Sunday, June 9, 2013

Jesus Started It: Exposing the Shadow Kingdom

Preached on Sunday, June 9, 2013.

Scripture readings: Acts 13:4-12; Ephesians 6:10-20

Paul and Barnabas were honored to be invited into the presence of the Roman governor of Cyprus to tell him the message about Jesus. They found that he was, in so many ways, the perfect audience for the good news.

Photos Taken around the Church & Manse In Washtucna WA
He was intelligent; which didn’t mean that he was merely very smart. Being merely smart can cause so much trouble. Intelligence meant that he could understand, and sort things out, and see what was really there, and come to the right conclusion. And this intelligent audience had a wizard, a sorcerer, right by his side.

We can’t be sure that Barnabas and Paul knew about the sorcerer from the start. There was some shifting in what they knew. There was some shifting in what they knew they had to do about it.

There was a kind of inspiration involved on Paul’s part. We read that he was, “filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas (the wizard)” and spoke judgment upon him. (Acts 13:9)

While Barnabas and Paul were trying to share their faith and lead the governor to faith in Jesus, the sorcerer “opposed them and tried to turn the governor from the faith.” There was this growing conflict until the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of Paul to who this man named Elymas was, and what he stood for. The conflict was an outbreak of what has been called “spiritual warfare.”

I know, from my own experience that such warfare is real and that it is going on all the time. There is the Kingdom of God and there is the Shadow Kingdom of this present darkness. There are armies of these kingdoms fighting some kind of war that we can’t see, but that war involves us and has an affect on us.

At the same time, I want to avoid obsession. C. S. Lewis said, "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them." (C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”)

I think our human race can fall into the same pair of opposite errors related to angels: either to disbelieve in them or to have an unhealthy interest in them. Angels almost never make their presence known unless they have a special mission that requires them to communicate with us.

Elymas the wizard probably would never have called his familiar spirits devils. They were just spirits, and maybe even gods to him. Or he thought they were angels at his service. As Paul says, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14)

Paul, in his thoughts on our struggle against “the spiritual forces of evil”, doesn’t tell us much about either devils or angels. The angels may well be working or fighting all around us but, for Paul, the main point is all about living inside of the spiritual realities that come to us through Jesus: truth, righteousness, the good news of peace, faith, the Spirit and word of God, and prayer. He calls this our armor, or our defense. He calls it our means of standing through it all; standing up in resistance and going forward. (Ephesians 6:11)

I have seen angels, myself, a few times. One summer night, when I was sixteen, I struggled with an invisible devil until I was able to say, “Go away, in Jesus’ name and don’t come back.”

That is one way of being aware of a spiritual warfare but there is no need whatsoever for any kind of experience like that. In fact, if you tried looking for experiences like this it might get you in a lot of trouble. I would solemnly warn you that there are much more important and necessary ways to be aware of such a warfare.

Paul said for us to be aware of it in the form of things like truth, and peace, and faith, and prayer. Our hold on the truth, and the peace that comes from the good news, and a faith and loyalty toward God in our heart, and all kinds of prayer make us part of the warfare.

Seeing these in others is also a way in which we take part. We see the armies of the kingdom of God when people live out the truth, and bring peace to others, and patiently cope by faith and prayer; trusting and communicating with God.

At such times, you see and feel the unseen. You see and feel the power of God living in others and living in you. You see it in the love and integrity of families. You see it in the baptism of babies, and children, and adults. You see it in weddings. You see it in holy funerals.

You see the glory of the armies of the kingdom of light. You see people living out what God is putting into them, but you also see it as a sign of the march of a whole kingdom (a whole new world) on the move; holding out and advancing against the darkness.

On the other side of the war, it is easy to see the sadness and the badness lurking in human nature; but sometimes you see something much worse. You see self-fulfilling fears. You see self-destructive behavior. You see the irresistible and irrational descent into misunderstanding and misinterpretation between people who should be working together; people who should be friends, or who should love each other.

You see something beyond human weakness. Sometimes you hear the cackling laughter of the spiritual forces of darkness.

Paul was aware of something strange in his meeting with the governor. There was this other man. His name was Bar-Jesus (bar-Joshua, son of Joshua, a common name) Elymas (a Jewish and a Greek combination). In this way he was just like Saul who was also Paul (Saulus Paulus, a Jewish and Roman combination). One was a Jew who had turned into a sorcerer. The other was a Jew who had turned into a Christian. They had parted ways. They had been swept apart by the forces of the spiritual warfare.

