Sunday, December 8, 2013

“A Promise that Shapes All That Hear It” Luke 1:26-38 December 8, 2013

Our Christmas tree at home is probably like a lot of yours.  It is not decorated in any specific color ornaments or seasonal theme.  It is covered in decorations that tell our family story.  There are ornaments from our children’s first Christmases. We have others that represent places we have visited.  Still others mark our children’s past love for baseball or ballet or some other thing that grabbed their attention for a season.  There was a time we would laugh together as we would tell the story of each ornament as it was hung.  But, somewhere along the way, the telling of the stories has faded and we now quickly and efficiently decorate the tree the Saturday following Thanksgiving.  There is a part of me that misses the stories.  Those stories help make our family who it is today.

This season is filled with stories.  We have heard them from our childhood.  We watched them played out in the annual showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  We watched it lived out in song and dance in our musical production of It’s a Wonderful Life. We laugh at Dr. Souses’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and leap with joy when we see The Miracle on 34th Street.  Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and the ridiculous A Christmas Story remain favorites for me this time of year. 

But there are other stories - more important stories.  They tell us about Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist.  They tell us of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  We hear about angels singing and shepherds watching their flocks by night.  We read of the fiery and angry Herod and the Wise Men, Magi, from the East.  We listened as these stories were read in church or played out as a part of a children’s program, with kids scrambling to take their favorite part.  If we are not careful we can discover that we have heard these stories so many times; that they have become so familiar; that they lose their meaning for us.  We come to Advent and we find ourselves moving through the holiday motions born in habit, rather than being confronted with how these stories can challenge and change us.  Last week Sarah introduced the theme of the Advent Conspiracy.  It is a challenge to worship God fully, spend less, give me, and to love all.  The Advent stories help call us toward that kind of heart, that kind of Advent experience with one another and with God.  In each of these stories people like you and me are confronted with the Advent story, the story of God coming into our midst for the sake of salvation, and have to decide what to do with it.  Each of their responses is different – but each of them had to respond one way or another. 

Within the walls of the Temple an angel appear to Zechariah to tell him that he and his wife would have a child who would pave the way for the coming Messiah.  Instead of rejoice at the news this lower level priest looked at the probabilities because of the age of his wife, and doubted. He would be silenced until he saw God fulfill the Advent promise.

This morning we heard the passage read that tells of Mary’s encounter with the Advent promise. A teenager that was committed to be married heard the angel tell her that she was favored with God and would give birth to a child that would be the Son of God.  Her response to the Advent promise is a remarkable one. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (vs. 38) Her response was an unequivocal “yes.”  But she certainly had to understand the price.  People could doubt how she became pregnant.  She could bring shame on her family and on Joseph.  She could be driven from our community as a tainted woman.  There is a seemingly endless array of possibilities and probabilities for rejection and condemnation that she could face – but she responded in confidence in God and obedience to God.

Joseph’s story was like Mary’s.  Joseph understood that his future bride was with child.  The right cultural response was to divorce her.  Most would choose a public forum to shame the woman, but Joseph was a good  and righteous man and considered doing it in private.  Now the angel tells us that the child is from God, in fact is the promised Immanuel, God with Us, a son he was to name Jesus.  God asked him to embrace Mary.  His name, his family name, his righteousness could possibly, no probably be in doubt.  He had to respond to the Advent promise, although it could cost him everything.  He wanted to be faithful and obedient, so his answer was “yes’ regardless of the cost. 

There are still others that will be confronted by the Advent stories.  The shepherds will be watching their flocks at night when an angel of the Lord and a choir of heavenly hosts came to proclaim that unto them, unto the world, a child had been born who was the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior.  They left everything they owned; everything they were responsible for; everything that made them who they were sitting on that hillside to see if it was true.  When they saw the babe, they did not head back to the hills – but instead hit the streets to make sure everyone heard the news. 

