Monday, September 28, 2015

Telling It - The Risen One

Preached on Sunday, September 27, 2015

Scripture readings: Acts 3:11-16; Mark 16:1-8

I got to know a family in one of the small towns where I used to serve as a pastor. I came by for a visit. It wasn’t a pastoral visit, although they had a sister-in-law who came to my church.
Around Tall Timbers Ranch (Church Camp)
Washington Cascades, Above Leavenworth WA
September 2015
It wasn’t a pastoral visit because I wasn’t their pastor in any way. It was a small town where it was fairly easy to know everybody, and I had a friendly relationship with this family.
When I got to their house they did talk to me about what they thought it means to be Christian, and they wanted me to know that they didn’t buy into it. They wanted me to know where they stood, and I appreciated that.
They had all the usual reasons. They had some unusual reasons, as well. Whatever their reasons were, mostly they were talking about beliefs and behaviors.
I listened for what seemed like a long time. I would nod and sort of repeat after them what they had just said. I put in my two cents worth here and there. It was all friendly and sincere talk.
Then a thought came to me. I said something like this. “From your experience, you have good reasons for saying what you say. But there is something about being Christian that you haven’t said anything about. When you are Christian, then you are a person who has died and risen from the dead.”
A couple of them said, “What?” And I repeated what I had just said, “When you are a Christian, you die and you rise from the dead. We need a new life, and Jesus died and rose from the dead to give us a new life. When we receive Jesus we die to our old life and we rise into a new life. We become a new creation.”
They guessed what I meant. One of them commented that most Christians didn’t seem like new creations to him. I said, “That’s true. Sometimes it’s tricky the way it works, or doesn’t seem to work, but that’s how it is supposed to work.”
It’s true and it is absolutely essential. You must die and rise from the dead to know Jesus. Another way of saying this is more famous: “You must be born again.” (John 3:7) But I like saying that you have to die and rise from the dead because it’s more surprising. It’s not a direct quote from the Bible but it is a paraphrase of what the Bible clearly teaches.
It’s also true to say that a Christian is someone who believes in Jesus, but what does it mean to believe?
A Christian knows Jesus, and trusts Jesus. A Christian depends on Jesus, lives in Jesus, and has Jesus living in them. A Christian listens to Jesus, learns from Jesus, imitates Jesus, and follows Jesus. A Christian surrenders to Jesus as their Savior and their Lord.
All of this is true. All of this matters. It’s all important. And it all must lead to this: you must die and rise from the dead. There are two verses from the Bible that I love that refer to this. One verse is this: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) The other verse is this: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Without Christ, in the heart of my human nature, I am full of barriers and obstacles between me and God, between me and myself, between me and others, between me and the whole creation and the way the world works. These barriers blind me. They handicap me from the changes that would give me true life, and the freedom to be and to do what I was created to be and to do.
Christ took my nature upon himself, on the cross, and so (in Christ) my nature has died. When I trust what Christ has done for me, when I surrender to what he (in his infinite love) has done for me, then my surrender to him and to his love are like my being crucified to myself and dying to myself.
Christ gives us a new life with God by trading his supernatural nature for our natural nature. Paul says it like this: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Just as Christ has died for me, he has also risen for me. When I surrender to what his love has done for me (and for the world), and when I surrender to what I could never do for myself, then I die; but I also rise with Christ, because he has risen to give me the new life that I could never create or maintain by myself. When I live in a state of faith and surrender then I am a person who has died and risen from the dead.
This is what my favorite verses mean.
The miracle that made a lame man walk, when Peter grabbed him by the hand, was an example of this. It took a form that people could see and understand. The lame beggar no longer lived. He became a new creation that could walk, and jump, and praise God.
This happened because Jesus had been killed by his own people, and because Jesus had gone on to rise from the dead. Peter told this to the crowd. “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong.” (Acts 3:15-16)
God has designed the whole creation for resurrection: Peter called that future time the “times of refreshing” and the time for God “to restore everything as he promised long ago.” (Acts 3:19-21)
Peter said that Jesus is the prophet that Moses predicted who would come and do great and wonderful thing, like the thing that Moses did in the Exodus (only even better). Moses led God’s people from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land where they could live in harmony and blessing with God and with each other.
Peter said that the blessing that God had given to Abraham would make it possible for the people of Israel to be a blessing to all people. (Acts 3:26) The blessing was fulfilled by Jesus who will lead all the peoples of the earth from the slavery of a fallen world to a “Promised Land World” in which everything, and everyone, will be refreshed and restored.
It’s true that Peter quoted from the words of Moses that tell us that those who don’t listen will be cut off. (Acts 3:23) Think about what this means in the light of what happened to the people of Israel when Moses was leading them to freedom. Not everyone wanted to leave slavery for freedom.
The ones who wanted to stay in Egypt (and to go back to Egypt, when they left) caused so much trouble because they didn’t want what God wanted to give them. Some of their breed made it to the Promised Land and, there, they caused so much trouble that the Promised Land never became what God had promised.
There are people who don’t seem to want to die to their old selves. They don’t want the freedom of being resurrected. They don’t want to become new creations. They want to remain their old selves. When we don’t want to die to ourselves we go on causing endless trouble.
There are people who don’t know Jesus, who don’t know that they have a chance to die and rise from the dead. There are even Christians who want to make belonging to Jesus into something different from dying and rising. But there is no life in that. There is no future in that. The whole universe will die and rise. God will make a new heaven and earth. (Isaiah 65:17) God says, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)
Jesus came to give the start-up of this newness to his people, and to us. This made the leaders of his people mad, because they wanted the promise of all things new on their old terms. They wanted their same old selves to hold the power as the gatekeepers in that new world.
Jesus acted as if he were the gatekeeper, and Jesus didn’t respect the old rules. He seemed willing to let all kinds of people into the new kingdom of God. Jesus was taking over their thing.
They didn’t know what they were doing and, in their ignorance, they killed Jesus. And then Jesus, as the gatekeeper of the kingdom, forgave them. (Luke 23:34) Jesus did this on the cross, because the gate is the cross. The cross is the door to the new creation. You can’t rise unless you die. (John 12:24)
In the restoration that Jesus brings to all things, he is the way of restoring of all things. He is the judge. But maybe we can understand the coming judgment this way. In the rules, as God makes them, you can’t really judge the world (and you can’t judge anyone) unless you have died for the sins of the world, and forgiven your enemies, and risen to give new life to the forgiven.
Those are the qualifications that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit set for the job. The Son met those qualifications, but he was the only one who could meet them.
Otherwise we would never be able to live in the new creation. But we have to want to die and rise from the dead with the author and creator of that life. It’s the only way.
The time when God restores everything with Jesus hasn’t arrived. The seeable, touchable Jesus is in heaven, waiting for that time. The lame man was a sign, to the people who knew him, of God restoring everything. The lame man was also the sign that God is beginning to make everything new now. So are we.
We are new creations now, if we have died and risen from the dead. We are called to believe in the cross and the resurrection, and we are called to teach the cross and the resurrection. We are called to live the cross and the resurrection.
I have to tell you that we must believe and teach the cross and the resurrection; not just because anyone says so, and not just because God says so, but because God himself has died and has risen from the dead; and that is a mind-boggling way of saying that he is the living God.
We must believe and teach this because this is the truth of who God is. God has nothing else to give us than what he has. There is no life anywhere else than in this truth. This is not theology. This is not a beautiful, meaningful idea. This is God. This is life.
I remember pretty far back and so I remember loving Jesus when I was three or four years old. I remember it from singing “Jesus Loves Me.” I made a commitment to Jesus watching Billy Graham on television when I about nine years old. But church wasn’t very important to my family, and the church as I knew it wasn’t very good at teaching me a lot of things I should have known. And I was raised in a family that was pretty “free-thinking” about Jesus and spiritual things.
By the time I was a teenager, I had essentially made up my own religion around Jesus. I loved Jesus, but I reinterpreted him. My ideas were very well thought out. I also had very good reasons for not taking the church seriously. Those reasons were good reasons that still hold water.
I had to surrender most of what I believed. I had to surrender to the church as God’s idea for us all, even though the church (as I experienced it) was a pretty twisted thing. It is why I can say, today, that I believe, with all my heart, in a sinful church. I was spiritual, and I was not religious, and I had to die to my carefully constructed, sincerely held spirituality. My spirituality had to die in order for me to live in Jesus.
I had to die to my idea of who I was, and who I was meant to be.
I was only eighteen but it was hard to face. The women who found the empty tomb left it in a state of fear and bewilderment. That is what it is like to find out that you have to die and rise again. It’s nothing you could ever take lightly.
As a result, other kids who had known me for a long time saw that I had changed. A girl I had had a crush on for years told me that she could tell that I had changed and that I had a lot more confidence than I used to have. It wasn’t confidence in my self. It was confidence in God: in Christ.
I could do things I couldn’t do before. I could face things I couldn’t face before. I discovered talents and gifts that had never been visible before.
There was an opening that stayed open between my heart and God. That open place between me and God is still there, all the time. God, in Christ, is there all the time, even when I get so mad at him.
(Read the Psalms about anger and God. The Psalms teach us that we can bring anything to God, and God is big enough to handle it, and to handle us and our feelings about him.)
Times of refreshment and restoring came to me. Those times still come.
Some more verses from the Apostle Paul speak to me about this. “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)
The God who died and rose from the dead teaches us how to die to ourselves and rise with him every day. This is the kind of God he is.

