What Easter Means to Me ~ “Where O Death is your Sting? Where O Death is your Victory?”

I grew up knowing both of my grandmothers.  We all lived in Los Angeles, and I got to be with them all the time.  In 1964 one of my grandmothers had a massive stroke, and I had my first experience with dying.  She spent her last few months in a nursing home, unconscious and unresponsive, and I visited her every few days the whole time that she was there as she steadily made her way towards death.  It was a lot for an 11-year-old kid to process.  This strong independent woman who had occupied such an enormous place in my universe was reduced to a helpless, shrinking, silent, shell of a person. I was confused and frightened by what I saw happening to her.  And then one day she was gone.  This woman who made fried chicken with rice crispy crust, who always had a cat, and who wasn’t particularly warm and fuzzy but fierce and firm in her love for me was gone. 

Theologian Paul Tillich called this a “boundary situation.”  He said that it’s when we stand at the outer edges of life that the ultimate questions, the truly “religious” questions, get posed – “Who am I?” “Why am I here?”  “Where am I going?”  I know that my grandmother’s decline and death triggered all sorts of big questions in me.  Someone once said, when his wife accidently died, that the universe doesn’t make any sense “if it forever excludes so fair a spirit.”  And while that’s a much more eloquent way of saying it, that’s exactly what I was thinking and feeling as my grandmother died.  I couldn’t fathom how this unique and vital human being could be here one minute and then gone forever the next.  Did anything matter if nothing lasted?

My grandmother was not a particularly religious woman, and so her funeral was conducted in the chapel of a cemetery, and our family’s minister presided.  We were Episcopalians, and so it was a Prayer Book Service.  Dr. Spicer-Smith didn’t know my grandmother, but he knew the liturgy, and so he lovingly read it to us as we followed along.  The power of liturgy is that it gives you words for your feelings. It builds bridges that the Holy Spirit can then use to bring hope and peace into our heads and hearts. And so, Fr. Spicer-Smith began –

“I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though be dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die. (John 11:25-26)

Maybe it was because my heart was broken wide open with grief and fear, but these verses from Scripture got through to me that day.  Like the braces that miners used to shore up the tunnels they dig so that they won’t collapse and crush them, so I felt the truths and promises of Scripture that our minister read to us at my grandmother’s funeral begin to stabilize my soul.  Psalm 46 begins –

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

And that’s exactly what I felt as our minister read the appointed Scriptures for the funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer.  They gave me a sure place to stand when my world was flying apart.  And more than just words, I would come to understand that these Bible verses are all tethered to the great fact of the Gospel that the Savior who died for us on Calvary’s cross is the living Lord who was raised for us in triumph over death on the third day.

In his book My Quest for Beauty, the Psychologist Rollo May wrote about his lifelong search for something that could help him make sense of human suffering and struggle, his own and others.  “Among the experiences he recounts, was a visit to Mount Athos, a peninsula of Greece, inhabited exclusively by monks. Rollo May was beginning to recover from a nervous breakdown when he visited Mount Athos. He happened to arrive just as the monks were celebrating Greek Orthodox Easter, a ceremony thick with symbolism, thick with beauty. Icons were everywhere, incense hung in the air, and at the height of that service, the priests gave everyone present, three Easter eggs, wonderfully decorated and wrapped in a veil, “Christos Anesti” the priests said as they gave each worshipper the Easter eggs, “Christ is risen.”  And each person there, including Rollo May, responded according to the custom, “He is risen, indeed.” Rollo May was not a believer, but he writes in his book, ‘I was seized then by a moment of spiritual reality. What would it mean for the world if He had truly risen?’” (Philip Yancey)

Well, I can tell you what it means for me that Christ had truly risen.  In addition to the pain and sorrow that I’ve known in my own life, as a pastor now for nearly 45 years, I’ve been asked to share the pain and sorrow of others as well, on an almost daily basis. I am asked to come and be with people on their very worst days, and then to accompany them through their life’s most difficult situations, and I simply couldn’t do this without Easter. 

I would have been paralyzed long ago by the breadth and depth of the human suffering that I’ve seen as a minister without the assurance that death and darkness don’t get the final word*.  And how I know they don’t is because Jesus Christ confronted their full fury on Calvary’s cross, appeared to have been defeated by them as His dead body lay in a borrowed tomb, and then triumphed over them on the third day when He was raised from the dead by the power of the Father. 

Easter matters to me because when I was a little boy sitting in a chapel looking at my grandmother’s coffin I was “seized by a moment of spiritual reality.”  Because Jesus Christ was raised, I found peace in that moment of painful loss, and I was given hopeful assurance about what was to come.   Because of Easter, I have had courage and strength for my life in this world, and I have the promise of final healing and wholeness in the life of the world to come. DBS +


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Missing the Day of Visitation

Between Christian College and the three seminaries I attended, I have been told a lot about the Bible through the years.  Some of it has been helpful.  Some of it has not.  One of the best things that I was ever told about the Bible was that everything that happens in it is supposed to be happening in my own life as well.  This means that it’s not enough for us to say that we believe in the crucifixion of Christ, our old self has got to be crucified with Him (Romans 6:5).  It’s not enough for us to say that we believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, we’ve got to be raised with Him “to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-11). There’s a physical Easter that happened in history, and there’s a spiritual Easter that happens in our hearts.

I always think about this on Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. This is the beginning of the Passion, the story of His saving death, and the crowds cried out “Hosanna,” which mean “save us,” as He passed by.  They wanted Him to take on Rome and liberate them from their social, political and economic bondage.  That’s what they thought salvation meant. That’s what they thought the Messiah was coming to do.  But even the way that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – not on the back of a stallion, a war horse, but on the back of a donkey instead, a lowly beast of burden, Jesus was signaling that His messianic work was not going to be what they expected. Jesus rode into Jerusalem to take on evil and to liberate us from death, darkness, and despair. 

In Luke 19:41-44, at the end of his account of the Triumphal entry, Luke tells us that as Jesus drew near to the city that He stopped and wept.  Today, halfway down the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley from the city of Jerusalem there is a little church, my favorite in the Holy Land, called “Dominus Flevit” –  which is Latin for “the Lord wept.”  Through a window behind its altar you can see the skyline of the ancient city of Jerusalem, and tradition says that this is where Jesus stopped and wept.  This happened twice according to the Gospel of Luke.  Back in Luke chapter 13, right after being told about a very real threat that had been made against His life, Luke tells us that Jesus held His ground, even while grieving His rejection –

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  (34)

Are there any words in the Gospel that are more poignant than these? The mystery of how Jesus came “to his own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:11) is something that the rest of the New Testament wrestles with, and anguishes over. “It is not God’s will that any should perish,” Peter wrote in his second letter, “but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  This is a general Biblical truth.  It’s true about everybody, everywhere, and always.  But it is a Biblical truth that is especially true for the Jews – our spiritual mothers and fathers – who are “the beloved of God” because of the covenant that He made with Abraham (Romans 11:28-32).  Just like the stories you hear of people who are rescued from a burning building who then inexplicably turn around and run right back in only to perish, so twice in the Gospel of Luke, in the shadow of Jerusalem, Jesus broke down and wept because the people He came to rescue refused to be rescued.  As Luke 19:44 explains, they did not recognize “the time of God’s visitation.”

