Sunday, October 30, 2011

Make Sure

2 Peter 1:5-11

Last week we looked at 2 Peter 1:3-4, in which we were reminded that God is sufficient to supply all of our needs, that his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. God makes it clear that he gives us everything we need. As we yield ourselves to his spirit, we find ourselves participating in God’s nature, having our sinful nature replaced by God’s sinless nature.

And so in that context, Peter writes: For this very reason, (by which he refers to our participation in God’s nature) make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control, and to self-control; perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)

It’s often helpful to look at the end goal: Peter states it in the negative, but to turn it around to the positive, the end goal of all of this is that we will be effective and productive in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. What he’s cautioning against is the same thing the Lord said to Isaiah: The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made only of rules taught by men.” (Isaiah 29:13)

This is the definition of hypocrisy, unproductive and ineffective Christianity. This type of person goes to church, sings all the songs, says all the right things, but they don’t have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I struggled with how to say this, and as I do, know that I am by nature a people-pleaser and I don’t like having to give tough words that might hurt, but I would rather please God by speaking His Word than say something else that might make people like me but not draw any closer to God. When it comes to those who talk a good game but whose hearts are far from God, this is what God says: I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16) In other words, that kind of hypocrisy makes God sick. It makes him want to puke.

We can go to every church service available and be unproductive. We can go to Bible studies every week, every day even, and be ineffective. Think about this: how would your life be different if you didn’t believe in God? The problem is that there are plenty of church people whose lives aren’t any different than non-Christians except that once a week the church people go to church. Our culture is littered with people for whom their “religious preference” is just that – a preference. It’s just a matter of taste. I like Coke, but if there’s no Coke, I’ll take a Pepsi. I like Christianity, but if I can’t have it, I’ll take moralistic therapeutic deism. You know, the belief that there’s a god out there somewhere who wants me to be a good boy and if I am then I’ll feel better.

So what does God want from us? What would God consider effective and productive Christianity? God’s purpose for His people has never changed, because God has never broken His covenant. God’s plan has always been to bless His people so that they will be a blessing to the nations. There are two things that God wants us to do: First of all, God wants us to enjoy His presence. This was the joy of the Garden of Eden – that Adam and Eve could enjoy perfect face-to-face fellowship with God. This is what we were created for. But we weren’t just made to enjoy God; we were also made to share His glory. That’s the whole “blessed to be a blessing” aspect of our existence. God could have chosen any means to spread his glory, and He chose us! That is our purpose. The meaning of life is to enjoy God’s grace and extend His glory.

That’s exactly what effective and productive Christianity looks like – when every aspect of your life points to Jesus.  So how does this happen?

This is where it gets tricky. It happens by being filled by the Holy Spirit. Remember that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. We are already equipped to live out our purpose. We have everything we need; we have the Holy Spirit!

So God calls us to make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control, and to self-control; perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.

Though at first glance, it seems like Peter is suggesting a sort of ladder climbing from faith to love, commentaries are clear that this is not the case. It just doesn’t happen that way. But it does seem to be significant that Peter starts at the point of faith. Without faith, we should not expect anything deeper, because none of this is just something that happens and none of it just happens on its own. We do not begin with goodness, because we, at root, are not good. Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10-12 that There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.

So if you think you can start out with “goodness” on your resume, think again. Goodness is a Fruit of the Spirit, meaning it only comes by the Holy Spirit. This is part of going on with God – submitting yourself more and more to God, giving God more and more of yourself. We aren’t good; God is, so to add goodness to faith is to add God. It is part of the process of God transforming us into the likeness of Christ.

To goodness, add knowledge. The Enlightenment taught us that knowledge was our end goal, but knowledge itself can be deceitful and ineffective. I had a District Superintendent who said something along the lines of, “If you do a Bible study or a book study and you come out and haven’t been transformed, don’t look for another one to do; do the same one again, because obviously it hasn’t sunk in.” Knowledge by itself does not save us. It puffs up. But the kind of knowledge Peter is talking about adds effectiveness. This is the third time Peter has mentioned “knowledge” in four verses, so it must be important. The knowledge that Peter is talking about is the knowledge that brings grace and peace. It is a knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.  This is the knowledge of the One who has called us by his own glory and goodness, the knowledge through which God gives us everything we need for life and godliness.

