Captain Clergy

I am 49 year old father of three and husband of one (for life)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

July 12, 2009 sermon

3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.

In its original language of Greek, the scripture I just read is one long sentence. In fact, it is one of the longest sentences in the New Testament and it is not just a bunch of words that got thrown together randomly. It is a veritable theological smorgasbord.

One commentator said it well: “The entire passage is so highly compact that it is a challenge for both the preacher and the hearer. It has to do with a broad range of theological concepts, such as election, revelation, and more broadly, atonement. It even makes use of specific theological terms, such as "redemption" (1:7, 14) and "salvation" (1:13).

A sermon on this passage will have to be limited to a very few of these concepts at best. Moreover, in most parts of the country this text will be read on a rather warm, perhaps hot, day near the middle of July when hearers may not be very receptive to heavy theological terms.”
So, it is with that in mind and the fact that we would like be out of here before next Tuesday, I have chosen to focus on a single issue- a single word from our text - adoption.
Now, when I hear the word adoption, my mind automatically thinks of what I’ll call “conventional” adoption, where a husband and wife seek to adopt a child that they did not give birth to. Their reasoning may be that they were unable to have children or have already had theirs and now wish to adopt, adding to their family. I’m sure there are numerous heart- rending stories on this subject and worthy to be brought to our attention, but today/ tonight I want us to think about adoption in a different light. I found a really good definition of what adoption means in these terms:
Adoption (the new Geneva Study Bible)
Justification is the basic blessing on which adoption is founded; adoption is the crowning blessing for which justification clears the way. Adopted status belongs to all who receive Christ (John 1:12). In and through Christ God loves His adopted children as he loves His only begotten Son, and will share with them the glory that is Christ’s now (Romans 8:17, 38, 39).

Adoption and regeneration accompany each other as two aspects of the salvation that Christ brings (John 1:12-13) but they should be distinguished. Adoption results in a new relationship, while regeneration is a change of our moral nature. Yet the connection is clear. God wants His children whom He loves to have his character, and he takes action accordingly.

2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

God said, “I’ll take him or I’ll take her” God chose each and every one of us to be his child- we are children of the King and we were chosen before the foundations of the world! Can you just stop and think on that for a moment? The creator of the universe chose you- chose me for this purpose to be His child! How can life be more than one big doxology? “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” I mean, how can we keep from just saying “Thanks be to God” all the time? If we could just turn our focus from our temporal, dysfunctional, sinful lives for just a moment, seeing that God has chosen us!
We may not be able to understand why God chose me and you for adoption. Some may say, “OK, that’s all well and good for you, but you don’t know where I’ve been in my life. You don’t know what I’ve done, you don’t know the kind of upbringing I had. I mean, I’ve been through some rough stuff, some difficult times.” My reply to those statements is very simple, “It doesn’t matter”. I don’t mean that it doesn’t matter where you came from- it does and there are likely some very important and deep emotional issues that may need to be dealt with in some way. What I mean is that God took all of your emotional and spiritual wounds and said, “It doesn’t matter, I still want you to be my son or daughter. I mean, who, after all, had a normal childhood- anyone? Who hasn’t done things in his or her life that they aren’t proud of? But, you see, that’s not the point! The point is that we were chosen before all of that stuff happened! God was not surprised when you made a bad choice. God was not surprised when your family of origin turned out to be dysfunctional in some way. The question is- can you accept the adoption? Can you receive the adoption into God’s family? As I was thinking about this issue of receiving or accepting I was reminded of a situation that took place many times when I was younger. My parents and my brother and sister used to go out for dinner every now and then with my grandparents- my mom’s parents and when the time came for us to settle up with the server and the bill would get left at the table, there would be some spirited discussions between my dad and my grandpa as to who would pay the bill. Two grown men; stubborn and hard headed men- fought over who would pay the bill. The imagery of two bowling balls banging off of the other comes to mind, reminding me of the thickness of their heads! Neither of these men knew what it meant to accept someone doing something for someone else. My guess is that neither of them felt worthy of acceptance. Do you know people that have a hard time accepting a gracious favor from someone else?
The next step as I see it is learning how to live in the adoption as a child of God? What are we to do in response to what God has done for us?
We may not have “His eyes” or “His nose”, “His smile” or any other physical characteristics of our heavenly Father, but when we accept our adoption as God’s children we may not look like God from the outside (though we are commended to pursue righteousness as he is righteous) rather, we are to begin the process of looking like His son on the inside. Because you know, as they say, looks are only skin deep, but ugly is to the bone. I don’t think that’s in the scripture anyway. Remember back a month or so ago, when we committed our hands to the work of ministry? What did you say you would do? Have you done it? If so, has it drawn you closer to God? If you haven’t done anything yet, what are you waiting for? Do you remember the New Year’s resolution you made to spend more time in the Word? As Dr. Phil says, “How’s that working for ya?” Do you remember the last time you and your teenager didn’t quite see eye to eye on a few subjects and everyone stormed out of the room; maybe there were some slammed doors and some words said that you wish you could take back? These are real life situations that we find ourselves in on a regular basis.
The earthly journey that started when we came to Christ and will end when we go to be with Him is one filled with opportunities.
For growth- sometimes growth is painful.
For development of character-
For change- change can be scary
For depth- growing deeper in our knowledge of Jesus and what it means to live the Christian life
For service- to others and for others.
I heard one person say “Jesus did not suffer on the cross so we wouldn’t have to. He suffered on the cross so we could join him there.”
John 1:12 “But as many as received Him to them He gave the right to become children of God , to those who believe in his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” NKJV

What God wants from us is holiness and blamelessness, which is spelled out not in terms of sterile morality, but love. We have not been abandoned; instead, we have been taken into the divine family through Christ (1:5). This is still the language of caring and nurture. Again we hear it is what God wanted and its goal was that we should be lovers of love, the love shown in Christ (1:6). This is all about ultimate values and the focus of our spirituality: appreciating love.
God’s goal for us is that we would become more like His Son.
Romans 8:29 “For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.”
We are not Jesus and we never will be Jesus nor do what he did. However, one person defined discipleship as: “Living my life as Jesus would live my life, if he were I.”
True children of God will bear the family likeness, both now, as our hope lends our lives a focused purity resembling His, and at the end, when “We shall be like Him.” Only then will our knowledge of Him be complete, but even now our knowledge that “he is righteous” will bring increasing righteousness to our own lives.
Where have you heard this scripture before? “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” - baptism- the place where we symbolically display one’s belonging to the family of God. Whether you have been baptized or not is not the central issue. The issue is that if and when we make a decision that we cannot be the rulers of our own lives anymore and we need to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God through Jesus Christ- we’re in! What is left for us to do is to live our lives in such a way that others will see who’s family we belong to- to which family do we bear a striking resemblance? Let people say when they see our lives- I can see a family likeness.
Romans 8: 12-17- The Message
“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a child-like “What’s next Papa?” God’s spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us- an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!”

