Sunday, August 6, 2017

What Are the Two Things You Need to Become Who God Created You to Be?

It happens more than you’d think.   And every time it does, it takes me by surprise.  It happened again this past week.

I was talking with a man I have known for years.  He has been a member of a church for decades.   But as we talked that day, I began to realize something.   This man, despite his dedication to his church, may not be a Christian.  He may never have gotten the gospel.    Now, let me make it clear.   This man outshines me in his righteousness.  In his medical practice, he was extraordinarily generous and compassionate.   He’s gone above and beyond for his family.   He’s done amazing things to support the community.   Yet, I sensed that he might never have grasped what the Christian message actually means for him, for everyone.  Now, I could be wrong.   We had never talked this deeply.   But I will keep talking with him, so that if I am right I can share with this remarkably good and faithful man the full measure of what God has given him.        

But, I don’t know why I’m surprised.   As simple as the Christian message is, lots of people still miss it.   I have known people who didn’t get it until they went to seminary!  Heck, my own father may not have really gotten it until after years as a pastor himself.  

Now how is it possible to serve in a church, even be a pastor of one, and still not be a Christian?   More crucially, how do you know that you that you have grasped the gospel, that you have become a Christian?   In these words from I John, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 


How can you be involved in a church for years, decades even, and still not get it?  How can you even be a pastor, and miss it?   How can you be sure that’s not you?    You can be sure, when you realize that the truth doesn’t matter unless you’ve experienced the love.  If the truth has not led you to the love, then you haven’t yet experienced the gospel.

This past week, I read this description of what it felt like to experience the gospel.  This young woman from Cambodia said this. “I didn’t know what I was missing. I was like the frog in the well.”    What was she talking about?  You see. 

Cambodian culture has this parable of a frog, who, living in a well, can look up and see the sky.  The frog knows that a world exists beyond the well, but the frog has no idea how big or amazing that world is unless it gets out of that well. 

And if you know the truth of the gospel, but haven’t experienced the love, you are a bit like that frog.  

Or think about it the way the preacher Tim Keller does.   Let’s say you go to your doctor for this illness you have, and she gives you these pills to take.   Well, you take the pills home.  You even do research on how effective the pills are.   When others have the same problem, you tell them.   “You should really get this pill.”   But when it comes to you actually taking the pill that never happens. 
In the same way, you can know the message of the gospel, yet never experience it.    That’s what John means when he says, “Whoever says “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”   

When the person John is talking about says that they are in the light, they truly believe they are in the light.   After all, they know what the light is.   They can see it clearly even.   But just because you know the light, doesn’t mean you are living in it.   And what is the key test of that living?  It’s whether you’ve experienced the love, the love that takes away your hate, the love that fills you with love for others. 

Now, how can that be?   How can you know the truth, and yet not be actually living in it?
Sometimes, it happens because you fell in love with the comfort.  You grew up learning all the stories.  You adopted all the beliefs.   But the church doesn’t bring you change as much as it brings you comfort.   You like the familiarity of it all.  When so much is changing, you like coming each week to a place that reminds you of home.   Now, of course, you can feel those things, and still be a Christian.  But if that’s all you feel, then you haven’t gotten it.

Or maybe you fell in love with the answers.  Christianity gives a lot of answers.  And maybe you fell in love with all that, how Christian answers gave you structure to a chaotic world.  But if that’s all you have, you don’t have the gospel.   And if all you have are the answers, and not Jesus, then you are in trouble.  

This past week, I was listening to an interview with the journalist, Bill Moyers.   At one point, he mentioned that he had no idea where he had come from or where he was going.   And the interviewer, who knew Moyers had gone to seminary, had even been ordained a Baptist minister, probed further.   Moyers said this.   “I went to seminary and got answers to all my questions, and then I want out in life and got all my answers questioned.”   The answers won’t sustain you.  Only the love will.

Or you can fall in love with a leader.   You encounter a great teacher, not even necessarily a famous one.  But he or she speaks with such certainty about faith.   And that attracts you.  You want what they have.  So you join up.  Christianity becomes your team.   And you really love being part of that team, that team that has this teacher you’ve come to love.       

Now, if you love the comfort of Christianity, see it as part of your family heritage, your culture, then you won’t like anyone to question it.   Oh no, you’ll resist that, maybe even be offended.   It’s like someone is attacking your family.

On the other hand, if you fell in love with the answers, you crave the questions. You want someone to question you.  That way you can drub them into submission with your answers.    And you may win some arguments, even as you lose a lot of relationships. 

And if you fell in love with the person, with their team, then God forbid that person fail you or the team fall short.   And if they do, you will either become bitter and angry or you will scramble to do whatever you can to rationalize the failure, so that you don’t lose that leader or your team.  

But in every case, you have fallen in love with the light around Jesus, but you haven’t actually fallen in love with Jesus.   You’ve put your trust in the truth about Jesus, but you haven’t experienced the love of Jesus.

Oscar Romero, the Catholic bishop, put it well.  Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of laws to be obeyed, of prohibitions.  That makes it very distasteful. Christianity is a person, one who loved us so much, one who calls for our love. Christianity is Christ.”  

So how do you get Christ?  How do you get Jesus?       
First, you face up to your own darkness.   Folks, who have seen the light but not experienced it have not actually done that.   Yes, you see the world around you as dark.  You see the darkness in others.   But you haven’t really faced up to your darkness. You’ve let the light shine on others.  But you haven’t allowed that light to shine into you.    