To knowledge, add self-control. I might be alone in this, but I think the term “self-control” is misleading. It suggests that we control ourselves – (you’re probably thinking “duh” on that one – this guy went to seminary to figure that out?) but the truth is, God doesn’t call us to control ourselves. God calls us to be controlled and led by the Holy Spirit. Our knowledge that leads to self-control is not simply book smarts. It’s an intimate knowing God. This is what drives our desire to be self-controlled, not just a desire to not do bad stuff. Knowing God like this will lead us to be obedient. Self-control means that we are not led by our passions and our temptations; our culture says, “I was born this way so I don’t have any choice but to behave this way.” Living by the flesh, sure, that might be true, but we live by the Spirit, so we don’t have to live that way!

To self-control, add perseverance. Hang in there. I was going to say that nobody ever said that life would be easy, but I realize that there are some snake-oil salesmen out there who are constantly saying exactly that. There are people who are tricked into the church with messages of health and wealth, and when they get down to reading the Bible for themselves, they find Jesus talking about the fact that persecution is inevitable for the Christian. That’s nothing but the old bait and switch. Truth is, living the Christian life is hard. Jesus said it’s hard. Listen to what he said in Matthew 7:13-14:“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. If you look through the Bible, you’ll find encouragement to persevere. James 1:12 tells us: Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. Though you may go through tough times – no, you will go through tough times – the Lord promises you a crown of life. We are a generation who wants rewards now, and we’ve mortgaged our lives to pay for toys, image and youth.

To perseverance, add godliness. This godliness Peter is talking about is when we begin to worship God in everything we do, not just by acting worshipful, whatever that might look like, but having a transformed heart that is constantly in worship. There are times when I know that I’m supposed to do something, and I do it, but my heart is not in it. There are times when I’ve done something just because I know it’s somehow right for a pastor to do it. This is not godliness. This is honoring God with my lips but in those instances, my heart is far from him. My prayer is for a completely transformed heart.

To godliness, add brotherly kindness. This is not simply being nice to each other. First of all, this specifically refers to how we treat other believers. The literal meaning of the Greek word is “love of the brotherhood.” The brotherhood is the Church. This isn’t just a matter of how you act to other church people – and I’ve seen both sides; I’ve seen Christians demonstrating all kinds of love for one another and I’ve seen unthinkable backbiting, gossip, all kinds of sin – but this is a matter of how your heart is inclined toward other Christians.

To brotherly kindness, add love. Christian love, agape, tops any list of Christian virtues. Paul wrote famously that faith, hope, and love are the last three remaining virtues, but the greatest of these is love. You can’t fake love.

And Peter is clear; all of these virtues are expected of every Christian. You can’t pick and choose. And if you do not have all of these, Peter says you are nearsighted and blind, having forgotten that you have been cleansed from your past sins.

So Peter gets to the “therefore”: Therefore my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do all these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Because of what God has done for us, we have the responsibility to make our calling and election sure. Both these concepts, calling and election, deserve entire sermons, but suffice it to say that God is constantly calling his people to him, to live according to his purpose for us – to enjoy his grace and to share his glory. Election is our place as a part of God’s people. To summarize an often confusing and divisive point, God is the one who elects. God chooses his chosen people. The question often comes up as to what part human will has in this, and it’s usually a smokescreen. We can argue the philosophy for hours until we are all blue in the face, whether or not we have free will, if free will is an illusion, if everything has been pre-determined, but honestly if those debates don’t lead both sides to love God more, then they’re a waste of breath.

Peter is not getting suckered into this debate. In fact, what he is saying is make your calling and election sure. In other words, if you think God has called you, if you think you are in the elect, then you’d better look like it, inside and out. Be constantly submitted to God in everything. Here’s the thing: if your heart is constantly submitted to God, then you are one of His Elect. If you’re not, you might not be. Though our salvation is through Christ alone, not by any of our works, the evidence of our salvation shows through our holiness, inward and outward. If you have any doubts whatsoever, allow the Holy Spirit to transform you. Don’t wait for tomorrow.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Everything We Need

2 Peter 1:3-4

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
This past week we experienced some amazing things in this church. Last year some of us gathered on New Year’s Eve to pray for the church, and one of the scriptures we focused on was from Isaiah 42:10: Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth. God has anointed us to sing to him a new song. This has nothing to do with worship wars between contemporary and traditional worship; it’s about God doing a new thing. While our God never changes, God is always doing new things. In Genesis 12, God did something he’d never done before when he called Abraham and told him he would bless him to be a blessing to the nations. In 1 Kings, God allows King Solomon to build a Temple, so now God’s presence is no longer in a tent, but in a temple. In the prophets, we see God using the people’s enemies to teach them to follow him. Then God sends his Son to die for his people, and after three days rise again. God is always doing new things. In Acts 2, we see God doing another new thing, sending the Holy Spirit to live within his people.

