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The End of the Matter (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)

For months now we’ve been looking at one of the most interesting books ever written. I mentioned last week what Bono of U2 thinks of this book:

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. It’s about a character who wants to find out why he’s alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything.

He is not alone in his admiration for this book. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, called Ecclesiastes “the truest of all books.” Thomas Wolfe described it as “the highest flower of poetry, eloquence and truth” and “the greatest single piece of writing I have known.” If you’ve been here these past few months, I hope you’ve had glimpses of why this is such an important book.

But we need to be honest. It’s not an easy book. It seems depressing at times. Other times it’s peppy. There’s lots of controversy about how to interpret the book and how it’s written. One of the reasons I wanted to tackle Ecclesiastes is because it has a lot to say to us. But one of the reasons I wanted to tackle this book is because I’ve preached through it before, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do better. I wanted to really understand the message of this book and what it means for us today.

So this morning we come to the end. And as we get to the end, a couple of things are going to happen. First: we’re going to see why we need to listen to Ecclesiastes; why we shouldn’t skip over this book. Second: we’re going to see the core message of this book, and how our lives should change as a result.

First: why should we pay attention to this book?

As we get to the end of chapter 12, the tone shifts. It looks like verses 9 to the end are written by an editor, or by the Teacher himself as he steps out of his role and reflects on what he’s doing. At first glance it looks a little self-congratulatory, but it really isn’t. Verses 9 to 12 give us insight into what the author has been doing in this book and how we should interpret it.

Verses 9 to 12 say:

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Here’s why we need to pay attention to this book. The comments here put the entire book into perspective and help us understand what the Teacher has been trying to do. We’re told that this book has five qualities that make it important for us to consider.

It’s written with logical clarity. The Teacher, we read, considered all the wise sayings that he had heard with great care. He weighed them and considered which ones were useful and important. Not only that, but he then arranged them in this book logically. This book hasn’t been thrown together at random, but carefully constructed as a piece of literature. This is a book that is clear, logical, and carefully arranged.

It’s also written with literary artistry. It’s not just logical; its put together with artistry. As someone’s put it, whether you agree with the Teacher’s message or not, nobody criticizes his writing style. This guy knows how to write. It’s a work of literary beauty. It’s designed to “please the ear, inspire the imagination, fascinate the mind, and delight the soul” (Phil Ryken).

So it’s written with logical clarity and literary artistry; it’s also written in alignment with reality. Verse 10 says “he wrote words of truth.” You’ll have noticed that the Teacher doesn’t sugarcoat things. Some of us like to be a little careful in how we say things. I heard of a Christian leader who fired someone. He did it so nicely that the guy showed up for work the next day. He fired the guy so gently that the guy didn’t even know that he had been fired. The Teacher doesn’t do this. He tells it like it is. We can always count on the Teacher to tell us the truth.

It’s also written with a practical purpose. Verse 11 says they’re like goads, like firmly fixed nails. Goads are one of the tools that shepherds use to drive oxen down a road. A goad is a long, pointed stick used to prod and poke oxen so that they go in the right direction. I think we can all agree that Ecclesiastes has somewhat of a poky feel to it. It certainly feels like a long pointed stick poking us in places we’d rather not be poked, but we need it. If we pay attention to this book, it will save us from going down some roads we may take if there wasn’t somebody standing there with a sharp stick telling us not to go that way.

Ultimately one of the most important reasons we need to pay attention to this book is because it’s given to us by one Shepherd, according to verse 11. It’s the first time that the word shepherd has been used in this book. It could be a reference to the Teacher who wrote this book. But it’s not usually used this way. It’s most often used of God in Scripture. The only other times the term “one shepherd” is used in the Old Testament, it refers to the promised descendent of David who will come one day. It seems likely that the “shepherd” mentioned here is none other than God himself, which is why it’s capitalized in most versions. This means that Ecclesiastes are not just the musings of some skeptical philosopher; they’re part of God’s revelation to us. As our Shepherd, God uses this book to prod us in the right direction with our lives.

This is why verse 12 says:

My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of books come out. You can’t keep up. You can’t even try. I’m an avid reader, but even the really committed readers I know only read about 100 books a year. That means they’re reading only a fraction of a percent of what comes out. You can’t even keep up with the book reviews!

So how do you keep up? Verse 12 tells us we don’t have to. There’s room for other books, but Ecclesiastes warns us to be careful. Beware of going beyond the “collected sayings” that God has provided. What God has revealed in his Word is enough. There is no need to go beyond what he’s provided. By far the most important book we have is the Bible, including the book of Ecclesiastes. We need to pay attention to this book more than all the others.

That’s why this book is so important. This book has logical clarity. It has literary artistry. It’s aligned with reality. It’s practical and it can prod us in the right direction. It’s God-breathed Scripture. We need to pay attention to this book. That’s the first thing that this passage tells us.

Secondly, we discover the core message of the book.

In case you’re confused about what the Teacher’s been saying - and then a summary of the conclusions of the book.

Let me briefly summarize what the book has said. His basic message has been about meaninglessness. He keeps saying things like:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2)

The word vain or vanity or meaningless, depending on your transition, appears some 35 times in this book. It doesn’t mean that everything is worthless. It means that everything is like a breath or a vapor: it’s temporary and passing. Throughout the book he’s examined our lives and concluded that everything in this life is vanity. The surprising thing is that he doesn’t just say that bad things are meaningless. He says that good things like pleasure, popularity, youth, work, wealth, and achievement are all meaningless. Everything is fleeting, and it will soon be forgotten. Ultimately, death makes everything meaningless if it wasn’t meaningless already.

It reminds me of the news story:

JACKSONVILLE, FL-- “Aladdin,” a greyhound that races at the Jacksonville Dogtrack in Jacksonville, Florida, was bitterly disappointed when he finally caught the rabbit he’s been chasing all these years and discovered it was mechanical. 

“Boy do I feel stupid,” said the greyhound. “I feel like such a fool. I’ve completely wasted my life chasing around this... mechanical rabbit.”

Aladdin had been running at the Jacksonville track for many years and chasing various mechanical animals along the way. The notion that they all may have been fake was a huge blow to him and the other dogs. Many of them paused to ponder the meanings of their lives, and wondered what the future would be like with no animals to chase.

“All my life I’ve been chasing this rabbit around thinking someday I’d be able to catch it and have a...good meal,” Alladin said. “I became obsessed with it. I admit it. It was unhealthy, but that rabbit represented something to me. And now, to find out it wasn’t even a real rabbit after all, well that’s just devastating.”

That’s the main message of Ecclesiastes, and it’s an important one for us to hear. Thousands of years later we’re still tempted to try to find meaning in all the things that the Teacher says are meaningless. It won’t work. One Christmas all the children in a family gathered around in great anticipation of opening the gifts. The gifts had been voluptuously wrapped with ribbons, and the kids were excited. Paper began to fly everywhere as they hurriedly unwrapped all of their gifts. The gifts had cost a lot and they had been well packaged. With great vim and vitality, the children began the process of unwrapping them. However, when all the gifts had been unwrapped, one of the children ask, “Is this all there is?” Evidently, some of you have experienced that. Many of us have unwrapped life and we want to know if this is all there is. The Teacher wants us to know that you can unwrap all that you can find in life, and that indeed is all that there is.

But he doesn’t leave us hopeless. He says in verses 13-14:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

When you consider everything that the Teacher has written, you get down to the essence of living. That’s actually what “the whole duty of man” means - it’s the essence of life. It’s taking away everything that’s extraneous and boiling it down to what’s at the core. Two things.

First: Fear God. It’s something that he’s said all throughout the book. To fear God isn’t to cower. Fearing God means that we know who he is and where we stand in relation to him. It means taking him seriously, acknowledging him in our lives as the highest good. It means revering him, honoring him, and worshiping him. Tony Evans puts it best:

The old belief, centuries ago, was that the sun revolved around the earth. As we now know, this belief was wrong. The earth revolves around the sun. Many of us have got it wrong in our spiritual lives. God doesn’t revolve around us. We revolve around Him. We know that we fear God when we have made Him the centerpiece of our lives.

Second: Keep his commandments. This is what life is about. The most important thing for anyone to do is to worship God and obey his commandments. According to Charles Bridges it is “his whole happiness and business - the total sum of all that concerns him - all that God requires of him - all that the Savior enjoins - all that the Holy Spirit teaches and works in him.” We were made to worship and obey.

Verse 14 gives us a reason, but it also gives us meaning. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” If what Ecclesiastes says is true, and there is no God, then life really is mad, and nothing does matter. If everything is meaningless and this life is all that there is, then life would be completely absurd. But at the end of this book we’re reminded that this is not all that there is, and that life does matter. Because we will stand before God our judge, everything matters. This isn’t all there is. As someone’s said, “The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters but that everything does” (Phil Ryken).

So here’s the point of the whole book. Life is a series of dead ends apart from God. So, fear God, and show it by keeping his commandments.

So let me ask you three questions.

One: are you taking any of the dead ends that the Teacher talks about? Do you need to be poked with any of his prods so that you don’t go down the wrong road in your search for meaning? There’s nothing wrong with work or pleasure or money or accomplishment, but they make terrible idols. Don’t take the dead ends. Learn from what the Teacher has taught us.

Two: have you experienced the Copernican revolution and oriented your life around God? That’s what it means to fear God. God does not revolve around our puny lives. The best discovery you can make is that we exist for God’s glory, and that we need to orient our lives around him and make his glory our priority. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Finally: are you demonstrating your love for him by obeying his commandments? Better yet, have you discovered the one who loved God perfectly and obeyed his commandments on your behalf? Jesus is the only one who has obeyed verses 13 and 14 perfectly. He came and offered his life for us. Graeme Goldsworthy says:

The gospel is saying that, what man cannot do in order to be accepted with God, this God himself has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ. To be acceptable to God we must present to God a life of perfect and unceasing obedience to his will. The gospel declares that Jesus has done this for us. For God to be righteous he must deal with our sin. This also he has done for us in Jesus. The holy law of God was lived out perfectly for us by Christ, and its penalty was paid perfectly for us by Christ. The living and dying of Christ for us, and this alone is the basis of our acceptance with God.

Our obedience is then a response to what he’s done for us rather than an attempt to get something from him.

Life is a series of dead ends apart from God. So, fear God, and show it by keeping his commandments. Put your trust in Christ, worship, and obey.

Posted on May 15, 2011 and filed under Uncategorized.

Enjoy Life, Fear God (Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8)

For 11 years, Mary Leonard of Louisville, Kentucky, has dealt with polymyositis, a rare inflammatory tissue disease that invades the muscles. There is no known cause or cure.

Mary's case turned deadly when the disease invaded her heart. In fact, in March of 2010, Mary was told by doctors that she had 24-48 hours to live. But after 20 days in a hospice center, another 51 days in rehab, and a number of days at home, Mary is still alive. She's now reflecting on the changes that take place when you learn your time is short.

"I call myself an average Christian," Mary says. "I don't know exactly why God has done this for me, but I do know that life looks different now." She says she’s learned five life lessons as she’s grasped the brevity of life:

  • Know that prayer is powerful.
  • Mend fences now.
  • Release the reins of life to God.
  • Know that God is able—more than able.
  • Put your focus on what really matters.

We’re coming to the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, a wonderful Old Testament book. As we get to the end, we’re also getting to the climax. In the passage we have before us, the Teacher is laying his cards on the table. You’ll remember that the Teacher has been exploring life and trying to find its meaning.

In the passage we have before us, the Teacher is saying to us what the doctors said to Mary: You only have a short time to live. He makes the case for this in this passage, because he knows he’s speaking to some of us who are young and who don’t believe it. Then he tells us how we should live in light of this reality.

Here’s the message of this passage: Life is short. Enjoy life while you can, and remember God. So let’s look at how he explains this. One: Life is short. Two: Enjoy life while you can. Three: remember God.

One: Life is short.

On Wednesday, June 29, elementary school kids are going to get out of school for the summer. They are going to enjoy 68 glorious days of no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers giving them the well-deserved dirty looks they’ve come to expect. You know that many of our kids live in dog years. For them the 68 days is the equivalent of years!

Many of us suffer from the reverse problem. At some point you reach the age in which you are living in reverse dog years. The summer for you is going to be the equivalent of about a week.

The issue that the Teacher is addressing in this passage is that many of us have not grasped that life is very short. We only have a very limited time. When you’re young, you don’t realize this. So he says in verses 7 and 8:

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

You may be surprised by verse 7. Most people think the Teacher is a pessimist. In verse 7 he uses light as an image for life and says that life is good. It’s sweet! You want to enjoy life the way that you enjoy the sweetness of honey. You want to enjoy life as much as you can.

In verse 8 he continues: “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all.” Sometimes we begin to take life for granted. We can go through entire years in which we’re not really living. We’re waiting. We’re in a holding pattern. The Teacher tells us not to do this. Really live. Really engage in life.

But then he says: “let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.” This is the sobering part. He’s writing to young people who have all of life in front of them and who may be tempted to waste some years of their life because they have so many. He’s telling them that life is sweet, but is it ever short. It’s going to be over before you know it. We are mortal. Our days are few. Soon this life that we have will be over, and all of our works will fade away. Life is very short; death is long, according to verse 8. We must remember this if we are to live life wisely now.

Just in case we don’t get his point, the Teacher includes a poignant and moving description of what it’s like to get older in 12:1-8. Remember that he’s writing to young people. He even says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Here’s the reason why. The Teacher says that there’s going to come a time when we’re not young anymore. “Die early or grow old; there is no other alternative. And yet, as Goethe said, ‘Age takes hold of us by surprise’” (Simone de Beauvoir). Here’s the problem: I want to live 90 years and die as a 30-year-old. The Teacher tells us that it isn’t going to happen. He says that one day:

  • we’ll stop taking pleasure in life (12:2)
  • our eyesight will diminish and we’ll long for the days when we only needed bifocals (12:3)
  • Our bodies will be like a decaying old house that trembles and is weak (12:3)
  • Our teeth will decay (12:3)
  • Our hearing will diminish (12:4)
  • We’ll be much more fearful of falling or of dangers (12:5)
  • Our hair will change color if we have any (12:5)
  • Our sexual desire will diminish (12:5)
  • We’ll become less agile, and eventually we’ll die (12:5-7)

You try telling someone who’s young that all of this is true. The Teacher says: it is true. And when you’re young, it’s very important to understand that life is sweet, but it is also very short.

A woman went to a new doctor. She realized she had gone to school with this doctor. He was the cute guy in class that he had a crush on. She said, “I think I remember you from this school.” He looked at her and said, “You were at that school? What did you teach?” Like this doctor, the Teacher is reminding us that time is going much quicker than we think. When we are young we had better realize that life is sweet, but our time is short, much shorter than we could ever think when we’re young.

So what should we do?

Life is short. So enjoy life while you can.

How do we respond to the brevity of life? The Teacher says:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

This is confusing at first. On one hand, you can look at death and allow yourself to be depressed. Or, on the other hand, you can deny death and be happy. These are the two options that we normally hold out before people. Pretend you’re ageless and really live, or acknowledge the reality of death and hate everything about it. Our culture is all about this. We spend $88 billion a year trying to look younger and trying to prevent aging so that we don’t have to look at the fact that our lives are short, and that we’re farther alone than many of us would like.

But here the Teacher gives us another alternative: Look at the brevity of life and allow it to drive you to make the most of every moment. He refuses to embrace denial or cynicism and calls us to realistic joy, knowing that we have limited time and so we’d better make it count.

He commands us to rejoice; to let our hearts be glad. He calls us to “let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.” If you are young, you have a unique opportunity to put this into practice. You aren’t yet facing the problems of aging that he describes in the next chapter. Your body is strong. The future is full of possibilities. You have the freedom to take risks and to chose your direction in life. You can dream about the difference you’ll make with your life.

So he advises you to take advantage of your youth, because your youth will not last. Chase after your hopes. He even says in verse 10 that you should eliminate the things in your life that trouble your body and soul. When you’re young, again, you have the opportunity to deal with things at their early stages. We planted a little willow twig in our backyard when we moved in 20 years ago. The first little while I could have just walked up to that twig and yanked it out of the ground. Today it’s a huge tree, and it’s not going anywhere. When you’re young, deal with things and take advantage of the unique opportunities you have in life, because youth is fleeting. You won’t have a chance to do this forever.

He’s not telling us to be self-indulgent and to live as we please. But he is telling us to live joyfully in the world that God has created, knowing that we don’t have unlimited time to do so. When we’re young, it looks like we have countless days ahead of us. So the Teacher tells us to realize the opportunities aren’t unlimited. Don’t postpone the opportunities God has given you. Don’t postpone enjoyment to a future time when you, say, have your own car, finish university, are married, or have a great job. Enjoy the present!

This is a theme that comes up a lot in Scripture. Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Paul says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).

What we don’t want is to look back at life one day and wish we lived differently when we had the chance. In his book Don't Waste Your Life, John Piper recounts a story his father often told in his days as a fiery Baptist evangelist. It is the story of a man who came to saving faith in Jesus Christ near the end of his earthly existence. Piper writes:

The church had prayed for this man for decades. He was hard and resistant. But this time, for some reason, he showed up when my father was preaching. At the end of the service, during a hymn, to everyone's amazement he came and took my father's hand. They sat down together on the front pew of the church as the people were dismissed. God opened his heart to the Gospel of Christ, and he was saved from his sins and given eternal life. But that did not stop him from sobbing and saying, as the tears ran down his wrinkled face, "I've wasted it! I've wasted it!"

Don’t be that man! But even if you are, another pastor comments on this story:

By the grace of God, even a life that is almost totally wasted can still be redeemed. As the Scottish theologian Thomas Boston once said, our present existence is only "a short preface to a long eternity." If that is true, then the man's life was not wasted after all; he was only just beginning an eternal life of endless praise. But why wait even a moment longer before starting to serve Jesus? You have only one life to live. Don't waste it by living for yourself when you can use it instead for the glory of God. (Phil Ryken)

Life is short. So enjoy life while you can. But there’s one more thing the Teacher tells us.

Life is short. Enjoy life while you can, and remember God.

11:9 says, “But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” This doesn’t put a damper on our pursuit of joy. This isn’t a downer. Seize every moment and enjoy the gifts God has given you, but remember God in your joy. Don’t give in to irresponsible self-indulgence. See enjoyment as a gift from God. Remember God so that you can enjoy your life.

Again, 12:1 says: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.” The Teacher reminds us that God is our Creator. He is the one who has given us everything that we have. He gave us life. He is the one who’s given us our family and friends. He’s created everything we have that we get to enjoy.

The problem is that it is so easy to forget the one who made us, especially when we’re young. It’s so easy to simply live for ourselves. It’s easy to forget. One of the reasons we celebrate communion so regularly is because we need to be reminded on a regular basis what Christ has done for us. We are far too quick to forget.