When I first came here, a leader called me for help with a particular issue.  And at one point, he said, “You know, Kennedy, I’m pretty f----ed up.”   And I said, “Of course you are.   So am I.  That’s why we’re here.”  

When you really see your darkness, your pettiness, your anxieties, your self-centeredness, all the stuff you hide, even from yourself, then you are getting close to Jesus.  As the preacher, Bill Coffin said, “Jesus said, the truth shall set you free.”  But first it makes you miserable.”   If you haven’t felt that misery, then you’re missing Jesus.   Why do you need to feel the misery?   Only then, will you realize how much you need Jesus, how lost you actually are.

But when you realize it, it does free you.  Why?  You realize.  Jesus sees you just as you are, with all that ugliness you work so hard to hide.   And Jesus loves you.   I mean, he really, really loves you.  And that frees you.   A Benedictine nun put it well, “There is no freedom like seeing myself as I am and not losing hope.”   And that’s what the gospel brings. That’s why it’s good news.

But that good news may be so good, you find it hard to believe, that Jesus loves you like that.    Heck, you may not even love yourself that much after seeing all your ugliness.  But Jesus does love you, and has given up everything to take your ugliness away.   And you don’t need to do anything for Jesus to get that.  You simply need to believe Jesus has.  All you need is need.   That’s the beauty of it.  And in the beauty of that truth, you experience the love.   

And in that love, things change in you.  You start to look at everyone, I mean everyone with a sense of hope for what God can do.  You can look at a terrorist and see that, a murderer, a war criminal, anyone.   Why?   You are thinking.  If God can save me, God can save anybody.   Why not him?  Why not her?   You start seeing all the beauty in them that God sees.  And they sense that from you.  They sense that you see in them even more than they can see in themselves.  

And when you encounter people who aren’t Christians, but who are way morally better than you, you aren’t surprised or bothered by it.  After all, you’re not a Christian, because you’re better than others.   Heck, becoming a Christian means admitting that you are a moral failure.  That’s what makes you a Christian.  You know it’s not about your goodness.  It’s all about God’s grace. 

So, when people meet you, they don’t see you trying to put on a pose or hold up a mask.  No, they see a person who lives with no reason to hide at all.    They see someone who sees the very best in them, and who accepts them utterly and without condition.   They see you loving even the most unlovable, but not making a big deal out of it.              

And when you’re not living like that, then you are forgetting the gospel.  You are forgetting who you are by God’s grace, and who they are.  You have forgotten the beauty and wonder of God’s love and grace.   So, if you’ve been forgetting the love or maybe never even experienced it, then open yourself to the bounty of God’s love for you, a God who has given everything for you.  All you need to bring is nothing.  All you need is need.    




Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Two Things That Once You Know Them Keep You Moving Forward No Matter What

I admit it.   I’m a bit addicted.   I want to know.  Will the Mother of Dragons seize the iron throne?   Will the awful Queen Cersei get her due?    Will Tyrion Lannister survive?   

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, then you may be immune to the addiction.  I’m talking about the TV fantasy drama, Game of Thrones.  It has now become the number one show in the world.

Now, when you watch Game of Thrones, two things become obvious.  First, the show takes a pretty brutal view of human nature.   The villains win more than the heroes.   And even the heroes can end up doing awful things.    And second, you get these plot interruptions, that turn out not to be interruptions at all.  No, they become twists that take the story in amazing new directions. 
So why am I talking about Game of Thrones?  It’s because I’ve been wondering.   Is the show’s view of human-beings right?   Are people that bad?   Interestingly the Bible might say yeah, people are.   But unlike the show, the Bible doesn’t stop there.   As bad and broken as people can be, the Bible makes it clear.  That’s not the end of the story. 

In the Bible, as one poet once put it: Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.  But how is that past overcome?   How does that future happen?  How does it happen for you?  How do you grow into greatness, the greatness for which God created you?  In these words from this letter of John, words that can seem to be an interruption, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.    

           
How does it happen?  How do you grow into the greatness God created you for?  How do you do that when so much inside you sabotages that greatness?   Someone once said that the only Christian belief that you can prove is original sin.  So how do you move past that, past the broken places everyone has. to become who God created you to be, who you want to be?  Here God tells you. God says.   To grow into the greatness means realizing that first key point.  It’s all about the growing. And growth doesn’t happen overnight.  It happens over a lifetime. But for that growth to happen, you need to realize two key things, what you have and who you are.    

Last week, after worship, someone came up and basically asked me.  “Ok, how does that happen?”  I had talked that Sunday about how radical the love that Jesus calls us to actually is?  But this man was wondering.   How do you get there?   How does that level of love actually grow in you?  It’s not enough to just tell people.  Something has to happen. And he was right.   But what happens doesn’t happen overnight.   Growth doesn’t work that way.  

I love a home-grown tomato.   You can get a decent tomato in the store, but nothing beats pulling a tomato off the vine.   That’s a tomato.   And of all the things in our family’s garden growing up, I looked forward to picking those tomatoes.   But they didn’t come overnight.   It took time, and it took work.  It took watering when the rains didn’t come. It took staking the vines when they got too heavy.  It took waiting till the fruit ripened.   But one day, you’d go out, and see those red orbs of juiciness ready for the picking.