In John 14:12, Jesus tells his followers: I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these [new things!], because I am going to the Father.  

Jesus is promising us that we will do even greater things than he did because he is going to the Father and sending us the Holy Spirit.  His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

Pastor Scott relayed to us several questions that God asks. The first question was: Is anything too hard for God? The answer is that nothing is impossible for God. Nothing. OK, follow me here. God has given us Himself, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, who lives within us. If the Holy Spirit lives in us, what is too hard for us? Nothing!

Because God, in his divine power, has given us everything we need. Everything. In giving us the Holy Spirit, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. That means you don’t need a seminary course. You don’t need to be in a special class. You don’t need to go out and live in the wilderness like a hermit. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, and that everything has a name and that name is the Holy Spirit.

You see, we were not made to live dull, boring, hum-drum lives. The church was never meant to be a nursing home for dying Christians; God purposed us to be the living Body of Christ! I was in a group of pastors the other day, and we were talking about fear. It is a sad thing when the church begins to live and make decisions out of fear instead of by the Holy Spirit. Just think back to familiar Bible stories and think what would have happened if Bible heroes had acted out of fear.

Noah would have stopped building the ark when his neighbors started in on him. Abraham would never have left his land to head to a land God promised him. David would never have defeated Goliath, and Israel would have been defeated by the Philistines. Nehemiah would never have rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would have just gone ahead and bowed to the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar. Peter, Andrew, James, and John would never have left their fishing boats to follow Jesus. None of the disciples would have preached. Paul would have just shut his mouth.

And when it comes to other heroes of the faith, what would have happened if John Wesley had lived by fear when it came to preaching? If you know anything about Wesley, his conversion came after his ordination. In other words, he was a pastor before he was a Christian. It doesn’t seem like he wanted to split from the Church of England; he wanted to reform the church, but his fiery sermons got him expelled from many churches where he preached. Living by fear, Wesley would have apologized and cut back his Holy Spirit-inspired preaching. But that’s not what Wesley did. John Wesley, not allowed to preach in church buildings, went to where the people were. Listen to this excerpt from Wesley’s Journal: "Saturday, 31 March, 1731. In the evening I reached Bristol, and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church."

This hero of “street preaching” had been so tied to tradition (decency and order) that he would have thought saving souls almost sinful if it wasn’t done in a church building. I don’t think that John Wesley would recognize most United Methodist churches. Or worse, he would recognize us as little different from the Church of England which he set out to reform. Many of us have slipped into an existence that is based primarily on self-preservation. We live in fear. What would happen if God had a fantastic purpose for us? What if God actually believed that His people would do even greater things than Jesus did while he was on earth? What if God actually thought we could?

Pastor Scott taught us a lot about the Holy Spirit and about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that it’s not us somehow receiving more of God, because we received all of the Spirit when we accepted Jesus’ gift to us, but it’s about God receiving more of us. And when God has a hold of all of us, every bit of every one of us, then God can (and will!) do amazing things through us.

What might we look like if we stopped being afraid? I see people who are afraid of what God might call them to do. This is a big problem for churches. What would happen if God calls us to reach out to those people? What would happen if God calls us to structure everything about the life of our church to glorify Him instead of to glorify ourselves? If you don’t think we’re structured to glorify ourselves, then let me suggest completely changing worship style and see how people respond. A church nearby got a $2000 grant from the district this year to feed children… but they spent $65000 of their own money to buy a new organ. If you don’t see how that’s a problem, that’s a problem! They can come up with $65000 for themselves, but they have to ask the district for $2000? What would happen if God called us to give money away? The last two years I asked this church to give sacrificially for a Christmas offering and we didn’t. Yes, we gave an offering, but it wasn’t a sacrifice. It didn’t cost us anything. When one family gives one third of the Christmas offering, that really reflects badly on the rest of the church. It means that Christmas is really about you giving out Christmas presents, not celebrating Jesus’ birth. What are you scared of? Not having enough money? Maybe you’re afraid to trust Jesus for everything. Maybe you are putting your trust in money. Heck, even our money says “In God we trust” on it.

