Sunday, December 4, 2016

Finding God in Our Disappointments, Matthew 1:18-21

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Second Sunday of Advent, 2016


In the late 80's, we lived for a few months with a family in Lancaster County. I was, at the time, working with a mission organization in Villanova in addition to my graduate studies at Temple University, so I spent a lot of time traveling. One day, as I was leaving, I heard that we were having chicken pot pie for dinner. I spent the whole day looking forward to that, expecting to arrive home and enjoy chicken pot pie in a crust; after all, when I was growing up and put a chicken pot pie in the oven to bake, this is what it was. But when I got home, what we had for dinner was soup, not pie. There were noodles, or pieces of dough, in the soup, and somehow this justified the name “chicken pot pie.” By my understanding it wasn't pie at all, and I've had a grudge against Lancaster County ever since that day. We really ate very well during the time we stayed with this family, so I can't complain, but this experience stuck in my mind because I was expecting something different from what actually happened, and that's what disappointment is. Disappointment doesn't necessarily result from bad experiences; disappointment results from things not turning out the way we expected or hoped. Sometimes disappointments are bad experiences, but not always. Often they're just different than what we were expecting.

The first thing I want to take note of, in our passage, is the discovery of Mary's pregnancy in verse 18. The discovery is made, but no one apart from Mary knows the cause of her pregnancy. She was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her what was going to happen. It was a wonderful thing, the announcement that she was going to experience something utterly unique. So she knew that her pregnancy was miraculous, but no one else had any reason to believe that. We're not given any details into the discovery of Mary's pregnancy, but we do know that everyone, including Joseph, assumed that she had been unfaithful to him. Jewish marriages at the time involved three steps: first the engagement, followed by betrothal, which usually lasted about a year during which the couple did not live together. But this was a binding arrangement, and a divorce was required if either one decided not to go ahead with the marriage. The third step was the marriage itself. Mary's pregnancy is discovered in the second step, after she is betrothed to Joseph.

Here's the thing: Mary has been chosen to give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God, as a virgin. What is happening in her body has never happened in the history of the world. So wouldn't you expect God to make some kind of public announcement to this effect? Wouldn't you expect Him to tell someone else what is going on, especially since all the people around her are going to assume the worst? But He doesn't, and even Joseph, at this point, is in the dark, and no one is going to believe it when she tells them about Gabriel's words, even if she has the courage, or even the opportunity, to tell them.

Everyone knows that Mary has been unfaithful. There's no other explanation for her condition. Women don't become pregnant for no reason. But they don't know the whole story; their assessment of the situation is wrong. And we often get things wrong because we don't know the whole story. Anne and I, in the early 80's, spent two years on a ship called the Logos, which was run by Operation Mobilization. There were many Americans on OM from very conservative Evangelical backgrounds who believed that drinking alcohol was completely off-limits for Christians. There were even some books written during that time arguing that Jesus, at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, turned water into grape juice, not wine, because it was unthinkable that He would actually do a miracle involving alcohol. I read two of them, but neither is really worth reading, because all the evidence in Scripture is against what they're trying to prove.

The ship we lived on had previously been owned by a shipping company but had been renovated for our purposes. But one day the captain decided to do a thorough cleaning in his cabin, and way back inside the bulkhead (or wall) he found a half-empty bottle of whiskey. He didn't want it in his cabin, so he took it to the chief steward, who was in charge of all the food, and said “I just found this in my cabin; I thought you might be able to use it for cooking or something, but in any case I don't want it in my cabin.” And he left. While the chief steward was standing there with the bottle in his hand wondering what to do with it (and thinking that he also didn't want it in his cabin), there was a knock on the door. So he put the bottle down on the table and answered the door. The zealous young person who was at the door saw the bottle and came to an obvious conclusion. Being chief steward is a stressful job and he's coping with it by drinking. Why else would he have this bottle sitting on his table? “I probably interrupted him just as he was taking a swig.” We need to know that there's often more to the story than what is apparent to us on the surface. This was certainly the case with Mary, but it's also often true in our daily lives, and we need to be careful about drawing conclusions too quickly.

The second thing to take note of is Joseph's response to the news of Mary's pregnancy in verse 19. Here it is in The Message: “Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.” His duty, as he understood it under the Old Testament law, is to divorce her. Deuteronomy 24:1 allows for divorce if “something indecent” is found in a wife, and in Joseph's understanding this is certainly true of Mary. But he wants to do so in a way that at least shows some mercy. That will mean divorcing her with the minimum number of witnesses (only two) and not pressing charges against her. The fact is that she is going to be disgraced no matter what he does, but he's trying to do all he can to protect her from shame. But he's disappointed in her. He thought she was a godly woman, and she's been unfaithful to him, something he never would have expected of her. He wants to do the right thing, but he's not willing any more to spend his life with a woman like her.

Imagine being Mary in this situation. Her pregnancy is unlike any other in human history, so who is ever going to believe her if she reports the words of Gabriel? We don't know how long this situation continued after Joseph received the news and then deliberated about what he was going to do. But even a day or two of this kind of suffering would be overwhelming, knowing that she is innocent while everyone else is certain of her guilt. Mary was visited by an angel and given the most wonderful news imaginable, but then her life had been plunged into shame and suspicion as a direct result of God's work. God's interventions often lead to things we never expected or wanted. Joseph is disappointed in Mary, and I don't doubt that Mary is disappointed in Joseph's response; but I also suspect that Mary is tempted to be disappointed in God. Why hasn't He told someone else what is going on? It's a great thing that He sent Gabriel to announce Jesus' birth to her, but what's going to happen now? Is God just going to leave her hanging like this?

The last thing is that God intervenes, in verses 20-21. In the end, God lets Joseph in on what is happening by speaking to him in a dream: “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” So Joseph now knows that there is something extraordinary going on, that Mary's pregnancy is not the result of unfaithfulness and that God is at work in a way that has never happened. “Joseph, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” God is bringing a Redeemer into the world. But despite God's extraordinary work in their lives, Joseph and Mary will continue to live under the shadow of misunderstanding and suspicion. God intervenes to let them know what He is doing, but others will continue to suspect Mary of unfaithfulness, and they're not going to believe it if Joseph tells them about his dream.

When I was a young Christian, I was enamored with the importance of miracles. I and my friends thought that if we really had faith we would be doing things that made people take notice of God's presence among us. But I've since learned that God more often works in a hidden way, as He is doing here with Mary and Joseph. Mary's pregnancy is miraculous, but not in a public, demonstrative way. No one around her can tell that there's anything out-of-the-ordinary about her pregnancy. And Joseph's dream is also only given to him; it's not the sort of public thing that causes everyone around him to sit back and take notice. But in this time when everyone around them is whispering about Mary's unfaithfulness and maybe wondering whether Joseph himself is the father of the child or whether he is just going ahead with the marriage to protect her, both Mary and Joseph experience God in a truly extraordinary way. No matter what everyone around them thinks, they are both faithful to God and continue to trust Him, and He makes Himself known to them, even though He does so in a hidden way.

