Saturday, July 21, 2012

What is the Gospel?


(We are going back to the basics at Wellston Hope UMC - this is part of that series)

Last week, we looked at what is called the Great Commission – where Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations. Our mission statement comes from that commission: to be and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But after I finished preaching last week, I realized something: we need to be on the same page when it comes to sharing the gospel.

In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul writes to the church in Galatia, saying: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!  As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

There has been a lot of confusion about what the gospel really is, and people everywhere are following a different gospel, which, as Paul points out, is really no gospel at all. To get at the reality of the gospel, we have to first know what the gospel is. The word “gospel” means “good news” – so what is the good news?

W.C. Fields used to tell about a contest where the first prize was a week in Philadelphia. Second prize was two weeks in Philadelphia. For good news to be good news, we have to know what “good” is. That takes us all the way back to Genesis. When God created the earth, after doing everything from separating the dry ground from the waters to creating the plants and animals, God pronounced it good. But at the end of creation, Genesis 1:31 tells us that God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

We start with God and humanity in perfect union, but it doesn’t stay that way. In Genesis 3, the serpent, described as more crafty than any of the wild animals God had made, entices Adam and Eve into sin. I want to pause a moment here to say that Satan is extremely crafty. He takes God’s Truth and bends it just a little bit. He makes sin attractive, or he distracts us from godly Truth, little by little. When it came to Adam and Eve, he distracted them from God’s rule, asking, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). He knew that wasn’t what God had said, and so did Adam and Eve. But that’s the way Satan works. He takes what we know is true and mocks it, or he takes what we know is true and distorts it.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, in a sense they ruined it for everyone to the point that David can write in Psalm 53 that God looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good; not even one. (Psalm 53:2-3).  His son Solomon echoes the sentiment, saying: There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Our culture teaches that people are intrinsically good, but which one of you had to teach your child to be selfish? Who had to teach your child to lie? Which of you had to sit down with their two year old and teach them to say “No!” or “Mine!”? That’s just not the way our lives work.

In Matthew 19:16, a man came to Jesus and asked a question that is still asked today – maybe not asked out loud, but certainly lived out by many people. He asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” This is a prevalent mindset in our culture, but it is not a Christian mindset. This is Hinduism.

Jesus later asked the man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor – because he knew that this man’s wealth was an idol, getting in the way of his relationship with God. But listen to Jesus’ immediate response to the “what do I have to do to get eternal life” question: “Why do you ask me about what is good? Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good.” (Matthew 19:17a) There is only One who is good, and it’s not you or me. So don’t expect your goodness to get you to heaven.

The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel itself.

God is a holy God, holy meaning entirely other than us, set apart from us, completely unstained by sin. Because of God’s utter holiness, God will not and cannot tolerate sin in his presence. Habakkuk 1:13 proclaims about God: Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. The fact that nobody is good means that something has to give. And so God, abundant in steadfast love and mercy, made the way for us to be reconciled to himself… through Jesus Christ, who came as the perfect sacrifice, took our sins upon himself, justifying us – which means he made us just as if we had never sinned.

God did not simply remove the punishment for our sin, but he actually made us, who were stained by sin, clean. In his omnipotence (meaning all-powerfulness), God actually wipes away the very existence of our sins. He’s not just a friendly grandfather in the sky who pretends his bratty grandchildren didn’t do what he thinks they did – he actually makes us clean.

There tend to be a couple of false gospels that spring up in our culture – and these among people who purport to be Christians. The first is that God somehow needs help in this matter. I already mentioned the attitude of making sure your good deeds outweigh your bad – this idea is so strong in our society that I need to mention it again. You cannot save you. If you could, Jesus would not have come to earth. You can’t save you because God requires perfection, and you can’t clean up your past. Only Jesus can clean up your past!

