to push the enemy back over that wall that we were so sure wasn't going to be attacked. We have to make sure we trust that the Holy Spirit is with us when we encounter opposition to the gospel. We have to make sure we don't cool off and go lukewarm in our desire for God's will.
We have a crown to gain, a reward to seek, a race to run, and a fight to win. The word for crown is, "Stephanos" and it means a garland or wreath that was placed on the head of authorities and victors. The crown that mattered most in the Bible uses the same word. Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17, John 19:2. They all speak of the crown made for and placed upon the head of Jesus Christ. It's a crown he wore so we wouldn't have to. That crown led Jesus to the throne of God, where God sat him down. Our overcoming leads us to the same throne, where Jesus says he will sit us down.
You are someone special, someone God went out of His way to save. And while that salvation only comes through God, it requires our cooperation, and so does the salvation of everyone else. We're all connected in that way. Breaking the connection breaks our crown. But speaking life into the lives of others who don't have life strengthens it.
Tell them they are unique like you are unique ... because they are. Tell them they are loved like you because they are. Show them because they are worth showing. Pray for them because their eternal lives depend on it. Invite them, and even if they decline, keep all of it up. That's how we win back our church. That's how we shove the enemy back over the wall. That is how we overcome because that is how the King of the Hill overcame.
Find your mountaintop, and through Christ, overcome everything you have to to get there.
“When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.””
Exodus 20:18-19 NRSV
Some of you who are a bit older know the song, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” It’s the most utterly annoying earworm you could imagine, and it just keeps going on and on. I won’t repeat it here because I don’t want to get it stuck in your mind and get myself booted out of an appointment I enjoy. Suffice it to say that after one pass through the verse of this song, it embeds itself in your brain, and when you think it's going to come to an end, the song goes back to the beginning with, “Second verse, same as the first.” That part isn’t the worst, though. When you come back around to that part, it’s not “third verse, same as the first,” it’s a repeat of “second verse, same as the first, and you realize you have been swept away in a musical loop. Abandon hope, all ye who attempt to get any work done here amid this stupid song rolling recklessly around your skull. Go wash the car, and eventually, it may release its hold on you. You might even go to bed without having to hear another verse, which is the same as the first if you recall.
Evangelism, revival, and the story of God trying to love His people are just like this song.
In the Battlestar Galactica reboot from 2004, one line stuck with me. “All of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again.”
These words could have been said with the events on Mt. Sinai in mind. The big question is, “Why don’t people come to God?”
10 of 613
This passage in Exodus is placed immediately after the Decalogue, better known as the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are one set of laws out of 613 total laws in the Hebrew faith. One thing I know for sure that it requires a whole lot of lawyers.
Going back to the cause, effect, and result model we've been using, let’s look at the laws. The cause of God personally giving us the Ten Commandments is that He needed to show us our abject sinfulness, the effect of which is our understanding that we are utterly irredeemable by works of our own. The result of that is the realization that we need a savior; otherwise, eternity will not go very well for us. Right there is where we encounter the problem. God wants us to know we need a savior, but the tricky part is, it’s up to us to spread the whole news of that need.
All of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again.
You see, people get stuck on being irredeemable, not understanding that God assigned a mediator for us, which was Moses as a stand-in here for Jesus Christ, who would become the permanent mediator later on. According to theologian Walter J. Kaiser, Jr., the goal God drives at with the law, and the reason Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it, is that the law is about “how to live more abundantly by using the unchangeable perfections of the nature of God as revealed in the moral law as a guide.” That’s freeing stuff to hear if you ask me.
The problem is, we often miss the point of grace, even when it’s looking us dead in the eye. For a lot of people, all they hear is, “You have to be perfect to be a Christian.” They realize that that ship has already sailed. It’s a wake-up call of the worst kind to hear God tell Abram to be perfect before Him, and to hear Jesus tell us to be perfect as God is perfect. Neither I, nor you, nor the world can be our definition of perfect. But what we understand about perfection and what God and Jesus said about perfection are two different things.
Jesus didn’t come to save us from the law. He didn’t come to abolish it; he came to fulfill it by mediating for us. In Micah, we learn that we are to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. The point is that when we can do that, our faith development by God kicks us into overdrive. So how is it that many people can’t get out of first gear? Well, it’s easy to hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” and think it’s about moral righteousness. It’s easy for us to believe God is going to judge us, find us lacking, and destroy us. People get unbelievably uptight about that. Why?
Well, for one reason, because it’s true. God can and will do that if He needs to.
That said, you shouldn’t hold a fear of God that is quite as anxiety-laden and terror-filled as many of us do. It’s undeniably unhealthy to continually possess the amount of anxiety the Israelites did in their fear of God, a fear that came with all the smoke, lightning, thunder, trumpets, etc. Still, others of us did at one time before we truly knew God, and many of us continue to labor under that kind of fear. Those of us who have changed were just like those runaway slaves at one point. So, what changed us?
A tough balance
In light of all that, it’s understandable that people would be apathetic or argumentative when you witness to them. I know people in our denomination who struggle with the seeking of justice and the loving of mercy, in that they find it challenging to balance the two. With the world's current definition of perfection, it’s impossible to be perfect, but it’s not hard to end up a wreck in the process of trying.
You have to ask yourself honestly. Have you given up on telling people about Jesus because you’re tired of beating your head against that very wall yourself? Sure. You'd love people to experience what you've experienced and to go deeper with God in the process. But running up against apathy and even anger isn’t a lot of fun, and I get that. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this that way at all. Perhaps our approach is wrong.
The truth of our approach being wrong is that even though Galatians 2:16 tells us there is no justification found in the observance of the law, people still think that justification is the main point of the law. Moral righteousness isn’t the point of the law, and God’s judgment and punishment aren’t what we should focus on nearly as much as we do. It's true that when we focus on the negative, it’s because God focuses on the negative so you can understand our similar focuses. Don’t do this, and don’t do that. But why does God focus on the negative? Because He has to definitively draw a line for us with regards to our sin. But the law isn’t there to require us to “be holy" at gunpoint. Remember, that’s forced coercion to holiness, and it’s not a relationship, which is what God is after. Justice and mercy are not a carrot and a stick. Neither Jesus nor God called you to moral righteousness or any righteousness on your behalf. It might seem counterintuitive for a pastor to say that, but it’s a fact, and here is how I know. If we could have been morally righteous, Jesus on a cross would not have been necessary. He wouldn’t have had to go through what he went through, and you and I would be under the law alone, subject to being a sinner in the hands of an angry God.
That’s not what Jesus meant when he said to be perfect, though, and it’s not what God meant either.
The law is a guide toward a single-minded desire to be like God. Alexander Ballman Bruce referred to it as “Godlikeness” in the Expositor’s Greek Testament. This concept means our moral righteousness is a pipe dream. But seeking after God’s purpose for us, and growing in His will, putting our hand to the plow and looking forward instead of backward is what makes us perfect in the eyes of Jesus Christ and God. It’s being made complete in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, and not turning back.
When we grasp that concept of the law, mercy makes sense as well. The law without mercy leads to death, but law with mercy leads to life. The guidance of God in our lives is the law. The mercy is the forgiveness for our failings. Without mercy, the law and God Himself are enemies to our very existence, and without the law, the existence of mercy holds absolutely no point. That has to be our approach as followers of Christ. If our approach can be corrected and clarified, we might see some kingdom headway. We might even meet people in their captivity of brokenness and be able to show them a savior who can set them free and make them whole, complete, and perfect as our Father is perfect, singlemindedly after His own will.
Or we could keep on going down the same path we’re on, and keep acting surprised when people hear the word “Jesus” and run the other way because they fear another self-righteous Christian is going to tell them all the ways they are a failure at being their misconception of perfect.
Let’s take a closer look at a couple of critical points of this scripture. The trumpet referred to here is a shofar. It’s loud, and when it's played unexpectedly, it can be unnerving. It makes you want to stand a ways off from it as fast as you can run. Now imagine a whole mountainside of them. Throw in some lightning. Roll around some thunder and smoke. It sounds like a volcano, but it wasn’t, because Moses went up on the mountain and stayed there for almost three months. There is no record of human incineration, and neither was there a record of the ash cloud a volcano would have produced. We’d have heard about this because they absolutely would have said something regarding the people it would have killed. We'd have at least been told how problematic it would have made their stay, as near to the mountain as they were.
Instead, we get something far different. We conclude this is the very presence of God. The word for thunder also means a voice. It specifically uses a pictograph showing a shepherd who speaks, and the sheep know His voice. Sound familiar? Maybe like something you read in John 10 about a good shepherd? So we have a shepherds voice calling to His sheep. But the sheep didn’t know Him, and so they stood a long way off and were genuinely afraid they would die. A millennium or so later, Jesus broke this whole situation out for them, stating that the shepherd is not a hired hand and that he lays down his life for the sheep. These people huddled outside Mt. Sinai were sheep that had no shepherd, and they finally heard his voice. It terrified them. Is it any surprise at all that when people are impacted by the love of Jesus Christ in their lives, convicted of their sins, it's a terrifying thing? They believe they are a sinner in the hands of an angry God when, in reality, they are a lost sheep hoisted on the shoulders of a savior who would suffer unimaginable pain and humiliation for them.
God’s plan all along was to have redemptive communion with us. His desire is not to punish us, but to love us so that we can be sheep who know His voice. No mistake, He will punish us if He has to, but that's not His goal.
