Monday, December 24, 2012

Inside Out

Luke 2:1-20

The Christmas story is a familiar one – so familiar that we can lose sight of how radical it is. Looking at the historical big picture should show us that Rome is in control. This is when the Roman Empire was on the rise, annexing or conquering everyone around. Augustus Caesar is the emperor of the most mighty nation/empire known to man. What Caesar says, goes. So Caesar decides to flex his muscles and count his subjects. Just an aside, it is never a good idea to count how awesome you are, whether it is counting your subjects, as Caesar is doing, or counting your fighting men, as King David did in 2 Samuel 24. Why is this a problem? Listen to Psalm 20:7. Some trust in chariots some in and horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. There is a reason why God chose this exact time for the birth of the Messiah – it was when Caesar was counting how powerful he had become.

Before you nod your head in agreement, remember this when you start counting your money, when you start comparing what you have to what others have. It was when Caesar was at his most powerful that the true King was born. Listen to the contrast prophesied by Isaiah:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.  For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it  with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
(Isaiah 9:2-7)

Much as in the time of Caesar’s census, we live in the land of the shadow of death. I read the 23rd Psalm at most funerals: Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death… but it is not the dead who walk through that valley. It is those living in a world tainted by sin and death. And world leaders, relying on their military might, lead in a culture of death. I do not mean any disrespect to military men and women, but military might is not God’s way.  God’s way is inside-out.

Talk about inside-out; next we get to Joseph. He isn’t a rabbi or a prominent Pharisee or scribe. He is a carpenter from Nazareth. As the saying went, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  (John 1:46). And the manner in which Jesus was born was anything but kingly – attended by shepherds and animals, laid in a manger, homeless, for there was no room for them in the inn.

Of course there wasn’t room for them in the inn. And let’s put this “inn” thing to rest – the “inn” as we know it, kataluma in Greek, was simply a guest room. This word is only used twice more in the Greek New Testament. Do you know where the other use is? In Luke 22 (or in Mark 14), Jesus sent Peter and John to make preparations for their Passover celebration. He told them to follow a man carrying a jar of water and say to him, “The Teacher asks, “Where is the kataluma where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11) 

This time, instead of finding no room, the room was prepared in advance for Him, so he could celebrate Passover, the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery, and after which, he would go out and deliver the entire world from slavery to sin, and then do you know what Jesus does? He goes to prepare a room for us in His Father’s house (John 14:2-3).

Many of us have faced troubles and suffering, and it can be easy to get stuck in a victim mindset, complaining about everyone else and about our circumstances, but Jesus turns his inside-out. He was born homeless, and his ministry was characterized by his homelessness (later when he was telling his would-be followers about the cost of following him, he told them, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)). But Jesus, instead of whining about his situation, goes to prepare a place for us, an eternal home. This for the one who was born where there was no room.

You know who else there wasn’t room for in polite company? Shepherds. They were stinky and dirty and they were considered at that time to be untrustworthy. Certainly not the ones who you would invite to your delivery room. But they are not only invited, but they are summoned by angels.

I want to pause a moment here, because many of us have some idea about who God speaks to. Pastors, sure, God can speak to us, because we’ve been to seminary and we have done our continuing education  and we have all kinds of training and stuff. There are some older saints who pray all the time – God can speak to them. But the average Joe? Not really. We don’t expect them to be the ones God speaks to. But God does the unexpected and not only bypasses the Temple and the priests and the scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite, and goes to the shepherds.

This should bring both a warning and hope to us; to we who are comfortable in our Christianity, a warning that God just might be calling to outsiders, those who don’t look like us, dress like us, listen to the same music as we do… and God might want to do that calling through us. And the hope is for those who are discarded or marginalized by polite society: God not only loves you, but demonstrates his love by going directly to you. Jesus himself later pronounced that “He who is least among you all – he is the greatest.” (Luke 9:48)

In fact, the angel’s words to the shepherds are words of hope: But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

The good news of great joy was supposed to be for Jews. They were the people of God. But the angel clearly extends the great joy to all people. Around Advent and Christmas we often focus on Jesus as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies, but he fulfills so much more. For example, he fulfills the covenant God made with Abram, where God said, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3)

Good news of great joy – is that Jesus comes, bringing life, life to the full, and that life is available for all people!

OK, now we come to the big “So what” moment. My good friend, Pastor Greg Roberts, used to share his sermons with me, and I would often tell him, “That’s a really good sermon, but so what? What do you want people to do about it?” It can be easy to preach a Christmas sermon, focus on the good news, focus on the angels and the shepherds and the star and the manger, focus on Mary and Joseph, even focus on who that baby was (and is) and we can leave this place thinking about how much we love the lights and decorations, how pretty the poinsettias are, and don’t forget to take yours with you when you leave, and think about the real reason we celebrate and never do anything about it.

What might we learn from this inside-out Christmas? What might God want us to do about it?

I believe that learning about who God specifically reached out to at the birth of His Son might give us an indication about to whom we should reach out – after all, in Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable about a king separating people like a shepherd separates sheep from goats, and the reason for the separation is how they treated him. He specifically calls one group “blessed by my Father” meaning that they have been given life by his Father, and it’s obvious because of what they did. They gave him food when he was hungry, water when he was thirsty, took care of him when he was sick, naked and in prison. When they question when they saw him hungry or thirsty or lonely or in need. The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40).

