“Love One Another… It’s Enough”

People are never better than they are on their wedding days.  We never look better. We never dress better. We never smell better.  We never feel better.  We are never better behaved.  For most of us, our wedding days are one of the high-water marks of our lives, and the church understands this.  And so, the church has traditionally had people play a little game of “let’s pretend”  as a part of the wedding ceremony.  In fact, it’s my favorite part of the service.

I like to tell the people I marry that it’s when they take each other’s hands, gaze lovingly (not into mine) but into each other’s eyes, and say these words out loud to each other before God and their family and friends that the “magic” happens.  This is when the bond of holy matrimony gets established between them.  We ask people getting married to say out loud to each other in the presence of witnesses –

In the Name of God, I take you to be my husband or wife (as may be the case), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

I speak “chuch-ese,” in fact, I’m fluent in it. So, allow me to translate the big fancy words of this traditional wedding vow into common everyday English that we can all understand.  After declaring the union that’s being formed in that moment to be the result of a voluntary choice that’s freely being made (“I take you to be my husband/wife”) and affirming the gift of physical intimacy that it involves and promising to always be faithful in its exercise  (“To have and to hold from this day forward”), the church asks us to play a little game of “what if”  in its standard wedding vow.

“Okay,” the church says. “We hear you.” “You’re telling us that you really want to be with this person in the most intimate, exclusive, faithful, and permanent of ways.” “Great!  But look at him or her.  They’re beautiful right now. They’re clean and they smell good, they’re polished and well-dressed, they’re fully present in the moment and on their best behavior, they’re happy and their life is all good and full of promise.  Who wouldn’t want to be with a person like this?”  “But what if those circumstances were to suddenly change?” the church asks.  “What if their life was to unexpectedly turn dark and difficult?  What if all you could see ahead for him or her was suffering and struggle, would you still be standing here saying those things?”  That’s what “for better for worse” means. “And what if they lost everything they owned and had no prospects for ever getting any of it back again?  Would you still be as eager to be throwing in your earthly lot with them if that were the case?”  That’s what “for richer for poorer” means. “And what if they got sick, their days filled with  weakness and pain? Would you still be standing here saying these things to them?”  That’s what“in sickness and in health” means. 

What the church wants to know by asking these things is if there is any circumstance that you can imagine that would cause your commitment to this person standing across from you to waver or break? And, if so, then perhaps that commitment ought not be made in the first place.  As one of my teachers used to say – “People wouldn’t get divorced for such silly reasons if people didn’t get married for such silly reasons.”

The wedding vow ends with the promise – “to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death… this is my solemn vow.”  This is a covenant-making statement. In Hebrew, the word for “covenant” means “to cut.”  You literally “cut” a covenant in the Old Testament.  When entering into a covenant with someone back then, you took a valuable animal from your herd or flock, cut it in two, pulled the two halves apart, grabbed hold of the hand of the person with whom you were entering into covenant, and took a short stroll down the alley between all that guts and gore. The implication was that should the covenant made between them ever be violated, that they were then prepared to be torn asunder just like that of the animal they had just passed through. Covenants were serious business, and so is the covenant of marriage with its talk of solemnity and death at the conclusion of its vow.

Culturally, we’ve reduced “love” to a feeling.  I “luv” you.  There’s going to be a lot of that this week.  Frilly hearts, romantic dinners, flying fat babies, sentimental gifts and cards from the Hallmark store, warm fuzzies all around.

Average spending on Valentine’s Day is expected to be a record $161.96 per person this year… That’s a total of $20.7 billion as we buy cards and candy for our friends, family, co-workers – and pets – making Valentine’s Day the third most “profitable” holiday on the annual calendar right behind Mother’s Day (#2) and Christmas (#1

Love is a feeling that I have for you, and when that feeling changes or goes away, well, then, I just don’t love you anymore.  People fall into and out of love all the time. There’s a show on television right now called “Married at First Sight.”  You may have seen it.  In this ahow couples agree to get married sight unseen.  The first time they actually see each other is in church at their weddings.  One of the couples on the show this season are already in serious trouble because the groom says that he just doesn’t feel anything for the woman that he married when he kisses her, and he told her so together with the whole wide world because he said it on television.  He stood up before God and his community of family and friends, made that wedding vow we were just talking about to this woman, and then almost immediately got buyer’s remorse because of his “feelings.”  And here’s the struggle that we have today with love in a nutshell – is it a feeling or is it a decision?  Is it about the heart or is it about the head?  Is it an act of emotion or is it an act of the will?

I Corinthians 13 is known as the Bible’s love chapter.  I’ve performed hundreds of weddings in my 44 years as a licensed and ordained  minister, and in nearly all of them this is the Scripture that’s been read, which is interesting to me because nowhere in this text is there any mention of romance, or weddings, or husbands, or wives!  There were four standard words for “love” in the language of the New Testament.  Three of them described reciprocal arrangements.  They were “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” sorts of relationships.  Three of the four common words for love in the language of the New Testament were conditional – “I love you because…”  or “I’ll love you if…”  But the word for love in I Corinthians 13 is different.  It’s a word that describes an unconditioned and unconditional kind of love.

Do you remember David Wilkerson and his dramatic story of faith told in his 1962 book The Cross and the Switchblade?  When David finally met the violent gang leader Nicky Cruz whom he’d specifically gone to New York City to introduce to Jesus Christ, Nicky threatened to cut David up into a thousand little pieces with his knife.  And David told Nicky, “Go ahead, but understand that if you do every one of those thousand pieces are going to say – ‘God loves you, and so do I.”  And that’s the kind of love that I Corinthians 13 is talking about, and when I Corinthians is read in a wedding ceremony, it’s the kind of love to which people are committing themselves in a marriage.  It’s called “Agape,” and agape is not a soft, sweet, sentimental feeling that comes and goes with blowing winds and shifting tides.  No, agape is a strong, solid, unwavering commitment that once made will not change no matter what, and the word for “love” in I John 4:7-12 is this same word – “agape.” 

The ancient tradition of the church says that John, the only Apostle not to be killed for being a Christian, finished his long life in Ephesus. Unable to walk, and barely able to speak, John would be carried to church where he would always be asked to share a word.  “Little children, love one another,” he would always tell them, so often in fact that people got annoyed with him for always saying the same thing.  Finally, somebody asked him, “Teacher, why do you always say this?”  And it’s reported that be said – “It’s because this is the Lord’s command, and if we do it, it’s enough” (Hegesippus‘s Memoirs).  But more than just our Lord’s command, “agape” was our Lord’s whole purpose.  In I John 4:9 we’re told –

“God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.”

St. Bernard, the man not the dog, said that whenever he meditated on a crucifix that he saw the five wounds of Christ as lips “speaking to us by their bleeding.”

What are they saying? They are saying with an eloquence far beyond any written words, ‘I love you.’ His wounds are kisses.” (Kreeft)

The cross is the proof of God’s unconditioned and unconditional love for us (Romans 5:8), and our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is the deliberate and consistent way that are told this.  Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, said that every time we eat the bread symbolic of Christ’s body given for us and drink the cup symbolic of His blood shed for us that God through the Holy Spirit whispers in our ears – “I did this for you… this is how much I love you.”

