Unity in a Divided World

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 4:2-6 NIV

Devotional

Paul writes Ephesians to a church that seems to be divided around ethnic and cultural lines. Gentiles coming into the faith along with Jews makes for difficult church potlucks. Paul reminds us that no matter our background, ethnicity, social status, etc., we are all saved in the same way by the same Savior sent by the same God.

For three chapters Paul reminds his readers that all the barriers that once divided these two diverse groups have been destroyed through Jesus. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” (2:14) Paul was adamant about this diverse group of believers being unified in Christ.

Today Christ’s church finds itself divided by politics, polity, worship practice, ethnicity, and a multitude of other issues. If Paul were writing to the church in the U.S. today (or any other nation for that matter), what would he say about our unity? I believe it would sound very much like Ephesians. May we seek a unity within the body of Christ that amazes the world around us and glorifies our Father in heaven.

Prayer

Father, our world is full of proud and boastful people. Our national leaders seem to do nothing but provoke division and slander one another. Lord, help us to remember that you have called us to be different. Your Spirit inside of us should unite us above and beyond whatever could divide us. I pray that your Church will truly be one body, divided only by physical location, but never divided in purpose, mission, and fellowship. May we base our unity as one body in the common Spirit, Lord, Faith, and Baptism we share. And may our unity be a witness of your salvation to the world around us. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Name It And Claim It Doesn’t Quite Cut It

To be honest, I never quite know what to do with the story of Hannah.

On one hand I’d love to preach a sermon that says if you simply pray hard enough just like Hannah did, then God will give you the desires of your heart. After all, Hannah did pray earnestly and the barren woman did have a son. David also prayed earnestly and lost his son. I can give you examples of people in my life who have experienced both Hannah and David moments. Name it and Claim it doesn’t seem to cut it with this text.

On the other hand I could say that Hannah’s story is an example of God blessing a faithful woman, and so the answer must be to have a strong faith and God’s blessings will come. Job also had a strong faith, and was blameless while losing all his children. Just have more faith doesn’t seem to cut it either.

Perhaps the struggle I have is not so much with this text, but rather trying to make God predictable and controllable, or perhaps make him out to be a cliché. It seems to me that we always want to be able to nail down exactly how God will act. We almost would prefer a genie that is obligated to give us our three wishes rather than the living God of the Bible who acts according to his nature and for his glory all the while being bound to flawed human beings through covenant.

Hannah’s prayer in particular sets up themes that the rest of Samuel will address. Let me give an example of what I’m talking about before returning to Hannah’s story. Most Christians are familiar with the idea of God not changing, and we usually get this from James. Samuel gives us a more detailed look at this concept. The Hebrew word in question is nakham. Let’s look at it in context.

The Preeminent One of Israel does not go back on his word or change his mind, for he is not a human being who changes his mind.

1 Samuel 15:29 NET (emphasis added)

Both places in the text that are italicized are the translations of the Hebrew word nakham. It means to change one’s mind. God doesn’t do that according to 1 Samuel 15:29. It tells us this twice in the same verse! But now let’s look at two other verses that occur before and after verse 29.

I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned away from me”…but the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. 

1 Samuel 15:11, 35 NET (emphasis added)

Both times the word regret is used is the Hebrew word nakham. God does not nakham according to verse 29, but he does nakham twice in the same chapter. So what does all of this have to do with Hannah? I think the key to understanding this textual confusion is in verse 29. The text tells us that God does not go back on his word. NIV translates this that God does not lie.

In other words, I think Samuel is teaching us that God will nakham based on the actions of the covenant people to whom he has committed himself. Saul turns away from God, so God nakhams. But from God’s own ultimate purpose and character, he will never nakham. Both can be true at the same time. I believe this teaches us that God will always act consistent to his character and purpose in the world, even though that means the details of how he interacts and carries out that character driven purpose in the world might vary.

Back to Hannah. When we look at her prayer we notice quickly that this isn’t a prayer of God’s intervention in one person’s life, rather a prayer of national, even cosmic thanksgiving as God displays his character in the world. And notice the contrast and consistency present in how God acts in the world.

