Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Kingdom and the Power and the Glory Forever

For the past five weeks, we have been asking Jesus to teach us to pray, just as he taught his disciples to pray. This prayer, which we call the Lord’s Prayer, is a fantastic model of prayer.

We begin by acknowledging who God is. Though God is above all else, He is also our Father who loves us. As His children, we accept the responsibility to “hallow” His name, to set it apart as holy. One way we do this is by reflecting His character in our actions and nature.

We call God “King” and thus accept his unconditional rule over us. In light of His love for us, and because of our subsequent love for him, we actually obey what he says and we live out His Kingdom here on earth. He is our King, and we are His ambassadors.

When we ask for our daily bread, we acknowledge our dependence on God for everything. and as we ask Him to provide for our needs, both physical and spiritual. At the same time, we recognize that He might be using us to provide daily bread for others.

As we reflect on the great debt that God has paid for us, we forgive others as well. We recognize that this goes against every fiber of our beings, and we need help to even have the desire to forgive. As we recognize that withholding forgiveness is also sinful.

And we realize that on our own, we are powerless against sin, temptation, and evil. So we ask God to deliver us from the evil that each of us is fully capable of and ask that our times of temptation will not be great enough to derail our faith.

The goal of our prayers is for us to connect with God, to recognize the relationship that He wants with us, to transform us into the kind of people who reflect his character in the world.

If you have been reading along in your Bible, you’ll see that the Lord’s prayer stops in Matthew 6:13 with “deliver us from the evil one.” And then there’s probably a little letter or an asterisk. If you look down at the bottom of the page, you’ll see that some late manuscripts include: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

This is an important way to end our prayer, because it reinforces to whom we pray and acknowledges the reason for our prayer.

We remember that the Kingdom is God’s forever. We have devoted entire sermons to God’s kingdom and haven’t covered the topic fully. But to acknowledge God as king is to remember who rules. God’s subjects are those who have committed themselves wholly to carrying out the will of the king. When I think about the great kingdoms of the earth, even mighty Rome, who ruled the known world, only lasted 1000 years. But God’s kingdom lasts forever. As many debate whether or not the USA is a Christian nation, we recognize that our country has only been around for less than 250 years. We also recognize that in our country, we choose our own leaders and we make our own rules; if enough people want something to be a rule, we vote on it and allow it. And at times, they put the same things on the ballot again and again, just trying to get us to allow gambling and casinos. But if we make bad decisions as a country, we make new rules. Not so with God’s kingdom: God makes the rules.

Thus the concept of God’s Kingdom is closely related to God’s role as judge. In Romans 3:6, we are reminded that God will judge the world. When someone breaks a law in our country, judgment is swift. We have the right to a speedy trial. Sometimes it seems like trials drag on and on, and sometimes the ruling isn’t just at all, with the guilty going free or the innocent being sentenced. As we await God’s justice, we recognize that not only is He patient, but He has already paid the penalty for anyone who is in His Kingdom. So God’s kingdom stands for the entire blessing of salvation.

And because of who God is and what He does, as we pray to Him, we are reminded that God is the only one to whom worship is due. His is the kingdom forever.

We also acknowledge God’s power. God’s power is the power to save. Israel saw this in Egypt, as God performed mighty miracles: He sent plagues that convinced Pharaoh to let Israel go. He parted the Red Sea to give them safe passage out of Egypt and to save them from the Egyptian army. He miraculously fed them with manna and quail and provided water in the desert.

But the ultimate power of God is demonstrated in the cross. In the sacrifice that Jesus made, God acts to save us from the bondage of sin, death, and guilt. These no longer have any sway, because God has the power forever.

In fact, God’s power is made manifest even in our weaknesses. God gave these words to Paul (2 Cor 12:10) “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Indeed, when we admit our need for God, He meets us there with power. Christ Himself indwells us.

Eph. 3:16-19 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Only when we are filled with this power, can we begin to fathom the magnitude of God’s love for us. And as we start to grasp this love, He fills us to completion with the Holy Spirit, transforming us into his likeness. Colossians 2:10: You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

Because of God’s power, we, too, have been given power. 2 Timothy 1:7 For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. God is powerful, and we, as Christians, also have his power. 1 Cor 4:20 tells us For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. This is God’s power – the power over sin, death, and guilt, and he gives us the power to overcome.