God’s unconditioned and unconditional love for us is not a “cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye” kind of desperate wishing. No, it’s a hard historical fact firmly rooted and grounded in what God in Jesus Christ did for us on Calvary’s cross.  And people who know themselves to be loved like this, in turn, become people who want to love like this.  This is why I Corinthians 13 is such a good wedding text.  Because I Corinthians 13 tells us how we are loved, it instructs us in how we are to love.  As Paul told the Ephesians in one of the Bible’s great teachings on marriage – “husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her…” (5:25).

Robertson McQuilkin was a theologian who work I knew and appreciated.  The widely respected President of a College and Seminary in South Carolina for 22 years, Robertson McQuilkin’s wife, Muriel, got Alzheimer’s, and he eventually resigned his post in order to spend the rest of his life taking care of her.  It was a choice that surprised lots of people because he was such highly regarded Christian thinker and leader who was making such important contributions to the life of the church. When asked to explain his choice, Dr. McQuilkin said –

When the time came, the decision was firm.  It took no great calculation. It was  a (simple) matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, “in sickness and in health… till death do us part”? Muriel cared for me for almost four decades with such marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. If I took care of her for (the next) 40 years, I would never be out of her debt. But this was no grim duty to which I was stoically resigned. I love Muriel. She is a delight to me – her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don’t have to care for her. I get to care for her! It is a high honor for me to care for so wonderful a person.

In one of his books the late George Mallone told a story about a group of mountain climbers who lost several of their companions when they slipped and fell to their deaths during the descent.  When the government officials who were investigating the accident questioned the survivors about what had happened and what they had done to try and prevent it from happening, they survivors silently opened their hands and to show them the rope burns. 

The kind of love with which we are loved has rope-burned hands, and the kind of love to which we are called will leave us with rope burned hands.   Let there be no confusion about this.  Hollywood isn’t where we turn this morning to learn what love is and what love does, it’s Calvary’s cross that does that does this for us as Christians, and when we look to that cross what we see is not the kind of love that is a fragile, fleeting feeling, but rather, what we see is a love that is resolved and relentless, a love that will not let us go.  And when we are loved with this kind of love, it informs and inspires the way we are called to love – “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (I John 4:11).  It is enough…


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“Red-Letter” Jesus

In 1804, when he was President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson began reworking the Gospels so that they would be more compatible with his view of the things.  As outlandish as that sounds, the truth of the matter is, we all do this.  The Bible has things in it that are congenial to us and to our way of thinking, and things that are uncongenial to us and to our way of thinking, and how most of us deal with this is to concentrate our attention on those parts of the Bible that we prefer, and to just ignore the rest.  You know – Psalm 23 but not the book of Obadiah… the verses about forgiveness but not verses about judgment… the Beatitudes in the Gospels but not the dragons in the book of Revelation.  I’m not saying that this is right.  I’m just saying that this is how it works.

Thomas Jefferson was a rationalist, and that provided him with the specific criteria he used to edit the New Testament. He refused to believe anything that didn’t make sense to him, or that seemed contrary to the laws of nature as he understood them, and so the “Jefferson Bible” is the story of Jesus told without any of its supernatural elements.  There’s no Virgin Birth in it, virtually no angels or miracles, no atoning death, and certainly no Resurrection.  Thomas Jefferson didn’t like what the Bible said about who Jesus is, but he did like what the Bible said about what Jesus taught, and so when he was finished cutting and pasting, Thomas Jefferson’s Bible was basically a book of Christ’s teachings – the red letters.

The “Red-Letter” Bible was actually Louis Klopsch’s idea in 1899.  The editor of a popular Christian magazine, Louis Klopsch’s wanted people to read the Bible with greater understanding, especially what it said about Jesus Christ, and so he produced a copy of the Bible with the words of Jesus printed in red ink symbolic of the blood of his saving sacrifice for emphasis.  For Thomas Jefferson, the black letters of the New Testament were the “rubbish in which the diamonds (of Christ’s words) were buried.”  He wanted Christ’s teachings without Christ.  But for Louis Klopsch, the black-letters of the New Testament were the settings in which the diamonds of Christ’s words could stand out and sparkle.  What Thomas Jefferson’s Bible did was to elevate the teachings of Christ at the expense of the person and work of Christ.  What Louis Klopsch’s Red-Letter Bible did was to remind us that Christianity has two parts — two contents — an ethical side and a redemptive side.  The ethical side of the Gospel is what we find in the red letters of the New Testament, and the redemptive side is what we find in the black letters.  And the fact of the matter is that we need them both – both the red-letters and the black-letters of the Gospel. It’s the black-letters in my Bible that tell me about who Jesus Christ is that make the red-letters of His teachings so critical for me to know as  one of His disciples. It’s because I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God – something that the New Testament’s black-letters tell me – that I, in turn, want to be who He wants me to be, and to do what He wants me to do, and to know those things, I need the New Testament’s red-letters. This seems obvious to me. It is not obvious to everyone.

E. Stanley Jones said that he was surprised that the Sermon on the Mount does not appear in any of the church’s historic creeds, and he wondered how church history might have been different had it actually been included.  Would there have been the killing of heretics, the wars of religion, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the defense of slavery, or the persecution of the Jews if Christians, when they stood up to confess their faith, had said – “I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and its way of life, and I intend, God helping me, to embody it” – as well as saying – “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ… who for us and our salvation came down from heaven… was made human… was crucified for us… and on the third day He rose again…”?

Biblically, the red-letters and the black-letters of the New Testament go together to make just one message. Unfortunately, the black-letter parts of the New Testament have tended to be of greater concern to wide swaths of the Church through the years than have the red-letter parts.  Historically, more attention has been paid to what we believe as Christians (the black-letters) than to how we behave as Christians (the red-letters), to the detriment of Christianity and the disservice of the world.

When I was a kid growing up in church, Matthew 7:21 was one of those Bible verses that made me really nervous –  “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (7:21).  Its punchline haunted me throughout my childhood – “I never knew you; depart from me” (7:23).  Jesus didn’t ask us to admire the moral excellence of His teachings.  He didn’t come looking for fans.  What Jesus wanted was for people to actually do what He said.  Jesus came seeking followers, disciples, and the Sermon on the Mount is the way that Jesus Christ expects Christians to act, and so, right from the beginning of my spiritual awareness I understood that Jesus Christ demanded to be taken seriously, and I knew, even as a kid, that what this meant was that I needed to be living my life in ways that reflected my beliefs in, and my relationship with, Him.

In 1971, the year that I began Christian College, somebody shared with me something that a man named Wilbur Rees had written called Three Dollars Worth of God” –

“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation. I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.”