This focus was the plan all along, from Abram’s introduction to God to the prophecy of Micah to Jesus in Matthew 5:48. The word for “with us” in Hebrew is Immanu, and the word used here for God is not Yahweh, it’s Elohim. This meaning is the plural God, the full, whole, and complete God. Put them together, and you get Immanu Elohim. Sounds a lot like Isaiah 7:14, yes? Immanu El is translated as "God with us," the prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ repeated in Matthew 1:23. God has always wanted to be with us, and we’ve generally run away from the prospect. In the case of the Hebrew people, they were OK with the God they knew and could see and could quantify, but for this God that showed up and then showed out in such a terrifying way, they had no answer except to shrink back. They didn’t know Him and were terrified at the prospect of facing the full weight of God.
The strange part is, they acted as if Moses had some favorable control over God. We’ll listen to you, Moses, and we want you to be with us and among us, but don’t let Him near us because He scares the living daylights out of us. We can’t hear Him or have him with us, among us. It’s similar to how some of us are asked to pray by people who don’t pray. Hey, you seem to have some influence on God, and He appears to listen to you. Can you ask Him to do me a favor? They asked Moses because he was a sheep who knew the voice of the shepherd. And Moses responded.
This scenario has all happened before, and will all happen again. People need a leader, and we need to learn to lead. The people need a shepherd, and they have to find a sheep who knows the voice of the shepherd so they can join the flock.
Moses showed the people they didn’t have to be afraid and told them precisely that in the following verse. Throughout several paragraphs in the chapter, and over several months, in reality, Moses helped the people to experience God. They started afraid of God and His utterly incomprehensible power. We started the same way. Many more lay outside the walls of this church and other churches in that same condition, lost, alone, and frightened, whether they know it or not. The shepherd weeps for them. Luke 19 tells us this in great detail how the people didn’t see the shepherd, or how he would lay down his life, but he did it anyway, regardless of their choice.
The people on Sinai still went astray. The people in Jerusalem that Jesus cried over still went astray. We still go astray. That is why the right kind of leadership is essential. But it has to be humble leadership. It has to be a balance of justice and mercy. It has to be a balance of the cost and the grace about which Dietrich Bonheoffer spoke.
Moses, whose name means, “to draw,” was born a slave drawn from the water that could have drowned him. We were all once slaves to sin, and Jesus drew us out of the sin that was drowning us. Moses led the former slaves to become a new nation. You are called to lead others out of captivity. One of those slaves, Joshua, led those people by example to choose between remaining a slave to their former gods or serving the one True God. What will the slaves you lead to freedom achieve?
Every single one of us who was a slave to sin was set free. How can we be set free from the yoke we used to have around our necks and not feel the need to be a catalyst for freedom in the lives of others?
If we’re called to do that, and we don’t, then what happens? Are we willing to take a risk to change it? Even if only one word can change a life, are we willing to endanger others by not speaking that word?
Remember when I told you that I was going to challenge you to act upon the ownership of the inheritance Jesus gave us? That time is now. Take being a leader seriously. Learn to lead. Take the spiritual disciplines seriously and apply them. Be single-minded in the application of these disciplines to your life.
In a recent midweek class, we discussed the connectivity of our denomination. Someone impacted us powerfully for Christ within this church; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We learned about the people who had gone before us as leaders in the Methodist faith, and we developed a vital understanding. Every single one of us is connected in some way, back to John and Charles Wesley. The people you were impacted by, were affected by someone else, all the way back to those men and women we studied. There’s a legacy that they carried on into your life. It’s the reason you are here, the reason this church is here, the reason that we will be here tomorrow. They sang the same song, generation after generation. Second verse same as the first. We know the tune, too.
If we look at the example of the people who impacted us individually and the legacy they are a part of in our denomination, the line doesn’t start at John Wesley. It goes back to Martin Luther. It goes back to Justin Martyr. It goes further back to King David and comes to this point in time with Moses. If not for Moses, you wouldn’t be here. If not for David, you would not be here. If not for Justin Martyr, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or the person who impacted you positively enough to be in a pew today, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now, and you might not even have encountered Christ. So I have only two questions left to ask here.
Who is it you are called to impact? To who will you sing your verse?
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21
Up to this point, the information I have shared during my sermons has been relatively heavy, so I’d like to start this sermon off by telling you a little joke. A man buys a pet parrot and brings him home. But the parrot starts insulting him and gets nasty and fowl (pun intended), so the man picks up the parrot and tosses him into the freezer to teach him a lesson. He hears the bird squawking for a few moments, but all of a sudden, the parrot is quiet. The man quickly opens the freezer door, and the parrot walks out. As the bird looks up at him, it says, “I apologize for offending you, and I humbly ask for your forgiveness.” The man says, “Well, thank you. I forgive you.” The parrot then says, “If you don’t mind my asking, what did the chicken do?”
Admit it. Some part of you feels like the parrot deserved this little time out for the insults and the nasty comments he was giving his new owner. As funny as this sounds, outside of the parrot’s perspective, it’s no surprise many people might side with the man for not putting up with the bird. I’m reading a book by Ben Howe called The Immoral Majority, where he discusses why we feel justified when someone gets their just desserts, even if those just desserts are not even close to justice. People don’t look at the rather inhumane treatment of a parrot by throwing him in the freezer, in so much as they look at the fact that the bird comes out extremely polite after learning a lesson. After all, the man is the owner and is responsible for the bird’s care, and the bird isn’t showing its gratitude for that care when it insults him. What I find interesting is that in general, the population around us is typically OK with some folks standing up for themselves when someone speaks nastily to them. But they don’t defend those who can’t or won’t defend themselves. In the same vein, do we always protect our selves from others who can be abusive, especially those with power? Maybe the bosses that can belittle us, or the person we work with that tends to abuse their authority. More importantly, even than all this, do we defend ourselves from our own words?
Notice I said, “defend ourselves” from the words of others and ourselves. Not discuss, or debate, but defend. Discuss, and debate denotes the potential for civil discourse. Defending means something far more significant is at stake. The proverb here speaks of life and death. While it may seem overly dramatic at first, this is a real, honest-to-goodness, knockdown, drag-out donnybrook of a fight here. I’ll give you a personal example. I don’t always speak kindly to myself when I should. It’s been a struggle for me to do that for decades, and it’s been an even more difficult struggle to admit to that struggle. I’m a lot better than I used to be, but there are days when it is a slugfest to believe that I can sharpen a pencil without mucking up the whole process.
Don't Bury Your Treasure
Good old Bill Shakespeare said, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The first person I think God wants to free us from is ourselves, and this quote is why. When we speak poorly of ourselves, whether to another person or in our internal monologue, we are demeaning what God wants us to be, and we are burying our good as part of the deal. Forgiveness and grace for ourselves are so challenging to come by. For some reason, God gave us memory and then didn’t impart His all-powerful gift of being able to choose to forget things at will. Going hand in hand with this gift is the fact we don’t always speak well of ourselves or own the power we have from the Lord. I spoke of false humility last week, and it’s a dangerous lie we tell ourselves. Many people are quick to own their faults, but then take it to an unhealthy degree, and that pushes them precariously out of balance. They say things that become increasingly more cruel about themselves, and then repeat them with increasing regularity.
Those words become so ingrained that we don’t realize we’re saying them even when we’re sitting smack-dab in the middle of the rut that inner monologue has clawed out in our soul.
In the Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on this passage, it makes a point that it is not only about the type of language coming from the tongue and the need to control and curate it, but also the amount of it that comes out. We speak death to ourselves and others, and sometimes speak a lot of it, regardless of the truth.
In Proverbs 10, we read, “Lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool.” This proverb includes slander and lies against oneself and who God created you to be. The hatred concealed in this isn’t ours either, although we parrot it like it is. This activity is a ploy of the enemy to make you feel less than worthy, it is a lie, and we must eliminate it at all costs. But it’s a sticky lie, and shaking it off our hand into the trash can isn’t always easy.
A lie repeated so often it becomes a norm can be very difficult to overcome, even if overcoming it means we can be truly free. The freedom found in intentionally rewriting our monologue is about creating a rewarding new norm. When you look at the word “fruit” here, it’s more than just fruit. It means first fruits, a reward, and curiously enough it also means “bough,” like the main branch coming off a tree that supports other smaller braches. Its central relationship is its connection with the trunk. Our primary connection is as branches shooting off from the true vine.
The bough is a conduit from the trunk feeding sustenance to the branches in just the same way that the connection the Holy Spirit provides us to Jesus supplies us with the reward of life.
It’s also interesting that word used for spirit means breath, and when we speak, the words carried on our breath can bring us and others life.
Without that life connection, we die. Dead, disconnected vessels can’t act on the plans God has for them or share with the other they support. The words we speak can destroy ourselves, our hopes, and any hopes others might have had through us in this process by their content and the frequency.
A Life Instruction Manual
As we take a closer look at this text, this proverb sits inside a whole laundry list of good advice about what to say, when to say it and why. The general idea behind this is because the tongue often wags the dog more than the tail does. The book of Proverbs is about wisdom, and it’s broken out against the somewhat cynical viewpoint of Ecclesiastes. What you say, the power you have, and life and death are common threads through both of them, though. When they speak of power, it’s an either-or premise. Good or bad, healing or killing, moving forward or backward. Mobility and choice are the points of this word here, and it coincides with the concept of life and death.
In Hebrew, life is the same word as stomach and that makes sense when you think about it. If you’re hungry, you feel like you’re going to starve to death, but when you’re full, you feel relaxed, kind of euphoric, and regenerative. When our words are killing us, we feel miserable, and this often manifests itself as an empty feeling in the pit of our stomach. Inversely, when our hearts are full because our words are speaking life into us, we’re so full of love we feel like bursting, just like after Thanksgiving dinner.
Your choice to speak life to yourself allows you to eat the rewarding “first fruits.” That’s easier said than done for some of us, though.