The Magi, searching the skies for a sign of the coming king, loaded their camels and rode.  They left everything and everyone they knew to see the Advent promise come true.  King Herod had a different response.  The Magi brought him the words that confronted him with the Advent promise.  He did not respond in hope or obedience, but instead with anger and viciousness.  The promised One created possibilities and probabilities that his power and his lineage was at risk.  He was willing to destroy the innocent in an effort to destroy the promise.

Everyone that was confronted with the Advent promise of the Messiah had to choose to do something with it.  Everyone that heard the word that the Messiah; the Promised One; of God with us; of Jesus; had to decide how they would respond to that word.  We are no different.  We have to choose what to do – how we will respond – to this great gift of God. 

It is so easy to get caught up in the dash to dress our home and secure the required gifts for the season.  It is so easy to let the Advent stories pass by us with little notice because we have heard them so many times before. It is so easy to move through the Christmas season motions because we have done it so many times before.  But this year I want to challenge you to stop and consider what the Advent promise of God with us, of a Savior born for us means to you and in your life.

For some, the right response to the Advent promise is a “yes” to a relationship with God.  For too long these have been stories to you, but today you began to understand that this promise of a Savior is for you.  There is hope for you.  There is redemption for you. There is forgiveness for you. The babe is a manger is Jesus for you.  Will you leave the behind the anger and the angst, the self destruction and the relational destruction of others and claim this Christ as your Savior?

For others the right response to the Advent promise is to listen up and look up and get on your camel and ride.  It is so easy to be consumed by what it right in front of us.  It is so easy to be held captive by the demands of the day.  Somewhere deep inside of us we long for more.  We want to be closer to God.  We want to walk with Jesus.  Will you breakout and break away and realize that the story is more than today’s story.  Can you make time to seek God and find the joy of the babe in the manger – a Savior born for the word – of a God that wants to be with you where you are?

A vital part of the Advent promise is that God uses people to accomplish His Kingdom plan.  God has crafted and equipped you for something beyond yourselves.  This year will you move beyond measuring the possibilities and the probabilities to say “yes” to whatever God might be stirring in your to do?  Sometimes we can find ourselves frozen by the risks and seized by fear. Will we be bold enough to say “yes” in confidence and obedience to God?  The word from the angel to Mary still hangs in the air. For with God nothing will be impossible.” (vs. 37) For some this is a call to go and serve – for others it is a call to reach out to others and restore broken relationships and redeem broken moments. 

For all of us there is the Advent call to come and see the birth of the Savior and to share the news with all we know. So many – too many – will embrace the story of the Grinch, Frosty and Santa Claus with the same passion as the story of the birth of Jesus.  They do so because they do not know the power of the Advent promise.  How can they know unless someone tells them?  How can they respond to the good news of great joy if they never hear the good news? To whom might God be calling you to share the news?

You need to know that no response is a response.  In choosing not to respond you choose to let the story lay within the pages of the Bible and miss what it can and will mean in your life.  This may be the saddest of all possible responses because in choosing to be unmoved – untouched by the story – we miss all that God can and will do in our lives.  We miss receiving God’s greatest gift – a savior – redemption – forgiveness - a living and loving relationship with God.  Hear the Advent promise – and then respond – however it is right for you – however God calls you.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Walking on Water" - Matthew 14:22-36 - November 3, 2013