Life is short, so enjoy it while you can. But while you’re enjoying it, don’t forget the one who created you. The one who created you is not only your Maker but your Judge. The only way to live in light of someone who is both your Creator and Judge and who’s given you everything is to live your life in orbit around him. Center your life on him. Give your life to God now, while you still have enough passion to make a difference in the world. How much more is this true when we realize that God is not just our Maker and our Judge but also our Savior. We come to remember this morning that the one who made us and the one who will judge us is also revealed as the Triune God. God sent his Son to die for our sins, and the Son willingly came. The one who made us became the one who died for us. He’s given us this brief life in which we can enjoy the strength he’s given us to really live, knowing that our Creator and Judge is also our Savior.

Bono from U2 has written:

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. It’s about a character who wants to find out why he’s alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything. You hurry to the end of the book to find out why, and it says, “Remember your Creator.” In a way, it’s such a letdown. Yet it isn’t.

Bono’s right. It’s not a letdown. Getting to know your Creator, Judge, and Savior before we grow old and die is one of the most important things we can ever do. No matter how old you are, you have the opportunity to use the rest of your life beginning now, resolving to waste no more time, but to live every moment for the glory of the one who is your Creator, Judge, and Savior.

Let’s pray.

Years ago, Jonathan Edwards made these resolutions.

  • Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  • Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
  • Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
  • Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
  • Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God's glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure.

Father, may we resolve today to know that life is short. And may we resolve to make the most of every moment you’ve given us. Most of all, may we resolve to live every day in light of the one who not only created us, and who will not only judge us, but who has also saved us. In the name of Jesus our Savior we pray. Amen.

Posted on May 8, 2011 and filed under Uncategorized.

Be Bold and Wise (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6)

If you travel to Cairo, Egypt, you can visit an abandoned graveyard at the end of a garbage-lined alley. And if you look carefully at that graveyard, you’ll come across one tombstone in particular. The tombstone is for William Borden (1887-1913). You wouldn’t expect this grave to belong to anyone important, but you’d be wrong. William Borden was educated at Yale and Princeton. He became a Christian under the ministry of the great evangelist D.L. Moody. He was heir to the Borden dairy estate, which was a fortune. But William Borden gave it all away out of a desire to share the gospel with those who had never heard it.

So Borden decided to become a missionary to the Muslims of China. He was a millionaire by the time he was 21, but he gave it all away to missions. His father told him he would never work in the company again. Borden traveled to Egypt for his missionary training, but while he was there he contracted spinal meningitis and died at the age of 25, before he had even reached his mission field. And really all that’s left of his life is this gravestone in an abandoned cemetery at the end of a garbage-lined alley. Borden risked everything, and he lost everything as a result.

We’re looking today at the book of Ecclesiastes, and the story I just told really seems to belong with this book. It’s depressing! The story that I just told could be used as an incentive to play it safe. See what happens when you take a risk? Look at what happened to William Borden! That’s what happens if you go into missions! I could tell you all kinds of stories that would make you retreat from life and play things completely safe and never take any risks at all.

When our kids were young, Charlene told them a story about a lady who was eating chicken. I’m not quite sure about all the details of the story, but I think the story involved choking on a chicken bone and almost dying. To this day our kids are cautious when eating chicken that contains any bones. Who knew that eating at Swiss Chalet could be so dangerous? It’s easy to conclude that we should just retreat to safety and never take any risks at all.

In 1927, a small fire took place at a theatre in Montreal. 800 children were watching a movie. When smoke began to fill the theatre, the kids panicked. 78 children died. The next year they passed a law that children under 16 would be forbidden from attending theaters screenings. The law stayed on the books for 33 years.

Life is uncertain. Missionaries die. People choke on bones. Kids die in theaters. Maybe we should agree right here and now that nobody should ever be a missionary, we should never eat chicken, and no more movies for our kids!

That’s what we’re looking at in the passage we have before us. Multiple times in this passage, the Teacher tells us that we don’t know what’s going to happen in life. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen, how then should we live? Should we play it safe, or take risks?

That’s the question the Teacher answers. And he says two things.

First, he says, take wise risks.

In the light of the risks of life, should we take risks or play it safe? The Teacher answers in verse 1:

Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

What does this mean? It obviously doesn’t mean getting soggy pieces of bread back that you’ve thrown into the waves. The new edition of the NIV puts it this way:

Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.

You see what the Teacher is saying here? Life is risky. The world is uncertain. There are all kinds of ways that we can take risks and end up losing everything. When Ecclesiastes was written, Israel had been transformed from a small agricultural nation to one that was right on the trading route between Egypt and Asia/Europe. Some Israelites had already lost fortunes. In chapter 5, the Teacher had already talked about someone who had lost everything in a bad venture. So what should we do? In verse 1, the Teacher tells us to take a risk. Engage in international trade, and wait for the goods to sell, and the ships to return with fine goods from foreign lands. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. To “find it after many days” is to receive the reward that comes after risking a wise investment. Get out there and make something happen, the Teacher says.

Verse 2 continues the thought, but adds a condition:

Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

Here again you have the element of risk. You probably follow what he’s teaching here: don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Diversify your investments. Don’t withdraw from investing, because then you’ll lose out on any potential gain. Don’t just invest in one or two ventures, because they could fail, and if they fail you lose everything. Invest in seven or eight ventures. Some of them are bound to fail, but some of them may do well, and may be more than enough to make up for what you could lose. Take risks, but take them wisely.

He’s emphasizing how risky all of this is, but he gives us some perspective in the next verse:

If clouds are full of water,
they pour rain on the earth.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where it falls, there it will lie.

Here’s what he’s saying. We know some things. If the clouds are full of water, it’s going to rain at some point. If a tree falls, you may not know which way it’s going to fall, but once it’s fallen it’s not getting back up. There are some things we can know for sure. This makes it even more important for us to make wise investments, because if we carefully study how things should work, then we should know that some things work better than others.

We’re going to apply this in a minute, but let’s look first at the second thing that he tells us. He’s told us to invest boldly and wisely. Now he tells us what not to do.

Second, don’t wait for perfect conditions.

This is what he tells us in verse 4:

Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

Some people don’t struggle with taking too many risks. Some people are so risk-averse that they wait for conditions to be perfect before they try anything.

The picture the Teacher gives us is of a farmer waiting for perfect conditions in which to plant. It’s important to pay attention to conditions. Even today farmers will study clouds or watch the weather channel. Back when this was written, the ideal conditions for sowing would be when there was minimal wind. That way you could scatter the seeds evenly over the field. But you could get carried away and never scatter the seed because the conditions were never good enough. At some point, you have to take the risk. At some point, you just have to scatter the seed.

Do you see the picture that the Teacher is developing here? Take risks, but take them wisely. Don’t wait for perfect conditions. If you wait for perfect conditions then you’ll never do anything, because the perfect conditions may never materialize. Take a chance, not just in business but in life. If you don’t take a risk, you won’t ever do anything with what God has given you.

Here’s the conclusion, in verses 5 and 6:

As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of all things.
Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well.

We don’t know a lot, the Teacher says. We don’t know what God will prosper, or what will fail. So don’t let that stop you from doing something. Let that be the very reason that you get out there and make things happen. Sow your seed in the morning. Get to work in the evening. Take a risk. God is sovereign, and it just may be that he uses something that you do.

This is so important that Jesus said a similar thing. In Matthew 25, Jesus told a story about servants who were given money to invest on behalf of their master. Some invested very well and were commended by the master. But one servant played it safe because he didn’t want to take any risks. The master was incredibly harsh. He squandered the opportunity he had to do something with what his master had given him.

So What?

This may be one of the easiest passages in Ecclesiastes to explain, but one of the hardest to apply.

Life and ministry are risky. There are risks everyday. There are risks in using the gifts that God has given us. There’s a risk to sharing our faith. There’s a risk in having children. There’s a risk in giving financially to support ministries. There’s risk in going to the mission field. There’s risk in almost everything that we do.

We are prone to play it safe. Whenever we look at Scripture, it’s good to ask what part of our fallen natures this particular passage addresses. In this case, I think this passage is confronting our fears. We are prone to fear. I don’t think of myself as a fearful person. Last year, through a series of events, God revealed to me that I am much more fearful than I had ever imagined myself to be. It was a revelation that I didn’t welcome at first, but I’m glad that God revealed some of my fears to me. We can spend our entire lives running scared, more fearful of events and people than we are of God.

God calls us to live lives of holy boldness. If you look at Matthew 25, Jesus is calling us to wisely risk what God has given us to profit our master - God. God is calling us to wisely invest our lives to his glory. One day we will give account to God for what we’ve done with what he’s given us. Jesus makes it clear that we won’t be able to say that we just played it safe. So let me ask you: what has God called you to do that you haven’t done because of fear?

Finally, we need to see that the results are in his hands. We are not in charge of results. We are in charge of being faithful with what God has given us. The rest is up to God.

I began with the story of William Borden. He risked, and it looked like he lost. After his death, Borden's Bible was found and given to his parents. In it they found in one place the words "No Reserve" and a date placing the note shortly after he renounced his fortune in favor of missions. At a later point, he had written "No Retreat", dated shortly after his father told he would never let him work in the company ever again. Shortly before he died in Egypt, he added the phrase "No Regrets." Borden risked, but he risked appropriately.

I could speak of other missionaries. Missionary Karen Watson was killed in Iraq. She wrote this letter in 2003, almost a year to the day before she was killed.

Dear Pastor Phil and Pastor Roger:

You should only be opening this letter in the event of my death.

When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations. I wasn't called to a place. I was called to him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward, his glory my reward.

One of the most important things to remember right now is to preserve the work….I am writing this as if I am still working with my people group.

I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. Surely your reward in heaven will be great. Thank you for investing in my life and spiritual well-being. Keep sending missionaries out. Keep raising up fine young pastors.

In regards to any service, keep it small and simple. Yes, simply, just preach the gospel….Be bold and preach the life-saving, life-changing, forever-eternal gospel. Give glory and honor to our Father.

The Missionary Heart:
Care more than some think is wise.
Risk more than some think is safe.
Dream more than some think is practical.
Expect more than some think is possible.

I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience….There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him. I love you two and my church family.

In his care,
Salaam,
Karen

I could even remind you that nobody really knows the impact of the actions they’ve taken. Luke Short was 103 when he thought of a sermon that he once heard. Sitting in Virginia, he asked God to forgive his sins through Jesus Christ. He died three years later at 106. His tombstone read, “Here lies a babe in grace, aged three years, who died according to nature, aged 106.” But here’s the remarkable part: the sermon that he remembered that caused him to become a Christian that day was one that he had heard 85 years earlier across the ocean in England. Nearly a century had passed between the preaching of his sermon and the conversion; between the sowing and the reaping. You never know what God might do.

Because we don’t know what God will prosper, use every opportunity to live wisely and boldly. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, because you never know what God may prosper.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Posted on May 1, 2011 and filed under Uncategorized.

Let Marriage Be Held in Honor (Hebrews 13:4)

Every year the Queen gives a speech around Christmas. I’m just waiting for the day that they come out with a movie called The Queen’s Speech. In any case, the speeches are fascinating. If you listen to all these speeches, you’d learn a lot about history. You’d also learn a lot about the Queen, just like you would about yourself if you made a recording of yourself speaking once very year for fifty years. Surprisingly, you can learn a lot about accents. A scholar has completed an acoustic analysis of fifty years of the Queen’s Royal Christmas messages for the Journal of Phonetics - you may not subscribe - and has concluded that even the Queen’s accent has changed along with that of the nation over these years. All of this to say: even the Queen is a product of her times. You can’t help but change along with the world as it changes.

Accents are a funny thing. When I visit Boston, someone always eventually mentions my accent. I’m not aware that I have an accent, but neither are they. When you live in a certain location, that becomes normal to you. You adapt and blend in and even begin to speak like those around you.

The passage we’re looking at this morning touches on this issue. We’re looking at the book of Hebrews this morning. It’s written to Christians who are struggling in their devotion to Christ. We don’t know what situation these Christians were facing, but it appears that they were wavering in their faith. Hebrews encourages them to hold on, to endure throughout trials and to grasp the uniqueness of their faith in Christ.

The passage we’re reading is found at the end of the book in what’s sometimes called the “concluding exhortations and remarks.” The writer touches on five areas in which these Christians may have picked up an accent, so to speak, from the surrounding culture. They may have been so influenced by the culture in these areas that they needed a correction. This would actually make a great series someday, because all five are actually issues that I think we struggle with today as well.

The fourth area that the writer tackles is found in verse 4: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Think about this. Why would he write this? The author is addressing the fact that these Christians had probably picked up an attitude about marriage from the culture that was less than what it should be.

When Hebrews was written, marriage was under attack from two sides. One group felt that marriage was too restrictive. They believed that chastity in marriage was an unreasonable standard. In some corners of society, men were expected to take on mistresses and confidantes and as sexual partners. Their beliefs line up very well with the CEO of a website that’s designed to facilitate extramarital affairs. Log on and you have immediate access to thousands of men and women willing to kick their vows to the curb for a no-strings-attached sexual tryst. The CEO said, “People cheat because their lives aren't working for them." He went on to insist "humans aren't meant to be monogamous." That’s exactly what many people believed back then. And it’s possible that the recipients of this letter were beginning to be influenced by this mentality.

But marriage was also under attach from another side. There were others who were into asceticism. This one seems a little unusual to us today. There were some who devalued marriage because they say marriage as too indulgent. They believed that it’s better to deny oneself.

Whatever the thinking, the recipients of this letter were in danger of being influenced by a low view of marriage within society. It’s the same danger that we face today. A 2005 study found that 1 in 5 married Canadians between the ages of 35 and 54 wish that they could go to bed married and wake up single. One in ten would cheat on their partner if there was no chance of getting caught. Love is highly valued in our culture, but marriage is not. Listen to the plot of a recent movie: “A married man is granted the opportunity to have an affair by his wife. Joined in the fun by his best pal, things get a little out of control when both wives start engaging in extramarital activities as well.”

Here’s the danger: just like you can pick up an accent without knowing it, you can also pick up a low view of marriage. So the writer to the Hebrews says that this is one of the key issues that we need to deal with. What can we do about this? The writer says that there are three things that we can do. They’re just as important today as they were back then. One: honor marriage. Two: keep the sexual relationship pure. Three: remember that God will judge.

Let’s look at each of these.

First: Honor marriage.

You’ve probably heard a few marriage jokes. A man bragged on his marriage once and said, “In our marriage, my wife and I have decided to never go to bed angry. We haven’t been to sleep in three weeks!” I know, not very good. There are lots like that. I think I’ve heard them all.

There’s nothing wrong with telling a good joke. But the writer to the Hebrews cautions us against crossing a line and treating marriage as commonplace, of treating it flippantly. You can joke about marriage - but be careful that you don’t slip across the line and begin to treat it with contempt.

Hebrews 13:4 says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all.”

When these words were written - as today - many people weren’t holding marriage in honor. You’ve heard already that some thought of marriage as too restrictive. They looked for pleasure and intimacy outside of marriage. Others went to the other extreme and dismissed marriage as indulgent. When society dishonors marriage, it’s possible for us to begin to dishonor marriage without even realizing it.

Hebrews confronts us. It calls us to buck the trend in society and to honor marriage when others are not.

I want you to notice what he says. “Let marriage be held in honor.” What does it mean to hold something in honor? The word honor connotes respect. It attributes preciousness and value to someone or something. Occasionally I’ll go home and find that someone has accidentally left the door open. Sometimes when this happens I’ll go and check to see if certain things are missing. I never go and check to see if someone’s stolen the pots in the kitchen cupboard, because frankly, they’re not valuable to me. You could say that I don’t honor my pots. But I do honor things like our old photo albums. They’re the things I’d pull out of the house in case of fire.

Hebrews tells us that this is how we should think of marriage. John Piper puts it this way:

The Bible is telling us: Let marriage always be thought of as precious. Let it be treasured like gold and silver and rare jewels. Let it be revered and respected like the noblest, most virtuous person you have ever known. Let it be esteemed and valued as something terribly costly…In other words, when you think of marriage, let yourself be gripped by emotions of tremendous respect and sanctity. In relation to marriage cultivate the feeling that this not to be touched quickly or handled casually or treated commonly. In God's eyes marriage is precious and therefore he says, "Let marriage be held in honor among all."

Honoring marriage means that we see marriage as precious. If you’re married, it means seeing your marriage as precious. But it also means that you see other people’s marriages as valuable as well. It means that we speak well of the institution of marriage.

Honoring marriage means that we don’t take the easy road when our marriages get into trouble. Every marriage - every one - is a marriage of two sinners. I’m no prophet, but I know that when two people marry each other, problems are inevitable. There will be times when it’s easier to pack it in. Honoring marriage means that we pay the cost to preserve what’s valuable, even when the cost is high.

Honoring marriage means that we’re careful how we speak of marriage. It means that we don’t trash-talk marriage - our own, or about marriage in general. Personally, I don’t ever want to joke about divorce. When I joke about divorce, I feel like I am making light of something that isn’t funny at all. I want the way I speak to show that I am holding marriage in honor.

Notice also that he says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” I usually struggle a little when I’m preaching on marriage, because I realize that not everyone here is married. Usually when I’m preaching on marriage, I’m not talking to everyone. But this is one message on marriage that applies to all of us. Whether you’re single or married, young or old, let marriage be held in honor by all. This command applies to everyone. One of the people in my life who’s been the most supportive of our marriage is someone who’s single. This command applies to all of us.

If you travel down the road about an hour, you’ll reach the vineyards of Niagara. In order for a vine of grapes to become fruitful, the branches of the vine must be elevated. The branches are tied to a post for support. As grapes develop and grow, the vine will become too heavy and begin to droop and drag on the ground. Elevation not only keeps the fruit off of the ground but also helps them to get the full benefit of the sun. After a time the branches begin to spread along this post to which they have been tied. Having been made stable, they are then free to climb or to spread.

In the same way, marriages cannot grow until marriage itself is elevated and respected. Honoring marriage allows our marriages to be lifted off the ground. Our marriages are then free to flourish, to climb, and to be fruitful.

So honor marriage. Let marriage be held in honor among all. We are to highly value this divinely ordained union and to support those who are married in every way that’s possible. But that’s not all. There’s a second thing that the writer tells us we should do:

Second: Keep the sexual relationship pure.

Verse 4 says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”

If there is any area in which we can be guilty of treating the marriage relationship with dishonor, it’s in the area of sex. Sex is one of the greatest trouble spots in marriage. We’re bombarded with sexual temptation. Sex is one of God’s gifts to us, but sin is eager to take this gift and turn it against us.