This is a historical reference to be sure.  It’s about something that actually happened – the rejection of Jesus by His people, the Jews, in the days of His public ministry.  It’s part of the Gospel story as our Scripture lesson this morning makes clear.   But it’s also part of our story.  Remember – whatever we read about in the Bible happens to us, in us, too, and this means that “the day of visitation” was not just a moment in time long ago when Jesus rode into Jerusalem early on a Sunday morning.  The “day of visitation” is this Sunday morning, and every Sunday morning in church as well.

It’s our Quaker brothers and sisters who have the clearest handle on this idea.  I read Quaker theology with an Evangelical Quaker theologian for several years in Houston, and came to have great appreciation for a number of Quaker teachings.  One of them was  the “Day of Visitation.” For Quakers this is actually a doctrine, one of their core beliefs.

The basic idea of the Day of Visitation is that there is a period of time in everyone’s life when they are open to hearing the voice of the Divine and acting on it. If they are attentive and obedient to this Divine Seed, it will grow and flourish in them and they will be led into a greater and stronger faith. (Tabner)

This is the upside of the doctrine. It affirms grace, the initiative of God, the way that God comes after us when we wander off.  This is the point that Jesus made with His famous and much-loved parables in Luke 15 about the lost lamb, and the lost coin, and the lost sons.  God pursues us.  Like the “hound of heaven,” he comes after us with “unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy” (Thompson).  We like this idea.  We also like the way that the doctrine of “the day of visitation” affirms our free will as human beings.  “It makes it our responsibility how we respond to the promptings of God in our lives” (Tabner).  But the Quaker doctrine of “the day of visitation” has a downside as well.  It says that –

If people ignore the voice of the Divine, if they push it down and trample on the seed, eventually it will stop growing. At some point, if the Light is continually ignored or rebelled against, it will stop working within a person and they will have lost all possibility of recovering it again. 

Three times in the first chapter of Romans (1:24; 1:26; 1:28), Paul repeated the conclusion that there comes a moment in our lives when God gives us over to our choices. “My Spirit shall not strive forever with humanity” is what God said right before the story of Noah and the Ark begins in Genesis chapter 6.  We can harden our hearts by resisting God’s approaches to us. In the same way that friction – the constant rubbing of something across the surface of our skin – can create a callous, so the persistence of God’s grace in His pursuit of us can stiffen our resolve to reject Him.

A few weeks ago, I made a passing reference in a Communion Meditation to “the unforgivable sin,” and I had more comments about that at the back door of the church when the service was over than anything else I said that day.  I think that it’s the unforgivable sin that that downside of the Quaker doctrine of “the day of visitation” recognizes.  Philip Yancey says that he once had a friend who, after 15 years of marriage, told Philip that he had found someone younger and prettier than his wife, and that he was going to leave her for his new love, but before he did, as a Christian, he had just one question that he wanted Philip to answer for him – “Do you think God can forgive something as awful as I am about to do?”  And here’s what Philip told him –

Can God forgive you?  Of course… God uses murderers and adulterers.  For goodness’ sake, a couple of scoundrels named Peter and Paul led the New Testament church.  Forgiveness is our problem, not God’s.  What we have to go through to commit sin distances us from God – we change in the very act of rebellion – and there is no guarantee we will ever come back.

Philip told his friend, “you ask me about forgiveness now, but will you even want forgiveness later… after you’ve done this thing?”   The real question isn’t “Can God forgive me?” but rather, “Will I even want to be forgiven?”   This is the only unforgivable sin — not wanting to be forgiven, thinking that you don’t need to be forgiven, and this is what can happen when Christ keeps making His approach and we keep turning away.  Christ didn’t just weep outside of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Christ weeps when we miss the time of His visitation right now.

Whose paintings do you suppose have sold more prints than any other artist in history?  Da Vinci? Michelangelo? Rembrandt? Van Gogh? Monet?  Picasso? The answer, far and away, is Walter Sallman. Who? Walter Sallman!  You know him, even though you don’t know him.  Just one of his paintings – The Head of Christ – has been reproduced 500 million times.  A card-sized reproduction of The Head of Christ was given to every American serviceman during WW II.  It was also put into the hands of every patient in every religiously affiliated hospital bed in the country throughout the 1940’s and 50’s, and to this day people who got one of them back then will tell you, often with tears in their eyes, how it was this image of Christ that gave them courage and comfort in the most desperate hours of their lives. Walter Sallman never thought of his paintings as great art.  He never intended them to hang in museums.  He regarded his paintings to be sermons instead, testimonies of his own faith, and witnesses to the Gospel.  And this is especially true of his 1953 painting “Christ at (the) Heart’s Door.” 

There are earlier German and English versions of this image that truly classify as great art.  But Walter Sallman’s painting of Christ at the door of the heart knocking had no such aspirations.  All it wants to be is a witness to where Jesus Christ is right now, this morning, and a reminder of what it is that Jesus Christ is doing.

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3:20)

Physical Palm Sunday is about what happened 2,000 years ago in history when Jesus rode into Jerusalem to go to the cross, and He stopped to weep because “his own received Him not” (John 1:11). Spiritual Palm Sunday is about what’s happening in your heart, and in my heart right here and right now, and how it is well within our power to make Christ smile, or to make Christ cry.

This image (Walter Sallman’s “Christ at the Heart’s Door”) and the verse that it’s based on (Revelation 3:20), is clearly evangelistic.  Christ stands at the door of the heart of every person and knocks, waiting and wanting to come in. The most striking feature of this painting, it has often been pointed out, is that there is no handle to the door from the outside.  It can only be opened from the inside, and the church has capitalized on this idea.  In college I sometimes attended a church that ended every worship service with the preacher extending an evangelistic invitation and the whole congregation standing and singing –

The Savior is waiting to enter your heart, why don’t you let Him come in? There’s nothing in this world to keep you apart; what is your answer to Him? Time after time He has waited before, and now He is waiting again, to see if you are willing to open the door; Oh, how He wants to come in.

