Monday, September 27, 2010

Seeking God's Perspective

*See the end for a note on source

James 4:1-10

We spent five weeks discovering Life Together: through the “One Another” verses in scripture, we explored what it means to be Christians; how we are to serve and encourage one another, live in harmony with one another, bear with one another, forgive one another, and, above all, to love one another. 

Loving one another is ultimately important because it’s the only true reflection of God’s character.  Knowing God’s character is vital to living life as a Christian, because His character informs our actions.  Many of us struggle with really knowing God; we picture God as a bearded man in the sky or an aloof judge or powerful, holy Creator and we forget about his Fatherly kindness.  In Matthew 7, Jesus tells us that whoever asks God receives, whoever seeks will find, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. He goes on to say, “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

Parents: think about the sacrifices you have made for your children.  You know that the heart of a loving parent does whatever it takes for the sake of your child.  And Jesus wasn’t saying that all parents are terrible.  He was saying: if we have this kind of love for our children, how much more will our Father in heaven – whose love is the perfect ideal that we strive for – give good things to those who ask.

If you’ve read through the New Testament, you’ll find that sentiment everywhere.  Philippians 4:19 tells us:  My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:32 tells us He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

When you look at God’s character, you’ll realize that God is a giver.  James 1:17 reminds us that Every good and perfect gift is from above. God gives us good gifts.  Why?  Because He loves us.

Last week as we were looking at “Love One Another,” I invited you to read, meditate, and pray through the scriptures.  As I look through the scriptures, I’ve gained understanding into God’s character, especially through God’s promises, principles, and perspective.  We’ve talked about a lot of these, but one thing we really haven’t looked at is our use of money.  But if you really read the scriptures, you’ll find hundreds of insights into finances as you read the scriptures.  

Often we pastors shy away from talking about money. Why is it so hard to talk about money?  Because it’s a hot button topic.  In our current economy, it seems like everyone is talking about money, but it’s supposed to be taboo for the church?  Really?  All of you are talking about it, but if you hear it from the pulpit, some of you get offended.  I’ll give you the offer that if you’re just going to get all ticked off that I’m talking about money, you can go ahead and slip out now and save your breath on the complaints later.  When pastors who aren’t televangelists talk about money, two kinds of people get upset.  One is the person who is poor and feels guilty because he or she cannot give as much as he or she wants. If that’s you, I hope you stick around and hear me out.  I hope we as a church can be a blessing to you and as we look at what the Bible says about money, perhaps you can learn something.  One thing I hope is to never heap shame on you if you’re on a fixed income or unemployed. In Mark 12, Jesus is in the Temple watching people give their offerings, and there were a bunch of rich people throwing in great amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow as put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth, but she, out her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:42-44)

Jesus never shamed the widow, so it’s not my intention to add guilt to anyone who is struggling just to get by.

But the other person who gets offended when the pastor talks about money is usually the one who has a money problem.  You know the type: he blusters: that pastor has no business talking to me about money.  He has no right to tell me what to do with my money.  To that, I say, if Jesus thought it was important enough to talk about, than so should we.

The truth is that the Bible talks about money.  Sixteen of Jesus’ 38 parables have to do with money – about 15% of his total teaching is about money.  Did you know that the Bible tells us to stay out of debt?  Proverbs 22:7 tells us that the rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.  The issue is that debt, any debt at all, means you are working today and tomorrow to pay for the past.  You’re not creating a future; you’re paying for the past. 

On the other hand, when we put God first and serve God with our money, that money ends up serving.  God promises to supply our needs if we put Him first in our lives.  A good memory verse comes to mind: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:33). “All these things” refers to our physical needs.  Some of us need a refresher course on what are needs and what are wants, but that’s a different message for a different day.

Here’s what’s at the root of all of this: money is one of our top spiritual indicators.  If you want to know what someone cares about, look at his checkbook.  Some of you get mad when the church talks about money because now “Pastor’s gone meddlin’ in my life!”

Let’s go on and look at what the Bible says about money.  James 4:3 tells us When you ask, you do not receive.  You might know how that goes.  Sometimes we don’t have because we don’t ask.  But maybe the reason we don’t receive is because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.  Our motives are what drive our actions.

Have you ever thought about your motives?  The audience of James’ letter was motivated by their pleasures. Interestingly, the word “pleasures” here is the word we recognize as hedonism. Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good.  If it feels good, do it.  He who dies with the most toys, wins.