As a very broken young man growing up, I was regularly taught to speak poorly of myself. Speaking well of myself was a foreign concept. If something happened in my life that I was excited about, I shared it as children often do. I was an honors student, and I sought approval from friends and family through achievement. Others instructed me that sharing one’s success was bragging. I was told not to brag because people didn’t like bragging even though I wasn’t bragging, I was seeking approval and affirmation. It got to the point that whenever I achieved something in an attempt to gain acceptance, I felt ashamed of the achievement because of how others might take it. That shaming brought me to a significant issue with receiving any manner of praise, and I still deal with this. It was difficult for me to fully own that God loves me not because He has to, but because He wants to with every single fiber of his infinitely innumerable being. If I, a pastor in the United Methodist Church, can feel like that, then how does the average person who doesn’t know Jesus feel?
Here’s the secret. Understanding that we sometimes face this ourselves is the key to evangelism.
Why Are You Hitting Yourself?
When I was a kid, one of my older brother’s favorite games was to take my arm and punch me with it while asking, “Why are you punching yourself?” Similarly, people are all too often parroting things others have loaded them down with that aren’t true. They end up beating themselves up, and in the case of Christians, severely limiting their ability to answer any call God places on them.
When this happens, they aren’t living in victory, they’re falling back into brokenness.
But as we understand how brokenness can lead people not to hear the word of God because “it was meant for someone way better than me,” we find a key to what Jesus came to do in releasing the captives. We’ve identified their captivity. I’ll go back to that in a moment.
We are commanded to speak well of ourselves for a reason. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” The transgression here means revolution. When we speak words of death, we are revolting against God’s truth when the truth is what sets captives like us free. That’s the bread about which we beggars are supposed to be telling other beggars.
Giving ourselves the grace God gave us is essential because it allows constructive joy in our lives instead of destructive self-criticism. In a society where that kind of self-bashing is the norm, loving yourself as someone created by God, and unfathomably valuable to Him is the kind of revolution for which we should be aiming.
We can give live grace in front of others and show them how they can have it as well. We can lead a revolution that shows people just how deeply God cares and loves them, how he’s set us free from words of death, and how he can do that for them as well. Evangelism isn’t telling someone who doesn’t know God and couldn’t care less about Him, that God loves them. It’s telling someone who really doesn’t know themselves and really doesn’t love themselves that God can show them how to love themselves the way He loves them. That’s freedom.
Galatians 5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. That yoke of slavery comes through words of death. So speak life.
2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us precisely how this happens. “and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” The obedience Christ wants for those thoughts is to speak the truth of the Father’s love. And that truth sets us free as Jesus’ disciples, just like it says in John 8:32. Once we’re free, we’re open to set other captives free.
The Choice We Face
In the movie, The Matrix, the character Morpheus offers the main character Neo a red pill and a blue pill and tells him he has to choose. One pill leads back into the Matrix, a place where life can be good or bad, lived as he always knew it. For people in the real world, that means that uncomfortable wet blanket of life, no abundance that was promised by Jesus, no higher purpose for which to strive. On the other hand, there was a pill that leads to the truth. The truth is sometimes tough to swallow, but ultimately in the movie, it leads Neo to stop living his life in a false reality where he is, in fact, powerless and to become the powerful being he was destined to be. When we get there, we can bring others out of captivity along with us.
We will be more effective in witnessing to people and will show them to the freedom they need because at the center of our hearts, we are free. Think of it like this. When you’re on a flight, and flight attendant is giving the emergency instructions, they always say to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others with theirs. Right now, we have a lot of people running around with no oxygen mask on frantically trying to put one on someone else by saying all the life-giving things to that person that they long to hear said to themselves.
So how do we learn to do all this for these people? Simple. We need to regularly open ourselves to God loving on us and speaking His words of life into us. Rejoice with Him fully when we do something we know that is within His will. Prayed today for someone in need? Rejoice! You did the Father’s will! Gave your whole tithe this week? Rejoice! You did as God told you to do. Took time to be with your children or grandchildren and show them the love of Christ? Rejoice! And rejoice by hearing God speak to your heart about His great love for you. We all need to personally experience a Matthew 3 moment, the one where God says He loves Jesus and is well pleased with him. God wants to give us that moment, so we must ask God to help us hear it. Open yourself to listen to the Holy Spirit tell you who you absolutely are to Him.
As kids, we learn by imitating our parents and our older siblings, remember? Ask God to tell you something surprising about you, and then spend the day or the week or the month, intentionally parroting it. This process isn’t about puffing up your ego, it’s about owning God’s purpose for you.
Whether He tells you through someone else, or you hear a thundering voice from nowhere, or He speaks to your heart as softly as a whisper, hold on to whatever He says.
In the book, Crash the Chatterbox, author and pastor Steven Furtick writes, “The more deeply we reinforce our identity in Christ, the more fortified we will be against the onslaught of opposing voices in our lives.” And those opposing voices can sometimes include our own.
If I had been speaking life over myself sooner, I would have gotten into a pulpit sooner. All along the way, there were opportunities for me to answer my calling. The problem was, I didn’t believe I was worthy of the help offered to me. I didn’t think I was worthy of the grace, and the most significant contributor to that disbelief was the continual recording of death that was playing in my mind and coming out of my mouth. Not that God can’t use me where I am; in fact, He’s using me and reclaiming what I went through in these very words. But I have to wonder how many lives could I have touched if I wouldn’t have talked myself out of God’s love for me all that time? How much freedom could I have spoken into my life? How many more captives could have been set free in the process. The point here is, there’s freedom in the words you speak, and it doesn’t entirely mean what it could mean until you pass that freedom to someone else. So free yourself, and then go, free everyone, you can find by speaking life over them.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. - 1 Corinthians 15:58
One of my favorite movies ever is the film Secondhand Lions. To me, this movie isn’t a classic because of Robert Duvall or Michael Caine, although they did play their respective roles of Hub and Garth McCann brilliantly. It’s a classic because of a pivotal, straightforward monologue. In a scene that took place in a roadside diner, Hub, Garth, and their nephew Walter are having barbecue pork as a group of rowdy teenagers come in, and one of them starts picking on Hub.
After Hub tells the teen to get lost, the young man gets indignant, which sets up a dominant moment in the movie. After the young upstart asks who Duvall's character thinks he is, the older man reaches up and grabs him by the throat and says, “I’m Hub McCann. I’ve fought in two World Wars and countless smaller ones on three continents. I led thousands of men into battle with everything from horses and swords to artillery and TANKS! I’ve seen the headwaters of the Nile, and tribes of natives no white man had ever seen before. I’ve won and lost a dozen fortunes, KILLED MANY MEN, and loved only one woman, with a passion a flea like you could never begin to understand. That's who I am.”
The first time I watched the movie, I paused the film right there. I was about as wide-eyed as the young boy in the film, Walter, played by Haley Joel Osment. I sat there and rewound it, replaying it, and letting it sink in each time. That definitive declaration made by Hub McCann speaks more powerfully than just the words he spoke. The character of Hub McCann is a man who knows who he is, his force majeure, and what he is capable of even as an older man. If you set a picture next to the phrase, “stand firm” it would undoubtedly be the stern face of Robert Duvall as Hub McCann, staring down a young kid who mistook him for an easy mark.
The Mountain King
At some point in our lives, I believe we all have experienced similar moments, measuring ourselves against something so much more important than where we were at that instant. Ultimately, I look at Jesus, this man on the mountain, this man teaching people, this man quietly exorcising a deadly storm as the man who is the pinnacle of ultimate power. Is it true that we can compare ourselves to Christ?
Honestly, that isn’t the question we should be asking. The question we should be asking is, why aren’t we comparing ourselves to Christ? I don’t mean as a way to flog our sense of self-worth into some false humility. I mean, as a life-long measuring stick of our personal growth.
Younger children invariably want to be like two people as they grow up. They hold a desire to be like their parents, their fathers or mothers, and like their older siblings. You test yourself against them regularly. You emulate how they walk or dress, or what they like, in an attempt to find out who you are. Whether it’s arm wrestling or baking, young boys or young girls, this is a fact. Even if you have no siblings or parents, you still look up to a parental figure as well as someone just slightly older than you are as a guide in your life. It’s only natural for a growing person to seek out a model for their growth.
In this world in which we find ourselves, we may follow that rule as we grow up physically, but we don’t usually follow suit as we’re growing up spiritually. We don’t copy Christ in the same way we would imitate an older sibling, even though Jesus is every bit our older brother.
Did that surprise you that I said that? Does it surprise you that I claim that? Jesus is as much my older brother as God is my good, good Father. That’s my identity. When I call someone in the church brother or sister, it’s not an idle thing to me. When I say that, I mean you are family to me in every sense of the word.
Own Your Opposition
At the same time that we don’t fully own who is with us, we don’t realize or own who we’re actually up against and why making a stand is difficult. It’s tough to claim that Jesus Christ is my big brother when the whole world and the Devil himself are telling me he's not. It gets even harder when they start rolling out the proof of this, through my past. I suspect it might be the same for you.
Understanding the two realities of who we are and what we are up against will make us more effective evangelists, even when faced with the proof the Devil presents. The concept here is about laying claim to not only the promise that our work has worth in the purpose behind it, but also that God will reward His children.
Our only other choice is to stay right where we are, useless and ineffective, as we are bullied around by forces that should be beneath us. Just some poor soul who is eating barbecue in a diner, getting pushed around by some punk. A pilgrim of no promise with no purpose and wholly without usefulness.
More to the Word
This scripture starts with the word, “Therefore,” which isn’t just a “consequence,” as defined in our dictionary. There is a significantly more meaningful definition to the Greek word Paul uses here. This word links the cause and effect of a result, emphasizing the result. The combination of both elements creates a relationship. Used in this passage, it shines a spotlight on the inevitable outcome of the paired cause and effect elements about which Paul was writing to the Corinthian church.