And his power is forever.

We also ascribe to God all glory. We do a pretty good job of understanding kingdom, because we are used to politics and leadership. We can understand power, because so much of life is about power: who has it and who doesn’t (and the subsequent abuse of power). But glory is a different story. I believe that we have no real idea about what glory is.

Few concepts in antiquity were more important than honor, distinction, esteem, and glory. The word that we read as “glory” here in Matthew is doxa, which originally meant “opinion.” This is a distinguished quality that was readily evident in a person. In other words, someone doesn’t have to tell you that he has glory: everyone can see it! This term came from the Hebrew term kavod: the honor intended for God only. God can’t be seen, but his radiance can be apprehended, and to enjoy God’s presence is to enjoy his glory.

When God was delivering Israel out of Egyptian captivity, He himself led them, in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they arrive at Mt. Sinai, God’s glory descends on the mountain, shrouding it in cloud. Exodus 19:18: Mt. Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain trembled violently.

Then when they had established the tent of meeting, in Exodus 40:34, Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

Then when Solomon finally built the Temple, in 1 Kings 8:10, we read that When the priest withdrew from the Holy Place, where the ark of the covenant was, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.

God lived among his people. But in Ezekiel 10:18, we see the turning point in the history of Israel: The glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the Temple.

God has left the building. This is one of the most depressing verses in scripture. The place that was made to be a dwelling place for God, now empty. The rituals meant for worship of God, now simply duties. Habakkuk 2:14, however, offers a hope: The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

The glory of God left. But when Jesus is presented in the Temple, Simeon offers a hymn of praise, because in the person of Jesus Christ, he has seen the return of God’s glory. God’s glory is indeed God himself at work, and God is in the House! Jesus Christ shows doxa when he reveals the Father through his works. True of his signs, but especially true of his resurrection. The connection between glory and light is clear: in bringing God’s glory, Christ ushers a divine light into the world.

There is an important paragraph in Exodus 34 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. The people were frightened because Moses’ face glowed. So he would wear a veil when he was with the people.

We, as God’s people who spend time with God, reflect God’s glory. But if we withhold worship and adoration (which is the due response to the divine glory) and exchange God’s glory for creaturely images, we forfeit the privilege of reflecting God’s glory. This is the whole deal with Romans 1. This is where we get envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, insolence, arrogance, boastfulness, disobedience, and even invention of new ways to commit evil. Not only do we humans actively practice these things, but we approve of those who practice them. This is the opposite of what we’re meant for, and the truth is that God’s glory is the measuring stick for humanity. Unfortunately, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). This means that sin has made it impossible for us to reflect God’s glory. In fact, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 portrays everlasting destruction as being shut out of God’s presence and the glory of his might. You see, obscuring God’s glory is the worst possible happening in the human experience.

But God planned for that, and Romans 3 continues saying and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Jesus gave himself on the cross for us, for His church, so that we, as his bride, might be glorious, reflecting God’s glory. All Glory is God’s!

This isn’t about us! The Lord’s Prayer is about God and about how we reflect Him (or fail to reflect Him). It’s about God choosing the Church as His bride and about us showing everyone how great He is. And truly His Kingdom, power, and glory are everlasting, even to the point where Heaven is said to be without a sun – we won’t need one, because God’s glory will light everything. So even the last line of the Lord’s Prayer is a challenge: to honor God’s Kingdom, to obey His power, and to give Him glory in everything.

Monday, May 18, 2009

40 Days of Prayer starts today!

Today kicks off one of the most exciting days in the United Methodist Church: day 1 of the 40 days of prayer. I invite you to visit the UMC Young Clergy prayer blog today, where you'll find the first prayer of 40.

Even as I write this, 192 people have joined the Facebook event for the 40 days of prayer.

The hope for this prayer campaign is renewal in the United Methodist Church, and true renewal must start with God. This is our goal in prayer: that God will renew us, lead us, guide us, and transform us.

Would you join us?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lead Us Not Into Temptation, But Deliver Us From Evil

When I was in middle school, I found a bumper sticker at a novelty store. It was white with red letters which boldly stated: I can resist anything but temptation. Isn’t that true? If it weren’t for temptation, we’d probably be doing pretty well in our quest to live sin-free lives. But sadly, we don’t always do such a good job resisting.

