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.
“When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.””
Exodus 20:18-19 NRSV
Some of you who are a bit older know the song, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” It’s the most utterly annoying earworm you could imagine, and it just keeps going on and on. I won’t repeat it here because I don’t want to get it stuck in your mind and get myself booted out of an appointment I enjoy. Suffice it to say that after one pass through the verse of this song, it embeds itself in your brain, and when you think it's going to come to an end, the song goes back to the beginning with, “Second verse, same as the first.” That part isn’t the worst, though. When you come back around to that part, it’s not “third verse, same as the first,” it’s a repeat of “second verse, same as the first, and you realize you have been swept away in a musical loop. Abandon hope, all ye who attempt to get any work done here amid this stupid song rolling recklessly around your skull. Go wash the car, and eventually, it may release its hold on you. You might even go to bed without having to hear another verse, which is the same as the first if you recall.
Evangelism, revival, and the story of God trying to love His people are just like this song.
In the Battlestar Galactica reboot from 2004, one line stuck with me. “All of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again.”
These words could have been said with the events on Mt. Sinai in mind. The big question is, “Why don’t people come to God?”
10 of 613
This passage in Exodus is placed immediately after the Decalogue, better known as the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are one set of laws out of 613 total laws in the Hebrew faith. One thing I know for sure that it requires a whole lot of lawyers.
Going back to the cause, effect, and result model we've been using, let’s look at the laws. The cause of God personally giving us the Ten Commandments is that He needed to show us our abject sinfulness, the effect of which is our understanding that we are utterly irredeemable by works of our own. The result of that is the realization that we need a savior; otherwise, eternity will not go very well for us. Right there is where we encounter the problem. God wants us to know we need a savior, but the tricky part is, it’s up to us to spread the whole news of that need.
All of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again.
You see, people get stuck on being irredeemable, not understanding that God assigned a mediator for us, which was Moses as a stand-in here for Jesus Christ, who would become the permanent mediator later on. According to theologian Walter J. Kaiser, Jr., the goal God drives at with the law, and the reason Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it, is that the law is about “how to live more abundantly by using the unchangeable perfections of the nature of God as revealed in the moral law as a guide.” That’s freeing stuff to hear if you ask me.
The problem is, we often miss the point of grace, even when it’s looking us dead in the eye. For a lot of people, all they hear is, “You have to be perfect to be a Christian.” They realize that that ship has already sailed. It’s a wake-up call of the worst kind to hear God tell Abram to be perfect before Him, and to hear Jesus tell us to be perfect as God is perfect. Neither I, nor you, nor the world can be our definition of perfect. But what we understand about perfection and what God and Jesus said about perfection are two different things.
Jesus didn’t come to save us from the law. He didn’t come to abolish it; he came to fulfill it by mediating for us. In Micah, we learn that we are to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. The point is that when we can do that, our faith development by God kicks us into overdrive. So how is it that many people can’t get out of first gear? Well, it’s easy to hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” and think it’s about moral righteousness. It’s easy for us to believe God is going to judge us, find us lacking, and destroy us. People get unbelievably uptight about that. Why?
Well, for one reason, because it’s true. God can and will do that if He needs to.
That said, you shouldn’t hold a fear of God that is quite as anxiety-laden and terror-filled as many of us do. It’s undeniably unhealthy to continually possess the amount of anxiety the Israelites did in their fear of God, a fear that came with all the smoke, lightning, thunder, trumpets, etc. Still, others of us did at one time before we truly knew God, and many of us continue to labor under that kind of fear. Those of us who have changed were just like those runaway slaves at one point. So, what changed us?
A tough balance
In light of all that, it’s understandable that people would be apathetic or argumentative when you witness to them. I know people in our denomination who struggle with the seeking of justice and the loving of mercy, in that they find it challenging to balance the two. With the world's current definition of perfection, it’s impossible to be perfect, but it’s not hard to end up a wreck in the process of trying.
You have to ask yourself honestly. Have you given up on telling people about Jesus because you’re tired of beating your head against that very wall yourself? Sure. You'd love people to experience what you've experienced and to go deeper with God in the process. But running up against apathy and even anger isn’t a lot of fun, and I get that. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this that way at all. Perhaps our approach is wrong.
The truth of our approach being wrong is that even though Galatians 2:16 tells us there is no justification found in the observance of the law, people still think that justification is the main point of the law. Moral righteousness isn’t the point of the law, and God’s judgment and punishment aren’t what we should focus on nearly as much as we do. It's true that when we focus on the negative, it’s because God focuses on the negative so you can understand our similar focuses. Don’t do this, and don’t do that. But why does God focus on the negative? Because He has to definitively draw a line for us with regards to our sin. But the law isn’t there to require us to “be holy" at gunpoint. Remember, that’s forced coercion to holiness, and it’s not a relationship, which is what God is after. Justice and mercy are not a carrot and a stick. Neither Jesus nor God called you to moral righteousness or any righteousness on your behalf. It might seem counterintuitive for a pastor to say that, but it’s a fact, and here is how I know. If we could have been morally righteous, Jesus on a cross would not have been necessary. He wouldn’t have had to go through what he went through, and you and I would be under the law alone, subject to being a sinner in the hands of an angry God.
That’s not what Jesus meant when he said to be perfect, though, and it’s not what God meant either.
The law is a guide toward a single-minded desire to be like God. Alexander Ballman Bruce referred to it as “Godlikeness” in the Expositor’s Greek Testament. This concept means our moral righteousness is a pipe dream. But seeking after God’s purpose for us, and growing in His will, putting our hand to the plow and looking forward instead of backward is what makes us perfect in the eyes of Jesus Christ and God. It’s being made complete in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, and not turning back.
When we grasp that concept of the law, mercy makes sense as well. The law without mercy leads to death, but law with mercy leads to life. The guidance of God in our lives is the law. The mercy is the forgiveness for our failings. Without mercy, the law and God Himself are enemies to our very existence, and without the law, the existence of mercy holds absolutely no point. That has to be our approach as followers of Christ. If our approach can be corrected and clarified, we might see some kingdom headway. We might even meet people in their captivity of brokenness and be able to show them a savior who can set them free and make them whole, complete, and perfect as our Father is perfect, singlemindedly after His own will.
Or we could keep on going down the same path we’re on, and keep acting surprised when people hear the word “Jesus” and run the other way because they fear another self-righteous Christian is going to tell them all the ways they are a failure at being their misconception of perfect.
Let’s take a closer look at a couple of critical points of this scripture. The trumpet referred to here is a shofar. It’s loud, and when it's played unexpectedly, it can be unnerving. It makes you want to stand a ways off from it as fast as you can run. Now imagine a whole mountainside of them. Throw in some lightning. Roll around some thunder and smoke. It sounds like a volcano, but it wasn’t, because Moses went up on the mountain and stayed there for almost three months. There is no record of human incineration, and neither was there a record of the ash cloud a volcano would have produced. We’d have heard about this because they absolutely would have said something regarding the people it would have killed. We'd have at least been told how problematic it would have made their stay, as near to the mountain as they were.
Instead, we get something far different. We conclude this is the very presence of God. The word for thunder also means a voice. It specifically uses a pictograph showing a shepherd who speaks, and the sheep know His voice. Sound familiar? Maybe like something you read in John 10 about a good shepherd? So we have a shepherds voice calling to His sheep. But the sheep didn’t know Him, and so they stood a long way off and were genuinely afraid they would die. A millennium or so later, Jesus broke this whole situation out for them, stating that the shepherd is not a hired hand and that he lays down his life for the sheep. These people huddled outside Mt. Sinai were sheep that had no shepherd, and they finally heard his voice. It terrified them. Is it any surprise at all that when people are impacted by the love of Jesus Christ in their lives, convicted of their sins, it's a terrifying thing? They believe they are a sinner in the hands of an angry God when, in reality, they are a lost sheep hoisted on the shoulders of a savior who would suffer unimaginable pain and humiliation for them.
God’s plan all along was to have redemptive communion with us. His desire is not to punish us, but to love us so that we can be sheep who know His voice. No mistake, He will punish us if He has to, but that's not His goal.
This focus was the plan all along, from Abram’s introduction to God to the prophecy of Micah to Jesus in Matthew 5:48. The word for “with us” in Hebrew is Immanu, and the word used here for God is not Yahweh, it’s Elohim. This meaning is the plural God, the full, whole, and complete God. Put them together, and you get Immanu Elohim. Sounds a lot like Isaiah 7:14, yes? Immanu El is translated as "God with us," the prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ repeated in Matthew 1:23. God has always wanted to be with us, and we’ve generally run away from the prospect. In the case of the Hebrew people, they were OK with the God they knew and could see and could quantify, but for this God that showed up and then showed out in such a terrifying way, they had no answer except to shrink back. They didn’t know Him and were terrified at the prospect of facing the full weight of God.
The strange part is, they acted as if Moses had some favorable control over God. We’ll listen to you, Moses, and we want you to be with us and among us, but don’t let Him near us because He scares the living daylights out of us. We can’t hear Him or have him with us, among us. It’s similar to how some of us are asked to pray by people who don’t pray. Hey, you seem to have some influence on God, and He appears to listen to you. Can you ask Him to do me a favor? They asked Moses because he was a sheep who knew the voice of the shepherd. And Moses responded.
This scenario has all happened before, and will all happen again. People need a leader, and we need to learn to lead. The people need a shepherd, and they have to find a sheep who knows the voice of the shepherd so they can join the flock.
Moses showed the people they didn’t have to be afraid and told them precisely that in the following verse. Throughout several paragraphs in the chapter, and over several months, in reality, Moses helped the people to experience God. They started afraid of God and His utterly incomprehensible power. We started the same way. Many more lay outside the walls of this church and other churches in that same condition, lost, alone, and frightened, whether they know it or not. The shepherd weeps for them. Luke 19 tells us this in great detail how the people didn’t see the shepherd, or how he would lay down his life, but he did it anyway, regardless of their choice.
The people on Sinai still went astray. The people in Jerusalem that Jesus cried over still went astray. We still go astray. That is why the right kind of leadership is essential. But it has to be humble leadership. It has to be a balance of justice and mercy. It has to be a balance of the cost and the grace about which Dietrich Bonheoffer spoke.
Moses, whose name means, “to draw,” was born a slave drawn from the water that could have drowned him. We were all once slaves to sin, and Jesus drew us out of the sin that was drowning us. Moses led the former slaves to become a new nation. You are called to lead others out of captivity. One of those slaves, Joshua, led those people by example to choose between remaining a slave to their former gods or serving the one True God. What will the slaves you lead to freedom achieve?
Every single one of us who was a slave to sin was set free. How can we be set free from the yoke we used to have around our necks and not feel the need to be a catalyst for freedom in the lives of others?
If we’re called to do that, and we don’t, then what happens? Are we willing to take a risk to change it? Even if only one word can change a life, are we willing to endanger others by not speaking that word?
Remember when I told you that I was going to challenge you to act upon the ownership of the inheritance Jesus gave us? That time is now. Take being a leader seriously. Learn to lead. Take the spiritual disciplines seriously and apply them. Be single-minded in the application of these disciplines to your life.
In a recent midweek class, we discussed the connectivity of our denomination. Someone impacted us powerfully for Christ within this church; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We learned about the people who had gone before us as leaders in the Methodist faith, and we developed a vital understanding. Every single one of us is connected in some way, back to John and Charles Wesley. The people you were impacted by, were affected by someone else, all the way back to those men and women we studied. There’s a legacy that they carried on into your life. It’s the reason you are here, the reason this church is here, the reason that we will be here tomorrow. They sang the same song, generation after generation. Second verse same as the first. We know the tune, too.
If we look at the example of the people who impacted us individually and the legacy they are a part of in our denomination, the line doesn’t start at John Wesley. It goes back to Martin Luther. It goes back to Justin Martyr. It goes further back to King David and comes to this point in time with Moses. If not for Moses, you wouldn’t be here. If not for David, you would not be here. If not for Justin Martyr, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or the person who impacted you positively enough to be in a pew today, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now, and you might not even have encountered Christ. So I have only two questions left to ask here.
Who is it you are called to impact? To who will you sing your verse?
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21
Up to this point, the information I have shared during my sermons has been relatively heavy, so I’d like to start this sermon off by telling you a little joke. A man buys a pet parrot and brings him home. But the parrot starts insulting him and gets nasty and fowl (pun intended), so the man picks up the parrot and tosses him into the freezer to teach him a lesson. He hears the bird squawking for a few moments, but all of a sudden, the parrot is quiet. The man quickly opens the freezer door, and the parrot walks out. As the bird looks up at him, it says, “I apologize for offending you, and I humbly ask for your forgiveness.” The man says, “Well, thank you. I forgive you.” The parrot then says, “If you don’t mind my asking, what did the chicken do?”
