Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Three Things To Know that Give You Strength in Hard Times

My son had a rude awakening last week.  He got really sick with something called croup.   Now as bad as it is for anyone to get sick, what made it harder for Patrick is that he had never been really sick before.  You could just see him thinking.  What is happening to me?   My life was going so great, and now this comes along?   What is going on here?  

Patrick was facing what everyone has to face.   Everybody, to some degree, suffers.  Nobody gets a pass when it comes to hard things in life.  Granted some face harder things than others, sometimes incredibly harder.   I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in Syria right now.  But you don’t need to be in Syria to know about suffering.   Everybody faces it.  That’s not the question.  The question is how do you deal with it?   How do you, even in your sufferings, grow stronger rather than weaker?    How does that happen?

Hard things in your lives can either make you better or make you bitter.  How do you move toward better?    In these words, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How, when suffering comes, and it will come, do you not only get through the suffering but come through stronger, even better than before.   In these words, God shows us.   The key to triumph in hard times is to know three powerful things.  You do not suffer alone.  You do not suffer without purpose.  And you are never without hope.   Now that can be nice to say, but how do you know those things are true, that they’re real?   You know those things are true, that they are real, because of one profoundly true thing that makes them real. But before we get there or even to unpacking the three powerful things, we need to get this.   

No matter what anyone tells you, you can’t avoid suffering.   Suffering is baked into the cake. Why?    As Paul puts it, creation is subjected to decay.  Everything in us and around us is winding down.   Think about it.    How many 50 year olds are playing in the NBA playoffs?   And why is that?   No matter how good any player is, at some point, he slows down.  He ages out.   And that happens to everyone.  Even if you have every creature comfort possible; if you live in total safety and security; if you have the best medicine money can provide, you can’t avoid that winding down.  Sooner or later, you’re going to die.  The people you care about, they’re going to die too.  Sorry to break it to you, but that’s the truth.   And all of that means suffering.   

It’s why the word that Paul uses here for groaning, doesn’t simply mean, mild pain.  No, Paul is talking about the sort of groaning a person faces who is close to death.    The Greeks used this word to describe the groaning of dying warriors on a battlefield or as Paul uses it here, to describe the groaning of child birth.   And in Paul’s day, every time a woman gave birth, she was close to death.   In ancient times a woman dying in child birth happened all too often. 

We need to make this clear, because we live in a society that wants to deny those hard realities.   So often people face some painful trial in their lives, and are shocked.  How can this be happening to me? It’s happening to you, because it happens to everybody.    But instead of accepting that reality, what do folks do.  They may get angry or bitter.  Or they may simply try to avoid the pain of it all.   

Do you know that almost 70% of people who take anti-depressants, have never experienced what you would call a major depression?   More than that, 40% don’t have any significant depression symptoms at all.  So why are they taking the drug?   Well, it’s because, life feels better when you’re a little drugged.   And if not, you can use your phone or TV to distract you, to deaden the pain of life.   But here’s the reality.   Drugging or distracting your way out of the hard realities of life never works.   It doesn’t only deaden you to the pain.  It deadens you to life.   But if you face the pain, if you move through it, instead of trying to go around it, you can rely on three powerful things.       

First, you can know that you are never alone.   Do you see that word that Paul uses for Father here, Abba?   Every language has a word like that.  Why?   It’s because no matter where you are, when a child first comes up with a word for their parents, it’s something like Abba.  It may be Dada or Mama or Papa, but it always has that aah aah sound.   And Paul uses that word to tell us something profoundly true in how God relates to us.   God really does see you as his child, as his son or daughter.   But more than that, God relates to you as a parent relates not just to any child but to a small child, a child who says Abba.  And that’s an incredibly important thing to know. 

If you have a young child, when your child cries out in distress, real distress, what do you do?  You run to that child.  You pick her up.  You hold him close.   What that happens it’s not that you love the child more in those moments.  But that cry stirs your love up.   It moves you to action.   And Paul is saying.  When you cry out to God, God runs to you just like that.   Not only does God not leave you alone, but in those moments, like any loving parent, God comes close.

But Paul goes further.  He tells us that in those moments, God works to meet your deepest needs, even the ones you don’t know you have.   When you don’t have the words to express your deepest need, then the Spirit of God speaks it for you.   Like any child, we don’t always know what we need, but our heavenly Father does.  And by his Spirit, he speaks that need and meets it.

Many years ago, I went through a devastating break-up.   I prayed many times for God to bring that relationship back.  In hindsight, I’m glad God didn’t answer that prayer.   But in the midst of those cries to God, God did answer my prayers, in the way that I most deeply needed. 