So what does Jesus’ birth mean for us today? It means that Heaven’s gates are open for anyone who accepts him. And anyone means everyone. It means real life is available for everyone, not just in heaven, but right now.  If you are someone who isn’t usually in church, Jesus invites you to real life, life abundantly. If you are someone who has spent all your life in church, please make sure you don’t miss out on Jesus, that you don’t get so busy doing religious things that you miss out on what Christmas really is, God’s gift to everyone – a gift of real life, from the inside out. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What's All the Shouting About

Isaiah 12:2-6

My boys and I are big Star Wars fans. One character who made a big impression on me was Darth Vader. I remember the first time I saw the menacing mask on the big screen – that guy was scary. I even dressed as Darth Vader for Trick-or-Treat. But recently I saw a picture entitled “the many emotions of Darth Vader” in which there were multiple pictures, all the same expressionless mask, and underneath each picture was listed an emotion.

Hopefully most of us are a little more open with our emotions. But how do you show that you are really excited? One thing that has bothered me for over twenty-five years is how I can see church people behave so differently depending on the setting. I can understand decorum and respect and reverence, but the same people can stand for an entire basketball game and shout when their team scores and scream at the referee, but two hymns is too long to stand, and don’t expect to see any emotion.

For some reason, we have divorced emotion from the Christian experience, and that’s wrong. Isaiah calls for the people of God to shout aloud and sing for joy. What is there that can bring about that kind of reaction? What can we get excited about?

Isaiah also gives hints in the text about why he is singing and shouting. You can read your Bible every day and miss out on some important information if you’re not reading your Bible for all it’s worth. To read the Bible for all it’s worth, you have to read it like it would have been read by its original audience. You need to bring an Ancient Near East mindset into your reading. I’ve mentioned to you before about repetition, but it bears repeating (I hope people get this joke). When a Hebrew writer repeats himself, you have to stop and take notice. For example, if I were a Hebrew writer, and you asked me how I liked a restaurant, and I said it was “good” then it probably was good. But if I said it was “good good” you would know that it was really good, that I would probably be going back again and again.

But if I said it was “good good good” and repeated it three times, I’m not just saying that it’s really good – I am now saying that it is the height of goodness. So when we see the six-winged seraphs in Isaiah 6, and we read that they are calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3), and then in Revelation 4:8, we read about the four living creatures who never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (Just an aside here – this is why it’s vitally important to study the Old Testament before you try to get into a study of Revelation. If you haven’t studied Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel, don’t try to jump into Revelation and understand any of it).

The angels aren’t just stuck on a chorus. They aren’t just repeating themselves to fill a line in a song. The original audience would have known that they are repeating “Holy” three times to let you know that the Lord God Almighty is the ultimate of Holy, the definition of holy, that there is none holier.

So when you see a triple repetition, think two things: first, the author wants to get your attention, and second, whatever is repeated could carry a deeper meaning. So in the passage from Isaiah 12, there are two words or concepts repeated three times. The first that I’m going to mention is secondary, because it is simply a concept mentioned three times over the course of five verses – the repetition here is simply for emphasis. The concept is singing.

There is a reason why we sing in any worship services. In fact, if you ask what worship is, most people will answer something about singing. There is something about singing good music that opens us up to something deeper. Even Alzheimer patients who don’t readily recognize members of their immediate family can often sing along with favorite hymns. Music touches us deeply, and singing is a highly vulnerable activity. After all, to sing is to open yourself up to critique. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our current entertainment. How many singing contests are there out there? I used to like to watch the opening rounds of American Idol, where everyone who thinks they can sing would get on there and embarrass themselves. The whole draw of the early rounds was to make fun of people who can’t sing, wasn’t it?

Here’s a sad fact: when you ask people about singing, there are plenty who say, “I only sing in the shower” because they don’t want the humiliation of having someone else hear them sing. I tease Gary about joining the choir – he tells me that if we want to clear out the sanctuary, he’ll sing. The problem with this mentality is that it makes something that should be joyful into a contest.

Besides, if you are singing for a contest, can you truly sing for joy? And are you really singing to the Lord? No, you are singing for yourself. It’s not a bad thing to sing well, but, as in everything else, the key is the motivation. But here, God is bringing the motivation.

To understand this fully, you have to know the context (you should be getting used to hearing me say this – I’ll keep saying it, because the three most important factors for biblical interpretation are context, context, context). From the beginning of the book of Isaiah we hear God pronounce judgment on his people. Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (Isaiah 1:4). Though God continues to give hope if his people will only follow, the context is that of woes and judgments. In Isaiah 7, Judah is facing attack by Ephraim and Syria, and King Ahaz is so scared of them that he can’t believe God is with them.

Have you ever wondered if God is with you?

Ahaz can’t believe that God is with him, so he makes an alliance with the big number one enemy, Assyria. I think we can be tempted in the same way, maybe not making alliances with enemy nations, but certainly putting our trust in things other than in God. We trust in our money, oh, that’s a big one – we think if we just have a little more, then we’ll be OK. We trust in our ability to self-medicate our deepest pains and sorrows and our fruitless search for meaning and significance – why else would we be drowning in substance abuse issues?

And the question still remains: is God enough?

Isaiah comes to the conclusion: Yes, God is enough. More than enough, even. That brings me to the second repetition, and this one is serious: Isaiah repeats one word three times in two verses. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. (Isaiah 12:2-3). Did you hear the repeated word?


The question that was asked was: Is God enough? Can God save his people from their enemies? And the answer is an emphatic yes. God is salvation. Notice that I didn’t say that God brings salvation: God is salvation.

To understand the deliverance that Isaiah is proclaiming, you need to hear some of the things he said before this moment: In Isaiah 7:14, we read: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. In Isaiah 9:2, we read: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:6: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  And listen to Isaiah 11:1: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit…

Does anyone have a guess as to what Isaiah is referring when he talks about salvation? Or, rather, to Whom…

And the verse from Isaiah 12 that the Lectionary omitted from the reading: In that day you will say: “I will praise you, O Lord: Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me.” (Isaiah 12:1) How does God accomplish this? Only in the person of Jesus Christ!

