Saturday, February 25, 2012

Not a Fan

This week we will be kicking off a Lenten Sermon series, using Kyle Idleman's Not a Fan. Because I am using his sermons for this series, I will not be posting them to the sermon blog or the church website. If you want more information about the series, go to http://www.notafan.com/.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A New Heart


Ezekiel 36:22-32


At the end of last year, I preached a sermon called “Because of Jesus” and went through all of the things that are true because of Jesus. Because of Jesus, I am hopeful, I am found, I am free, I am able, I am loved, I am saved, and I am new. One comment I received after the final sermon was “there was so much in there – you could have preached a sermon on every one of those scriptures you used.” So ever since then, I have been preaching from the scriptures I used in that sermon. Kind of like a spin-off series.

In Christ, we have the hope of heaven, where God makes all things new. This can give us comfort when we face sorrow and struggle in this life – we’ve seen plenty of that around here recently. We are told to set our hearts on things above; when we set our hearts on things above, when everything is Holy-Spirit oriented and initiated, we see transformation. But there are times when God’s people are God’s people in name only. When we are not known by our love, but by how we bicker. Thursday I spent quite a while with Rick from the funeral home, and we spent the entire drive from Millersport to Hanover and back talking about horribly mean thing church people have done.

This is unfortunately nothing new – the scripture I read today from Ezekiel came when the people of Israel were in exile. In this occasion, God used exile to humble his people, to test them, to show them their sin, and to turn their hearts back to Him. For some of you who have felt the pain of the desert, know that God has not left you. Even though it sometimes seems like God is far, He will never forget you, leave you, or forsake you.

In fact, while God’s people are in exile, God is speaking to them through a prophet. I want to make something clear – we often think of a prophet as someone telling the future; prophecy is often simply truth-telling. When my college friend David told me he didn’t see me living the Christian life, he was speaking prophetically. Ezekiel tells the Israelites that it is because of their sin that God has exiled them, that it is a time of purification.

God tells Ezekiel to speak to the house of Israel, speaking the word of the Sovereign LORD. Whenever you see the name “LORD” in all caps, you should read it: Yahweh. This is God’s Holy Name – a name so holy that Jews refused to write it out. In fact, if you read Hebrew, you will find it written out with the consonants YHWH but the vowels from Adonai (meaning “Lord”); the Jews were so mindful of not accidentally using the God’s name wrongly that they wouldn’t even write Yahweh. Incidentally, German scholars read the consonants of Yahweh + the vowels of Adonai and that came out to be Jehovah.

Anyway, the one of the worst things that any follower of God can possibly do is profane God’s name. We don’t use phrases like that these days, but what that means is to bring dishonor or disrespect to God’s name.

There was a time in our country when Christian people would not think of using God’s name as a swear word. They would say something else, like “Gosh” instead of using God’s name. Thus they felt safe – they weren’t disobeying the Commandment. But the truth is, every time we disobey God and claim to be Christian, we are profaning his name. When I talk to people who aren’t Christians, when they find out I’m a pastor, I almost always get one reaction or the other. The first reaction is that they give their apologies for not being in church. The other is that they give their reasons why they are not, usually because of church people who have wronged them. They see us as inward-focused and constantly in-fighting, and they are, to an extent, right. And by living this out, we have dishonored God’s name. We have equated God’s name with pointless religion. We have equated God’s name with living in the past.

We have also strayed from the truth and have accepted an ego-centric view of God, that God does everything he does for our sake. Most of us know that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John3:16) So we think that what God does is all about us. This is the modern heresy of the American Church – that it is all about us.

It isn’t all about us! It’s all about God. Did you notice what God says to the people of Israel?

 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.

Have you ever thought of this: God has every right and reason to just wipe us all off the face of the earth right now. His justice demands payment. So the very fact that he doesn’t just wipe us out is a demonstration of God’s grace. He is so very patient with us when we don’t deserve it.

