Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009 Message

Again and again he tries.  Each time, he knows he will succeed.  Though he’s failed every time in the past, this time will be different.  He approaches the ball… and it’s yanked out from under him.  Have you ever felt like Charlie Brown?  You’ve tried so hard, but things aren’t going like you expected them to go.  You didn’t plan them out this way?

When I was entering the final quarter of my senior year of college, I had my life all planned out.  I was going to graduate college and get married.  Then I was going to continue my education at Indiana University, where I would get my master’s degree in Education, after which I would get a job, where I would teach high school German and coach soccer.  I had everything planned out. To make a long story short, things didn’t work out like I had planned. My fiancĂ© and I broke up, and the last place I wanted to be was where she was, so I didn’t go to grad school.  Life didn’t turn out at all like I had planned.

I’m not the only one who has had life not turn out like I had planned it.  When we look at the situation in Luke 2, we see a life that hadn’t turned out at all like people had planned.  Israel, from its very inception, was meant to be God’s chosen people.  God called Abraham to leave his home and his family and to go to the land He would show him.  God told him this:  I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.  I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. Genesis 12:2-3.

Then in Exodus 19, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to talk with God.  God told him that they would be His treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:6).

But here we are, years and years later, and Israel isn’t a great nation.  They don’t seem to be mediating between God and humanity.  In fact, since the time of Abraham, they’ve mostly seen others rule over them.  Whether it was Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, or now Rome, someone else had been ruling over them for most of their history. Apart from a brief rebellion over 150 years earlier, they had been under the rule of other nations for hundreds of years. This didn’t seem like the place of a great nation.

As if it weren’t bad enough to be ruled by another nation, they were under the thumb of a Roman ruler who called himself a god.  And this year, Caesar Augustus was requiring all of his subjects to return to their hometowns to be counted.  There were only two reasons for an emperor to call for a census: first of all, to demonstrate to the world how powerful they were. By showing how many people were in his empire, Caesar could show that he was the most powerful man on earth.  The second reason for a census was to help an emperor know how much he should or could be collecting in taxes.  Mighty Rome would crush you if you didn’t pay your taxes. Meanwhile, you have Israel, barely more than a blip on Rome’s radar screen, mostly doing whatever it took to not be noticed.

This wasn’t how Israel had planned it.  They were supposed to be a great nation, not bowing to another nation and paying tribute or taxes.  I can’t even imagine the corporate morale of Israel.

And in this Christmas story, we meet the shepherds.  Now to know who they were, you have to know something about the economy of the ancient near east.  Shepherds were not landowners.  They weren’t even sheep-owners.  They were peasants at best.  Overall they weren’t concerned with the political situation of Israel.  They were most concerned with subsistence.  They just wanted to make enough to keep themselves and their families alive.  Talk about a blip on the radar screen; they weren’t even on the screen.

They remind me of a certain class of kids I went to high school with.  Now I went to a large high school with about 500 in each class, and there were a number of cliques.  I remember one kid, I’ll call him Jimmy, who started out trying to fit in with the “preps”. He tried his best to dress the part, but the rich kids wouldn’t have any thing to do with him.  Then he was trying to fit in with the athletes, but he wasn’t athletic enough, so they didn’t accept him either.  Next he was riding a skateboard and trying to hang out with that crowd, but they called him a “poser” and wouldn’t accept him either.  Finally Jimmy ended up with the “hoods” – the longhaired smoker kids who wore leather jackets and congregated outside behind the school before and after class.  They were almost always under the radar.  One classmate of mine wore a blatantly obscene t-shirt all day in school, and not one teacher even noticed.  Even as a teenager, I was convinced that adults purposely ignored their entire group.  This is where Jimmy ended.  He was in the same kind of social status as were the shepherds. In fact Jewish rabbis considered shepherds to not only be smelly and dirty, but also untrustworthy.

This wasn’t the lot in life they’d chosen.  In fact, they weren’t much different from Jimmy.  Much like he went from clique to clique, trying to fit, in the shepherds’ initial goal wasn’t to become a shepherd. The goal of any young man in Israel was to become a rabbi.  Every Jewish boy studied Torah and if he was good enough, he presented himself to the rabbi.  If the rabbi didn’t accept him, then he either went to a lesser rabbi or went home to follow his father’s trade.  Some young men, however, didn’t have the option of leaving home to try to follow a rabbi.  They were too necessary at home; if they left home, their family starved.  Their fathers didn’t have a trade to teach them.  All they had was their position as a shepherd, looking after someone else’s sheep.  Dirty, smelly, dumb animals.

This is where we find the shepherds that night.

Then you have Mary and Joseph.  I’ve never been pregnant, but I understand that even with today’s comfortable means of transportation, travelling when 9 months pregnant is horrible.  Can you imagine Mary’s discomfort?  Especially because of the reason for their need to travel.  It wasn’t to be with family when the baby was born; they had to travel so Rome could count them and most likely increase their taxes.  Just another reminder that they weren’t free.  And then they showed up in Joseph’s hometown and there was no room for them. 

Now most of our Christmas pageants like to vilify an “innkeeper” who turned this couple out into the cold, but in reality, it was worse than that.  The Greek word katalumen, which we sometimes see translated “inn” also means “guest room.”  Bethlehem was not the size of town to have a real “inn” and most homes of that time period would have been equipped with a guest room, for showing hospitality was not just encouraged; it was required.  But the guest room of Joseph’s family home was already full.  I remember travelling with Tara when she was pregnant. We went to visit friends in Texas.  They demanded that we stay in their room, and they slept in the living room.  That’s hospitality.  I wonder if the “no room” mandate came down because of the “condition” of Joseph’s fiancĂ©… After all, none of them had been visited by an angel to explain the whole “Spirit of God” thing...

This wasn’t the way they had intended to start their married life or their family.  I’m sure they had things planned out differently than this.  They would have a normal wedding, complete with the whole party thing, and then when the time was right, they would have children, hopefully a son who would follow Joseph and learn carpentry.

Instead, they were out in the attached barn, and instead of a clean room and a clean cradle, their baby was laid in a manger.  Not the way anyone expected the Son of God to be born.  The Messiah, promised of old.  Here are the words of the angel Gabriel, when he had told Mary about this miraculous birth: He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. Luke 1:32-33.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t royal babies supposed to be born in palaces?  I can’t imagine what could have been going through Mary and Joseph’s minds about now.  Life hadn’t turned out like they had planned.

There they were: over the past 400 years, God had been silent.  Israel was ruled by Rome, and they were being counted so Caesar Augustus could know how powerful he was and so he could raise taxes.   Shepherds, the lowest rung on the social ladder, out in the fields, hoping to earn enough so their families didn’t starve.  Mary and Joseph, with their baby laid in a manger.  If you didn’t know the rest of the story, you might even think that God had abandoned them.