When we come face-to-face with this reality, there is only one way we can respond: Give thanks to the Lord! This is where the singing praise comes in; we are put in a spot where the only thing we can so is break into spontaneous song. Listen to the chorus from the Chris Tomlin song How Can I Keep From Singing.

How can I keep from singing your praise? How can I ever say enough, how amazing is your love? How can I keep from shouting your name? I know I am loved by the king, and it makes my heart want to sing.

But notice that the singing response is not the only response. That’s the internal part, if you will, but there is also an external part.  In that day you will say: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. (Isaiah 12:4-5)

Once we realize salvation, our job is to make him known among the nations and to make him known to all the world. This isn’t a new command – it’s not new at all. In fact, it goes all the way back to Abraham. God never forgot his covenant with Abraham, who was called Abram at the time. In Genesis 12 (this is a very important passage), God calls Abram and tells him to leave his father’s household and go to a land that God would show him. Then he gives him the covenant: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

The word “bless” is one of those Christianese words that has lost its meaning over the years. There are about three uses left for “bless” – the first is when someone sneezes; some of you have been conditioned so whenever you hear a sneeze, you involuntarily emit a “Bless you” – having no idea that this concept came way back when people believed that during the process of sneezing, you actually sneezed your soul out, and if you didn’t get a blessing, a demon would possess you before your soul could re-enter. Another use of “bless” is a generic Christian term meaning something good has happened. I’ve been blessed by… and we can fill in whatever good thing that has happened. The third is more pervasive in the South, where the response “Bless her heart” usually means “what an idiot.”

But blessing really has one meaning and one use in scripture: It’s all about being given life. God is the life giver. He is the one who created and put his breath into us. And in John 10:10, Jesus contrasts himself with Satan: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” This is the life that Isaiah prophesies.

It’s the same life God promised in Genesis 12 in his covenant with Abram. God gives us the ability and responsibility to be life-givers as well. This is the blessing, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

The goal of blessing, of God giving you life, is for you to give it to others. This is the mission of the church. As we put it, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. When we make new disciples of Jesus Christ, we are giving them life. And that transforms the world, from death to life.

So as we prepare for Christmas, we do so in giving life. How will you give life and life to the full for Christmas? Will that be accomplished by your usual gift-giving, or are you going to have to do something different this year? 

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Malachi 3:1-4

What do you do to prepare for Christmas? Most of us have traditions that we follow: who puts up a Christmas tree? Who decorates with lights? Who buys Christmas presents? Who prepares for charitable outreach, like food baskets or gifts for those in need? Who prepares for a special Christmas program or party?

What other preparations do you make for Christmas?

A major theme of Advent is preparation. Advent is a kind of strange time; we’re supposed to prepare for something that already happened. Kind of like Good Friday, where we mourn over Jesus’ death, even though we know that Easter will come and we’ll be celebrating his resurrection. So how do we prepare for something that already happened?

While we’re on the thought of what already happened, I want to look backwards from the passage we read in Malachi 3. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time in the little books of prophecy in the end of the Old Testament, the ones that are known as the Minor Prophets, so what’s in them isn’t as familiar as David and Goliath or Noah or Abraham.

Before Malachi 3, we see a pretty grim picture of what worship had become some four hundred years before Jesus’ birth. God asks “Where is the honor due me?” “Where is the respect due me?” God makes the accusation that they are showing contempt to God by bringing defiled sacrifices. This is what God says in Malachi  1:8: When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty. I had no idea when I started this message that I would end up talking about money. I simply picked the Lectionary scripture for the week. But Malachi is talking about money. But can you imagine what would happen if we paid our taxes the way we give to the church? Let’s imagine that we have a non-confusing flat tax rate of 10%. We’ll call that 10% a tithe. What a novel concept. Can you imagine what the IRS would do if you said, “I have a long tradition of paying my taxes. I was one of the biggest givers in the entire county. I paid 2-3% of my income.” You’d be in jail so fast! Or how about this one: “I don’t pay my taxes; I only give to my own pet projects.” Can you imagine telling the police this as they came to take you to jail? How ridiculous would that be to give that attitude to the government? Yet some of us do this all the time to God, and we don’t realize or admit that we are showing utter disdain for God.

Do you know what God says about the one who won’t give God what is due him? Cursed be the cheat…

Then Malachi addresses the priests, those who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the people. Listen to what God said to them: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble. You have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 2:7-8).

Malachi addresses this admonition to the priests, but it’s not only for clergy. It is for any of us who have positions of influence. What are we teaching? So no matter if you are a preacher, a Sunday school teacher, a lay leader, a children’s church teacher, or a Bible study leader, this applies to all of us. We are looked to as messengers of the Lord Almighty, because, as Christians, everything we do or say is done in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, how are we presenting Him?

OK, now that I have done some introduction work, let’s get to today’s passage in Malachi 3:1-4. “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

I don’t know what’s been preached here during Advent, but I know that every year, the lectionary focuses on John the Baptist, as he was the messenger who came to prepare the way of the Lord. His voice was as foreign then as it is today. Calling people to repent? How culturally insensitive! How dare he call lifestyle choices sin! But I want you to notice something, not just about John the Baptist, but about Malachi. These words were not delivered to godless heathens. John wasn’t preaching to Samaritans, and Malachi wasn’t prophesying to outsiders. They were speaking to Jews. God’s covenant people. People who had lost the way. The scathing critiques John the Baptist delivered were to church people. What do you think John the Baptist would say to us? Would he say, “You guys have it all together” or would he say, “Repent!”

We think if we show up on Sunday and are generally nice to one another, then we’re fine. But we live in a way that says “self-preservation” instead of “prepare for Jesus’ return.” Remember, Advent is about preparation, not just for Jesus’ birth, but also for his return. And when Jesus himself is talking to his disciples about that return, he says he doesn’t know the day nor the time – only God knows. The messenger’s job is to prepare the way.

