Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sermons are now on the Church of the Good Shepherd Website

Please go to the Church of the Good Shepherd Website to read further sermons. Hey, we're paying for that site! May as well move the new sermons there! I may eventually move the older sermons there, too, if I figure out how to backdate entries. Blessings, Fred+

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Work and Idleness

Delivered at Church of the Good Shepherd on March 13, 2011.

Genesis 3 is a fascinating chapter in the Bible, because there are so many things to find in it. Here's something new that I wondered about this week when I read through the Genesis passage. In Genesis 2:15 we read that God put Adam in the garden to cultivate it and keep it. He put Adam to WORK. Now, some of us think that work is something we have to do because life will just eat us up if we can't make ends meet—if we don't have security. We think of work as a punishment—something that we HAVE to do. Oh, I wish I were rich, so I could goof off all the time! I think of the song from Fiddler on the Roof: If I were a rich man, all day long I'd biddle biddle bum. A perfect life would be all leisure, right? Well, look at Adam and Eve in the garden. We've got images of them all frolicking all naked and goofing off, playing with all the animals. Children's picture books have strategically placed bushes and branches that hide the nudity, so that Adam and Eve look like hand puppets behind a screen. And the animals are behind the bushes, too, usually a giraffe and and elephant poking their heads out, being all entertaining.

In reality, it wasn't all frolicking. Adam was put to work, before the fall, not as a punishment, but because that is something God does. He works and he rests, and that is what people do, we work and we rest, because we are made in the image of God. Work is good. Cultivating the Garden was Adam's ministry.

Work is good because it focuses our minds. Sometimes it's easier to pray when working. I find that my most active prayer time is when I am doing the dishes each night. Also, work keeps us from being idle. When I say “idle,” I'm not talking about rest that is required. I'm not talking about the sabbath, the important rest. I'm talking about being idle, the time in our lives when we can get into the most trouble. The outer banks is a prime location for idleness. We have a flurry of work during the on season, and when then off season hits, we rest. Often we've made money to help us for the rest of the year. Everything shuts down for the off season, and we have lots and lots of idle time. That's when we can get into trouble.

What kind of trouble? Let's look at Genesis 3:6. Eve gives Adam the apple to eat—because he is standing right there! She doesn't have to go hunting for him. He is sitting there at her heel like a faithful dog. He didn't lift a finger to prevent her from breaking the one rule God had given them. And my new thought this week, reading the scriptures was, “Isn't he supposed to be working?” Adam is idle. And I don't think this is Adam's sabbath, because I think God would have been there if it had been Adam's sabbath. They would have rested together. No, this is goofing off time from work! This is playing on the Internet time—surfing the Web, cutting up. They're surfing the garden. Hey! What's under this rock over here? Oooh a snake! This happens to us. We get idle, temptation comes in, and we can't resist.

Now let's flash ahead to our Gospel reading: Matthew 4:1-11. Here we have Jesus' temptation, and this is not to say that this is the only time that Jesus was tempted in his ministry. Like us, he was tempted every day of his life, but this scene is important because it is the beginning of his ministry. He is about to get to work. This is really Satan's big opportunity. Jesus has not begun yet, and there is only a little window! Get in there and get tempting! Now, let's look at the temptation itself. The temptation of Jesus is the same as the temptation of Adam: a false ministry. Isn't it interesting that temptation hits us when we are idle, when we are away from work, and the temptation itself is work, or more specifically a false ministry. Adam's real ministry was cultivating the garden of Eden. The false ministry that the serpent offered to him was being like God. Adam accepted the offer, and we've been paying for it ever since. Jesus' work, the ministry that he was about to undertake, was being God! It was saving the world—through teaching and healing and then ultimately his own death on the cross and his resurrection at Easter: this was the most amazing work possible. The devil offered Jesus a false ministry of politics, worldly power and values, and miracles that would give himself the glory instead of the father.

Now, these temptations in this passage are good warnings for the church. They all look good to the church, and they look like they will help. We can feed the hungry, we can heal the sick, we can be influential in the world! Giving into these temptations may win a lot of people to the church, yes, but they are won in ways that Jesus rejected, worldly ways like using lying and trickery. Like when we we put on a good performance, or when we tell people what they want to hear instead of the truth, or when you pretend to reach out to someone but all you're trying to do is influence them to do what they want you to do. That's all politics is. We ally with the worldly powers to get what we want quick, and we can look at history to see what state-run churches look like. We must look at the false values like politics and hold them up to the true values like submission and suffering. The temptations that the devil presented to Jesus and what he rejected and what the church also must reject is this sort of false ministry.

If Jesus had accepted that offer, the devil actually would have been in charge of things forever. Sometimes it seems today like Satan is in charge, doesn't it? But the reality is, Jesus won the battle on that cross. He cleaned up the mess that Adam had allowed into the world. How Satan is no longer in power but seems like he is—that's another sermon, but we have faith that Jesus has done the work that the Father commissioned him to do, and it was successful, and he has undone the damage that Adam did.

Now, we may have heard before how Jesus is the second Adam, but exactly what is the connection between the two? Well, Jesus is regaining what Adam lost for all of mankind—a relationship with God. Adam lost this relationship through idleness, and Jesus regained it through work: his ministry, up through his crucifixion and resurrection, is geared toward putting us right with God.

George Muller is this great missionary who relied entirely on prayer to run an orphanage. I'm reading a biography of George Muller to Rose, and this week we had an Adam/Jesus story. George is in school. His job, his work, is to study and get good grades. He does this, but he also used to lead a life of drinking and gambling. He has put it all behind him, and he is now studying all the time. However, in this chapter of his story, all it takes is just one person to invite him out to a bar, and then it's all downhill. You've heard the phrase falling off the wagon? He somersaulted off that wagon, and he was losing money, and borrowing money, and getting in debt all over the place.

