Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Heart of the Human Problem

It always happens.    And it happened again this past week.   Every time I get together with Rabbi Tuffs and folks from the synagogue, we always end up telling jokes.   Heck, even for this event we’re hoping to have at the Tipsy Boar in March, we’re telling a sort of joke.    Here’s our promo line.  A pastor and a rabbi walk into a bar, and the first drink is on them.  And that’s no joke.    It’s a little clever, I think.  By the way, if you’re curious to learn more about that event,  touch base with me after worship or look for more information in the coming weeks.    

Anyway, when I began looking at the scripture for today, maybe that’s why I remembered this joke.   This woman is relaxing at home watching TV, when suddenly this urgent news bulletin breaks in. The anchor reports:  A driver is going the wrong way on 95, and causing all sorts of chaos.  She thinks.   Oh my goodness, my husband worked late tonight.  He is probably coming home right now.  I better call and warn him.   As soon as he picks up, she wastes no time.    She tells him.  “Honey, please be careful, some drivers is going the wrong way on 95.”   Her husband starts shouting!  “Babe, it’s worse than that!  It’s not one driver.  It’s thousands!”  Wait for it. Wait for it.  Ok.  You get it.

Why did I think of that joke?   Because that guy going the wrong way shows the heart of the problem with the human race.    Left on our own, human beings always go the wrong way.   And worse than that, they don’t even realize it.    And that wrong way has nothing to do with what good or bad things people actually do.   A cold blooded murderer and a person who lives an exemplary life are both going the same wrong direction.     How can that be?  In these words from Romans, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How can it be?   How can someone doing utterly evil things and someone doing very good things both be heading the same wrong direction?    In both cases, neither is seeking God.   It’s possible that they both are thinking they’re seeking God.   After all, ISIS folks believe they are doing theirmurders for God.   But in reality, neither is seeking God at all.  No human being, on their own, seeks God ever.    So how do human beings experience God at all?   Because God is seeking them.   Only when you realize that, does your direction change.  Only when you grasp the wonder of this God seeking you, dying for you, do you finally see the light.

But before we get there, let’s talk about why everyone is in the dark in the first place.   How can it be possible that no human being seeks God?  That’s what Paul is telling us.   He says it so clearly.   “There is no one who has understanding.  There is no one who seeks God.”  But in case, you didn’t really get it, look at what he says before.   He says, “Both Jew and Greek, are under the power of sin.”   In Romans 1, he talked about the depravity of Gentile culture, idolatry, orgies.  Now, he is saying, both the depraved and the devout, are under the power of sin?   Whether you have lived a life of compassion and care or a life of cruelty and disregard, in the end, Paul is saying, it doesn’t matter.   In either case, you both are heading in the wrong direction.

Folks often start connecting to a church, because they want to get their life straightened out, to go the right way.  And that’s exemplary. But in Christianity, it’s not the central point at all.   God is telling us here, both people living a moral life and an immoral life have the same core problem.  So that’s can’t be it.    If you think that’s what Christianity is about, you have totally grasped the wrong end of the stick. 

On the other hand, if you have become a Christian, you need to see something too.  Before Paul experienced the gospel, do you think he saw him himself as no better than some idol worshipping, orgy attending, Gentile?  No way.  But now, he gets it.   Even as a devout Jew, he was no better.   The gospel radically re-humanized the entire human race for Paul, and it has to do the same for us.   If we’re honest, we always have one group or another that we’re tempted to look down on.   Take politics for example.   Whether you are conservative or liberal, do you really look at the other side, and say?  I’m no better.  Probably not.  You likely say.  No, we are a lot better.    Or let’s go deeper.   Do you look at the folks at ISIS, and say to yourself; I’m no better?  That’s what God is telling us.  If you get what the gospel is telling us, really telling us, it will re-humanize everyone for you, even those who do the most evil of acts. 

But how can Paul say this?   How can there be no difference?  How can he say even, that there is no one who shows kindness, not even one?   Because Paul is going way deeper than our outward behavior.  Paul is looking at why we do everything, whether it is good or bad.   He is not interested in what we are doing.  No, Paul is interested in what direction what we are doing points.  Do you see the phrases he uses?  No one seeks God.  All have turned aside.  Paul is talking about direction.   To go back to the joke, Paul is saying.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a great driver or a terrible one, if you both are heading the wrong direction.    And what is that direction?   It’s the direction that takes you away from God.  That’s all that sin is; anything that draws you away from God.  