This is how he claims us. This is how he makes us his, and teaches us to love. God is love and love lives by dying and rising. There really is no other way. That is why our message is about the cross and the resurrection. This is where true life is found, and nowhere else.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Telling It - The Crucified One

Preached on Sunday, September 20, 2015 

Scripture readings: Mark 10: 35-45; Mark 15: 25-39

In my childhood and my growing up days, the big annual event of my family was to spend a couple weeks in the summer, camping. Sometimes we drove all over California, camping in a half dozen places. Sometimes we did all our camping in one spot.
We always slept in a tent. It was big enough to hang a sheet across the middle. That gave my parents whatever privacy you can have sharing a tent with three children.
Sunsets and One Sunrise, Desert Aire, WA
August 2015
We slept in the tent. We didn’t live in the tent unless it was raining; which would be a lot of fun for about half a day. So (normally) when we camped, our house had no walls and no doors or windows. Our house didn’t need them because it was a big as the world.
If our house had a door, you could say that our door was always open. We liked to pick a campsite that had some privacy, in the form of trees, or bushes, or rocks but, if someone came through our invisible door, we made them feel at home.
Camping wasn’t our house. It was our home. It was nothing like home, except that it had us.
So camping taught us this lesson, that home wasn’t a place. It wasn’t our familiar stuff, and it wasn’t our familiar routine. Our way of living and everything and everything else about it was different.
Home was us. Home is always that way. Home is people. Home is a relationship of people who belong to each other. The kind of home that went with camping has a lot in common with the kind of home that belongs to the cross. The cross makes for an open house.
Think about the kind of home the cross makes. Jesus died on the cross to open the door in God’s house so that whoever wants to come in and belong can do so. This is what it meant for the curtain in The Temple to be torn in two from top to bottom.
The curtain was the tent-like door that covered the entrance to the holy inner room in the house of God. The curtain was a big door. It was about sixty feet tall and about thirty feet wide.
The Temple was God’s house. It was all about God living in the midst of his people where they could come close and meet God. Only the curtain represented a barrier between God’s family and their God who loved them.
This separation is a thing that we call sin. The word “sin” in the New Testament is an archery word that means missing the mark. It could have been a golf word too, if the ancient people had played golf. You either hit the mark or you miss it. Close only counts in horse shoes.
You can overshoot. You can undershoot. You can veer to the left. You can veer to the right. Apparently, in golf, you have four and a quarter inches to get it right, and you have hundreds of feet in every direction to get it wrong.
Why is the game so picky? Because you can get the hole in the cup and, when you do, I hear that it’s beautiful, at least when you are on par or under par. If it takes much more than that you may get the ball in the hole, but it isn’t pretty any more. It isn’t the same and it doesn’t make you happy, and it doesn’t make you good company for others.
 The doorway into holy inner place of The Temple was covered with a curtain to keep out those who missed that mark. Does this seem unfair?
The people who were around the cross were in a holy place without knowing it. It wasn’t anything like the holy place they were used to thinking about.
In the holy place they were used to thinking about everything was simple, and quiet, and orderly. One day a year the blood of an animal sacrificed for the sins of all the people was brought into the holy place, in The Temple. When the blood was sprinkled there, in the presence of God, it brought God’s loving forgiveness to all his people. The blood that was shed made the infinite love of God real and true.
Jesus, hanging on the cross represented the forgiving love of God. Jesus was God making himself into the powerful sacrifice of love. Jesus is God shedding his blood to give us a real and true forgiveness that allows us to come home to God, and to become that home in that close relationship with him.
The blood of God takes away all the stuff and all the routine of our old home. It makes us at home with a family as big as the world. The cross makes it possible for absolutely anyone to come in, if they want to come home.
The cross also shows us why a life-changing forgiveness is needed. Jesus was, and is, the holiness of God. He is the Son of God who represents his Father. His Father is the Sender and the Son is “The-One-Who-Is-Sent”, and the resemblance between them is perfect. Glory hung upon the cross; the glory of an infinite and unconditional love.
See what the people at the cross do in the presence of the holiness and glory of God.
The priests and the teachers of the law were the pros of holiness and goodness. They were successful in all the rules and techniques of the game, but they didn’t like holiness and goodness at its best the way they saw it in Jesus. They loved their own holiness and goodness.
It was the same, in the beginning, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They thought that eating it would give them a holiness and goodness like the holiness and goodness of God.
They thought it would make them pros. They thought they could be like God and so they could claim authority over their own lives. They wanted to be in charge. They misinterpreted and misunderstood God, and God’s motives, and God’s ways.
The priests and teachers of the law were looking at the face of God covered with the blood of the crown of thorns and they didn’t know what they were looking at, and they didn’t like it. They knew the truth but they didn’t understand it when they saw it. They said, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.”
