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?