Admit it. Some part of you feels like the parrot deserved this little time out for the insults and the nasty comments he was giving his new owner. As funny as this sounds, outside of the parrot’s perspective, it’s no surprise many people might side with the man for not putting up with the bird. I’m reading a book by Ben Howe called The Immoral Majority, where he discusses why we feel justified when someone gets their just desserts, even if those just desserts are not even close to justice. People don’t look at the rather inhumane treatment of a parrot by throwing him in the freezer, in so much as they look at the fact that the bird comes out extremely polite after learning a lesson. After all, the man is the owner and is responsible for the bird’s care, and the bird isn’t showing its gratitude for that care when it insults him. What I find interesting is that in general, the population around us is typically OK with some folks standing up for themselves when someone speaks nastily to them. But they don’t defend those who can’t or won’t defend themselves. In the same vein, do we always protect our selves from others who can be abusive, especially those with power? Maybe the bosses that can belittle us, or the person we work with that tends to abuse their authority. More importantly, even than all this, do we defend ourselves from our own words?
Notice I said, “defend ourselves” from the words of others and ourselves. Not discuss, or debate, but defend. Discuss, and debate denotes the potential for civil discourse. Defending means something far more significant is at stake. The proverb here speaks of life and death. While it may seem overly dramatic at first, this is a real, honest-to-goodness, knockdown, drag-out donnybrook of a fight here. I’ll give you a personal example. I don’t always speak kindly to myself when I should. It’s been a struggle for me to do that for decades, and it’s been an even more difficult struggle to admit to that struggle. I’m a lot better than I used to be, but there are days when it is a slugfest to believe that I can sharpen a pencil without mucking up the whole process.
Don't Bury Your Treasure
Good old Bill Shakespeare said, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The first person I think God wants to free us from is ourselves, and this quote is why. When we speak poorly of ourselves, whether to another person or in our internal monologue, we are demeaning what God wants us to be, and we are burying our good as part of the deal. Forgiveness and grace for ourselves are so challenging to come by. For some reason, God gave us memory and then didn’t impart His all-powerful gift of being able to choose to forget things at will. Going hand in hand with this gift is the fact we don’t always speak well of ourselves or own the power we have from the Lord. I spoke of false humility last week, and it’s a dangerous lie we tell ourselves. Many people are quick to own their faults, but then take it to an unhealthy degree, and that pushes them precariously out of balance. They say things that become increasingly more cruel about themselves, and then repeat them with increasing regularity.
Those words become so ingrained that we don’t realize we’re saying them even when we’re sitting smack-dab in the middle of the rut that inner monologue has clawed out in our soul.
In the Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on this passage, it makes a point that it is not only about the type of language coming from the tongue and the need to control and curate it, but also the amount of it that comes out. We speak death to ourselves and others, and sometimes speak a lot of it, regardless of the truth.
In Proverbs 10, we read, “Lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool.” This proverb includes slander and lies against oneself and who God created you to be. The hatred concealed in this isn’t ours either, although we parrot it like it is. This activity is a ploy of the enemy to make you feel less than worthy, it is a lie, and we must eliminate it at all costs. But it’s a sticky lie, and shaking it off our hand into the trash can isn’t always easy.
A lie repeated so often it becomes a norm can be very difficult to overcome, even if overcoming it means we can be truly free. The freedom found in intentionally rewriting our monologue is about creating a rewarding new norm. When you look at the word “fruit” here, it’s more than just fruit. It means first fruits, a reward, and curiously enough it also means “bough,” like the main branch coming off a tree that supports other smaller braches. Its central relationship is its connection with the trunk. Our primary connection is as branches shooting off from the true vine.
The bough is a conduit from the trunk feeding sustenance to the branches in just the same way that the connection the Holy Spirit provides us to Jesus supplies us with the reward of life.
It’s also interesting that word used for spirit means breath, and when we speak, the words carried on our breath can bring us and others life.
Without that life connection, we die. Dead, disconnected vessels can’t act on the plans God has for them or share with the other they support. The words we speak can destroy ourselves, our hopes, and any hopes others might have had through us in this process by their content and the frequency.
A Life Instruction Manual
As we take a closer look at this text, this proverb sits inside a whole laundry list of good advice about what to say, when to say it and why. The general idea behind this is because the tongue often wags the dog more than the tail does. The book of Proverbs is about wisdom, and it’s broken out against the somewhat cynical viewpoint of Ecclesiastes. What you say, the power you have, and life and death are common threads through both of them, though. When they speak of power, it’s an either-or premise. Good or bad, healing or killing, moving forward or backward. Mobility and choice are the points of this word here, and it coincides with the concept of life and death.
In Hebrew, life is the same word as stomach and that makes sense when you think about it. If you’re hungry, you feel like you’re going to starve to death, but when you’re full, you feel relaxed, kind of euphoric, and regenerative. When our words are killing us, we feel miserable, and this often manifests itself as an empty feeling in the pit of our stomach. Inversely, when our hearts are full because our words are speaking life into us, we’re so full of love we feel like bursting, just like after Thanksgiving dinner.
Your choice to speak life to yourself allows you to eat the rewarding “first fruits.” That’s easier said than done for some of us, though.
As a very broken young man growing up, I was regularly taught to speak poorly of myself. Speaking well of myself was a foreign concept. If something happened in my life that I was excited about, I shared it as children often do. I was an honors student, and I sought approval from friends and family through achievement. Others instructed me that sharing one’s success was bragging. I was told not to brag because people didn’t like bragging even though I wasn’t bragging, I was seeking approval and affirmation. It got to the point that whenever I achieved something in an attempt to gain acceptance, I felt ashamed of the achievement because of how others might take it. That shaming brought me to a significant issue with receiving any manner of praise, and I still deal with this. It was difficult for me to fully own that God loves me not because He has to, but because He wants to with every single fiber of his infinitely innumerable being. If I, a pastor in the United Methodist Church, can feel like that, then how does the average person who doesn’t know Jesus feel?
Here’s the secret. Understanding that we sometimes face this ourselves is the key to evangelism.
Why Are You Hitting Yourself?
When I was a kid, one of my older brother’s favorite games was to take my arm and punch me with it while asking, “Why are you punching yourself?” Similarly, people are all too often parroting things others have loaded them down with that aren’t true. They end up beating themselves up, and in the case of Christians, severely limiting their ability to answer any call God places on them.
When this happens, they aren’t living in victory, they’re falling back into brokenness.
But as we understand how brokenness can lead people not to hear the word of God because “it was meant for someone way better than me,” we find a key to what Jesus came to do in releasing the captives. We’ve identified their captivity. I’ll go back to that in a moment.
We are commanded to speak well of ourselves for a reason. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” The transgression here means revolution. When we speak words of death, we are revolting against God’s truth when the truth is what sets captives like us free. That’s the bread about which we beggars are supposed to be telling other beggars.
Giving ourselves the grace God gave us is essential because it allows constructive joy in our lives instead of destructive self-criticism. In a society where that kind of self-bashing is the norm, loving yourself as someone created by God, and unfathomably valuable to Him is the kind of revolution for which we should be aiming.
We can give live grace in front of others and show them how they can have it as well. We can lead a revolution that shows people just how deeply God cares and loves them, how he’s set us free from words of death, and how he can do that for them as well. Evangelism isn’t telling someone who doesn’t know God and couldn’t care less about Him, that God loves them. It’s telling someone who really doesn’t know themselves and really doesn’t love themselves that God can show them how to love themselves the way He loves them. That’s freedom.
Galatians 5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. That yoke of slavery comes through words of death. So speak life.
2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us precisely how this happens. “and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” The obedience Christ wants for those thoughts is to speak the truth of the Father’s love. And that truth sets us free as Jesus’ disciples, just like it says in John 8:32. Once we’re free, we’re open to set other captives free.
The Choice We Face
In the movie, The Matrix, the character Morpheus offers the main character Neo a red pill and a blue pill and tells him he has to choose. One pill leads back into the Matrix, a place where life can be good or bad, lived as he always knew it. For people in the real world, that means that uncomfortable wet blanket of life, no abundance that was promised by Jesus, no higher purpose for which to strive. On the other hand, there was a pill that leads to the truth. The truth is sometimes tough to swallow, but ultimately in the movie, it leads Neo to stop living his life in a false reality where he is, in fact, powerless and to become the powerful being he was destined to be. When we get there, we can bring others out of captivity along with us.
We will be more effective in witnessing to people and will show them to the freedom they need because at the center of our hearts, we are free. Think of it like this. When you’re on a flight, and flight attendant is giving the emergency instructions, they always say to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others with theirs. Right now, we have a lot of people running around with no oxygen mask on frantically trying to put one on someone else by saying all the life-giving things to that person that they long to hear said to themselves.
So how do we learn to do all this for these people? Simple. We need to regularly open ourselves to God loving on us and speaking His words of life into us. Rejoice with Him fully when we do something we know that is within His will. Prayed today for someone in need? Rejoice! You did the Father’s will! Gave your whole tithe this week? Rejoice! You did as God told you to do. Took time to be with your children or grandchildren and show them the love of Christ? Rejoice! And rejoice by hearing God speak to your heart about His great love for you. We all need to personally experience a Matthew 3 moment, the one where God says He loves Jesus and is well pleased with him. God wants to give us that moment, so we must ask God to help us hear it. Open yourself to listen to the Holy Spirit tell you who you absolutely are to Him.
As kids, we learn by imitating our parents and our older siblings, remember? Ask God to tell you something surprising about you, and then spend the day or the week or the month, intentionally parroting it. This process isn’t about puffing up your ego, it’s about owning God’s purpose for you.
Whether He tells you through someone else, or you hear a thundering voice from nowhere, or He speaks to your heart as softly as a whisper, hold on to whatever He says.
In the book, Crash the Chatterbox, author and pastor Steven Furtick writes, “The more deeply we reinforce our identity in Christ, the more fortified we will be against the onslaught of opposing voices in our lives.” And those opposing voices can sometimes include our own.
If I had been speaking life over myself sooner, I would have gotten into a pulpit sooner. All along the way, there were opportunities for me to answer my calling. The problem was, I didn’t believe I was worthy of the help offered to me. I didn’t think I was worthy of the grace, and the most significant contributor to that disbelief was the continual recording of death that was playing in my mind and coming out of my mouth. Not that God can’t use me where I am; in fact, He’s using me and reclaiming what I went through in these very words. But I have to wonder how many lives could I have touched if I wouldn’t have talked myself out of God’s love for me all that time? How much freedom could I have spoken into my life? How many more captives could have been set free in the process. The point here is, there’s freedom in the words you speak, and it doesn’t entirely mean what it could mean until you pass that freedom to someone else. So free yourself, and then go, free everyone, you can find by speaking life over them.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. - 1 Corinthians 15:58
One of my favorite movies ever is the film Secondhand Lions. To me, this movie isn’t a classic because of Robert Duvall or Michael Caine, although they did play their respective roles of Hub and Garth McCann brilliantly. It’s a classic because of a pivotal, straightforward monologue. In a scene that took place in a roadside diner, Hub, Garth, and their nephew Walter are having barbecue pork as a group of rowdy teenagers come in, and one of them starts picking on Hub.
After Hub tells the teen to get lost, the young man gets indignant, which sets up a dominant moment in the movie. After the young upstart asks who Duvall's character thinks he is, the older man reaches up and grabs him by the throat and says, “I’m Hub McCann. I’ve fought in two World Wars and countless smaller ones on three continents. I led thousands of men into battle with everything from horses and swords to artillery and TANKS! I’ve seen the headwaters of the Nile, and tribes of natives no white man had ever seen before. I’ve won and lost a dozen fortunes, KILLED MANY MEN, and loved only one woman, with a passion a flea like you could never begin to understand. That's who I am.”
The first time I watched the movie, I paused the film right there. I was about as wide-eyed as the young boy in the film, Walter, played by Haley Joel Osment. I sat there and rewound it, replaying it, and letting it sink in each time. That definitive declaration made by Hub McCann speaks more powerfully than just the words he spoke. The character of Hub McCann is a man who knows who he is, his force majeure, and what he is capable of even as an older man. If you set a picture next to the phrase, “stand firm” it would undoubtedly be the stern face of Robert Duvall as Hub McCann, staring down a young kid who mistook him for an easy mark.
The Mountain King
At some point in our lives, I believe we all have experienced similar moments, measuring ourselves against something so much more important than where we were at that instant. Ultimately, I look at Jesus, this man on the mountain, this man teaching people, this man quietly exorcising a deadly storm as the man who is the pinnacle of ultimate power. Is it true that we can compare ourselves to Christ?
Honestly, that isn’t the question we should be asking. The question we should be asking is, why aren’t we comparing ourselves to Christ? I don’t mean as a way to flog our sense of self-worth into some false humility. I mean, as a life-long measuring stick of our personal growth.
Younger children invariably want to be like two people as they grow up. They hold a desire to be like their parents, their fathers or mothers, and like their older siblings. You test yourself against them regularly. You emulate how they walk or dress, or what they like, in an attempt to find out who you are. Whether it’s arm wrestling or baking, young boys or young girls, this is a fact. Even if you have no siblings or parents, you still look up to a parental figure as well as someone just slightly older than you are as a guide in your life. It’s only natural for a growing person to seek out a model for their growth.
