Tuesday, December 21, 2010

becoming a priest

Last Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at Jimmy Abbott’s ordination to the priesthood. Here were my thoughts …

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.”

I just want to begin by thanking Jimmy for the honor of standing before you today. Jimmy, I am so grateful for the privilege of preaching the Gospel at your ordination to the priesthood. Thank you.

For those who don’t know me my name is John Newton and I serve as the Missioner of the Episcopal Student Center at the University of Texas, which is where Jimmy and I met about seven years ago. The Student Center is also the community where both of us heard God’s call to the priesthood, and so it’s a really special place for both of us. My relationship with Jimmy always seems to be in transition. In the last seven years I’ve been Jimmy’s classmate, his program coordinator, his classmate again, his flag football coach, his sponsoring priest, and most recently, because God’s funny, his premarital counselor – but throughout it all Jimmy’s always been a great friend, and today, I’m proud to say, he’ll be my colleague. Jimmy, you’re about to be ordained a priest in Christ’s church. We have to ask – what are you getting into? But seriously – what does it mean to be a priest? And a second question, which can’t ever be separated from the first – what does it mean to be the church?

A lot of people answer the priest question differently. When I was ordained one of my best friends gave me a huge hug and said, with all sincerity, “John, congratulations. You have no idea how blessed you are. I just don’t know anyone else,” he said, “who else gets paid full time to work two hour weeks.” I guess that’s one take on the priesthood, but perhaps we can find another.

Tonight, I want to reflect on the last verse of tonight’s Gospel from John: “for I have come down from heaven,” Jesus says, “not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.” In this verse we discover what it means to be a priest and what it means to be the church. “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me.”

First – Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven.” As Christians this is where our faith begins – with Jesus “coming down,” with God Himself freely choosing to enter our lives. The incarnation – it’s where our faith begins, where the priesthood begins, where the church begins.

Jimmy, tonight you’re being ordained to model for the people of God a life of “coming down” – to joyfully do for God’s people what Jesus Christ has done for us. God freely chose to enter our world. The privilege of a priest is to do the exact same thing – to choose to enter the lives of God’s people and to love them with the same spirit that Christ loves us. In other words, the priest’s privilege is to model the incarnation. Eugene Peterson wrote that the priest’s call is, and I quote, to “take people seriously just the way they are and look at them, enter into conversation with them and see the glory that takes place right there, in that person’s world, the glory of God present in them.” In other words, the priest’s call is to reflect Jesus back to God’s people – that is to love people, not because they’re lovely but in order to make them lovely. A priest can’t be distant or aloof or detached. After all, God wasn’t. Jimmy, you’re being ordained to enter the lives of God’s people and love them, not because they’re lovely, but in order to make them lovely.

Now, practically speaking – what does it mean to model the incarnation; that is to enter people’s lives and love them to make them lovely? Well, it doesn’t mean a life of spiritual hospice work. A priest’s job is not to take away people’s pain, which we’re always tempted to do. The work of a priest is much harder. It’s about entering people’s lives to empower them for mission. It’s not to shield them from the world but to equip them to become missionaries within the world. In the words of Henry Nouwen, “The spiritual life doesn’t remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.” So Jimmy, you do well to remember that we priests are not the primary ministers of the church, but it’s the people God entrusts to us – the people whose lives we’re invited to enter – they, more than us, are the primary ministers sent into the world to spread the Gospel. Love your people in a way that empowers them for their mission. After all, the church isn’t a building. It’s not a club. It’s not a social gathering of like-minded individuals. In fact, the word church comes from the Greek ekklesia, which literally means “called out.” To be the church is to be “called out” into the world with a mission. Jesus had a mission, which began with His choice to come down from heaven. We too must come down – from what’s comfortable and what’s familiar – and build God’s Kingdom in the world. In other words, the church has the privilege of telling people that life is found in Jesus – people that don’t know or don’t care or don’t believe; people that are angry and hurt and scared; people that need grace – and then to embody Jesus’ mercy and love and compassion, so that our message is credible and our presence worth following.

You see, a non-missional church isn’t a church at all. Mission – its just in our DNA.
The church’s privilege is to be in the world, in people’s lives, for the sake of sharing the Gospel, which means that the privilege of a priest is to model for God’s people what this incarnational, reaching-out-kind-of-love looks like. In today’s epistle Paul is bold. He tells the Philippians, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” Jimmy, I know this is scary, but a priest’s job is to be able to say the exact same thing. Reach out to God’s people in a way that empowers them to reach out to others. Jesus reached out to you – He came down from heaven. Come down for your people, and I promise, they’ll come down from their place of comfort and serve the world in Christ’s name.

That being said, it’s not enough to just enter people’s lives. After all, the incarnation alone is not good news. There’s an ancient Greek myth about Zeus and Hermes, who wanted to know just how committed people were to the gods. So, as the story goes, they came down to earth disguised as slaves, but after getting the info they needed, threw off their rags and revealed themselves in all their Olympian glory. Did Zeus and Hermes take the form of a slave? Sure, but it was only a disguise. The Gospel is different – the Gospel says that when God became human in the person of Jesus, he didn’t disguise who God is. He revealed who God is – the Most Humble Person in the entire universe. For the Gospel is not merely that God entered our world – it’s that He entered with a certain character; that He entered with a certain mission. “Not to do my own will,” Jesus says, “but the will of Him who sent me.” Jimmy, we’re not ordained priests to do our own will. We’re ordained to do the will of God, who by the way, just happens to be the Most Humble Person in the entire universe.

So what does that look like – submitting to the will of the Most Humble Person in the universe? Well, in the context of John’s Gospel the people have just tried to make Jesus their King, but Jesus refuses. The people want Jesus to take power. But Jesus – he refuses to seize power – for His Father’s will wasn’t for Him to take power but to lose it.

You see all that stuff I was saying about reaching out and loving people – you know, entering people’s world not because they’re lovely but to make them lovely – that’s hard and vulnerable work, and we’ll find very quickly that if we do it well we’ll get hurt. In Jesus’ own words, “only those willing to lose their life are going to save it.” Jimmy, the will of the One who sends you is to find your life in the ministry by losing it – to love people so deeply and so fully that you allow your heart to be broken. “I have come not to do my own will,” Jesus said, “but the will of Him who sent me.”

You see there’s just something within us that craves the very power that Jesus refused. Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” We ask him, “Can I sit at your right hand in your kingdom?” In fact, perhaps the greatest tragedy of Christian history is how often our leaders gave in to their craving for power – political power, military power, economic power, spiritual power – all in name of Jesus, who didn’t cling to His divine power but came down from heaven to do His Father’s will. So we need to be honest – power is a lot easier than love. It’s easier to be God than to love God; to control people than to love them; to seek a throne than embrace a cross. Jimmy, the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life. Why? Because it’s the road of choosing love over power. It’s the road of saying, day in and day out, “I came not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.”

To be a priest, to be the church, is to live a life of humility, which isn’t a life of self-depreciation or of feeling unworthy or of being a doormat – but a life of saying what John the Baptist did with respect to Jesus: “He must increase but I must decrease.” You see Jesus decreased himself until nothing but His Father’s will mattered. Our life, our effectiveness, our joy, our salvation, our ability to be a good priest, our ability to be the church, is found in decreasing ourselves just like Jesus did – in decreasing our own story until nothing matters but Jesus’ story. To quote Paul “we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God.” Humility happens when the smallness of our own story gets lost in the largeness of Jesus’ story. Our life cannot define Him. Jesus’ life must always define us.

A couple weeks ago a friend handed me a note, which I wrote ten years ago – my senior of high school – to my “future self” in response to this question: What do you want your life to look like in ten years? I missed my ten-year reunion, but a friend was kind enough to grab it for me, and I’d like to share what I wrote. “I’ll be somewhere in Texas practicing law with a beautiful wife, a nice house, a young family, lots of money and my whole life ahead of me … or at least I better be.” Jimmy – I don’t know how you would have answered that question, but I imagine this wasn’t your plan – standing before the church, the bishop and God and taking a vow to serve Christ faithfully as His priest. But at the same time, I also know you wouldn’t be here right now unless you were called – unless God interrupted your life to say “get behind me,” and I know how grateful you are that God did.

Standing here today talking about what you’re getting into, I need to be honest: Jimmy, today doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to Christ, because they all do. Your life is found in Jesus. He must increase; you must decrease. Allow yourself to fall so deeply in love with Him that you don’t think twice about following Jesus wherever he leads. Your best days as a priest will be the ones when you think of yourself the least – when its Jesus’ story that defines your life, when you come down like He did and have the faith to choose love over power.

I’m going to ask you to stand.

Jimmy, congratulations. You have no idea how blessed you are. I just don’t know anyone else who gets paid full time to lose their lives in the only story that matters, and to empower God’s people to embody the Gospel story in the world. So really quickly, before you’re ordained, turn around and take one last look at the people of God. Jimmy – love them, not because they’re lovely, but to make them lovely, for you are called – not to do your own will but the will of the One who sends you.

Monday, December 13, 2010

expecting to be offended

To listen to this teaching online please copy/paste the following link:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

A man dies and, before being allowed to enter heaven, has to walk down a hallway past holding rooms filled with people not quite ready for heaven. Approaching the Pearly Gates the man notices the first holding room on his left. “St. Peter,” he asks, “who are they?” “Well, these were not good Baptists, and as you may expect, they were known to dance.” The man kept walking and noticed another room. “And who are they?” “These misfits belonged to the Church of Christ, and as you may expect they used instruments during worship.” Well, the man was intrigued and decided to stop at one last room. “These people look miserable,” he said, “Who are they and what on earth did they do?” St. Peter just shook his head. “These were not good Episcopalians,” he sighed, “They ate their salad with a dessert fork.”

