Sunday, January 27, 2008

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

...for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
Matthew 5:1-12

I know some people who have complained that they don’t understand the Bible. I can sympathize with them; there’s a lot that is hard to understand. There are lists of names of places that are all hard to locate and even harder to pronounce. There are customs and situations that are foreign to us. There are confusing names.

But I think it was Mark Twain who quipped, "Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture which they cannot understand, but as for me, I have always noticed that the passages in Scripture that trouble me most are those I do understand."

This is the heart of the matter. It’s easy to say that Jesus was a good teacher – that’s common parlance even for non-Christians. But Jesus said some seriously difficult things, and this is why we are starting a series asking the question, "What did Jesus really say?"

Over the next eight weeks we will be looking at Matthew 5:1-12, a section of scripture commonly known as "the Beatitudes." These scriptures describe God’s blessings – specifically, who God blesses.

We’ve all heard the phrase "God bless America" – but what does it mean for Jesus to pronounce someone "blessed?"

First of all, let me talk a little about blessing as it should be biblically understood.

  • Blessings are always related to the joy that comes from the presence and activity of Jesus.
  • Blessings were associated with end times – so when Jesus pronounces someone blessed, a side note is that this means that the end times are at hand.
  • When compared with other statements of blessing (especially in Ancient Greek and Old Testament blessing statements), many of the beatitudes don’t make sense. Jesus says, "Happy are the unhappy for God will make them happy." This is because Jesus’ presence fills all meaningful desire for happiness, which has nothing to do with the pursuit of happiness, with fortune, or with external circumstances.
  • These blessings can be self-fulfilling prophecy; they can bring about what they declare.
    (D.E. Garland Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels Blessing and Woe)

Now, let’s get to today’s blessing. I memorized this scripture this way: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

That clears it all up, doesn’t it?

So, what does this phrase "poor in spirit" mean? As I looked in various Bible translations and paraphrases, I found the following variations:

  • at the end of your rope
  • the humble
  • those who rate themselves insignificant
  • those who are poor and realize their need for Him
  • those people who depend only on Him
  • those who realize their spiritual poverty
  • those who know there is nothing good in themselves
  • those who are spiritually needy
  • those who know that they need Him

Jesus says you are blessed if you’re at the end of your rope. Who here has been to the end of their rope? Did you feel blessed? It doesn’t make much sense to say that in a community like New Knoxville. We are a self-sufficient people – on Thursday at the state of the villages breakfast, I was having a conversation with village administrator Jeff Eschmeyer and representative John Adams – our representative told Jeff, "Give me a call if you ever need anything – but you guys never need anything; you just do it yourselves."

We consider our self-sufficiency a blessing, don’t we?

That’s not what Jesus says. He reserves his blessing those who know that they need God – not just in times of emergency, but for everything.

So, what is the blessing God has in store for those who recognize their need for Him? Jesus says that, "Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." That clears things up, doesn’t it? No, really, what does that mean?

To understand this, you have to understand that Jews were the Gospel of Matthew’s original audience. They believed in a future Kingdom which would gather together the scattered Israelites, restore Jerusalem and, usher in a time of prosperity and happiness.
Jesus, however, broadened the scope of the Kingdom. It isn’t bound by geography or nationality, but is open to everyone. And it isn’t just a future hope, but it is at hand – requiring an immediate response. When we continue our study of the Beatitudes over the next few weeks, it’s important to note that Jesus started and ended with the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a literary device called inclusio. When you see "bookends" like this, know that everything within the bookends belongs together. So this passage all deals with the Kingdom of Heaven. This is Jesus’ way of introducing and explaining a Kingdom in which the future is realized in His person.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus sets up a new paradigm for understanding the Kingdom of Heaven, a paradigm in which the participants are only those who depend upon Him for everything – I mean absolutely everything – but also in which all are welcome.

Listen to this scripture from Isaiah 66:2: My hand made all these things, and so they all came into being.[This is] the LORD's declaration. I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My word.

Are you humble and submissive in spirit? Do you tremble at His word? Does God have reason to look favorably on you? This is, in a nutshell, what Jesus was saying when he said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Faith of a Child

One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him.