The last time I saw this woman happened to be a weekend when I was in Boston, where she lived, for work.  She agreed to get together. I went all out.  I booked a dinner at a great restaurant, got her a gift from her favorite store, and as we ate, I was thinking just maybe.   That’s when she told me, she was seeing someone else.   And that hurt. 

Yet as I cried out to God that weekend, he came running. As I was checking out where I was staying, the woman behind the counter looked at me and did a double take.  She looked at my card, and then at me.   Then she asked.  Did you travel across the country on this bus called the Green Tortoise?   Yeah, I said, I did.   Don’t you remember me?  (I didn’t.  But I said I did.  She was pretty attractive.).   Then she said I remember you.  You were one of the coolest people I’ve ever met.   Let me tell you.  After suffering a devastating rejection, I needed that.   I needed that more than I even knew.   And God knew that and he came running. 

Looking back on those days, I’m grateful not only for the consolation God gave, but because I saw something even more.  Any suffering we face can carry purpose.   That’s why Paul says that being a child of God doesn’t exempt you from suffering, it guarantees it.   Just look at Jesus.  Being God’s son didn’t exempt him from suffering.  It led him into it.  But in what he suffered.   Jesus knew.   God was using it for a larger purpose.  His suffering led to greater strength.  His death brought resurrection.  And that pattern holds true for us.  In our suffering, in our weakness, God can and will make you stronger.   Your suffering always has the power to make you better, if you let it.

But you don’t need to focus on Jesus to see this.  You can see it in the gym.   When you work out with weights in the gym, as you pull those weights up, you feel the pain.  You feel the muscles getting weaker and weaker.  Yet here’s the truth.  It’s only through the weakness and pain that the strength comes.   What trainers say in the gym is true in life.  No pain, no gain.

Think about a single acorn.  In it, you have the potential for a whole forest.    Out of one acorn can come enough trees to cover a continent.  But none of that happens, unless that acorn falls into the soil and dies.   Here’s the truth of that acorn.  It takes the soil of pain and suffering to grow.  You can’t have resurrection unless you have death first.   In each of us lies potential for incredible kindness, incredible strength, for an inner beauty that can take our breath away, but it does not come easily.   Only when you face your weakness, can you find your strength.  And if you doubt that, look to Jesus, a man unjustly convicted, brutalized and killed.  Yet in that seemingly senseless suffering, God was working.   And in whatever you face, God will work too.

But beyond that, you can know yet one more powerful thing.   No matter what you face, you need never lose hope.  Why?  You know the end of the story.   And when you know the end, that end gives you power right now in the present.

Why does Paul talk about the creation groaning in terms of childbirth?  It’s because when a woman suffers the incredible pain of labor, she knows to what end she suffers.  She is bringing a new life into the world, and that life she knows brings with it greater joy and love and beauty than she can imagine.  She endures the pain because she knows the hope fulfilled that lies at its end. 

Right now, in the midst of this suffering world, in the midst of our struggles and pain, God is bringing something wondrous to birth, a new creation.    As amazing and beautiful as this world is, it cannot hold a candle to what God will bring.  How amazing and beautiful?  Look at what Paul says.   He writes.  I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us.   They are not worth comparing.   Paul is writing to people getting slaughtered in the coliseums.   And he is saying.  No matter what you are suffering, what God is bringing will blow all that suffering away.   And knowing that hope, doesn’t just change your future, it changes your right now.

Do you remember that story from Easter?   Two folks get hired to do the same job, a tedious, unpleasant job, like fitting widgets into wodgets.   One person gets told that at the end of one year, they’ll make 20 thousand a year, but the other person gets told that they’ll make 20 million a year.   Now which one of them is going to come to work happier, with more enthusiasm?   The 20 grand guy or the 20 million guy.   Yet remember, each of them are experiencing the same thing right now.   What is the difference?  One of them has a very different future.   And if you know, that no matter what you face, it cannot compare to the beauty and wonder that God has planned for you, that gives you strength, not just in the future.  It gives you strength right now.   

But hold on a second.  How can you know all that I’ve said is true?   How can you know that God loves you like parents loves their kids, that any suffering can have purpose, that God has an amazing end in store?   Maybe you’re not feeling any of that?  How do you know it’s even real, and not just some sort of religious fantasy. 

In these words, Paul points you to how.   Paul tells us that the Spirit of God is groaning with creation as it suffers and struggles.   Think about that.  This word means death groans.  How can a being utterly infinite in power suffer death groans?  How can God possibly know the agony of a mother about to die to bring her child into the world?   How can God feel the pain of a warrior crying out for help as his wounds kill him, yet knowing that likely no help will come?  How can God know that pain and agony?   Look at Jesus. 