Most Sundays I tried to begin with a great story to pull us into the focal passage in a creative and engaging way; but not this week. This morning we come to one of my favorite passages in Scripture but in spending some time with it recently I saw something new in the passage – okay, it’s not something new in the words of the passage – but a new perspective on the passage for me.  I am so excited about it I can hardly wait to share it with you.  So, with no grand story we dive straight in to the passage.  You heard it read in its entirety earlier in our worship service, but now talk a closer look with me at the great story of Jesus – and Peter – walking on water. 
We join Jesus and the disciples just as the close of the feeding of the 5000. When all the people had been fed and the leftovers picked up we hear that 22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Steven McConnell once showed me a picture that made me quiver in discomfort at the very sight of it.  It was him standing on the Skydeck on what was once called the Sears Tower, now called Willis Tower.  The Skydeck’s website proudly proclaims; “The Ledge transforms how visitors experience Chicago. At 1,353 feet up, The Ledge’s glass boxes extend out 4.3 feet from the skyscraper’s Skydeck on the 103rd floor, providing never-before-seen views of the city.”[i] You see, at twelve years old I made the bright choice to jump off the roof of our garage shattering my left wrist. Ever since then I have had a mild – okay, maybe not so mild, fear of heights.  I could not imagine paying for the opportunity to stand 1.353 feet about the street below.  I’m glad Steven enjoyed the scenery and could marvel at the tiny people and cars below, because I would have been frozen in fear. 

It is important to note that our story begins with a reaction of fear. Those in the boat were like me on a ledge, frozen in fear. I think, if we are honest, there are moments when we all have been gripped by fear. For some it was born in the midst of a relational conflict. For others it is when the whispers ripple through the company that layoffs were near.  For still others that feeling of fear emerged when something happened that twisted your plans and turned your world upside down.   But hear that what makes this moment of fear so powerful is that those in the boat were not strangers but disciples. They knew Jesus. They had seen Jesus heal the blind, raise the dead, and make the lame able to walk again. They had just witnessed Jesus feed the multitudes. They had seen Jesus calm these very waters. They were scared because this was more than a miracle – it was an act of supernatural power…it was more than their mind could comprehend. So they found themselves frozen in the boat with fear.  But hear that we are not intended for lives of fear. The good news is that the story does not end in here. Fear is not the final answer.

I can almost see Peter leaning out on the edge of the boat calling out to Jesus, wondering how he might respond. He pleads with Jesus to calling him out on to the water with him.  28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” This is a well known story but in our effort to chuckle at the sinking Peter we can miss the impact of the event. Peter was BOLD!!!! In this moment Peter understands the power of God and wants to experience it more personally. He wants to see what happens when he leaves what he knows through the power of God.  Jesus calls and he steps out of the boat.  The passage tells us that he doubted. I have listened to other preachers declare that his problem was that he took his eyes off of Jesus.  But there is more to it than that.  The best way to understand the word “doubt” in this context is that Peter was “double minded.”[ii] His faith is mingled with fear; one part of him longing to walk with Jesus and the other part of him felt the wind and waves and his fear overtook him.  Before we find ourselves laughing out at Peter as he begins to sink we should ask ourselves how many of us would have been willing to get out of the boat? How many of you would have been like the other disciples and think Peter was crazy? Can you recall a moment when they took a personal risk? Can you recall a moment when you took a risk for/with God?

In days gone by I would have pointed us to Peter’s crisis of faith and Jesus reaching out his hand to catch him.  This picture helps us see Jesus reaching out to us and lifting us out of the waters in our own moments of fear and spiritual crisis.  This picture lets us know that the waters will not consume us.  This picture echoes the words of Isaiah 43, verses 1 through 3. Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you, for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.  This picture has made this passage one of my favorites because it let me know that when I tried to stepped out on the water with Jesus and failed because of my own fears and limitations that Jesus would not let me sinks to the depths and drown, but would extend his hand in love and lift me us into his arms.  If this is all that this passage had to offer, it would be enough for me.

But recently I saw something more in this passage.  I know that it has been here all along, but it was new to my  eyes and resonated deep within my heart.  I want you to take a second look at the story.  Hear again; 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.  Did you see it? Jesus invited Peter on the water with him and Peter began to walk on the water to him.  Through faith Jesus expected Peter to be able to walk on water. 