The bows of warriors are shattered, but those who stumble find their strength reinforced. Those who are well-fed hire themselves out to earn food, but the hungry no longer lack. Even the barren woman gives birth to seven, but the one with many children withers away. The Lord both kills and gives life; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord impoverishes and makes wealthy; he humbles and he exalts. He lifts the weak from the dust; he raises the poor from the ash heap to seat them with princes and to bestow on them an honored position. The foundations of the earth belong to the Lord, and he has placed the world on them.

1 Samuel 2:4-8 NET

Do you see the contrast? He weakens and strengthens, feeds and starves, gives fertility and infertility, gives life and takes life, gives wealth and poverty, exalts and humbles. God will never nakaham from his mission, his character, and his promises. But the application of this in the world will vary. Hannah testifies to it. Samuel recognizes it. And we are often uncomfortable with it.

And still I find comfort in this text. Bit by bit we are reassured that we serve a God who hears us and knows us. Hannah poured out her soul to the LORD, the LORD heard Hannah, and remembered her. Hannah reminds us that the LORD is a God who knows.

I don’t know why Hannah can pray for a child and God miraculously intervenes. He is a holy God and there is none like him. And at the same time I don’t know why a faithful, childless woman can earnestly pray for years and no miracle comes. He is a holy God and there is none like him.

We sit in the tension. We wait in the discomfort. And that’s where we meet Hannah. She faithfully poured out her soul to God while weeping bitterly, and did the same with rejoicing at the dedication of Samuel. In lack and abundance, in need and in blessing, Hannah poured out her soul to God, and God heard her.

Our God does not nakham. When we pour out our soul before God, our prayers will be heard. We may or may not receive everything we ask. But the LORD is a God who knows. And in that I find great comfort.

Idolatry and the Church

Late Saturday afternoon I was paralyzed with a thought…a realization…an all consuming alarm going off in my head, and a knot in the pit of my stomach that just wouldn’t let go. This same thought had floated through my mind on and off over the course of the last 6 months, but today it hit me like a ton of bricks. And I can’t ignore it any more.

I’ll be preaching from Exodus Sunday morning from a text most people think they are familiar with. After God performs many signs and wonders against Egypt, after Israel crosses through the sea, and after God provides for them in the wilderness, the people arrive at Mount Sinai. A beautiful and powerful covenant ceremony takes place…a wedding if you will between God and the people of Israel. This is where we receive the 10 Commandments in the Exodus narrative. They begin like this:

20:1  God spoke all these words: 

20:2 “I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 

20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 

20:4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below.20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me,20:6 and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

Ex 20:1–6 NET

After we read the 10 Commandments, we hear the voice of the nation of Israel speaking to Moses:

“You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.”

Ex 20:19 NET

Did you follow that? The first thing God wants them to do is recognize that He is the one who brought them out of Egypt. They should not worship any other deity, nor try to capture or constrain Him to some sort of created image. That’s what everyone else in their part of the world would do, but this is not what they are called to do. And their response is that they don’t want to hear directly from their Savior. The Creator of heaven and earth is willing to speak directly to them, and they don’t want to hear it.

After God finishes talking to Moses, the very next thing to happen after this wedding scene is sin. Aaron (co-leader of Israel along with Moses and Miriam, the priest who just finished dining in the very presence of God) makes a golden calf idol for the people to worship. But notice what the text tells us:

Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 

32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the LORD.” 32:6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play. 

Ex 32:4–6 NET

Do you hear the Garden of Eden narrative ringing in your ears within this story? The very first directive God gives Adam and Eve is to not eat this fruit. What’s the first thing they do? They eat the fruit.

The first directive God gives Israel is that He is the one who brought them out of Egypt, so don’t worship any other gods or make an image of him. What’s the first thing they do? In their own context, they eat the fruit. God wants his people to be a “kingdom of priests” who are different from the world around them in order to lead the world to God. But Israel chose to be just like the world.

Now fast forward to today. COVID plagued election season in America.

God has called his church to be a “priesthood” so that we might “proclaim the virtues” of Christ and lead the world to him. But just like Israel, the church has chosen to be just like the world. “Christians” are routinely bowing their knees to a golden donkey or elephant while proclaiming that this is the only hope our world has.