As fascinating as this is, you didn’t come here for a lesson on the English language and the explanation of a single Greek word, so I’ll break out for you what’s going on here.
Remember how I recently told you that the Corinthian church was a mess? The cause of their issues were all rooted in their lack of relationship. Nothing about them was firmly ensconced in a love for Jesus Christ, which is a blatantly sacrificial love. The effect of that shortcoming was that the Corinthian church was in disarray. The result of all this was that Paul needed to make multiple trips to try to sort their mess out. This situation caused Paul to bring the gospel yet again. All this was an attempt to bring about a unification of the church in Corinth.
Why was this such a big deal to Paul? Was it his ego? Was it his financial support? Nope. It was because they were his siblings. Every last one of them was a brother or sister of Jesus Christ under the blood our Messiah shed on Calvary. The promise that Paul received, the hope every last one of us can also claim, was that we are heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ. Matthew 12:50 shows us that Jesus said, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
To be clear, what Jesus said means that if you are born again, you are the sibling of the creator of the universe. He is your brother. Let that sink in for a moment.
It’s like living your life thinking you were a nobody and suddenly finding out you are related to the most majestic human being ever to walk the face of this earth. In reality, it’s not like that; it is that. Did you ever think you could be that powerfully connected? Heirs to God through Christ. That's you!
Who Loved Who First?
Paul uses the phrase “agapetoi adelphoi.” You may recognize part of that first word. Agape is pure, divine love. Agapetoi means personally experiencing a two-way love relationship with God. Noted Greek New Testament scholar Kenneth Wuest elaborated by saying that this word means “divinely-loved-ones.” That means the love relationship starts with God and His divinity, not us. That can only happen through the connection established at salvation through Jesus Christ. Our newfound family found us, not the other way around, and His choice to seek and save all of us is what defines you as a child of God.
If we want to go past the wide-eyed Walter phase and start our trek to the legendary status the likes of Uncle Hub McCann, we have to own who we are, whose we are, and that begins with how all this happened. It started with a goal.
Our salvation is a form of adoption by God, but it involves more because we are born again in salvation.
To use our cause and effect model, because we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, heirs to God, we are no longer powerless in any aspect of our lives. The effect is, when we are practicing our spiritual disciplines, we thoroughly move and evolve into the powerful and capable beings the Holy Spirit will make us into if we only let it. The result of this is that we get to be pretty fearless when we are working towards the goals of God in our lives. The reason for this is that we were given a new perspective during our transformation.
If you charge a worm and an eagle with the task of going 10 miles from one town to another, it’s not just going to be more difficult for that tiny, little invertebrate. Because it’s closer to the ground and cannot generally see where it’s going, or what obstacles it will face, it’s going to look difficult as well. The eagle has an entirely different perspective. Even if it encounters a heavy crosswind or a challenging storm ahead, the eagle can get past whatever is in front of it. This mobility and vision stem from the power of God in the purpose for which He designed the eagle. The eagle didn’t choose to be an eagle all of a sudden. It always was an eagle, from the moment it was born until the day that it dies. It was always an eagle.
In the same way, you were always a beloved creation of God. There has never been a moment in your life where God has abandoned you, left you, struck out on His own, and said, “You sicken me, I hate you, get away from me, I never want to see you again.” Never has been, never will be. Ever. He has always been there, will always be there, has never loved you less, and could not possibly love you more. His love for you, everyone around you and everyone you ever come in contact with, always has, and only ever been, perfect. He’s never wanted you to be anything less than what He designed you uniquely and individually to be.
We were never meant to be worms, but we were never meant to be eagles either. We were meant to be more than eagles. We were made just a little lower than the angels. We can stand in disbelief of that, like the psalmist in Psalm 8, but it's true. We were created "a little lower than the angels," and we are counted as siblings of Jesus Christ. We can only lay claim to that truth through Jesus, so we can’t boast on it, but oh boy, can we benefit from it. When you find your mountaintop to shout from, you need to stake your claim there based on that. Your basis for shouting is as a child of God, not in some nebulous fashion, but as an actual heir with Jesus.
The Same Father
Let me explain the other part of that agapetoi adelphoi comment that Paul made. Adelphoi means, brothers, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or the same mother. In Roman law, an adopted child had every single guarantee of sonship possessed by a blood-born child. Our salvation is a form of adoption by God, but it involves more because we are born again in salvation.
Our birth came from God through Jesus Christ’s renewing sacrifice on a cross. We are reborn of the same Father as Jesus. It doesn’t matter whose genealogy you use on your family tree. Jesus Christ is your big brother. That’s an essential point of unity, so let that sit with you for a moment. It’s meant to inspire a firm stand, a steadfast commitment, the words used here indicating that this commitment and stand won’t budge one iota. At least, not from God’s side.
All of this brings us back to the Corinthian church, who’d moved off point in their faith journey over only a couple years. When you lose sight of who you’re facing and who you belong to, this is precisely the type of mess that happens. Sometimes you end up like Elijah, needing a nap and a snack in the wilderness, and some reassurance from God that He’s got this. And sometimes you need a letter from an apostle bringing you back to the center. Realization and recentering do require some work on our part to stay on point.
The reality is that this “labor” we are called to do will not be smooth, and we may as well break this word "toil" out too. The Greek word here means work that is so difficult it almost kills us. What God calls us to will beat us up, knock us down, and leave us spent and exhausted. This weariness is the effect of our work.
This exhaustion comes because we’re supposed to be working hard, going above and beyond to meet the goal God has for us. God's goal is the cause of the work.
The result is all wrapped up in the being for whom we work. The Lord, who owns us absolutely, has assigned us this work, which is the cause of our exhaustion. So if you put all this together, we come up with “God causes us to work ourselves almost to death.” OK, and how is that fair? To answer this, we have to ask what we know of God that can help us sort this out. We know that God is a good caretaker of his possessions and that we are His possessions, heirs along with His son. We know His son modeled a degree of love and extremely costly sacrifice that we are called upon to show others. We know that His word doesn’t return to Him empty. We know that God always provides everything we need for the outcome He desires.
To sum all this up, we are His possession, His children, we have His provision, and we will have His reward as good and faithful servants. All of that existed before we ever knew of it. We have to own the simple truth of what He has wanted for us all along.
We aren’t going to stand firm on our own until we fully own that we belong to God. There’s a Thomas Merton quote that was shared recently by retired UMC District Superintendent Jerry Lee Jeffords. “I came with the notion of perhaps saying something for monks and to monks of all religions because I am supposed to be a monk … My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. And what we have to be is what we are.”
I’m challenging you today to own the inheritance Jesus gave to you. In the following weeks, I will challenge you to act on it. It’s up to you to face the challenge. Or not.
For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. - John 12:49
Let me play out a scenario for you. I was in my 30s and in a moderately popular band playing a festival in another state. The place we were playing had a stage that was about 5’ off the ground, and the area for the crowd was the size of a whole city block. More than 1,400 people were waiting to hear the band play, and we were about to go on. At that point, it hit me that I didn’t really have any fear. I knew my gear worked, I knew we’d rehearsed well and that we would be paid at the end of the night. I actually had confidence. It was a far cry from the young kid who played in the orchestra and was made the first chair first violin, watching the curtain part and show an audience hall that (gasp) held many people. As a child, I was excited, but nervous. The same as the adult musician I was at the festival, I had rehearsed well, I knew I was in tune, and I knew that I’d get through the night eventually. What was I leaning on in those instances? How was it that I was able to get over the stage fright I could have experienced as a child or as an adult? I started to wonder. What if my voice failed me, or all the sudden left me? What would I do then?
As a pastor who is also a performer, how do I go in front of other people and speak without freaking out? How do you push past the nerves and concern while preaching in a small church, let alone performing in front of a large audience? Simple. It starts by knowing where your voice came from.
We can struggle with how we push past the societal perception of Christianity so we can be bold in our proclamation of the gospel, and that’s natural. Preceding this passage from John, we learned about people who believed Christ but were silent because of their fear of the powerful Pharisees. They feared men instead of God.
The concept of fear to a Hebrew wasn’t just being afraid, but also having reverent respect. It wasn’t abject terror, it was actual knowledge of the fact that “He is God and I am not,” as Henry Blackorby stated in his book, “Experiencing God.” But these people didn’t revere God, they revered man. That’s kind of a no-no, if you recall the first of the Ten Commandements.
There’s this itinerant preacher from Galilee who is yelling at the top of his lungs about God.
There are times when we feel the tug on our heart of the Holy Spirit and step back from it, instead of stepping forward. Misplaced fear and reverence is often why. As a result, we just don’t speak up. We don’t act up. And I’m not talking about acting up in small ways, but in significant ways like Jesus was doing by yelling at the top of his lungs. Imagine you’re in a crowd of people and the emotion is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. There’s this itinerant preacher from Galilee who is yelling at the top of his lungs about God. He’s forceful, unapologetic, with a face set like flint towards the goal of loving every single one of these people so much that he would die for them.
Ring, Ring, Heaven Calling
Did you know that’s our call as well? In the very next chapter of John, Jesus gave us a new commandment. We are to love others as he has loved us. We’re called to do this. Noted atheist Penn Gilette told a story once about a man who came to his show for several performances and then met him backstage. This man knew Gilette didn’t believe in God but brought him a Bible. The reason behind it was because Gilette had shared his gift with him, he wanted to return the favor, sharing an important gift he had received. Gilette was touched by the gesture, and I would love to say he turned his life over to God, but that didn’t happen. What did happen was the master magician began to think, and what he concluded was quite remarkable, and kind of a smack in the face. He asked how much a person would have to hate someone to not to tell them about Jesus, if their savior meant so much to them. At first, I thought, “Wow, man. Harsh much?” But the more I thought about it, the more I feel what he said carries merit, especially in light of how far the love of Jesus went in our lives.
