Monday, January 23, 2017

What is the One Thing You Need Most to Live, and How Can You Receive it in All its Fullness?

It’s haunted me ever since I heard the story.   It happened about 800 years ago. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick the Second wanted to discover what language Adam and Eve spoke, in other words, what was the original human tongue.  So he created a cruel experiment to find out.   

He took babies from their mothers at birth, and gave them to nurses who could not speak in their hearing.  But he did more than that.  Beyond suckling and washing, these nurses could not give any affection either.    And what happened?   The monk Salimbene de Adam, who made a record of the experiment tells us.   “But he (King Frederick) labored in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."   What happened is that all the children died.  

Modern medicine calls this phenomenon, “failure to thrive.”   But do you grasp what it means?  Human beings simply cannot live without love.    The medical doctor, Dean Ornish even wrote a book, Love and Survival, detailing all the studies that confirm this.   As he put it there: 
"I am not aware of any other factor in medicine that has a greater impact on our survival than the healing power of love and intimacy. Not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery."

In other words, the most powerful determinant to your health is relationships, is love and intimacy.  And none of the researchers know why.   Yet, here we are, beings who thrive on love; who cannot even live without it.

Why is that?  More crucially, what do you need in your relationships not simply to survive, but to live the full and vibrant life God created you for?  In the words you’re about to hear God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Why do you need love?  Why does every human being need it?   God tells you.  You need love, because love created you.   Love created everything.   And without love not only with God but with others, you can never be you.   And that you can never fully exist, until you grasp how far God went to love you.   What do I mean by love created everything?

Well, when you look at the Bible’s creation story, something weird happens.  At first, it has the same rhythms, God created this and God created that.   But when it comes to human beings, God says this instead.  “Let us create human beings in our image.”   And in those words, God is telling you something crucial about God.  God is not an I.   God is a we. 

For Christians God is one God created out of the loving communion of three persons.   What does that tell you?  It tells you. At the heart of everything, at the heart of reality itself, lies relationship.  Physics even confirms it.    Just look at this table.  When you look at it, you are not just seeing a table.  You are seeing billions of particles all relating to each other in such a way as to create a table.  Everything you see has billions, even trillions of these relationships.   And when it comes to you, this relational reality, this living love goes to a whole new level.   The story says that God created you in God’s image.   That means, if God can’t be God without relationship, neither can you be you.  You cannot be human without other humans.  It’s impossible. That’s why a baby who has everything else but relationship cannot live.

And when God talks about the relationships inside God, let’s make it clear.  God isn’t talking about some functional thing, like a team at work or how you know the person who delivers your mail.    This God was living together in intimate communion..    To get what that means, look at the other creation story, the one you find in the first chapter of John.   

It begins with these words:
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.   He was in the beginning with God.   All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being…..
But it ends with these words: 
It is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s bosom, who has made God known.
Do you get how intimate that is, close to the Father’s bosom?   You don’t let just anybody rest on your bosom, do you?    Your spouse or significant other can rest there, your child can, maybe even a close friend but that’s it.    Yet that’s how the Bible describes the intimacy within God.

Too often you can think that God created everything like some solitary artist throwing paint on a canvas.  

But that’s not what the Bible tells you.   No, the Bible tells you. Creation looked far more like this - a joyful dance. 

As one writer put it, You were created out of the laughter of the Trinity.   That’s the intimacy God has, and that’s the intimacy God created you not only with God, but also with others. 

It can never just be you and God.  It always has to be you and God and others.   Look at what the story tells us.   God says, “It is not good that the Man should be alone.”    But didn’t the Man have God?  Wasn’t Adam intimately connected there?  Yes.  And that’s not all.   This human being also had deep connection with nature, power, beauty, the richness of paradise, the list could go on.  And God is saying here.  That’s not enough.   This human being needs more.   This human being needs other human beings.  God is saying.  Not even paradise will satisfy you, not even God will satisfy you, if you don’t have relationships, if you don’t have friends.   In fact you can’t become who God created you to be without them   If God is an us, then you need an us too.   You can’t do this alone.  It’s impossible. Without relationships, you can’t even know yourself.   

Have you ever listened to yourself on some recording, and said?  “That doesn’t sound like me,” only to have a friend say to you.  “Yes, it does.”    And why is she right?  She knows what you sound like, and you don’t.  You can’t tell from inside.    It’s the same reason, when you look at a picture of yourself, and you say.  “That looks nothing like me.”   But your friends, they just get kinda quiet.  Why?  They know.  It does look like you.   Even when you look in the mirror, you don’t really look.  You look like this….

So if you come here and listen to the message without being in relationship with others hearing the same things, then you’re not really getting the message.  You need others who can speak into your life what you are not seeing or hearing.  On your own, you just won’t get it. 

The writer C.S. Lewis had two close friends, Charles and Ronald.    And when Charles died, Lewis was very sad, but he consoled himself by saying.  “Well, at least I’ll have more of Ronald.”    But he didn’t.  He had less of Ronald.   Why?   Because certain parts of Ronald only Charles brought out, and without Charles, Lewis couldn’t pull those parts out on his own.   No one person, he realized, can pull out the entire person.   So when he lost Charles, he lost not only Charles.  He lost a part of Ronald.    Then Lewis asked himself.  If that’s true of Ronald, how much more true is it of Jesus?  And he realized.  “I can never come close to knowing Jesus on my own.  I need others to show me Jesus in ways I can never see, that I could never bring out myself.”