Have you ever been there?

But God had never left.  God had never abandoned them.  Way back in their history, as he handed over leadership of Israel, Moses had told Joshua, “the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6).  This is still true.  God has never left us.  In fact, the Christmas story is proof.  It’s proof that in spite of the worst possible circumstances, God is still God, and he is still with us.
Rome.  Rome was so powerful, and Caesar considered himself to be a god. But Psalm 33:16 reminds us: No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.

Not an army.  Not political strength.  Not an emperor, king, or president.  Even in the face of persecution, God is glorified.  Jesus pronounced those who are persecuted as “blessed” – and goes another step to declare that theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10). 

Though it looks like things aren’t what you might have planned them, you might just be in the center of God’s will.  In fact, the Greek Empire, who overran Israel before Rome did, provided the language much of the New Testament was written in, a common language through which someone like the Apostle Paul could communicate all over the ancient near east.  Rome provided reliable roads to carry the Good News all over the known world.  Even when Rome began persecuting Christians, trying to wipe them out, it merely scattered them… and the Good News of Jesus Christ was spread throughout the world. 

The shepherds, those who had drawn a poor lot in life, were visited personally by God’s angel.  Can you imagine this?  Everyone would just automatically expect God to appear to the high priest or at least to priests or to the temple workers. The elite, after all, most deserve to see God, don’t they?  But God shows his love for the least and the lost by coming to the shepherds of all people.  They got to be the first to see the Messiah, the promised one, the King whose reign will never end.  They got to be the ones who first shared the good news.  They glorified and praised God, because they had seen Jesus, the savior of the world! 

As for Mary and Joseph, their forced, painful journey to Bethlehem, the stigma of being unwed parents disappeared in the glory of being chosen to be parents to the Son of God.  Mary got it right when she said that [God] has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name. Luke 1:48-49.  Even their travel to the tiny town of Bethlehem, mandated by the Roman emperor, provided fulfillment of prophecy. The Prophet Micah had written: But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Micah 5:2.

As for you.  Things might not be going like you had planned them.  You might be wondering where God is in the midst of your troubles.  It can be hard to see the big picture when you’re in the middle of the little picture.  But a look at the Christmas story is a reminder that God is with us.  To look at Rome is to look at a historical empire, not a current one. Our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering government-sponsored persecution just because they worship Jesus Christ are reminded that Rome seemed all powerful at the time of the birth of Jesus, but some 400 years later, Rome was sacked and the Roman Empire fell.  But the baby who was born in the manger, the Son of the Most High, rules over a kingdom that will never end.
To look at the shepherds is to be reminded that God has a special love for the least and the lost. God showed up in a special way to the shepherds, and if you are down and out, if you are at your wits end, if you are at rock bottom, God has a special love for you.  It is you to whom he gives His kingdom. 

To look at Mary and Joseph is to be reminded that sometimes things don’t pan out like you’d planned it, but God has something much bigger and better in store.  Like my college story.  I left off by telling you that things hadn’t worked out like I planned.  Truthfully, in hindsight, I am so glad! I can’t imagine how things would have gone had I followed my plan.  I don’t think I ever would have followed God’s call into ministry, and God has blessed me and my family more generously than I ever would have imagined. 

You see, sometimes we get so focused on our plans and how we want things to go, and we come to God and tell him, “I accept you – now walk alongside me” and we continue along the path we’ve set out before us.  That’s not the message of the Bible. That’s not Christianity.  That’s just selfish sinfulness wearing a Jesus mask.

So today and from now on, instead of going your own way and then focusing on how things haven’t gone to your plan, let’s focus on God’s plan.  Let’s give up our agendas and live according to Jesus Christ’s.   This is truly living a life that matters. And it’s Jesus’ Christmas gift to us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Living a Christmas Life

Let’s be honest: life is too short to live unintentionally.  We don’t know what is going to happen next, and none of us is guaranteed tomorrow.  Wouldn’t it be good to know that you are living a life that matters?  
There have been times in my life when I have wondered if I am making a difference.  When I was leading the evening service at my first church, we struggled with poor attendance.”  There were days when the band outnumbered the congregation.  I wondered if we were making a difference at all. 

Meanwhile, the youth group wasn’t growing, and the senior pastor and I struggled with philosophical differences in youth ministry. 

Then in New Knoxville, the District Superintendent told me that our church could grow and become an “anchor” in the southern part of Auglaize County.  I really, really wanted that to happen, yet the growth I saw while I was there was less than one person per year. 

Somehow the devil began to use what started out as a good thing. The devil got hold of the dreams I had, dreams to do great things for God, and twisted it into a “you didn’t see those kinds of results.  Maybe you’re just not good enough.”

Am I alone in this?  Have any of you ever felt like you’re not making a difference? Like you’re just not good enough?  Like you just can’t quite do enough?  Like you’ll never make the difference that you set out to make?

Then you’ll find that fear is paralyzing.  It’s hard to think about anything, let alone do anything because of the fear of failure.  And guess what: when we get to that point, we’re already in failure mode.  And then Satan is going around doing the “I’m so cool” dance because he feels like he’s won.

I bet Satan was doing that kind of dance for quite a while.  Between Malachi and Matthew, in the “intertestamental period” some 400 years passed where it seemed like God was silent.  Satan had to be pretty pleased with the course of events.  God had chosen a people to be a blessing to the nations, to act as His priests, the mediators between humans and the divine, and they had continually and completely failed.  And God was silent.  And Satan was doing the “I told you so” dance.

Then an angel shows up in the least likely place.  Mary.  A young, unmarried woman. The least in her culture.  She didn’t have a voice or status.  Yet the angel shows up and calls her “highly favored.”

Here’s the thing: Satan loves it when we’re paralyzed by fear.  He loves it when we are scared to take the next step.  He loves it when we speak negative thoughts again and again.  He loves the word “impossible.” He loves it when we look at situations and say “there’s nothing I can do.”

Can you imagine what Mary thought when the angel showed up?  The very sight of an angel had to be terrifying – scripture says she was “greatly troubled” and the angel had to preface his news with “don’t be afraid.”

He brings some wild news of a son who would rule over the house of Jacob forever.  But Mary can’t even get to the meaning of all this; she can’t get past the impossible part.  How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

I guess God had anticipated her incredulity, because the angel had an answer ready.  The Holy Spirit was going to do something miraculous.  Because, as the angel explained, Nothing is impossible with God.

Now, I’ve read this passage for years – that the Holy Spirit would come upon Mary and would overshadow her with the power of the Most High and He would work a miracle, because, after all, nothing is impossible with God.  This is how a virgin could give birth.  By God’s special intercession in the world, the miraculous happened.