Monday, June 01, 2009

In the Spirit of the Lord

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?"

I said, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know."

4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath [a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.' "

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.' “10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.' 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: 'this is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.' "

When I started to prepare for this morning/ evening’s service, I had five texts to choose from as a basis for my sermon. There was the text in Acts chapter two, telling the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the believers in the early church. There was a Psalm; there was a gospel lesson and an epistle. Then there was the text that I chose and just read from Ezekiel chapter 37 vesres1-14-the vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones. The story is familiar to most of us, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. As I spent some time with the text there seemed to be two main ideas that kept presenting themselves as needing to be examined a little further. The first idea was that I kept asking myself, “What if I were Ezekiel? What if God had told me to prophesy to a pit filled with dried bones? Ezekiel’s exchange with God was rather direct. Basically, God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and he did. God then told him to prophesy to the breath, Ezekiel obeyed. Notice that there is no room for Ezekiel to argue or to try and negotiate or search for excuses why he couldn’t do what the Lord had asked him to do. Why can’t life be as simple as that? Wouldn’t that be nice if God spoke to us as clearly and we just did what God told us to do?

God has told Ezekiel to do some pretty drastic things, and they weren't in visions, as this is, to get his message across to the people. God has had Ezekiel draw a picture of Jerusalem on a clay tablet, and set up mini earthworks, and then lie on his left side for 390 days, and then on his right side for 40 days. No escape, no wriggling even! And in that time he's eaten siege rations, weighing the grains he uses to make bread, and measuring his water. He's shaved his head with a sword and scattered some of the hair around, and burnt some, to show what's going to happen to God's people. He's packed his bags, and carried them around the city, and in the evening he's dug a hole in the city wall and climbed out as if he's escaping and going into exile. One extra thing: God told him to cover his face once he was through the wall, so he couldn't see the land as he went. And he's seen his wife die, and - under God's instructions - carried on with his daily routine, not outwardly mourning her.

All of these odd things which Ezekiel has done have had a purpose. They have made the people around him think. People have said to him "Why are you doing this?" As God knew they would, so God has given Ezekiel an answer for them each time. God asks questions, he expects questions, he welcomes questions.

And he welcomes honest answers. "Can these bones live?" If you're not sure about something, then an honest "O Sovereign Lord, you alone know" is better than "No way!" If I were Ezekiel, I probably would have tried to engage God in a conversation as opposed to simple obedience. It may have sounded something like this:

“Lord, uh, you know that I have been a faithful servant of yours for some time now and well, uh, I’ve done some pretty bizarre things for you and now, not that I mind all of that. But do you realize what you are asking of me? Perhaps you didn’t get a real good look at those bones- they are dry. I mean drier than dry. Who knows how long they have been there? How about we try this; a compromise perhaps. You make the bones come back to life- you go ahead and put them back together, breathe your spirit into them and then I’ll take over saying, “Look what the Lord has done!” I won’t take any credit- really.” But that’s not the way the Lord works, is it? Jesus said, “Blessed is the one that has not seen and yet believes.” Hebrews 11 verse 1 says:

1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

The second thing that got my attention about this text is that there have been times in my life that I felt as though I were covered up with a pile of dry bones. As if I was on the bottom of those bones and not only could I not see the light peeking through the bones, but the darkness covered me like a wet blanket. I wonder if any of you have felt that way. Abandoned? Forgotten? Left for dead?

My body may have remained intact, but I didn’t feel like I had any life in me. I would ask God “Why have I been forgotten? God, can’t you see that I’m struggling?”

That is exactly the place that the children of Israel found themselves, asking, “Is our relationship with God over now that God has allowed this to happen? Have we been abandoned to our fate? Is there anything left to cling to? The future of God’s people was in jeopardy. The Temple was gone; the dwelling place of the Almighty was razed to the ground. Verse 11 from our scripture says: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (v. 11).

Even our communities of faith take up regular residence in this valley. We see dwindling offerings, aging members, new challenges to the “old ways” of being church, and countless cultural affronts to mainstream Christianity. We are afraid of what we might lose, and we circle the proverbial wagons and hunker down to preserve what we have left. It becomes easy to ask “Can these bones live?” Can our congregation survive? Will our denomination fracture? Will we meet the budget this year? Who will be left to carry on? These are real questions; these are real fears. And so we turn to the scripture and read the rest of the story.

Verse 14 of our scripture says: “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.”

So it’s the spirit of the Lord that will bring us back to life. Many times we underestimate the power and the importance of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus, when asked what the unpardonable sin was, responded with “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”, which gives us a real good indication of the priority Jesus gave the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

But it takes more than just speaking to our brokenness, more than just commanding restoration and reconciliation, more than just saying that resurrection is possible. It requires the Spirit of the Lord moving in and among the bones; infusing us with new life, moving us to better ways of living and being. Restoration is possible, but true restoration will only occur when the spirit of the Lord moves and is put within the communities and circumstances that need it.