I love what the writer to the Hebrews says here. One of the ways that we can go against the cultural grain, and one of the ways we can hold marriage in honor, is to pursue sexual purity. He gives us both the positive and the negative side of this. First, the positive: “Let the marriage bed be undefiled.” He’s saying here that the integrity of the sexual relationship in marriage must be kept. The implication is that sex within marriage is acceptable to God. It’s a good thing. One person I read this week put it well:

Surely it was God’s full intention for the physical joining together of a man and woman to be one of the mountaintop experiences of life, one of those summit points of both physical and mystical rapture in which He Himself might overshadow his people in love, might come down among them and be most intimately and powerfully revealed. How horribly tragic, therefore, that it is here at this very point, here at this precious male-female encounter which ought to be overflowing with holiness, that godless people have succeeded in descending to some of the most abysmal levels of human degradation…Sex is sacred ground. (Mike Mason)

The call to “let the marriage bed be undefiled” is really a positive one. There’s a negative side - what not to do, which we’ll see in a minute. But it’s a call to joy. It’s a call to receive one of God’s greatest gifts to us. All through Scripture you see a call to delight in sexual pleasure within marriage. It’s a good thing. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings, once wrote to C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, and said, “Christian marriage is not a prohibition of sexual intercourse, but the correct way of sexual temperance–in fact probably the best way of getting the most satisfying sexual pleasure…” It is a gift. It’s the best and most satisfying way to enjoy the sexual relationship. “Let the marriage bed be undefiled.”

But there’s a negative part to this command as well. There are a couple of things we need to avoid in verse 4: sexual immorality and adultery. The first is a more general term for those sexual acts outside of marriage, while adultery is used of those who are unfaithful to their marriage. Together the two terms cover all who engage in illicit sexual behavior. Taken together, you have things that destroy sexual intimacy in marriage.

We need to be clear about this. These things distort a good gift from God and turn it into something harmful that can be used against us. The Inuit used to kill wolves in a strange way. They’d put out a knife in the ice, blade up. They’d take animal blood, put it all over the knife, and freeze it. A wolf would smell the blood and come and begin to lick the knife. It tasted good to the wolf so the wolf would lick faster and faster and harder and harder, not realizing that the knife had now cut its own tongue. It would keep licking. The next day the wolf would be dead. It had eaten its own blood because it just couldn’t get enough. Commenting on this, Tony Evans says:

We are eating ourselves alive today with sex. We can’t get enough. We can’t get enough on the TV. We can’t get enough on cable. We can’t get enough on Playboy channels. We can’t get enough on HBO. We can’t get enough of the magazines. We can’t get enough of Victoria’s Secrets. We can’t get enough. So, since we can’t get enough, we keep licking harder and faster…We can’t get enough and the judgment for this sin is built in to the disobedience.

What we need to realize today is that there are a lot of us who are licking the knife. What we don’t realize is that every time we lick the knife, we’re hurting ourselves. We’re killing the joy that could be ours in this area. To use the phrase from Hebrews, we’ll be defiling the marriage bed, the very bed that’s supposed to be a place of intimacy and guilt-free joy.

I realize this morning that there are a lot of people who have already failed in this area. There are a lot of people who are struggling. In just a few minutes I want to talk to you. I don’t want to leave you struggling. I want to give you some hope. But please understand how serious this is. A council studied the effects of pornography and concluded that pornography "corrodes the conscience, promotes distrust between husbands and wives and debases untold thousands of young women." They conclude that that pornography is "a quiet family killer."

So honor marriage. If you’re married, keep the sexual relationship pure. There’s one more thing:

Third: Realize that God will judge.

This is sobering. Verse 4 concludes, “...for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” This is sobering. We may get away with something here and now. Not everyone gets caught. We’re licking the knife and damaging ourselves, it’s true, but the writer says that’s not all. God is also watching. God takes notice. And God takes this very seriously. We live our marriages before God, and God cares very much about this area.

At this point you may be thinking that God is a great spoilsport. Who is God to judge? The answer, of course, is that God is God. He has every right to judge. But we also need to realize that God is not judging because he’s a spoilsport. We need a God who is wrathful. N.T. Wright explains:

The biblical doctrine of God's wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

If God did not judge adultery, he would not be holy. If God did not hate pornography and the destruction that it brings, then he would not be good. We need God to act as judge in this matter - but it also terrifies us, because we know we’re in trouble. We know that if God opened our hearts, he would find lots there that isn’t right. If God examined our actions, we know that we would fail his judgment.

So What?

That’s where I want to end this morning. I want to close by considering what exactly it is that we need to do as a response to this very short verse.

Three things:

First, some of you have been dishonoring marriage. You may be doing it because you’ve picked it up like a bad accent. You may be doing it out of hurt. It has to stop. It may be that God is calling you this morning to honor marriage like never before. This is going to be costly for some of you. Honoring marriage vows, for instance, is incredibly costly. But Scripture is calling you to go against the flow and to take this seriously, starting today.

Second, some of us here need to stop defiling the marriage bed. Tim Chester's new book, Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn Free, offers up five key ingredients that must be present and in place for someone to win the battle with pornography.

  1. An abhorrence of porn. You have to hate porn itself (not just the shame it brings), and long for change.
  2. You must adore God. Why? Because we can be confident that He offers more than porn.
  3. You must be assured of God's grace. You are loved by God and are right with Go through faith in the work of Jesus.
  4. You must avoid temptation. Be committed to do all you in your power to avoid temptation, starting with the controls on your computer.
  5. You must be accountable to others. You need a community of Christians who are holding you accountable and supporting you in your struggle.

Tim Chester never claims it's easy. This isn't a "take these five steps and everything will be just fine" treatment. No, life is messy. And this is a messy battle. It's a battle we must understand, engage in, and fight with long-suffering intensity. We need to take this seriously so that we stop polluting what is meant to be holy and joyful.

Finally: some of us need the cleansing that can come only from God. Paul writes some very harsh words in 1 Corinthians 6:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

Harsh words indeed. But then he says:

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)

I love how John Piper puts it: “Lay hold on your forgiveness, and take it with you to the marriage bed. Christ died for your sin that in him you might have guilt-free sexual relations in marriage.”

We’re coming to the communion table this morning. Today is a great day to receive the forgiveness and cleansing that Christ can offer, to receive the forgiveness that we can take with us into our marriages.

Think about this. Think about a group of people who don’t pick up the accent of our day. Think about a group of Christians who hold marriage in high honor - not in a political crusader type of way, but in their behavior and in their respect. Think of people who are washed and cleansed and sanctified from their past, and who are living lives of purity and joy in their marriages. That’s the invitation that’s open to us this morning. Let’s pray.

Father, thank you for this invitation to go against the grain of culture. We pray that as we come to the table today that you would meet us where we are. Please change us so that we are transformed and cleansed to do what is written here. Change us and cleanse us, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Posted on April 10, 2011 and filed under Uncategorized.

Eyes Are Opened (Luke 24)

Of all the stories out there, my favorite is one that involves a reversal of fortunes at the end. All seems lost, but at the very last minute something unexpected happens, and the day is saved, and everything bad that happened is undone.

So near the end of The Lord of the Rings - the book, not the movie - Sam realizes that he and Frodo have survived, and that Gandalf has returned from the dead. Sam says, "It wasn't a dream?" When he realizes it isn't, he lays back with both joy and bewilderment and asks, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?" A great question. Is everything sad going to come untrue?

Out of all of the stories of reversal, the one that we just read beats them all. And what's more, it claims to be true. This morning I want to do three things, nothing more. I want to look at why it's hard to believe, how we can believe it, and what difference it makes when we do believe it.

First, why it's hard to believe.

One of the hardest things to believe about Christianity is the resurrection. There are lots of people who believe a lot of things about Jesus - that he was a good man, a great teacher, even a prophet. They will even believe that he died on the cross. But believing that he physically rose from the dead and left an empty tomb is a whole different matter.

You may be someone who finds it hard to believe, in which case I say: You're in very good company. As we look at this passage, we find skepticism as the prevailing reaction. We read about a group of women coming to embalm Jesus' body, and when they find the tomb empty, verse 4 says that they wonder what happened. That's putting it mildly. The Greek is much stronger. It says they were bewildered, perplexed. The picture is of women who are confused and anxious, just like we'd be if we showed up at the tomb of one of our friends and found a big hole, an empty casket, and the clothes that they were buried lying on the ground.

You imagine telling your friends about that, especially if you add some details about angels. In those days, the testimony of women was inadmissible in court. The historian Josephus wrote, "From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex." They didn't exactly have progressive views of women. So when these women show up in a room full of Jesus' followers, we read, "But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Luke 24:11). Even Peter, who at least goes to investigate, doesn't automatically buy in. He finds the grave just as the women had described it, but walks away wondering what it all means. Nobody can figure it out.

You find this all throughout the chapter. Two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about seven miles away. They're both dejected by what's happened. Neither one has any hope of any resurrection. Later on we see the disciples again, and they as they try to make sense of what happened on Easter morning, they're ready to believe in almost anything other than a physical resurrection.

N.T. Wright has done an exhaustive study of the thinking in Jesus' day, and concludes that nobody even had a category for this to happen. Greeks and Romans thought that the body is corrupt, and that a soul is liberated from the body. Resurrection was not only impossible, but it was undesirable. The Jewish people, on the other hand, believed in resurrection, but at some future point when God will renew the entire cosmos. It was a future event, not something that happens here and now. "The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable" (Tim Keller, The Reason for God).

I know we have this belief that we're sophisticated today, that we doubt things like miracles and resurrections, but people back then were ready to believe anything. C.S. Lewis calls this "chronological snobbery" - thinking that we modern people take claims of a bodily resurrection with skepticism, while thinking that the ancients would have immediately accepted it. But that's not at all the case. A dead person was a dead person. They wouldn't have any easier a time than we would in believing that someone who was dead is alive again. Nobody would have even thought of resurrection as a possibility. Everybody understood that Jesus was dead. Jesus' death wasn't a setback for them; it was game over. Jesus joined the scrap-heap of history along with all the other messiah figures who were killed. Game over.

Wright says again:

Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest themselves, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was. (Who Was Jesus?)

This is good news for those of us here who are skeptical about the resurrection. Join the club. You should be skeptical; everyone else was. Jesus' closest followers, his dearest friends, couldn't believe it either. In fact, if you're feeling skeptical this morning, you shouldn't feel too bad about it. There would be a problem if you didn't approach the subject of Easter with skepticism. The disciples and friends of Jesus were just as skeptical as you are.

How We Can Believe It

The reality is, though, that something happened to change their minds. They started out skeptical. They didn't even have a category for a physical resurrection here and now. Yet within a short time, all of that changed. It not only changed for them, but it also changed the course of human history. How can we experience the same thing today, assuming we'd even want to?

I'll tell you what's important, but not enough. Many of the people who experienced that Easter morning examined the evidence. Some went and investigated the empty tomb themselves. They looked at the grave clothes lying on the ground, at the stone that had been rolled away. When Jesus appeared to them in verses 39-43, they looked at him. Jesus offered that they could touch him to verify that he wasn't a spirit; it was really him in his body. They watched him eat a fish. Spirits don't eat fish.

Today, it's important - but not enough - for you to examine the evidence for yourself. Books like Mere Christianity are excellent. A more recent one is The Reason for God, which is on the New York Times Bestseller list. These are important, especially if you are trying to make sense of what happened that morning. It only makes sense to investigate the evidence. For instance, why would Luke have recorded the testimony of women when women weren't considered reliable witnesses? He must have been under tremendous pressure to change the story. Why didn't he, unless it really happened that way? What transformed a group of cowards into people who turned the world upside down? How do you explain their willingness to die? Pascal said, "I [believe] those witnesses that get their throats cut." There are all kinds of things that can't be explained unless the resurrection really happened, and it's important - but not enough - to look at all the evidence.

Something more is needed.

I'll tell you what happened. Their eyes were opened. When they started out, they saw all of the evidence but they didn't really see it. Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, was on a streetcar one day in Basel, Switzerland. A tourist sat next to him, and they started chatting. Barth asked them if there was anything they were hoping to see while they visited the city. "Yes," the man said, "I'd love to meet the famous theologian Karl Barth. Do you know him?" Barth replied, "As a matter of fact, I do. In fact, I give him a shave every morning." The tourist was pretty excited. He went back to the hotel thinking, "I met Karl Barth's barber today." He saw Karl Barth but he didn't really understand what he was seeing. The people in this chapter were the same. They could look at Jesus and all of the evidence, and walk away not really being aware of what they'd seen.

But three times in this chapter, they had an epiphanies. Do you know what an epiphany is? It's a moment of revelation and insight that all of a sudden makes sense on everything that's happened up until that point. Three times in this chapter, all of a sudden their eyes were opened, and they were able to not only see the evidence but also make sense of everything that had happened up until that point - in fact, everything in their lives, in the world.

Three examples:

While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " Then they remembered his words. (Luke 24:4-8)

Then the two disciples who had been traveling to Emmaus, after spending quite a bit of time with Jesus:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:30-32)

Then the disciples:

He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)

The evidence is important, but it's never enough. At some point you need that moment in which not only do you see, but you really see and you believe.

Even if you're a Christian, you can have this experience. I mentioned Tim Keller's book The Reason for God. When Keller was being treated for thyroid cancer, he actually had time on his hands for the first time in his life. He picked up N.T. Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which is 740 pages. He even read the indices. He says that the book reenforced something for him:

There's no historically viable alternative explanation for the birth of the Christian Church than the fact that the early Christians thought they saw Jesus Christ and touched him and that he was raised from the dead. As I was reading it, I realized I was coming to greater certainty, and that when I closed the book, I said, at a time when it was very important to me to feel this way, I said, "He really really really did rise from the dead." And I said, "Well, didn't I believe that before?" Of course I believed it before—I defended it, and I think before I certainly would have died for that belief. But actually, there were still doubts in there, and the doubts were taken down 50 percent or something. I didn't even know they were there. And it was a wonderful experience It was both an intellectual and emotional experience: You're facing death, you're not sure you're going to get over the cancer. And the rigorous intellectual process of going through all the alternative explanations for how the Christian Church started, except the resurrection—none of them are even tenable. It was quite an experience.

You see that? Keller already believed, but his eyes were opened and he believed it even more. It became more real to him, more relevant to his life and to his cancer. Easter is hard to believe, but if you look at the evidence that will be a good start. But if you ask God to open your eyes, then God is in the business of doing so, and just like the people in this chapter, it will change everything.

Which leads me to the last thing I want to say:

What difference does it make if we believe it?

Simply, it makes all the difference in the world. Luke ends with the disciples finally getting it, finally seeing for the first time. Luke is part one of a two-part series of books. When Luke ends they get it; when Acts starts they turn the whole world upside down. Their lives were never the same. It changed everything from that point on.

Easter gives us hope. N.T. Wright says:

The message of the resurrection is that this world matters!...If Easter means that Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual sense - [then] it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my personal spiritual life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world - news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn't just about warming hearts.

Easter is good news for the whole world.

Even if you don't believe in Easter, you should want to, because it teaches us that everything sad will come untrue. Everything. As Dostoevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov:

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they've shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.

Easter is hard to believe, but if you believe - when you believe - it changes everything.

Father, we read a story like the story of Easter, and we find it hard to believe. But we're in good company. Those who experienced these events found it hard to believe as well.

But Easter is the great reversal. When our eyes are opened, we see it as the climax of history, the event through which all of history, all of Scripture, all of life, makes sense. So I pray that you would open our eyes, that we would believe. I pray that even those of us who've believed before would have our eyes opened to see it again. And seeing it again, may it turn our worlds upside down and draw us to you. We pray in the name of our risen Lord, Amen.

Posted on March 23, 2008 and filed under Uncategorized.

September Kick-Off

Well, I don't know what we're going to be celebrating in four months, but for a lot of us this is the real New Year. So I'd like to welcome you back from your summer, and also to wish you a Happy New Year, or at least a happy September.

What I'd like to do this morning is to talk about what's ahead for us as a church for the coming year, and then as we get ready to go to the Lord's Table to talk about why it's so important.

As we start into Fall, it's usually the time that our ministries kick off again and we begin to ask what's ahead for the coming year. You may be aware that we're in a state of flux right now, with some change in staff and a move to a new leadership structure with elders, who will provide spiritual oversight of the church. As well, there are lots of smaller needs and challenges and happenings in many of our ministries, but I want to take a wider view at what I think will be on the agenda, besides all of these things, for the coming year as God allows.

There are lots of books out there on what it takes to have a healthy church. They list anywhere from six to twelve features which have to be present if a church is going to be healthy and grow. I have many of these books, and it's hard to keep up. But a pastor in New York named Tim Keller has wisely, I think, suggested that when you distill everything, there are only really three church growth principles. Here they are:

  1. Sound doctrine
  2. Continuous renewal by the Holy Spirit
  3. A contextualized philosophy of ministry

From this I'm going to pull together a phrase. If Richview is to be healthy and grow, it will be because we're a gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church that loves our neighborhood.

Let me explain what I mean.

Gospel-Centered

Tim Keller said that churches need sound doctrine. In other words, we need to get our message straight. And the message that we need to get straight most of all is the Gospel. Why? Because Paul said that the gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16 ESV). It is "the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord's people" (Colossians 1:26). It is how we have received a "new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade" (1 Peter 1:3-4). It is, the apostle Paul said to Timothy, the "good deposit entrusted" to us (1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:14).

More than anything, if our church is going to be healthy and grow, we need the gospel. If we don't have the gospel, we have nothing. If we have the gospel, we have the power of God to everyone who believes.

So let me just take a minute to ask the question, what is the gospel?

There are really, when you get down to it, three ways to live. Think of the parable of the prodigal son. One way to live is to be the prodigal, and to squander our lives in wild living. These are people who know that they're sinners. They're not even sure that they believe in God, but even if they do, they sure now that they're not measuring up. These people need the gospel.

But there's a second way to live that's just as lost. Remember that the prodigal son had a good older son who stayed at home and never rebelled? He said to his father, "I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders" (Luke 15:29). There is a way to live that is morally upright and law-abiding. It's about following rules and maybe even about going to church and living upright lives. But this way of living is equally lost, because when we live this way we're acting as our own lord and savior. When we live this way our trust isn't in God; it's in ourselves. The prodigal son and his morally upright brother were both equally lost. You can be irreligious and lost, but you'd better be sure that you can also be religious and lost. The gospel has nothing to do with moving from irreligion to religion, because both are essentially the same. In both cases we'll still be lost.

The gospel is really about a third way to live. The gospel is not that we are righteous before God and therefore he owes us something. It's that God demonstrates his righteousness through Jesus Christ and then freely gives that righteousness to us. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The gospel is that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again to bring us salvation.

The gospel isn't good advice about what we have to do. It's good news about what Jesus has already done for us. The gospel isn't just the means of salvation, but it is the way that we grow as Christians. It is not the ABCs of the faith but the A to Z of the Christian faith. That's why Paul wrote to Timothy, "Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2).

