Sunday, October 24, 2010


Copy and Paste to listen:

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 – – 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.

Monday, October 18, 2010

not losing heart

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Faith can be hard. Believing the Gospel can be hard. Living in the world with hope can be hard. This world – it’s a tough place. Bad things happen, and from time to time we just feel bad. We get depressed. Lonely. Scared. Frustrated. Overwhelmed. Discouraged. Hopeless. Words like confidence, security and joy – these are the things we want to feel, but let’s be honest, they elude us. Yes, there are good moments. But the anxious moments – they just seem more frequent and because of that faith is hard. It is so easy to lose heart.

In tonight’s Gospel Luke does us a huge favor. He tells us the point of Jesus’ parable before he even tells us what the parable is. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and to not lose heart.” Jesus knows that faith is hard. In fact, a few verses before telling this parable this is what Jesus says: “The days are coming when you will long to see the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” You know that confidence, security and joy that eludes us? They’ll overflow in “the days of the Son of Man” – which is a reference to Jesus’ return when He’ll fully establish the Kingdom of God. God knows we long to see those days! But let’s be honest, right now we don’t see it and because of that faith is hard. According to Luke that’s exactly why Jesus tells tonight’s parable. He wants us to keep praying and to not lose heart.

And so if someone asks you the point of tonight’s sermon you now know what to say; the point is to pray always and to not lose heart. Great, you may wonder, but how do we do that? Well, I’d like to give us three images – not three steps; that’s not how faith words – but three images. I’d like to give us three images that speak to (1) who we are, (2) to who God is, and finally, (3) to what God’s done.

First, we have to know who we are; you and I are widows. Second, we have to know what God’s like; that is, the character of the world’s true judge. Third – and to me this is crucial – we have to know the verdict. To keep praying and not lose heart, we need to see ourselves, we need to see God, and we need to see the verdict.

First, we have to see ourselves as widows. There’s a reason this parable is about a widow and not someone else. In Jesus’ day widows were the weakest and most dependent members of society. You see, in Jesus’ world women that weren’t married had no protection. They were dependent on others to provide for their needs. In other words, widows are the perfect symbol of all that is weak, dependent, and powerless – that is unless someone intervenes and shows them mercy.

Now, you and I – I’m not sure we like this idea that we’re weak, dependent and powerless. Our culture would have us believe it’s better to die than to beg. The moment we begin to sense we’re not in control, we panic. But God – God invites us to love the fact that we’re not in control, to love the fact that we’re beggars. In fact, Paul wrote II Corinthians to respond to charges that he was a powerless and dependent wimp. Apparently, the Corinthians were watching other preachers – preachers that were strong and eloquent and who boasted about how great they were. But Paul – well, he was awkward, and apparently not the best preacher, and so listen to how Paul responds to the criticism. “I too will boast.” In other words, if other preachers are boasting then I’ll boast too. “I will boast … of my weaknesses” he says, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. I’m content with weakness, hardship, calamities and persecutions for the sake of Christ. For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Why do confidence, security and joy always seem to elude us? I’ll tell you why. These are gifts God gives to beggars. To pray always and not lose heart we have to see ourselves as widows.

But knowing we’re weak isn’t enough; we have to see the character of our judge. The judge in Jesus’ parable – he’s a horrible person. He’s selfish, corrupt, and doesn’t care at all for the widow. He doesn’t go to church or give money to Salvation Army. He’s a complete caricature of man worthy of the title “your honor.” Jesus’ point? God. Is. Not. Like. That.

A lot of us lose heart because we forget who God is. Now, we’d never say this, but deep down we’re all a little scared that God’s like that judge – removed, distant, and annoyed by widows like us who need God’s justice, and for Jesus justice is about restoration. Justice happens when the needy are clothed and the empty are filled and when sad people are given a reason to smile. The good news of the Christian Gospel is that this is exactly what Jesus came to do – establish justice on this earth. But, it’s a justice we’re still waiting for. We long to see the days of the Son of Man but we don’t yet see it.