Not until the Spirit of the Lord breathed into the flesh and bones did they come to life! Without the Spirit of the Lord- we will perish! The apostle Paul told the believers in Rome that the one "who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rom. 8:11). The church has always found its life not in what it sees today but in the Spirit of the God who raises dead hopes. The day we lose our ability to envision a better tomorrow is the day we deny that we really believe in the resurrection. We must understand that this is where our life comes from. Our life comes from the Spirit of the Lord. It is in the spirit of the Lord that we are empowered by God to accomplish those things in our lives that seem impossible. It is in the Spirit of the Lord that we are able to love the unlovable- to move toward forgiving the unforgivable. The Spirit of the Lord breathes new life into dry bones, fleshes out our hopes and dreams for ministry and mission, and calls us to walk in faith. Christ’s church will go on despite our often bungling, well-meaning, and pitifully human attempts to be good stewards of all that we’ve been so graciously given. It’s a promise we can count on, believe in, AND act on. Our dry bones do live—they live to praise God, serve others, and to walk in faith and light. Verse 14 clearly states that the source of the life that is bringing Israel back from the ‘dead’ is the ‘spirit’ of the Lord. When all life appears to have gone, the word of God is the means whereby God’s spirit revives and restores.

Why does the church keep pouring out its little cup of water into the West Bank, Sudan and other desperate places of the world where hope has run dry? Why do we keep visiting the shut-ins and those in hospitals when we have no miracle drug to take away their pain? Why do we commit ourselves to the political process when there is so much cynicism and a malaise of despair in politics today? Why? Because God is not done.

So we will take our stand beside Ezekiel and proclaim our hope to the dry bones, "Thus, says the Lord, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live!" You who gave up hopes, who gave up dreaming -- who have settled for a comfortably routine life of work, bills and dirty laundry. You who think your best years are behind you. You who think the Lord God has forgotten all about your little life. To you, we say, "Arise!" Arise from the heap of discarded dreams. Arise to discover that the Holy Spirit is breathing life back into you. Arise to live with magnificent hope! Because the world is dying for you to believe God is not done.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Thesis: If we try to add worldly wisdom to the gospel message, embodied in the cross, we will lessen its power to miraculously change lives.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (New International Version)

18For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written:
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."[

20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

Although there is no scientific research to support the claim I am about to make, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the following statement is at least partially true. The organization that calls itself Alcoholics Anonymous with its twelve steps of recovery has played a significant role in saving millions of lives, marriages and families. I would even go so far as to say that AA has been at least as effective several secular and religious organizations. One of the reasons I can say this is because the sole purpose of AA is as define on Wikipedia:

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a worldwide fellowship of men and women who share a desire to stop drinking alcohol.[1]

Notice it said “the desire to stop drinking” ; seems pretty simple doesn’t it? The “program” as its members familiarly call it, is not complicated- at least not at first. “Don’t drink, read the big book (not the Bible) and go to meetings” the old timers say. “Fake it ‘til You Make It” is counsel given to those who don’t really believe they can live a life apart from drinking, “KISS- which stands for Keep it Simple Stupid”, “Stinkin’ Thinkin’”.

Now, I wouldn’t exactly call these pithy sayings great pieces of literature written by the likes of Shakespeare or Oliver Wendell Holmes or C.S. Lewis. These are most likely not even quotes from famous people, but these sayings that have kept millions of men and women from drinking themselves to death. These cute little pearls of wisdom have saved marriages- not all but a great number. These “lightweight” sayings from infamous people have taken families that were ripped apart by alcoholism and helped put them back together. There is a part of me that wishes these cute little pearls of wisdom were written by famous philosophers or some great theological minds; that the words he or she created could be dissected and torn apart, thought about until the cows came home. Analyzed, magnified and fill in the blank… until the end of time!

Sayings like “Let go and Let God”, “One Day at a Time” among others, were put to good use, if not created, by the two men that founded AA those many years ago. Two men, both down on their luck, both reaching for the last straw that life would offer them, came together and had one goal in mind: To help each other stay sober. That’s it- help each other stay sober. Everything else that may be accomplished in each of their lives had to follow the decision to stop drinking and everything else in the recovery process was to be built upon that foundation- the central message of a life restored to sanity. Well just as the road to recovery and sobriety starts with a decision; the road to Jesus starts with a decision. The decision is one to give up; to stop fighting; to admit that we need God’s help; that we must come to the cross.

Our scripture comes from the opening section of 1 Corinthians, chapter 1:18-25. Paul addresses a church divided and in conflict. Two parties seem to have developed. There were those who followed Paul and those who followed Apollos. Apollos was a "native of Alexandria... a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures", Act.18:24-28. Paul had obviously come in for some heavy criticism, so he seeks to calm the dispute in the church while defending his role as an apostle and his gospel, so Paul develops a contrast touched on in verse 17. The contrast is between "words of human wisdom" and the gospel of the "cross of Christ." Paul argues that the gospel is not something that we need to improve by adding human wisdom to it. In fact, the message concerning the cross of Christ has no sense to it. As far as human reasoning is concerned, the gospel is foolishness. So, beware of testing it by human wisdom.

Place yourself in the church at Corinth. These folks were proud of what they knew about philosophy. They prided themselves on being smarter than the average Greek. The Jewish community of Corinth wasn’t much better. One commentator said:

“They (the Jews) clamored for miraculous demonstrations and the Greeks went in for philosophical wisdom.” “The Corinthian church gloried in the superficially impressive human wisdom of the age. They boasted about their own possession of wisdom and rhetorical eloquence.”

Does that sound familiar?

He goes on…

“God however, has revealed in Christ another kind of wisdom that radically subverts the wisdom of this world. God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerful death of the crucified Messiah.”

This makes sense because the Jewish experience, up to that point, taught them that God worked in some strange, unusual and even miraculous ways. (Think about the parting of the Red Sea, the burning bush and so forth.) Paul told the church gathered at Corinth: “Folks, if we stay focused on the primary mission of Christ- the gospel of Christ- then everything else will take care of itself. We don’t have to add anything to the Cross, it is enough; it is sufficient. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow in the knowledge and wisdom of Christ. It’s just that we must remember that the “wisdom” of this world is foolishness to those who are perishing.”