In a few minutes we're going to celebrate the gospel as we take communion. But the gospel has to be part of everything we do. Every message, every ministry, every small group meeting, every action in this church has to have as its center, as its motive, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Spirit-Empowered

Let me hit the other two quickly. Our ministry must not only be gospel-centered but Spirit-empowered. We need continuous renewal by the Holy Spirit. Somebody asked me a while back how I ended my sermon on the day of Pentecost. I really didn't know, so he took me to the website and read it for me. Here's what it said. I ended the sermon by quoting J.I. Packer who said:

The Christian scene today in the Western world highlights the importance of attending to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The lack of divine energy and exuberance in most congregations, even some of the most notionally orthodox, is painful to see. The current quest for church renewal...demands that we get clearer in our minds about the divine Renewer....It is as if God is constantly flashing before us on huge billboards the message REMEMBER THE HOLY SPIRIT!...We study and discuss God, Christ, body life, mission, Christian social involvement, and many other things; we pay lip service to the Holy Spirit throughout (everyone does these days), but we are not yet taking him seriously in any of it. In this we need to change.

I concluded, "Pentecost reminds us that, more than anything, we need to pray that the Spirit would renew, revive, and empower us. Don't ever think that we have the power in ourselves. We need the Spirit to move. I want you to pray with me to this end."

Do you believe this? When we have the message of God and the power of God, we will be a church that can be used by God. So let's talk lots about the gospel this coming year, but let's also spend time in prayer asking for the Spirit to renew us and to show his power to do what only he can do.

Last point before I talk about why this is so important:

Community-Loving

This is where Richview becomes different from any other church that exists. This is also one of our greatest needs and it is something that I believe we have to address in the coming year.

Keller talks about a contextualized philosophy of ministry. Out of all the churches in the world that exist, God has put us in this particular location for such a time as this. We are not called to be a People's Church or a Willow Creek or any other church. We were put here in this postal code because God wanted us to be Richview, to learn the shape of ministry in our neighborhood.

There are two kinds of churches. One says to the community, "You come to us and learn our language, our interests, and meet our needs." The other kind says, "We will come to you. We will learn your language, your interests, and meet your needs." Only the second type of church imitates when Jesus became human and moved into the neighborhood. God is calling us to discover what it is that he wants us to do to love our immediate community. This year, we're going to ask for your help in figuring out what that means.

That's it. It's simple. If Richview is to be healthy and grow, it will be because we're a gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church that loves our neighborhood.

The Importance

And here's why it's so important.

Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:10: "[God's] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms." Paul has been writing about how Christ came to break down the wall between Jews and Gentiles, which was the greatest division of his time. God has made them one people through his death on the cross. Paul then describes his life's work and how it fits within what God is doing, but then he gives us the purpose of the church.

The purpose of the church, according to Paul, is to display before angels and demons the multifaceted wisdom of God. If someone asked you why Richview exists, this is the answer: so that angels and demons can see the wisdom of God. How? By showing that his plan of redemption has worked, and is so great that it has created a new community of people that has overcome social barriers and unified us. We don't exist as a voluntary association. We don't exist to make our members satisfied. We exist so that angels and demons know that the gospel is real because they see the evidence of the gospel in the life of this church. "The church," someone has said, "became the mirror through which the bright ones of heaven see the glory of God." The church is the theatre for the display of God's wisdom.

That's why this is so important. Speaking on this passage, John Piper says:

The church of Jesus Christ is the most important institution in the world. The assembly of the redeemed, the company of the saints, the children of God are more significant in world history than any other group, organization, or nation. The United States of America compares to the church of Jesus Christ like a speck of dust compares to the sun. The drama of international relations compares to the mission of the church like a kindergarten riddle compares to Hamlet or King Lear. And all pomp of May Day in Red Square and the pageantry of New Year's in Pasadena fade into a formless grey against the splendor of the bride of Christ...The gates of Hades, the powers of death, will prevail against every institution but one, the church.

Somebody I read this week said this:

Though no local church is perfect, and the universal Church often looks more like a cheating spouse than a faithful bride, I identify myself with this bungling bunch of believers. The church is home. The church is God's beloved. The church has been bought with precious blood.

Though the presence of the Kingdom is not as intensely felt in the church as I would like, it is the sign of the Kingdom in this age, faults and all. And if Jesus is content to give his life for an unruly Church, I must find satisfaction in serving his church with all my heart and soul. Because he died for her, I live for her. (Trevin Wax)

The principalities and powers in the heavenly places are watching. Let's show to them by the way that we live and function as a church that his plan isn't failing.

Let's pray.

Father, thank you for the privilege of displaying to angels and demons the multifaceted splendor of the wisdom of God. Who you've called us to be is no light thing.

I pray that in the coming year we would be a church that displays your wisdom as we center on the Gospel, as we rely on the Spirit, and as we look for ways to serve our particular community.

Most of all, as we come to the Table, may we be a church that finds our strength in the cross. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Posted on September 9, 2007 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Paradox of the Cross (John 12:20-36)

Well, the Christian life is a paradox. We almost never get it right. How do you ever figure out how to live in an economy that's exactly opposite to the way this world operates, in which:

  • The way up is down
  • The first are last and the last are first
  • The poor are rich and the rich are poor
  • The weak are strong
  • To find our life we have to lose it

We never quite figure this out, do we?

I've been married for over 16 years now. I know that for some of you, that's nothing - you're way ahead of me. There are times that I look at my wife and think that I know her fairly well, that I understand how she thinks and I'm not surprised by the things that she does. Then there are times that I realize I don't understand her at all! My only consolation is that I've heard couples who have been married for fifty years say that they are still, at some levels, mysteries to each other.

That's how I feel with God sometimes. I've been a follower of Jesus Christ for years. There are times that I feel like I know Jesus and his ways very well. Then there are days that I feel like I don't understand a thing about the way that God operates. I feel like I'm in Christian kindergarten at times. If there's any consolation, it's that I know I'm not alone. The disciples never seemed to be able to figure him out, and I think I've talked to saints who have followed Christ for years who feel like they're just beginning to really understand a few things about the way that God operates.

There isn't a better day to talk about this than today, Palm Sunday. It is a very paradoxical day, and it introduces us to a paradoxical week, the most important week in the life and ministry of Jesus.

So here's what I want to do today. I want to look at the events surrounding Palm Sunday. Then I want to look below the surface at the paradox of Palm Sunday and Easter. Then I want to look at what all of this means for our lives today.

I invite you to open your Bibles to John 12 and follow along as we look at what happened, what really happened, and what this means for us today.

So first, what happened? Let's first look at the events of Palm Sunday.

It was one of those times that the air was crackling with electricity. Everybody that was with Jesus could feel the tension.

It was days before Passover. At Passover, the population of Jerusalem would swell from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Insurrection was in the air. If you've ever been somewhere where the government fears insurrection, you know what I'm talking about. Everybody was on edge. Anything could happen.

And there's Jesus. Jesus was on the list of Israel's Most Wanted. I don't know what they had in place of a no fly list, but whatever they had, Jesus was on it. Jesus had done something which had created a lot of buzz. He had raised a dead man. If you're trying to fly under the radar and not attract a lot of attention, that isn't the way to go. Everybody knew that Lazarus was dead, and now he was alive again. People wanted Lazarus dead, and they had their sights on Jesus too.

Let's look at three events that shape our understanding of what Palm Sunday was all about.

Event One: The day before Palm Sunday at the house of Lazarus in Bethany, just two miles away, something bizarre happens. Mary, brother of Lazarus, did something completely unexpected. You can understand why - Jesus had just brought her brother back from the dead. Mary took half a liter of imported nard and poured it at Jesus' feet and wiped it with her hair. It was unbelievable.

They've tried to figure out what Mary's gesture would have cost her. This much nard would have cost about a year's worth of salary. This could have represented her entire life's savings.

She unbound her hair, which was not proper behavior for a Jewish female. The fragrance of her offering filled the house and told everybody about her sacrificial gift.

There's a word that I think of when I think of what Mary did. The word is glory. Mary was giving glory to Jesus in an extravagant gesture that caught everyone's attention and was criticized by some as being way over the top.

Event Two: The next day, Jesus entered Jerusalem.

When Jesus had come to Jerusalem before, he hadn't always drawn much attention to himself. Whenever somebody wanted to go public with who Jesus was, Jesus always resisted. When people had tried to make him king before, Jesus disappeared. John 6:15 says, "Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself." Whenever somebody wanted to reveal who Jesus was, he always told them not to tell anyone. Jesus was not into public displays of affection or worship.

But look at what happened this time. Read verses 12-15:

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

"Hosanna!"
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Blessed is the king of Israel!"

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

"Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt."

Four hundred years before this day, the prophet Zechariah had written, "Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zechariah 9:9). Jesus arrived that day in Jerusalem just the way that Zechariah had prophesied, in humility, riding on a donkey. The crowds quoted Psalm 118 with an addition: "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!" (John 12:13). Hosanna means, "Save now!" It was a cry for Jesus to do something. They were acclaiming Jesus as ruler over Israel.

They threw down palm branches. Palms were symbols of peace and victory, symbols of Jewish nationalism. The crowd - filled with people who had witnessed or heard about the raising of Lazarus and Jesus' other miracles - were welcoming Jesus as king and deliverer. They expected something to happen and for Jesus to do it.

You've heard of PDAs, or public displays of affection. This was the only time in the life of Jesus that our Lord allowed while he was on earth. Jesus was allowing them to announce that he indeed is the king of Israel. Here, for the first time, Jesus allows them to declare that he is king. He lets them go public with his praise.

The same word comes to mind again: glory. Jesus is glorified as the crowds praise him and praise him as king, and as he finally gets the glory that he deserves.

Event Three: There's one more story. John 12:20-21 says, "Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. 'Sir,' they said, 'we would like to see Jesus.'"

Up until that point, Jesus had made it very clear that he had only come for the Jewish nation. At this moment, when some non-Jews come and want to see Jesus, Jesus is reminded of why he came. He didn't just come to be a king over Israel. He came to deliver the world as well.

When these Greeks approach the disciples and ask to meet Jesus, Jesus is reminded of why he came to this earth. Jesus responds by saying something unusual. Jesus responds by saying, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (John 12:23). What in the world does this mean?

All throughout John's gospel, Jesus and John have stated that it wasn't Jesus' hour or Jesus' time. In John 2:4, when Jesus' mother told him that they had run out of wine at the wedding, Jesus said, "My hour has not yet come." In John 7, Jesus' brothers encouraged him to go to Jerusalem publicly, and Jesus said, "My time is not yet here." Soon after, Jesus went to Jerusalem secretly. The Jewish authorities tried to arrest him, but John records, "No one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come." Jesus later taught in the Temple that he is the light of the world. John records, "Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come" (John 8:20). Jesus knew that there was a right time, and he wasn't prepared to rush. The hour would come. That hour would be the focal point of his ministry, the time toward which all of his energies would be focused. So it's really significant that Jesus says, "The hour has come."

The hour has come for what in verse 23? "For the Son of man to be glorified." Here's the key word, the theme of what Palm Sunday is all about: the glory of Jesus.

So we're here. Everything has been building up to this. Jesus is anointed, finally goes public as king, and he says that the hour has come. He says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." That's what Palm Sunday is all about. In one word, it's about this: glory. Jesus finally receives the public glory that should be his. Jesus is recognized and praised and given honor. That's what Palm Sunday is all about: glory, specifically that Jesus receives the glory that's due to him.

The same word comes to mind again: glory. Jesus is glorified as a grateful women anoints him with an extravagant gift, as the crowds praise him and recognize him as king, and as those from other nations come to worship him. That's what the events of Palm Sunday tell us.

Let me ask you a question. When is Jesus Christ most glorified? If we stop here, we'd have to say that it's when people praise him. That sounds good, but it also presents a bit of a problem. In a way, we end up with a statement like this: Jesus is most glorified when he is most popular.

The problem with this statement is this: how often is Jesus really popular? The answer: not very often. if you look at history, we have a pretty bad record of being consistent in how well we honor Jesus. Look at our own lives. We gather on Sunday and worship, and we really mean it, don't we? But then Monday comes along, and life gets going, and the priority that Jesus held on Sunday disappears for a long time - maybe until the next Sunday.

That's the problem if we stop here. Please don't misunderstand me. God is glorified when we worship him and seek him and offer gifts to him. But if this is the way that God is most glorified, then God is in trouble most of the time, because most of the time we're pretty fickle. The path to real glory isn't the path of recognition and praise.

So let's look just a little below the surface, at the paradox of Palm Sunday and Easter, before looking at what this means for us today.

Look at what Jesus says in verses 23-24. "Jesus replied, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.'"

Then again in verses 27-33:

"Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour?' No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!" Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, "This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

What is Jesus talking about here? His death. And what is he saying? He's saying that he is most glorified, not when people praise him although that's nice. Jesus is most glorified at the very moment that everybody has turned their back, as they spat at him and cursed him, as they took nails and killed the one they called a king.

Jesus wasn't most glorified when the crowds praised him. He was most glorified as the crowds rejected him, and he offered nothing but love anyway.

We tend to draw a dividing line between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We think, "It's too bad that Jesus received glory on Palm Sunday but not on Good Friday." That's not at all the way that Jesus sees it. It was nice for the people to praise him on Sunday, but the moment that he received most glory was when he went to the cross. The moment of his greatest humiliation and suffering was also the moment of his greatest glory.

Look at what this passage says Jesus' death accomplished at great cost on the cross. Jesus' death produced lasting growth, he says in verse 24. He uses the parable of a seed that dies. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." The church throughout the ages is the result of this single seed dying. Because of Jesus' death, hundreds millions of disciples have lived as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven for over two thousand years. That is a direct result of what Jesus did at the cross, and it brings Jesus glory.

In verse 28, a voice from heaven says, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." You can see that going to the cross was not easy for Jesus. Almost a week before Good Friday, Jesus is in anguish as he considers what lies before him. In going to the cross at such cost, the Father himself promises to glorify Christ. Jesus' obedience to the cross brings him glory.

Jesus also wins victory over Satan at the cross. Verse 31 says, "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out." We looked at this last week. At the cross, Jesus won a decisive victory over Satan. What looked like Satan's greatest moment instead became the moment of his defeat. Jesus conquered Satan at the cross.

Jesus also draws people to himself to the cross. He says in verse 32, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." For two thousand years, countless people have been drawn to the one who created this world, but chose to humble himself to the point of dying to set this world right and to bring us back into relationship with him. How could you not love a king who dies for his people like this?

Jesus is not most glorified when we praise him, although our worship is fitting and right. Jesus is most glorified as he accomplishes his work at the cross.

If you only hear one thing today, it's this: The path to true glory isn't the path of accomplishment or praise. The path to true glory is the path that leads to the cross.

Well, let me ask what this means for us today.

Does anybody here like glory? You're going to be too scared to raise your hand, but the answer is: of course we do. Glory comes from a word that originally meant weight. The closest English word that carries this concept is matter. We all want our lives to matter, to have that sense of weight and significance. Don't we? We all like glory.

When do we receive glory? Usually on the field of competition, or when we accomplish something. Yesterday, my son played in the championship of a hockey league. When the winners skate around the ice with the cup of victory, that's glory. If the Leafs ever won the Stanley Cup, that would be glory. When somebody comes up and tells me they like the sermon, that's glory! When we get a promotion or earn a degree or accomplish something significant, that's glory. But that's more like the glory we looked at in the first part of the sermon, when things are going well and people are praising us. We all know that's a pretty rare thing, not the normal state of affairs. Most of us don't go around accomplishing great things all the time and being carried on people's backs while people call out our name. That's not real life, and that's not the best kind of glory.

Jesus said in verses 25-26: "Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me."

What is Jesus saying? He's saying that if we want to experience real glory, real significance, the path is not found in accomplishing great things or from being popular and receiving praise. Glory is found in taking the same path that Jesus took, the path that lead him to the cross - the path in which we give our lives away for the sake of the gospel and for the good of others. You want your life to really matter? Then give your life away. Paul wrote, "Have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had..." (Philippians 2:5). That is the path to true glory - dying to self-reliance, self-assertiveness, and self-centered living. The path to glory is the path of giving our lives away in service and love.

What happens when we live this way? Four things, according to Jesus in this passage. Our lives will bear much fruit. We will keep our lives for eternal life. "Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life," he says in verse 25. We will join Jesus where he is. Jesus says in verse 26, "Where I am, my servant also will be." And the Father will honor us. Verse 26 continues, "My Father will honor the one who serves me."

Our lives will count; we'll have eternal life; we'll join Jesus; and God will honor us. This is the path to fruitful living. The path to true glory isn't one of praise and accomplishment. The path to true glory is the path to the cross - the path in which we see what Jesus has done, stop living for ourselves, and give our lives up in service to him.

If we're not careful this week, we'll think that the real glory comes when we're at the top of our game and life is going well. Jesus teaches us that real glory comes not at the moments that we think it does. Real glory comes when we give our lives away, just as Christ did at the cross. The path to true glory is the path to the cross.

Father, we're going to be tempted this week to live in exactly the wrong way. We're going to be tempted to live for the praise of the crowds and to prize our accomplishments and our victories. But Jesus shows us here that real life comes when we take the same path that Jesus did - the path that took him to the cross.

So first, Father, thank you. Thank you that Jesus took this path. Thank you that as he was lifted up, he produced life that will last for eternity. He won victory over Satan, and he is drawing all kinds of people to himself. Thank you that you brought glory to your Son at the cross. We glorify him and we praise his mighty name.

Help us, Father, to live the same way. Help us to have the same attitude of mind that Jesus did, who "made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:2-8)

And by taking this path, may we experience true glory - the kind of glory that can only come as we lose our lives in love and service. May we experience all that you've promised as we live that way. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

Posted on April 1, 2007 and filed under Uncategorized.

Forgiveness (Colossians 3:11-15)

I'm going to make a couple of bold assumptions this morning. My first assumption is that you have somebody that you need to forgive. My guess is that every single person here has been hurt or wronged by somebody else, and that you have been hurt. I've rarely found a person who has said that forgiveness is an irrelevant topic. We all need to forgive because we have all been hurt. Am I right? Everybody has somebody they need to forgive.

I'm making another assumption this morning, and it's that all of us want to forgive. We don't always feel like it. When something happens and we've been hurt, the last thing we feel like doing is to forgive. But most of us, deep down, realize that refusing to forgive is not a good option. We really do want to forgive if we could figure out how.

For some of us, it's for selfish reasons. I think it's Anne Lamott who said, "Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die." Not forgiving is toxic. It kills us. A psychiatrist has said that if he could teach a third of his patients to forgive, to let go of their anger, almost all of the problems he is treating them for would go away. So some of us want to forgive because we don't want the damage that not forgiving causes in our lives.