God wants to use His people to demonstrate His holiness. This is why God has gathered people together, why He has adopted us into his family. Not because we were something special, not because we are Americans, not because our families have been Christians and not because we’ve been in church for however long. It is always because of His Holy Name. To say anything otherwise is to profane God’s Name.

As we realize how far we have fallen from God’s plan and recognize that we are indeed the ones who have profaned God’s name, then we can go on to the next paragraph. If you won’t admit that you have been part of the problem, I give you permission to spend the next few minutes reading your bulletin or checking your calendar or thinking about what you’re going to do after church. I’m not going to point at someone or other and say “he or she is part of the problem” because we all have been part of the problem. Whenever we are selfish, whenever we think of ourselves before God, whenever we are inward-focused instead of sharing God’s blessing with others, whenever we gossip or badmouth one another or promote our own agendas, we profane God’s name, and we are the problem.

We can easily point our fingers out at “them” but they aren’t the problem. We, who are called by Christ’s name, are the ones who are held accountable to His standards, and we are the problem if we are not following the lead of the Holy Spirit.

But when we recognize that we have profaned God’s Holy Name and realize our role, to allow God to show Himself holy through us, then we can get to the next step. God promises to reward us!

God’s promise was cleansing. What kind of cleansing is it? From all impurities and from all idols. When I was a kid, I went on a lot of canoe trips with my dad. Those were really special times, and I’ll always appreciate that my dad would do that with us. One thing I never understood as a kid and still don’t as an adult: we would be camping for the night along the river, and us kids would be playing in the water, and my dad would toss us a bar of soap and tell us to wash up. So we would wash up in the river. Guess how clean we ended up?! Of course we weren’t clean – we stunk like the river. Why? Because we “cleaned” ourselves while we were in the filth and we stayed in the filth.

If God is saying He will cleanse his people, God is going to have to pull us out of our filth. When God says he will cleanse us from our impurities and from our idols, that just won’t happen if we’re sitting in our filth.

A common misconception about confession of sins and about sanctification is that we are initially made perfect by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and as long as we keep confessing our sins, we’re fine. Actually, I see a lot of church people who bank on Jesus’ sacrifice but do not submit to the Holy Spirit. If that’s you, you are not a Christian. If your life hasn’t changed because of the Spirit dwelling in you, then there is something wrong.

But we can’t just work harder and do it, because on our own, we’re still washing in a filthy river. But when God intervenes, he doesn’t just clean the outside, and he doesn’t just clean the inside. He actually gives us a heart transplant. (I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.)

This new heart loves differently than the old heart. It looks at people with Jesus’ eyes. When I’ve talked about loving unlovely people, this is what I’m talking about. We can’t do it on our own!

And God promises blessing – God will provide for all our needs. Some people read this and believe that God will give us financial and material wealth. Ezekiel doesn’t say that. Notice that the things he talks about are food and subsistence. God will provide for us.

And why will God provide for us? To remind us of His goodness and our sins, to turn us back to him. Remember that it’s not about what you’re doing, but about what Jesus did. And it’s not about our image; it’s all about God’s glory.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A New Command


John 13:34-35

As young adults, my brother and sister and I invented a new card game that we always liked to play at family gatherings. The notable feature of this game was that whenever you won a hand, you got to create a new rule. Sometimes the new rules made the game more fun, and other times you’d hope to win a hand so you could overrule the old rule with a new one. We would usually have to write down all of the rules so we could keep straight what to do when a particular card was played.

Whenever there are new rules, there are bound to be rule breakers. Sometimes it’s just because of plain ignorance of the rules, but other times it’s because people just don’t like the new rules. Someone does not necessarily have to be a rule-breaker to not like new rules – it sometimes just happens.

Jesus had just served the Last Supper to his disciples, and Judas had gone to betray Jesus. Jesus was telling the remaining eleven that the time had come for God to glorify Him, and that he would only be with them a little while longer. Then he sprung a new command on them. Love one another.