Pastor Scott said he doesn’t do counseling anymore because he’s found that people just don’t do what he tells them to. I’ve had much less experience than he has, but I’ve already experienced the same thing. People come to me wanting an easy fix, and honestly if you want to fix anything that has become enough of a problem that you’re willing to ask someone for help, then it’s going to be hard to fix it.

Don’t you realize that you don’t have to do it on your own? God has given us everything we need. He gave us himself, and he is sufficient for us.

God called us by his own glory and goodness – everything about him – his character, and because of his character, he has made promises to us. What has God promised us? God promises us himself. Some of you have just started to experience God for the first time ever, even though you’ve been going to church for years.

One thing I often hear is Christians who are working really hard to overcome their sins all on their own. Maybe you’ve got a sin problem and you are going to every length to make sure to avoid it. That’s good, but it’s not the best. Maybe you have friends and community who are asking you the tough questions and keeping you accountable. Yes, that’s good, but it’s not the best. When I went off to college, I jumped into the party scene, but during my junior year, I recommitted my life to Christ. Living in the fraternity house left me open to temptation, so I completely avoided the parties; on party nights, I would switch shifts and go to work. It kept me away from the party and from the temptation to jump back into that lifestyle. Which was good for a season.

But it’s not the best, because what living like that says is “God isn’t enough for me.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that you need to take stupid risks and put yourself into areas of temptation. What I am saying is that you need is for God to be sufficient. Scripture tells us that God gives us his promises so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

Sometimes we hear phrases like “escape the corruption in the world” and think that it means we need to keep ourselves apart from everything in the world. We can’t allow ourselves to be around non-Christians or in places where non-Christians gather. We only drink milk from Christian cows.

Friends, escaping the corruption in the world doesn’t mean hiding. It doesn’t mean walling yourself off from the world. It doesn’t mean pretending that the world doesn’t exist. We were never meant to be a holy huddle, ignoring the world around us. Let’s look at what scripture says.

It says that receiving God’s promises, we may participate in the divine nature. We now have a part in God’s nature! If that’s confusing to you, it just means that we now do what God does because God has replaced our will with His and our power with His. So instead of hiding from the world in fear of having the world corrupt you, we live our lives doing what God does. And what does God do? God goes into the place where He is needed most. God didn’t shun the world, but instead sent Jesus Christ into the world. And Jesus went out and socialized and ate with the “sinners and tax collectors.” Obviously Jesus never walled himself off from society.

I want to also recognize here that Peter declares that the corruption in the world is caused by our evil desires. Jesus was able to be among the worst temptations because he did not share our evil desires. Why not? Because he was totally 100% submitted to God the Father’s desire, not his own. Remember when he was in the Garden, before his arrest? He prayed “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He was completely submitted to God’s will. Therefore he remained uncorrupted.

Many times when we struggle again and again and again with the same sinful desires and behaviors the problem is not primarily a behavior problem. It’s a heart problem. That’s why it’s not enough to just avoid sinful behavior. We have to let God get at the root of the problem, to transform us!

This doesn’t mean being ignorant or putting ourselves in compromising or tempting situations. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, you can minister to alcoholics, but the best venue isn’t a bar. Men, leave the ministry to strippers to the women. But the answer to the problems of life isn’t hiding. It’s allowing God to have more of you… all of you.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Out in the Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

My kids love this time of year – it seems that everywhere we drive, we are surrounded by fields, and most of them are being harvested right about now. The boys love seeing combines working the fields. Anyone who works on a farm will tell you that many aspects of farming are solid metaphors for life. Jesus recognized that as well, and saw that he could explain aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven through farming metaphor. Because Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily for a Jewish audience, he uses the language “Kingdom of Heaven” largely because Jews would avoid using God’s name. This is, in fact, where we get the name “Jehovah” for God – Jews were so careful when they wrote God’s Name, Yahweh, that they would write the consonants for Yahweh, but they would write the vowels for Adonai, meaning Lord. So when we see him referring to the Kingdom of Heaven, we are not talking simply about Heaven. We are talking about the same thing that Jesus talks about when he teaches us to pray: Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

The church is called to live out God’s kingdom on earth. So Jesus described the kingdom like a farmer sowing good seed. Of all the people in the world, God chose Abraham and blessed him to be a blessing. God sowed good seed – his chosen people. He chose people to be his children, his beloved sons and daughters.