The assumption in verse 1 is that the people are seeking the Lord. One hallmark of the Jews is that they have been seeking and awaiting the coming Messiah. But when he did come, they missed him. But understand this: Jesus will return, suddenly, and there are those among us who will miss him. You won’t be prepared for his return. And his return might just not look like what you are expecting.

Listen to Malachi 3:2-4. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. 

We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that Jesus’ return will be simple and easy, but that’s not what the Bible tells us. I don’t know if any of you have seen the process of refining silver or gold, but it’s not simple, and it’s not comfortable. The silver or gold is exposed to extreme heat and chemicals and thus the impurities are removed.

The starting point of the refining process is that there is a rock with potential. Turn to someone near you and tell them: “You may be a rock, but you have potential!”

We are made in God’s image – we are already precious precisely because of who God is and who he made us to be, but we haven’t lived up to that potential. And because God cares, he will either allow us to be refined or he will do it himself. You are already precious, but God will purify you.

But if our churches are full of members who desire our own comfort first and foremost, we will never survive the purification process. We seek our own comfort and personal preferences to the detriment of others’. You have to look no farther than Christmas to see this - we give Christmas gifts because it’s the culturally accepted way to celebrate the holiday. Then we complain about secularists who push Christ out of Christmas while it is we who have done it by exchanging a celebration of Jesus’ birth into Giftmas, which is all about us. Those who have no relationship with Jesus shouldn’t be expected to celebrate him – sure, the holiday is really supposed to be all about him, but you can’t expect a culture who doesn’t know him to celebrate him! Yet we still throw up the smokescreen, complaining about “those people” who want to kick Christ out of Christmas, while we go on without him. We become more worried about the placement of Christmas decorations than about sharing Jesus with people who don’t know him. If you don’t agree, then let’s take down some of the decorations in the church and see who complains. What might refining look for us?

Here’s the thing – we often don’t recognize refining when it is happening.  We feel uncomfortable or even in pain. But when we look back, we can take it for what it was: refining.

And how will we know we are refined? Malachi defines it this way: Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

When we have been refined, God will accept our offerings as given in right relationship with him. Wouldn’t this be a good thing to give to Christ for Christmas? Being in right relationship with him? Is there anything better? So prepare…

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Upside-Down (Advent #1) Luke 1:46-55
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.

 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”

Christmas is all about a world turned upside-down. We enter a scene already in progress – angels have already met Elizabeth and Zechariah, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. Now the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her the news – that God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah. Now, we find this incredible scene. My Bible calls it Mary’s song, though it’s not clear if she sings it or says it. Actually, that’s not the significant part. What is significant is that any time you find a song or a prayer written in scripture, the contents of that prayer or that song are going to be vitally important.

Verse 46 tells us that Mary’s response is to first praise God. Now, remember, Mary isn’t praising God after the fact. She is not giving thanks to God after God has done great things for her. She is trusting in God completely to do these things. At Thanksgiving, how many of us gave thanks to God for the things he has done? Most of us do that. But how many gave thanks to God for the things he has yet to do?

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.

Really, as of this moment, what has God done for Mary? She isn’t yet the mother of the Son of God. But as her relative Elizabeth noted in verse 45, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” This is exactly where Mary’s song comes from; she is completely convinced that what God said would come true, and it drives her to worship. Some of us equate worship with singing, but there can be a profound difference. Mary is worshiping from her very core. Her soul glorifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God. Does your soul glorify God simply on God’s promises? Or have you stopped and looked at God’s promises?

Here are a couple of God’s promises for you (and this would be a good time to take notes):
·         Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you¸ plans to give you hope and a future.”
·         Matthew 11:28-29 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
·         Isaiah 40:29-31 He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become tired and weary, and young men will stumble and fall. But those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.
·         Philippians 4:19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
·         Romans 8:37-39 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
·         John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
·         Romans 10:9 If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
·         Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Do these promises cause your soul to glorify God? If not, why not? Have you heard them so many times that you’ve lost your perspective? Or do you really believe them? What might your life look like if you would daily remind yourself of these promises God is making to you, and if your soul began to glorify and praise God for them?

Mary’s soul gives thanks to God because he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.  She wasn’t humble in the sense of a false humility that many of us can conjure. She is truly humble, lowly, seemingly worthless. But from now on all generations will call [her] blessed. Why is that? It’s all because of what God is doing. She recognizes that the only thing she has to give to God is her obedience. There is no way she’s going to be blessed otherwise. She’s not going to go out on her own and somehow build up a following and have everyone come back and talk about what a great thing she’s done. The only way she gets there is because of what God is doing. Our culture is full of people shining their own light. Celebrity and fame are the order of the day and the name of the game. We somehow think that if we can get on TV or on stage and do our own thing, that we’re going to find fulfillment. We work hard to make sure that everyone knows what we’ve done and how well we’ve done it. We want the accolades and the glory. But Mary is clear here – the only reason she’s famous at all is because of God. Because God chose her. And what is most important to her is who God is and what God has promised. She uses her fame, as it were, to point to God. The light that she shines is purely a reflection of God, and not from herself. Listen to how Mary describes what God has done:
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

God has turned society and culture upside-down. Did you notice the contrasts here? Mary contrasts God extending mercy to those who fear him with scattering the proud. God brings down rulers but lift the humble. And God fills the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty.