The only problem with this is it’s a lie. Hedonism doesn’t match up with a biblical worldview.  Listen to what Paul said in Philippians 3:10 “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” That doesn’t sound like pleasure, does it?  Sharing Christ’s sufferings…

If we want to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection in any area of our lives, we’re going to have to go through pain and experiencing discipline.  Some of you know the phrase: no pain, no gain. Some of you don’t even realize how hedonism has influenced your life, even your Christian walk.  The meaning of life is to glorify God, not to “be happy” doing whatever it is we feel like doing.  Unfortunately the motives of hedonism are selfish.  They only concern me.  How do I feel?  How does this make me happy?  What’s in it for me?

Selfishness is sin.  I’ve heard it argued that selfishness is the root cause of all sin.   Jesus, on the other hand, tells his followers to deny themselves. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) 

When our goal is our own pleasure, we’re working directly against God’s Kingdom.  It’s motivation to covet.  Remember coveting, from the 10 Commandments? “Thou shalt not covet” – anyone else ever wonder what that meant?  Coveting means wanting what we don’t have.  That’s honestly what leads to debt.  I remember hearing a speaker at a Promise Keepers Rally say, “Too many men buy stuff they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like.” Why do you think our nation is in debt?  Why do you think the average baby boomer has $40,000 in consumer debt… not including a mortgage?

When we covet and go into debt, we are prioritizing the wrong things.  Have you ever been somewhere and met people who have nothing, yet they’re happy and content?  That can be an amazing wake-up call that a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Jesus’ words from Luke 12:15).

In his book Upside Living in a Downside Economy, Michael Slaughter writes: “When we fail to celebrate the blessings God has given us, we inevitably begin to seek satisfaction in other sources.” –In the scripture I read earlier, James calls us “adulterous people” because coveting is adultery against God.   You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Seeking satisfaction or happiness anywhere other than in Jesus Christ says that Jesus isn’t enough. You’re declaring open revolution against God.  Here’s the truth: without Jesus, we can have everything else and never be satisfied.  Or we can lose everything we have and still have enough if only we have Jesus Christ.

Having money and possessions is not intrinsically evil.  1 Timothy 6:10 says the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Not money itself, but the love of money.  Hebrews 13:5 tells us to keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’

So, when it comes to your finances, what is your motive? And are you motivated?  What motivates you?  Maybe you’ve tried at some point to get out of debt and you’ve gotten frustrated and given up.  As you worked your way out of the hole, you got sick and had to pay medical bills.  Then there was that car accident or other unforeseen expense, and after all of that, you just threw in the towel.  So how do we stay motivated?  James 4:6 gives us the answer:  But he gives us more grace.  Our motivation comes from God’s grace.  This is why James goes on to say that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.  It’s not a matter of deserving or earning it; it’s a gift from God. And God knows we will fail multiple times as we work toward full devotion to him, but He provides grace.

When it comes to pursuing financial health, a lot of us start with the right motive.  We want to depend on God for everything and we don’t want anything to get in the way of our relationship with Him.  Our goal is to follow the command in Malachi 3:10: Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My House. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “And see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”

We even start well, but somehow we fail to stay motivated.  Where can we get lasting motivation?  Only from Jesus Christ.  We can’t just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and motivate ourselves forever; true motivation only comes from God’s grace.  He alone sustains us and helps us persevere. 

As we focus on God’s grace to sustain us and to provide us with our every need, I want to remind you to evaluate who you are listening to.  Some of you grew up hearing a parent tear you down every day.  Maybe your dad was one of those “old school” guys who wouldn’t ever complement you, and you grew up with low self-esteem, thinking you would never be good enough. Some of you have always heard that you’re the best at some particular skill and your worldview isn’t quite big enough to accept that there might be someone else better.

If we want to keep motivated to following God in everything we are, we have to be constantly vigilant about who we are listening to.  Do you know how I start my Sunday mornings?  I get up early, grab my iPod, and sneak out for a run.  I turn on the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and get my praise on.  I get the Sunday newspaper, but I wait until after church to even look at it. The first thing I put in my mind is praise to God.  No matter how much bad news there is in the world, God is still on his throne.  I listen to sermons while I run – not just any preachers, either. I choose the sermons I listen to by the godly fruit in the lives of these pastors and their churches. The voices we’re listening to are vitally important.  Words have power.