And I believe that. I believe that the Savior comes to each and every human heart and knocks, wanting to come in.  But I also know that when we open the door and let Him in, that Christ is not finished with us. This is not a one and done deal.  We don’t “discharge our total obligation to our souls by a single act of faith” (A.W. Tozer).

Look at little bit more closely and you’ll see that Revelation 3:20 is not a verse that’s addressed to non-Christians about becoming Christians. Instead it’s a verse that’s addressed to a church, the church in Laodicea to be specific.  It’s a word that’s addressed to Christians, to people just like us who already know Jesus Christ as their Savior.  It’s a picture of contented, complacent Christians – “lukewarm, neither hot not cold” (3:15) – and how Christ comes and knocks on the doors of their hearts, wanting to come in.

We leave Christ outside, standing at the door of our hearts as Christians, when we are eager to praise Him, but not to obey Him.  We leave Christ outside, standing at the door of our hearts as Christians, when we want Him to bless us, but we’re not prepared to serve Him.  We leave Christ outside, standing at the door of our hearts as Christians, when we want to see His power, but we aren’t interested in His purpose. We leave Christ outside, standing at the door of our hearts as Christians, when we want to feel His presence, but we don’t want Him convict us. We leave Christ outside, standing at the door of our hearts as Christians, when we’ll shout and sing “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” on Palm Sunday, and then slink away on Good Friday saying with Peter – “I do not know Him.”

Jesus stopped while on His way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to weep because people he loved were missing the day of His visitation.  This is a day of His visitation as well, and we are people He loves.  So, will Christ stop to weep this morning?  It depends.  It all depends.

Behold! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3:20)

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“He Lifted Up His Eyes”

On a cold January night back in 1996, I camped out with a group of homeless guys in a rail yard in Amarillo.  It was part of the Christian Campaign for the Homeless.  A dozen ministers from churches in and around Amarillo gathered outside the Tyler Street Service Center at dusk one evening to be paired up with some carefully screened “shepherds” from the homeless community, men who lived on the streets, to spend a night as they spent every night.

Some went to a nearby homeless shelter for a hot dinner and a cot.  Some made their way to the dark corners of downtown alleys with a sack lunch in hand, to get out of the wind and weather.  And I headed to a tramp camp with my shepherd, but not before “dumpster diving” for dinner at the Taco Bell and a stop at the restroom of the Toot’n Totum to “liberate” some toilet paper for later use. 

As we approached the rail yard my shepherd told me to watch out for the “Bulls,”  the railroad security guards who were known to rough up homeless guys and chase them off.  Crossing over tracks and around boxcars, we gradually made our way to a cluster of trees a hundred yards or so off the far side of the tracks where a dozen homeless guys lived.  Sitting on milk crates around a small fire, wrapped in dirty blankets, they welcomed me to their circle and introduced themselves.

For the next three hours we talked.  They told me about who they were and how they got there.  There was a college graduate among them, and a man who at one time had had his own business.  Several of them had families somewhere.  They told me stories of addiction and incarceration.   They told me stories told of loves lost, bad choices made, and opportunities squandered.  And the longer we talked the more it became obvious to me that they were just guys like all the guys I know, but guys who had fallen on hard times and tumbled into holes so deep and dark that they couldn’t climb out by themselves.

When I asked them to tell me about what was the hardest part of their lives on the streets, I expected to hear about always being dirty and never really feeling good, about the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter, or about the bad food and the hard ground.   But instead what they told me was that it was being “invisible” that bothered them the most. 

People just don’t see us, they told me. Nobody on the streets ever looks us in the eye, or smiles at us, or just says “hello.”  “It’s like we’re not here,” they told me, “it’s like we don’t even exist.”  My “shepherd” told me that he thought that he could collapse on a busy downtown street corner, and that people would step over him and walk around him, but that no one would stop to help him.  I was sure that he was wrong, but the next morning, on our way to a downtown church that had coffee and donuts for the street people, dirty and disheveled myself, I became aware of the fact that nobody in the cars driving past us, and nobody on the sidewalks walking beside us, looked at me.  There was no eye contact.  One night on the streets, and I had already disappeared, and I wonder if this is what happened to Lazarus in our Scripture lesson this morning.

There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. (16:19-21)

Colin Morris was a British Methodist missionary in Rhodesia in the 1960’s working with the churches there on a plan for union.  He was a church bureaucrat arguing with other church bureaucrats over the shape of a new church bureaucracy. He was busy doing what he thought was important work for God, and then one day, not 100 yards from the front door of his house, a man dropped dead on the street.  “The pathologist said that he’d died of hunger.  In his shrunken stomach were a few leaves and what appeared to be a ball of grass.  And nothing else” (17). 

When he died, Colin said that he was in the study of his house in the middle of an argument with another churchman about some detail in the reorganization of their ecclesiastical structures.  When viewed through “the pair of dead eyes” of the poor African man on the road in front of his house, Colin said that the work he was doing looked pretty silly. “The world is not perishing for lack of stronger, better organized Churches,” Colin wrote.  “It is perishing for lack of bread.” 

The man who dropped dead right outside of Colin’s house wasn’t “asking with bated breath – How will the Methodists vote on the church merger proposal?”  He was occupied instead with a much simpler question – “Where will my next meal come from?” (18)  And Colin said that it dawned on him that how the Methodists were going to vote on church merger would not have been of the slightest interest to Jesus, but the church performing simple acts of compassion in response to what Jesus had done for them would have been at the very center of His concern. 

“That little man with the shrunken belly died without knowing that Jesus cared for him, not in a sentimental, spiritualized way, but by the offer of a square meal.”  Colin said it was this realization that “stabbed his conscience awake” (51).  Later, Colin said that this was something that he should have known from reading his Bible, from reading the story of another “hungry man dying at a rich man’s door” (120). 

The rich man in the Parable that Jesus told in Luke 16 would have had to step over or around Lazarus every time he went in and out of his house.  Lazarus was “laid at his gate.”  Did the rich man not see him?  Had Lazarus become invisible?  Dom Helder Câmara, the late Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, said –

“I used to think, when I was a child, that Christ might have been exaggerating when He warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one’s eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts.” (Sider 39)

And we’ll be judged for that blindness and paralysis.  That much is clear from the Parable that Jesus told.

If we have the world’s goods, see someone in need, and close our hearts against them, then, the Apostle John asked –  “How does God’s love abide in you?” (I John 3:17).  We are responsible for the needs that we see.  Colin knew that he bore some responsibility for the man who died from hunger on the street in front of his house.  In the Parable that Jesus told in Luke 16,  God held the rich man responsible for Lazarus who lived and died at his front gate.  It’s called the law of proximity, and what it says is that our first response to the problem of hunger has got to be to feed the hungry person who is right outside your front door.  The law of proximity takes the big social problems of our day and makes them personal by connecting them with the names and faces of real people. It says that it’s the needs of the people whose faces we see and whose names we know that are our very first obligation.