Even in the Old Testament, the prophets knew and spoke the truth that if God’s people and God’s creation were to be saved, then he would have to do it himself. God said, “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.” (Isaiah 45:21)
The point was for God to be our Savior. God’s love is about saving others and not about keeping away from us in our need. God had to get involved and spend himself to pay the cost of a new world and a new way of life for us in that world.
When we read what the gospels say about the holy place around the cross we see what sin does. The thieves on either side, in their pain, could only make themselves feel better by causing the pain of heckling Jesus. The disciples who had spent so much time learning from Jesus, including learning about the cross ran away from the cross. The Gospel of John tells us that the only the disciple there was John standing by the side of Mary the mother of Jesus.
The women who served Jesus were there because they thought of themselves as servants and slaves. The world taught them to think that way and they had learned their lessons well. They were not so afraid of the messiness of the cross that they would think of running from it. They would take care of Jesus, as well as they could, as long as he lived, and even after he died.
No one who loved Jesus spoke to him, except Luke tells us that one of the thieves had a change of heart. He spoke to Jesus in faith, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) Here we see it again: Jesus opening the door to God’s house and making his house a home; even for a thief.
Jesus said that the cross was a price that had to be paid as a ransom, as the cost that had to be met to set others free. Taking a house and making it into a home is costly. The cost of changing the hearts, and the minds, and the way of life of those who are supposed to be at home together is price that no one has ever found.
Making a home for those who don’t want to come home is a price that no human being can pay for another, let alone for the whole world. It only happens as a gift. God paid the price for that gift in Jesus.
The cross is the price that God pays for us and for the world. The cross is also the price that we are called to pay for our love for Jesus, and for our love for others. The cross is not just the price we pay to faithfully tell about Jesus. The cross is the price we pay to be Jesus in this world, and to live his life for others.
The word “gospel” means good news. The good news about the cross is that it gives us the forgiving love of God that opens the door to the presence of God. But our own lives also have be the same kind of love that opens the door to the forgiving love of God in Jesus.
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-35)
As Christians we are called to be “slaves of all” just as Jesus was. We must do this prayerfully and, in our prayers, we must pray to be wise and good users of God’s gifts. But the wisest and best users of God’s gifts see themselves as the slaves of all. The wisest and best users of God’s gifts always worry that they might not be going far enough. Jesus calls us to this.
Part of how we do this it to tear through the door between others and us because we are living in God’s home. Not every one will see that you are in God’s home, because they don’t know how to see God. If they saw God they might act like all those people around the cross. But they can see you, and you can give them a home without walls.
When I was seventeen one of the worst bullies in my class had been giving me a bad time all day long and we walked together into Mr. Thomas’ class. And Buzz made another wise crack and then he said, “You hate my guts, don’t you Evans?”
I didn’t know what to say, because I knew I had a hard time with my feelings toward Buzz. All I could come up with was this: “No I don’t hate you. We’re just really different.” I tried not to close a door, although I know he wanted, with all his heart, for me to say that I hated him.
It didn’t do any good. It was the best I could come up with as a seventeen-year-old and (so far as I know) nobody had ever been able to get through to him.
The first church I served, after I was ordained, was in a small town on the Oregon coast. It was a recreational and vacation community. It had a lot of artists living in it. It was also a lumber mill town, and so it could be very rough. There was a lot of drinking and drugs. I never knew so many people who had been in jail, or in prison, or who went to jail or prison after they got to know me.
I had to learn that there was no shame in this. Parents got as mad as heck when one of their boys went to jail. They were mad because their boy had been so stupid. They were mad, but not embarrassed. That was the way their world was.
I learned to not be embarrassed. I went to their homes, even though they weren’t church people, and they never repaid me by coming to church. They knew that even though I lived with an open door toward them a lot of people in my church wouldn’t show them an open door except for the door out.
I talked to kids out on the street at night. I talked to the drunk who came to church drunk on a Sunday morning. Even with all the people there, he didn’t even realize it was Sunday morning. I was able to spend some time talking to him. He had a lot of problems. I think some of my people appreciated my doing this, but others didn’t.
The guy who came to church drunk actually conned me at least once, and I was too dumb to see it. I don’t know if I ever did him any real spiritual good, but I was his servant, his prayerful slave, to pay a price to set him free. I was willing to be his ransom.
Knowing Jesus is our ransom to free us to come home changes us. It makes a difference. It changes our hearts and minds. It helps to change us into his image. Jesus came to be the slave to all, and we can be the same.
Even when we don’t see that we are making a difference, Jesus has made a difference in us. It makes us trust that, when we become slaves to all, Jesus can do something with that. That is what the Son of God wants.
The Roman officer didn’t know who Jesus was until he heard and watched Jesus die on the cross. That was all he knew about Jesus. That Roman was (perhaps) the first convert. At least he could say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