So, who are you listening to?  Some of you need to honestly evaluate who you’re listening to.  Some of you have the ladies from the Music Man doing their little “pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot pick a little more” routine in your ear.  You’re not going to gain godly wisdom from them.  When it comes to your spiritual health, you’re not going to grow by listening to messed up people who are deep in their sin and selfishness.  You gain by surrounding yourself with people who shine with the light of Christ and exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit in their daily lives.  Likewise, when it comes to financial health, do you want to listen to someone who is buried in debt, or do you think you might get better advice from someone who is living debt free?  Who are the people around you who can give you wise financial advice?  Think about it. 

Take advantage of every opportunity you have to listen to wise people.  And here’s what happens; you’ll gain some wisdom for yourself.  But then you have a choice to make.  1 Peter 1:14 tells us As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.  If we drop down to verse 18, we read For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18-19).

All the money in the world won’t buy your salvation.  Peter calls silver and gold “perishable things” and he calls the former way of life “empty.”

If we look back at James 4:7-10, we read this: Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Do you want to live victoriously?  Not just get by?  In your finances, as well as other areas of life?  The first step is to submit yourself to God.  Maybe you’ve asked God into your life but you never realized that He wants control of your finances as well.  My dad actually went and asked his minister to baptize his wallet.  How’s that for a visual?  Submit everything to God.  You can’t compartmentalize and only give Him part of you.  He wants all of you. 

Resist the devil.  Maybe the devil has handed you a pocket full of plastic.  You can resist him with scissors.  Maybe the devil has showed you all these nice things that everyone else has – you can resist him by counting your blessings. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

If you are living in defeat in the area of finances, you don’t have to stay there.  The goal is to depend fully on God for everything.  Yes, that is humbling.  But no matter how deep in debt you are, no matter how bad your situation is, God can make the impossible happen.  It always begins with having God’s perspective and building on that perspective by having the right motives, staying motivated, and seeking wise counsel. 

*Please note that the inspiration and the outline for this message are derived from Michael Slaughter's book Upside Living in a Downside Economy, 2009 Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Life Together: Love One Another

Over the past month, we have been looking at the scriptures, trying to understand what it means to live life together as Christians. We’ve encouraged one another and served one another.  We’ve lived in harmony with one another and hung in there with one another.  But really none of that is important at all if we miss out on today’s lesson. 

The reality is that we as a church often focus so much on doing church that we can miss out on the main point.  We emphasize numerical growth, often through powerful programming.  We teach our congregations well, making sure that we all know about God and that we actually know God. We emphasize individual spiritual growth, stressing spiritual disciplines – both inward and outward. 

But without love, none of that matters.  This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Do you get what he’s saying?  No matter what you do, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what your pedigree, no matter how encouraging you are, no matter how you serve others, no matter how harmoniously you live with others, and no matter how well you hang in there with others and forgive them, if you don’t have love, you’re full of hot air, making a lot of noise.  To rip a Shakespeare quote out of its context, “[Life, without love,] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Honestly, there are some people who wear the name “Christian” who show up in churches every week and lead churches and preach in churches and lead worship in churches and all they’re doing is flapping their lips and taking up space. 

When Jesus was asked the greatest commandment, he 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.” Matthew 22:37-40

Love is what’s most important.  Indeed, in John 13:34-35, we read these words from Jesus: “A new command I give to you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Most people have their own idea of what a Christian is supposed to look like, but there is one true test: love.  This is how people will know we are following Jesus Christ: by our love.

It couldn’t be clearer. 1 John 3:23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

Believe in Jesus and love one another.  That’s it. 

What does this kind of love look like?  1 Corinthians 13:4-8 gives us a good picture. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.   Love never fails. 

Some of you are thinking, “wait, they read that at my wedding.”  That’s great.  It was read at ours, too.  I think.  I don’t really remember, because we laughed through our whole ceremony.  But I’m sorry to inform you that 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t a wedding scripture.  It’s a scripture to the church. Using it to ask a husband and wife to love each other that way is silly.  Paul has instructions for husbands and wives elsewhere; submit to one another. Wives, submit to your husbands.  Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church. (Ephesians 5:20, 21, 25). But the 1 Corinthians passage isn’t for husbands and wives.  It’s for church people.

Does this describe you?  Are you patient?  Paul doesn’t pull any punches.  He goes straight for the jugular. He actually expects us to be patient? How about this: Are you kind?  Really? Some of you are really, really kind.  Some of you have shown extraordinary kindness to each other. Your outreach to the Sweet Corn Festival concession workers was a wonderful act of kindness. When someone is sick or hurting, you have reached out, serving people with kindness. But some of you have a long way to go.  Your words are always negative and you too quickly complain. And you probably have no idea how hurtful your unkind words are. 