I love the picture of God extending mercy from generation to generation of those who fear him. God’s mercy is new every day, and God’s mercy is new every generation. God didn’t just extend mercy to one generation and then announce “sorry about your luck” to the rest of us; God continues to extend mercy, and through Jesus, God extended mercy once and for all who accept him. But while God extends mercy, don’t mistake his mercy for cheap grace. This isn’t Santa, threatening children with a naughty or nice list. God scatters the proud. Again and again I’ve heard testimonies about wealthy people who lose everything. Pride in self, pride in accomplishments, pride in wealth, pride in looks… all of these things are fleeting. I’ve buried strong, self-made men who are a shell of their former selves. None of that matters in the long run.

God turns power upside-down as well, bringing down rulers but uplifting the humble. We put so much emphasis on the powerful, whoever that may be. When it comes to our national elections, I heard a lot of people lamenting the end of our nation as we know it, and a lot of Christians were really upset about it. Do you think God was surprised that President Obama was reelected? This is a good time to remind you that God really is in control, and that he is the one who brings down rulers from their thrones but uplifts the humble.

What does it mean to be humble? It boils down to dependence. While we pride ourselves in our independence, God’s design is for us to depend on him for everything. Are we really depending on God for everything, or are we depending on ourselves and our own ability to get whatever it is that we want whenever we want it? When we depend on God for everything, we find out that God is everything we need.

The third contrast here is between the hungry and the rich. The thought at that time was that hungry people were hungry and rich people were rich on purpose – that it was God’s punishment or reward. But Mary knows better – she knows that God turns it all upside down.

Jesus himself fulfills what Mary said. In Luke 4, Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth, reading from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”(Luke 4:18, 21) Jesus is always bringing good news like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3). Really, the contrast of God giving the hungry good gifts and sending the rich away empty is just a continuation or even repetition of the previous thought. God won’t force-feed himself to us – but when we are hungry for him, we find that he feeds us what we need.  This shouldn’t be a surprise if we’ve read the Bible, because in John 6:35, Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life, saying “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never go thirsty.”

Unfortunately, we’re so overstuffed on spiritual junk food that we don’t have any room for the Bread of Life. When we get our spiritual meals from Oprah or Dr. Phil, that’s spiritual junk food. When we get our spiritual meals from pop culture, that’s spiritual junk food. But if you are really hungry for God, he will fill you. Jesus is indeed the bread of life – he is all we need.

There’s a story in Luke 18, where Jesus interacts with the man we’ve come to know as the rich young ruler. This man wants to know how to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the Commandments. This guy is all over that, “No problem.” So Jesus tells him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And when he heard this he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:22-25)

Our culture values the wealthy, not the hungry. Honestly, most of us are extremely wealthy, not only on a global scale, where if you make $25,000, you are in the top ten percent of the world (even though if you have a family of four, you’re straddling the poverty line at that income level). So what do we do with all this wealth? Do we have to give it all away?

Jesus’ answer to that is that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. In other words, he wants you to wrestle with it. I will guarantee you that if you begin to wrestle with God, God will win, but you stand a good chance of winning as well.

What might Christmas time look like if we were to wrestle with God during Advent? I’ve been doing my best to help you enter the wrestling match - I have been giving you a steady diet of “all you need is Jesus, and if you are looking anywhere else for satisfaction, that’s idol worship” and some of you are starting to get it, and you’re wrestling with it. Others of you haven’t heard a word I’ve said in five months. So here’s something messed up to wrestle with: During this Christmas season, the American Research Group’s survey expects that we will spend an average of nearly $850 per family on Christmas gifts. For the parents out there, the average is $270 per child. Meanwhile, every thirty seconds, a child dies somewhere in the world due to malnutrition or other hunger-related causes.

Mary finishes her song in verses 54-55: 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”

What I love about this is Mary’s faith. Do you notice how Mary is praising God before the fact? Has God already done this? Has God already helped Israel with mercy forever? No, that help really doesn’t come until Jesus’ resurrection. But Mary is already praising God for it. That is a picture of faith. What might we look like if we had that kind of faith? Would you pray for the kind of faith that praises God before he even acts?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thank You

[I started this service by reading Psalm 136]

This past week we celebrated one of the most vital religious holidays of our culture. This holiday was created to celebrate the one thing that is most important for Americans. People celebrated by doing some things that we do pretty much every day, but on a really grand scale. All kinds of people gathered in huge crowds to celebrate. Yes, I am talking about Black Friday, the holiday we celebrate by getting up insanely early to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.

Our culture really is all about money; there is a reason people talk about the Almighty Dollar. People don’t set out to worship it, but that’s precisely what happens. The entire presidential election centered on the economy (nobody wanted to talk about foreign policy or anything else – it was all about jobs and taxes). Black Friday ends up overshadowing Thanksgiving, not even waiting until Friday anymore to open. That said, most of us celebrated Thanksgiving in some form or another this week, giving thanks for important things such as family, our health, jobs, possessions, homes, and, of course, the delicious food that many of us ate too much of that day.

For that day, we’re thankful. Most of us are probably genuinely thankful, too. Our culture is not one based on thanksgiving, however. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to stop and think and give thanks once a year.

In Colossians 3:15-17, the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Colossae, and he says: And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Three times in the span of three verses, Paul repeats one word: thanks. When a biblical writer repeats himself, he wants to make sure you understand it. When he repeats something three times, you’d better believe he’s serious. So Paul wants to make sure that the church in Colossae gets this one thing: thankfulness!

How many of you have received something that you’re not really thankful for? When I was in fourth grade, it was time for our annual class Christmas gift exchange. Each boy bought a gift for a boy, and each girl bought gifts for a girl. At recess my friend Greg was talking about the gift he’d brought, probably the single toy I had the least use for: a Slinky. Yeah, I ended up with the Slinky. I was not thankful. There are times when it is hard to be thankful, even when we have good things. In fact, most of the conversations I have with people include the stark reminder that most of us aren’t thankful most of the time. We always have something to complain about. We know we’re supposed to be thankful, but sometimes we just don’t feel thankful. So Paul gives us some practical advice.

