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.
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way. - John chapter 14, verses 30 to 31, NRSV
Did you notice the very end of this passage? Right there at the end. It seems innocuous enough. Rise, let us be on our way. Three words in Greek. "Let's go." "Let's get this show on the road." Read in a greater context, John's narrative didn't immediately have them going anywhere, as they were sitting around the Passover table. Jesus didn't go anywhere until Chapter 18 when they went across the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane. Chapter 13 reads right into 14 reads right into 15 all the way to 18. But Jesus wanted them to rise and be on their way, traveling the same path that his ancestor David did in his flight from Absalom. Think about it. If you're a disciple, your feet are clean, your belly is full, and you're comfortable. It's a feast time celebrating the freedom of the enslaved Hebrew nation from Egypt. It's easy to see the disciples as comfortable and at peace. For some strange reason, though, Jesus wanted them to move. Let's put a pin into that idea and come back to it in a bit.
Instead, let's talk about peace for a moment. I have a pretty full schedule as a pastor who also works a full-time job. I really look forward to my sabbath, and sometimes it doesn't end up as being much of a sabbath because life and obligations get in the way. As it sits, I might seek serenity, but it feels like I'm always in motion. Busy is as busy does, as they say. Sometimes I would prefer not to know how busy does, but that's not the way things work out all the time. This isn't uncommon, either. In fact, it's pretty widespread.
Take a stereotyped example. Have you ever sat down to dinner, and then the phone rings, you get a text message, or you hear someone at the door? Sometimes that dinner is a moment you have looked forward to all day long. It's like an escape, in a manner of speaking. Or what about being at the dinner table, and someone pulls out their cell phone? While we consider that rude, what if that person is a doctor, or like me, a pastor, and they have someone they're trying to help who is messaging or calling them? In general, we find this kind of thing unacceptable, but in specific circumstances, we understand and excuse it. The reason is that we, as beings who are driven towards a relationship, understand and accept the need for relational interaction to interrupt our rest. Remember the tension I talked about? This is a big part of it.
Then there are those times where we want to peacefully relate to people at a time when they don't want to peacefully relate to us. In Matthew 10, Jesus said he didn't come to bring peace, but rather to bring a sword, so it shouldn't surprise us. We live in a society that seems bent on chasing one side of an issue or the other, exclusively. We don't often take a peace-loving approach to our fellow man, let alone our fellow Christian. It seems that the only thing that changes more than the tack of political sails is the weather in Illinois.
To make it more difficult, we bounce back and forth like a yo-yo between the two pursuits of peace and accomplishment. You're either working hard at crushing it, or you're not. There's little to no in-between. We drive ourselves to be overworked and then crash not out of choice but out of necessity. Alternatively, we don't engage ourselves much, and then we suffer from Proverbs' conclusion for the lazy, which is poverty. That poverty comes on us in a lot of different shapes and sizes, and it just spirals the whole chase further out of control.
We need to love justice, but we need to love mercy as well. In times as divisive as the one we are currently living in, we are often told ad nauseum that we can have one, but not the other. I recently read an online exchange between two ordained elders who were going at each other over doctrine and doing it in a demonstratively negative fashion. They weren't trying to find each other's heart in the matter, they were trying to find a way to assert dominance or pre-eminence over one another. That's not Christ's love guiding them, that's the ruler of this world, and we are all capable of falling prey to him. All the more reason to cling to Jesus.
At some point in time, we'll disagree on things. Nevertheless, we shouldn't let those disagreements overshadow the presence of Christ in our relationships. At times we'll feel torn between our need for a night off and the needs of those around us, but we shouldn't let that overshadow the peace of mind that Christ brings us. The world might say we have to have one or the other, but frankly, the world is wrong. We have to find justice and love mercy all at the same time. It's intense doing this, and it's problematic if we don't focus on Christ in our attempts to balance life.
The Bible tells us to go after both justice and mercy not as some good idea, but as an expectation that comes straight from God. Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. That last part is where we find Christ, by the way, humbly walking with our God.
In this passage from John, that humble walk is displayed in Jesus obeying the commandment he received from God. When Jesus says that God commanded him to do something, the language used doesn't mean Jesus is someone who has been ordered to do something via a command. It means he was commanded by God because Jesus first asked God for a commandment. Jesus asked for God's commandment, was granted it by God, and then Jesus carried it out. That all happened through this crazy big love relationship he had with God. Sometimes I've been guilty of sitting around saying, "Well, God will give me a chore when He's good and ready." Maybe I should be asking Him for this crazy big, loving honor of receiving His commandments instead of waiting like a bump on a log. Perhaps we all should be more proactive like that.
We can get so charged up over an idea, though. It then becomes challenging to do all three parts of that passage from Micah. We put a check beside one of the first two, but our hubris gets in the way. As Richard Rohr so brilliantly stated, "The ego hates losing - even to God."
If we don't stay repentantly humble, we can easily be swayed to one side or the other and taken entirely out of balance. When that happens, any thought of peace we seek in Christ goes right out the window, and we're lost. There's only one way we can succeed in doing all three of those things. Live in a crazy big, genuinely loving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And why not? Jesus lived in a crazy big, genuine love of God. We can too, and so we should!
When we struggle with tension in this world, we can turn to this little, tiny passage out of John and Jesus lays almost the entire motivation of his ministry out here. Reclining at the Passover table, Jesus' ministry is still wildly in motion here. This tiny little passage is powerful. We see determination, obstruction, truth. We have motivation, and we have action. Without action, that last small part to which I pointed earlier, none of the rest of means anything. You may as well stick them all in a box, toss them in your hall closet and go on your merry little way in life. Without action, you're standing still on the path of peace instead of moving along it.
Remember me telling you about my Mustang? One of the things I wanted to do to it in pumping up the performance was to change the intake manifold out. The primary function of the intake manifold is to evenly distribute the combustion mixture to each intake port in the cylinder heads. So, the air flows into the carburetor, gets mixed with fuel, and is distributed to the cylinder heads. Via combustion, it's converted to kinetic energy, transferred to gears and drivelines, and finally into the motion of the tire against the pavement. With all this happening, the car still goes nowhere if the wheels don't turn. I may as well have left the manifold in the box. Motor sounds great, but if it doesn't move an inch, toss the whole thing in a scrap pile because you have a 5.0-shaped paperweight.
This is an awful lot like the breath of God coming into your heart and being mixed with His in-birthed persuasion, our faith inside us, catching fire, and converting into faith in action. Your faith is your fuel, and as God breathes life via His word into your motor, it mixes with the faith he put there, and it creates the force that moves you wherever you need to go. This is how we find peace when we get that call at the table and we have to go. This is how we find love for people with a difference of opinion. The fire created by God's word mixed with His faith in your life has to be set in motion. We as the church need to put ourselves in gear, though, otherwise we'll never get where we need to go. That's why our spiritual disciplines, acts of mercy and acts of piety are so important. Without them, we don't go past our perceptions to God's purpose by way of His promise. Toss us in a scrap pile. We're just a church-shaped paperweight unless we are in motion. This is how Jesus lived his life.
Jesus really loved God. I mean, he really loved God. God was important to him because God loved him first, but more notable than that, Jesus felt it crucial to be active in loving God back. He did this through obedience to him, and for a particular reason - so that the world would know that Jesus loved God. When we see Jesus as a model for the reason behind showing God our love, we open up to all the ways that he showed us how to love God. Most importantly, we see how we can show our love to God through our love for others.
There's a song by country star Tim McGraw called, "How Bad Do You Want It?" It asks, "Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Is it a fire that burns you up inside? How bad do you want it? How bad do you need it? Are you eating, sleeping, dreaming with that one thing on your mind? 'Cause if you want it all, you've got to lay it all out on the line." To me, that sounds exactly like Jesus in action. He laid it all out on the line. If we're like most people, we've asked ourselves that question about something. Work. A marriage or a relationship. How bad do we want that grade point average in school, or a promotion. A retirement goal or a raise. Maybe someone else asked you that question. But here is a gut check for us all, myself included.
What if God asked us how bad we want it? How badly do we want His kingdom? His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? If God looked us in the eye and asked us how much we love Him, how would we respond?
First, realize that God is the ultimate lawyer because He never asks a question to which He does not already know the answer. He already knows how bad you and I want it. We don't. But He does. Are you and I willing to recognize where we might be coming up short and turn that over to God so that He can show us how to fill the gap that exists? Can we be truthful with ourselves where we have to be? Because to follow Jesus, we will travel grave lengths to show the world how important God is to us. This is a call to own where we are, and then move on from there.
As Christians, many of us are in a stable position. Our salvation is guaranteed in our repentance through Christ alone by grace alone and faith alone. We're totally good right there at that exact point. It's a beautiful place to be when you're reconciled to God. Think of the time that you really and truly came to the realization that you were saved and justified by God through Christ as your savior. That hope. That peace. That indescribable joy. All realized through an act of love. Your heart as full as the bellies of the disciples that night Jesus spoke to them.
But we cannot stop at this peaceful place of rest.
Look, as the star rested over Bethlehem, it was undoubtedly peaceful. A long journey was over for Mary, Joseph, and newborn baby Jesus, but also for all of humankind. Glory shone at that moment. Brilliant light cascaded across the hills and hit the faces of shepherds as God's angel proclaimed that Jesus was born. But the story wasn't over, as it didn't stop there. The war had only just begun.
At some point, Joseph was told he had to rise up. When the angel commanded Joseph to rise up, John's gospel has him using the same word as Jesus did here. Joseph's journey didn't end at Bethlehem. King David's kingship didn't conclude during his flight from Absalom through the Kidron Valley centuries before Jesus crossed it to go to Gethsemane. Joseph, David, and Jesus pushed on. Jesus pushed on because, in his active obedience to God, the world would see his love for God.
At the Passover table, we have twelve men who are basking in the love of God and the presence of Jesus. They have a close and intimate relationship with him and have for many years. But their work isn't over. There's a ruler of this world coming, according to Jesus. This "archon" is someone with absolute power over this "kosmos," - this world - but only over this world and definitively not Jesus.
Jesus preceded this statement by saying that he's not going to speak to them much longer. A few chapters later he was taken captive, and his trial, death, and burial would come. This merits more than a cursory wave-off as a chronological sequence of events. It's more than a cessation of discussion on the way to his crucifixion. This is Jesus saying it's not time to sit back and chat, it's time to rise up and act.
Now, they may have very well concluded the discourse of John 16 and 17 while putting on their coats, but let's go back to the end of this passage where Jesus said, "Rise, let us be on our way." Let's really dig into what is going on here. Here, Jesus uses a word that is translated in the literal sense as someone who is reclining to get up, as the angel used. But it also means figuratively to wake up and come to life after dormancy. Rise up, be incited to action, get stirred up, awaken from death or sleep. Joseph had to snap to and hustle his family off to Egypt. Jesus' talk of rising up is a precursor to the resurrection that would take place shortly. Jesus isn't just saying rise up from the table, he's saying rise up from this state of death in which you've been languishing.
The word for rise comes from "agora," which is a place in a town where people would gather. Hence the idea of "gathering one's faculties" when you rise. I think Jesus meant more than just, "Hey, let's stop laying here and stand up now." This is a call to action, and it starts with getting ourselves together and waking up. It mirrors what we need to do with our salvation. You and I have been brought back from death under the law, now we need to do something about it.
Right now, the church as a whole and far beyond the United Methodist denomination has been asleep at the wheel. There's a lot of people running around saying, "Wake up," but we seem to be hitting the spiritual snooze button. We're wanting just 5 more minutes of this blissful rest. We can do better, and we were called to do better.