Let’s continue.  Do you envy?  Do you boast? Are you proud?  These all go together.  I unfortunately see this too frequently in churches.  One person is really good at one thing, and you’re constantly comparing yourself to that person.  Or you’re the really good one and you always compare everyone to you.  You’re that person who’s always saying, “Well, oh yeah? Let me tell you how great I am.”  I often see it in ministry leaders and pastors.  Pastors can easily fall into the trap of counting and comparing.  I think that’s an easy trap for many of us, especially if we’ve seen what we count as success:  “Back when I led such and such ministry, we used to have 1,000 people every week…” Notice the emphasis on whose ministry it was?

Do you want to go on with what love doesn’t look like?  How’s this: Love isn’t rude.  Honestly, there are times I want to slap people (I know – that’s not very loving either, is it?), and it’s when they’re rude.  There have been really rude things said to me and my family members, and I just wonder what’s said behind my back.  There are some people who take pride in “telling it like it is” – but the Bible says, if it’s rude, saying it is not love, so don’t say it.  That’s not something to be proud of; it’s sin. 

Love isn’t self-seeking.  I hate to break it to you, but church isn’t about you as an individual (it’s not about me, either). This isn’t my church.  It isn’t your church. It’s Jesus Christ’s Church. And how did He treat the church?  He sacrificed Himself on the cross for it.  So if it’s going to be all about you, you’re going to have to one-up Jesus. 

OK, now we go from preaching to meddling.  Love isn’t easily angered.  Honestly, the things that some people have left the church over are so trivial.  Or just flat-out wrong.  There are some people who have heard a rumor that someone doesn’t like them or someone said something about their friend or family member.  So they quit the church in a huff.  And tell everyone how mad they are.  I don’t condone the gossip, because gossip is sin.  And some of you need that reminder every week.  But instead of getting to the root of the issue and going directly to that person, you’ve quickly gotten angry.  That’s not love.  And neither is keeping a record of wrongs.  When I was a little boy, my best friend was Sean Rayl.  He lived two doors down from me. I remember getting into an argument with Sean, one that ended up with us rolling around in the backyard punching each other.  We both got in trouble; he had to go home and I had to go to my room.  Later that afternoon, when I had been released from my prison, what did I do?  I went over to Sean’s house to play baseball with him. 

Some of you have kept a record of wrongs religiously.  You have your justifications as to why you can’t and won’t forgive – actually forgiveness probably never even crossed your mind when it comes to that person. If you’re there, that’s not love, and that’s not Christian.

So what does love look like? Let’s pick 1 Corinthians 13 up in verse 6. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  Love rejoices with the truth.  Do you know why?  Because love and truth are connected.  Sometimes we take Ephesians 4:15 way out of context and make it say something that it really doesn’t say.  We say I’m “speaking the truth in love” and we immediately throw out ugly, nasty “truth” with no love whatsoever.  Actually, speaking the truth in love is firmly taking a stand on the Truth, who is Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). When we speak Jesus into situations, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:15b).  In other words, you telling your wife that her dress does indeed make her look fat isn’t speaking the truth in love.  Telling your neighbor that he’s annoying isn’t speaking the truth in love.  Speaking the truth in love is all about Jesus. 

1 John 4:16 tells us that God is love.  John 14:6 tells us that Jesus is the Truth.  And in John 10:30, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.”  If you remember back to doing proofs in math class, you’ll remember that if a=x and b=y, then if a=b, then x=y.  In other words, love looks like the truth, because both of these are the very nature of God.  If you want Truth, seek after Jesus.  If you want love, seek after Jesus.  You won’t get it anywhere else.  The love that you enjoy now is only but a tiny taste of the love of Christ Jesus.

Love always protects.  I’m not talking about the kind of “protecting” that happens when you pretend nothing is wrong so you can “protect” your reputation or your marriage.  That’s not true protection, because it’s built on a lie.  It’s not the kind of protection that makes promises you can’t follow through on. In the movie Finding Nemo, there’s a conversation between Marlin and Dory in which Marlin says: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.

Telling someone you will always be there for them: that’s not true love, because you could get smashed by a truck when you walk out the door.  You’re not promised tomorrow.  None of us was anointed the protector of the world.  None of us has any sway over what happens after life, either.  But Jesus does.  Jesus is our protector – from now to eternity.