There’s this great scene in the Lord of the Rings where Sam discovers that Gandalf is still alive. “I thought you were dead!” He screams. And listen to what Sam asks next. “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” Is everything sad going to come untrue? Jesus has a clear answer to Sam’s question. Yes. God is not like that judge. He cares. He sees. He knows. God is not like that judge. He’s not going to delay a second longer than He has to before He comes to bring justice to this world. The true judge of this world is so kind and so compassionate and so good. We have to see the character of the world’s true judge.

Now, there’s one more piece. To pray always and not lose heart we have to know the verdict. I said earlier there’s a reason this parable is about a widow. There’s also a reason it’s about a judge and just happens to take place in a courtroom. You see in the Bible the courtroom is a metaphor for Judgment Day, and in the Old Testament it’s not really an uplifting metaphor. I mean, just think about tonight’s reading from Jeremiah. “It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors,” he says, “when I took them by the hand to … the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke.” In other words, God takes our hand. Saves us. God makes a covenant with us. But we – we broke it. In the Old Testament – or the old covenant – God’s people are on trial and the verdict is guilty. Judgment – that’s what the courtroom symbolizes in the Old Testament. Now, what’s significant is that Jesus tells this parable the week before he dies, and when he does so, he’s well aware of the trial that awaits him. And so we have to ask, why would Jesus allow himself to be tried if he knew that he would be found guilty?

The answer is that Jesus believed that his death would establish the new covenant that Jeremiah was talking about. There can be no doubt about it, Jesus had Jeremiah’s vision memorized. On the cross that vision became a reality. To quote Jeremiah again, he would “forgive our iniquity and remember our sin no more.” Jesus’ death would establish a new covenant, and it would not be like the old one. The verdict of guilty – it wouldn’t be taken away. But it would be transferred. It would not be heard by the people of God. No, the gavel would come down on the Son of God. Yes, there’d still be a trial. But Jesus himself would stand in as the defendant. He would be questioned. He’d be found guilty. He would be punished. And we – the widow – would get justice. What was lost in Eden would finally be restored.

We have to know the verdict. At the most basic level this parable is about a judge that finds in someone’s favor, which is the very definition of the word justification. Justification happens when a judge finds in someone’s favor at the end of the case. Now, I know we all make mistakes. Day after day we heap up plenty of evidence to suggest that we’re guilty. It is so easy to lose heart and to think that God’s gavel will eventually come down on us. But according to the Gospel, guilty is not our verdict. You see when we come to Jesus the first thing he tells us is that our case was closed at Calvary. Jesus stood in our place. And so if there is a file in heaven labeled “Newton” that has a list of all my sins, it’s covered with dust and has a label that reads case closed. That is the verdict. The new covenant. The reason that everything sad will come untrue. God intervened to show us mercy. And so have faith. Believe the Gospel. Live in this world with hope.

Do you long to see the days of the Son of Man? You will. And so pray always and don’t lose heart.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Healing (the prayer of faith) -- OMEGA

Our series on prayer continues and tonight we come to what is known as “healing prayer.” And of all the different types of prayer we’re discussing this is probably where a lot of us might get uncomfortable, and for good reason. There’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds healing prayer. After all, not everyone is healed, and even for those who are, their restored health is relatively short-lived. For example, consider the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11. Lazarus has been dead for four days and Jesus calls him out of the tomb. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus says. And Lazarus miraculously comes to life, leaving his tomb – at least for a couple more years because eventually Lazarus gets sick, dies, and he’s put back in that exact same tomb.

And so let me begin laying out a theology of healing prayer by saying this – the Bible tells us that at the end of time God will heal everything that is broken on this earth – the earth we now inhabit. In other words, end-time salvation involves a healing of the physical universe, which obviously includes our bodies. And so when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, He wasn’t a disembodied spirit or a heavenly ghost. He was a resurrected person. It was Jesus’ new, resurrected, and healed body that ascended into heaven to be with the Father – not just Jesus’ spirit.