So, is Paul saying that we should stop trying to learn about God? No, that isn’t what he’s saying. Paul is telling the Corinthian Church to not put all of their eggs in one basket. Basically, he said, “Don’t seek to learn just for the sake of accumulating knowledge so that somehow, you might simply get their “cards punched”. You may think that once you learn enough or know enough about the Christian life- that’s when I’ll … . That sounds like works salvation- “If I could just do more. If I could just out hustle other Christians, I’d be satisfied- God would be satisfied. Can you and I embrace the paradox of being fools for Christ? I’m not talking about a willingness to be embarrassed or ashamed of the Gospel. The Bible says that, if we are to become Disciples of Christ we must take up our cross, and this is one of the ways we can do that. The world tells us that getting ahead is simply being able to outsmart our competition. The Christian life is not about winning or losing. It is not a competition. It’s about following Jesus, even if the world says we’re “losing!” But Paul said, “No, my Corinthian brothers and sisters, we must become willing to throw conventional knowledge out the window-we must become willing to turn conventional knowledge on its ear when it comes to following Christ, because following Christ is about one thing and one thing only- the cross.

Dietrich Bonheoffer said “It is no small thing that God “allowed himself to be pushed out of the world on a cross.”

You see, if not for the cross- there would have been no defeat. But if not for the cross there wouldn’t have been victory over the grave! If not for the cross, all of our destinies would not have such peaceful endings. If not for the cross- we would never have known what sacrificial love is all about.

Don’t be discouraged during this season of Lent. Because if not for the cross- a sign of defeat- is also a sign if victory.


The cross of Christ has the power to and has, in fact, changed people’s lives ever since Jesus died on it some two thousand years ago. And even though it is unlikely that we will ever witness anything as tragic or traumatic or as triumphant as seeing someone, but not just anyone-but one who was called “to take away the sin of the world” suffer the worst type of death- embarrassing, humiliating, and agonizing- death on the cross.

We are called to believe that which we may not be able to understand. We are called to- not just believe, but to live the great paradox of the Christian Faith: Our powerlessness is made perfect in his power! When we are powerless- we are given God’s power through Jesus Christ.

When life gets hard- Christ on the cross

When money gets tight- Christ on the Cross

When a loved one is taken from you unexpectedly, Christ on the Cross

During this season of Lent when we find ourselves reflecting and contemplating our lives and in relationship with God, will you really be surprised come Easter morning? The feeling of surprise should come for Christians because of the scandal and seeming insanity of the Cross. After all, me might be found saying, “God you’ve done some mighty miracles, you’ve raised Lazarus from the dead. You’ve given sight to the blind and now… now you’re allowing the crucifixion. You’re not going to stop it? Can’t you see what people will think of the Christ hanging on the cross? People might think he’s not worth following if he can’t save himself! This is foolishness!

Monday, September 24, 2007

"We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18 - NIV).

When I was asked to preach for this weekend’s services I approached it in the same way that I have every other time I have preached. I consulted the Lectionary to see what the suggested scriptures were for this weekend, chose a scripture and began the process of preparation. Then, as the last six or eight weeks unfolded, I realized that I wanted to preach a sermon on a topic that was of particular interest to me and I hope it is to you also. Therefore, I dropped myself a note in the offering plate; “Dear Steve: I’d like to hear a sermon on anxiety and depression.” So I made an appointment with myself to get together for lunch and talk about what I was going to say and – here we are!
As Don has said in his sermons by request, this is a very complicated and somewhat controversial topic that cannot begin to be thoroughly covered in a series of sermons, much less one message. Let me also offer a disclaimer, I am not a doctor or psychologist or any type of an expert on the subject of anxiety and depression, but I am someone who speaks from experience. But before we get into that, I think it would help us to define, as clearly as we can, what anxiety and depression is what it isn’t.
Formally, depression is defined as a condition of general emotional dejection and withdrawal; sadness greater and more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reason. Many experts agree that if you are suffering some of the following symptoms and have been for over two weeks then go see a doctor. Some of the symptoms are:
 Poor concentration
 Daily sadness
 Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
 Restless, anxious or irritable behavior
 Trouble concentrating, focusing on remembering
 Excessive weariness or lethargy
 Sleeping or eating too much or too little
 Thoughts of suicide
 Crying spells

Keep in mind that nobody ever experiences depression in the same way as anyone else. Depression is as unique as the sufferer. Not everyone is going to have all the symptoms on the list and some people will have symptoms of his or her depression that I haven't put on the list. The point here is that, if you feel depressed (no matter what your other symptoms are) and you've felt the same way for more than a couple of weeks then please consider seeing your family doctor. There is an important point that must be made here and that is, since I am not a doctor, I decided to get in touch with one regarding some of the medical elements of anxiety and depression.
Dr. William Cutrer M.D. is a licensed Christian therapist, and an ordained minister. He serves as the C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Ministry, and Director, Gheens Center for Family Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Dr. Cutrer said this about depression: “Because there isn’t a “blood test” for it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that it is always a spiritual problem. Certainly sometimes sin is a major factor, and depression always causes spiritual impact. Faith is important in the life of every believer, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that greater faith eliminates depression. There are many complex issues here, I happen to believe strongly that a medical component is present in many folks suffering with depression.”