When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.

Mark 10:13-16

When is a child not a child? No, I’m not asking when a child becomes an adult. I’m asking when a child is not a child.

You see, we are so immersed in our own culture that we miss the weight of Jesus’ words in this passage. When we miss the weight of his words, we thus miss out on what they mean, and in this case, he’s talking about the Kingdom of God; we risk missing out on the Kingdom altogether when we superimpose our 21st century ideas about children upon the text.

To have a coherent discussion about children in Bible times, you need to know several things. First of all, the mortality rate of children was extremely high (Ferguson, Everett, Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993. p. 69). Many, many children died young. Certainly a factor in the high mortality rate was the attitude about children. Anyone who has children knows that the more children you have, the more money they cost you. That’s a fact that hasn’t changed since Bible times!

Today one of the big arguments is if life begins at conception or at birth. In the ancient near-east, life was considered to begin not at conception or at birth, but at adoption (Matthews, Victor H., and Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993. p. 10). You see, the father, as head of the household, had the authority to determine whether or not to adopt a child into his family. If he chose not to adopt the child, "it was considered stillborn" and the "the midwife would leave the child in an open field to declare it eligible for adoption by another household" (Matthews and Benjamin, pp. 10-11). Practically, this meant that unwanted children were left to die. Infanticide was a way for families to be able to afford their children (Ferguson, p. 73). Until the 2nd Century, the pagan attitude that leaving unwanted children to die was perfectly legal (Ferguson, p. 73). Indeed, a papyrus dated Alexandria, June 17, 1 B.C., contains a letter of instruction from a husband to his expectant wife, saying, "if it was a male child, let it live; if it was a female, cast it out" (Lane, William L, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974. p. 361).

Childhood, as a recognized developmental stage, is a recent discovery; it was certainly not considered as such in Bible times (Barton, Stephen C., "Child, Children" Green, Joel B., Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (eds), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992. p. 100). We sentimentalize childhood to huge levels, but the truth is, childhood was seen simply as a time for preparation for adult life (Ferguson, p. 70). In fact, in those times, women and children only had status as defined by the man to whom they were related (Barton, p. 100).

I say all of this to tell you that this snapshot captured by Mark is not simply a cute picture of Jesus surrounded by children. Indeed, it’s a lot more than that.

Think of this in Ancient Near-East terms. A respected Rabbi was teaching. Though there were doubtlessly women and children present, they were of little consequence, because it was men who learned from Rabbis. While the Rabbi was teaching, some people brought children for the Rabbi to bless. Based on research, my hunch is that they wanted some sort of assurance that these children would live to adulthood so they would perpetuate the family name. Clearly this was a breach of etiquette.

Jesus’ reaction was surprising – extremely surprising. Not only did he interrupt their important meeting, but he did so for the most insignificant reason. This wasn’t like when I was a kid and the local weatherman, who happened to be in our congregation, interrupted and said, "We’d better take cover; a tornado has been spotted and it’s headed our way." No, these were children – the least of all.

I guess a good way to understand the vast social difference between Jesus and those around him and the children would be to imagine that the bishop showed up here to preach this morning, and as he was in the middle of his sermon, little kids started coming in. I’m not talking about my kids or your kids – these kids are dirty. Their clothes are tattered and torn. They stink. And they’re not from around here. Perhaps they’re even of a different race. And they don’t just come in to listen, but their parents bring them right up front to the bishop and ask him for some money. "Just enough to get by" they say, or maybe they have a sad story about a doctor’s appointment, and they need some cash to get them to wherever it is that they say they’re going to.

What would we do?

It’s easy to get all indignant about the disciples’ treatment of the children, but if it were any of us in that situation, we’d have done the exact same thing.

But Jesus was awesome at using interruptions for his own purposes. Instead of letting this break his stride, he made it a teaching moment. "The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children," he said. "Anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it."

What exactly does that mean?

The crowd would have seen a child as utterly helpless. Remember that it wasn’t even considered to be alive until it was adopted. The child was the least of the least, and this was lifted up as the standard by which people might receive the Kingdom of God.

What does this mean for us today?