And again, I was challenged to look more closely at how I was living my life.  Was what I was saying about what Jesus Christ meant to me showing in how I was actually living my life?  If I never said a word, would people know that I was a Christian?  Was I just looking for that Three Dollars Worth of God” to give me inner peace and the assurance of heaven when I died, or did I want enough of God to actually change me, to change how I think, and what I value, and how I behave?  These questions set the table for my first semester in Christian College when I took a class on “The Life of Christ,” and Dr. Ward Rice, one of my life’s beloved teachers, had us read E. Stanley Jones’ book The Christ of the Mount as a textbook.  Now I’ve read thousands of books since the fall of ’71, but I can honestly tell you that few books I have read – apart from the Bible – have had a greater influence on my thinking and doing as a Christian than this one has. Its whole argument is that we are better at “saluting” the “ideal” of the Sermon on the Mount than we are       at taking it seriously as our working philosophy of life. In a memorable analogy, E. Stanley Jones wrote –

“We have done as the British officers did in one of the battles of the Sikh war (in India in the middle of the 19th century): they shut up the commanding officer in a high tower, locked the door, and then went out and fought the battle on their own principles.  We have locked this ideal of Christ (the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount) in high towers of reverence and respect and have then gone off to fight the battle of life in our own way, on our own principles, or lack of them – to our disaster.  The greatest need of modern Christianity is the rediscovery of the Sermon on the Mount as the only practical way to live.”

When we say that Jesus Christ is Lord because we believe what the black-letters in our Bibles tell us, He immediately sends us to the red-letters in our Bibles to show us how His followers live.  The Sermon on the Mount is the catechism of the Christian Life.

What’s the first thing that happens when someone enlists in the military?  They are sent to boot camp.  There’s a period of intensive training and instruction before someone begins to actively serve in a branch of the military.  They have to know what it means to belong and how they are supposed to behave before they are given a gun and a posting.  And in exactly the same way, in the ancient church, when someone presented themselves to the church as a candidate for baptism, the first thing that happened was that they became catechumens. A catechumen is somebody who is studying a catechism, and a catechism is a standard summary of basic Christianity.  In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) it’s that teaching “all that I have commanded” part that’s the basis for the church’s catechetical ministry.  And scholars tell us that Christianity’s first catechism was the Sermon on the Mount! 

When somebody heeded the Gospel’s call to repent and believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they were immediately instructed in the teachings of Jesus Christ found in the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact, Jonathan Pennington, one of those scholars, has argued that the way the Sermon on the Mount was put together in the Gospel of Matthew was so that “would-be disciples could easily hear, memorize, and thereby meditate on what the Master has said.  To be a Disciple is to memorize the Teacher’s sayings and to model one’s life on his.”

The creed of Judaism is called the “Shema,” the Hebrew word for “listen” or “hear,” and it’s found in Deuteronomy chapter 6 – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (6:4-5).  Those words should sound familiar because Jesus repeated them.  They’re the red-letters found in Matthew 22:37.  But back to Deuteronomy chapter 6, in closing I want you to hear what our spiritual parents, the Jews, were told do with their core teaching –

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

Jewish life was organized around the center of this core teaching. It was never to be far from sight, or out of mind.  And the Sermon on the Mount is our Shema as Christians. It’s the teaching around which our life as people of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior must be organized.  And the Sermon on the Mount must become the touchstone of our own devotion and discipleship as Christians.  A thought should not pass through our minds, a word should not pass from our lips, an action should not be undertaken with our hands that has not first been consciously informed and formed by what Jesus Christ told us to be and do as His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.  The way we show what the Jesus of the New Testament’s black-letters means to us is by getting serious about the red-letters of His teachings.  DBS+

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“And He Healed Them…”

I know a church in Seattle that looked around one day and realized that they were dying.  The world around them had changed.  Their neighborhood had changed, and they understood that if they didn’t change, and soon, that they just wouldn’t be around for much longer.  But what changes should they make in order to have a future, they wondered?  Fortunately, they had a faithful pastor who told them that where they would find their best answer to this question was in the Bible, and so took a year to read the Gospels together. 

They carefully studied Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with just one question in mind – “What did Jesus do when He was here?”   They wanted to know what Jesus would be doing if He lived in their Seattle neighborhood?  They carefully calculated the percentage of time that Jesus spent in the Gospels “breathing comfort, healing, and responding to the obvious needs of people from all walks of life.”  It turned out to be 80%Jesus was a “man for others” (Bonhoeffer).  In the Gospels, 80% of His time was spent ministering to the needs of people. As Peter told the household of Cornelius in Acts chapter 10, “He went about doing good” (10:38).

Matthew 4:23-25 is a summary verse.  John told us at the end of his Gospel that if everything Jesus said and did were written down, that “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).  Recognizing this, the Gospel authors gathered up wide swaths of material from the life and work of Jesus and packaged it in neat little bundles, and that’s what Matthew 4:23-25 is – a neat little bundle. After telling us what he knew about the birth, the baptism, and the temptation of Jesus Christ,  Matthew tells us that He began His public ministry after John the Baptist had been arrested.  Jesus stepped into the spiritual void that John’s forced removal created, Matthew tells us, to do three things: to teach in the synagogues of Galilee, to preach the Gospel saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and to heal every disease and infirmity among the people.  Jesus preached, taught, and healed, and when He went away, He left His church with this same three-fold ministry (Acts 1:1).  And so, we preach, and we teach.  Every church does.   But heal?  

Where’s the healing ministry of the church?  

We’ve all seen enough late-night religious television to think we know what the ministry of healing is all about.  We’ve seen enough of the theatrics and flamboyance of that approach to healing to know that we want nothing to do with it.  But the way I see it, what we object to is not the ministry of healing itself, but rather to the way that it’s being practiced in some parts of the church. The Episcopal Church in my Dallas neighborhood has a healing service as part of their weekly midweek communion observance.  Every Wednesday morning people come to that church to be prayed for at the point of their greatest needs – physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational. There’s no emotionalism or showmanship in this service. Everything’s done “decently and in order” as perfectly befits Episcopalians.  Each week they come together to read a story from one of the Gospels about Jesus healing somebody, and then they ask the Risen Christ to come in power and mercy and do it again.   I’d be surprised if there was anything about this service that we’d find objectionable.  They are just quietly going about the ministry of healing because it’s what Jesus Christ did when He was here, and because it’s part of what they believe Jesus Christ still wants us to do.  I agree.  I believe that Jesus Christ preached, taught, and healed when He was here, and that Jesus continues to preach, teach, and heal now through His continuing presence in the church and world today through the Holy Spirit.

The church’s ministry of healing consists of two practices – presence and prayer.  We’ve got to show up, and then we’ve got to know what to do once we’ve shown up.  The first step in any ministry of healing is the decision to be with sick and suffering people. In Matthew 25 Jesus said to some, “I was sick and you visited me” (25:36), while to others He said, “I was sick and you did not minister to me” (25:44).  It’s a choice.  We can choose to be present with another human being in their travail, or we can choose to be absent.  God chose to be present.  The Gospel is rooted and grounded in the fact that in Jesus Christ God chose to come and dwell among us (John 1:14), to share our flesh and blood, our life and death (Hebrews 2:14-15).  This is the Christmas truth of “Emmanuel” that we’ve just celebrated how “God is with us.”  To me, this is Christianity’s most compelling claim, that God didn’t stay untroubled and uninvolved in His heaven far away, but rather, “God decided to come among us, and God pitched his tent, made his home, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  We used to sing a Gospel song in the churches I attended back when I was younger that included the refrain – “Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe, only His great eternal love made my Savior go.” And this is what we choose to do too when we decide that we are going to take up Christ’s ministry of healing today.  We step out of our comfort zones, out of our own ivory palaces and into “a world of woe.”