What it took was someone else inviting him to a bible meeting. He came to the meeting for fun, so that he could tell some funny stories to his drinking buddies, but when he went to the meeting, the gospel message hit home—right between the eyes. He didn't just get back onto the wagon, he got onto a brand new wagon with reinforced sides and Jesus Christ at the reigns. It took only one man to lead George Muller astray, but it also only took one man to bring him into a relationship with God.

It took one man, Adam, to bring sin into the world—into our world—because we are born into sin and with sin comes death. But it only takes one man, the God-man Jesus Christ, to defeat death and take our sins away. As our passage in Romans says, we share in Adam's sin. What do you think about when you hear that? You know what I think? I think, No Fair! We didn't do anything wrong! Why do we all have to share in the sin of one guy, just because he screwed up?

But when we hear the other side, that we also share in Christ's life, his defeat of death, do we ever hear anyone saying, No fair! Why not? We didn't do anything to deserve it, either. We always say “no fair” when we are told we share in Adam's sin, but we never say “no fair” when we are told we share in Christ's gift. There is a difference, though. Adam's sin is like a curse or a disease, extending to all mankind whether we like it or not. The result of this disease is death. Christ's everlasting life is a gift, extended to all, but it must be accepted, accepted by each individual like a gift. The result of this gift is life.

Adam's sin is like the trunk of an enormous tree with billions of branches. Think of Adam being the trunk and we are all those little twigs and branches, all attached to that family tree of sin. Now, your everyday lumberjack would say that to stop this spread of sin, you hit the trunk, but that would kill the whole tree. That would be like God giving up on us all. Think of a world-wide flood where not even Noah and his family were spared. God has that option, yes, he could wipe everything out tomorrow, because he created it, he can destroy it. But God decided from the beginning that destroying everything and starting over was never an option.

What God chooses to do instead is astonishing, and Paul's letter shows us the amazing universal range of the power of the Gospel. Jesus' death and resurrection does not hit the trunk of the family tree of sin, it hits every single one of those billions of branches. Jesus' ministry is so powerful that it touches every single individual who ever lived and who ever will live. It's not the easy fix of cutting down the whole tree, wiping out the whole Earth. No, Jesus' is the hard work of healing every scrape and scratch of the human condition on an individual basis. He cares as much about the sin you committed this morning as the world-shattering sins that change the face of history.

Jesus worked really hard on this gift that he wants to give everyone. He worked on it with his two hands, and he worked on it with his feet, too. Those are the places where the nails were driven. He worked on this gift with his life, with his death, and with his life again. The world is his garden, and he still cultivates it today, working for each person to grow in Him. You may remember that cultivating a garden was Adam's work. Adam dropped that work, and Jesus Christ picked it up again.

As the church, let's think about how we can help Christ in his work, and as individuals, let's think about how we can accept the gift Christ has given us.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Holiness as Otherness

Delivered at Church of the Good Shepherd on March 6, 2011.

A couple weeks ago, we talked about rethinking the words righteousness and holiness and how they are active words, actually quite dangerous to us, because we are neither righteous nor are we holy. If we were to interact with the Father directly, we would be incinerated. Jesus is the way we can interact with the Father in a personal way. I went on to talk about what meekness means, but this is Transfiguration Sunday, which forces me to back up and explore this holiness, which is referenced in today's readings.

Now, righteousness is only one aspect of what it means to be holy. The other, more primary meaning of holiness is “otherness.” When we say that God is Holy, we are not just saying that he is righteous, but we are saying that he is “other.” You know those forms where they give you three options and then a fourth option that says “other?” You then have a blank to write in what your “other” is. With God, we can't write anything in. We leave it blank. He is truly other. Have you heard the word Xenophobia? It means the fear of foreigners. God is so foreign to us, that we have this deep-seated fear in our very bones. When we read about people having the fear of God or that they were fearing the Lord, this is what this means. God is so “other” that we may have awe of God, but we also have this intense fear, because he is unknown.

The biggest fear is the fear of the unknown. We may have day-to-day fears, like fear of our children getting hurt, but the fears that really rattle our bones is that fear of the unknown. If you were in a room and someone told you there was a tiger in the next room, you'd be a little scared, but the tiger is contained in the next room. If someone told you that a GHOST was in the next room, you'd be seriously creeped out! Ghosts fall into that category of the unknown. It's unpredictable, it may be able to walk through walls and get us for all we know.

Cathi and I love ghost stories, not just because they are told in a creepy way but because what is happening is the storyteller is tapping into a virtually unknown realm—the supernatural realm. We go to the movies to be scared. Many people like to go see horror movies, but the scariest horror movies are the ones with that unknown element—that otherness—that tapping into the supernatural. You have your slasher flick, where there's a mad killer on the loose, but what makes those movies really scary is when there's a supernatural element. The killer won't die—he just keeps getting up and attacking again. The scariest of these horror movies are the ones about demonic possession or ghosts. These movies tap directly into a supernatural realm that exists and that we are already terrified of. This is the otherness in art.

In Exodus, we have Moses going up alone to the top of the mountain to talk with God. No one else is allowed to go. They aren't even allowed to touch the mountain. This is to protect the Israelites from God's holiness, which has settled on Mt. Sinai. A cloud is also there, to protect Israel's eyes, because looking at God is like looking at the sun. The people down below are terrified, because of God's otherness, and the scripture at this point describes God's holiness as a devouring fire, consuming everything. Think of those wildfires in California that cannot be put out. When will my house be next? It's frightening. In a way, fire is supernatural. First there's nothing, then there's fire! We can control it sometimes, but we can't control what is happening in California. Think about the tiger and ghost in the next room: if there were a fire in the next room...we have a terrifying danger. Fire is unpredictable, too. What's interesting is that God allows Moses to live. Moses and God the Father have a special relationship, but it says many times in Exodus that Moses was filled with fear.