The Romans were so much about mastery and control, and this Roman governor was being mastered by the sorcerer every time Paul tried to share Jesus with him. The governor was “intelligent”, meaning that he had a gift for putting things and ideas together. He had the skill to see where and how things added up, and he was oddly not able to hold on to anything Paul said.

In the governor’s oddly disabled intelligence Paul saw something more than the work of a man who simply posed as a sorcerer. He saw that Elymas was more than a poser.  He saw that the spiritual forces of evil were at work.

The power and the wisdom of God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, filled Paul. So Paul could speak for God and put his finger on exactly what was going on. Paul saw the hand of God was at work in this moment of time. God himself was there with Paul to face the spiritual forces.

The interesting thing is that, as far as we know, nothing worse happened to the sorcerer than what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus where Paul had met Jesus. Paul, too, had been blinded for a time, and had to be led by the hand, just like Elymas. (Acts 9:8 and 13:11)

Paul’s blindness and having to be led by the hand were the mercy of Jesus. They were part of the story of Paul’s salvation. They could be part of the salvation of Elymas. When it all happened to Paul it was a matter of hope. The salvation and hope that come through Jesus are the power that created the armor of God.

They come to us not as a feeling but as a fact. Jesus, and everything he has done for us, almost forces itself upon us in a way that leads us to repent and surrender. We see Jesus, and the cross, and the resurrection. How can we say no to what he shows us? How can we escape?

We see the truth of it; and it is that truth (that factuality) that serves like a belt that holds our lives together: the belt of truth. However much we may struggle, Jesus has made the fact of his love, the truth of his love, just as great a reality as any of our struggles.

There is the “breastplate of righteousness” where everything is set right. Jesus is the righteousness of God and our righteousness too. He is the justice of God who sets us right with himself and with ourselves.

In the cross of Christ we die to ourselves. From the tomb of Jesus we rise as new people who can stand against the devil, because Jesus has made us right before God.

We are still sinners, but Jesus stands up for us against all accusers. The word “devil” means accuser. The spiritual warfare seeks to accuse us and make us give up. The grace of God in Jesus enables us to stand up.

There is “the shoeing of your feet with the gospel of peace”. Paul almost never says anything in a simple way. The gospel means good news. The good news of Jesus gives us peace with God, but it also gives us peace in every way. In Hebrew, the word peace is shalom and it is all about relationships. It doesn’t mean an absence of conflict it means all relationships are healthy and flourishing.

The spiritual warfare attacks us when we are not nurturing our most important relationships. Or the warfare tempts us to mess with our most important relationships. The gospel of peace prepares us to stop and pay attention to people. The peace of Christ teaches us how to nurture our relationships and this protects us, and it protects them, from the spiritual forces of evil.

There is “the shield of faith” and faith is a kind of loyalty and trust in God, in Jesus. Loyalty listens to Jesus instead of listening to our doubts, or despair, or weariness, or weakness, or our strongest desires and temptations.

Loyalty and trust helps us to listen to Jesus who forgives our sins, and so we have another way to defend ourselves than by proving ourselves, or by justifying ourselves, or by pretending we are something other than what we are. True faith saves us from pride as well as from fear.

Then there is the “helmet of salvation”. When I was seventeen I drowned, but I was saved from the lake. I was rescued from the water by Charlie Lucas.

I was rescued, then I was resuscitated, then I was safe and alive. Salvation is our rescue by God in Jesus, and we are safe. Knowing we are safe in Christ is how we stand up to the struggle of the war.

Then there is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. In Isaiah chapter eleven we can see the power of the Lord working through the Holy Spirit, and through the Messiah. Isaiah wrote like this, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him; the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” (Isaiah 11:1-4)

This would tell us that the sword of the Spirit is the word that Jesus speaks in healing, mercy, and judgment. In a way, Paul spoke for Jesus to the sorcerer Elymas. The Spirit put his sword on Paul’s hands, or the Spirit put his sword in Paul’s mouth. The Spirit gave him God’s word to speak God’s truth. It sounded like judgment, and yet it had the potential for mercy.