One of the measures of success that we named for ourselves at the church I served in Dallas was the number of our members who were “willing to risk getting involved in the life of another.” We chose that language deliberately. We understood that there really is a “risk” to getting involved in the life of another person, especially when that other person is hurting, helpless, and hopeless.   As C.S. Lewis put it – “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and (quite) possibly broken.” We are “pain-adverse” people.  We avoid discomfort, inconvenience, and impotence in our own lives at all costs.  But continuing Christ’s ministry of healing requires us to counter these instincts by deliberately positioning ourselves in the presence of somebody else’s pain.  Taking up the ministry of healing begins with the decision to consciously “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  It’s the simple decision to be kind, the 19th century Scottish pastor Ian Maclaren famously said, because every person you meet is carrying a heavy burden.

“Burden-bearing” – that’s a good description of what Christ’s continuing ministry of healing looks like today.  Eric Hansen is just such a “burden-bearer.”  He says that the minute he walks into a room he becomes aware of what others are feeling and facing, and this gives him the opportunity to pray quietly for them.  Eric writes –

“When dealing with the pain, wounds and burdens of others I have come to understand that I cannot carry them [by myself] for very long. Only Christ can bear our burdens fully… [and so] the ultimate destination for burdens is into the hands of Jesus.”

And this brings us to the other essential practice of the church’s healing ministry in and through the church today – prayer. When Maxie Dunnam is asked to pray for somebody’s healing, he says that what he does, in his imagination, is to take that person by the hand and bring them into the presence of Christ.  He tells Jesus all about the person whose hand he holds, he explains their needs to Christ as best as he can, and then he entrusts them to the Lord’s care.  As Maxie explains, “This kind of praying helps me hold that person in love in the presence of Christ, and it enables Christ to direct me in my [own response] to that person.” 

It’s said that when we pray for someone’s healing that we what we are actually praying for is a change in three things – a change in circumstances,  a change of perspective, and a change of the world (David Powlinson).   Healing Prayer is first of all a prayer that God will act to change our  circumstances.  When we, or someone we love, is sick, healing prayer is an urgent request for God to change the circumstances, to make us well again.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked His Father to change His circumstances.  “My Father,” He prayed, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).  I believe that it is always appropriate to tell God what we think and want, and so I believe that  God always welcomes our prayers for healing.  We should never hesitate to ask God make people whole again in their bodies, minds, or spirits.  But just as the Father said “no” to what it was that Jesus asked Him to do, so we must always condition our requests for healing by a prior surrender to God’s will, to what it is that God is doing to bring all of creation back to harmony and wholeness, and for most of us that’s going to require a change of perspective.

Physical health is not the highest good.  That’s news to our culture that glorifies beauty and strength, but Jesus Himself said so.  In Matthew 10:28 He told us not to fear that which can kill the body, but rather to fear that which can destroy the soul.  A prayer I learned when I was just a kid in church told me that I am “numbered among the things that are passing away,” and so I should “not be anxious about earthly things,” but should learn instead to love “things heavenly.” Harry Blamires called this “cultivating the eternal perspective,” and he insisted that it is an indispensable component of the Christian mind. 

If this world and this life are all there is, then nothing is more important than physical health and well-being.  But if there is something more, something else, then there is something even more important than physical health and well-being, and it’s spiritual health and well-being, and paradoxically, as J.I. Packer put it, “poor health just may be the best remedy” for our soul’s deepest needs.

God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away.

Scripture promises a time when there will be no more pain, no more sickness, sorrow, or death (Revelation 21:1-4), but that time is not yet.  Biblically, there’s no final solution to the problem of suffering until the coming of the Kingdom at the close of the age, and so the third dimension of healing prayer is a prayer for God to finally change of the world.  As Calvin Miller said, It is better to heal with promises than to promise healing,” and every time we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” what we are affirming is that promise of that final healing, that healing that “is only one world away.” 

The New Testament’s clearest instructions for the church’s ministry of healing can be found in James 5 –

“Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” (5:14-15).

“Call…” “Come…” “Pray…” “Save…” that’s the church’s ministry of healing in a nutshell. 

  • When you’re sick “call.”  Let your church know what’s going on. They only know what we are told.
  • And they will “come.”  You are not alone. Your church family will travel this road with you if you will let them.
  • They will “pray.”  They will carry you into the loving presence of Christ and  hold you there, humbly asking Him to change your circumstances, their perspective, and the whole wide world.
  • And we will be “saved.”This is so much bigger than physical health and temporal well-being.  As a friend of mine with terminal cancer once told me – “This may very well kill me, but it will not destroy me.”  Our bodies will decline, we are “numbered among the things that are passing away,” but our souls don’t have to, so “hold fast to what shall endure.”

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Noisy Gongs, Clanging Cymbals

Fritz Guy is a Seventh Day Adventist theologian.  I’m reading his 1999 book “Thinking Theologically” (Andrews University Press) right now with great appreciation.  It’s a book on theological methodology, on how to “do” theology.  In it Fritz Guy strikes a helpful balance between “thinking theologically” as “an individual first-person activity… like eating or being in love,” and “thinking theologically” as an “inclusive” communal activity that involves dialogue with our “predecessors” (a working familiarity with the history of Christian thought) and our “contemporaries” (“everyone in the community contributing what she or he sees, experiences, and understands”).  To describe what this looks like, Professor Guy tells a parable about a tree that bears some resemblance to the familiar parable about the “Blind Men and the Elephant” Parable, only, in my judgement, richer and more textured.

“A large number of lively, perceptive, and congenial people are standing around a huge tree with an interestingly irregular shape and a complicated network of branches.  Although everyone is looking at the same tree, each person sees it from a unique position and perspective, and therefore sees what no one else in the circle can see in exactly the same way.  It is obvious that, although they all see in different ways, and some see different things, their perspectives may well be complementary rather than mutually exclusive…

…As they each report what they see, and as they each listen to the reports of what the others see, they are fascinated, surprised, and sometimes disconcerted by the differences.  At various times different persons wonder if the reports from the others are entirely correct, so they raise questions and ask for more detail.  Occasionally the interaction gets vigorous, but sooner or later someone acknowledges that a first impression needs to be adjusted in the light of reports of several others.  As they all keep talking and listening to one another, their individual and collective understandings are expanded, corrected, clarified, and deepened.  They all know a good deal more about the tree than they did before the conversation started.”

Fritz Guy argues that our spiritual growth and well-being depends in no small measure on our willingness to move around the tree, talking with people at their different locations, learning more about the tree by having them tell us what it is that they see. Fritz Guy sees this as a picture of the church, and I do too, as well as being a pictures of any social association where people with diverse experiences and perspectives make common cause and seek to forge a common identity.  This ideal informs my view of church as well as my view of country.  “E Pluribus Unum” – “Out of the many, one.”  This is the spiritual and political promise that has fueled the civic and ecclesiastical engagements of my life.  But this is precisely what seems to be at risk these days as a nation and a church.

Our political and theological positions are “hard” settled, and we aren’t interested in having them “expanded, corrected, clarified, and deepened” through honest, thoughtful, and respectful dialogue with others about how they “see the tree.”  Instead, we choose sides, man battlements, and launch broadsides. It was E. Stanley Jones who pointed out a long time ago that “the long-distance shelling of another’s position, or what we think is their position,” does not finally serve the advance of our own positions very well. “The crusaders conquered Jerusalem,” he pointed out, “and found, in the end, that Christ was not there.  They lost Him through the very spirit and methods by which they sought to serve Him.” 