It is so easy to begin to measure the possibilities, even the probabilities, of an endeavor with God based on our own resources, skills and capacities.  If we want to be an apprentice of Jesus he calls us to another way.  Listen as the angel speaks into Mary’s fears regarding the birth of Jesus; (Luke 1 7) “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Hear as Jesus speaks into the wondering eyes of his disciples as they try to put their hands around the nature of salvation; (Mark 10 27) Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”  We can imagine Jesus walking on water, but deep inside we know that apart from God we do not belong on the waves.  But Jesus calls us to be water walking followers.  We are meant do to the impossible with God.  Okay, trying the impossible with God sounds good and everything, but the temptation is to stay in the boat…..but when we are bold enough to venture out and it gets difficult, we tend to want to dive back to the boat. It is easy to be like Peter and be double minded, a part of us ready to venture forward in faith, another part held back by fear.  But hear that while the fear and doubt are real, they are not from God. We are meant to be with Jesus on the water.  Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was not for his desire to walk on the water with Jesus, but because his faith gave way to his fears- and because Peter was defined by his own limitation rather than living out the impossibilities with Jesus.

The story wraps up; 32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret.35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.  Those that never left the boat offered great words of faith.  They fascinate me because we are so much like them.  Our faith is easiest to proclaim from a safe place, a place that we are sure of, a place where we have something to hang on to.  They wanted to be with Jesus, but wanted Jesus to be where they were, where they were safe and comfortable. They had seen the divinity of Christ and the faith of Peter and in awe and wonder they worshipped.  But, they had missed the moment, if you want to walk on the water with Jesus you have to get out of the boat.  Soon enough they land and the crowd returns.  It is back to normal for the disciples.  There is Jesus again healing and teaching.  There is Jesus again, doing his thing.   But Peter will never be the same because of this day. Soon he will offer his great confession that Jesus is the Christ.  Soon Jesus will commission him for leadership.  His life and walk with Jesus will never be the same again because he got up out of the boat and for just a moment walked on the water with Jesus – did the impossible with Jesus – went to where Jesus beckoned him rather than waiting on Jesus to come to him.  Peter knew what it was to walk on water with Jesus and to be rescued by Jesus when he wavered and sank.  For just a moment Peter knew what it was to really walk in faith with nothing to hold on to but Jesus.

If Jesus was walking on the water it is exactly where his disciples should be, have we been too timid, too cautious, too careful when Jesus meant much more for us?  What it would look like to walk with Jesus on the water in our lives?  What kind of boldness of faith and the absolute dependence a life of water-walking demand? Where are the waters that Jesus is calling you to?  Where are the waters where Jesus is calling our church family? What grand impossibility does he desire for you and for us? What life shaping moment awaits you? We are meant to walk on water with nothing to hold on to but Jesus.  Get up from the boat – step out of your comfort zone – move out from your safety net and step into the water with Jesus. It will call you to a single minded faith that will change everything.  You were meant to walk on water, but to walk on the water with Jesus you have to get out of the boat and take that first step to Jesus.   

[ii] Ben Witherington III, “Matthew,” Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smyth and Helwys: Nashville,2006),p. 293

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Crystal Clear Mission - Mark 1:35-39 - October 6, 2013

Most of know the feeling. So often it seems to come out of the blue.  A doctor walks into the room and delivers news that takes our breath away.  The phone rings and we simply cannot believe the words we are hearing.  Something happens in life that seems to cut us off at the knees. A sense of desperation floods our lives and we feel completely out of control. We know we there is nothing we can do to change the situation.  We cry out, praying that God will do something to change our story.

 This is not new.  This is the story we have seen played out since the first days of Jesus’ ministry. Let’s look at what happened in the hours just ahead of our focal passage for the morning. Mark tells us:

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. 27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

 29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. 32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

 Jesus steps into people’s desperation.  Jesus steps into their brokenness.  Jesus steps in and changes people’s lives forever.  So, before I go forward, please hear me tell you that if you find yourself in a time of desperation and your life seems out of control, you are not alone.  Many that sit beside you and around you face the same kind brokenness and season of life crisis.  You are not alone. Jesus is in the restoration business and is ready to change your story; Jesus is ready to bring healing into your life. 