You can’t know God.  You can’t even know yourself without serious relationship.  And without those relationships, your relationship with God will never be what it needs to be. 

A new follower of Christ came to visit an old friend who had been a Christian for years.  He shared how his connection to God had grown less and less, and he wondered why.  The old friend asked.   How deeply connected are you to a Christian community?  The man hemmed and hawed, but basically admitted, he really didn’t have time for that.   The old friend didn’t say another word.   He simply looked to the fire roaring before them, and pulled out an ember.   At first the ember glowed with fire, but fairly quickly, the fire faded.   And soon it became a cold piece of coal.  And then the old friend put it back in the fire, and it flamed forth again. His visitor got the message.

You are that ember.  But here’s the truth.   Many of you come here each week, to hear a nice talk, listen to some great music, get some helpful inspiration and insight.  But you don’t want to get involved.   That’s too complicated.  But this church only exists in order for you to get involved, to be in relationship with others.   Coming to worship like that is like an ember wanting to be near the fire but not in it.   If you want to glow, you gotta go in.   But this passage has more to say to us than simply go in.   It tells us some disturbing news about what we will meet there once we do.  

When God sees that Adam is lonely, what does God do?  God creates a suitable companion.  And who is that suitable companion?  It’s a woman.    Now lots of folks over the years have read many things into that choice.   But almost always those interpretations ignore the obvious.  

In creating woman, God is creating someone like Adam, yet not like Adam at all.   And when the Bible describe Eve as a helper, the Bible isn’t saying that God created an errand runner for Adam.   No, this word, helper often describes God, as in for example, God, our help and our salvation.   So God creates someone equal to Adam, yet at the same time, profoundly different from Adam.   And that tells you a lot about the kind of relationships you need. 

You don’t need relationships just with people who think like you, who act like you, who agree with you on everything.   You need people different from you, even perplexingly different.   For example, this past Friday, Inauguration Day, there are people here, who were elated, and there are people here, who were depressed.  And guess what.  If you were depressed, you need to get to know someone who was elated, and if you were elated, you need to get to know someone who was depressed.    After all, why do we call the church a family?  It’s because you don’t get to pick your family.   And you will find here people who are different from you in their thoughts, in their personalities, in their attitudes, and you need them more than you would like to admit.  Their difference will stretch you.  It will grow you.  It will help you to become the you God created you to be.

Yet, let’s be honest.   That may be the ideal, but it’s usually not the reality.   Even here, folks often stick with their own.  And even there, they likely hide behind facades of niceness, rather than get up the courage to lay those defenses down.    They have friendships yes, but do they go deep? Do they get intimate in the way God describes here?  Probably not.   And why is that?   It’s because of two words here that describe the relationship that Adam and Eve had.

The Bible tells us that they were naked and unashamed.   What that means is that Adam and Eve were utterly exposed and vulnerable with each other in every way.   And they had no shame about that, no discomfort, no fear at all.   But as you’ll see next week, a tragic fall occurred that changed all that.   And when it did, the first thing Adam and Eve did was hide.  They hid from each other, and they hid from God.   And human beings have been hiding ever since.   We almost never get naked with others so to speak, and yet even so, we often still find ourselves trapped in fear and shame.  But God didn’t intend you to be that way at all.  God made you for intimacy, even the liberating intimacy that God has with God.

How do you get that there?  How do you find the freedom to have that sort of intimacy? You look to the one who was stripped naked for you.  When Jesus went on that cross, he went naked.   And to be exhibited naked like that was utterly humiliating and shaming.   And in his nakedness, Jesus had no intimacy.  He lost in that dark place all relationship, all love, all connection even with God.   And why did Jesus do all that?  He loved you.  He did it to bring you back in the dance.    He did it to free you to be once again naked and unashamed.   And the more you let that love, his love grasp you, the more Jesus will free you.  And in his embrace, your fears and insecurities will fade.  In the fearlessness of his love, you will find the courage to come out of hiding.  In the power of his love, you will lay your defenses down, and you will discover the wondrous freedom that comes with being naked and unashamed.        

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Here is the One Key to Making Your Work a Gift instead of a Burden, Fulfilling instead of Frustrating

It’s amazing really.  Do you realize how much it changed everything?  Without it, Florida wouldn’t have happened.   The computer revolution would have stopped dead in its tracks. 

Do you know what I’m talking about?  You’re probably feeling it right now or will in a few minutes.    Do you get how much air conditioning changed things?   First, it improved worker productivity more than anything else in the 20th century.   Don’t take my work for it.  That’s what businesses said.   By 1957, 90% of businesses reported that nothing impacted worker productivity more than air conditioning.