Jesus knew the human condition. That’s why he instructs us to pray; Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

At first glance, this seems really straightforward. We all need help in overcoming temptation. If I asked you: “how many of you have been tempted already this morning?” the only ones who wouldn’t raise their hands would be the ones who were tempted to lie.

Let’s first look at temptation itself. In biblical thought, to tempt meant to test something or someone in order to determine or demonstrate worth or faithfulness. Temptation also refers to an attempt, often by Satan, to incite a person to sin.

Jesus knows all about temptation. Hebrews 4:15 identifies him as our high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” Immediately as he began his ministry on earth, following his baptism in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit led him into the desert to be tempted. For forty days and nights, he fasted. Then the devil came, tempting him. These temptations and Jesus’ response to them, stand in direct contrast to the Israelites’ experience in the desert. After God’s mighty acts in Egypt, they crossed the Red Sea miraculously. God provided food for them, yet they grumbled. God protected them, even to the point that their sandals didn’t wear out (Deut 29:5). Yet they questioned God’s care, wondering if he led them out into the desert to die of thirst. God had Moses strike the rock with his staff and water gushed out, enough for all of them and their flocks. They called the place Massah and Meribah, which means testing and quarreling, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

They refused to recognize God and remember his obvious power (Numbers 14:22-23: not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but disobeyed me and tested me ten times – not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers.).

In contrast, Jesus trusted God. To test God is the opposite of trusting him. We face all sorts of temptations, many of which are at root temptations to distrust God. In fact, most bad things are really, at heart, perversion of something good. We were made for perfect relationship with God, and often we look for our relationship with other people to take the place of ours with God. We were created on an earth that longs for pure justice, God’s justice, and when we don’t see justice happening, we take matters into our own hands. We were made to worship: to worship God only, but we worship the created instead of the creator… Often the temptations that assail us are simply counterfeits of God’s perfect plan for us.

This brings me to a troubling aspect of this request: we ask God: lead us not into temptation. Does this mean that God does the tempting?

The book of James is clear. James 1:13-14: When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

However, the Bible maintains that God tests and disciplines those whom he loves. In John 6, Jesus was teaching a hungry crowd. He asked Philip “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Verse 6 tells us that He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

This kind of testing is even beneficial to Christians. This is how we learn and grow. James 1 tells us to consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

This testing is the same kind of testing that gold undergoes. It is heated to its melting point, and through this heating, impurities are removed. This is horribly difficult: I don’t mean to sugarcoat anything. God allows tempting by the devil, and this is Satan’s specialty.

But remember that these trials are beneficial to us, as God gives us wisdom if we ask, and James calls us blessed if we persevere under trial, because when we have stood the test, we will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:2: trials are beneficial to Christians – wisdom from God attained and received during the course of succeeding against trial and temptation. Overcoming temptations: receive the crown of life.

We have a choice when we are faced with temptation. Remember that temptation itself is not sin. Sin is when we allow our own uncontrolled evil desires to transition from temptation to action. We are often caught in a struggle, knowing what is right but not acting on it. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no; the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Does this sound familiar?

So what are we supposed to do about temptation and tests?

The Bible assures us that temptations will come, but that there is hope. You are not alone in your temptation. We are tempted in all kinds of ways. One of the lies Satan tells is that you’re alone: nobody else has ever been tempted in this particular area. Then he uses guilt and shame to keep you in bondage to him. Please know that you are not alone.1 Cor 10:13: No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

Jesus himself is the way out of temptation. When we make this request of God, to “lead us not into temptation,” we are, in part, asking for Jesus. Hebrews 2:18 tells us because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted

Therefore, when we are tempted, our main weapon to fight evil is prayer. In Matthew 26:41, even while Jesus is being betrayed, he tells his friends in the garden to Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.

Recognize that it is only through Jesus himself that we are able to withstand temptation. This is not about simple behavior modification; it’s about loving Jesus. However, there are things you can do to help you avoid sin. First: call sin a sin. It’s not just a bad habit. It’s not just “the way you are.” Then name your sin. Confess it: to God… and to others. James 5 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 person is powerful and effective. Then stop the sinful behavior: make a public pledge to turn from the sin. Alcoholics anonymous has it right in that they recognize for someone to have gotten there, they have recognized that they need help in stopping. It’s insanely hard to quit something by yourself; you’ll need help. You can join a self-help group: there is an awesome celebrate recovery group at Reynoldsburg UMC on Friday evenings.