I guess that’s an Advent joke because Advent is about expectation, which is what today’s Gospel is about as well. You see something about today’s Gospel forces us to ask – when it comes to Jesus and the salvation He brings what do we expect? Jesus once asked James and John, “what do you want me to do for you?” In other words, what’s your expectation here? You see we all have expectations that impact our experience of God, whether for good or for ill. Baptists – we expect no dancing. Church of Christ – we expect no music. Episcopalians – we expect good table manners. We’re wired to expect. We expect certain things from certain people, and when things turn out differently than we expect, we’re sometimes offended. Well, that’s kind of what’s happening in today’s Gospel. John the Baptist is disappointed because Jesus isn’t what he expects. “Are you the one who is to come,” he asks, “or should we wait for another?” But can you hear what’s behind John’s question? “Jesus – this isn’t what I expected.”

Jesus did not meet John’s expectations. You see John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was Jesus’ biggest backer, at least at first. In fact, a lot of Jesus’ disciples used to follow John, who at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is the sensation of the nation. Before the crowds came to Jesus they all came to John, but now John’s in prison. He feels irrelevant and forgotten, and because He believes Jesus is the Messiah He expects Jesus to fix it. “How much longer must I wait?” He’s starting to wonder. “Hey Jesus – you going to fix this, or should I wait for someone else?”

We don’t typically think of John the Baptist as a sentimental guy, but He is. Like most Jews of Jesus’ day He expected a Messiah different from Jesus – someone to bring back the glory days when David was king, the pagans were punished, and the law of God was kept. That was John’s view – John’s expectation – of salvation. In other words, John had a very narrow script he thought the Messiah should live into and Jesus refused to adapt. Was Jesus’ fame growing? Yes. But not for what John had expected. Not only was Jesus befriending the people John expected him to punish, but even worse, Jesus’ focus seemed to be a cross and he kept saying things about desiring sacrifice and how to lose your life with him and for him. A cross – that seemed to be Jesus’ focus – and when John hears about that he gets offended. So, he sends his disciples to Jesus with a question – are you the Messiah or not? John found Jesus offensive. In fact, the Greek word used is skandalidzo, which is where we get the word scandal. When John first heard the message of the cross he was scandalized.

Now, what about us? You see Advent is the church’s way of inviting us to come to terms with our expectations – who do we expect Jesus to be? What do we want Jesus to do for us? Are we bringing Jesus a prewritten script and asking Him to adapt to us? Or, do we see that Jesus has a script of His own and that our life is found in adapting to Him?

You see John the Baptist, he just did what all of us do. John had a very specific view of what salvation looked like – which for John was a restored kingdom with all the riffraff thrown out – and John expected Jesus to adapt to his own narrow agenda. And when Jesus didn’t do what John expected him to do, well, he got confused. Once again, John just did what we’re all prone to do – he told Jesus how to do his job. John brought a very narrow script to Jesus and said, “Here, this is what needs to happen for me to feel whole. Jesus, here – this is what I expect. Would you mind adapting to me?”

Now, I know we all have strong opinions as to what we need to be whole, to be complete, to feel saved. “Lord, give me that job. Give me that girl. Give me confidence. Give me peace. Give me warm weather. Give me so and so’s respect. Lord, give me this. Lord, get me that, because then I’ll be okay. God I promise – give me this and I’ll be okay!” And how does Jesus respond? In a way that is so loving, and so offensive. “Whoever doesn’t take up the cross and follow me,” He says, “isn’t worthy of me. Those who find their life – who write their own script and ask me to adapt – will lose it. But those who lose their life with me and for me, they” he says, “will find it.” Is that something we expect to hear from Jesus Christ when we wake up each morning – lessons in losing? If not, perhaps we need to ask – when it comes to Jesus and the salvation He brings, what do we expect?

So, here’s the question – if we making loving Jesus the central aim of our life, what should we expect? What I get from today’s Gospel is this – we should expect an encounter with the real Jesus to offend us. Not all the time, but sometimes. You see from time to time for Jesus to love us He has to take our script, wad it up and tell us to get behind him. He has to remind us that Christianity is about losing our lives. And as the sentimentality of our culture reaches its peak, this is something we do well to remember. Yes, I know – it’s the most wonderful time of the year. There’s eggnog and mistletoe and candy canes and lights. But Advent is about preparing ourselves for a gift – for the gift of Jesus himself. And if we think of Jesus’ birth and feel nothing but warmth and jolly good cheer, well, maybe its time we wrestle, yet again, with the scandal of the cross – because the cross, before its ever anything else, is offensive.

You see some gifts just can’t be appreciated until we first understand they’re offensive. For example, if you give me a book for Christmas and tell me it’s going to change my life, but the title happens to be, How to Overcome Your Problem of Social Awkwardness – well, before I ever appreciate your gift, I’ll first feel offended. Why? Because your gift will expose a very embarrassing need. Some gifts just can’t be appreciated until we first understand they’re offensive, and the cross of Christ is one of them. The birth of Jesus is one of them, because before Christ reveals anything meaningful to us about God’s love, He first exposes the depth of our need and tragedy of our sin. So in this season of Advent, don’t get swept away by music and mistletoe and mistake the fuzziness of what you feel for the fullness of God’s love. The love of God, before it’s anything else, is offensive. Why? Because the love of God is revealed most fully in the scandal of the cross. Do you understand now why Jesus has to say, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” It’s because Jesus knows that when we understand His mission, offense is the first thing we feel.

And so as you go out into the world this week here’s what I’d suggest. Throw away your script, because the question John asks Jesus is the same one we’re all asking – “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait?” And the answer is both. Jesus Christ has already come. He’s brought salvation. Everything, already, has changed! And we should expect – here and now – to be living in the already available grace that floods this world. And yet, let’s not forget, we still have to wait – for all the blind don’t yet see, and all the lepers aren’t yet cleansed, and all our chains are not yet broken. And we should expect to feel the pain that comes with waiting to be let out of prison. If we want to be faithful, we have to throw away our script, because Jesus’ is so much better. Yes, at times we’ll feel like John – a little unsure exactly what Jesus has in store. But Advent – it’s also a season of hope. “Eye hasn’t seen nor ear heard.” Whatever Jesus is up to – it’s so much more than we could ever possibly expect.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The King No One Expected

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When people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d usually say “a king” – well, sometimes I said wizard, but mostly I said “king.” I always took that whole “you can do whatever you want in life” thing a little too seriously. But I wanted to be a king. I loved the idea of being in charge, and in junior high I got my chance. I was alone with my younger brother for a few hours after school each day. Naturally, there was a list of chores to be done, and because I was in charge, the division of labor was quite simple. My brother would do the work and I would supervise. And I was a harsh taskmaster. I would bark orders, enforce penalties, and rule with an iron fist. I thought the arrangement worked well but my brother complained, a sitter was hired, and I was dethroned. I thought I knew what it took to be king, but apparently, I didn’t really understand.

Here’s the question I want us to wrestle with tonight. Do we know what it means to be a king? Is there a “true” king of our world? If there is, do we know His character? And just so you know where I’m coming from tonight is “Christ the King Sunday,” which happens once a year in the Episcopal Church. Jesus’ kingship – that’s what we’re supposed to contemplate and celebrate tonight. But the questions we’re asking are the very same ones that people in Biblical times asked themselves – Who’s the King of our world? What’s he like? Do we understand his character?

The people in tonight’s Gospel sure don’t, because tonight we see the King of the world nailed to a cross – he’s mocked, taunted, and shamed. Now remember, in our Gospel story tonight, it’s only been a week since Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he was met with shouts of joy and great expectation. Why? – Because people believed that in Jesus their long awaited King had finally arrived. Not sure if you remember that story, but people spread their cloaks on the road to honor Jesus as he passed by. They shouted at the top of their lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” But tonight – just one week later – the shouts have shifted. It’s not “hosanna, hosanna.” Its “crucify him, crucify him.” Apparently Jesus wasn’t the King they were expecting.

But why not? After all, they were expecting a Messiah – so why didn’t Jesus fit the Messiah mold? Well, we have to remember that the Jewish people had been under foreign oppression for centuries. Since 586 BC the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Greeks had all ruled over them, and now it was the Romans, and it seemed wrong to the Jews of Jesus’ day that a pagan nation would govern them. So they prayed for a king. They wanted a king. They expected a king. And because of that they fantasized – they fantasized about what sort of king God would send them.

One group, the Zealots, thought the Jewish people had become cowards. So they waited for a military king to lead a rebellion against Rome. The Essenes had a different solution – to establish a new society out in the desert, which is where they waited for their king. And then of course Pharisees, who liked to blame sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes for all their problems. “Yes God will send a King,” they’d say, “but first we have to become more pure. So as the Jews prayed, wished, and waited for a king, they all misunderstood what sort of king God would send. For 1st century Jews whose hearts were set upon an earthly king, the story did not end well. Military rebellions were crushed, people were killed, and in 70 AD the Jewish temple was destroyed and when that happened all hope for a king was lost.

