Monday, July 23, 2012

July 22, 2012 Spiritual Gifts: The Three R's - Prophecy and Discernment

Matthew 24:3-5

If you could know one thing about the future, what would you choose to know?

We are fascinated by the future.  The Left Behind series of books have sold over 70 million copies, with seven of the sixteen titles reaching number one on the New York Times bestseller lists.  I’ve not read any of them and I’m not a fan of them, but they touched a nerve among millions of people who long to know about the future.

What would you like to know about the future?

We are back to our series on spiritual gifts, and this morning we turn to the Revelatory gifts, those gifts that are based on insight or wisdom that is revealed to us.  I am combining two of the revelatory gifts this morning because of their close relationship – prophecy and discernment.

Speaking of the future is how we generally think of someone who is a prophet or someone who possesses the gift of prophecy, but a prophet is one who is about more than just speaking about the future.  Scripturally, the most important functions of a prophet are speaking on behalf of God and speaking the truth.

A.  All of us, by our words or deeds, become associated with speaking for God.

There’s an old joke about a minister who wrote in the margin of his manuscript weak point; speak loudly and pound pulpit hard. I take very seriously that I am charged to stand before you each week to preach.  I know there are some built-in dangers with preaching.  Sometimes ministers confuse their own opinions with eternal truth.  Sometimes we speak with authority on topics where we have many questions.

One of the realities of being a minister is that people often associate your opinions and your actions with your church.  I don’t claim to speak for this church, but I am well aware of the fact that some people will associate my opinions, my words, and my actions, for good or ill, with this church.

Some churches make an effort to restrain what their ministers say because of this, but the reality is, it’s not just ministers who are speaking on behalf of God – we all speak for God, even when we don’t realize we are doing so or claim to do so.  People hear what we say, they watch what we do, and they make the association, and sometimes it’s problematic.  When a pastor in Florida decides to burn the Koran lots of people think there you go, religion is full of crazy people.  Or when a televangelist is discovered to own five mansions and a fleet of expensive cars and people think preachers are all a bunch of crooks.

Representing God is serious business, and we must remember that how we conduct our lives is a reflection upon the name of God.

B.  We must earn the right to speak the truth in love.
There are several things I don’t like to hear, and one of them is this – I’m going to tell you something in love.  That’s when you can almost see some people wringing their hands with delight because they are anxious to plunge in the knife of harsh words.  If you love someone, you don’t have to remind them you are speaking to them in love; it is very obvious whether or not something is spoken in love.  I believe we should earn the right to say difficult things to people, and we earn that right by loving them.  It’s very apparent if our motivation is love or if it’s something else.

Some of what people imagine as being honest is just an excuse to be judgmental.  Years ago I had someone come to me and say this, after prefacing their statement with I’m going to tell you something in loveI’ve never heard you preach what I would call a sermon.  I wouldn’t even call them sermonettes.  That hurt.  It was presented as though it was offered out of concern, but there was no true concern there.  If Tanya, or one of the elders came to me and said something hard for me to hear, I know it would be out of genuine love and concern.

Telling the truth is too often associated with being critical or harsh with another person, but sometimes telling the truth has a positive connotation.  Some people need to hear these truths – you don’t have to think of yourself in such a negative way.  You are valued and loved.  You are a person of great worth.  You are a person of great ability and gifts.

C. We can learn a great deal about the future by looking to the past. 

I often hear people say that if they could live life over again they wouldn’t change a thing.  They have no regrets in life.  Wow.  I wish I could look at my life in that way, but I can’t.  If I had the opportunity to go back to the past I would change so many things in my life.  There are so many mistakes I would love to fix, so many opportunities missed that I wish I could go back and take, and so made times where I used bad judgment that I wish I could change.

We can’t change the past.  But we can allow the past to inform the present and the future.

