Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What's Age Got to do with It

Six years ago at a conference clergy meeting, I was invited to participate in a “young clergy” group designed for pastors under 35 years old. A friend and I joked about being “grandfathered” in, as we were both 35. Though for years young people have been told not to trust anyone over 35, in clergy years, 35 is considered “barely out of diapers.”

But, as I read to the children earlier, Paul writes to Timothy, telling him, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.”  1 Timothy 4:12

Timothy was disregarded because he was too young. Now, there are some here who would consider themselves “young” but most of us aren’t, and none of us is getting any younger. But most of us have reasons why someone would look down on us. Maybe it’s not about youth, but instead we’re too old. Maybe we just don’t know the Bible well enough. Maybe we’ve got the wrong family name. Maybe we’re not from around here. Maybe we don’t dress right. Maybe we don’t have enough money or status. Maybe we’ve had “that person” always telling us we can’t (or won’t) succeed. 

But whatever the reasons, when it comes to Timothy, Paul looks right past all of those excuses and gets to the heart of the matter. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you don’t fit into their mold of what someone’s who’s a sold-out follower of Jesus Christ and a leader of others might look like. Don’t let them look down on you, but instead, be an example.

In Acts 16, starting in verse 1, we meet Timothy.  He [Paul] came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

Now, don’t let the half-Greek part bother you, because Timothy was Jewish. Judaism is passed down through the mother, so no matter who his father was, Timothy was Jewish. It is interesting that he hadn’t been circumcised, and that at this point Paul circumcised him, especially with the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 in which it was decided that circumcision was not a requirement for salvation, that God was pouring the Holy Spirit out, even on Gentiles!

We learn in Paul’s second letter to Timothy that his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, are believers. I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you. (2 Timothy 1:5)

How many of us came to faith because of a faithful mother or grandmother? Those of you who are parents, remember that the example you set to your children and to your grandchildren is going to be the most important influence they experience. You can fool some people by looking your best on Sunday morning, but your kids know if it’s for real or not. On the other hand, there are plenty of adults who are still hanging on to their mother’s faith. They attend church because it makes mom or grandma happy. The church isn’t theirs, it’s mom’s church. One of the difficulties in our system is that when a family chooses to have their child baptized, they are choosing for that child, and that’s fine, because it’s a picture of God choosing us, but there are plenty of adults who never chose for themselves; they are still living off their parents’ choice. Even Confirmation Classes are often just a formality – the joke is told that a pastor found mice in the parsonage. After trying all of the usual remedies, snap traps, glue traps, poison, filling any holes the mice were getting in, the pastor came upon a solution. He caught the mice and baptized and confirmed them, and he never saw them again.

Just this week in our district leadership team gathering, I heard of a church where one person carried almost 1/3 of the annual budget, and when she died, guess who her kids weren’t writing a check to. Though they attended that church, it wasn’t their church, nor was it their faith. I have seen churches close because they were small churches to begin with, but when the matriarch of the church died, none of the family stuck around.

But Timothy wasn’t like that at all. Paul wrote that in Timothy, he saw the same sincere faith that he saw in Lois and Eunice. What better legacy can we leave to our children than the sincere faith that lives in us? Remember this: the faith of our parents is great, but it doesn’t mean anything for us if we don’t make it our own.

Some of you are thinking, “my kids are already grown and they are solid Christians. What does this have to do with me?” You’re already tuning out because it doesn’t seem applicable. But the truth is, it is important for our kids to know that Mom and Dad aren’t the only Christians out there who care about them. Other Christian adults have an incredible impact on our kids.

For example, I am intentionally raising our kids to know and love Jesus with everything they are. That is a prayer I pray with them every night. But do you want to know Jonathan how accepted Christ? Under the tutelage of Liz Hoover, his Sunday School teacher in Millersport. I am thankful for committed Christian disciples who take seriously the task Jesus gave of making disciples of all nations.

And that’s what Paul did with Timothy. Commentaries suggest that though Timothy’s mother and grandmother introduced him to the faith, it was Paul who led him to Christ. This is why, in 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul calls Timothy his “beloved son in the Lord” and in 1 Timothy 1:2, his “true son in the faith.”

Paul mentored Timothy and brought him along on some of his missionary journeys. Timothy was active in bringing the Gospel to Corinth, though he saw few people convert, his obedience was notable. When news of disturbances at Corinth and Macedonia reached Paul at Ephesus, he sent Timothy, perhaps along with Erastus (Acts 19:22), to resolve the difficulties.

Timothy put his life on the line to share Jesus around the world, and he was even imprisoned for his faith, as Hebrews 13:23 tells that he had been released from prison. I love the description Paul gives of him in Philippians 2:19-24: I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.