And heck, it didn’t just change the workplace, it changed the nation.   Do you think you’d have the Sunbelt without air conditioning? Do you think millions would have moved to South Florida without it?   And those computers that have changed everything, well they don’t work so well without AC.  
One invention changed kind of everything, how we work, where we live.  It even brought in the computer age.   And the story you’re about to hear brought just such a world changing revolution.   It changed people’s perceptions about the one thing that people spend most of their lives doing.  It changed people’s ideas about work.  But the story does more than that.  It shows you how your work can bring the life-giving fulfillment God intended work for.   Sadly a lot of people never really get that part of the story.  But when you do, it changes not only how you work.  It changes how you do everything, how you live even.   How do you find the way to this change?  In this story, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In this story, God shows you.   God didn’t give work as a burden.  God gave work as a gift.   But for it to be the gift that God intended it to be, you need to see the work that God did for you, the work that gives you rest even as you work. 

You can miss it here.   After all, we largely take this way of thinking for granted.   We live in a world that values work; that wants work that is life-giving and fulfilling.  Heck, if anything we value it too much, with all our e-mailing and multi-tasking. But before this story, no one saw work as anything good, much less something God did.

In the big creation story of that day, called the Enuma Elish, the head god Marduk makes the world.  But the other gods aren’t happy.  They’re like, who is going to take care of all this stuff.   We don’t wanna work.   And Marduk said.  No worries.  That’s why I created these creatures called humans, they’ll do all the work for you so you don’t have to.   

And later in the Greek myths, work didn’t have a great reputation there either.  In those myths, when this thing called Pandora’s Box opens and unleashes all the bad stuff on the earth, do you know what gets included in all that bad stuff?  Work gets included. 

But in this story, something revolutionary occurs.  God becomes a worker. The story talks about how God finished his work.   And God was not only working. God was enjoying it.    And God wasn’t just doing high level executive work, telling the angels what to do.   No, God was getting his hands dirty, shaping human beings out of the earth. 

And then when God made these human beings, and put them in this beautiful garden, in paradise really, what did he give them?   Well, God certainly gave them incredible food, astounding beauty, physical intimacy. But do you see what else God gave them?  God gave them jobs.    God made work part of paradise.

But why?   Why was work part of paradise? 

Recently, I heard a story about when John F. Kennedy was running for President.   In 1960, in one of his first races, he went down to meet with coal miners in West Virginia, who were working in slave-like conditions in those days.     Outside a coalmine in Slab For one of those miners asked him, “Is this true Senator Kennedy that you’ve never worked a day in your life?” Kennedy laughed and replied “Well I guess there’s some truth to that.”  Do you know what that miner said?   He said, “Well you haven’t missed a goddamn thing.

And that miner had a point.   Work can be demeaning, exhausting, even life destroying.  So why does God make it part of paradise?

Because God created human beings in God’s image.   And God works.   But let’s think about it. What sort of work does God do? 

God creates, and God made you with that same impulse.  God created you to create, to bring order and beauty and life into the world.    And when work is what God created work to be, that’s what it does, it creates.  And creating isn’t something that just artists do.  Everyone can do that. 

For example, that miner might have been overworked and treat unfairly in his job, but in that hard and brutal work, he was creating something.  He was bringing a mineral out of the ground that got transformed into energy that would light a city.  And that’s creative.    And John F. Kennedy might not have been digging in a mine, but he was creating too, working to make the world a better place for that miner and others like him. 

When teachers shape young lives, they are creating.  When police officers and firefighters bring safety and security, they are creating something.   When a person in a store, finds you the shirt or dress you exactly need, that is creative work.    And when parents do the hard work of parenting that is some of the most creative work there is.  The list could go on and on.   Every job has creative potential.   And God created you for that.   Whether you realize it or not, you need it.

Growing up, I had a friend, Matthew, whose father made a fortune in the poultry business.  But Matthew never found his niche.    When I visit my parents, I ask about him.  What’s up with Matthew?   They tell me that he lives in a big house in a subdivision near where he grew up.  And most of the day, he spends watching television.   He doesn’t even go outside much.  And when I hear about it, I feel so sad.    Matthew may have millions, but he has no real work.  And that is tragic. 
You need work.  You need to create.  But let’s be clear.   God made you not simply to create, but to create good in the world, to bring life, to bring order and beauty.   The owners who ran those mines back in 1960 were creating too, but what they were creating wasn’t bringing life.   No, their exploitation of those miners was creating misery and despair, even death.  

In whatever work you do, you need to ask, is this work bringing good to the world, not just to me.   God didn’t just create you to create.   God created you to work good for the world, to bring more value and life and good to others. 

But in the work, God created you for, you can’t simply work for yourself; or even for others, you have got to have a higher purpose than even that.   You have got to sense that in your work, you are working ultimately for God, that you are living out of a divine purpose.  

I love the story of Eric Liddell, the Scottish sprinter, who won the gold in the 400 meters in the 1924 Olympics.   Liddell, a devout Christian, didn’t run for fame or wealth.  In fact, he almost didn’t run at all in that Olympics because he was scheduled to race on Sunday, and doing that would violate his faith.   In the end, he did run, but in a completely different event where he won his gold medal.  And afterwards, he spend the rest of his life in China as a missionary.   So why did Liddell run at all?  In a conversation with his sister, he put it this way, “Yes, God made me for a purpose, to go to China, but he also made me fast.  And when I run I feel his pleasure.”    Liddell ran passionately, intensely, with world class excellence.  But ultimately he didn’t run for himself, for others, not even for his country.  He ran for God.     