It may seem odd to preach on the Passover discussion on the last day of Advent, which is traditionally about love. Still, in reality, it shouldn't be. As much hope, peace, joy, and love as we have, we can't just sit on it. After all, we're an Easter people. There's always something we need to do, because the ruler of this world is here, right now.
We have to continue practicing our spiritual disciplines. Be in prayer, fasting, bible study, worship, communion. Go play bumper cars with grace and run into it as many times as you can. Roll yourself up in grace like a giant grace burrito and tell the world to take a bite. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Stand under the waterfall of grace and then splash and spray everyone you possibly can with the grace that has run all over you. Deliberately and purposefully seek out and befriend people who are NOT Christians, and love them actively as Christ loved them. Love them fiercely and love them well.
Find the elements of our faith so we can take the church past the idea of renewal, rejoicing, revelation, reaffirmation, return, rebuilding, re-emergence, and reignition. Find your mountaintop. Figure out what happened to your voice, so you can stake your claim. Speak life to death, and when you're done, repeat the second verse, which is the same as the first. Keep on repeating it until we are called to our spot by the King of the hill. This holy fight we face needs saints like you and me to put our skin in the game, wrestle with the word, and bravely go over the top and into No Man's Land after our brothers and sisters. They need hope against hope, unexpected love, a joy to come home to, and peace of mind. That is how we find spiritual renewal detonated at the real Ground Zero of revival, our hearts. That is where the revival of the church will begin. But like Jesus showed us, that's not where it ends. The Bible is not an evacuation plan. It's an invitation to a revolution in our time unfolding throughout the world around us.
Church, rise and let us be on our way.
Thursday, 12 December 2019 19:27
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.
Ecclesiastes 9:7, NRSV
If you were speaking to a new Christian, what Bible book would you have them study first? Many people believe the answer to this question should include a focus on Proverbs because it talks about wise conduct, and who among us couldn't be accused of acting a bit foolishly at times? Or in my case, a lot foolishly at times. Wisdom is important. It's so important the Bible has three books of it, and while they seem to be really discordant at first glance, they lock up brilliantly together. When you truly grasp how they function in the life of a Christian, and in the ministry of church outreach, you find it all centers around joy. And that's when it all comes home.
I don't think anyone would dispute that among the first books of the Bible that should be studied, there are some obvious choices. I've always been told an understanding of the Gospels is in order, and I definitely agree with that. Especially for new Christians discovering a whole new way to relate to God in their salvation. Most discipleship planners will follow that up with the old testament books of history. These serve as a really fantastic authority amplifier to the gospels, as they explain how prophecy and history led to Jesus, and subsequently to us. Even Jesus started here almost 2,000 years ago as we walked on a dusty road with two very bereaved disciples. From there, we journey to the epistles for practical application of the ways the Holy Spirit can flow into our lives.
The methods vary, but the general grounding in history and prophecy is the foundation for most new-believer instruction paths.
What book did you first get exposed to in the Bible? Did you start with Matthew? Did you go old school and go with Genesis? Or maybe you're the kind that skips to the back of the book to see how it turns out and headed directly to Revelation? Perhaps you're one of those rebel youngsters who headed straight for the rich poetry and intense passion on full display in Song of Songs? That's an amazingly impactful book to study from a variety of different approaches, by the way. If you've never investigated the depths of what's in this book, I highly recommend it.
All of that being said, I honestly believe we need to start in Ecclesiastes. It's my belief that if we commence our faith journey in Ecclesiastes, we'll have more realistic expectations than we usually find in the average Christian. The Bible contains three books of wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Each appears remarkably different from one another in approach, content, and the overall context of the message they're trying to convey. Without serious study, they seem to contradict one another. Proverbs says that if we seek after wisdom, we'll get it, and we'll avoid all the bad things in life. Ecclesiastes takes a much different route and Job is just really out there.
If you humanize them, think of Proverbs as the Sunday school teacher you had as a child. The one who told you the absolutes of life, be good, don't be bad. Be kind to other people, don't fight with them, and God will always go before you, making your path straight and level. On the other hand, think of Ecclesiastes as the cynical pastor about 3 years out from retirement after 40 years in rigorous ministry. He's the guy who tells you, "Yeah, God's idea of level and YOUR idea of level? They are worlds apart."
As for Job? Job basically reminds us that the most useful piece of wisdom we can hold onto is the fact that the Lord is God, and we are most definitely not Him.
Where We Go From Here
I keep circling back to this idea of "real realness." Reality is important. We eventually want to end up before God, praising Him eternally in His presence in the most potent relationship none of us could ever dream of having. That being said, we all still have to wake up tomorrow morning. Or at least I hope we get to.
Realistic expectations keep us from going too far afield, and Ecclesiastes is the "how" book of the three books of wisdom in our Bible. Proverbs is what, and Job is why. Without knowing the "how" we find in Ecclesiastes, new believers and seekers can easily be overwhelmed. Even current believers could use a focus on this book. The biggest reason is that knowing how means we have a much better chance of obtaining real joy. But to find pure joy, we have to learn to live inside the tension of its not looking the way we think it should look.
All of Hebrew literature and teaching is about tension. It's about the 1+1 and not so much the 2. In our church, when I preach a sermon, you expect a concrete takeaway. In Judaism, they hope for something to consider deeply.
The thing I love most about the feedback I receive is that what I have said is often going to take some serious reflection. That's the tension that drives most of Hebrew thought and so much of scripture. It's the very Eastern nature of Judaism that allows for this kind of tension in its spirituality. It's the balance between concrete instruction and seemingly incongruent complaints of vagueness, which is why it can be so hard to reconcile the absolutes of Proverbs with the empty smoke offered in Ecclesiastes. Nowadays, we experience it in the differences between prosperity gospel teachers and the real world. We see someone saying, "Send in $50 and receive a prayer packet that I have prayed over, and a miracle will happen in your life." That preys (with an E, not an A) on the Western focus of process over fluidity in reflection.
We want to know that if we do A, B, or C right, we get the result we desire. To someone who is materially impoverished, that's money. To someone whose health is compromised, that's healing. If I just pray the right prayer, hold my head at the correct angle when the offering plate comes around, I'll get what I want. Put the right amount into the plate, wait long enough after service to appear sufficiently pious to God. Give that televangelist the amount of money he wants. Whatever we think the process is, whatever we are told it might be, if we just do it, we will receive whatever it is we want. So maybe it's something we want out of desperation. Perhaps in some instances, it's driven by greed. When that happens, as a pastor, I often see verses like James 4:2 taken out of context. They are working from a process-driven blueprint. They read, "You do not have because you do not ask." But they don't move on to James 4:3. That's where it gets into the reasons why the ask is refused, particularly wrong and self-centered motives.
Ecclesiastes centers on a singular, pivotal premise split between two characters, the first being the author. The teachings of Ecclesiastes come from the teacher, preacher, philosopher, quester, the son of the King, the son of David, Koholeth, or whatever your translation calls him are brought out in six separate sections and expanded in them. We'll refer to him by the name given in the original Hebrew, Koholeth. He talks about everything being useless, vanity, meaningless, pointless, etc., again depending on your translation. All these different words really don't even scratch the surface of the word they are translating. It's most often translated as words like "breath," and "vapor" like you see on a cold morning. It's also translated as "smoke," because it's often used to describe something you can see, but cannot grasp. When you go back to the Hebrew pictographs for it, there's a shepherd's crook in front of an open tent door. If you stop there, that's the word for "new spirit" we discussed previously. As a reminder, it's the "new authority inside you," we talked about in conjunction with Psalm 51, where David said, "Create in me a new heart." But the word Koholeth uses doesn't stop the pictograph there.
Next to those two little bits of chicken scratching is a pictograph of a man with his hands thrown up in the air in surprise. Surprise! Behold! There's nothing in the authority inside that you can lay hold of! The word translates best according to the pictograph as "empty" as in, there's something there, but it's seeping out and long gone before you can lay hold of it.
You see, this is why it's essential to dig deeper when you study the Bible. You don't get this kind of puzzle presented to you from the words "meaningless," "vanity," or "useless." It's challenging to translate an Eastern-based language founded solidly in the physical experience of this world into an orderly, logical, intellectual, and thoroughly western language.
Couple that with the fact the Hebrew lacks paragraph breaks, capitalization, punctuation, etc. Then you plug that into the perspective of the different points in time from which all our Bible translations originate. Factor in the societal influences at those points in time, and you can see where we got words like meaningless, vanity, and useless.
It's almost like chasing after the translation itself leaves you coming up empty, just like Koholeth said it would.
Coming Up Empty
Personally, I like it when exegesis becomes a sermon illustration. Still, I also get how frustrating it can be for the person struggling to live their lives as useful, Godly people seeking after His will. This notion of coming up empty when you go looking for reasons behind what is going on in life is the principal idea in Ecclesiastes. It creates tension between the three wisdom books of the Bible. It additionally sets the table for what can be an utterly depressing read if we don't really wrestle the ideas it holds to submission. This is probably why a lot of people prefer not to study Ecclesiastes. It's a tough nut to crack if you're just trying to find processes that lead you to rewards. Jesus pointed out to us that there are a lot of things we don't know. Knowledge isn’t always our reward, and that’s a big pill to swallow.
He said that we will receive "a hundredfold now in this age houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields. But he also said they come with persecutions. Read 2 Timothy 3:12, John 15:20, Revelation 2:10. You'll see they all quite clearly declare that life isn't going to be fair to believers, contrary to what the Proverbs tell us. You get that contradiction when you take Proverbs out of its greater context.
The history of the early church is absolutely slathered over with persecution. Twelve out of 13 of the foremost disciples died fairly horrific deaths starting at Judas. If prosperity is any judge of how much God loves a person, then God absolutely hated the disciples with a vengeance. But success isn't always a mark of God's favor or love, sometimes it's the opposite. God's favor is occasionally accompanied by challenges that break us apart. God's favor is often shown powerfully in the persecution, especially when He is glorified by those persecuted.
I'll tell you a little story. On April 23, 1945, American soldiers liberated a Nazi concentration camp at Flossenburg, Germany. Among those prisoners who died at the camp when the Nazis began the purge of prisoners and retreat of soldiers was a relatively young, Lutheranist pastor and founder of the Confessing Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was run through a drumhead trial with no defense, no jury, and no record of the proceedings. On the chilly spring morning of April 9, 1945, he was stripped of his clothing, led naked into the courtyard, and hanged along with other Abwehr conspirators for the July 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Flossenburg Concentration Camp, where he was being held, was being liberated two weeks later by American forces. At the same time it was liberated, Russian troops were fighting in the streets of Berlin. As that was going on, Bonhoeffer's brother Klaus and brother-in-law Rudiger Schleiger, both of whom were resistance fighters, were executed in Berlin. Two weeks after that, the whole war would come to an end. Hardly seems fair at all to us.
The untimely death of one of the 20th century's preeminent theologians didn't happen in some blaze of glory. There was no fanfare and pomp, excellent camera work, or sweeping musical score that could make even grown men cry. It happened to the sound of naked, bare feet walking to a rope slung over a beam. They were surrounded by the sharp report of boots that belonged to the men assigned to oversee these deaths.
As that rope was placed around his neck, it was a symbol of the guilt conferred upon him by his actions in resistance to Nazi oppression. Guilt is a funny word. We seem to think of it in terms of God's perfect justice uncovered by man. In this case, it wasn't. This pastor was guilty of playing a part in an attempt to free the world of an oppressive regime. Bonhoeffer and those involved knew what would be required of them if they failed. He said, "Before other men, he is justified by dire necessity; before himself, he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God, he hopes only for grace."