Timothy’s strongest traits were his sensitivity, affection, and loyalty. He has proven character, faithful to Paul like a son to a father, and without rival in his concern for the Philippians. Timothy took a genuine interest in the welfare of the church in Philippi, looking out for the interests of Jesus Christ. What might our church look like if we looked out for Jesus’ interests and not our own? We wouldn’t ever have frivolous complaints about what the pastor is wearing or about silly changes to the order of worship or about the use of technology in the church. The prayer lists for our friends and family members would have jumped off that back table, because we would so badly want the individuals on that list to know Jesus. We would never start any argument by saying, “Well we’ve never done it that way.” Instead, in everything, we would simply look at what serves Jesus best.

Not only do we find out about Timothy’s heart for others and for Jesus, the Bible also tells us that Timothy was a prolific writer. We recognize Paul as the author of about half of the New Testament, but did you realize that Timothy is the co-author of six of those letters? Timothy is credited with being co-author of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

There are suggestions from scripture that Timothy suffered from fearfulness. Paul has to warn him (in 2 Timothy 2:1) to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Likewise, in his first letter to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 16:10), Paul tells the church, “If Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am.”

Timothy faced some serious issues in his day. Angry mobs, beatings, imprisonment, and torture, to name four. Yet Paul commends him to be strong and tells the church to protect him. What might it look like if each of us knew that the church had our back in issues of sharing the Gospel with our unchurched friends, neighbors, and family members? Like maybe if we had Barnabas the Encourager whispering in our ear, “You can do this!” Or if we had Paul the mentor telling us, “If God is for you, who can be against you?”

I think one of the fears Timothy faced was a fear that he would be dismissed because of his youth. That’s why Paul tells him to not let anyone look down on him because he is young. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.”  1 Timothy 4:12

Paul told Timothy to set an example in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity. In other words, people will look at him and see that he’s young. He can’t do anything about that. But what he can do is make sure that what he says, the love he shows, his faith, and his purity speak louder than his age.

I started this message focusing on the why not excuses – why we might think we can’t do certain things. Maybe it’s age or Bible knowledge (or lack thereof) or wrong family name or we’re outsiders or wrong clothes or the lack of money or status. Maybe we’ve simply listened to the wrong voices, the ones telling us we’ll never succeed. But right in the midst of that, the call is clear: set an example for the believers. Notice that the call is toward the believers. Paul has sent Timothy to the church in Ephesus to strengthen the church and to help keep them from falling into heresy. So he’s dealing with church people here. But the same principles can be held for dealing with non-Christians as well.

Paul tells Timothy to set an example in speech. Your words are important. God created everything by speaking it into existence, and God made us in His own image. Our words have power. What will we use that power for? Will we use it to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, or will we use it to put others down? How do you set an example in speech? It’s not just watching what you say. As Jesus says in Luke 6:45, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

So setting an example in our speech is not just about what we say, it’s about our heart. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s just your life, though; what you say is vitally important. You can’t share the Gospel without using words at some point.

But Paul is clear to Timothy, that besides his speech, he is to set an example in life. Live your life completely under the direction of the Holy Spirit. What might your life look like if you allowed the Holy Spirit to make all decisions? This includes your finances. It’s strange to me that someone would call themselves a Christian and then blatantly defy God with the use of money. Look up Ananias and Sapphira in the Bible and see how that turns out.

Paul also calls Timothy to set an example in love. Who here has someone in your life who it’s hard to love? Right on. Most of us do. Do you love that person more by trying harder to love them? Usually that’s just frustrating. Oh, and Jesus tells to love our enemies. You can only love the unlovely by allowing God to love them through you. It’s all about life in the Holy Spirit, not about us.

Timothy is also supposed to set an example in faith. How can your faith be an example? How about this: just on faith that God is with you, do one thing that you haven’t done before. Talk to one person about Jesus. Do one new thing that others will see and will encourage them in their walk. Then come back next week and share what you did in faith.

Finally, Timothy is supposed to set an example in purity. Many people want to have it both ways: I will accept Jesus, I will call myself a Christian, but I won’t go all the way with it. I still want to do things my way. That’s like mixing up “only a little” poison in your water! Setting a pure example includes when nobody else is looking. There are too many examples of well-known Christians falling from grace, especially into sexual sin or sin regarding drugs or alcohol, when the reality is they were hiding those sins from outsiders. But what is more sinister is that when our purity is compromised, so is our ability to hear clearly from God, because our sin creates a wall between a Holy God and us. When we continue in willing sin, we purposely keep God at arm’s length, and that’s no way to share him.

So don’t give anyone reason look down on you, but set an example by living your life entirely led by the Holy Spirit.