John Coltrane found that same freedom.   Do you know that name?   In the last hundred years, likely no greater saxophonist has lived than John Coltrane.  Yet even as Coltrane created some of the greatest Jazz in history, he was addicted to heroin.  Only a profound experience of God’s grace enabled him to break that addiction.   And out of that experience, he composed an amazing album, A Love Supreme.  But more than that, he found a new purpose.  In the liner notes of that album, he put it this way.   "I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music."        

And Coltrane went on to do just that.  Still when it came to the music from A Love Supreme, he only performed it live once.   And after that legendary performance, as Coltrane sat down, people heard him say just this, Nunc Dimittis.   Those Latin words simply mean, Now Dismiss.  What was Coltrane says,  He was quoting from the Song of Simeon, the prayer of a man who waited his whole life for Jesus.  And when Simeon finally saw him, he prayed this.   “Now dismiss your servant in peace, for my own eyes have seen your salvation.”   In quoting that prayer, Coltrane was basically saying that I no longer work for fame or wealth or anything.  I work simply to honor God.  Saying those words simply said that, that night he came closer to living that purpose than ever before.    John Coltrane was working that night, working harder than ever, but not for himself, not even for others.  He was working for God.   And that purpose freed him to work with a greater fulfillment than ever before.

How does that happen?   How do you find that fulfillment in your work, that joy?  You realize what stands in the way of receiving it, the work that lies underneath your work.         

What makes people miserable in their jobs?  It’s because underneath their work, lies a deeper work, one that drives them whether they realize it or not.  What do I mean?   Well, if you’re honest what drives your work?  Is it the approval of others?  Is it some deep seated insecurity?  Is it a fear of not having enough?  Is it a hunger for stuff you don’t need or some idea of success?   I could go on.  What is your work under the work?    Whatever work you do, another work likely lies beneath it that truly drives you.  And the more power that work under the work has, the more it drains the fulfillment and joy God created your work to have.  

What was different in the work of an Eric Liddell or a John Coltrane?  Beneath their work, laid a rest, a Sabbath so to speak.   There was rest under their work.  And that rest didn’t slow their work down.  That rest, that resting in God, freed their work to be greater than ever. 

But how does that rest come?  How do you find rest beneath your work?  You see the great work that God did for you.    God did more than just create you.   When you fell away, when you lost touch with God, God worked to reach you.   God worked so intensely to reach you that he became one of you.    In Jesus, God worked for you.  He brought healing, and wisdom, and acceptance and above all love.   And then Jesus did the greatest work of all.  He laid down everything, his life, his very being, to bring you home.   Why did God in Jesus do that?  Because God never ever stopped loving you.    And nothing would stop that love from rescuing you, from working until you who had been lost were found. 

And the more you grasp that work of love Jesus has done for you, the more it frees you from your work beneath the work.   You realize.  There is no ultimate meaning, no ultimate security that your work can give you that you don’t already have.   So even as you work, you can be at rest, because you know whose you are, and what he did to bring you home.    And in that rest, you will work, maybe even more intensely than before.  But your work will not be driven by a lack you are trying to fill.  No it will flow out of an abundance that has filled you.  And in that abundance, your work will bring you and the world more joy, more fulfillment, more peace even, than you could ever have imagined.   

Sunday, January 8, 2017

What Is The One Reality That Lies at the Heart of Everything?

When my son opened his presents on Christmas, what question was he asking?   When he looked at his new toys, did he care about how they got made?     No.    The only question he wanted answered was this.  What do all these cool toys do?   What’s their purpose?   How do I play with them? 

And aren’t those the questions that really matter?   If I’m sick and a doctor gives me a drug, I don’t really care about how the manufacturer put it together.   I want to know?   Will the drug make me better?   Will it heal me? 

The mechanics of how something got made may interest you.   But what really matters is why it was made.   What is its purpose?  What is it designed to do?    

And God gave the song you’re about to hear to answer those questions, the questions that truly matter about you, about everything.     Why did everything get made?   Why did you get made?  Why do you really exist?  What is the purpose behind you, behind everything?
In this song, God gives you the answer.  So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

For too long, people have been looking to the words you just heard to answer questions God never intended these words to answer.   After all, no one writes instruction manuals in poetry.  And the words are that.  They are poetry.   The repetition tells you that.   And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.   That line repeats 5 more times.  Why?

That’s what songs do.  They repeat.   “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me.”  You know that song?   Do you realize that line repeats 12 times?    Why?  It’s because songs do that.   They repeat things, words, phrases; choruses.  

God has no interest in telling you anything here about how the universe was created.    God has a far bigger agenda.   God wants you to know why.  God wants you to know what all this means, what purpose it has, why you and everything were made. 

The first clue to that answer comes into how this creation happens.   God speaks it into existence.   All God has to do is say the words.  “Let there be light.”   And by saying it, it happens.   The words themselves have the power to make it real, to bring it into existence.  