Our inability and unwillingness to meaningfully talk with each other about what it is that we think, and why, and our preference for believing only the worst about the content of other positions, and the intentions of those who hold them, contain the seeds of our destruction. I worry about a country so angrily divided and deadlocked when so many critically important decisions are demanding to be made. And I worry about a church whose members no longer hear one another because they stopped listening to each other long ago. 

While being “right”  matters, by the values of the Gospel, being loving matters even more (I Corinthians 8 & 13).  And so, the convergence of grace and truth that I see in the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 1:17) will continue to spark my own desire to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). I refuse to be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. So, tell me about what you see when you look at the tree from where you stand, and I’ll tell you what I see from where I stand, and that conversation will both help us see the tree more clearly and share its gifts more freely. DBS+

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“Still Our Ancient Foe”

I have a plaque that was given to me by a church I served in appreciation for something that I helped them accomplish.  They gave it to me on a Sunday morning during a worship service and had a cookie reception afterwards.  It was a very nice thing for them to do.  It felt good, and those good feelings lasted nearly 30 hours, right through to the next evening when a fist-fight broke out at our monthly church board meeting. I didn’t see it coming.  One minute a rather boring committee report was being made about something or another, and the next thing I knew, two men, both of them well-respected church leaders, were extending “the right fist of fellowship”  to one another. It was over just as quickly as it had begun.  Order was restored, embarrassed looks were sheepishly exchanged, and the meeting continued as if nothing had happened.  But something had happened, and it rattled me. The next day I called an older friend, someone I considered a mentor in ministry.  I told him what happened and how it caught me completely off-guard, and then I waited for him to impart some helpful wisdom.  But all he did was laugh, and say, “Doug, you know your Bible. What did you expect?”

The day Jesus was baptized was a good day for Him.  His baptism was His ordination, the beginning of His public ministry, and He came up out of the waters of the Jordan hearing God’s announcement that He was His own beloved and chosen Son, and to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit alighting on Him as a dove.  Jesus was fully equipped and ready to go.  He was the Messiah.  He had Messianic things to do.  And this is when it happened. “Then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil” (Matthew 4:1). Mark’s Gospel tells us that the Spirit “immediately drove,” or “impelled,” or “compelled” Jesus into the wilderness for forty days where He was tempted by Satan (Mark 1:12-13).  Now, let this sink in for just a minute.  Still dripping wet from His baptism, the voice of His Father still reverberating in His ears, the Spirit of God still hovering about Him like dove, and Jesus was “driven” into the wilderness by God for a fight!

John Hardon, a Roman Catholic Priest who wrote extensively on spiritual things, said –

“It was divinely providential that Christ allowed Himself to be tempted by the devil at the beginning of His public ministry.  He is teaching us (here) one of the most important lessons we need to learn in life. If He, the living God in human form, was tempted by the evil spirit, then we must expect to be tempted as well.”

But we don’t expect it, and that’s the problem if you ask me.  More often than not, just as I was when that fight broke out in church, we’re surprised when evil shows up and begins to sow its seeds of discord, discouragement, and disobedience, and I can prove it.  When I say the word “church” what comes to mind first – a quiet garden, a happy playground, or a raging battlefield?  We can easily think of church as a peaceful place like a garden, and we can easily think of church as a joyful place like a playground.  But do we ever think of church as a battlefield where a brutal fight is underway?  Probably not.

When I was confirmed in the Episcopal church when I was 12 years old, right after the Bishop of Los Angeles laid his hands on me and officially made me a member of the church, he hauled off and hit me. It was part of the ritual. They say that this tradition of a Confirmation slap goes back to when newly commissioned knights in the Middle Ages were struck with the flat blade of a sword to remind them of what they’d signed up for. They were soldiers. They were going to have to fight.  In the same way, the Confirmation slap was a gesture that was intended to remind the newly confirmed that they were now in a fight too, part of the church “militant,” and so they shouldn’t be surprised by the struggle. The Christian Life is not a quiet walk in the park, or a happy afternoon spent having fun on a playground.  The Christian Life is a fight, a constant struggle between good and evil being waged in our hearts and in the world.

Kyriacos Markides, a Sociology Professor from the University of Maine,  heard the Greek Orthodox priest he was researching for a book on spiritual reality describe the church as “the arena of an ongoing battle.”  And Kyriacos said, “But I was under the impression that the Church is a harbor of peace and healing, not a battleground” (117).  And that priest told Kyriacos that, “The Church is available to us as a vehicle for our salvation… (and) such a pursuit implies a struggle against those forces that labor to block our ascent toward God” (117).   In other words, if we’re being saved, there’s going to be a fight.

Recently in church the choir sang an anthem that consisted of some new words – at least they were new to me – set to an old familiar tune.  In fact, during one of the rehearsals, when we got to the refrain, I just instinctively began to sing –

“Onward, Christian soldiers!  Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus going on before.”

The last Disciple hymnal that actually had “Onward Christian Soldiers” in it was the one that was published in 1953, and I understand why.  An unpopular war deeply divided us as a people in the 1960’s, and it became increasingly uncomfortable for us to use military images to sing about Christ and the church’s mission.  And so, in the 1970’s, when it was time for a new hymnal, “Onward Christian Soldiers” was left out. I understand that, but I’m also aware of what was lost when we stopped thinking and talking this way.  At just about the same time that we stopped singing “Onward Christian soldiers” as a church, A. W. Tozer, one of the more important spiritual teachers in my life, observed –

“Our fathers believed in sin and the devil and hell as constituting one force, and they believed in God and righteousness and heaven as the other. By their very nature, these forces were opposed to each other forever in deep, grave, irreconcilable hostility. And we, our fathers held, had to choose sides – we could not be neutral.”

And this is the Bible’s worldview.  It’s this struggle between good and evil and the choices we have to make all the time that frames the story that the Bible tells from cover to cover.

In Genesis chapter 4, right before Cain killed his brother Abel in a fit of jealous rage, God pulled Cain aside and warned him that “sin is crouching at your door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (v. 7). That’s a remarkably vivid image, isn’t it?   Evil is like a predatory animal that stalks us, it says, lurking in the shadows of our lives, looking for just the right moment to attack, intent on undoing the project of God that’s well underway in our hearts and our world, and we’ve always got to be ready for it to strike.  This is why the Apostle Peter told the Christians in Asia Minor not to be surprised when they found themselves struggling as if something strange were happening to them (I Peter 4:12).  In other words – we shouldn’t be startled by trouble, or surprised by the persistence of evil, or discouraged by the difficulties that come our way when we are trying to be faithful to God and His Word.

In Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus went from hearing how much God loved Him in one shining moment, to being taunted by the Adversary in the next.  Crouching even at the door of His life was the presence of something or someone adversarial that sought to distract Jesus from being about His Father’s business, and if this was Christ’s experience, then what makes us think that it won’t be ours as well?