Monday, January 21, 2013

One Life at a Time: Barnabas

Last Sunday we looked at Saul’s conversion – how he was persecuting Christians – the Bible puts it this way: he was breathing out murderous threats against the church. But Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and transformed him. We met Ananias, a regular guy who was instrumental in Saul’s conversion, even though the man God sent him to minister to was the worst of the worst.

We also recognized that there were a bunch of regular men and women who were instrumental in our own conversions. Whether they were our family members or Sunday School teachers or friends, there were regular people who took an interest in our lives and our salvation. If that person who made a difference in your life is still alive, why don’t you take a little time this afternoon to write them a little handwritten note and send it to them? I can’t think of any reason anyone would not want to receive a letter like that.

Anyway, today we will continue to look at some of the players in Paul’s life, people who made a difference, one life at a time.

In Acts 4:36, we meet Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement). Even when we meet him, we find out that he is an encourager. Have you ever met someone who is super-encouraging, and you knew it from the first time you met them? What is it about someone that makes them an encourager?

Encouragement is giving someone strength in tough times. Listen to what Paul wrote to the church in Rome: I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. (Romans 1:11-12) There are many other biblical examples of someone encouraging another to be strong – Moses encouraging Joshua is a fantastic example, when he told him to be strong and courageous, words that Joshua used to encourage the Israelites as well.

Are any of you going through a tough time? These are people you need to encourage. Another question: do you know anyone going through a tough time? Encourage them!

Encouragement also means giving godly perspective. In Psalm 10:17-18 we read a prayer for God’s encouragement: You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.

I love the perspective here. Because of who God is and what God does, humans won’t terrify anymore. Or as Paul puts it in Romans 8: If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

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 all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31, 35-39)

We are encouraged when we remember who God is and who we are in him. This world will make every attempt to drag you down, but God’s Word is true – there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, and if God is for us, who can be against us?!

To get that kind of encouragement, we have to know the Bible, because encouragement comes from Scripture and gives hope. Romans 15:4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

If we don’t know the scriptures, we can’t be adequate encouragers, because it is through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures that we receive hope. I used to kind of look down at some of the characters in the Bible and all of their flaws. Look at Peter – he was a talk-first, think-later kind of guy, always putting his foot in his mouth. Guess what – I do that, too. Jeremiah was depressed – at times I, too, can relate. Jonah argued with God and ran from God – many of us have done that, too. Moses had excuses, and so do I. Gideon didn’t believe that God could use him of all people, and isn’t that true with us? I am encouraged by people in the Bible who all faced real troubles and struggles and who God used remarkably.

Whenever someone comes up with a good idea to reach the lost or to minister to those in need, there are Negative Nellies who come out telling why it will never work, why you will never succeed, why there’s not enough money to do this or that. And those discouragers are very rarely the ones going out of their way to do ministry. They sit around and grouse about the old days, how there used to be hundreds in Sunday School or worship, but when they are asked to help with that ministry, they always answer, “I already put in my time.” Encouragers, on the other hand, know that God is in control and they encourage, in word and deed.

Acts 4:37 tells us that Barnabas sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. In the brand new church, believers who owned lands or houses would sell them and donate the money to the apostles in order to take care of the needy among them, and Barnabas was one such believer.

Barnabas was a true encourager, which meant, having a biblical perspective, he stuck his neck out for someone who many others wouldn’t have. When Saul, the brand new Christian, fresh from his miraculous conversion from being the persecutor of the church and murderous threat breather guy, came to Jerusalem, Acts 9:26 records that he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.

I can sympathize with the disciples. They don’t want to be thrown in prison. They don’t want to be fooled by that guy who was out to get them, who now seems like he’s playing nice. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. So listen to what Barnabas did. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

Because Barnabas went out on a limb for Saul, bringing him to the apostles and vouching for him, Saul was able to begin speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

In Acts 11, we find out that the church had been scattered by persecution in connection with Stephen’s death, which, you might recall, Saul had something to do with. But here’s what happens when the church is persecuted: those who are persecuted get out of town, and wherever they go, they tell the good news about Jesus! As it happened, some of them went to Antioch, where (Acts 11:22 ff) The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

So if you call yourself a Christian, did you know that you at least partially owe the name to Barnabas? So let’s look a little more closely at why he is so important.

When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. (Acts 11:23)

I love that the first thing we hear about Barnabas here is that he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God. We can easily miss out on seeing amazing things that God is doing. In fact, when I ask how we see God moving in our lives, there should be so much that there’s not enough time for everyone to share! Barnabas saw the evidence and was glad, and he strengthened the believers with godly perspective about who God is and who they are in Him.

To encourage someone to remain true to the Lord, you have to know someone and care about them to actually encourage them. What would it take for us to know one another well enough that we could really encourage? One of the difficulties I’ve found in small towns and especially in churches in small towns is that while news travels fast (maybe because news travels so fast), people are often reluctant to be vulnerable. If I say something, if I show weakness, people will talk. And that talking usually isn’t encouragement.