In this world in which we find ourselves, we may follow that rule as we grow up physically, but we don’t usually follow suit as we’re growing up spiritually. We don’t copy Christ in the same way we would imitate an older sibling, even though Jesus is every bit our older brother.
Did that surprise you that I said that? Does it surprise you that I claim that? Jesus is as much my older brother as God is my good, good Father. That’s my identity. When I call someone in the church brother or sister, it’s not an idle thing to me. When I say that, I mean you are family to me in every sense of the word.
Own Your Opposition
At the same time that we don’t fully own who is with us, we don’t realize or own who we’re actually up against and why making a stand is difficult. It’s tough to claim that Jesus Christ is my big brother when the whole world and the Devil himself are telling me he's not. It gets even harder when they start rolling out the proof of this, through my past. I suspect it might be the same for you.
Understanding the two realities of who we are and what we are up against will make us more effective evangelists, even when faced with the proof the Devil presents. The concept here is about laying claim to not only the promise that our work has worth in the purpose behind it, but also that God will reward His children.
Our only other choice is to stay right where we are, useless and ineffective, as we are bullied around by forces that should be beneath us. Just some poor soul who is eating barbecue in a diner, getting pushed around by some punk. A pilgrim of no promise with no purpose and wholly without usefulness.
More to the Word
This scripture starts with the word, “Therefore,” which isn’t just a “consequence,” as defined in our dictionary. There is a significantly more meaningful definition to the Greek word Paul uses here. This word links the cause and effect of a result, emphasizing the result. The combination of both elements creates a relationship. Used in this passage, it shines a spotlight on the inevitable outcome of the paired cause and effect elements about which Paul was writing to the Corinthian church.
As fascinating as this is, you didn’t come here for a lesson on the English language and the explanation of a single Greek word, so I’ll break out for you what’s going on here.
Remember how I recently told you that the Corinthian church was a mess? The cause of their issues were all rooted in their lack of relationship. Nothing about them was firmly ensconced in a love for Jesus Christ, which is a blatantly sacrificial love. The effect of that shortcoming was that the Corinthian church was in disarray. The result of all this was that Paul needed to make multiple trips to try to sort their mess out. This situation caused Paul to bring the gospel yet again. All this was an attempt to bring about a unification of the church in Corinth.
Why was this such a big deal to Paul? Was it his ego? Was it his financial support? Nope. It was because they were his siblings. Every last one of them was a brother or sister of Jesus Christ under the blood our Messiah shed on Calvary. The promise that Paul received, the hope every last one of us can also claim, was that we are heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ. Matthew 12:50 shows us that Jesus said, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
To be clear, what Jesus said means that if you are born again, you are the sibling of the creator of the universe. He is your brother. Let that sink in for a moment.
It’s like living your life thinking you were a nobody and suddenly finding out you are related to the most majestic human being ever to walk the face of this earth. In reality, it’s not like that; it is that. Did you ever think you could be that powerfully connected? Heirs to God through Christ. That's you!
Who Loved Who First?
Paul uses the phrase “agapetoi adelphoi.” You may recognize part of that first word. Agape is pure, divine love. Agapetoi means personally experiencing a two-way love relationship with God. Noted Greek New Testament scholar Kenneth Wuest elaborated by saying that this word means “divinely-loved-ones.” That means the love relationship starts with God and His divinity, not us. That can only happen through the connection established at salvation through Jesus Christ. Our newfound family found us, not the other way around, and His choice to seek and save all of us is what defines you as a child of God.
If we want to go past the wide-eyed Walter phase and start our trek to the legendary status the likes of Uncle Hub McCann, we have to own who we are, whose we are, and that begins with how all this happened. It started with a goal.
Our salvation is a form of adoption by God, but it involves more because we are born again in salvation.
To use our cause and effect model, because we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, heirs to God, we are no longer powerless in any aspect of our lives. The effect is, when we are practicing our spiritual disciplines, we thoroughly move and evolve into the powerful and capable beings the Holy Spirit will make us into if we only let it. The result of this is that we get to be pretty fearless when we are working towards the goals of God in our lives. The reason for this is that we were given a new perspective during our transformation.
If you charge a worm and an eagle with the task of going 10 miles from one town to another, it’s not just going to be more difficult for that tiny, little invertebrate. Because it’s closer to the ground and cannot generally see where it’s going, or what obstacles it will face, it’s going to look difficult as well. The eagle has an entirely different perspective. Even if it encounters a heavy crosswind or a challenging storm ahead, the eagle can get past whatever is in front of it. This mobility and vision stem from the power of God in the purpose for which He designed the eagle. The eagle didn’t choose to be an eagle all of a sudden. It always was an eagle, from the moment it was born until the day that it dies. It was always an eagle.
In the same way, you were always a beloved creation of God. There has never been a moment in your life where God has abandoned you, left you, struck out on His own, and said, “You sicken me, I hate you, get away from me, I never want to see you again.” Never has been, never will be. Ever. He has always been there, will always be there, has never loved you less, and could not possibly love you more. His love for you, everyone around you and everyone you ever come in contact with, always has, and only ever been, perfect. He’s never wanted you to be anything less than what He designed you uniquely and individually to be.
We were never meant to be worms, but we were never meant to be eagles either. We were meant to be more than eagles. We were made just a little lower than the angels. We can stand in disbelief of that, like the psalmist in Psalm 8, but it's true. We were created "a little lower than the angels," and we are counted as siblings of Jesus Christ. We can only lay claim to that truth through Jesus, so we can’t boast on it, but oh boy, can we benefit from it. When you find your mountaintop to shout from, you need to stake your claim there based on that. Your basis for shouting is as a child of God, not in some nebulous fashion, but as an actual heir with Jesus.
The Same Father
Let me explain the other part of that agapetoi adelphoi comment that Paul made. Adelphoi means, brothers, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or the same mother. In Roman law, an adopted child had every single guarantee of sonship possessed by a blood-born child. Our salvation is a form of adoption by God, but it involves more because we are born again in salvation.
Our birth came from God through Jesus Christ’s renewing sacrifice on a cross. We are reborn of the same Father as Jesus. It doesn’t matter whose genealogy you use on your family tree. Jesus Christ is your big brother. That’s an essential point of unity, so let that sit with you for a moment. It’s meant to inspire a firm stand, a steadfast commitment, the words used here indicating that this commitment and stand won’t budge one iota. At least, not from God’s side.
All of this brings us back to the Corinthian church, who’d moved off point in their faith journey over only a couple years. When you lose sight of who you’re facing and who you belong to, this is precisely the type of mess that happens. Sometimes you end up like Elijah, needing a nap and a snack in the wilderness, and some reassurance from God that He’s got this. And sometimes you need a letter from an apostle bringing you back to the center. Realization and recentering do require some work on our part to stay on point.
The reality is that this “labor” we are called to do will not be smooth, and we may as well break this word "toil" out too. The Greek word here means work that is so difficult it almost kills us. What God calls us to will beat us up, knock us down, and leave us spent and exhausted. This weariness is the effect of our work.
This exhaustion comes because we’re supposed to be working hard, going above and beyond to meet the goal God has for us. God's goal is the cause of the work.
The result is all wrapped up in the being for whom we work. The Lord, who owns us absolutely, has assigned us this work, which is the cause of our exhaustion. So if you put all this together, we come up with “God causes us to work ourselves almost to death.” OK, and how is that fair? To answer this, we have to ask what we know of God that can help us sort this out. We know that God is a good caretaker of his possessions and that we are His possessions, heirs along with His son. We know His son modeled a degree of love and extremely costly sacrifice that we are called upon to show others. We know that His word doesn’t return to Him empty. We know that God always provides everything we need for the outcome He desires.
To sum all this up, we are His possession, His children, we have His provision, and we will have His reward as good and faithful servants. All of that existed before we ever knew of it. We have to own the simple truth of what He has wanted for us all along.
We aren’t going to stand firm on our own until we fully own that we belong to God. There’s a Thomas Merton quote that was shared recently by retired UMC District Superintendent Jerry Lee Jeffords. “I came with the notion of perhaps saying something for monks and to monks of all religions because I am supposed to be a monk … My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. And what we have to be is what we are.”
I’m challenging you today to own the inheritance Jesus gave to you. In the following weeks, I will challenge you to act on it. It’s up to you to face the challenge. Or not.
For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. - John 12:49
Let me play out a scenario for you. I was in my 30s and in a moderately popular band playing a festival in another state. The place we were playing had a stage that was about 5’ off the ground, and the area for the crowd was the size of a whole city block. More than 1,400 people were waiting to hear the band play, and we were about to go on. At that point, it hit me that I didn’t really have any fear. I knew my gear worked, I knew we’d rehearsed well and that we would be paid at the end of the night. I actually had confidence. It was a far cry from the young kid who played in the orchestra and was made the first chair first violin, watching the curtain part and show an audience hall that (gasp) held many people. As a child, I was excited, but nervous. The same as the adult musician I was at the festival, I had rehearsed well, I knew I was in tune, and I knew that I’d get through the night eventually. What was I leaning on in those instances? How was it that I was able to get over the stage fright I could have experienced as a child or as an adult? I started to wonder. What if my voice failed me, or all the sudden left me? What would I do then?
As a pastor who is also a performer, how do I go in front of other people and speak without freaking out? How do you push past the nerves and concern while preaching in a small church, let alone performing in front of a large audience? Simple. It starts by knowing where your voice came from.
We can struggle with how we push past the societal perception of Christianity so we can be bold in our proclamation of the gospel, and that’s natural. Preceding this passage from John, we learned about people who believed Christ but were silent because of their fear of the powerful Pharisees. They feared men instead of God.
The concept of fear to a Hebrew wasn’t just being afraid, but also having reverent respect. It wasn’t abject terror, it was actual knowledge of the fact that “He is God and I am not,” as Henry Blackorby stated in his book, “Experiencing God.” But these people didn’t revere God, they revered man. That’s kind of a no-no, if you recall the first of the Ten Commandements.
There’s this itinerant preacher from Galilee who is yelling at the top of his lungs about God.
There are times when we feel the tug on our heart of the Holy Spirit and step back from it, instead of stepping forward. Misplaced fear and reverence is often why. As a result, we just don’t speak up. We don’t act up. And I’m not talking about acting up in small ways, but in significant ways like Jesus was doing by yelling at the top of his lungs. Imagine you’re in a crowd of people and the emotion is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. There’s this itinerant preacher from Galilee who is yelling at the top of his lungs about God. He’s forceful, unapologetic, with a face set like flint towards the goal of loving every single one of these people so much that he would die for them.
Ring, Ring, Heaven Calling
Did you know that’s our call as well? In the very next chapter of John, Jesus gave us a new commandment. We are to love others as he has loved us. We’re called to do this. Noted atheist Penn Gilette told a story once about a man who came to his show for several performances and then met him backstage. This man knew Gilette didn’t believe in God but brought him a Bible. The reason behind it was because Gilette had shared his gift with him, he wanted to return the favor, sharing an important gift he had received. Gilette was touched by the gesture, and I would love to say he turned his life over to God, but that didn’t happen. What did happen was the master magician began to think, and what he concluded was quite remarkable, and kind of a smack in the face. He asked how much a person would have to hate someone to not to tell them about Jesus, if their savior meant so much to them. At first, I thought, “Wow, man. Harsh much?” But the more I thought about it, the more I feel what he said carries merit, especially in light of how far the love of Jesus went in our lives.
The fact remains, the same word which we are free to choose to proclaim or not to proclaim will be the same word we are measured against. What is true of Christ’s reason for proclaiming it is true for us. The word originated from God, and not from man. It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command that we are expected to follow obediently.
What happens if we don’t? Will God toss us out of heaven for being afraid? Or for being too damaged to fully step into the role of evangelism just at that moment? No. When we don’t stack up, our salvation isn’t in jeopardy, but someone else’s might be. Are we willing to risk that? The lives of the kid at the grocery store, the person you bought your car from, the old friend from high school you ran into are all at risk. To clarify, we didn’t die on a cross for them so we can’t actually save them, but we darned sure can show them who Christ is and love them as he has loved us.
Jesus was in the trenches in this passage out of John. He was shouting at the top of his lungs. In John 2:17, we read the story about Jesus entering the temple and sending out the money lenders. He didn’t do this by peaceably asking them and calmly directing the crowd to the gate, but rather by flipping tables and grabbing a bunch of cords, turning them into a whip. John tells us that the disciples remembered the passage from Psalm 69:9, where David said “for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.” Christ took this personally because, well, it was very personal for him. It was a family situation for him. The command in John 12:49 that Jesus spoke of was something he took seriously. The word that is used there for “will consume” in the gospel of John is katophagetai, and it means figuratively to devour, leaving nothing utterly. It means to consume something entirely and ravenously with an unbelievable appetite, leaving a person wholly ruined in the eyes of others and without hope of recovery. When Isaiah said to spend yourselves on behalf of the poor, Jesus was modeling that exact thing. He spent his personal reputation, his standing with the temple priesthood, and even his very life’s blood on a cross. He didn’t care how he looked in the eyes of others. He cared about how he looked in the eyes of God.