Some of my favorite books of all times were written by a man named Calvin Miller.   Calvin was a Baptist preacher who finished his ministry as a professor down at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. In one of his books Calvin said –

“There are three things I do every morning so that I will be happy all day long.  The first is to affirm the reality of Jesus Christ and to thank Him for his Lordship.  The second is to call to mind the reality of Satan, who will seek throughout the day to make me a miserable contradiction of evident joy.   (And) third, I call to mind the gifts that are mine in Christ.” 

At least once a day, and more often than not, several times each day, I pray the Lord’s Prayer.  The early church told Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (The Didache). This continued the Jewish pattern of three set times of prayer each day – morning, noon, and night – and this is how praying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day became a standard part of my spiritual practice.  And praying the Lord’s Prayer this often, and for so long, naming and living its rhythms daily for the better part of my life, I’ve come to realize that the Lord’s Prayer is the way that I affirm those same three realities that Calvin Miller affirmed every morning to keep himself focused and at peace.

I affirm the reality of the Lordship of Jesus Christ every time I pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and every time I confess, “For yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory.” I Corinthians 15:24 tells us that what the Risen and Ascended Christ is doing right now is “destroying every rule and every authority and power.”  As the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”  There is no part of my life and no place in the world that Jesus Christ as Lord isn’t interested in or have plans for, and so I begin each day consciously bending the knee of my heart to His claim so that I might better cooperate with His purpose.

I affirm the reality of an adversarial presence and power at work in my life and the universe every time I ask not to be forsaken in my times of temptation and to be delivered from every maneuver of the evil one. Ephesians 6:11 talks about the “wiles” of the Devil.  That word “wiles” comes from the Greek word “methodeia,” from which we get our word “methodical,” and I can tell you that this is exactly how evil feels to me.  In my experience evil is orderly, logical, deliberate, strategic, “tailored” to my own particular “weaknesses and vulnerabilities.”  Evil knows where I live, just exactly how to get in, and I would be foolish to let down my guard, so I begin each day reminding myself that I am in a fight.

And I affirm the reality of the gifts that are ours every time I ask for daily bread and an experience of the kind of forgiveness that makes us more forgiving.  In Germany they’ll show you an ink stain on the wall of a room where the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once lived.  It’s said that his struggle with the adversary became so intense for Luther one day that he actually picked up the inkpot on his desk and threw it at him!  Now, I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that we are not helpless and hopeless before the presence and power of evil in our lives or in the world. “Greater is He who is in us,” I John 4:4 tells us, “than he who is in the world.”  And so in his great hymn on the spiritual struggle, Martin Luther noted that should “we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,”  but that “the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.” 

Matthias Gunewald’s painting of the temptation of St. Anthony, the Desert Father, shows him surrounded by an astonishing variety of demonic beings all gleefully tormenting him. Down in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, on a little piece of parchment, the artist has inscribed the question that such a scene begs – “Where are you, good Jesus, where are you?”  And above St. Anthony in the panting, the answer to this question is breaking into the scene in an explosion of light. It’s Jesus Christ coming in power and glory to help. 

The spiritual struggle between good and evil in us and the world is real, but the outcome need not be in doubt because, as Luther’s hymn says, A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills [is] prevailing.”  We should not be surprised by evil, but we need not be afraid of evil so long as “the right Man [is] on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. You ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same; and he [will] win the battle.”

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“Beloved” and “Favored”

Because we are saved by faith, what we say we believe matters.  “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” Paul told the Romans, “and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, (then) you will be saved” (10:9).  And so, more than once, through the years, I’ve been questioned about my beliefs. I’ve been asked about what I believe when I’ve joined a church, when I went to seminary, when I became a candidate for ordination, when I’ve met with pulpit committees, when I’ve taught classes and Bible studies, when I’ve met with church members and prospects, at hospital bedsides and cemetery gravesides. Well-meaning people have grilled me hard about my faith convictions and then welcomed me into their circle when they agreed with what I told them I believed, or treated me as something of a project – someone to be straightened out – when they didn’t.  And I get it, I really do.  After all, I’m someone whose whole life has been devoted to his faith seeking understanding. 

I’m inclined to agree with A.W. Tozer’s familiar observation that what a person believes about God is the most important thing about them because what a person believes about God has momentous consequences, not just for eternity, but for the here and now as well.  If you believe that God is just, then you will strive to be just yourself.  If you believe that God is righteous, then you will pursue righteousness yourself.  If you believe that God is merciful, then you will try to be merciful yourself.   If you believe that God is generous and kind, then generosity and kindness will begin to increasingly characterize the way you live.  And if you believe that God is welcoming and affirming, then you will become increasingly welcoming and affirming yourself.  What we believe about God matters spiritually and morally.  But I’m not sure that what we believe about God is the first question that needs to be asked and answered by us. The late John Claypool, widely regarded as one of the great American preachers of the 20th century, wrote –

From time to time, in church or elsewhere, you have probably been asked what you believe about Jesus, and this is an exceedingly important question.  [The turning point in the Gospel story of Jesus was when He asked His disciples – “Who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:15)?  Answering the question – “What think ye of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42) – is what makes is Christians.]  However, I want to turn the issue around and ask, “What does Jesus believe about you?” (73)

It’s what we believe about God that shapes and directs how we behave, and that’s not unimportant.  And it’s what God believes about us that shapes and directs how God behaves, and there’s nothing that’s more important than that!  How God relates to us is determined by what God thinks of us, and I get a strong sense of what God thinks of us from Matthew 3:13-17, the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan by John, and what God said to Him when He came up out of the water – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (3:17).

I believe in something called “prevenient grace.”  Prevenient grace refers to the way that God’s grace always precedes the response of human faith.  “Pre” means “before. “Venient” means “to come.”  “Prevenient” refers to something that “comes before.”  Before we think about God, God has already thought about us.  Before we go looking for God, God has already come looking for us.  Before we believe in God, God already believes in us.  It’s prevenient grace that drives the Parables of Luke 15, perhaps the most famous and among the most beloved stories that Jesus ever told – one about the shepherd who went looking for his lost lamb (15:3-7); and another one about the woman who went looking for her lost coin (15:8-10); and the one about the Father who never gave up on his sons – the one who was lost in the far country, and the other one who got lost at home (15:11-32).  In each case, it was love that drove the search.  That shepherd loved his little lamb.  That woman loved her precious coin.  That father loved his two boys.  Their value – the value of the lamb, the value of the coin, and the value of the sons – was established long before they got lost and the search for them was launched.

I have a good friend in Dallas who, whenever he’s asked when he got saved, doesn’t talk about the day he went forward in church, or the day he got baptized, but instead says that it happened 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, ministered in grace and truth in Galilee, and was crucified and raised from the dead in Jerusalem. That’s an affirmation of Prevenient Grace.  Long before we cross the threshold of faith saying that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior, God has crossed the threshold of time and space coming in search of us. Technically, when my friend says that he got saved with the coming of Christ in human history, he’s wrong.  Long before the coming of Christ became the event that we read about in our Bibles, the coming of Christ was something that got decided in the eternal purpose of God. 