In spiritual warfare, we can see things as they are, and name them for what they are. At the same time, we can also leave the door of mercy open. We know that the sword of the Spirit has been given us with an end in view; to make all things new.
Then there is prayer. Prayer isn’t given a name as a part of the armor of God. Yet, maybe it is also part of the sword of the Spirit. In Romans chapter eight, Paul says, “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

In the spiritual struggle we may be too tired, or confused, or frustrated to know how to pray, but God’s own words and thoughts (what we would pray if we were faithful, and loving, and wise) gets said. The word of God gets said I prayer, and that prayer changes things.

What God does for us in Christ is the real armor that we wear. God is our strength. The Lord’s Supper tells us this. Here is the gospel set upon a table. “Eat and be strong,” it says. “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” (Ephesians 6:10) “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Treading Water, Or Walking on It

Preached on Sunday, June 2, 2013
Scripture readings: Psalm 104:24-26; Matthew 14:22-33
Photos from Southern California, June 2012
I love the ocean. My only problem with the ocean is that I know about it the same way I know about most things in life: by reading a lot about it, by looking at it from the shore and by wading in no deeper than my waist. I have never been on the ocean.
That being said; I love the ocean. I lived about a mile from it for over five years during the time I served my first church on the south coast of Oregon. But I don’t seem to manage to get to the ocean any more than once a year, or once every two years.
If I love the ocean so much, why haven’t I been on the ocean? It’s almost embarrassing. I don’t think it is because I am afraid. It is because I have either been too poor, or too cheap to go. And (just as truthfully) I have not gone out on the ocean because I have been too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted with other things.
The sea that the people of the Bible liked the best was the Sea of Galilee. That is probably because it is not an ocean at all, it’s only a great big lake. The people of Israel were awestruck by the real ocean. It was majestic. It was huge, and it reminded them of the power of God. But they were afraid of it.
It meant danger. It represented chaos and death, and all the uncontrollable and the undependable in life. The ocean was the place where you could lose everything, including yourself.
The ocean means a lot to me. It’s one of the most serene and restful places to be. And then, I have stood on the shore of the ocean in times of storm and seen the trunks of huge trees tossed in the air by the raging surf. I have seen waves break on the cliffs and send plumes of spray over a hundred feet up and over the tops of those cliffs.
I once spent hours in an emergency shelter in my small, coastal town, waiting for news of an approaching tsunami. The emergency point where everyone was waiting was, as we all knew, only ten feet above sea level. We waited there as we were told, but we felt strangely vulnerable.
So I have watched the ocean and had some experience of its majesty, its power, and its fearsomeness.
I have never counted them, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that half the mentions of the ocean, in the Bible, are negative ones, fearful ones. They are full of the notions of all the things that could go wrong.
The people of the Bible knew that God made the ocean. They knew that God rules the ocean. They accepted the fact (technically) God should be able to take care of them out on the ocean. But it gave them the shivers and they didn’t want to go there.
Very few of the people of the Bible would have been capable of putting the ocean in a song of wonder and delight like the Psalm we read. Very few could write words like the psalm we heard, which I am going to read in a paraphrased version, “O, look --- the deep, wide sea, brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon. Ships plow those waters, and Leviathan, your pet dragon, romps in them.” (Psalm 104:25-26, “The Message” by Eugene Peterson)
The difference with this writer was attitude. You could call it mental attitude, but the writer says that it comes from God; and that makes the attitude spiritual. It’s a thing called faith.
There was a high school kid named Ralph Asher who wrote about his experience in track. He wrote, “Running is a mental sport. You have to be insane to do it.”
He wrote how, in just a few months he trained to run in a half-Marathon. He grew from barely being able to run three miles to making the 13.1 miles of a half-Marathon. He said that there were some words by the apostle Paul that meant a lot to him in his running. Paul wrote: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race: I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) (Ralph J. Asher, in “Devo-zine, Sept.-Oct. 2003, p. 53)
It isn’t just running that is mental, or spiritual. If life out there is like an ocean, what does that mean to you? Is life out there about joy, and beauty, and even fear?
The matter of making the ocean a thing of joy and beauty is partly mental but (much more than that) it is spiritual. It is a matter of faith. Life as an ocean is not just a mental problem. It is a gift: a matter of faith. This is how it is with life. This is how it is with the future. It is a matter of the confidence we call faith.