It happened because (even without understanding it) he saw Jesus paying the price of being the slave of all. If we are such slaves, then that same power of Jesus will be at work in us; and, then, Jesus can do anything with us.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Telling It - Son of God

Preached on Sunday, September 13, 2015

Scripture readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Mark 1:1-15

In high school I took solid geometry and trigonometry from Mrs. Dewey. She was also my Sunday school teacher for one year (at least for those Sundays when I was at church).
Pictures from a Walk East of Live Oak, CA to the Feather River
June 2015
I really liked her and saw her as a good teacher. At least she gave me good grades and a lot of encouragement. I also thought of Mrs. Dewey as being very proper and conservative.
So it came as a complete surprise when I heard that (as a joke) she had poured a bowl of ice water on her son Alan, one school morning, when he was slow getting out of bed. Even for her own kids (who knew her well), this came as a surprise.
When God came to earth in Jesus, the way in which he came was a complete surprise to everyone: even to those who thought they knew him best.
The old scriptures of God’s people warned them that they should expect him to come this way: as a complete surprise. Malachi gives an example of this. “’Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord of Hosts.” But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:1) Jesus came as a complete surprise to his people even though they were told to expect a surprise. But how can it be any other way?
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day couldn’t stand before him, and neither could the Roman governor and his soldiers, even though they succeeded in crucifying him. With all their authority, they could not stand before him because Jesus came with a different kind of authority from theirs.
Jesus is the Son of God. The Father is the sender. The Son is the sent. And the Holy Spirit is the power and love that the Father and the Son share together and send together. We see them all together at the baptism of Jesus. They all came as a surprise to do a great thing together.
They came to make a surprising kingdom begin and, in the work they did with Jesus, we see the surprise that gives us a new life. It was the mission of the Son to make a demonstration of the power and love of the kingdom in a completely unexpected way.
By demonstrating this power on the cross and in the resurrection, Jesus made the kingdom of God happen. Dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus gave birth to the kingdom. He made his kingdom possible in us.
Mark called his little piece of writing a gospel. Well, really, he called it the good news. Gospel is just a word that comes from the Greek word for good news. It was a word was often used for the special purpose of describing great events. It was the word for the report of a decisive victory in a crucial war. It was the word for the report of a royal birth.
And so it is for us. What we call the gospels are the reports of the good news of a battle that has been won. In Jesus, God defeated the world as we know it: the world that often angers and frightens us, the world that destroys innocence, and justice, and decency. In Jesus, God defeated the devil who tells us the lies that we find so easy to buy into. He defeated the devil who offers us satisfactions, and distractions, and security, and money, and influence. In Jesus, God defeated the thing called sin that separates us from harmony with God, and others, and puts us at war with ourselves. In Jesus, God even defeated death.
The gospels report the good news of many royal births. They report the birth of the sons and daughters of God. They report your birth and mine as sons and daughters of God as the death and life of Jesus take authority, and comes into us and rules in us.
The good news tells us the message of what we believe, when we put our faith and hope in Jesus. Jesus is the sent one whom we call the Son of God. He came into this world as a surprise and Jesus has never changed.
Our own life story is the story of how the Son of God has come as a surprise to us and we have not been able to stand up to that surprise. We have had to surrender to the Son of God who has surprising authority over everything.
The good news tells us that Jesus comes as a surprise to be alongside of people who know they need to change; just as he came to be baptized along with us. The good news tells us that Jesus came as a surprise to the wilderness of our temptations and defeats, our hungers and our thirsts, and Jesus shares what exhausts us and wears us down. The good news tells us that Jesus calms storms and fights the devilish powers that try to seize us. The good news tells us that Jesus heals. Jesus has the surprising power and love to forgive us and make us into forgiven people who have his forgiving power in them to share with others. The good news tells us that Jesus has the authority to surprise the good people by exposing their fallenness, and to surprise the rejected people by exposing their blessedness.
In the first verse of his good news, Mark told us what he was giving us: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Since we all have eternity ahead of us, perhaps each one of us can wear the same label. We can all be, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Our lives should tell that story. I want each of us to learn how to tell that story. What difference does Jesus make in your life? How is Jesus your good news? How can you report to others, when they might be aware of their own need, how your experience shows the difference that Jesus can make for them?
Over most of the next several Sundays, I will try to share a story or two about how the Son of God came with a surprising authority into my life: how he took charge, how his cross and his resurrection influenced me, and some of the other ways that he has changed me. I would invite you to volunteer to do the same over next several Sundays.
First let me tell you what other people don’t need from you. They don’t need to be impressed by wonderful things that have happened to you, or the amazing things you have been a part of.
Let me give you an example. When I was nineteen years old, I was on my college campus and just getting out of a science class and I needed to cross the campus for an English class. Suddenly it began to pour down rain. It had started out as a beautiful Sacramento Valley spring day, and this surprise storm came up. Right as class was out, the storm broke and rain poured like crazy. The air seemed like solid water. I had a hundred yards to run to get to class. Everyone was soaked except me. I just had a couple drops of water here and there.