Now, there are new commands and there are not-new commands, and if you’ve been playing along at home, love is certainly not a new command. In fact, you can go back to Leviticus 19:18 and find God’s rule: Love your neighbor as yourself.

So how can Jesus be presenting something as old as this concept is as a new command? It would be like me standing in front of you and saying, “I have a new idea about how to be Christians. We should meet together every Sunday and in homes!” To some, this could possibly sound like a new idea, but it’s not new. John Wesley built Methodism on its Class Meetings, and the early Christians met together daily. Likewise, love for neighbor is not a new concept.

What is new in this command, however, is how Jesus commands every Christian to love. I’m glad he clarifies, because it can be pretty easy for us to dilute love. Our culture has no idea what love is. This week in preschool, Andrew wrote a book about love. Each page contains something that he loves: his dad and mom and family; his toys; mashed potatoes… So as long as I love you like mashed potatoes, we’re all good, right?

Except that Jesus clarifies the love that his followers are supposed to live out: as I have loved you, so you must love one another. As Christians, our call is to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples. That clears things up a little bit, but not completely. What exactly was Jesus talking about?  This all goes back to what is actually the main question of life: Who is Jesus?

People in our culture love Jesus. Mostly among young people, there is a mostly-unorganized movement against organized religion – the focus is on relationship with Jesus, not the outer trappings of religion. There are even some who don’t believe that Jesus ever did anything miraculous, that he was simply a fantastic moral teacher.  

If that’s all Jesus is, loving one another is simply teaching good morals. There are many churches where this is the extent of loving one another – in these cases, “church” has become a judgmental school of morals where people are required to live an outward obedience of these morals but nobody gets beneath the surface to really love one another.

But that’s not all Jesus is. When we love others like Jesus loved us, that love is first based on Jesus’ identity as the Second Person in the Trinity. Our One God exists eternally in Three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This concept is central to orthodox Christian belief – it’s no coincidence that one common attribute of cults is the denial of the Trinity.

Trinitarian love is continually receiving and giving love. God is the Father, God is the Son, God is the Spirit, but the Father is not the Son is not the Spirit. All three exist together in community, loving one another sacrificially. When God was creating humanity, God declares, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26a) God created us to be in community, but God also defines what that community looks like.

There are Dead Sea community members and Sea of Galilee community members.  The Dead Sea has the lowest elevation on the planet, so while there is continually drainage into it, no water flows out. The Dead Sea cannot sustain life. But the Sea of Galilee is different. The source of the Sea of Galilee is two-fold; the Jordan River flows into it, as do springs on the lake floor. But the Jordan River continues to also flow out of the Sea of Galilee, and its water is fresh. Living Water, as the Hebrew people called it.

Why am I talking about rivers and seas when I started out talking about love? Because what our culture defines as love looks a lot like the Dead Sea. It’s all about what people can do for me, about my expectations, about my needs. This is why marriages fail every day – because every day couples discover that this man or this woman who was supposed to be my savior isn’t meeting my needs. But true agape love is more like the Sea of Galilee, which is a love that is forever receiving and giving. If you think you love someone and your expectation is that they will complete you or make you happy, then you are just using them. That is not love.

Love isn’t love if it’s just receiving. Love is giving.

But when Jesus tells his followers to love one another as I have loved you, he has something deeper in mind. In the Greek, in the phrase “as I have loved you,” Jesus uses what is called the aorist tense agapasa, while the command to love one another is in the present tense. The aorist tense is best described as a snapshot – one moment in time, captured in a verb. Jesus is showing his disciples what love is, and he points to one moment in time… his sacrificial death on the cross.

So not only is real love always sacrificial, always giving, but it gives everything.