Sometimes that talking is “one-upsmanship” where you’re going through a tough time and the other person tells you how bad they have it (or had it). Or they tell you that you’re going to just have to suck it up and endure it.

Or possibly worse is when they don’t talk at all. They pretend you don’t exist. That person isn’t all that encouraging. In fact, they are more of a discourager. It is unfortunate that there are people in many of our churches who think that discouragement is a spiritual gift.

But encouragement involves seeing people as God sees them and helping them to see what God sees. It means looking deep into the depths of the struggle and seeing where God is at work. It means looking trouble in the teeth and knowing that God is bigger than any of that. And it involves standing firm with the other through the midst of the tough times.

Hebrews 10:24 tells us to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. The next verse goes deeper: Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. In other words, our usual gatherings, like today, should be times when we encourage one another. I read an article this week that said that for many, church is the last place they want to be when they are depressed or distressed. It should be the first place, because Christians are so encouraging! Instead we often find all the ways we can tear one another down. It’s time to critique the sermon, the musicians, the order of worship, the d├ęcor, the other worshipers, and everything else. This is not the church behaving as the church. Again, if we are not the most encouraging group of people that any of us see this entire week, we’re doing something wrong.

Back to Barnabas: We also read in Acts 11:24 that he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. 

Barnabas was more than just a good guy. He was a good man because he was full of the Holy Spirit and faith. What’s the difference? We all know plenty of good people, people who get along with others well, people who do nice things for others, but the real question is what is it all for?

Some people are good because they want to make people happy. If the main goal of being good is to make people happy, it’s not going to work. Why not? First of all, because that’s not what God made you for. Your purpose on this world is not to make people happy. Your purpose is to bring glory to God. There are going to be times when you can’t make people happy – because they refuse to be happy. And ultimately, you’re going to die, which might make some of the wrong people happy, but it certainly won’t make the right ones happy. So if your purpose is to make people happy, you are going to fail.

Some people try to be good in the hopes that it will somehow outweigh the bad, it won’t work, because God’s mandate is perfection. Jesus himself said, “Be perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) There isn’t much wiggle room in perfection. If you want a crude comparison, imagine you are at a friend’s house, and the friend is making homemade chocolate ice cream. While they are making it, they go out to the barn and scoop up some droppings from the barnyard. Don’t worry, they tell you, I’m only going to put a little of this in the ice cream. The sugar and cream and other ingredients will well outweigh this. Would you eat the ice cream? Or better, would that friend be your friend anymore?

God requires perfection, and being good doesn’t outweigh our bad. Only Jesus Christ’s sacrifice can outweigh the bad, because through him, we are made perfect. And in that perfection, full of the Holy Spirit and faith in God, we can live out our purpose – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. When we live that out, we, too, can see what Barnabas experienced: a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

We have begun praying for a great number of people, all of whom need the Lord. It’s not going to be by some new program or by a new pastor or new leaders that this will happen; it will be by the people of God being the people of God. It will be by each of you, full of the Holy Spirit, having faith that God is God. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

World Transformation Happens One Life at a Time

Acts 9:1-22

Over the past couple of months, there has been a lot of talk about God being removed from our schools – last week, despite out-of-town threats of lawsuits, the Jackson School Board voted to keep the picture of Jesus that has hung in the school since 1947.

What began as a rule against a government-sanctioned state religion has been interpreted as a requirement for the government to suppress religion and keep it completely out of the public sphere. We need look no farther than Europe to see the decline of the church’s influence in the public sphere. Sometimes it can be easy to shake our heads at how society has gotten worse and worse.

It can be discouraging enough that it’s tempting to just give up. Transform the world? That’s not my job, and, oh, by the way, it’s impossible. The world doesn’t want transformed. Or, maybe for some of us, it’s a little closer to home – my family doesn’t want transformed.

We’ve begun praying for a whole list of people, many of whom probably don’t want transformed. There are some who are so against Christianity that it can be easy to give up on them.

In the book of Acts, we meet one of “those people.” The new church was growing, but opposition had arisen. In Acts 5, the apostles were arrested and after a unique jailbreak staged by an angel, they ended up getting flogged and ordered not to speak in Jesus’ name. I include this background because some of us work with the assumption that when our bosses tell us not to speak about Jesus, well, we can’t, because our bosses said we couldn’t. Do you think the apostles just gave up? No, The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the Temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Acts 5:41-42)  

So the church continued to grow, and they appointed new leaders, including Stephen, who was soon arrested under false pretenses, and was put to death by stoning. Acts 7:58 records that the witnesses of the stoning laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul, who was there, giving approval to his death. Not only was he there at Stephen’s death, but Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:3)

I’m thinking Saul was on some prayer request lists, but more along the lines of: God, protect us from Saul! I wonder if someone was praying for his conversion.