You need to put in safeguards to keep you accountable. This isn’t like the alcoholic who prays: God, if there’s no spot in front of the liquor store, I won’t buy alcohol. …but after 10 trips around the block, there was a spot right in front of the store. For that guy, it might mean a different route home. For someone else, it might mean keeping your computer in a common area of the house, and having someone else check your internet history. Or being brutally honest with someone, and then asking them to ask that “how are you doing?” question – expecting a real, honest answer.

Even as we ask for perseverance to withstand temptation, we pray for God to deliver us from evil. In this request, we pray that the testing we undergo will not be so great as to derail our faith. Some testing is inevitable, and we ask for preservation in it. Satan desires to use any severe testing of the Christian to his advantage.

Before I go any farther, let me be clear on this point: not only do I believe in a literal Satan, the father of lies, one who would usurp God’s place, one who would masquerade as an angel of light, I also believe that each one of us is capable of horrendous evil. I believe this without a shadow of a doubt.

We are tested all the time in little ways, and each test is an opportunity to defeat evil, to give God his rightful place in our lives. There is a reason why Alcoholics Anonymous’ first step in overcoming alcoholism is admitting powerlessness over alcohol. When we admit the same thing: on our own we are powerless over our sin, we have taken the first step to healing and wholeness.

Though we are powerless on our own, our God is powerful. In fact, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, sin and temptation are ultimately crushed. The difficulty here is that we live in the in-between days. Though God’s Kingdom is among us already, we wait for its fulfillment. For this reason, our request to God, to lead us not into temptation and to deliver us from evil expresses a hope for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

We look forward to Heaven, when the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people and he will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Rev. 21:3-4.

But the only way to get from where we are here to there is through Jesus. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God reconciles himself to us. And through the Holy Spirit, we are given the gift of God within us, setting us apart for his use, helping us grow in Him. By giving of Himself, God gives us freedom! Freedom from sin, guilt, and death. And this is the deliverance we pray for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Forgive us our sins:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Therefore the Kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him millions of dollars was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a few dollars. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”

But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

Matthew 18:21-35

Today's message centers on Matthew 6:12: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Pre-forgiven. Life comes at you fast (that’s a registered trademark by the way). But when you come to Nationwide Insurance (also registered), you can be forgiven before anything even happens. For your first accident, your premium won’t go up – not a penny.
*accident forgiveness only applies to customers that have purchased the additional coverage option and does not come standard with a Nationwide policy.

What a great concept – instead of having to wait until you’ve done anything wrong, you can get pre-forgiven. This kind of loses the whole point of forgiveness, though, doesn’t it? Because it’s not true forgiveness, because it’s so limited. You’re limited to one “accident” (why don’t they just call it a crash), and you have to pay extra to get it.

This doesn’t sound like the forgiveness that we’re talking about today. We’re in our 4th message in the series on the Lord’s Prayer, and today we’re looking at Jesus’ instruction on forgiveness. We’re to ask God to forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass/sin against us. In the scripture I read earlier, Peter asked Jesus a pointed question: how many times do I have to forgive my brother who sins against me? That Peter suggests 7 times is extravagant; the Rabbis considered 3 times sufficient for the forgiveness of sins. But what Jesus suggests is much, much more. In fact, the image He gives in his story is that of a master who has forgiven a whole lot. The word he uses to describe the amount is murioi, which means “too much to count.”

So when Jesus tells us to ask God to forgive us in the same manner that we forgive those who sin against us, he reminds us of how much we’ve been forgiven. But he also warns us by saying (Matt 6:14-15), For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you.

This is why forgiveness is a big deal. Because we all have murioi to be forgiven, and God puts a condition on our forgiveness! But it’s not all about God being mean and sticking it to us. It’s about God protecting us and having our best interest in mind. You see, forgiveness is all about relationship. When Genesis says we were made in God’s image, God is always Trinity: Father, Son, Spirit, in perfect relationship with one another. And we, in God’s image, were made for relationship. So forgiveness is all about relationship!