The scandal of the Christian Gospel is that somewhere in the midst of that mess – when no one was looking and when the masses were blind to the truth – the true King of Creation entered our world. To paraphrase CS Lewis, the Author of the play stepped onto the stage, the Writer of the novel became the Chief Character. Of course no one recognized him. To quote the Gospel of John, “He came to what was His own but His own did not receive Him.” After all, people expected all kinds of kings but not one – not one person thought, “Maybe a young carpenter will emerge from an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire to announce that through Him the Kingdom of God was now here.” Of course no one expected that! And isn’t this the irony of Christianity? That in a world where all hope for a king was lost the true King of the world had come and that, aside from a few misfits and peasants, not one person even noticed.

The reason the church makes us celebrate Christ the King Sunday every year is to force us to ask, “have we noticed?” Do we know the true king of our world? Do we know what he’s like? Do we understand His character? Because it’s really easy to confess Christ as King on the one hand, but to live on this earth as if we were our own king anyway. I mean, isn’t that where you and I find ourselves today – trying to sit in the driver’s seat of our own life? Perhaps you remember this part of Eucharistic Prayer C: “You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we have turned against one another.” In other words, we live in a world that’s chosen power over love, which means that our kingdoms inevitably clash, as we wage war with the weapons of control and manipulation. Far too often our lives become a series of passive aggressive moves and countermoves to defend our petty kingdoms. Worst of all, we have lost the ability to see people as they really are – children of God made in the image of Christ – the true King of our world.

The good news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus Christ is King and that he died to restore our broken world, our broken relationships, and our broken hearts. As tonight’s reading from Colossians puts it, “he’s made peace by the blood of his cross.” On the cross Jesus shows us what it truly means to be a king. It is good news that Jesus isn’t the sort of King the Jewish people were expecting, because we know about worldly “kings” all too well. Jesus is not a Stalin or Mussolini, a Hitler or Hussein. Jesus is not a harsh taskmaster. He doesn’t bark orders, enforce penalties, and rule with an iron fist. After all, Jesus didn’t enter Jerusalem on a chariot pulled by stallions and warhorses. No – the King of Kings came riding in on a donkey! God did not become human in Jesus Christ to overthrow Rome. He became human to overthrow sin. And tonight we see how He did that – Jesus Christ took the form of a slave and he died on a cross.

Now, we have a natural tendency to assume that in taking the form a slave Jesus was wearing a costume and disguising the All-Powerful and Mighty God. But here’s the miracle, and in some sense the point of tonight’s sermon – Christ the King did not disguise who God is. In taking the form of a servant, Jesus revealed who God is. God is the Infinite Servant; the most Humble Person in the entire Universe. In other words, Jesus did not come as a servant in spite of the fact that he is God; Jesus poured out his life for you and for me precisely because He is God. Jesus Christ is the King who serves.

That is the kind of King we ask to rule over us when we give our lives to Christ – the kind of king who washes his disciple’s feet, and who feels equally as at home with prostitutes and lepers as he does with the righteous and respected. Jesus is the king whose chief delight is to show mercy. Jesus is the King who willingly submitted to a violent death on a Roman cross, and then begged His Father to forgive the very people who arranged that death. Jesus is the King who enters Jerusalem not a chariot but on a farm animal; not with an army but with a dozen fishermen; a king Whose power is revealed not in the breaking of bones, but in the breaking of bread. Jesus is the king no one could have expected.

So if you’d like, think of tonight’s reading from Luke as a coronation ceremony. But notice, Christ the King isn’t seated on a throne. Christ the King is nailed to a cross, and when that happened a revolution was launched – a revolution that turns the world’s notion of kingship upside down. Jesus invites us to join that revolution and to be kings with him by living lives of love, service, and prayer. Jesus is the one, true King of our world, and because of that you and I are free: we are free to pour out our lives in love for one another. We are free to dream Godly dreams and to take Godly risks. We are free from God’s judgment. Why? Because Christ the King was judged for us.

So blessed be God – Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – and blessed be God’s Kingdom now and forever. AMEN.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jesus' prayer for a missional church

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John 17 (selected verses)

I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Evangelism, mission, sharing the Gospel – we have mixed feelings around these words. I’ll never forget having coffee with a student my first year as missioner and she was trying to figure out what came next – graduation was quickly approaching – and she got kind of embarrassed before asking me a question – “so, is God going to be mad if I don’t go to a third world country and try to convert people.” I’m not sure world mission was her vocation. But she was called to be a missionary. How do I know? Because we all are. To be a Christian is to be called into mission. Mission isn’t for super-Christians. It’s for Christians. Prayer – which has been our chief focus this semester at Omega – prayer is not an end in and of itself. The chief purpose of prayer, or at least one of them, is to fuel a life of mission. Consider tonight’s reading; it’s a piece of a prayer that Jesus prays the night before he dies, and what does Jesus pray for? Jesus prays that his disciples will embrace their mission. “As you have sent me into the world,” he says, “so I have sent them.” Now, I know I’ve said this before but the word church comes from the Greek ekklesia – which means to be “called out.” The church is not a building. The church is a group of people called out into the world with a mission. “As you have sent me so I have sent them.”

But we have mixed feelings about mission, Christians and non-Christians alike. For non-Christians the word mission makes them wonder, “I don’t get it. Why do Christians want to convert people? If my faith works for me, who are you to persuade me otherwise?” And I think we’re rightly sensitive to that question. God knows that when it comes to sharing our faith we Christians can be clumsy and awkward. But, should we accept this as a valid reason to not engage in mission? In other words, should we really embrace the logic that says, “Just because some people do it badly no one should do it at all?” You see I know you, and I know myself, and our great danger is that we’ll buy into the myth that says, “my faith is private – it’s my faith. It’s about me, it’s about God, and it’s not about anyone else.”

There is a great truth that we need to be reminded of daily. Christianity is not about you. Christianity is not about me. It’s about our world. It’s about the entire human race. And finally, it’s about God – and more specifically about God’s mission in Jesus Christ to restore both our world and humanity to a right and intimate relationship with Himself. Christianity is about the mission of God, which means that the church – well, that’s just what we call the uncanny group of people who claim to have found new life in that mission.

And so tonight, let’s look at mission by first asking a pretty generic question – what is a mission? If mission is important what is it? A mission, simply put, “is when your safety and comfort comes 2nd to the cause.” Mission happens when there’s a cause that comes first, which means that your personal safety and comfort comes second. For example, a navy seal is sent to a foreign and hostile land to rescue a fellow citizen on death row. Practically speaking, it matters very little if G.I. Joe gets a headache or a backache or if he just gets plain scared because once he commits himself to the mission the prisoner needing rescue has to come first – before his safety and before his comfort. That’s what a mission is; it’s when the cause comes first. And so to understand Christian mission we have to first understand that there is a cause so to speak – that God has an agenda for our world and for every person in it. And what is that agenda? Well, I think the last line of our reading sums it up pretty well; for the world to know that God has sent Jesus into the world and that, as a result, we are loved by God as completely and fully as Jesus is loved by God. That’s the mission – the last line of our reading – for the entire world to know that God has sent Jesus into the world and that because of that we are loved more than we could ever possibly dream. And so, that’s the first thing I want to say about mission – it’s not about us. Christianity is not about us. That’s the first thing I want to say.

But here’s the second – Christianity is about us. Mission is about us. Does the scope of God’s mission reach to the outer edges of the universe? No doubt. But is God so personal and so powerful that He has every hair on our head numbered? Does God care deeply – and I mean deeply – about our personal fulfillment and joy? By all means! So what’s the secret? The secret to personal fulfillment and joy? Mission.

You see we cannot be whole – we cannot live lives that are full, lives that God intended us to live – without being, for lack of a better word, missional. It’s impossible. Until we find something Bigger – something so valuable that we’re willing to lose our lives for it – we’ll never find our lives. That’s just how reality works. Live for yourself and you’ll never find yourself. Lose your life for something Bigger and you’ll save your life, and you’ll find your life, in the process.

And notice, Jesus implies as much in his prayer. Jesus prays that His joy would be made complete in us. The Greek word translated “made complete” really means to fill up to the point of overflowing. Jesus wants our joy to overflow. If we hear the word mission and think drudgery and duty we don’t understand mission. Mission is about our joy – it’s about doing the very thing in life we were meant to do; it’s about being the kind of person we were always meant to be – someone so confident in God that we can finally get over our selves; and because of that someone who reflects God to our world.

Are you confused yet? – That’s okay – it’s a paradox. Mission is about putting our safety and comfort second to the “cause” of God’s Kingdom, but at the same time, only by putting ourselves second can we experience Jesus’ joy made complete in ourselves. So let’s put all this in perspective. Let’s say that your primary goal – what drives you – is to live a safe, cozy life. Find a safe job. Find a safe spouse. Or, avoid both because that feels safer and cozier, depending on your temperament. Here’s what I’d say about that. If we seek first our comfort, then for the most part we’ll get it. We’re smart enough and we’re privileged enough. If we seek comfort we’ll get it. But that’s all we’ll get. The invitation to live a missional life – to put the cause of God’s Kingdom first – this is a call to a much bigger life. And isn’t that the choice we face every day – between safety and sacrifice; between our small concerns and God’s big ones? You see over time our choices add up to a lifestyle and in the words of St. Paul we reap what we sow – either a sufficient amount of comfort, or an overflowing abundance of joy.

For example, why did Jesus go to the cross? Was it for the world? Was it about us? Or, was it about Him? His joy? Because I’m arguing that mission is about both.