There's another scene in the Old Testament that I find interesting. When Elijah wins the battle with the priests of Baal, Jezebel threatens his life, and he flees to Mount Horeb, which is Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. There on the mountain he has a conversation with God. It's a famous scene, because God passes by! Just like with Moses, the top of the mountain becomes a cacophony of fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. It's frightening stuff. Like Moses, Elijah is spared death from witnessing the Father's glory. In the midst of all this terror, God speaks to Elijah in a gentle whisper, as if to say, “my holiness may destroy you, but I love you, Elijah. I will let no harm come to you.” The supernatural realm may be the most frightening thing imaginable, but God himself is gentle.

I find it fascinating that both of these men climbed to the top of Mount Sinai at two different times to speak with God. What is even more fascinating is when I read our Matthew 17 passage—the Transfiguration of Christ. In this passage we stand with Peter as he witnesses this incredible, supernatural event, and we read, “Jesus' face shone like the sun.” That is probably not just a metaphor: Peter and James and John probably couldn't look directly at his holiness. If only there were a cloud there to help shield their eyes. Oh wait, the cloud comes in verse five.

Now, what is most amazing is that Jesus is not alone. He is speaking with Moses and Elijah. Being stuck in time myself, I always assumed that Jesus was communing with the two prophets after they had already lived their lives on earth. They were in heaven, and they came out of heaven, and stood on that mountain with Jesus, with Peter and James and John watching.

However, knowing God is not hindered by paltry things like TIME, there is a possibility that we're looking into a wormhole, a hole opening up in time and space, and perhaps Jesus is talking to Moses as he stands on Mount Sinai in Exodus 17 and to Elijah as he is standing on Mount Sinai in first Kings 19: three different events in human time, but one conversation in God's time. However, no matter how much Jesus Christ glows, no matter how much he shines like the sun, we can still interact with him, whether its Moses and Elijah in the midst of consuming fires on Mt. Sinai or Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. Like I said before, God has made a way for us to have a relationship with him.

In Hebrews 12 we read that Mount Sinai cannot be touched, but Mount Zion can be touched. Sinai was our relationship with God the Father without Jesus, and Zion is our relationship with God the Father through Jesus. Jesus is the way we can look upon God's glory without being blinded, without being incinerated. This is probably the reason that Moses and Elijah are not consumed into ashes, because they are encountering Christ on that mountain.

This is something people do not just make up, and Peter tells us this in his second letter. He actually uses his eyewitness testimony of the Transfiguration to prove that the gospel is not a cleverly devised myth. As C.S. Lewis has said in the study series we have been going through in our home groups, Christianity is just complicated enough to be true, because truth is stranger than fiction. Here's what C.S. Lewis writes: “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.”

In other words, it has time travel, holes in the space time continuum, and human bodies that are leagues beyond what we are used to. One of my favorite verses is John 21:4: Jesus stood on the beach, but the disciples did not know that it was him. He has a post-resurrection body. He is different, but he is the same. He can eat food, but he can also walk through walls, and at the end of the forty days, he ascends into heaven. He flies straight up like a rocket. It sounds incredible, but it is something we could not have guessed. It has that twist, as C.S. Lewis says.

Let's look at this strange transfiguration again. In Christ, two realities meet. One reality is the material world, creation, fallen in sin, disconnected from the creator, in need of redemption. This fallen world includes people and it includes chronological time. But in Christ there are two realities meeting. Our world intersects the world of the Father, which includes the supernatural realm, and redeemed creation—the new heaven and new earth. In Jesus Christ our world and the Father's world collide. That is what we are seeing in this transfiguration scene. We are seeing the Father's world spill into ours for a moment, and Jesus embodies both worlds—he is fully human and he is fully other—he is fully God. This scene in the gospels is here to show us the two worlds intersecting, and the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to these two realities, and when we finally see it, we can't UNSEE it.

We are going into Lent, a time of repentance and fasting. Over the weeks we have talked about not just giving up things, like we always learned Lent was about as children—I'm giving up chocolate! No, we have been talking about asking Jesus to replace an aspect of our human nature with his righteous nature, whether it's something sinful, like anger, lust, or pride, or something that we think we need in our lives—something that controls us—like a critical attitude or a worldly value. Lent isn't just about self-denial, it's about casting our human spirit onto Jesus and asking Jesus to give us his Holy Spirit.

God has given us this amazing gift in Jesus. We are able to commune with the Father through the Son, but the Spirit is what fills us and opens our eyes to this good news. Just as the disciples had their eyes opened on the Mount of Transfiguration, so they could see who Jesus really was, so we have the eyes of our hearts opened when we read scripture and see who God really is.

This Lenten season, spend time with the scriptures. Stay quiet, listen, read the Word of God. The Spirit will connect you with something you have not connected with before. We have our own Mount of Transfiguration in our hearts, and when the Spirit opens our eyes, we see Jesus for who he really is, the savior of the world. We see that all of time and space cannot stand against God's will. And we see that it is possible to live in God's holiness when we accept Christ as the way, the truth, and the life.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Clouds of Worry (Matthew 6)

Delivered at Church of the Good Shepherd on February 27, 2011.

A running theme over the last few weeks, mainly thanks to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, is how we can be fools for Christ. How the wisdom of the world just laughs at us—stupid little Christians, and yet we know God's wisdom may sound like foolishness to the intellectuals of our world, but it's so much higher than anyone can really understand, and we cling to God's wisdom, having faith that it is the best wisdom.

We've also talked about asking Jesus to replace an aspect of our sinful nature, like anger or lust, with one of his beatitudes, like meekness or purity of heart. This wisdom of the world thing—this being fools for Christ thing—is all about combating the ultimate deadly sin, the one that caused Satan to fall, the one that caused Adam and Eve to fall, and we see it throughout the Bible, messing things up, and we see it throughout history messing things up—pride. Pride is directly linked to us thinking we are better than we really are—in God's eyes—and with our neighbor. We think we are better than our neighbor. Thank God I'm not like THAT person, we say. We fill our heads with worldly knowledge, not to understand God more, but to lord it over our neighbor. Our thirst for education and academia is almost solely based on us feeling—and actually being—better than our neighbor.