Now, there’s a reason we have to understand this. Far too often we forget that God cares for the body just as much as He does for the soul. We forget that the redemption we have in Christ is complete, that it involves every aspect of who we are – our soul, our mind, our will, our spirit, and of course our body. What this means is that whenever we pray for bodily healing what we’re asking is for God’s future healing to break into our present lives.

Now, what I want us to see is that this in-breaking of God’s future healing is something that should be happening in every single one of us from a spiritual perspective. For example, consider the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. As Christians, these are virtues we should all be growing in. But do you see what’s happening when we grow in love and joy and peace? God’s future – where love, joy, and peace are all normal realities – is breaking into our present lives. And because of that, growing in the fruit of the Spirit is nothing less than the healing of our Spirit. Praying for physical healing, therefore, is the other side of this same coin. In both cases, God’s future healing is breaking into our present lives through the power of His Spirit.

I think the Gospel of John captures this idea pretty well. In the Gospel of John, the word miracle is never used to describe Jesus healing someone. Instead, John uses the word sign to describe physical healing. John wants us to see that physical healing, when it does happen, is a sign. Why? Because a sign’s primary function is to point to something else. In other words, what John is trying to say is that anytime Jesus heals someone it’s a sign – that the purpose of healing is to point people to God’s future Kingdom where the entire creation will be healed. In other words, no one is ever physically healed just for the sake of being physically headed. Remember, Lazarus was healed – but all that did was prolong his death. And so any healing we experience now is always intended to point to that future healing that awaits all of God’s people. Now with that in mind, let’s take a look at what James says about healing prayer.

James 5: 13-16

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.

Now, there’s a lot about this passage that interests me. For example, notice James’ question – “are any among you sick? They should call the elders and have them pray.” Did you notice how confidently and quickly James answers his own question? What this tells me is that James flat out assumes that the church he’s writing to has a ministry of healing prayer. James expects healing to be a part of the church’s life; otherwise he would have explained himself a bit more. The tone of the letter makes this clear. It’d be like me saying, “are any among you sick? They should go to the doctor.” I’d be speaking in a tone that assumes doctors can heal sick people, and so if you were to respond, “doctor – why would I go to a doctor?” it’d be an incredibly strange thing to say. Because in our world we all believe that healing happens when doctors go to work. But in James’ world they all believed that healing happened when the church got together and prayed for God to go to work. Healing, in James’ world, was just assumed as something God would do every now and again.

Now, does this imply that healing prayer should replace medicine? Of course not. James tells the elders to anoint the sick with oil. In Jesus’ day oil was used for the soothing of the body and the softening of the wounds. In other words, oil was medicine. And so at the very least, this passage tells us that healing prayer isn’t supposed to replace medicine – it’s supposed to supplement medicine. According to Richard Foster, “There may be times when God asks us to rely upon prayer alone for healing, but this is the exception, not the rule. The refusal to use medical means to promote healing may be a gesture of faith – but more often than not it is a gesture of spiritual pride.” (Prayer, 204) In other words, medical science – like all science – is a gift. And healing prayer doesn’t reject that gift.

Now that being said, what does healing prayer require? I’d like to focus my attention on two things: the prayer of faith and the confession of sin. “The prayer of faith will save the sick,” James says, “and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” And so let’s look at these.

1. The prayer of faith

James says that the “prayer of faith” will save the sick. What exactly is James saying? Well, I’ll tell you what he’s not saying. James isn’t saying that for someone to be healed they can’t have any doubts, or worse – that if someone isn’t healed its their fault. “They just didn’t have enough faith.” It’s called the prayer of faith; not the prayer of certainty. You may recall, there’s this great scene in the Gospel of Mark where a man asks Jesus to heal his son and Jesus responds, “All things are possible for those who believe.” And the man then says something profound. “Lord I do believe, but help thou my unbelief.” In other words, “I believe – kind of. But, please heal my son anyway.” And Jesus does. And so the prayer of faith isn’t a prayer of certainty. And so what is it?