The fact remains, the same word which we are free to choose to proclaim or not to proclaim will be the same word we are measured against. What is true of Christ’s reason for proclaiming it is true for us. The word originated from God, and not from man. It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command that we are expected to follow obediently.
What happens if we don’t? Will God toss us out of heaven for being afraid? Or for being too damaged to fully step into the role of evangelism just at that moment? No. When we don’t stack up, our salvation isn’t in jeopardy, but someone else’s might be. Are we willing to risk that? The lives of the kid at the grocery store, the person you bought your car from, the old friend from high school you ran into are all at risk. To clarify, we didn’t die on a cross for them so we can’t actually save them, but we darned sure can show them who Christ is and love them as he has loved us.
Jesus was in the trenches in this passage out of John. He was shouting at the top of his lungs. In John 2:17, we read the story about Jesus entering the temple and sending out the money lenders. He didn’t do this by peaceably asking them and calmly directing the crowd to the gate, but rather by flipping tables and grabbing a bunch of cords, turning them into a whip. John tells us that the disciples remembered the passage from Psalm 69:9, where David said “for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.” Christ took this personally because, well, it was very personal for him. It was a family situation for him. The command in John 12:49 that Jesus spoke of was something he took seriously. The word that is used there for “will consume” in the gospel of John is katophagetai, and it means figuratively to devour, leaving nothing utterly. It means to consume something entirely and ravenously with an unbelievable appetite, leaving a person wholly ruined in the eyes of others and without hope of recovery. When Isaiah said to spend yourselves on behalf of the poor, Jesus was modeling that exact thing. He spent his personal reputation, his standing with the temple priesthood, and even his very life’s blood on a cross. He didn’t care how he looked in the eyes of others. He cared about how he looked in the eyes of God.
Full Sold Out
This is Jesus, utterly committed, standing for the commands of God to say what he was commanded to say regardless of the earthly consequences, counting God’s approval above that of men. It’s a stark comparison to those who were afraid of the Pharisees in the crowd and although they believed God, wilted. But Christ’s Spirit did not carry fear or timidity. While he died for our weakness, we know that the boldness of his Holy Spirit empowers us to do far more than we ever expected, something Jesus promised in John 14:12.
We weren’t dropped into a vacuum here. Hebrews 13:20-21 says May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ ... .” Oswald Chambers might have been thinking of this when he quoted Matthew 4:19, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” He wasn’t talking about skilled workers, he was talking about men who used a drag-net for a living. That’s something that doesn’t require a lot of skill at all; the point, according to Chambers was that you don’t have to be superhuman, you just have to do as God says, and God provides the rest.
To give you an example, we are often in need at Peoria Rescue Ministries, and we do a lot of praying over those needs. God has always provided. When you look at the timeline of His provision, the beautiful thing is it often began before we even knew there was a need.
In our lives, before we learn that we need to say something to someone at someplace and some time, God was already crafting some kind of message that would flawlessly communicate His deepest heart’s desires for that person. We don’t have to be flowery writers, or skilled speakers or highly educated teachers to tell someone that God has been so, so good to us. In fact, it’s best if we’re not in a lot of instances because it comes off as real and relatable to the people God wants us to reach. All we have to do is be bold. That means bold enough to lean on God’s provision, whether we can see it or not. That’s why we talked about all that faith-development done by the Holy Spirit through practicing our spiritual disciplines. That’s why Jesus practiced his regularly. It made him powerful because he was closely I’m touch with God. That made him bold.
Here, Jesus was being very bold. This situation in John 12 happened at the height of Roman occupation of Jerusalem, right around 30AD, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem right before Passover and right after raising Lazarus from the dead. He was on a roll with the people, and it scared the opposition leaders because they wanted to placate their Roman overlords and maintain their power base. Their interest was in making men happy. God? Not as much. Christ was the original fork in the road for them, as he is for us. They chose poorly.
We have the exact same choice every day.
Walking the Walk
We can either put up or shut up. Open our mouths and choose to serve God as His Holy Spirit directs, or cower at the back of the bus. Someone has got to be the first person out of the landing craft to storm the beach. The difference is, the body armor God issued us protects us perfectly when that front door drops and everything starts to go sideways. It was provided to us for our purpose before we even knew the purpose existed.
In this chapter, Christ spoke of why he came to this earth. Was he there to face opposition and then crumble? Or was he there for something else? Here in this moment in time, we find the precise reason Jesus came to that exact hour. He didn’t come here so that God could save Him, but rather that God could save others through him. Our savior boldly prophesied his own death, the kind of death it would be, and the impact it would have on the people of this earth. Lifted up, he would draw all men to him. And sure enough, he was lifted up on a cross, and as you can see above the altar behind me when I preach every Sunday, that cross is empty, because his purpose was fulfilled.
We were the cause of his needing to be lifted up in the first place. You, me, and everyone else. Our sinful nature, our separation from God, our rebelliousness, all that cut a chasm between God and us that we could never span ourselves. He was lifted up on a cross, and we lift a cross up in our sanctuary and everywhere else to honor that bridge. But do we honor him with our heart, letting that proclamation come forth? Are we bold presenters and proclaimers of the violent mercy Jesus suffered as a sacrifice for our sins? We certainly should be. And maybe we are in some instances. I think we can always strive to do better, though.
Counting the Cost of Quiet
When we look back, how many people in our lives did we neglect to tell the truth of Jesus? Did we show the truth through love? How many opportunities did we take to help those in need? Go and love as we have been loved as sinners who needed saving? This commandment is specifically what we were called to do, but not doing it carries a penalty that affects more than us.
Whatever it is we’re doing, we can and will do better. We grow. We have an example to follow. We have a man standing in a crowd of disbelief boldly proclaiming the word God gave him to speak out of obedience, even though it lead to his death. He loved us like that.
We must love others like that as well. Wildly and recklessly abandon our will to God’s Holy Spirit and follow his lead. Keep it real, keep it non-judgmental. After all, we were foreigners in our own kind of Egypt at one point, just like the Hebrew people in Exodus 22:21. That’s how we know we’re doing as God commanded us.
When I get to heaven, I would love it if I wasn’t surprised at the people I see when I get there. Instead, I know there are people I’m not going to see there, something Jesus knew, too. The difference is, I haven’t always been like Christ, zealously stating the exact words God gave me to say. Will I have blood on my hands because I didn’t say what I should have said when I was told to say it? Yes. The choice was mine to make. The cost I will face is mine. I will have blood on my hands. But I get to say that blood stops here, stops now and doesn’t go forward. I have chosen to find and use my voice as loudly as possible for Christ.
In the end, this is all about relationship. It’s all anything ever is when it comes to God. It boils down to nothing more and nothing less. D.T. Niles has a great quote. “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another where to find bread.” It’s as simple as using your voice.
It doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it. It doesn’t have to be evangelism on a stage in front of half a million people. Good evangelism is strongest when it’s one-on-one. Billy Graham was a great example. He could turn a soundcheck into an opportunity to spread the gospel. When he would go on air, and they would check the mic, Billy Graham would recite John 3:16. Harold Myra recalled in the book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, “When I asked Mr. Graham why he does that, he replied, ‘Because that way, if I am not able to communicate the gospel clearly during the interview, at least the cameraman will have heard it.’” I don’t know about you, but I plan on living a life that leads the cameramen in it to Jesus. After that, it’s up to Christ. I choose to do my part because I know Jesus is committed and can take it from there.
How about you?
We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, then when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority -- the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. - 2 Corinthians 13:9-11
Weaknesses. Wow. We all have flaws. The world has weaknesses. People are too weak to eat, or too vulnerable to sin to avoid addictions and other self-destructive behavior. Too weak to do this. Too weak to do that. Sometimes people are so small in their self-estimation that someone who is less fragile than they end up preying on them. Sometimes we get our priorities out of whack because of our weakness. I’m no exception to the rule of weakness. I have a weakness for European dark chocolate. I have a weakness for beautiful woodwork in a house. Speaking of woodwork, I love basses. Upright basses, bass guitars, it doesn’t matter. Electric, acoustic, acoustic-electric. Did I mention I really like basses? Don’t get me started on violins, either. OH! And books. Lots of books. I currently have so many books that I cannot find time to read them all, so I have stopped adding. At least until we get out or worship service. After that, all bets are off. I also have a weakness for my beagle and my horses. That’s understandable, though, especially if you’ve ever seen Betty, Thunder or Rudy.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve got many weaknesses, things to which we can’t say no.
To keep things on an even playing field, let’s get real about this. You have weaknesses in your life, too. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve got many weaknesses, things to which we can’t say no. Some of them are harmless, like a weakness for movies, or a TV show that we watch every week. But there are things we struggle with. Maybe that TV show that we binge-watch and then neglect stuff in our lives. Or more importantly, that caused us to overlook opportunities to interact with others. Or, dare I say, that cause us to neglect God and what He wants to see done in our lives.
The Corinthian church was that kind of neglectful mess. In 50AD Paul founded the church in Corinth, a community about 50 miles west of Athens. We have two of the three letters from Paul to the Corinthian church, showcasing a bit of back-and-forth dialogue. While we don’t possess the response Paul received from them between the second and third letters we have, the tone and content of his reply speak volumes.