Like I said, we touched on this a few sermons back, but when I read this in Psalm 131 I thought to myself, this subject will never be over. Here's what I read: “I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me.” That line in Psalm 131 just goes against everything we are taught from childhood, doesn't it? From birth we are told to seize the day—Carpe Diem—and take what we can and better ourselves so that we can succeed and the world will be our oyster, even if you don't like oysters, there it is! There's the brass ring! Go get it!

There's a famous quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that has always stuck with me, because I tried with all my might to believe it was true, it sounds so intellectual: Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas. It made sense on the surface, even from a Christian perspective: small minds discuss people—that makes sense! Gossip and talking about people behind their backs—that is such a small-minded thing to do. You're trying to tear others down, right? Events—yes! Much better! Talking about history and world news is very intellectual. It lets everyone know that you are up on what is happening and that you have an informed opinion on world events. You can look back at history and see where we've made the same mistakes before—so maybe you can help prevent them from happening again. Now, Ideas! Now we are talking the best topic of conversation! Here is where we get things done! Here is where we change the world for the better! Here is why we go to college to learn, and why we become reporters and politicians and filmmakers and novelists and philosophers—to make the world a better place!

When I think about making the world a better place, the first thing that pops into my head—for some reason—is the tower of Babel. I think that they were trying to make the world a better place too. Throughout history we have people coming up with ideas to change the world, and almost across the board they have made things worse—not better. Karl Marx had an idea to make the world a better place. He even targeted the sin of greed. His idea was to overthrow the rich rulers and let the poor working class run things. What better idea than that? What compassion! He worked out a scheme for building a perfect society where the working class ruled—because they've been oppressed so long, they know what its like, so they'll be fair! Look at all the great things that have happened from that! Look at all the dictatorships! Look at all the people killed! Look at North Korea, Cuba, Soviet Russia. How ironic that when the working class takes over a country, the first thing they do is to kill all the intellectuals—and it was their idea in the first place!

Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher, came up with the idea of the Superman, the next phase in human evolution. What a great idea—especially when we realized that we could help evolution along with eugenics. We could breed out the undesirables and the ethnic groups we didn't like, and when that wasn't fast enough, we would just slaughter them, either fully grown humans in places like Nazi Germany or when they are still in the womb like—everywhere else in the world! Wow, that idea hasn't gone away!

All of these ideas that we have, these manmade solutions to our problems, come out of one thing—worry. We are constantly worrying about our standard of living and the standard of living of our children and their children, and instead of praying, we come up with some brilliant solution of our own. You can see what the great thinkers of history have given us. What do these ideas do? They help make the world a better place, right? Nope. They cause us even more worry, because a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing: it doesn't cause us to be smarter or better, it actually causes us to worry! We end up with lots of violent protesting, and the media scares us every day with doom and gloom scenarios. And we just go nuts with worry, for our children, for our extended families. We give the intellectuals more power to come up with newer and better ideas that cause us even more worry!

It's not just political ideas! See this iphone? What a great idea! What a great invention! I don't have to worry anymore! I can get my emails anywhere I go, now. If I'm sitting on the beach, I can stay in touch with the world, and that causes me more worry. Now I'm not enjoying the sun and waves on the beach—instead I'm crazy worried about that email that just came in!

Here is where we get to the words of Jesus—the perfect antidote to worry. In our gospel reading, he begins with one of the biggest man-made ideas in history: wealth. Wealth was created to fix a problem: people worrying about everything. If I have money, I have security, I won't worry anymore! What is the actual result? More worry. Clouds of worry coming in, completely darkening the horizon of our futures, until we can't see anything else. Jesus tells us that as long as those clouds are there, blocking everything with darkness, we can't see God. It doesn't have to be money. It can be anything that we put in the place of God. I talked about fasting from those controlling things a few weeks ago. Jesus is saying the same thing here.

The antidote to pride is humility. The beatitude is “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are the poor in spirit—what does that mean? When we talk about spirit, we don't mean someone who is dejected or with low spirits, like aw, poor me! I just have no fight left! We're talking about the human spirit—gumption! You know, every other movie is about a “triumph of the human spirit!” It's a coming of age drama! It's when someone overcomes all odds to persevere and they are victorious! Rudy! They found the answer deep inside them, and they never gave up. They built their own tower of Babel and reached right up to the very heavens!

What is Jesus saying? Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those people who are not relying on the human spirit to succeed. Blessed are those who are not proud! Blessed are the humble. They are the ones who will possess the kingdom of heaven. And that is exactly what Jesus is unpacking in our gospel reading today. Do not worry about what you will eat, about what you will wear, do not worry about money—get those storm clouds off the horizon! Those things are in the way of what you should be seeking—the kingdom of God! Seek the kingdom of God and all of those things you are worrying about now will be taken care of. God knows you need those things, and just like all of his creatures, like the lilies and the birds, he is going to provide for you. Just remove the obstacle that is keeping him from working in your life.

Jesus is saying hand over to me those worries, those ideas that you have that make everything worse, that pride, and I will replace them with my humility, my poorness of spirit. Our collect today is right on the money—no pun intended—when it says “most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things.” Listen to that. God gives us all things, and we don't realize that, and so we are constantly worried about our lives and our futures. Instead we should be giving thanks for all things, for everything is given to us by God. “To fear nothing but the loss of you:” God is the one thing that we need—not money or hopeless ideas about saving ourselves. “And to cast all our care on you who care for us:” which is the whole point. We stop owning our anxieties and instead give them over to Christ. He gives us his poorness in spirit, so that we can finally get ourselves out of the way and seek the kingdom of God. “Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life—there are those clouds—may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” That statement needs no explanation at this point, does it?