The prayer of faith is a very specific and direct request. Sometimes we don’t know how to pray for people and so we just “lift them up to God.” “Lord,” we say, “I don’t know what this person needs but you do.” But the prayer of faith that James mentions is different – it presumes to know exactly what’s needed. If the person suffers from migraines, the prayer of faith isn’t “thy will be done.” No, the prayer of faith presumes to know God’s will. We ask for the migraines to be removed.

This is what Richard Foster says about the prayer of faith. “As we come to clearness about what is needed, we invite God’s healing to come. We speak a definite, straightforward declaration of what is to be. We do not weaken our request with ifs, ands, or buts. [Instead] we speak with boldness.” (Prayer, 211) The prayer of faith, then, is a bold request for our Father in heaven to bring His future healing into the present in a very specific way.

2. The confession of sin

Now, you’re probably wondering – what does sin have to do with sickness? And the answer is everything. Now, don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that physical illness results from personal sin. That was actually the predominant view in Jesus’ day and Jesus firmly rejected it. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection between spiritual sickness – or sin – and physical sickness. Remember, the redemption we have in Christ is total and complete. Our body is not the decaying prison-house of our soul, as Plato argued. Salvation isn’t about escaping the body. Salvation is about God restoring and healing the body. And so our body isn’t a prison-house but a temple – a temple that God wants to restore so that He can fill it with His own life. And so there is a strong connection between the healing of our body and the healing of our spirit.

Now, this is a dangerous point I’m trying to make, and it’s easily misunderstood, and so I’m going to leave the realm of theology and appeal to medicine and social science. Does anyone know what a psychosomatic illness is? Psychosomatic illnesses begin in our minds and our emotions – with anger, fear, stress, and grudges – things like that. In other words, they begin with sin. Psychosomatic illness is what happens when these harmful, spiritual realities overflow into our body. And so perpetual anxiety and fear can become an ulcer. Chronic stress can turn into migraines. Psychosomatic illness – that means it’s all in your mind, right? No, it’s all in your kidney. It just starts in your mind.

Now, medically speaking, what I’m saying isn’t very controversial. And please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that all sickness – or even most sickness – is fueled by emotional problems, i.e., by sins that need to be dealt with. But I am suggesting that the relationship is much stronger than we think, and I’m proposing that all physical healing needs to be accompanied by spiritual healing. Of course, Jesus taught the exact same thing. More often than not before he’d heal someone physically Jesus would say something like, “Your sins are forgiven you.” Physical healing and spiritual healing go together, and that is why James tells people seeking physical healing to first confess their sins.

This is what the late Ed Friedman – a famous family systems psychologist – observed regarding the connection between our emotional or spiritual health and our physical health. “Whenever I develop [physical] symptoms,” he said, “I know that I’ve been lying to myself.” (Failure of Nerve, 223) Wow. In another book Friedman says this. “New discoveries in medicine have laid the groundwork for understanding the emotional … aspects of physical illness, and have thus diminished the notion that individuals are simply “victims” of disease. It is no metaphysical leap to say that the care of our soul [will] affect the overall health of our body.” (Generation to Generation, 123 & 129) Now, Friedman wasn’t a Christian. He wasn’t using the Book of James to develop an alternate theory of physical healing. Friedman was merely recording what he observed over forty years of professional work – that a correlation sometimes exists between spiritual sickness and physical sickness.

And so before we ask for physical healing we need to do a moral inventory and see sickness as an opportunity to repent, i.e., to renew our relationship with God – to look for areas in our life where we’re not obeying God and to confess that disobedience not only to God but also to someone else. You see the beauty of sickness is that it lays bare the truth of our spiritual condition – namely that we’re weak, vulnerable and dependent creatures who need God for absolutely everything. And when we’re healthy that truth is never something we seem to appreciate. When we’re healthy we feel like we can do anything. We feel great. We’re in control. We’re masters of our destiny. But then we get the flu. Or our back just gives out. And in these moments of utter dependence we are forced to see the truth – the truth that we are feeble creatures in desperate need of the healing that only God can give.