If the forgiveness we receive is contingent on the measure by which we forgive others, then we’ve got a lot to learn. Here’s the rub: Dr. Larry Crabb says this: “Highly trained theologians, zealously compassionate pastors, strongly committed businessmen, remarkably talented women can all continue for years in their Christian life without seriously examining the sinfulness in their style of relating. It’s possible to be competent in theology, and, at the same time, blind to the central message of Christianity: we’ve been called into relationship with God so we may relate more deeply with others.”

A lot of this goes back to our discussion on our emotional health: if we are not emotionally healthy, then we cannot receive or give God’s love to others. If we are withholding forgiveness, then we are practicing a sinful style of relating. We have to deal with our own brokenness before we’re able to adequately deal with forgiving someone else. To get right with God, we have to repent. Including of our unhealthy relational patterns and our unwillingness to forgive others. Just because you’ve accepted Jesus’ free gift of salvation doesn’t mean you’ve got it right in the way you relate to other people.

I know this first-hand. I’ve been hurt pretty badly in the past. I know how it feels to have someone act as if they just don’t care how they’ve hurt me; in fact, in cases they’ve pretty much seemed to lord it over me. It can be hard to even want to forgive. But 9Repentance is a turning away from sin that’s made possible by God’s willingness to forgive us. It’s a gift from God. Just like our daily bread. And really, if God wasn’t willing to forgive us, it wouldn’t make any sense to even try to forgive others. Unfortunately, we often don’t even try to forgive. We try other things. Inside Out, Dr. Larry Crabb “Unnecessary problems can sometimes be relieved by changing circumstances, soothing heartache, and doing right things, but such change will not lead to a realization of our potential to powerfully love people. We will genuinely love only as we deal with the sin in our heart.”

What this means is that we can make ourselves feel better, but that does nothing toward reconciling broken relationships, and when we fail to reconcile broken relationships, we fail to love. And when we fail to love, we break the most important commandments: to love God with heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But once we understand the concept of relational sin, we repent by radically shifting our motivation and direction from self-preservation to trust on the basis of the belief that Christ has given and is preserving our life.

You see, withholding forgiveness is a means of self-preservation. Instead of working toward reconciliation, we shut ourselves off, so as not to get hurt again. But unfortunately withholding forgiveness is also a symptom of a greater evil: a lack of trust in God. In fact, withholding forgiveness demonstrates that you don’t believe that God is just. If God isn’t just, then we ourselves have to exact payment.

That just doesn’t work. We end up carrying the burden of the lack of forgiveness: it’s like carrying a 200# pack on your back. Meanwhile, that jerk who wronged you? He’s fine. He doesn’t care. It’s not bothering him at all. And it’s killing us. But when we’re on the brink of personal collapse that we’re best able to shift the direction of our soul from self-protection to trusting love. When we trust God and accept that He is just, we can begin to love. The more deeply we enter into the reality that life without God is sheer desolation, the more fully we can turn toward Him. If you still need work on that, your cell group is a good place to start. Another is going back over the Emotionally Healthy sermon series (you can look at my archives - just click by keyword on the left - or the church web site for those messages).

We often don’t get to the forgiveness stage of dealing with other people’s sins. In fact, here are several ways we deal with that pain: 1. We hold back. Instead of speaking encouragingly or prophetically, we shut up. Instead of offering creative input, we hold back. We withhold ourselves. We withhold blessing. Some ways that we withhold forgiveness are the “Flood or famine” style, where we forgive someone but exclude someone else. This is kind of like how Isaac Isaac blessed Jacob and had no blessing for Esau. We do this when we tend to overlook or forgive one person’s faults but we never forgive someone else. Some of you have been the recipients of that kind of forgiveness. Or lack thereof.

Sometimes we give “race track rabbit” forgiveness: we hold forgiveness just out of reach. Much like this is the conditional blessing, in which you have to accomplish something in order to receive forgiveness.

Another way we deal with pain is making lists & labels. This is where we start saying things like “these people are this.” We stereotype based on a certain bad experience. Maybe that experience is general: it’s easy to stereotype: politicians are blood sucking leeches. Or maybe the experience was personal: maybe someone in a church, maybe even this church, gossiped and said horrible things about you or to you, so you think: all church people are jerks. Or you were bullied by a popular athlete when you were in school, so you think all athletes are bullies.