Remember the Eleanor Roosevelt quote? “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people?” After what we've learned about humility, let's rethink that. Here's my new take: “Worried minds discuss ideas, Hopeful minds discuss events, Blessed minds discuss people, more specifically—a person: Jesus Christ, who died on the cross in order to crucify our pride, who rose again in order to give us eternal life in him, a life without worry, without anxiety, and without mankind looking perpetually inward at ourselves, but outward to him who lives and reigns forever.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Righteous Anger

Delivered on February 20, 2011 at Church of the Redeemer in Camden, NC and Church of the Good Shepherd in Nags Head, NC.

Last week I talked about the seven deadly sins and how Jesus did not possess them. Although he was flesh, he did not sin, because the seeds—the roots—of sin were not inside him. Jesus had no pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, sloth, or lust in his heart, so he was incapable of committing sins like adultery or murder. What we do is ask Jesus to replace those roots of sin in our hearts with his beautiful attitudes—his beatitudes—and he does.

Well, this week, I want to go a little bit deeper with anger, because you have to be blind to not read that God gets angry quite frequently in the Old Testament, and we can see that Jesus also gets angry, too. Mark 3:5 says, “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” Jesus also quite violently throws out the moneychangers from the temple. The movies have him howling with rage. Well, does God have the sin of anger in his heart or not? Well, the best way to answer this question is to look at what it means to be angry as a human being and compare that with what it means to be angry as God.

Anger, as seen in humans, is a character defect. In other words, it is part of original sin, like corrupted DNA that we are born with. It contradicts reason. It is in conflict with wisdom. And it is only appropriate when we judge something or someone righteously. When we wrote myths about Greek gods and goddesses, we gave them human anger, which is why they seem like jerks, making people sick, making them suffer, and creating random natural disasters, like petulant children. That's how we know the Greek gods are made up stories—because their anger resembles our anger, with rarely any righteous anger of proper judgment. The human kind of anger is anger with resentment.

Now let's look at our God—Yahweh. Even though words like jealous and angry are used to describe him, Yahweh's anger is always—ALWAYS—a righteous anger of proper judgment. Anger and jealousy are human words assigned to something we don't truly understand about God. The word “wrath” is a better word, but it has become corrupted to mean something that God may arbitrarily do to someone. I was just walking along, minding my own business, when suddenly a jealous, angry God unleashed his wrath on me!

The best words are righteousness and holiness, but we think of those two words as being passive. We picture Yahweh just sitting there, being all righteous and being all holy. He's not actively doing anything. He's maybe glowing really brightly, but we tend to think of him being alone in a room, maybe like a glowing man, thinking to himself, “I know I'm right.” Have you met a person like that? They know they're right all the time, and so they are always alone. They have no friends, because nobody wants to hang out with someone who is always right! Then you got the phrase “holier than thou” that we throw about. That's not a positive statement to say about someone! When you say someone is holier than thou, you are saying that they think they are always right and always acting like a goody-goody, and nobody wants to hang out with a goody-goody!

Our thinking needs to change about these words—righteousness and holiness. They are active words and they are very dangerous to us, because most of the time, we are not righteous nor are we holy! What happens when unholy people are caught in the same room with a holy God? Like an ant under a magnifying glass. We will burn up instantly. Ashes. And then the ashes will be burned up to nothing. God actively burns us to cinders. He incinerates us.

That's why the Hebrew word for Anger is much better than the Greek word for anger. The Hebrew word for anger is OFF, and it means literally to burn! It also makes me laugh, because I think of my four daughters crawling all over me until I cannot take it anymore and I shout, “OFF!” I picture a massive God with all these dirty little human beings crawling all over him, and he finally shouts OFF! And he literally burns them off of himself.

Here is what we think: God gave us all these rules to live by, and when we break them—which we always do, because, hey, we're human—he gets angry with us and punishes us. Here is the truth: God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us. The problem is, he's righteous! He's holy, and we're not! He loves us so much that he wants us to be in his presence, but he knows that he will burn us to cinders, if we are in his presence, so he gives us commandments to obey, so that we will be righteous, too, so that we will not burn up in his presence. The problem is, we are steeped in sin, and we cannot obey these commandments, and so we burn anyway. Read the Old Testament. God is burning up people left and right in that book. He burns up the unbelieving nations outside Israel, and he burns up Israel, too, because even though they have the law in their hands, they cannot obey it either.

Well, there's good news. God has given us a way to be in his presence without burning up. That way is Jesus Christ. We don't have to be righteous. We don't have to be holy, because Jesus takes on our sin—our unrighteous anger, our unholy anger, our resentful anger—and he give us his righteousness, his holiness. All we have to do is ask him to change our hearts.

I touched on what we ask for last week. When we have one of these root sins in our lives, we ask Jesus to take it away and replace it with one of his beatitudes. The antidote for anger is meekness. The beatitude is “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Meek? Really? Meek people are going to inherit the earth? Do any of us believe that? Not in this culture. Not in this age. Neitzche, the German philosopher whose teaching provided a philosophical base for Hitler’s ideas about world domination, said this statement is the most seductive lie in all history. He said, “The truth is, assert yourself. It’s the assertive who take over the earth.” To us, meek equals weak. Wimpy. But that is not what meek means. It means strength under control.

Meekness means self-control. It means keeping our tempers under control. It means controlled and balanced, getting angry at the right things and at the right time — getting angry at things like injustice, but not angry at frivolous things like personal insult. Meekness is anger without resentment. A meek man is angry on the right occasion with the right people at the right moment for the right length of time. That’s meekness.