And what’s true of tomatoes is true of experiencing the transformation Jesus brings.  Do you remember the story where through Moses God parts the Red Sea, and brings the Israelite slaves through?    When they pass through the waters, and see their persue-ers, the Egyptian army perish in the waves, they are free.   In that one dramatic act God has taken them out of slavery.   So, if God has made them free, why do they wander in the desert for 40 years before they get ot the promised land?    It’s because, God might have brought them out of slavery in an instant, but it takes years for God to get the slavery out of them.  Do you see the difference?   In one instant, God will deliver you out of slavery to fear, death, and your worst impulses.      But it will take a lot longer for God to get that slavery out of you.

The Christian life isn’t ultimately a product you get.  It’s a process you go through.    When John addresses these verses to little children, and then the old, that’s what John is referring to.   Just like your physical growth, your spiritual growth takes time.   And John puts these verses here because John knows that this process of growth can be discouraging, especially if you don’t remember what you have.   And what do you have?   You have forgiveness through his name.  Now, why is that important?

Well, you can begin to think that for God to forgive you, you need to be sorry first.  But if you need to be sorry, how sorry do you need to be?    And what if you’re not sorry?  Sometimes I’ve done things I know that are wrong, and I haven’t felt all that sorry.   When I went back for the third helping at the buffet line, I felt a little bad, but only a little.  So, do I get forgiveness or not?

Or sometimes people think that God’s forgiveness depends on God’s love.  God forgives you because God just loves you period.   In fact, God loves everybody no matter what.   And yes that sounds nice, and it is true. That’s why we say it every week.   But if you think about it you realize.  That can’t be the whole story.  If out of God’s love, God just forgives everybody, what does that mean?   Does God look down, and see the folks in Isis doing horrible things to people, even children, and just go, no worries, I forgive you.   That doesn’t sound right.  Shouldn’t somebody have to pay?   And if that’s the case for the evil inside an ISIS terrorist, what makes you so sure that God may not need you to pay up?  

That’s why people often get discouraged when they try to live the Christian life.  They can’t keep it up.     They think.  I’m just not sorry enough.   Or they wonder.  Can God really love me enough to let that pass?   But Christians know that they don’t have forgiveness because they’re sorry.   They don’t even have forgiveness because God loves them.   They have forgiveness on account of his name. 
Christians know.  You don’t simply have access to forgiveness.   You have forgiveness.(from a Tim Keller sermon on this passage)  It’s a done deal, bought and paid for.   And how did that happen?  It happened on account of his name.

Yes, God does love you.   And out of that love, God did something only God could   God put his name on the line for you.  God went into ultimate darkness, so that you might never need to.    God put himself under bondage, so he could set you free.   On the cross, God put everything on the line for you.  And when God did, God won your forgiveness forever. 

That’s why Christians don’t get discouraged when they mess up, even badly.  They don’t get nervous when they sense their sorrow for failings isn’t as great as it could be.  They don’t ever wonder if God’s love will cover this or that.  They know that out of God’s love, God did cover this or that.   On account of God’s putting in Jesus, his name on the line for you, you don’t simply have access to forgiveness.  You have forgiveness now and forever.

That means, even as you fail, you can move forward.   You don’t need to say when it comes to the Christian life, I can’t keep this up.   You know.  Keeping this up isn’t what makes you a Christian.  It’s Jesus’ name that does it, and how Jesus put that name on the line for you.  

You say as the Christian writer Kathleen Norris put it.   “When I fail, as I must, I can only recall the desert monk who told his disciple, “Brother, the monastic life is this: I rise up, and I fall down; I rise up, and I fall down; I rise up and I fall down.”   That isn’t just the monastic life.  It’s the Christian life.   And when you have peace about that, it gives you power to go and to grow, even on the days when that seems the hardest.   

And you can go and grow, because you don’t just have God’s forgiveness.  You have God’s power.  You have, as John puts it, God’s word abiding in you.  And what does God’s word do?  Think back to the Creation story.   How did God make the universe?  God spoke.  God’s word went out, and created everything.  And now that same word lives in you.  And that force empowers you to rise even as you fall.    Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you just decide to do certain things.  Becoming a Christian means something from outside has come inside you, and that power is changing you from the inside out.

Years ago, a young woman was joining the congregation I served on Long Island.  And she said to the elders.   “I grew up in church, but still I don’t know what’s happening to me.   I want to pray all the time, to read the Bible.  I don’t know why.”   And a wise woman elder said to her, “That’s conversion, honey.”   God’s power lives in you. That means, even when you fall, you know you will rise.   Why?  The power of the risen one lives in you.      

But beyond knowing what you have, you need to also know who you are.   John says this somewhat cryptic thing.   He says.  Fathers, I am writing to you, because you know him who is from the beginning.   Well, who are the only people who you know from the beginning?  Think about it.  It’s your parents.   And in case you missed it there.  John makes the same point again just a sentence later.  “I write to you, children, because you know the Father.”

In your journey with Jesus, you start where everyone starts.  You start at the beginning.  You start as a child.   And God deals with you in that same way. 

Right now, my wife and I are trying to teach our son, Patrick the word please.   So, when Patrick asks for something, I use that phrase my parents used with me.  What’s the magic word.  And Patrick says, please.  Still, even so, Patrick, like every kid, can be bossy.  Pick me up.   Come, play with me now.   But I don’t get offended by his bossyness.  I realize.  He’s just a kid.   And I pick him up.  I go and play with him. 

In a story in the gospels, Jesus falls asleep on a boat with his disciples.   A storm rises up, and threatens to swamp the boat.  And what do the disciples do?   They freak.  They scream, “Lord, don’t you care that we’re perishing!”   And Jesus says.  “Oh how little faith you have,” which is true.   It’s a lousy prayer.  But then what does Jeuss do.   He calms the storm.  He responds even to their very little faith.  