So how can we learn to experience God in our disappointments, when things aren't turning out the way we hoped or expected? I think the first thing is to stop. Don't act in haste, and don't start drawing premature conclusions. Joseph didn't fly off the handle when he learned about Mary's pregnancy; he didn't do anything right away. He took time to deliberate about what he should do and how he could, despite his disappointment in her, still preserve her dignity as much as possible. He waited, and when God did intervene Joseph hadn't acted in a way that he came to regret.

The next thing is to bring our disappointments into God's presence in prayer. The temptation is to allow them to drive us away from God, to become bitter and turned in on ourselves. “God hasn't held up His end of the bargain, so why should I continue listening to Him?” What happens then is that we shut ourselves off from whatever God is planning to do in our lives. Things we experience as disappointment could be a step toward something better that God has in mind, but if we allow our disappointment to drive us away from Him we'll likely miss whatever God is doing.

How do we bring our disappointments into God's presence? Partly by abandoning pious notions about prayer. Too often we express things in prayer that we think should reflect our feelings but really don't. But listen to Jeremiah: “Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land” (15:10); or “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (20:7). Jeremiah is not living a life he would have chosen for himself. He doesn't enjoy pronouncing judgment and being at odds with the people. But he copes by telling God how he feels about it, bringing his complaints to God. That's one of the great things about praying the Psalms; the Psalms help us give voice to things we might not otherwise know how to pray about. God is able to handle our truthful words in prayer; and when we cry out to Him in anger or disappointment, He is able to hear the cry of our hearts and then continue molding us into His image. He is not threatened by our anger and is able to transform it once we bring it into His presence in prayer.

But we need to know that encountering God will not necessarily change the situation that we're disappointed about. The only direct intervention from God in this passage is His appearing to Joseph in a dream to tell him what is going on. This enables Joseph to accept the situation and go ahead with his plan to get married. But both Mary and Joseph are still surrounded by gossip about her pregnancy. Most of the time we really don't know what God is doing, and the most important thing is to come into His presence and cry out to Him for help. He knows what we need to keep going, and He will come to us and give us strength, even though it may not be evident until later, when we look back and see that He was with us in a hidden way.

Listen to these words by St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they have pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty” (The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 1, p. 169). During this season of Advent we look back on Jesus' first coming as we anticipate the celebration of His Incarnation in the Christmas season; we look forward to His return in glory and majesty; and we pray that He will come to us both individually and as a church as we wait on Him and bring all our concerns into His presence.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Leading People or Managing Projects?

Published under a different title in the January 2014 issue of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly

Alan was a difficult person. We lived in the same house in Kathmandu for several months, and he could never get to dinner on time; the rest of the team usually waited a half hour or more every evening, and he’d explain that he couldn't stop work, that there was too much to do. When we suggested that he should just stop at the end of the day, he’d respond “I’m messed up; it’s because of my father.” He could be argumentative and had become a strict vegetarian because an outing to a Muslim restaurant for meat curry ended in a heated disagreement; when he reflected on what had happened, Alan said to me “I think God is telling me to stay away from meat.” And he did, for a number of years.

He was difficult to live with and work with, but he had a warm heart and he truly desired to follow Jesus Christ. So, despite his antisocial tendencies, he repeatedly signed up to work with Operation Mobilization, a very team-oriented mission agency. He was a trained mechanic and had a lot to offer an organization with a large fleet of old vehicles. But he had frequent conflict with his co-workers, so over the years he’d spend a year or two with OM, followed by a return to secular work, only to join OM again because he wasn’t satisfied with where his life was going.

During one of the years when he was at home in England, he went out regularly to distribute literature and talk to people about Jesus. He told me that one day George Verwer, the founder and (at the time) International Director of OM, had knocked on his door, asking if they could go out evangelizing together. George knew of his struggles and wanted to support and encourage him. Alan spoke of this often, that a man in major leadership, with so many burdens on his time and resources, would take a day off to spend time with an emotionally troubled ex-OMer. George had nothing personally to gain from this, but he believed it was a worthwhile use of his time.

My first perception of George Verwer's leadership was in the Summer of 1977, during an OM conference. As George was preaching I came to a sudden realization: “he really cares about us; he’s not just interested in getting some work out of us this summer, he wants us to survive and grow to spiritual maturity.” And that was the kind of leadership I experienced during the four years I spent with Operation Mobilization. For the most part, the leaders were concerned to see us grow spiritually and develop our gifts; they were more concerned about our long-term survival and growth than they were about accomplishing their goals through us.

Many years after leaving OM, a pastor in my denomination was approached by the bishop and told it was time for a change in leadership, that it was time for him to leave. He had been pastoring for over 20 years and had taken on some difficult jobs for the denomination. He had served on a number of general conference boards and was a good, solid pastor, who preached the Word and provided pastoral care for those in his church. But he didn’t fit into the bishop’s plans, so he had to move on.

I spoke to him three years later, and he told me that after he submitted his resignation not one leader contacted him to find out how he was doing. There had not been a single attempt during those three years to make sure he was OK, even though it was generally known that he had left the denomination and was no longer pastoring. His impression, he told me, was that they simply didn’t care. He wasn’t useful, in their opinion, so they were glad to have him out of the way.

The bishop who pushed for his resignation was known as a sort-of “leadership guru,” but his approach to leadership is pretty-much the opposite of George Verwer’s. I suspect he would attribute this to a difference in personality, but George’s approach is not the one that came to him naturally. (I heard once that an early team member compared his leadership style to that of Adoph Hitler!) Caring for people in trouble is not, for George, a matter of personality. But he knows that God has shown him mercy and grace beyond anything he could ever imagine, and this motivates him to show mercy and grace to others. His approach to leadership is a matter of Christian discipleship, not personality. It’s a result of the work of God over many years of following Jesus Christ. It's an issue of obedience: "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:12-13).

These are two very different approaches to leadership. The first type of leader is concerned about leading all those under his care to grow and develop their gifts as followers of Jesus Christ. The second type is focused on accomplishing his goals and sees those on his team as useful but expendable instruments for accomplishing them. The first approach seeks to build up and disciple all members of the church, including those in leadership roles, while the second is focused almost exclusively on bringing new members into the church. The first approach, in other words, has a larger, fuller vision for making disciples.

Jesus warned against the danger of adopting the world's assumptions about leadership when he said "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you" (Mark 10:42-43). In addition to the specific thing He was addressing, Jesus was saying that leadership among His people is fundamentally different from leadership in the world. Oswald Sanders expands on this: "Bishop Leslie Newbigen even goes so far as to question how far the conception of leadership is one that we really ought to encourage. It is so difficult to use it without being misled by its non-Christian counterpart. The need is not so much for leaders as for saints and servants, and unless that fact is held steadily in the foreground, the whole idea of leadership training becomes dangerous. The pattern of training in Christian leadership must still be that given by our Lord in His training of the twelve" (1980. Spiritual Leadership. Chicago: Moody Press, p. 219).

The second type of leadership follows the North American corporate world in its treatment of people as a means to an end, as a way of fulfilling one's goals (often described as a God-given vision). This kind of leadership doesn't have time for people like Alan or the pastor I mentioned earlier, because they are seen as obstacles to achieving the vision. And those who are important are important primarily for their instrumental value, their usefulness. The real priority is measurable growth focused on bringing new people into the church. Those who've already been counted, or who have moved into leadership roles, are expendable.