How can a word do that?   How can a word actually create light, earth, stars?   The answer to that question comes in another poem written thousands of years later in the Gospel of John.   “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him, all things were made;…

How can the word create everything?   Because the word is a person, a living being.  
But even before God speaks, God gives another clue.  Genesis tells us the “Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”   This word hovering, in Hebrew, only ever describes one thing, a mother bird hovering over her nest, fluttering her wings to keep her babies safe.   When Genesis describes the Spirit, it is talking not about some-thing, some entity.  It is talking about a living being, a being like a mother even. 

The final clue comes, in a verse we didn’t read, verse 26.  “Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image….”    Who is God even talking to?  Some have said.  Well, maybe God is talking to the angels.   But God didn’t create human beings in the image of angels.  God created human beings in the image of God.   

So who is God talking to?  Who is us?  Us is God.  Because God isn’t one.  God is three.  God is three beings bound together forever in one loving communion.  That’s why Christians describe God with three words, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   Now, why is that important?  

Because when you know who God is, you know what the purpose of everything is, why everything, including you were made.          

Think about it this way.   If everything just happened, then the universe doesn’t really have any purpose at all.   You don’t have any purpose.   Now, you can create a purpose, but you’re just making it up.   Concepts like justice and love really don’t mean much of anything.  You can make them mean something, but that’s just you making them significant for you.  But they don’t really matter.     

On the other hand, if a divine being did create everything, but this God was one solitary being, all alone, then love didn’t exist, relationship didn’t exist until this solitary being made the universe.  So the ultimate basis of reality isn’t love.  It’s power.  

But if this God was always living in love, if out of that love God created everything including you, then that makes relationship, that makes love the ultimate basis of reality.  It means. When God created the universe, God was simply expanding a circle of love that had always existed.     Love lies behind everything, why you exist, why all of this exists.   Like the song says; love does make the world go round. 

Look at how God describes everything God makes.   You can feel the love.  God says.  It is good.   And God isn’t giving a Good Housekeeping sign of approval.    God isn’t placing one of those little inspection tags you see when you buy a shirt, inspected by No. 13.  

No, God is saying good the way I said it after I ate way too much of the bread pudding my wife made from a Paula Deen recipe.    Man, that was good.   God is saying it like that.  God is savoring his creation.  God is enjoying its beauty, rejoicing in the wonder of it all.   And the Bible tells us creation rejoices right back.  Every moment of every day, creation is singing, rejoicing in communion with this God who created it. 

That’s why when you go to the ocean, when you hear the roar of the waves, when you see that endless blue expanse you feel moved and inspired.  It’s why when you see any beauty in nature, you can feel your heart leap.   You are sensing this song.   You are catching a glimpse of the living love song that sustains everything.    

But you’re only catching a glimpse.   Because, don’t you sense that too?  Don’t you sense as much as nature inspires you or fascinates you, that you are somehow locked out?  You can’t really get in.  No matter how much you try, you find yourself on the outside.    This is the tragic news.  You, I, every human being have lost touch with the song.  We have walked away from it, and we can’t find our way back.   The great 18th century preacher George Whitefield put it this way.   “Why do the animals flee or growl when you approach?   They know. You have a quarrel with their master.”          

So this song goes on, but we have lost the tune.  We have lost touch with the love that made us.  How do you get back?  How do you find your way back to the circle of love for which you were made?   How do you find your way home?  

You look to the love song that lies at the heart of the cross.  For, God, when you walked away, reached out to rescue you.   And in Jesus this God came to you, and this gave gave up everything to bring you home.   On that cross, Jesus lost the song so that you might know it again.   He became utterly alone, so that you would never be alone ever.    Jesus was unmade there, so he could remake you into a new creation.   Why did God do this?  Because, no matter how much you turned away, how far you ran from the song, God never stopped loving you.   And God joyfully, lovingly paid the ultimate price to bring you back. 

And the more you look to that love song, this love poured out for you, the more Jesus will free you to live into this love song all creation sings.   And in that song, your insecurities and anxieties fall more and more away.  And your heart becomes more and more full and your fear less and less.   And you will know more and more that love lies at the heart of everything that lies at the heart of you.  You will know this.   You are loved.   You are loved.   Everything is loved.   And that will change everything now and forever. 


Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Three Realities About Jesus That Hold Everything Together Including You

You gotta love Christmas, right?   You’ve got the lights, the trees, the songs, the whole shebang.  And then you’ve got that little baby in the manger.    Right now, my three year old son is fascinated by that baby.  He keeps sitting down before the manger scene, and checking baby Jesus out.   But as fascinated as he is, he can’t hold a candle to the great Ricky Bobby.  

Have you ever seen a movie that just made you laugh so much that you almost fell out of your seat.   That happened when I saw the movie, Talladega Nights, about this NASCAR racing character Ricky Bobby.  Ricky Bobby had all sorts of quirks, but the one I remember most is how Ricky liked to pray. 

Ricky loved to pray to what he called the Christmas Jesus, the baby one.  And the man could get eloquent. He’d pray things like  “Dear tiny Jesus in your golden fleece diapers, with your tiny little balled up fists pawing at the air” No matter the protests from his wife or his father in law that Jesus did grow up, Ricky stuck with the Christmas Jesus.   