Bonhoeffer completed his final worship service less than 24 hours before his execution. As he was lead out of the service to his trial, he said to captive British spy Payne Best, "This is the end - for me, the beginning of life." Bonhoeffer's motivations were informed and directed by the wisdom he found in Proverbs. His actions and sense of realism were tied closely to Ecclesiastes. In his last words to Best, he tipped his hat to Job and the utter submission he had to the absolute sovereignty of God. Through Christ, he'd never lost his overarching hope.
Was Bonhoeffer joyful as that cold air hit his skin, and he walked to the gallows for his execution with the other prisoners? Was he hopeful? At peace? Was he feeling the love of God? I think he was, after a sense. I believe he felt all those things because the in-birthed persuasion of God had convinced him he would soon be on the other side of this world, facing God and everything that entails.
Was he afraid? I don't think he would be human if he wasn't. But Christians who live that deeply into their faith don't fear death. They fear pain, sure, but not death.
In all this really somber talk, Koholeth helps us find balance in Ecclesiastes. Don't be too good, but don't be wicked. Don't be too wise, but don't be dumb either. That’s the mark we’re expected to hit if we want to find real joy. If we can find balance in the life of, and especially the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we can find it in our own lives and help others to see it in theirs.
Is your life off-kilter right now? Maybe you've got too much month at the end of your money, or too much dust at the end of your can of Pledge. If you're like me, you sometimes get too many irons in the fire. You're worried that your college-age kids are going to wind up involved in things that are bad for them. Your investment portfolio isn't looking good, and the person in the next cubicle at work has it in for you. Maybe it's all holiday-related. Schedules, family, work, gifts, church services, all these things and more can get really out of control. For instance, maybe this is the first holiday you'll be experiencing without either of your parents, as I am.
Even then, in the stress of any holiday, we need to refocus and allow God to reveal His joy in all the things He has given us. Even the bad things He has allowed to happen. It may feel like the end, but it's genuinely only the beginning of real life.
Life isn't fair as we see fairness laid out in Proverbs, and this is because of our human perspective. We're told to do this and do that, and we'll get this result, only to find that the result isn't accurately matched to how we define it. The gall we have in thinking we can define anything whatsoever without God is astounding.
The point is, everyone is unique. God treats you and me individually. The things God shows me aren't always things He shows you. Sometimes, and more often than we believe, God shows us something that He shows no one else, and He uses a singular source to do it. We call that a miracle. We see one every morning that we wake up and look to the eastern horizon. None of us see the same sunrise through the same eyes. All of us were born, enjoyed our fleeting youth, and will someday have our mortal bodies pass away. Our physical presence here on this earth is only smoke, emptying out of God's authority. So focusing on what it all means, all the questions we have, isn't the point of life. Reconciling the ledger of this world and what is going on within it isn't our job. Focusing there is why it's so difficult to find happiness sometimes. Our task, as pointed out here, is to focus on the work that God has placed before us and find the joy He put there.
Rich people sometimes die miserably. Some poor people die, having loved more powerfully than the majority of people around them. Good people who work hard lost everything in the housing collapse of the last decade. Predatory lenders and their greed made off like bandits. Hard-working, God-fearing people ended up homeless. Here we have a Lutheranist pastor with a sincere heart for God and a theological intellect that will still be rippling through time for generations to come. He died while hanging naked, cold, and considered humiliated by the authorities that placed him there. I'm sure that's not how he wanted it all to end. None of us would, either.
But, I Don't Wanna!
We can absolutely argue with God over the things we are called to do. We can try to convince Him to let us have our way. The funny thing is, Abraham found out that he was actually living into God’s will by trying to convince the Almighty to spare Sodom. It did require Abraham to live into God’s will, though, which is an important distinction to note.
We can tell Jesus we don't want to experience evil things. I've done that myself. Do you know what Jesus told me? He said to me that He knows precisely how I feel. After all, he felt that way in Gethsemane, shortly before he was hung on a cross naked, cold and considered humiliated by the authorities that put him there.
If you look for God's authority encased in constructs and concepts built by humans, you're going to be surprised when your search comes up empty. It never existed there because God didn't put it there.
God doesn't live in a box. He lives in communion, which is where He put the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love we find in our expectant waiting during Advent.
You have something to do every day and moment of our lives. Don't focus on finding a formulaic meaning for it. Don't chase after the "right answer" all the time. Enjoy the experience of it by being in the moment fully. When we take communion, we strive to be fully present with God. When you're eating with your family, having a drink with your buddy or whatever you're doing, be fully present there in that tension at that moment.
This isn't easy, because we in the west don't live like that. We let the desire to find the world's riches strip us of the joy God intended for us to have. It doesn't matter if those riches jingle and fold into your wallet, or are printed in books or filmed in movies. As difficult as it is to hear, it's not in a doctor's chart either. The joy we celebrate today isn't in answers to questions, it's in the quest for those answers and how we can come together with both God and our fellow humans to find them.
Give up looking for a higher reason and see God in what's directly in front of you. There's a reason theologians refer to the eastern mysticism of the Bible. Judaism is an Eastern religion. God gives, and God takes, and we often can't figure out why because we're not God. That's an eastern-based, tension-laden truth we must live within, but one we're not called to reconcile. We have to refocus on the relationship, which has been God's focus all along. When we balance our lives in finding the joy in even the most mundane, simple things, people take notice of the happiness we find. That's how our faith moves into action.
To find the joyful heart we seek, pay attention to God in the process, and stop chasing an explanation which we were never meant to understand in the first place. That's when joy will finally come home for you, and for others through you.
By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.
- Hebrews 11:11, NRSV
Who, what, why, where, when, and how? We just discussed nones and dones last week and the fact that they really do need some answers, and that we need to answer them as authentically as possible.
There's a catch, though. The nones and dones aren't the only ones who want answers. We do, too. We sometimes ask, "What's this whole thing about?" For whatever reason, we may not ask it very loudly, but we do ask. I'll lay your mind at ease right off the bat. That's perfectly all right, perfectly normal, and 100% in accordance with how God built us. We can ask God why, and we can even yell at Him, plead with Him. Just look at the Psalms, they’re full of real, raw emotions. God doesn't want us putting on a mask. Masks are a way we lie to ourselves and telling Him that same lie isn't going to make Him happy. The reason He's unhappy isn't that you just hurt His feelings. It's because you're not dealing with yours, which never leads to the wholeness, abundance, or close community for which He created us.
Even further down this whole path lie our struggles with and questions about how it's all connected.
I follow the author and investigator, J. Warner Wallace, on Facebook. He's posted a lot of statistics on people leaving churches. By now, you know how much I love data. Data tells a story and the church needs to tell a more compelling one, so data is where we start.
Have you seen those 10-year challenges on social media? They compare 10-year differences via pictures.
There is one Pew Research Report posted by Wallace that replicates this. Pew stated that from 2009 to 2019 there has been an 8% drop in the protestant-identifying population of the United States. The number of overall dones is growing, too. In that same 10-year span, Americans who said they attended church at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percent, while those who say they rarely or never go to church rose by the same 7 percent. On the graph, it looks like a big "X" of declines on one side and increases on the other.
They're not going to a different religion or a separate denomination in the Christian religion. They're just cutting themselves off, and with much more regularity as the age demographic gets younger. If you were born between 1946 and 1964, there's a 75% chance you call yourself a Christian. Women are more religious than men, although both sides are faltering. The thing is, the faithful are remaining faithful. Church attendance is staying steady if you come more than once a week. That means if you attend weekly or more, such as Bible studies, you're very likely to continue doing so.
By comparison, if you were born between 1981 and 1996, there's only a 49% chance of that. According to Champaign, Illinois organization Empty Tomb, Americans gave 3% of their disposable income in 1968 to churches as part of a tithe. That's not 3% of their total income, that's just their disposable income. In 2016, the “disposable income” tithe percentage is now 2.2%. So let's just be extremely real here for a second.
What we're seeing is people on the periphery leaving the church. They’re gone like a vapor, just a ghost that got up and vanished.
The people who are already steady are sticking around. They aren’t always keen on investing where their membership is, but they are solidly living into their membership with their presence, that is for certain.
Here’s the problem. The people who need to hear the Good News of Jesus are more likely to hear crickets than Colossians according to this report.
A Different Story
All the data I have shared with you to this point, it’s been pretty bleak. Now, let me flip the script for you. United Methodist Communications recently released a survey that found the willingness to visit a United Methodist Church had climbed to 42 percent in mid-2019. This survey included U.S. adults who were looking for more spirituality in their lives and who were aware of our denomination, which is why the United Methodist Church advertises. Two years prior in 2017, that number was only 28%. That's a substantial gain in interest.
Of that 42% group, half of them said they would visit within the next three months, or right about now. There's a higher likelihood that those who would be willing to walk through the door would be millennials than Generation Xers. So that’s 21% of the total who would come to a United Methodist Church, coming sooner rather than later.
Of the 79% who said that they weren't ready to visit, 10% of those said they would reconsider if someone they knew extended an invitation. Hint. Hint. Hint.
Among those people who are willing to attend, the number of respondents who rate the denomination favorably is climbing. They know who we are, 95% of seekers polled saying so, they know our logo, and they know our denomination's tagline, "Open minds, open hearts, open doors."
They overwhelmingly believe that the tagline is appealing and personally relevant to them. If this was a dating website, we'd call that a highly-favorable match.
But what happens when the expectations they have for that first date aren't met? What if no one answers their questions, or when the answer isn't what they expect, it also comes out of a place that lacks grace? What if they experience imperfect humanity when they're looking for perfect divinity? It’s a lot of what ifs, which is why I preach a great deal on the need for love, the need for spiritual disciplines, acts of mercy, acts of piety. They all point to relationship.
We don't and won't know everything, as I pointed out in last Sunday's sermon. But we do have a Holy Spirit to guide us. We have an example to follow in how God drew and guided Abraham and Sarah through their lives, through their mistakes, missteps, and mishaps into the completely unexpected love of the child Isaac. They hung their whole existence on God's in-birthed persuasion that they would someday see descendants as numerous as the stars. Two thousand years later, this chapter of Hebrews speaks powerfully. It opens our thoughts to the trust required to sustain and find God's unexpected love in the lives of two people who were desperate to find it. Four thousand years after these two people of faith, we have a mission field that is full of individuals cut from a similar cloth.
We have a very unique opportunity to spread the gospel to people, but it starts right here and right now in our own hearts. Put your hand on your chest right now. Do you feel that heartbeat? That heartbeat is ground zero for revival.
The thing I find so refreshing here in this text is that we realize we're not alone. I've repeated myself a lot, but I'll risk doing it again. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. People have been seeking "something" forever. Think about it. You were exploring something when you found God through Jesus. I’ve mentioned secular university studies that are saying our brains are wired for a relationship with a "higher power," and that's God. People have needed their relationship with God to be revived continually. Whether they stumble and fall isn't relevant, it's whether or not we help them get back up that counts.
Religion has become some sort of strange, dirty word in the modern age. It's not because of its definition, it's because of what it has come to represent to people outside of religion. The etymology of the word religion comes from the Latin word forms "re" and "ligare." Combined, they mean "to bind again." When we consider this binding, we need to understand what kind of binding it is precisely. It's not the same kind of binding that we use to bind criminals or pray for the binding of spiritually opposing evil forces. This isn't Satan binding the woman for "18 long years," as Jesus said in Luke 13. This is Jesus quoting Isaiah 61. "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners."
This is the healing of which Jeremiah asked after in chapter 8 verse 10. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" If we think of religion as a system of belief, we miss the point of the word staring us right in the face.