A third way we deal with pain is revenge. We decide we’re going to do something about it; we won’t take it lying down. Sometimes we argue and fight, but the most common kind of revenge is gossip. Since someone hurt us, we feel justified, even required to tell someone about it. Of course we shine the most unfavorable kind of light on what they did and never admit any culpability of our own… why should we? I mean, they were the ones who did this.

Really, all gossip does is cause trouble. Even if you are just “telling the news” “so you can pray.” Again and again I have heard stories of people who have been hurt by the church. How have they been hurt? By people spreading gossip about them. It doesn’t matter if it happens to be true: if you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it behind their back. Period. Proverbs 16:28 A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. The book of Romans describes gossip as a result of people thinking that it’s not worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God. So if you are a gossip, STOP. NOW. Matthew 18 tells the steps to go through if someone wrongs you: go to them individually. If that doesn’t work, bring 2 or 3 witnesses with you. If that still doesn’t work, bring a church leader with you. And if that doesn’t work, stay away from them.

So, how are we supposed to forgive? I’ll tell you this: it isn’t easy. Honestly, there is no place for sugarcoating in the life of a serious Christian.

The first step to forgiveness is wanting to want to forgive. You don’t start by wanting to forgive; you most likely don’t want to forgive. But if you are going to forgive someone, you’re going to have to start somewhere. I remember a painful time in a previous church, and after I’d left there, I had nightmares about that church every week for over a year and a half. During Lent, I decided to do a prayer journal where I wrote my prayers every day. One day I realized that I was carrying around all of this anger, resentment, and pain from that experience. I knew intellectually that I needed to forgive the ones who had wronged me. But really I didn’t want to. So I started praying, asking God to help me to want to forgive. It was kind of like in Mark 9:22-24, where a man came to Jesus. His son was possessed by an evil spirit. He said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “’If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

The result of this conversation and the man’s request: Jesus healed his son. And I believe that if we come to Him with our desire to be made whole, to give out forgiveness, He will be faithful to us. Everything is possible for him who believes. Do you believe that God can create in you the desire to forgive?

This, too, is a gift. Just like the ability to obey God, to thus “hallow” his name and do his will here on earth, just like it’s done in heaven. Just like the daily bread He gives us: physical sustenance and spiritual nourishment through Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

He also gives us a supernatural ability. The ability to forgive, even to forgive our enemies.

Before I get to the brutal path to forgiveness, let’s quickly look at what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting. When God forgives, He throws our sins as far from us as east is removed from west. Because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, He wipes our slates clean. We aren’t God. And we aren’t meant to forget. We’re not doormats, just waiting to be walked all over. Titus 3:10 instructs us to Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.

Indeed, forgiveness does not mean that your relationship with the person who wronged you just goes back to how it used to be. A beautiful proverb tells us that As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly. If you just jump right back to where your relationship was without learning and growing from the situation, you are just going to get burned again.

This goes hand-in-hand with the third example of what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness does not mean going without boundaries. There is such a thing as wisely deciding to establish boundaries; I devoted an entire message to the subject of Receiving the Gift of Boundaries and Limitations & you can look it up on the web site. Realistically, forgiveness requires some boundaries. If someone has abused you, you can’t just walk right back into their lives. Some of you have suffered through divorce, and you’ve remarried, and now Jesus is telling you to forgive your ex. Yes, he is. But that doesn’t mean you have to move back in together! Boundaries! I have a friend who was estranged from his father for years. Recently his father came back into his life. Because the father was down on his luck for a while, my friend let dad move in with him. It didn’t work out. My friend told me he had a choice: his father or his family. So he kicked his dad out. Boundaries. In Genesis 33, Jacob and Esau had a beautiful reconciliation with one another. Remember that Jacob had tricked their father into giving him the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s, and Esau was hunting his brother down to kill him. Now they’ve reconciled. But interestingly enough, in verse 16, we read this: So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir. Jacob, however, went to Succoth… They didn’t stay together. They got their own places. They set up boundaries.