So, according to the good doctor, there is a medical component to those that suffer from anxiety and depression. Some would have us believe that “good” Christians don’t have depression and surely, don’t take medicine for it. “Well all you have to do is pray and read your Bible and depression will go away.” Now, keep in mind that prayer and reading your Bible are not bad things; in fact, they are good and crucial if we are to grow in our lives of faith, but that is only part of the solution. If you hear nothing else I have said this morning, hear this loud and clear: Anxiety and depression are largely issues of chemical imbalance and not a lack of one’s faith!
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Come on, Steve, depression’s not that big of a deal, is it?”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health
Depression Statistics
Depressive disorders encompass major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder, and bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is included because people with this illness have depressive episodes as well as manic episodes.
Approximately 18.8 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year, have a depressive disorder.
Nearly twice as many women (12.0 percent) as men (6.6 percent) are affected by a depressive disorder each year. These figures translate to 12.4 million women and 6.4 million men in the U.S.
Depressive disorders often co-occur with anxiety disorders and substance abuse.
These statistics tell me that anxiety and depression are more prevalent in today’s world than I first believed. Odds are that you or someone in your world has or will be affected by anxiety and depression and the Church hasn’t done such a good job of talking about it because there is a stigma connected with any kind of mental disorder. The fact is, anxiety and depression have been around for a long time.
In fact, some of the great heroes of the faith and lived with anxiety and depression: The great preacher of 19th century England Charles Haddon Spurgeon experienced long periods of depression. He struggled against clinical depression for many years and spoke of being moved to tears for apparently, no reason known to him.
One of the greatest Christian writers of the twentieth century, C.S. Lewis was also plagued with depression.
The Father of the protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was another. He described the experience in varied terms: melancholy, heaviness, depression, dejection of spirit; downcast, sad, and downhearted. He suffered in this area for much of his life and often revealed these struggles in his works. Evidently he did not think it a shameful problem to be hidden.
Then there are others outside of the life of faith- honest Abe- Abraham Lincoln; our sixteenth president had a life long tendency to melancholy. Some believe that Lincoln’s anxiety and depression stemmed from a series of childhood losses, including the death of his newborn younger brother (Lincoln was only three years old at the time); the death of his mother, aunt, and uncle when he was only nine years old; and the passing away of his sister in childbirth when he was eighteen years of age. According to some psychologists, bereavement in childhood can be one of the most significant factors in the development of depressive illness in later life.”
Then there are others that have experienced anxiety and depression and aren’t quite as well known. I am one of them.
Anxiety and depression is something I’ve lived with most of my life even though I didn’t know what it was until fairly recently. About five years ago, I had my first panic attack. I won’t go into all of the details, but suffice it to say, it scared me to death and I decided to seek help. For me, the anxiety attacks were more a symptom of my depression. In other words, when I felt stressed or depressed, many times I would internalize those feelings instead of trying to express them and deal with them appropriately. Think of it like trying to put ten pounds of something into a five pound bag. No matter how hard you try to will whatever it is into the bag, it ain’t gonna work! The bag is made to hold only five pounds, not ten.
In the same way, my brain can only handle so many “things” at a time and when it gets to be too much, my brain starts sending these signals, telling my body that we got a problem and next thing you know- anxiety attack.
After consulting with my doctors and with the help of some Christian counseling I was diagnosed with dysthymic depression, which is a less severe form of clinical or major depression. The main difference is that dysthymia is more chronic in nature, though less severe.
I’m leaving out lots of details due to time, but that was five years ago and I wished I could tell you that I am “over” my anxiety and depression but I am not. Now, I am in a much better place with it than I’ve ever been before, but I haven’t got it licked. Along with some good medical care, the proper medication and some lifestyle changes my condition has improved and I am learning to live my life differently. Most important, I have renewed hope and there have been times when I felt hopeless.
I don’t know where you are in life’s journey, but if you are facing what some have defined as the “noonday demon”; anxiety and depression are serious matters that need attention- medical and spiritual.
When I feel depressed, sometimes I feel isolated- from God and from others. I feel as though God is so far away from me that I believe that reaching Him is nearly impossible. In fact, I don’t really want to be around anybody when I’m feeling depressed. I don’t communicate very well and I kind of turn inward and I don’t want to talk about my secret because if I tell you my secret then you may not love me anymore. You see, if I confess to God that I have this problem, God may not love me anymore. But friends I have good news this morning and believe me when I say this: Every single one of us is a precious child of God; created by God, in the image of God, to glorify God. I constantly need to be reminded of this because it gives me hope. When I get down, I mean so far down that I just want the world to go away; all I have to hold onto is hope!
That’s what I want you to leave here with this morning. There is hope! As Paul said in our scripture lesson:
"We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… Therefore we do not lose heart.”
He goes on to say:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
(Hebrews 12:2a) tells us to:
To fix their eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of their faith.
This idea of fixing our eyes on Jesus reminds me that when I do that, I have a single-minded, almost tunnel vision, focus and commitment to following Jesus. No matter what else is going on around me- I am focused like a laser beam on Jesus. We are never without hope. In other words, there are times when our lives may seem to be falling apart, a spouse dies, a husband walks out, the diagnosis is terminal; these are realities that cannot be changed. That’s why Paul says in Romans 8:38:
“I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God, that is in Christ Jesus.”
From the book “New Light on Depression” by Drs. Donald Biebel and Harold Koenig I found this quote,
“Depression will permanently etch the words: “I need God” upon one doorpost of your heart. On the other doorpost it will etch, “I need others.”
Many times, those of us that have a tendency toward depression feel as though our lives don’t count for much and we have low, if any, self esteem. Know this- you are a precious child of God. You are loved with an everlasting love. God sent his Son Jesus to die for you! Live with the assurance that God has not and will not abandon us when the darkness surrounds us. For God’s love for us is eternal and unconditional and has been made perfect in Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Fruit of the Tree

Romans 5: 1-5
1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.

3 and 4 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Even though our scripture is only five verses, there is a lot of good theology there. In the previous chapters of the book of Romans, Paul talked about the doctrine of justification. Simply put, justification has been defined by author Shirley Guthrie in his book Christian Doctrine:
“Justification means that despite the fact that things are not right in our inner lives and our personal relationships, God forgives and accepts us. Therefore, there is no need for our compulsive, anxious, defensive attempts to make things right ourselves or to give up in despair because we cannot do so.”

The apostle Paul, having made his point, that justification comes by faith and not by works, goes on to tell us, in chapter five, the application of that truth. In other words, what happens in our lives, as Christians, when we are justified by faith? What are some of the benefits and privileges that flow from being granted righteousness? How do we receive the peace of being justified? How do we do what it calls us to do? The fruits of the tree of justification are many:
Verse one of our scripture says:
“…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
The declaration of “we have peace with God” implies that such peace hasn’t always existed between humanity and God. You see, it all started with sin and a guy named Adam and a woman named Eve and the events that occurred in the Garden called Eden. You remember that, don’t you? As a result of Adam’s sin we, as his descendants are still plagued with a sin nature. God cannot be at peace with a sinner while the sinner continues under the guilt of sin. This is where justification comes in. Justification takes away the guilt, and so makes way for peace. And such is the good-will of God to humanity that, immediately upon the removing of that obstacle (sin), the peace is made. It is by faith in Christ that we lay hold of God's arm and of God’s strength, and so are at peace.
But it is more than the peace which comes as a result of a truce. It is a peace that is founded on justification which we receive when we trust Christ. This ushers us into a place of grace with God. We stand, confidently, in God’s grace—a grace God made available though Jesus Christ. Again, all this comes by faith; we cannot and did not earn it. It was given to us! It is in grateful response to God’s grace that we come to this day of commitment. We don’t put our hands to work in ministry to earn our way into heaven- that’s called works righteousness. Instead, we commit our hands to the work of ministry because we have been guaranteed a place in heaven. For some of us, the commitments we make today will require more time. For some it will require more effort. Some will need to move out of our comfort zones. Whatever it is that must be given up in order to make this commitment, remember what was given for your place and mine among the saints of God.
Part Two:

“we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God”

One writer describes the hope of the glory of God in this way:

“…we hope that God is as great and awesome as he really seems to be! Our hope is, as Paul said in his first letter to the church at Corinth, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

We have been offered, as believers in Christ, a perspective on life that would otherwise not be available. We are given an opportunity to see the events in our lives through an “eternal” lens, if you will. Not only that, Paul says that we are to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. I have a bit of trouble with that word “rejoice”. I get the idea that rejoice is a “church word” and it doesn’t really mean anything in real life. I have been known at times to be a bit of a grouch. Some of you may be surprised to learn this about me, because you don’t live with me. However, those that live under the same roof as me may be thinking “Yeah, right; tell me something I didn’t know.” On my grouchy days, the last thing on my mind is rejoicing. That eternal perspective that I’m supposed to have seems to be more elusive than a greased pig at the county fair.
So, we rejoice in a confident anticipation ("hope") of coming glory, when our whole being will be filled with the character of God. So because we stand in God's favor through Christ, we can rejoice in the hope of sharing in God's glory.
Richard Foster wrote:
“Properly understood, heaven is not a goal at all, but a destination. Heaven is vitally important, and it is part of the package, if you will, but it must never be the center of our attention. Heaven is only a glorious byproduct of something far more central. Salvation is a life, and when we have this life, physical death becomes merely a minor transition from this life to greater life. Since, in Christ, we become unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God's great universe, we can look forward to the greater expression of this life in heaven, but our focus should be upon the new order of life we now have in Jesus Christ. The real issue is not so much us getting into heaven as it is getting heaven into us.”

Then we come to an interesting part of our scripture where Paul says:

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

I don’t know about you, but when Paul says that we are to “rejoice” in our sufferings- I get a bit confused. Does this mean that we are to be grateful, for instance, when we unexpectedly run out of money at the end of the month with bills to pay? Rejoice when our health begins to fail or a spouse has decided it is time for him or her to leave and start all over just because times have gotten tough?
This being the hardest point, Paul sets himself to show the grounds and reasons of it. Why are we to rejoice in our tribulations? Tribulation can produce patience; it can also produce a hardness of heart that may never soften. The things that work patience are a matter of joy; because patience does us more good than tribulations can do us harm.
Because we go through tough times, does not mean that God no longer loves us! Quite the opposite! We’re destined for the glory of God, but in the meantime we’re supposed to boast in our sufferings.
Listen also to the words of James:
Consider it all pure joy my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking anything.

Paul says we rejoice because we know…. But what do we know? When we rejoice in our suffering we are responding to God’s secret, a secret we have been let in on: God has designed the suffering not to drive us from him, but to draw us to him. This is what we know! Though at times our trials may threaten to do us in, there is good reason to rejoice. Rejoicing in suffering deepens our hope and creates a longing in us for its realization. It gives us a hunger and thirst for God. Suffering brings about death in us, so that God’s life may be lived out through us. This is why we are told to rejoice: through suffering we come to know God more intimately and we long to be with God more sincerely.
Finally, Paul says:
And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Last week, I talked about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and how we can be enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit to do many things. We have had the love of God, that is, his love for us, poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God’s love has literally gushed forth in our hearts; it has not been given sparingly, but freely and lavishly.
Someone has once said,
“We can live for forty days without food, eight days without water, four minutes without air, but only a few seconds without hope.” But the truth of the matter for the Christian is that there is hope because God is the author of continual hope. God is the one who constantly, all throughout our lives, develops hope in us.

This is Paul’s point in v. 5.

We are participating in the hope to be realized in the future. If you have abandoned the self-designed blueprints for your own life…if you have quit trying to make life work through your own control and manipulation and trusted Christ to forgive you for such sinfulness, and you know that Christ has paid the penalty for your sin on the cross, then you are a Christian. You share in the hope to be revealed in the future. You will never be disappointed. How do we know that our hope is real? We know because you have a subjective apprehension of God’s love for us in our hearts. This is the first hand experience of God directly. The Holy Spirit has made that known to you and me and God has accomplished it all through the atoning death of his Son.
J. I. Packer reminds us of the unquenchable and irresistible love of God:
What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when His care falters. This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort…in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery can now disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me.—Knowing God

We are-each and every one of us-a tangled mass of motives; hope and fear, faith and doubt, simplicity and duplicity, honesty and falsity, openness and guile. God knows our hearts better than we can ever know our own. God is the only one who can separate the true from the false; he alone can purify the motives of the heart. But God does not come uninvited. If chambers of our heart have never experienced God's healing touch, perhaps it is because we have not welcomed divine examination.
Our relationship with God is one characterized by His peace toward us. This means that we can stop trying so hard to be people that we are not. Let’s rest in His presence and remember the larger fact is that God knows us intimately! When you go through trials, know in your heart that God is working a deeper longing (i.e., hope) for heaven in you. This shouldn’t cause you to abandon your life here, but rather take it up with renewed sense of commitment to capture the Christian mind and act responsibly in a fallen world—to love well and give freely. You are secure in Him. Persevere in those trials and draw close to Him.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pentecost for the Rest of Us

Acts 2
The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
1When the day of Pentecost came; they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11(both Jews and converts to Judaism Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?" 13Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine."
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14Then Peter stood up with the Eleven raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! 16No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17" 'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