And you can move away from God by being very good or by being very bad.   If you are going the bad route, you move away from God, by trying to control your own life.   And if you go the very good route, you move away from God, by trying to control God.   But in either case, it’s not about God.  It’s about you.   The very bad person is certainly all about me, me, me.  What I want; who cares about anyone else.   But the very good person is all about me, me, me, too.  They just camouflage it behind good deeds.   But they still want something.  Maybe it’s approval from God or others or blessings or security, whatever.  But they’re not seeking God.   They’re seeking something from God.  Paul doesn’t say that people don’t seek blessings from God or answers from God or forgiveness from God.  Of course they do.   Paul is saying that no one seeks God just to seek God.   It’s so appropriate that they put all the spirituality books at Barnes and Noble next to the self-help section.    That’s what most of them are about, God helping me.   Everybody is looking to God’s hand.  But nobody is looking to God’s face.

Years ago, I was talking to my sister, about how I was struggling with some bad habit.  She asked me.  “What’s the pay-off?”   She said.  Even if you are doing something you don’t like, Kennedy, there has to be some sort of pay-off, otherwise you wouldn’t do it.   And in every deed, we do, whether good or bad, we’re always looking for that, the pay-off.   It’s always about us. 

That’s why so often in an alcoholic family, the good spouse, who has been nobly putting up with the alcoholic’s behavior all these years, has a crisis, if the alcoholic gets sober.   That person wasn’t just selflessly putting up with all the bad behavior.  No, he or she was getting a pay-off.  They weren’t loving the alcoholic so much as what the alcoholic’s behavior was getting them.  It may have been a sense of moral nobility or of control or whatever.  But when the alcoholic gets better, the pay-off goes away.   And that’s a problem, a big problem, often as big as the alcoholism was itself. 

That example only points to what every human being does.   Whatever deeds we do, even good ones, when we drill down deep enough, are about us.   No one serves God just to serve God.    Heck, no one, on their own, serves others just to serve others.  We’re all looking for a pay-off, to feel good about ourselves or superior to others or whatever.   Now, let me be clear, it’s better to do good deeds than bad ones.   But neither good deeds or bad deeds get to the heart of the human problem, which is neither of them lead you towards God.   Instead, they lead you right back to yourself.  “And that radical self-centeredness makes our world a mess.” (Tim Keller)

And we know this.  When Paul describes us as people whose throats are open graves or have the venom of vipers, he is describing what lies underneath.  Behind our best deeds, we sense it, the anger and touchiness, the resentment and discouragement.  Inside, that’s us.  So what’s the cure?
It begins with these words, every voice will be silenced.  To get to healing, you first need to spiritually shut up.   When we come to God with excuses or pleas we’ll do better (Please God) or or even beating ourselves up (God, I am so bad), we simply need to shut up.  Whatever we say to God to help us become better will still move us in the wrong direction, toward self-justification or self-sufficiency or self-loathing.   We’re just making ourselves worse.   We’ve gotta let all that go, all the good things, all the bad things.   Becoming a Christian, doesn’t simply mean repenting of your bad deeds.  Heck, self-righteous religious people do that all the time.  Becoming a Christian, means repenting of the reasons you did ever your best deeds.   Becoming a Christian means coming to God with nothing, because nothing is all you got.   As long as you come to God with something, salvation can’t come. 

And when you come with nothing, then you get it.  You not have been seeking God, but you realize.  God has been ardently seeking you.  And you’ll experience something the Bible calls, “the fear of God,” what the Bible says again and again is the beginning of wisdom, which simply means beginning to see reality. 

We often mistake fear of God as being scared of God.   Yet again and again, the Bible puts together fearing God with loving God or with experiencing God’s love.   And at the same time, the Bible says that fear, like being scared fear, cannot co-exist with love. As I John puts it.  There is no fear in love.  But the more you experience the love of God, the more this fear of God grows in you, and every other fear diminishes.   So what is this fear of God? What does it mean?  The preacher Tim Keller has a great definition.   This fear is joyful, humble awe and wonder at the salvation of God.

This is not just happiness, but something far more.   It’s a joyful awes that frees you from yourself.   It humbles you to the depths, even as it lifts you to the skies.   An old rabbi put it like this:  It’s carrying two pieces of paper with you all the time, on one is written: “You are as dust and ashes.”  And on the other: “For you the universe was created.”   This joyful awe leads you to feel so humbled, you can’t be self-centered.  And at the same time, it leads you to feel so radically affirmed, you don’t need to be.   You are living in joyful awe at what God has done for you; that God has sought you; how in Jesus, God has died for you; how Jesus has given everything for you, to turn you around and bring you home.  

It’s the joyful, humble awe behind the lyrics of songs like, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small, Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” or these words. “here is love vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood when the prince of life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood, who his love will not remember…who can cease to sing his praise” or what we will sing in just a few minutes, “Just like a blind man, I wandered along, worries and fears, I claimed for my own, then like the blind man that God gave back his sight, Praise the Lord I saw the light.”  