 I also want you to see that when people see something incredible occurring crowds of the curious come running.  The word was out.  Jesus was teaching with authority, casting our demons, and healing the sick.  News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee and the whole town gathered at the door.  This word probably does not surprise you.  Almost every time we come to the Scripture from the Gospels, we find Jesus doing only what Jesus can do and the crowd reacting.  We can only guess how many hours Jesus spend healing others. We can only guess how exhausting the day that began in the synagogue, carried him to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and ended with him surrounded by a clamoring crowd must have been. We can only imagine how spiritually fatiguing it must have been to care for so many.   You might think that Jesus would seize the moment. The crowd was with him and with a few more miracles they would have been ready to rally behind him, ready to take on the Romans that possessed and dominated them.

But that is not the story unfold. Jesus does the unthinkable. Sarah read our passage earlier in our service, but hear it again as we seek to understand and embrace a call to crystal clear mission. 35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

 Jesus was up well before the normal movements of the day. Before the people in the house stirred, before there was movement on the town’s dirt streets, before most had even thought about waking, Jesus was up and out headed to a secluded place.  Jesus got way from everyone, finding a quiet place where he could talk with the Father. In the predawn hours Jesus looked for and found a place to pray in peace and quiet, without distractions.

 Our story continues; 36 Later Simon and the others went out to find him. 37 When they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.”  As surely as Jesus withdrawing to quiet places for prayer was a part of the gospel story, so are the disciples and others coming looking for Jesus.  Jesus had escaped the demands of others for a little while, but they would not let him linger there too long. The crowds beckoned him.  They brought their own wants, needs, and agendas. They had pain and brokenness they wanted Jesus to address. There were people they loved that they wanted healed.  They wanted Jesus.  The disciples brought the word, Everyone looking for him….at least everyone they knew.  I imagine that they expected Jesus to come back to town with them. They had witnessed so many remarkable miracles.  I image that Peter and Andrew we proud of their new found status in their hometown as disciples of the healer Jesus. The whole city was at their door. I would imagine that they would expect that Jesus would come back and build on his success and new found notoriety in Capernaum. They were in for a huge surprise.

 38 But Jesus replied, “We must go on to other towns as well, and I will preach to them, too. That is why I came.” It is easy to get caught of meeting the demands of the others.  It is easy to let the demands of the “immediate” get in the way of what is most important.  It is easy to get so caught up doing what is good that we miss doing what is bigger, what is the will of God. The disciples came to get Jesus in response to the crowd, but after his time alone in prayer, Jesus was crystal clear that his mission was not just for the crowd in Capernaum; it was time to move on. He did not allow his ministry to be held hostage by the expectations of others, but rather moved boldly forward in the ministry set before him. When the disciples begged him to return to the crowd that awaited him, Jesus headed out and headed on to the other towns and villages of Galilee.  Jesus headed out and head on to fulfill the His mission.

 So what does this short story mean to us in this place this morning?  Why do I bring this passage into a sermon series calling us on a journey to become authentic apprentices of Jesus? I believe it is an essential passage in embrace our call to be an apprentice of Jesus- of walking at his side so closely that his will and his way defines us.  I believe that this is one of the three defining moments in Jesus’ early ministry.  The first is the moment Jesus’ baptism – when his ministry begins; the second is the pronouncement in the synagogue in Nazareth that defined Jesus redemptive mission; and this one, where Jesus is confronted with the option of playing to the crowd and increasing his popularity and chooses instead to be faithful to the task given to him by the Father. In Jesus’ choice to embrace his mission regardless of the opinions of others he models for us the call to develop a crystal clear understand of the mission we are given

For us, there are three clear implications. 

1.      We can only be clear on our mission when we are in intimate communion/conversation with the Father.  Our first task is to put ourselves alone and listening to God and to listen- and then respond.