Full Sold Out
This is Jesus, utterly committed, standing for the commands of God to say what he was commanded to say regardless of the earthly consequences, counting God’s approval above that of men. It’s a stark comparison to those who were afraid of the Pharisees in the crowd and although they believed God, wilted. But Christ’s Spirit did not carry fear or timidity. While he died for our weakness, we know that the boldness of his Holy Spirit empowers us to do far more than we ever expected, something Jesus promised in John 14:12.
We weren’t dropped into a vacuum here. Hebrews 13:20-21 says May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ ... .” Oswald Chambers might have been thinking of this when he quoted Matthew 4:19, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” He wasn’t talking about skilled workers, he was talking about men who used a drag-net for a living. That’s something that doesn’t require a lot of skill at all; the point, according to Chambers was that you don’t have to be superhuman, you just have to do as God says, and God provides the rest.
To give you an example, we are often in need at Peoria Rescue Ministries, and we do a lot of praying over those needs. God has always provided. When you look at the timeline of His provision, the beautiful thing is it often began before we even knew there was a need.
In our lives, before we learn that we need to say something to someone at someplace and some time, God was already crafting some kind of message that would flawlessly communicate His deepest heart’s desires for that person. We don’t have to be flowery writers, or skilled speakers or highly educated teachers to tell someone that God has been so, so good to us. In fact, it’s best if we’re not in a lot of instances because it comes off as real and relatable to the people God wants us to reach. All we have to do is be bold. That means bold enough to lean on God’s provision, whether we can see it or not. That’s why we talked about all that faith-development done by the Holy Spirit through practicing our spiritual disciplines. That’s why Jesus practiced his regularly. It made him powerful because he was closely I’m touch with God. That made him bold.
Here, Jesus was being very bold. This situation in John 12 happened at the height of Roman occupation of Jerusalem, right around 30AD, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem right before Passover and right after raising Lazarus from the dead. He was on a roll with the people, and it scared the opposition leaders because they wanted to placate their Roman overlords and maintain their power base. Their interest was in making men happy. God? Not as much. Christ was the original fork in the road for them, as he is for us. They chose poorly.
We have the exact same choice every day.
Walking the Walk
We can either put up or shut up. Open our mouths and choose to serve God as His Holy Spirit directs, or cower at the back of the bus. Someone has got to be the first person out of the landing craft to storm the beach. The difference is, the body armor God issued us protects us perfectly when that front door drops and everything starts to go sideways. It was provided to us for our purpose before we even knew the purpose existed.
In this chapter, Christ spoke of why he came to this earth. Was he there to face opposition and then crumble? Or was he there for something else? Here in this moment in time, we find the precise reason Jesus came to that exact hour. He didn’t come here so that God could save Him, but rather that God could save others through him. Our savior boldly prophesied his own death, the kind of death it would be, and the impact it would have on the people of this earth. Lifted up, he would draw all men to him. And sure enough, he was lifted up on a cross, and as you can see above the altar behind me when I preach every Sunday, that cross is empty, because his purpose was fulfilled.
We were the cause of his needing to be lifted up in the first place. You, me, and everyone else. Our sinful nature, our separation from God, our rebelliousness, all that cut a chasm between God and us that we could never span ourselves. He was lifted up on a cross, and we lift a cross up in our sanctuary and everywhere else to honor that bridge. But do we honor him with our heart, letting that proclamation come forth? Are we bold presenters and proclaimers of the violent mercy Jesus suffered as a sacrifice for our sins? We certainly should be. And maybe we are in some instances. I think we can always strive to do better, though.
Counting the Cost of Quiet
When we look back, how many people in our lives did we neglect to tell the truth of Jesus? Did we show the truth through love? How many opportunities did we take to help those in need? Go and love as we have been loved as sinners who needed saving? This commandment is specifically what we were called to do, but not doing it carries a penalty that affects more than us.
Whatever it is we’re doing, we can and will do better. We grow. We have an example to follow. We have a man standing in a crowd of disbelief boldly proclaiming the word God gave him to speak out of obedience, even though it lead to his death. He loved us like that.
We must love others like that as well. Wildly and recklessly abandon our will to God’s Holy Spirit and follow his lead. Keep it real, keep it non-judgmental. After all, we were foreigners in our own kind of Egypt at one point, just like the Hebrew people in Exodus 22:21. That’s how we know we’re doing as God commanded us.
When I get to heaven, I would love it if I wasn’t surprised at the people I see when I get there. Instead, I know there are people I’m not going to see there, something Jesus knew, too. The difference is, I haven’t always been like Christ, zealously stating the exact words God gave me to say. Will I have blood on my hands because I didn’t say what I should have said when I was told to say it? Yes. The choice was mine to make. The cost I will face is mine. I will have blood on my hands. But I get to say that blood stops here, stops now and doesn’t go forward. I have chosen to find and use my voice as loudly as possible for Christ.
In the end, this is all about relationship. It’s all anything ever is when it comes to God. It boils down to nothing more and nothing less. D.T. Niles has a great quote. “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another where to find bread.” It’s as simple as using your voice.
It doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it. It doesn’t have to be evangelism on a stage in front of half a million people. Good evangelism is strongest when it’s one-on-one. Billy Graham was a great example. He could turn a soundcheck into an opportunity to spread the gospel. When he would go on air, and they would check the mic, Billy Graham would recite John 3:16. Harold Myra recalled in the book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, “When I asked Mr. Graham why he does that, he replied, ‘Because that way, if I am not able to communicate the gospel clearly during the interview, at least the cameraman will have heard it.’” I don’t know about you, but I plan on living a life that leads the cameramen in it to Jesus. After that, it’s up to Christ. I choose to do my part because I know Jesus is committed and can take it from there.
How about you?
We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, then when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority -- the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. - 2 Corinthians 13:9-11
Weaknesses. Wow. We all have flaws. The world has weaknesses. People are too weak to eat, or too vulnerable to sin to avoid addictions and other self-destructive behavior. Too weak to do this. Too weak to do that. Sometimes people are so small in their self-estimation that someone who is less fragile than they end up preying on them. Sometimes we get our priorities out of whack because of our weakness. I’m no exception to the rule of weakness. I have a weakness for European dark chocolate. I have a weakness for beautiful woodwork in a house. Speaking of woodwork, I love basses. Upright basses, bass guitars, it doesn’t matter. Electric, acoustic, acoustic-electric. Did I mention I really like basses? Don’t get me started on violins, either. OH! And books. Lots of books. I currently have so many books that I cannot find time to read them all, so I have stopped adding. At least until we get out or worship service. After that, all bets are off. I also have a weakness for my beagle and my horses. That’s understandable, though, especially if you’ve ever seen Betty, Thunder or Rudy.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve got many weaknesses, things to which we can’t say no.
To keep things on an even playing field, let’s get real about this. You have weaknesses in your life, too. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve got many weaknesses, things to which we can’t say no. Some of them are harmless, like a weakness for movies, or a TV show that we watch every week. But there are things we struggle with. Maybe that TV show that we binge-watch and then neglect stuff in our lives. Or more importantly, that caused us to overlook opportunities to interact with others. Or, dare I say, that cause us to neglect God and what He wants to see done in our lives.
The Corinthian church was that kind of neglectful mess. In 50AD Paul founded the church in Corinth, a community about 50 miles west of Athens. We have two of the three letters from Paul to the Corinthian church, showcasing a bit of back-and-forth dialogue. While we don’t possess the response Paul received from them between the second and third letters we have, the tone and content of his reply speak volumes.
The Corinthian church wasn’t what you’d call your model church. It was a catastrophe. A few of the issues they faced were: partisanship splitting the church between rival leaders; incest; prostitution; celibacy within marriage; believers who were married asking about divorce; believers married to unbelievers asking about divorce; issues of marriage and remarriage; lawsuits; idolatry; the women of the church praying and prophesying without covering their head, and the hair length of men; worship was a hot mess, with people speaking in tongues and talking over one another; the communal meal was turning into a party where some went hungry and some got drunk; people saying Jesus wasn’t really resurrected; major money issues; and Paul’s plans to travel having to change because of this. You could say they were a bit bull-headed as a whole.
In Paul’s address, he pushed them back to plumb. In return, they pushed right back at Paul. The underlying issues that lead up to the 13th chapter in the second letter from Paul were simple. People couldn’t relate to one another. They were putting themselves ahead of others, they were putting themselves ahead of God. The whole situation ended up toxic and pretty much out of control.
In chapter two of Second Corinthians, Paul talks about a trip he made that was a “painful visit.” What we see here is Paul doing his best to walk a tightrope voicing love and obedience to impart grace to the Corinthian church, but still being able to reveal the truth at the same time. So, while a model church loves and cares for others deeply, this church was pretty much the opposite.
Have we seen churches like this? Are we a church like this? Should we be a church like this? Will it bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ if we are a church like this? Are we filled with the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, relying on Christ to find us in our weakness, fill us with his power, and bring us into the designs that he has for our lives? Tough questions, but we have to ask them, and we likewise have to answer them.
In licensing school, during pastoral care class, our instructor set up a mock funeral planning meeting. We were explicitly told not to make it apocalyptic. Spoiler alert, we went full-on apocalyptic. I feel it is important to state that I may or may not have led the charge on a thoroughbred drama llama, racing for Crazytown as fast as it could carry me. With some help from my classmates, the ensuing thespianism was uproarious in nature and went even further down the rabbit hole I had opened. Though it was done tongue in cheek and was way overblown with drama, none of us could help but wonder what we would do when things got more than a little out of control.
On the one hand, I’ve witnessed a multi-combatant fistfight at a service of commitment, right in front of the casket, so my opinion was fairly open to exactly how deeply people’s brokenness can run and how it will choose to manifest itself. The funny thing was, the instructor said neither he nor any of the teaching staff had ever experienced anything even remotely approaching the mess we’d presented and of which he very deftly regained control.
But Paul sure had.
Division and disunity will bring a nasty, greasy, smoke-covered ending to any church, and the enemy just salivates at that idea. The church in Corinth was doing precisely as the Devil wanted. The issue wasn’t their sexual immorality or their failure to get along. Their problem was a lack of and in many instances, total abandonment of, a state of communion with God. No communion with God means we have no fellowship with our own self and definitely no communion with others. Communion with God makes us stronger because we exchange our weakness for His power. That only spills outward making our community stronger.
Weakness makes you … happy?
Did you notice how Paul spoke about gladness when his group was weak, but the Corinthian church was strong? Why do you suppose he said that? Was it about how strong they were by themselves? I don’t believe so. I think it was about the self-realization of the body of Christ in Corinth as weak, and the conviction that they couldn’t do life all by themselves. Paul felt deeply that would lead them to the understanding they needed God, which would balance the rest of the issues out.
You see, we’re so bent on being strong ourselves. It’s our driving motivation to have power and to have the ability to do life successfully, all by our lonesome. We will push ourselves to such an extreme in our desire to show how we’re in control and can do everything on our own. We even take Bible verses like Philippians 4:13 out of context regularly so as to validate the point, putting emphasis on “I can do all things” instead of on the one who Paul credits for the strength, and Paul’s utter submission to the will of God manifested in Jesus Christ’s Holy Spirit dwelling within him.
We’re only strong when we are in submissive communion with God.
An experience, not an act
If you take apart our Service of Table in the United Methodist Church, our communion is an opportunity for an experience, not just an act we do twice a month. It is literally set up to acknowledge the drawing grace of God, the conviction that we are weak, need forgiveness but cannot earn it ourselves so we count on Christ for it, are then given that cleansing forgiveness freely by God, and reassured of His never-ending love for us before we are sent. The authority I have to invoke the Holy Spirit of God over the gifts of bread and juice in Holy Communion was given to me first by God through Jesus Christ and brought under the authority of His church to me. This is all about relationship here, starting with God but not ending when it reaches us. Just as it was when Paul spoke about it, communion is about a restorative experience with God that goes beyond us. The authority given to me is for building, just like Paul’s authority that was given to him. The reignition our church desperately needs is found right there. Right. There.
Pay attention, though, there are a carrot and a stick here in equal measures. We’re given the authority to build up and not tear down. That doesn’t mean that God, from whom all power flows, can’t tear down. Still, I don’t believe God wants us to focus on the stick out of fear, but rather out of reverence. A decision made in fear and terror is coercion based on force, and it’s not a real choice. You’re not really in a relationship if you’re not truly free to relate.
The reverent respect for God and Christ’s death on the cross is found in the fact that God could quickly force us to do His will but chooses instead to love us into doing His will. It’s restraint based on a relationship that is founded in love.
That’s important here because it’s the benchmark of Christ’s church. If we’re not in communion with God, striving for full restoration, encouraging each other, finding our common ground in the cross that shows us how to live in peace, we don’t get to the last part of Paul’s benediction to the Corinthians. Without communion with God, the God of love and peace will NOT be with you.