The work of the Old Testament prophets was often based on reminding people of the past, of the faithfulness and redemptive nature of God.  The appeal of the past was a way for the prophets to remind people that God would continue to be faithful in the future and that he would continue to be gracious and loving.  In this way, prophecy makes a prediction about the future based on a lesson learned from the past.

I can’t go back and fix the mistakes of my past, but they can instruct me so I can avoid those mistakes in the present and the future.

Discernment is the ability to distinguish between what is genuine and what is false; it is the ability to tell the difference between what is right and wrong; it is being able to demonstrate good judgment.

Hopefully, we all have at least a basic understanding of discernment.  If, for example, I told my band mates in Exit Up that I was thinking about a new look, because we’re a rock band and I need to look more rock and roll, they might need to exercise discernment.  Imagine if I told them I was thinking about getting a pair of leather pants and boots.  I might even get a top hat.  Definitely a couple of tattoos.  And not just any tattoos, but ones that look dangerous.  And of course I would have to dye my grey hair, because grey hair isn’t very rock and roll.  I would need a couple of piercings, maybe one in each eyebrow.  If I were to do this, they would most likely exercise the gift of discernment and lock me in a room somewhere and tell Tanya not to let me out until I came to my senses.  At least I hope they would.

I think one of the areas where we need to be discerning is in the area of unhealthy religion.  There’s a lot of unhealthy religion out there, and I don’t believe it’s wrong to say so.  I meet so many people who have become members of the church alumni society – they’ve just given up on church because of the dysfunction they have encountered in churches. 

I attended a large meeting some years ago – thousands of people were in attendance – and the person who was preaching said this – I’m here to tell you that hell is real, hell is hot, and there are millions of people who are suffering in that hell.  What happened next was hard to believe – thousands of people, all throughout that crowded convention hall, leapt to their feet and began clapping and cheering.  It’s no wonder so many people hold to such a dim view of religion and even of God.

Jesus never hesitated to point out the unhealthy religion in his day.  He could be pretty tough on the scribes, the Pharisees, and others, because they were inflicting such an unhealthy kind of faith upon people and the desire of Jesus was to help people to be discerning about what is real and genuine faith and what is a pale imitation.

Vacation Bible School begins tomorrow.  Most of us probably learned John 3:16 in VBS – for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  But the next verse is of equal, or perhaps greater importance – for God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  Healthy religion does not point a finger and joyfully condemn people; healthy religion embraces people and loves them as did Jesus.

The choice is as clear as two different paths laid before us.

Allow the presence of God to enter into your life, into your heart, and mind; allow the presence of God to enter into your past, your present, and future.

Monday, July 16, 2012

July 15, 2012 - A Well-Ordered Life

Matthew 6:25-34

One of the things you face when writing sermons is the question of how personal one should be when using illustrations.  By nature, I am not the kind of person who likes to speak about very personal matters, but I want to tell you about a moment that was important to me.  I won’t go into the details, but it was a very difficult period in my life.  There was a lot of struggle and pain involved with what I experienced.  For a number of months it was as though I was locked in a prison of anxiety.  I would wake in the middle of the night and be awake for hours, worrying about what to do. 

One of the things I did during that period of time was to take certain passages of Scripture and read them regularly.  I would read certain psalms.  I read the end of chapter 40 of Isaiah.  I read portions of the Sermon On the Mount.  I read from Romans chapter 8 and Philippians chapter 2.  And I read a passage from the book of Acts that seemed to pull all the other passages together – Acts chapter 16, the story of Paul and Silas in prison.  In verse 25 Luke writes that in the middle of the night Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.  What struck me about that passage was this – I was a free man, and yet imprisoned by my own doubts, fears, and struggles.  Paul and Silas were imprisoned, but free.  The other passages I read were pointing to that freedom, and here in Acts was an example of how that freedom looked in the life of Paul and Silas.
It was a moment of epiphany for me, where I realized something very important about life.  I was trying to live a better version of the same life, rather than living a different life.