The Corinthian church wasn’t what you’d call your model church. It was a catastrophe. A few of the issues they faced were: partisanship splitting the church between rival leaders; incest; prostitution; celibacy within marriage; believers who were married asking about divorce; believers married to unbelievers asking about divorce; issues of marriage and remarriage; lawsuits; idolatry; the women of the church praying and prophesying without covering their head, and the hair length of men; worship was a hot mess, with people speaking in tongues and talking over one another; the communal meal was turning into a party where some went hungry and some got drunk; people saying Jesus wasn’t really resurrected; major money issues; and Paul’s plans to travel having to change because of this. You could say they were a bit bull-headed as a whole.
In Paul’s address, he pushed them back to plumb. In return, they pushed right back at Paul. The underlying issues that lead up to the 13th chapter in the second letter from Paul were simple. People couldn’t relate to one another. They were putting themselves ahead of others, they were putting themselves ahead of God. The whole situation ended up toxic and pretty much out of control.
In chapter two of Second Corinthians, Paul talks about a trip he made that was a “painful visit.” What we see here is Paul doing his best to walk a tightrope voicing love and obedience to impart grace to the Corinthian church, but still being able to reveal the truth at the same time. So, while a model church loves and cares for others deeply, this church was pretty much the opposite.
Have we seen churches like this? Are we a church like this? Should we be a church like this? Will it bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ if we are a church like this? Are we filled with the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, relying on Christ to find us in our weakness, fill us with his power, and bring us into the designs that he has for our lives? Tough questions, but we have to ask them, and we likewise have to answer them.
In licensing school, during pastoral care class, our instructor set up a mock funeral planning meeting. We were explicitly told not to make it apocalyptic. Spoiler alert, we went full-on apocalyptic. I feel it is important to state that I may or may not have led the charge on a thoroughbred drama llama, racing for Crazytown as fast as it could carry me. With some help from my classmates, the ensuing thespianism was uproarious in nature and went even further down the rabbit hole I had opened. Though it was done tongue in cheek and was way overblown with drama, none of us could help but wonder what we would do when things got more than a little out of control.
On the one hand, I’ve witnessed a multi-combatant fistfight at a service of commitment, right in front of the casket, so my opinion was fairly open to exactly how deeply people’s brokenness can run and how it will choose to manifest itself. The funny thing was, the instructor said neither he nor any of the teaching staff had ever experienced anything even remotely approaching the mess we’d presented and of which he very deftly regained control.
But Paul sure had.
Division and disunity will bring a nasty, greasy, smoke-covered ending to any church, and the enemy just salivates at that idea. The church in Corinth was doing precisely as the Devil wanted. The issue wasn’t their sexual immorality or their failure to get along. Their problem was a lack of and in many instances, total abandonment of, a state of communion with God. No communion with God means we have no fellowship with our own self and definitely no communion with others. Communion with God makes us stronger because we exchange our weakness for His power. That only spills outward making our community stronger.
Weakness makes you … happy?
Did you notice how Paul spoke about gladness when his group was weak, but the Corinthian church was strong? Why do you suppose he said that? Was it about how strong they were by themselves? I don’t believe so. I think it was about the self-realization of the body of Christ in Corinth as weak, and the conviction that they couldn’t do life all by themselves. Paul felt deeply that would lead them to the understanding they needed God, which would balance the rest of the issues out.
You see, we’re so bent on being strong ourselves. It’s our driving motivation to have power and to have the ability to do life successfully, all by our lonesome. We will push ourselves to such an extreme in our desire to show how we’re in control and can do everything on our own. We even take Bible verses like Philippians 4:13 out of context regularly so as to validate the point, putting emphasis on “I can do all things” instead of on the one who Paul credits for the strength, and Paul’s utter submission to the will of God manifested in Jesus Christ’s Holy Spirit dwelling within him.
We’re only strong when we are in submissive communion with God.
An experience, not an act
If you take apart our Service of Table in the United Methodist Church, our communion is an opportunity for an experience, not just an act we do twice a month. It is literally set up to acknowledge the drawing grace of God, the conviction that we are weak, need forgiveness but cannot earn it ourselves so we count on Christ for it, are then given that cleansing forgiveness freely by God, and reassured of His never-ending love for us before we are sent. The authority I have to invoke the Holy Spirit of God over the gifts of bread and juice in Holy Communion was given to me first by God through Jesus Christ and brought under the authority of His church to me. This is all about relationship here, starting with God but not ending when it reaches us. Just as it was when Paul spoke about it, communion is about a restorative experience with God that goes beyond us. The authority given to me is for building, just like Paul’s authority that was given to him. The reignition our church desperately needs is found right there. Right. There.
Pay attention, though, there are a carrot and a stick here in equal measures. We’re given the authority to build up and not tear down. That doesn’t mean that God, from whom all power flows, can’t tear down. Still, I don’t believe God wants us to focus on the stick out of fear, but rather out of reverence. A decision made in fear and terror is coercion based on force, and it’s not a real choice. You’re not really in a relationship if you’re not truly free to relate.
The reverent respect for God and Christ’s death on the cross is found in the fact that God could quickly force us to do His will but chooses instead to love us into doing His will. It’s restraint based on a relationship that is founded in love.
That’s important here because it’s the benchmark of Christ’s church. If we’re not in communion with God, striving for full restoration, encouraging each other, finding our common ground in the cross that shows us how to live in peace, we don’t get to the last part of Paul’s benediction to the Corinthians. Without communion with God, the God of love and peace will NOT be with you.
In communion, we experience God’s drawing grace. Our repentance, His forgiveness, our grace and reassurance, and our sending. Let’s focus on forgiveness for a second.
Forgiveness as a forge
Jesus told us in Matthew 6:14-15 that if we forgive one another, God will forgive us. If we don’t forgive one another, then God won’t forgive us. That’s pretty black and white. Dietrich Bonhoeffer broke this out by saying, “It is the fellowship of the cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ.” As Christians past the point of saving grace, we are called to live deeper into the righteousness of Christ, allowing our heart of stone to be replaced by a heart of flesh. The new authority inside of us commands us, not our old ways, and all that happens through a relationship we develop with God and a faith He fully implements in our lives through His Holy Spirit.
Every time I take the bread and the juice, I experience what Christ did for me. The forgiveness inside of me from Christ forges the forgiveness I give to others and the peace that comes from that. I am convicted that I need to live deeper into Christ at every opportunity in that encounter with God’s grace. It’s a wake-up call that I cannot do life alone. You and I? We need God, and we all need each other. It starts with God and flows out from us like a trickle at first, then deepening, and turning into a mighty river that feeds abundance into the lives of other people. That’s not flowery prose, that’s Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapter 47, and it is a foundational prophecy regarding God’s relationship with us and how that impacts the people around us.
Keep a watchful eye
There’s something to guard against here, as we are prone to idolatry. What can happen is that we look to one another for that strength, but don’t look to God as much. Twentieth century evangelist Paris Reidhead said, “Most Christians do not have fellowship with God; they have fellowship with each other about God.” Don’t mishear me, fellowship about God is essential. Christian conversation, talking about our faith testimony, what God has done for us, through us and with us lately is a key communion act. Talking about how God has blessed us and especially how God has humbled us is crucial. But fellowship with God is the end goal as well as the starting point.
It’s almost as difficult to balance that as it was for Paul to balance loving reconciliation with obedient accountability. On one side of the street, grace and the law sound a little discordant on the surface. Grace is forgiving everything, and the law is accounting for everything. Would you be surprised to find that they’re actually part of the same thing? Christ came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. The law was given to us based on love, to be interpreted out of love, and followed out of it, based on communion with the God of love.
The law is the love of God enabled through the God of love.
When we take God out of that equation, by lacking in our communion with Him, the law becomes the law of condemnation, something entirely different from love. Human condemnation via the law leads to division, disunity, hatred of others, hatred of self, destruction, and a whole lot of Corinthian church-sized problems. The law God brought, came fully-equipped with forgiveness, love, compassion, mercy, true justice, broken oppression, full hearts, and healed souls. It carries a cost, as Christ said when he noted that his yoke did indeed have a burden, no matter how light. That cost is you have to not just exist beside God here on earth, but be immersed in God.
We can approach Christ on the surface, but until we get so deep in his Holy Spirit that we have him under our fingernails, in our nostrils and lungs, coursing through our veins, we will struggle to bear with one another’s burdens. That love based in the Holy Spirit is an authoritative source of fuel to reignite our church through the “more perfect way” found in the love of God. His passion for us spills over into our love of one another. Is that the Hallmark of the church? And if we think it is, could we improve on that even more?
Communion with God is a way for us to step outside of ourselves and into God. Our strength is so lacking that without God, we’ll never break down the barriers necessary to bring revival in our selves, let alone in our community. Communion carries a spark to reignition. That same spark was evident 50 days after Christ’s resurrection at Pentecost. If we want revival in our church, in our community, then we have to reignite our hearts by opening them to God.
Thomas Fuller said a long time ago that, “Some men, like a tiled house, are long before they take fire, but once on flame there is no coming near to quench them.” This is the type of reignition our church needs, and the match is found in the hand of God. When it truly strikes our soul, it doesn’t matter what happened in the past, everything becomes a brand new blaze. The question we face is this. Are we experiencing a communion with God that makes ignition of that sort of fire possible? And if not, what are we going to do about it?
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth, you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once more. - Psalm 71:20-21
In a book I have, I recently read that “They say that the gates of hell will never prevail against the church, and that’s partly because it’s so diversified you can’t get a handle on it.” It sounds funny, and it is. But it’s also really accurate. The diversification of worship is a challenge because what might look one way in one church looks entirely different in another church. And that’s just in the United Methodist denomination alone.