The church has bowed to a golden calf instead of humbly leading the world in worship of our Savior, Jesus the Messiah. Instead of pointing to the cross and the empty tomb, we’ve been pointing to our chosen candidate as if they were gods.

We are also good about pointing to ourselves saying “look what we have made!” When it comes to reaching the lost we focus on programs, and music, and skilled speaking, and comfortable buildings, and coffee bars, and awesome children’s wings, and flashy websites, and social media…the list goes on and on and on. And don’t hear me saying that those things are inherently bad. They are not! Very good things can come from all of them. But when we start thinking that the power to reach the lost comes from that list of things instead of the Holy Spirit’s work on the hearts of the lost bathed in the prayers of the saints, we have bowed our knee to the golden calf.

When did we stop trusting God? When did we stop believing in God’s active role in our world? When did we trade our mission of being the hands and feet of Christ for the cheap substitute of producing an entertaining show?

The last word that Jesus has for the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel is to “Go and make disciples.” And we are all too often comfortable with sitting inside of a nice church building and politely whispering “Ya’ll come!” And now that God has allowed our world to be upended, and our worship routines to be disrupted, our instinct has been to immediately return to the “Ya’ll come” comfort we had in February.

But instead of focusing on how we can get people back at the church building post-COVID, maybe we should focus on how we can get out membership out of our buildings and reach the lost in our communities. Perhaps one of the byproducts of us all dealing with this routine altering plague is that God is sick and tired of our routine!

Sisters and Brothers, it’s time that we stop being just like the world around us. Trusting in the trappings of this world in order to save the lost is worshiping the golden calf. We must be the people of God who get outside of the building and shine His light in the darkness of the world that surrounds us. It’s time that we obey our Savior’s voice and “Go and make disciples,” not stay and wait for the lost to show up. It’s time to stop putting our hope in routines and resources of our own making, and begin prayerfully pleading for the courage and wisdom to fulfill our mission to the lost.

Long story short: Stop bowing to the golden calf.

The Story of the Bible

One of the most repeated story lines in the Hebrew Scriptures:

God’s chosen people are to be a blessing to the nations. In response to an outcry of violence, they are rescued through the waters because of evil. They then offer intercession so that God’s covenant blessing can go out to the nations.

This storyline is repeated time and time again (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Jonah, etc.)Over and over again you see this pattern (with minor variations) repeat itself.

And by the end of the story you realize the people need a new Noah, a new Abraham, a new Moses, a new Joshua, a new David, a new Elijah, etc.

And the one the New Testament writers portray as all of those “new” people is Jesus.

And Jesus reminds God’s chosen people that they are to be a blessing to the nations. An outcry of violence and a rescue through the waters because of evil ensues. And Jesus offers intercession so that God’s new covenant blessing can go out to the nations.

This is the way the New Testament writers read their Bible. Perhaps it’s the way we should read our Bible too.

A Shield and Reward

This is week 2 of Immerse Beginnings, and Sunday will be our second week of our sermon series As He Promised. We are focusing in on the many ways our God keeps his promises to his people. Even when the people are not faithful, God remains faithful to his promises!

Sunday we will be looking at God’s covenant with Abram. To fully understand this covenant promise we need to look across several chapters of Genesis. Let’s start with Genesis 12:1.

     The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

Genesis 12:1 NIV

It’s not uncommon in today’s world to move away from family. My family lives hundreds of miles from family. This is not unusual in our culture. This would be nearly unheard of, however, in the ancient world. A male was identified in the ancient world as a member of his father’s household, and would assume all property and responsibilities at the time of his father’s death. To leave your country, your people and your father’s household is to give up all rights to Abram’s inheritance.

This still might not resonate with us since we’re so far removed from this culture. Allow me to try to modernize this calling a bit. Suppose God called you to walk away from all your bank accounts, your job, your retirement, your social security, your cell phone and email accounts, and move to a foreign land under an assumed name. You have no safety net of any kind and no way to contact anyone you know. You have very little means of making money because you have left all your assets behind. Now you are startinging to get a grasp of what God is calling Abram to do. And Abram actually does this! He gives up everything and goes where God (who up until now may have been unknown to Abram) calls him to go. And now look at the beginning words of Genesis 15.