This morning, we are pausing in our series of messages about spiritual gifts.  This morning, I want us to consider what it means to live A Well-Ordered Life.

Here is one of the great mistakes we make about life – we work at living a better version of life rather than living a different life.  Much of the time, we are trying to live a more organized or more efficient life, thinking that will bring us the joy and the freedom in life we are seeking.

We buy organizers for our desks and our closets.  We take seminars on how to use time more efficiently.  We read books about how to plan our lives for years to come.  We work harder, but that doesn’t seem to be the answer either.  We fill our lives with activity, but something still seems to be amiss in life.

Being more organized and being more efficient will bring some benefits to our lives, but that doesn’t answer the deeper questions of life.
A well-organized life is not the same as a well-ordered life.  You can live a tremendously well-organized life, but it may not be a well-ordered life.

A well-organized life is a life where one organizes their schedule and responsibilities, but a well-ordered life goes beyond these things.  A well-ordered life asks the deeper questions of us, such as, is my schedule reflective of who I am as a child of God?  Am I giving my time to the right things?  Am I giving too much of my time to peripheral matters?  Are there important matters of life that I am missing?  Where is God in my life?  How am I serving God in my life?  Is God the love of my life?  Do I love God with my all my heart, mind, and soul?  (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37).  Who is really in charge of my life?

The gospel tells us this – being more efficient in life or using our time more wisely, or working harder, or being busier isn’t the key; the key is living a well-ordered life. 

In our text for this morning is a verse that tells us about living a well-ordered life.  Verse 33 – But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  It is putting all the elements of life into the proper order.

A well-ordered life is a life that has a healthy arrangement of priorities, it is a life that is well-balanced, it is a life that recognizes there are matters more important than just keeping up with what is on our daily to-do list.  It is a passage about doing what God has called us to do and centering our lives in God.  It is about stepping away from the idolatry that makes up much of life in our modern world.

A well-ordered life is based on the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God reminds us of this – the things that matter to God should matter to us. 

What matters to God?

1. People matter to God.  And not just some people, but all people.  We see far too many examples today of how religious people want to set qualifications for who God will love or who God will accept.
I once mentioned to a friend of mine that I could get some things done of it weren’t for all the interruptions.  His response was maybe the interruptions are the ministry.  He was right, and I have tried to keep his words in my mind and heart.

Erwin McManus is a pastor and writer in Los Angeles.  In his book Seizing Your Divine Moment he writes of what he calls God moments.  They are those moments in life, which are easy to miss, where there is an opening to step into a moment that can be redemptive for another person.  We have to keep our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds open to these moments so we do not miss them.  In our busyness are we missing those God moments, those opportunities to make a difference to another person?

2. God especially loves those who are on the edges of life – the poor, the loners, the outcasts, the sinners, those rejected by society, those not considered good enough, or righteous enough, or beautiful enough, or perfect enough, or rich enough. 

3. God is with people in the midst of their struggles.  To remember those who struggle in life is evidence that our lives are not centered upon ourselves.  The book of James says Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).  I think we could do with a lot less of the finger-pointing that comes from many churches and a lot more of taking care of orphans and widows.  And keeping ourselves from being polluted by the world is keeping our hearts and minds clear.  Karl Marx famously said that religion is an opium of the people.  I would argue with him on that point.  I believe there is a lot of destructive ways of thinking presented to us that become anesthesia to our hearts and minds, such as thinking of ourselves rather than others, or that we should seek to get what we can for ourselves while ignoring the needs of others. 

5. God wants us to step into the lives of others.  There is no greater antidote to our own struggles than stepping into the life of another and walking with them through the trials of their life.  Jesus reminded us that life is not simply about ourselves.  That is what Jesus was constantly trying to teach his disciples.  When life is going well for us we need to remember it’s not going well for everyone.  We must be engaged with the needs of our community and world.

God does not value us by what we own or what we have accomplished.  We can be so driven to accumulate and to find success.  God is more interested in who we are that what we have or what we have accomplished in our careers.