The week I outlined this talk I received an email telling me that a member of All Saints – someone I care about – had cancer. And the immediate response, not on my part but on the part of her small group, was to ask me to put together a healing service. And so on a Thursday night in the middle of August eight of us gathered to pray for her healing. We read the Gospel. We celebrated the Eucharist. We laid hands on this woman and we prayed the prayer of faith. And we were bold. We asked God to take away the cancer. We asked God to give her a radical and powerful experience of His grace and His love. We asked God to bless the doctors and that her treatment would be effective. I have to say, this was an incredibly powerful prayer service because what we all experienced that night was the church being the church – gathering together in the name of our Lord for no other purpose than to cry out for healing. This is the Scripture we read that night.

Revelation 21: 2-5

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’

Let us never forget that all healing on this earth, whether physical or spiritual, is a sign – a pointer – to the great healing that awaits us all, where death and crying and pain will all be a thing of the past. Now, I know that there’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds healing prayer, but at the same time in the early church healing was just a given – something James assumed would be happening in the Christian community that he wrote to. The question I leave us with tonight is this –have we stopped assuming that healing should be happening in ours?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

praise (hallowing God’s name) -- OMEGA

I want to begin by acknowledging something that’s true for each and every one of us. We all want to be praised. We want to be known, acknowledged, appreciated, loved and celebrated. It doesn’t matter who we are or from what culture we come, we all want to be praised. For example, think of a child. The most repeated phrase of any child is “look at me! Look at me!” And it doesn’t matter what they’re doing – riding their bike or going down a slide. Kids want to be seen, to be noticed, to be praised. A desire to be praised is just built into our DNA.

Of course, the problem is that we grow up and we let that desire rule us. We all have that friend – everything always seems to be about them; about what they’re doing and what they’ve accomplished and about how awesome they are. And we have a saying for people like that. We say they’re “full of themselves.” Now let me ask you this – is being full of ourselves a good thing? Of course not.

Before CS Lewis became a Christian he was really bothered by the idea that God wanted praise. Like us, Lewis didn’t care much for people who were always seeking compliments and praise. And so Lewis wondered – if God is perfect then why does He insist on being praised? Does God need praise to feel good about Himself? Does He have low self-esteem? That’s what CS Lewis wanted to know. Well, before we answer Lewis’ question let’s look at what Jesus says about praise.

Matthew 6: 5-6, 9

Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Pray then in this way. Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Now on the surface this passage seems pretty straightforward but if we’re willing to dig we’ll answer four incredibly important questions about what it means to praise God.

1. What is praise?
2. Why is praising God necessary?
3. Why is praising God primary?
4. How does praise work? In other words, how do we do it?

Once again, Jesus teaches us (1) what praise is, (2) why it’s necessary, (3) why it needs to come first in our prayer life, and finally (4) how we do it.

(1) And so what exactly is praise?

Well Jesus’ definition of praise is captured in the phrase “hallowed be your name.” Jesus says we’re supposed to hallow God’s name. Now, this isn’t a word we use very often. Does anyone know what it means? To hallow something means to treat it as absolutely sacred. In other words, whatever we hallow is our ultimate concern – the most crucial and sacred thing in our life.

And so what does this tell us about praising God? That to praise God means to make Him our ultimate concern. In other words, when we treat our relationship with God as absolutely sacred, praise is just what happens. And so perhaps a better word is adoration. According to Richard Foster, “Adoration is the spontaneous yearning of the heart to worship, honor, magnify, and bless God. In adoration … we ask for nothing but to cherish Him. We seek nothing but His exaltation. We focus on nothing but His goodness.” (Prayer, 81) To praise God is to make Him our ultimate concern.

(2) Why is praising God necessary?