But, with apologies to Ricky, his wife had a point.  When it comes to Christmas, as beautiful as that baby in a manger is, to truly see Jesus, you can’t stop there.  You’ve gotta see the whole picture.   Why?

Only when you see that do you see not just what that baby means, but what that baby has the power to do in the world and in you.   The world in which we live can be very hard.   And when that hardness hits, when fear and anxiety grip you, how do you hold it together?  How do you come through it stronger and better than before?   The reality of Christmas answers that question.  And seeing that reality begins with seeing what was actually happening in that manger long ago.  How can you know that?  In those powerful words about Jesus, God points the way.  So let’s hear what God has to say.            

When your life seems to be falling apart, how do you hold it together?  How do you not only make it through hard times, but come out stronger on the other side?   How do you keep it together then?  Here God tells you.   You keep it together as you realize this reality.  As God holds everything together, God will hold you together too.   And how do you know that?  Because, God fell utterly apart so that, when the hard times hit, you can hold together.    

You see.  This church in Colossae was having some difficulty holding it together.  Beyond the day to day challenges of following Jesus in a pagan culture, these Christians had folks that were confusing them with strange new ideas on the whole Gospel message.  And it was really messing them up.  So Paul wrote this letter to get them back on solid ground, to a place that was real and true, or as Paul put it, where they could once again be filled with the knowledge of God.

The key to understanding what that knowledge is, happens in the last six words that Paul writes to these Colossians.  Paul writes these stunning words.  “In him, in Jesus, all things hold together.”   Now why are those words stunning?    Because basically Paul is saying that every atom, every particle in the universe, Jesus holds together.   Nothing exists without Jesus ordering it and keeping it.

Now you can hear that, and still not really get it.   But whether you believe in God or not, you depend on that order every day.   Did you ever realize how weird it is that everything in the universe is totally and utterly consistent?    If you travel a billion, billion miles away from earth, gravity will work exactly the way it does here.  The same rules will apply. And that holds true with everything.  It’s what enables planes that fly today to fly tomorrow.  It’s what enables everything around you to work not just today, but every day.  It’s the only thing that makes science possible, that the universe is this consistent.   Yet, do you realize how utterly strange that is? 

For example, do you know that there is this number sequence that appears everywhere again and again.   Hundreds of years ago, this mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci, was trying to figure out the ideal pattern for reproducing rabbits (Lord, knows why he wanted that – those animals seem to reproduce fine on their own).   The sequence he discovered starts like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on forever.   You get the sequence by adding together the two numbers before to get the one that comes after.    Ok, so you think, what’s the big deal about that?   The big deal is that this pattern appears to be a sort of numbering system to order the cosmos.  

Here you see it in how flower petals are arranged.  So a lily will always have three petals and a buttercup will always have five.   And if you look at a daisy, it will follow the sequence and have 34 petals.   You can see the pattern in how tree branches divide.    It’s why a shell looks this inside.   But the sequence doesn’t stop there.  You find the same sequence in how a hurricane looks.   But forget that, you find the same sequence in how galaxies look, including our own.     So get this, a galaxy trillions and trillions of miles in size follows the same pattern as daisies and buttercups.     That’s kinda spooky.  That’s why when folks assert that the whole universe just sort of happened, it’s really, really hard to explain stuff like this.

But Jesus doesn’t just hold the physical universe together.  He holds together the moral one too.
Why do you get upset when you hear about evil or injustice in the world?  Heck, why do human beings wherever they are get upset in a similar way that you do?  A lot of people don’t believe in God because of that cruelty and injustice.  But think about it.  What makes something cruel and unjust to begin with?   How do human beings just know that?   It’s because somewhere along the way, they received a vision not only of what love and justice look like, but that love and justice was the way it was supposed to be.  

You see.  If you go into the deepest parts of the ocean, you will find fish that are blind. And that makes sense because it is so deep there no light exists.  But get this.   The fish don’t know they’re blind.  Why?  They’ve never seen the light.      

The writer C.S. Lewis put it this way.  

If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.     
But because of Jesus, you know light.  You know justice.  You know love.   And you know that love and justice is how God created the world to be.   God ordered it that way. 

So ok, this is kind of interesting, but what does it have to do with your life?   Paul tells you in the weird word that he uses here for holding it together.   He takes a Greek word that the philosophers called the Stoics used.   The Stoics held to the ideal that no matter what happens to you, you can’t fall apart.  You’ve got to stand strong, to hold it together.   And Paul uses that same word here.   Why?  
Paul is telling the folks in Colossae, don’t you get it?   The same God that in Jesus literally holds the entire universe together is going to hold you together too.   No matter how confused you get, how discouraged, how hard it becomes, this Jesus can and will hold you together.  If Jesus is doing it for the universe, Jesus will do it for you.

In fact, Paul just told them, in Jesus God already has done it for you.   Paul put it like this.  He wrote… He “has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  He has rescued us from the power of darkness… 

You see, human beings weren’t holding it together.  Why?  We had walked away from the one who could.    And as we fell apart, the world around us fell apart too.  So what did God do?   God came to rescue you, to take you back from the dark in which you had fallen, to return you to the light for which you and I desperately yearned.   