In communion, we experience God’s drawing grace. Our repentance, His forgiveness, our grace and reassurance, and our sending. Let’s focus on forgiveness for a second.
Forgiveness as a forge
Jesus told us in Matthew 6:14-15 that if we forgive one another, God will forgive us. If we don’t forgive one another, then God won’t forgive us. That’s pretty black and white. Dietrich Bonhoeffer broke this out by saying, “It is the fellowship of the cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ.” As Christians past the point of saving grace, we are called to live deeper into the righteousness of Christ, allowing our heart of stone to be replaced by a heart of flesh. The new authority inside of us commands us, not our old ways, and all that happens through a relationship we develop with God and a faith He fully implements in our lives through His Holy Spirit.
Every time I take the bread and the juice, I experience what Christ did for me. The forgiveness inside of me from Christ forges the forgiveness I give to others and the peace that comes from that. I am convicted that I need to live deeper into Christ at every opportunity in that encounter with God’s grace. It’s a wake-up call that I cannot do life alone. You and I? We need God, and we all need each other. It starts with God and flows out from us like a trickle at first, then deepening, and turning into a mighty river that feeds abundance into the lives of other people. That’s not flowery prose, that’s Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapter 47, and it is a foundational prophecy regarding God’s relationship with us and how that impacts the people around us.
Keep a watchful eye
There’s something to guard against here, as we are prone to idolatry. What can happen is that we look to one another for that strength, but don’t look to God as much. Twentieth century evangelist Paris Reidhead said, “Most Christians do not have fellowship with God; they have fellowship with each other about God.” Don’t mishear me, fellowship about God is essential. Christian conversation, talking about our faith testimony, what God has done for us, through us and with us lately is a key communion act. Talking about how God has blessed us and especially how God has humbled us is crucial. But fellowship with God is the end goal as well as the starting point.
It’s almost as difficult to balance that as it was for Paul to balance loving reconciliation with obedient accountability. On one side of the street, grace and the law sound a little discordant on the surface. Grace is forgiving everything, and the law is accounting for everything. Would you be surprised to find that they’re actually part of the same thing? Christ came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. The law was given to us based on love, to be interpreted out of love, and followed out of it, based on communion with the God of love.
The law is the love of God enabled through the God of love.
When we take God out of that equation, by lacking in our communion with Him, the law becomes the law of condemnation, something entirely different from love. Human condemnation via the law leads to division, disunity, hatred of others, hatred of self, destruction, and a whole lot of Corinthian church-sized problems. The law God brought, came fully-equipped with forgiveness, love, compassion, mercy, true justice, broken oppression, full hearts, and healed souls. It carries a cost, as Christ said when he noted that his yoke did indeed have a burden, no matter how light. That cost is you have to not just exist beside God here on earth, but be immersed in God.
We can approach Christ on the surface, but until we get so deep in his Holy Spirit that we have him under our fingernails, in our nostrils and lungs, coursing through our veins, we will struggle to bear with one another’s burdens. That love based in the Holy Spirit is an authoritative source of fuel to reignite our church through the “more perfect way” found in the love of God. His passion for us spills over into our love of one another. Is that the Hallmark of the church? And if we think it is, could we improve on that even more?
Communion with God is a way for us to step outside of ourselves and into God. Our strength is so lacking that without God, we’ll never break down the barriers necessary to bring revival in our selves, let alone in our community. Communion carries a spark to reignition. That same spark was evident 50 days after Christ’s resurrection at Pentecost. If we want revival in our church, in our community, then we have to reignite our hearts by opening them to God.
Thomas Fuller said a long time ago that, “Some men, like a tiled house, are long before they take fire, but once on flame there is no coming near to quench them.” This is the type of reignition our church needs, and the match is found in the hand of God. When it truly strikes our soul, it doesn’t matter what happened in the past, everything becomes a brand new blaze. The question we face is this. Are we experiencing a communion with God that makes ignition of that sort of fire possible? And if not, what are we going to do about it?
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth, you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once more. - Psalm 71:20-21
In a book I have, I recently read that “They say that the gates of hell will never prevail against the church, and that’s partly because it’s so diversified you can’t get a handle on it.” It sounds funny, and it is. But it’s also really accurate. The diversification of worship is a challenge because what might look one way in one church looks entirely different in another church. And that’s just in the United Methodist denomination alone.
My girlfriend Selena and I worship in two very different settings. One is the church I serve, a somewhat traditional church. We conform reasonably well to the liturgical guidelines, and we have a long-standing worship tradition. We’re not what you would call “high church,” as I don’t wear an alb or a cincture, but we are very traditional in that we read the entirety of the lectionary scriptures, we follow a service of word and a service of thanksgiving or table. In Selena’s church, they read the word, and they can spend around 30-45 minutes in praise of the Trinity alone. And that praise is demonstrative, has drums, bass, saxophone, a PA system that, even while it is loud, can sometimes be drowned out by the voices of people worshiping God. The message time in her church can be 35-50 minutes long at times. So when I go to her church, there’s a lot that is different there. Even though our theology is very similar in our beliefs, our worship styles are not. In fact, I’ve joked that her church is really just a loud United Methodist congregation. Still, it can be confusing for all of us who are trying to get worship just right. Which brings me to my point.
I’ve joked that her church is really just a loud United Methodist congregation
There are typically three types of folks sitting in church pews. The first two types are 1) people who are struggling to make sure they’re doing it just right so God is happy, and 2) people who are doing it the way they have been taught for decades to the point of just going through the motions. The third type is people who are doing their best to encounter God so that He can create or enhance His faith relationship with them. They are people who have seen “troubles, many and bitter” like David had in Psalm71. They are often lost and in desperate need of restoration. The Hebrew word David used for “troubles” means pressures or enemies closing in on every side, forcing them into a tight place. The word for “many” used here would be better translated from the original Hebrew as “great,” where the pictograph means the head of the family. In other words, they are surrounded in front, back, top, bottom, left and right by the grand daddy all of troubles. There is no escape that they can find, at least within their own grasp. That’s why they turn to God.
When we find ourselves here, we ask some hard questions. “Who allowed this? Who caused this? How did this happen?” The answer to the first is God. The response to the last two questions, however, is us. Charles Spurgeon noted in an exposition of this text that, “A little God would fail us, but not Jehovah the Omnipotent. It is safe to lean on him since he bears up the pillars both of heaven and earth.” The people in the pews God allowed to sink to a point where they are surrounded with no way out except God, have turned to God as their sole resource and salvation. They do so through an intense hunger for God that they can satisfy only through worship.
I ask you, which one of these three definitions is His church as a whole right now?
Being in a place of desperately practicing the spiritual discipline of worship is not for the faint of heart, nor is it only to be done when life has taken one of those hard left turns that nearly throws us out of the car. Worship is a powerful way to interface with God in a completely authentic, laid-bare manner. If people come to church just to mark time, they’re missing out. If we don’t understand why we do the things we do, the symbolism and meaning behind them, we’ll miss an essential encounter with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. And there’s more to what we miss than just that. Worship isn’t complete when we walk out of the building after the benediction. Worship is living your life to glorify God in that same kind of encounter every day of our lives.
This is how people who don’t know Jesus get to see him. This is how people encounter us as more than just a signpost on the road, but rather as the fork Jim Elliott spoke about. This is how we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
After all, if we don’t, who will?
I read recently that the church worship service is a huddle. We run the plays during the week, but the game is not won in the huddle. If we are going to re-emerge as a denomination and as a global church, we have to be prepared to be in the huddle, on the practice field, in the locker room, in the weight room, doing our homework, practicing our spiritual disciplines every opportunity we can, so that they become second nature. They take on that nature because the authority within us is actually changed. We come under a new administration when we encounter the Spirit of God in those disciplines, especially during worship.
There’s something I recently discovered that blew my mind. Did you know that you could learn a great deal about the importance of worshipping God from a man who lived in China 600 years before Jesus? Right around the same time as the Assyrian exile was coming to a close, there was a man who earned a name for himself as a military strategist. His name was Sun Tzu. He very famously uttered, “... if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
That concept is evidenced here in this Psalm. When David wrote this, Absalom was in open rebellion, and his whole world was crashing down around him. But the thing is, King David knew himself, and he knew who his enemy was. What was more important is, the king knew who God was, and didn’t cease to worship God throughout this time. He counted on and trusted God because he knew he couldn’t count on himself in the face of his enemy. Even in the darkest moments of his life, David worshipped God because that’s where his promise pointed him back to his purpose when he was caught in the midst of his perception.
Now, we may just think we are not in a place where we need God right now because we live prosperous lives. But if we look around through God’s eyes, we can clearly see that things are not as they appear. Our purpose on this earth is to glorify God. Every single one of the spiritual disciplines is about glorifying God, and this is why. Glorifying God is our purpose.
In Isaiah 29:13, we read, “The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Coming to a church service and making sure we do the right thing in the church at the right time in the church and in the right church is not worship. The act of taking bread and juice at communion is not worship. The sprinkling or pouring or immersion in water at baptism is not worship.
None of these acts are worship.
Worship is the encounter of God not face-to-face, but heart-to-heart. We could walk into this church and not turn on a single light, not light a single candle, not sing a single hymn. But if our hearts encounter God and glorify him, that is worship. It doesn’t matter where that happens or how or with whom. If we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit so we can encounter God in the bread and juice of communion, then that is worship. If we encounter the Holy Spirit in the covenant of baptism, that is worship. If we encounter Jesus Christ, the Light of the world in the symbolism of the acolyte bringing the candle into the sanctuary, that is worship. Without that encounter, we don’t know God. Without knowing God, we don’t know ourselves, and we don’t stand a chance against what the enemy will throw at us once we leave this sanctuary. In fact, we don’t even stand a chance inside our church sanctuary, because without an encounter with the Living God, that building and our presence in it doesn’t even come close to what God intended in the first place, which is a complete and whole relationship with Him.
Pump You Up
Online writer Stuart Shepard interviewed Sylvester Stallone about his Christian faith in a 2006 article for Citizenlink.com called, “The Gym of the Soul.” Part of the article read, “Stallone realized he had to trust Christ more than himself. ‘You need to have the expertise and the guidance of someone else,’ he said. ‘You cannot train yourself. I feel the same way about Christianity and the church. The church is the gym of the soul.’” This is where we encounter our trainer, the Holy Spirit of God, sent to us through his Son, Jesus Christ who died for our sins. I say all that to make the point of an encounter with God very clear.
The real, hands-in-the-dirt hard work of worship happens throughout the week. We huddle up on Sunday to game plan in a group encounter with God through the Holy Spirit, and then we execute the plan during the week. Keep in mind, we don’t walk out these doors alone. David wasn’t alone and neither are we. That acolyte that brought the light into the sanctuary carries it out again, and into the world, to remind us that Christ goes before us. Allow me to elaborate on why remembering that is important.
I was bullied a lot when I was younger. I wanted to be big and strong, and I wanted to take care of myself and handle my business, but I simply wasn’t powerful enough. I learned quickly that unless I wanted to keep getting beaten up because I was an easy target, I needed a back up. I was blessed with people who watched out for the skinny little kid that I was, and I made sure to stay close, so I wouldn’t be targeted by others who, for whatever reason, preyed upon the weak. I sought out their protective company every day as a matter of life and death because to 6-year-old me, it was. Similarly, if we don’t seek out an encounter with God every day and actively chase it and get it, we’re the ones that will be left behind as prey. The pressure of being buried alive by this world and everything in it is all we will encounter.
The net-net is, we won’t be fulfilling our purpose of glorifying God both in this sanctuary and more importantly, outside of it.
What's on Your Menu?
We’re a very peculiar people, though. All too often we are spiritually starving, and yet, we don’t head to the kitchen to start cooking something to eat. It boggles the mind. We walk into the kitchen, and we look around, shrug our shoulders and then leave, not even opening a cabinet or the fridge to see if there’s something there. We feel weak and helpless and defenseless, so we go to the gym of the soul. We look around, stare at the weights, see the trainer who asks, “Can I help you get stronger,” and then we say, “Nah, it’s cool, I’ll just stay unable to defend myself.” Not only do we stay a target in that instance, but we also never get to the point of having the increased greatness on which this Psalm focuses. This word for greatness comes from the Hebrew word for rope. The more strands in a rope, the stronger and greater it is. That greatness is our faith, which we know isn’t increased by us. It’s only increased by an encounter with the Holy Spirit, especially in worship.
Look, sometimes we don’t think we do enough. Some days we’re tired. Some days we’re distracted. We try to define worship as a series of acts so we can focus and feel like we've achieved something in an attempt to judge whether or not we’re “worshiping right.”
The fact is, if you spend time with God daily truly worshipping Him, it’s because your heart is hungry and open to Him. He meets you there. The type of songs in our services doesn’t matter. Juice or wine doesn’t matter. Whether I am wearing a tie or a t-shirt doesn’t matter. Whether we’re in a tall-steeple church in the country or an urban worship center, doesn’t matter. Being heart- hungry for God is what matters. God builds faith through worship for the purpose of glorifying Himself through our ability to show that same faith as deeds in the lives of others.