An unfortunate side-effect of this kind of thinking is that when we are cleaned up, we can begin to believe that it was all because of our efforts that now we’re right with God. After all, we do all the right things. We are the ones in church, obviously. We haven’t missed a day of Bible reading or prayer in years. We, we, we, all the way home. And we judge our righteousness by the things we do. But the problem here is this is not Christianity. There are many people who call themselves Christians who really follow a religion called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This religion teaches that you have to do the right things (moralism) and that then God will make you feel better (therapeutic) but otherwise God doesn’t intervene in human affairs (Deism). Most of us have at some point or another tried to modify our behavior, and it doesn’t work. Sure, it works for a while, but overall, it just frustrates us. There are people who are really good at it, but most of the time, someone who can change their bad behavior all on their own ends up being the most self-righteous jerk in the room. I had a fraternity brother who quit smoking and whenever he’d see someone else light up, he’d go smack the cigarette out of their mouth because he was just that self-righteous. That’s not Christianity either.

A big problem is that moralism and legalism require your action for salvation. Any time we require anything else besides Jesus for our salvation, we’ve missed the point. That “Jesus plus” mentality is plain wrong. It’s either all by God’s grace through faith or it’s not. It’s not both. “Jesus plus” is not the gospel at all. And the idea that God doesn’t intervene in human affairs flies in the face of the Bible, which teaches that God has given us Himself, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, to live within us, to guide and encourage, to comfort and rebuke, to show us our sins and lead us to God.

Another false gospel our culture is enamored with is that our behavior doesn’t matter. Once we come to Jesus, we’ve done our part and that’s it. We don’t allow the gospel to transform us. We understand that the Gospel isn’t “Jesus plus” and they know that it’s all about God’s gracious gift to us, given regardless of our unworthiness – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, proving God’s love for us. Unfortunately, there are some people who think, “God did that for me without regard for my behavior, so my behavior doesn’t matter.”

If you’re not any different from someone who doesn’t know Jesus at all, that’s a problem. If the only thing that separates you from a non-Christian is where you go on Sunday morning, that’s a problem. The problem is that you want Jesus to be your savior – you accept his sacrifice on the cross for your salvation – but you won’t allow him to be your Lord.

When you allow Jesus to be both Savior and Lord, he transforms you.

I don’t know most of you very well at all – I’m working on names at this point, but every church has people for whom the expectation is that Sunday morning is their one-stop shop for all your spiritual needs. Think about it this way: what would your physical life be like if you only ate once a week? And so you think your spiritual life is any different?

Or, to use the metaphor of marriage – most of you wouldn’t think about marrying someone you didn’t know. But many of you don’t know the heart of Jesus. So can you accurately call yourself a Christian?

A couple of years back, I was visiting a friend in the nursing home. She and her husband were there, and we got to talking about marriage. I asked her, “How long have you and your husband been married?” She answered proudly, “Twenty years!” Her husband looked apologetically at me and said, “Her medication is messing with her mind.” They had been married nearly 60 years. But there are some Christians who have been in church 20, 30, 50, 60 years and they don’t know Jesus!

So, how do you know Jesus if you don’t already? Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. To give him your all. To seek after him with everything you are. How do you do that? Delight in his Word. Make reading the Bible a regular part of your day. In fact, give God the best part of your day. Give God the top spot in everything you do. Make sure God has a prominent position in every conversation – not necessarily just talking about God, but pointing people in his direction. Some people would tell you to “fake it ‘til you make it” but that’s not good advice at all – it would be better described as fake it ‘til you fake it because your heart isn’t changed by faking it. In fact, you just grow more and more bitter the longer you fake it. But what would happen if instead of faking it, you went along and spent time with God? If you are regularly interacting with God, watching God at work, working alongside other Christians, asking God to reveal himself to you, you will grow in your relationship with him.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Last Words


Matthew 28:18-20

Many famous last words have been spoken in history, whether they were inspirational words, unpleasant words, defiant words, or insightful words. There is no balm for the wounds incurred when the last conversation you have with a loved one is an angry one; I’ve heard too many times, “I wish I’d said ‘I love you’ instead of shouting.’” or “The last thing I said to him was…” (something unpleasant).