Mark Hatfield talked about how, when he first got elected to the United States Senate from Oregon, got invited to lunch by one of his real political heroes, a fellow Senator who had been at the forefront of every national debate on civil rights for a decade. His public leadership in the cause of racial justice had been heroic, but in private he was dismissive of and demeaning to the wait staff in the Senate Dining Room, all of them persons of color.  The law of proximity says that our commitment to what’s good and right is better measured by how we treat the people who are around us every single day than it is by our public posturing and pronouncements.   

What this means is that it is not enough for us to say that we care about poverty.  We’ve got to actually take care of our poor neighbors.  What this means is that it is not enough to say that we care about the state of the American family.  We’ve got to actually nurture the life of the families that live next door and right around the corner from us.  What this means is that it’s not enough for us to say that we believe in the Great Commission to go into all the world to preach the Gospel.  We’ve got to actually talk about what Jesus means to us with the people whose lives touch ours each and every day.

One of the things that the Search Committee did this year was to get a copy of the Radius Report – a demographic study of the people who live within a mile radius of First Christian Church.  To love our neighbors, we’ve got to actually know who are neighbors are.  We’ve got to “see” them.  And what we discovered when we did is that there are close to 10,000 people living within a mile of the church, most of them under the age of 40, in fact nearly 1/5th of them under the age of 9, most of them, like 90%, are Hispanic, and many of them poor, or just one paycheck away from poverty.

In the course of His public ministry, the Gospels tell us that Jesus Christ looked up one day at the crowds of people who were coming to Him for healing, help, and hope, and He was “moved with compassion, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).  And then He said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, pray therefore that the Lord of the harvest will send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37).  And it’s no different today.  Jesus looks out the front door of First Christian Church of McAllen and He sees a mission field full of human hurts and hopes, and He wonders, do we see it?  He asks –  will we go out to work in it?

There are two unusual things about the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague.  This is the church that John Hus, one of the first people to call for the reformation of the Medieval Church nearly 100 years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, served as priest.  There is a water well next to the pulpit of this church, and people used it, even during worship services.  People came in and drew water from the well while the preacher was preaching, or while the choir was singing.  In and out, all service long. The other unusual thing about this church are the murals that are painted on its walls.  They feature babies.  Why did they do this?  Why did they dig a water well in the middle of their church and then paint pictures babies on its walls?

The way they tell the story, this church looked out its front door one day, and they saw the unique mission that God had for them.  It seems that the water supply in the church’s neighborhood had become polluted because Prague’s prostitutes used its wells to dispose of their unwanted babies.  They would drop them in and let them drown. Horrified by this practice, and concerned about the community’s need for a source of clean, pure water, the church dug a well in their sanctuary where it could be watched, and then, to bear witness to the love of their Lord who said “let the little children come to me,” they painted pictures of babies on the church’s walls for people to see what they valued as a community of faith when they came to get their water from that well.

John Hus and his congregation in Prague heard Jesus Christ say, “love your neighbors,” and “preach the Gospel,” and then they paid attention to who their neighbors actually were, and they tried to address what it was that they really needed.  They looked into the faces of the people outside their front door, they listened to their cries, and then they responded to their deepest hurts and highest hopes with the love of God that they themselves had already received in Jesus Christ.  And it’s going to be the churches that continue to do this that are going to be the churches that God uses to do His work. 

God needs churches that have figured out what their wells are, churches that aren’t so busy with their own survival concerns that they can’t see the people who are starving, both physically and spiritually, right outside their front doors. We don’t have to cross an ocean to participate in God’s mission.  We only have to open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands.

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Inclusive of the Exclusive

I just learned about a couple who had been visiting who won’t be coming back to church because they discovered that we welcome gay and lesbian Christians and encourage them to be actively involved in our life and ministry. The person who stopped by with this news wanted to know what she should have said to them when they told her that they were through with us? 

Earlier in my interim ministry here in McAllen I was told about another couple who stopped coming after a few visits because they discovered that we have members who remain uncertain about the spiritual propriety of being open to the presence and gifts of gay and lesbian Christians in our life and ministry as a church.  And the person who gave me that news wanted to know what he should have said to them when they told him that they were through with us?

In both cases, I told the people who wanted to know what to say to people who were quitting us to always talk about the Lord’s Table when trying to tell people why we are the way we are, and why we do what we do as a church.  An open Lord’s Table is our most defining characteristic as a church.  Everyone is invited to, and will be welcomed at that Table, because we are all loved equally by God in Jesus Christ, a love that was demonstrated to us, and proven for us by Calvary.   Somebody who isn’t comfortable with gay folk and their allies in church isn’t going to be comfortable in a church like this.  But neither is someone who is impatient with, and intolerant of the straight folk in a church who are still in the process of coming to terms with the Gospel’s “whosoever.”  A church that, on Gospel principle, refuses to exclude anyone from the Lord’s Table is going to be a church that upsets anyone who doesn’t want anything to do with people who think differently than they do.  A church that chooses to be open to and affirming of all, because God’s love in Jesus Christ is inclusive of all, is not going to be a very good fit for people who refuse to be in a community of patient grace where everyone is expected to grow and change together.

A principled commitment to Gospel inclusiveness gets most painfully tested and tried by those who refuse to be included.  Even though they “quit” us, we can’t “quit” them.  Jesus won’t let us. DBS+

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“And their deeds follow them…”

Margaret Hubl died in July of 2016 in Nebraska. She was 89 years old. Margaret had three children, and then when her sister-in-law died, Margaret took in her two children and raised them as her own.  A farmer’s wife, there wasn’t much to spare, and so Margaret had to make-do.  To this end, Margaret learned how to sew and for years she made all of her family’s clothes.  She was skilled with a needle and thread.

When her children were all grown and gone, Margaret started making quilts to give to her grandchildren when they graduated from high school. She wanted to wrap them up in her love and always keep them warm.  Then there were great-grandchildren, and then the great-great-grandchildren.  Margaret made quilts for everyone in her family until the day she died.  And then at her funeral, everybody in the family brought their quilt to the service to drape over the backs of the pews in church.  Every pew was covered.  It was an incredible witness to Margaret’s life of loving serving and taking care of her family.