In Acts 9 we catch up with Saul.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

This is an incredible account of a transformation. Saul was on a mission to destroy the church. He would stop at nothing to achieve his goals. He wasn’t just your average Joe-Doesn’t-Attend-Church. This wasn’t a guy sleeping in on Sunday mornings because he doesn’t like the music or is bored by the sermon. This guy hated the church and was actively persecuting Christians. Saul was worse than Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – while they ridicule Christians and argue against us, Saul was dragging men and women off and throwing them in prison. This was no three hots and a cot. It was true persecution. But while Saul was on the road to Damascus with the goal of throwing more Christians into prison, he met Jesus, and Jesus struck him blind and spoke to him.

Now, the scripture tells us that nobody else saw Jesus – they heard the sound, but did not see anything. They just knew that Saul was blind and needed led into Damascus. They didn’t know that he was going to become the first and greatest Christian missionary. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Now Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, switches the scene to Damascus, where we meet Ananias.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

Can you imagine what Ananias is feeling right now? This Saul fellow is not an unknown. He’s not just a local ruffian. Ananias has already heard the reports about Saul and the trouble he has caused and even about his mission in Damascus.  And now God is telling Ananias to go to Saul and to heal him.

I want to pause a moment to reflect that some of the people on our prayer list are really great people. They are our friends. They are in our families. We live with or near them, work with them, hang out with them. And we mourn and grieve the fact that they are on their way to Hell. But there are others, maybe on our list, but probably not, who we would probably be happy to know that Hell is where they are headed. They’re the worst of the worst. They’ve hurt so many people, you included. We deserve justice and they deserve Hell.
Listen to how God responds to Ananias: But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

In other words, you don’t know how God will choose to use this guy… or the baddest of the bad you were thinking of. And here’s something more – when we play the “they deserve Hell” card, aren’t we forgetting something? Are we so quickly forgetting that the debt we owe Jesus Christ is that we, too, deserve Hell for our sinful disobedience and selfishness, but we are saved because of what Jesus did, not because of what we did or how good we were!

God also tells Ananias that Saul isn’t “off the hook” and that he too will suffer for God’s name. I wonder if that had any influence on Ananias. But what I want you to understand is that when Ananias went to Saul, Saul was a bad man. But God had a plan for him, a plan that involved the obedience of Ananias.

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.  At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 

There is something to be made of the scales falling off Saul’s eyes and I could preach for a month on spiritual blindness, but that’s not where we’re going to spend a lot of time today. I just pose that there is a lot more spiritual blindness around us than we would care to realize or admit. All of us have blind spots, and it is uncomfortable, painful even, to admit them. Can you admit that there are people who aren’t on your prayer lists, simply because they’re too bad or because they’ve hurt you too many times? So you’ve just stopped praying for them (or never started in the first place).

But here’s what we see happening: Saul regained his strength, spent time with the disciples, and then immediately began to preach that Jesus is the Son of God. Can you imagine this? The very guy who was persecuting the church, who was breathing out murderous threats against Christians, is now preaching…  And here is how our culture responds: let’s just watch this guy; he’s going to trip up pretty soon and we’ll see what he’s really made of. Those who heard Saul were initially skeptics as well, scripture tells us that all those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Ananias’ obedience to reach out to Saul was instrumental in his transformation, and I believe we can be just as instrumental. Sometimes we think that the person who leads someone else to Christ has to be a super-Christian like Billy Graham or at least a pastor, but I would guess that most of us have been led to Christ by everyday Christians who choose obedience. [ask who introduced them to Christ]

Last week I preached about singing a new song. That God is doing new things, and that God will provide the lyrics for that new song. Saul was singing a song of death and persecution, but God changed his tune. What was his new song like?

In Acts 16, we find Saul, now renamed Paul, on a missionary journey with Silas, and they end up on the wrong side of an angry mob. They are stripped, beaten, severely flogged, and dragged to the prison’s inner cell, where they are put in stocks. Listen to Acts 16:25: About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God… Now, in spite of terrible circumstances, the man who we first met breathing out murderous threats against Christians is now in a prison, singing hymns to God.

His life was transformed, and he continues to transform the world. So I wonder today, what is your song? What are you singing? Are you stuck in a self-centered rut? Or are you singing hymns to God in spite of the worst circumstances? 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sing a New Song

Psalm 96

There is something about music that captures us. I have been in nursing homes where there are residents who hardly recognize their own family members, yet they can sing every word of their old favorite hymns. Nothing melts my heart like hearing my own son singing “How Great Thou Art” – isn’t there something precious about a child singing? When we sing the old songs of the faith, many of our hearts are moved; we remember the context in which we learned the song or a particular time that song was sung. One Sunday, a family was in tears leaving church, and I was mystified. There hadn’t been anything really emotional about the service, not that I could tell, anyway. But at the back door they told me that this particular day was the anniversary of burying their son, and that the song we’d just finished singing was one that had been sung at his funeral. The song brought back all of the memories of that day and all of the emotion immediately welled back to the surface. Not all of the emotion is bad – other times a song can remind you of pleasant and happy times, good friends, and even life change.