2.      We need to make sure we are not distracted by other voices.  There are countless voices inviting – even compelling us – to pour ourselves out for this great cause or another.  It is so easy to get caught up in the moment that we fail to focus on the things God has created us and shaped us to do.

3.      Our mission is God given, born in our gifts and lived out where God has placed us. . The mission for each of us is difference because how we have been gifted and called is different.  But, each one, each call, each mission, is essential for us to be the people God intends us to be.  This is not just about what you are good at.  It is equally about the visions and passions that God has stirred within you.  It is responding to the inner yearnings and crystal clear mission that God has placed in our hearts. This is not about filling in the slots for volunteers needs – but aligning who we are and how we serve with what God uniquely intends for us.

As an apprentice of Jesus Christ, lean close. Listen and follow his lead.  Live out of a crystal clear sense of mission for which you have been created and refuse to settle for less.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Power of Confession - Psalm 32:1-7 NSRV - September 15, 2013

This morning we begin with a Bible study reflection by one of our children.  Aubrey, come and share with us. Today in Sunday School, we learned about a time when King David did a lot of wrong things. He started with one bad thing, and then he kept doing more bad things to cover up the one bad thing. It was getting out of control! Finally a prophet named Nathan came to King David. God asked Nathan to tell David that it was time to stop keeping secrets and hurting everyone. He told David it was time to talk to God. David was ashamed and he went to God to ask for forgiveness. And God forgave David because God promises to forgive us when we sin. The point of the story is: we have to tell God we are sorry when we do things wrong.  Thank you for sharing, Aubrey.  That is an important lesson to learn.

The picture of the Prophet Nathan’s confrontation of David with his sins – his transgressions – his mistakes – his bad acts that were out of control and hurting everyone around them.  The story of David’s relationship with Bathsheba is one of the great scandals reported in Scripture.  David’s illicit actions with Bathsheba triggered a web of lies, adultery, murder and more.  Everyone in the story ends up deeply broken because of one man’s actions. David tries to hide his sin and shame until the very moment when the prophet confronts him.  The prophet let him know that there was going to be consequences for his actions, but the promise of forgiveness awaited David.  It is into this broken story our Psalm sings out.  David has cried out and confessed everything he had done to God and experienced the matchless forgiveness of God.  Hear the words of David’s psalm again. Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.You are a hiding place for me;  you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

One of the things we lost in the Reformation and the great division between Catholicism and Protestantism is the tradition of confession.  As Baptist we have embraced the belief in the priesthood of the believer.  If you listen, many try to describe what this means they will say something to the effect that “we do not have to have anyone between us and God – we can read Scripture on our own, we can pray on our own, and we can be forgiven on our own.”  There is truth to this perspective, but what we often miss is that if we truly embrace the priesthood of the believer it means that we are to be priests for one another.  It means that we are to provide each other spiritual encouragement but also spiritual accountability.  We like the idea of encouraging each other but honestly we struggle with the idea of holding each other accountable. Somehow we have come to view accountability as a near kin to being judgmental.  But without accountability we will often continue to hold on to our secret sins and shames.  Without accountability we can miss experiencing life giving forgiveness.  Without accountability we can miss the vitality of transforming grace.  Hear a word from James 5 as it proclaims; Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. 

In our embrace of the belief of the priesthood of every believer it seems that we lost the language of confession.  It is our loss.  We need Nathan’s to speak into our lives when we are on the wrong path.  We need to be reminded that we are called to confession – to each other so that we can be held accountable – and to God that we might experience forgiveness given by God alone.  I believe one of the reasons we struggle to live as the forgiven is that we have never fully embraced what it means to confess our sins to God and then experience the power and depth of God’s forgiveness.  When we lay our hearts bare before God we invite God to wash us clean – to purify us – to forgive us – to make us whole.  We hold on in secret hoping that no one will know and subconsciously pretending that God does not know already.