As Jesus died on the cross, he quoted a verse from Psalm 22.  He cried out My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? But do you know what comes next in that verse?   Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  In Jesus, God came as a warrior on the ultimate battlefield, to fight the enemies that held us hostage.   In those moments he absorbed our sin, our evil, so we would be free. And like a warrior wounded to the death, he groans.   He cries out, but no one comes.     And because Jesus was utterly abandoned for you, you can know that in your suffering, you never will be.  Because Jesus was forsaken in his death groan, when you groan, God hears it the way a mother or father hears the cry of a child.  He meets your deepest need, the one you don’t even know you have.   And in your suffering, God uses it to make you greater.  He assures you that your suffering will never have the last word.   For someday, God will put an end to evil and all the pain it brings.  Like a mother, groaning in labor, God will bring a new creation, a new you. Right now in your hardest moments, God walks with you.  God runs towards you.  God works within you.  And God promises you a future more amazing than you can comprehend.    How can you know that?  Because on the cross, God sealed that promise with his very life.  

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Remembering the Song That Changes Everything

I was really trying.  But I just could not get the tune right.   I could sense it right there, but I  couldn’t pull it out.   I was trying to sing to my son that great song, The Lion Sleeps Tonight.   Do you know that song?    But I couldn’t even get the a-wimowehs.    And if you can’t get the awimowehs, well, you can’t really do it justice. 

Have you ever had that frustration?   You’re trying to remember a tune, but you just can’t get it.  But beyond songs, it’s frustrating when you face memory lapses about anything.   Have you ever not be able to remember the name of someone, maybe someone who is standing right before you?  How uncomfortable was that?    Yet even so, those memory lapses, might embarrass us, but we can recover. 

But there is one thing you can forget.  It can feel almost like a song really.    And this thing, when you forget it, when you lose touch with it, it’s more than frustrating or embarrassing.  It’s devastating.   And yet this thing, this song is terribly easy to forget.  You and I can lose the tune so easily.   But when we do, we lose ourselves.

What is this tune that you so easily forget?  And how can you remember?  In these words, God shows the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In these words, and frankly, in all the words of this letter, Paul is trying to give us a tune of sorts, the tune by which we need to live our lives.   And each week, in this hour or so that we gather, we come so God can remind us of that tune again and again.  But here’s the problem, even with all of that, you can all too easily lose this tune, and when you do, you lose yourself.  But here, God not only reminds you of the tune, so to speak, he reminds you of the way to hold it close.   But before you understand how to hold it close, you need to remember what it actually is. 

And right in this first sentence, God gives the tune.   There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.   It’s hard to grasp in English, what Paul writes in Greek.  But this word, condemnation means liability, like you’d have in a legal proceeding.   Paul is saying.  In Jesus, we are not liable to God for anything, not now, not ever.   And that’s great news, because, let me tell, before Jesus, we were liable.  We were sooo liable. 

As a church we’re currently dealing with a law suit that goes back to work done by a contractor years ago.    Basically, a worker got injured, and we got included because the contractor worked for us.   But the lawyer who brought the suit has to show we did something wrong, something that caused the injury; something that makes us liable.   And as that isn’t the case, it’s simply a nuisance for us, something for our insurers to handle.

But with us as human-beings, that’s not true.   We’ve done things, said things, thought things that brought injury and pain, if to no-one else, it brought injury and pain to us.  Do you remember how last week, I asked.  What if we had some technology that allowed us to show on that screen every thought, good, bad or ugly you had from just the last week?   Would anyone here feel comfortable trying that technology out?    

Each of us has stuff inside us that just isn’t right, things that we don’t like to even see, much less show anyone else.    As Romans 7 puts it, sin, evil dwells within us.   And we’re liable for that, for what it does in us, to others, to our world.   Yet here’s the beautiful paradox, in Jesus, all that ugliness, and the liability that goes with it disappears.  It died on that cross, and it will never come back again ever.   That’s the heart of the song. 

When you get that, it gives you an amazing freedom.  First, it frees you from judging anyone else.   Why?  You know.  You have no room to judge.    If you look at anyone, a prostitute, a criminal, even a terrorist, you are seeing someone who is really no different than you.   You have the same seeds inside you, only yours didn’t get watered and grow.  More importantly it frees you from judging yourself  

This week I heard a story from the preacher, TimKeller that I haven’t been able to shake.  Many years ago, a couple in Virginia, not too far from the church he pastored, suffered a tremendous tragedy.  In a bizarre automobile accident, their three children all drowned to death.   Yet, in the face of this devastating loss, the couple found a way through.  Folks talked about how moving they found their strength and faith.  The couple rebuilt their life.  They had other kids. The husband became a respected leader in a local church.  