But did you realize that the words from the angel are repeated later in the scripture?  In Acts 1:8, Jesus is speaking with his disciples, and he tells them “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Do you realize that we have been given that same Spirit? The Holy Spirit has come upon us. We have the Spirit of God within us.  We have the Spirit that caused a virgin to give birth.  We have the Spirit that spoke through Jesus’ disciples in all kinds of languages.  We have the Spirit of God within us.  And nothing is impossible with our God.

What do you think we could do if we realized the power that is within us?  Think about it.  Do you think we would dwell on negative thoughts and words like “can’t” or “never” – or would we explore the possibilities that God might have in store for us?

In my position, I hear a lot of negative talk. Did you know that negativity is one of Satan’s tools? There are times and places for critiques (evaluation of programs and events is vitally important – when we do this, we can figure out if we are on the right track, if the event is something that we need to continue to do or if maybe we need to retool it or even to stop doing it and look at doing something different).  But when our conversation is always negative, then we have problems.  One of these problems is that our perceptions become reality.  When we constantly hear (and speak) negatively, we begin to believe it.  Satan doesn’t usually come at us with blatant lies.  Satan comes with something that sounds like the truth.  Or he even takes something that is true and he twists it. 

This is nothing new: in the Garden of Eden, he came to Eve and asked her, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). God had indeed forbidden Adam and Eve from eating from one tree, so the question seemed innocuous.  This is how Satan works.  Satan says things like, “You failed at that – maybe God isn’t calling you to do something special for him.” Or he says, “This is scary; maybe there’s someone else who could do it better.”  Or “I have struggled with this for so long; I can’t imagine that I’ll ever see anything different.”

When we buy into that kind of attitude, we’re just falling for Satan’s lies.  And friends, there is power in the spoken word.  Do you remember how God created everything?  God didn’t get down on his knees and build the earth.  God spoke it all into existence.  There is power in the spoken word. When we constantly speak negatively, we give credence to Satan’s lies.  So evaluate your speech; are you allowing Satan to slip in and deceive you?  Or are you willing to speak Truth into the situation?

This is personal for me.  I worked with someone who was constantly questioning me.  He went so far as to write on a recommendation "I don't know if Brian is suited for ministry."  As someone whose primary love language is 'words of affirmation' his criticism stung.  I heard some of his words repeated in my head over and over, and I actually started to believe them. 

Speaking Truth into a situation requires us to be led by the Holy Spirit.  It requires us to know scripture, not just in chunks and sound bites, but in its complete unity. What is God doing?  How might He use you.  What might you do if anything was possible?

Here’s another example.  I have been reminding all of you that you can celebrate your birthday on your birthday, but on Christmas, we’ll celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  I have been reminding you that we can make a difference in the lives of young women right here in central Ohio, children who have been bought and sold. We can bring a miracle offering (for Gracehaven) on Christmas Eve.  In the meantime, our church has faced a crisis.  Some have asked me, “Are you going to go ahead with the miracle offering?” They’ve told me, “This is pretty ‘in-your-face’ and the church needs something ‘nice’ to help them get through this.”
I recognize that there are still many raw emotions here and that things have been tough.  This is all the more reason that we need to continue with the miracle offering.  Because nothing is impossible with God.  Satan wants us to stop doing ministry.  He wanted the Night in Bethlehem to fail, and it was fantastic.  He wanted your cell groups to give up and fold.  He wanted the praise band to stop leading worship.  And he wants us to become inward focused and to forget about the world outside, to forget that we can make a difference.
Mary responded to the angel with one of the most impressive statements of faith I’ve ever heard.  “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
What will we look like if we answer God in the same way?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Living a Life that Matters: Repentance

Luke 3:1-20

What are you looking forward to? Christmas?  The New Year?  Heaven?  Most of us are looking forward to something.  When I think of Christmas time as a child, the one word that I would use to describe it would be anticipation.  I would generally just ask for just one thing for Christmas, and then I’d have to wait and wait.  Christmas Eve was the hardest night to fall asleep, because the anticipation was so great.

So what are you looking forward to?  What are you anticipating? And what are you doing to prepare for it?  As a child, we were told that Santa would know if we’d been naughty or nice, and that our Christmas haul depended upon our behavior.  So we would ostensibly prepare for Christmas by being “nice.”

When we look at scriptures, the Bible works to prepare us for Christmas, for the coming of Jesus Christ.  The entire Old Testament works together to let us know why it was necessary for God to take on flesh and to come to earth.  For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas without reading the account of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2.  But after his introduction, Luke starts with John the Baptist.  And before he ever gets to Jesus’ ministry, he outlines John’s ministry. 

Many churches follow the lectionary, which is a three year cycle of scripture readings.  Usually there are different readings each year for a given Sunday, but some certain times in the year, the readings remain constant over the three years.  In Advent, we always get John the Baptist.  Sometimes it seems kind of awkward an even inappropriate to talk about John the Baptist when the church wants to get to Jesus.  We want the baby in the manger, and instead we get Jesus’ ugly cousin, wearing camel hair clothes eating locusts and wild honey, calling the religious leaders a “brood of vipers.”  To me it never seemed quite appropriate.  But right now I realize that this couldn’t be more appropriate, both for Christmas and for our church today. 
In Luke 3:2-6, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  And all mankind will see God's salvation.' "

So I ask you today: Are you ready? Are you ready for him?  John the Baptist had it right.  He was the son of a priest. He knew the words of the prophets.  John indeed knew that it was a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. He knew that the Day of the Lord, which the people of God looked forward to, was a dreadful and scary thing for those in sin.

Listen to the words of Isaiah: Isaiah 13:6-13:   Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.  Because of this, all hands will go limp, every man's heart will melt. Terror will seize them, pain and anguish will grip them; they will writhe like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at each other, their faces aflame. See, the day of the LORD is coming —a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger— to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.   I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger.

Are you ready?

How about the words from Joel: Joel 1:15 Alas for that day! For the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. Joel 2:1-2a, 11Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. …The LORD thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful.  Who can endure it?

Or Amos? Amos 5:18-20 Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!  Why do you long for the day of the LORD ? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

Or Obadiah? Obadiah 1:15 "The day of the LORD is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head.

Do you get the picture? This is the background that John the Baptist knew.  And this is the context of Advent.  Of preparation. Of repentance. In our culture, we like to think of God in terms of his love.  And this is right and good.  But sometimes we paint a picture of God that just doesn’t fit with what we know of Him. Sometimes Jesus gets reduced to our buddy and God to a kindly grandfather.  It’s no wonder that some people wonder if the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament; we have often painted an inaccurate picture of the New Testament God that distorts his love to be a “whatever is fine” kind of God. 