Sometimes, someone’s last word is patriotic. Nathan Hale uttered the famous words, “My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country.” A last word can be inspirational; Alben Barkley, former Vice President of the United States, who suffered a fatal heart attack, is said to have said, “I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty.”

Of course, there is also the redneck’s last word: “Hey, come here – watch this!” I was walking through a cemetery in Kokomo, Indiana, when I saw the gravestone. “See, I told you I was sick.”

We have a fascination with last words. If you were given the opportunity to encapsulate your entire life with one statement, what would it be?

Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus chose his last words carefully. He first establishes his credentials – who he is to speak such things: Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” Our culture is full of people who are Jesus-fans. They like Jesus the moral teacher, but they don’t like divine Jesus. They simply don’t listen to what Jesus actually said about himself. If they did, they would realize that Jesus has made a bold statement that equates his authority with God’s. I guess I don’t understand how someone could say that Jesus was a great moral teacher but that he wasn’t divine, because that was certainly how Jesus understood himself. All authority does not mean “some authority or “partial authority.” Jesus has the very authority of God Himself. Why? Because, as Jesus said in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.”

So to accept Jesus as a good moral teacher, we have to accept that what he taught was true; otherwise he was a great immoral liar or a misguided lunatic. And if we accept that what Jesus taught was true, we have to accept that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, we are obligated to actually obey what Jesus taught.

This is why it is important to establish Jesus’ authority. If Jesus is not our authority, then we have to establish what is, and it is probably you as an individual. You get to pick what is right and wrong based on your personal preferences. You probably argue based on feelings and individual experience and never mention the Bible. But Jesus has all authority, so listen and obey him.

Our culture largely believes in God. So what?! If I believe there is a god – so do demons… and they tremble, according to James 2:19. We live in a culture that pretty much accepts that there is a god, and doesn’t care. It’s because we largely do not accept God’s authority, or we do not really believe that God is still active in this world.

But if we actually believe Jesus is who he is, then we have to also accept his authority, which means when he makes a command, it’s not a suggestion. It’s a command. Jesus says: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20a)

Notice that Jesus didn’t make any exceptions to what he said. He didn’t say “all the pastors in the room raise your hands…” He didn’t say, “Anyone here have the gift of evangelism?” Jesus didn’t say anything like that. His authority established, he gives his people a job, to go and make disciples. I’m not sure when the shift happened, but we can be sure that it was not in our lifetimes, but somewhere so-called normal Christians stopped going. We left that to others; we called them “missionaries” or “evangelists” and the rest of us said, “They can ‘go’ but I’ll ‘stay.’” And we justify ourselves by saying, “Well, I’m not particularly called to go.”

If that has been your attitude, it’s a lie. You were called to ‘go’ – and by Jesus Christ himself, and the calling was written down in the Bible. In the 1980s, the church growth model was “if you build it, they will come” so churches began building great structures and guess what? Many of them were successful, and they grew large. Huge even. I am not knocking megachurches; on the contrary, I have been a part of a very successful megachurch and the momentum that they had for saving souls was amazing. It was an awesome thing to be a part of. But the key concept was “come to us” – what is known as an attractional model.  The unfortunate thing is that the attractional model, so popular and successful in the 1980s, is not successful anymore.

As United Methodists, our DNA was never an attractional model anyway. John Wesley became famous for what was known as “field preaching” – instead of waiting for people to show up in church buildings, Wesley went out into the “field” where the people were. Things don’t work today exactly as they did in the 1700s, but the biblical principle is still true: if we want to make disciples, the first step is to go. If we want to reach the people, we need to go to where they are. Remember that this is in the same context as last week’s lesson; we can’t just go waltzing in by ourselves, thinking we won’t be influenced by the surroundings. There are reasons why when Jesus sent his disciples out, he sent them two-by-two; accountability, encouragement and support are three of those reasons.

So, where are the people in Wellston who need Jesus? How can we “go” and reach them? What’s it going to take for us to reach them?