Forgiveness is also not ignoring reality. It’s not pretending that you were never hurt in the first place. When someone asks you for forgiveness, don’t ever say, “Oh, it was nothing.” It wasn’t! You can tell someone “I forgive you” or “I’m working on it” but the truth is, it was painful and it wasn’t “nothing.”

So what does forgiveness look like? Let me warn you: Jesus Christ’s pattern of forgiveness is brutal and painful. We’ve been handed something painful; what do we do with it?

Jesus’ pattern is one of death and resurrection. We absorb the pain, letting it infiltrate us. This death leads to resurrection. In Luke 23:34, when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” it’s an honest reminder of how much forgiveness really hurts.

Here is how we follow Jesus’ example. First, we name the pain or the hurt. We can’t adequately grow from the experience if we don’t know how we were hurt. This might involve some serious looking beneath the surface to adequately name the pain someone has caused you. It might help to journal on it. I know that when I’ve been serious about writing in my journal, some pain surfaced, pain that I didn’t even realize that I was still carrying around.

Once we’ve named the pain, accept it. Accept that it is indeed reality. But also, accept the parts that might be true or might be your fault. One of the most painful events in my life revolved around the first time the United Methodist Church moved me. Going into the details doesn’t help things, but suffice it to say, I was extremely hurt. I already told you that I had nightmares for 1½ years after that move, almost all of which involved the couple of parties who wronged me. But part of accepting the pain was realizing such things as: as the associate pastor, I wasn’t a good fit with that senior pastor. The worst part of forgiving is when someone says something really ugly about you… and some of it is true. Or when you brought it on yourself.

The next step is to absorb the pain. Take it as a part of who you are. This is the opposite of forgive and forget – it’s all about leading from a place of vulnerability and brokenness. We cannot come to a place of true compassion if we do not realize and accept our own brokenness. But instead of suffering the life-long nasty death of bitterness and cynicism, leading from vulnerability and brokenness, absorbing the pain, leads to resurrection.

This transforms pain from a destructive impulse to a creative power. Now you have all of life to live, and you have the creative power to do something positive with it. To share love. To encourage. To uplift.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Message #3 in the series: The Lord's Prayer

Matthew 6:5-13 (look it up here)

What are you asking God for? What is on your prayer list? What feeds you physically? What feeds your soul?

As we started the Lord’s Prayer, we were reminded that it is to God, our loving Father, to whom we pray. Our first responsibility is to lift up His name, not only as we pray, but in our obedience to Him. We appropriately “hallow” His name by behaving like Him.

When we ask for His Kingdom to come, we voluntarily set ourselves under His rule – in every aspect of our lives.

Finally, after we have properly situated ourselves in this context, we are ready to ask for something for ourselves. Remember that this is the context in which we begin to make requests for our needs.

We ask for God to give us this day our daily bread. In the biblical context, bread is the staple food. It stands as a synonym for food itself as the symbol for everything needed to sustain physical life. Simply put, we ask God for what we need for life.

In Matthew 4, Jesus went into the desert to be tempted by Satan. After Jesus had fasted 40 days and nights, he was hungry (the most understated verse in the whole Bible). The very first thing Satan did then was to tempt Jesus “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Clever.

Satan already knew that Jesus could do that. He had already witnessed God feeding all of Israel with manna, and he knew that it was said that the Messiah would come, feeding Israel again. So he’s not only saying, “take care of your needs” but he’s also saying, “tip your hand; let everyone know that you’re the messiah.” And in this, he’s also saying, “Show them what kind of messiah you are.”

In this temptation, the devil tried to do two things. He wanted Jesus to elevate bread to the first priority and to make the provision of bread the defining characteristic of Jesus’ Messiahship.

Jesus understood that something else was of higher priority than food. He responds to Satan by quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Truly there is more to life than food. This is why we don’t request our daily bread first, but instead, we make this request after we’ve properly set God’s holy name apart and after we have situated ourselves as doers of God’s will, as ambassadors of His Kingdom.

Then we ask him to fulfill our physical needs.

That this is Jesus’ response is extremely important in our world. We are constantly faced with people who have physical needs, and last week we witnessed that when Jesus preached about the Kingdom, He was always meeting physical needs: healing the sick, cleansing lepers, driving out demons, and raising the dead. But those physical needs weren’t what drove the Kingdom. Meeting people’s physical needs is part of being Christian, part of behaving like Jesus Christ. We absolutely must do these things. But if it does not fall into the context of God’s sovereign rule, if it does not help people draw closer to God, then it is worthless.