Yet a number of years later, the husband came to his pastor, deeply troubled.   He had developed a powerful sexual attraction to another member of the congregation, and it was tearing him apart.  Now the pastor dealt graciously with him, got him counseling, spiritual support, lots of resources to help him cope with his both his desires and his guilt.  Yet, in spite of all that, in the end, do you know what happened?   The man killed himself.    Here was a man who handled one of the most awful losses any human-being can face, yet he could not handle facing the ugliness he saw inside himself.     

But if you listen to that song, if you let God play it in your heart, it will give you that freedom, that freedom that allows you to see yourself as you really are and not lose hope. The life and peace that freedom gives will help you face anything, even the worst parts of yourself.   And in that freedom, you will grow in love and compassion towards yourself and others like never before. 

But here’s the problem.   It can be terribly easy to lose touch with the song, with the freedom it brings just as that church leader in Virginia did.   So how do you not lose touch?  In the last sentence we read, Paul summarizes the answer.    “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if, by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  

Now when Paul talks about the flesh and the body, he is not talking literally.   He is saying. If you try to gain validation for your life simply through your own efforts, your flesh so to speak, it will kill you.   But if you let the Spirit kill that self-focused drive for approval and validation, then you will live.   And each of us has a certain way in which we try to prove ourselves worthy, to use Biblical language, to justify ourselves.   Whatever that way is, it blocks the song of grace and acceptance that we desperately need to hear.  

The movie Chariots of Fire tells the story of two extraordinary sprinters, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams.  But each of these runners ran for radically different reasons.  Abrahams ran out of a desperate need to justify himself, to prove himself worthy.   When it came to the 100 yard dash, he said.  “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.”   Ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence….wow.    But that need to prove himself, did not give Abrahams any peace or joy.   As he put it …. I'm forever in pursuit and I don't even know what I am chasing.

Now what did Liddell run for?   As he put it to his sister, he said, I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.   Because of his belief in the gospel, he felt no need to prove anything by his running.  He ran simply for the joy of it, and for the joy of the God who had given him the gift.   It’s why when he ran, he would tilt his head up to the sky with his mouth open wide, like acrazy man.  Why?  Because he wasn’t just running.  He was worshipping. 

Do you see the difference?    One man runs to praise his own savior, and the other guy runs to become his own savior.   One man is running for the sheer joy of it.  If he wins, it’s icing on the cake.  Why?  He knows he is already justified, already worthy.  But the other man is running in grinding anxiety and fear.  Why?  He is running to find worth, to justify himself, but even when he wins, the worth doesn’t even come. (Tim Keller)   He remains forever in pursuit, yet not even knowing what he is chasing.

To set your mind on the flesh doesn’t simply mean thinking some bad thoughts.  It means letting your mind get seized by anything else but God as that which makes you worthy, that which justifies you.   How do you know what that is?   Ask yourself. What do I let rent space in my head?   Whatever that is, is what is blocking the gospel for you.

I have a resentful thought that seizes me more powerfully than any other. And it says everything about what I am tempted to look to for worth.  It goes like this.   I do and I do for you, and this is the thanks I get?  Have you ever had that thought?

But that thought betrays where I am looking for worth?   I am telling myself if I do enough good things for people, then they will appreciate me, and their appreciation will give me the worth I need.   But here’s the twist.   They never ever appreciate me like I desire.  In fact, they can’t. Their applause no matter how loud it gets can never give me what I need.  So when that applause doesn’t happen.  I get angry.  I get resentful.   I get judgmental.  But the problem is not with them.  It’s with me.  My anger and judgment blocks the gospel, the only thing that will give me the sense of worth I seek, the sense of worth that every human being seeks. And if I let it, that anger and judgment will kill me.
But how do you break that block?   You let the story of what God in Jesus has done for you capture you, your mind, your heart, your everything.    And the more you let the Spirit of God open yourself to the beauty of that story, the more you will find the freedom you need.  The more you will know how ultimately God values you, how infinitely God loves you.  And that love will become far more real than any of those things to which you have looked for worth in the past.  And that story, you don’t find only in scripture.  No, the Spirit has sent echoes of that tune throughout time, in countless stories and songs.   And the more you hear those echoes, the more you will see the beauty, the utter reality of what God has done for you.      

At the end of A Tale of TwoCities, Sydney Carton resembles Charles Darnay.  And Charles Darnay is in the Bastille, awaiting the Guillotine.  Sydney Carton breaks into that jail, knocks Charles Darnay out, and has his companions take Darnay out.   And Sydney Carton takes his place, wears his clothes, and waits to die in his place.   The next day, as Sydney goes to the guillotine, he meets a young woman, who is also sentenced to death.  She comes up thinking he is Charles Darnay, but then realizes he’s not.  Her eyes get really big, and she asks.  Are you dying for him?    And he says, “Yes, for he and his wife”   And she says, “Stranger, I am afraid to die, but if I can hold the hand of someone as brave and true as you, I think I can face it.”