Booker T. Washington, the great scientist who faced prejudice all of his life because of his race said, “I will never allow one man to control or ruin my life by making me hate him.” See, when you say, “You are making me so mad” — which I say all the time, and I know everyone in this room has, too — you are admitting the other is controlling your emotions. The other person has power over you. The moment you start retaliating, seeking revenge or trying to get back, you give up control of your life. You are no longer in control. You are reacting, not acting. Jesus says the meek person knows how to let it go.

Jesus describes a meek person in our Gospel reading today. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Now, knowing what Meekness is, we realize that Jesus isn't describing a pushover here! He is not describing a doormat! He is describing people who possess strength under control. These are the people who will “inherit the earth.” These are the people who are in control of the situation. The world is theirs. The person who has control of his emotions is not controlled by the world around him. If you are a meek person, you are not a victim. You control your choices.

Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz said, “They took my clothes, my wife, my children, my wedding ring. I stood naked before the SS. I realized that they can take everything in my life, but they cannot take away my freedom to choose how I will respond to them.” That’s the freedom you always have. So, how do we react? How do we choose to react when people are hurting us? Jesus is saying blessedness belongs to people with self-control. You are saying, “Well, I guess that leaves me out.” It doesn’t have to because we know someone who can give us that self-control. For the Christian, it’s not just self-control, but it’s allowing God’s spirit to be so in your life that he controls your reactions, that he helps you not to react.

God has given us, through his son Jesus Christ, through the word of God, direction as to what is right and what is wrong. Jesus is happy to take on our human, resentful anger and give us in return his meekness, his righteousness, his holiness. Ask him to make the switch. Better yet, nail your anger up on that cross today. In just a little bit we will be praying for healing. Some of you may want to come up here and ask God to heal the anger in your heart. Together, we can ask God to take the anger in your heart away and replace it with meekness.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Flesh v. Spirit (1 Corinthians 3 & Matthew 5)

Delivered at Church of the Good Shepherd on February 13, 2011.

Last week, we talked about fasting in order to remove that thing that is covering up our communication with God. Fasting from something that we think of as necessary to our lives allows God to do the work instead, and we end up having an intense spiritual experience. Well, this week, I want to ask, what is spirituality? Have you ever heard someone say, “I'm spiritual but not religious?” What does that mean? Even people who claim to not believe in God are into finding spirituality in their lives. I know an atheist who is a very prominent member of his church. He goes in order to be spiritual, even though he doesn't even believe in a spiritual realm.

We really are preoccupied with spirituality. There is a spiritual hunger out there, and most of it is misplaced. We have a lot of earth worship that ranges from extreme environmentalism to actual worship—Mother Earth, Gaia—to re-creations of the Wiccan and Druid religions. We've got a lot of alternative healing methods that offer up “union with the divine” in the process—stuff like Yoga, Crystals, and psychic energy centers called Chakras.

Oh, we can dabble, too. We don't have to become a full-blown Druid. For the dabbler we have Psychic readings, hypnotherapy, energy healing, and spiritual counseling so that we can find our true identity, our purpose as a spiritual being. There is a huge spiritual awakening out there, but this awakening says that all we have to do is slip off those chains of organized religion and we can achieve enlightenment. Perfect selfhood. Ah, here's where it's all pointing. All of this New Age stuff is all about one thing—finding out how You are God.

That's a little different from Christianity. Christianity does not help us find out how we are Gods, it helps us find out who the real, one, true God is—the creator of the universe who wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. But this search for the self as God is not new. This has been happening for a long time. We can read in the New Testament and among the church fathers about a “new age” version of Christianity called Gnosticism.

According to Gnosticism, all material is evil. Anything that physically exists—flesh, creation—is all bad, and the spirit is good. This sort of rules out the Christian God who created everything, doesn't it? How can an all good God create something that's evil? Also, is Jesus really God if he's flesh? The Gnostics didn't think so. Or maybe he just pretended to be flesh and was really spirit? Well, then a completely spiritual Jesus is unable to suffer and die on our behalf. The cross becomes meaningless.

In first Corinthians 3, Paul says that he can not address the Corinthians as spiritual people because they are still people of the flesh. This sounds like Paul is a Gnostic, right? It sounds like the Corinthians are still materialists and they need to break free and be spirit, so they can be like Gods! The problem is the word flesh. Everywhere Paul uses the word “flesh” in his letters, he does not mean man's physical nature only. He means both man's physical and spiritual nature. So, flesh means being human. He even says it in verses 3 and 4: when we are of the flesh we are behaving in a human way.

Well, then what does Paul mean when he talks about being spirit? If it's not the human spirit, then what is it? It's actually God's spirit. It is the way of God. Paul is telling the Corinthians that they are not walking according to God, because of the strife and jealousy, but are still walking according to man. Even though they are Christians, they are still walking in the way of mankind. Being human is being in a fallen state, so it means continuing to sin. That's why we see believers sinning all the time, and we say to ourselves hypocrites, but they can't help it. They are still human. They are not walking in God's way. They are still walking the human way.

Well, if even believers have difficulty walking in God's way, how can we possibly do it? Well, it's always good to turn to Jesus when we are in doubt, so let's do that now. Our Gospel reading is very important in this regard. First, we have to remember two things. One: Jesus was without sin, even though he was God in the flesh. His flesh did not cause him to sin, so we should not blame our flesh for causing us to sin. This leads us to point two: Creation is not bad. As we read in Genesis, God made things and saw that they were good. One of the first commands God gave us is to be fruitful and multiply. The flesh is not evil. His creation is not a source of evil. No, corruption has come to us first through the spirit, and our sins are symptoms of the evil in our hearts, our fallen nature.

Jesus shows us this in the Sermon on the Mount. We have a law against murder, he says, but anger is the source of murder. Anger is the problem. Even if you haven't physically murdered anyone, because you have anger in your heart you are a murderer, because anger causes murder. Jesus never held anger in his heart, so he was incapable of murder. There is a law against adultery, Jesus says, but adultery is not the problem, it is the symptom. The source of adultery is lust. Even if you have not committed adultery, because of the lust in your heart, you are an adulterer. Jesus never committed adultery, because he had no lust in his heart.