Well, clearly God’s mission was for the world. “For God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten Son.” John 3:16 – if you haven’t read the Bible you’ve at least seen the signs at football games, or looked at Tim Tebow’s face paint. Jesus died for us; his mission was for the world. But at the same time, I want you to consider the radical claim of Hebrews 12:2, which says – “For the sake of the joy that was set before him Jesus endured the cross and disregarded its shame.” Why did Jesus go to the cross? For the sake of the joy – so his joy would fill up to the point of overflowing. I love asking people what they think this verse means. In other words, what joy was Jesus so gaga over getting that he weighed the pain of the cross, and in the words of Hebrews, just disregarded it? What joy – or what cause – was so worth it to Jesus that the cross seemed as nothing? Remember, the Son of God existed before the foundation of the world. He already had everything – union with God, equality with God, the worship of angels, not to mention the entire creation that was created through Him and for Him – what joy, what cause, could possibly be worth the cross to the Man who had everything?

As crazy as it sounds, the implication is clear – us. What treasure had been lost that was worth dying to get back? You. Me. The thought of having you back, the thought of having me back, this caused Jesus so much joy that it made him endure the cross. And that’s where the Gospel begins, and because of that where mission begins. We’re the death row inmates, condemned to die in a foreign and a hostile land. Jesus comes to set us free knowing full well that this mission in particular will cost him everything. Why did Jesus do that? For the joy – for the joy of knowing that you and I are safe.

So what does all this mean for your life? Well, the answer is everything but I’ll just leave you with one thing. Ready? Preach the Gospel always. Profound, isn’t it? Preach the Gospel always (1) by doing God’s deeds and (2) by speaking God’s words.

First, do God’s deeds, or to put it differently acquire God’s heart. Learn what actions please God and then do them. And here’s the miracle; before you know it, you’ll be pleased to do what pleases God. Feed the poor. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Defend the vulnerable. Be slow to speak, slow to anger, and slow to judge. If there’s someone that’s wronged you, don’t wait for them to come to you. Be like God, go to them. I mean, isn’t that what God did for us? To put it differently, a day will come in real space-time history when God’s Kingdom will be established fully on this earth. When that happens, certain deeds and attitudes will no longer be acceptable. So maybe, just maybe, we should start preparing both others and ourselves now for that future reality. Here’s a paraphrase of what Paul says about all this in Colossians 3. “Kill those things inside of you that belong to the old creation: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed. That’s how you used to live but now you have to get rid of all that – anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language from your mouth. Strip off the old self and clothe yourself with the new self – the compassionate self, the kind self, the humble self, the meek self, the patient self. Above all, clothe yourself with gratitude and love.” This is where preaching the Gospel begins – with a changed life, when we acquire a new heart. Preach the Gospel always by doing God’s deeds.

But there’s a second piece to our mission. St. Francis once said, “preach the Gospel always and if necessary use words.” “Preach the Gospel and if it’s necessary then use words.” Now, I hate to be anti-St. Francis. That’s kind of like being anti-puppy. But whenever I hear this line quoted in sermons I cringe because this is what I imagine people typically hear. “God wants you to be a good person, but you don’t have to talk about Jesus, especially if that makes you or anyone else uncomfortable.” Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words. Here’s what I’m trying to say. It’s necessary! Faith, according to Paul, comes from what is heard. Just think about your own story. If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that you’ve been given new life in His name, how did you come to that conviction? Did you walk by a soup kitchen or have someone open the door for you and think ohhhhh now I get it – Jesus died for my sins and on the third day was raised, how did I miss that? Or, did you go to a camp where the Gospel was clearly laid out? Or to a church where the Word was preached and eventually took root? Or to a friend that told her story and how she came to faith? According to Paul, faith comes from what is heard. If you’re a Christian, my guess is that you’ve put your faith in Christ because at some point you heard the Gospel.

You are called to speak God’s words – to speak real words to real people about how a real God sent Jesus Christ into the real world and that because of that we are really loved more than we could ever really dream. Of course we have to be respectful and appropriate and gentle and non-judgmental – but that just goes back to part I of our mission; doing God’s deeds, acquiring God’s heart. God doesn’t force Himself on us and so let’s not think we have a right to force ourselves on others. But God does speak and so should we. This is how 1 Peter puts it: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; but do it with gentleness and reverence.” Are you ready? A lot of people out there are in desperate need of hope. Are we ready to give an account of the hope that we have?

Is God going to make you go to a 3rd world country and try to convert people? Maybe, but I doubt it. So where’s your mission field? As long as you live never forget my answer. Wherever you are. Your dorm, your sorority, your fraternity, your major, the band, the water polo team, the young democrat society, the young republican society, the lab, your job. When you’re not in church where are you? That’s your mission field. Wherever you are. God will not make you go anywhere. That’s not how God works. All God’s going to do is ask you to take Him with you. We talked about Providence last week – you are already where God wants you to be. That’s not the question. The question is whether we’ll make life about building our own kingdom or about building God’s. “As you have sent me into the world,” Jesus says, “so I have sent them.” I’ll leave you with the first word of the Great Commission. Go.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

does EVERYTHING happen for a reason? on prayer & providence

To listen to this teaching copy/paste the following link:

Proverbs 16: 1-4, 9, 33; 21:5

The plans of the mind belong to mortals, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. 
All one’s ways may be pure in one’s own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. Commit your deeds to the Lord, and your plans will be established. 
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. 
The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps. 
The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone. The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes to want.

I imagine tonight’s talk will generate a lot of small group discussion, not because my talk is all that good but because tonight’s topic is – guidance. How does God guide us? Does everything happen for reason? If God has a plan, do our choices matter? Do our prayers matter?

The reason we’re talking about guidance is because the bulk of our prayers often have to do with guidance. Is this the right job to take? Is this the right person to date? Should I switch majors? Should I confront this person or just let it be?

We’re all young. Kind of. We have a lot of choices ahead of us, and the vast majority of them are moral. But that doesn’t mean all of them are wise. And so we need guidance. We need guidance to make wise decisions. This isn’t a talk about learning to make choices that are morally upright. This is a talk about learning to make choices that are wise – choices you can live because, well, we have to live with the choices we make.

Now, before we talk about the guidance God gives I want to look at the guidance God does. And I’ll warn you ahead of time, the guidance God does – the Invisible Hand guiding our every step – this is something we can trust, but it’s not something we can understand. To see this let’s look at our reading from Proverbs.

“The plans of the diligent,” Proverbs says, “lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes to want.” In other words, being diligent – attentive, persistent, thoughtful, proactive –this is going to work out a lot better for us than being hasty. Diligent plans turn out well. Hasty plans do not turn out well. In other words, our decisions matter. We’re responsible for making wise choices, and we know from experience that hasty people – people who are impulsive, shortsighted, thoughtless and reckless – they tend to dig themselves into holes they can’t get out of. Proverbs is clear – our choices matter. But are our choices all that matter?

“The lot is cast into the lap,” Proverb says, “but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” Lot casting was a way of making decisions in ancient Israel – kind of like flipping a coin or drawing straws. For example, the church cast lots to choose the 12th apostle after Judas committed suicide. And according to Acts 1:26, “the lot fell on Matthias.” As a side note, several days later the church received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s presence in the church makes casting lots obsolete. But in the Old Testament lot casting was pretty standard. The Israelites used something called Urim and Thummin – two stones that could be used to discern God’s will. Urim and Thummin functioned like a magic eight ball. If a priest wanted to ask God a question he’d get out Urim and Thummin and the answer could be yes, no, or “not sure.” I’m not making this stuff up. My point is this – “the decision is the Lord’s alone.” Every single coin-flip, every lot that is cast, is determined by the Lord. Nothing surprises God.

Now, wait a second, you may be wondering. Do our choices matter? Or, does the Lord determine our life? It’s got to be one or the other. No it doesn’t, the answer is both. Human categories can’t hold this together. I warned you – God’s guidance is something we can trust, but it’s not something we can understand. Now, most of us embrace only one of these perspectives. Either our decisions matter, which means that the future is completely open. How the drama of life will unfold is anyone’s guess – including God’s. Or, we tend to think that God has a plan and because of that our choices are insignificant. But it can’t be both, can it?

Well, the Bible offers what Anglicans have always called a via media – a middle way – between these two views. Ruling out an either/or view of guidance I’d argue that what the Bible offers is a both/and perspective. On the one hand, we are absolutely free to make choices. God doesn’t coerce us or force us or fool us. On the other hand, we live completely under the providence of God – even down to the smallest coin flip.

Now, just to make sure this isn’t a biblical fluke, let’s look at two more verses from Proverbs. “The plans of the mind belong to mortals, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” Now, what on earth is this saying? Well, for one – “the plans of the mind belong to mortals. The human mind plans the way.” In other words, your plans are yours. God isn’t forcing you to do anything. If you do something stupid or evil, people will hold you accountable and they should. God will hold you accountable and He should. Your plans belong to you. Your choices belong to you. You are responsible. If we make a choice, whether it be wise or unwise, we have to live with it.

But, “The answer of the tongue is from the Lord and the Lord directs the steps.” In other words, what actually happens in history – that’s all fixed by God. In other words, nothing happens in our world or in our lives that is outside the providence of God. According to Jesus, every single hair on our head is accounted for. Not one of them, he suggests, falls to the ground apart from the will of His Father (Matt 10:30). And so on the one hand, our plans are ours and our choices matter tremendously. But on the other hand, the outcome – what happens – it’s 100% determined by the perfect Providence, plan and foreknowledge of God.