Well, let’s rule out the possibility that God has low self-esteem and needs a little ego boost. The reason praising God is necessary is because we all praise something, we all hallow something. Remember, to hallow something means to treat it as absolutely sacred, it means to make something our ultimate concern. And what we have to understand is this – that’s something we all do. In fact, hallowing is something we have to do. What we hallow gives direction to our life. What we hallow motivates us. We literally cannot live unless we hallow something.

Look at the people Jesus criticizes in tonight’s Bible reading – people who love to stand and pray in public places in order to be seen. What they hallow, Jesus says, is their spiritual reputation. That’s their ultimate concern – being known as a spiritual person. In other words, what they praise is the praise of other people. And according to Jesus, “They have received their reward.”

And so there’s a question we all have to ask ourselves – what do we hallow? Let me share with you a quote from one of my favorite celebrities. “I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being, and then I get to another stage and think I'm mediocre and uninteresting, again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that's always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I've become somebody, I still have to prove I'm somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.” Any guesses on who said that? Apparently, you don’t read Vogue. Madonna. Madonna’s ultimate concern is proving she’s special, proving she’s praiseworthy, proving that she’s not just mediocre. “Even though I’ve become somebody,” she says, “I still have to prove I’m somebody.” What Madonna hallows is proving to the world that she matters – that’s where all of her praise is centered.

I think more than anything this quote captures why praising God is necessary. We all praise something. We all make something our ultimate concern. But if it’s the wrong thing we’ll find ourselves in a struggle, a struggle that deep down we know will never end.

Only praising God will end the struggle because one of the first things we see when we learn to praise God is that we don’t have to prove anything to anyone. No, it’s God who proves His love for us – that’s why He alone is praiseworthy. And the good news is that praising God is something we can learn. In fact it’s something we have to learn to flourish as human beings. But, we can’t learn to praise God until we’re honest about what we praise now. And according to Jesus, the key to knowing what we hallow has to do with what Jesus calls being “in secret.” William Temple once remarked, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” And so let me ask you this – when there’s nothing you have to do where do your thoughts go? What do you day dream about? Answering that question will tell us a great deal about the thing we most adore. And it can be anything – success, comfort, approval, family. What do we worry about? What do we think about? In the secrecy of our hearts what do we value? Anything can become an ultimate concern. And so what I want us to see is that praise is something we all do really well. Our challenge isn’t to learn how to praise. It’s to learn how to transfer our praise from whatever it’s on now to God.

(3) Why is praising God primary?

It’s incredibly significant that Jesus’ teaching on prayer begins with “hallowed by your name.” In other words, before we confess our sins or ask for daily bread Jesus tells us to begin our prayer by praising God. Why?

Jesus knows that the bulk of our problems are problems of adoration. Adoring the wrong thing throws our life out of balance. After all, what we hallow motivates and fuels our life and because of that what we praise completely controls our view of our self, our view of God and our view of the world. And so when we hallow things more than God our perspective on life gets distorted.

One of my favorite preachers tells the story of a dad who takes his little girl to the candy store. “Sweetie,” he says, “do you see all this candy? Doesn’t it look good? You’d like some of this candy wouldn’t you?” And of course this girl goes crazy – there’s nothing she wants more. But instead of giving her the candy, her dad grabs her by the wrist, drags her out of the store and yells at her, “Forget it. You can’t have any candy! In fact as long as I’m alive I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you never get your hands on this candy – ever!”

Now obviously, this is a cruel Father. But I tell the story because I think it sheds some light on why we have a hard time praising God. I think that deep within us is a fear – a fear that God’s like that dad. I think deep down we’re all scared that God gives us deep desires, that He waves the candy in front of our face and then just snags it away for no reason. I mean have you ever had your heart set on something or prayed for something only to be devastated that you didn’t get it? Have you ever been crushed and left wondering – seriously God, what was the point? Do you know what’s behind that question? A fear that God isn’t good.