Do the sources of evil sound familiar? They are the seven deadly sins: anger, lust, envy, sloth, greed, gluttony, and pride—and pride is the first sin that brought all the others in. Pride is the one that convinces us that we are Gods. The serpent convinced Adam and Eve that they could eat the fruit and be like God. Remember the whole spirituality movement and finding perfect selfhood that I talked about in the beginning? That's a symptom of our pride.

How do we get rid of these roots causes of sin? Well, Jesus seems to say that we need to cut them out. If your eye causes you to sin, cut it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Is this possible? It may be easy for us to keep our anger from causing us to physically assault someone, but is it easy to keep our anger from happening at all? No. I guarantee that everyone in this room was angry at some time this past week. What about Lust? We can keep ourselves from committing adultery, but can we keep ourselves from looking twice at the waiter or waitress? Can we keep ourselves from having thoughts about the sexy movie star we just saw in that last movie? Pride is the worst one. That's one where everything can be a symptom. We can abhor the spirituality movement, and say we're only going to read scripture and pray, no more trips to the fortune teller! Next thing we know, we're getting all proud about reading scripture and praying. Look at how righteous I am! I am so much more righteous than anyone else. Pride is the sin we just cannot escape by ourselves.

We just cannot dig any of these roots out our gardens alone. It is impossible with man, but with God, nothing is impossible. If we ask, if we plead with Jesus, to remove these root causes of evil—those seven deadly sins—he not only will answer our prayers, but he will replace each one of those sins with virtues. Again and again, we should be going back to the beatitudes to see what these virtues look like. They look like this: to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger for righteousness, to be pure in heart.

So, when we say that murder is caused by anger, we can also say that God's antidote is being meek, which includes loving your enemies and forgiving others. When we say that adultery is caused by lust, we can also say that the antidote to lust is being pure in heart, which includes innocence, chastity, and true desire for God. Desire for God. We are turning our desire away from that movie star, and we're turning it toward God. And only Jesus can help us do that very difficult thing.

Let's take anger and look at an example: Corrie Ten Boom lived in a concentration camp during World War II. She watched her sister die there. After the war, one of the cruelest guards in the camp came up to her in public and asked her to forgive him. She couldn't do it. She had too much anger in her heart. She had to plead with Jesus to allow her to forgive him, to replace the anger with meekness. Listen to her own words:

“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’ And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’”

Pride, the root sin that caused not only the fall of man, entrance of all the other sins, and especially all that self-centered spirituality that is practiced today, is countered by humility, which is described by Jesus as being poor in spirit—the first beatitude. Jesus is such a model for humility. He knew no pride, and so he never gave into any of the seven deadly sins. Listen to a few of the things he said about himself, all from the Gospel of John:

“The Son can do nothing by himself. By myself I can do nothing, I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me. I do not accept praise from men. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will. My teaching is not my own. I am not here on my own. I do nothing on my own. I am not seeking glory for myself. The words I say to you are not just my own. These words you hear are not my own.” Sounds repetitive, but all of these statements are spread throughout the Gospel of John.

This is Christ's testimony. His life was in complete submission to the will of the Father. And that was the source of perfect peace and joy for him. So, let us look to the life of Christ, let us listen to his words, let us understand those beautiful attitudes, and find that we, too, will be living life by the spirit of God.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fasting (Isaiah 58:1-9)

Delivered at Church of the Good Shepherd on February 6, 2011.

Fasting. It's not Lent yet, but we should probably start thinking about “giving something up,” and the scriptures this week talk about fasting, and so I thought that we should talk about what it means to give things up. Everyone here has given up something at this day and this hour. Superbowl parties! You all are fasting from Superbowl parties right now. Of course, the game doesn't start until 6:30, so you may have a chance to catch most of it or all of it. We'll see who goes downstairs for Cathi's delicious brownies after the service.

Did you notice that I said fasting from something other than food? We're not children anymore: we know that fasting includes anything that is controlling you. Fasting is a voluntary denial of some aspect of your normal life for the sake of intense spiritual activity. Fasting reveals what controls us.

We cover up that part of our soul that communicates with God with worldly things. Food is a big one, which is why it is always associated with fasting. Have you ever heard someone say, “when I'm stressed, I eat?” Have you heard the phrase, “comfort food?” Food makes a lot of people feel relaxed and happy. Sigh. Where's my coffee? Where's my half-gallon of ice cream? Straight from the container in front of the TV. There's another normal aspect of life that people feel empty without—the television. Things we fast from aren't necessarily corrupting “bad” things—they are usually things that we think are “good,” which we need in our lives. Thing that make us feel whole, although when we actually examine the good thing, we find that it is really worthless.

God wants us to fast from the things that control our lives. He wants us to let that controlling thing go, so that we are free to move in a new direction with him. Catherine Marshall is the author of the famous Christian novel called Christy. In her prayers with God, she got the message that she needed to fast from criticalness. For one day, she needed to stop being critical. Well, I'm not critical, she thought. I have an opinion, of course. I have to make good judgments throughout the day, so that I can better live my life. If that involves judging someone for the mistakes they made in life, so that I won't make those same mistakes, how can that be bad? Gossip? Well, it's not gossip, if I only share with my family, right? It's not gossip if I keep it to myself, right?

Well, she agreed with God and she began her day without being critical of anyone. She met her brother and sister and mother for lunch, and as they talked politics and culture, she felt her critical opinions welling up, but she refrained from saying anything. Even though her family would probably agree with everything she said, she said nothing. The first thing she noticed, was that they didn't even realize she wasn't contributing! Her void was not even noticed—they just kept yammering on. The real moment of true realization was when she was immersed in her evening prayers. She prayed for this young man who had really messed up his life, and before that day she used to be very negative about him in her prayers. This reminds me of a relative that I pray for: God, he screwed up again. I can't believe he has messed up so badly. Could you forgive him and keep him from doing stupid things again. Change his heart, Lord.