Now, notice what Proverbs is not saying. It’s not saying that it’s 50/50. That we’re partly responsible for our lives and that God is partly responsible. Proverbs is saying that it’s 100/100, which of course is why it’s utterly impossible to understand. That being said, we don’t have to understand it but we do have to trust it because if we don’t we’ll be in a whole lot of trouble.

For example, let’s say we lean too much on the side of fatalism – that we think nothing we do matters. Have you heard the story of Oedipus? The oracle from birth was that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Now, this is a fatalistic worldview – nothing Oedipus did mattered and his choices were obsolete. And of course, no matter how hard he tried to escape his fate what did Oedipus do? He killed his father and he married his mother. Now, if you live life with that worldview you will be totally passive and horribly cynical. You’ll have very little hope and very little motivation. Why? Because you’ll think of yourself as a pawn – a pawn in some cruel, fatalistic game. But that’s not the whole story. You and I are not pawns. We’re people. God’s image bearers. People with the capacity to make choices.

And so that means everything is open, right? That our decisions and our will determine the future. Not so fast. If you think that everything being fixed is hopeless, try living with the burden of knowing that your future is 100% tied to the choices you make, and for that matter the prayers that you pray. In other words, try living with the belief that so and so died because you didn’t pray. Now, think about this. If your destiny was 100% tied to your will – the choices you made and the prayers that you prayed – would you really want to get out of bed in the morning? If that were the case, I can tell you one thing. I wouldn’t be a priest. I wouldn’t have gone to the University of Texas. And I wouldn’t know any of you. This may surprise you but none of this was part of my plan. It was God’s. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

Have you seen the movie Bruce Almighty? Bruce, played by Jim Carey, is a bit upset with how God is doing His job and so God – Morgan Freeman – lets him take over. Needless to say, letting Bruce rule the world is a disaster and it raises a great theological question: What fool would want to live in a universe where our future was 100% set by our choices? Especially when we believe in a God that’s a) wiser than we are and b) has higher hopes for us and for our world than we do for ourselves.

You see the Biblical view – paradoxical though it may be – is utterly practical. On the one hand our choices matter greatly. We have every incentive to work hard and be diligent. God expects that from us. But on the other hand, we can relax. We’re held safely in the Father’s hands. We don’t have to worry. Every hair on our head is accounted for. And so when it comes to our lives and our prayers let me say this – Guidance is more of something God does than something God gives. And so if you’re praying for God’s will right now – if you’re looking for God’s guidance – this is what I’d say. You’re standing in it. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Jesus’ prayer the night before He dies. This passage is from Luke 22.

Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.

Now, let me ask you a question. Jesus’ death on the cross – was it God’s will or humanity’s will? In other words, why did Jesus die? Because of us? Or because Jesus’ death was at the heart of God’s plan to save the world?

Well, the Greek word usually linked with Jesus’ crucifixion is paradidomi, which means “handed over.” For example, in Luke 22:6 we’re told that Judas sought an opportunity to hand Jesus over when the crowd wasn’t looking. In Luke 24:20 the religious leaders, and I quote, “handed him over to be condemned to death.” Pilate, after having Jesus flogged, “handed him over to be crucified.” (Mk 15:15) Now based only on that evidence, how would you answer the question, why did Jesus die – because it was our will or God’s?

Humanity. It was our sins. Judas, the religious leaders, Pilate – we are the ones responsible. And so on Good Friday when we read the passion narrative and the congregation screams, “Crucify, Him! Crucify Him!” that is 100% theologically accurate. It was our choice to hand Jesus over – our sins and our decision that brought Jesus to the cross. But at the same time, that’s not the whole story. Reality is always more complicated.

In his letter to the Romans this is what Paul writes. God “did not withhold his own Son, but handed him over for all of us.” Who handed Jesus over to die? God did. And so does that mean that the Father sent Jesus to the cross against his will? This is what Paul says in Galatians. “The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and handed himself over for me.” (Gal 2:20) And so here we have it – Paul says that God handed Jesus over and that Jesus handed himself over.

The reason I’m pointing this out is because here we have Jesus the night before he dies praying – pouring his heart into God asking for what He wants more than anything – for the cup to pass, for there to be some other way. Now, I want you to consider how amazing this is. Here we have God made flesh praying through his tears in absolute agony and not receiving what He asks for. Have you ever experienced the pain of unanswered prayer? Not as much as Jesus. When Jesus prays this prayer he’s mentally lost, emotionally crushed, and spiritually confused and so He comes before God and says, “Abba – I need some guidance.” And what you and I know is something that Jesus in his anguish did not know. He was standing right in the middle of God’s guidance. And so it is very true that guidance is something God gives. Pray for it! Seek it! Make wise choices. After all, you have to live them. But, let us not forget that guidance is always first and foremost something that God does.

And so when it comes to making prayer-soaked choices, what does this all mean for your life? In other words, give me something practical to work with. Well, this is what Proverbs says. “Commit your deeds to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” Now, we tend to think that God works the other way around. In other words, we want to focus on God’s plan first, and after choosing the right plan focus on our deeds – or on what we do. But Proverbs says it’s the other way around. First, we focus on our deeds – on being a person of character. Before we focus on learning to pray for the right path, we focus on merely learning how to pray. Commit your deeds to the Lord first, and then your plans will be established. In other words, when we first focus on who we are – on our deeds so to speak – we find that we grow into people who come to naturally make wise choices, who come to know the right path when we see it and who come to know the wrong path when we see it. As Jesus himself puts it, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, then everything else will be added to you as well.”

It’s not that God doesn’t give guidance. He does – through signs, and scripture, and other Christians and our circumstances. But, if we live our lives for ourselves and only seek God’s will when we come to a fork in the road it’s not going to do us any good.

And so let me end by saying this. Pretty soon you’re all going to find yourselves at a crossroads. You’ll be graduating and will be asking some pretty tough questions. Should I take this job? Should I date this person? Here’s my advice. Make a choice. Don’t be anxious. Pray about it, think about it, but make a choice. One of my favorite Bible verses comes from the Book of Jeremiah. It says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I know you all have plans for your life. That’s great – I’ve got plans for mine, too. But at the same time, God also has plans. And it’s very true that our choices matter – we do have to live with them. Like Paul says, “we reap whatever we sow.” But, at the same time, each one of us is standing in the middle of a perfect plan, a good plan, a plan we can’t screw up. And so above all else, become a person of prayer – not just because you want to discern God’s will, but more importantly, because you’re already in the middle of it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

the true Temple of God

To listen to this teaching please copy/paste the following link:

“Yet now take courage. My Spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord: in a little while … the treasure of all nations shall come.”

The people of Judah were having a pretty crappy day on the 17th of October 520 BC – or if you prefer the lunar calendar, the 21st day of the 7th month in the 2nd year of King Darius. God’s people are depressed and hopeless and can’t help but wonder. Is this it? Has God left us? Does the future hold anything good?

These are the questions Haggai responds to, but first you need some background info. Around 950 BC King Solomon built a temple to God, and it was remarkable – it’s splendor unmatched by anything else in the world. There are two things you need to know about the temple. First, it’s where God lived. We talk about how God lives in our hearts. Not the Israelites – God lived in the temple. Second, the temple is where sacrifices of atonement were made for the people of God. The God of Israel was holy – the people were not holy – and so animal sacrifices were made so unholy people could approach the holy God of the universe. Once again, two things; the temple was God’s home; the temple was the place of sacrifice.

Now, fast-forward to 586 BC. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invades Jerusalem, takes the people into exile, and destroys the temple. I mean he utterly demolishes it. For the people of Israel this was the ultimate crisis. Death they could deal with. Exile they could handle. The destruction of the temple – well, this was too much to bear. You see the temple was the center of their life. With no temple there’s no God. I mean, can you imagine believing that God was dead? You’d be asking the same questions they were. Is this it? Has God left us? Does the future hold anything good?

Now, fast-forward another fifty years. Cyrus, King of Persia, conquers the Babylonians and shows mercy to the Israelites. He just decides to send them home. I mean talk about a miracle! The Israelites get to go back to Jerusalem, and what’s the first thing they do? They start rebuilding the temple, which is where tonight’s reading picks up. You see there’s a problem with the temple “take two.” It’s a joke. Compared to the first temple? The 2nd temple is a complete and utter joke. Imagine that an earthquake destroyed UT’s football stadium. Now imagine the stadium was rebuilt to look like the one from your high school. In the words of Haggai, “it would be in your sight as nothing.” It’d be a joke! Now remember, it’s only been 50 years. People still remember the old temple. In fact, according to the Book of Ezra people wept when they saw the 2nd temple being built, and it made them ask those questions – those questions I know we’ve asked ourselves at some point in our life. Is this it? Has God left us? Does the future hold anything good?

It is in response to these questions that the word of the Lord comes to Haggai, and I’ll be bold – the secret to life is found in understanding what God says – so this isn’t the time to doze off. “Yet now take courage,” God says. “Yet now” – in the midst of feeling depressed, in the midst of feeling hopeless – yet now take courage. “I am with you,” says the Lord. “My Spirit abides among you.” Not in the Temple. Among you. “For thus says the Lord, in a little while … the treasure of all nations shall come.” In other words, God tells them of course this isn’t it! No, I haven’t left you. The future belongs to the Lord.