Love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  This is true of Jesus’ love.  That’s why John can write this in 1 John 4:9-12 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.

We have life through Jesus.  That’s real life, and that is love.  Not only is this love, but it’s how we can love one another as well. I want to remind you that John isn’t telling us to just try harder to love each other.  We’ve all tried that, and it doesn’t work.  Have you heard about the guy who asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” the answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” That’s what we’ve grown accustomed to; if we want a particular skill, we work really hard at it. But this isn’t so with love.  Love comes from God, and the ability to love one another comes from God. When 1 John 4:7-8 tells us Dear friends, let us love one another, that doesn’t stand on its own.  It goes on to say: 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.

If you want to love people, love God more. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
How do you love God?  Try getting to know him – reading his word and meditating on it.  Spend meaningful time in prayer.  Practice fasting; the Bible doesn’t just suggest that some people fast or that we just do it during Lent; it’s actually expected that God’s people would spend time in fasting. Fasting helps us to identify those things that get in the way of our love for God.  Can you imagine this scenario: you and your wife are going to have a date, but you say, “can my girlfriend come along?” How well would that go over?  We let all kinds of things get in between our love for God.  For some it’s food.  For some it’s sports.  For some it’s busyness. For some it’s a relationship. For some it’s money.  You want to love God? Then pick your God.

Who is it going to be?

How about this: (1 John 4:20-21) If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

It’s not our nature to love each other way, especially once we’ve seen the dark side of one another.  We’re once bitten, twice shy.  But Peter writes this: 1 Peter 4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Honestly, when we love each other, we are much more willing to encourage one another.  We’re willing to serve one another.  We want to live in harmony with one another.  We bear with one another and forgive one another.  Because we love each other, these things come naturally.

That is the key to living life together. Romans 13:8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.

It’s never about following a list of rules.  If you’re like me, you can find your way around those rules – you can figure out how to obey the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law.  Like when my mom would tell me to go downstairs and play quiet games with my brother.  We made up games called “Quiet Game #1” which resembled football.  “Quiet Game #2” was a kind of wrestling game.  We were obeying: we were technically playing “quiet games” but we weren’t doing what our mom wanted us to do.  

Let’s conclude with one final scripture: 1 John 3:11: This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Life Together: Hang in There With One Another

We have spent the last three weeks looking at the “one another” verses in scriptures, learning how God meant us to live life together.  You see, from the creation of Eve, humanity has always been in community – God’s plan is for us to grow in Christlikeness, and a huge aspect of Jesus Christ is that He isn’t solitary; he is always in community with the Father and the Spirit.  And neither are we called to be solitary Christians.  So far, we’ve encouraged one another, served one another, and lived in harmony with one another.  And today, we’re going to hang in there with one another.

Here’s what it looks like to hang in there with one another: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death.  Anyone ever heard those words before?  We make these vows at a Christian marriage ceremony, which is actually more than just a wedding.  A Christian marriage is a picture to the world of God’s love for His Church, and the covenant between husband and wife is the best picture of what love is supposed to look like. Thus the vows a Christian husband and wife make to one another are really part of what it means to live together in community.

When the Apostle Paul writes the church of Ephesus about wives and husbands, he admits that he’s talking about more than just wives and husbands: This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and his church. (Ephesians 5:32).  We, as God’s bride, have entered into covenant with God, but also with one another.  Living life together means we’re in it for the long haul.  That means we don’t just bail on each other when the going gets rough.

Ephesians 4:2, which I read last week, tells us to Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Remember that being a Christian means being on God’s time, and God isn’t in a hurry.  So be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Hang in there with each other.  I want to remind you that patience is not easy.  And when we ask God for patience, he doesn’t just give us that virtue.  Especially if we ask like this: give me patience and give it to me now!  God usually rewards our desire for patience by putting into our lives situations (or people!) who require every bit of our patience.  Kind of like learning a skill – God doesn’t just gift most of us with the ability to do something hard; we have to practice, practice, practice.

The call to hang in there with one another is simply a call to be like God.  2 Peter 3:9 tells us that The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

Often we want immediate results, especially when it’s about life change in someone else.  We see their faults and expect them to change, and we want that change now.  What if God might be using that person to teach us something about ourselves?  Where might we need to change? What old, unhealthy patterns do we need to change?  What are the hidden sins in our lives?  What “beneath the surface” issues are rising to the surface?  Are we allowed to have different expectations of others – expectations we don’t even hold ourselves to?