A Fire You Can Cook With
Jim Cymbala said in his book, “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, “... if people don’t have an appetite for God, what does it matter how many are attending the services? How would that impress God? Can you imagine the angels saying, “Oh, your pews! We can’t believe how beautiful they are! Up here in heaven, we’ve been talking about them for years. Your sanctuary lighting—it’s so clever. The way you have the steps coming up to the pulpit is wonderful”? I don’t think so. If we don’t want to experience God’s closeness here on earth, why would we want to go to heaven, anyway? He is the center of everything there. If we don’t enjoy being in his presence here and now, then heaven would not be heaven for us. Why would he send anyone there who doesn’t long for him passionately here on earth?”
It’s time for the body of Christ to get heart-hungry again. It’s time to hit the gym of the soul. It’s time we make encountering God through worship daily our intentional priority, starting right now.
And I will bring my people Israel back from exile. They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
- Amos 9:14
When I was in my early 30s, I had a 1983 Ford Mustang GT. Now, while that sounds like an impressive car, the early ’80s GT Mustangs were very much pooches. The ads were fresh and enticing for these cars, but the performance was not. Still, my 1983 GT was fire engine red, with the blacked-out hood, fully loaded, and not in bad shape for an old car. It had cool wheels and sounded nice, but it was still not very much of a performer.
So I went about the task of getting this car a little more oomph in the areas with which I knew how to deal. I’d already replaced the carburetor and breather with an Edelbrock, so a new intake manifold seemed like a natural component to increase the ability to put air into the motor and power on the pavement. As I finished torquing down the last bolt on my side of the motor, I surveyed the shiny new aluminum manifold. Admiring my work, I absentmindedly set the wrench down ... from one battery post to the other. Now, when you work on a motor, you unhook the electrical system from its cables for safety. Not so surprisingly, though, you can still get a snappy little shock out of that battery when you complete the circuit with the aforementioned torque wrench, which you happen to be holding in your hand.
I’ll never forget the look on my buddy’s face when the sparks started to fly, nor the taste in my mouth of my slightly less than tar-tar tongue. I didn’t realize it, but even as careful as I had been, rebuilding something could be very dangerous.
Now, you may not have ever rebuilt an engine and electrocuted your taste buds in the process, but I am willing to bet you’ve had something similar happen to you. Rebuilding anything is never a sure bet. There are pitfalls even if we take all the precautions and are as careful as possible.
I’ll never forget the look on my buddy’s face when the sparks started to fly
Occasionally, those deter us from continuing the process. There’s simply no guarantee that this rebuild will be easy. What I’ve learned is that we face two choices here. The first is if we choose to either keep at it or quit. In that choice, we can plan carefully or carelessly, and we reap the benefits or the breakdowns inherent in that choice. Sometimes we can turn the key and listen to the motor roar to life, breathing much more freely than before. Sometimes we give up. Either way, there are still things we don’t see that can blindside us, which is where our second choice comes to the front burner. How do we deal with the unexpected?
If you rebuild enough motors, you’ll eventually learn to deal with rusty bolts. You will also learn to watch where you put wrenches. None of this comes from quitting, but rather regrouping, marking where you failed and why, and then moving forward toward the goal with a bit more education.
If you ever want to see that goal reached, you have to brave the difficulties; otherwise, you’ll have what you had before, which was a poochy old Ford instead of the zippy little red Mustang with T-Tops and a 5.0 motor that measures a quarter-mile in seconds instead of minutes. More than that, though, you’ll be wiser and more capable for the experience.
Giving up early
We encounter the problem in the process. If you read the first part of Amos and stop the story before you get to verse 14, you would throw in the towel. Just like Hosea, Amos was a contemporary of Isaiah, Jonah, and Micah before the Assyrian exile of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the subjugation of Judah to the south where Amos set out from to begin his ministry. He was a regular, blue-collar guy, an arborist and a shepherd, from an unknown family. While some might look at Amos and say this man was impoverished, the prophet had a wealth of time and freedom. He was so wealthy in fact that this man from Tekoa could head north and work for God as a prophet. With the fifth and concluding address of his book preceding this prophecy in the ninth chapter, its powerful promise culminated in a comforting conclusion of hope. All of this was God’s attempt to rebuild a relationship with a people who’d made themselves so like the surrounding nations that they were no longer separate, consecrated or holy.
I’ve got to point out the contrasts here with the Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah. You remember, it appeared in our Old Testament reading a couple of weeks back. Jesus and John the Baptist both echoed that song in their ministry, Jesus in the Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 22, and John in Matthew 3:10 during a proclamation to the Pharisees. Around 730 years after Amos bookended Isaiah, John and Jesus foreshadowed that vineyard’s destruction, which happened approximately 40 years after their deaths at the hands of the Jewish aristocracy in John’s case, and the Roman government in that of Jesus.
How many of you already knew what I just relayed to you so far about Amos? Or had heard what I said at some point? I’m guessing you may have run across it at some time or another, but probably not in-depth. To give you a small example of what I dig through in any given week preparing Sunday’s sermon, here’s a short listing of resources. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Zondervan’s Archeological Study Bible, Dummelow’s One-Volume Bible Commentary, Benner’s Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible and several others that would bore the daylights out of you. As I mentioned last week, I may have a slight problem with buying books. Selena will keep all of you advised as to whether or not an intervention is in order, but so far she’s supported my desire to install a lot of bookshelves in my house. Then again, perhaps she’s just an enabler? Time will tell.
I’m not going to this length to try to impress you with my knowledge about Amos or Assyrian history or how the Bible connects from an Old Testament minor prophet from a backwater town in Judah to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In conversations about theology with actual experts who have studied all these things, I’m routinely the dumbest person at the table. That’s how I know that I’m at the right table.
The reason I am telling you all this is that, because I read and study the Bible, I can handle those setbacks that are sometimes shocking to encounter.
Shock-proofed by God
Setbacks will occur. We live in a world full of plot twists. We set out with a pretty good handle and maybe even a plan of action. Then, from out of the blue, a torque wrench shaped shock drops in, leaving a peculiar taste in our mouths and a buddy who is stifling a laugh while asking if we’re OK.
Preparing to be shocked isn’t going to help us at all, and knowing the five different testimonies in the prophetic word given to Amos wasn’t going to help the people of Israel when Ahaz deposed Jotham and ascended the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel. On my side of the car, the plot twist of a shock wasn’t amusing, and neither was the plot twist the Israelites underwent in that exile. Those who escaped death were humiliated, humbled, and carted off as slaves. The obvious questions in their lives were, “Alright, why did this happen, and what do we do about it?” Without knowing the things God told them through Amos, it would have been like being shoved into a dark room from which someone had removed all the doors. There’s no way to see anything, and if you could, it wouldn’t matter because there’s no way to get out. Amos’ prophecy of the promise was their way out of that darkness. Scripture is ours.
When we go back to Romans 10:17, we learn that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Let’s break that down a second here. If we as a church require stronger faith, and the ability to live into that faith more freely and fully, then this passage tells us a powerful way to do precisely that. We need to hear the word of God. What is the word? Well, John 1:1-5 tells us exactly what the word is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him, all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Studying the Bible is studying Jesus Christ, who according to John, is the Word. God spoke the world into being through the Word that was to become our salvation.
Why does it surprise us that when our spiritual life is suffering, it’s due in part to us not being in the word? Why are we even remotely taken aback by the fact that when our life is dark, and all the sudden we catch a glimpse of Jesus, things brighten up? After all, he’s a Light shining in the darkness that has not been overcome by that darkness. Why is this such a surprise to us? Perhaps it’s because we need to get deeper into the word and open our hearts to what the Holy Spirit has for us there more often.
How often do you read the word? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Do we listen to the word on Sunday and that’s it? Do we study Scripture? Do we even know how to use the most basic of Bible aids like a concordance in our desire to know Jesus Christ more fully? Or do we not need Jesus in our lives because everything is roses and sugar-coated candies? Frankly, if our perception is that the world is beautiful, we need to look outside the window and rethink that perception. “The world is a house on fire, and everyone we love is inside it,” in danger of burning to death. As a church entering a season of renewal in our spiritual formation, we need to dig deeply into every spiritual discipline we have to master it as best we can, bible study included. The only way can genuinely fight the darkness the way a church needs to fight the darkness is by flexing our muscles in prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and communion, and all that comprises those things.
Hot wings for Jesus
Right now, I’m discipling a young man, and we call our discipleship, “wing-scipleship” because we started it off by meeting over some hot wings at a local pub.
No one ever discipled him, and he’s been in the church struggling with his walk for a reasonably long time. His struggle is NOT his fault; it’s OURS. He didn’t fail us by not digging deeper when he didn’t even possess the tools necessary to dig. We failed him by not digging deeper ourselves and then reaching out to teach others to not only how to dig but to give them a shovel of their own with which to do the digging. Discipleship is one-on-one. Life-on-life. And all it takes to disciple someone is to have a little more knowledge than they do and the driving desire to pass it on. The foundation of that knowledge is the Word, the Light that is Jesus Christ. We have a book that can help us see Jesus Christ more clearly in our lives. The strength this young man is finding there will help him to be a better father and a better servant of Jesus Christ. This type of thing makes men and women warriors in a fight that’s been going on for millennia. The strength we find there will devastate the plans of the enemy.
The stronger we get, the faster we move towards renewal. The stronger we get, the more people hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. The stronger we get, the less able the devil is to throw a shock at us to knock us down and keep us down. An intensely prayerful, fasting, studying, worshiping, and communing church is a church God can and will deploy to grow His kingdom, bless the lives of others, and draw all people to Him. An active church is a formidable foe.
Pay close attention to what I am saying here. When this passage begins in Amos, the word “captives” was selected very carefully. It refers to someone who was kidnapped and vanquished to a place of defeat and left there to die. To clarify what that means to us, this state our church has found itself in is not where God ever intended for us to be. We were never designed to be in such a desolate situation. I cannot say this enough. This perception we have of where we are right now was never the purpose for which God created us. Our church has a unique opportunity to rebuild from these ruins, to firmly plant for a future that will yield a tremendous reward. Our church has a powerful promise from God that this can and will happen for His glorification. What’s more is, his commitment isn’t that it will be the same as it was in the future, but rather that it will be better than it ever was in the past. We know this because the Bible tells us that infallible truth.
Being in the Word and studying it gives us a Light in this darkened room. More importantly, it provides us with a doorway to leave this darkness behind, and lead those who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ out that door, right along with us.
“Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.”
- Hosea 6:1
Has anyone ever mentioned to you how God seems to be brutally vicious in the Old Testament, but then we have Jesus who is loving and kind in the New Testament? I mean, except for Revelations. We’ll just discount that because look, it’s a lot of symbolism to unravel. Why bother with that mess when we can just act like an ostrich instead, right?
Honestly, both those perceptions are wrong. It’s so wrong that it collides with the truth like a child run amok in a bumper car arena at the state fair. When they run into you, it's repeatedly done, it's on purpose, and neither of you generally get anywhere at all.
Regardless, that’s one of the subjects pastors face from not only non-believers but also people struggling to wrap their head around a God that you cannot actually wrap your head around. Grasping the concept of God is impossible for a variety of reasons regardless of what Paul might have wished for us. We still try, though, because there are contrasts in God that we seem stuck on trying to reconcile. Why we choose to do it from our decidedly non-God viewpoint is puzzling to me, though. It’s sort of like trying to drive a car from the back bumper. You can’t see anything and you can’t reach the steering wheel or the pedals, but for some reason, we still think we’re fully justified in getting mad when we run over a stop sign.
Or at least we hope it was a stop sign.
There's a reason for this, and it has to do with how we are built for harmony. Think about life being like a bank statement. On one side of the ledger, you have deposits and on the other side, you have withdrawals. Somewhere in between those, we want to come to a zero-sum truth. Neither side loses or gains more than the other side loses or gains. Right there, we know we’re at a point of equilibrium in between the balance of negative and positive. We know where we stand.
But let me tell you, I hate balancing my checkbook sometimes. Somewhere along the line I missed something, or added wrong, or hit a decimal point where it shouldn’t have been, or forgot to add in a fee or a withdrawal for ice cream or another cool pastoral book or something like that. Then I’m trying to figure out just where that extra $4.67 came from and why these silly numbers aren't adding up perfectly. Math used to drive me nuts when I was a kid, especially when the answers just didn’t add up. There was no equilibrium in anything, let alone an equation when that happened and I really wound up blaming those "stupid numbers" instead of looking at the real issue. Me. That contrast of positive and negative, that equation that should have led to equilibrium led to pretty much anything except a feeling of being balanced. I may have gotten high marks for mathematical skills when I was younger, but I’ll tell you this. Numbers and I have an uneasy truce. Maybe that’s why I have yet to do a Bible study on the book of Numbers. Too much numerical trauma?
Anyway. The point is that we’re in this quest for equilibrium in our lives. Balance helps us feel like we’re in a good place because we were built for harmony like the Trinity is in harmony. When we get off-kilter slightly, we try to balance back to level and right ourselves in any way we can. When we get way off-kilter, we begin to panic, which leads to a whole host of other issues.