But under the cover of night’s secrecy, something happened. The Bible is consistent in its depiction of day and night. Daytime is positive, night time is negative. In Revelation 21:25, Heaven is depicted as never needing to shut its gates, for there will be no night there. Night time is the time of trickery, deceit, and crime. Whenever you hear a news story and the time is 2:30 am, you know that it’s not going to be a positive story. Nothing good happens at that time of night!

Jesus has already proclaimed “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5), and the Apostle Paul makes a beautiful contrast between day and night. In 1 Thessalonians 5:5-8 he says: You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.

We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. God has sown us as “good seeds” to live in Jesus Christ’s light. This means being alert and self-controlled. Not distracted by all kinds of other things, not sleeping or dozing off, but always ready for action.

In Romans 13:11-12 we read: And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

It is during the night, while everyone was sleeping, that the devil came in, sowing weeds.

When I was on my mission trip in Russia, one day trip we took was to a collective farm, where our job was to weed a dill field. We found out that the dill was sensitive to herbicides, so the field had to be weeded by hand. I remember finding a thistle growing in my row – it was about three feet tall. I pulled it up and presented it as a “flower” to one of the women in our program. It was easy to tell the weeds from the dill. But the word that the NIV translation has rendered “weeds” is much worse than weeds. This ζιζανια is better translated “degenerate wheat.” This was a bad hybrid wheat; it originally came from healthy wheat but became bad. It looked like good wheat, but tasted bitter and even caused dizziness. It is, in essence, poison. Unfortunately it is impossible to identify from the plant which is good wheat and which is ζιζανια, so it cannot be pulled up in advance. Furthermore, the roots grow together, and by pulling up the bad, you’re bound to pull up the good as well. And so you have to wait until harvest and sort the good from the bad at that time.

So often we think of judgment day as an “us and them” proposition. After all, we’re the ones in church. We’re the ones who have heard the Gospel. But Jesus explains that among the children of God, the devil has sown weeds, and there is only one way to tell the weeds from the wheat. Jesus says that we will be known by our fruit. In Matthew 7:15, he warns people to “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. Notice that he didn’t say they come in shepherd’s clothing? That’s because they aren’t necessarily the pastors or leaders who are leading people astray. They are people within the congregation, and they are dangerous. Jesus goes on to say, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:20).

God isn’t fooled by church attendance or service or whatever else we do in place of living for Him. And he calls his people to be alert and aware as well. We will be known by our fruit. What kind of fruit are you bearing?

The Bible tells us what Fruit God is looking for – the “wheat” in this parable will be known by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) This earth is a human training ground. We recognize that we are all imperfect, but that as Christians, we are going on to perfection. This is what sanctification is all about; at one moment we were cleansed, made holy, sanctified, set apart by the Holy Spirit for God’s purpose. But sanctification is also a life-long pursuit of holiness, and we need to work toward it.

Anyone who has ever competed in a sport knows that a lot of hard work goes into the competition. Many people look at a marathon and say, “I could never run 26.2 miles” but the truth is no marathon runner runs just 26.2. I put in some 600 miles in specific marathon training in the 16 weeks prior to the marathon. Paul says that he doesn’t run aimlessly, but rather, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:27)

Everything that God allows in our lives, He can use to shape us into his likeness. The Bible often uses the imagery of refining gold; you can’t refine gold without intense heat. What would happen if you looked at the “weeds” in your life as opportunities for growth? It’s kind of like when you ask God for patience; we say, “God, give me patience, and give it to me now!” But God doesn’t just give us patience; God gives us the opportunity to practice patience.

God leaves the weeds in amongst the wheat partially because they give us opportunities to put into practice those characteristics that God has called forth in us. Living out the Fruit of the Spirit is like anything that is worthwhile – if we don’t practice it, we won’t be able to do it when the going gets tough. In marathon running, I’ve often heard one particular phrase: trust your training. What that means is: you’ve already put in 600 miles on the road, you’ve done the fast runs and the long runs, now believe that they will work. I have made the mistake of going out too fast¸ which is a symptom of not trusting my training.

Honestly, when you get into a stressful situation, you will do what you have trained to do. This is why our Armed Forces training is brutal. It’s why boot camp is so tough. We don’t want soft soldiers who have been coddled to show up in combat situations. You want them to be ready. Since God calls us to practice the Fruit of the Spirit, ask Him for opportunities to practice.