Well, how would you answer if you were asked, "Why do you deserve a part of the Kingdom of God?" If your answer has anything to do with you, Jesus’ words make it clear that you’ve missed the boat. In fact, he says that you won’t enter the Kingdom at all. If you, however, admit that you are helpless to do anything about your state, then God is willing to adopt you as one of His children – as recipients of the Kingdom.

A child, especially a really small one, is completely dependent upon its parent for everything. In ANE terminology, it even depends on its parent for life itself. If you are depending on yourself for anything at all, then you are missing the Kingdom.

The point is that Jesus used those children as an object lesson to demonstrate true discipleship. Through these children we see Jesus’ power revealed in weakness. We see true greatness attained by becoming last of all for Jesus’ sake. The Kingdom of God is not gained by requiring and demanding your own way. And for any of us, men, women, and children, the only status we have comes from the Man to whom we are related. It doesn’t matter what your name is. It doesn’t matter how long your family name has been on the church rolls. It doesn’t matter what your status is in this community. All that matters is whose NAME you have. I have been adopted by God, and I have the name Christian. How about you?

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Tree and its Fruit

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but every bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20

Many of you know that I like hot peppers. I like them a lot. So much that I frequently grow my own. Last year I grew two kinds: cayenne peppers and habanero peppers. But there was one plant that didn’t quite look like the others. It was bigger than the other cayenne pepper plants and smaller than the habanero plants. As its peppers began to grow, they looked like cayenne peppers, but they were smaller, and I recognized them as ornamental peppers. When they got ripe, I tentatively tried one, and though they had a beautiful red color, they didn’t taste good.
They weren’t even hot!

So I left that plant with its pretty little red peppers, and at the end of the season, we ripped it up, peppers and all, and threw it in the wagon down here by the phone company.

This was important to me because I like to use my peppers – they aren’t supposed to be decorative. And I think the same is true of us as Christians. Our Christianity wasn’t meant to be decorative – it’s something that makes me look good – but was meant to be useful.

New Testament Christianity doesn’t make any sense without the Old Testament, especially regarding the covenant that God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "I will be your God, and you will be my people," God said. "I will bless you to be a blessing to the nations."

I grow peppers to be spicy. God grows Christians to be a blessing to others. What kind of plant are you?

Jesus prefaced this statement by telling his followers to enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Let me go back to hot peppers for a moment: from one seed you can grow peppers of all manner of hotness. The trick is in the amount of water the plant receives. The less water it gets, the hotter the peppers it grows.

It is the job of a hot pepper to be hot, so, assuming that you want your hot peppers to be hot, it’s tempting to give them lots of water, but that will dilute the peppers’ heat. In the same way, I believe that our culture is full of false prophets who want us watered to the point where our heat is likewise diluted.

  • They tell us that we can be just like everyone else, and that’s good enough.
  • They tell us that times have changed and that our morals should change with the time.
  • They tell us that sexual promiscuity is normal and that chastity and celibacy are outmoded; if we don’t agree, we’re just stupid.
  • They tell us that we can be Christians on Sunday and something else the rest of the week.
  • They tell us that our religious beliefs are private and should never be spoken in public.
  • They tell us that it doesn’t matter what kind of garbage we put into our minds through the television and movies because "that really doesn’t affect us."
  • They tell us that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know our Bibles – that’s what we pay our preacher for.
  • They tell us to "do as I say, not as I do."

False prophets tell us all kinds of things, but the lies they tell us aren’t exactly Jesus’ main point. And, just as an aside, do you know what the Old Testament said about false prophets? Do you know how to spot a false prophet? If someone supposes to speak for God, they are to be judged by what they say. If they predict something will happen and it does not happen, they are a false prophet. And do you know what the Old Testament punishment is for false prophecy? If you guessed "death," you are correct. Why is that? It gives God a bad name, for one. When a well-known televangelist promised last year that God spoke to him and told him that there would be a major terrorist attack on US soil in 2007, and it didn’t happen, what did that do to his credibility? It shot it, as far as I am concerned.