I will close with an analogy of the two approaches to life from which we can choose.  One is an activity that I have done numerous times, although I don’t like it; the other is an activity I love, but haven’t done as much as I would like.

The first is using a treadmill.  I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like treadmills.  It’s not just the physical work, but the fact they are so much like life – no matter how hard you work and how fast you move you never get anywhere and if you slow down for just a moment you’re in big trouble. 

The other activity is white-water rafting, which I love.  It is so much fun, although it is kind of crazy when you think about it.  You have to wear a helmet, and that’s always a bad sign.  When someone tells you to put on a helmet you know you might get hurt.  After you put on a helmet you are given this advice – if you fall out of the boat and are pulled underwater, curl up in a ball so the current will push you back to the surface and you won’t drown.  And you have to wonder why you are paying to do such a thing.

You start down the river and come to the first rapids.  The guide is shouting at you to paddle to avoid the large rocks.  People are screaming and you want to throw yourself into the bottom of the boat and cover your head, but you paddle as hard as you can.  You begin to wonder why you chose to do such a crazy thing.  But as soon as you get safely through the first set of rapids you can’t wait to do it again. 
I prefer the white-water way of living – you have a guide to steer you through the difficult, uncertain times of life, and though you sometimes wonder if you’ll survive, the excitement and exhilaration makes it worthwhile. 

It’s a different way of life, and one that comes about when we allow God to transform us.  We don’t get there by making just a few improvements or adjustments, but by becoming new people.

Monday, July 09, 2012

July 8, 2010 - Spiritual Gifts: The Three R's - Evangelism

Acts 2:42-47

One summer during my high school years I was walking down the street in Steubenville, Ohio, with a friend when someone suddenly accosted us by shoving a religious tract in our hands and loudly telling us we may be going to hell.  My first instinct was to say have you looked around?  We’re in Steubenville.  We may already be there.  But before I could speak, my friend Steve pointed to me and said you should talk to him.  He’s going to be a minister.  That just encouraged the guy, as he started telling me that being a minister wouldn’t save me from hell.
I suspect that guy saw himself as being evangelistic.

As we continue our series of messages on spiritual gifts, we continue with the relational gifts today by talking about evangelism.

I want to approach this topic a bit differently today.  I want to talk about what we might call corporate evangelism; that is, how the church as a whole attracts people.

As we read the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, we find that the early church was growing rapidly and in large numbers.  When we compare that to our religious landscape we have to ask what’s wrong today?  Why do so many churches struggle?  Why are so many congregations in decline?  Why do some churches close their doors and die?  Why do so many people seem to be turning their backs on the church?  Why is it so difficult to grow churches?  Are we doing something wrong?  Has the modern age begun to reject faith on a large scale?  Is Christianity dying?  What was the key to the vitality of the early church as it engaged its culture with the message of God and his love?

I believe our Scripture passage for today contains the keys to the evangelism of the early church.  The word evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means good news, or to bring good news.  There were specific ways the early church delivered that good news, and they are ways that are just as applicable for us today.  Though we are separated by two millennia from that era, today’s world is not all that different in many ways.  People are still struggling with the same questions of life, death, meaning, purpose, and existence as they were two thousand years ago.

They were devoted to building a sense of community.
Verse 44 says All the believers were together and had everything in common.

We live in such a fragmented world, but so did the first followers of Jesus.  There was a mixture of cultures, languages, political views, and religious beliefs that made up the world of the early church.  Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it?  Within that tremendously diverse environment the early church was able to build a sense of community.  They were able to create an environment that was not defined by one political or cultural point of view.

I know I beat the drum on this point quite often, but I think it’s very important.  Today, many churches are so narrowly defined by one point of view that there is no room for people who represent a different point of view.

There were some in the early church who sought to define the church in very narrow terms, but they were always defeated by those with a vision of community that embraced the full diversity of people.