So what did God mean by that? Well, I know what they thought God meant. They thought He meant, “Be patient, give it more time, the 2nd temple will eventually be better than the first one.” There’s only problem. The 2nd temple wasn’t better, and in 70 AD the Romans destroyed it – just like the Babylonians did the first one. So assuming the promise in tonight’s reading is about something else, what does the promise point to?

Well, Haggai does point to a new Temple – that much is clear from the reading – so let’s recall the temple’s two purposes. The Temple is where God lived. The Temple is where atonement was made for sin. So whatever this new Temple is, it has to surpass the old temples in both these areas.

Let me tell you what the most shocking verse of the Bible is – Matthew 12:6. The Pharisees are questioning Jesus. They’re not too sure who He is or what He’s about. He’s been warning them that the temple they trust in, compared to God’s true Temple, is nothing more than a heap of stones. Now, if that weren’t radical enough, in Matthew 12:6 Jesus looks the Pharisees straight in the eye and says, “Truly I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” In other words, I AM the true temple of God, Jesus says, the new place where God dwells fully, the new place where atonement is made. “In me,” Jesus says, “is something greater than the temple.” Shocking – it’s either beautiful or it’s blasphemous.

Now, Christians believe a lot of things about Jesus Christ, but two of those beliefs are central to understanding Haggai’s promise. First, Jesus Christ was fully divine. He’s God. As Colossians puts it, in Jesus “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” or as Hebrews puts it, Jesus is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Jesus is not merely a prophet, a sage, a teacher. He’s the Word made flesh – the place where God dwells fully; something greater than the temple. Second, in Jesus Christ we have complete atonement for our sins. Compared to Jesus’ sacrifice, any sacrifice we make to God is a joke. To quote Hebrews once again, the priest in the old temple “offers again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” One sacrifice for all time – Jesus Christ is the sacrifice that ends all sacrifices; Again, we see that he is Something greater than the temple.

So what does Haggai point to? The new Temple. The true Temple. The place where God dwells fully and where atonement is made once for all time. Haggai points to Jesus Christ – the treasure of the nations. So our final question, what does this mean for your life?

First, no matter how pathetic or depressing your life seems at the moment, never underestimate God’s capacity to do something new. “My Spirit abides among you,” God says, so “don’t you dare be afraid.” Yet now take courage. Haggai was written to people who took one look at the new temple and felt despair. You see not in their wildest dreams could they ever have imagined what God had in store for our world – that Jesus Christ would come as a “living Temple” to reconcile us to God once and for all. The Bible says that, “eye hasn’t seen nor ear heard what God has in store for those who love Him.” I really hope you’re not in one of those pathetic and depressing funks at the moment. But if you are, don’t you dare underestimate God’s capacity to do something new.

Second, don’t dwell in the past. The main reason the Israelites were so depressed about the second temple is because they were so nostalgic about the first one, and because of that, they missed the miracle of what God was doing in the present moment. So a question we have to ask ourselves, what “temple” in our life has been destroyed? A relationship? Life in the small town? A job prospect that didn’t pan out? I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is it’s not coming back. The girl, the guy, the home, that feeling, the good ‘ole days – it’s not coming back. That’s the bad news. The good news is God’s Spirit is among you now. Don’t miss the miracle.

Third, if Jesus Christ is the new Temple, our life must revolve around Him. Not church. Not bible study. Not school. Not this person. Not that job. Our life must revolve around Jesus. You see practically speaking our life has to revolve around something. Jesus invites us to make that something Him. And here’s what’s so ironic. When we make Jesus our Temple He then makes us His. Our body becomes a place where God chooses to dwell, and as a result, a place where sacrifices are made for the benefit of the world. Jesus Christ is the new Temple. Our life must revolve around Him. Make Jesus your temple and He will make you His.

Finally, I have to point out the great irony of this sermon. God’s new Temple, Jesus that is, was also destroyed – not by the Babylonians, not by the Romans, but us. As Isaiah says, “He was crushed for our sins.” On the cross Jesus Christ was utterly demolished. But was this our end as the children of God? Remember, the destruction of the first temple meant exile. It was the end of their relationship with God. Was Jesus’ death our end as the children of God? No. The destruction of God’s new Temple, Jesus Christ, this is our salvation. Our hope. It doesn’t mean exile. Far from it. The death of Jesus Christ – it’s the way home.

So when we find ourselves asking:
Is this it? Has God left us? Does the future hold anything good?

Remember this: The Treasure of the nations has come into our world. The future belongs to Him. Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has in store for those who love Him. Something greater than the temple is here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

tear prayer (pouring out our soul)

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No form of prayer is more important than the one we’ll discuss tonight, and yet no form of prayer is as foreign to the church as the one we’ll discuss tonight – and that’s deeply emotional tear prayer, or “pain prayer,” or lament. For the most part, we really don’t know what to do with our negative and dark emotions, and so most of us do one of two things. We stuff them, or we’re enslaved to them.

A lot of people stuff their feelings of pain and disillusionment, which often comes with life in a fallen world. In fact, I think religious people are especially prone to this. Religious people tend to think that God blesses good people, and “good” people aren’t supposed to feel rage, depression, and disappointment, and so when those feelings begin sneaking up, religious people stuff them. Bury them. They pretend they don’t exist. A lot of people stuff their feelings.

But on the other hand, a lot of people are utterly controlled by their feelings. The prevalent view in our society is that feelings just need to be expressed, or acted upon. And so whenever someone tells you they just need to vent, this is the logic they’re working with – that just letting their feelings flow like vomit will somehow bring about healing. But venting our emotions is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. It helps nothing, and to the extent that we think that it does, it actually harms us because it keeps us from getting the proper treatment that we need. And so stuffing our feelings is not the way of Christ. But venting our feelings is also not the way of Christ. And so what we need is a middle way – a Biblical way – through these two options. We need to learn to pray our feelings, especially the dark ones. And so with that in mind, let’s look at our reading from 1 Samuel.

1 Samuel 1: 4-18 (some verses omitted)

On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

Now on the surface this story looks like a cheesy episode of HBO’s Big Love. There’s one husband, Elkanah, and he has two wives – Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah has lots of babies and keeps getting pregnant; Hannah is barren. To make matters worst, Peninnah – who doesn’t like Hannah – is constantly rubbing her face in the dirt about something she can’t control. And so the first thing we need to see is the depth of Hannah’s pain. Our reading says Hannah is “irritated” but you and I know, given the context, that “irritated” is a weak translation. In fact, the Hebrew word means, “to thunder or roar as in a storm.” In other words, what 1 Samuel suggests is that because Hannah can’t have children, she’s as torn up in her soul as the sea is in the midst of a hurricane. Because she’s barren Hannah’s soul thunders with pain, disappointment and shame.

Hannah can’t have kids – I don’t get it, what’s the big deal? That’s not the worst thing that could happen to a person. Actually, in Hannah’s day – for a woman – it was. You see in Hannah’s world a family’s prospect was completely tied to the number of children they had. Children meant income, status and security. The more children – the more hands to work the field; the more warriors to protect the village. On top of that, if you didn’t want to starve to death, you needed children to take care of you when you got old. The ancient Israelites didn’t have nursing homes or social security. Your only way to die securely was to have children, and practically speaking, if you wanted to have 3 or 4 live to adulthood, you needed to have at least ten – that’s how high the morality rate was. And so having lots of children was literally a life or death issue for a family and for a nation. And that’s why women who bore lots of children were considered heroes, and barren women, like Hannah, were considered failures. You see Hannah felt useless because her culture said, “if you don’t have children, you are nothing.” Hannah felt useless. Peninnah told her she was useless. Her culture told her she was useless. And because of that, Hannah’s soul thundered with pain.

That’s pretty oppressive. Thank God we don’t live in a culture like that, right? Wrong. We do live in a culture like that. Every culture, including our own, is just as oppressive as Hannah’s. You see every culture has a game – a happiness value system if you will – and the rules of the game are simple. If you have X, then you have worth. But if you don’t have X, you are nothing. And so sure – barren women in our society aren’t judged. No one here will take a big social hit for not having children. But maybe you will for not having designer jeans. Or if you don’t wear a size 2 or look like whoever’s on the cover of Star Magazine. And of course it’s the same for men, who have their own expectations they’re supposed to be living into. A happiness value system is imposed on each one of us, and to the extent that we play the culture’s game, our soul will thunder. Let me give you some stats. 400 Christians involved in a campus ministry at the University of Texas were surveyed a few years back. In 2008,

• 72% of women felt bad about how they looked at least once a week and 13% struggled with an eating disorder
• 34% of men were addicted to pornography
• 20% had suicidal thoughts at least once a semester – that’s one out of every five

Let’s get real for a second – only an oppressive culture can create those kinds of statistics. Remember, those surveyed were Christians – people trying to anchor their lives in Jesus Christ. And like us, most of them found it difficult to be faithful and joyful. And so what I want us to see is that Hannah’s culture was no more oppressive than ours. Every culture plays the game. Every culture gives us a happiness value system and to the extent that we buy in our soul will thunder with pain. Now, I’m not saying our culture is the source of all our pain or even most of it, but it was the source of Hannah’s pain, and it’s the source of a lot the pain we feel, and that’s why I mention it. And so what does Hannah do?

Well, our reading tells us Hanna “rose” but the Hebrew word is implying more, that she finally “took a stand.” Hanna took a stand against finding meaning in her culture’s happiness value system and she decides to turn to the Lord. In other words, Hannah takes the mess her life has become and she decides to resolve it in prayer. And notice how emotional Hannah’s prayer is, so emotional in fact that the high priest Eli had never seen anything like it. He thought Hannah was drunk! But she’s not. In Hannah’s own words, she’s “pouring out her soul before the Lord.”