In this psalm David comes to celebrate the joy found when forgiveness flows into our lives. But he is clear that that he needed to be forgiven.  He remembers the pain his silence brought into the lives of others. He remembers the weight of his secret sin and shame.  We know that weight. Somewhere deep inside we know we need to forgiven. Somewhere deep inside we know it is time to let go and call out to God. It is into that heart-felt need that David invites us into his moment of confession where everything changes. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  I John 1:9 joins this great psalm of David and cries out; If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 

In a few minutes we will come to the table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  This is the place where we come to acknowledge the gift of Christ that makes forgiveness and grace possible for us.  This is this place to acknowledge God’s answer to our sin and failures was to make a way for us to be redeemed and restored again.  This morning I invite you to prepare for this experience by looking into the depths of your heart and in silence come before God in confession.  Lay before God all of your secret sins and shames.  Lay before God all that you have done or said – or failed to do our say – that has wounded others.  Lay before God all that separates you from knowing the fullness of God’s love for you.  Confess – and know that as you cry out to God – your cries of brokenness will be replaced with songs of forgiveness and cries of deliverance.  Call out and confess to God – and let His forgiveness rain down into your heart and soul.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Inseperable - Romans 8:31-39 - September 8, 2013

Some of the numbers are staggering. Our family stories began places far from this place.  It is 8728 miles from OKC to Yangon, Myanmar. If you were visit the Chin Mountains you would still have two days to travel by train, by bus, and by truck. It is 7640 miles from here to the Sudan and it is 7129 miles from where we sit to Cameroon. Mexico City sits 1100 miles from here. Paxman’s home in Ghana is more than 6800 miles away.  Last summer my family had the opportunity to visit the villages in England where my family originates. They are idyllic villages with narrow roads and thatched roofs cottages.  They lie over 5000 miles from here.  Our language lab has a growing number of people from India. Their homeland is more than 8600 miles from here. The lands and cultures from which we emerge are all so distant, so far way, our languages so distinct, how can we begin to discover a sense of shared faith together?  For the past several years we have used this service, the Global Sundays, as a tool to try to bridge the gap.  Leaders have decided to set this service aside from the coming season to allow individual churches to spend some time working to find their own unique identities, ministries, and congregational expressions.  Hear my support for this decision and for the need for each congregation to take a season to focus on reaching those in their own cultural context, but it means that we will have to be more diligent not to become congregations that merely share a building.  I believe we are still called to be family for one another. I believe that we are still called to model a picture of a God that transcends miles, cultures, and languages as a witness to the world.  I believe we are still called to learn to love each other and to find ways to minister together.  As we move into this new season we will have to be intentional about crossing boundaries and claiming the love of Christ with and for one another in new and creative ways. 
But you need to know language and culture boundaries are not the only boundaries that can separate us as we walk the halls together.  This week Kim sent something to the choir this week that struck a chord deep within me. I have expanded it a bit so that it embraces a wider swath of our church family story.  Did you know that...
____________ is barely holding it together because of the stress of life and loneliness?
____________ is dealing with a horribly cruel person who invades their life at every turn?
____________ is broken-hearted and terrified about their adult child who is in crisis?
____________ is fighting depression because of a job they hates?
____________ is dealing with a complex issue with their parent and has no idea what to do next?
____________ is questioning their worth?
____________ is grieving a great loss?
____________ is fighting bitterness over a dream that will never come true?
____________ is worried about losing their job?
The difficult reality is that there is not just one name that fits in any of these blanks.  These stories ripple across the lives of those that you worship beside this morning.  We come bruised and broken, hoping and praying for more.  But in an effort to survive, we build silent walls of protection and hide behind them hoping that no one sees and no one knows.  As we continue to seek to be the redeemed people of God together, we will have to continue to be intentional about crossing boundaries and claiming the love of Christ with and for one another. 
I believe that there is a Scripture that speaks with power into this moment of our church’s story.  We heard our passage read earlier this morning read in Falam.  Hear it now in English. The passage begins;31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 