As long as I’m on “expectations” it’s pretty clear that we often have pretty low expectations for ourselves.  As a culture, we focus on “what’s the absolute minimum I have to do to get by?” But that’s not what God wants for His Church.  In fact, Jesus tells his followers to Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

This is more than simply following a bunch of rules, because just following rules doesn’t make us perfect.  If you read the book of Colossians, you will find that this is a major theme of this letter.  In chapter 1, Paul writes this: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. (Colossians 1:21-23)

He goes on in Colossians 3:12-14 to say this: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

This scripture is key to this whole concept, so we need to break it up a little bit.  First, it helps us with the context. As we hang in there with one another, the context must be this: we are God’s chosen people, made holy by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and dearly loved.  Never forget this.  In fact, this might be the most important thing you hear today: God has set you apart because He loves you dearly. He has expectations of you, not to beat you down, but because he knows your potential, because it was He who set you apart to do good works.  And He loves you dearly.

Because of His love for you, and because of who you are in Him, he makes a command of how we are to dress.  Wear compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  In other words, this is what a Christian looks like.  Remember that compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience don’t just come from trying harder to be compassionate, kind, gentle, or patient.  They flow from the Holy Spirit.   If we depend on the Holy Spirit to direct our interaction with others, then (and only then) we will be able to bear with each other.

If you want a good picture of what “bearing with each other” looks like, look to the beginning of the book of Job.

Many of you know the story of Job.  You can read all about him in the Bible, but the very brief synopsis is this: the devil tests Job by killing his livestock, his servants and his sons and daughters. Then he strikes Job with painful sores from the top of his head to the soles of his feet.  Even Job’s wife told him to “curse God and die.”

Job had three friends, Eliphas the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamanite, and when they heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11-13)

Up until they opened their mouths, Eliphas, Bildad, and Zophar were great friends.  They wept with Job.  They mourned with him.  They sat silent with him for an entire week.  That’s bearing with one another.

Why would we do this?  Because when one part of the body hurts, the rest suffers as well.  Generally the church hasn’t been good at recognizing this.  We are good at pouring on the condemnation and adding to the suffering.  We forget that when Job’s friends spoke, they lost every bit of currency they’d had, because their speeches are terrible.  We’re good at “the look” – you know what I mean.  That look that says, “I feel sorry for that person, but he/she deserves whatever it is that he/she is getting.”  We’re good at talking behind people’s backs. 

But what happens when you’re the one who has been hurt?  I’ve seen gossips deeply wounded when people start talking about them.  I’ve seen people who were quick to offer words of condemnation change their tune when they’ve suffered through difficult times.  I’ve often seen that the ones who have gone through tough times make the best healers; they don’t dispense clich├ęs or trivialize the pain. 

Important to remember as we hang in there with one another is the command to forgive one another.  Remember that the context for forgiveness is the context that Jesus provided on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34).  Furthermore, every week when we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us in the same manner as we forgive others.  Do you really want that level of forgiveness?  An unforgiving spirit is a barrier to the reception of God’s forgiveness.

An unforgiving spirit is also a barrier to Life Together.  Some of you are harboring past hurts and have vowed that you will never forgive.  When you do that, especially if you’re aware that you are, then you are directly disobeying Jesus’ commands. 

That, to be direct, is sin.

Instead, God calls us to Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Understand that there are biblical standards for dealing with sin.  Matthew 18:15-17 gives us a clear procedure for Christians to take.

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

After hearing this, Peter came to Jesus and asked how many times should he forgive his brother when he sinned against him, up to seven times?  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  In other words, keep on forgiving.

This isn’t our nature, but it is God’s nature.  He sent His Son to die for all of our sins, once and for all. And there is nothing we can do to outrun His forgiveness.  And the good news, as we live this Life Together, is that He gives us His Holy Spirit to transform us into His likeness. 

This week, I invite you to evaluate your relationship with people in this church.  Look for areas where you need to forgive or to receive forgiveness.  And ask the Holy Spirit to give you power to forgive, to hang in there with one another.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Life Together: Live in Harmony with One Another

Shortly after I had graduated from college, I took a job at my college in the deans’ office. While I worked with faculty and staff, the other side of the office worked with students.  During the summers, we were usually able to catch up on our work because most of the students were not on campus.  I remember someone making the comment that “if it weren’t for all the students, working at the university would be a perfect job.” It can be easy to forget that without the students, there would be no university. 