That’s just not accurate.  God’s love is a protecting love.  God’s love is the love that wants what is best for his creation.  And what is best is himself!  Unfortunately for us, we’ve all sinned (remember Romans 3:23 – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God), and that has left us unworthy to even come into God’s holy presence.

Let’s talk for a moment about God’s presence.  I know that sometimes I have been almost flippant when I talk about God’s presence.  When I talk about feeling God’s presence here, sometimes that takes the form of some kind of warm feeling.  Here is what the prophet Isaiah felt about being in the presence of God.   Isaiah 6:1-5 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
       "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;  the whole earth is full of his glory."

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.  "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."

Have you ever stopped and thought of God’s presence this way?  God’s presence is such that unclean people cannot stand unscathed!  If we had any concept of God’s holiness, we would never pray limp prayers.  We would never simply bow our heads.  We would be face down, grieved by our own sin.
When Jesus was talking to some Jews who had believed him, he said,If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).

The importance of this can’t be overstated.  We often put the emphasis on the first part of what Jesus said, that if we obey him, we are his disciples.  But the second part of this is troublesome.  Does Jesus mean that he will then give out some secret information, some secret truth, that finally then we will be able to break free?  No.  Jesus is still talking about himself.  When he later told his disciples that he was going to leave them, and Thomas declared that they didn’t know where he was going, and he questioned as to how could they know the way, Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

We often just stick with Jesus being the Way.  Yes, that’s right.  But he is also the Truth.  While Satan is the father of lies, Jesus is the Truth.  So if you are in Christ, there is no falsehood at all.  If you know Jesus, if you really, really know Jesus, he sets you free.  But to know Jesus includes to hold to his teaching.  And John the Baptist wasn’t the only one who proclaimed “repent!”

When John the Baptist came, he called for repentance. He knew that the Day of the LORD was approaching.  He knew that the need was urgent.  It wasn’t about “later”; it was about today. Knowing Jesus and preparing for Him isn’t about balancing a naughty or nice list; it’s all about entering into the presence of a Holy God.

Repentance is the way.  The way to prepare for God isn’t to just invite God to come alongside us on our circuitous route through sin and mire.  It is to admit to God that this is exactly where we’ve been.  And then to allow God to fill in valleys and straighten the road.

God is saying, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”   This means that what we do should reflect a repentant heart.  In other words, we who have been forgiven much, our response should be to love much.  I have to say that most of you have been wonderful in your outpouring of love for the families in our church in their difficult time.  Many have been evaluating everything, every word and deed, and have been rededicating yourselves daily to the LORD.  But there are others who have continued to gossip and spread discord in town.  If I wasn’t clear enough last week, let’s go over this again.  Gossip is sin.  If you persist in telling stories, even “concerned information” you are sinning.  Blatantly.  Unrepentantly.  Stop it now!

Proverbs 16:28: A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. This is not what we are here for.  Unfortunately many people look at a small town and look at a church and actually expect sinful gossip.  I don’t expect it, and I don’t approve it.  Gossip is a symptom of a sinful, unrepentant heart.

In Matthew 15:19-20a, Jesus says: For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what make a man ‘unclean’.

Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t differentiate between the sins of adultery and slander here?  He is saying that these sins are the outpouring of sinful hearts.  If you persist in sinning with your mouth, you are simply showing the fruit of a sinful heart.  The prophets and Hebrews 10:31 remind us, It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Know that gossip isn’t the only sin that we’re guilty of.  In one way, it’s just an easy one to attack, because it has often been the “trademark” of a small town.  If you have sin in your life, it’s time to root it out, once and for all.  To follow Jesus in everything, to know Him, to know Truth, which will set you free.

Every one of us is called to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  Here’s the cool thing about repentance: when we repent, we are cleansed. Jesus’ death on the Cross sealed that promise for us.  And he gives us the Holy Spirit to help us, to allow us to fully repent, to even know what to repent of.

So what’s next?  After Joel warned about the horrible Day of the LORD, he went on to say this: "Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments.  Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.  (Joel 2:12-13)

This is important, because it demonstrates what our attitude and posture should be before the LORD.  The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. This verse does more than just say something about God; it describes his character. 

Return with all your heart.  Remember that repentance means more than just quitting sinning.  It means that we stop sinning and turn in the opposite direction.  1 Peter gives us a good picture of this: Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech (see, here’s a good example of what we’ve been talking about; evil speech includes gossip). He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. (1 Peter 3:10-11).

This is how we prepare for the coming of the LORD. Not just for Christmas, but for Jesus’ return. Turn from evil and do good. We’re not just preparing ourselves; we’re preparing others. What do people who don’t yet know Jesus think when they see Christians falling into sin (including gossip)? Our purpose – to live a life that matters, is to live repentant lives.  This doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but it does mean we become the vessels through which God’s compassion and graciousness are brought into the world. 

As we pray, we pray that God will take our sins, and because of his compassion and grace, he will nail them to Jesus' cross and remove them from us as far as the east is removed from the west.  Then, cleansed, we can stand in His Holy Presence, and we can reflect that Presence into the world.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Special Sermon

If you want to read this sermon, please contact me. I have taken it down out of respect for the community.

Monday, December 7, 2009

December 6 Sermon

I will be posting my December 6th sermon shortly, but I first have some editing to do. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Living a Life that Matters: What are We Here For?

I don’t like shopping.  When it comes to clothes, I’m generally hard to fit, which, coupled with the fact that I usually balk at paying full price on anything, means it takes a long time.  The kids don’t enjoy it either, even when they get to go to the toy section, because they don’t like waiting while we try to find the exact right thing.  And babysitters cost enough that we don’t like to “waste” our date nights on shopping. Sometimes we still shop, but mostly we shop online.  Anyone else caught this bug?  My mom loves Christmas shopping online – she said it’s like she gets two Christmases. One is when the packages come in the mail, and the other is when she gets to give them out.

Unfortunately, sometimes when you receive your package, you open it up, just to find that the product doesn’t fit, or worse, is broken.  Once I received a CD that was shattered into about 1000 pieces.  When that happened, I immediately e-mailed and asked for a replacement.  Why?  Because a broken CD wouldn’t play.  It was made for one purpose: to play the content on it.  It wasn’t made to be a drink coaster or a sun-catcher.  It was made to play its content. 

Ephesians 2:10 tells us “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We were also made for a purpose.  God made us for the purpose of carrying out his good works.  If we don’t do what we were made for, why are we even around? All of the other things we do, all of the things that bring us money, fame, power, these are not what we were made for!