Because it doesn't seek to care for and lead those already inside the church or in positions of pastoral leadership, this approach is inconsistent with Christian discipleship. It reflects the ambition of success-driven leaders, who, in pursuit of their goals, have lost sight of the centrality of grace and mercy in the Church and forgotten the long-suffering patience of Jesus in training His apostles. It forgets that making disciples doesn't mean completing a long list of projects in His name; it means seeking to lead all those under one's care to know and follow Him for a lifetime.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

What's So Spiritual About Spontaneity?

The pastor stepped into the pulpit and announced, "I don't have a sermon today. I have a word from the Lord." We were supposed to be impressed; not a mere sermon, a message directly from God. He then proceeded to ramble for about half an hour or so. I remember thinking afterward that he hadn't said anything that qualified as a "word from the Lord." It didn't even rise to the level of a mediocre sermon.

It's a common assumption in many churches that when God speaks He always does so right at the moment without any preparation on our part, that the work of the Holy Spirit takes place spontaneously when we're speaking, not when we're studying and preparing in advance. C.T. Studd expressed this when he advised a co-worker on the mission field, "Don't go into the study to prepare a sermon -- that's nonsense. Go into your study to God and get so fiery that your tongue is like a burning coal and you have got to speak." Preparing sermons is foolishness; what we need to do is get ourselves into a state where we are able to speak out spontaneously under the inspiration of the Spirit.

Of course, there's no reason, in principle, why God can't lead one through the process of preparation and study; there's no reason to assume that God won't speak through a preacher who has diligently prepared a sermon. The pastor with a "word from the Lord" led his congregation to expect something special that morning, when in reality what he said was predictable and mundane, pretty much what one would expect from this particular preacher speaking off the top of his head. His claim to be speaking a word from the Lord struck me as presumptuous in the extreme.

The same assumption is applied to worship and prayer: the most spiritual worship is free and spontaneous, while liturgy is what happens when the life of the Church is in decline. It's an indication of spiritual deadness. I visited an elderly man in the hospital who'd suffered one setback after another; he said to me, "I don't even know what to pray anymore," so I suggested that the Psalms could give voice to the things he was feeling. He responded with disgust, "I thought we were supposed to pray from the heart." In his mind, prayer had to be the spontaneous utterance of the moment or something was wrong with it; it was unthinkable to take words written by someone else, even the words of Scripture, and offer them to God in prayer.

Thomas Howard tells of growing up with a deeply ingrained prejudice against liturgical prayer, then finding himself enriched by worshiping in an Anglican church while he was studying in England. As he was struggling to come to terms with this, he realized that even the extempore prayers he'd learned growing up were not as spontaneous as he'd assumed and were, in fact, "made up of stock phrases strung together" (Evangelical is Not Enough, p.48).

"Spontaneity is impossible sooner or later; there only remains for us to choose which set of phrases we will make our own. The prayers of the Church lead us into regions that, left to our own resources, we might never have imagined. Also in this connection, it is worthwhile remembering that prayer is as much a matter of our learning to pray what we ought to pray as it is expressing what we feel at given moments."

When Jesus instructs his disciples, in Mark 13:11, "when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit," He's speaking about a very specific sort of situation. He's not saying "don't ever prepare in advance for anything." He's saying, "when you find yourselves in this situation, don't worry; the Spirit will give you wisdom." He's not promising the immediate, direct assistance of the Spirit every time they speak; He's promising that He will help His people when they're in over their heads and are called to speak in His name.

The idea that spontaneity in prayer, preaching and worship is the norm is based on the expectation of a direct and immediate influence of the Holy Spirit apart from any preparation and the assumption that the Spirit is quenched by the use of set forms, things prepared in advance (either by ourselves or someone in the past). Thomas Howard identifies this mindset with a second-century sectarian movement:

"No century since the first has been free from Montanism, the claim, that is, to be acting on the spur of the moment in direct response to direct and unmediated messages from the Holy Ghost. Today Montanism, more popularly known as spontaneity, is sovereign in immense reaches of both Protestantism and Catholicism" ("Contra Spontaneity," in Touchstone Journal, online).

Those who buy into this mistakenly believe they are following the example of the early Church. While there were indeed things that took place under the immediate influence of the Spirit, worship in the ancient Church had a very definite form and structure.

The Didache, parts of which were written during the apostolic period, quotes the Lord's Prayer and says, "Pray like this three times a day." It then goes on to give very explicit instructions on celebrating the Eucharist, including the prescribed prayers to use in the service. Justin, who was martyred in the mid second century, describes worship in which, after the offering of prayers

"There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.... And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion" ("First Apology," chapter 65).

Worship in the early Church had a definite order and form; it made use of prayers and responses prepared ahead of time, which were handed on to the next generations of believers.

So, in answer to the question, what is so spiritual about spontaneity? Nothing. Spontaneity, in itself, is of no importance. Overemphasizing it is actually harmful, leading to the presumption that we are speaking in God's name and worshiping in the Spirit, when in truth we are simply rattling off our own ideas and experiencing a purely natural exhilaration that doesn't rise above the level of what one experiences at a good concert. Worship and prayer are a response to God, which implies patient listening to His Word then being trained in the responses handed to us by His Church. Rather than the pressure to have a "worship experience," we enter and find the words there waiting for us. Whether we feel exhilarated or not, we offer worship to God in faith that He hears and is pleased. And as we continue doing this over a lifetime, we internalize this responsive language and are increasingly transformed into people who are ready to worship before God's throne.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Light of the World, John 8:12-59

The first thing we need to know, as we come to this passage, is that Jesus’ public ministry is at a real low point. His conflict with the religious authorities has continued to escalate, so that now they are seeking to kill Him. Many of His disciples have turned away, because they can’t make sense of the things He’s been saying. They were impressed with His miracles, but His teaching is just too much for them. During this low point in His public ministry, Jesus continues to preach the Word (the very thing that led to all these problems in the first place). Chapters seven and eight revolve around the Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths. This is one of Israel’s three main liturgical feasts. During this seven-day feast, the people would live in rough shelters made of Palm branches and boughs of trees, to remember the time the nation spent wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt.

In chapter seven, Jesus travels secretly to the feast, and then appears suddenly in the Temple. On the eighth day, the greatest day of the feast, He offers Himself to all those who are spiritually thirsty: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me in this way, just as the Scripture says.” Each morning, during the seven-day feast, a priest would lead a procession to the pool of Siloam, fill a golden pitcher with water, and then return to the Temple and pour it out with the morning sacrifice. This was a reminder of the time God provided water out of a rock in the wilderness, and it pointed forward to the Messianic age, as Isaiah prophesied: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). This water ritual was carried on each morning for seven days, then on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly. This eighth day was the “last and greatest day of the Feast.” On this day, the day when they were not offering the water ritual, Jesus stood and cried out in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” What’s the point of this? All the things they’re doing at the feast point to Him. If they’ll come to Him, He’ll give them the Holy Spirit, who will become “streams of living water” flowing from within them. The whole celebration points to Him. The fulfillment of all their hopes and prayers is there in the Temple.