Going is the first step, but the goal is making discipes. Jesus’ command is to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them obedience to all of God’s commands. Evangelicals have traditionally done well at baptizing new believers, but did you know that nearly half of our West Ohio United Methodist Churches have not had a single baptism or profession of faith in any given year? Friends, that’s the church not being the church. When a church’s goal is “don’t close our doors” then we’ve missed the point.

And baptism is just the first point, because it’s the starting point of Christian discipleship. Seeing baptism as the end point is like a runner getting to the starting line and saying, “Whew, I made it! That was rough. I wonder where everyone is going?”

In the last few years, even Bill Hybels at Willow Creek in Chicago admitted that they hadn’t done a good job of making disciples. Even as they grew to tens of thousands in worship on Sundays, they hadn’t been making disciples. They had done a tremendous job of getting people in the door, getting them to the starting line. There were many who piled on when Hybels made that announcement, saying, “See, I told you so,” but the real issue is that most of us in our own churches have the same issue, but we just don’t admit it. We go from sermon to sermon, from Bible study to Bible study and we never become disciples, let alone make disciples.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Hope Church has added “to be” to that mission statement, indicating that if we want to make disciples of Jesus, we have to first be his disciples. That goes back to last week’s message – if we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we have to delight in his Word. We have to know him, not just know who he is, but to really know him.

When we delight in Jesus, we will naturally tell others about him. Has anyone here ever been in love? A sure sign someone is in love is that they spend lots of time together, and they are always talking about the one they love. What would you think if your friend told you, “I’m in love and I’m going to get married,” yet you’ve never met the lucky one, and, in fact, they never even told you that they were dating anyone?

That’s bad, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because our job is not just to know Jesus, nor is it to just tell people about Jesus. We have to go beyond the starting line, teaching other disciples to obey all of Jesus’ commands. This is what disciples do: we multiply disciples.

Here’s the thing: as disciples, we get to enjoy Jesus’ presence even more! This is what God made us for – to enjoy his presence! And this is how Jesus ends his last words: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b)

I’ve seen the bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming back… look busy” but it misses the point that Jesus is with us always. His continued presence assures that his authority is valid.

When I was a freshman in high school, I had two teachers who required a journal. Mrs. G was probably the best teacher I ever had, and the journal we kept in her class made us think and respond. There weren’t “right and wrong” answers; the exercise was simply meant to get us to think. I put more time into those journals than most of my other schoolwork. Then there was Mrs. H, who was a friend of Mrs. G. I figured out pretty quickly that Mrs. H didn’t read our journals, and I stopped doing them.

Unfortunately, many people in our culture have decided that Jesus isn’t reading our journals – that Jesus isn’t actively involved in our lives anymore – so they have stopped doing the work. But Jesus told his followers that he would always be with us:

Jesus’ presence with us is key. I know that many of us have felt God’s presence clearly when others have prayed for us or in times of trouble, when you’ve had an overwhelming peace that just doesn’t go with the situation. But how does Jesus’ presence fit in with the context of what he has just said?

Remember that these are the last words Jesus is saying to his closest friends before he ascends into heaven. He wants them to be comforted. He wants them to be at peace. Why? Just so they feel better? Not really. He wants them to be able to carry out his commands, and anyone who has gone through grief knows that grief is paralyzing. Sometimes it’s a struggle just to get out of bed. But Jesus’ enduring presence exists to make disciples as well.

When Jesus gives us a command, it must be possible to complete the task. Otherwise Jesus has no business giving us the command. There are things that I tell my children to do – but if I tell the baby to fix herself a bottle, there is no way she will accomplish what I told her to do. So I don’t give her that command. So Jesus only commands us what is possible… and disciple making is impossible… with us. But (anyone who was at Bible School knows) that everything is possible with God. So Jesus goes with us to make all things possible, including making disciples.