My girlfriend Selena and I worship in two very different settings. One is the church I serve, a somewhat traditional church. We conform reasonably well to the liturgical guidelines, and we have a long-standing worship tradition. We’re not what you would call “high church,” as I don’t wear an alb or a cincture, but we are very traditional in that we read the entirety of the lectionary scriptures, we follow a service of word and a service of thanksgiving or table. In Selena’s church, they read the word, and they can spend around 30-45 minutes in praise of the Trinity alone. And that praise is demonstrative, has drums, bass, saxophone, a PA system that, even while it is loud, can sometimes be drowned out by the voices of people worshiping God. The message time in her church can be 35-50 minutes long at times. So when I go to her church, there’s a lot that is different there. Even though our theology is very similar in our beliefs, our worship styles are not. In fact, I’ve joked that her church is really just a loud United Methodist congregation. Still, it can be confusing for all of us who are trying to get worship just right. Which brings me to my point.
I’ve joked that her church is really just a loud United Methodist congregation
There are typically three types of folks sitting in church pews. The first two types are 1) people who are struggling to make sure they’re doing it just right so God is happy, and 2) people who are doing it the way they have been taught for decades to the point of just going through the motions. The third type is people who are doing their best to encounter God so that He can create or enhance His faith relationship with them. They are people who have seen “troubles, many and bitter” like David had in Psalm71. They are often lost and in desperate need of restoration. The Hebrew word David used for “troubles” means pressures or enemies closing in on every side, forcing them into a tight place. The word for “many” used here would be better translated from the original Hebrew as “great,” where the pictograph means the head of the family. In other words, they are surrounded in front, back, top, bottom, left and right by the grand daddy all of troubles. There is no escape that they can find, at least within their own grasp. That’s why they turn to God.
When we find ourselves here, we ask some hard questions. “Who allowed this? Who caused this? How did this happen?” The answer to the first is God. The response to the last two questions, however, is us. Charles Spurgeon noted in an exposition of this text that, “A little God would fail us, but not Jehovah the Omnipotent. It is safe to lean on him since he bears up the pillars both of heaven and earth.” The people in the pews God allowed to sink to a point where they are surrounded with no way out except God, have turned to God as their sole resource and salvation. They do so through an intense hunger for God that they can satisfy only through worship.
I ask you, which one of these three definitions is His church as a whole right now?
Being in a place of desperately practicing the spiritual discipline of worship is not for the faint of heart, nor is it only to be done when life has taken one of those hard left turns that nearly throws us out of the car. Worship is a powerful way to interface with God in a completely authentic, laid-bare manner. If people come to church just to mark time, they’re missing out. If we don’t understand why we do the things we do, the symbolism and meaning behind them, we’ll miss an essential encounter with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. And there’s more to what we miss than just that. Worship isn’t complete when we walk out of the building after the benediction. Worship is living your life to glorify God in that same kind of encounter every day of our lives.
This is how people who don’t know Jesus get to see him. This is how people encounter us as more than just a signpost on the road, but rather as the fork Jim Elliott spoke about. This is how we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
After all, if we don’t, who will?
I read recently that the church worship service is a huddle. We run the plays during the week, but the game is not won in the huddle. If we are going to re-emerge as a denomination and as a global church, we have to be prepared to be in the huddle, on the practice field, in the locker room, in the weight room, doing our homework, practicing our spiritual disciplines every opportunity we can, so that they become second nature. They take on that nature because the authority within us is actually changed. We come under a new administration when we encounter the Spirit of God in those disciplines, especially during worship.
There’s something I recently discovered that blew my mind. Did you know that you could learn a great deal about the importance of worshipping God from a man who lived in China 600 years before Jesus? Right around the same time as the Assyrian exile was coming to a close, there was a man who earned a name for himself as a military strategist. His name was Sun Tzu. He very famously uttered, “... if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
That concept is evidenced here in this Psalm. When David wrote this, Absalom was in open rebellion, and his whole world was crashing down around him. But the thing is, King David knew himself, and he knew who his enemy was. What was more important is, the king knew who God was, and didn’t cease to worship God throughout this time. He counted on and trusted God because he knew he couldn’t count on himself in the face of his enemy. Even in the darkest moments of his life, David worshipped God because that’s where his promise pointed him back to his purpose when he was caught in the midst of his perception.
Now, we may just think we are not in a place where we need God right now because we live prosperous lives. But if we look around through God’s eyes, we can clearly see that things are not as they appear. Our purpose on this earth is to glorify God. Every single one of the spiritual disciplines is about glorifying God, and this is why. Glorifying God is our purpose.
In Isaiah 29:13, we read, “The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Coming to a church service and making sure we do the right thing in the church at the right time in the church and in the right church is not worship. The act of taking bread and juice at communion is not worship. The sprinkling or pouring or immersion in water at baptism is not worship.
None of these acts are worship.
Worship is the encounter of God not face-to-face, but heart-to-heart. We could walk into this church and not turn on a single light, not light a single candle, not sing a single hymn. But if our hearts encounter God and glorify him, that is worship. It doesn’t matter where that happens or how or with whom. If we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit so we can encounter God in the bread and juice of communion, then that is worship. If we encounter the Holy Spirit in the covenant of baptism, that is worship. If we encounter Jesus Christ, the Light of the world in the symbolism of the acolyte bringing the candle into the sanctuary, that is worship. Without that encounter, we don’t know God. Without knowing God, we don’t know ourselves, and we don’t stand a chance against what the enemy will throw at us once we leave this sanctuary. In fact, we don’t even stand a chance inside our church sanctuary, because without an encounter with the Living God, that building and our presence in it doesn’t even come close to what God intended in the first place, which is a complete and whole relationship with Him.
Pump You Up
Online writer Stuart Shepard interviewed Sylvester Stallone about his Christian faith in a 2006 article for Citizenlink.com called, “The Gym of the Soul.” Part of the article read, “Stallone realized he had to trust Christ more than himself. ‘You need to have the expertise and the guidance of someone else,’ he said. ‘You cannot train yourself. I feel the same way about Christianity and the church. The church is the gym of the soul.’” This is where we encounter our trainer, the Holy Spirit of God, sent to us through his Son, Jesus Christ who died for our sins. I say all that to make the point of an encounter with God very clear.
The real, hands-in-the-dirt hard work of worship happens throughout the week. We huddle up on Sunday to game plan in a group encounter with God through the Holy Spirit, and then we execute the plan during the week. Keep in mind, we don’t walk out these doors alone. David wasn’t alone and neither are we. That acolyte that brought the light into the sanctuary carries it out again, and into the world, to remind us that Christ goes before us. Allow me to elaborate on why remembering that is important.
I was bullied a lot when I was younger. I wanted to be big and strong, and I wanted to take care of myself and handle my business, but I simply wasn’t powerful enough. I learned quickly that unless I wanted to keep getting beaten up because I was an easy target, I needed a back up. I was blessed with people who watched out for the skinny little kid that I was, and I made sure to stay close, so I wouldn’t be targeted by others who, for whatever reason, preyed upon the weak. I sought out their protective company every day as a matter of life and death because to 6-year-old me, it was. Similarly, if we don’t seek out an encounter with God every day and actively chase it and get it, we’re the ones that will be left behind as prey. The pressure of being buried alive by this world and everything in it is all we will encounter.
The net-net is, we won’t be fulfilling our purpose of glorifying God both in this sanctuary and more importantly, outside of it.
What's on Your Menu?
We’re a very peculiar people, though. All too often we are spiritually starving, and yet, we don’t head to the kitchen to start cooking something to eat. It boggles the mind. We walk into the kitchen, and we look around, shrug our shoulders and then leave, not even opening a cabinet or the fridge to see if there’s something there. We feel weak and helpless and defenseless, so we go to the gym of the soul. We look around, stare at the weights, see the trainer who asks, “Can I help you get stronger,” and then we say, “Nah, it’s cool, I’ll just stay unable to defend myself.” Not only do we stay a target in that instance, but we also never get to the point of having the increased greatness on which this Psalm focuses. This word for greatness comes from the Hebrew word for rope. The more strands in a rope, the stronger and greater it is. That greatness is our faith, which we know isn’t increased by us. It’s only increased by an encounter with the Holy Spirit, especially in worship.
Look, sometimes we don’t think we do enough. Some days we’re tired. Some days we’re distracted. We try to define worship as a series of acts so we can focus and feel like we've achieved something in an attempt to judge whether or not we’re “worshiping right.”
The fact is, if you spend time with God daily truly worshipping Him, it’s because your heart is hungry and open to Him. He meets you there. The type of songs in our services doesn’t matter. Juice or wine doesn’t matter. Whether I am wearing a tie or a t-shirt doesn’t matter. Whether we’re in a tall-steeple church in the country or an urban worship center, doesn’t matter. Being heart- hungry for God is what matters. God builds faith through worship for the purpose of glorifying Himself through our ability to show that same faith as deeds in the lives of others.
A Fire You Can Cook With
Jim Cymbala said in his book, “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, “... if people don’t have an appetite for God, what does it matter how many are attending the services? How would that impress God? Can you imagine the angels saying, “Oh, your pews! We can’t believe how beautiful they are! Up here in heaven, we’ve been talking about them for years. Your sanctuary lighting—it’s so clever. The way you have the steps coming up to the pulpit is wonderful”? I don’t think so. If we don’t want to experience God’s closeness here on earth, why would we want to go to heaven, anyway? He is the center of everything there. If we don’t enjoy being in his presence here and now, then heaven would not be heaven for us. Why would he send anyone there who doesn’t long for him passionately here on earth?”
It’s time for the body of Christ to get heart-hungry again. It’s time to hit the gym of the soul. It’s time we make encountering God through worship daily our intentional priority, starting right now.