And when you cry to God in your moments of doubt, of little faith, like any loving parent, God will respond to you too.    And even as you grow in faith, as you mature, God will still love you as only a parent can.

A few years ago, when my marriage hit a rough spot, I reached out to my parents for help.  And my father didn’t give me a lecture, though I might have deserved one.   No, he asked me.  How can your mom and I help?  What do you need?   

When you are discouraged at your failings; when you are disheartened by your lack of progress, remember who you are.  You are God’s child, a child for whom God has given up everything so he can bring you home.   And no matter what, you will always have a place in that Father’s heart.  

And when you know that; when you know what you have, his grace, his power, when you know who you are, his beloved child, then within you the love will grow, the peace will come, and you will discover God growing more in you than you could ever have asked or imagined.  

Sunday, July 23, 2017

What Is the One Thing That Changes Everything, including you?

I love it.  I love the fact that we’re No. 1.   Now, in the United States, we’re not always number one at everything.   In fact, it won’t take you long to find some story bemoaning how far behind we are in some way or another.    But in one place, nobody can touch us.    And last year right around this time, we showed that again.

Here it is; the glory that was Rio. We snared 121 medals in those games, almost twice as many as anyone else.   And those Russians, forget about it.  They’re down at 4th.  Over the years, we’ve won more medals at the Olympics than any other country by a lot.   We are number one. 



And if it gives you any consolation, in spite of all our problems, we’re number one in a lot of other places.   We have six of the top ten universities, 83 of the top 400.   We have the largest gold reserves in the world.  We have the largest economy.   We even produce more beef and cheese than anyone.  And of course, we are the nation where Chuck Norris chose to be born.   

Yeah baby.   Do not mess with Chuck.



But as much as all that gives me consolation, I read a painful projection that well, disturbs me a bit.   You see, we Christians, we’re number one too.   When it comes to Christianity nearly one out of every 3 people on earth profess faith in Jesus.   That’s over two billion people, way more than any other religion.    But that is changing.  By 2050, we’ll be barely clinging on to number one.   Islam will have almost caught us.   And by 2070, at current projections, they’ll move past us.   

      

What will make that happen?  It’s all sort of things from birth rates to ages of population.   But one thing will make a significant difference.    Lots of folks will leave Christianity not to become Muslim but to become nothing at all.   Globally, researchers expect that for every person that switches into Christianity between 2 or 3 more will leave.    As someone who believes that no better news exists than the good news in Jesus, that makes me sad.  But what researchers project doesn’t need to be.
Still, how do those projections change?  How does Christianity stay number one?   Well, it sure won’t happen if Christians do it simply because they want to be, well number one.   No, it will happen only when Christians realize the one thing that moved a small Jewish sect to number one to begin with.   This one thing changed the world because this one thing changed people like nothing else.    That means, this one thing changes you like nothing else either.   What is the one thing that enabled Christianity to change the world?  What is the one thing that profoundly changes you?   In the words that you’re about to hear, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.


What made it number one?   What enabled Christianity to change the world?   It’s the same thing that will change you.   John talks about here, and throughout this whole letter.   What changes you is knowing the love.   When you know the love, really know the love, it changes everything, how you view yourself, how you view others.  It changes how you see everything.
But what makes Christian love different then well, any other kind of love?   Every religion calls you to love, even Islam.  Heck, you don’t have to even be that religious to believe in love.  Don’t you remember the Beatles song?  

All you need is love,
all you need is love,
all you need is love, love
Love is all you need.       

And, John knows that too.  John knows that in Judaism, loving your neighbor goes back almost to the beginning.   God first calls people to love their neighbor in Leviticus, one of the first books in the Bible.   John knows too pagans love love too. After all, the Greeks didn’t have just one word for love, they had four!   That’s why John gives that whole confusing riff on this command being old and yet also new.   

John knows that love has always been around.  But he knows that with Jesus, what love means now has changed forever.  In Jesus, this old command has become radically new.   That’s why Christians took the obscurest of all the Greek words for love, agape, and used that word to radically transform what love means.  So, what makes Christian love different?      

Jesus does.   The love God shows in Jesus, blows away every other idea of love, before or since.  Why?   It’s because this Christian God loves like no other.  In Jesus, God loves so deeply, so intensely, that God endures all the trials of becoming human.   Then God goes further.  This God gives up everything for love, even life.   In Jesus, this God, takes on all the pain, all the heartbreak of human evil and human brokenness.  And God does it because nothing is too great for God to bear for the sake of love.   And out of this love, God defeats everything that separates you from God, from each other.  God defeats even death.  

Nobody had ever imagined love could be that.   But in Jesus, love became that.   And that’s why John calls it a new commandment.   And it was this love, this radical self-sacrificing love that made Christians profoundly different than anyone else.    And it also made them astoundingly attractive.

So when a third of the Roman Empire became overrun with plague, who cared for the sick?   Christians did. They cared for everyone, even at the cost of their own lives.   And why did Christians do that.  They did it because Jesus loved them so much that he had given his life for them.   How could they not do that for others.      

Christians cared for the poor, even the pagan poor.  The Emperor Julian, who persecuted them, admitted – “The impious Galileans support not only their poor.  They support ours as well.”   And why did Christians do it?  They did it because Jesus who though he was rich, became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.    They did it because God had loved them like that.  