The early church stepped across the line of class, race, and culture to build a sense of community.  Roman society was very stratified, and the idea that we should not allow things such as class, race, and culture to separate us is a gift that faith has brought to the world.

They were focused on what mattered most.
The early church wasn’t very structured.  They didn’t have a lot of programs and activities.  Things were very simple.  They focused on what mattered the most.  They loved one another.  They encouraged one another.  They took care of one another.

We live in day and age where we are so used to choices that it is tempting to create a structure with a thousand different choices, and in doing so we can forget what matters most.

To use the language of business, the early church kept the main thing the main thing

It would be an interesting study to ask people outside of the church what they saw as the main purpose of the church.  My guess is there would be a few basic answers; I don’t think there would be a long list.  And I think they would all be a variation of two things – love people and help people.  That’s the main thing.

They were generous and sought to meet the needs of others.

In verses 44 and 45 Luke writes that the early church had everything in common and sold their possessions and goods, and gave to anyone as he had need.  Sounds kind of scary, doesn’t it?

Helping others can be a complicated business at times.  Sometimes people scam us and sometimes there are people who take advantage of our generosity because they don’t want to do for themselves. 

But I don’t believe those people are the rule; I believe they are the exception.  And there are a lot of people who are in need of the generosity of others.

Within the political arena, people have been saying for a number of years that the church ought to step forward and take care of more of the social needs and the government should do less.  I believe very strongly there is a role for the government to play in taking care of those in need because the costs are too great for the church to bear.  But more and more people are knocking on the doors of churches, and they are people who have not sought help in the past.

They practiced hospitality.
Verse 46 says They broke bread together in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.  The early church really knew how to practice hospitality.  They opened their homes to share meals together so people would have something to eat.  They cared for one another.

There are many ways to demonstrate hospitality, and it is a dying practice, I’m afraid.  I try, as often as I can, to sit down with others and share a meal.  Whether it’s at a fast food restaurant or somewhere else, it is one of the few times in our day and age when we can sit down and share our lives together, which is the essence of hospitality.  The central act of our worship service – the gathering at the Lord’s table – comes out of the context of a shared meal.  When Jesus instituted communion, it was during the Passover meal.  The earliest Christian worship services took place within the context of a shared meal.

Hospitality moves us beyond the surface and shallow relationships that make up so much of our world.

Their faith was not tied to institutionalism.
Someone has said that the church survived the first two thousand years because it institutionalized, but to survive the next hundred years it must learn to de-institutionalize.  Simply put, churches must learn how to get out of their buildings.

The early church was not familiar with church buildings.  Some of them worshipped in synagogues, but most people met in house churches.  In the earliest days of the church there was almost no structure, and the church certainly wasn’t an institution as it is today.

The problem with institutions is that they very easily morph into a way of being that is simply about perpetuating the institution rather than carrying out the purpose of the institution.

Do you know where the church is experiencing some of its greatest growth in today’s world?  China.  China, which has a government that is officially atheistic is experiencing church growth that is greater than what we are experiencing here, in our Christian society.

I suspect that one of the reasons is that the church in China is primarily a house church movement.  There is something about a movement that has not yet institutionalized that brings about a vitality and focus and excitement that lends itself to growth.

In one of the early messages in this series – the message on Apostleship – I told you about a friend of mine.  I was his youth minister during the 1980s, and he is one of the greatest spiritual entrepreneurs I know.  He is the founding pastor of a church, and while in the planning stages he asked me what kind of advice I could give him.  There wasn’t much I could think of that I could pass on to him – he already has such a great understanding of church.  What I did tell him was that he should remember that in a few years his new congregation will institutionalize, so he should work hard to make sure it institutionalizes the right things.  They should institutionalize love, compassion, and outreach, making sure it becomes a part of the very DNA of the congregation.

By doing so, they will be certain to always be bearers of the good news of God’s love.