Jesus goes on to say that this kind of love is the identifying mark of Christians. “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This is how the world will know we are Jesus’ followers. Not because of what we don’t do. Not because of how we dress or what we do on Sunday mornings, but because of our love for one another. As John puts it later (in 1 John 4:7-8) Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Or how about this in 1 John 4:11-12: Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Or this from 1 John 4:19-21 We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Can it be any clearer? Our call is to sacrificial, giving love for one another. If we don’t love, we cannot be identified as Christians. If we do not love one another, the Bible says we can’t love God.

As long as we’re good with this, let’s dive one level deeper. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said ,‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

So what Jesus says is the love that we share with our friends and family… that’s not the mark of the Christian. It’s the love we have for our enemies that identifies us as God’s children. When it comes to God’s demands on us, let’s just be honest and admit that we can’t just buckle down and try harder. It’s not about working harder. God’s requirement is perfection.

And there is only one way to get there: surrender. Total surrender to the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus already made us perfect if we will surrender to him. But He won’t make you surrender. You have to be willing to do so. This is also how you love your enemies. Let me tell you this: fake it ‘til you make it doesn’t work. It’ll work for a while but then it’ll all come crashing down and you’ll end up worse off than before. But allowing the Holy Spirit to shape you and to love your enemies through you – now that is love.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Everything is New


Isaiah 65:17-25 

Have you ever had an experience where you thought you knew what you were getting into because you had done something similar before, yet when you got there, it was a whole lot different than you had ever expected?

I was a picky eater as a kid but I found out that I was missing out on a lot of good stuff by being so picky. But the fact is, we are only used to the things that we are used to, and we tend to see things in terms of what we know. As we talked about the desert last week, it became clear that many of us are way-too-familiar with the desert. It got me thinking about the Israelites who left Egypt – could they really have been so short-sighted that they really forgot how bad the slavery in Egypt, or did they have expectations that their trip out of Egypt would be instantaneous? Did they think that immediately after they walked through the dry Red Sea, that they would be all set? Instead they found a place of testing and purification. 

If we fast forward from the Exodus to the Exile, we can find another time of testing and purification. Isaiah wrote to a people in exile. We can be tempted to think of exile in purely physical terms, but exile in the ancient near east wasn’t simply physical; it was through a spiritual lens. The thought was “if my people defeated yours, it was because my god was superior to yours.” So the Jews who had been conquered now face the possibility that it was because their God was less powerful than Babylon’s god. Talk about being in a spiritual desert! 

If you’ve read the Bible, you’ll know that Israel (by Israel I mean both Israel and Judah) were exiled as punishment for disobeying God. It’s sometimes mindboggling how someone will know the consequences for disobedience, disobey, and then rail at the injustice when they receive the consequences due them. It’s like the criminal who was injured in the midst of robbing someone who then has the audacity to sue the homeowner. Yet, again and again, when someone is living out the consequences of sin, I still hear complaining against God. We have such a skewed version of justice; we demand justice, as long as the offense was against us, but when we are the offender, we cry for mercy.

There are times when it seems like God is far from us. I will be the first to admit this. There are times when we wonder why God would leave us on our own. Why doesn’t God show up in miraculous ways right now? In these times, it’s important to remember that when God was delivering Israel from Egypt, bringing plagues (the sky turning dark, the Red Sea turning into blood, frogs, locusts, hail, boils, and all firstborn sons dying), leading Israel through the Red Sea as if on dry ground, physically being there as a cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night to lead the people. Yet it is precisely in this moment when Israel begins to question where God is, why God “led them into the desert to die.” It is only weeks after God has miraculously led them out of Egypt when they come to Mt. Sinai and build a golden calf to worship.

But the other reminder is that God never leaves his people. In fact, we have an advantage over the people of Israel, in that we have God Himself, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, living in us. 

This isn’t to say that things should all of a sudden be easy – in fact, the Bible assures us that if we are following Jesus with everything, that it will cost us. When the disciples were flogged by the Jewish leaders and ordered not to speak in Jesus’ Name, they rejoiced, because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41). 

Romans 5 tells us that suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces a hope which will not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3-5 We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.)