This is one of the problems we face as we live as Christians in the world – simply put, every one of us who claims the name Christian, every one of us speaks for Christ. We speak by our words and our actions. And when the fruit of our lives doesn’t match with the plant "Christian" then we lose our credibility.

What fruit are we called to bear? Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the Fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Is this how others see us? There is no law against any of these; nobody can say anything about them.

I was pretty disappointed when I found out that the pepper plant I’d planted was simply decorative – how much of our fruit is decorative? Good numbers for worship attendance and offering, singing songs that we like, looking nice, just getting along and not offending anybody. These are all decorative fruit.

But Romans 7:4 reminds us of the reason God saved us: so that we might bear fruit for Him. Remember the deal God made with Abraham? That He would bless them to be a blessing to the nations? That’s supposed to be our fruit as well! No matter what, we will be known by our fruit. So let’s be known by the fruit of the Spirit and by the harvest of souls for Jesus Christ.

Benediction: Colossians 1:9-14:
We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from His glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints of the light.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Voice of an Outsider

Matthew 2:1-12

What exactly do the wise men bring to the Christmas story?

Besides the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and besides the inevitable confusion over their number, names, and identities, what do they add to the story? Why is it that Matthew records their visit?

Really, this story doesn’t make any sense. Think about it. No, really, think about it. You’ve all become so accustomed to the wise men being in the nativity that it has lost its absurdity. But if you really think about it, it doesn’t make any sense at all.
  1. Here we have a story of these magi, from a far-off nation, probably Babylon. Though Matthew wrote his gospel to Jews, these who came to admire the newborn King are not Jewish – they were likely Zoroastrian priests – noted monotheistic astrologers from Babylon. They probably traveled over nine hundred miles to get there. As a frame of reference, that would be like us making a trip from here to the Colorado/Nebraska border. Without the aid of vehicular travel, of course.
  2. These foreigners didn’t bring just anything – they brought extremely precious gifts, gifts not only worthy of royalty, but of priestly royalty. I say this because the only acceptable Jewish use of frankincense was in the Temple.
  3. King Herod, the Jewish king, had to inquire of the leading priests and religious scholars to figure out where the Messiah would be born. Meanwhile, these outsiders figured it out by watching the stars.
  4. It presumably took the wise men over a year to get there (you can forget the picture of them worshiping alongside the shepherds – scripture makes it clear that they visited Jesus in a house) – and the leading priests and religious scholars knew where the Messiah was to be born. Yet not once during that time period did they visit the newborn King.

None of this makes sense. Let’s tell the story over, having it make sense. When Jesus was born, the religious leaders celebrated the birth of the Messiah they had been awaiting for so many years. They traveled to Bethlehem themselves, praising and glorifying God. Herod had a change of heart and came and worshiped at Jesus’ feet.

And they all lived happily ever after.

But that’s not what happened. The ones who should have been anticipating Jesus’ birth most –they didn’t even notice it. The outsiders were those who noticed, celebrated, and brought appropriate gifts.

What does this mean?

One thing it means is that someone’s position in the church does not guarantee that they will meet Jesus. If even the leading priests and top religious scholars missed Jesus’ birth, what makes us think we’re immune?

It doesn’t matter if you’ve led committees for years or if you even founded the church or built it with your own hands. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been approved as a certified lay speaker or if you’ve even been ordained Elder. These things don’t matter a bit if you miss out on the new things that God is doing.

The voice of an outsider can be an important voice. It can be hard to listen to an outsider, especially in a town like New Knoxville, a town that doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for new people.

I had an experience when I was in college – at church one Sunday, we had a missionary speaker. Now I was used to that – someone like Rick Haberkamp coming to tell us about what God is doing in far-flung places like Africa. Except this missionary was different.

First of all, he was from India. And secondly, his mission field was Chicago. My first response was that I was offended. Who does he think he is, telling us about Jesus Christ? Then I realized that his calling was legit – that we need missionaries, too. And he had a lot to tell us, if only we would listen. But it was hard listening to him because he was an outsider.

I don’t think we listen to the voice of the outsider.

If we did, what might we hear?