A few years ago, my pastor friend, Greg, used to send out sermon manuscripts for some friends to read and critique before he preached. He got used to me asking, “So what?” What did he want the congregation to do about the message he was teaching. Hopefully every week there will be a “so what” for all of us. This week, our job is to think about discipleship. What does it look like in 2012? I pose that it looks a lot like one-on-one interactions. If you look at the life of the Apostle Paul, he had two significant people in his life: Barnabas, the encourager, who encouraged Paul and mentored him, and Timothy, for whom Paul was a spiritual father. So who is the more mature Christian who you are going to as a mentor, and who are you mentoring? Who are you spending time with to pour your life into? Are you steering conversations to the spiritual? Are you encouraging and affirming someone in their Christian walk?

If not, it’s time to start.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Psalm 1


Psalm 1
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

In college, I had a friend named Scott. Scott was the only kid on our floor who wore a tie. Maybe he was the only one who owned a tie. Scott was extremely conservative; not only did he vote conservatively, but he also dressed conservatively. When all of the freshman guys would go to the fraternities, Scott didn’t go.  Until his roommate joined one, that is. Then Scott started going with his roommate to the fraternity. Not that everyone in a fraternity is like John Belushi in Animal House, but Scott was around a whole different set of influencers. The last time I saw Scott, he was a long-haired, pot-smoking hippie, a very different persona from the one he’d come to collage with.

I don’t say that to be the guy who picks on colleges and fraternities – easy targets, by the way. I say that to say that it’s important to examine who is influencing you and how they are influencing you.

In Psalm 1, the psalmist tells us what it takes to be blessed. He says that blessing comes from the company we keep. Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. (Psalm 1:1)

Before I get to the “what not to do” part of this scripture, I want to look at blessing for a moment. I’ve noticed that in the south, the term “bless” has been appropriated by those who use it as filler. “Well bless my heart” is one of those phrases. The blessedness here has often been described as “happiness” but it is more than that, because the emotion of happiness can be contingent on so many external things. For example, I have electricity, so I am happy. Or, on the other hand, I do not have electricity, so I am not happy.

We often ignore the fact that we can actually choose our emotions. When I was a teenager, our church youth group would always go to the Indiana Christian Youth Convention. One year the musical entertainment was a little “loud” for some of the organizers (though the kids loved it), so the next year they got a 1980s church friendly adult contemporary group. It was awful. We were sitting on the back row – I think I fell asleep. But then my friend Devin and I had an idea. We were stuck there, but we could make the most of it. So we got up out of our seats, made our way down the bleachers to the large area in front of the stage, and we started to dance. For the record, my sister was mortified. After a while, we looked around and saw that a whole bunch of kids had joined us down in front and many in the crowd were imitating the silly dances we were doing. After the concert, the lead singer personally thanked me and Devin, because we livened up the concert. Here’s the thing; neither Devin nor I liked that type of music, and that concert was blah at best. But we chose to have a good time.

We can choose our emotions, and what we continuously choose will wear pathways in our brains so that we naturally go that way. It’s kind of like in the woods, you’ll find the paths that animals take through the undergrowth; they are eventually worn away to dirt trails. It’s the same way with our neurons. So if you’re continually negative, it will be much harder to be positive, but the fact is, with God, all things are possible.

All this is to say that being “blessed” is more than just being happy. It carries the weight of being level, secure, and right… and being happy and satisfied.

So how does this happen? Well, the psalmist starts out by telling us how it doesn’t happen. Now I didn’t notice this at first until a friend pointed this out to me, but there is a progression here. Most of us don’t set out to be influenced by the wrong people, but one day we look around and everything around us is a bad influence.

It all starts with walking in the counsel of the wicked. You’re not planning on being influenced – you’re just walking by, checking it out. You flip by it as you’re channel-surfing. You listen for a while. It’s not like you’re going to stay there. Nevertheless, as you walk by, you’re definitely looking. You might find yourself saying, “I would never read that smut, but I just want to be informed.” Or “I don’t watch that stuff, but I wanted to know what it is that people are watching these days.” Just as an aside, if you’re considering reading Fifty Shades of Gray, don’t. If you’ve never heard of it, just keep on never hearing of it.