In fact, that’s how hospitals began.  In every town, that Christians built a cathedral, they always built a hospital.  Why? They got it.   No way could you love Jesus, unless you loved others the way Jesus did too.  And as people saw that love, they came by the thousands, even the millions.
That means when John talks about loving others here, that love goes beyond anything anyone else had ever thought love meant before.   How far beyond?   To get an idea, look at Jesus said, not about love, not even about hate, but about murder.  Jesus said in Matthew.

 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you say raca to a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Do you get what Jesus is telling you?   In these words on murder, Jesus is saying not hating someone means more than not harming them.  It means more than even than not cherishing anger towards them.   No, Jesus says, it means not saying raca to them either.   What does raca mean?   People used this word, as a way of dismissing someone, of saying that person is a nobody, not worth your time.   

In saying that, Jesus is making an astute point.   Rejecting someone can be even more violent than any abuse you send in their direction.   That’s why shunning can be such a painful punishment.  And then Jesus caps it off by saying that you can’t belittle them either.  

Do you see what Jesus’ words mean?   If doing all of this just gets you to not hating someone, can you imagine how further you need to go to get to loving them?  

But John doesn’t only talk about loving others.  John also talks about not getting tripped up when others don’t love you.    That’s what John means when he says: Whoever loves a brother or sister, lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. 

In other words, John is saying you don’t let others’ lack of love trip you up.  What does that look like?    If you’re complaining or thinking to yourself how nobody loves you or even this person doesn’t, then you’re getting tripped up.    If you’re getting bent out of shape over how someone is treating you, then you’re getting tripped up.  Now, God isn’t telling you to become a doormat.  But God is saying, learning to love means learn to not let others’ lack of love rent space in your head, not letting it trip you up.

But how does this sort of love even happen, this love that sacrifices everything, this love that doesn’t get tripped up?   Sure, Jesus did it.   But that’s Jesus.   How do regular people do it?   How do you do it?   How do you love or even begin to love as Jesus did?  It happens as Jesus more and more brings you from the realm of darkness into the realm of his light.

When I was in college, I learned about beer goggles.   Have you ever heard that phrase?    It describes what happens when you’ve had too much alcohol to drink.   Under the influence of that alcohol, you see things very differently.  You get beer goggles.   So, you may see yourself as far more witty and charming than you actually are.   You may see that person you met just an hour ago as your long-lost love.    And tragically, you may see your ability to drive as far greater than it actually is.  When you are under the influence of alcohol, it can change your perception of well everything.     

Why do I bring that up here?   It’s because, that’s what it means when you live under the realm of someone or something.  You are living under their influence.  When you drink too much, you live under the realm of alcohol.  And that influence can lead you to embarrassing, even deadly places.   

But in a far deeper way, when you let the love of Jesus grasp you, it does the same thing.  God rescues you from the realm of darkness, and transfers you into the realm of his beloved Son, into light.    And as Jesus’ love takes you deeper into that realm, the deeper his influence becomes.   As you see how God in Jesus so radically loved you, you start to see everyone around you in that same way.   You start living under the realm, under the influence of that love.  And it changes you.  It changes you as radically as moving from darkness into light. 

There's an old Jewish story in which a rabbi asked his followers, “How do you know when the night is giving way and the morning is coming?”

One of the students said, “Won't you know that the dawn is coming when you can see an animal well enough in the dim light that you can tell if it is a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

Another student spoke. “Won't you know that the dawn is coming when you can see well enough to distinguish between a fig tree and an olive tree?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

The students pressed their teacher for the answer. Finally, with a little smile, the rabbi said, “You'll know that the night has passed and morning is coming when you can look at any man and any woman and know that you are looking at a brother or a sister. Until you can see that well, the night will always be with us.”


That’s the light that Jesus brings.  And how does Jesus bring it?  He brings it as you realize how Jesus entered utter and complete darkness so that you might never have to, so you might have light forever. God brings it as you realize how in Jesus, God gave up everything, even love, so you might have love forever.    And when you know love like that, it moves you from darkness into light.  It bring you under the influence of a love that not only changes you.  It changes the world.  

Sunday, July 16, 2017

What is the One Reality that Affirms Your Worthiness No Matter What?

That Saturday, it all started out so normal.   I slept in, like only a teenager can.  I sauntered down the stairs from my attic room to the kitchen, but nobody was there.   I looked in my sisters’ rooms. No one there either.   Now, I was beginning to get a little nervous.   I went down the stairs to the family room.   But every seat was empty.  

I feared the worst.   I feared that I had been left behind.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  Did you ever read the left behind novels by Tim LaHaye or saw the movie based on them?    Maybe you grew up in a church where everybody knew what those two terrifying words, left behind, meant.   Or you could be one of those folks who have no idea what those words mean at all.  

But lots of Christians believe that before God heals everything, seven years will come when everything gets really bad.   And what is the first sign of these years of tribulation?   It’s the rapture, where all the Christians get sort of beamed up to heaven, like in this picture.



   Or as the novels put it, Christians just disappear, only leaving their clothes behind.   That image by the way spawned all sorts of pics like this one.   


And that Saturday morning, as I wandered through my mysteriously empty house, that’s what I feared.   Somehow, Jesus had not found me worthy of rapture.   I had been left behind to face all the bad stuff that was about to happen.   What was it I wondered that caused me to miss the cut.  What lustful thought, what unkind deed, what disrespectful word had led to this?   But as full despair was about to hit, I was delivered.  I heard the garage door opening, the voices of my family filtering up the stairs.   I realized.  Jesus hadn’t left me behind.   No, my family had, to go on an errand.  