It all starts with our heart condition: And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. A heart at peace will be a thankful heart. Why? Because this is what God calls us to. One of our problems is that our hearts are not at peace and so we have to resort to comparisons in order to try to make us feel more thankful. We have to remind ourselves that most of the problems we face are what can be called “first world problems” in other words, problems that the rest of the world would never even think about. Like: I don’t have enough room in my closet for all my shoes. Tell that to someone who doesn’t own shoes. Or, to go back to what many parents have told children for years: children in (insert geographical location of malnourished children) are starving and would love to eat your (insert undesirable type of food that is currently getting cold on the child’s plate). That doesn’t engender thankfulness. But the peace of Christ puts all of our external circumstances into perspective. This is why Paul can write to the church in Philippi saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) while he is sitting in jail wondering if he will live or die.

Not only do we need to let Jesus Christ’s peace rule our hearts, but Paul also tells us to Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

If you want to keep Christ’s peace ruling your heart, you have to be living in the Word. If you’re just reading the Bible, you are risking missing the point. You can read and read, but if the Word isn’t transforming you, if you’re not being taught and admonished, then it’s not dwelling in you. Too many people never read the Word at all. And then, of those who do read the Bible, there are some who just read it. I once had a district superintendent tell the clergy: if you lead a Bible study and people’s lives aren’t changed, don’t go on and do another Bible study; do the same one over again until people’s lives are changed! As the Word dwells richly within us, we are equipped to teach and admonish one another – by, with, and through the wisdom of the Word. And we are moved to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Too often we complain about musical style – and yes, I know that my personal taste is correct – but we can easily miss the fact that the Bible tells us to use different musical styles! It’s not about the style of music, but about the state of our hearts. God doesn’t approve of the best music if it’s not coming from a thankful heart.

Here’s what thanksgiving comes down to: And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Think of it this way: if you can’t give thanks to God for what you are doing, thinking, or being, then as a Christian, you probably don’t have any business doing, thinking, or being it. There are times when we specifically evoke Jesus’ name, like when we’re praying, but did you realize that if you call yourself a Christian, you are already doing everything in Jesus’ name? How well do you wear that name? Think about your words and deeds, not just here while we’re meeting in this building, but every day – how do they reflect Jesus?

I love the vision that John tells in Revelation 4, in which we see a throne in heaven with twenty four thrones and twenty four elders, dressed in white and wearing golden crowns. There are what John describes as four living creatures, covered with eyes and with wings, and all day and night they never stop saying: “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:8b)

Revelation 4:9-11 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty four elders fall down before him and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

This is an amazing picture – these elders have received crowns as rewards for their good deeds, and they are bowing and throwing their crowns down to God, really, truly giving it all to him. This is true thanksgiving – living a life of good deeds, not to somehow try to win or earn salvation, but to lay down as gifts before God. I love this picture.

If we go back to the passage I read in Colossians 3, there is only one thing Paul that repeats more than thanks. Did you notice what it is? Five times, Paul uses names of God: Christ, Christ, God, Lord Jesus, God the Father. He talks about the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts. He talks about the word of Christ richly dwelling in us.  The thankfulness in your hearts is directed toward God. And every word we say or deed we do is done in the name of the Lord Jesus with the purpose of giving thanks to God the Father through him.

God himself is the key to living a life of thanksgiving – we don’t merely give thanks to God for what he has given us, but we give thanks to God for who he is. I began by reading Psalm 136, where we are instructed to Give thanks to the Lord. Give thanks to him for his goodness. Give thanks for his never-ending love. Give thanks for his power, that he is the God over all gods, that he is the Lord over all lords. He alone does great wonders. He made the heavens by his understanding. He made the earth, the sun, and the moon. He rules the people of the earth with his outstretched arm and has worked history to get us to the place where he wants us. Through Psalm 136, we read of God’s mighty acts in history, and he doesn’t get to “us” until verse 23. He remembers us in our low estate, frees us from our enemy, and provides for us. Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.

What would it look like if you were to recount your autobiography, giving thanks to God through it all? What would it look like if you started your life story with “Give thanks to the Lord” and then you wrote your life story, including all of the highs and lows, and after each event, you wrote, “For his love endures forever”? Would you gain any new insight? Would you gain any new perspective? God is the author of your story, so there is a purpose for what he has allowed to be written into it. So give thanks to him for it, for his love endures forever. Your assignment this week: take some time to start viewing your life in those terms. Allow your story to be one of thanksgiving, not just in the good times and bad, but for the good times and bad. For God can be found in both.

Before I close in prayer, let us spend some time giving thanks to God for who he is. This is the congregation-participation portion of today’s sermon. It’s your chance to give thanks to God. This is what’s called popcorn prayer – wherever you are, just call out something about God that you are thankful for.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day 2012 - the Pretender

Last Sunday in the “Dear Abby” column in the Columbus Dispatch, I came upon this letter: Dear Abby: I have a friend, “Dick,” who wears veteran hats — “Vietnam Vet,” “Proud To Be a Marine,” etc. — that imply he was in the service.
The problem is, Dick was never in any branch of the military. He claims that he is “honoring” veterans by wearing the hats. But when he goes into a restaurant or other place that offers military discounts, he always inquires about them. And he has never refused the offer of one or admitted that he was never actually in the service himself. I come in contact with real military service people who deserve to wear these hats. I asked a couple of them about what to do with Dick, but you can’t print their responses.
What’s your take?
— Values Honesty in Ohio

You can probably guess what Abby’s response was.