God did it the only way any rescuer can.   He went into the darkness for you.   He became one of you in that darkness, even to the point of being born.   And then He took all that darkness on himself.   He let that darkness tear him apart so that it would never do that to you.    He fell apart in that darkness so that he could bring you into the light.    And because Jesus did that, nothing exists in the universe, not even death, that will take you away from his love.  And that love, if you let it, will hold you together no matter what. 

This is why Christians put Christmas in the darkest time of the year.   Every year, it reminds you, that life will never get so dark, that the light of God’s love will not break through.    This is the Good News of Christmas, the God who came for you; the God who went into the darkness of death for you, and the God who will hold you together no matter what you face.   So this Christmas, eat, drink, and celebrate the One who holds everything together, including you.       

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Three Truths that Lead You To a Joyfully Giving Heart

It’s weird when you think about it.   It’s great and all.  But still it is a bit weird.  Why do we do all this gift giving at Christmas?   Think about it.   At no other holiday do we do this.  We give presents at birthdays, but only to one person.  At Christmas, you give presents to everybody.   Heck, we give so many gifts that it keeps the economy humming.    That’s why store owners call Black Friday, Black Friday.  It’s when stores go from deficits to profit, from being in the red to moving into the black.  

Still, in the midst of the gift giving, you can lose the joy.  It can become a chore rather than a blessing, just another holiday task to complete.  So how do you get in touch with the joy?  More crucially, how do you get the joy so powerfully, that gift giving actually renews and fulfills you not only at Christmas but every day.  You can complain about the commercialism of the season, but giving gifts at Christmas actually points you to life as God intended.  It brings you closer to the abundant life God created you to have.    

And moving closer to that abundant life means realizing this; at the heart of Christmas lies a gift.   The more you grasp that gift, the more it frees you in a way you deeply need to be free.  The more it frees you to experience the joy of giving not only at Christmas, but to find that joy every day of your life.    And in these words, God shows you the way.   So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

God intends gift giving to free you, to bring joy into your life.   Yet even at Christmas, it can be hard to find the joy.   Gift giving can even become a burden, trying to get something for everyone on the list.   And when it does, it only points to how far we have wandered from what God intended gift-giving to be.   But in the words we just heard, God points the way back.  God reminds you that gift-giving has to become a matter of the heart before it ever becomes a matter of the hands.    And when it does, then it frees you.  It frees you to grasp more than even the gift of abundant life God joyfully yearns to give.  

Do you notice something unusual that Paul does in this letter?  Paul is writing to this pretty wealthy church in Corinth to give to a special offering for Christians who are facing famine.  Yet, he does so in a strange way.    It begins right where we started off.  Paul says, “I do not say this as a command…”   And then near the end of what we read, he does it again, even more explicitly.   He tells them. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  

Ok, you might ask.  What’s the big deal about that?   He is just giving some encouragement to give.   But think about it.   Would he ever have said, “Be faithful to your spouse, but I’m not commanding this mind you.   No, you do whatever you’ve made up your mind to do.   I don’t want you feel any compulsion about it.”    I don’t think so.  So why does he do it here?

Paul does it because gift giving has a lack of clarity that staying faithful to your spouse or say lying just doesn’t.    You pretty much know when you’re committing adultery or lying.   But when it comes to giving, how do you know that you’re doing it right, that you are faithfully giving what God commands?  

Now you might respond. “Kennedy, isn’t there this command in the Old Testament about tithing, giving ten percent?”  Doesn’t that give you the guideline?”    But if it does, then why doesn’t Paul bring it up?    Why doesn’t Paul just order them to tithe?  

He doesn’t because Jesus kind of ripped that guideline up.   In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders tithed everything.  They even tithed their vegetables.   Yet Jesus doesn’t commend them for it.   He attacks them instead.   He tells them.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.   Why is Jesus so upset?   

Last week, we had a little party for our son’s 3rd birthday.   And he got some nice gifts.   He got this cool drill set.  He got this awesome play doh garbage truck.   Now do you think when we put those gifts out there, we said.  “Ok, Patrick, it’s your birthday.  And we are obligated to give you these gifts to show we’re good parents and grandparents.   So please unwrap them, and look happy.  And then, we have the standard cake that we’re supposed to get you.   So after the presents, please blow out the candles and make us look good.”     Now Patrick might be only three, but I’m pretty sure if we did it that way, he’d be thinking.  I don’t think this is the way that it’s supposed to be.          

Now it didn’t happen that way.  We loved seeing his joy at these new gifts.  We loved showing him what a blessing the day of his birth was to us. We loved seeing his excitement at the candles and the cake.

And that’s the way giving is supposed to be.   When you think about it, it wouldn’t have mattered how many gifts we had given him, if we are only doing it to impress others or because we were keeping some sort of parent rule.   We wouldn’t really have even been giving the gifts to him.  We would have been giving them to ourselves, to make us look good.  It wouldn’t have been about him at all.  