It was a miracle. It shouldn’t have happened. I never asked God to keep me from getting wet. It wouldn’t have been fair. All I could do was laugh. I really laughed at something God had done; something that no one would ever believe and that was so completely useless and unnecessary. I know it sounds completely crazy.
It’s a true story, but I would never dream of telling it to someone if I wanted them to know what difference God can make in their life.
People don’t need to know that God can do a miracle, even though this is true. He can do it. But they don’t need this, because they need something else that is much more important.
People need to know that their lives can be changed by the power of God’s love. People need to know that their life can change; that they are loved infinitely even before they experience one single atom of change. People need to know that their lives have purpose and that the love of God can make them agents of change in the people and in the world around them.
I know I have shared with you some verses from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. They mean so much me that I live by them.
God gave the apostle Paul a special weakness that we don’t understand very well. I’m not going to explain it now, but it was very upsetting to Paul. It seems to have kept him from serving God on the level Paul thought was needed. Paul prayed and prayed the perfect and sufficient number of times for “the Lord to take it away.” “But he (the Lord) said to me (said Paul) ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)
Let me tell you a childhood story. Although my spiritual upbringing was really pretty sloppy and haphazard I had some good input, probably, mostly thanks to my Grandma Evans. She took me to Sunday school when I was very little. That was where I learned to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”
When we moved too far for her to take me to church she probably nagged my parents and we went sometimes. I knew who Jesus was. I knew something about God creating me and loving me.
By the time I was in the middle of elementary school I knew that I needed help, because my life wasn’t working very well. I wasn’t connecting with other kids the way I should. I wasn’t connecting with my dad very well. I knew I could be a much better older brother than I was. Even then, I had a concept of sin as something I couldn’t really fix.
In my trouble with other kids, my dad told me I had to defend myself. In the fourth grade I got in my only fight, and I won, but I felt guilty about it and I never fought again.
My dad also told me “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12) That’s called the golden rule. Jesus was the one who said it.
I tried as hard as I could to follow that rule but it didn’t help. I thought that if I was nice to other kids then they would be nice to me. Even though Jesus told us to do this, his reason was not to give us a way to make other people treat us the way we want to be treated. I was absolutely confused by this and I didn’t know what to do.
I loved Jesus. I knew something about the fact that he had died for me on the cross. I made a commitment of my life to Jesus watching Billy Graham on the television. It was on an old black and white television and I was all by my self in the den.
Then, one of our times in church, we were singing the old hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty”. There was large black cross hanging from the church ceiling, and during this song I suddenly felt as though that cross were going inside me. I felt as if ocean waves were going over me and it was very scary and it almost hurt.
I decided that it might hurt to follow Jesus, but that Jesus had been hurt to help me and to love me. So I found ways to not give in to bullies without fighting them. I also started to stop fights. The other kids were cheering the fighters and I would be right there beside them, telling them that they didn’t need to fight. Sometimes they stopped. Otherwise not much changed for me. They just got worse.
Seventh grade was a living hell. I was constantly getting shoved around and pushed on the ground. I was called names. It all came from one big group of kids who ran the halls of that school. It was an old school with lots of nooks and crannies and places for stuff like that to happen. I wasn’t their only victim. I didn’t fight, but I didn’t give in.
Sometime it made me sick to my stomach, going to school every day. In a strange way (I suppose) it also became an adventure.
One day I realized that my seventh period classroom had a third door we never used that led to a long narrow space between the building and the chain link fence that closed in the school property. I could see that it went to the street where the school buses parked to bring us to school and take us home. I realized that I could slip through that unused door and escape to the bus without that gang of kids getting me.
When the bell rang, they saw me run for the unused door and they yelled “Get him!” The teacher was standing right there at the head of the class. I made it safe to the bus that day, and a half a dozen boys got sent to the office. Next day, I got asked what was going on, and things got better for me (a little bit). What I had done was not to run away from them, but to run around them.
The bullies still ruled the school. In their hands, some kids cried. Some kids begged for mercy. When the bullies got hold of me, I just stood there and took it silently.
That spring one boy came up to me and he said, “I really admire you for the way you stand up to them. You don’t fight them, but you stand up to them anyway.”
I’m sure that story isn’t for everybody. I do think that, sometimes, I might find someone who is in a place in their life where fighting will do no good, but standing your ground will do some good. A kid’s story might even be good for grown-ups. It was one way that Jesus made a difference in my life.
It was the best way I could figure out as a kid of nine, ten, eleven, and twelve to follow Jesus, even when it hurt. I think I still do that. I’m not consistent enough, but there are times when that is my job. I try to stand up for the truth, and for others, and for the gospel way of doing things. And, that way, I try to stand up for Jesus, because he is the Son of God.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Q&A How Does God Tell You Things, And How Can You Be Sure?