But the real reason why we want to forgive is much deeper and more profound. Regardless of whether or not forgiveness benefits us in any way, we need to forgive because God commands it. It's a theme that comes up over and over again in Scripture. We read a passage this morning in which Jesus told Peter to forgive without limits. Another time, Jesus said: "If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness is a sign that we have been forgiven, and a refusal to forgive is evidence that we have never been forgiven by God. Forgiven people forgive.

We also want to forgive because it's so crucial for our church. Loving each other, we've discovered, is the one thing that really matters. It's what Jesus demonstrated by his example. It's what he commanded and prayed for. It's what will validate our authenticity as followers of Jesus Christ. Andrew Murray said:

When the world sees a church from which selfishness is banished, then it will acknowledge the divine mission of Christ because he has wrought such a wonder, a community of men [and women] who truly and heartily love one another.

So I'm assuming that we all have someone to forgive, and that we all would like to be able to forgive. But I don't want to leave this as a theoretical issue. At the end of the service today you will be given an olive branch. An olive branch is a symbol of peace. We're going to look at God's Word today on how to forgive other people. Your assignment this week is to take this olive branch home with you as a symbol of the forgiveness that we are all called to offer each other. You may be called upon to physically offer the olive branch to someone else as a token of forgiveness.

Before we do this, though, we need help from God. How can we become the type of church where we forgive each other? To answer this question, I'd like to look at Paul's letter to the Colossians. Join with me as we read Colossians 3:11-15.

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

How do we forgive? You could spend weeks exploring what Paul says in this passage. Today, though, I'd like to suggest three things we can do as we move towards being a church that practices forgiveness. The three things are this:

  • Understand who we are
  • Base your forgiveness on what Christ has done
  • Act! (with the Spirit's help)

Let's take each one of these and explore how we can become a forgiving church.

Understand Who We Are

The first action we can take as a church is to understand who exactly we are. This has a negative and a positive side in this passage. Let's start by looking at the negative.

The negative part is the assumption in this passage that we are going to have a need for forgiveness within the church. Paul is writing to the church in Colossae. As far as we know, he wasn't writing to address any particular relational problem in the church. It's more of a theological book. But Paul just assumes that being part of a church community means that we will have to learn how to bear with each other and forgive. He just assumes that from time to time we're going to have grievances with each other, and we'll need to learn how to forgive. There is no ideal church in which everybody gets along. If you are part of a church, you will need to learn forgiveness. That, according to Paul, is reality.

Late last summer, I was at the point where I had to do some forgiving, and so did other people with me. My first inclination was to run to another church, thinking that would take care of the problem. Paul gives us all a reality check. You can't just run to another church. There is no such thing as a church anywhere in which there are no grievances. We're going to have to learn how to forgive in any church. This is the negative part of understanding who we are. We'll always need to know how to forgive as long as we're part of a church.

If you find that discouraging, you need to hear the positive side of who Paul says we are. He says in verse 11: "Christ is all and is in all." We are part of the only community of people anywhere for whom it is true that Christ is in every member. When you need to forgive, never forget that Christ is in you, and that Christ is in the life of the brother or sister you need to forgive. The church is the only community of people for whom this is true. Christ is all and is in all.

Paul goes on in verse 12: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved..." These are packed words. We are chosen by God. We aren't here by chance. We are holy through what Christ has accomplished for us. We are dearly loved by God. But there's even more here than meets the eye. These are all words that had previously been used for God's chosen people, the nation of Israel. Paul is saying that if you are part of the church, then you are the people of God in this world. You are the ones God has chosen to be his representatives. You are the heir of all of his promises. That's why forgiveness is so important.

Then in verse 15 Paul says, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace." Put this all together and ask, "Who are we, and how does this help us forgive?" The answer is that we are broken people who will occasionally run into grievances and hurts within the church. We can just assume that it's going to happen. But we have Jesus Christ. We are God's people. And he has called us to peace, to live as a church under his rule and resources. We will hurt each other, but he has given us everything we need to handle it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was German pastor and part of the resistance movement against Hitler. Listen to who he said we are within the church:

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter, or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.

"We belong to one another," he says, "only through and in Jesus Christ." This is what makes it possible for the differences to be obliterated between Gentile and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free. Christ is all, and is in all. If grievances come up, it will split us apart if our unity is based on anything else but Christ. If our unity and fellowship is based on age or gender or race or musical tastes, our fellowship will not survive grievances and hurts. But Paul says that it is based on so much more. It is based on Christ.

The first step toward forgiveness is to understand who we are in Christ. We will hurt each other, but our fellowship is in Christ. He has given us everything that we need to make it through whatever happens.

So look around you this morning. Who do you see? I hope as you look around, you're under no false pretenses. These are people who will probably cause you grievances in the future if they haven't already. It's inevitable. But these are also people in whom Christ is present. They are part of the body that God has called together here in unity. Despite our differences, we are called to be one, and our fellowship is based on Christ. Forgiving each other means that we understand all this about each other.

Base Your Forgiveness on What Christ Has Done

That's who we are. Negative: we are people who will hurt each other. Positive: Christ is all and is in all. He has called us, and our fellowship and unity is based on him.

Here's the second thing that I want to pull out of this today. Our forgiveness has to be based on something. When my kids fight, I often make them forgive each other or else. In that case, their forgiveness is based on fear of consequences.

When we run into grievances which each other, we could try to base our forgiveness on a number of things. We could base it on the fact that our kids play together and we have to get along. We could base it on a desire to be nice. We could base our forgiveness on willpower, or that if we don't get along a pastor or deacon will come along and confront us. We could base our efforts to forgive on any of these things, but we'd be doomed in our efforts to forgive. It would never work. None of these is a strong enough basis to overcome the hurts of the past and to bring about real reconciliation and forgiveness.

But none of these things are the basis for the forgiveness we are to practice in the church. Paul gives us the basis for our forgiveness at the end of verse 13: "Forgive as the Lord forgave you." This phrase gives us both the extent and the basis of how we are to forgive others.

First, the extent. "Forgive us as the Lord forgave you." How much should we forgive others? Well, how much do you want the Lord to forgive you? Do you want the Lord to forgive you partially or completely? To the extent that God has forgiven us, to that same extent we are to forgive others.

How much has Christ forgiven us? He has offered us forgiveness of the highest order. He initiated forgiveness before we had ever confessed to him. He forgave us freely. Psalm 103 says that he:

...forgives all your sins...
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:3, 8-12)

That's the extent to which we're called to forgive others.

It's also the basis of how we forgive others. "Forgive us as the Lord forgave you." Christ's mighty work of reconciliation is the basis on which we are able to forgive others. God's forgiveness is underneath ours. It creates and supports our ability to forgive.

Miroslav Volf said, "Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners." He's write. When someone offends us, we go, "Liar! Evil! How dare they!" We label them and hire them and "exclude them from the community of humans." When we fail, we say we're complicated. There's something powerful that happens when we see those who've wounded us the same as we see ourselves: as a community of sinners who are in need of forgiveness and who have been forgiven as Christ. We are able to forgive each other because Christ has forgiven us.

I don't know who needs forgiving in your life. To forgive them based on your own willpower or any other basis is impossible. But it is possible to forgive them, because people who have been forgiven are able to forgive others. We base our forgiveness on the forgiveness that Christ has offered us.

Act (With the Spirit's Help)

So here we go. When understand who we are in Christ, and base our forgiveness on Christ, we'll be able to act. Paul says:

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

Remember last week? We want to get rid of all this stuff - anger, rage, malice, slander, and so on - and put on clothes like forgiveness. Paul says it's possible, because Christ has provided us with these new clothes. All we have to do is to put on what Christ has already provided for us.

Some of the virtues here overlap with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. The Spirit is producing these virtues in our lives. With his help, we can begin to act in ways consistent with the new nature and forgive those who have hurt us.

I want to point out two terms in verse 13. One is to "bear with each other." This means to put up with each other even when they fail us or act differently than we expect. We're called to put up with each other. We're also called to forgive. Forgive is based on the root word for grace. Bearing covers present and future offenses. Forgiving covers past offenses. We're to forgive each other for the past and put up with each other in the present.

Now listen. If you don't hear anything else this morning, this is what you need to hear. The only way to become a community of grace and forgiveness is if we understand who we are in Christ, and what he has done for us at the cross. That's critical. If you ever get to the point where you can't forgive, then you have to go back to the beginning. Can I forgive you? No. Okay. Then let's go back and remember who we are in Christ Jesus. Okay, now I remember. Christ is all and is in all. We are God's chosen people, holy, and deeply loved. Okay, got it. Now I need to remember what Christ has done for us at the cross. Okay, Now I remember. Maybe now I can begin the process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is never easy and it isn't always fast. The only way that we at Richview can become this community of grace and forgiveness is if we're crystal clear on who we are, and what Christ has done for us. Then we can clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bear with and forgive each other, and love each other. It all goes back to knowing who we are and what Christ has done for us.

The Importance

John Piper says:

The greatest risk we face as a church in these days is not that we may lose an organ, or that we may lose money, or that we may lose members, or that we may lose staff, or that we may lose reputation. The greatest risk is that we may lose heaven. Because one way to lose heaven is to hold fast to an unforgiving spirit and so prove that we have never been indwelt by the Spirit of Christ...

The greatest risk that we face as a church is that we won't do this. God has given us everything that we need to forgive. We all have someone to forgive, don't we? We all want to forgive, for our own good and for God's glory. You feel like you can't forgive, and you're right. But when you see who we really are, who Christ has made us, and when you base your forgiveness on the forgiveness that Christ has offered you, you are ready to act with his help.

We're going to watch a DVD. When you leave today you will receive an olive branch. The idea is that we all have some forgiving to do. It won't be easy. If you're not ready to give the olive branch to someone, maybe you can keep it somewhere as a reminder to keep going over who we are in Christ, and what he has done for us.

But when you're ready, it would be a beautiful thing to see olive branches exchanged, and forgiveness being offered, as we live out the grace that God has poured out on our lives.

Posted on February 4, 2007 and filed under Uncategorized.

Baggage (Colossians 3:1-17)

In November 2001, over a hundred people attended a meeting in the gym upstairs. The purpose of the meeting was to look back on the history of the church and. with God's help, to chart a path for us to take in the future.

For part of the day, we put together a timeline of the church's history. We were given pieces of paper - yellow pieces, representing good or neutral events; pink pieces to represent painful events, and blue pieces, representing external events that affected the church. I wish I had pictures of the gym wall as it was covered with these slips of paper, but I do have the notes that were taken from the timeline. Here is how it looked.

Time Line

I know you can't read what's on all of the notes. Do you notice something, though, as you look at the timeline? There are a lot of pink or painful events. We have been around long enough as a church to have accumulated experiences that have been painful for us as a church. Our story as a church, up until this point, is incomplete unless we say that it is a story that has involved some pain.

I hadn't thought of this for a while until late last year I had dinner with one of our leaders. He mentioned the pink or painful events in our history and wisely said that we probably shouldn't have moved on in the planning process before we had dealt with these painful events in the history. The issue isn't that our story involves pain; everyone's story involves pain. The issue is if we have painful issues in our past as a church that are left unresolved. Each of these pink events has the potential to push us closer to God, but each of these pink events also has the potential to linger as unresolved issues or baggage that we carry around with us even today.

We need, we long for, community as a church. I don't think there's a person here who would argue with the fact that we've been called to love each other. We know that it's commanded by Jesus. We are to love each other, and Jesus has set the standard of how much: just as he loved us, so we are to love each other. You don't get a higher standard than this. All of us would likely nod our assent to Paul's words, that if we don't have love we are nothing. I don't think there's a person here who doesn't agree that we are called to love each other, or who doesn't long for this type of community for us as a church.

The issue, or at least one of them, is that although we want and need true community, we have baggage. We have been hurt. When we hurt we turn toward self-protection. We struggle to forgive those who have hurt us, and we no longer feel safe.

You may be here this morning and this doesn't apply to you. You don't have any baggage, at least not related to the church body. But for some of us, this is very real. If we were honest with ourselves today, we'd have to admit that we have been carrying around baggage for years related to how someone or something hurt you. This baggage may be new or it may be old. The wounds may be fresh or they may be almost healed. But I'd ask you to take a minute to identify the baggage you think you may be carrying this morning. We're not going to lay blame or tell you that you shouldn't be carrying this baggage. The hurts are real. But I would ask you to identify what baggage from the past, if any, that you are carrying today. So let's do that for a minute.

[Pause]

Now the question is, what are we going to do with this stuff? Does anyone here deny that we have baggage? Does anyone deny that this baggage gets in the way of keeping Christ's command to love each other as he has loved us? Of course it gets in the way. One of the ongoing issues that we will face is that until we deal with the baggage and hurts from the past, we will never experience the oneness that Christ prayed for. We will never be able to experience the authentic community that lets the world know that we are Christ's disciples.

If you have tried to deal with the baggage yourself, though, you know it's impossible. The reality is that some of our baggage looks like this: it's chained to our wrists. We would like to get rid of it but we can't. We don't have the power. We're cursed to carry it with us until someone else comes and unlocks the key that keeps it shackled to us.

I'm going to suggest this morning that getting rid of our baggage is absolutely essential. My friend was right - we can't move on as a church until we deal with this stuff that's accumulated. I'm also going to suggest that there's a way that we can get rid of the baggage, but it won't be through dealing with the problem ourselves. You can drop the luggage but it will be dragging behind you until the handcuff is unlocked, and you can't do that for yourself. But there is a way for us to experience the freedom of dropping our baggage. There is a way to be unchained and to experience true freedom and to begin to move toward true community. Today I want to describe what that is, and then invite you to begin the process yourself.

Scythians Among Us

Please turn in your Bibles to Colossians 3. We're going to read verses 5 to 15:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

I want to zero in on one group of people that Paul mentions in verse 11: Scythians. Most of the time we read over this and get the general idea without necessarily understanding exactly who the Scythians are.

I had a teacher explain to me a little about the Scythians once. It was almost twenty years ago, but I've never forgotten. I'm going to read you the quote that he gave us. It's from the historian Herodotus, who is lived in the 5th century BC and is called the father of history. Here's how he describes the Scythians:

In what concerns war, their customs are the following. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle. Whatever number he slays, he cuts off all their heads, and carries them to the king... [the passage then describes how the Scythian soldier scalps his victim and how he uses the scalp as a napkin or cloak]

The skulls of their enemies, not indeed of all, but of those whom they most detest, they treat as follows. Having sawn off the portion below the eyebrows, and cleaned out the inside, they cover the outside with leather. When a man is poor, this is all that he does; but if he is rich, he also lines the inside with gold: in either case the skull is used as a drinking-cup. They do the same with the skulls of their own kith and kin if they have been at feud with them, and have vanquished them in the presence of the king. When strangers whom they deem of any account come to visit them, these skulls are handed round, and the host tells how that these were his relations who made war upon him, and how that he got the better of them; all this being looked upon as proof of bravery.

So you get the idea of who these Scythians were. The soldiers scalped victims and used the scalps for napkins and clothes. And if you went to his house you may have a skull of one of his relatives passed around and hear how he won the family fight.

By the time that Paul wrote these words, hundreds of years had passed, but the view of Scythians had not really changed. Scythian was a word that people used for the savage and uncivilized. Scythians were known for their brutality and were considered as little better than wild beasts. They were generally considered the most barbaric, cruel and anti-Greek people.

Now read verses 11 to 14 again in light of this:

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Now, either Paul is making something up, or else there is something at work within the church that can take a Scythian and put him within a church and say that all the divisions and all the baggage that separate a Scythian from the rest of us are gone. Paul says that in Christ, the differences have been obliterated.

Is there baggage when you are in authentic community with Scythians? You had better believe it. But Paul says that there is something that can overcome that baggage, so that the church can be full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness that can overcome grudges. There's something that can bring love.

So what is this? Because I'm sure that if this power has the power to overcome the baggage of Scythians in the church, this same power can liberate us from our baggage and allow us to overcome the baggage from our past. What is it? What has the power to liberate us?

Freedom from our Baggage

Before we look at what it is that can liberate us from our baggage, I want to come back to our situation. Last week I spoke on the one thing that truly matters, and that's that we love one another. Someone said after the service that they agree that this is the one thing that really matters. They said, though, that they don't think it can happen here.

I agree. It's impossible for us to overcome our baggage and to become an authentic community of love, just in the same way that it's impossible for a community to exist in which there "is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free." It's impossible on a human level, but Paul says it's not only possible, it's reality. We don't have to get to this point. We are already here. We don't have to make it possible to release our baggage. Paul says it's already happened.

So if you say it's impossible for us to get rid of our baggage, I agree on a human level. But Paul says there is something that not only makes it possible, but it's already happened.

What is it that liberates us from our baggage? What is it that can make community possible when we have hurts from the past? What can make a church in which there are no barriers between Scythians and Greeks, between slaves and masters, between young and old, between those who have hurt us and those who have been hurt? What can obliterate all the barriers that divide us?

Paul says in verse 11, "but Christ is all, and is in all." Verses 1-3 say:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Here's what Paul says is real. You have been raised with Christ. Your old nature has died. Your life is now hidden with Christ in God. You don't have to earn this. This is what Paul says is already true about you. You have a power that is more than adequate as a check against the appetites and attitudes of the lower nature, because you have union with Christ.

And Paul says that when a group of people come together for whom this is true, then "Christ is all, and is in all." In Jesus all differences merge, all distinctions are done away. Loyalty to Christ takes precedence over all earthly ties and overcomes all obstacles.

So what has the power to liberate us from our baggage? The Gospel. We don't have to free ourselves from our baggage. Jesus has already freed us. What is humanly possible for us to do has already been done. All that we have to do now is live it.

So here's where we end up today. Jesus commanded us to love one another. His one concern is that we love each other to the extent that Jesus loved us. It is his one concern, his one command, his one prayer for us, that we love one another.

But we think we can't do it, and we're right. We have been hurt and we have accumulated baggage. We therefore can't do the very thing that is most important to Christ, which is to love each other, because of all of this baggage.

Then Paul comes along and says, "You're right, you can't do it. But I know a power which can set you free from the baggage. I know a power than will enable you to take off anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language like dirty clothes. And I know a power that will enable you to overcome all the baggage and clothe yourself clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. And that power is the Gospel," Paul says. "Your problem isn't the baggage. Your problem is that you aren't taking advantage of what Christ has done for you. Your problem isn't the baggage. Your problem is a Gospel problem. You need to come back to the Gospel."

Next week we're going to look at how to begin the process of forgiveness. I'm not minimizing the hurt or the process. Next week we're going to look at this.