When I read this story and saw that picture of the funeral, I immediately thought about the story of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead in Acts chapter 9.  Luke told us that the widows of Joppa all showed Peter the clothes that she had made for them when he got there for her funeral.  Just like Margaret’s quilts, these garments were a witness to Tabitha’s love for and care of them.

Luke wrote Acts as a continuation of the story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ that the Gospels tell.  What Jesus “began to do and teach” in the 33 years of His earthly life in Galilee and Judea (Acts 1:1), Luke wanted us to know that Jesus continued to do in His other body, the Church, after His Resurrection, Ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. This is why Luke tells us stories about miracles that the early church performed that are duplicates of miracles that Jesus performed in the days of His public ministry. 

The story of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead in Acts chapter 9 parallels Jesus raising “Talitha” – the daughter of a ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum named Jairus – from the dead in Mark chapter 5.  The ministry of Jesus continues in the church through the indwelling and empowering presence of the Spirit of Christ.  We are introduced to Tabitha in Acts chapter 9 as a “disciple” who lives in Joppa.  Joppa is seaport on the Mediterranean seacoast just a little bit north and west of Jerusalem, about 34 miles away.  Today  it’s part of the modern city of Tel Aviv.  Tabitha was a member of the church there, a “disciple.”

I’m reading a book right now by a Seventh Day Adventist theologian who says that the most important thing we can do when it comes to reading the Bible is to remember that it was written to people who lived in a very different world from the one that we live in now. He says that before we can know what a Scripture is saying to us, we’ve first got to know what a Scripture said to them.  He says that we miss so much by failing to read Scriptures “backwards”  like this.  For instance, that reference to Tabitha as a “disciple,” we blow right past it, but the original audience of the book of Acts wouldn’t have!  

A woman “disciple”?   What sounds so familiar to our ears would have struck a first century Jewish reader of this text like a 2×4 up the side of the head.  Remember, Jewish men thanked God every morning that they hadn’t been born a woman!  Women weren’t “disciples.” They weren’t students of the things of God.  Their fathers were.  Their brothers were.  Their husbands were.  Their sons were. They weren’t.  But Tabitha was!  In fact, Tabitha is the very first woman in the Bible “specifically referred to as a ‘disciple.’”

Peter in his sermon to the household of Cornelius described Jesus as the One “who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38), and Tabitha, as one of His disciples, followed His example by walking in His steps. 

“Christianity is something much larger than merely giving one’s mental assent to a certain set of doctrines.  To be Christ’s is to be controlled with His presence, to be living His life and always engaged in His service. ” (Field)

Tabitha was also known as “Dorcas.”  “Tabitha” is Aramaic. “Dorcas” is Greek.  They both mean “gazelle.”  This might very well have been a nickname given to her by the church in Joppa because of the swift and graceful way that she took up her good works and charitable deeds. The name appears in both Aramaic and Greek in our text this morning because her love and care transcended the Hellenist and Hebrew divide (Acts 6:1-7) that gnawed at the unity of the early church.  She is one of the most Christ-like characters that we are told about in the New Testament, and when she died, the church in Joppa made an unusual decision.  They delayed burying her until Peter could come.

Now, you just didn’t leave dead bodies lying around in ancient Israel.  Because of the climate and hygienic concerns (spoken of as “cleanliness” and “uncleanliness” among the Jews), when somebody died, their bodies were washed, wrapped with spices in linen strips, and immediately put in a tomb, the same day they died.  But not Tabitha.  She died.  Her body was washed and prepared for burial.  And then she was put in an “upper room.”  This was both irregular and suggestive.  Big things happen in upper rooms in the New Testament – the last supper, the first appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Did the Christians in Joppa put  Tabitha in an Upper Room after she died rather than in a tomb and then send for Peter because they anticipated that God was going to do something big?

Peter was already in the neighborhood.   He had just healed a paralytic over in Lydda, a town 11 miles southeast of Joppa in the coastal hills,  and a revival had broken out in that region after Aeneas had gotten up and walked after 8 years of paralysis.  People “turned to the Lord” (9:35), so when Tabitha died, the church in Joppa immediately sent some men over to beg him to come to them too.  And when Peter got there, they ushered him into the upper room where Tabitha was laid out, and “the widows” were all there waiting to show him the clothes that Tabitha had made for them when she had been with them.

Widows were an order of ministry in the New Testament church.  Churches had elders, and they had deacons, and they had widows.  We read about these widows in Acts chapter 6, and then again in I Timothy 5 where we are told that the widows had a ministry of prayer and good works.  Paul described them as those who “washed the feet of the saints” (5:10) which is a clear allusion to Jesus’ call to servanthood in the upper room on Maundy Thursday (John 13).   We were introduced to Tabitha at the beginning of our Scripture lesson this morning as a woman “full of good works and acts of charity” (9:36), and when Peter got to her, she was surrounded by “all the widows” of the church in Joppa who were bearing witness to her ministry of generosity and goodness (9:39).  The church had not just lost a nice lady when Tabitha died, they had lost one of their crucial spiritual leaders, and so, they were looking for a miracle when Peter came, and they got it.   Luke tells us that Peter got down on his knees in the upper room and prayed, and then he told Tabitha to get up, and she did. 

Now, we don’t know what became of Tabitha after this.  This is the only place she’s ever mentioned in the Bible, and Christian tradition is pretty quiet about her as well.  St. Basil of Caesarea (329 – 379) is the exception.  Basil was one of the more important theologians in early Christianity.  If you believe  that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man it’s because Basil did some of the heavy theological lifting to bring the church around to this understanding of the Biblical material. In addition to understanding Christ correctly, St. Basil was insistent that genuine disciples of Christ serve the poor, and he lifted up Tabitha as an example of the kind of “zeal and solicitude” that we all should display in our care of the needy because of our devotion to Christ.  And then there’s the “sewing circles.” 

Based on her story in Acts chapter 9, for hundreds of years church women have gotten together to sew clothes for the poor and needy.  Originally, they were known as “Dorcas Societies”  – remember that “Dorcas” is just the Greek form of the Aramaic name “Tabitha.”  Her example in Scripture has inspired generations of Christians since the first century to serve the poor with their sewing skills. George MacDonald (1824 – 1905) – the great influence on C.S. Lewis – wrote a poem he called “Dorcas” that explained the ministry.  After imagining that she saw Christ, and the woven seamless coat He wore, in his poem George MacDonald had Dorcas wish that she could make some clothes for Him too.

“…She saw the woven seamless coat –  Half envious, for his sake:
‘Oh, happy hands,’ she said, ‘that wrought the honoured thing to make!’

Her eyes with longing tears grow dim: She never can come nigh
To work one service poor for him for whom she glad would die!

But, hark, he speaks! Oh, precious word! And she has heard indeed!
‘When did we see thee naked, Lord, And clothed thee in thy need?’