Do you not see that you are Charles Darnay, that in Jesus, God became Sydney Carton for you. He has broken into the prison, and died for you.   And there is no longer any condemnation for you, not now, not ever.  As you see the beauty of that gift, as that song of love fills your heart, it puts to death all the sad, self-centered ways you seek worth.   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. He will never be forgotten throughout heaven’s eternal days.    

As you let that song wash over you, the song of God’s ultimate sacrifice of love for you.   It will free you.  It will give you life and peace and joy.   And then as one poem puts it, this will be your story. 

I wandered long, methought, alone 
to the deep shadow where the dead dwell; 
but ever a voice that I knew well, 
like bells, like viols, like harps, like birds, 
like music moving without words, 
called me, called me through the night, 
enchanted drew me back to light!

Let that song draw you to the light, to the light that no darkness can ever overcome.    

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Winning the Most Important Battle - The One With Yourself

(This first paragraph points to the fact that the day I shared this was our annual Kirkin' of the Tartans day - that's why you see all the Scottish references)
Did you notice that sword coming down the aisle at the beginning of worship?   Kind of impressive huh?  And it tells you something.    Scots often felt they had to fight just to keep their identity as a people.   That’s why, even as we lift up the heritage of Scotland, today we celebrate all the family identities from across the world that are this church family.  God has created us to be a mosaic, a tartan even, where all the different colors find their place and together make something beautiful. 

But from wherever you and I come from, we all have one fight in common.  We all are fighting the same enemy.  We are all fighting ourselves.    What do I mean?   Have you ever struggled with the gap between who you actually are and the ideal of who you really want to be?   You can see that ideal.  You can imagine it.  You can even get inspired by it.  But when it comes to living it, so often, something pulls you back.    The biggest enemy we will ever fight is right here within us.    But how do you fight that?  As one writer put it, “It is hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head.”  But more important than the fighting, how do you win?  How do you and I become the people we yearn to be, that God created us to be?  In these words, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you fight yourself and win?   How do you overcome the worst parts of yourself so that you can live more fully into the best?  How does that happen?   In these words, God shows us.   What does God show us?   That our problem is worse than we think, and that what we think will solve it will only make it worse.   So what do we do?   We realize that God has already given us the solution.   All we need to do is believe it.

So how is our problem worse than we think?  Paul points us to it, when he tells us that sin dwells within us.    The worst parts of you don’t parachute into your life from outside.  They live there right inside you, and what lives there is uglier than anyone of us likes to think.     

The writer Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scot by the way, probably gave us the best picture of what this looks like in his story, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.   Do you know it?   The plot goes something like this.        

This man, Dr. Jekyll, is constantly getting distracted by his baser desires.  They are holding him back from his full potential.  So he creates this potion to solve the problem.  Basically when he drinks the potion, it transforms him into the worst parts of himself, a repellent creature called Mr.  Hyde. Now why would he want to do that?  He figures if he can let his worst desires run free each night in Mr. Hyde, when he drinks the potion again in the morning to return to Dr. Jekyll, he’ll be free to live out of the best of who he is.   Great idea, huh?  

Now when Jekyll first drinks the potion, he discovers something.  As he puts it: “I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked…and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”    He found out that he wasn’t just a little wicked.  He was a whole lotta wicked.   But how could this be?   Because the evil that lies within you is far worse that you like to think it is.   After all, why did Stevenson call this character, Hyde?  Because Jekyll had hidden this hideous part of himself away; he had hidden it even from himself.    

The singer, Sufjan Stevens, has this stunning song about the serial killer, John Wayne Gacy.   The song paints the awful picture of what Gacy did, of the boys he killed, of how he buried them under the floorboards of his house.   But the lines that make the song stunning come right at the end.   Stevens sings.  “And in my best behavior, I am just like him: Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”    Wow?   Is that true?   Is Stevens right?  Is Stevenson right?   Are you and I really that bad?   Isn’t that stretching it a bit, maybe even more than a bit?   Or is it?

What if I could put up on that screen, the worst things you’ve thought just this week?  Think about it, the thoughts that came into your head, especially when you were under stress or when someone made you angry or hurt you or even inconvenienced you.   Would you want to be in the room to see that?  Would you want anyone to see that ever?  Let me tell you.  I wouldn’t.  Why?  Because when you’re honest, you know, some pretty ugly stuff dwells in you.  It may not often come out, but oh, it’s there, just like it was in Jekyll.

But how do you free yourself of the ugliness?  Well, Paul first tells you how not to do it.  He tells you don’t think that knowing the right rules will help.   That will just make it worse.   In verse 5 he puts it this way, our sinful passions, aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.  Now how can the law, in Paul’s case, the law of Moses, make you worse?  