This passage in chapter 8, beginning at verse 12, follows naturally from chapter 7. The story of the woman caught in adultery is not found here in the best ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. In manuscripts that do have that story, some place it here at the beginning of John 8, some in John 7, and others in Luke 21. I believe it’s a genuine story from the ministry of Jesus, and I believe it belongs in the Bible. The New English Bible has it as an appendix to John’s gospel, which may be the best solution. It belongs in the Bible, but not here at the beginning of John 8. It interrupts the story line and obscures the connection between chapters 7 and 8.

In chapter 7, Jesus offers Himself as the water of life, the only source of spiritual refreshment in this dry, weary and waterless land. In chapter 8 He offers Himself as the light of the world. He’s still at the feast, and He’s drawing from another ritual. It’s the same day, the last and greatest day of the feast. Each evening of the feast, large lamps were lit in the Temple, and all evening, in the light of these lamps, the people would sing and dance in celebration of God’s salvation. The lamps were a reminder of the time during the Exodus when God accompanied His people in the pillar of fire at night. So on this last day of the feast, maybe in the evening, within sight of these great lamps, Jesus proclaims Himself to be the Light of the World. He’s the One they’ve been celebrating for the past seven days. He’s the One all this points to. The lamps not only point backward to the Exodus. They point forward to Him. Jesus is the Light of the World. Apart from Him, we’re in the darkness.

The first thing I want to point out is that He is the only safe place in this world of darkness. In verses 21-30, Jesus reminds them of the fragility and uncertainty of their lives: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe the I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” This dark world is a dangerous place, and our lives are fragile. We never know whether this day might be our last. The order for night prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours reminds me of this each night. It leads me in confession of sin and in entrusting myself to God’s care, then it closes with the words, “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” It reminds me that, just as I lay aside all my work, all my unfinished projects, and entrust myself to God’s care for the night, one day I will lay aside all my unfinished projects and leave this world forever. We live in a fallen world, and we don’t know when our lives here will end.

Jesus is the only safe place of refuge in this dark world. “The Lord is my light and my salvation–whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life–of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1). Listen to these words from Hebrews: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (2:14-15). They’re in slavery to the fear of death because they know life here is uncertain. They hear of people dying all the time, people who were going about the business of their lives with no expectation that it would all end so soon. But in Jesus, the Light of the World, there is refuge from the fear of death, because He’s gone ahead and tasted death for us. “The sting of death is sin.” We’re afraid to die, because we’re alienated from God. But we don’t have to die in our sins. Jesus is a safe place of refuge in this dark world.

The second thing I want to point out is that He is the only source of true freedom in this dark world. Verse 30 says that “many put their faith in him,” as a result of the things He’s been saying. So He responds to them: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They’re in bondage, although they don’t know it.

What does it mean to be free? Does it mean the liberty to do whatever I feel like doing? That’s what most people in our society seem to mean when they use the word “freedom.” I saw an interview once with a heroin addict. She described how she’d become addicted but said she was going to quit in the next week. She didn’t want to remain in that condition forever. She received pleasure from using heroin, but her life was miserable. She hated being an addict. The people who interviewed her checked back over the next several weeks, and, of course, she hadn’t quit. She wasn’t free. She was in bondage. The question to ask in this area of freedom is not, “do I have the freedom to do this?” The question to ask is, “will this bring me into bondage?” “Will I have the freedom to stop?” If you can’t stop, you’re not really free.

Several years ago I had a conversation with a man who was struggling with depression. He was married and was involved in a long-term affair with another woman; and he was addicted to pornography on the Internet. When I confronted him about the relationship between his lifestyle and his depression it was clear that he wasn’t going to make any changes. He was free to do what he wanted, but it was making him miserable. He was in bondage. He hated his life, but he couldn’t let go of his sin. He was free to do the things he was doing, but he wasn’t free to stop, and it was ruining his life (and the lives of his family members). Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Sin brings us into bondage; it destroys our freedom.

The message of Jesus Christ is a message of freedom. The picture of Christians as grim, unhappy legalists is a caricature. Many Christians fall into legalism, but it’s because they’ve lost sight of the gospel. Listen to these words from Eugene Peterson: “There are moments when a single truth seems to cry out for focused proclamation. For me one of those moments came in the early 1980's; freedom in Christ seemed the truth in need of focus. The end of a millennium was in sight. It would soon be two thousand years since Christ lived and died and rose again. The world had seen a succession of political and social revolutions that had featured the word freedom. Especially in the Western world, but hardly confined there, aspirations to freedom were very strong. But when I looked at the people I was living with as pastor–fairly affluent, well educated, somewhat knowledgeable about the Christian faith–I realized how unfree they were. They were buying expensive security systems to protect their possessions from burglary. They were overcome with anxieties in the face of rising inflation. They were pessimistic about the prospects for justice and peace in a world bristling with sophisticated weapons systems and nuclear devices. They were living huddled, worried, defensive lives. I wanted to shout in objection: Don’t live that way! You are Christians! Our lives can be a growth into freedom instead of a withdrawal into anxious wariness.... I became convinced that the experience of freedom in the life of faith is at the very heart of what it means to be human” (Living the Message, pp. 184-85). Jesus, the Light of the World, the only light in this dark world, offers us freedom from the things that enslave us. Our lives, in Christ, “can be a growth into freedom,” the freedom to be ourselves, the freedom to become the kind of people God created us to be.

The last thing I want to point out is that Jesus is the only One who can rescue us from the destruction that is coming upon this fallen world. He alone can rescue us from eternal death: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” This dark world is headed for destruction. But it’s not just that He rescues from destruction. It’s too common to see salvation as a rescue operation that amounts to nothing more than forgiveness of sins. We come to Jesus for forgiveness and then go on with our lives, assured that we have a place reserved in heaven. Salvation in the New Testament isn’t like that. Jesus doesn’t just rescue us from eternal death in that negative sense. He gives us eternal life: “And this is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Jesus, the Light of the World, frees us from the eternal death that is coming upon this dark world, and He brings us into a relationship with God that begins now and extends into eternity.

So Jesus stands in the Temple on the last day of the feast, the day when the lamps will be extinguished, and He says to the worshipers there: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” This raises the question, “who exactly is He?” How can He make such outlandish claims for Himself. That’s what the religious leaders keep asking over the course of this chapter, but for the most part they don’t seem to understand what He’s saying. They’re blind, groping in the darkness.

The more clearly Jesus reveals His glory in this chapter, the more clearly He reveals the truth about His enemies. The Pharisees are already antagonistic; as soon as Jesus speaks, in verse 12, they jump on Him: “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” When Jesus says to some would-be disciples that knowing the truth will set them free, they’re insulted. Just what is He implying about them? They liked what He was saying before, but they didn’t come to be insulted. They’re not willing to accept His diagnosis of their spiritual condition. The discussion goes back and forth until Jesus says: “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” The more clearly Jesus reveals Himself, the more clear their true spiritual condition becomes. These aren’t genuine disciples at all; they’ve had a superficial attraction to His message, but they’re not people who are going to continue in His Word.