I love these words.  They are barrier breaking words! They begin by reminding us that if God with us than who can be against us. Let me rephrase, if God is with us that it really does not matter what is against us.  Because of the work of Jesus then we do not have to accept the condemnation of others.  Their judgment is immaterial.  We do not have to accept the accusations of others.  Their words are ultimately meaningless.  Listen to me – when it is all said and done no one else’s opinion matters.  The only words that matter are the ones Jesus offers us as his children that tell us that He has made the way for forgiveness. He stands at the right hand of God as the means of our salvation and the champion of our soul. We do not have to hide in shame or hold our secret fears. We do not have to feel that we have to carry around our guilt and our shame.  We do not have to live in quiet isolation from others in fear that if they really knew us they would reject us.  Jesus has done the work required to make hope and redemption possible.  Hang on. These are more than a litany of nice church words and preacher promises. They are the promise from God that we are to be inseparable from him and one another. 
Listen to the second half of our passage for this morning. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 
The bounds of Christ’s love transcend any wall or boundary we can imagine. The words God gives to Paul describes virtually everything that can happen to us. The list is pretty inclusive – trouble or hardship or persecution – famine or nakedness or the very threat of death.  What I want us to hear is that no matter what we are facing and how dark it might seem, it cannot separate us for God’s redemption and hope.  No matter what we face, we can overcome it through the power and strength of God.  Many of those that sit in this room have had to face many of these things to get to this place and this moment.  For them the story of trouble and hardship, persecution and famine, losing everything and having your life threatened is a part of their story of faith.  Their testimony can and should inspire us that God’s word is true.  God delivered them and will deliver you.
But the passage does not stop there.  It goes on to describe the bounds of God’s love for us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  The spiritual reality is that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.  I know that this sounds like a simple concept, but every day I deal with people that deal with issues, people and perspectives that cheat them from living in God’s love.  They hold God at a distance – or feel that God holds them at a distance.  I want you to come to understand that through the great grace act of Jesus that you are – we are -inseparable from God’s love. 
Through Christ we are able to experience the destruction of all the barriers and the conquest of all that we think separates us from God and one another. It is time for the walls to come down.  There are some concrete steps to I believe we take to make this passage live in our lives. 1. Choose to pray. There is a group of pastors that meet each month for the sole reason to pray for one another.  There is no business – no bravado – just one question – “how can we pray for you?” When they answer one at the table volunteers and prays specifically for that one’s need.  We need to invite others to pray for us and pray with directed purpose for one another. We need to pray for one another that we might know and experience God’s great love for us.  2. Choose to engage. This is more than a “how are you doing today? – fine” kind of exchange.  It means that we pour ourselves into each other so that God’s love and our love flow over the boundaries and barriers and we truly connect with each other. We need each other and we need to learn to become inseparable because we are people shaped by God’s boundless love. This calls us to engage each other across language and culture, bruises and brokenness.  Let’s be honest, the boundaries and barriers that divide us are comfortable because they let us stay safely in our own comfortable corners.  But we are not made for comfortable corners.  We are made to live out of God’s boundless love.  Reach out – even when it pushes you toward another language or compels you to walk with someone in their brokenness. 3. Choose to bless.  When you live behind a boundary or barrier it is so easy to let others pass by leaving us separated and segregated.  We need to choose to bless each other with words of hope and redemption, love and restoration.  Speak into one another’s lives with promises of an abounding grace and a limitless love that destroy walls and heal brokenness. Bless each other, because no one else is waiting in the wings with a word of hope and love. Your words may be the only words of blessing someone hears.
I bring you good news – God is with us, not judging and condemning us – but loving us with a matchless love. God is with us, ready to break down walls and step into our brokenness.  God is with us, and no one and nothing can separate us from his love – or from one another if we live in his love.   May we learn to be inseparable.!