“I’ve been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” This is the middle way we’ve been looking for. We don’t stuff our emotions, and we don’t just vent them. No, we pour them out before God. Or to put it differently, we pour them in to God’s reality. Let’s look at one more Bible passage, which sheds a little light on how we do that.

Psalm 126: 4-6

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. 
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

I have to say, I love the psalms – they put us in touch with and help us to pray through the deepest emotions of the human heart. And most of the psalms, believe it or not, are “laments” – i.e., pre-reflected prayers of great pain and anger towards God. And this psalm in particular helps us see three things when it comes to our tears. It suggests that we should expect them, plant them, and pray them. In other words, expect tears. Plant your tears. Pray your tears.

First, we need to expect tears. A lot of Christians walk around with a myth that goes something like this. If I’m good then God won’t let anything bad happen to me. But the psalmist compares what his people are going through to the Negev, which was a lifeless dessert. Who knows exactly what his people are going through – perhaps a plague or a military defeat? But either way, what he’s saying to God is “our life right now is like the driest of deserts.” And so first, Christians should expect tears. In fact, to the extent that we grow in Christ we’ll actually cry more. The prophet Ezekiel says that God takes hearts of stone and turns them into hearts of flesh. What that means is that as we grow our heart becomes more like God’s heart, which is the softest and most tender heart in the universe. You see hearts of stone encounter evil and it just bounces right off. They feel contempt or anger towards the evildoer. But not people with hearts of flesh. They absorb the pain. They absorb the evil. They feel it deeply – like God.

And isn’t this what Jesus did? Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” And one thing we know about Jesus – he was always crying. His soul thundered in the face of the sin and sickness and faithlessness of the people he encountered. And just in case we’ve bought into the lie that God won’t let anything bad happen to us if we’re good, think of Jesus. He was pretty good and, well, things ended badly for Him. And so lesson number one. Expect pain. Expect tears. Not every day. Not every season of life. But there will be days, and there will be seasons, where weeping is par for the course. And when that happens, please know it’s not because we’ve done anything wrong or because God has abandoned us.

To the extent that we know that, we can (2) plant our tears when they come. Listen again to what psalm 126 says. “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” In other words, our tears need to be seen as an opportunity for growth. The image the psalm gives us is that of a farmer, and it’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening. Either, the farmer is weeping on the soil and his tears are supposed to be the seed, or the farmer has planted seeds and is watering those seeds with his tears. Either way, the point is the same. What this psalm is saying is that if our tears are planted in God, then in the end we’ll reap a harvest of joy. In other words, we’ll be more joyful, more loving, and more gracious than had we never wept in the first place. In and of themselves, tears will do us no good. But planted in God, they yield a harvest of joy. Paul puts it like this, “for we know that this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” What do tears planted in God do? Prepare us for an eternal weight of glory beyond anything that we can measure.

And if we know that, (3) we can pray our tears. We won’t stuff them. We won’t just vent them. No, we’ll think deeply about what we’re feeling – our anger and fear and disappointment and failure – and we’ll pour it out before the Lord. We’ll pour our pain into God’s reality, but in order to do that, we have to understand the reality of God. First, we have to know how great the grace of God is. This is something Hannah understood. You see Hannah had faith that the broken heart of one obscure little woman, whom the culture deemed a failure, mattered to God. That’s part of what’s implied when the Bible says Hanna “rose.” She took a stand against her culture’s nihilistic view that said she didn’t matter and she poured her soul into God’s greatness and God’s mercy because she knew that to Him she did matter. She mattered greatly. And so to pray our pain the first thing we need to realize is this: “it’s safe.” Our deepest, darkest emotions and fears can be expressed to God without shame. We don’t put before God what we think should be inside us. We put before God what actually is inside us, even if it’s messy. But to do that, we have to know how great the grace of God is.

Second, we have to pray our sufferings with a vision of the cross. We have to know that, the night before he died, Jesus said, “his soul was sorrowful even unto death.” In other words, Jesus knows what it’s like to cry out in pain and to hear nothing but silence. He understands. He knows. He experienced that for us.

Finally, we can only pray our tears to the extent that we know the glory that awaits us. Like the psalm says, those who sow with tears will reap songs of joy. The Book of Revelation says that in the end God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. In fact, psalm 56 says that even now God keeps our every tear in a bottle. In other words, every single tear matters to God. Every tear planted in Him will eventually reap a great harvest of joy – a harvest much greater than had we never cried in the first place.

Monday, November 1, 2010


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Then Jesus said, ‘Today salvation has happened in this house, for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Some of you have heard this story before but I’m going to tell it again. My sophomore year of high school I spent Labor Day weekend with some friends at the beach. I ventured off from my group momentarily and was approached by a young man about my age. As he greeted me with his right hand I noticed the bible in his left, and circumventing any formal introduction, he asked me a question that every person from Southeast Texas is asked at least once by a complete stranger. “Are you saved?” With all the maturity of a sixteen-year-old, I began to flail around in a sarcastic panic and scream “from what?” Yea, he didn’t think that joke was funny either. He tried again. “Are you saved?” Not knowing how to respond, I assured him that I was a devout Episcopalian. Knowing exactly how to respond, he told me Episcopalians were not saved – especially the devout ones. An awkward silence followed, which the young man eventually broke by taking a different angle; have you asked Jesus into your life?

In today’s Gospel Jesus looks at Zacchaeus and says, “Today salvation has happened in this house.” Salvation. That’s the focus of tonight’s sermon and so here’s what I’d like to do. First, I want to tell you what salvation isn’t by looking at two common misconceptions. Second, I want to explore what salvation is and offer insight as to what that means for your life.

First, let’s look at what salvation is not. There are two common misconceptions floating around. First, there’s what Dallas Willard calls “bar code” salvation. For example, let’s say you go to the store and buy an apple. When you check out, how does the machine know it’s an apple? It has a sticker with a bar code on it that tells the machine “apple” whenever you scan it. But let’s say you take the bar code sticker off a watermelon and put it on that same apple? Well, when you take your apple to be scanned at check out it’s going to ring up as a watermelon, right? Bar code salvation says that when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior – when we “pray the magic prayer” – the bar code in our soul changes, but that’s it. It does not matter if we continue living as the most rotten apple in the world; to God we’re a watermelon. We prayed the prayer. We moved from unsaved to saved. We die, God scans us – which is what judgment is – and we’re either in or we’re out. Now, there’s a shade of truth here, but nothing more. There are two many flaws to name but I’ll give us two. First, in bar code salvation, we don’t have to change at all. There is no intimacy with Christ in this model. Jesus changes our status but He doesn’t change our lives. Second, this model is completely individualistic and has nothing to say about our world. We don’t have time to talk about it tonight, but salvation is cosmic. It includes the physical universe and the material world. Misconception 1 – bar code salvation.

But then there’s misconception 2 – the idea that salvation is something we do; it’s mainly about us being good. According to this view we have free will – we choose to be good or bad – but if we are good and nice we’ll go to heaven and get an ice cream cone when we die. Yea we’ll make some mistakes – who doesn’t? – but if we try to be a good person, we’ll be fine.

Two problems. One, according to Jesus, we’re not just flawed. Brace yourself – we’re “evil.” Luke 11:13; “if you then who are evil know how to give good gifts how much more does your Father in heaven.” Do you see how casually Jesus slips that in?” “You guys are evil, we all know that.” In tonight’s Gospel Jesus is even more emphatic than that. Jesus calls us “the lost” – not the misguided – the lost. The problem with misconception 2 is that we’re evil.

But there’s another problem with a view of salvation that depends on us being good. We don’t have free will. We have free choice. God’s not pulling the strings. Of course we are free to make choices, but a million different factors influence those choices – our family history, genetic makeup, the choices of other people. In other words, a lot of things we don’t choose influence what we do choose. Why is it that we wrestle with the same things over and over again? Why do we want so badly to be like this, but then we go, time and time again, and we act like that? The apostle Paul puts it like this. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing that I hate.” Does that resonate with you at all? If so welcome to the club of people who can’t save themselves.

So a quick recap. Salvation isn’t tricking God. Switching the barcode. Saying a magic prayer that changes our status but not our hearts. But at the same time, we can’t save ourselves. We’re evil. “The lost.” To quote Isaiah, our “righteous” deeds appear as filthy rags before God and because of that we need salvation. And so the million dollar question – what is it and how does it happen?

Well, I’ll get the ball rolling but that’s about all I can do with the time that’s left. Let’s go back to that young man’s question – have you asked Jesus into your life? Theologically speaking that’s impossible. We never ask Jesus into our life. He always asks Himself into ours. Salvation happens when we respond to Jesus like Zacchaeus did, and I’m thinking of two things in particular. First, Zacchaeus took Jesus home – he accepted Jesus’ invitation. Second, Zacchaeus was so overjoyed that Jesus wanted to be with him that it changed his life. So let’s look at those really quickly.