Those issues can contrastingly lead us farther from God, or closer to God depending on the choices we choose to make.
The Replacement Factor
The whole of this scripture passage is about God replacing one thing with another. Predatorially tearing prey to pieces is replaced by skillfully and surgically healing those tears. Violent injury is replaced with meticulous binding. Even the Hebrew idea of "come" means to travel to a place as a group, and that is contrasted by a return to a previous state or position. You see, we have an ebb and flow here. A give and a take.
A call, and a response.
A call to return is very much at the heart of the book of Hosea, putting God's incredibly passionate love for His creation on full display. Hosea was a prophet who was a contemporary of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah in the early to late 700’s BCE. He became a prophet right before the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He had a 60-year ministry that we believe was in the northern part of the two kingdoms because he appears to know a lot about the geography and the customs of the people there. Hosea's ministry here is often seen as a prophet of doom and gloom, but he also prophesied how great God’s love is in recovering who we are as His children. His relationship with Gomer is what many people remember about Hosea, with the contrast of estrangement and return running throughout the entire book. It’s literally a study on those contrasts we find so perplexing about God.
For example, there's a contrast in Hosea's children. We know children are supposed to be a blessing, but they had names based on anything but blessings. We are shown a contrast of God deserving the very best, receiving the worst, but loving us nonetheless when we return. It’s a contrast of us deserving death, but God giving us life and loving us all the same when we return. At one point, Hosea bought Gomer back for 15 shekels and some barley. That contrast of unworthiness still fetching a price that was paid is vital here. It mirrors the price Christ would pay “just to win you,” and that he would “surrender his good life for bad.” He “called that a bargain, the best he ever had.” And while it might be strange to some that I just quoted The Who here, what is stranger than all that, is our desire to identify with Hosea’s holiness in this contrast, when it’s more appropriate for us to be identified with Gomer.
Black white right left
It’s important to look for the contrasts like that in our spiritual walk. One of the spiritual disciplines we have, fasting holds a strong contrast for us. At the heart of fasting is turning from an attitude of idolatry to one of true worship. Fasting is about submitting things that we love over to God, in order to more fully receive His investment of His love in our lives. That requires not just a heart change, but a response that is caused by that heart change, just like I broke out from Romans 10:10 recently. In Wesleyan history, we are a people who are very attuned to the fact that faith demands a response of action, just as grace demands the response of faith in Romans. It is literally the pinpoint pinnacle of our turning from sin to salvation and likewise from our perspective to our purpose. The gift of faith is at the center of all of this.
As Methodists, we’re not justified in ur salvation by our actions, but rather we’re motivated to action by our faith whigh was instilled in us at our salvation. When we fast, we are giving up a relationship with something that doesn’t serve us for a relationship with something that does. Through it, we can go beyond it and step from fasting as an act of piety to fasting as an instigator of acts of mercy. James 2:18 says, “But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
In the Bible, fasting often is about food, which is where we get the notion that to fast, we simply just don't eat and that makes us magically holy. But food isn’t it. Food was what sustained the people in the Bible, so they would replace food with God as a way of sustaining themselves. That’s the very heart of Jesus saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God.” What fasting is basically saying is, I’d rather have something in my life that glorifies and builds up God inside of me, than something in my life that glorifies and builds up my flesh. Isaiah talks about this with a great deal of simplicity in Isaiah 58:6. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” In order to get to that kind of fasting-based act of mercy, we need to undergo a fasting-based act of piety. By engaging in a fasting-based act of piety first, the Holy Spirit builds our faith to a point where the acts of mercy are reachable, achievable and sustainable. All this stems from God’s greatness, and not ours because it comes through, and builds up, our faith. Remember, faith is something we can possess as a gift from God, but only God can build it.
Noted blogger Rachel Myers said, “Here’s the thing I’ve learned about fasting: it’s really only ever for one thing. Fasting is for God’s glory. And so, we fast to know Him. Because that gives Him glory. We fast to become like Christ. Because this glorifies the Father. We fast—whatever it is we’re fasting from—because He is God and we are not.”
Just like God is a God who can tear us apart and just like God is a God who can slay, kill, beat, slaughter and strike us, He’s also a God who can bind us securely from the wounds our selfishness can give us. We're not God and we can't do that for ourselves, but He can. It still depends entirely on what we want, and what we place first. God moves everything forward in our lives out of that choice.
The purpose is found in emptying our hands
The point here isn’t that God is a bully. It’s that God is just and fair, and He actually leaves the choice up to us as to what we do. Do we place God ahead of our own natures? Do we receive the blessing He has for us in it? Do we, in turn, bless other people through that blessing? Because let’s be real, that blessing we give to others carries a blessing for us as well. Remember the blessing the poor hold for us that I spoke of a few weeks back? When Phillip Yancey said that, it was to motivate us to seek God in that promise so that we might be blessed. We have to put God first in fasting as an act of piety before we can put God first in the act of mercy that is reaching out to the poor.
I’m not going to lie to you. This is going to bring your fleshly nature into direct conflict with the work the Holy Spirit is doing inside of you to create your new authority. It's going to get ugly and it will be difficult. We’re going to be exposed to our selfish nature because we are iso-centric beings. We think about ourselves and our own comforts. It’s the reason our churches are in such a pickle across the board, to begin with. Fasting is exactly how we become exo-centric as not only individuals but as an entire church. To be clear, I’m not talking about anonymous Eco-centric giving where we aren’t in contact with the people out there. I’m talking about removal of fear through the renewal of our spirits in a return to our missional call that will find us at ground zero of church revival.
There is always the possibility that something in our lives is being held up higher than God. While it’s OK for things to be important to us, we can’t allow them to surpass God in their importance. The challenge I am issuing to you, as a man who fasts regularly already, is this. Find something that either is already, or has the potential to eclipse God’s impact on your life, and then pick an amount of time to give it up. Replace it instead with spending time with God. Whether that is a time in worship or communion with God, which is an act of piety, or in service to Him, possibly as a volunteer somewhere, which is an act of mercy.
This is how we all grow. Just like I said last week, this is how our faith is grown by God, through the practice of our spiritual disciplines. It draws us closer to God. Closer to Christ. That is how we step into the renewal of our inner authority so that we can be effective in our purpose of reaching those outside our churches with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Crash bang boom
You know, speaking of Phillip Yancy, he told a story once about just this sort of thing in a book he wrote about spiritual discipline. “Experiences of God cannot be planned or achieved. ‘They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental,’ a rabbi said. His student asked, “If God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?” “To be as accident-prone as possible,” said the teacher.”
I genuinely hope you spend so much time in fasting and the other spiritual disciplines that you crash into God like that child in a bumper car at the state fair. At least then you’ll actually be going somewhere because God will be right in your path.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
- 1 Peter 5:10
First of all, let me say that the "little while" of suffering to which Peter was referring is not my sermon time, contrary to what my congregation may think.
But you know, I could say that the suffering we encounter in life is divisively theodical in nature and I wouldn’t be wrong. Theodical comes from one of those fancy-pants pastor words, “theodicy.” Theodicy is not the story written by Homer (that’s The Odyssey). Theodicy is the study of and attempt to answer why God lets bad things happen to good people. Job, Joseph, Jeremiah, and even Jesus had some fairly terrible things happen to them. Even people without “J” as the first letter of their name suffered. Paul, Peter, and a host of others did, too. We all want to know one thing. Why? If God is the God of all grace and has called us to eternal glory, why does he sometimes do it by dragging the people in his church through 50 miles of mud bog and thorns? Why are we to live in the middle of Babylon if we have been made to be victorious overcomers as I pointed out last week? How is suffering supposed to leave us strong, firm and steadfast as promised?
God revealed to us through faith, which is his divine persuasion, that we could do amazing things. Then the road to those amazing things often takes a hard left turn and if we didn’t actually get thrown out of the vehicle by that, we darned near did. It challenges our trust, and certainly our faith. How do we reaffirm that God actually said what we heard Him say after something like that happens?
I’ll give you an example.
Authority of the Word
As a little boy, I was called at the age of 9. I recall opening the Bible that I received from Trinity Lutheran Church in my bedroom one day and, with no one in the room, I began preaching out of Isaiah 49. Really, all I was doing was reading, but I read with authority, and I’d never seen anyone preach like that so I didn’t know where it came from. Certainly not my pastors, who were very traditional pulpit preachers. I felt passionate and I had fire. I felt the power in those words moving inside me. I felt the power in what was said even though I didn’t understand it. I had absolutely no clue the impact that this chapter of Isaiah would have on my life. All I knew at that point was that the word made me feel safe and secure in a time in my life that was very insecure because everything around me was unsafe. I felt God saying, “This is what you will do for me.”
Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.
But God had to have messed this up, right? I mean, it was His choice to place me in a family that was very broken that would eventually lead me to be a very broken man. In my family, it would be an understatement to say I experienced many not-so-good things. It was deeply broken because the people in my family were deeply broken going back quite some time. They call it a generational curse. So I ask you if God was going to really use me, why would He choose to place me there? Everywhere you look there are these expectations that pastors don’t actually have a past. You launch a rocket from a launchpad, not a quagmire of mud, right?
God had to have gotten this very wrong.
Why did He not place me somewhere that I could really be of use to Him, or in a place where I could be protected until needed? Isaiah 49 said that the servant of the Lord was a sharp sword hidden in God’s palm, and a polished arrow hidden in His quiver. What I experienced was hardly a polishing. It was more like a continual 30-grit grinding of mental, physical and emotional abuse. If I was so awesome and blessed with the destiny to be a vessel of so much power, then who got my travel orders screwed up? I want names and answers, as somebody made a big mistake because my path was a mess from the jump.
Stones in the Process
James S. Hewett said, “Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.” There was honestly only one thing that got me through that time of grinding and moved me through it to polishing.
A lot of people in our midst have suffered injustices in this world, and while we will spend time talking about that someday, what I am breaking out here today is, how do you trust God when bad things are happening in your life? How can we reaffirm His great love for us when we see so little of that love around us? When things aren’t going your way? When your truck is forever at the mechanic? When the roof blows off your house during a storm? When you have problem after problem after problem after problem crop up?
It’s really not surprising when we start looking around for our own solutions because we don’t think God is answering us, or at least he’s not answering us as fast as we would like. There’s a catch, though.
If we put the problems we face into the context of the problems faced by the people of Peter's time, we’re actually getting off really easy. The vast majority of us are not persecuted like they were, or even like some churches are in our modern age. But still, our perception (there’s that word) is all too often our reality. Our context matters to us, and even if we can’t compare our issues to those of others, that still doesn’t make our issues go away. So WHAT will? WHAT gets us through the grindstone of life to come out on the other side. WHAT makes us polished and flawless arrows that will fly true and WHAT makes us swords that will cut surgically?
That WHAT question is important to ask because it holds a promise (there’s THAT word again). We find the promise of peace in that “WHAT” question. Our anxiety levels could sure use a healthy helping of peace.
The whole focus of 1 Peter is talking about finding hope in hopeless situations. Finding God’s pattern in the past and understanding how that power plays into our persistently stepping into our faith. That's the same faith God gave us and the Holy Spirit's work happening in it to create that new “authority inside” of us.
What’s odd here, though, is Peter saying, “After you’ve suffered a little while,” … um, Pete, let’s talk about exactly what your definition of “a little while” is, shall we? This “little while” has been going on for what seems like forever. Suffering has been evident EVERYWHERE for much longer than just a “little while," Pete. In my own life, it's been over 40 years, Pete. Four-tee-years, Pete. That's a "four" and an "oh" as in "Oh my word, this has been going on forever, Pete." This is not a “little while!”
Or is it?
Peter is actually right. Our perception is that suffering has been happening for a long time, but if you look at God’s timeline from God's perspective, this actually is just a little while. When we start to look at God’s promise from God’s perspective, a funny thing happens. We begin to see things through God’s eyes, and that shift causes us to see that it really is just “a little while.”
The fact is, lifting ourselves out of our perceptions and into our purpose requires faith in the promise, just like we’ve been talking about. And today, I’m going to start unpacking how we go about doing precisely that.
The answer, as you may have guessed it, is to use our spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and communion to let God build more faith in us. Remember, the growth of faith comes from practicing our spiritual disciplines in acts of piety and acts of mercy and over the next several Sundays we’re going to talk about each of them. Let’s launch this with the spiritual discipline of prayer.
Engine or Caboose?
Prayer was never meant to be a last resort, even though we sometimes use it that way after we've gone digging for our own solutions. Instead, it was always meant to be the most powerful first resort we could actually possess. It’s one of the ways we allow Jesus to perfect the faith his Holy Spirit placed inside us.
Think of prayer as our baseline communication with God through the Holy Spirit.
The Bible is chock full of people praying, otherwise, it would just be a history book with some nifty ideas thrown in. Jesus, for example, prayed deep and powerful prayers. In one instance, he told his disciples that some demons could not be exorcised except by prayer. It's no doubt that his disciples prayed, but did they pray as deeply and as widely as Christ prayed? We have evidence that they didn’t in the same way we have evidence that we don’t, either.