Religion is a re-binding of our hearts to God, the only healer we can ever have. The Bible often speaks of the power of God to reconcile, redeem, rejoin, reunite. Remember, when we went through the series "Re: The Elements of Our Faith?" Renew, rejoice, reveal, reaffirm, return, rebuild, re-emerge, reignite. At the heart of religion we find the pivotal element of our faith. It's the one concept that God will re-bind us to Him and to one another in a way so powerful we don't even have the scope of reference to understand it completely. It requires us living into the faith imparted to us by God.
The fact is most people we refer to as seekers are looking for that exact type of healing.
What we have to do is take back the definition of religion. Better yet, redefine it by a love so unexpected it leaves a deep impression in the lives of those who come in contact with the church. Love like that doesn't originate with you or me. It only exists flawlessly in our union with Jesus Christ. We call him the author and perfecter of our faith for that reason.
Look at the world around us. Take a good, long look. Polarized people, butting heads everywhere. Red state, blue state. Conservative, liberal. It's a mess, and it's not helping those who need help the most. We're talking about empty people, people without hope, just as barren in their hearts as Sarah was in her womb. They need to be filled with an unexpected love that arrives only through a persuasive communion with God directly. We call what that kind of communion builds "faith," and we light an advent candle for the peace that it brings. We find it here in a crucial word in this passage.
The Greek word is "katabolen." This word is most often used in conjunction with Christ's coming to earth in human form as the redemption that enables our relationship with God. I don't believe the writer of Hebrews used the word here by accident. I think the reason that word was selected was that the conception of Isaac was a symbol of God's overall plan. It's a plan He set in place and guaranteed before creation ever started. "But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself." Hebrews 9:26b. "He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake." 1 Peter 1:20.
Simply put, the word refers to the foundational structure God put in place, by which all people can know and have a relationship with Him. All people. This supersedes everything that happened in Genesis 1. We're talking about John 1:1-5, and how "in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
If we don't strive to get a real hold on just how genuinely bound to one another we are, we will lack the motivation needed to go find those seekers. If we don't see how we can be re-bound to the relationship we were meant to enjoy with God, the ones who are so open to a relationship with Jesus Christ won't find Him. They lose, and we lose. And Jesus? Jesus weeps.
What we lose in the process is the opportunity to return to a more whole state, both individually and collectively. True wholeness in either sense only comes through God, but like everything that comes through Him, nothing is expected ever to sit still. Our faith is expected to be active. There was a great album by the Christian rock band Bride, and I loved its title. Kinetic Faith. Faith in motion. God's in-birthed persuasion was always designed to move out of us. In-birthed, but outbound. It's a transfer of the energy inherent in God's love, into our hearts, and out into the lives of other people. It erupts in an unexpected love, birthed inside the hearts of those who thought they would never see it happen. You know, I've told some people that this can happen for them and they laughed. They laughed just like Sarah laughed when she was told she would bear a son. Along came Isaac.
The thing I want to know is, will we laugh at this? I like to think that our little church has enough in-birthed persuasion from God just to smile knowingly and keep reassuring them that God will do as he has said he would do. At the very end of this verse, the writer tells us that Abraham considered God faithful to his promises. It's probably a better translation to say he was convinced of the promises by the in-birthed persuasion of God. The Greek word for "had promised" at the end of this verse is epangeilamenon, from epaggéllō. This word, when stated about God's promises, declares promises that are fitting and legitimately applicable. God never makes idle promises. He's specific with His word and crafts the details of His promises surgically.
Revival Starts Within
Our takeaway is to be a people who start at our own heart and allow God to surgically, deliberately and powerfully persuade us to trust in him, just as Sarah and Abraham trusted in God's persuasion. We have to be ground zero for the revival in our church. It's not revival that happens in a room, or a tent, or in a grand cathedral. It occurs alone, maybe in your car. It happens in your prayer closet. It overcomes you in a one-on-one encounter with God. It happens as you are filled with the Holy Spirit, and it keeps on happening when you put it into motion.
The day after Abraham and Sarah were visited by the Angels and told that Sarah would have a baby, life went on. Abraham kept on growing in his trust of God because God kept on persuading him and building his faith. God and Abraham had an extraordinarily close relationship. Like I said, God was careful and calculating about how He guided Abraham. He even wondered if he should hide the destruction of Sodom from him, knowing that Abraham's nephew Lot was among the people who would be killed. In the end, God decided to clue Abraham in.
If you read it, it even looks like Abraham is persuading God not to destroy Sodom. I'm sure it's no surprise to you that I have a slightly different take on this series of events. My take is simple.
All along, through love, God was guiding Abraham to intercede for his fellow humans. We learn that intercession is an integral part of a relationship through this example.
That only happens through a growing faith relationship with God. Abraham never acted as if he were God's equal, but he got to know God's heart enough to understand that God is just and fair, but also merciful. What Abraham didn't know is that in that close relationship with God, founded solidly on the faith God grew inside him, an unexpected love for others had grown.
It can be daunting to reach out and ask nones and dones about their faith, to talk to them about the savior they may be seeking. If you find yourself questioning whether or not you have it within you to intercede in the lives of other people, spend more time with Jesus and God. You'll find God can be undeniably persuasive. What grows out of that persuasion will be very unexpected.
First of all, you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!”
2 Peter 3:3-4, NRSV
Have you ever wondered if the scoffers were right? I mean, if you take it at face value, they have an excellent point. After all, we’re sitting here amid an en masse departure from the church by younger people. They’re being joined by people who have long been deniers that Jesus even existed, saying there is no historical record of Jesus, even though there is. They say, “prove Jesus to me,” or “prove the Bible to me,” and we often start talking about our own feelings as evidence instead of evidence as evidence. That’s not what they want or what they expect, and a disconnect is born. How many instances can we individually point to in history that the Bible was counted accurate and correct? There’s so many, but do we know more than a handful of them?
As a pastor, my main goal is to spread the Gospel for the reconciliation of people with God through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Quality counts, not quantity. And while I see the number on the board at the back of our church going up incrementally, and I’m happy about that, it means nothing if you don’t have an experiential relationship with God. I keep stating that we need to go deeper as believers in our relationship with God. Part of a relationship is learning about one another. Seeing as God knows everything there is to know about you, that leaves only one side that needs to learn anything in the relationship. Can you guess who that is?
The thing is, people are genuinely curious. What I find so interesting is that I have had more deeply theological discussions in a bar than I have in a church, including in a Bible study. And I have had some really amazing Bible Study discussions, so that tells you something about the people who are asking questions in bars. They have questions about God, about Jesus, about why we Christians sometimes act the way we do. They want to know how faith works, how salvation works. Do I really need to be saved? Why were there so many people killing other people in the Bible? Is God really as angry as He appears in the Old Testament? Do God and Jesus have the same super powers?
And the one doozy of a question. My mother died without accepting Jesus as her savior. Is she burning in hell right now? Answering that one took a lot of Holy Spirit, crying and hope. Answering it here would probably take more space than I have available, so perhaps it’s a story for another book.
Whether they believe me or not, they do respect the fact that I have researched and worked to learn what I know. They truly appreciate that I am not just giving them a blanket statement that says, “Accept what I say blindly or else.” Even Jesus didn’t do that. He wanted Thomas to do exploratory surgery. He didn’t tell Thomas to wash his hands first, either. Which is kind of icky and all, but you get the point. He’s not interested in the cleanliness of your life any more than he was interested in what was under Thomas’ fingernails. He was more concerned with what was in the heart of the heart-broken disciple.
There’s a realness that we spoke of previously, and it’s powerful if you know how to use it. I don’t shrink from tough questions, and that means sometimes I have to say, “You know what, that’s a great question, and I honestly don’t know the answer.” Realness comes in when I continue with, “But you know, we could dig into this together and see if we can’t figure it out.” The realness, the authenticity alone, of that approach blows the walls and barriers of non-believers sky-high.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We’re all just beggars trying to find bread. Sometimes we know where it is and can tell others. Other times God purposely hides the bread so well that it requires more than one beggar looking carefully, together. This isn’t surprising when we realize that it’s all about relationship with God.
Going into a discussion with someone who is done with the church, or never thought of church and thinking that you will have all the answers is the greatest mistake you could ever make. God will provide a lot for you, but God genuinely uses your recall to achieve this. I’ve seen very few examples of God sprinkling Magic God Dust on people and then they recite things to which they have never been exposed. But the Holy Spirit will take you down that little path in your mind and fire up just the right memory recall order for you to achieve the will of God in that moment. If it’s not there, though, it’s unlikely to happen, because we haven’t honored our relationship with Him by learning all we can possibly learn about Him. Relationship. He knows us, and we need to know Him better. In that knowing, He has opened us up to His purpose, the one I have been writing about all along.
When you’re talking to friends, and you ask them to come to church, do they blow you off?
I guess the appropriate first question is, do you invite them to church, and then do they blow you off? If you’re not doing that by now, then you need to reread a few chapters.
We’ll just say for the time being that you are asking them. If they’re blowing you off, it’s often because of an expectation of the blanket acceptance of beliefs and their unwillingness to blindly follow those beliefs.
The Bible says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” True enough, but some folks need convincing before they put themselves in the role of a “child under training,” as Drs. Hill and Archer characterized this language in Helps Word Studies.
When we say things like, “The Bible said it, that settles it,” we actually blow it. There’s an initiative in the United Methodist Church called “Nones and Dones,” where we work on reaching people who have no religious background or have given up their religious upbringing.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center polled these people as a demographic group. When asked about what religious affiliation they were, they overwhelmingly described themselves as unaffiliated. Following what seems to be a national trend, the vast majority are ex-Christians, 35-years old or younger. In a multiple answer format, Pew asked a portion of the audience why that was. They were given six different answers from which to choose.
The results in this report shone a light on some interesting statistics connected to the church’s having blown it.
Most of the people questioned had abandoned their faith, which is our reason for hope. In Hebrews 11, which we’ll dig into in the next chapter, faith and hope are tied very closely together, and faith is given a substantive role in its relationship to hope. As I write this, the church is in Advent, a time of expectant waiting. Outside our doors are people who’ve been waiting so long they gave up on that.
They said they gave up due the fact they “question a lot of religious teaching” (51%), or because they “don’t like the positions churches take on social/political issues” (46%).
Furthermore, but less pronounced, they agreed they “don’t like religious organizations” (34%), “don’t like religious leaders” (31%), or feel “Religion is irrelevant” (26%). By the way, that number leads one to believe 74% believe religion is relevant. I’m kind of hopeful that it does.
If we as a congregation can speak to their questions successfully, then we don’t have to lose hope. They can go beyond hoping against hope because God will be more than a mere possibility. We can do this by taking a stand on evidence and love. That’s critical. Right now, it’s not the church that is in jeopardy because of waning attendance. It’s the souls of those nones and dones.
Many would have you believe starting a fresh new outreach ministry will draw nones and dones in droves. Alternatively, this research and some more I will get to in a moment say that while they might be attracted to a fresh expression of church, it will be tough to make them want to stay if we don’t address their reasons for leaving. The same pig dressed up with different lipstick still rolls around in the same old mud. Savvy young people, already wary due to previous church interactions are going to sniff this out quick, fast and in a hurry. I’m shooting you straight here. True to their demographic’s nature, they’re likely to leave and not return, nor will they likely tell you why.
Five Scoffers Scoffing
Scoffing scoffers come scoffing, according to Peter. Sounds like something out of the 12 days of Christmas? That’s not very Advent-like, so perhaps it’s more like, “Scoffers gonna scoff.” But when we look at the text here, it’s much more severe than we even realize. Just looking at the Greek for this is eye-opening.
This is apocalyptic, eschatological text. You probably know what apocalyptic means, but maybe not eschatological. While apocalyptic means the destruction or passing of the world, the Greek word used here for “last days” is where we get the word eschatology. Eschatology is the study of the last days and things with which it is associated.