First, a saving relationship with Jesus Christ never begins with a decision we make. It always begins with a decision Christ makes. Zacchaeus doesn’t invite Jesus over for dinner. Jesus invites himself over for dinner. And by the way, inviting yourself to someone’s home was just as taboo in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. My favorite verse in the Bible is Revelation 3:20 where Jesus says, “behold I stand at the door and knock, and if anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in an dwell with them.” Jesus knocks on our door, not the other way around. Do you hear Him knocking? Have you taken him home? Now, it’s a metaphor but stay with me. Jesus wants access to every room in the house – to every part of our lives. And so when it comes to our lives, where have we closed the door and said “sorry Jesus, this part of my life is private.” Or, have we let Him in all? Do we trust in some arrangement that Jesus made for us – bar code faith – or do we trust Jesus? “Zacchaeus,” he says, “I must stay at your house today.” Not visit. Not tidy it up. Not have dinner. I must stay. “I’m moving in Zacchaeus.” Jesus is knocking on our door. If he’s not in he wants in. If he’s already in he want to go deeper. Jesus is knocking on some door in your life – do you hear it?

Second, Zacchaeus was so overjoyed that Jesus wanted to be with him that it changed his life. In tonight’s Gospel Jesus says “salvation has come to this house,” but that’s a bad translation. The Greek is literally, “salvation has happened in this house.” Salvation is something that happens – it happens when our life is filled with a new and indescribable joy that begins to set us free. In other words, salvation, when complete, will give us back free will. We’ll be free, once again, to love God and to love people. Yes, it’s a gradual process. Like Peter says salvation is something we “grow into.” We will still wrestle with bad habits and bad attitudes. But, when we hear Jesus knocking, when we open that door, when we realize that we were lost but that Jesus sought us out and found us; salvation happens. We’ll be filled with a joy that changes us from the inside out. It happened to Zacchaeus. It can happen to us. Rotten apples can actually change into watermelons.

Now, we’re all at different places in our journey of faith, and we all need to open the door to Jesus in some aspect of our life. Some of us trust in an arrangement Jesus made for us to get us into heaven but we don’t trust Jesus. Some of us trust in ourselves and look to Jesus when we need a little boost. Some of us have no idea what we believe; we just know we need to be here tonight. And so here’s what I want to leave us with. Not one of us here tonight is a “seeker.” There’s only one Seeker – the Son of Man – and he came to seek out and to save the lost. The question isn’t, have you asked Jesus into your life? The question is, has he asked Himself into yours?

You are here tonight for a reason. He stands at the door and He knocks. Jesus doesn’t want to visit from time to time He wants to move in. If anyone hears His voice and opens the door Jesus will come in, your life’s going to change, and salvation is going to happen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


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At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!

We live in an unforgiving world. There’s a Newtonian-like law governing our world – Isaac that is, not John. You remember Newton’s third law, don’t you? For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Well, our world’s governed by the law of retaliation. “For every injury suffered there is an unequal and infinitely greater injury inflicted.”

I found a great website this week – thepayback.com – whose vision statement reads, “revenge at its best.” Revenge is big business. According to the site’s founder, “there’s nothing that gets your message across better than a smelly, dead fish! These packages are very popular and are typically sent to your ex, a backstabbing friend, or to anyone who has pissed you off.” What a perfect example of the law that governs our world – for every injury suffered there is an unequal and infinitely greater injury inflicted.

Now, I’m not trying to be naïve. People hurt us, and when that happens we can’t just pretend that they didn’t. Forgetting that someone’s wronged us simply is not realistic. For example, let’s say a wife cheats on her husband. The husband has two options. Option one, he can live by the law of retaliation. He can rub her nose in the dirt, tell her she’s awful, tell their kids she’s awful, and send her a dead fish. Or, option two, he can forgive her. But if the husband chooses to forgive he’s at the same time making another choice. He’s choosing to absorb the pain. Now, think about this. He can’t just pretend that his wife didn’t cheat. If he chooses to forgive he’s at the same time choosing to absorb the pain, to feel the pain, to take that pain into the center of his heart. No wonder we prefer option one. It’s so much easier than forgiving.

With the time we have left, here’s what I’d like to do. First, I want to give you the cliff notes version of revenge and forgiveness in the Bible. Second, I want to tell you what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. Third, I want to tell you the only place you’ll ever find the power to forgive others.

First, the history; right after the fall, Genesis chapter four, there’s this odd dude named Lamech who comes out of nowhere and says this. “I killed a man for wounding me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech is avenged seventy-sevenfold.” In other words, this is where the law of retaliation first surfaces in the bible – that awful law that says, “you hurt me, and I’ll make it seventy-seven times worst.” Now, fast forward a couple thousand years – God gives Israel “the Law,” and what does the Law say to do when someone hurts us? “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, the Law says we can hurt people back but not an ounce more than they hurt us – no doubt an improvement. But, is “an eye for an eye” the fullest expression of God’s heart? No. The fullest expression of God’s heart is seen in Jesus Christ, who says: “you’ve heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say to you do not resist and evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” In other words, Jesus reveals the fullness of God’s heart when he tells his disciples, “Take option two. Turn the cheek. Absorb the pain. Be like Me. Forgive others so freely and completely that the world thinks you’re crazy.”

There’s this great scene in the Gospel of Matthew where Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive a person that sins against him over and over again – “is seven times enough” Peter wonders. “Not seven times,” Jesus replies, “but I tell you seventy-seven times.” 77? Why not 78 or 76 – why 77? Jesus was reversing the law of Lamech. Lamech says, “you hurt me, I’ll make it seventy-seven times worst.” Jesus Christ says, “you hurt me, I’ll take it seventy-seven times over.” These are two very different ways of living in this world.

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to forgive people so freely and completely that the world thinks we’re crazy – to absorb the pain, to turn the cheek, to forgive seventy-seven times over. In tonight’s reading from II Timothy Paul gives us a great example of this reckless forgiveness. Apparently, Paul’s been deserted and his friends have withdrawn their support. And what does Paul say? “May it not be counted against them!” Paul prays for their forgiveness. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death. His last words are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, which says, “Stephen knelt down and cried in a loud voice, Lord do not hold this sin against them.” Of course, Paul and Stephen weren’t the first to forgive so recklessly. Luke tells us that in the midst of being crucified Jesus cried out, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” To be a Christian is to forgive people so freely and so completely that the world thinks we’re crazy. So really quickly, what is forgiveness, and where do we find the power to forgive?

What is forgiveness? Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not. Forgiveness is not forgetting. All forgetting requires is a bad memory. In fact, the reason forgiveness is so important is because, practically speaking, we can’t forget. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It’s also not reconciliation. Does God want us to be reconciled to each other? Of course! But reconciliation takes two people – it’s about rebuilding a relationship. Forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t the same thing. So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness begins when we quit – when we quit the quest to get even, which is the natural inclination of our wounded soul. Forgiveness is an act of the will, an intentional choice to absorb the pain instead of inflicting it back on whoever caused it. Forgiveness is not withdrawing. Forgiveness is engaging. Meeting the pain head on. Taking the pain into our heart and praying with Paul, “May it not be counted against them!”

So here’s the million-dollar question. In an unforgiving world, how do we forgive people so freely and so completely that the world thinks we’re crazy? We have to see how much it cost for God to forgive us. I can’t tell you how often people ask me, why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Why couldn’t God just forgive us? Isn’t He God? Can’t He just wave a wand around and pretend it never happened? Well, let me ask you this – can you? I mean, do we believe in a personal God, or don’t we? Do we believe that God is love – that He’s vulnerable and that He allows Himself to be hurt – or don’t we? Think of a time you’ve been really hurt. Lied to. Humiliated. Cheated on. Betrayed. Could you just forgive? No. You either made them pay, or you said I forgive you and you absorbed the pain yourself. You took it into your heart. Now, if it’s true that no one can hurt us more than the people we love the most, and if it’s also true that God’s capacity to love is infinitely greater than ours, then isn’t God’s capacity to be hurt infinitely greater as well? You know that metaphor I used earlier about the wife that cheats on her husband – that’s perhaps the most common metaphor the Bible uses to describe humanity’s broken relationship with God. In other words, God loves us with a perfect love. But we – we reject that love in such a way that God feels lied to. Humiliated. Cheated on. Betrayed.

Can God just forgive? No, like us God has two options. One, He can make us pay. God can withdraw. He can give us the cold shoulder. And theologically speaking, that’s what Hell is – God removing His presence from us. But, God also has option two. God could choose to absorb all the pain of the entire human race Himself. The accumulation of our lies, our unfaithfulness and our betrayal and all the pain that comes with that – God could absorb it all Himself. The good news of the Christian Gospel is that God chose option two; that on the cross Jesus Christ, in a cosmic and mystical way, turned the other cheek seventy-seven times over and cried “may it not be counted against them!’

Now, if that’s true – and for the record, my deepest belief about the world is that it is true – if Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross is true, then everything has changed. If it’s true, we have to forgive. We must choose to absorb the pain when others hurt us. We can’t return it. You see forgiving others isn’t something we have to put up with as Christians. No, forgiveness – absorbing the pain, turning the cheek – this is our privilege as Christians. It’s our calling as Christians. Its what makes us more like Jesus.

Now, when worship ends I’ll be sending us out into an unforgiving world. Just to be clear, we only have two options when people hurt us, and they will. We can live by the law of Lamech or we can live by the grace of Jesus Christ. Following Jesus means living by a different law – for every injury suffered there has to be an unequal and infinitely greater blessing returned. Where do we get the power to do that? Look to the cross. Jesus has forgiven us seventy-seven times over. Our job is to forgive others so freely and completely that the world thinks we’re crazy.

The law of Lamech or the grace of Jesus Christ. God chose option 2. My hope and my prayer is that you will, too.