St. Augustine in his autobiography, The Confessions, shares how when he was a kid, he stole some pears.   Now here’s the kicker.   Augustine didn’t like pears.  In fact, the pear he stole he gave to pigs.   So why did he take them?  Someone told him he couldn’t.    Think about it. 

When you see a sign that says, Don’t walk on the grass.   Even if before you had never thought of walking on the grass, doesn’t part of you now want to do it?   Why?  Some sign told you that you couldn’t.    Every human being has a voice inside that says.  Nobody tells me how to live my life.  Now some keep that voice front and center.  But most keep it hidden, but everyone has it.   Part of you hates being told how to live your life.  So once you hear the rules, that part wants to break them even more.

But our problem goes deeper than that.  Even if you try your hardest to keep the rules, to push your rebellious part down, it still doesn’t work.   And Paul knows.   How does Paul know?  He tried it.  He had been terribly good, a very devout, very religious man.   But then he tells us that one of the 10 commandments; you shall not covet, killed him.  How did it kill him?  It killed off any illusion that he was as good as he thought he was.   Why did that commandment do that?   Because all the other commandments of the 10, you can fool yourself into thinking that God is only interested in your external behavior.   So if you’re not killing or sleeping around or stealing, then you’re doing ok.    But to not covet has nothing to do with what is going on outside of you.  But It has everything to do with what is going on inside of you.   And when Paul looked there, he saw petty jealousies, selfish ambitions; arrogant self-righteousness.  He saw a lot of ugliness.   And it killed him.  

Here’s the shocking truth.   Following rigorously some moral code doesn’t free you from the worst parts of yourself, it actually feeds them.  

In the story of Jekyll and Hyde, when Jekyll learns that Hyde has actually committed murder, he resolves to never drink the potion again.  He goes on this huge do-gooder binger, supporting the needy, giving to charities, caring for his friends.   And what happens?   A few months pass, and Jekyll is sitting in a park.  As Jekyll writes:  “I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active good will with the lazy cruelty of their neglect.  And at the very moment of that vain glorious thought…..I looked down….I was once more Edward Hyde.”   How did that happen?  
Because, what feeds the worst parts of yourself is how you center your life on yourself.  And you can be obsessively centered on yourself by both being very bad, and very good.    When you’re bad, you’re obsessed with your own desires, appetites, wants.  You care little about others.  But when you’re trying to be very good, you’re obsessed too, just now with the rules and how you’re keeping them or at least look like you’re keeping them, but you’re still focused on yourself.   Your goodness may help others.  That’s nice.  But you are really focused on how it helps you, to get in good with God or feel better about yourself.   But inside you know the truth.  It’s not really helping you at all.   It isn’t giving you peace or joy.  It’s not even making you actually good.

So then how do you get free?   You get remarried.   Do you remember how Paul started with this stuff about you can get remarried if you spouse has died?  You might have wondered.  What the heck is that all about?    What Paul is telling you is that on the cross, your self-obsession with the law, either breaking it or keeping it died.   And that’s a good thing, because, whether you realized it or not, you were married to that. 

One of the things that has made all things Scottish a little more cool is the whole Outlander thing, this steamy historic romance series on Starz, that began as a series of steamy historic romance novels.  But what is fascinating is that all this steamy romance happens in the bonds of am amazing marriage, a marriage that profoundly shapes its two partners, Jamie and Claire, in beautiful ways.   It makes each of them far more than they could ever have been alone.  That’s what a good marriage does.  It makes you more.  But a bad marriage, on the other hand can make you far less.   That’s why Paul uses it as a metaphor for our relationship to the law.  Let’s be clear.  We need the law.  We need its guidance and wisdom.  But we can’t be married to it.  What does Paul mean by being married to the law?

It means you look to the law as the defining relationship of your life.   It gives you your identity, either as a law-breaker or a law-keeper.   So if you are a law-breaker, you say that I am totally lost and worthless because I have not kept the rules.   Or if you are a law-keeper, you say.  I must keep the law.  I must meet the standard.  Why? You look to the law to give you your self-worth.
But when you look to the law to motivate you, do you know what ultimately drives you.  Fear drives you.   You fear God’s disapproval.  You fear other people’s disapproval.  Heck you fear your own disapproval. You fear that someone will see what you desperately try to hide.  In the end, when Jekyll realized he was becoming Hyde, that fear literally killed him.  He killed himself so that others could not see that ugly truth.

But even in that death, he was still focused on himself.  And ultimately when fear drives you, that is always where it drives you towards, an obsessive focus on yourself.    Being married to the law doesn’t free you from yourself. It imprisons you there.  It’s why the other image Paul uses here is slavery.  