Sadly, many churches engage in what we call “worship wars” involving (among other things) music style. Some prefer to sing only the old hymns of the faith. We love and revere the works of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Fanny J. Crosby. Others prefer contemporary music, often praise and worship choruses. There is even a denomination where they sing all their songs a capella because they don’t see the use of musical instruments in the New Testament. Regardless of where your musical taste stands, it’s clear that Psalm 96 tells us to sing a new song.

I’m sure most of us would agree on the first part, that God calls his people to sing. Or, in some cases, “make a joyful noise” which is Christianese for “you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but you should sing anyway” and which thus begs the question: can someone who is a really good singer also make a joyful noise?

Upon reading Psalm 96, we probably also agree that we should sing to the Lord. All the earth is commanded to sing to God – even the heavens, the seas, the fields, and the trees are singing. There was some truth in the musical – the hills really are alive with the sound of music – music to the Lord made by his creation! When Jesus came into Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday, the crowd of disciples began to joyfully praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: They were shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:37-40)

It is our job, our purpose even, to praise God. It’s not just important to sing to the Lord a new song – the content of that song is important. I’m sure my generation wasn’t the first or the last who claimed that we just listened to the music and that the words didn’t influence us, meanwhile, we could sing every word…

So, what are we supposed to sing to the Lord?

If we go through the Psalm, we can find the following:

Praise his name. Now, when we think of a name, it doesn’t have to have any meaning – besides being what a mom or dad wanted for their child. We sometimes look at the meaning of names but usually after we have already settled on a few. But Bible names have great significance, and none is more significant than the name of the Lord. His name is virtually synonymous with his presence. This is why the commandment against taking God’s name in vain means much more than just prohibiting us from using God’s name as a swear word. It means acting in any way that demeans God. So any time a Christian acts inconsistently with the profession that Jesus is Lord is actually taking God’s name in vain.

So praising God’s name is not only singing his praises, but also living consistently with the proclamation that Jesus is Lord. So let every aspect of your life sing out the song of praise to God. No matter what your circumstances, God is worthy to be praised and honored, so sing it out! The quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi “preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary, use words” has been subverted to mean “don’t use words” and honestly our society could use a little preaching, and not just from “preachers.”  As you do so, make sure that every word is consistent with having Jesus’ Lordship over your life. Do people know you’re a Christian, and is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Psalm 96 also tells us to sing songs that proclaim his salvation (day after day). If you are redeemed by God, this is a fantastic thing! Can you sing about it? Are you excited about it? Does anyone outside your immediate family know about it? Does your family even know?

I’ve found that a lot of people don’t even know how to proclaim God’s salvation. So I’ll ask two simple questions: What did God save you from? What did God save you for? Where was your life headed? Where did your story intersect with God’s? And what is God’s purpose for you? What is God doing with your life?

How do you proclaim this day after day? You live into it. God saved you to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, which, incidentally, is the purpose and the mission of the United Methodist Church, so if you are a part of this church, this is what we’re not-all-that-successfully aiming at. What are you doing, as an individual as well as part of a group, to make disciples and to transform the world?

The Psalm also calls us to declare his glory and marvelous deeds. Who is God and what has God done? I love this – while the Psalmist is in the middle of telling us how to sing to God, he breaks in and tips his hand. As we declare God’s glory and marvelous deeds, here are some we shouldn’t miss: Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. In other words, if you want to worship something else, what did your god do, because the Lord trumps it. He made the heavens.

But the Psalmist isn’t finished. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary. He’s saying that we can use words like splendor, majesty, strength, and glory for him, but he transcends these descriptions. He is bigger than them. Remember that as you describe God.

The Psalmist goes on to use one of those great Bible words that you don’t know what it means. Ascribe to the Lord… what does that mean? In this case, as God is the originator of glory and strength, so we give him the honor due him. I had to laugh as I was reading commentaries: one said that we give honor to God by acts of appointed and solemn worship in his House. That sounds good and righteous and honorable until you realize that Psalm 96 is straight ripped off from 1 Chronicles 16, the song David sang when the Ark of God was brought into Jerusalem. You probably know what happened when the Ark was brought in – how the Levites led joyful singing with all kinds of musical instruments, hundreds and thousands of people showed up and they were rejoicing and shouting, and King David was dancing with all his might in a linen ephod – not in kingly robes which would have brought attention to himself, but in the simple linen ephod worn by those who serve God.