And while we’re at it, let’s get over the notion that we’ve arrived or that we’re supposed to have all of these fruits perfect right now. Practice is when we learn skills and work hard to perfect the skills we’ve learned. We try and try and fail again and again, but keep working and asking God to shape us, and as we do so, we will begin to see success. It can be tiresome to continually remind yourself that God might be using this person or situation to shape you into His likeness, but God calls us to persevere! When I was coaching JV soccer, we were working on a particular skill and one of the kids asked me the eternal question: when will we ever use this? That very week, he found himself in the exact situation we had been practicing, and he ended up scoring a goal. After he scored, he looked at me and I shrugged at him and mouthed, “well?” and he said, “It was just like practice!”

What would we look like if we intentionally practiced the Fruit of the Spirit with one another? Remember that we are the Body of Christ, and we’re in a safe place to practice. We are all in this together. We will be known by our fruit, and the weeds in question looked just like the wheat… that is, until the fruit came out. What fruit will we be known for? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? Or something else? Apathy, bitterness, selfishness, impatience, back-biting, brutality, gossip, being out of control? We will be known by our fruit.

There is another reason that the farmer leaves the weeds in with the wheat, and this has nothing to do with farming. In fact, it’s completely foreign to agriculture for two reasons: because wheat and weeds are never just wheat and weeds, and because with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26) When Jesus said this, He was telling his followers how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God, and they questioned how anyone could be saved. This is appropriate when dealing with weeds and wheat – because it is impossible for a weed to change into a plant, but with God all things are possible. God can transform even the nastiest weed into a fruitful plant.

So as we continue to pray for those who aren’t even in the field, and even as we continue to practice the Fruit of the Spirit, I ask you to pray for the transformation of the weeds. Because as much as justice demands punishment and payment, I recognize that on my own, without Jesus, I, too, would belong with the weeds, being harvested and burned. And by the gift of Jesus Christ, he weeds among us, even the worst, can be transformed and have a fresh start with the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Lost 2: A Lost Son

Luke 15:11-32

In last week’s message, the religious leaders of Jesus’ time were grumbling because Jesus “Welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). To them, Jesus told three lost and found stories: the lost sheep, in which a wealthy land owner lost one of his one hundred sheep and dutifully sought it out, bringing it home to great celebration; the lost coin, in which a poor woman lost one of her ten coins and turned her home upside-down to find it, at which point she celebrated with her friends and neighbors. Today, the stakes are elevated even higher. It is not merely a sheep that is lost, nor a coin. Now it is a son.

Jesus puts a face on “the lost.” There was a man with two sons, and things go all wrong. The scene that Jesus presents is as horrible as it gets for a parent. An inheritance is meant to be something given to the children after their parents’ death, but by demanding it now, the younger son is in essence telling his father, “I wish you were dead.” The younger son shames his father, takes his money, and skips town.

You heard the story, and it’s a familiar one; flush with his new-found wealth, the son leaves the country, where he gets the double-whammy. Not only does he waste all his money, but a famine hits, and he finds himself hiring himself out to a pig farmer.

He finally comes to his senses and returns home, hoping to be hired on as one of his father’s servants.  But when he returns, his father runs to him and embraces him and throws a party. This is the back story. In fact, this is the story of what had already happened. God’s plan was for all people to enjoy close relationship with Him. He created us all to be His beloved sons and daughters, to be in community with Him.

But unfortunately that’s not what happens.

The younger son’s rebellion is obvious. He demands his inheritance and leaves. This is the human condition. So much of our sin is selfishness – I’ve even heard theologians who describe sin as all stemming from selfishness. In our selfish condition, we take everything that our Father has given us and claim it as our own for our use. We decide that we can make all our own rules, and in so doing, we brazenly defy our heavenly Father. We set ourselves up as little gods, asserting that we are capable of ruling ourselves. This, friends, is sin. When someone tells you that their sin is not hurting anyone, even their attempts at justification serve to spit in God’s face. Jesus shows us God’s character in his story; God is the Father, out by the gate, watching the horizon, seeing a cloud of dust and hoping it is his son, returning home. But it is our sin that keeps us in a foreign land, feeding pigs, starving. It is our sin that provides that distance. It is our sin that keeps us from enjoying what our Father has for us and keeps our Father from enjoying us as well.