And I will bring my people Israel back from exile. They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
- Amos 9:14
When I was in my early 30s, I had a 1983 Ford Mustang GT. Now, while that sounds like an impressive car, the early ’80s GT Mustangs were very much pooches. The ads were fresh and enticing for these cars, but the performance was not. Still, my 1983 GT was fire engine red, with the blacked-out hood, fully loaded, and not in bad shape for an old car. It had cool wheels and sounded nice, but it was still not very much of a performer.
So I went about the task of getting this car a little more oomph in the areas with which I knew how to deal. I’d already replaced the carburetor and breather with an Edelbrock, so a new intake manifold seemed like a natural component to increase the ability to put air into the motor and power on the pavement. As I finished torquing down the last bolt on my side of the motor, I surveyed the shiny new aluminum manifold. Admiring my work, I absentmindedly set the wrench down ... from one battery post to the other. Now, when you work on a motor, you unhook the electrical system from its cables for safety. Not so surprisingly, though, you can still get a snappy little shock out of that battery when you complete the circuit with the aforementioned torque wrench, which you happen to be holding in your hand.
I’ll never forget the look on my buddy’s face when the sparks started to fly, nor the taste in my mouth of my slightly less than tar-tar tongue. I didn’t realize it, but even as careful as I had been, rebuilding something could be very dangerous.
Now, you may not have ever rebuilt an engine and electrocuted your taste buds in the process, but I am willing to bet you’ve had something similar happen to you. Rebuilding anything is never a sure bet. There are pitfalls even if we take all the precautions and are as careful as possible.
I’ll never forget the look on my buddy’s face when the sparks started to fly
Occasionally, those deter us from continuing the process. There’s simply no guarantee that this rebuild will be easy. What I’ve learned is that we face two choices here. The first is if we choose to either keep at it or quit. In that choice, we can plan carefully or carelessly, and we reap the benefits or the breakdowns inherent in that choice. Sometimes we can turn the key and listen to the motor roar to life, breathing much more freely than before. Sometimes we give up. Either way, there are still things we don’t see that can blindside us, which is where our second choice comes to the front burner. How do we deal with the unexpected?
If you rebuild enough motors, you’ll eventually learn to deal with rusty bolts. You will also learn to watch where you put wrenches. None of this comes from quitting, but rather regrouping, marking where you failed and why, and then moving forward toward the goal with a bit more education.
If you ever want to see that goal reached, you have to brave the difficulties; otherwise, you’ll have what you had before, which was a poochy old Ford instead of the zippy little red Mustang with T-Tops and a 5.0 motor that measures a quarter-mile in seconds instead of minutes. More than that, though, you’ll be wiser and more capable for the experience.
Giving up early
We encounter the problem in the process. If you read the first part of Amos and stop the story before you get to verse 14, you would throw in the towel. Just like Hosea, Amos was a contemporary of Isaiah, Jonah, and Micah before the Assyrian exile of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the subjugation of Judah to the south where Amos set out from to begin his ministry. He was a regular, blue-collar guy, an arborist and a shepherd, from an unknown family. While some might look at Amos and say this man was impoverished, the prophet had a wealth of time and freedom. He was so wealthy in fact that this man from Tekoa could head north and work for God as a prophet. With the fifth and concluding address of his book preceding this prophecy in the ninth chapter, its powerful promise culminated in a comforting conclusion of hope. All of this was God’s attempt to rebuild a relationship with a people who’d made themselves so like the surrounding nations that they were no longer separate, consecrated or holy.
I’ve got to point out the contrasts here with the Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah. You remember, it appeared in our Old Testament reading a couple of weeks back. Jesus and John the Baptist both echoed that song in their ministry, Jesus in the Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 22, and John in Matthew 3:10 during a proclamation to the Pharisees. Around 730 years after Amos bookended Isaiah, John and Jesus foreshadowed that vineyard’s destruction, which happened approximately 40 years after their deaths at the hands of the Jewish aristocracy in John’s case, and the Roman government in that of Jesus.
How many of you already knew what I just relayed to you so far about Amos? Or had heard what I said at some point? I’m guessing you may have run across it at some time or another, but probably not in-depth. To give you a small example of what I dig through in any given week preparing Sunday’s sermon, here’s a short listing of resources. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Zondervan’s Archeological Study Bible, Dummelow’s One-Volume Bible Commentary, Benner’s Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible and several others that would bore the daylights out of you. As I mentioned last week, I may have a slight problem with buying books. Selena will keep all of you advised as to whether or not an intervention is in order, but so far she’s supported my desire to install a lot of bookshelves in my house. Then again, perhaps she’s just an enabler? Time will tell.
I’m not going to this length to try to impress you with my knowledge about Amos or Assyrian history or how the Bible connects from an Old Testament minor prophet from a backwater town in Judah to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In conversations about theology with actual experts who have studied all these things, I’m routinely the dumbest person at the table. That’s how I know that I’m at the right table.
The reason I am telling you all this is that, because I read and study the Bible, I can handle those setbacks that are sometimes shocking to encounter.
Shock-proofed by God
Setbacks will occur. We live in a world full of plot twists. We set out with a pretty good handle and maybe even a plan of action. Then, from out of the blue, a torque wrench shaped shock drops in, leaving a peculiar taste in our mouths and a buddy who is stifling a laugh while asking if we’re OK.
Preparing to be shocked isn’t going to help us at all, and knowing the five different testimonies in the prophetic word given to Amos wasn’t going to help the people of Israel when Ahaz deposed Jotham and ascended the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel. On my side of the car, the plot twist of a shock wasn’t amusing, and neither was the plot twist the Israelites underwent in that exile. Those who escaped death were humiliated, humbled, and carted off as slaves. The obvious questions in their lives were, “Alright, why did this happen, and what do we do about it?” Without knowing the things God told them through Amos, it would have been like being shoved into a dark room from which someone had removed all the doors. There’s no way to see anything, and if you could, it wouldn’t matter because there’s no way to get out. Amos’ prophecy of the promise was their way out of that darkness. Scripture is ours.
When we go back to Romans 10:17, we learn that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Let’s break that down a second here. If we as a church require stronger faith, and the ability to live into that faith more freely and fully, then this passage tells us a powerful way to do precisely that. We need to hear the word of God. What is the word? Well, John 1:1-5 tells us exactly what the word is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him, all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Studying the Bible is studying Jesus Christ, who according to John, is the Word. God spoke the world into being through the Word that was to become our salvation.
Why does it surprise us that when our spiritual life is suffering, it’s due in part to us not being in the word? Why are we even remotely taken aback by the fact that when our life is dark, and all the sudden we catch a glimpse of Jesus, things brighten up? After all, he’s a Light shining in the darkness that has not been overcome by that darkness. Why is this such a surprise to us? Perhaps it’s because we need to get deeper into the word and open our hearts to what the Holy Spirit has for us there more often.
How often do you read the word? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Do we listen to the word on Sunday and that’s it? Do we study Scripture? Do we even know how to use the most basic of Bible aids like a concordance in our desire to know Jesus Christ more fully? Or do we not need Jesus in our lives because everything is roses and sugar-coated candies? Frankly, if our perception is that the world is beautiful, we need to look outside the window and rethink that perception. “The world is a house on fire, and everyone we love is inside it,” in danger of burning to death. As a church entering a season of renewal in our spiritual formation, we need to dig deeply into every spiritual discipline we have to master it as best we can, bible study included. The only way can genuinely fight the darkness the way a church needs to fight the darkness is by flexing our muscles in prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and communion, and all that comprises those things.
Hot wings for Jesus
Right now, I’m discipling a young man, and we call our discipleship, “wing-scipleship” because we started it off by meeting over some hot wings at a local pub.
No one ever discipled him, and he’s been in the church struggling with his walk for a reasonably long time. His struggle is NOT his fault; it’s OURS. He didn’t fail us by not digging deeper when he didn’t even possess the tools necessary to dig. We failed him by not digging deeper ourselves and then reaching out to teach others to not only how to dig but to give them a shovel of their own with which to do the digging. Discipleship is one-on-one. Life-on-life. And all it takes to disciple someone is to have a little more knowledge than they do and the driving desire to pass it on. The foundation of that knowledge is the Word, the Light that is Jesus Christ. We have a book that can help us see Jesus Christ more clearly in our lives. The strength this young man is finding there will help him to be a better father and a better servant of Jesus Christ. This type of thing makes men and women warriors in a fight that’s been going on for millennia. The strength we find there will devastate the plans of the enemy.
The stronger we get, the faster we move towards renewal. The stronger we get, the more people hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. The stronger we get, the less able the devil is to throw a shock at us to knock us down and keep us down. An intensely prayerful, fasting, studying, worshiping, and communing church is a church God can and will deploy to grow His kingdom, bless the lives of others, and draw all people to Him. An active church is a formidable foe.
Pay close attention to what I am saying here. When this passage begins in Amos, the word “captives” was selected very carefully. It refers to someone who was kidnapped and vanquished to a place of defeat and left there to die. To clarify what that means to us, this state our church has found itself in is not where God ever intended for us to be. We were never designed to be in such a desolate situation. I cannot say this enough. This perception we have of where we are right now was never the purpose for which God created us. Our church has a unique opportunity to rebuild from these ruins, to firmly plant for a future that will yield a tremendous reward. Our church has a powerful promise from God that this can and will happen for His glorification. What’s more is, his commitment isn’t that it will be the same as it was in the future, but rather that it will be better than it ever was in the past. We know this because the Bible tells us that infallible truth.
Being in the Word and studying it gives us a Light in this darkened room. More importantly, it provides us with a doorway to leave this darkness behind, and lead those who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ out that door, right along with us.