Dear Values Honesty: The fact that I can’t print the reaction of legitimate veterans to what Dick is doing indicates how offensive and wrong it is. It appears that your friend is a small-time, chiseling con man who takes advantage of people’s patriotism. Why you would call someone like this a “friend” is puzzling, because you seem to have a well-developed sense of right and wrong. A word of advice: Sooner or later, people like Dick are discovered. When that happens, it would be better if you weren’t around, because people are judged by the company they keep.

Have you ever met a pretender? Someone who pretends to be something they aren’t? A few years ago, the University of Notre Dame announced the hiring of George O’Leary as their new football coach, but only five days later, he resigned after admitting he had lied on his resume. Why would someone do this? Because we’re in a society in which pretending is OK. Isn’t that the big draw of Halloween? I mean, besides the candy? Dressing up and pretending you’re someone who you aren’t… If you don’t believe this is the case, dress up a bunch of little boys like super heroes or soldiers and see which ones start to play fight. Or dress an adult up in a scary costume and watch him terrorize little children on the street. Or listen to me do my Darth Vader impression one more time.

Sadly, some people even believe that pretending is fine in the realm of Christianity. “Fake it ‘til you make it” isn’t a new philosophy – if you’re in a situation where you lack confidence, you pretend you’re confident, and confidence will follow. It’s somewhat related to Aristotle’s notion that acting virtuous will make you virtuous. While wearing confidence like a jacket is a positive thing in social settings, acting virtuous will not always make you virtuous, and following all of the Christian rules will not make you a Christian, because, as we learned last week, following rules will never produce love in your heart.

Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 7:15-20: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Jesus couldn’t be clearer here. A good tree bears good fruit. But what kind of good fruit is Jesus talking about? Is he talking about good behavior? Church attendance? Dressing up for Sunday morning? Doing nice things for people in the community? Getting along with other people?

Listen to what kind of fruit the Bible tells us we should be bearing: In Galatians 5:22-23, the Apostle Paul says: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Be aware that the word “fruit” here is singular. It is not plural. In other words, these nine characteristics are not nine separate fruits. We can’t pick and choose. We can’t be a faithfulness tree and have no self-control. We can’t have joy and peace and skip the patience and kindness. They all go together to make one fruit. This is what we are to bear. This is what we’re supposed to look like.

Any of us can try harder to exhibit these attributes, but that’s like taking an apple and stapling it onto a branch of your oak tree, and it’s going to look good for a while, but the fact is, apples do not grow on oak trees, and soon the apple will rot, right on the tree. In other words, you can pretend for a while, but that won’t make you what you aren’t. I can wear my dad’s Navy jacket as much as I want, but that does not make me a veteran. Likewise, I can wear good deeds, but they don’t make me a Christian. In fact, I can do all kinds of so-called “Christian” things but they don’t make me a Christian. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

I know people who think, “because I go to church almost every week” or “because I taught Sunday School for years” or “because I worked in the ministry to the poor” or something else, then they’ve paid their way to heaven. Jesus says that there are some who prophesied in His Name or drove out demons in His Name or even performed miracles in His Name who He doesn’t even know. It’s not about what you’ve done, it’s about who you know.

So, how do you truly bear good fruit?

In John 15:5-6, Jesus tells his followers: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown in the fire and burned.”

Do you want to bear good fruit? Abide in Jesus. Apart from him, you can do nothing. It doesn’t get more clear than this. There is no room for pretending in Christ. Listen to Psalm 139:1: O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. And in Jeremiah 12:3, we read, Yet you know me, O Lord; you see me and test my thoughts about you. God knows us better than we know ourselves.

So today, I invite you to allow God to search your heart. Where do you stand with him? Have you been pretending, wearing the hats, uniforms, or medals of the Christian, yet without the transformed heart that allows you to bear fruit? Do you know Jesus, or just know about Jesus? The truth is, there is nothing we can do to wipe away the stain of sin in our lives; but Jesus has already done everything that it takes. In his death and resurrection, he took our sin upon himself so we can be free. In the Holy Spirit, we are given the opportunity to bear fruit, as Jesus calls us to. Which path will you take?  

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Where is the Spirit Leading

Have you ever followed a leader? Follow the Leader is a simple children’s game where everyone lines up behind one leader and then they try to mimic the leader’s actions. The leader is usually happy to get to lead and does simple things, like waving arms, jumping, or walking in zigzag patterns. If you don’t follow the leader more or less exactly, the consequence is you’re out of the game. Until the next round, that is.

There are other times, however, when following a leader exactly is more important. For example, if you are walking through a minefield, it’s important to walk directly in the footsteps of the one leading you through. If a guide is leading you along a cliff, chances are that the guide knows where the footing is solid and where it isn’t.

Most of us have probably found ourselves in a situation where we think we know more than the one who is leading us. That phenomenon is nowhere more obvious than the Monday Morning Quarterback, where everyone at home knows better than the coaches and players who played on Saturday and Sunday. We are caught in a difficult tension of being self-determined and independent and also needy. We understand that we need God’s guidance and leadership, but when God tells us to go, all of a sudden, we know better.

Twice in Luke’s Gospel we hear directly from God. The second time is at the Transfiguration, where we read: A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.” (Luke 9:35)

God himself gives his approval to Jesus and tells Peter, James, and John to listen to him. God wants to make sure that there is no mistake or question about Jesus’ authority. His leadership is important. Where he leads, we must follow. This is what being Jesus’ disciple is all about. Unfortunately, we often take an unbiblical view of the path the Holy Spirit leads us on, expecting everything to be sunshine and roses and when it isn’t, we wonder if maybe God isn’t with us. There are pastors and entire church movements the claim that we can “name it and claim it” – meaning all we have to do is believe something and act like it’s true and it will come true.