Preached on Sunday September 6, 2015

Scripture readings: John 14:15-31; Acts 21:1-14

Woody Allen once said, “If only God would give me some clear sign – like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”
Pictures from Fullerton Arboretum
June 2015
There are certain places in each of the four gospels that tell us that the Lord will lead us, and guide us, and help us know what to say and do. God will tell us things.
John, in his gospel, sheds a lot of light on our continuing reliance on God’s presence, and God’s communication with us. Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18) In other words, Jesus will always serve as a parent to us and do what parents do; to teach us, and guide us, and go with us, and to take us with him.
Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11ff) He said he would walk ahead of us, which is another way of saying that he shows us the way. He guides us. He directs us in ways that are good for us.
Jesus said, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26) Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
All of this means that, when we belong to Jesus, we belong to God in all his fullness (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and this is about a rich and loving relationship. This is intimacy.
Our relationship with God will not be blind and deaf. Even if we start out not seeing well or not hearing well, we will not end that way. God wants to make us into seeing and hearing children.
God has no policy of giving us the silent treatment. The silent treatment is not what faith is about.
God tells us things all the time. The Bible tells us the story of a God who reveals himself, and searches us out. In the Book of Job it says, “God speaks in one way and in two, though man does not perceive it.” (Job 33:14, R.S.V.) In other words, God has lots of ways of always telling us things, even when we are not aware of it.
The creation is full of God telling us things: Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)
God speaks to us through creation, and through the scriptures, and through prayer, and through music, and through fellowship with other people, and through worship. God speaks to us through the circumstances of our lives.
God speaks to us, in all of these things (usually through something we may call a still, small voice). God’s voice is almost like the voice of our own thoughts, only they are not our thoughts at all.
Long ago I served a church on the south coast of Oregon. I remember God directing me on one of my days off down there. I wanted to take a walk on the beach near Reedsport. I was looking forward to walking by the ocean.
Although I was driving to Reedsport, I suddenly felt that I needed to turn off on a road that led to a lake instead. The lake was another one of the places where I liked to go; only I didn’t want to go there that day. I wanted the ocean; but I turned anyway, and stopped at the lake. Being a creature of habit, I always started around the lake by taking the trail to the right. This time I took the trail around to the left.
There was a bench near the start of that part of the trail, and there was a man sitting on that bench. I wanted quiet, to be alone and pray. I pray well when I walk. But I stopped and sat beside the stranger, and started a conversation with him. I never do that.
The man had just gone through a divorce, and then he had been diagnosed with an eye condition that was going to make him blind. He was a Christian who had drifted away from the church and from fellowship with other Christians. He had drifted away from prayer and intimacy with God.
He told me, after we had talked for a while, that he felt the Lord was calling him back to a deeper relationship with him. He also confided that he had been driving somewhere else and had felt compelled to stop at the lake, and walk down the trail, and sit on that bench, even though there was somewhere else that he was supposed to be.
I told him that it had been the same with me. We prayed together, and parted.
The point is that there is this still, small voice that seems to lead us, without coming from us. God’s still, small voice is like a thought that is laid upon our thought; but it comes from outside us, or from beyond us, and often in spite of us.
In the book of Acts, we are told of many different ways that the Lord had, and may still have, of speaking to us and telling us the things that we need to know, and say, and do. The book of Acts begins with Luke addressing his readers with the purpose of his writing his gospel and the Acts. He writes this: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven.” (Acts 1:1)
This means that what Jesus began to do and teach in the Gospel, he continued to do and teach in the Book of Acts. By implication, Jesus is still doing things and teaching among us now.
In the Book of Acts there are supernatural ways that the Lord speaks: through dreams, and visions, and the visitations of angels, and people speaking by the direct inspiration of the Holy Sprit: speaking as prophets. There are places, though, where the Lord speaks in humbler ways: through shipwrecks, through friendships (Acts 11:25-26), and through his people meeting together, and arguing, and discussing things when there is confusion and disagreement (Acts 15).
The Lord has spoken to me in every one of these ways, except through shipwreck. The Lord has spoken to me through you. I know this for a fact. And the Lord has spoken to you through me. I am sure of this.
But how can you be sure? How can you be sure that the Lord is telling you any specific thing with a clear message?
I would say that, even if you received the clearest possible message, you might not understand it, and you might not find it easy to follow. Even if God spelled out what he wanted to tell you in letters printed across the sky, you would have no idea of where that message would take you, or what it would mean for you as the years passed by.
This is part of what Luke is telling us, in the portion of the Book of Acts where Paul was walking into the trap that was going to close on him for the rest of his life in a long, uncertain, and dangerous imprisonment. The trap would spring a long set of legal and political trials and appeals that were going to lead to his beheading in Rome.
Paul ended up in chains, and we do not know, for sure, whether he was ever a truly, legally, free man again. We know that Paul was taken as a prisoner to Rome, and we know that he was executed in Rome.