And that’s why Jesus got so angry at the tithing of the religious leaders.  Sure their hands were giving the required amounts away.   But they weren’t doing it out of love for God really.  They were doing it to keep the rules, to show off how right they were with God.   They weren’t even giving it to God really.  They were giving it to themselves, to make themselves feel good. 

In Jesus’ criticism, in Paul’s words, God is telling you something crucial.   When you give, it has to begin in your heart.   Now from there, it has to go to your hands, and tithing can give you some guidance there.   But it can’t start there.  It has to start in your heart.    For God, giving starts with motivation, long before it moves to money.            

If you are thinking, how much should I give?  How much will get me God’s approval, the approval of others?  How much will help me feel good, ease any guilt?   If you are doing that, you are missing quite literally the heart of the matter.  You aren’t even giving to God.  You’re actually giving to yourself, to help you feel better. 

That’s why Paul doesn’t give an amount here.   Paul knows that if the heart of the Corinthians gets connected, really connected to the joy of giving, then the amount will take care of itself.  In fact, the passion they feel will lead them to give more than they ever thought possible.   Paul even gives an example to them of that, right before what we just read, in the incredible giving of the church in Macedonia. 

It’s only when your heart is passionately, joyfully generous like that, that you are living out what God intends your giving to be.   But let’s be honest.   How many of you can say that’s really the case when it comes to your giving?   How many of us actually have hearts like that?   

So how does that happen?  So how do you get your heart that connected to the joy? 

It begins with realizing that everything you already have is a gift.   In the beginning of this passage, Paul gives this quote from the Old Testament.   He writes, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”   Where does that come from?   It comes from a description of how God gave the manna to the Israelites when they were traveling through the desert.   And Paul is pointing to that description for an important reason.

The money you have is a lot like manna.  If you know the story, God provides this food called manna so the Israelites didn’t starve in the dessert.   And to get it, you had to get up each morning, and pick it up off the ground.    And as it happened, with everybody working together, everybody, young and old got enough.   But if you did try to hoard it, by the time you woke up it had rotted and gone bad.  

And when it comes to what you have, sure you worked for it.  Like the Israelites, you had to go and gather it up.  But still ultimately it came as a gift.   After all, you didn’t create your brain or your body, you were given that.   Heck, even the air you breathe comes as a gift.  You did nothing to earn it.  As the old saying goes, if you see a frog on a fencepost, you know he didn’t get there by himself.   And all of us are frogs on fence posts.  We didn’t get there by ourselves.

And not only is what you have a gift, it’s a gift that if you hold on to it, will rot away your life, just like that manna rotted away in the tent.  

But beyond seeing all you have is a gift, connecting to the joy happens when you catch sight of the harvest.    Paul talks about when you sow sparingly, you reap sparingly, and when you sow bountifully, you reap bountifully.   Now what does Paul mean?

Some folks think he means that you give your money so God can give you more money.   But think about it.  If that was your motivation, you wouldn’t be giving to God.  You’d be just giving to yourself.   More than that, you’d be missing the best part of sowing seed, the fruit.   Sowing seed doesn’t just produce more seed, it produces something far better; wonderful, juicy, flavorful fruit.  
And when you give your money to what matters to God, that’s the harvest you reap.  When we gather in this place to sing songs or hang greenery for Christmas, we’re not just simply doing religious tasks.   We’re showing an alternative way to live, a better, more fruitful way to live. And our world desperately needs that.   Because so many folks are going off the rails.   People are spending more but living less.   They have pain inside that erupts into rage and disappointment at everything.   You see it in the honks on the road, in the fights on social media; in a world that has become simply more rude and less gracious.  But within the church, even with all our frailties and flaws, something beautiful happens.  People come together and find through God’s grace here, the ability to love each other, even with in their flaws and faults.   Here, people find meaning; find hope, find the love of a God that can change them like no other.   There’s nothing on planet earth like the church when the church is working right.  And when you give to God in this place, you get to be part of that.  You get to see that fruit, to taste it, to revel in it.    And oh when you see that, really see that, the joy it brings.                 

That’s what Paul means here by a harvest of righteousness.   Righteousness means right relationships with God, with others, even with yourself.    And that’s the fruit that comes.  You see people find peace with God, with their families, with even themselves. You bring closer to reality the world, the future God dreams to be.   And it is beautiful when that happens.   And God uses your gifts to make it happen.

But beyond seeing the harvest, you need to see the gift that launched it, the gift we celebrate at Christmas.  In the end, God didn’t just give us our lives, and sunrises and sunsets, and the air we breathe.  No, God gave us God’s very self.   In the past, God had shown himself, in burning bushes, in whirlwinds, and even in silence.   But when God was born in a stinking stable to a poor peasant woman, God was doing way more than showing himself.  God was giving himself in the most intimate and vulnerable way possible.  In Jesus God would keep giving himself to us, even to the point of his death, to facing suffering that we cannot even imagine.   Why did God do it?  He didn’t do it out of obligation.  He didn’t do it to impress you or the angels.  He did it because he so loved you that he could do no less.   And the more you know that, what God out of his infinite love has joyfully given you, the more you will find the freedom to joyfully give, to give to others, to give to God, to sow the seeds that reap a harvest of healing in our world.