And listen to this word from 1 Peter 4:12-19: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.  However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.  For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?  And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” 

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

So we see from the scriptures that God uses suffering to shape us into the people he created us to be and that suffering for the gospel is commendable before God, but this teaching has been widely criticized in today’s culture. Popular preachers are on TV every day telling us that God’s plan for your life is to be healthy and wealthy and if you aren’t, you must have given Satan control over some area of your life. The problem with this approach is that it’s not biblical! It is a damaging heresy. The truth is, the Christian life is wrought with suffering. To suggest anything else is to deny the Scriptures.

What do you say to someone who is suffering? There are times when “it’s going to get better” is simply a lie. All of us have seen someone suffer clear until their death. If this world was all there was, death would simply be the exclamation point on a “life stinks and then you die” philosophy.

But that philosophy completely ignores what we know: this life is not all there is. The prophet Isaiah told the exiles God’s promise, that God will create new heavens and a new earth. I’ve heard various Enlightenment heresies that suggest that heaven is right here, right now, and if this life is heaven, I quit. Because if this is heaven, if this is the best God can give us, it’s not good enough.

But Isaiah describes the new heaven and new earth as so amazing and fantastic that the former things will not be remembered nor will they come to mind. We are so used to that which we are familiar with that we cannot even fathom that something could be better. Think of the most beautiful scenes of nature that you can imagine. The Grand Canyon? A drainage ditch. The Caribbean Sea? A muddy kiddy pool. Even the strongest emotions you feel are nothing compared to the redeemed, glorified emotions we will experience in heaven. 

There are reasons why earth is not perfect. First of all, the cause: in one word, the cause is sin. The entire order of things was destroyed when Adam and Eve sinned. And God can even use this fallen earth to point us toward himself. As Joni Eareckson Tada put it, “Suffering keeps swelling our feet so that earth’s shoes won’t fit.”

Everything good about earth simply points us toward heaven. Everything. Every relationship, every bit of beauty, everything good, noble, true, and praiseworthy. It doesn’t point to itself. Beauty does not exist simply for the sake of beauty. It all points to God. And when we arrive in Heaven and see God face to face, we will forget all of the former things. 

So often we focus on what is not in Heaven, and Isaiah talks about this: no more weeping or crying. Why? Because there will be no reason for crying. Never again will parents mourn over the loss of a child. No more will we have to cover the grief of losing a grandparent with the cliché “she lived such a full life” because there will be no more death. 

We usually focus on what is not in Heaven because we don’t have any frame of reference to even understand how fantastic it will be. So we focus on the pain of this life, the desert we walk through, and we take comfort in knowing that things like death, sorrow, illness, suffering, and tears will not exist there, but Isaiah says that the new creation will be a delight. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.

There will be true justice in Heaven – no more oppression. No more debt. This is what he is talking about when he talks about building houses and living in them, planting vineyards and eating their fruit.

God also promises to redeem our work. Have any of you ever worked a pointless job? One where your work never amounted to anything? OK, today your job is to dig a ditch. Tomorrow your job will be to fill in the ditch. Or you worked all those years and finally retired and it tore an empty place in your heart when you left. Or you retired only to find that your retirement had been embezzled or lost in the stock market. Or you got downsized (which is employers’ way of not feeling so badly when they fire you) and you lost a part of yourself when you lost the job. In Heaven, we will enjoy the works of our hands. We will not work in vain. We will reap the benefits of our work.

But better than all of this is that we will never again feel far from God. I love how Isaiah prophesies this: Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. If you’ve ever felt far from God, you might have prayed a prayer and just asked God, “Will you please just answer me?” And then you’ve waited. And waited. And there are times it just doesn’t seem like he is listening. But no more. Because before we even call, God will answer. 

This is the God we serve. And God will redeem our sojourn in the desert with the glory of Heaven. In the meantime, we pray for God’s will to be done, here on earth – through us, even, so that God will be glorified and so that others may enjoy Heaven as well.