I don’t think any of us means to ignore any voice, but we get pretty complacent just doing what’s comfortable – what we’re used to doing, what we’ve done before. This was certainly the case for the leading priests and the religious scholars when Jesus was born. God was doing something new, and they missed it completely because they were focused on themselves and what they’d always done.

I know some of you are saying, "We shouldn’t listen to anyone else – the Bible is all we need." Sure, the Bible is what we need. But what happens if we don’t understand all of it? Or what happens if we haven’t even read it? Maybe we need to evaluate what we are doing, not just what they are doing.

A mark of spiritual maturity is being able to listen to the voice of an outsider and can evaluate what is true, what isn’t true, and (get this) where we need to change. For example, I am somewhat conservative theologically, and many of my colleagues at Annual Conference detest anyone who leans toward a liberal direction. While I don’t agree with their theology, through our relationships, I am always finding areas where I need growth.

How about you?

This is one of the reasons we practice an open Communion – we believe that God is calling, inviting all to participate: all who love Him and who earnestly repent of their sins and seek to live in peace with one another.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2

As a child, I always wanted to make a new year’s resolution, mostly because of a record my father shared with me.

Happy New Year by Spike Jones

When my mother-in-law begins to yell and shout
Through the window I would like to throw her out.
But I resolve not to do it, here is why:
I'm afraid of hittingsomeone passing by.
This is my New Year's resolution.

When I'm at the movies watching a love scene
And a lady's hat is blocking half the screen
I resolve not to shout, "Take off that hat!"
I'll remove it gently with a baseball bat.
This is my New Year's Resolution.

When I take a lovely lady out to eat
And she orders caviar instead of meat
I resolve to let the lady have her fill.
And of course I'll also let her pay the bill.
This is my New Year's Resolution.

When I'm sitting with my wifey on a bus
And a dear old lady stands in front of us
I resolve to be a gentleman discreet.
I'll politely offer her my wifey's seat.
This is my New Year's Resolution.

When my mother says, "Come in, it's time to eat."
And I keep on playing games out in the street
I resolve to rush right home now when I'm called
Cause my pop just got a hairbrush and he's bald.
This is my New Year's Resolution.

On the radio this year I hope to score
With some funny jokes you've never heard before.
I resolve not to tell a corny joke.
Hello, what's that? The church burned down?
Holy smoke!This is my New Year's Resolution.

In this coming year I'm going to be discreet.
Have the Slicker's playing music soft and sweet.
I resolve to treat Tchaikovsky tenderly
And set his second movement with TNT.
This is my New Year's Resolution.

There’s just something about the new year that allows us (or, in some cases all but requires us) to start over. The turn-over of the calendar reminds us of what we’ve done or what we’ve left undone. Or we’re "Another year older and deeper in debt," as Tennessee Ernie Ford might have put it.

I used to hate the beginning of the new year for one reason. All the new people would crowd my usually blessedly empty gym, and I’d have to wait to work out. Of course, I knew that things would return to normal in a couple of weeks once the resolution had run its course.

Who here makes new year’s resolutions?

OK, who here keeps them?

I had a friend who would make mock resolutions like, "I resolve to gain 10 pounds this year."
But what makes for a good resolution? Or is there any sense in making one at all? I believe that resolutions can be a good thing. "Can" is the operative word here. It’s only a good thing if you intend to follow through with it. Some people have spent their entire lives beating themselves up: if only I was… (you can fill in the blanks there with your own foibles, problems, or growth areas). But that’s all the farther they get. They never do anything about the problem. I sometimes think, "I need to drink less Coke" but I won’t do anything about it – why not?

Because it’s not really a problem for me.

Or we decide that this is the year we’re going to do something about it, and we’ll start… tomorrow.

A good resolution follows the following criteria:

  1. It is stated as a positive statement. ‘I will lose 10 pounds’ is a much better goal than 'I won’t be so fat.’
  2. It is precise: Set a precise goal, putting in dates, times and amounts so that you can measure achievement. If you do this, you will know exactly when you have achieved the goal, and can take complete satisfaction from having achieved it.
  3. It is properly prioritized: When you have several goals, give each a priority. This helps you to avoid feeling overwhelmed by too many goals, and helps to direct your attention to the most important ones.
  4. It is written down: This crystallizes them and gives them more force.
  5. It involves others: Nobody goes through life alone – and we all need the help of others to reach our goals.
  6. It is realistic: If your resolution is to be perfect – sure, that’s a good thing to reach toward, but it’s not very realistic.
  7. Truth is, for a resolution to be a good one, it has to be something you really care about. If you don’t care about it, it’ll never come true, because you’re not willing to work at it enough to make it come true.