Now you may never have felt “left behind” anxiety.  I certainly hope not.   But have you ever worried about your worthiness in some way?   Have you ever feared that you weren’t good enough, if not for God then for one of the countless arbitrary standards that the world sets up for worthiness?   You didn’t make enough.  You weren’t thin enough or big enough.   You didn’t have the right stuff or the right relationships or the right job.   The list could go on and on.   Life can besiege you with doubts, doubts about yourself, doubts about your worthiness, your value, your future.    And the words you’re about to hear can do the same.  Yet, in these same words lies the way to freedom.   How can you know, no matter what the world might tell you otherwise, that you are worthy?   How can you live in that sort of confident self-assurance?  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.


The world around you, around us, will give you all sorts of standards for worthiness.   If you look like this, then you’re worthy.   If you live here, you’re worthy.   If you earn this much money, then you’re worthy.   Yet all these standards are lies.  They only lead you into a very dark place.  But how do you stand against them?   How do you truly know your worth?   You live in the light, the light that again and again John talks about here.   

But when you look at the words we just read, they can make you nervous, especially that first sentence.   “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.”

If we obey his commandments?   That’s the standard?   Then how can anyone be sure that they know God, that they are worthy?    Who obeys all of God’s commandments?  

But if you get caught by those questions, you are missing what God in John’s words is trying to tell you.   Do you know what command God delivers to people more than any other?  God tells them.   Do not fear.    In fact, often when a messenger from God appears, those are the first words the angel says.   Fear not.

So, if these words instill fear, then you are missing the point God is trying to make.   When it comes to God the knowing always comes first.   It’s the knowing that leads to the obeying.   And if the God you think you know instills in you fear, then you don’t really know God.   And however powerful that fear, it will never lead you to obedience. 

As I was coming to worship last week, I listened to a story on the radio about a Christian fundamentalist sect in England.    This group of folks had separated themselves from everyone outside their sect so they could be pure from any ungodliness.     And God help you, if they suspected as a member of the sect that you weren’t godly enough.   The leaders came and interrogated you, and then locked you up until you ‘fessed up to wherever you had fallen short.   But then the whole thing fell apart.   How?   The supreme leader, a man in his 70s, got caught in bed with the much younger wife of one of the leaders.   And 8,000 members of that sect left overnight.   They discovered what the writer Phillip Yancey put so well.  Legalism fails miserably at the one thing it is supposed to do; encourage obedience.

Fear doesn’t ever lead you to obey, at least not for any length of time.   But when you come to know God, really know God, it doesn’t fill you with fear.  It fills you with love.  And in that love, you obey. 

When I was growing up, reading the King James Bible, it always puzzled me.  When somebody had physical relations with their spouse, the strangest word appeared, like here in Genesis 4.   “Now Adam knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Seth.”   But the translators of the King James had the word right.   The verb to know is the word that the Hebrews used for sexual intimacy, but only for intimacy in a marriage.  For sex anywhere else, they used a different word.

Why?  The Hebrews knew that when you come together with that level of commitment, that degree of love, it brings you to a depth of knowledge that nothing else can.   What do I mean?

Years ago, I remember talking to a close friend, who, over the years, had had many relationships.   But when she first came together physically with her husband, she cried.   And when he, concerned about this reaction, asked why.   She said.   “I’m crying because for the first time in my life, I know I am with someone who will not leave me, who will not walk away.”    In her husband’s act of love, my friend knew.  She knew her worth.  She knew her value in a way she had not before.

And like the Hebrews, the Greeks also used know in this same way.   So, when John talks about knowing God, he is talking about that level of loving intimacy, that level of loving commitment.   And when you know God loves you like that, it doesn’t bring you fear.  It frees you from it.   It frees you to love, to love like never before.    It takes you from darkness into light.

Now, how can you know God like that?   How can you know God with that level of intimacy?  It happens as you walk in this light that God brings.  And this light is bigger than just loving others.   Loving others just indicates that’s where you are living, in the light.  But walking in the light is far more than that.        

So what is this light that enables you to love others?   It’s the light of the gospel.  It’s knowing God’s love for you in Jesus.   That’s the light.  And the more you let that light shine into your life, the more God frees you from the darkness.   In that light, God will beam you up so to speak.  He will rapture you, but not in a way that takes you from the world.  He will deliver you in a way that enables you to see the world, to see yourself like never before.  As the Bible puts it, he will rescue you from darkness, and transfer you into the kingdom of his beloved Son, into light.

How does this rapture happen?  It happens as you see everything in your life through the reality of what God in Jesus did for you, as you see it through the gospel.    What does that look like?
Well, let’s take the example, John gives here, of loving your sister or brother.   That’s a nice idea, but how does it happen?  It happens when you see your brother or sister through the gospel. 

Last week, I went away to spend some time with my family.  Each year, we all live in the same house together on a beach in North Carolina.    And for the most part, we had a great time together as a family, but that doesn’t mean problems didn’t happen.   For example, in the kitchen that we all shared, we had a shelf in the refrigerator mainly for our son, Patrick’s food.  But on the last day, as we were preparing to leave, I went up to that shared kitchen to get my son some breakfast.  But I found nothing there.  I asked a member of the family what had happened, and she said that she had thrown it all away.   She didn’t apologize for that.  She just said the refrigerator needed to be clear, and so she had done it, throwing out our breakfast stuff, the sandwiches we had prepared for the road, everything.  As I was rummaging through the garbage can to retrieve a few things so my son could have breakfast, let me tell you.  I was not a happy camper.   And I carried my anger and resentment all the way home.   But then, last Sunday, I preached on this passage.   And I realized.   No way could I hold my grudge.   Why?  