Someone who walks in the counsel of the wicked isn’t meaning anything bad; they probably don’t mean to be influenced badly or don’t even know that they are, but they find themselves walking in the wrong places. There are places that Christians should simply not wander through. Yes, there is a time and a place to minister in terrible environments, but it’s just not wise to wander through them on your own.

The fact is that most of us are slow to admit that we’re influenced by the culture around us, but every one of us is. It seems like every generation says, “I just listen to the music; I don’t even pay any attention to the lyrics.” But then we have a generation of three year olds singing “I’m sexy and I know it.”

Why? Because we haven’t just walked by the wicked, but we’ve also stopped to stand in the way of sinners. Do you see the progression? Wisdom says, “don’t even walk in certain places” but we not only walk in them, but we stop and hang out.

This isn’t to say that you can’t befriend a non-Christian; hopefully every one of us has non-Christians in our lives who we are praying for by name, that they will turn to Jesus for salvation. But please remember as you are going about evangelism and ministering to those who don’t know Jesus, it’s key to be grounded firmly in prayer and scripture. Otherwise worldly wisdom will seem right and good. We probably all know someone who used to walk with the Lord and at some point, they stopped, and some of the things that they say make absolutely no sense whatsoever, and if you had asked them twenty years ago if they would ever be doing this or that, they’d have been shocked, but now, here they are…

Because not only did they walk in the places of the wicked and stop and stand in the way of sinners, but they stopped to sit in the seats of mockers. Not only has this person strayed from the straight and narrow, but now they find themselves among the mockers. I had a good friend in college who I used to study the Bible with, but as the years went on, it became pretty clear that we were going in different directions. His life and witness had become a mockery of Christ, and he was no longer welcome in my inner circle. You see, every one of us has various circles of friendship, where the outer circle is acquaintances all the way to the inner circle, where only our closest friends are. If we sit in the seat of mockers, we have allowed them to take “inner circle” status, and they are the ones who are influencing us most.

And the Bible is clear – when we do this, we are missing out on God’s blessing. Instead, we see that the blessed one delights in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:2)

In general, if you want to make a Christian feel guilty, just ask about their prayer and Bible study time. Most of us would rather have better habits when it comes to spiritual disciplines and would probably admit that we don’t spend nearly enough time in the Bible. I was heartbroken when I was talking to an older gentleman about his wife’s funeral, and I asked if they had any favorite scriptures, and he told me, “I don’t know the Bible like so-and-so.” So, no, he didn’t have any favorite scriptures of his own. As long as someone else knew the Bible well enough, he didn’t feel a need to. As a pastor, I’ve seen this frequently where people expect the pastor to be the only dispenser of biblical truth and nobody holds themselves personally responsible to know the Word. I remember preaching a sermon and mentioning a bunch of Bible heroes (like Abraham, Noah, David, and Elijah) and after service this guy who was active in the church came up and admitted that he didn’t know who any of these people were.

Biblical illiteracy is at a terrible high these days. People just don’t know the Bible, let alone delight in it. If you aren’t reading the Bible, it’s time to start. If you’ve got a smart phone, you can download Bible reading plan apps and start up your reading. If Bible reading has gotten stale for you, try a paraphrase like the Message to give new feeling or use an audio Bible. Or instead of trying to power through your whole reading plan, read a verse and sit and meditate on it. Or share what you’re reading with a trusted Christian friend. Think about what it means to you, just how much God loves you.

Delight in God’s Word! When you do, listen to how the psalmist describes you:  He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

I love the imagery; last week we talked about how suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope, but sometimes suffering just produces depression and misery. In times like these, it’s important to be rooted in God’s character and His Word. When we delight in God’s Word, we find that He is all we need. The Holy Spirit becomes for us that stream of Living Water, and because of Him, we persevere, develop Godly character, and gain the hope that is only in Christ.

Now, someone is bound to say, “I’ve been in the Word for years and I haven’t prospered. I am still poor and I don’t see any way out.” Remember that prosperity is not necessarily financial, but that in Christ you have everything you need, and that in itself is prosperity. Psalms 4:7 says You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In other words, the joy of the Lord is greater than anything.