“Do not be afraid, Abram. 
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

Genesis 15:1 NIV

Abram gave up his protection (family clan living in close proximity), and gave up his inheritance. God’s promise to Abram is that God would be Abram’s protection (shield) and inheritance (very great reward). Abram didn’t give up everything to follow God. He followed God and gained everything.

Just like Adam and Eve didn’t have to concern themselves with self care in the Garden, God has promised to take care of, and provide for Abram if he would answer God’s call in faith. And even when Abram deviated from God’s plan, God remained faithful and fulfilled the covenant with Abram, As He Promised.

(Sermon text for 9/20: Genesis 12-15, Heb. 11 – Immerse Reading – Genesis 30:25-50:26)

Forgiveness and the Heart of God

Prayer is less about getting God to do something we want, and more about getting ourselves in tune with who God wants us to be.

When Jesus said “When you pray, say…” I believe he meant it. There is something transformational about the commanded words that Jesus gives us within the Lord’s Prayer…but they aren’t given for us to speak in order to transform God. They are given so that by saying, reflecting, and absorbing these words into our hearts we can be transformed to where our very longings resonate with the heart of God.

Simply put, every desire of our heart cries out “Your kingdom come!”

Close to the heart of our God is forgiveness. When Yahweh draws near to Moses on Mount Sinai, he reveals himself as follows:

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 NET

Notice that part of God’s hesed (“loyal love”) is that he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. This is huge! When God introduces himself and represents his character in words, it includes compassion, grace, loyal love, faithfulness, and forgiveness! What an amazing God!

But God is no push over either. When you choose to be his enemy and reject his covenant, then punishment comes. God is generous, abounding in grace and willing to forgive wrong, but he will not force his forgiveness on those who don’t want it. 

Forgive us our sins, 
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

Luke 11:4 NIV

God is willing to forgive our sins, and we should realize that our sins are many. God is willing to forgive! And God wants our hearts to be like his. The two lines of this statement are connected. We ask God to forgive because (Greek: gar) we forgive. 

We must have a forgiving heart toward those who have sinned against us in order to receive forgiveness from God. This is the way Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness. Our forgiveness depends on our willingness to adopt God’s posture of forgiveness towards others.

So if you still harbor unforgiveness towards others, now is the time to ask God to soften your heart and help you forgive as he does. It’s clear that forgiveness is important to God. Is it important to you?

Prayer: What is it Good For?

Have you ever struggled with how to pray? Have you ever felt like you are supposed to say nice things and be thankful, but you really don’t know how to do that? You’re not alone.

Jesus’ followers asked him to teach them how to pray. It was (and still is) very common in the Jewish world to have memorized prayers for different situations. There was a routine set of prayers that you used every day, and in every situation in which you find yourself. Acts shows us that the early church continued the practice of “the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, 3:1, etc.)

Because of this practice, it’s no wonder that Jesus’ followers wanted their Rabbi to teach them a prayer. Afterall, John had done that for his disciples. (Luke 11:1) And in Luke’s account, due to their request, Jesus gives them a prayer to recite.

 “When you pray, say: 

“ ‘Father, 

hallowed be your name, 

your kingdom come. 

Give us each day our daily bread. 

Forgive us our sins, 

for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. g 

And lead us not into temptation.’ ” 

 Lk 11:2–4 NIV

Notice that it’s Jesus’ expectation that his disciples will pray these exact words. For some reason in my past that rote prayers became akin to vain repetitions, but Jesus doesn’t see it that way at all! He expects his disciples to repeat these words over and over again. “When you pray, say…” The Greek word for “when” is hotan, which means “whenever.” Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer over and over and over again until it became second nature to them.

Why? Because in this prayer we find the heart of Jesus revealed. What he prayed for is of first importance to him and his mission, as it should be for us today when we recite this prayer. In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith talks about the habitual practices we all encounter every day. Even your morning routine, or work routine, or shopping routine, or school routine program and shape you into a product of the world, not a product of the Kingdom. We need reprogramming, and Spiritual habits like prayer do just that!