When it comes to the church, the same is true.  Without the people, there would be no church.  So today we continue in our Life Together series, where we look at the “one another” commands in the Bible.  In the first week, we encouraged one another, and last week we served one another.  Today we get to live in harmony with one another.

This can be a confusing and complicated topic, so let’s dive in.

In 1 Peter 3:8, Peter gives final commands. Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another, be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.  Live in harmony with one another. What does this even mean?

I know the term “harmony” primarily in musical terms.  Sometimes there are songs we sing in unison.  That means we all sing the same note at the same time.  But there are other songs that include harmony, which means that while some people sing the melody line, others sing other notes, which are chosen to go with the melody.  I used to like to just sing the melody line of a song but I’d transpose it an octave or two lower, but that’s not harmony.  That’s just melody. 

When we talk about harmony, we’re talking about different notes that fit together.  Ephesians 4 is perhaps the definitive chapter on unity.  Paul writes this: Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

When we’re trying to live in harmony with others, it’s important to remember that there is a melody.  The Holy Spirit is the melody.  We recognize one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.  For as long as I’ve been in the United Methodist Church, there have been struggles between different “groups” (some even suggesting dividing the church along theological party lines) – and the response has always been a call for unity.  After all, the Bible tells us to make every effort to be unified, doesn’t it?  Some have taken that to mean “we do whatever it takes to make everyone happy so that nobody leaves.” That’s not what the Bible says at all.  Paul stresses the unity of the Spirit.  True unity comes through the Holy Spirit.  The problem comes when we’re not Spirit-led.  When we decide we’re going to sing our own melody and hope that the Holy Spirit will sing along with us. 

I’ve figured this out in music – I’m a decent enough singer.  So when I was in the praise band at a previous church, I got a microphone and started singing.  Though I was singing most of the notes right, it didn’t sound good.  Why not?  Because my voice clashed with the worship leader’s voice.  But I figured out that I could do a pretty decent job singing harmony.  And instead of detracting from the song, it actually added to it!

When it comes to doing life together, I think we genuinely want unity. But unfortunately, we usually define unity like Rodney King: “why can’t we all just get along?”  Getting along can look like unity, but it isn’t always.

Actually, in Acts 15, we see what happened when Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1-2).  Did you hear that: this brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.  Does this sound like the unity that you’ve heard people calling for?

Unity just for the sake of getting along isn’t biblical unity.  In fact, sometimes it means making a hard, firm stand for Truth.  But without the guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit, we end up making hard and firm stands for preference instead of Truth. 

In Ephesians 4:22-24, Paul writes: You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Put off your old self with deceitful desires. Sometimes we believe our desires are right.  We have such a firm belief in them that we fail to ever consult with the Holy Spirit and ask Him if they are.  In fact, we’ve gotten so used to having it “our way” that we demand the same of the Holy Spirit.  Here is what I want, and now I want You to bless it. We want to be catered to in every arena of life, and if we can’t get what we want, we’ll go somewhere else and get it.  We’re a culture of consumers –we want to pick and choose what we want, what we will do for Christ.  We need new attitudes!  We need a new self! 

And we only get those by the Holy Spirit.  Without the Spirit, we can only try to get along with each other.  And without the Holy Spirit, living in harmony with one another doesn’t work.  

I want to highlight that living in harmony with one another does not mean living in uniformity.  It doesn’t mean that we’re all the same.  Remember – it says “harmony” not “melody.” There are songs where we all sing in unison – but not in the Christian life.  First of all, we all are given different gifts.  The Holy Spirit has the melody line and we all join in with our own gifts, on the trajectory the Spirit dictates, using our own gifts, in harmony.

This is important because it means we don’t all have to look alike.  It means we don’t have to dress alike, like the same things, be good at the same things.  That’s what we’re supposed to look like! We’re more like a mosaic than just a simple picture.

In college I was in an accountability relationship with a guy upstairs from me.  He came to me with a word supposedly from God, about my music.  I recognized it for what it was; we just had different tastes!  It wasn’t that I was listening to bad music, it was all about the style. Guess what: God made us with different tastes!

It’s important to listen to the Holy Spirit leading us, because there are some things that are simply matters of taste, not of theological or doctrinal significance.  For example, I’m not a big fan of tattoos.  I recognize that Leviticus 19:28 prohibited tattooing or marking the body, but I also recognize that that’s not the reason I don’t like tattoos.  Unfortunately I don’t like them just because I don’t like them.  It’s not about the biblical imperative (which is really all about the fact that the external appearance of God’s chosen and set-aside people should reflect our internal status) – for me, it’s really all about preferences.