About a hundred years ago, a movement was started which today claims about 300 million followers. It began when a man named Charles Parham, at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas, held a revival service in which most of his students began speaking in tongues and it just so happened that the day this occurred was Pentecost, hence the Pentecostal movement was born. It still exists in America mainly under the denominational banners of the Assemblies of God, Churches of God and the Holiness Pentecostal Church. The Pentecostal tradition has become more realized on the African and Asian continents and in the Third world.
Our Pentecostal friends believe in the dramatic, spontaneous some would even say sudden movement and filling of the Holy Spirit. These “gifts” are usually made known in speaking in tongues, faith healings and other supernatural activities. Suffice to say, these are not necessarily Presbyterian definitions of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We, like most Protestants, believe in the events described in our scripture lesson this morning; the Holy Spirit is real, powerful and ultimately, accessible to believing Christians. But when it comes to supernatural matters; speaking in tongues or spontaneous healing, can be difficult to understand.
Maybe you heard the story about a Presbyterian worship service a man began to be moved by the Spirit. Out loud he said "Amen!" People around him were a little disturbed. Then louder he said, "Hallelujah!" A few more people were becoming disturbed. Louder still he shouted "Praise Jesus!" An usher moved quickly down the aisle. He bent over and whispered to the man, "Sir! Control yourself!" The man exclaimed, "I can't help it. I got religion!!!" To which the usher responded, "Well you didn't get it here!"
Please understand that I am not saying that healings and “tongues” do not happen, or do not matter. They do, and they do. I am not saying that God does not sometimes convert people with wonderful suddenness. He does. What I am saying is that the idea of separating heaven and earth sets up the wrong framework for understanding what is going on in the events of Pentecost. Specifically, it excludes the truth that God’s presence and power already exists within the “natural world”. In other words, the Holy Spirit can and does work in many ways; some are dramatic, some are more seemingly mundane.
A few years ago, my family and I were headed to Louisville for something and we were listening to a song called “I Will Rest in You” sung by Jaci Velasquez, a contemporary Christian artist. We were almost all the way across the bridge and all of us were singing together (all five of us).
Take me back to You,
The place that I once knew as a little child;
Constantly the eyes of God watched over me.
Oh, I want to be
In the place that I once knew as a little child,
Fall into the bed of faith prepared for me.
I will rest in You,
I will rest in You,
I will rest in You.

and this doesn’t happen all that often, but I was just filled with what I believe was the Holy Spirit. Peace, Joy, Happiness, chills down my spine, Goosebumps, you name it- I felt it and I won’t soon forget it.
Jesus said in John 14 that the Spirit will help the disciples recognize the presence of the Father—the presence of the Father that had been there all along even though the disciples initially missed it because of the utterly mundane nature of Jesus—and that the Spirit would remind the disciples of everything Jesus had said. What’s more, the Spirit would not necessarily be recognized by the wider world because, apparently, you have to have the Spirit to discern the Spirit. All of which seems to mean that even people who are full to the brim with the Holy Spirit of Pentecost may end up looking fairly ordinary to the unsuspecting and the undiscerning.
The saint Teresa of Avila once said, "Christ dwells among the pots and pans." But we'd rather that Christ dwelled among only the more glorious and obviously pious parts of life. Some would rather fast-forward the sacred journey along the way to heaven so that they can feel like they are in heaven already. And if they cannot quite manage that, then they will at least make their lives sound as heavenly as they can. So in some circles Christian people get together and one man talks about what Jesus said to him at breakfast that day just as he was eating his Cheerios, and a woman talks about what God had done for her yesterday afternoon at about 2:23 right there in the mall, and still another man talks about how the Spirit had gifted him in such a way that right after he visited his friend Jim in the hospital, why, the very next day ‘ole Jim was healed.
I've been with people (and you probably have too) who talk on and on like this detailing spiritual lives which seem constantly to pop with explosions of miracles and grace, of words whispered into their ears and visions of the Spirit in the night until finally you want to crawl away as the spiritual slouch you feel as though you are. Just flip on one of those cable TV religious channels and listen to how those some of those folks talk--from the sounds of it they hear from God directly more often than someone like Isaiah or Jeremiah did. As Christians they have seen the promise of heaven dangled before them. But if they cannot be fully in heaven just yet, they will at the very least try to make their daily lives sound like heaven has already come down.
The thing that’s missing from this kind of talk is the element everyday life--the kind of life the disciples had led with Jesus all along, the kind of life in which the Father God himself had been hidden and active in their midst and yet somehow, they missed it. Sometimes we miss it. As C.S. Lewis once said, we too often substitute religion for God.
I realize that this kind of thinking could become an excuse not to pursue the spiritual things of God. But the goal here is not to foster or encourage spiritual laziness but that we may gain a greater awareness of how God in Christ is already at work in us by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost and how, by becoming more aware of that, we can become more intentional in following Jesus along the way which we are already traveling with him.
As followers of Christ, something like that is to be our goal: to perform our work, to lead our families and raise our kids and take our leisure--- and worship our God in ways so full of Christ that we won't care or worry whether our lives now look exactly like how we think our lives in heaven will look. Instead, let’s try and savor the journey, let’s highlight and celebrate what we see and experience along the way whether or not all of it seems life-changing or spiritually significant. When the Holy Spirit of Pentecost is within us, everything we see, say, and do—as well as everything we hear, receive, and perceive—is transformed.
I found a story that was written by a famous neurologist named Oliver Sacks telling the story of a surgeon with Tourette’s. As some of you know, Tourette's Syndrome is a bizarre mental disorder which causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and sometimes also raunchy swear words. One man with Tourette's whom Dr. Sacks knew was given to deep, lunging bows toward the ground, a few verbal shouts, and also an obsessive-compulsive type adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. The kicker is that the man is a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating room, all of his tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. He loses himself in that role and he does so totally. When the surgery is finished, he returns to his odd quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, of course, but I think that the doctor’s story is a very interesting example of what it can mean to "lose yourself" in a role. There really can be a great transformation of our lives when we are focused on just one thing--focused to the point that all of our bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and perhaps, remarkable.
Something like that is our Christian goal as the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us. As we let the Spirit help us lose ourselves in Jesus and in being his disciples, we find even our ordinary day-to-day activities can be filled with deep meaning as the Spirit ends up being not just “with us” but, as Jesus says in John 14, also IN us.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Listening to God

LUKE 9:28-36
28 About eight days after Jesus said this; he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, 31 appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters–one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) 34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.