“If our loves can be disordered by secular [routines], it’s also true that our loves need to be reordered (recalibrated) by [counterroutines]–embodied, communal practices that are ‘loaded’ with the gospel and indexed to God and his kingdom.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith, pgs. 57-58

This is exactly what prayer, and specifically the Lord’s Prayer, is designed to do in our life. Prayer isn’t so much moving God into our will, but being shaped into the mission and will of the Father.

I hope you’ll join us Sunday morning at 9:30 CST as we talk about Prayer: Grasping the Heart of God.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?

Sunday in our Bible study we spoke about what it means to fear God, and we noticed that there are a wide range of views on what this means. Some even recounted being taught to be terrified of the Father in the past.

We also referenced a sermon by the great preacher Jonathan Edwards from July 8th, 1741. The Title of that sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and Edwards could not finish the sermon that day. So many in the congregation were crying out and weeping because they were so terrified of hell based on the words of Edwards that day. I spoke about the abhorrent theology present in the sermon as well. You can read the sermon for yourself, but I want to share a quote from this sermon that illustrates the point.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes that to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the more hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry GodJonathan Edwards

Effective as this type of preaching may have been, this is not what the Bible tells us about God! Let’s look at 1 John.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:18-19 NIV

God doesn’t abhor you. He loves you, and he loved you even when you didn’t love him! This is the very reason that Jesus came into the world; not that God abhored you and couldn’t even look at you, but he so loved you that he sent his only Son! (Jn 3:16)

Notice also John’s admonition that in love there is no fear. Why? Because fear has to do with punishment. And just to be clear, there is no condemnation (punishment) for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is no fear of punishment!

Trying to scare the Hell out of people may make for effective preaching, but it distorts the message of Scripture. God isn’t eager to destroy you. He paid the ultimate price for you! You are loved, you are precious, and as a loving Father he pleads with you to love him as well. And those who have chosen to love him in Christ Jesus have no reason to fear.

And yet, we are told that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov. 9:10)

So what does it mean to fear God? We’ll talk about that Sunday morning. See you there!

Do Not Be Afraid? – Part 2

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:27–28 NIV

Notice that Jesus does not teach his disciples that fear is wrong, but rather he reorients their thinking. In Matthew 10 Jesus is sending his disciples out into a world that was hostile to his message. Powerful people were already plotting to kill Jesus, and those speaking in his name would likewise be in danger. Within that context, Jesus commissions his followers to not back down from the mission they have been given. They are to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and they should not abandon their mission just because it was dangerous. 

But notice also that Jesus never promises to keep these disciples safe. He never says that God is safe! He reminds them that the death they would face in their mission might kill their body, but blowing off their mission would face eternal consequences from God!

I confessed on Sunday morning that for years I read this passage as a reassurance that God would never let anything bad happen to me as long as I was doing what he asked me to do. That’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus is saying! Look at the very next verse.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.

Matthew 10:29 NIV

Jesus never tells us the sparrows won’t fall. God will not keep the sparrow from falling, but he will care for that sparrow as it falls.

Our focus should not be on if we will fall, rather we should focus on whose arms we are falling into.

Our mission is dangerous. Our calling is not safe. But we should not fear what will happen to us in this life. We are worth more than many sparrows, and we will not fall outside of our Father’s care. We should, however, fear the consequences of not carrying out our mission. Disowning Jesus means he will disown us. Living as disciples of Jesus means we have nothing to fear.

If there’s anything in this passage that causes you fear, then there are things that need to change in your life. 

Focus on your mission. Focus on your Father. Focus on Jesus, and don’t be afraid.

Centered in the Extremes

Daily Prayer for 7/22/2020 (Reflection on Ecclesiastes 7)

Father of mercies, still our hearts this day. Help us to trust you in the good times and the bad, for you are the maker of them all. All around us it seems the righteous perish and the wicked flourish; help us to trust you through it all. In a world that thrives on the extremes, help us stay centered in you. Bless us with your wisdom, strengthen us with your power, and help us discover the peace than can only be found in relationship with you. Through Jesus, our Lord and Savior, we pray. Amen.