And when you see that light, really see it, then you’ll know the joyful fear of the Lord, the awe and wonder at the infinite, unbreakable, incredible love that God has for you.  In that love, Jesus will free you from yourself, and you will love God simply because you love God.   You won’t look to God for anything, because in God’s love, you already have it all.      

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Danger of Getting Religion

Have you ever heard of the Pentecostal preacher,Jimmy Swaggart.  Let me tell you.  That guy is good.    Let me tell you how good. 

One Sunday morning, many years ago, I flipped on the TV before heading over for worship, and there Jimmy was, preaching away.   I thought.  I have a few minutes, I’ll take a look.  Maybe I’ll pick up some preaching tips.   I don’t remember exactly what he was talking about, but he was definitely talking about Jesus, and doing a bang up job of it.    He get me all fired up.   I was saying That’s right! Preach it brother.  I’m with you!”   Then somehow, somewhere, a detour occurred.  I can’t even tell you when.     I was rolling along “Yes, Jimmy, Jesus loves us, and that modern art, it’s of the devil.”  Woooahh!  What did he say?  Modern art, really?  How did he get there?  

Has that ever happened to you?  You’re talking with someone, and you are thinking.  We are both on the same page.   We agree on everything.  But then a detour comes, usually a shocking one.   “And you know that whole moon landing it was a hoax.”    Or “Those dadgum Israelis, they were the ones behind 9-11”    And you are like.  “Where did that come from?”  

But sometimes those detours don’t take us away from the truth.  They lead us closer to it.   One Christmas, when I was in seminary, we went for a family reunion in North Carolina.   I was talking to my sister after dinner one night, about my newly awakened feminist consciousness, and how troubled I was by our conservative uncle Charles, who didn’t even believe women could serve as church elders.   How sad. We seemed to be on the same page.  Then the twist came.  She said; “I hear what you’re saying.  But I noticed.  Tonight at dinner, there was only one man, who went in to help the women clean up.  It was Uncle Charles. You sat with all the other men and didn’t lift a finger.  What’s up with that?”    Her detour nailed me, and I’ve never forgotten it. 

Those sorts of detours wake us up, even save us from the worst of ourselves.   That’s the sort of detour Paul takes here.  A detour that shocked his hearers, but that woke them up to a reality they desperately need to see, that we need to see.  What is that reality?   That religion might be the worst thing you could possibly get.   How can that be so?   In these words, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How can religion be the worst thing you could possibly get?  In these words from Romans, God shows us.   Religion can blind you to the reality of who you really are, so you see only the surface, and miss everything that lies beneath.    But if religion blinds you, how do you see the truth?  You look at where religion, especially the religion of the Bible points, to the One who was cut off for us. 
So how does religion blind us?   Paul shows us here how it does by delivering a brutal detour.  Just a few sentences before, he has been delivering this brutal condemnation of the worst of Gentile culture, the idols, the temples, the sex orgies.   Paul slams it hard.   Now at this point, as people were hearing this letter, because these letters were read publicly like a remote sermon, two groups of Christians were listening.   One group, the Gentile Christians, had to be feeling a little bad, as Paul pointed out all the ugliness.  But the other group, Jewish Christians, had to be loving it.  In fact, for this section, Paul was doing his version of one of the most popular synagogue sermons of the day, basically, you could call it, the “those nasty Gentiles” sermon.

But then Paul takes an unexpected detour.   Just as the Jewish Christians are going, “Yeah, preach it, Paul, those nasty Gentiles”   Paul then goes, but hey you Jewish Christians, you’re no better than they are.  The Jewish Christians must have been going, “What?!   We’re as bad as those orgy giving, idol worshipping Gentiles?  You have got to be kidding, right?”  But Paul is not kidding at all.   He is pointing to one of the most important realities that every human being has to face.   No one is okay.   In fact, everyone is pretty far from okay.

Now before we dig into why this is true, let’s take a moment to think about how unique that perspective is.   Some folks like to think, well, “I’m ok.  You’re ok.”   But when you look around at the world as it is, does that really hold any water?   Let’s face it, things in our world are not ok by a long shot.    And then you have folks, too often religious folks, who go.   “I’m ok, but the rest of you are so not ok.”   And that’s how you get everything from self-righteous jerks to Isis.   But Paul is saying simply this.  “I’m not ok, and neither are you.  Nobody is ok.  That’s the problem”  

A week or so ago, I was talking to someone who knows me pretty well, and she was saying.  “Ken, you are a really good person.”    And I said, “Oh that is so not true.   I am not a good person, not by a long shot.”   Now, I don’t have some sort of terrible self-concept.  I just get what is Paul is telling us.   “I’m not good because nobody is.”    And the danger of religion, at least as many understand it, can lead you to think you’re good when you really are not. 