Think about how the Bible begins. Adam and Eve are in a garden and God says, “It’s all yours. Eat whatever you want. Just one rule – you need to stay away from the tree of knowledge because that tree’s bad for you.” But then the serpent comes along and he begins spreading lies. “God is holding back. If God really loved you, if God were really good, He’d let you eat that fruit.” And do you know what happened in that moment? Adam and Eve’s praise shifted – what they hallowed shifted – from God to the fruit. And in that moment a great lie entered the human heart – the lie that says because God withholds things from us He cannot be good. And if we believe that lie it’s going to distort our view of God, it’s going to distort our view of our self and it’s going to distort our view of the world. You see, there’s only one thing that can heal the lie. Praise. Making God our ultimate concern. Hallowing His name above all else. Seeing Him in all of His goodness – only praise will heal the lie.

(4) How do we praise?

Well, think about how the Lord’s Prayer begins. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Question – which one is it? Is God our Father – close, tender, caring, and intimately involved our lives? Or is God in heaven – holy, totally Other and different, a God of justice who rules the world with wisdom and power, who looks at the Sun and sees a marble? Do you see where I’m trying to go with this? We pray this prayer so much we miss the miracle and the paradox of what Jesus is saying – that God is both Holy and powerful and yet at the same time that He wants to be our Father. To the extent that this amazing reality sinks in, praise will be the most natural thing in the world.

But the reality is, praising God is not the most natural thing in the world, which means that praise is something we need to learn. And to learn to praise God we need to name two things that get in our way.

First, inattention keeps us from praising God. Life is hectic. It moves fast and it’s really easy to get caught up in our activities – school and family and friends and church and social obligations. And so learning to praise God requires slowing down and making time to pay attention to God. Or, in order to grow we need to slow. We need to read the Scriptures. We need to spend time in creation. Simply put, we can’t praise something if we can’t see it and so we need to pay attention.

Second, misplaced attention keeps us from praising God. If we’re bent on making something other than God our ultimate concern – our job or status or a certain relationship – we’ll never learn to praise God or anything else for that matter. The irony is that we can only learn to praise or value another person if we’re committed to praising God first. Perhaps you’ve been in a relationship where you felt smothered. And do you know why you felt smothered? Because no human relationship can bear the burden of God-hood. If someone ever makes you their ultimate praise please be careful. It’s not going to end well for either one of you.

And so if you want to learn to praise God this is where I’d start. Make two lists. On the first list, write down God’s attributes that you find appealing. For example, words like loving and merciful and holy and perfect might be on list #1. On the second list, write down what God has done for you. He created you. He gave you a certain amount of intelligence. He’s given you the gift of faith that saves you from sin and death. He’s promised to restore our world. Just make a list. Then, read your two lists to God and say amen. Will this feel clumsy and awkward? No doubt. But do it in secret. And trust me, what seems silly to you will ravish the heart of God. Like Augustine said, “God thirsts to be thirsted after.”

And so let me end by saying this. We all want to be praised. We want to be known, acknowledged, appreciated, loved and celebrated. It doesn’t matter who we are or from what culture we come, we all want to be praised. Just so you know – that’s a good thing. God created us to be praised, celebrated, appreciated and loved. And so just as important as the question “what do we praise” is the question “where are we seeking our praise?” Madonna – she wants if from you. She’s going to work really hard to make sure you don’t think she’s mediocre. Others – they want praise from their peers or their spouse or their parents. But what about us? Where are we seeking our praise?

You see the miracle of the Christian Gospel is that God praises us. We don’t deserve it. We don’t earn it. But God genuinely delights in us because of what Christ has done for us. By living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, Jesus gave us His record and His obedience so that when we put our trust in Him we don’t just have the Father’s acceptance. We have His applause. His praise.

And so if any of you are trying to live a good life in order to get God’s praise do me a favor and stop right now. Instead, ponder the great miracle that in Christ you already have God’s praise. God’s applause.

And so back to our question – why does God want our praise? Because praising God puts an end to the struggle. You see God knows that we only really have two options. We can either be full of ourselves or we can be full of God. Praising God is all about being full of Him and to be full of God is to be full of life.