We were meant to live lives that matter!  But to do so, we have to know what we’re here for.  The Bible is really helpful in figuring this out.  If you’ve read through Genesis, you know that the Israelites, the people of God, ended up enslaved in Egypt.  You’ll also know about Moses, who became the deliverer.  He spent time with God one-on-one, especially on Mount Sinai, where God told him this (Exodus 19:4-6) You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

A kingdom of priests, a holy, set-aside nation.  The job of a priest is to mediate between humans and the Divine. Isaiah 55:5 says, “Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” In other words, as an entire kingdom of priests, Israel existed to share God with the nations.  That was the very reason for God having a “chosen people.”  Not to exclude other people, but, in fact, to include other people!  Have you ever visited another religion’s place of worship? If you do that, just by watching the ritual that a priest performs, you can tell what that religion’s god is like. Isaiah is saying that by watching Israel, the other nations should see what Yahweh is like.

And the Apostle Peter applied this to the church, (1 Peter 2:9) saying, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

We are those priests. According to 1 Peter 1, Peter was writing to Christians scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. Did you notice that Peter didn’t say “You Pastors are a chosen people, a royal priesthood…” He never limited this to clergy. All Christians.  You are this royal priesthood.  And people out in the world who don’t know Yahweh, who don’t yet know the saving grace of Jesus Christ, who don’t have the Holy Spirit living within them, their knowledge of the God of the universe is limited to how they see God’s priests behaving. How do we portray God? 

We are supposed to offer other people a window into God’s character; so it’s vitally important for us to know what is important to God.  In Matthew 22, Jesus tells us what’s most important.  (Matthew 22:35-40) One of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:   "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied:  “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Love is most important.  1 John 4 tells us multiple times: God is love. In 1 John 4:7-12, John writes this: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

His love is made complete in us when we love one another.  Just giving and receiving love is good enough for it to be the entire goal.  But we don’t love just for the multiple benefits we get from loving and from being loved; our love for one another should show the world God’s love.  And how God’s love is available for them, too.

After Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee.  They went fishing and caught an amazing catch.  They ate, and then Jesus had an important conversation with Peter, who, as Jesus was being arrested, had notably denied even knowing Jesus.

 In John 21 we read this: When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" 

"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." 

Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." 

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

The importance of this interchange can’t be overstated.  When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he’s asking, “Are you carrying out the greatest commandment?” Because Peter was there when Jesus was asked the question as to what was most important.  He knows that what is most important is loving God and loving neighbor.  So Jesus asked him, “Do you love me?” Of course Peter was hurt and offended.  Of course he loved Jesus. Now I’ve always seen this as Jesus reinstating Peter, giving him the chance to make publically declare his love for Jesus three times, making amends for denying Jesus three times.  But I think it’s more than just that.  Jesus is telling Peter: if you love me, prove it.  Prove your love by feeding my sheep. Prove your love by being a priest for me.  Remember, this is the same Peter who wrote these words: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

To prove our love to God by feeding his sheep requires orienting our lives completely differently than the world does.  James 1:27 tells us that Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Look after orphans and widows.  Take care of the least and the lost. One of the reasons we’re focusing on human trafficking this Christmas is because I believe if we keep a sharp focus, we will be able to make a huge difference. There are among us orphans who are being exploited and enslaved, children who are being bought and sold right here in central Ohio.  You might already be tired of hearing this from me, but you can celebrate your birthday on your birthday, but on Christmas, we’re going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. If we do our part, we can make a difference!

James tells us that pure and faultless religion also includes keeping ourselves from being polluted by the world.  How do we do that?  In the world of H1N1 scares, one thing I see a lot is masks.  Have you been to the hospital lately?  Lots of hospital employees are wearing masks so they won’t breathe the contaminated air.  I read a pamphlet about how to avoid getting the flu; the first thing on their list was Always practice good health habits to maintain your body’s resistance to infection. To do this, they suggested: Eat a balanced diet. Drink plenty of fluids. Exercise daily. Manage stress. Get enough rest and sleep. Then they reminded us to Take these common sense steps to stop the spread of germs: Wash hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid or minimize contact with sick people (3 feet).  Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Cover your mouth and nose with tissues when you cough and sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow.  Stay away from others as much as possible when you are sick. 

I think we as Christians can take the same sort of precautions when it comes to the world.  We can’t just hole up and ignore a lost world around us; how are we supposed to be the priests of the world if we’re inaccessible?  When we as Christians resort to “holy huddle” mentality, we also communicate to the world that God is exclusive, that God only accepts certain people, and that God himself is inaccessible. Is that what we want? This flies in the face of what it means to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

To keep ourselves from being polluted by the world, we must always practice good spiritual health habits.  Stay grounded in the Word of God.  Pray continually.  Meet together with other Christians to celebrate what God is doing and to encourage and to be encouraged.

While the CDC tells us to take common sense steps to avoid the spread of germs, I would counsel you to take uncommon sense steps.  You see, until Jesus came, the steps to avoid becoming unclean, polluted, if you will, were clear.  Anyone who was unclean (and you could be rendered unclean by all sorts of means) had to stay away from everyone else, shouting “unclean” if someone came into close proximity.  They were outcasts and pariahs. Before Jesus came to earth, the old plan was “come and see” – outsiders were invited to come and see the people of God at worship.  This was how they were supposed to see God’s character; when they came into contact with God’s followers, they would see God. 

But God’s new plan is this: God came to us.  In the person of Jesus Christ, God came to seek and save what was lost (Luke 19:10).  Instead of avoiding the “unclean”, Jesus went to them.  He was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16).  Jesus response? It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2:17).

Jesus did what was unheard of.  In Luke 5:12-14, we see Jesus touching a man with leprosy healing him. In Luke 7:11-15, Jesus encountered a funeral procession, the only son of a widowed mother, and he went and touched the coffin (unclean) and restored the son to life. In Luke 8:40-56, Jesus was touched by a bleeding woman (unclean) and he spoke to her, telling her that her faith made her well.  He went into the house of the synagogue leader and touched his dead daughter, bringing her back to life. In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus touched and healed ten lepers, including a hated Samaritan.

Do you get it?  Jesus was characterized by being among, even touching the unclean.  Yet it did not pollute him!  He didn’t end up unclean.  Quite the opposite: when Jesus touched, he took away the uncleanness.  He took away the barrier between the unclean person and God. 

As a royal priesthood, we are called to a similar ministry.  We are called to minister to an unclean world.  We United Methodists have as a mission statement: Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Our mission isn’t just to make disciples.  Our mission is to transform the world.
That said, keeping ourselves from being polluted by the world means that we evaluate everything.  Everything.  Does everything that we do fall into line with what God wants from us?  Do we present the world with an accurate picture of God through our words and deeds? Are we living out our purpose in life? 
What are we here for? We are here to be priests.  To continue Jesus Christ’s mission on earth. Jesus didn’t just come for us; he also sends us.  In John 20:21, we find a resurrected Jesus meeting with his disciples.  After greeting them with a customary Peace be with you, he commissioned them. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. We are sent into the world, not to be polluted by the world, but to bring them healing.  To bring them Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Living a Life that Matters: Thanksgiving

Do you want to live a life that matters?  Of course you do.  That is one of our greatest needs.  To live a life that matters.  Over the next several weeks leading into Christmas, we are going to look at some things we can do that will matter, not just for today, but for eternity.