‘The King shall answer, Inasmuch As to my brethren ye
Did it – even to the least of such – Ye did it unto me.'”

After Tabitha was raised from the dead, Luke tells us that Peter called the saints and widows together and he “presented her alive” (9:41), and her continuing presence in Joppa led many to believe (9:42).  Certainly, this was because she was a living demonstration of the power of God everywhere she went.   But no less so because, no doubt, wherever she went, Tabitha continued her life of good works and acts of charity that are the embodiment of Christian love.  Like a Gazelle she was swift – swift to sacrifice, and swift to serve.  Tabitha is the perfect embodiment of I John 3:17 –

“If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need,                              yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

In his study of the role that the works of mercy played in the growth of early Christianity, Adolf von Harnack, the great German Church Historian, concluded that when the first Christians “breathed in the blessed Gospel” of Jesus Christ, that they, in turn, “breathed out mercy and love towards their neighbors.” And this “mercy and love towards their neighbors” that they “breathed out” was not just some abstract, nebulous ideal, he said, but rather, it was specific and concrete help delivered to people at the point of real needs in their lives.  In the first 300 years of the church’s life, Christians taught that the giving of alms was a means of grace to be used in the support of teachers and teaching, widows and orphans, the sick, infirm, and disabled, prisoners, the dying and the grieving, slaves, victims of natural calamities and epidemics, the unemployed and destitute, migrants and refugees. The first Christians loved “not just in words or speech, but with actions and in truth” (I John 3:18).   When they saw a need they didn’t just form a committee to discuss it, they rolled up their sleeves to actually do something about it.

Christian love is something that they can be seen.  Christian love is something that can be touched.  It’s Margaret Hubl’s quilts on the back of the pews in the church where her funeral was held.   It was the garments Dorcas made that the widows of Joppa showed Peter when he got to the upper room where her body lay ready for burial.  Christian love is something that shows.  So, what will we have to show when our days are through? 

Revelation 14:13 tells us that “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord… for they rest from their labors; and their (good) works follow them.”  Ray Boltz, the Gospel singer, wrote a song he called “Thank You.” In it he imagined getting to heaven and being stopped on the streets of gold by a succession of people – a kid he taught in Sunday school;  a person who got saved by the work of a missionary he supported – One by one they came,
as far as the eye could see, each one somehow touched by your generosity.
Little things that you had done, sacrifices made, unnoticed on the earth, heaven now proclaims.”
  And the refrain of the song says –

“Thank you for giving to the Lord. I am a life that was changed.
Thank you for giving to the Lord. I am so glad you gave.”

In heaven, who is going to thank you for what?  What are the garments you made that will be shown?  What will be the evidence of your faith, hope, and love that will abide?  What are the good works that are going to follow you?  To hear, “Well done, Thou good and faithful servant” then, there’s got to actually be some goodness and faithfulness now.

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The Stink and the Storm

Twelve years ago there was a special exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth called “Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art.” What surprised me about it was how few distinctively “Christian” images there were in the examples of the earliest Christian art that were on display.   There were no crosses or crucifixes, no images of Jesus at all.  Instead there were lots of pictures of Old Testament stories that had been taken by the first Christians as types of Jesus Christ and His saving work.  One that was featured prominently in the collection that was on display was Noah and the Ark.

Noah’s Ark has been a symbol of the church from the very first days of Christianity, and as a place of rescue and safety, Noah’s Ark is a useful way to think about what the church is and what the church does.  But as a symbol of the church, Noah’s Ark can be taken in another way too.  Here’s how Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it – “The stench inside (the Ark) would have been unbearable if it hadn’t been for the storm outside (the Ark).”  The stink inside, the storm outside, we ignore this truth at our spiritual peril. 

In every church I’ve served we’ve had to have the conversation about how to invite and welcome new people into our life and faith.  I often ask church members and leaders why someone who isn’t there would want to come and be a part of our church, and the answer I get is almost always the same – “They should be here because we’re such nice people.”  And I’m sure that’s true… until it’s not.  If the reason why you’ve joined a church is because the people are just so nice, then when they aren’t nice – and nobody’s always nice – the reason why you will leave that church is because of the people too.   It’s that stink inside the Ark thing.

Robert Thornton Henderson, a retired Presbyterian minister in North Carolina, in his book Beating the Churchgoing Blahs says that he has been “hurt, abandoned, betrayed and discouraged” more by his church friends and acquaintances than he ever has been by non-Christians.  He explains, “I have had more thoughtless wounds inflicted by fellow church than I can ever imagine by an enemy.”   So, why did he stay, and more than that, why did he serve the church with his considerable skills his whole life long?  And the answer is in his understanding of church membership.

Robert Thornton Henderson says that there are three stages of church membership that we go though.  The first stage, he says, is the stage of “illusion.”  This is the “honeymoon” phase of a relationship with a new church when everybody is nice to you, and they sing all of your favorite hymns, and the sanctuary is always the right temperature, and the preacher never says anything that upsets you.  But sooner or later, and usually sooner than later, you pass into the second stage of church membership, the stage of “disillusion.” 

This is when people stop saying “hi” to you when you pass them in the hall, and the hymns that are being sung on Sundays are all strange and unfamiliar to you, and the sanctuary is always too hot or too cold, and the preacher has suddenly become an blithering idiot.   When you pass into this stage of church membership you’ve basically got four choices before you –

  • First, you can hibernate, you can become an inactive member and only show up on Christmas and Easter, or when you’ve got a “hatch, match, or dispatch”  occasion in your life. 
  • Second, you can go church shopping, continuing your search for the perfect church. Just remember what Charles Spurgeon said – “The day we find the perfect church, it becomes imperfect the moment we join it.” 
  • Third, you can become a church alumnus, what they’re calling the “dones” these days, people who used to do church, but don’t anymore. They’re “done.”
  • Or, fourth, you can experience what Robert Thornton Henderson called “a conversion to reality.”  This is when you finally come to terms with the fact that the church, every church, this church is a community of sinners “in process and under grace.”  And what this means is that the only good reason for anyone to come to a church and stay is because it’s where they personally and powerfully experience forgiveness.  It’s where they are forgiven and become forgiving.

In the Upper Room on the night before He died on Calvary’s Cross, Jesus took the cup, and after giving thanks, He gave it to His disciples saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28).  And then, three days later, Jesus Christ, now risen from the dead, was back in the Upper Room with those same disciples telling them, “As the Father sent Me, so now I send you” (John 20:21).  And then, empowering them with His indwelling presence through the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ gave His people, the church, the ministry of forgiveness. 