The word Peter used for the scoffers in these pre-destructive last days has roots in the concept of play, as a child plays. Don’t just think of someone who is scoffing in arrogance, but think of the state of mind, the state of education of a child.
You remember the saying that as you get older and more learned, you realize how little you actually know? Scoffers aren’t really there yet.
The people Peter was speaking of are childlike in the sense that they do not have wisdom based in years of learning and experience that normally lead to fully-formed and fully-informed decisions and philosophies. They’re speaking from opinions based on incomplete information. Secondhand gold is still very much gold, but conjecture of these people in the last days will be a lot closer to secondhand lead. It just doesn’t spend the same as secondhand gold.
The fact is they’re bringing their discernment from the seemingly higher place of their own “lusts,” which can also be translated as their desires.
To expand on that, they mean passion built on strong feelings or urges. Whether or not this word for passion means good passions or bad is specific to the place where they originated. The fact that the desire is not inspired by faith, which by definition is God’s in-birthed persuasion, is where we get the idea of lust or evil desires here.
As it sits, this is about “rushing along, getting heated up, breathing violently,” according to 20th-century theologian Joseph Thayer. As a sidebar, I don’t name drop these people so you will think that I’m more educated than you. I drop them so you’ll have a breadcrumb to go on if you want to go deeper. You’re welcome and encouraged to write them down or stop reading altogether and look them up. When you come to worship at your church, a pen and a notepad is never a bad idea, too.
Getting back to this, though, the thing is, they are passionate in their disbelief because their opinions are only viewed from their own stance, or only superficially viewed from the vantage points of others. Therein lies the problem.
When you feel passionate about something, you are quite likely to act out of strong impulses and intense emotions. Jesus braiding cords into a whip and quoting Isaiah while driving money changers from the temple is an outstanding example of intense emotion driving action. The zeal for his Father’s house consuming him is the ferocious emotion that begins with God’s in-birthed persuasion or faith.
When the word for this kind of violent passion is used about God’s wrathful actions in Revelation chapter 14:10, 19, 15:1, etc. those actions are considered perfect and holy. The reason is that His anger is directed with undeniable force against sin and without incurring sin on His part. Take note. It’s directed against sin, not us.
On the other hand, when this word is used about the average Joann or Joe, it often indicates rage, which is a personal venting of anger. We see this as a flaw because it’s entirely outside the Lord’s inspiring us to our intense anger. We’re going it alone.
It’s like grabbing the end of a firehose going full blast. You might direct the water a little bit, but chances are the water is controlling you, not the other way around. Your violent passions work against you just like that water. Take note. This all ends up directed at us, not sin.
See the difference? It’s a complete 180-degree approach when compared to God, or more importantly, done in concert with, and guided by, God. Just like anything else we do, when we don’t include God in it, we can make a real mess of things.
The Defence Rests
In this language, scoffers speak as someone who is “laying the argument to rest.” Think of it as a final argument in court. In the last days, according to Peter’s letter, people will say they simply don’t believe, and that is that. They will say that God doesn’t exist, and that is that. There’s no evidentiary support for Jesus, the Bible, etc., and to them, that is that. But you have to remember where “that” was born. The catalyst was someone stating, “The Bible said it, and that is that.”
That sparked frustration based on a lack of answered questions. It’s not a lack of proof, but a lack of exposure to evidence. We are the ones responsible for making that case to them and the church blew it, so they blew us off. We really shouldn’t be surprised at this. We abandoned them and in the end, we can’t be startled when they make their own way.
This frustration is what impacted the nones and dones in that Pew report and drove them away. Alleviating that frustration is how we reinitiate a relationship and how Jesus is lifted up to draw them back.
This is our witness to others. And in it, we either give them hope, or we fall short of hope for them. Believe you me, the world needs hope now more than ever.
Going further than scoffers would go, put yourself in their shoes. Should we honestly have a blanket-belief of what we’re told about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit? I believe we should explore it as deeply as we possibly can, and getting to know the very presence of God as fully as a human being’s mortal frame can allow.
Sound doctrine is important. The first thing it allows you to do is refute unsound doctrine. And one of the largest issues that nones and dones have with the church is those who are preaching false doctrines. They often point out the difference between what Jesus said and did, and what these doctrines claim we should say and do.
To me, it’s kind of sad that we cannot differentiate between the two when we’re the ones who are required to do our due diligence with regards to what we hear.
A Course of Action
To that end, are you reading your bible for a group study or for personal study? Are you reading it daily? We need knowledge to give this kind of hope. If you’re already in it, stay in the word. And dig in if you’re not.
Remember those “The More You Know” commercials that aired years ago? The idea was that the more you know, the better off you are. Where the Bible is concerned, the more we know, the better off the nones and dones are.
Here are some examples of what we’re up against. In a different Pew Research report from 2016, the young respondents were allowed to write their own answers, instead of it being multiple choices. This is why they said they were no longer involved in church. “Learning about evolution when I went away to college.” “Religion is the opiate of the people.” “Rational thought makes religion go out the window.” “Lack of any sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator.” “I just realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t really believe it.” “I’m doing a lot more learning, studying, and kind of making decisions myself rather than listening to someone else.”
I’m here to tell you that each one of these is so full of holes it would sink a battleship or get stuck on top of a ham sandwich, depending on how you look at it. Mainly full of holes is the lack of scientific or specific evidence of a creator. It’s there if you want to see it and want to find it.
First, though, we have to understand our own issues, which is where Peter started. At the time this epistle was written, it was almost 35 years after the death of Christ, shortly before Nero executed Peter. Undoubtedly, in a young Christian society, they felt Jesus would be coming back almost instantly. To modernize that, they thought he made some sort of heavenly grocery run and was going to be back before halftime was over.
But to all our surprises, here we are almost 2,000 years after Peter penned this and still no Jesus. What gives here? There’s a hymn that goes, “Come, Lord Jesus Come.” But right now, it feels like, “Come on, Lord Jesus, what are you waiting for?”
If you feel that way, don’t feel alone, and don’t feel like you’re failing God. It might surprise you to find that Jesus is already here.
In terms of time, though, 2,000 years is nothing to God. It was 400 years between the last acknowledged prophet of Israel and the coming of Jesus as the Christ. People were wondering about the prophecy back then, and today people are going to have questions about the Bible. Some are going to be hard to answer, and others easy to misunderstand.
For example. All saved believers are going to heaven, right? Not really. There will be a new heaven ... and a new earth. Just a little further down this passage, Peter brings some content from Isaiah to his readers in the Asia Minor churches. He talks about a “new earth.” But we all think of heaven when we think about “passing on.” Revelation 21:1 mentions this new earth as well, and it can get confusing if we’re not careful. This is an example of how doctrine can get skewed. It’s not false, mind you, but focusing on only heaven pulls us up short of the finish line. It’s more accurate to say that what we’re waiting on is the resurrection more than we are on heaven. We need to live into the fulfillment of a promise instead of waiting on a destination. One produces active love and relationship, and the other produces an “I’ve got mine, go get your own” mindset. If we’re going to be Easter People, we should live like it.
Knowing What We Know, Sort Of
No one knows more than a pastor about the dangers of passing on poor theology. There are things we won’t know, as Jesus pointed out in Acts 1:7. He said, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Still, do we know enough to be those witnesses? If someone made comments from the 2016 Pew Research Report, would we be able to refute it? Or would their closing argument close us down simply because we don’t know? Something even more important here, though, is our motivation. Are we committed to knowing enough that we can be of service? If you want to be a teacher in this country, you have to have a reasonably dependable education. The thing that drives people to be teachers isn’t the money. It’s because they don’t want kids walking around dumber than a box of rocks. Honestly, we can all get behind that. That should be equally true of Christians in this world, concerning non-believers. We don’t want anyone laboring under false pretenses if we can help it. Sometimes we can’t, sometimes we can. That doesn’t matter, though. The only thing that matters is that we’re expected to try.
If you’re not studying the Bible, start. If you are, keep at it and go deeper. Should it be an all-consuming passion? No, you shouldn’t take Bible study out of balance in your life, as that isn’t the purpose for which God made you. God made you for relationships, especially with those who are nones and dones. But at the same time, be careful that you don’t get outbibled as my licensing school mentor, Pastor J. Michael Smith, put it.
Still, it’s easy to get yourself into a situation where someone asks you a question to which you just don’t know the answer. And that is about as embarrassing as it gets. In those instances, it’s always OK to repeat the following to them. “You know what, I don’t know the answer to that, but let’s explore that together.” If there’s one thing I know about people who are nones and dones, it’s that authenticity exhibited in grace wins the day every time. And it’s authentic evidence and love that leads people back to the hope for which this world has been waiting.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Ephesians chapter 6, verses 12 and 13
Do you have a bucket list? Maybe it's something like running with the bulls or visiting someplace monumental. Going to a really great concert, or event. The Super Bowl, maybe? A Stanley Cup game for me would be great. Considering I'm both a Blackhawks fan and a Bears fan, neither of those seems terribly likely considering how the teams are playing. Going simpler, maybe it's experiencing the sunrise and sunset. Going more complex, maybe it’s experiencing that on every continent. I gotta say would be a pretty cool item in a bucket list. So here's a really great question, and it's not, "what's stopping you?" It's this.
What causes a person to love someone else so much they would die for them? Another one of those hard left turns, I know, but bear with me. Let's go straight for the jugular on this one, no dancing around it. What would it take for you to give up any future breath you might breathe, and give it up willingly? What would cut in line in front of any experience you might have always wanted to have? What would make you forfeit every day that you could have had, so that someone else might live past this current moment? What could possibly cause someone to give away "all he's got and all he's ever gonna have," as Clint Eastwood's character said in the movie Unforgiven?
The Depths of Love
You know, personally, I try to fathom how Jesus could possibly love me enough to die for me. You might even ask yourself this when I tell you that He didn't have to. He didn't, really. Read the accounts. No arm twisting. No leverage. No "or else" moments. God never forced Jesus to choose the cross, because that's the whole point of a choice. You can't choose what you are being forced to accept, so a real decision has to be based on something else. Then there's this something else. If God wanted to forgive our sins, as NT Wright posed in a question, why couldn't He just forgive them? Why did Jesus have to die for them?
In all seriousness, have you ever stopped to wonder why God had to send Jesus to die for us? After all, He's all-powerful and can do anything He wants? I suppose that should also include that He could snap His fingers and obliterate us as well. Thanos eat your heart out.
When we believe the only reason Jesus came to earth was for the expiation of our sins, we miss the very heart of John 3:16. And as we go sailing past that, we wave goodbye to any motivation to engage in the fight we're called to in Ephesians 6.
If you ever needed a reason to fight, a purpose behind taking your spiritual disciplines seriously, the motivation of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection is the catalyst for it. Not the actual event, but the reason behind the event.
Miss that and we miss the real reason he showed up on the scene entirely.
This scripture talks about opposing forces. Greek words such as "stenai" and "antistenai" are used. Stenai means to stand, and when you put anti in front of it, well, you’re all very clever, so I’m sure you know what that word means. There is also language here that talks about the armor of God. Panoplian from the words "pas" and "hoplon," which together express "every weapon, defensive and offensive." The hoplon was a type of shield.
I believe Paul used the Greek word for armor instead of the proper Latin name because, while he was surrounded by armored Roman guards which might have given him the idea, he wanted to appeal the Greekness of his audience. He was drawing on the understanding that would have been very quickly grasped and embraced among Greek-speaking new believers of Ephesus. The word hoplon is where we get Hoplite. For those who didn't geek on ancient Greek culture as I did as a kid, a hoplite was a Greek citizen-soldier. They fought primarily with a shield and a spear and other armor, forming the "panoply" where we get the concept of God's armor. The armor they wore weighed right around 70 pounds and was as state-of-the-art as you could get. It was often passed down from generation to generation, often being upgraded as it went along. As the developments of this armor got better and better, they started to use linen in overlaid layers, as it was actually more sturdy than bronze. The ancient equivalent of kevlar bulletproof vests. Pretty cool, eh?