Because, if you are seeing anyone through the gospel, you can’t.  It’s impossible.  What if God had held a grudge against you or me?  God certainly could have.   Where would we be?  But what did God do instead.  God loved you.  In Jesus, God loved you so much that though he was powerful, he lost all power so you might be free.  He who was invulnerable, became vulnerable for you.  He who lived in the glorious light, entered into infinite darkness for you.  And why?  He loved you.   And when you realize that it puts all your grievances in a whole different light.   The resentment fades, the anger, the hate.   After all, you know you had done worse to God than throw out some milk and fruit, but God didn’t turn away from you.  No, he reached out to love you, to love you more than you can ever even grasp. 

And this same light works for everything in your life.  Let’s say it’s not someone else you’re hating.  It’s yourself.   Maybe you hate yourself for some failing in your life, some place you let others down or yourself.    But whatever the failing, if you hate yourself because of it, you’re not believing the gospel.   You are saying to yourself.   This failure shows that I am not worthy, that I am a failure.   But your actions aren’t the proof of your worthiness.   Jesus is the proof of your worthiness.  And Jesus values you so much that he gave up everything for you.   Now, once you realize that, that failure may still hurt, but it will stop defining your life.   Healing will start to happen.   Why?   It’s because you are walking in the light.   You are seeing the only reality that determines your worth, God’s infinite, inexpressible love for you.


And the more you walk in the light of that love, of that grace, the more the love and grace of that God will penetrate you, like a beam of light shining into your darkness.   And in that light, you will know your sins are forgiven on account of his name.  You will know that in Jesus, you have conquered the evil one.  You will know the Father, because you now grasp that you are his beloved child.   And in that knowledge, you will grow strong, as God’s word lives in you.  And you will know that in that love, there is nothing that you cannot overcome.  

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The One Fact That, Once You Know it, Enables You to Handle Anything

I don’t know if anybody else looks.   I hope so.  I sure like checking it out.  After all, some clever stuff gets put up there.    How many of y’all pay attention to the messages on our church sign?     Bart, the guy in our church, who does this for us, even comes up with messages pretty relevant to current events, like this one that he had up recently.  That’s pretty clever, huh.



But I am certainly glad that Bart didn’t put up this message last week



    Or did he?   If he did, I’d rather just not know.    And sometimes these church sign messages can get a little personal like this one 




    When it comes to the Baptists, those folks don’t play.   No, they’ll pray some holy retribution down on you for sure.   And then there’s the well intentioned church sign that ends up getting across, well, a very different message than the one intended, like this one:


     This one seems to have the same problem or who knows?  Maybe the person who puts up the signs, really, really dislikes the preacher’s sermons. 



And just to show you that we Presbyterians aren’t exempt from these sorts of mistakes, I saw this one recently too 



    But again, maybe this sign person does really find the preacher’s sermon a good sleep aid.  I don’t know.
 
Ok so why am I showing you all these signs?   Being on vacation last week, did I not have time to put together a good sermon, so I am showing you church signs instead?    No, beyond being a bit fun to check out those signs, my wife told me about one recently that stirred up all sorts of conversation on twitter.   It was this sign.  


Again, I’m fairly certain that the person who put up this sign didn’t mean facts don’t matter.  He or she was probably simply saying that faith can overcome adverse circumstances.  Faith can enable you to triumph over painful realities in your life, something like that.   But that sign also points to a mistake that people often make when it comes to a relationship with God, that your faith can’t also be a fact.  What do I mean?

I mean. faith isn’t simply an experience you have, it’s a fact you can know.  If I ask someone, “Are you a Christian?”    And that person responds.  “Well, I am trying to be.”   Then I know.  That person doesn’t get that yet.      

You see.  So often, folks get trapped in doubts about their faith.  They find themselves caught up in scary uncertainties about their relationship with God.   When something bad happens to them, they fear that maybe they lost God’s love or at least God’s favor.    But you can know that you know God.  You can know it not just as a belief.  You can know it as a fact.  Your relationship with God can be as real as the gravity that keeps your feet on the ground.    How can you know God like that?   In these words you’re about to hear, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 


John has been saying throughout this letter one key truth.   John has been telling us that not only can you know God.   You can know that you know God.     You can know it with the same certainty that you know the sun rises.  You can feel it as solidly as you feel the ground under your feet.   How does that happen?  It happens when you realize that before the gospel, the good news of God’s love, is a fact in here, it’s already a fact out there.   

You see.   People often focus on only one of those.   Some see Christianity as something out there.  And others see Christianity as something in here.  But Christianity has to be both.   It has to be real out there.   And it has it be real in here.

What do I mean?  I remember the first time I visited Scotland.   I was sitting in a pub in Edinburgh, and struck up a conversation with the man beside me.  He even bought me a pint, which he could easily afford as I found out later he owned the hostel I was staying in.   Then he asked me with a sharp look in his eye.   Where are ye?   And I said, Scotland.  Bloody right you are!  Not Scotland like so many of you Americans say.   Then he went off.   He said. “What is it with you Americans.  You come over.  You’ve got a Scottish name, and you buy yourself a kilt, and then you call yourself a Scot.   You’re not a Scot!  You left here two hundred years ago!  We’re the Scots.  We live here, not you.”   Now he said it in a tone that wasn’t terribly serious, but he had a point.  Look, I love my kilt.   I love my Scottish heritage.   But am I a Scot?  I’m certainly not in the way he was, a man born and raised there, who made his living there, raised his family there.  