Sometimes we fall out of harmony with one another because we have different tastes.  I’ve heard it said that in professional sports locker rooms, the most common fights are over music.  We’re pretty passionate about our musical tastes, aren’t we?  Often we in churches get pretty worked up over the little things that we’re passionate about and we miss out on the big things that the Holy Spirit is passionate about.

And often we choose what we want, not what He wants.

How do we live in harmony with one another?  One step is to allow the Holy Spirit to choose your friends and companions.  Who are you supposed to spend your time with?  Ask the Holy Spirit!  Yes, I’m serious.

Romans 12:16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Don’t think you’re better than somebody – that you somehow don’t have anything to learn from them. 

For those of you who are younger, I read a great piece of advice this week from Donald Miller. 

Here’s a secret I learned long ago. It’s a big one and it’ll propel you into a future of greatness…. STOP TAKING SOCIAL CUES FROM YOUR PEERS. Instead of taking social cues from people your age, take cues from people ten and twenty years older than you. Are you looking for a church that has a lot of people who are your age so you can hang out? That’s fine, but try looking for one where most of the people have families and perhaps a little grey hair. Why? Because the sooner you can relate to their priorities, the sooner you’ll be ready for the next stage of life. I’m in my late thirties but I’m more interested in hanging out with people who are retired. What’s it teaching me? It’s teaching me what matters later in life is friendships, family and love. In matters of faith, what matters to them is not theological debate, but closeness with Jesus and unity with believers. /Donald Miller

If you’re older, what might it take for you to reach out to someone younger to mentor them, to speak Jesus’ Truth into their life?  To help them navigate the paths you’ve already walked?  Living in harmony with one another means crossing generation lines.  It means crossing the lines of who has lived here forever and who is new in town.  It means crossing socioeconomic lines and political party lines. 

I know it’s easier to deal with people you like, but that’s not what the Christian life is all about.  Yes, spend time with people who uplift you and encourage you.  Yes, spend time with your family and friends.  But remember that there are all kinds of other people who God loves who are part of God’s family, and you’re called to live in harmony with them.

What exactly does it mean to live in harmony with someone?   Romans 12:10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  We’ll get deeper into this concept in a couple of weeks, but remember that love is central to everything we do as Christians.  So the way we behave with one another has to be fueled by love.  Jesus even commands us to love our enemies.

I want to take a moment here and remind you that this message, this “live in harmony with one another” isn’t just a message on behavior modification.  It’s not about just trying harder to get along.  On our own, we will fail at this.  Let me say that again; on our own, we will fail.  It’s not in our nature to love our enemies.  It’s not in our nature to even like people who are spreading gossip about us.  It’s not.  But that’s God’s nature, and He invites us to partake in His nature.  Our job, then, is to seek wholeheartedly after God.  Seek him with everything we are.  Then he can and will transform you.  But this isn’t to say that we’re supposed to sit by passively.

Romans 14:13 tells us Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. Understand that there is a difference between making judgments about people and judgments about actions.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but Paul tells us to hate what is evil. (Romans 12:9) The Holy Spirit acts in us to discern the difference between right and wrong and to help us know what is sinful.  But as far as judging people, remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:2a For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged. Being judge over people is God’s role. 

In fact, Romans 15:7 tells us to Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. And how did Christ accept you?  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8). If Jesus Christ accepted you while you were still a sinner, maybe, just maybe, you can find it in your heart to believe that He might be doing the same with someone else? Some of you have been burned by people in this very church, and you’re unwilling to even think that the person who said mean things to you or about you could possibly have any place in the body of Christ.  As bad as the things are that have happened to you, what does it ultimately say about you that you’ve written them off?  Maybe that you yourself are in direct disobedience to God.   This is why a lot of people walk away from the church; they love God, but they can’t find it in their hearts to love people.

I want to end with 1 Corinthians 1:10, where Paul writes this: I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.  If there was any doubt before, this ridiculous verse should solidify for you that there is only one way to achieve any of this. This will only happen as we gain the mind of Christ.  This is what Paul writes to the Corinthian church: He quotes Isaiah 40:13“For who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct him?” but then he goes on to say But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16).  The Holy Spirit transforms us – gives us the mind of Christ – as we mature as Christians.  As we seek after Him. 

Holy Spirit transformation is how we can live in harmony with one another.  That’s the only way.