The impressive thing here is, this generational passing down of armor mirrors how we pass on to our children the armor God gave to us. We pass on our understanding of faith, salvation, love, sanctification in the same way, to the same people, and for the exact same reasons as the hoplites passed on their armor. Their offspring had a fight ahead of them, and so do ours. What protected us can protect our children. Even the ancient kevlar they developed holds a deeper meaning for us. As we become savvier about the word of God, it becomes layer after layer of defense when we encounter those barbs Paul spoke about later in this chapter. In light of that, the word of God today could be described as a bulletproof vest. Now, if someone were to try to shoot me, I would want a really big, thick Bible between me and them, but we’re not talking about protection from someone firing a gun at our flesh and blood self.
We’re talking about something far more sinister firing something far deadlier at us than a bullet. When we're called to combat of a spiritual nature, we need to be as bulletproof as possible if we're going to survive. Whether you’re a man or a woman doesn’t matter, because this fight doesn’t have gender boundaries.
We're supposed to go "against" something, but the word here doesn't mean taking a defensive position and just staying there. It's not that kind of stand. It literally means to advance towards something actively. The dictionary in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance uses phrases like, "extension toward a goal, with implied interaction or reciprocity," "with presumed contact and reaction." We read that the term "naturally suggests the cycle of initiation and response," "where the context indicates an active exchange done in opposition." Those rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of evil in this present darkness are coming with hostile intent and we need to meet them with the same hostility and intensity.
Ladies and gents, this ain't no tea party, and it's certainly not a tango. This is being in the trenches, getting the call to approach the ladder, willingly climb it and head out into No Man's Land.
I don't know if I will ever fully understand why anyone wants to go to war. I know there are good reasons, sure. Things like injustice, oppression, and tyranny jump to mind. But putting yourself into harm's way isn't a decision anyone makes lightly. Why would anyone go into No Man's Land? For crying out loud, the name alone should tell you something remarkably unpleasant awaits there. World War I poet Wilfred Owen describes No Man's Land as being 'like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.' And Owen would know, as he died in World War I leading a combat raid a week before the armistice was signed. His poetry told a different story than the heroic tales that were used to get men to sign up to be a soldier. War, as men like Owen knew it, was the closest thing you could get to hell on earth.
What makes anyone willingly go there? One simple answer.
In our case, a Christ-modeled love.
A little secret
I'm going to let you in on a little secret here, and it's a secret I hope none of you keep. I want you to get as blabbermouthed as you can about this. You see, the real reason Jesus came isn't based on our not going to hell. The real reason wasn't transactional. It was relational. Salvation was a sidebar to the relationship Jesus modeled for us with God. Granted, it's a very important sidebar, but it's a sidebar nonetheless.
I read recently that we always focus on the answer to questions, even simple ones like 1+1=2. We focus on the two. The writer pointed out that in doing this, we often miss the beauty of the 1+1.
When we focus on the salvation of Jesus dying on the cross as his reason for being here, we blow past the real reason he came, which was to show us who God is in relation to who we are. We have a whole book that tells us, and we have experiences inside our church that can reveal even more of what that relationship looks like. But still, we have to go deeper or we won't see those things. Understanding what happened at the cross, the grave, and resurrection has to journey farther than the transaction of salvation.
If we start and stop our witness at just a transaction, we risk turning God into a monster to those who don’t know Him. One of the most significant objections I have heard to a witness of salvation was from someone that broke it down like this. "Who kills their son in such a horrific way? All He had to do was say 'I forgive you' and move on?" We're talking about God killing His own son, something He didn't even require Abraham to do. We're talking about saddling His only son with all the sins of the world thrown on his scourged, bloody, torn back. When we look at the situation and only see our benefit, we say God nailed an innocent man to a tree for no justifiable reason. He asphyxiated him on a cross for a gain we never requested, and that Jesus honestly wished he could avoid.
If salvation was the only reason, let alone the primary reason that happened, then that God is a monster, not a genuinely divine being we should follow.
But because we know that’s not the character of God, we need to widen the scope of our understanding here.
Salvation is never the start or the stop, the opening scene or the final curtain. It's the middle of the story. It comes after God loving us as He brought the house lights up on creation before we even existed. And it comes before God loving us into the men and women He meant for us to be all along. It's part of the story of God creating a better world for us here on this earth. Not with wings and harps and little diapers, but as fellow image-bearers of God. With us loving other fellow image-bearers of God. That's where the witness starts, and it can only end there. Stopping short doesn't get it done. The curtain isn’t even close to coming down.
Reread John 3:16. “For God so loved the world … “ Not Himself, not the plants, not the world as He created it to be, or how it could be in an infinite number of scenarios only He could fathom. He loved the world as it WAS, and right now as it IS. We are His creation, and He loves us. Salvation at the cross was His making a point of just how much He loved us, and Jesus telling us to love one another as he loves us.
Pay attention here. Love was what God sent Jesus to show to us. Love was the reason behind everything God ever did, the intention behind everything that He ever will do. Sometimes you have to look really closely for it, but you will always find it there. God’s love for us was the reason Jesus went into No Man's Land.
Over the top
Jesus was the first one out of the trench. He was the first one to charge into the desolate landscape of hell, go up to the enemy's door, kick it down and demand the keys to death, hell and the grave - and they gave them to him. On the very day Jesus died, the devil figured he had victory over God. But the story doesn't hinge on the fact that the devil got beat. It balances on the devil's discovery that the love Jesus carried in his heart for others overpowered the measly resistance he could muster.
Jesus was the first one to make the stand Paul speaks of matter. But he didn't make it matter just for our salvation, because he was sent on a suicide mission to appease his Father's unwillingness to forgive us any other way. He made it matter so that we could see definitively, down to the last penny of our repaid debt, just how much God truly loves us.
We also have to make this stand matter, and we have to do it for the exact same reasons. It's a shift of focus off shaming and back to where it should have been all along.
Take the mission of our church seriously. Love others powerfully by emptying your old self and letting God refill you with His love. Put on the armor we are called to put on. Pray hard. Fast often. Study the word and build it up inside you like scriptural kevlar. Worship regularly. Encounter God as often as you can in as many ways as you can. Just like that rabbi, the one I mentioned a while back, be as accident-prone as possible in your work to encounter God through your spiritual disciplines. Unlike wars on this earth, we need everyone fighting regardless of your age, gender or anything else. This fight has come to all of our doorsteps. The enemy is very real.
This is a reminder for you to believe in demons and principalities outside this flesh suit we wear. They are every bit as real as the God we serve and the son who came to show Him to us. Do not take this lightly; they want the housekeys back that Jesus took from them.
This isn't something we get to shrug off, staying in a cocoon. This is a fight we are called to fight in a place where we will be chewed up and spit out if we're not armed to the teeth. Remember those who took up this fight before us, who gave us the armor we wear, the weapons we use, who taught us how to use them. They provided their legacy for us to live into, armor for us to wear, weapons for this fight we face. Make the love that drove them, the love that was God's motivation behind the cross, the thing that inspires you.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell's upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world's verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence' brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?
From Wilfred Owen's poem, "Spring Offensive"
In this fight, we have to remember those who went into No Man's Land ahead of us. More importantly, we remember why they went and why it mattered, because that's the same reason why we're here. Then and only then, can we take up our crosses and follow Jesus over the top and into No Man's Land.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The fourth chapter of Hebrews, verse twelve
I had this dream once that I was a frog. But not just any frog, I was a frog lying on my back, which sounds fantastic some days. Just kicking back, all Kermit the Frog style, Rainbow Connection playing in the background. Sounds amazing, right? Except this wasn't that.
I wasn't sitting beside some stream or kicking back next to a cozy little forest. Instead, I was kicked back, pinned to a lab tray. It was so real and so weird and all at the same time so terrifying. And there was Muzak playing in the background. Not sure where that came from, but I think it was Barry Manilow.
Then, in walks this big body in a lab coat with a doctor's mask on their face. I hear a tray rattle, and out comes a scalpel and some of those dissection pins that I remember from junior high school. And just like in one of those corny '80s music videos, this big person and these big hands and their big utensils starts moving slowly over to frog-me. Right then, I wake up. Completely covered in sweat, I'm breathing heavy, and I quickly move my feet to make sure they're not pinned down to anything.
Fortunately, everything is moving, including the beagle who just got knocked off my bed in a panic of thrashing former frog feet. Needless to say, she wasn't pleased.
I regained my composure and calmed my breathing. I was supposed to be sleeping, but here it was 2am. "Come on, brain, I have to get up in a couple hours and go to work." I really didn't need the extra unconscious cardio workout, to be honest.
This passage from Hebrews 4 talks about the rest that God provides, and talks about how the faithful will have rest. Not nightmares, but a real finish to what we're doing here on this earth. A completion. This chapter of Hebrews starts off pretty serenely, talking about God's rest, and who gets it, then it goes on to talk about something that scares the daylights out of us.
That's the discerning, critical view God is privy to of our hearts. Kritikos is the word here, just like in critique.
Speaking of which, self-critique is never easy. Not just because we're too hard ourselves, but because sometimes we just don't get as real or as honest with ourselves as necessary. Jeremiah prophesied that the heart was deceitful, and lamented that it was unknowable for man. The reason that the heart is so deceitful is that despite what the rock band April Wine thought, it isn't love that hurts. It's the truth that hurts. Truth, in this case, is God's word. The truth of God's word forces us to wrestle with our frailties, and that alone can be a nightmare.
When seen from a healthy point of view, dealing with our shortcomings means learning a whole new way to do things.
The reason the Bible tells us that God chastising us is good, is that it changes us for the better. That requires us to feel safe in doing that in a day and age where safety can be just plain scarce.
With all the talk about safe spaces, it's interesting to note that there really are none. There is no real safe place, there is no place that isn't up for being targeted in some way by someone. If you go to a safe space at a school, you can end up stigmatized. Many kids who would benefit from a safe space at their grade school, high school or college don't use them because of the brand they'll get from their friends. Or worse, the brand they'll get from themselves.
We're one of the few species on this planet that struggles with a self-traumatizing nature. There are just no safe places to go where we won't be weighed, measured, or found wanting.
It happens in our churches. It happens in our schools, in our workplaces, on social media. The common thread is that human nature displayed in place of God's character. Our perceptions over God's purpose.
It's challenging to be really real, really vulnerable in this day and age. In so many tangible ways, vulnerability has become a long four-letter word. So, as a result, we have created a society that curates everything it does.
All you have to do is go to someone's Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever feeds to see that they're living a perfect life. They're smiling, eating great food, and living the life. A week later, we find out they're in the hospital for an eating disorder, a mental breakdown, or worse, someone has discovered they have committed suicide.
Cutting and self-harm are up among teens. We're an undeniably prosperous nation, and yet our levels of happiness, and clinically diagnosed depression continue a steady march forward.
We bought the curation lie.
We don't "get real" about our issues. In our church, we practice joys and concerns, and even that can be scary. Raise your hand if there is any time when you wanted to share something during a joys and concerns prayer time, but were afraid to be that vulnerable.
Alright, don't raise your hands if you felt vulnerable in being asked to raise your hands about your concerns over vulnerability.
Why do we do that? Here in God's house, we should be able to ask for our family's love. We should be able to share our joy and share our needs. We should be open to saying, "Hey guys, I'm not OK today, and I just need some support here."