But isn’t that a bit much?  How can you say that everybody is not good?  Because good is so much more than lots of folks think.    Paul gets that.  That’s what he is trying to tell us on all his talk about the law.  You see.  God didn’t give the law to deliver a bunch of dos and don’ts.   God gave the law to paint a beautiful picture of who God created every one of us to be.   And once you see that picture, really see it, you’ll know.  That ain’t you.

Folks can look at things like the Ten Commandments, and just see the surface.   But do you know the rule about icebergs? For whatever you see on the surface, there is 90% more underneath.   The commandments are like that, an iceberg.    If you look only on the surface, you’re missing almost everything. But religion, at least as lots of folks understand it, can lead you to look only there.  And because all of us are trying to make ourselves look good, that’s where we want to look anyway.   We want to see the law simply as a list of external actions.  That way, if we check them off, we can think.  I’m doing ok.  I’m good.  But the law goes so much deeper than that. 

That’s how Paul can say even to the most devoutly religious person listening in that room in Rome, you are doing the same things even the worst Gentiles do.   Just look at the list he gave of all the bad things Gentiles do in Chapter 1.  What are some of the things he put there?  Envy, deceit, craftiness, boastful, inventors of evil, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless; these are not so much things you do as attitudes you have.    And that’s the point.  Living out the law, being good, isn’t simply about not doing bad things, it’s about a life filled with such love, kindness, honesty, and every other good thing that bad things simply have no room at all to even be thought of, much less get done.    
Look at how Jesus talks about the law, about being good.   In the Sermon on the Mount, he said. “You know that commandment.  Thou shalt not murder.   I tell you if you say to anyone, Raca, then you’ve broken it.”  Now what does Raca mean?  Is it some sort of insult?  No, it actually means nobody.   Jesus is saying.  If you treat another human-being as if they don’t matter, you’ve broken this commandment.   If you see someone and think, well, they’re not important, you’ve broken this commandment.   In fact, if you don’t see every person who enters your life as of infinite value and importance, you’ve broken this commandment.   Now how can that be murder?  Because murder is simply the end result of an attitude that begins in the heart.   The murder is only what you see on the surface, but what you don’t see is the 90% of what lies underneath.  That’s the 90% of the picture that the law is pointing to.  It is pointing to the picture of what every human being is called to be, and that picture goes way beyond just not killing people. 

Now how many of you can say that you’ve treated every person you have ever encountered as infinitely valued and important?   Well, then according to Jesus, and he should know, you’ve broken this commandment.  And you don’t have to even have the Bible to know this.  Everyone knows this.

It’s why Paul can say, even the Gentiles have the law written on their hearts.   Why?  Because, as the Christian writer, Francis Schaeffer, once put it, every one of us has a sort of hidden recorder in our hearts.  Why?   So when we stand before God, and go, “Woah, God, I had no idea about these commandments things.   You can’t hold me to that standard.  I had no idea it even existed.”  And God will go.  “Oh you didn’t huh?”  Then God will pull out the secret recorder, and it will have on it every moment, when we thought or said, “He shouldn’t have treated me that way.”   “What she just did to me there was so totally wrong!”  And God will be like.  It sure looks like you held everyone else to that standard, so why can’t I hold you.”

So if this is the picture of who God calls us to be, this beautiful perfect portrait of a human life, how do we ever get there?  Strangely enough, God points us to the answer in, of all things, a religious ritual. That’s why Paul starts talking about circumcision.   That ritual points us to the answer we need. 

In the beginning, God made his first covenant with a man named Abraham.  What God meant by covenant is that God wanted a real, intimate relationship with Abraham and his wife, Sarah and their family.  And to symbolize this relationship, he asked for the ritual of circumcision.  Circumcision acted for Abraham much the same way that Baptism works for Christians.  But baptism can be a little easier to understand, the washing of sins, death and resurrection, all that stuff.  But what can circumcision mean? 

Well, in ancient times, to seal an agreement, you didn’t sign some paper.  Instead, you acted out the penalty.  So, for example, to seal one type of agreement, you walked between cut up animals.   In that ritual, you were saying, if I break this agreement, then I will be cut up like this.  Circumcision served the same purpose.   God said that as faithful as I am to you, you must be that faithful to me.  And if you break that commitment, you will be cut off.  You will be cut off from relationship with me, from the abundant life I yearn to bring you.   But here’s the problem.  If you know the story, Abraham is not faithful to God almost immediately, yet God still stays faithful to him.  In fact, everyone who follows after Abraham messes up.  So how can God keep the relationship?  Why hasn’t God cut them off, cut us off? 