But Paul tells us that God has killed this old marriage off.  God has set you free.  How did God do that?  He took you for himself.  He won your hand.   In Jesus, he took on even your ugliness, your Hyde-ish nature.   In Jesus, God became as one from whom others hide their faces.  God became the despised one, the one held of no account.   And in Jesus, God bore your infirmities.  God carried your diseases.  God was wounded for your transgressions.  In Jesus, who had no sin became sin so that you might become the righteousness of God.  Why did Jesus do this?   He loves you.  He wants to be with you forever.  And the more you and I realize that, that his love defines you, nothing and no-one else.  Then the less power the Hyde in you will have.  And even out of your ugliness, God will make something beautiful.  And bit by bit, day by day, he will grow within you the glorious freedom of the children of God.   All you need to do is believe it. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

How Does Change Come - You Die So You Can Live

I love a talk that gets you all fired up.   When a speaker inspires me, I feel as if I can conquer the world.  But the day after the talk, I don’t feel that nearly so much.   Do you know what I mean? 

God promises a future where the world is remade, where we are remade.  And that remaking for us begins right now.    God can empower you to live in peace and hope right in the present moment.   But even when you and I know that, we still have a big question to answer.   How?   How do you get that power?    Yes, it begins with believing that Jesus died for you; that Jesus defeated death for you.   But let’s be honest, lots of folks believe that, but you may not see a lot of change in their lives.  Heck, you might believe it, yet you still struggle with things that you wish you didn’t, that you want to overcome.  Why can’t you?
A century ago, the philosopher Nietzche gave Christians a pretty harsh critique, and his words still hold painfully true.  He said.  “Christians should look more redeemed”…more changed in other words.   So how does the future that God has for you, change your life right now?   In these words, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

So how does God’s future change you right now?  How does God’s gift in Jesus empower you to overcome what holds you back today?   To understand that, you first need to understand the powerful forces that do hold you back.  Only then can you understand not only how Jesus literally frees you, but how you make that freedom effective in your own life.

So what are the forces that hold you back?  Right near the end of what you just heard, God tells you.   Paul writes.  “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”   Now to grasp why human beings, even Christians, struggle with change, we need to understand two key words here, sin and passions.   First, let’s make it clear.   Sin isn’t simply some checklist of do’s and don’t’s.  It goes way deeper.  Sin includes anything, even good things in our lives that draw you away from loving God and loving others.    So how can a good thing draw you away from God?  That’s where that other word, passions comes in.   Passion comes closest in English to what Paul was telling us here, but to get this, to really get, we need to understand the Greek word used here, epithumia.  This word basically means an overriding, super intense desire, an epic desire, in other words.   And when you and I move away from loving God and loving others, always at the center of that moving away is an epic desire, a desire that is way beyond what it needs to be. 
And every human being has epic desires that lead them away.   It can be anything, career; family; achievement; personal independence; need to have others dependent on you;  power; influence; human approval; a political cause; romance; physical attractiveness, even religion.   Now all of these desires could be good.  What makes them bad, what makes them sin is when they go epic, when they go out of control, when they become ultimate desires.  

And how can you know a desire, even a good desire, has gone epic.    Here are four ways to find out. 
First, if something blocks you from getting a good thing, sure you get angry.  But when something blocks you from a thing you epically desire, you don’t just get angry, you get epically angry.  You lose control.  You say things that later you wonder why you said it.  You carry bitterness, sometimes for years.  Are you having trouble forgiving someone?  At the root of that lies an epic desire guaranteed.

Or, if something good in your life gets threatened, you get worried.   But if something ultimate, something you epically desire gets threatened, you get epically worried.  The fear paralyzes you.  Your anxiety goes out of control.  You know it’s too much, yet you can’t stop being driven by fear and worry over it.

Or, if you lose something good, you grieve.  You weep.  It’s terrible.  It may take months to get over it.   If you lose something that is ultimate, that is an epic desire, you want to throw yourself off a bridge.   You can’t find meaning in life without it. 

Or, if something in your life has gotten out of control, and you resolve to stop it, yet you can’t.  Your desire for it has become that epic, that intense, that ultimate that you don’t even know how to function without meeting it.     

Do you see the power that such desires have?  You don’t have an epic desire.  An epic desire has you.   That’s why in the next verses, Paul compares it to slavery.  These desires own you.   And here is the stunning truth, if you don’t have an epic desire for God, then guaranteed you have an epic desire for something.   Everyone does   As the writer David Foster Wallace put it.  

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.  And the compelling reason, Wallace (a non-Christian said) for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.   But Wallace didn’t stop there.   He pointed out that “the insidious thing about these forms of worship is that they’re unconscious.”  In other words, people go around driven by epic desires that are eating away at their lives, and they don’t even know it.  They are bowing down to false gods, worshipping them, and have no clue they’re doing it at all.   