Jesus last invitation in this chapter–“if anyone keeps my word he will never see death”–leads into a discussion about Abraham. How can He make this claim, since Abraham and the prophets died? Who does He think He is? How does He dare say such things? And Jesus responds to their questions with these amazing words: “I tell you the truth... before Abraham was born, I am!” He’s not just claiming to have existed before Abraham was born. He’s claiming to be the eternal God, the One who said to Moses, “I am that I am.” He’s identifying Himself with the One who said these words in Isaiah: “Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord–with the first of them and with the last–I am he” (Isaiah 41:4). He’s claiming, in a way that they can’t miss, what John says about Him in the Prologue: “the Word was God.” This time they don’t miss it. They understand what He’s saying, and they respond by picking up rocks to stone Him for blasphemy.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is the One who’s present in the Temple during the Feast, who offers Himself as Living Water and as the Light of the World. Because He is the eternal Son of God, the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, He is able to be our refuge in this dark, fallen world. Because He is both our Creator and our Savior, He is able to offer us freedom from the things that bring us into bondage. And because He is the source of all life, knowing Him is eternal life. Knowing Him fulfills the deepest desires of our souls. Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him; but in Him we do find rest. Jesus is the water of life, the only source of spiritual refreshment in this dry, weary, and waterless land. And He is the only source of light in this dark world.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Worshiping the King of Kings, Psalm 96

I first read The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, when I was recovering from hepatitis in 1978. I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, at the time, and a Christian believer there gave us access to his library. As I was rummaging through the shelves, looking for something to read, a friend who was with me picked up the series and said, “you’ve got to read this.” Since then I’ve read it over and over again, a total of more than ten times, and each time I read it I feel like I’m taking a vacation in Middle Earth. I've recently been listening to it in audio form while I'm driving to work.

With the movie versions produced by Peter Jackson, Tolkien’s fantasies have become popular with a whole new generation. People see the movies and then they want more, so they go out and buy the books. But then, I sometimes hear questions about the value of stories like this. Is fantasy really a worthwhile thing? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the real world, rather than escaping into a world of fantasy? Several years ago I read an article by a Christian journalist who commented, “yes, this is a very good story, but reality is actually much more interesting and exciting.” She was saying, in effect, “I suppose this sort of thing is OK, but it’s much better to be engaged in real life.”

The question is, is it true that works like this are irrelevant to “real life?” Is it true that we’re better off without these kinds of imaginative stories, that these kinds of things are OK – at least we’re not sinning by entering into them – but that it’s far better to give our time to “the real world?” What I’ve noticed is that these stories help me see things I would have missed otherwise. Living a full Christian life involves using our imaginations: projecting ourselves into the biblical stories, wondering what it would have been like to have been there, and also imagining ourselves in the future kingdom when we will live in God’s presence and see Him face to face. God hasn’t only given us minds to extract principles from Scripture; He’s given us imaginations, and He calls us to use them. Works of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, train us in using our imaginations. They help us to see things that we wouldn’t see otherwise. One year, as I was reading The Return of the King (the final volume in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), when I came to the section after the ring has been destroyed and the dark lord is overthrown, it was like being given a glimpse into the joy and freedom we will know when God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness. Imaginative works like this can help us see more clearly, they can give us a glimpse into that “new heaven and new earth” that God is preparing for us.

They can also help us think more clearly about this present world. There’s more to reality than what we see on the surface. That’s the problem with those who smile condescendingly and say, “well, you know, that’s not how it is in the real world; it’s fine to be young and idealistic, but someday you’ll be just as jaded and cynical as I am; you’ll learn that all this Christian stuff doesn’t work in the real world.” They’ve seen something of the truth; they’ve seen that in a world where people are selfish and dishonest you’re more likely to be successful if you compete on their terms. If you take advantage of others, you’re less likely to have others taking advantage of you. That’s true, at present. But it’s not the whole truth. The truth is that this is an abnormal state of affairs, and it’s not always going to continue this way. We need help in seeing beyond what appears on the surface.

Eugene Peterson, writing about the story of David and Goliath, says this: “There’s something just beneath the surface of everything, something invisible but just as real, maybe even more real, than what we’re seeing and hearing and touching.... The only person fully in touch with reality that day was David. The only fully human person in the Valley of Elah that day was David. Reality is made up mostly of what we can’t see. Humanness is mostly a matter of what never gets reported in the newspapers. Only a prayer-saturated imagination accounts for what made holy history that day in the Valley of Elah – the striking immersion in God-reality, the robust exhibition of David-humanity” (Leap Over a Wall, pp. 38, 44-45). “Reality is made up mostly of what we can’t see.” Works of fantasy can help us see this reality more clearly. Psalm 96 does the same thing. It gives us a larger picture of the truth: despite all the evil and mundaneness of life in this world, the Lord is king, and He calls all people everywhere to worship Him. But rather than describing and explaining, this psalm declares the truth and invites us to begin participating in this larger reality as worshipers of the one true God.

The first thing that’s here is the call to worship the Lord: “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” This call is given, not only to the people of Israel, but to “all the earth.” During this period, God’s purposes were focused on the nation of Israel. But His purpose in choosing Israel was to bring salvation to the whole world. God’s promise to Abraham was: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God is not a tribal deity, like the gods of the surrounding nations. He is the Creator of all, and His purpose is to make worshipers of all the nations. So Psalm 96, even at this stage of Israel’s history, calls all people of the earth to worship God.

The call is “sing to the Lord a new song.” All these nations, in turning to the true God to worship Him, will be singing a new song, a song they’ve never sung before. But it’s also a new song because they’re singing to the Lord, who makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Paul says that in Christ we become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). Listen to this description of the worship before God’s throne in Revelation 5: “They sing to the Lord a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). The song we will sing in the new heaven and new earth will be a new song, a song to the Lord who makes all things new.

It’s interesting to notice how often the word new comes up in advertising. Advertisers are trying to get our attention, and one of the surest ways is to convince us that their product is new and improved. It’s better than what they were selling last month. It’s not the same old thing. They’re appealing to our longing for something better, our sense that things aren’t all they should be. The word new appeals to our sense of hope that things will be better in the future, that everything isn’t just going to continue as it is right now. We long for something new, something better. Advertisers are right about us; but the things they’re selling can’t possibly fill the void. Our longing for newness is a longing for the kingdom of God, a longing for that day when we will see Him face to face. God has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him (St. Augustine). So the call, “sing to the Lord a new song,” is an invitation to enter into the reality that will fulfill the deepest longing of our hearts.

The second thing is an answer to the question, “why should we obey this call?” The psalmist is inviting us into a larger vision of reality, so he doesn’t just tell us what to do, he goes on to list reasons why we should worship the Lord: “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” It’s right to mention the subjective benefits of worship, that worshiping God fulfills the deepest longings of our hearts. But that’s not enough in itself. We don’t worship God because of all the good things we’re going to get. We worship Him because He is worthy. We worship Him because He is God, the Creator of heaven and earth. He’s the one who created us; we long for meaning and fullness because He created us with an innate desire to know and worship Him.