Now comes the contrast. The psalmist compares the righteous here to the wicked, saying Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:4-6).

Did you notice what is contrasted? We just saw what life is like for those who delight in God’s Word, that they will be like a tree planted by the water and whatever he does prospers. The contrast is the wicked. It can be tempting to think of “the wicked” as the “worst of the worst” but God redefines wickedness here to mean not delighting in His Word.

We as Christians sometimes leave the “delighting in God’s Word” to pastors, Sunday School teachers, or that one person who just seems to know the scriptures and can quote them at the drop of the hat, but the Bible says that when we do that, we fall into the category of the wicked.

What’s more, the Bible tells us that the way of the wicked will perish, that they have no standing on judgment day. Why is this so? Because when we fail to delight in God’s Word, it’s generally because we are failing to put God in His rightful place, that something else has taken priority over hearing from Him. And when that happens, whatever that may be, we have made an idol of it.

We don’t set out to worship idols. We don’t have Baals and Asherahs or fat little Buddhas or Ganeshas because that would be idol worship, but anything we place before God is an idol. So our task for today is to put God first. Ask the Holy Spirit what is taking first place in your life. Make a commitment today to put God first. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hope


(*Note: This is my first sermon at Wellston Hope UMC)

Romans 5:1-5

It’s been quite a journey for me and my family, and I imagine you are in some ways right in the same boat as we are. Except that most of you don’t have all of your earthly possessions in boxes all over the place. But you are definitely in the “who is going to be our new pastor?” mode, and being in that mode for the last four months hasn’t been all that fun, has it?

I invite you to take the time to get to know us.

What I know definitively about Wellston Hope UMC, I can sum up in a few statements. I know that the West Ohio Conference and the Shawnee Valley District believe in this church. Word has spread about your generosity in the midst of a difficult economic landscape. You have been pegged as having the potential to be a hub of ministry, a vibrant disciple-making station for hope in a city that has been described to me as having no hope.

I have been sent here because there is hope.

I have spent time discerning what to preach when I got here – it’s difficult because I wasn’t able to do the transition work that I would have liked to, but that’s not the fault of anybody here, and know that I don’t hold it against any of you. That said, it’s time to get to the hope.

If you would turn in your Bibles to Romans 5, that’s where we’re going to spend most of our time this morning. Paul writes the following:  Therefore, - now let me stop there for a moment. I remember as a child hearing that whenever you read a “therefore” in the Bible, you have to go back and see what it’s there for. The “therefore” in this case refers back to Paul’s statement about Jesus: He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25).

Because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the cross, we are justified – we are made just as if we had never sinned. This does not just mean we have been forgiven. Yes, we are forgiven, but this means more. Just as an aside, God does not “forget” our sins, as we think of forgetting. Most of us have been damaged by the old phrase “forgive and forget” because when the pain comes flooding back, we wonder if we ever forgave in the first place. God, in His omnipotence, actually cancels the sin itself, cleansing us, making us as if we had never sinned in the first place. Talk about good news! OK, now let’s continue into Romans 5.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith,

OK, we have to stop here. Remember that our justification is never by what we do. If our justification could come through some other means, if we could just work harder and therefore achieve it, Jesus would have gone to the cross in vain. But since he is the only way, if we have faith in him, we can have peace with God.

There is no way for sin to remain in God’s presence, so our sinful existence is apart from God’s presence. That’s a pretty depressing place to be in. But our faith in Jesus causes transformation and gives us access to God, even peace with God. It is because of Jesus Christ that we can even pray to God, because apart from Him, our efforts are futile. God, however, pours His grace on us: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

I love how Paul includes that the hope of the glory of God is worthy of rejoicing. I personally cannot wait until I get to heaven. I can’t wait to see Jesus face-to-face, to thank him personally for going to the cross for me, to worship God in person. But Paul reminds us that our lives here and now are meant to be spent in rejoicing, too!