I’m not one to make excuses, but today I am making an exception. The scripture that was just read is probably familiar to most of us. I would also guess that some of you have heard a sermon preached on this text before- I know I have. You may be thinking, “So, what’s the big deal?” A couple of things:
Jesus transfiguration experience is not something that we can easily identify with. It is difficult to find an analogy that people can relate to. One commentator said it well:
“There are in the scriptures, accounts of experiences of Jesus and of other persons serving the purposes of God for which analogies in our common experiences are not easily found. We read and study these accounts, and the experience is one of awe and wonder and worship. The question, “What in our lives is a suitable parallel?”- does not even seem appropriate.”

Secondly, I don’t believe that neither you nor I will be invited by Jesus to go up to the top of a hill and pray with the savior of the world. If that has happened to you, I would be more than willing to give you the floor so that you can share your experience with us!
All kidding aside, the reality of Jesus’ transfiguration is that this was an extraordinary experience for Jesus and three of his disciples. I can’t make it fit into the parameters of our experiences.
Having said this, I went to the scriptures and after reading the passage several times, a single sentence seemed to speak to me: “A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” If God were to say but eleven words to us, what would they be? I believe that these are the words God would say to us: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
Now, listening is a strange kind of science, isn’t it? There is listening and there is hearing. Hearing is something that we do unconsciously. Throughout any given day we hear many sounds and noises: the sound of traffic on a well traveled street or that of a crowd inside a shopping mall- we hear these noises and sounds, but we don’t listen to them. Around our house, we are never at a loss for noise. Televisions playing in the background sometimes two are on at the same time and on different channels, yet at the same volume- stun! Then there’s the sound of kids playing (some might call it fighting). There’s the noise that I sometimes pay attention to and that is the sound of something falling to the ground followed by an “Uh-oh”. You get the idea? There are noises that we hear all of the time- they are just a part of life’s rhythm.
Then there is the art of listening. Yes, I believe that it is an art. Listening is defined in the dictionary as:
To give close attention with the purpose of hearing; to give ear; to hearken; to attend. To give heed; to yield to advice; to follow admonition; to obey.

Many of you know that I am sales trainer by trade and there is a common thread that runs through much of what I preach to my students- listening skills. Whether it’s in the context of a selling skills class or Effective Interviewing, I spend a significant amount of time focusing on active listening. If people feel as though he or she is being listened to, that they are being fully understood- that changes everything! I think that we understand that pretty well, but are you a good listener?
I saw a survey not long ago which said one thousand candidates were asked the question, “How would you describe yourself to an interviewer?” I have their top five answers:
1. I am a good listener
2. I am a hard worker
3. I am a quick study
4. I am a people person
5. I am a team player
Now, friends you may know this already, but when someone tells you that he or she is a good listener- look out! I’m sure that some who profess to be good listeners really are- I don’t doubt it. But my suspicion is that the majority of people that call themselves good listeners are the kind of people that will let you say what you need to say, “speak your piece” if you will. But they can’t wait to say what they need to say. There are so few good listeners out there. Do you know people that are good listeners? I’ll bet that you really like those folks. There’s not much to dislike about a good listener. Why is that? I believe it is in large part due to the perception that listening equals caring. If I listen to you, that means I care about you and that’s a really important point here. Why is it that Jesus’ words sometimes fall on deaf ears? Why is it that we sometimes think that Jesus’ words are for everybody else and not you or me?
I believe that our listening skills (or lack of) have a lot to do with who’s doing the talking. In my case, I have really tried, and I’ve still got a long way to go, to become a better listener to particular people in my life, namely my wife and kids. Listening to kids especially is really important. There aren’t many things that we can do for our kids that can build them up like listening- really listening to them!
Which leads me to a question- How well do we listen to God? If we say we love God- how do we show that the love we feel is real? We listen- we obey- we take heed. What has God told us through Jesus? I found this story about on the beatitudes and it is written from the perspective of a disciple’s perspective. How does a disciple respond to the beatitudes?
Matthew 5: 3-12
Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathered them around. He taught them saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are they that mourn.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are they who thirst for justice.
Blessed are you when persecuted.
Blessed are you when you suffer.
Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in heaven.

Then Simon Peter said, "Are we supposed to write this down?"
And Andrew asked, "Are we supposed to know this?"
And James asked, "Will we have a test on this?"
And Phillip said, "I don't have any paper."
And Bartholomew asked, "Do we have to turn this in?"
And John said, "The other disciples didn't have to learn this."
And Matthew asked, "Can I go to the boys' room?"
And Judas asked, "What does this have to do with real life?"

Then one of the Pharisees who were present asked to see Jesus' lesson plan and inquired of Jesus, "Where is your objectives and lesson plan?"
And Jesus wept.

How do we respond to Jesus’ instructions? Do we ask if there will be a test? Do our minds automatically cling to the reasons why we can’t do what Jesus has told us to do?
If we say we love God, we listen to God.

During this upcoming season of Lent we are to reflect on the suffering and eventual crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Remember, that the fate he suffered was for you and for me. The least we can do is listen to him and try to live out that which our Lord has commanded in our daily lives. If we look a little further into Luke chapter 9 we would find in verses 44-45: "‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying. . . ." This suggests that the command to "Listen" is really a call to a deeper understanding of Jesus and who he is as the Son of God, as well as a subtle call to followers of Jesus to understand the implications of following Jesus.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
Winston Churchill

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration isn’t just about Jesus and His unique identity as the Messiah of God. I believe that the significance of this story is that the disciples would not, could not, and flat out were not listening to Jesus. Jesus was telling them about his upcoming death and suffering, they pondered visions of pomp and circumstance in some political kingdom to come. Jesus spoke of betrayal and sacrifice, and the disciples simply were focused on what Jesus could do for them- they didn’t want to face the truth. They were too caught up in being disciples rather than listening to God. I wonder about my life as a disciple of Christ. Am I listening to God in this season of suffering or am I simply waiting for the day of resurrection?
A thought to go: As we approach the season of Lent, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and cut right to Easter. Let’s stay where we are right now and listen to what God is saying to us as individual Christians as well as a community of believers.