There comes a moment when theology and practice collide. In her essay, Redemptive Suffering: A Christian Solution to the Problem of Evil, Marilyn Adams poses that the big question is “How can I trust (or continue to trust) God in a world like this (in distressing circumstances such as these)?”

Most of us can agree on the idea that we can trust God, that the Holy Spirit is a trustworthy guide, but can we be “confident that God is actually trustworthy in the present situation”?

Can we trust that God is active in a town where jobs have dried up? Can we trust God to provide in a town where government assistance is the largest source of income? Can we trust God in our cancer treatments?

It can be difficult to trust God when the evidence around us is less than affirming. When we don’t see God at work, we can wonder where God is. An ancient poem sums up that experience: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. In case you’re wondering where that came from, it’s Psalm 22:1-2. How can we trust in God when what we see around us isn’t what we want?

Earlier I mentioned how God spoke out loud in Luke’s gospel twice. The first was at Jesus’ Transfiguration. The other time was at Jesus’ baptism. (Luke 3:21-22) When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Right after this, we get a genealogy, and immediately after, we read this: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2)

Aside from the great understatement that after fasting for forty days, Jesus was hungry, one incredibly interesting moment in this passage is that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert where he was tempted. Every week we pray that God will not lead us into temptation, but it was the Holy Spirit who brought Jesus into the place where he would be tempted. And God works like that. From Marilyn Adams again: “For what God wants most from us is wholehearted trust and obedience. Yet it is conceptually impossible to trust someone if you know in advance every move that he will make.”

If we were not ever in a position where we were tempted, where there were troubles and struggles, we would never have to trust God. When we are financially solvent, we don’t have to think about relying on God to provide for us. When our family is in great shape and we’re all happy, then we don’t have to turn to God. When we have all kinds of ways that we can satisfy our own desires without God, why would we need to ask him to help? Why would we want to follow the Holy Spirit, when we’ve already experienced that this is a difficult path?

The answer is that the Holy Spirit is leading us to be like Jesus Christ, and to identify fully with Jesus, we must walk the path that Jesus walked. But our God can take even our worst moments and makes them into something beautiful.

One of my favorite preachers is Francis Chan, who wrote Crazy Love and Forgotten God.  He tells a story of a group of Korean missionaries who went to Afghanistan. While they were there, the Taliban arrested them for their gospel ministry and threw them in prison. Francis Chan had dinner with one of the missionaries who told him about the conditions of the prison. A woman managed to sneak a Bible into the cell and they tore it into as many sections as there were people, so that they could have the Scriptures to read whenever they had the opportunity. It became apparent that some of them were going to be put to death and the senior pastor of the group announced that he would die first. Another man told him that he could not die first, because he was their shepherd, and that the second man must die first as he was an elder. They argued back and forth, with the senior pastor eventually winning. It was however the elder who died first and it was the senior pastor with whom Francis Chan spoke.

The senior pastor told Chan something that has stuck with me. In fact, I can picture exactly where I was when I heard Francis Chan recount this conversation with the senior pastor. He said that since the incident members of that group kept coming to him privately and saying, “Don’t you wish you were back there! In prison!” They wished they could go back to the prison cell, with the looming threat of death and torture ever upon them, because the fellowship with Jesus brought them so much joy. Faith felt real! It was alive! The group unanimously agreed that they had never been so close to Christ as they were in that cell, completely dependent on Him as to whether or not they carried on in the flesh or went immediately Home to Heaven. 

In other words, by the Holy Spirit, they lived out what Paul wrote about in Philippians 1:21: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. This is life led by the Holy Spirit. Completely satisfied with where you are no matter where it is. As Paul says in the conclusion of his letter to the Philippian church, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. Do you want to know what his secret is? I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13).

This bears repeating, and I’d like you to say it aloud with me, because there is power in the spoken word. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Because our God can give this kind of contentment here and now, but even more, he gives the promise of heaven. Our God can take our moments of deepest suffering and sanctify them to the point where, when we look back on them from heaven, we will not wish away even one of those trials – not because we see something good coming from them, but because we will recognize our times of suffering as times of identification with and vision into the inner life of God himself. This is what Paul meant when he wrote: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)

Life in the Holy Spirit is not always easy. Know that whenever we begin to surrender fully to the Spirit, to give him the deed to our lives, to relinquish all control, to die to self daily and allow resurrection, whenever this happens, Satan will attack. It is inevitable. As a church, things are about to get difficult, and that’s as close to a guarantee as I can give. Satan hates it when people give over control to the Holy Spirit and he will do everything he can to oppose you. He will cause confusion. He will use well-meaning friends and relatives and co-workers to try to make you doubt where the Holy Spirit is leading you. He will try to cover you with the same cloud of despair that he has sown over this entire region.

But what did we repeat just a minute ago? I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Do you really believe this? It comes back to the question that we asked earlier – can we really trust God in our current circumstances?

When I was preparing to come to Wellston, and almost every time I talk about Wellston, people tell me the same thing: this is a town with no hope. I don’t think it’s irony that this church is called “Hope” because as we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we have a hope that transcends everything that might come against us. The hope we have is multi-layered:

·         In Christ, we have the hope of our salvation and freedom from sins.
·         We have the hope that God is working all things together for the good of those who love Jesus and who are called according to his purpose.
·         We have the hope that we can do everything through Jesus, who gives us strength.
·         We have the hope that God has already won, and that Satan’s attacks will ultimately be futile.
·         We have the hope that when we reach heaven’s glory, we wouldn’t even want to change the difficulties, struggles, and sufferings that we have gone through on this earth, as we will see that they presented us with the chance to identify with Jesus Christ himself.

Your assignment this week is prayer. I don’t mean little impotent prayers, but prayer as if your very lives depend on it. Pray for hope. Pray against the hopelessness that Satan has sown in our church and in our town.