If you have an eating disorder, you are worshiping the idol of thinness.  If you are a workaholic, you could be worshiping any number of things, success, money, approval, but whatever it is, it owns you, whether you admit it or not.  If you are in a relationship and everyone know it’s bad for you, but you can’t get out, you are worshiping the idol of male or female affection.   You can’t imagine not being with someone. 

Everyone has a spiritual master.  You think that’s not you, that you are in control but you’re not.   If God is not leading your life, then guaranteed you aren’t leading it.  Something else is, some epic desire or desires have you.   What you need to do is figure out what those are for you.  
So how do you get free from these epic desires?   First, you need to understand just what Jesus has given you.   And right at the beginning of this passage, Paul shows you exactly that.  Paul says. You have been united with Jesus not only in his death, but in his resurrection.   What does that mean?   
It means first that everything that Jesus has done now belongs to you.  It’s like if you marry someone who is rich, what happens to you?  You become rich.   And when Jesus unites with you, all your mistakes and failings disappear, and all of Jesus’ righteousness and goodness becomes yours.  It is as if you died on that cross for your sins.  But not only do you share in his death, you share in his resurrection.  You don’t just get Jesus’ past.  You get Jesus’ future.  

In the Bible, in only two places you will find this fascinating Greek word, palingenesia.  They Stoic philosophers created it to describe their concept of the continual rebirth of the cosmos.  They believed that the world went into decay until the Creator purged it, and out of the purging recreated it once again, and that this cycle goes on without end.  But in Matthew 19, Jesus uses that very word to describe something quite different.  Jesus says:   “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, (the palingenesia) when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory… everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”   Jesus is saying.  “Yes, there will be a palingenesia, a rebirth, a new heavens and a new earth, but it is only happening once.”  Jesus is talking here about what we saw in Revelation last week.  

But the Bible uses that same word in a very different place.  In Titus 3, Paul writes: “Jesus saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”  Do you know what that word rebirth there is?  It’s palingenesia.   But that makes no sense.  Palingenesia refers to the rebirth of the universe not the renewal of one person.  But Paul knows that.  So why does he use it?   He is telling us that the same power that is moving even now to bring a new heavens and new earth, that same power, when you believe in Jesus, lives in you right now.   The same power that will remake the universe lives in you now. 

So if you have become a follower of Jesus, and you still struggle to change, then you simply haven’t accessed the power that Jesus has given you.    But how do you access this power?  It begins with simply affirming that it has happened, that as Paul puts it here, your old self has died, that it died with Jesus on that cross.

The great Christian thinker, St. Augustine, before he became a believer had serious issues with sexual self-control.  In other words, he slept around a lot.   One day, after his conversion, one of his old girlfriends recognizes him, and propositions him.   But Augustine, politely but firmly says. “No thank you.”   She is stunned, so stunned she thinks that Augustine must not recognize me.  So she says.   “Augustine, it is I.”   What does Augustine say?   He says,   “I know but it is not I.”    Augustine is telling her.  “I’m no longer that guy, who needed to sleep around to feel value or worth.  That guy is dead.”    So when epic desires rise, what do you do?  You remind yourself.   “That self is dead, gone, crucified with Jesus.” 

But still, let’s be honest, even with that, this process takes a while.   Why does it take so long?  Do you remember the story of the parting of the Red Sea in the Moses story?  God parts the waters.  The Israelites escape.  The Egyptian army is destroyed.  In that one awesome act God delivers the Israelites out of slavery.   But they still spend 40 years in the desert before they are ready to enter the land God promised them.  Why?   God can take you out of slavery in an instant, but it takes years for God to get the slavery out of you.  

But ok, you might say I get that.  But why does it take so long to get the slavery out?   Because in your heart of hearts, you don’t believe that Jesus really has the best for you.  At the very beginning, that was the original temptation in the garden.  The serpent said.  You can’t trust this God, what He tells you, what He wants you to do.   And we still struggle with that message.  After all, as enslaved as we are to our epic desires, we don’t feel that enslaved.  So to offer ourselves to God without reservations feels so hard.   So we think, hey I can keep the illusion of independence even though I’m really enslaved.  Or I can go into something that looks as if it will enslave me, but that actually sets me free.  And you get scared.  You back away.   And how do you break free of this fear?   You look at what God in Jesus has given for you.   You see the one who lost his freedom so that you can be free forever.  You see the One who gave up power so that his power might live in you.   You see the One who paid the ultimate price to give you the ultimate freedom.   And you realize.  Why would I not want to offer myself to the only master who has already offered himself for me?   Give yourself to anything else, it won’t die for you.  It’ll want you to die for it.   Or you can give yourself to the one who has already died for you, who has even defeated death for you.   For only there, will you find the perfect freedom you yearn to have.