I believe that we have the power to release or to retain people in their sins on the basis of what we do with the message of the Gospel.  As Jerry Cook, for many years the Pastor of a church in Portland, Oregon, puts it –

The minimal guarantee we must make to people is that we will love them – always, under every circumstance, with no exceptions. The second guarantee is that we will accept them totally, without reservation. The third thing we must guarantee people is that no matter how miserably they fail or how blatantly they sin, our unreserved forgiveness is theirs for the asking with no bitter taste left in anybody’s mouth. If people are not guaranteed these three things, they will never allow us the marvelous privilege of bringing wholeness to them through the (power of the Gospel, lived out specifically and concretely in the) fellowship of the church.

I grew up in a church that used the lectionary.  This means that I heard a lot of Scripture read out loud to me in my formative years, and Matthew 18:21-25 – the “law of forgiveness” – was one that left an indelible mark on me.  It’s such a vivid text, from the curious mathematical computation at its beginning – that “7×70” thing – through the dramatic reversal in the story that it tells, to its stark warning at the end – “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (18:35) – this is one of those Biblical texts that literally moved into my soul when I was a kid, and that has refused to budge ever since.  It has shaped me as a Christian and my understanding of the church.

Why would someone who isn’t there want to come and be part of a church, and the Gospel answer is “forgiveness.”  Jesus intended the church to be a place of “frequent forgiveness.”  That’s what the “70×7” means.  It doesn’t mean that we keep a careful tally on the mercy that we extend to someone with the lifetime limit being 490 times.  Both 7 and 10 are perfect numbers in Biblical estimation.  Put them together, as Jesus did in Matthew 18:22, and what we’re being told is that forgiveness is an unlimited resource, an already “decided” issue for us as Christians, a “front-loaded commitment” (Kraybill).  This doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work at it, or that that it’s going to be easy.  It just means that it’s already settled.  We’re going to forgive no matter how hard it is, or how long it takes.

When a gunman broke into the Amish school in Nickle Mines, Pennsylvania, back in 2006, killing five little girls before taking his own life, and the Amish community showed up at the gunman’s home that very same day to comfort and take care of his wife and family, they didn’t have to have a meeting at the church to discuss it before going.  Spontaneously showing up at the gunman’s home with flowers, food, hugs and tears was their automatic response because of the culture of forgiveness that they had consciously cultivated as a community of faith. 

Their Lord and Savior prayed from the cross about those who had just nailed Him to it – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”  – and the Amish understand that this makes forgiveness the spiritual commodity that they have to deal with and in as a church.  But He’s our Lord and Savior too, and that means that this kind of forgiveness isn’t just an Amish thing – although they do it particularly well.  It’s a Christian thing, and it just may be the most vital point of contact that we can have as a church with the people who aren’t here yet.

People who work with the dying say that there are five things that people need to say and hear before they go – “Thank you, I love you, I’m sorry, please forgive me, and goodbye.”  These five words touch our deepest needs as human beings, and two of the five – “I’m sorry” and “please forgive me” – are about forgiveness.  They’re about being forgiven and becoming forgiving, and this is what the church exists to help people do. 

“Forgive me, Lord,” Louis Evely used to pray, “and then I’ll know how to forgive like that.”  And this is what the Lord’s Table does for us each week.  We come to this Table to experience anew the forgiveness that God provides for us through the saving death of Jesus Christ, and then we are sent from this Table to extend the forgiveness that we have experienced here in Jesus Christ to others. It’s the churches that catch the rhythm of this – being forgiven and becoming forgiving – that will be the churches to which people are drawn because forgiveness is “humanity’s profoundest need.” 

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“Speak, Lord, your Servants are Listening”

A Spiritual Check-Up                                                                                            “How’s Your Hearing?”

“Every Christian should be able to answer two questions,” says Gordon Smith, a Seminary President and Professor of Theology up in Calgary, Alberta.  First, he says, we should all be able to answer the question – “What is God saying to you right now, at this point in your life, in the context of the different challenges and opportunities that you are facing?”  And second, he says, but just as important, we should all be able to answer the question – “How do you know that it’s God who’s saying it rather than something or someone else?”   These are the two questions that the boy Samuel had to sort through in the story that’s told in I Samuel 3:1-11). 

I can’t tell you the number of times, through the years, in sermons and Bible Studies, that I have taken people to this story in I Samuel 3 and encouraged them to say the words that Eli told the boy Samuel to say to that mysterious voice that spoke to him in the night – “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”   And only once has anyone ever come up to me afterwards and asked, “So, just exactly how is this supposed to work?  How God going to speak to us?  Like Samuel in the story, should I be listening for an audible voice?”  It’s exactly the right question.

The late Urban Holmes used to tell a story about a minister he said he knew who was always telling people in his church to listen for God’s voice.  And then, one Sunday morning when a woman from his church came up to him after worship to tell him that she had actually heard from God, he gave her the name of a good psychiatrist!  Is it crazy to think that God is going to speak to us?  I know that the most hurtful things that I’ve seen happen in the church have occurred because people claiming to have heard directly from God about something have made demands that they thought should go unchallenged because of their sense of private inspiration.  “The assertion, ‘The Lord told me’ is regularly employed as a sanctified shield for all sorts of [nonsense]” (Buetell).

The biggest fight I ever had in any church I served in my more than 40 years of ministry was with an elder who told me one Sunday morning during a Bible Study, with his wife sitting right at his side, that if the Lord told him to commit adultery that he would have to go out and commit adultery!  I laughed, until I realized he wasn’t joking.  Quickly I told him that God would never tell him to commit adultery, and when he demanded to know how I could possibly know that, I simply opened my Bible to the book of Exodus and showed him the seventh commandment – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).  He was unimpressed.  He had greater confidence in his own private sense of the Lord’s leading, than he did in a clear Word from God that has been preserved for us in the Bible, and that’s the problem when it comes to hearing from God.

Christianity is premised on the big idea that the God who is there is not silent.  The God of the Bible is a speaking God, in fact, it’s one of God’s primary characteristics.   And so, the plot of most of the stories that the Bible tells is exactly the same.  Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Esther, Mary, Peter and Paul, it’s always the same story – God speaks to someone in such a way that he or she can understand what it is that God wants, and then they respond to what God told them appropriately, or not.  And it’s no different for us. 

“God is still speaking” – that’s the slogan of our sister denomination, the United Church of Christ.  “I am verily persuaded,” wrote John Robinson, the Pilgrim Pastor on the Mayflower, that “the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.”  Because God is God, God is free to address us in any way that God sees fit.   God can, and sometimes does, use voices and visions, signs and wonders, trances and dreams – “mystic sweet communion”  – to speak to us.  But in my experience, and by my observation, these special spiritual experiences are far and few between. 