Being real is being free. Christ sought to free us so that we could free others. Did you notice that Jesus had this tremendous ministry? He had a lot of people following him. Still, the savior poured himself into only 12 disciples, and principally into just three. Jesus died for us all, but he demonstrated a relationship with three specific men in the gospels.
He was real with them. Jesus told them his truths, regardless of how cuckoo it must have sounded at the time. He shared his most significant need for prayer with them. Fail, fall, or fight, they loved him, and he loved them.
I recently learned that in a secular study conducted by Dartmouth University that they concluded the human brain is hardwired for a relationship with a higher being. A secular study by a modern university told us precisely what the Bible has been telling us for centuries. Why do you suppose that is?
I believe it's because this is how God continues to mold us, not just to overcome the hurt the world has put on us, but to exceed our expectations of who we can be.
Again, that requires an honest assessment of where we are, though, and if we don't allow God to be honest with us, how will we ever get there? How could we even think of getting others to be honest with us? Everything starts and ends with God, especially honesty.
Compared to our past, our society is a stressed-out mess. Out of this, we're seeing so much depression.
We're so on edge that we bite each other's heads off at the drop of a hat when we are pushed just the slightest bit too hard. We not only want to rest, but we also need to rest. Rest means time for the rebuilding of ourselves and our minds, and it is proven that we get precious little of that day in and day out.
We talk about self-care, but do we actually practice it? I mean, a recent study by DE Jonas from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, states that only 6.6% of Americans over the age of 25 report engaging in self-care daily. When they did, it was for a duration of only around 15 minutes. Why is that? What is causing us to place so little value on caring for ourselves?
In the same place that Paul talks about rest, he breaks out that God is capable of discerning everything down to the very atoms of your being. If you're anything like me, that means we have a lot for which to answer. We'll answer not to some disinterested and uncaring God on a throne but to a God whose word is alive, vibrant, active, and powerful. That alone is scary when you think about how we're under the authority of that kind of power.
There's a line from the character King Baldwin in the film, "Kingdom of Heaven" where he tells Balian that God will except no escuses.
If we put this in the context of an already stressed-out society, we have a beautifully crafted opportunity for anxiety overload. That's not what God wants. Micah didn't prophesy that God said, "to act justly, love mercy and walk like a stressed-out mess with your God." Anxiety overload doesn't come from Him, it comes from us, and when we wrestle with the word of God in our lives, we have to keep God's intention in plain sight.
The most notable disconnect here happens when we trust God based on how we have experienced trust with one another. As a pastor, we have to take a class on sacred trust. What it boils down to is shepherding the faith development of our flock in the same way that God shepherds our faith development.
That's not always possible to handle that sacred trust very well, and this leads to further brokenness in the lives of others. This spills over into society having issues trusting the church, and subsequently who the church represents. The one thing they don't know is that God's ways are not our ways. Our failings aren't His.
We're prone to living life into our human nature instead of into the characteristics of God. In fact, one of the most critical parts of our faith maturity is to start taking on the grace characteristics of God. The sooner we do this, the sooner people who are around us can experience God's grace.
God's grace is actually something we wrestle with regularly. Living into God's grace over our human nature is something we all struggle with to some degree or another. Some days you win, and some days you lose. On the days when we lose, that's when we stand the substantial possibility of breaking the trust of someone who needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
The main focus of the book of Hebrews was to get Christians living, most likely in Jerusalem, to keep pushing toward the goal. That goal is the rest pointed to here, desperately needed by persecuted Christians at the time. That's the same message we need to get out to the people God is calling us to reach.
When we live back into our brokenness, however, it can betray that, regardless of whether or not we mean to betray anyone deliberately.
When I was a child, I can vividly recall one of the times my dad dropped me off at home after visitation. I remember running to my bedroom and slamming the door, and grabbed my teddy bear, not even saying goodbye. I ran over to the window and peered around the edge of the frame to watch him leave. Everything is very sharp to me in this memory.
The smell of the curtains, the warmth of the sun on my face, the grass outside in the front yard needing to be mowed, the shadow of my dad's car as it drove off, all of it is still sharp as a tack to me. The one thing I also remember is saying, "Please come back, I'll do whatever I have to do to get you to stay. I'll be good, Dad. I'll be better. You'll see."
It was one of the biggest betrayals and abandonments of my life. And my dad never intended me to feel that way.
It doesn't change the fact that I broke even more in that situation, though. The fact that my mother and father were dysfunctional, broken people, led them to break the lives of myself and my two brothers.
In our church, we are every bit as broken as the people were are trying to reach. The weird thing is, we just don't realize it.
Until we do know it, one of our most powerful witnesses to the Gospel will not be put into play. Our honest-to-goodness "realness."
The starting point for us is to trust God completely. He's not there to dissect you and leave you pinned to some lab tray.
He's there to expose and divide you from your weaknesses so that He can show you the strength He built into and pours into you.
In the verse after Hebrews 4:12 the word "tetrachēlismena" is used, and it is translated as "laid bare." It comes from the word "trachelos," where we get our word "trachea," which is a part of your throat.
That word used by contemporaries of Paul elsewhere means taking the point of a knife and placing it at the throat of someone. This was done to lift a person's face to look the knife-holder in the eye.
Make no mistake, as deep and hidden as our wounding and sin are, this is precisely what it takes for God to expose them. Desperate situations call for extreme measures. To be absolutely clear, this is having the word of God used like it's the point of knife to lift up our shame-filled face, so He can see us eye-to-eye while we account for ouselves. That's terrifying visual imagery.
This is where the disconnect comes in, and what we expect because of our experience with people isn't what we get in our encounter with God. The thing is, we know God is continually referred to as being patient with us and full of love for us. Psalm 145:8 tells us, "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love." In my opinion, the only reason He uses His word like in this way is that simply reaching down and picking up our faces with his hand wouldn't be effective. We'd just pull away. I know that patience and love is His nature, but I also know that sometimes we need the stark truth at the tip of His word.
The turning point is when we look up and see His face. We don't see a God there who is just waiting to shillelagh us upside the head. We don't see the betrayal or abandonment we've often seen in others.
We see grace. We see compassion. We see a lavish love that we just didn't know was there. I bet many of you have had this type of meeting with God through the conviction of His word.
I know I have. I dreaded it at first, but it got easier as I went along, and I began trusting God more and more.
It's all about the grace we find in God, dissecting our problems, our failings. When we give our account, He offers His correction that can heal us. He stands up for us and understands us, which is contrary to what we expect. Nothing we could ever do surprises him. And I mean that.
Don't think for a second He didn't know what happened in the Garden, that He couldn't see Adam or Eve, or that the Lord didn't know where Abel was when He asked Cain about him.
This realization changes not only how we react to God, but how we treat one another. Trust first is established with God in loving Him because it empties us of ourselves, refilling us with God's love. Removing our old nature and creating that new heart within us.
Out of that, we move on to further live that love into the lives of other people. I've often said that while Jesus called us to love one another as we love ourselves, it would appear that many of us don't love ourselves very much. That lack of self-love can be traced directly back to their relationship with God in every single instance.
Look. No one likes to have a knife put to their throat. I don't, and you don't. God doesn't like having to do it, either, but if that's what it takes, that's what He'll do. The thing is, He uses His word for our good and in a way that won't harm us, but instead will build us and show us His love for us.
When we look around at how we relate to others, we have to wrestle with how we process them, their situations and who they are, basing our actions either in our human nature or in God's character. In our perceptions, or in God's purpose.
That choice is up to us, and it directly leads to someone either experiencing God or not. As we struggle to make that choice day in and day out, remember it's also a choice for which we'll have to give an account. Remembering whose face we'll see in that accounting and how we were treated in that encounter should make our course of action much less complicated to choose.
I wrote this initially as a breakout of Genesis 1:27. It began as notes from which I was going to post a small video, and it wound up growing legs of its own. Shortly after that, it ran off into the sunset flailing wildly about in my Google Docs until it became the post you are reading now.
Without some context, this may seem very Star Wars, where it starts at Chapter IV, a New Hope. So if you're reading this, I'll link the original video and comments right here. In the previous discussion on video, I dove into the opening section of the passage, breaking down the first mention of God creating. I have to wonder how many commenters watched the video I posted or simply didn't read beyond the words "gender fluidity." If you're reading this, I implore you to watch the whole thing.
I ask this because I caught a lot of heat for that post for merely posing a question. The idea was to get thoughtful feedback on the first section as I understood it from the translation resources I have available to me. What I got instead stopped just short of pitchforks, cries of heresy, and the piling up of wood below a stake. Some of that toned down, but not all of it.
My being only a high school graduate doesn't help matters. People tend to believe they know more than you do when they have more schooling than you do, regardless of the subject matter. I found it helpful to remember that a prominent Methodist-based university was founded by a man who had no formal higher education. That certainly helped ... along with a healthy dose of humility because, well, I'm only a high school graduate. What on earth do I know about anything, am I right?
I began by stating that I was sectioning out the verse and taking it a bit at a time. That was called out because I didn't explain the entire verse all at once. That devolved further because I did not eventually arrive at a conclusion that validated the commenter's suppositions. I did my best to explain that, as a pastor, you sometimes break thoughts and concepts out in chunks. From there, you assemble the whole and draw a conclusion. To me, it's an analytical methodology that has born much fruit. Reading books like the Expositor's Greek Testament or any other significant Bible commentary will show you this is commonplace, acceptable practice.
The next complaint was going back to the original Hebrew text. I provided examples as to why the deep linguistic dive was necessary compared to just reading the English translation (which one?). To be honest, I still don't know if it made sense to the person posting, but they can't say I didn't try.
To be fair, my interpretations may very well be wrong and I am absolutely humble enough to admit that I am not N.T. Wright (high school education only, remember?). If you've read to this point and are willing to dismiss my commentary on those grounds, I'm completely fine with that. Bear in mind, however, that's why I do my due diligence asking other, more experienced and educated pastors their thoughts and conclusions. In light of all this, I believe this interpretation holds water. Your mileage may vary.
The reason I feel it necessary to detail all of this is that it points out the massively polarizing effect gender fluidity has on discussions. To be sure, this post may not receive any kinder responses from some. But I'm posting it nonetheless because if I don't, something deep in my gut will not go away.
Without further adieu, here's part 2. (Admit it, you sang that).
Plows, Furrows, and Hebrew
As translated in the NRSV, we read, "In the image of God, He created them." The Hebrew for this is "Besalem Elohim bara otow." Here's where we encounter our first issue because both the NIV and NRSV use the pronoun "them," but the KJV uses the pronoun "him." So you're wondering, which is it?
Actually, you're probably wondering why you should care about this at all. Stick with me, though. The difference between "them" and "him" is crucial. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance links "otow" to the word "eth" which appears 846 times in the Bible. That's a lot, right? When we look at one example that is right around the corner from Genesis 1:27, we find 2:15 where the word is rendered as "him." Them? Him? Who cares?
You should that's who.
Genesis was written by a man at the comparative dawn of Hebrew history. This was an extremely patriarchal time in their culture. As such, it's essential to look at the difference in pronouns.
Both the NIV and NRSV, to varying degrees, use gender-normative pronouns. That's not a bad thing, by the way. Still, when you look into a resource like Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, you find that the pronoun should refer to the subject of the original verb. The original verb is "created," and the subject of that original verb was "ha'adam" or Adam - the man. The reason that difference is significant is that in Benner's Ancient Hebrew Lexicon, you find the pronoun should read as a "plow point."