So behind the scenes there is another hint as to what our attitudes should be as we sing our song of praise to God. The way we dress ourselves – not just in physical clothing, but in attitude – should be that of servant.

The Psalmist further tells us to bring an offering and come into his courts. What is your offering to God? Know this: God isn’t fooled by the leftovers we often give him. God commands his people to give our firstfruits, which is a concept most of us don’t understand, not being quite the agrarian society that Ancient Israel was. When a farmer harvests, the very first goes to God. You have to understand how fickle farming is. After harvest, you store what you can because you have to store up for the whole year. You can bet that the leanest time comes right before harvest; you’ve used everything else up. Now you get that harvest, and the first thing you do is give to God. Some of you kind of know what it’s like because you live paycheck to paycheck – it means as soon as you get that paycheck, the first payment you make is to God. You don’t wait to see if you have enough left over after your expenses; you pay God first. That’s what Christians do. I suggest if you are waiting to give to God that you may not truly be God’s – you haven’t given God lordship over your money and you don’t trust God to provide for you.

Let’s continue: Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.” The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.

The more you know about God, the more in awe you are. God’s creation worships him – everything in it rejoices and sings for joy.

I have addressed everything except for one word: that word is “new.” What is this new song, and why are we called to sing a new song? After all, nothing we’re saying about God is new. God hasn’t changed – so why should the song we sing be new?

Well, as I preached last week, God is forever doing new things, reaching to his people in new ways. When God does new things, why would we respond with the same-old?

Also, there are times when God reaches in despite the direst of circumstances – Psalm 40 is one of these cases. I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. (Psalm 40:1-3). While the Psalmist was waiting patiently… in a slimy pit… God intervened. Because of that intervention, David had a new song to sing: I praise God because he saved me! Something new happened to me, so I’ll sing a new song to commemorate it.

This is where I see a lot of church people having difficulty. God hasn’t done anything new in your life, so why would you have a new song? If this is you, you don’t have to settle for a stale testimony! Because a stale testimony is no testimony at all. Friends, I first learned the power of prayer when I was a little boy, praying for things and praying for people. I learned that God provides miraculously for those who trust in him, and I learned that when we pray earnestly for people, that their lives are changed. But if I just held onto those prayers and said, “God worked in 1976 and I’m good,” then I would be completely missing out on what God has for me and for those around me today. One of the reasons why I ask every week for what God is doing in your life is because I want you to be aware that God is still working! You don’t have to settle for yesterday’s miracles or for someone else’s story.

So pray that God gives you a new story of his character, and that God does remarkable things in the lives of the people you are praying to meet him.

The Former Things

During this time of year, I am seeing “retrospectives” all over the place. The top 10 news stories of the year. The top 10 disasters of the year. Top 10 sports stories of the year. Facebook even gave its users their “year in review.” On New Year, many of us make resolutions about what we hope to do during the next year, things we hope to accomplish, how we plan to get healthy, how we plan to be better people. But before we get to the new year, we often spend some time looking back.

There are many times when God tells his people to remember. In fact, the word “remember” is found over 166 times in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 4:9, God tells his people Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you shall live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. In Genesis, after the flood, God provides a rainbow so that Noah will always remember the covenant God made with him. In the book of Numbers, the people of God were required to have tassels on their garments, so every time they looked at the tassels, they would remember God’s commands. God commanded the Passover as a remembrance of His deliverance of His people out of Egypt. Samuel set up a stone, calling it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help” as a constant memorial of how God helped them.

Remembering who God is and what God has done is a good thing. Consider God’s words from Isaiah 46:8-10: “Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.

Or how about Psalm 77:10-12: Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.

There is a reason why I try to ask every week for how you’ve seen God at work – because the Bible tells us to focus on these things. It can be such a good and healthy thing to look back, but it is a sad thing when we get stuck in the past and refuse to acknowledge the present or the future. Even our Christmas celebration has one foot in the past and another in the present – as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, we do so in acknowledging what his birth, life, death, and resurrection mean to us today.

In the midst of troubled times, Isaiah prophesied to the people of God. I love Isaiah 43 – maybe you need a pick-me-up this morning, and if that’s what you need, listen to verses 1-3: But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

As I was writing this message, I thought someone might need to remember this. That your identity is that you are redeemed by God and you belong to him because he loves you. Verse 4 even says that you are precious in [God’s] sight.

With that context, listen to Isaiah 43, starting in verse 16. This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:

Isaiah wants to remind us of which God he is talking about: this isn’t a weak and inactive God, this is the God who delivered his people from Egyptian slavery and destroyed the armies of Egypt. God’s credibility is not in question – they know who God is and what God has done.