We live in an anxious, uneasy world.  We wonder how long our good health will hold out. H1N1 is still out there, there seems to be more and more cases of cancer, and of course, none of us is getting any younger.  And what about health care? Insurance prices?  Government run? We worry about our money – will we have enough to retire?  And will our jobs survive? Is our country going to hell in a hand basket? And that doesn’t even take into account the things that keep each of us awake at night, those so personal details that we don’t dare share out loud.

In the midst of all of this turmoil, we’re asking, “Do you want to live a life that matters?” 

Of course we want to live a life that matters.  When you come to the end of your life, do you want to realize that you missed out on life because you were too worried about what might happen?  Paul tells the church in Philippi “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

I love this: in the midst of worrisome situations, Paul tells us to pray about it.  By prayer and petition, present your requests to God.  We get that part.  There are no atheists in foxholes.  When we’re in trouble, we pray.  But Paul didn’t just say that.  He said, “with thanksgiving.”  This is a whole ‘nother story. 

The Greek word that we translate as thanksgiving might sound familiar to some of you: it is eucharistos, which comes from the prefix eu: good, well + charizomai [from charis: grace] to freely give, to grant as a favor, deliver, forgive.

God freely gives us his grace and delivers us from bondage, from the bondage of sin and guilt and from the punishment in Hell that comes from sin.  Is it any wonder that Paul tells us to present our prayers with thanksgiving?  We have everything to be thankful for – and I mean everything.

I wonder if sometimes we just go through the motions when it comes to prayer.  We pray over something for a few days, weeks even, and when we don’t see any results, we come to the conclusion that God isn’t listening. But the kind of prayer that Paul tells us to pray includes thanksgiving.  Even in the worst situations, there is something to be thankful for. Like: your parents keep hounding you and they are driving you nuts: be thankful that you have parents – and even more, be thankful that they care.  You drive an ugly car: be thankful that you have transportation. You’re struggling in school: be thankful that you have the opportunity to go to school.  You don’t like your job: be thankful that you have a job. In every situation, you can find something to be thankful for. 

I want to bring this a little closer to home. Unless you’re visiting with us this week, you know that Tara and I are foster parents.  We have shared personally with many of you about Baby J, but some of you don’t know, so here’s the situation: the county department of job and family services’ goal for Jason is reconciliation with his birth parents.  They have been very attentive to come to their weekly visitation with Baby J and are taking some parenting classes and have an evaluation set in December to hopefully reunite them. 

Our entire family loves Baby Jason very much, and we would love to keep him.  Initially we were given the indication that this would be a foster-to-adopt placement, that we would most likely get to keep him.  But that doesn’t look very likely. Many of you have expressed to us that you could never do that: you would end up loving that baby so much that you could never give him back to his birth parents.  I can relate to that feeling, and when that day comes, our entire family is going to need your support, encouragement, and love.

But to say that “I could never do that” is short sighted at best.  As a foster parent, I am thankful for every moment with Baby J.  And in all reality, it’s not a whole lot different from Jonathan and Andrew.  We are not guaranteed tomorrow with either of them.  Even if we were, it goes awfully fast.  Anyone with grown children: how long ago does it seem that your kids were my kids’ ages? It went pretty fast, didn’t it?  They were little, in your arms.  Then they were “big boys” and “big girls” and then all of a sudden they were driving, then graduating, then getting married…

We all know it’s going to be like that.  But did that stop us from having children?  Did we ever say, “We’re only going to have these children for 18 years and then, poof, empty nest… that will be too hard.  We shouldn’t have kids at all.” Or did any of you, in your teens or twenties,  in the midst of young love, say to your beloved, “I would love to marry you, but one day you might die, and I couldn’t stand the loss.  So I’m not going to put myself out there.”

That would be ridiculous.  Absolutely pointless.  No, instead you spend your time thankful for the moments you have together.  You thank God for each and every smile, each and every fond memory.  That’s what being a parent is all about.  It’s what being married is all about.  And it’s what being a foster parent is all about.

There are people who just don’t seem to be grateful.  I remember once having a homeless gentleman come to my church to ask for money.  It’s just not a good policy for a church to keep or to give out cash, but we did have food available, so I brought him to choose some food.  Someone had donated a coat, and I gave it to him.  He was the most ungrateful person I’d ever met.  He acted as if he was doing me a favor by taking the coat off my hands.  He wouldn’t even let me pray with him before he left.  I’ve also given gifts to people who just didn’t care about them.  Gift-giving occasions were tough when we were dirt poor, because there were some people on our lists who had expensive tastes, and we didn’t have much money at all.

On the other hand, there are people like Ival Hunsucker.  In 2004, I went to Appalachia with a group to serve.  We were assigned to Ival, a 72 year old woman who lived alone in a completely run down house.  Our team did a lot of work for her, and through the eight weeks, her house went through a transformation.  We worked really hard, but we felt like we were the real beneficiaries. She had so little – her house was rotting around her, but she was grateful for everything.  She took us in and loved us as if we were her own children or grandchildren.  And this wasn’t the exception to the rule: we found that even when a family had absolutely nothing, they were grateful for life itself.

And once we start to gain, especially materially, we often begin to lose our gratitude, we take our eyes off God, and we lose our way.  This is one of the problems that we see repeated in the Old Testament.  King Amaziah, for example, started out doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Chronicles 25:2), but he wasn’t wholehearted.  He went to war against his enemies and brought back the spoils of victory, including Edomite idols, which he set up to worship.  His successor, Uzziah, “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done.  He sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success” (2 Chronicles 26:4-5).  But when he became powerful, his pride led to his downfall (v. 16) and he became unfaithful to God.  This is frequently what happens when we get too much.  Is it any wonder that Jesus proclaimed “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24).

 Our riches, our power, and our situation tend to blind us to everything else.  It’s like walking into a dark room and stumbling around.  After a while, we get used to the darkness.  Then what happens when someone finally turns a light on?  It’s overwhelming, and our eyes can’t handle it. 