Now, what could be more "him" than the rather phallic symbol of a plow point? This is much more important when you look at the third section of creation in this verse, which is "zakar uneqebah bara otam"... Male and female He created them." This pronoun, "otam" refers to the plural subject of "zakar uneqebah." "Zakar" means, "the one in the family that remembers and passes down family history through story and family name." In a patriarchal society, that's the man who passes along the family name. "Uneqebah" will be broken out in a moment, but combined, this is why "otam" is translated as "they."
Long way around the barn, but we're almost there.
"Otam" and "otow" are two different pronouns from the same root. "Otow" is the plow. So you need a patch of land for a plow to have some purpose for being, right? Enter the word "uneqebah," which is translated as "female." That word in Hebrew means either "pierce" or "hole." Now you know what the plow was for, right? Because if I have to spell this out further for you, I'm afraid we might go past the boundaries of good taste in polite company.
So here we have a plow, and a corresponding target to pierce. All about genders, right?
But what about those who actually have both sexes? As I asked in the ensuing mess from the original post, who made them? Wouldn't they be here if God made them? "Plow and hole, and self-plowing hole he made them" is how this should read, especially if we're talking about physical genders alone. This omission is the first clue that we're not talking about genders.
Still, many believe this is speaking strictly of genders, so let's travel down that rabbit hole. In the past, hermaphrodites have been called an abomination based on this passage. In modern times, most of the world accepts that they're not. We know that there are species in nature that have both sexual reproductive organs. In fact, some species can shift their gender as needed to match the procreative need. Natural-planned gender fluidity is part of God's toolbox.
The conclusion is that hermaphrodites are not an abomination. They were made just as fearfully and wonderfully as single-gender humans by a loving creator.
More than skin deep
Now that we're done in that rabbit hole, we get to the meat and potatoes. The real problem here is that I have to go to this length at all to explain it. Clarifying that this isn't about penises and vaginas should be something we should openly want to consider. We were made for interlocking like a plow and a hole; that much is true. But to think that the Imago Dei in which we were created for interlocking is strictly about genitalia is to really miss the mark. And two other critical parts of what we are.
First off, God doesn't have a penis, nor does He have a vagina. We use masculine pronouns because of our patriarchal origins. Still, we should use gender-fluid pronouns instead if we want to be accurate. It tends to freak some people out when you do that, though, so I'll just keep using masculine pronouns.
If you don't believe God lacks flesh and blood reproductive genitalia, just go up to His throne and ask Him to show you what it says on His driver's license. I doubt that will work out for you; personally, I think that a being not bound by flesh has zero need for genitalia. The only reason we have it is that it's necessary for our little training exercise we call life on earth.
Think about it. He's a being who can create something from absolute nothingness, which is what the word used for "create" means in Hebrew. That word is never used with anyone else but God. Seeing as God can do that, why does He need anyone or anything else?
Second, we get gender-focused on the "plow" and the "pierce" without taking into account the variety of actual genders. That construct is only mentioned once here, and we fail to focus on the words "He created," which is said not once, not twice, but three different times. That is what we in the business call "comparative importance."
Kidding. I don't know if people in some business call it that or not. But it is vital to compare the mentions of creating.
By my count, we should talk about the majestic miracle of God's creation three times more than we do the human sexuality we inaccurately zero in on. Yet, we keep having to have this discussion like we're the kid in the movie, "Kindergarten Cop." You know, the one who has to continually remind Arnold that boys have penises and girls have vaginas.
We DO realize sexual organs are temporary, right? Hard as it is to fathom, one day, there will be no use for them in our lives. Eventually, we will get new bodies that can withstand being in the presence of God Almighty? The continual physical-only focus makes me believe we really don't understand that.
So let's focus on God for a bit, OK? We Christians like to talk about people being the image-bearer of God, so what does that mean? I broke out for you earlier that definition, but let's look at God in action. Many refer to God as "The Father." I mentioned that already, but it bears repeating that we have a history of looking at God as a masculine man. But He's not only that.
He's a warrior, but He's also a nurturer. To our stereotyped roles, He's a Dad when He breaks shields and shatters spears. You can hear the Dad in Him when he says, "I've had enough, all of you stop your bickering and recognize who the real authority in this joint is." (Psalm 46)
But He's also Mom, gently loving Israel back to life like the dew on a lily, talking about his fragrance and beauty. (Hosea 14)
God is vastly more complicated than any of us give Him credit for, and so is Jesus.
The same guy who flipped tables over in the temple also wanted to be Mother Hen to Jerusalem and cried about the rejection he felt.
Defining Gender Fluidity
The Oxford Online Dictionary defines gender fluidity as someone "who does not identify themselves as having a fixed gender."
Guess who doesn't identify as having a fixed gender? God. One second, God is like a lion or a leopard to the people, then He's the nurturing dew. Believe it or not, by definition, God is gender-fluid.
What I just said is going to get me a lot of hate, and I realize that. I'm OK with it. God knows no singular gender identification. He shows the gender qualities of both our stereotypical male or female at any given time, whenever it suits His will. You can call what I just said heretical or apostasy all you want, but it's backed up in scripture, and it is accurate.
The problem stems from marginalizing societal perceptions that run quite deep. I remember growing up as a kid and listening to young boys calling other boys sissies. In fact, there was this one time I recall a couple kids getting into a fight and one of the boys using a pretty good snap kick that landed hard on his opponent's thigh. Someone in the crowd shouted, "Hey, only sissies kick!"
They may have believed that only sissies kick, but if you're allergic to bloody noses, a good kick is a solid choice.
Later on in life, we learned to marginalize lesbians as "butch" and made fun of their penchant for being manly and wearing their hair short and wearing flannel. Societal norms said women should be feminine and not masculine, and men should be masculine and not feminine. Let the marginalization of those on the periphery of that statement commence. It's not tough to trace this issue. This was patriarchically birthed in the belief God made us that way when Moses wrote of that problematic plow and a hole in the 27th verse of the first chapter of Genesis.
But He didn't make us that way at all. He made some boys soft and some girls tough. Some people are broken in ways that make them identify with different gender roles because they need to protect themselves. They wear flannel like armor and crop their hair close because they don't want to be targeted.
Or perhaps they just rock that look. I'm not into pigeon-holing anyone, so why don't you ask the butch ones their reasons directly?
Here's the thing. I can sew my own clothes, I'm pretty handy with a needle and thread and a sewing machine. That earned me some critical comments when I was young about being girly. These days I can also make a holster. I made the chaps and the chinks I wear riding my horses, and the cross-draw black powder pistol rig I made for myself is one of the more attention-getting pieces I own.
God made some of us with more masculinity than others, and they just so happen to have vaginas. God made some of us more feminine than others, and it just so happens they have penises. They refuse to say they are male or female, and I, for one, am OK with that. They live on a gender basis with no bias, which allows them to go from the necessity of being more hard-edged to more soft-edged whenever the need arises. And ain't that beautiful?
A Creeptastic Crusade
Some folks have their hearts set on roping the sexuality of everyone on the planet into an unhealthy categorization spiral. It looks like, "God loves you, or God hates you based on whether or not you agree with me. Especially when we talk about your sex organs, which I just so happen to enjoy doing more often than you might feel comfortable with. And by the way, even though it's your sexual organs and your relationship with God, I'll be the judge of whether or not you're using them the way they should be used, and relating to God in the way you should be relating to God."
Seriously, they won't give that crusade a rest.
For whatever reason, these folks fixate on the penises and vaginas of the marginalized and then make the lives of these people a living hell.
You can't help but wonder what is in their own background that makes them so interested in the plumbing concerns of another human being. Are they really trying to overcome their personal issues by making other people overcome those issues for them? Didn't Jesus mention something about "Twice the sons of hell" that aptly describes that?
The whole intensive focus is really creepy and kind of worrisome if you ask me.
They feel someone can indeed have life and have it more abundantly. But there's a sharp deviation where they will only allow that if those people don't dare step out of a narrow scope. The rub is that's biblically accurate up to a point. It ceases to be valid when that scope has been approved and sanctified by them, instead of leaving that scope to Jesus and God.
Who are they, other than a group lead mostly by men who believe they are the only ones that can define gender roles? Men who feel they have cornered the market on controlling the thoughts of God almighty - who has no gender and accepts no higher authority, by the way.
On top of that, they still think they're allowed to assign God a gender, too. And man, oh, man. They get pretty tore up when you call God a She. For the record, calling God a She or a Mother is not new. It's been part of mainstream orthodox Christianity for quite some time. However, it made the patriarchy a bit nervous, so it fell out of favor.
The real tragedy here is that there is something about penises and vaginas of other people that make these folk forget about the heart of the marginalized. That's what's at stake here and what we should be paying attention to. Not because I think so, but because that is where God's focus is.
Look, we were made in the complete image of God. Nowhere in the Bible does God specify His physical nature because He doesn't have one. Instead, he embraces whatever the situation calls for. And perhaps we should follow suit.
We should embrace the softer side of our characters, and we should not shame effeminate men and masculine women. Maybe if we'd have adopted that outlook that a long time ago, the whole situation wouldn't have devolved into such a hellish mess of harming and suicide. Perhaps unity would have been achieved. You know, like Psalm 133 tells us that God loves so much among His people.
If your be-all and end-all definition of gender is based on that passage in Genesis 1:27, then I see it like this. People who are gender fluid might be the only ones who are actually living in the image of a non-gender identifying, gender-fluid God.
What if it's a test?
The fact that this whole thing has boiled over brings me to one more point. If you've read this far, and God bless you for sticking around, here it is. What if God put all this into play to see if we would seek to reconcile in love like He gave us in the example of Jesus Christ? Or if we'd alienate one another like a bunch of self-righteous ... well ... tools?
Here's the thing. We're putting so much emphasis on physical gender when Paul actually challenged us to place more emphasis on our spiritual nature. Galatians 3:27-28 tells us, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
How can we read that and then throw it out the window so quickly unless there is some preconceived notion we refuse to get past.
I'll admit we're free to refuse to see God's sacred nature in everyone because of what the outside looks like. But in doing so, we deny the basic tenet founded in the first part of Genesis 2:27, namely that everyone is made in the image of God. Blinding ourselves to that because of patriarchal gender-prejudice doesn't make it false any more than sticking one's head in the sands of presupposition will make it true.
We must wrestle with how God has treated people concerning willful gender denial in the past. This is spoken of by no one less than Jesus himself, who acknowledges that some people have no gender. He talked about this in a direct relationship with his teaching on marriage. "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can." Matthew 19:2
I guess some folks just can't accept what Jesus said, as much as they say they can.
The Heart of the Matter
What all of this comes down to is pretty simple. It doesn't matter what gender stereotype we dress like, who we identify as. Nor does it matter whether we reassign genders of our own volition or have been reassigned by someone else entirely outside of our informed consent. This is all circumcision of the flesh, as Paul put it, and not circumcision of the heart as described in Romans 2:29. Paul didn't manifest this focus out of thin air, he brought it out of Leviticus 26:41, Deuteronomy 10:16 (circumcise the foreskin of your heart), Jeremiah 4:4 (remove the foreskin of your hearts). If you want to place yourself under one law, you put yourself under every law, according to Paul. What's worse, you are telling Jesus Christ that his sacrifice is absolutely useless. By all means, if that is your stance, stick by it. But be prepared to own the unpleasant rejoinder that comes with it from God.
As for my personal belief? I want to do my best to look at humans as God looks at them, by their heart (1 Samuel 16:7). I stick with the grace offered me on the cross as a man oppressed by his own sin in need of a savior, because that reconciles me with God. That gets me to the relationship He wanted with me all along.
In light of that, I will not re-enslave others, nor will I suffer them to be re-enslaved, nor will I be quiet about that re-enslavement. Ever. I'm going with Jesus to the marginalized, whether you're with me or not, whether you like it or not.
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.