In a few verses in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he gives us the answer.  There he says to Gentiles, that you have received a circumcision but not by human hands.  You have received the circumcision of Christ.   What does Paul mean?  He is saying.  Jesus was circumcised for you.  He was cut off so that you could be brought in.  He paid the penalty of the broken covenant.  He lost the relationship with God so that you might gain it.    But Paul goes further. He says, now you rest in this circumcision of Christ.   He has given you a new heart, a new intimacy with God.  What does this mean?  When the law paints this beautiful picture of who a human being is called to be, it is not just painting some generic picture.  It is giving us a picture of a person, Jesus.    And when you believe in what Jesus has done for you, this picture begins to live in you.  Jesus’ beauty becomes part of your life.   In fact, when God looks at you that is the picture he sees.   He sees you through Jesus.  And when you see what Jesus has done out of love for you that will cut you to the heart.  It will start to change that heart into something more than you could have imagined or dreamed.   

So yes, you are not okay.  I am not okay.  But in Jesus, you become that. You become who God created you to be.   And until that becoming is complete, you can rest in what Jesus has done for you.  You don’t need religion to justify yourself.   Jesus has already done it.  You simply trust that it is true, that he cut off so that you would never be.   And as you trust, Jesus gives you the freedom to fail.  And that freedom to fail, gives you what religion can never give. Paradoxically, that grace frees you to grow into the very good creation that God made you to be.     

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Danger of Desire

This past Monday, as I came into the room, I saw it there, resting on the table.    The staff had bought me a gift for the New Year.  I was so touched.  And I wondered.   What could it be?    I took off the ribbon.  I ripped off the wrapping paper.    Then I felt the warmth.   I caught the wonderful aroma.   Oh, they knew me so well.  They had given a gift close to my heart.  They had given me a box of Publix Fried Chicken. 
I know.  It’s not good for me.  That’s why I always eat a big salad with it.   I kinda hope that the salad will cancel out the fat and cholesterol.   I’ve tried to walk away many times.  But what can I say?  I love fried chicken.   I can stay away for a few weeks, but I always end up succumbing to that brown box full of caloric, crunchy chicken deliciousness.  

Now my desire for fried chicken, I don’t think will kill me, at least not right away.   But that doesn’t mean that our desires can’t be deadly.    In reality, our desires are the deadliest thing we face.   They capture us.   They blind us then bind us.   Nothing will destroy you more completely, more profoundly then your desires.   

And I’m not simply talking about “bad” desires.  I’m talking “good” desires, heck even “religious” desires.   All of them have the power to drive you over the edge.  And here’s the scary part, you’ll likely be over the edge before you realize it’s even happening.

Are you thinking to yourself, really?  How can desires be that deadly?   Does that make any sense?   And if it does, if desires can devastate you like that, how do you stop it?  How do you enjoy your desires, cultivate them even, but not allow them to take over, to hold you hostage?   In these words from Romans, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How can desires be so deadly?   How can they drive you over the edge?  In these words, God shows us.    Desires, unchecked, will first of all delude you, then they will dominate you, then they will finally diminish you, even dehumanize you.    But it doesn’t need to be this way.   When desires find their proper place, then you become free to grow into the very people you need to be, people who live out of the richly abundant life God created you to have.   That’s what Paul is trying to tell us in this densely packed thicket of words.   So let’s unpack what he’s saying.   

First, Paul starts out with a stunning assertion.   Everybody knows God.    Deep inside, they know that everything they have is a gift.    No one needs any special revelation to see it.  Why? The very world around them shows them the truth.   What is this truth?   The very unreligious writer, Kurt Vonnegut, put it stunningly well.   In one of his first novels, he had one of his characters give this dying speech. 
God made mud.  God got lonesome.  So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!’
‘See all I’ve made….the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars’
And I was some of the mud……That got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, Lucky mud,
I, mud, sat up..And saw what a nice job God had done. Nice going, God!
Nobody but you could have done it, God!
I certainly couldn’t have.  I feel very unimportant compared to you.
The only way I can feel the least bit important…Is to think of all the mud….
That didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much.  And most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!   What memories of mud to have.
What interesting others kinds of sitting up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!  Lucky me, Lucky mud!

This is the truth about God that people spend their lives avoiding, that they’re lucky mud.  Now they may not see that they’re avoiding this truth.  They may believe in God, but functionally they don’t live their lives by that truth.   They don’t live as if they’re lucky mud.  Here’s the problem.  We owe God everything, even the air we breathe, yet functionally, we give other things our functional allegiance, our ultimate trust.  And we don’t even see it. Why?  Our desires deceive us.   Instead of God driving our lives forward, our desires do the driving. Yet we can’t even see them in the driver’s seat. 