Several years ago I was talking with a young man who was preparing for ministry. He told me he always assumes there’s something wrong with him if he doesn’t feel uplifted in worship. If he doesn’t feel exhilarated and moved, if he doesn’t have a great “worship experience,” he assumes that either he’s doing something wrong or the worship leaders aren’t doing their job. I’ve seen an increasing tendency in evangelical churches to do away with the reading of Scripture in corporate worship. Instead, the songs flow together, one into the other with increasing intensity to create an emotional response, to lead the congregation into a “worship experience.” In that kind of worship, we are at the center; we’re doing everything we can to achieve the feeling we want (and when we get that feeling we assume that God has blessed us). The importance of worship is not that it makes us feel good all the time. The importance of worship is that God is worthy, and since He is worthy we should do everything we can to keep Him at the center. We need to hear from Him through His Word, and sometimes hearing from Him will make us feel worse before it makes us feel better. When we hear from Him we’re humbled and led to repentance; often it turns our lives upside down. But the important thing is not how we feel; the important thing is that God is exalted and glorified in our midst, because He is “most worthy of praise.”

The third thing is that when we respond to this call to worship God, we participate in the life of the coming kingdom. It’s not only that we perceive deeper realities with our minds; we become fellow-worshipers with those who are worshiping before God’s throne: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.” The whole creation is bursting with joy in anticipation of what God is about to do. And what is He about to do that brings such joy? “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” The psalmist is not thinking of personal judgment here, but of the fact that God is going to set everything right. This world that so often leads people into cynicism and despair will not always be this way, because God the Judge is going to set things right.

When we come into God’s presence in worship, we enter, in a very real way, into that future kingdom. Thomas Howard grew up in a very prominent evangelical home; Elizabeth Elliot is his sister. But he tells of discovering that worship involves more than he had realized or been taught when he was young: “I had never heard the idea, taught in the Church for centuries, that in the act of Christian worship the scrim that hangs between earth and heaven is drawn back, and we in very truth join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever laud and magnify the Divine Name” (Evangelical is Not Enough, p. 57). When we gather for worship we are joining together with the glorified Church in heaven. This is part of what the author of Hebrews is saying in chapter 12: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24). So the invitation at the beginning of this psalm is not only an invitation to a future inheritance; it’s an invitation to enter into a larger reality right now by worshiping the Lord of heaven and earth.

We look forward to joining all the saints in the new heaven and new earth, singing together a new song before the throne of God. And Jesus will be at the very center of that new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). And in the meantime, we are invited even now to join in this new song. “Sing to God a brand-new song! Earth and everyone in it, sing! Sing to God – worship God! Shout the news of his victory from sea to sea, Take the news of his glory to the lost, News of his wonders to one and all! For God is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs. His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap. Pagan gods are mere tatters and rags. God made the heavens – Royal splendor radiates from him, a powerful beauty sets him apart.... An extravaganza before God as he comes, As he comes to set everything right on earth, Set everything right, treat everyone fair” (The Message). “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” Since this is true, and since we’ve been given such a gracious invitation, let’s make it the priority of our lives to “sing to the Lord a new song.”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Almighty Liberator, Psalm 114

Shiloh Lutheran Church
State College, PA
September 11, 2016

One of the subjects Christians are most likely to argue about is the question of eternal security. Are believers secure for eternity, or is it possible to be a genuine believer and then fall away and be lost? Churches divide over this question and others related to it. People who disagree break fellowship with one another and accuse each other of not taking the Bible seriously. And both sides are certain of their position, because there are passages in Scripture that can be used to support both views.

I’m not going to address this issue directly this morning. What I’m most concerned about is that so many have been given a false sense of security by some of the teaching they’ve heard. They’re not following Jesus Christ; they have no interest in knowing God or living in obedience to Him; they may not attend church at all, or maybe they attend sporadically; their way of life is no different from that of unbelievers, and they're content with that. But they have a strong assurance that they’re going straight to heaven when they die, because at some point in the past they “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior,” or they believe inn justification by faith alone, or something of that sort. This really has nothing to do with the doctrine of eternal security; it has to do with the nature of saving faith. The question of whether or not believers are safe for eternity is irrelevant to people in this condition, because they’re probably not Christian believers at all. They’re most likely nominal Christians, people who have a partial faith but who haven’t turned to Jesus Christ in genuine, lasting repentance. There's no evidence of faith in their lives. They’re the kind of people Jesus was addressing when He said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

How does this relate to Psalm 114? Psalm 114 presents us with a God who changes everything He touches: “Yahweh accepts nothing as it is, but always changes everything. Nothing is secure when the God of liberation begins to make his move” (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, p. 142). God transforms everything, and everyone, that comes before Him. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said this: “Belief in Jesus is seeing him as the gateway to an endless journey into God’s love.... Looking at Jesus seriously changes things; if we do not want to be changed, it is better not to look too hard or too long” (Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light, pp. 5 & 13). Coming to Jesus changes us; if there’s no change at all, there's something wrong. To be liberated by God, to experience salvation in His name, is to begin a lifelong process of transformation into His image.

This psalm is looking back on two major events in God’s deliverance of Israel: the Exodus from Egypt, and the beginning of the Conquest of Canaan, the land of Promise. In both events, God intervened in a miraculous way: “The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back.” The psalmist puts both events together, even though they were separated by forty years or so, because they are both part of God’s work of deliverance: He was not only delivering them from slavery in Egypt; He was delivering them to freedom in the land of Canaan.

Notice, first, how Israel was affected by these events: “Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.” The psalmist is using parallelism here; he’s not making a distinction between Judah and Israel. He’s using two different names to describe the nation, so both parts of the verse apply to the same people. The second statement parallels, and develops, the first one. He’s saying that two things happened as a result of God’s intervention: 1) they became the dwelling place of God; and 2) they became people under His sovereign rule. These two ideas come across clearly in The Message: “Judah became holy land for him, Israel the place of holy rule.” As a result of His miraculous act of deliverance, they became people among whom God chose to live, and they were called to live in obedience to Him.

There’s more happening here than a simple act of deliverance from slavery. God is restoring something that is broken. Because of the Fall, because of sin, the world is not the way it was intended to be. God created us to live in His presence, and He created us to live under His sovereign rule. The Fall has ruined that. Because of sin we’re cut off from God, living in a world that’s too small to satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. And we’re in slavery to things and desires that were intended to be used in obedience to God, not to be substitutes for Him. In the Exodus we see God at work to bring restoration, setting aside a people among whom He will live, and who will begin to order their lives in obedience to Him.

Notice, next, these dramatic effects in nature: “The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs;” and, at the end of the Psalm: “who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.” God is demonstrating, on behalf of His people, His lordship over creation. But there’s more; God’s deliverance of His people is also a deliverance of the whole creation. This event in the Old Testament looks forward to what Paul is describing in Romans 8: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v. 19). God is at work, not only calling a people to Himself; He is at work preparing the way for a new heaven and a new earth, the holy city described near the end of the book of Revelation: “Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (22:3-4).