The much more common way to hear from God is by just opening up our Bibles and reading.  As John Robinson told the Pilgrims, ordinarily it is going to be “out of His Holy Word” that God is going to “break out… more truth.”   This is why Nancy Guthrie, a well-known Christian Conference Speaker, says, “When somebody begins a sentence with ‘God told me…’ I have to admit that a silent alarm goes off somewhere inside me – unless that phrase is followed quickly by a verse of Scripture.”  This is how it ordinarily works, and we have an example of it in Hebrews chapter 4.

Right before telling us that the Word of God is living and active, like a sharp two-edged sword that penetrates our hearts and exposes our deepest thoughts and desires, the author of Hebrews quoted Psalm 95. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,” the author of Hebrews explained, “Today when you hear God’s voice do not harden your hearts” – in chapter 3.  Now understand, these words from Psalm 95 were written a thousand years before the book of Hebrews was written, and yet the author of Hebrews introduced them with the statement – “as the Holy Spirit says.”   That’s a present tense “says”  and not a past tense “said.”  The author of Hebrews was describing the way that the Holy Spirit was using ancient words written to other people in another time and place to speak directly to the people of his own place and time, how the written Word becomes the living Word.

Another description of how this works is the familiar story of the two forlorn disciples on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday that we’re told in Luke 24.  When the Risen Christ showed up beside them, Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures… how it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and then enter into His glory” (24:26-27).  A Bible study!  Jesus led them in a Bible Study on Easter.  And when Jesus was finished, those two disciples turned to each other and said – “Did not our hearts burn within us as He opened the Scriptures to us?” (24:32). 

Their hearts were “strangely warmed” as the Scriptures were explained, and “it is the Spirit who makes the heart burn as the Word is heard,” explained Bernard Ramm, an important 20th century American theologian. “God speaks into the heart while the ear listens to the outward Word… upon the objective truth of revelation must fall the subjective light of the Holy Spirit’s illumination.”   He called this “double structure” – “the hearing ear and the burning heart” – the way that God speaks to us from the Bible.  As an “external minister” of the Word like me reads and explains a text of Scripture, Bernard Ramm said that the Holy Spirit, the “internal minister” of the Word, comes and “speaks to the heart.”

In I Corinthians 14:3, Paul used three words – “edification, exhortation, and consolation” – to describe how the Holy Spirit, as the internal minister of the Word, takes the things that the Bible tells us are eternally true and “speaks them (individually) to our hearts.”  “Edification means ‘to build up,’ exhortation means ‘to call near,’ and consolation means ‘to cheer up’” (Vallotton).

What’s in the Bible edifies me – “builds me up” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to an example to follow, or to a truth about God for which I can be thankful.  During an “Inspiration Week” at the first seminary I attended, one of my professors was asked about his devotional life, and he told us that his best times with God came late at night when, after everybody else in his family had gone to bed, he could sit quietly in his study reading theology “loving God with all his mind.”  Most of my fellow students in the class groaned, but I nodded my head in complete agreement.

I find that theology, the discipline of trying to think God’s thoughts after Him, more so than almost anything else I do, is what brings me to the heart of God.  A few years ago I kept coming across the idea of the “apatheia” of God in my readings.  I was immediately offended by the idea that God is apathetic – without feelings.  As I have said any number of times from this pulpit, I am powerfully drawn to the idea of “Emmanuel” – that “God is with us,” that God’s heart “is touch by our grief.”  So, when I started reading about how many theologians insist that apathy is an important characteristic of the God of the Bible,  I immediately went to my Bible to try to wrestle this idea to the ground.

It was a wild ride, and when it was over, I found myself on my knees actually thanking God for His apatheia.  I was grateful that God is not like a fickle middle school kid whose affections are constantly shifting because of their surging hormones.  As an evangelist friend of mine likes to say, “God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more than He already does, and there’s nothing we can do to that will make God love us any less.   God just loves us.  It’s already decided. It’s already settled.”  That’s what the theologians mean when they talk about the apatheia of God, and it’s a Biblical idea that the Holy Spirit has used to edify me, to build up my faith.

What’s in the Bible also exhorts me – “comes in close” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to a command that I need to obey, or points out a sin in my life that I need to confess and avoid.  Do you remember Dana Carvey’s “church lady” character on Saturday Night Live doing her “superiority dance”?  Well, she lives inside me, and when I feel her getting up to dance over somebody else’s mistaken idea or misguided action, the Holy Spirit routinely sits me down and shuts me up with Romans 14:4 –

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

When I start feeling theologically smug and superior to someone else, I find that the Holy Spirit consistently “comes in close” with a Scripture to adjust my attitude and to change what I’m about to do or say.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” says I Corinthians 8:1. The Holy Spirit uses what’s in the Bible to exhort us.

Finally, what’s in the Bible consoles me – “cheers my heart” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to a promise that I can claim, or to an idea that helps me make sense of what’s happening in my life, or in the lives of the people I know and love.  Just a year after she became a Christian, Pastor Ben Haden’s sister got sick and was undergoing medical tests to determine whether or not she had Multiple Sclerosis.  Ben said, “She phoned me, almost frantic, and asked, ‘Do you think it’s possible that I have MS?”  And Ben explained, “In most cases, I answer that kind of question, “Yes.” Then the person cries and says, “Do you really think so?” And I say, “Let’s assume you do. If you don’t, there’s no problem – but let’s face the possibility and take it from there.” 

But when his own sister called and asked him this question, Ben told her, “You know I love you, and you know I hope you don’t have MS.  But if you do, then nothing has changed because nothing has changed about Jesus Christ.”  How did Ben know this?  How could Ben say this?  Well, it was because long before that day of trouble arrived, the Holy Spirit had already taken the Biblical truth of Romans 8, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, not tribulation, not distress, not suffering, not pain, not even death (8:31-39), and personally and powerfully applied it’s truth to Ben’s heart so that he could then make its comfort available to others as their pastor and their friend in their hour of need.  The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to console us.

I’ve often thought that if we took out an ad in the paper, and bought air time to run commercials on TV, and put up some billboards around town announcing that God was going to speak at FCC on an upcoming Sunday morning, there wouldn’t be enough room in here for all the people who would show up wanting to hear from God.   But this, in fact, is what happens here every Sunday morning.  As an elderly Chinese woman told theologian J.I. Packer – “Reading my Bible is like having God talk to me.”  And, so it is. It’s when we open our Bibles and read that God speaks – building us up, coming in close, cheering our hearts, and changing us forever. So — “Speak Lord… your servants are listening.”

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