Human beings have to live for something.  We have to have purpose.   So if we don’t live desiring God, we’ll live our lives desiring something.   Paul gives examples here of two desires that he saw driving people’s lives in his world, pagan religious practices and sexual promiscuity.  But Paul isn’t saying, those are the only desires that qualify.   He’s simply giving examples to make his point.   In fact, in another letter, he talks about greed in this way. And in yet another letter, Galatians, he even gives the example of a desire to live by God’s law.  Now how can the desire to live by God’s law, to be a moral person, be bad?  

Here’s the crucial point.   It’s not desire in and of itself that’s bad.  God created our desires.  What creates the problem is how our desires get out of order.  How they become overwhelming desire, desires that end up dominating our lives.   To get across this point, Paul uses a very unique word in Greek, Epithumia, which means essentially super desire.     Now the translators use the word lust for the word here, which really misses the whole point.   Sure the desire can be sexual, but it’s not about the form of the desire.  It’s about the power of the desire.   That’s what the word means, an overwhelming, dominating desire, an epic desire. 

And if we are not desiring God like this, then guaranteed some other desire, often more than one desire is taking that place.  And that desire will begin to define us and diminish us, even dehumanize us.   We will become more and more our desires, and nothing else.  Now if you’re a Christian, then God has already broken the back of these desires.  But these desires still remain.  You’re hopefully just more aware of them so you can stand against their power.     But if you’re not a Christian, more likely than not, you’re missing these desires completely.  Why?  Your desires don’t seem all that dominating to you.  You don’t see their power.  But if something happens where you might lose them, then you’ll see.  You don’t just have your desires.  Your desires have you.  

Let’s take a few examples of how this works from a talk I recently heard.   Anxiety comes from super-desires mapped onto the future.   Anxiety becomes paralyzing to the degree that I have
some finite desire as the dominating desire for my life (what the Bible would call an idol.)  Let’s say my epi-desire, where I get my functional meaning in life centers around politics, either the Democratic or the Republican Party.   When my party suffers defeat, I’m not just glumly disappointed.   I’m shaken to the depths.  I want to leave the country.  And I’m too furious to speak to anyone who voted for the other side.    (from a sermon by Tim Keller - also in his book Counterfeit Gods)

Guilt comes from super-desire mapped onto the past.   Guilt becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized or super-desired finite things.   Let’s say I have a dominating desire for a happy family, and therefore my performance as a parent is valuable above everything else.   Then if my child goes wrong or has big problems, I’m not just sorrowful and grieved.   I’m stricken with neurotic guilt.   I cannot forgive myself.   I hate myself.  I may even become suicidal. 

And lastly anger and bitterness is our super-desire mapped onto the present.  Anger becomes pathologically intensified when someone or something stands between me and what it is I ultimately value.  Suppose my career is the source of my worth, and someone at work is harming it.  I will not just be angry.   I will be so deeply bitter and capable of doing things to this person that I may blow up my career in ways more thoroughly than this person ever could.

Do you begin to get what Paul is showing us, how deadly an out of order, a super desire can be?  And oh how subtle it can be in holding us!   You can see a place that it grabs onto me in the bulletin today.   Under my schedule, I noted how I was going to work tomorrow even though literally no one else on staff would be.   Now why did I decide to do that?   Would the church collapse if I actually took MLK day, if some things got delayed in getting done as a result?   No, of course not.  My decision to work betrays all sorts of super desires, to be seen as the pastor always on the job, my anxiety about successfully doing my job.   Working tomorrow wasn’t about serving God.  It was about serving my own out of order desires.   So I’m going to honor Dr. King, and do something life-giving with my family tomorrow.      

Now what God does do when God sees these desires dominating our lives?  Does God send lightning bolts down?   No.  Paul gives us a far more chilling answer than that.   He says, God just gives us over to them.   This word gives over is one used to describe surrendering to an enemy. God surrenders us to our desires.    The worst thing God can do to you is give you what you want.  It’s why Oscar Wilde said.  When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.

Almost 400 years ago, the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter acutely described what this looks like when it comes to wealth.   He described how if you set your heart on money, and actually get it, that it will actually spiritually devastate you.  First of all, you mistake wealth and money-making savvy for character.  Why?  Because you’re smart, and you’re savvy, and you want to believe that it’s because of your character.  So for the rest of your life, you’ll make terrible mistakes in relationships because you mistake wealth and savvy for character.  Because of course, that’s not true.  And you’ll become proud.   Baxter said.  Wealthy folks like that, believe they’re smart about every area, that they’re experts on everything.   And folks around them see the foolishness of the belief, but of course they don’t say anything, because of the person’s power.  Their wealth makes it impossible for people to tell them the truth.   But what’s true of what Baxter says about wealth is true of anything that we make our super desire.   If we get it, it won’t deliver us.  It will destroy us.