I love the moment when the son comes to his senses. The picture of the father here is beautiful, and, at the same time, startling. A father in Jesus’ time wasn’t usually seen as a “Daddy.” Fathers were the authority in their home. They were the last word. What they said – went. We live in a culture where families generally have a lot of say in what they do. This wasn’t the case in the Ancient Near East. It was the father who had ultimate authority. When his son shamed him and left the country with his money, to his father, he would have been dead. When someone asked him about his sons, he would have responded, “I have only one son.”

Not so this father. He is characterized by care and compassion. He does what is unheard of; not only is he waiting endlessly for the son who shamed him, but he runs, hiking his robe up, so undignified and unfitting a move for a man of his station, and he embraces his son, the one for whose return he had been waiting all these days, weeks, and months.

Some of you can relate to the younger son. You’ve felt alienated, alone, unloved, even unlovable. When you look back to everything you’ve ever done, you can’t see how God could accept you. You’re looking for love and acceptance and connection. To you, Jesus says, “You have a Father who is waiting for your return because He loves you. No matter what you did, no matter how you treated Him, He loves you. Come back to Him.” And when you do, God throws a party.

But others among us aren’t the younger brother. We’ve been serving God faithfully for years. In fact, those “younger brothers” really tend to tick us off. How dare they treat our Father like that? How dare “that son of yours” do all that and then expect to just waltz back in and have a party? After all, where’s my party? Where’s my recognition? As a Christian, it can be easy to slip into the older brother role. We have been serving God faithfully for years, and we never got a party…

Listen to the words of the older brother: But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him.’ (Luke 15:29-30)

We always think of the younger son as having left the love and care of his father, but if you look more closely, the older son has left, too. Did you notice that he is so distant from his father that he doesn’t even notice when his brother returns? He doesn’t notice the party that is going on. He was never looking for his brother and he has lost touch with his father. When the younger son came to his senses, he wondered how many of his father’s hired men had extra food while he was starving. His plan was to go back home, admit that he’d sinned against his father, and ask him to hire him as a servant.

Meanwhile, the older brother had willingly put himself into a position where he saw himself as “slaving” for his father. While the younger brother was gone, wishing he was back home, even living as a servant at home, the older brother’s complaint is that is exactly what he already is. All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders, but I never got anything.

The father responds to his son: ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’

Remember the scenario; the younger son demanded his inheritance, so the father divided up his estate. It doesn’t say that only the younger son got his share; he divided the inheritance between the two and gave them each their share. We always focus on the younger brother, who got his share and squandered it, but remember that everything else legally belonged to the older brother. Everything the father has belongs to the older son.

The older son is not enjoying any of it. He is working dutifully, yet he is not enjoying anything that his father has for him. I believe that there are many Christians who have been living a dutiful life, slaving away, day in and day out, doing everything you can to keep yourself pure and spotless before God, which is a good thing, but you’re missing out on something huge. You’re missing out on the joy that God has for you. You’re missing out on the fact that everything God has is yours for you to enjoy. In John 8, Jesus tells the religious leaders: Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:35-36.

There are some among us who question whether they are saved. You’re living your life in fear, wondering if you belong or not, wondering if you’ll make it to heaven. Listen to me: if you have accepted Jesus’ gift of forgiveness, if you have accepted what Jesus did for you on the cross, then God has made you one of His children. Other religions are based on a slavery model – they have to work their way to acceptance. Even Jesus affirms that a slave has no permanent place in the family. But a son or daughter is permanently in the family.

So I ask you, what are you counting on for your salvation? Are you counting on your works? If so, you’re behaving as a slave. You’re not living life like one of God’s beloved children. And if you’re living like that, you’ve got to keep it up forever. You can’t let up, and if you do, you’re toast. But if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.

The saddest moment of Jesus’ story is seeing the older brother, who should be living enjoying his father’s presence, grumbling, toiling endlessly… He is miserable. I see that a lot from Christians. You work really hard, but you’ve got no joy whatsoever. You have no peace. You’re not exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit. And you’re not living out the fullness of being a child of God. You have chosen to be a slave instead.

If you are someone who isn’t experiencing the joy of being a child of God, I want you to pause a moment. Slow down. Spend some serious time with your Father. Allow Him to love you. Receive the gifts He has for you. Enjoy him. This is the privilege of God’s children – to enjoy His presence. To be with Him all the time. And when you spend time in His presence, you begin to look like him.  You begin to have a broken heart for things that break His heart. You begin to find meaning and significance in Him instead of the things of this world.  You begin to have joy unspeakable even in difficult situations. And you celebrate when a brother or sister who was lost comes home.