Revelation 13:8 says that “the Lamb [was] slain from the foundation of the world.”  Some Christians talk about this as the “eternal” or “everlasting” covenant.  It says that long before the first word of creation was spoken, that God had already decided on what He was going to so when the world went sideways through the choices we make.  When we turn and walk away from God, God doesn’t just stand there surprised and confused, no, God comes after us. When Gardner Taylor, the great African American preacher who was described as having a voice like God’s “only deeper,” was asked: “Does the Bible have a point?”  – he answered – “Sure it does – the Bible is about how God is out to get back what belongs to Him!”   And God’s decision to do this – to come after us when we wander off – is rooted in what God thinks of us, in how God values us, and that’s what I hear in the Father’s words spoken to His Son when He came up out of the waters of His baptism – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

While Scripture is very clear about the utterly unique relationship that exists between God the Father and God the Son, Scripture is equally clear that the reason why God the Son became flesh and dwelt among us was so that we might be restored to our proper place in God’s family as His sons and daughters.  And so, while on our first read through Matthew 3:17 – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” – we should probably hear it as an affirmation of the unique status of Jesus Christ as the “only begotten Son of God,” and then on our second read through it, we should probably hear it as God’s declaration of what he thinks of us as well.  As Tim Keller explains, “In Christianity, the moment we believe, God says, ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’”  And the only quibble that I have with this statement is that I don’t believe that it’s when we first believe that God says this of us, but rather, that it goes all the way back to the foundations of the earth, to the Lamb who was slain from eternity’s beginnings.

You see, it’s not insignificant that God said –“this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” – at the start of the public ministry of Jesus Christ, long before He had said or done anything particularly “Messianic.”  Jesus didn’t earn this affirmation by His performance.  It was “prevenient,” it “came before,” and so does ours. Just as Jesus Christ was God’s “beloved” and “well-pleasing” to God because God chose to love Him and because God decided to favor Him, so we are God’s “beloved,” and we are “well-pleasing” to God because this is something that God settled at the foundation of the world. 

We can’t earn “beloved.”  It can only be offered.  Being called God’s “beloved” has a long history in the Biblical tradition.  Go home this afternoon and take the twenty minutes that’s required to read through the Old Testament book of the Song of Solomon.  If you’ve never done this before, then I guarantee that you are going to be surprised.  On the surface, there’s nothing terribly transcendent about this little book.  If you’ve ever fallen in love with somebody, then the Song of Solomon is going to be familiar terrain.  It’s just a love poem full of the passion of courtship.  But to the Biblical mystics, both Jewish and Christian, the Song of Solomon is a parable – a story about a common human experience that serves as an open window into the ways and will of God.  Just as the story of young lovers is a story of passion and pursuit, so in the story that the Bible tells, God pursues us passionately.  That’s what it means to be “beloved,” and so we are by God.

If the talk about being “well-pleasing” to God sounds familiar, it’s because it was Christmas, and we just heard the angels singing to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks the night when Jesus was born – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is well-pleased” (Luke 2:14).  The root word translated “well-pleasing” is grace, and grace means favor.  Pastor Mark Lauterbach told the people of his congregation to close their eyes and to imagine looking up into the face of God. And then he asked them – “What did you see?” “What was the mood of God’s face?”  “What was the look in God’s eyes?”  Was it disappointment? Disapproval? Criticism? Condemnation? Or, was it delight?

I’m going to give you a verse to live with all week long.  It’s Zephaniah 3:17.  I think I’m safe in saying that Zephaniah is nobody’s favorite book of the Bible.  In fact, most of us don’t even know that there is a book of Zephaniah in the Bible, and that means that we’ve never seen Zephaniah 3:17 before, and that’s too bad because this is one of the Bible’s most dazzling verses.

The Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will dance [rejoice] over you with joyful songs.

God delights in you with gladness.  God dances over you with joyful songs. You are His beloved in whom He is well-pleased.

It was a tradition of the church that I served in Dallas to ask each person who came to be baptized to write a personal “Credo” – an “I believe” statement of faith that could be read by an elder from the pulpit before they were immersed.  Most of the “Credos” I heard through the years were short and predictable.  People typically talked in John 3:16 sorts of ways about their experiences of believing in Jesus Christ, being born again, and receiving forgiveness and eternal life as the result.  It was pretty much “Christianity 101” each and every time – standard, solid, simple, Scriptural statements of faith.  And then we baptized her.  She came to the church through our Divorce Recovery ministry.  She had been shattered by an unexpected divorce.  Her husband came home from work one day and told her that he didn’t love her anymore, that he had fallen in love with his secretary instead and that they were going to get married and live the life that she had lived with him for more than a decade.  This woman came to church broken.  Her self-worth had been decimated.  Her life’s purpose had been destroyed.  She experienced the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a life preserver thrown to a drowning person.  She grabbed hold of it and refused to let go.

On her baptism Sunday, this woman took God the Father’s affirmation of Jesus Christ on the day of His baptism – “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” – and she applied them to herself!   In her “Credo” she told the church that her baptism was her public acceptance of God’s estimation of her value as a person.  “I am a beloved child of God,” she told us, “God is well-pleased with me.”  And she was right.  We all are.  All of us sitting here in church this morning, and everyone we will meet this week – “beloved” and “favored” – not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Not because of what we do, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Not because of what we decide, but because what God decided at the foundation of the earth.

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“A Peek into the Heart of God”

At the church I served in Dallas we always encouraged people at the beginning of each New Year to make a commitment to read their Bibles through from cover to cover as one of their New Year’s Resolutions.  It’s always bothered me that Christians like us who say that the Bible is our authority for all matters of faith and practice aren’t actually reading our Bibles in any sustained or systematic sort of way. And this isn’t just true of church members, it’s true of the ministers of churches as well.

Right after he became a Christian, Jeff Robinson of the Gospel Coalition says that he asked a longtime pastor he knew how many times in his life he had read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation. “Never,” was his reply, “but I hope to do it someday.”  And what the research shows is that this isn’t all that unusual.  72% of the pastors surveyed admit that the only time that they actually look at their Bibles each week is to get ready to preach or teach, and this directly corresponds to the experience of most church members whose only exposure to the Bible each week comes through the sermons and lessons that they hear at church.  This is why the faith of so many churches and Christians, to borrow the vivid  language of Andrew Fuller, resemble “a rickety child”.

Jason Allen, now the President of Midwestern Seminary up in Kansas City, remembers taking his Bible to church when he was a kid. He says –

“I grew up in a church… (where) the Bible was emphasized… (and so) I had a Bible of my own that I took with me to church each week. (And) every Sunday on our way home from church I would put that Bible in the pocket on the back side of the front seat of my mother’s car. It made perfect sense to me to put  it there because I knew that I was going to need it the following Sunday morning, I had no plans on using it again until then, and I knew where it would be when I needed it next… Looking back now, I have to laugh at this idea that the only time I would need my Bible was when I was in church.  But it made perfect sense to me when I was a kid.  Sadly, I find that this is how most people in church think today.”

The excuses I regularly heard from people in Dallas about why they wouldn’t or couldn’t make a commitment to read through the Bible in a year boiled down to three: “I don’t have the time,” “The Bible’s just too hard for me to understand” and, “The Bible’s more than I can handle.”  As far as not having the time to read through the Bible in a year, all you really need to know is that it takes approximately 70 hours to read through the Bible from cover to cover.  70 hours – that’s roughly the equivalent of the national average for our monthly television viewing.  As the grandmother of a friend of mine in high school used to tell him, “If you’ve got time to read a comic book, then you’ve got to time to read your Bible.”  Allow me to update this advice – if we’ve got enough the time to watch “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Ninja Warriors,” then we’ve got enough time to read the Bible through from cover to cover this year.