Catherine stopped herself from that kind of prayer. That was critical prayer and she was on a fast. When she cleared the negative prayer from her mind, suddenly the positive prayer was unleashed. She focused on the young man's strengths. Her praying became quite creative, and she had an intense spiritual experience. Stopping something that we think we need, something we think is good and important in our lives actually clears out the toxins and makes us healthier. That's another reason why food is used in relation to fasting.

It's dangerous to go too long without food, of course, but a good friend of mine had a nine day fast, during which he only drank water. He must have been miserable, right? Woozy and dizzy? Well, at first he was really hungry, as we know from just going a few hours without something to eat. Then, when his body realized that it was not going to get any food from the outside, it started burning off all the fat it had been storing. He stopped being hungry and a new burst of energy filled him. On the ninth day he was able to play basketball for a few hours without tiring, and he said his reading comprehension went through the roof—which meant his prayer life and scripture understanding were incredible. I'm not suggesting we start a big food fast for nine days, but it is a great analogy. When we cut out something we think is good for us, we clear the path for God to start doing some real work in our lives.

This leads me to the very interesting Old Testament lesson we had this evening: Isaiah 58. In this passage, Isaiah describes false fasting. We're trying to get God's attention, and he doesn't seem to see. Look at us! We're humbling ourselves, and you do not seem to notice! But God answers—you're not doing it right. You're serving your own self interest, but look at the fruits. You're oppressing your workers, you're fighting with each other, you're putting on an act. That's not fasting. You're pretending to be humble, but I can tell that you have not cleared out the obstacles from your lives. I can tell that you have not given up that “good” thing that you think you need.

Catherine Marshall cleared out her critical nature and she was able to really pray for people for the first time in her life. Fasting from food gave my friend the energy to be more “hands on” and active than he had ever been in his life. Isaiah says that true fasting shows itself in what we do for the poor. We know we have gotten our fasting right when it comes out in our compassion and generosity. Look at the fourth commandment: the Sabbath. The day of rest. We think of that as a God-directed commandment, and it is. We stop working and we are able to rest and worship the Lord on this day. However, it is also a man-directed commandment. Employers have to let their employees rest. They can't work them to death. God has commanded that we clear out a day of work—work that seems good, so that God can work out his blessings in the lives of our workers. Stopping work helps the real work get done.

This is the best piece of employee legislation ever! However important we think working is, how important it is to our happiness, to others' happiness, we have to clear out a day on our calendar. We have to fast from work, remove the obstacle, so that the real work gets done—God working in our lives, our sacrificing ourselves for others, and being compassionate and relational. I met someone just this week whose wife has really connected to her housekeeper. She stopped thinking, “I'm her employer and that's all there is to our relationship!” She fasted from being merely her housekeeper's employer, and her compassion has allowed her to help this woman through the troubles in her life.

This past Friday, I had a bunch of administrative things to do. I was going to spend the day hunkered down and really get some stuff done on my computer. Turns out it was the only day to get our license plates done, so my whole family hopped in the van went to Manteo. We stopped at one of our bank branches to get money out for the title transfer, and while I was waiting, I talked to the new bank manager there, and he saw my collar and asked about Good Shepherd. I told all about our home groups, and the C.S. Lewis discipleship videos, and he gave me his card, so that I could put him on our mailing list and to invite him to a home group. We went to the DMV, and suddenly I'm in a deep conversation with the woman there about what I had preached on last Sunday—God being a god of blessings. Why she brought up that topic, I have no idea, but she tells me that she will begin attending services. These services! I cleared out the things that I thought were important—my admin work, and God did some real work in my life. He just threw these people in my path.

Finally, I want to talk about clearing our hearts—the fasting of our souls. Here is where we allow God to fill our hearts with what he wants. Christian meditation stands in the middle between other “extreme” kinds of mediation. On the left is where you completely clear your mind, and on the right is where you are only using your mind—which is essentially “study.” We all know what it means to read the bible and study it, but we may not know what it means to meditate on it. First you are not emptying your mind completely. That is a very dangerous thing, as Jesus says in Matthew 12:43-45, because the empty mind can be occupied very easily by dangerous spirits. That's why Transcendental Meditation is not a good thing—it clears the mind, sweeps it completely out, and allows extremely dangerous things in. Meditating on God's word is clearing out the heart but not the mind. We are filling our minds with the bread of life, and when we pick a passage of scripture and really chew on it—reading it over and over, picking a single verse, and praying over that verse—God unlocks a lot of meaning in that verse, our hearts become clear, and we find ourselves praying for people in our lives, using that very verse of scripture. We've cleared an obstacle and God is allowed to let the waters of change flow through our souls.

Paul gives us a clue in first Corinthians 2, our Epistle reading this evening. Paul says he did not come to the Corinthians with lofty words of wisdom. He decided to know nothing among them but Christ Crucified. That's true Christian meditation. He has not cleared his mind completely. He has emptied it of all the man-made explanations and persuasions and academics that we all like to try to use to convince people of the truth of God. Instead, Paul has meditated on the cross, the one thing, and his mind is filled with nothing else. He lets the cross dominate his thoughts, and God is now working through Paul to bring the Corinthians to conversion and lives of hope.

The cross is like that. We meditate on it, we fast from everything else, and God begins to bring forth his fruits in our lives. We are finally being used in the way we were intended from the moment God conceived of our souls at the beginning of time. As Lent approaches, let's decide what obstacle to God's power we are going to remove this year, and as we let go of that “good” thing that has been controlling us, let's watch in amazement as God works out something incredible through us for his eternal Kingdom.