The Bible also tells us to pray anytime. Ephesians 6:18 says, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests; with this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”
Psalm 116:1-2 says, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live.”
So we see here that we are to pray all the time and for as long as we live. Why? Because we’re in a flesh suit all the time. We’re suffering all of the time. The answer is to go straight to God with it, all of the time. Why? Because he hears our voices when we need His mercy, when we need His peace and when we need His reaffirmation. This is where we find that guardianship of our hearts called peace. It comes from the same place the peace that passes all understanding mentioned in Philippians 4 comes from. Peace there is brought by the vehicle of prayer, petition, and thanksgiving. You get it? Prayer is a vehicle to peace, which comes solely from God.
A deep breath
That peace helps to alleviate a LOT of anxiety. Prayer enables us, through faith in the power of God, to have peace that will transcend the toughest times that we as Christians can face. In Peter’s time, they had it rough. They faced persecution at many turns and would for centuries to come. There was a spiritual war going on around them. There’s one going on around us as well.
“Really? What persecutions do Christians really face?” Many ask that. Maybe you ask that. I know I've asked that. The answer is spiritual persecutions. Be sure of that. The devil doesn’t like to lose, and he works double hard not to lose. So we have to pray doubly hard to win. What is essentially stopping us from doing that and making headway into God’s good and perfect will for us? Our own selves, mostly. But if we could discover that reaffirmation in prayer, there would be powerful forces unleashed for God’s glory that would outwork, outwit and outlast the devil.
That little 9-year old me that I told you about grew to be a man (as evidenced by me writing this to you now, obviously). There were many times that life got really difficult. Not just challenging, but mercilessly difficult. It hurt too often, too hard, and too painfully to keep going. I’ve said before that a young boy should not go to bed praying God would spare him from waking up in the morning. In the end, though, I always woke up. I wondered why, but just kept going. I just kept praying. Through it all, I came to the conclusion that if God and Jesus loved me, well, that is enough to just be willing to try, just like Bob when he was asked to catch me in last week's message. That little boy prayed hard, and right now he’s standing before you preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as he was called to do.
Life still hurts. Life still isn’t easy. And I still pray.
The 49-year old man that was that 9-year-old boy would tell you to pray. Pray hard, pray often. Discover new ways to practice prayer. Pray with your family, pray with your friends, pray with and for people you don't even know and always pray that the Holy Spirit would open up opportunities for you to serve others in prayer. This guides us into the men and women God designed us to be. Prayer takes that grindstone of life and adds the polish to create a flawless finish to our faith.
That flawless, reaffirming finish on our faith is how we get really good at our purpose. It’s how the trials we go through are endured so that the promise of “joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness,” all due to the divine persuasion of faith, come to us and through us.
In her book, Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot wrote about her husband Jim Elliot. Jim was a missionary to Ecuador who was martyred in 1956 in the jungle by a tribe he and his missionary team was trying to reach.
Jim was a constant journal writer and one of his journal entries addressed his concern about the impact his life would have on others. He wrote a prayer that said, “Father, make of me a crisis man. Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road; make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me.” Jim Elliot’s impact continues on even though he died so long ago after having prayed that at the young age of twenty-nine. Imagine how prayers like that could impact our lives and the lives of those around us.
One of Elliot’s comments echoed a nonconformist preacher named Philip Henry who was the father of Matthew Henry, the noted Bible commentator. Philip said, "He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep (like Jim did with his life) when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose (His glory in Christ after he was killed)." We undergo the suffering Peter talked about for “a little while” because we cannot lose the promise given us from God of being made strong, firm and steadfast, even if that means after our deaths.
The truth is, you cannot stay a stone all your life. It’s your choice whether or not you become ground down by the grindstone or polished up by the process. Among the other spiritual disciplines, prayer is the fork of faith in the road between your perception and your purpose. That fork of faith is where we find God’s reaffirming promise when we wake up in the morning just like that 9-year-old boy did.
You know which fork he took. Which one will you take?
“for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”
1 John 5:4 NIV
How many of us know the difference between faith and belief? That's a legitimate question with the way that we use the two terms interchangeably these days. And it begs questions like, "Can we believe and not be saved?" Throughout the Bible we see questions like this dealt with on a regular basis, but we still stumble over the exact difference between the two with regards to Christ and our salvation. For example, James 2:9 tells us that the demons believe, and shudder. So if belief is what is required for salvation, how is it that demons aren't saved?
That has to do with the fact that faith is how we are saved. And yes, you can believe and still not be saved. As I see it, Romans 10:10 breaks this out for us rather nicely.
"For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified" which means you are judicially appointed worthy by God. God judges you and justifies your heart. This means that with God's drawing grace, he has brought you along to an understanding that you are in need of saving, that you cannot save yourself, and that only Christ can through your repentance and acceptance of his free gift of grace. That belief in your heart is what God can only see and know and weigh. That's why no one but God can judge whether or not a profession of faith is sincere. Well, God and the person making the profession, that is. Which brings us to the second part. When God justifies us in that judgment, we are then forgiven our sins, and imparted faith. "and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved."
Heart belief pushes us into God’s righteousness and the impartation of faith to us - It is our mouth professing that faith that saves us. Simply put, it is relational interaction with God through Christ that imparts faith to us through our salvation.
That still doesn't exactly answer the question of what is faith. Very simply put, faith is the enabling power of God in the life of an individual. Faith comes from God alone and is the exclusive possession of the believer. So, while faith only comes from God, it is resident in ourselves as our possession. Nevertheless, you still can't boast on yourself as to your faith because you didn't make it available, and you cannot add to it on your own. Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us that it is by grace alone through faith alone that we are saved, and this not by ourselves, it is from God. When you read that passage, the "it" isn't salvation or grace, but rather faith.
Difficult to wrap your head around
If you're not still asking, "Which came first? Belief or faith?" then you might be asking, "What do we do when we have it?"
Or, "Are we acting on our faith?"
Or "If we’ve overcome the whole world with faith, why don’t we act like it?"
If we get past the chicken or the egg aspect of belief and faith, there's a minefield of other questions to ask. There's a massive amount of uncertainty that surrounds faith inside a community of faith and the irony is so thick you need a commercial-grade chainsaw with which to cut it.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever had a decision that was difficult? I mean a real head-scratcher of a question. I'm not talking about where to eat lunch after church, I'm talking about questions with life-changing ramifications. Wouldn't it be great to get a cheat code for life when those come up? Something that could just get you past the issue with a little hint? Or for some of us older folks, it'd be like flipping the crossword puzzle upside down and taking a fast glance at the answer key to get around that one line we're stuck on.
Faith is that cheat code. Faith is that peek at the answer key, and the difference is, it's God giving it to us freely instead of us just taking it on the sly.
God’s perfect will is found in faith because faith is God's enabling power in our lives. Power to hear, see and act far beyond what we can do physically. What's more, if we don’t seek his will through faith, we won’t find it his will because through faith is the only way it is given to us. Look at it this way, without faith, we miss God’s will because we can’t hear it, we miss God’s blessing because we can’t see it and we have no communion because we can’t converse with him. We're literally deaf, dumb and blind without faith.
Faith is how God's purpose for our life is revealed because faith is the ability to hear God's word, communicate with Him, and act upon our instructions. Faith is about divine persuasion and revelation we receive by trusting God. The only way this comes about is via the Holy Spirit.
The primary difference between faith and belief
Belief or confidence comes from man and our fleshly nature, founded on tangible, non-spiritual experiences and facts. Faith is the spiritual side of that coin, and while faith is distinctly different from belief, belief is a component involved in faith. Hence all the confusion.
The Greek word for faith that is used outside a religious context means, "warranty" or "guarantee." When we apply it to our experience in sanctifying grace, faith can be described as God's warranty, certifying what He reveals to us will happen, because it’s actually already done. This is why it can be hard to step into God’s will because it relies on God's persuasion after a lifetime of our tactile sense of belief. For a believer, though, if we don’t step into his will through that gift of faith, we will continue to languish here in the belief side.
Languishing is not God’s plan. It never was. His plan was always to establish faith in us, and then grow it, expanding our reach among the mission field to which God assigned us. 2 Corinthians 10:15 specifically addresses this pattern of growth and purpose of existence, and it is only through the indwelling work of God's Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, the author, and perfecter of our faith. We are to be overcomers. Warriors. Victorious in power over the principalities of a dark authority coming to destroy and devastate God's children.
In short, we weren't called to stand still.
Catching in faith
We move in belief towards the cross, but once we’re past it, we’re running on faith. I recently gave an example of this in my church on Sunday morning. Before service, I asked an older member of our church to come up and to cup his hands together. That's it. Well, that and he had to trust me. He agreed, smiled and sat down. When the time came during my message for Bob to come up, I filled the whole congregation in on what I was going to do.
I said, "I will jump in the air, Bob will hold out his hands and catch me."
Needless to say, a lot of people looked at me like I had six heads and three were on fire. I asked Bob if he trusted me, and his response was priceless. "I'm willing to try."
That is powerful right there. Hold on to that a moment.
I circled back to the congregation and asked them if they believed Bob could catch me after I jumped in the air. They sized up the 180 lb. pastor in front of them and the 90-year-old congregant next to him and all but one said they didn't believe me.
So I got Bob ready, and then I jumped in the air ... and landed straight back where I was standing. Immediately I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small, wadded up piece of paper and dropped it into Bob's waiting hands. I asked Bob to unfold the paper and read what it said on it.
"Me," he read.
So, you see, I jumped in the air, and Bob caught, "me." There are two takeaways here. Three if you count the pastor who is a master of dad jokes. The first is this. Anything God asks us to trust him over will almost NEVER look like we expect it to look. God’s ways are higher than ours, and that is the very difference between our perceptions and His purpose. As John Eldredge once elaborated, we were never meant to understand God's ways, anyway. If we understood them, it would be because God explained them, and then we would be functioning on belief. We'd still be living in the flesh. We would still be living under death.
Re-read that and let it sink in, we would still be living under death.
But God's ways are higher. They are ways that provide grace for us as His people, faith for us as His children, co-heirs with Christ. We aren't called to live under the belief of our flesh, but to overcome the world through the faith that God imparts and perfects in our lives.
In our lives, we are or we know someone who needs Christ. We/they can be reached. We/they can be healed. We/they can have life more abundant. None of that happens through belief, and all of it happens only through the work of faith-building done by the Holy Spirit inside of us. That's how a new "authority inside" of us is created and our lives are truly renewed and a world is overcome.
If you are born again, you are past the point of belief. We are to move in faith, hearing God, being in communication with Him, being faith-perfected by Christ. With the Holy Spirit to guide us, we don’t have to mark the path for ourselves. We have a guide, a comforter, and we are never alone.
I told Bob ahead of time what was going to happen. If the church knew what I was going to do, they'd have believed he could do it, but that belief instead of faith would have placed them on the opposite side of where they needed to be. Because of their perceived circumstance most didn’t believe. Bob could believe just enough to have faith in me because I'd been persuasive enough during my request. That's how this works.
This is a map of the path to purpose. God’s preferred will is found in faith because faith allows us to hear God speak in us if we are actively listening like in Habbakuk 2:1. As a church, we’ve been missing the tremendous depth and power of this point of active listening in our faith. How long have we labored? How long have we hoped? How long have we struggled under our own power and belief? We need to stop laboring in the field of belief and go into the field of faith so we can hear God’s orders and do the work He has set aside for us. It’s there that we will find our work bears fruit because when we are there, it’s actually God’s work and God’s glory.
Done. Not underway, but actually already done and completed because God has always faithfully delivered on His promises. Anything He tells us via divine persuasion, that is to say, faith, will be revealed in due time as done. What is more, we will store up rewards for ourselves in heaven in the entire process.
Jumping, trusting and not seeing
When I asked Bob if he would do the sermon illustration Bob had a little understanding of what it was about, but not the whole. His comment was brilliant. "I'm willing to try." As believers, we're often living in the "try" much more than in the "do," and that is OK. This is God growing our faith, Christ perfecting it, the Holy Spirit molding and shaping it into a new authority inside us. Bob trusted what I had told him, but had to go on faith for the rest. He had to have faith that I had the plan all worked out from the jump.
That's us, ladies and gents. That is us.
The congregation didn't have faith because they weren't a believer from the beginning of this illustration. They hadn't been imparted faith/divine persuasion because they hadn't been part of the drawing aside, the convincing and the request for trust. They hadn't experienced what Bob had experienced, so they didn't they trust as he trusted, nor were they willing to try. That’s much like the world sees us, but still doesn't see God. They can't because faith is for those whose belief has been justified by God, and that gift is exclusive.
On the other hand, all Bob had to do was to rely on his faith in me, hold out his hands and receive what I had worked out ahead of time. That’s what God asks us to do. Rely on faith, hold out our hands, and receive what God has worked out ahead of time.
That’s the revelation that we find in our faith, and it is the path to our purpose.