Monday, July 02, 2012

July 1, 2012 Spiritual Gifts: The Three R's - Leadership

John 13:1-9

Setting aside the politics of the healthcare ruling – if that is possible – think for a moment about the gravity of making such a decision.  We can say a lot of things about the Supreme Court’s decision, but being one of the individuals responsible for that decision is a position of incredible pressure.

Being in a position of leadership is not easy.  Being responsible for decisions that have an impact upon the lives of others is a tremendous responsibility.

Our leaders are charged with incredible responsibilities, some of them being, literally, life and death decisions.

Our response to those decisions is generally based on our already formed opinions – if a leader makes a decision we agree with, we see that leader as being a genius; if they make a decision we disagree with, we fear they may be an idiot.

In a world that is becoming evermore complex and dangerous, our political leaders are given the gargantuan task of leading us through those dangers and complexities.

And in the religious world, where the landscape is changing so rapidly and so many questions about the future confront us, our leaders are facing the unenviable task of discerning how to adapt to those changes.

As we continue our series of message on spiritual gifts, this morning we study the gift of leadership.
There are so many points to be made about leadership, but we have time only for a few.  You can read some of the other points about leadership in the study guide that goes with this message.  One of the assumptions I am making about leadership is that the type of leadership displayed by Jesus is a very unique way of leading, and is the kind of leadership he calls us to emulate.  What Jesus teaches us about leadership is –

Leadership is about influence, not power.
Sometimes leaders have power, but not always.  Martin Luther King, Jr. did not have any formal power.  He held no elected office so he had no formal political power.

He had no power, but he had tremendous influence.  His speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 was only seventeen minutes long but it changed the course of our history.

Jesus certainly had no power in the way we usually think of power.  In fact, Jesus was decidedly uninterested in any type of political or coercive power.  When James and John sought to use their association with Jesus as leverage to gain power he very quickly rebuked them.

Jesus possessed the power of influence, which is the mark of a great leader.  Jesus stood on a hillside and a multitude followed to hear his words.  The Sermon On the Mount has profoundly influenced history and continues to influence how people see and understand the world and one another.  His influence was so powerful that the political and military might of Rome wilted in comparison.

We can find many more Scriptural examples.  Nehemiah, who led a group of people back to their devastated homeland, and when finding it in ruins, led the effort to rebuild the city of Jerusalem.  Paul, after his arrest and eventual imprisonment in Rome, brought faith to the household of Caesar himself because of the power of his influence.

You can quickly find the leaders in a church – who are the people that get the attention of others when they speak?  Who are the people who have the ability to cause others to say – if they’re on board with it, then I am also.

True, effective leadership does not depend upon the power of coercive force, but upon influence.

Leadership is about vision.
One of the most famous political speeches in the history of our country is President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.  It is a very short address, and concludes with this statement – With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

That is a great vision.  It is a vision instilled within us as a people, at a tragic time in our history, that shaped the values to guide us into the future with a sense of peace and fairness.

And what did Jesus have to offer his disciples?  Anything tangible?  Not really.  No riches.  No earthly power.  No land.  No titles.  What Jesus offered was a vision.  That’s the essence of the Sermon On the Mount.  You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…  Over and over again he offered a vision for what the world could be, what people could be.

Vision must be constantly cast, as it can slowly ebb away from us.  We become worn down by the demands and responsibilities of life, so vision must be kept in front of us.  This is what Jesus did for his disciples.

Leadership casts vision that keeps us on what is most important.  When I’m working on my sermon I keep in mind that I am not ready until I can sum up the message in one sentence.  What is the essence of what I am trying to say?

The one word vision of the leadership of Jesus is this – love.  He affirms this in the Sermon On the Mount when he tells us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44); he affirms this when he tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength (Matthew 22:37; he affirms this when he tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39); and he affirms it when he said my command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends (John 15:12-14a).

This is the greatest example of leadership in all of history.  May we pray.