You might be thinking, “No way can I rejoice right now. Who does this guy think he is, telling me to rejoice? He doesn’t know what I’ve been through.” Paul knows your pain, and he says, “It’s time to redefine everything.”

Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope.

When we suffer, we learn to persevere. Our culture’s attitude was lampooned some twenty years ago by the Simpsons. Homer had gotten Bart a guitar, but Bart quit, pleading with his dad not to be mad. Homer responded: "Of course I'm not mad, if something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your short wave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we'll go inside and watch TV."
B: "What's on?"
H: "It doesn't matter."

Our culture often stresses that if something is hard, it’s not worth doing, but as we endure through suffering, we learn perseverance. In the Bible, we see perseverance carrying two different “weights” (if you will). One is the weight of “hanging in there” – a         state of continuing despite difficulty and obstacles. One of the reasons God allows us to suffer is because we aren’t the finished product yet. God allows us to suffer because he uses it to help shape us into the people he created us to be. Just as an aside, because this has no bearing on today’s scripture, but God also allows us to suffer so as we experience healing, we, too can become healers. Henri Nouwen refers to the Wounded Healer.

While suffering helps us become who God created us to be, it doesn’t help to tell someone “hang in there – things will get better” because sometimes they just don’t. Sometimes it seems like we were made to suffer, that it’s our lot in life.

But perseverance in the Bible also carries the weight of remaining faithful to gain the reward that God has for us. Paul writes to the church in Philippi that, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14).  The prize we wait for is Christ Himself, and the perseverance that we’re called to is enduring faith that does not die off during difficult circumstances.

People tend to go one way or another when faced with difficulty; some end up completely forsaking their faith, saying, “If God could allow… then I can’t accept that God.” This is part of a concept called theodicy, which is the study of the problem of evil – how can we reconcile a good God with the existence of evil?

But that’s not the only option for those who faith difficulty. I often see people who are going through unspeakably difficult times who end up serving as an inspiration to so many others because they remain so faithful. It’s not a fake faithfulness, one that pretends that everything is OK; it is a real peace that cannot be explained except that they are so sure of their standing with God that they can truly say along with the Apostle Paul: to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

This kind of godly perseverance develops our godly character – we continue to grow into Christ’s likeness. We are obedient to the Father. We are full of Holy Spirit love, even to enemies. We can’t help but share Him with everyone we come into contact with. And along with that character comes hope.

Being in a church named “Hope” I imagine that every new pastor comes in preaching about hope. Am I right? But I figure we’re several years out from Glen’s first Sunday here, so I’m safe. Are we characterized by hope? The reason hope comes through suffering, perseverance, and character is that it is through this avenue that we learn dependence on God alone, and not only is God the only hope we have, but he is also the only hope we need.

Paul concludes this thought by saying: 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.

There are times when I’ve followed directions that seemed counter-intuitive and wondered why on earth would I do this when it looks like that would be the clear way to go. With God, however, we are not sent out blindly. We have been given the Holy Spirit, who will guide us and lead us and teach us and speak warnings and comfort to us, who will assure us of salvation.

With the Holy Spirit in us, we have everything we need.

A couple of weeks ago, at Annual Conference, I was walking around Lakeside, and I saw this beautiful flower garden. In the middle of the flower garden was a sprinkler set up on a pole. The sprinkler was set to spray water in a circle and thus soak the entire garden. I noticed that since the garden was square, the sprinkler watered the grass in a circle around the garden as well, so that grass was a lush, green circle, in stark contrast to the brown, dying grass around it. Except for one area. There was a flagpole in the front of the garden, and the water spray couldn’t get to the grass behind that pole, so the grass in that area was all dead.

Friends, we who know Jesus Christ have life, and we have it in abundance. We have a never-wavering hope in Him, a hope that will never disappoint us – a fact we know, as God has given us the Holy Spirit, We are that green grass, watered and well-fed. But all around us there are struggling people, desperately in need of Living Water.

We have the duty as Christians to examine what those poles are, what hinders those around us from knowing Jesus Christ, and rooting them out so we can be the vessel by which God’s Spirit goes forth.