This God who brought deliverance to the people of Israel is the Lord of all creation. The psalmist is so confident and so taken by this realization that he goes into a taunt song in vv. 5&6: “Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?” These things are all so much greater, more powerful, more stable and lasting than we are. And yet, look how they respond when God begins to intervene on behalf of His people. As one commentator says: “The remarkable story of this psalm is that this awesome Presence has identified himself with a people” (Craig Broyles, Psalms, p. 427). This God, before whom the greatest forces of nature are as nothing, who causes the sea to flee and the mountains to skip like rams, has called a people to Himself.

How do we respond to such a God? Verse 7 gives us the answer: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” We’ve been given free access into God’s presence, it’s true; but this is no place for flippancy. We need to remember who we’re approaching when we come before God. He’s the One before whom the earth trembles, before whom all the nations are only a drop in the bucket.

I spend a lot of time driving in my job, and a few months ago I started listening to audio books, which has been a great blessing. The first one I listened to was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. In this series of books, the Son of God appears as a great lion named Aslan. This is how the main characters respond when they first hear about him: “‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake’ said Mrs. Beaver, ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’ ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you” (pp. 75-76). Our God is not safe; but He’s good. We need to keep both of these things in mind when we enter His presence: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.”

But someone might ask, “is this really relevant to us? After all, we’re living under the New Covenant.” Does our God, revealed perfectly in Jesus, still inspire trembling? The authors of the New Testament seem to think so. The risen Lord appeared to Saul of Tarsus, who was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, and when He appeared Saul fell to the ground and cried out, “Who are you, Lord?” He was overwhelmed and temporarily blinded at the presence of Jesus. As a result, this persecutor of Christians became the apostle Paul. Jesus also appeared to John on the Island of Patmos; John was one of the twelve disciples and had been imprisoned at Patmos because of his faithful ministry. But listen to how he responded when the risen Lord appeared to him: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid” (Revelation 1:17). The risen Lord inspires trembling, even among those who are closest to Him. The author of Hebrews, who spends much of his letter contrasting the old and new covenants, reminds us: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:28-29).

Our God is good, but He’s not safe. He doesn’t submit to our petty desires and programs. He doesn’t cater to us. He comes to us as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When we perceive Him as He is, the first effect is fear and trembling. We’re humbled in His presence. We see the truth about ourselves and we find that we are undone. Who are we to appear in the presence of the Living God? He humbles us, and He transforms us. If we’ve encountered Him truly, we’re not the same as we were. We don’t laugh at our sins; we don’t casually say, “oh well, at least I know I’m going to heaven, no matter what else happens.” Our sins grieve us, because He has brought about a change. We may not understand what’s happened; we may not be able to explain it, but we know that we are different.

God is not just seeking to rescue a number of individuals from eternal destruction. He’s at work restoring His creation. He’s preparing a new heaven and a new earth, and He’s preparing a people to be the bride of His Son. The Exodus is a true historical event, but it points beyond itself to the ministry of Jesus. In Christ, we experience an exodus, a deliverance, from this world of sin and death: “He rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). The events described in Psalm 114 point forward to the ministry of Jesus; they’re fulfilled in Him. In Him we have received “every blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3), we’ve been set free from this world of sin and death and made part of His eternal kingdom. The proper response to this is not flippancy and presumption; the proper response is wonder and praise. How can it be that God would do such things for us? “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord.” Fall before Him in worship, and as we worship Him with reverence and awe, we will be increasingly transformed into His image.

Our God is not safe: “Nothing is secure when the God of liberation begins to make his move.” But He is good. His purposes are wiser than ours. He wants to restore us, make us into the kind of people we were created to be. Our liberating God changes everything He touches: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Do Not be Anxious, Luke 12:22-34

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College, PA

Early last week I woke up at 3am and started thinking about this sermon, how to frame the main questions, how to introduce everything, how to develop the main points. After awhile I realized that this was keeping me awake, so I turned from this subject but then found myself thinking about work. This was my final week at Strawberry Fields and there were many things I needed to get done before leaving. I thought for awhile about my paperwork, then about the clients I needed to call in the next few days; then I realized that this was keeping me awake, so I put it all aside, but a few minutes later I found myself dwelling on the guitar fingerboard, chord shapes, and things I want to learn about jazz harmony, classical pieces I'm working on. It was a lousy night's sleep (and I'm usually a pretty-good sleeper). I had to get up at 6 and managed to doze off a little before then, but it was not the kind of sleep I was hoping for.

Years ago I was teaching a class on prayer and the subject of meditation came up. One member of the class, a psychiatrist, said that mediation is like worry. When we meditate on something we think about it over and over again and visualize it in practice. We don't just think about it in the abstract as a topic for study, we enter into it imaginatively. And when we worry about something we do the very same thing: we enter imaginatively into what might happen in the future. That's what I was doing, entering imaginatively into the work I was planning to do over the next few days. But it wasn't helpful, because it kept me from doing what I really needed to do at that time; it kept me from sleeping. It kept me from living in the present moment.

In this passage, Jesus instructs His disciples not to worry, not to enter imaginatively into what might happen in the future but to live in the present moment, to be responsive to what God is doing at the present time because life is more than the things we worry about. It's good to ask ourselves, what are the things that are most important to us, the things we find ourselves thinking about when we are free to think about whatever we want? What is at the center of our lives?

It's important to understand what Jesus is talking about here when he says “do not be anxious.” I recently worked with a man who suffers with severe mental illness; he has schizophrenia and also experiences panic attacks. Sometimes, after driving, he thinks that maybe he clipped someone even though there is no reason to think he did. He is a Christian and is committed to following Christ. He spends much of his free time reading books that will help him grow in discipleship. But his perceptions of reality are often distorted by his mental illness, and simply telling him “don't be anxious” is not likely to be much help. And the severe anxiety he experiences, which often has a clearly physical dimension, is not the problem Jesus is addressing in this passage. No doubt he also struggles with worry of the kind we see here and would be helped in this area by paying attention to Jesus' instruction. But his panic disorder is something different from what Jesus is talking about in this passage.

Why do we worry? Why do we become anxious? Because we were created in the image of God with a desire for permanence and stability and we live in an unpredictable and constantly-changing world. Things go wrong. People we love die. We lose our jobs. Our lives in this fallen world are not stable or permanent. Things go horribly wrong and nothing we do can prevent this from happening. Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, was the pastor of a church just outside Baltimore and told of coming to the realization that many of the people in his congregation, people who were generally doing well financially, were living “huddled, defensive lives.” Their lives were focused on preserving what they had, defending and protecting their possessions and lifestyle. And Jesus' instructions in this passage are directed toward this kind of huddled, defensive living, an outlook on life that is primarily concerned with our possessions or the things we need to get done to get ahead in the world.

God often calls His people to a life of insecurity. Paul was a very successful Pharisee until Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus and called him to an uncertain future (in terms of life in this world). This is what Jesus said about him shortly after his Damascus Road experience: “I have picked him as my personal representative.... And now I'm about to show him what he's in for – the hard suffering that goes with this job” (Acts 9, The Message).. St. Francis of Assisi had it made when he was young. His father was a very prosperous merchant who was willing to hand the business over to his son; but God called Francis to leave all of this behind. Following Jesus often involves stepping out into uncertainty, depending on the faithfulness of God, the very opposite of huddled, defensive living.