That kind of bread, the kind that merely meets physical needs without touching the spiritual, while it might have tasted good, would have been poison in Jesus stomach. And that was exactly what Satan tried to make happen. He wanted Jesus to be singly defined by his ability to provide for people’s physical needs. Satan would love it if we were all healthy, wealthy, and happy, if it meant that this was all we strove for. But Jesus didn’t just come to feed and heal our physical bodies! He came to reconcile us to the Father! Everything He did was all about preparing us for reconciliation, and then through His sacrifice on the cross, He did what it would take to finish the job.

After he had fed 5000 people using only five small barley loaves and two small fish, obviously the meal of the poor, Jesus told the crowd Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (John 6:27)

The crowd asked Jesus What miraculous sign will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ John 6:30-31.

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33)

“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.” (John 6:34)

Manna wasn’t strictly bread, but it was called “bread from heaven” because it was viewed as a gift from God where there was no natural food. Remember, bread doesn’t just mean bread.

But this is a good time to compare the manna God gave to Israel to the daily bread that Jesus instructs us to pray for. The instruction for manna went like this: Then the Lord said to Moses,“I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.” (Exodus 16:4).

Requesting our daily bread fits precisely with this pattern: we have to humbly accept that God is the provider every day. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus tells the crowds: Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Jesus goes on to say, Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matt 6:34).

Like we studied last week, if our focus is fully on God’s sovereign rule, then God will provide for us. Are you walking in full obedience to God? Are you following God’s instructions? Do you trust Him? Are you obedient to God in every relationship you’re in? That includes family, by the way. Are you being obedient with your money? Do you have an obedient mouth? Do your words heal, or do they hurt? Do you encourage, or do you spread gossip? Do you have obedient thoughts? Do you take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ?

So, in this context, it’s no wonder why we want. It’s no wonder we need. We constantly seek after our own wants and needs first and leave God until later. Do you know what happened to the manna when the Israelites gathered more than they needed and tried to hoard it? In Exodus 16:19-20, Moses instructed the people not to keep it overnight; God would provide more in the morning. But some people didn’t pay any attention to Moses and kept it overnight. In the morning, it was full of maggots and had begun to smell.

Likewise, many of us have pursued and held on to other things, and over time, they’re filled with maggots, but we’ve ignored the smell for so long that now we’re used to it. We’re used to having more than we need while our neighbors suffer. We’re used to our three, four, or five daily meals; we have full stomachs, while every day, over 26,000 children under age 5 die from preventable diseases, over ½ of which are associated with malnutrition.

Our wealth is full of maggots, and it smells bad.

Jesus tells us to request our daily bread; but as we request that, reflect on the fact that He might have given us the means to provide someone else with daily bread.

We need reminded that everything we have is a gift. If nothing else, our current economic situation should stand as a reminder that even daily gifts, even those to which we have become accustomed, are still gifts. Our very lives are gifts. Our bodies are gifts from God. This day is a gift from God. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it! (Psalm 118:24)

But these aren’t the greatest gift God has for us. Indeed, when we ask for our daily bread, for everything we need for life, we are asking for much, much more than simple bread.

And when we ask for it, God gives it. Jesus asks a question in Matthew 7:9 Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? His question presupposes that no father would do such a thing. It’s a ridiculous question. Of course no father would do that. Including, and especially our heavenly Father. If we ask, He gives. But what is it that He gives?

Let’s go back to John 6. We left the crowds asking Jesus to give them the bread from heaven. In verse 35, Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In v. 48-51 He continues: I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Remember that in Hebrew thought, when we see something repeated, it’s really important. And when we see it repeated three times, it’s super-important. Jesus says three times, “I am the bread of life.” There is none other than him. Also, he uses the same phrase “I Am” as when God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush. So not only is Jesus making a claim to be bread of life, but he is also saying (three times), “I am God.

Not only does God give us provision for our daily life, but He also gives us THE provision for eternal life. When we seek God with our whole hearts, when we obey Him and proclaim Him ruler of our lives, He gives us the perfect gift: Himself.

So we ask God to give us this day our daily bread, and He will give us what satisfies our souls.