In the letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes not about simple goal setting or resolutions, however, but complete transformation. He writes:

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God
because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the
kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy
the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new
person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for
you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Is this something you want? Do you want to know God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will for you? If that’s what you want, if you’re tired of living life on the sidelines of God’s will, if you’ve figured out that there must be more than simply the patterns of this world, then it’s time for transformation. If you’re content with what this world has to offer, if your money can buy you happiness, if you can carry yourself through any crisis, then you’re not ready for this.

If you’re ready for more, then it’s time to offer yourself as a living and holy sacrifice. Thinking about spiritual transformation in terms of new year’s resolutions can be helpful – we can make a positive statement like ‘I will allow God to transform me more into the likeness of Christ.’
Is it precise? Well, my goal is complete Christ-likeness – that’s pretty precise, isn’t it?
Is it prioritized? To really be transformed requires us to offer our entire selves to God – that means that our relationship with Him is first priority in our lives. That means God takes precedent over everything.

Is it written down? God has written down His promises to you – is it so much to ask for you to put your promises to God in writing as well?

Does it involve others? Too often we make spiritual decisions and then fail to follow through. The best way I’ve found to actually follow through is to involve someone else. When I rededicated my life to Christ while I was in college, I involved two friends – we went to church together and we studied the Bible together. Currently I meet weekly with a group of four other pastors, and we have given each other permission to ask the hard questions about our lives. John Wesley required early Methodists to meet in small groups – you weren’t allowed to take Communion if you hadn’t been to your class meeting!

Is it realistic to expect transformation? I believe that it is – I’m a living example, and I know some of you have experienced transformation as well.

I want to finish up with some comments about spiritual transformation.

  1. Deep, lasting spiritual transformation is a process. Don’t expect to be completely different tomorrow morning. But do expect people to notice a difference next year. If you haven’t grown spiritually over the past year, you’re probably not growing.
  2. Spiritual transformation requires desire. If you don’t want to be transformed, you probably won’t be. God won’t force you. But often this kind of transformation comes with this kind of prayer: "God, I really don’t want to change. Please help me want to want to change!"
  3. Spiritual transformation flows out of an intimate relationship with Jesus. There’s no shortcut. There’s no miracle pill. You won’t be like Jesus unless you are with Jesus. But when you are with Jesus 24/7, you’ll find yourself being transformed more and more into His likeness.
  4. Spiritual transformation requires discipline. It’s no coincidence that the word discipline and the word disciple share the same root. It’s hard, almost impossible to change the way you think – even with discipline. If I had continued with my thought, "I’d love to run a marathon someday" - how far do you think I would have run in the marathon? Not far. But with the discipline to run every day, no matter what the weather was like, whether I felt like it or not, I was able to complete it.
  5. Spiritual transformation is brought about by the Holy Spirit, as we exercise faith and obedience. Though our society places highest worth on what we can do for ourselves, we won’t be transformed on our own. No, transformation requires us to rely fully on God.
  6. Spiritual transformation is possible (and assured) because of the new life we received when we were born again.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Not only is spiritual transformation possible and assured, it is expected of the Christian. One reason many Christians have a bad reputation is because many of us have given the same attention to our spiritual transformation as we have to our new year’s resolutions, that is, we forget it as soon as we leave the room.

Would you rather make that kind of new year’s resolution, the kind that we can cast aside with no problem because they don’t have any weight or meaning? Or would you like to be spiritually transformed and, instead of simply making resolutions, we can be a part of a revolution!

My challenge to you is a challenge of spiritual transformation. That each of us will allow, even challenge, the Holy Spirit to transform us – as individuals and as a church. And by doing so, we will see this community transformed for Christ.