As far as thinking that the Bible’s just too hard for us to read it with understanding, you need to know that our spiritual heritage as Protestant Christians says – “balderdash.”  At the heart of the Reformation was this idea that if a Bible was put into your hands, you would be able to read it with enough understanding to get saved.  They called this idea the “perspicuity” or “clarity” of Scripture, and what it means is that “the Bible is basically clear and lucid, …simple enough for any literate person to understand its basic message” (Sproul 15). Theologian Wayne Grudem says his spiritual life began with this conviction.

“As a boy of seven or eight, I began reading the Bible for myself… sounding out the hard words and plowing forward, …with some nourishment to my soul.  I simply assumed the Bible could be understood.   And then a few years after that, I got baptized believing that what the Bible said about salvation could be understood, and that I, at the age twelve, had understood it!  …A belief in the clarity of Scripture is implicit in every [sermon that gets preached, otherwise after the weekly Scripture reading we would just stand around, shrug our shoulders and say, “Who knows what that means?”

And as far as the Bible being more than we think we can handle, we just need to step back far enough to be able to see the forest for the trees. The Bible’s a big and complicated book to be sure, but there’s something simple that holds all of its different books, and characters, and stories, and teachings together.  The Bible’s got a core message, a basic plot, a governing narrative, and it’s not hard to understand at all.

I’ve heard of a seminary professor who, on the first day of every class he teaches, asks his students to close their eyes, randomly flip their Bibles open, and to drop their finger onto the page that’s in front of them.  Whatever verse their finger touches is their first assignment.  He wants them to write an essay that explains what the verse their fingers are pointing to has to do with Jesus?  They say that every road in every English village leads to London.  And in the same way, every verse in the Bible leads to Jesus Christ and to the plan that God has to save us.  Take the familiar story from the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) about how the Magi came from the east, following a star, to visit Jesus in Bethlehem after He was born

Matthew wrote his Gospel for a Jewish audience.  This is why it was put first in the New Testament by the church.  It functions as the front door into Christianity from the Old Testament.  Matthew wrote his Gospel to convince his readers that Jesus is the Christ, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the fulfillment of all the promises that God made to Israel.  So, what are these Gentiles doing in this Jewish story?   And the answer is that Gentiles have always been part of the Jewish story.

Matthew began his Gospel with a genealogy.  The very first thing that Matthew wanted his readers to know about Jesus was that He was descended from Abraham according to the flesh. That’s an important thing for a Jew to know because Abraham is the Patriarch, their “Father.”  Biblically, the Jews are the “Chosen People” because God chose Abraham.  The story of this choice is told in Genesis 12 –

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (1-3)

This is the text on which the story of the Bible turns.  John Stott called it the “most unifying verse in the Bible,” and he said that “the whole of God’s purpose is encapsulated here.” 

During finals back when I was in school we were always told to read the question on a test carefully before beginning an answer.  Well, in the Bible, the question gets posed for us in the stories we are told in Genesis chapters 1-11, and that question is – “What’s wrong with us, and the world?”  The rest of the Bible, Genesis 12 through Revelation 22, is the answer.  The rest of the Bible tells us what God is doing about what’s gone wrong.  And Genesis 12:1-3, the story of God choosing Abraham to be the launching pad for His plan to fix us and the world, is the moment when Abraham and his family became God’s chosen people.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to pray that she would be a pencil in the hand of God, an instrument God could use to make known His will and to accomplish His purposes, and this is exactly what God chose Abraham’s family to be and to do in Genesis 12. God chose Abraham’s family not to make them special, but to use them as the servants of His will.  They weren’t called to privilege, but for a purpose (Arnold Come).  They weren’t chosen to be separate from everybody else, but for the sake of everybody else. “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22) – that’s what Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well.  Israel isn’t the final circle of the saved, but Israel is the channel through which God’s salvation flows into the world. 

“In choosing Israel… God never took his eye off the other nations of the world; Israel was a minority called to serve the majority.” (Johannes Verkuyl)

The Magi are in Matthew’s story of the birth of Israel’s Messiah because the promise that God made to Abraham wasn’t just good news for Jews, it was good news for the whole wide world.  “I will make of you a great nation,” God told Abraham, “and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  The Magi are in Matthew’s story of the birth of Israel’s Messiah because by blessing Abraham and his family,  God has blessed “all the families of the earth.” 

When we see the Magi kneeling in Bethlehem, what we are being given is a peek into the heart of God.  God wants everybody everywhere to kneel there with them, to receive the gift of His love embodied in that little baby who grew up to be the Savior, not just of the Jews, but of us all.  One of the final visions that we have in the Bible of the fulfillment of God’s eternal purposes is Revelation 7:9-10 –

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

The Magi in Matthew’s story of the birth of Israel’s Messiah are a foreshadowing of this eternal outcome. Bethlehem’s baby, Abraham’s greater son, is how God has gone about blessing all the families of the earth.  And it’s because we know that this is what God wants, it’s because know that this is what God is doing, that we as a church now hear and take up God’s call to be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ from our front door to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20).

The Bible verse that formed William Carey’s life was Isaiah 54:5 – “The Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.” Just as soon as Jesus Christ had become his Redeemer, William Carey began to be burdened by the fact that He was the Redeemer of the whole world as well, but that there were parts of the world that didn’t know this, there were people on earth who had never heard this good news.

William Carey was a cobbler.  He made shoes.  With scraps of leftover leather he fashioned a map of the world that he put on the wall above his workbench.  He wrote the name of every country he knew on that map and any bit of information he knew about the people who lived in those countries. And then, as William Carey worked at his bench each day, he would study that map and pray for the people of each country that somehow the message of God’s great love for them in Jesus Christ would reach them.  And then one day, as William Carey was praying in front of his map, he realized that it was time for him to step into his map.

“Within a few years William Carey would leave his cobbling to become a pioneer Protestant missionary to India and open the floodgates of the modern missionary movement. Carey did more than study a map; he entered it.”

And Bob Black, an instructor at Southern Wesleyan University, writes –

“We need maps, too – maps of our neighborhoods, maps of our towns and cities, maps of our counties and states – maps hanging in our hearts if not on our walls. We need an awareness that [there are  people in this world who still don’t know that God loves them, and that Jesus Christ came to save them].  We need to glance up occasionally from our preoccupation with the immediate to catch a glimpse of our destiny in the eternal.  And somehow, in some way, we need to enter our maps just as William Carey entered his.”

The Magi in Matthew’s story of the birth of Israel’s Messiah are a reminder that it has always been God’s purpose to bless “all the families of the earth,” and a challenge for us to look around every time we get together and ask ourselves – “Who’s not here?” and – “What am I doing to invite them to the feast of God’s grace in Jesus Christ that we enjoy, and to welcome them in when they show up at our front door?” There are Magi wandering in the wilderness today, searching for the Redeemer/King we know.  Let’s be the light God uses to bring them home to His love.

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