So God goes on to tell them this (in verse 18): “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. Honestly, this seems strange. Isaiah is always hearkening back to the past, reminding the people of God what God has done for them. So why would God all of a sudden tell them to pick up a nasty case of amnesia? Why would God, just after reminding them of who he was and what he had done, tell them to forget?

In the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66), John Oswalt poses that same question: “Surely Isaiah, one of the prophets who most stresses Israel’s past, could not mean that God’s redemptive acts and all the revelation connected with them should be forgotten…”

So why would God want us to forget? John Oswalt again:

We humans are inveterate idolaters. We turn everything into a fetish if we are allowed to. So for Israel, the glorious, saving events of the past with all their details had become a straitjacket into which every other act of God was forced.

He is saying that, probably unintentionally, Israel came to the conclusion that when God works, God always works the same way, always doing the same thing. After all, God never changes, so why would his methods?

We recognize that methods must change, even though the message does not change. Sometimes we lose sight of the message, but it has always been a message of for God so loved the world… all of it… and a message of being blessed to be a blessing. But the methods change. John Wesley realized that preaching in churches wasn’t reaching the lost, so he went to where the lost people were, preaching in fields and mines. Charles Wesley took the tunes to popular songs and re-wrote the lyrics as powerful Christian hymns.

There are some who complain about technology in worship, yet you love the technology that allows the organ to play and you need me to use a microphone. And you will gladly use a cell phone and most of this country uses computers. Not allowing a church to use technology just because it’s new to you is utter hypocrisy.

As the Creator, God doesn’t need to do things the same way twice. Read through the Bible and check out all the ways God speaks. God speaks to Abram in a dream. God sends an angel to wrestle with Jacob. God speaks to Moses in a burning bush. God even speaks to Balaam through a donkey! And God created us in His image as creative beings as well, so we ought to be able to adapt different methods to reach people today!

Listen to what God says through Isaiah in Isaiah 43:19- 21:  See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.  The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.

God is forever doing a new thing. We cannot simply expect for God to move the way God moved last time. When I go to conferences, one thing I used to see all the time was the attitude of “God moved this way in our context, so you should do the same thing and expect God to move in the same way.” Fine, except what works in Chicago might not work in Columbus. What works in California might not work in Wellston. And maybe, just maybe, God might want to work in a completely unique way so that nobody can say, “If you just use the same program, you will get the same results.”

When the church growth movement was born, some of the pioneers started documenting what they were implementing. They wrote down their organizational structures, their programming, what kinds of sermons they were preaching, the kinds of outreach they were doing. Among these pioneers, it was understood that a deep grasp of the Bible was vitally important and that prayer was what drove the entire movement. They understood that fact so well that they didn’t write it down. Of course we are praying! These were men and women dedicated to prayer. But when later generations started following what they had written, they neglected prayer. They strayed from the Word. They followed the program and the structure to a “T” and some got results.

The problem is that it is God who is doing a new thing, and we tend to try to put God in a box. We look back and remember the good without the bad, we talk about the good ole days when God might have some good new days in store for us, but we aren’t listening or looking.

Do not so concentrate on what God has done for you in the past that you cannot see the new things he will do for you!

Isaiah 43 takes a very sad turn. God is doing a new thing, but God’s people don’t perceive it. It’s like John 1:9-11: The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

In verses 22-28, God accuses his people of not calling on him, of not bringing proper sacrifices, of burdening him with sins and offenses. I wonder how guilty we are of the same offenses. I know from statistics and from doing a little math that we aren’t all tithing – giving 10% of our income straight to God. And the only ones who will get indignant about the pastor talking about money are the ones who aren’t tithing – c’mon, you know it’s true. We all sin, and many of us try to justify ourselves – to “make up” for our sins by doing good deeds or by inflicting our own penance upon ourselves. But that’s not pleasing to God.

So what do we do about all this?

The first thing we have to do is pray. I understand that back before I came here, David Pollinger tried to start a prayer group to pray for the church and the community, and it mostly just ended up being David, Robin, and the Hermans. If we are not praying for our community and for our church, then we are never going to see God at work.

Who are you praying for? Do you have a list? Is it completely filled with physical needs, or are you praying for financial needs and emotional needs? Are you praying for people who have spiritual needs? How about those who don’t know Jesus? If you aren’t praying for them, who is? This is the world’s greatest need, and if we’re not praying for them, we are saying we don’t care if they end up in Hell.

How are you praying for the community? Do any of you walk? How about a prayer walk around your neighborhood? Are you praying for the children of our community? (pray for teachers/administrators/school workers)

And how are you praying for this church? Are you willing to pray that God will do something that only God can take credit for? If we are willing to pray this, then we must also be willing to get out of the way and let God work. Stop requiring everything to be tied to what we’ve always done, because God just may be doing a new thing.