But today I'm calling us to do something with our baggage, and it's this: to bring it to the cross. Remember I asked you earlier to identify what baggage you're carrying? This morning I'm going to ask you to come, to pick up one of these bags sitting at the front of the auditorium, and to bring it up here and release it as a statement that you are willing to let go of the baggage, to let go of the old nature, and to let Christ set us free.

It's time to let go of the baggage. The only way we can do this is through Christ. what has the power to liberate us from our baggage? The Gospel. Let's bring our baggage to the Gospel this morning and be set free.

Posted on January 28, 2007 and filed under Uncategorized.

The One Thing (John 13:34-35; John 17)

One of my favorite business authors wrote a book that came out last year called The One Thing You Need to Know. The book is an attempt to dig into a subject deeply, to get to the core of the matter, to cut through all the clutter and zero in on the one controlling insight that really matters. He describes the one thing you need to know in three areas: managing, leading, and sustained individual success. It's not a bad book at all.

I appreciate the effort to cut through all the clutter and get to the heart of an issue. When done well, that type of focus can really help to make life manageable.

I guess I could save you a lot of time and tell you the one thing that he says you need to know to achieve sustained individual success. Okay, I'll tell you. He argues that the one thing you need to know about sustained individual success is to "discover what you don't like doing and stop doing it." I'm trying this out. In fact, as of this year I've stopped shoveling my driveway. It's too soon to say if it's made me more successful or not. I'll let you know, I promise.

This morning, though, I want to ask you an even more important question. The question is this:

What is the one word that captures God's dream for human beings? What is one word that gets to the heart of God's dreams for us as his people? What one word captures God's hope for you and me?

I am going to give you a few minutes to answer this with three or four people around you. [Discussion]

Okay, what did you come up with? [holiness, worship, love...]

I'm going to suggest that we answer this question by going to one of the most poignant sections of Scripture. Jesus was coming close to the end of his earthly ministry. He gathered his closest friends together for one last meal. Everyone knew that something was up. We read of this moment:

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)

In other words, Jesus showed them the extent of his love for them. He opened his heart to his disciples and friends. He opened his heart by giving his friends a practical demonstration of his love, by speaking openly about what was on his heart, and by letting them eavesdrop on his prayer at this crucial moment.

So the question is: as Jesus opened his heart to his followers, and as history was rushing toward its focal point in the death and resurrection of Jesus, what was Jesus concerned about? What is at the top of Jesus' mind as he thought of us?

As history was rushing to its climax, Jesus had one persistent concern. It's the one thing that he's concerned about for us. I think you could be so bold as to say it's the one thing that we need to know about God's dream for us as human beings. Let's look together to find out what it is. Please open a Bible with me as we look together at the Gospel of John. We're going to be looking at sections within John 13-17.

The One Act

I find that whenever I have something important to say, it's not enough to say it once. My kids are teaching me this lesson. If you say something important once, chances are it won't be heard. If you repeatedly say something important the same way, chances are a little bit better that it will be remembered. But if you really want to say something important, and you want others to remember, the best way is to say it repeatedly and in different ways.

That's exactly what Jesus does. There is something that is important, that captures the heart of his dream for us. But he doesn't say it just once. He says it a number of times and in different ways. He shared his concern through one action, through one commandment, and through one prayer. When you get to the bottom of it, Jesus was saying the same thing multiple ways so we would really get it.

So let's look at these three ways that Jesus communicated his dream with us. The first way that he communicated is with one action. John 13 says:

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3-5)

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them.

"You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17)

So here's the question: what one thing is on Jesus teaching us through his action here? What concern is on Jesus' mind as he teaches his disciples through this action? Take a moment and see if you can come up with an answer with a few people around you. [Discussion]

Okay, so what did you come up with? What is Jesus trying to teach us by washing the disciple's feet? [to serve one another, to put each other first...]

The key, I think, is found in the first verse. "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." The act of washing the disciple's feet, which was normally done by a servant, was meant to demonstrate his love through a selfless act of service. It was about much more than about feet. It was a prophetic act that anticipated his upcoming death. Jesus says in verse 15, "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."

So if you summarize this one act in one word it would be this: love. But not the mushy type of love that makes you tingle or warm inside. It's the type of love that gets you down on the ground doing something that's demeaning, that you don't really feel like doing. It's the type of love that involves a willingness to die for each other if that's what it takes.

What one word captures Jesus' dreams for us, as communicated by this action? It's that we follow his example in loving one another, and that we take that love as far as you can take it. How far can we take it? According to Jesus, you take it as far as he did: to death. Jesus' one dream, his one concern for us as he opened his heart on that last night, is that we love each other, to death if that's what it takes.

The One Command

So that's the one act, the first way that Jesus tells us what's on his mind. He showed it. The best leaders and communicators communicate through their lives. They set the example. And so Jesus communicated his concern for us, his dream for us, in the most convincing way possible. He communicated it by living it, and even more powerfully, by dying for it.

But there's more. Sometimes people don't understand it if you don't explain. So as Jesus opens his heart, he puts his dream, his one concern, into words so that there's no mistaking what he's thinking about. Look at John 13:34-35 with me. Jesus says:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

And then Jesus repeats himself in the next chapter: "This is my command: Love each other" (John 15:17).

This is the commandment that Jesus left for us to follow as his followers: to love one another. He communicated it by his actions, and then he spelled it out for us in words. He wants us to love one another.

I guess one question that comes to mind is what Jesus meant by saying this was a "new commandment." It wasn't really new in the sense that it hadn't been given before. The disciples probably would have known that Leviticus 19:18 says, "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord."

It wasn't even new in the sense that Jesus hadn't talked about it before. You may remember the story of Jesus being asked the greatest command of the 613 that were given in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus said:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbor as yourself." All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

So this type of command wasn't entirely new.

What is new, though, is the mode, depth, and extent of this type of love. Jesus said, "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." Here's what's new: the standard for this kind of love. We are to love one another, and the standard is Jesus' love for us.

If I ask myself how much I should love each of you, the standard used to be that I have to love you as I love myself. That is a fairly high standard, because most of us have no problem loving ourselves. We used to be called to love each other as much as we love our own lives.

But Jesus raises the standard. The new standard is that we are called to love each other to the extent that Jesus loves us. How much does Jesus love us? So much that he gave his life for us. The new standard, the new command, is that we love each other so radically that we are willing to lay down our lives for each other. Jesus says in John 15:12-13:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.

Here's how we know we're going far enough in loving each other: are you willing to die for another Christian? Take a look around you today. Would you be willing to give up your life for the sake of any follower of Jesus Christ you see around you?

This is what Jesus communicated as his one dream, his one hope and concern for us as he opened his heart that last night before he was crucified.

The One Prayer

So far we've looked at God's hope and dream for us as revealed in the night that Jesus opened up his heart and demonstrated, through actions and words, what was on his mind. But Jesus did something else that night to communicate what was on his mind. He let his disciples eavesdrop as he prayed. The prayer found in John 17 has been called "a summation of his whole ministry, a legacy he entrusted to the Father in the presence of his followers as witnesses" (Gilbert Bilezikian, Community 101).

So this is not just any old prayer. This prayer is the summation of Jesus' whole life and ministry.

We know that Jesus often prayed. What's rare about this prayer is that it's one of only a few times that we get to listen on as Jesus carries on a private conversation with his Father. And what is on Jesus' mind as he prays?

Well, he prays for protection for his followers. But the protection was not to spare them from danger, want, or even persecution. Jesus prayed for protection so that his followers would be able to achieve the same kind of oneness that exists between Jesus and his Father. Jesus prayed: "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one" (John 17:11). In other words, Jesus isn't as concerned about our comfort or our physical safety as he is about our oneness. What matters to Jesus is that we have the same type of relationship with each other as he has with his Father.

Then Jesus goes on to include us in his prayer. He moves beyond thinking about his immediate disciples to all believers of all times throughout the future of the church. Jesus says in verses 20-23:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one-- I in them and you in me--so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Jesus wasn't, I think, praying for organizational oneness, or that we all look and act alike. What he was praying for is that his followers would band together in communities that would reflect the authentic oneness that he and his Father shared, so that our witness to the world would be effective. He wanted us to be one, to be united in purpose.

Gilbert Bilezikian writes:

[Jesus] knew that if the church should fail to demonstrate community to the world, it would fail to accomplish its mission because the world would have reason to disbelieve the gospel. According to that prayer, the most convincing proof of the truth of the gospel is the perceptible oneness of his followers.

In our day, whenever the church is ineffective and its witness remains unproductive, the first questions that must be raised are whether the church functions as authentic community and whether it lives out the reality of its oneness...the most potent means of witness to the truth of the gospel is the magnetic power of the oneness that was committed by Christ to his new community at the center of history. (Community 101)

Putting It Together

So here's the question again: what one word captures God's dream, God's hope, for us? The one word is this: love. Jesus opened up his heart to his followers, and through an action, a command, and a prayer, he revealed to us his primary concern for us: that we love one another to the extent that he loved us.

God's hope for us is that we love one another.

The question I want to leave with you is this: if God's heart for Richview is that we become famous in the world for how we love each other - and that is God's heart and vision for our church - then what does this mean for us practically? If God's dream for us is that we love each other so much that we're willing to die for each other, how then shall we live?

Over the next few weeks, we'll be exploring some of what this means. In the next couple of weeks we're going to look at some of the barriers that keep us from loving each other like this. Next week in particular, I'm hoping to talk about a Richview-specific barrier that makes this tough. I hope you'll join me these next few weeks as we focus on this, because if we fail at this as a church, we fail at everything. This is the one thing we need to know about God's heart for our church. It's that we love each other in a radical way, so much so that the world will stop and take notice and say, "Look at how much they love each other."

But today, let me ask you to answer this one question. What one word captures God's heart for us? Let's say it together: Love. What did Jesus pray for as he looked ahead in history to the time that we would be alive? That we would be one, that we would love one another. What is God's vision for Richview? That we love one another.

Somebody has said, "When the world sees a church from which selfishness is banished, they will acknowledge the divine mission of Christ because he was wrought such a wonder, a community of men [and women] who truly and heartily love one another."

I hope you'll come back next week as we begin to look at how we can do this. But I want to leave you with some homework this week, because I know that we all love homework. As we've looked at what Jesus said, I think we realize that there's not a chance that we can meet this standard of love by ourselves. If we try to love each other like this on our own strength, we'll fail every time. So here's what I want to ask you to do: to do what Jesus did and pray about it. Would you pray at least three times this week that God would make us one, that he would make us into the kind of church which loves each other just as Jesus loves us?

Father, this is what it's all about. Your dream for us is that we would become an authentic, genuine community of disciples who love each other. "How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity!" (Psalm 133:1)

Lord, make it so. Help us as we embark on this journey of learning what it means to love each other. Make it so the world would take notice. We can only do this because of the Gospel and in your power, so we pray for your help. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Posted on January 21, 2007 and filed under Uncategorized.

What Failure Teaches Us (Mark 9:14-29)

A while back, I took golf lessons. The instructor told us that anybody can golf if they learn the fundamentals. I believed him too!

He would give us something to practice and then walk around and watch him. I still remember him when we came to watch me. He didn't say a word, but he walked away slowly shaking his head. I think I may have changed his mind about anyone being able to play golf.

A golf club may look like part of a hobby to you, but to me it looks like an instrument of torture.

I want to talk to you about failures. I failed at golf, but a lot of times our failures are a lot more significant than that. Where is it right now that you feel like a failure in your life? Is there a relationship you can't fix? A habit you can't break? A sin that you can't conquer? Could it be that God is trying to teach us something in our failures?

There's a story in the Bible about the disciples failing. Jesus had just been transfigured on the mountain. He was revealed in all his glory. When he returned to his disciples he found them fighting. Listen to what happened:

When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” (Mark 9:14-29)

The disciples failed, and Jesus is annoyed. I'm struck with a question as I read this story. What is the problem? What did the disciples do wrong?

We find out later in the story. Jesus heals the boy. Later, the disciples are alone with Jesus and they ask him why they couldn't heal the boy:

After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:28-29)

It seems that the disciples did something that we do all the time. They forgot to pray. They took God's power for granted and tried to handle things on their own. And they failed.

So here's the question: What failures are you and I facing because we're not tapping into God's power?

I don't know what failures you're facing in your life. I know that my tendency is to try to handle things on my own. We default into trying harder and trying to handle things on our own.

The end result is that we fail. We can't pull it off. As with the disciples, we experience consequences - not just ourselves, but in our ability to minister to others.

The alternative, Jesus says, is to return to God and to tap into his power. It's to return to God and rely on him for what he alone can do. Which is exactly why we need prayer, and why we also need communion.

The failures and sins in our lives won't be conquered by trying harder. I'm not saying that we don't play a role. But we will never be able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We can only overcome failure in our lives by what Jesus did on the cross.

Our sins and failures often make us want to run the other away from God and the cross. This story teaches us that our failures and sins should drive us back to God and his power, back to the cross.

So as we come to the communion table this morning, I want to ask you. Where are you failing in your life? Your marriage, a relationship, a sin that you can't conquer? What is that area of failure? Bring it to the cross this morning. Why did you think you could handle it on your own? This type can only come out through prayer. This type can only be handled by what Jesus has done at the cross. So let's come to the cross this morning, not just for forgiveness, but to receive all that we need to live.

Posted on January 16, 2007 and filed under Uncategorized.

A Church's New Year's Resolution (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Today's the day that some of us think about New Year's resolutions for the coming year. According to studies, though, not all of us are into resolutions. A study came out a year ago saying that only 45% of people now make New Year's resolutions, which is half of the number who did so in the past.

Why the dramatic drop in the number of people making resolutions? Stephen Shapiro, who wrote a book called Goal-Free Living, says:

New Year's Resolutions just don't work. According to our study, only 8% of Americans say they always achieve their New Year's resolutions. The way it seems to work now, setting a New Year's Resolution is a recipe for defeat. It has come to be one of the nation's most masochistic traditions...At some point, people just decide to stop hurting themselves, and they call the whole thing off.

If you're someone who makes resolutions, you shouldn't let what Shapiro says discourage you. People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don't explicitly make resolutions.

Whether you're a resolution maker or not, I'm going to ask you to make a New Year's resolution together as a church. I've never heard of a church making a New Year's resolution before. It's not to lose weight or exercise or to quit smoking or to pay off the credit cards. It's going to be a different kind of resolution altogether, and a little bit of a dangerous one as well.

The resolution is found in 1 Corinthians 2. Let's read it together and then let's see if it's something that we can resolve for the coming year. Paul is writing to the Corinthians and addressing some of the problems that the church in Corinth was facing. Listen to what Paul writes as he talks about the focus of his ministry when Paul was among them. Read with me the first five verses of 1 Corinthians 2:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.

Corinth was a sophisticated city that prided itself on its wisdom and oratory. It was said that on every street in Corinth you would meet a wise man who had his own solution to all the world's problems. The Corinthian church had adopted some of the views of the culture of that time with a love for human wisdom and eloquence. They expected a certain level of excellence in a speaker's presentation, and a certain level of sophistication in the message.

When people addressed a crowd in that day, it was customary to begin to heaping praise on the city and its achievements. You would try to present a very positive message and win people over to yourself so that they would trust you.

The apostle Paul was more than capable of fitting these expectations. He had been trained in rhetoric and was accustomed to winning people over when he spoke publicly. But Paul says two things about his approach in Corinth: one about the subject of his message, and one about his way of speaking. His subject, Paul says, is "Jesus Christ and him crucified." And his way of speaking is not with rhetorical flourish but with a reliance on the Spirit's power rather than on eloquence. Paul says,

I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.

So here's my question: what if we, like Paul, resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified? What if we resolved over the coming year to be all about Jesus? Before I ask you to make this commitment with me, I had better tell you what I think it means. Then I'm going to ask you if you are ready to make this resolution with me.

What It Doesn't Mean

First, here's what Paul doesn't mean. Paul isn't arguing against making a message as compelling as possible. I've heard of some preachers who take pride in not preparing a message very well. I heard of one a few years back who would never prepare before sitting in the service during the morning. Sometimes he would do all his preparation on the stairs on the way up to the platform. I'm guessing that the people in that church may have thought of adding more stairs at some point. Paul is saying something important about an over-reliance on communication skills, but he's not saying it's wrong. Poorly prepared messages are not more spiritual than well-prepared ones.

Paul also isn't saying that Christ's crucifixion is the only thing that he talks about. If you read Paul's books you know that he addresses many other topics and doctrines besides the death of Christ. So Paul isn't saying that it's wrong to talk about the birth of Christ or the resurrection of Christ or many of the other things we read about in Scripture. Some people press Paul's words here a little harder than they should and end up misinterpreting what he's saying.

So if Paul isn't arguing against speaking well or talking about other issues besides Christ and his death, what exactly does he mean when he says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified"?

What Paul Meant

Here's what I believe Paul meant. Paul was saying that the heart of the Christian message, the person who is at the center of life and of all our questions, the beginning, middle, and the end of all of life, is Jesus. We never grow beyond Jesus. And the decisive act of history, the center of all things, is what Jesus accomplished at the cross. We can never outgrow or move beyond the central message of our faith: Jesus and him crucified. That is enough. We don't need anything more. We must make that message central and never lose sight of Jesus and the cross.

This is what Paul meant, but it goes against everything that we want to believe. We're in the same position as the Corinthians. If you go into Chapters you can find books on almost every topic. You can find people on every corner who think that they have the answers to the problems of all of life. I went on Amazon the other day and searched for "self-help" and came up with almost 83,000 books. Self-help books, seminars, video, audio and digital make up a multibillion-dollar industry. Paul says to forget all that and come back to the only person and message that matter: Jesus and him crucified.

Imagine standing up in front of a sophisticated audience who were looking for the secret to life, the universe, God, beauty, love, and death. Imagine standing up in front of this audience with nothing to say except for some stumbling words about a man who was executed outside a rebellious city in the middle east some years ago. This goes against everything that sophisticated people like us expect, but it's exactly what Paul says is needed. The answers to our deepest questions and longings are not found in sophisticated theories or programs. They are found in Jesus Christ and what he accomplished at the cross.

This even goes against what we expect in church. Crucifixion back then was not a palatable message. It was the one message that people didn't want to hear. Paul said that it didn't really matter to him. He wasn't interested in presenting a palatable message. Today, you can go into Christian bookstores and look at all the books that are presented on different topics, and be hard pressed to find a large section on Christ and him crucified. Perhaps we come to church expecting to hear positive messages that will help us live better lives. It isn't our natural inclination to return to this message, but Paul says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

Maybe part of the problem is that we like to complicate things. Preachers are sometimes known for making simple things complex. There's enough in the Bible to get lost unless we keep our eye on the big picture. Jesus himself tells us what the central message of Scripture is. Luke 24:27 says of Jesus, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." That is something I would have liked to have heard. Jesus opened up all the Bible and told these two people he met how the Scriptures spoke of himself. Somebody's said, "All the strands of the witness of Scripture to the identity and purpose of God converge in Jesus Christ" (Daniel L. Migliore). Every part of Scripture must be understood in relation to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Here's what I know: if we resolve to make this our focus, then there is one person who won't like it. Satan would be happy if we picked any other topic, any other focus, than the person and work of Jesus. He would like for us to focus our attention anywhere else. He will do everything he can to shift our focus anywhere else. But this is precisely where we need to go: to know nothing except for Jesus Christ and him crucified, in our lives individually, and together as a church.