When Peter stepped out on the water of the stormy Sea of Galilee, in the middle of the night, to walk with Jesus, and Jesus said to him, “O, you of little faith,” I think Jesus was joking. Peter had dared to do a daring thing because Jesus said, “Come!” He did it for Jesus. He wouldn’t do it for anyone else.
The Sea of Galilee had always been Peter’s life. But he would never dream of walking on it, without Jesus, so he dared to do a daring thing, and it looked a lot like faith.
There are a lot of things about Peter, and about this part of the story, that loving parents would not want their kids to imitate. It does seem that Peter is a person who is reckless and takes unnecessary risks. Just like his walking on the water, on more than one occasion Peter got in way over his head. Parents don’t want their kids to imitate that.
Just being a fisherman could be (and still is) dangerous. You kids! We don’t want you to do dangerous things, not unless they are great, good things, and not unless you believe that these great, good things are the very things that you are really and truly called to do.
One thing you can say for Peter is that he was always willing to stretch. He was always making mistakes, and he was always learning from them (although it took some time for that learning to show). Sometimes it might seem that he had little faith, but he was always growing in faith.
Parents might want me to point out that Peter made a mistake when he thought that he would be in no danger at all if he went out on the water with Jesus. He seemed to think that there would be no risk to his risky behavior if Jesus was with him.
Peter found, by experience, that this was not true. Going with Jesus was often risky behavior. Faith could mean taking a risk that was a real risk.
In Jesus we see the behavior of a God who did the daring and dangerous deed of going from heaven, to earth, to hell (to hell, at least for a visit, after his crucifixion). He did this daring and dangerous deed for the world he loved, and for each one of us. In Jesus, God did not make safety or comfort his priority. He did not take his own glory seriously.
Although he was God, he became human in Jesus. He became a servant who died for the sins of the world. He died as a daring deed to win you and give you life: live abundant and everlasting. So what would it mean to follow him? What does it mean to have faith in a God like that?
You might follow Jesus and sink. But again, I believe, that although you may sink with Jesus, with Jesus you will never be sunk. That’s how it went with Peter. That makes the difference. Faith means knowing that (with Jesus), whatever happens, you are not sunk.
Something worth doing has been done and, from that point, there is always a next thing that can be done. Faith has a clear head to assess what that next thing is, that you will do with Jesus.
Peter grew as a result of his adventure. His growth went two ways. He understood himself better; that is, he had a clearer idea, now, of what he was made of. And, secondly, Peter knew Jesus much better.
Self confidence is very helpful, but self confidence can sometimes make you forget yourself. Peter grew, and his life ripened, when he discovered his own limitations. He knew what he could do and what he probably couldn’t do, and he dared to do a thing worth doing anyway. In this way he grew in his confidence in the Lord. Peter grew in that gift called faith.
There is a self confidence that comes when you begin to learn (as Peter was only beginning to learn) that his life was a miracle and he could live in the joy of what Jesus gave him to do. That was something he could have confidence in.
Peter, I think, wanted his life to be a miracle. It was the very thing Jesus offered when he told Peter, “Come, follow me.” Peter wanted to be extraordinary. And I hope you do too.
We see, from the story, that the ambition of being extraordinary is a scary ambition. Some people have handled it far worse than Peter. This is often because they don’t understand that life is a miracle. There is a book by Wendell
Some people seem to never know this. Sometimes the curse of growing up is losing the ability to see that you are a miracle in the making, and that everyone else is too.
People get bogged down, and stressed out, and burdened. They misunderstand the purpose for which God has made them. People lose their sense of wonder and the lights go out. This is a horrible mistake. It is a thing that God does not intend for human life; for the lights to go out.
Peter was often foolish, and reckless. He often wildly overestimated himself, and overestimated his faith; but, on the waves of the Sea of Galilee, Peter did something that no other human being has ever done. Having so little faith, he did walk on water with Jesus. And Peter went on to make many other mistakes and learn from them, too. Maybe that is what made him a miracle.
The Bible does not tell us to be optimists or pessimists. It tells us to be people of faith. Just as true athletes know that sports is not just physical but mental, some actually know that sports can be spiritual.
So it is with life. Nine people out of ten may see no wonder out there, or in themselves. They might accomplish a lot of things. They might make a lot out of themselves, but they are doing this with the lights out. They are still only dog paddling, staying afloat, treading water in the ocean of God; in the ocean of faith.
What I hope and pray for you is this: that you know for yourself that the world is God’s ocean and you are God’s child called to launch out on the waves, or walk on them. Don’t just tread water. Have faith, and keep walking, and maybe you’ll wind up walking on water. Someday, I believe, that you will look back and see that this is exactly what you have done.