The reason Jesus tells us not to worry is that life is more than the things we tend to worry about. Huddled, defensive living doesn't lead to the sort of abundant living Jesus was talking about when He said “I came so that they can have real and eternal life, more and better than they ever dreamed of” (John 10:10, The Message). We can be so focused on getting more or getting ahead or protecting what we already have that we don't enjoy the life God has given us. Eugene Peterson tells a great story about John Muir, the 19th century explorer of the American West: He describes Muir as someone who“tramped up and down through our God-created wonders, from the California Sierras to the Alaskan glaciers, observing, reporting, praising, and experiencing–entering into whatever he found with childlike delight and mature reverence.” In 1874, he was staying at a friend’s cabin in the Sierra Mountains. A storm set in one December day, a fierce storm–trees were bending over backwards. Instead of retreating to the safety and security of the cabin, Muir left the cabin and entered the storm. He found a mountain ridge, climbed to the top of a giant Douglas Fir and held on for dear life “experiencing the kaleidoscope of color and sound, scent and motion.” Muir rode out the storm “relishing weather: taking it all in–its rich sensuality, its primal energy.” Peterson says this about the story. “The story of John Muir, storm-whipped at the top of the Douglas Fir in the Yuba River valley” is an “icon of Christian spirituality.” “A standing rebuke against becoming a mere spectator to life, preferring creature comfort to Creator confrontation.” (http://www.markbatterson.com/uncategorized/the-eye-of-the-storm/#sthash.3RcMijQG.dpuf). Muir is a great example of entering into life at the fullest, the exact opposite of a huddled, defensive life.

How do we learn to live life to the fullest, resist the temptation to huddled, defensive living? Jesus uses the word “consider” two times in this passage. “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” He's saying “look around, observe God's care over His creation and know He will also care for you,” first, because you are of more value to Him than the ravens He provides for, and second, because He is your Father and as a perfect Father knows what your needs are. Reflect on what you know about God, consider your life in the light of God's constant care for His created order, knowing that He has adopted you into His family.

But this reflecting is more than an inward thing. We need to act out our reflections in daily life, knowing that “it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Our response to the things we know is rooted in God's goodness and willingness to give us what we could never earn. As we live in this world of buying and selling – of earning our own way – we need to often remind ourselves that this is not the way God deals with us.

This can be difficult to accept, especially for people who have worked hard and want credit for what they've accomplished. That's the point of the parable about the workers in the vineyard. The landowner hires workers in the morning and sends them out after having agreed on payment for the day's work. Others are hired at intervals, then near the end of the day he sends out some workers who hadn't been hired by anyone; and starting with these end-of-the day workers, he starts paying each their wages. When the latecomers receive the amount those hired in the morning had agreed to, those who have worked all day naturally expect to get more and are disgruntled with the landowner: “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun” (Matthew 20, The Message). And the owner responds, “Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” God doesn't deal with us in terms of buying and selling, earning our own way, getting what we feel entitled to. Here are verses 29-30 from our passage in The Message: “What I'm trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God's giving. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don't be afraid of missing out. You're my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.” Reflect on God's generosity.

This leads to the next step, which is to imitate God's generosity. Paul says in Ephesians 5, “be imitators of God.” He has freely given to us, so our calling is to give freely to others. Be generous toward those in need. But consider this: God's giving is not motivated by a desire to get something for Himself but simply reflects His own generosity. I knew a man, a few years ago, who expressed a desire to help some people in need. He knew these people and had the means to help; so he wrote to the pastor of the church and said what he was planning to do. He then asked about getting a tax credit for his contribution. But when he learned that this was not allowed if the money was designated for an individual family, he withdrew his offer. His generosity, in this case, was contingent on him getting a tax break. If we want to be imitators of God's generosity, we need to be willing to give without getting anything in return.

God gives without expecting anything in return, and He also honors us as people made in His image – despite our spiritual poverty – and He calls us to join Him in showing generosity. I've known many people whose primary concern in helping others is to make sure these people use the money carefully, that they are good stewards. One church I knew had a policy of never giving money to an individual or family; the family had to submit bills to the church for payment, even if the money had been given by an individual in the church specifically for that family's need. We need to know that being on the receiving end of this kind of giving can be a humiliating experience. It's better, I suggest, to show generosity and have our gifts misused – or used in ways we don't fully agree with – than to give in a way that devalues people. God cares more about these people in need than He does about the proper use of our money – and I'm not talking here about giving money to help people buy drugs. All-too-often it has seemed to me that churches are more concerned about protecting the money they're giving than they are about recognizing the value and dignity of the people they're trying to help. God calls us to give without expecting something in return and to give in a way that preserves the other person's dignity and self-esteem, even if we have to take risks in doing so. In doing this, we are storing up treasure in heaven: “Get yourselves a bank that can't go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on” (The Message).

He concludes this passage with “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” or, as it reads in The Message, “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” The things that matter most to us are the things we end up thinking about most of the time. I recently read Grace Like a River, the autobiography of Christopher Parkening, one of the great classical guitarists of the 20th Century. I heard him speak in the mid-80's, and he told us his goal was to work hard and retire by the time he was 30. He was a gifted musician, endorsed by Andres Segovia as one of the greatest guitarists in the world, but his real passion was fly fishing; he saw his work as a concert performer as the way to achieve the freedom to fish full time.

And he was able to do that. He performed all over the world, recorded albums and published both method books and arrangements for other guitarists. By the time he was 30 he had enough money to retire. He stopped performing, dropped out of the music world, and bought a ranch in Montana. He spent all his time doing the things he wanted to do, but after awhile he found himself lost and disappointed. He was bored, lacking any sense of purpose or direction in his life. He had the life he had dreamed about, but it was not what he was hoping for.

What was his treasure? He was an amazing musician, with a career that most musicians dreamed of, but his real treasure was fly fishing, or having the freedom to do what he wanted all the time without having to work. But in the midst of his disappointment, realizing that his dreams were not what he was hoping for, he found himself confronted by Jesus Christ, and now he says that his entire focus was wrong. He eventually started performing again but put a sign on his music stand that said “Chris, what are you here for?” He recognizes now that his treasure is in heaven and that his calling in the present is to exercise the gifts God has given him in a way that brings glory and honor to his Creator. But he also recognizes the need to remind himself of this on a regular basis.

Our hearts will be where our treasure is. How do we know where our treasure is? By asking ourselves, “where does my mind go when it is free to go wherever it wants?” What kinds of things do we meditate on, enter into imaginatively, when we don't have to pay attention to anything else? Asking this question gives us an idea of where our treasure is at present. And if we discover that our treasure is something less than God, focused on what we can have in this life, we have the opportunity to repent and turn our lives to Jesus Christ, as Christopher Parkening did, knowing that God is faithful and will care for all our needs as we seek first His kingdom and righteousness. But this isn't a “once-and-done” thing. We need reminders, like Parkening's music stand. We, over and over, focus our minds on the things of God, meditating on His Word, turning to Him with brief prayers throughout the day, and in doing these kinds of things we train our minds to increasingly dwell on Him. May He enable us to be more and more aware of the treasure we have in heaven.