This is kind of how I felt when I began hearing information about human trafficking right here in Ohio.  Did you know that every year, between 500-750 children here in Ohio are victims of human trafficking.  Ohio.  I was shocked and overwhelmed when I began hearing the data.  But my eyes are getting accustomed to the light that God is shining into the darkness, and I am determined that we are going to be a church that makes a difference in the lives of these young victims of human trafficking.  The statistics are horrible, but we can do something about it.  This is as good a time as any to remind you that Christmas is not your birthday. You can celebrate your birthday on your birthday, but on Christmas we’re going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. During this Christmas season, I challenge you to give Jesus a birthday gift by supporting Gracehaven House.  Gracehaven seeks through Christian love to provide shelter and rehabilitation to girls under the age of 18 who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation, and to raise awareness among young women about the issue of domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) in order to educate and equip them so that they can avoid becoming victims themselves.  I challenge you to match whatever you spend on yourself, your family, and your friends, and give that to Jesus.  Remember that this is above and beyond your regular tithing and giving; if your boss gave you a “Christmas bonus” instead of your monthly paycheck, you’d be plenty mad.  And doesn’t Jesus deserve more?

Remember how I defined thanksgiving earlier?  Part of the definition was “to deliver” – we can offer deliverance to young girls who have been bought and sold.

You can think of it as a thanksgiving offering – in Old Testament times, there were all sorts of offerings and sacrifices that the people were to make, including a thanksgiving offering. This was part of being the people of God; when His people received from God, they gave thanks.  And we don’t serve a grumpy old god who just can’t wait to see us beg and grovel at his feet.  We serve a God who tells us to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).  God gives us good gifts – the best gift.  Do you want to have the things that matter?  Ask God for them.  Seek them.  Because God gives, and when God gives, He gives freely. God gives us Himself.  Jesus Christ came in the flesh and gave himself for us.  The Holy Spirit comes and lives within us. 

Living a life that matters begins with thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tending the Garden for a Good Harvest: Self-Control

Galatians 5:22-23

A few years ago I was visiting my parents for Thanksgiving.  Their church was going through a sermon series on the seven deadly sins, and one of the associate pastors was given the task of preaching, on Thanksgiving weekend, on the topic of gluttony.  That was no easy task, talking to a crowd, many of whom were still wearing elastic waistbands three days after their gluttonous meal on Thanksgiving. 

That was a really awkward 45 minutes.  Why?  Because most of the crowd was guilty of the infraction.  Most of us had overeaten on Thanksgiving.  As well as other days.  Think about it: can you imagine someone in Darfur saying, “I ate way too much today” or “I’d better just sit here for a while; I am too stuffed to move”?  

One of the issues is that we as a culture have no self-control.  Today we are on the final aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit: Self-control.  This is a concept absolutely foreign to most of our culture.  I have generally begun by defining the aspect of the Fruit, but today let’s look quickly at what self-control is not.  The opposite of self-control is self-indulgence, a sin which Jesus accused the Pharisee leaders of in Matthew 23:25, calling them hypocrites.  He said,You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.Though they looked good on the outside, inside, they were completely living for themselves.

The opposite of this attitude is so important that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all reported it verbatim.  If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.(Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23)

Self-control, defined, is: the mastery of the self and the fashioning of one’s life in the way which God desires.  Not like each of us desires, but what God desires.  In everything.  Here’s an irony: we spend often wonder what God’s will is for us, and we question that and pray over it, especially when it comes to uncomfortable areas like sharing our faith or praying for someone, but when it comes to our own personal items, like what to eat or watch on TV, we don’t spend much time in prayer.  Who prayed yesterday, “Lord, please tell me, give me a sign: should I watch the Buckeye game?” There are plenty of times when God’s Word is flat out obvious in what God’s will is, so don’t sit around praying about it: just do it!

For many of us, self-control only comes when things are out of control.  Maybe your finances are a train wreck, so you’ve been listening to Dave Ramsey, who has helped you start getting out of a financial mess, and you’ve created a budget and are sticking with it, so you aren’t making “impulse buys” on your credit card anymore – if you don’t have the cash to buy something or if it isn’t in your budget, you just don’t buy it.  

Or you’ve been drinking for years – no problem, but you just realized that you need that drink to get you started, or you got that DUI, or whatever the case, and now you’re trying to stop drinking. 

Or the doctor told you that your diet has to change today.

And it’s incredibly hard.  You’ve habituated yourself to a certain set of standards, good or bad.  And changing habits is hard.  It’s even hard for professional athletes.  In an Associated Press article from this week sportswriter Joseph White blames poor tackling in the NFL on a lack of practice.  Tackling is an essential element to football, but it’s also painful, and if defenders tackle all-out in practice, they risk hurting their offensive players.  So instead of tackling the guy with the ball, they “thud him up.”  Then on Sunday, they’re expected to really tackle; this is why we see so many missed tackles.

The point is this: whatever you want to do, you’ll have to practice doing it.  Not doing something else.  The Apostle Paul also uses athletic imagery to get his point across.  In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 he poses the scenario: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.   Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. [Otherwise said: Athletes exercise self-control in all things] They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

I beat my body and make it my slave.  This is what self-control looks like.  I love the running metaphor Paul uses – it just goes to prove that running is God’s sport. ;-)  When I ran a marathon, I didn’t just get up one day and say, “I don’t run, but think I’ll run 26.2 miles today.” No, I trained!  I ran 5 days a week (and played soccer on the 6th). I was averaging around 40 miles per week.  That took a lot of discipline. It took a lot of time every day.  I didn’t always feel like running, but I did it anyway. Why?  Because I wanted to succeed on race day.  I followed Hal Higdon’s training plan pretty religiously. Can you imagine me, a novice marathon runner reading the training plan and saying, “I know the training plan says that I’m supposed to run 8 miles today, but I’d rather eat 8 donuts instead.”? 

Most of us should know what we’re supposed to do.  Most of us should know what self-control looks like.  But we’ve not practiced it for so long because we’ve felt we haven’t needed to. Finances were good, so you spent freely.  Your drinking wasn’t a problem, so you had one more.  Your diet hadn’t killed you yet, so you continued to eat and drink whatever you wanted to.  Maybe you were even like a college roommate of mine, who, after a doctor diagnosed him with bronchitis, angrily snapped, “That quack told me to quit smoking.”

Jesus’ brother James has this to say about that situation:  (James 1:22-25) Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

Paul says that an athlete exercises self-control in all things. All things.  Not just on competition day. This is true for us as well.  This is not limited to outward activity: no, instead we’re challenged to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5.

Is this what our culture looks like?  I think it looks a lot more like the culture of 2 Timothy 3.  Paul describes this scene to Timothy: People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. 

Or, as the Proverb puts it: (Proverbs 25:28) Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.  Who wants to be like a broken down wall?