So we must make Jesus central. We must never lose sight of who he is and what he did for us. We must resolve, as Paul did, to make this our main concern, believing that this simple message is at the heart of everything that we need to know for life. We will never outgrow this message. Christ is alone and enough.

What It Means for Us

I want to take a few minutes this morning and ask what this might mean for us. To do so, I want to give you a quote from Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, and then unpack it a little as he describes what this could mean for us today.

Tim Keller says,

We never "get beyond the gospel" in our Christian life to something more "advanced." The gospel is not the first "step" in a "stairway" of truths, rather, it is more like the "hub" in a "wheel" of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C's of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.

We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom 1:16-17).

The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implication of the gospel, we have not "used" the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people's problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel - a failure to grasp and believe it through and through...So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel - seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.

I hope that you have come to Christ and the cross in your lives. I hope you understand that the gospel is key to beginning our lives of faith. The world and our lives has been broken by sin. It's brought pain and death and alienation into the world and into our lives. We are powerless to fix what sin has damaged. God, who made us in his image, sent his Son in human likeness to live a perfect life and to undo what sin had done. He died in our place, and rose again so that we could live. He is making all things new. I hope that if you have never experienced the reality of what I'm talking about that you will come to Jesus and him crucified. He alone can do what we couldn't do for ourselves.

But some of us know that message very well and think that it's time to move on to other things. One board asked its pastor, "When are we going to get past Jesus to the real meat of Scripture?" Paul reminds us that we never get past Jesus or the gospel. We are saved by the gospel and we also live by the gospel. If we have problems, individually or as a church, it is usually because we haven't grasped or believed or applied part of the gospel to our lives. Like Paul we must keep coming back again and again to Jesus Christ and him crucified until it permeates every area of our lives.

This means that we need to keep coming back to the gospel again and again, unfolding the gospel and all its implications for our lives. Ravi Zacharias says, "The depths of mystery and love found in the cross can never fully be plumbed. But it must be the lifelong pursuit of the Christian to marvel at its costliness and celebrate its meaning." We'll never be done understanding what Jesus Christ and him crucified means for every area of our lives. This will be our ongoing pursuit and passion.

It also means something for us as a church. The Corinthian church had all kinds of problems. Paul writes to them and in essence says that all of your problems as a church can be traced back to a failure to keep Jesus Christ and him crucified central. You are relying too much on human values and wisdom instead of the divine message and power. Our church, like every church, faces all kinds of challenges. Perhaps Paul is saying that the answers to our challenges will not be found in reading the latest book or trying the newest program or method. The answers are found in coming to Jesus Christ and him crucified, and in truly believing and living the gospel.

So how about it? I don't know what New Year's resolutions you are planning for yourself: losing weight, exercising more, paying off some debt. Would you commit with me to this resolution: that in 2007, we will concern ourselves primarily with Jesus Christ and him crucified?

Father, we stand at the threshold of a new year. Thank you for 2006 and all of its blessings and challenges. We stand now not knowing what lies ahead, and we pray for your help as we enter this new year.

Today we resolve that in the coming year we will concern ourselves with nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. This doesn't mean, Father, that we won't deal with other things. We have families and jobs and tasks and other issues to which we must attend. But we want to keep Jesus, the cross, and the gospel central in our lives and in the church.

We resolve to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Our message and our preaching are not with wise and persuasive words, but we pray for a demonstration of the Spirit's power. And may our faith not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power. We pray this, heavenly Father, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Posted on December 31, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.

Give to God (Mark 12:16-17)

I'm going to do something today that I've never done before. We're going to take up another offering. The only difference is that this is going to be a reverse offering. We are not asking you to give us anything; instead, we are going to give you something. When last have you ever taken anything out of the offering basket? But that's what we're going to do today. I feel a little like Oprah, except we're not giving you cars. So let's invite the ushers forward, and when they come around, please take one envelope out of the basket. Don't open the envelope when you get it; just hold on to it for a minute.

Okay, so today's text for the next few minutes is found in Mark 12:16-17:

They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose image is this? And whose inscription?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

And they were amazed at him.

Many of you know the background of this story. The Pharisees and Herodians come with a plan to trap Jesus by asking him whether or not it's right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar. It's a trap. If Jesus pays the tax, then he's giving legitimacy to Rome's right to rule over Israel. If he doesn't pay the tax, then he's rebelling against Rome. This is a no-win situation for Jesus. He's being forced to take sides with the Zealots, who refused to pay taxes, or with the Herodians, who paid the taxes. But Jesus is smarter than all of them, and he says "Give Rome what belongs to Rome, but also give God what is God's."

If you look at our currency, this is what you'll see: a picture of the Queen. Somehow she's not looking to happy. It looks like someone has annoyed her. But we all generally recognize that the government of Canada, which is the government of the Queen, has the right to collect taxes in order to run the government. We don't always agree with how they spend the money, but we understand that some of this stuff that is in our wallets will rightfully go toward taxes, because it bears the image of the Queen.

But today you hold in your hands, maybe for the first time, money that bears the image of God. Look at the envelope. It has one word on it: love. Today, you're holding in your hands money that bears the image of God, because love is God's currency. I want to tell you the story behind what you're holding in your hands.

There's this church in Philadelphia called The Simple Way. They try to live differently in how they treat the money and possessions they have, and they have made redistributing wealth a big agenda item in their lives. Some people call them crazy.

One person there, Shane, came into $20,000 as a one-time gift plus a settlement from a lawsuit. Ask yourself: what would you do if you suddenly came into $20,000? A vacation? Plasma TV?

Let me tell you what they did. He began to imagine: what would it be like to have a little jubilee celebration? Jubilee is the celebration described in Leviticus 25. Every seven years, all debts would be forgiven - a financial fresh start for those in greatest need.

So here's what Shane did. Let me read from a description of the event from Rick McKinley's book This Beautiful Mess:

Working with a coalition of adventurous co-conspirators, Shane took the money and headed for the Stock Exchange on New York's Wall Street. Their strategic opportunity: the opening bell at the Exchange.

The group hid two dollar bills all over lower Manhattan, lugged in over thirty thousand coins in briefcases and backpacks, and climbed to balconies above the crowd carrying thousands of dollars in ones. Word spread through the alleys and projects that something was up, and hundreds gathered.

At 8:20, as the buyers and sellers inside started killing each other to make a buck, Shane and Sister Margaret, a 70-year-old nun stepped up to proclaim the jubilee. Their declaration read in part:

"We are a broken people who need each other and God, for we have come to recognize the mess that we have created of our world and how deeply we suffer from that mess. Now we are working together to give birth to a new society within the shell of the old. Another world is possible. Another world is necessary. Another world is already here."

Then, in keeping with Jewish tradition, Sister Margaret blew the ram's horn, and Shane announced, "Let the celebration begin."

Cash started falling from of the sky. On the steps, Kingdom conspirators dressed as business people, tourists, homeless persons, and passers by started emptying their bags and pockets of change. "The streets turned silver," Shane recalls. Those who needed money picked it up. Those who didn't put it down. The police looked on in confusion, but the joy was contagious, even for the Wall Street traders. And New York was shocked and disarmed to see the evidence of another Kingdom breaking in.

But that wasn't all.

Shane and other members of his group sent one hundred dollar bills to 1,000 communities around the world that, in their opinion, incarnate the spirit of Jubilee. In the envelope with the money, Shane quoted the verse we just read from Acts about laying money at the apostles' feet.

One of the pastors to receive a hundred dollar bill from Shane was me. Across the bill he'd written the word "Love."

On the day I received it, I put it in my pocket. Now what? I wondered. Sure it was mine now, but I'd received it from one of the poorest guys I know. I knew I had to use it well, but I held on to it for a while.

Every now and then, I'd take my wallet out and see it again. The bill didn't look ordinary to me; it felt different, not really mine. It had the stamp of empire on it. I'm holding a sacred 100 dollar bill, I'd think to myself. I don't know if I've ever held one before.

One day I ended up in a store with no cash, so I pulled out the 100 to tide me over. But it said "Love" all across it, and that's not why I was in the store. Nothing in that particular store had anything to do with love. I put the bill back in my pocket.

By the time Jeanne and I had passed the money on to a single mom we know, we had received a visceral lesson in Kingdom economics. Money is to be treasured—but differently.

Because not all treasures are created equal.

And because every bill is marked.

You have $1 in your hands. On the envelope it says "Love," the mark of the empire, the Kingdom of God. I want you to take it home with you. Don't spend it. Put it in your wallet or your purse and use it well. Here's the challenge I want to give you.

Hold on to it for a month. Over the next month, ask God what he wants you to do with it. Don't give it to a ministry or put it in the offering - that's too easy. Begin to dream about what God wants you to do with it.

You say, "What can I do with a dollar?" The answer is" not much. But God can do a lot with a dollar. Mother Teresa said, "In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love." You can join your dollar with someone else's and combine your resources. You can add from your own money to this dollar.

But even if all you use is this dollar, you can probably do far more with a dollar than you think. A dollar is enough to buy a small child a toy from the dollar store. It's enough to stand by shopping carts and to pay the deposit for the first four people that you see. It's enough to buy a stamp and mail a note of appreciation for someone that could use the encouragement. It can pay for four phone calls. It can buy a donut for a friend or a can of Coke for a teenager after school. A dollar can do a lot if you really think about it.

But I don't really want you just to spend one dollar. I want you to dream of what God can do with small things. I want to you to dream about where God is calling you to serve, whom God is calling you to bless.

So take this dollar. Don't spend it yet. And begin to pray about what God wants you to do with it. It bears the mark of the empire. It's the year of jubilee. So let's pray a prayer of blessing over these before we give to God what is God's.

Posted on November 12, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Holiest Thing You Can Do (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

I want to ask you a question today: what is the holiest thing that you have done all week? Take a minute to answer that question with someone near you. There really aren’t many wrong answers, so go ahead and talk about this for a minute.

Okay, who’s got an answer? We’ll put your answers on the screen.

We normally think of some parts of our life as holy:

  • Reading the Bible
  • Going to church
  • Listening to a Christian CD
  • Praying

We consider these things to be holy. By implication, we see other parts of our life as secular, sometimes even profane:

  • Working
  • Sleeping
  • Cooking a gourmet meal from scratch
  • Drinking a bottle of vintage wine
  • Closing the door of the bedroom with the one you married
  • Playing cards with friends

Isn’t that true? I’ll bet that nobody said, “The holiest thing I did this week was to play cards with friends.” Or, “The holiest thing that I did this week was to spend all day Saturday preparing a turkey dinner using an old family recipe.” We see part of our lives as holy, and the rest of our lives as normal and ordinary - maybe even secular or profane.

The reason I want to talk about this today is because this way of viewing life - separating life into what’s holy and what’s not - is very common. It’s probably the way that most of us see our lives. It’s common, but it’s a lie straight from hell.

That’s strong language, and it may surprise you. I’d normally say, “That’s a wrong way to see the world, and I’d like to suggest an alternative,” except that this wouldn’t be strong enough. I’d like to look at a passage of Scripture that uses very indelicate language to describe this way of seeing the world. This passage tells us how to stop separating our lives into what’s holy and what’s not. Instead, it teaches us how to make all of our lives sacred, so that maybe the holiest thing you do this coming week is to push a child on a swing. Let’s look at this passage together this morning. It’s found in 1 Timothy 4.

The author, Paul, describes the issue problem of separating life into what’s holy and what’s not in verses 1 to 3, especially in verse 3:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.

There’s the problem in verse 3: some people who claim to be Christians taught that to be holy, you have to stay away from marriage and certain kinds of food. What would make them take such a view?

The reason is that they had a belief that is actually pretty common today, even in churches. You may have heard the saying, “I am not a human being having a spiritual experience, I am a spiritual being having a human experience.” In other words, there are two levels to life. The lower level is human, in which we eat, sleep, procreate, and work. The higher level is the spiritual, in which we meditate, grow our souls, and have a relationship with God. The goal is to live at the higher level.

The underlying view is that the material world is evil and we should avoid it as much as possible. So spiritual things like going to church and praying and meditating are associated with godliness. The things down here at the human level - eating, working, procreating, playing soccer - are anything but holy. To be holy, you have to do more up here - going to church and praying - and less down here - going out to eat with friends and going on vacation and so on. The big word to describe this is asceticism, which means “self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.”

You can see how people get to this point. Some of the people Paul is writing too had very destructive experiences in their past involving food and sex. Now that they were Christians, they went to the other extreme, and ended up rejecting them because of past hurts.

Think for a minute about some of the things you’ve been told that holy people don’t do. Holy people don’t...fill in the blank. They don’t go to clubs. They don’t drink certain beverages. They don’t enjoy sex. They don’t run in the church. They don’t play cards. We’ve been told that some things are holy and other things aren’t. The unholy things should be avoided.

What’s the problem with separating life into what’s holy and what’s not? Read verses 1 and 2. “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.” Do you get the idea that Paul is serious here? He doesn’t say that these people are well-intentioned but mistaken. He says that they aren’t who they seem to be - they’re hypocritical liars. He says that what they teach is false. What’s more, it comes from demons. It’s demonic teaching. And he says that their consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.

We normally think of false teaching in very lofty terms. False teaching isn’t always about abstract and theoretical matters. When someone tells you that good Christians don’t enjoy sex, that is false teaching from hell itself. When someone tells you that good Christians should withdraw from enjoying what God has created for our enjoyment, then that person is substituting exhibitionism for the very point of Christianity. This isn’t something to put up with. Don’t ever let anyone say you shouldn’t enjoy what God has created for you to enjoy.

Here’s what we’re to do instead: Make all of life holy. Live like Jesus. The most common charge against Jesus is not that he was a blasphemer or a heretic, but that he was drunkard and a glutton. who was criticized for enjoying life too much. A feast at a restaurant, a well-cooked meal, a passionate embrace, playing golf, serving the poor, a night out with friends - these are all holy experiences. Don’t separate your life into what’s holy and what’s not. All of your life is holy.

Why? Because God didn’t create us to withdraw from what he created. He created all things as good, and we glorify God when we enjoy his gifts. Verses 3 to 5 say, “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” Everything God created is good, and when we enjoy what he’s created, we bring glory to the Creator.

So eat food, and praise the master cook who invented more tastes and taste buds. Look at the sky at night and take in all the colors. Run with the wind blowing on your face. Take all that life has to offer, because in enjoying the gifts of God you are bringing glory to God. Don’t detach yourself from the world, but find evidence of God’s glory in the everyday and the ordinary. Leonard Sweet reminds us,

Life’s treasures are buried right under our noses...Life isn’t somewhere else. Life is here - all around you and inside you, a succession of astonishments. True artists write hymns to ordinariness. True artists find meaning in the small wonders of life. The art of godly living is making every moment a real do, making every moment count, even turning “senior moments” into “God moments.” (Soul Salsa)

Here’s how you do that. It’s deceptively simple. You say grace. Verses 4-5 say, “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” Here’s the rule: if it isn’t prohibited by Scripture, then it can be made holy no matter how ordinary it is if you receive it with thanksgiving and say grace. It becomes consecrated - holy and set apart - if you pray a prayer according to Scripture thanking God for what you are received.

G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem:

You say grace before meals. All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

It’s all a gift from God.

Some people say that to be holy you need to separate and withdraw from the world. Scripture teaches us, and Jesus showed us, that it’s the opposite: that we move into this world and live as God’s people, and soak it all up. We were meant to be part of the created universe; proper enjoyment of what God has made is appropriate as long as it is received with thanksgiving. We are not called to abandon our humanity, but to celebrate its rescue, redemption, and remaking. Embed all of life with sacredness. Make every moment holy.

We could learn from a monk who found he didn’t connect as well with God through meditation, contemplation, silence, and written prayer, as much as he did through ordinary daily living. This monk, who lived in the 1600s in France, believed that anyone could connect with God in all of life. His name was Brother Lawrence and he wrote a profound book called The Practice of the Presence of God. Listen to what he wrote:

I gave up all devotions and prayers that were not required and I devoted myself exclusively to remaining always in his holy presence...I flip my little omelet in the frying pan for the love of God, and when it’s done, if I have nothing to do, I prostate myself on the floor and adore my God who gave me the grace to do it, after which I get up happier than a king. When I can do nothing else, it is enough for me to pick up a straw from the ground for the love of God.

Brother Lawrence teaches us that ordinary life is holy. Flipping an omelet can be as holy an act as going to church.

God can be worshiped in church buildings and in religious services. But he is also worshiped when we enjoy all that he has made and embrace all of life as holy. We can worship God in cathedrals and in prayer, but we can also turn the making of a bed or dinner with friends into a sacrament, a holy act of worship before God.

A pastor named Kyle Lake was tragically killed last Sunday, October 30. He never got to deliver the sermon that he had prepared for that morning, but it was read at his funeral, and I want you to hear part of it today:

Live. And Live Well. BREATHE. Breathe in and Breathe deeply. Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now. On a crystal clear, breezy 70 degree day, roll down the windows and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.

If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool Autumn day to FREEZE your lungs and do not just be alarmed, be ALIVE. Get knee-deep in a novel and LOSE track of time.

If you bike, pedal HARD… and if you crash then crash well.

Feel the SATISFACTION of a job well done—a paper well-written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well-performed. If you must wipe the snot from your 3-year old’s nose, don’t be disgusted if the Kleenex didn’t catch it all… because soon he’ll be wiping his own.

If you’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And Grieve well. At the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven. And TASTE. Taste every ounce of flavor. Taste every ounce of friendship. Taste every ounce of Life. Because-it-is-most-definitely-a-Gift.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than that. Make all of life holy by saying grace. Thanks God, for all of your gifts. We enjoy you when we enjoy what you have made for us. Everything you made is good, and we receive it today with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer.

Posted on October 8, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.

Richview Blesses

richviewblesses.gif

Do you ever feel that you’re close to something but you can’t quite get to it? That’s how I’ve been feeling these past couple of years at Richview. It feels like we’ve been so close to what God wants us to be doing, but never quite there. It’s been frustrating to say the least!

This summer a lot of us spent time praying and hoping that we could finally break through to what God wanted us to do. I think God has answered. I don’t come this morning with a message from the mountaintop, but I do come with some excitement and hope because I think that some things have been clear, and that God has called us to something specific, and that we will be able to translate good intentions into reality.