So how do we escape?  How do we find a way out?  First, when life hands you hard things, setbacks and disappointments, those things can be gifts.   How you react will show you where your idols are, the super-desires that are dominating your life.    They will give you truths each of us desperately need to see. 

But once we see the problem, how do we become free of it?   In the very last words here, Paul gives us a hint, when he concludes by saying the God who is blessed or praised forever.    In other words, the way you stop worshipping all the wrong things is to worship the right thing. And how do we get there?   Well, who is already blessing and praising God forever?  It’s the angels.  And in 1 Peter 1:10-12, we read this:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and regard to the things that have now been announced to you —things into which angels long to look!    

Do you get this?  Angels long to look at the gospel, at God’s grace towards us, his sacrificial love. They can’t get enough of the beauty of it, the glory, the wonder.   And what is this word, long to look.  It’s the word Epithumia, the word super-desires, what is translated as lust.  The angels lust after the gospel? What does that mean?  The deepest passions of angels’ hearts are satisfied by looking at the love and beauty of Jesus, by reveling in it, rejoicing in it, and it wasn’t even for them.  When the deepest passion of your heart is satisfied by loving and adoring Jesus, that’s what happens.  All the other passions find their place.   You can look at all these things you yearn to have, and say.   I can live without you because I have what ultimately matters, the love of God.    And if I can’t live without you, I’ll never be able to safely live with you.   So don’t dominate my life. Don’t inflict anxiety or guilt or bitterness on me.  I can live free of your power, because I have experienced the beautiful power of the One who died for me.  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Powerful News That Brings Change

I’ve given up.   I don’t even do it anymore.   It doesn’t really work for me.   Does it work for you?    How many of you made some sort of New Year’s resolution?   Do you know what percentage actually follow through on those things?  8%.  In other words, folks have a 92% failure rate.  Yet still about half of the population makes these resolutions.  Why?  

Folks want to change. They want to break through to a better place in their careers, their relationships, their health, their finances, the list could go on.   That’s great.   Who doesn’t have someplace that they’d like things to be better?   But what if those resolutions point to something deeper?  What if people in these resolutions are searching not simply for a change in habits, but a change in life, a breakthrough in actually who they are.  How does that happen?  

In these words, we’re about to hear, specifically in just two sentences of these words, God gives the answer to that question.  How do you break through to a better life, to the life God actually created you to live?   Here, God shows the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Let me tell you about two highly religious people, who tried to change, to become more.   One became a monk, even taught theology in a seminary.  The other became a Anglican priest, and even formed a group at his university called the Holy Club.   Yet in both cases, these two folks failed completely until, by their own accounts, they grasped what we just read.  And when they did, these words changed them forever.    That breakthrough changed their lives. It changed the lives of others.  It even changed history.  The monk was MartinLuther, who started the Reformation, and the priest was John Wesley, who started the Methodist Church.  What did Luther and Wesley see in these words that changed them so completely? 

It all came down to a few sentences, and at least initially one word.  What was the word?   You find it in verse 16.  Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew and also to the Greek.  What was the word?  Gospel.  Have you heard that word before?   Do you know what the word means?  We translate it Good News.    But the word in Greek is evangel, which literally means good herald.   It’s where we get the word angel, but that’s not what Paul is talking about.   He is using the word the way everyone else did, the way today we use it, as in the Miami Herald. He is talking about news.  The ancient world had no newspapers. They had heralds, the angeloi   Leaders sent out these heralds, these angeloi, to share the news, usually of some great victory.   “Hear O hear, Caesar has defeated the enemy in Egypt”   People would hear this news, and go home happy. 

Now why would that word angeloi, news have such power?   Because Paul was telling people something profoundly different from every other philosophy or religion.  Other religions give you good advice.  If you want peace or change or an encounter with God, then do these things.     But what is good news.   It’s not advice.  It’s not about anything you do.   It’s about something that has already been done for you.   Do you see the difference?

If you asked someone on the street, what is the core teaching of Christianity?  They might say something like love your neighbor as yourself.   And that’s a great thing.   Jesus certainly thought so.  But is that news?   Is that something that has been done for you, outside of you, something so momentous that just knowing that news changes you?    No.  So it’s not gospel. It’s not news.               
If someone tells you that the message of Christianity is to love your neighbor as yourself, you get three reactions.   A person might go, yeah, whatever, I knew that.     Or they might think, sheesh, I can’t do that.  Or they might say, well, I’m doing that all the time already.   As the preacher Tim Keller puts it, it’s either shrugged or bugged or smug, but no breakthrough.