I am a Scot so to speak on the outside.   But he was a Scot inside and out.  And when it comes to Christianity, you can’t just be one on the outside.        

Have you heard about the rise of the nones?   Recently, the number of people who say they have no religious affiliation has risen dramatically.  Researchers call them the nones, as in none of the above.   Now a decent number of these folks may have made serious decisions to walk away from faith.    But lots of them have simply decided to finally get honest.   For years, a huge percentage of people called themselves Christians if someone asked.    But in reality, they were Christians in the same way I was Scot.  They may have visited there.  They may even have some of the external trappings.   But their Christianity only went skin deep.

These folks don’t just show up in the polls though.   They also can show up in the pews.  Years ago, I remember talking to someone about how they came to faith, how God became real to them.   I could tell that the whole question made this guy really uncomfortable.   But he did answer it kind of.  He said that he grew up Episcopalian, and really liked the liturgy.   But that the Presbyterian liturgy he enjoyed too.   And that was as deep as he could go.  Now maybe behind that answer lay a deep experience of faith.  But I suspect that coming to worship was just a thing he did, something that even as he regularly did it, only went skin deep.   

But Christianity has to be more than simply an identity.  It has to be a living thing, something that grows as you grow, that has its moments where it is strong or weak or simply in between.    It can’t just exist on the outside.  It also has to live on the inside.  

But on the other hand, it can’t only be about the inside either.   Christianity even as it becomes real within you, also has to be real outside of you.  

Sometimes, people say that well Christianity is true for me, but I can’t say it’s true for everybody.   Now if I come back and ask why not?  They can reply. “Well, isn’t that arrogant?” 
But here’s the problem.  

What if we were both hanging out looking over a cliff, and staring down to the bottom hundreds of feet below.   Then you said to me, “You know, I don’t really believe in this gravity stuff.  I think I’m going to just jump off this cliff, and see if I soar like a bird.”   Now what if I said to you.  “Well, okay, sure.   Gravity is true for me, but I can’t say that it’s true for you. You do whatever you believe is best.”     Would that not be crazy?  It certainly wouldn’t be nice.  If I was your friend, I’d say.  “Forget what you believe, you take a leap off this cliff, you’re not going to fly.  You’re going to die.  Don’t even think about it.”

Here’s the truth about gravity.   You can believe in gravity or not.  But whatever you believe, gravity will still be in force.   Your belief or disbelief cannot change that at all.

And Christianity has that same reality.  You can believe in it or not, but that won’t change the reality of its power in your life.  

A quote from the filmmaker, Cecil B. Demille, puts it well.   “You can’t break the ten commandments.  You can only break yourself against them.”    And for the gospel that statement is even more deeply true.   You can choose to let your life flow with the reality of God’s love and grace.   But if you chose not to, then that decision will have a power in your life, as real as you deciding to ignore gravity.    It is real like that.

And when you know that, when you know that Christianity is that real out there, and that real in here, it opens the door to an assurance in your faith that nothing can shift.   It’s why John can say in verse three these dramatic words.   We can know that we know him.  

You see.  If you just think that your relationship with God depends on how things are going on the inside, then of course you’ll have doubts.    Heck, in no love relationship will you be feeling the love all the time.  Any couple that has been married for any length of time can tell you that.   But your relationship with God isn’t just a subjective reality.   It’s an objective one too.   The objective reality of your relationship with God doesn’t change just because you go through some time when you’re not really feeling the love.    No, the reality of God’s love for you, that’s as real as the gravity that keeps your feet on the ground. 

A few days ago, I was listening to one of my favorite songs, one written by the singer-songwriter, Victoria Williams.    The main chorus goes like this. 
Jesus walked on the water
He turned the water into wine
He went down to the drunkards
To tell them everything is fine
You R loved
You R loved
You R really loved

Again and again, Victoria Williams sings that line, You R loved, with such utter conviction.  Why can she do it.   She knows it isn’t just something she feels.  It’s something that simply is.  And when you know that truth, when you really know it, it can’t help but become real inside.  

And too many people around us don’t know that.  They don’t know that they are loved like that.   They don’t know how real that love is, that it is as real as the gravity that keep their feet on the ground.  That’s why God put us here in this church, to do all that we can to get that reality across.   No power in the universe can change people like that love.   And Jesus has given us the opportunity to join him in seeing that power poured out into our world.  It’s why we reach those kids in our Learning Centers or in all our various ministries.   In everything we do, we are telling folks.   You R loved.  You R loved.   And too many still aren’t getting the beautiful reality of that truth.   And it’s why we have to do more, to be more, so that through us, Jesus’ love gets poured out into the world.


The reality of that love is what the love shown at the Lord's table proclaims.   Jesus’ love for you is as real and concrete as the bread and the cup of that table.   And it is that reality, that God has called us to share with a world in such need of that awesomely good news.  So know it, taste it and see it, the goodness and love of the Lord, a love that as you realize how real it is, will not only become real out here, it will become more and more real in here.    And don’t leave the reality there.  Bring it with you.  Go forth and in everything you do and say, proclaim this incredible reality. You R loved.  You R loved.  You R really, really loved.