Let me introduce you to something called “Richview Blesses”. I’m going to ask a few questions: what is it, why, who, and how?

First, what? What is “Richview Blesses”? It has a logo and it sounds like a program, which makes some of us suspicious. It really isn’t a program and it isn’t something new. It’s shorthand for the purpose which God has called us. What is the goal of “Richview Blesses”? Simply this: to bless our community. Let me tell you why.

For thousands of years, God has been on a mission. His mission has been to get back what was rightfully his in the first place, to clean up and restore what he created perfect, but which was damaged by sin. God could have done this in a number of ways, but he’s chosen to do it through people, and to use us to bless the world.

In Genesis 12:2-3, God said to Abram:

I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

I’d like us to memorize this verse. This is really the Gospel given in advance. God called a people – first Abram, then his descedents, the nation of Israel, and then people of every nation within the church – to be a blessing to the entire world. God is on a mission to bless this world, and he has called us to participate in it.

“Bless” is a bit of a strange word these days, but it’s a good one. It’s exactly what God has called us to do, and it’s why he has put us here in this part of Toronto. Bless means that God looks favorably on a person, and that something good from God be endowed on someone. In blessing our community, we’re bringing the presence and benefits of God to people in every imaginable way.

You’ve probably heard the idea that we should stop asking God to bless what we’re doing, and starting joining God in what he is already doing. We know what God is already doing: he is on a mission in this world. Every time I go somewhere, thinking I will take God with me, I find that God was already there way ahead of me. God is on a mission, in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools, and he’s calling us to join him in blessing those all around us.

That’s the what. Now the second question: why? The answer is: this is the Gospel. When Jesus came to the world, he said this was his mission:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
(Luke 4:18-19)

If you look at Jesus’ ministry, he did all of that. We focus on his death and resurrection, which brings us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, as we should. This is the centerpiece of what God has done through Jesus Christ. But sometimes we miss the cosmic implications of that. Jesus didn’t just come so we could be made right with God; he came so that we could become his people who would join him on his mission to the world. Like Abram, we have been blessed so that we can be a blessing to others – to the poor, to prisoners, to the blind and oppressed. Everywhere we go, we go with a desire to bless because of the Gospel, so that others can experience what we’ve experienced.

We don’t want to just bless our community. We want to do it because of the Gospel. Our service to the community comes from the overflow of what God has done in our lives. We are so changed that we can’t help but care for the whole needs of all people – not just spiritual needs, but every type of need.

The next question is, who? To answer this, we’re going to start looking at the New Testament book of 1 Peter next week. 1 Peter was written to a group of churches filled with ordinary people who were not at all privileged, in a society that was hostile to the Gospel. It’s a book that tells Christians how to live life faithfully in a culture that doesn’t think too highly of Christians. I want to look at this book, because that’s exactly where we live today. 1 Peter tells us that all of us, no matter where we work and what we do, or how hostile people are around us, can show the presence of God through our lives.

There’s a tension here. The who is both “individually” and “with the support of the entire church.” We’re going to spend a lot of time this year telling stories of what God is doing, praying for each other, and supporting what God is doing through us. I think we’re going to hear a lot of God-stories.

The last question is, how? You’re going to have to wait to find out all the details, but here’s an overview:

Preparing
Dreaming
Acting
Hospitality
Supporting
Celebrating

We’re about to enter into the preparation phases starting next week.

Putting it all together: Richview Blesses is about blessing our community because of the Gospel, individually and with the support of the entire church.

I’ve sensed a desire here to do this, to use our lives to bless the community around us. I’ve also sensed that we really don’t know where to begin. We’re going to deliberately move through some stages this year that will prepare us to turn our intentions and prayers into reality, so that our lives will have the impact that God desires us to have.

What I want to do now is to pray. I’m not going to pray that God will bless this initiative. Instead, I want you to join me in praying that we will join God in what he is already doing in this community, so that we can be a blessing to the community because of the Gospel, both individually and with the support of the church.

Let’s pray.

Father, we worship you today for who you are, and because of your saving acts. You created this world, you saved those who don’t deserve it, and you are on a mission to recreate and redeem all things. Thank you for saving us, and for allowing us to be part of your mission.

Thank you that you are already at work in our community. We want to go where you are already at work, and join you in what you are already doing.

Prepare us, Lord. I pray that you would use this coming year so that we can participate in what you are already doing. We ask that through this church, this community would be transformed, and that people would be blessed. We look forward to supporting each other, telling stories of how you’re at work, and of celebrating what you will do.

Prepare us now, in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior, Amen.

Posted on September 17, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Greatest in the Kingdom

If you've ever been through a job search, you know that people use a bit of creativity when they put their resumes together. Here's what they say and what they mean:

I seek a job that will draw upon my strong communication & organizational skills: I talk too much and like to tell other people what to do.

I take pride in my work: I blame others for my mistakes.

I'm willing to relocate: As I leave Kingston Penitentiary, anywhere's better.

I am adaptable: I've changed jobs a lot.

I am on the go: I'm never at my desk.

I'm highly motivated to succeed: The minute I find a better job, I'm out of here.

Thank you for your time and consideration: Wait! Don't throw me away!

If God was taking resumes, what would you put on yours? In other words, what makes a good Christian? What would really impress them when you arrive in heaven? Experience, qualifications, references, character traits.

The reason I asked is because followers of Jesus Christ have sometimes asked these questions. Matthew 18:1: "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'"

They didn't seem to care that Jesus had just told them that he was about to die. Imagine Peter: he'd walked on water, been on the mountaintop, even had his taxes paid through a miracle.

Their assumption: that greatness in the Kingdom comes from human endeavor and heroic accomplishments.

The way that Jesus responded tells us that greatness in the Kingdom doesn't come from any of that.

He called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4)

Jesus wasn't saying that children were innocent. Anyone who has children know that children are anything but innocent.

This story took place at a time when only adult males really counted. While Israelites saw children as gifts from God, children weren't always viewed all that highly. They were valued primarily for the benefit they brought to the workforce. They had no rights or significance and were powerless in society. They were seen as only half-human until they entered puberty. In the Greek language, children were not referred to as masculine or feminine (he or she) but in the neuter - "it."

They were seen as the most insignificant, the most vulnerable, the weakest of human beings. They had no rights, powers, or privileges.

I imagine that Jesus brought a child over - not just a child but maybe a girl, who would be even less regarded in that society.

Here's what I think Jesus was telling us: Greatness in His Kingdom does not come from human accomplishments, but from receiving and sharing the grace of God.

It doesn't come from anything we accomplish - We analyze our performance, and think that we are greater in the Kingdom if we do certain things (quiet time) and avoid other things (sins). Greatness doesn't come from anything we accomplish. Jesus' words are a pronouncement of grace on those who are unworthy, and a pronouncement of condemnation on those who think they are worthy.

It comes from receiving the grace of God - Children have no status apart from love, no privilege apart from what they receive.

When we receive that grace, we also share it - "And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5). Many think that Jesus isn't talking about literal children here. He's talking about what happens when all of his followers become like children and enter the Kingdom through grace. They create environments of grace where people are present not because they measure up, but because they have come empty-handed and been filled with the abundant grace of God.

The weakest, most vulnerable, least significant human being you can think of is a signpost to what the kingdom is like. The church becomes the kind of place that welcomes people like this, because we're all like that.

Think about this in three areas:

1. Your relationship with God - you don't earn it

2. What he has called you to do - not about your own skills

Here is God's leadership model: he chooses fools to live foolishly in order to reveal the economy of heaven, which reverses and inverts the wisdom of this world. He calls us to brokenness, not performance; to relationships, not commotion; to grace, not success. It is no wonder that this kind of leadership is neither spoken of nor admired in our business schools or even our seminaries. (Dan Allender, Leading with a Limp)

3. As a church - an environment of grace

Without this, you don't even get in the Kingdom, never mind find greatness.

Our response today: To come as children, with nothing. Greatness in His Kingdom does not come from human accomplishments, but from receiving and sharing the grace of God.

Posted on September 3, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Greatest in the Kingdom (Matthew 18:1-5)

If you've ever been through a job search, you know that people use a bit of creativity when they put their resumes together. Here's what they say and what they mean:

I seek a job that will draw upon my strong communication & organizational skills: I talk too much and like to tell other people what to do.

I take pride in my work: I blame others for my mistakes.

I'm willing to relocate: As I leave Kingston Penitentiary, anywhere's better.

I am adaptable: I've changed jobs a lot.

I am on the go: I'm never at my desk.

I'm highly motivated to succeed: The minute I find a better job, I'm out of here.

Thank you for your time and consideration: Wait! Don't throw me away!

If God was taking resumes, what would you put on yours? In other words, what makes a good Christian? What would really impress them when you arrive in heaven? Experience, qualifications, references, character traits.

The reason I asked is because followers of Jesus Christ have sometimes asked these questions. Matthew 18:1:"At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'"

They didn't seem to care that Jesus had just told them that he was about to die. Imagine Peter: he'd walked on water, been on the mountaintop, even had his taxes paid through a miracle.

Their assumption: that greatness in the Kingdom comes from human endeavor and heroic accomplishments.

The way that Jesus responded tells us that greatness in the Kingdom doesn't come from any of that.

He called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said:"Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place - becoming like this child - is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4)

Jesus wasn't saying that children were innocent. Anyone who has children know that children are anything but innocent.

This story took place at a time when only adult males really counted. While Israelites saw children as gifts from God, children weren't always viewed all that highly. They were valued primarily for the benefit they brought to the workforce. They had no rights or significance and were powerless in society. They were seen as only half-human until they entered puberty. In the Greek language, children were not referred to as masculine or feminine (he or she) but in the neuter -"it."

They were seen as the most insignificant, the most vulnerable, the weakest of human beings. They had no rights, powers, or privileges.

I imagine that Jesus brought a child over - not just a child but maybe a girl, who would be even less regarded in that society.

Here's what I think Jesus was telling us: Greatness in His Kingdom does not come from human accomplishments, but from receiving and sharing the grace of God.

It doesn't come from anything we accomplish - We analyze our performance, and think that we are greater in the Kingdom if we do certain things (quiet time) and avoid other things (sins). Greatness doesn't come from anything we accomplish. Jesus' words are a pronouncement of grace on those who are unworthy, and a pronouncement of condemnation on those who think they are worthy.

It comes from receiving the grace of God - Children have no status apart from love, no privilege apart from what they receive.

When we receive that grace, we also share it -"And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5). Many think that Jesus isn't talking about literal children here. He's talking about what happens when all of his followers become like children and enter the Kingdom through grace. They create environments of grace where people are present not because they measure up, but because they have come empty-handed and been filled with the abundant grace of God.

The weakest, most vulnerable, least significant human being you can think of is a signpost to what the kingdom is like. The church becomes the kind of place that welcomes people like this, because we're all like that.

Think about this in three areas:

1. Your relationship with God - you don't earn it

2. What he has called you to do - not about your own skills

Here is God's leadership model: he chooses fools to live foolishly in order to reveal the economy of heaven, which reverses and inverts the wisdom of this world. He calls us to brokenness, not performance; to relationships, not commotion; to grace, not success. It is no wonder that this kind of leadership is neither spoken of nor admired in our business schools or even our seminaries. (Dan Allender, Leading with a Limp)

3. As a church - an environment of grace

Without this, you don't even get in the Kingdom, never mind find greatness.

Our response today: To come as children, with nothing. Greatness in His Kingdom does not come from human accomplishments, but from receiving and sharing the grace of God.

Posted on August 27, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Kingdom is Tiny (Matthew 13:31-33)

Big Idea: It's not about the size of the Kingdom. It's about the presence of the Kingdom.

Purpose: To encourage listeners to focus on the presence, not size, of the Kingdom of God in their lives.

What do you think it would look like if the Kingdom of God showed up in your life?

About 15 years ago now, I started as pastor of a small church of around 40 people. That's 40 in actual numbers, not in pastorally reported numbers!

I believed that if the Kingdom showed up, things would get BIG. I believed that if God showed up and he was at work, the trend lines would all go up.

The implication: if numbers didn't go up, God isn't at work.

I don't know if you've ever faced that. I talked to someone recently who said,"Everything I get involved in goes south. I join a Board and the Board falls apart. I join a ministry and the ministry begins to suffer. What am I doing wrong?"

Most of us struggle with this tension: we feel small, we have small roles, we believe we have small talents, and we sometimes see small results - and yet we believe that if God shows up, the numbers will all go up as well.

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches."

He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough." (Matthew 13:31-33)

The Kingdom is like mustard seed - There are two things about mustard seeds. One is that they are small. When Jesus says the Kingdom is like mustard seed, he is saying that the Kingdom is small and insignificant and easy to miss.

Compare this with expectations that when God showed up, everything would change. They expected anything but that the Kingdom would be small when God shows up.

But here's the other thing about mustard seed: it may be small, but it grows (32). It's not the size of the mustard seed, it's the presence of the mustard seed.

The Kingdom is also like yeast. When Jesus said this, people would be shocked - yeast was not a good thing. A lump of leaven is only 2% of the weight of dough.

How is the Kingdom like yeast? It's pervasive. When it's present, it's transformative. It works its way through all the dough and changes everything.

Big idea: It's not about the size of the Kingdom. It's about the presence of the Kingdom. Where the Kingdom is present, it can be small - but it can change everything.

Most of us judge the Kingdom's presence in our lives by size:

  • Small roles
  • Small talents
  • Small results

Think of early church: some success in numbers, but overwhelmed, always moving to new areas where they were small.

What if the Kingdom of God was present in a small way in our lives? Would that be enough for us to believe that it will grow and transform everything around us?

Take our small roles and believe that if God reigns in our small role, that the Kingdom is growing and transformative.

Take our small talents, and believe that if God reigns in our small talents, God can take those talents and use them in ways we can't imagine.

Take our small results. Do we believe that if the Kingdom is showing up in even the most miniscule ways that God can use those results to grow into something in a big way.

Jesus helps us to see that it doesn't matter how small a role we have, how small our talents are, how small the results are. When the Kingdom is present, it is will grow. One day: its growth will be known to all (birds of air).

Imagine a group of people that didn't believe that it's about the size of the Kingdom, it is about the presence of the Kingdom. Imagine what would happen in a group of people who believed that if the Kingdom is present, even in a small way, that would change everything.

Posted on August 13, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Kingdom is a Mess (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Big Idea: The Kingdom's a temporary mess.

Purpose: To understand why the Kingdom seems to struggle alongside evil.

Every Thursday night, police and pastors go out on a community walk just north of here. I joined them last Thursday night. We walked through a park just off Dixon Road. The place was packed with kids and families.

As we walked, I saw pictures that looked a little like the Kingdom:

  • Police playing basketball with youth
  • Kids going up and laughing and asking about all the police gear
  • Pastors knowing Somali kids by name
  • Smiles exchanged between strangers looking at these strangers going through, wearing police uniforms and clerical collars

It made me realize how much work has gone on in our community already, and what God is up to. You see evidences of the Kingdom wherever you look.

But you also see other things:

  • Banana leaves on the ground, discarded from holding khat (a drug)
  • Kids that keep their distance and don't make eye contact
  • Reports that this is a high-activity area for police enforcement

You have to wonder how the Kingdom can exist side by side with evil. No matter how much the Kingdom advances, it seems that evil always manages to keep up. A lot of the times it looks like evil is ahead.

Why? If the Kingdom is so powerful, why does evil always seem to be neck-and-neck? It's easy to give up, to accept that evil is just as powerful. This leads to discouragement and sometimes even makes you want to quit. At worst, it leads to a crisis of confidence in God.

You need to listen to this, because you and I can get so used to evil and the Kingdom co-existing that we think that's the way it is. We don't even feel the tension any longer because we've given up on the power of the Kingdom.

Jesus told a story about this tension. It's part of the passage we began looking at last week - stories about the Kingdom. When Jesus wanted to teach about the Kingdom, he knew the most powerful way to communicate what the Kingdom is like is to tell stories.

Jesus said:

Jesus told them another parable:"The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

"The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?'

" 'An enemy did this,' he replied.
"The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'

" 'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'" (Matthew 13:24-30)

Strange story! Think about the story for a minute, assuming that's all you have. What does this mean? The only hint we have to its meaning is"The kingdom of heaven is like..." How is the kingdom like the man who sowed seed and had an enemy plant weeds?

Evidently the listeners didn't get it either. They asked Jesus for an explanation. He gives one in verses 36-43:

  • Farmer = Son of Man (Jesus)
  • Field = world (not church as is often assumed)
  • Good seed = people in the Kingdom (us)
  • Weeds = people of the evil one
  • Enemy = devil
  • Harvest = end of age
  • Harvesters = angels

Note: the field belongs to the farmer. Or, the world belongs to Jesus. The world's not a mess because it belongs to the devil. There's got to be another reason.

If the world belongs to Jesus, and he has begun his Kingdom, why is the world such a mess?

1. The Kingdom exists alongside evil (25-26)

This is the tension. Why do bad things happen? Isn't God in control? Why does the Kingdom look like it's in trouble so much of the time? Jesus tells us: there is a devil, and he is still at work. The Kingdom exists alongside evil. God's people live side by side with people who aren't part of the Kingdom. Satan is active.

2. It's hard to know how to react (27-28)

First reaction: bewilderment
Second reaction: Do something!

3. God delays judgment for the sake of those who will believe (29)

There will be a day that God deals with evil - but that day has not come yet.

4. That judgment will separate evil and good (30, 41-43)

This raises the stakes. Even though things look pretty equal right now, the future couldn't be more different when God judges. See the current reality through harvest eyes.

Don't lower your expectations! The Kingdom will outgrow evil. The Kingdom's a mess - but it's a temporary one.

It looks like evil and the Kingdom are in a neck-and-neck race, but the Kingdom will prevail. We are to be patient, and never underestimate the Kingdom of God.

When someone walks through a park and sees evidence of the Kingdom but also evidence that evil is keeping up, remember - the enemy is working overtime as well. But only because God is holding back on judgment so the Kingdom work will continue.

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)

Posted on July 30, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Kingdom's Worth It (Matthew 13:44-46)

Big Idea: What is the Kingdom like? It's like a treasure buried.

Purpose: To imagine what the quest for the supremely valuable Kingdom might look like today.

You may have heard of Steve Vaught, a man from California. You may not know his name as well as his nickname, Fat Man Walking. Steve writes:

My Name is Steve Vaught, (born Stephen James Liller in Youngstown, Ohio). I am a 39 year old, happily married father of two great kids and I have a pretty good life here in Southern California. You would think that I would be happy because of these things, but I am not. I am not happy because I am fat and being fat makes every day unhappy.

Posted on July 23, 2006 and filed under Uncategorized.