If your faith focuses more on what you need to do for God, then on what God has done for you, you’re not getting it.   You’re probably wondering.   Why did we just baptize this little baby, Alexandra.  She can’t do anything.   That’s the point.   We’re talking about something that God has already done for her, for you.  She doesn’t have to do anything.  It’s already been done.
So what has already been done?     That’s where the sentence in verse 17 comes in.  “For in it (that is the good news), in the good news, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

What does this mean?  It means that because of what has been done for you, God looks at you differently.  God only sees the beautiful, wonderful things about you.  All the ugliness is gone, at least as far as God is concerned.   Do you see the power of that?

So many folks think the gospel is all about forgiveness.   I do bad things, and God forgives me because of Jesus.   Yeah, that’s true.  But that doesn’t get to the heart.   That’s not the part that blew Luther and Wesley away.   That’s not what Paul is saying here.  

Decades ago, I worked with night clubs in New York City.  And I learned that you couldn’t just walk into those places.  You had to look the part, and if the doormen deemed you acceptable, you get the privilege of paying an outrageous entrance charge, and going in.   It hasn’t changed too much.  That’s still the deal at the clubs on SouthBeach.  Now as someone who worked for the public relations firm that handled the club, I could get on the list.  If you were on the list, you could simply go to the front, say to the doorman, I’m on the list, and voila, automatic entry without even a cover charge.   Doing that, I gotta admit, felt awesome. I felt very cool.

But to get on the list I had to justify myself.   I had to say that I was bringing some reporter in to do a story or some contact at a fashion magazine.   I couldn’t just go in.   

But imagine being automatically on the list, every night, every club.   It doesn’t matter how geekily you’re dressed or how much you weigh or how you look, the doormen waves you in every time.  Oh, Mr. McGowan, please go right in.   Now getting in some club might not rock your world, but do you get the point? 

That’s what Paul is telling you.   You’re on the list.  You don’t have to do anything to justify your place there.   Jesus has placed your name there, and it is never, ever coming off.   It doesn’t matter how righteous you’ve been or not been, you’re on the list.  Jesus made sure of that by paying an infinite price to put you there.    All you need to do now is simply trust that it’s true.    And we’re not talking about a dance club, we’re talking about becoming a son or daughter of God.   In other words, you go to God, and say, remember me, your son, and God goes, “Hey, son!  You look awesome!” 

You are on the list.   You are righteous period.   If someone asks you, are you a Christian? And you say, well, I’m trying to be.  You don’t get it.  It’s a standing you have.   You’re on the list.  That’s it. 

Now if you’re going, well, that’s good news for the Luthers and Wesleys of the world, those filled with religious guilt, but not for me.  Don’t kid yourself. People have all sorts of things they make their righteousness, how they get their standing in the world, how they assure themselves of their value or worth.  It could be money or success or popularity or relationships or family, whatever.  Everyone does it.  Everyone looks for this validation somewhere.  But I don’t care where your righteousness is, it will be blown away, if nothing else, then by death.   Only this righteousness lasts.

Do you feel the power of it?  That’s what Paul calls it, power.  Paul doesn’t say that it channels the power of God.  Paul says.  It is the power of God.  You get this, and the power of God flows into you.   

Paul gives us two ways that we feel the power.  First, this news bothers us.  It’s why Paul said he wasn’t ashamed of the gospel.  He knew.   People found this news, weird, even offensive.  They think.  This is way too easy.  You believe, and you’re on the list, like that?  Prostitutes, war criminals, you believe and you’re on the list?   Yep.  If you find that distasteful, then you are feeling the power.   Others feel it’s way too simplistic.   I believe that I’m on the list, and I’m on the list?  Really?   No course I have to take, no esoteric knowledge, no techniques.  Nope.  Believe you’re on the list, and you are.   And don’t think this is some intellectual affirmation, this is personal.  You believe this.  You feel it.  You feel the acceptance. You feel the love.   You break through.  And that brings us to the other way, you feel the power.

The power does more than offend you, it changes you.  At the beginning, Paul puts it this way.  He addresses the Roman Christians;.  To all, God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.   When you feel the love of the list, that you are the beloved, what happens?   You feel an irresistible attraction to live like the One who put you there.   You can never get the righteousness of God put upon you, without feeling it growing in you.   You can’t feel the love without wanting to live the love.   You feel the call, the beckoning to live like Jesus and you can’t help but answer.   That’s the power that broke through Luther and Wesley; that has broken through the lives of billions.  Do you feel it?   If you don’t, you can feel it right now.  It’s that simple.  It’s that easy.  Believe it or not.