In our reading in Acts, we see the other disciples warning Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Luke tells us that they urged Paul “through the Spirit” not to go. The words “through the Spirit” means (at very least) that the Holy Spirit told them something that made them plead with Paul not to go to Jerusalem.
The Spirit told them that Paul was in danger. Through the warning they received, and through their understanding of that warning, they tried to persuade Paul not to walk into that trap.
In the chapter before this, Paul told another group of disciples, in another city, that this kind of message seemed to follow him everywhere he went. Paul stated his case (as he saw it) this way. He said, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24)
Paul felt that he was being “compelled by the Spirit”. He felt that God had a clear message for him, and this message was that he must be willing to go forward to his arrest and imprisonment, even if it led to his death.
Paul believed that God was telling him to go and suffer as a witness to the grace of God. But Paul’s friends believed that God was telling him to avoid the trap, and stay free to travel the world as a witness to the grace of God.
Luke says, “When Paul would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” (Acts 21:14)
The way I read it, when they gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done,” I think they meant that they reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was the Lord’s will for Paul to not make the best decision. I believe that this is what they thought.
Luke, writing years later, could look back and he could see what Jesus had done and what Jesus had taught through Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem. I believe that Paul was right and that Paul made the best decision. I believe that Luke, looking back, could see this as well.
Paul and his friends had all been warned, by the Holy Spirit, about the dangers to come. Because of the Spirit’s’ warnings, Paul’s friends urged him not to walk into the trap.
I believe that the Spirit was at work in the warnings of the dangers to come, but the Spirit was not at work in the urgings of Paul’s friends who wanted him to escape and be safe. They thought that the Spirit was warning Paul so that he could act smartly.
Paul could tell the difference between the love of the Spirit calling him to danger and the love of his friends who wanted him to escape. The tug of war between the love of God and the love of friends was a tug of war that almost broke Paul’s heart. Paul decided to follow God’s love into risk and danger.
God didn’t control Paul’s thoughts. The Holy Spirit didn’t forced Paul to make a choice that led to prison and execution. But God loves the kind of person Paul was. God simply chose a man who would do anything for love; for the love of God and for the love of others, whether it was wise, or safe, or prudent, or not.
We have all watched good people make bad choices for the right reasons. You know what I mean. Their motive was right and noble: but their choice was wrong, and it was completely unnecessary, and endless trouble came of it.
Maybe we have made decisions like that ourselves. And yet (and yet), given time, the Lord’s will was done. This teaches us that God is fully capable of blessing our mistakes. Thanks be to God!
There are people we love who make hard and dangerous choices for the right reasons; to join the armed forces, to become a fire fighter, and there are other such choices. Their motives are right and noble; and their choices are right, even though the people who love them will grieve because of those choices.
This is a very important lesson. Paul was thinking, and speaking, and making choices out of the depths of love. His friends were pleading with him in love, and Paul said, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?” (Acts 21:13) It is love that we see on every side of this story.
The very question, “How can we be sure?” sometimes comes from a desire for the wrong kind of faith. There is a kind of faith that wants to be right, above everything else. There is a kind of faith that wants to be safe, and comfortable, and smart. And then, there is another kind of faith that, above everything else, does not want to fail the ties of love and faithfulness.
I want to know what God wants because I want to be right and smart. I want to be right because I do not want to make mistakes. I hate making mistakes because I hate to be wrong. I hate to be wrong because I am always trying to be smart, and that is the most dangerous thing of all, because, above everything else, this is pride.
Sometimes we are tempted to do the opposite of smart. We are tempted to do daring and risky things to prove our faith. When I was in college, a representative from a Christian publisher contacted the Christian groups on campus to look for daring Christian kids to help distribute their products. They distributed very nice looking Bible reference books. The representative told us, when we went to his meeting, that we could make a surprising amount of money in one summer by simply appearing in some rural community with our samples and we would find someone who would put us up, and we would find a church that would help promote our work.
In this way we would provide other Christians with an excellent product and we would learn how to live by faith by stepping out in faith. In this way we would receive the joy that comes from proving our faith. We would receive the benefits that come from faith. And yet that would be another way of proving we were smart: smarter than the average Christian.
There will be times when real Christians ask you to prove your faith in this way, but they are usually wrong. We must choose faith. We must live our faith. But we are not called to prove our faith. That is a temptation that comes from pride.
It is like the adolescent game of “I Dare You”. It’s a foolish game. It’s an exciting game. It’s a game of pride.
Paul seemed proud because he was stubborn. He seemed carelessly daring.
Paul was not perfect. And Paul made mistakes. But Paul was a lover, as well as a fighter. Paul did not fight for pride. He fought for love. He would blunder for love. He was stubborn only because he loved the Lord, and he loved his people. Because of this, there was a divine protection (a powerful grace) that shed its light over his mistakes, so that even his worst mistakes were not so bad, and good came of them, and the Lord’s will was done.
This is the kind of mistake we should pray for. We should be willing to blunder into the loving and faithful choice. We should be willing to be stubborn for the sake of love.
There were people who were trying to be prophets. They were prophets. But Paul clung t