How do we get self-control?  We’re not good at self-control, and if you’ve ever just set out to have self-control, you know that it’s insanely difficult.  In fact, most of us have had those times when we’ve really been motivated, but then comes that one day… maybe you’ve been exercising regularly, but then you got the flu, and that was two months ago, and you haven’t exercised since (or maybe you fell off a treadmill and won’t get back on).   You quit smoking, this time for the last time, but life has been so stressful and you thought, “one cigarette won’t hurt anything.” Or you just needed that one drink. Or you set out to read your Bible every day, and you did so well, but the time change wrecked your schedule and it’s been a week…

In Paul’s letter to Titus, he says this: For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14 ) God’s grace teaches us to live self-controlled lives, reminding us that we will be rewarded.  You see, we’re set aside for God – by the act of Jesus Christ, who gave himself to save us – we were actually slaves to our sinful selves, but Jesus set us free.  Because of this freedom, we don’t have to sin anymore!  We can say “No” to sin, ungodliness, and worldly passions.

We’re often challenged to just work harder and dig in deeper, and that sometimes works.  For a while, anyway.  But godly self-control doesn’t just come as an act of self-will or determination, but from the Holy Spirit.  When writing to Timothy, Paul tells him that God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7) God is the one who gave us this spirit: His powerful spirit, full of love, full of self-discipline. 

We are born selfish.  When a baby cries, it’s not because someone else is hungry.  We’re not born self-controlled.  But this is the nature of the Holy Spirit.  Here is the thing: we often decide we’re going to accept Jesus accept the gift of the Holy Spirit, but then we decide we’ll set the terms.  We ask him to bless us as we’ve made up our minds to do what we want. We have no self-control because we decide that we want to be in control.  There ‘s nothing about unconditional obedience in our DNA. 

Here’s what Peter wrote about this:  Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:13-16 

Prepare your mind for action.  Listen to the Word of God and recognize the difference between your own selfish desires and God’s will.  Put it into practice.

How do we put self-control into practice?  We practice the spiritual disciplines.  Much like if you want to be a good football player, you need to practice tackling, and if you want to be a good runner, you practice running, if you want to live a self-controlled life, you make the spiritual disciplines part of your routine.  I’ve found Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline extremely helpful in helping me understand the spiritual disciplines.  He organizes the disciplines in three areas: Inward Disciplines, Outward Disciplines, and Corporate Disciplines.

·         Inward Disciplines: Meditation, prayer, study, fasting,

Meditation: meditate on the scripture; don’t just read it, but allow it to inform who you are and what you do.  Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you what it is that He wants to reveal.  Then bask in it.

Pray: set a regular prayer time aside to pray.  For many, this is best achieved first thing in the morning.  But don’t let that be your only prayer time.  Pray all day long.  Pray with people.  Pray, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to you.  Try meditating on the Lord’s Prayer for guidance in how to pray. 

Study: don’t just read the Bible, but find out more about it.  Find about the geography, the people, the history. Find out about the Jewish culture of the time; what does the Talmud say? Do research!

Fast: did you know that this wasn’t an optional spiritual discipline?  Jesus simply assumed his followers would fast: “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16).  Go without something – you’ll find out quickly if you are in control or if it’s in control of you.  I challenge you to fast from TV.  Or from Facebook.  Or from some treat you regularly eat or drink.  Don’t do it just to go without, but allow God to show you where His desires and your desires come into conflict.

·         Outward Disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission, service
Simplicity: Try to live a simple life.  Are there things you could do without?  How about trying to live in the moment; if you’re with your family, turn off your cell phone.  I tend to like to read while I’m eating; close the book or newspaper and concentrate on enjoying the food and company.  You can do this radically, like evaluate all of your “stuff” and sell anything you don’t need and give the money to God. 

Solitude: spend time alone.  Without e-mail or a cell phone.  No to-do list. Just listen to God.  I do this best out in nature; this is one of the reasons I love to run.  I am an extreme extrovert, but even I need solitude. 

Submission: this is a curse word for our culture.  I won’t bow to anyone.  I came from a congregational church tradition where each church made its own decision, including calling a pastor.  We didn’t have bishops or any hierarchy.  So when I came to the United Methodist Church, things were radically different.  This became most evident when the Bishop (and the cabinet) decided to move me.  But it was also evident when I had to go through “hoops” to confirm my ordination.  I had to willingly decide to submit myself to the rules of the United Methodist Church and to a bishop. 

Service: get out and do something for someone.  Remember what Paul said, to Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).  This means serving others regularly.  Make it a part of how you regularly spend your time.  When I had just graduated from college, I found a couple of opportunities for service: in the local junior high ministry at our church, and cross-culturally at the Asian Youth Services in Uptown, Chicago.  I learned a lot about myself and about God through serving those who needed him.  Plus I met some great people and made a difference in people’s lives. It was great to have regular ways to serve, and we’re encouraging our cell groups to make this a meaningful part of your existence.  But how about this: begin each day by praying, “Lord, as it would please you, bring me someone today whom I can serve.” (Richard Foster: Celebration of Discipline).

·         Corporate Disciplines: confession, worship, guidance, celebration
Confession: Most people look around in a church and see a bunch of saints.  Really, that word means the people of God, the set-apart ones, so that’s accurate, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture.  If we could also look around and realize that we’re all surrounded by sinners, saved only by God’s grace, then it would do a lot for us.  Can you imagine what would happen if we’d all take off the “I’m so good” masks? And confess our sins to one another?  James tells us that The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.  If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Do you want our prayers to be powerful and effective?  Then we have to confess our sins to one another. 

Worship: sometimes we fall into the trap of considering the time we spend here our “worship” time.  Thus we “worship” for an hour or so, sometimes a little more.  Sometimes we are really “moved” in worship and we really feel the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Other times we don’t like the music that much and other aspects bother us.  Let’s get something clear: The point of worship is not us and our preferences.  The object of worship is God.  Worship requires our entire being.  You can’t adequately worship God with your arms crossed across your chest.  The Hebrew word we translate “worship” means “to prostrate yourself.” The word “bless” literally means “to kneel.” Thanksgiving refers to “an extension of the hand.” Worship is physical as well as spiritual. Worship is a cornerstone for  self-control.  When we are worshiping Him, we acknowledge that He alone is worthy of praise.

Guidance: This is one reason why I believe our cell groups are so important. We can offer Godly guidance to one another through the cell group.  This is a fantastic place where we can ask for prayer and encouragement and guidance.  The “what do I do next” question is best answered in community.

Celebration: Too often we as Christians are seen as super-serious people who aren’t allowed to have any fun.  As a teenager I remember seeing the same people at a football game or basketball game on Friday night and a church service on Sunday.  They would be cheering and celebrating on Friday and somber and sour on Sunday.  We have something to celebrate!  Our Savior lives!  We are no longer slaves to sin, but are forgiven!  Can I get a witness? J God himself celebrates when one who was lost is found: can we do likewise?

Let’s close with a passage from 2 Peter 1. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
Let us go, with all aspects of the Fruit of the Spirit, that we can be effective and productive, that we will make a difference for Jesus in all of the world!