o being like Jesus, and having fellowship with Jesus; who made the dangerous choice and gave himself for the love of the world and for the love of his Father on the cross.
Here, in this fellowship, we form a part of what Jesus has begun to do and to teach in this cluster of communities. In order for Jesus to continue to work and to teach through this fellowship we have choices to make about how to use our energy and our resources to be a church and people of evangelism and mission.
The Holy Spirit has warnings for us as a fellowship and as members of this fellowship. There are dangers and risks. There are choices that will be very demanding and consuming.
The temptation for us comes from the direction of wanting to make the smart choice or the safe and comfortable choice. For the Lord’s will to be done, the smart choices and the safe choices will only work for a little while. In order to find out what Jesus wants to do and to teach through this fellowship, we have to make choices that seem costly, and dangerous.
We are not called to make such choices in order to prove our faith in order to get what we want. We are called to make such choices in order to live our faith and love. So that our faith will make us look like Jesus in the end.

We have to make decisions that look like blunders. We need to have a lot of fight in us (a lot of toughness in us) in order to live out the hard choices (like the choices that Paul made).

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Know God - The Champion

Preached on Sunday, August 30, 2015

Scripture readings: John 17:1-19; Romans 8:26-39

Fullerton Arboretum, Fullerton, CA: June 2015
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
A long time ago, in my early twenties, I decided that if everything in my life hung on one, single sentence in the Bible, this would be the one. I didn’t choose it because my life with God had proven that things fall into place when you know, and love, and trust God. I chose that one sentence because I was sure that no other way was possible.
Things falling into place: Paul was writing about so much more than that. He was writing about love. If we looked back through this eighth chapter of Romans we would see that Paul was writing about a world full of a love that cannot be wounded, or broken, or lost, or decline, or fade.
We are waiting to become children of God who are able to perfectly love, and to be perfectly loved, in a world of love. Or we are waiting to see more than a glimpse of that love, because we seldom see more than a glimpse. We are waiting for the promised work to be done.
To love and to be loved, in a world of love, is not the way Paul says it. Paul writes about “life and peace” (8:6); “putting to death the misdeeds of the body” (8:13); “sharing in Christ’s suffering and in Christ’s glory” (8:17). That is love.
Paul writes about the Holy Spirit telling us, deep within, that we are children of God (8:16). “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (8:19) Paul pictured the whole creation knowing, instinctively, that everything would be better, everything would work, nothing would be lost or in vain, when we (as God’s children) arrive at our full identity; when our time arrives in the love of God (as God’s children).
There are people all over the world, and all around us, who seem to give up on happiness and love. And there are so many reasons why they do so.
And, when so many people give up and when so many people settle on other things, and pursue those other things, so much trouble comes from it, and on the story goes: trouble, distress, harassment, famine, nakedness, danger and sword. Even on a smaller, more personal scale it goes on. On and on we produce the trouble that separates us from love.
When we have learned from Jesus to call God “Abba” (which means “father” but, most of all, “daddy”) then we know that we are part of the plan of God, in Jesus, to make a world of life and love that will last forever. When we have learned from Jesus to call God Father, and Daddy, we still see how scary love can be. We see how love can seem to change.
We see how fragile human life, and heath, and safety can be in the people we love; and in those who love us. We see how fragile our emotions are, in the way they feed into love. We see fragile our own love is: how hard it is to give the love that others should have from us all the time. We see how hard it is to receive love with a thankful heart from others, when they fail to give us the love we yearn for all the time.
We see how fragile our own love for God is. We see how impatient, how thankless, how fainthearted, and how unenthusiastic we can be.
God has called us for the purpose of making us people of love. If we want to know what kind of love God has called us to, we find the answer in Jesus. God has created us and brought us to his saving love in Jesus, in order to make us complete people who resemble Jesus in his completeness.
Paul tells us that this is a part of a plan that is designed to be fool-proof. God has designed his plan to not fail. It is a plan that we are right to call our destiny. It is such a strong plan that it is timeless and eternal in its certainty of success.
We are predestined to it. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (And we can say “many brothers and sisters.”)
We have been created and rescued by Jesus in order to be adopted into a family of love, a team of love, a network of love, a community of love, a world of love. All our life together will be like Jesus.
There is a plan that cannot fail to bring us into a love that never ends and never fails. Yet so much goes on in our world and in our lives to make us doubt this. There is so much frustration, and imperfection, and stress, and resistance, and conflict, and distraction. There are so many misunderstandings. There is so much loss and grief.
Because of this, we don’t feel the excitement of being “more than conquerors.” We feel like the conquered ones.
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Sometimes things are so far out of place for you, before you receive the calling of God’s love in your life, that everything does fall into place for you: because, “in everything God works for good.” That is a great and wonderful gift.
When I chose this sentence to hang my life on, the reason was my fear of failure. I feared that I would fail to be what God wanted me to be. I feared that I would not have the strength to do everything he asked me to do, and never give up.
One of the lessons this sentence taught me was to not measure myself, but to remember the power of God’s love that cannot be measured. The only measurement of God’s love is Jesus whose love gives us birth into the world we would all yearn for; if only we had faith that such a world could be.
The work that Jesus did has been designed to escort us into the life beyond the cross and the resurrection; into a life which have no measure. The sentence on which I hung my life taught me to trust the promise that God was at work in everything to make it possible for me to follow him into that life.
In everything, God works. In everything God works together. If life seems like work, God agrees and works together with us. We don’t know how to pray, but we do it and we find that God is praying with us, and within us. God doesn’t help us when we are at our best. Of course he does that as well. The point about God’s design for us is that, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” (8:26)
I had someone helping me with a computer problem the other day. I found myself asking him a lot of questions, and he would turn around and ask the questions that I should have asked if I had known what I was talking about. Instead of answering my questions, he answered the questions that I should have asked if I had known better, and then he did the work that I couldn’t do for myself. But I did need to ask my questions so that he could even fix my questions. That is a real conversation, and that is like the work that God does with us, and in us, in prayer.
It’s not just prayer. Everything we do with God is a real conversation. Everything is a conversation with Jesus “who died and who was raised to life.” (8:34)
In all the pressures of this world, and in our struggle to be faithful people of love, there are constant readjustments that come from dying and rising with Christ. We should constantly hear Jesus say, “I died for you. I died for you and I rose from the dead for you.”
Conversation can be hard work. And Paul gives the strongest share of the conversation to God. God doesn’t usually speak loudly, but what God has to say to each one of us carries the most weight, and that has to do which what he has done for us in Jesus.
How life stacks up against us is overwhelming. Paul gives us these lists that are more than long enough. There is trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and the sword. There is death, life, angels, demons, the present, the future, powers, height, depth, and anything else. The lists could go on.
Paul expects those who read these lists to not find anything surprising or out of the ordinary about them. For Paul and the people of Jesus in those days, the challenges on the lists were life as normal.
They don’t seem normal to us. They seem to belong to far away places with strange sounding names, where people aren’t like us.
If we thought that our part of the world was becoming like the world in the lists, we would be concerned. We would think that something had gone badly wrong, or that something new was in the picture. The fact is that, because the world is full of the challenges on Paul’s lists, it means that the world is becoming more and more normal.
We are living in the world of Paul and his friends. We are living in the world of the disciples. This can be overwhelming. The point is that God is more than a match for the world, no matter what it seems to be changing into.

Paul stacks the whole creation in heaven and earth against us, and he tells us that the love of God (that is ours in Jesus) outweighs it all. God is the champion of our love and faithfulness. Nothing can separate us from that love.