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.

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.

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)

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.

Do not be afraid?

“Do not be afraid.”

That phrase appears 74 times in the NIV translation of the Bible. It’s one of the most common phrases in the entire Bible. But even more common than being told to not be afraid, the Bible tells us no fewer than 85 times that we should fear God, his Word, his actions, and his judgement.

God knew that we humans would struggle with fear. That’s why he told us so many times not to fear. But at the same time, there are things God wants us to fear.

Tim Archer shared with me a great illustration of fear. Every day we sit in rooms filled with electrical wiring, and devices. We even carry some of them around in our pockets. We have no fear of this. And yet at the same time we aren’t afraid of our environment or devices, we aren’t willing to stick a screwdriver into an electrical socket. We don’t live in fear of electricity, but we do realize there is a dangerous side.

We understand this when it comes to electricity, but often we don’t act in similar ways when it comes to other issues. We tend to live in the extremes when it comes to fear; either we fear everything, or fear nothing. Neither of these is what God wants.

Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes. – Ecclesiastes 7:18 NIV

On Sunday in the auditorium Bible class, we will begin a study on fear. What does Scripture say about fear, why did God create fear, and how are we to live as followers of Christ?

These lessons will be recorded for later access. You can also join us in person, or via livestream. Until then, I leave you with the words of Moses to God’s people reminding them of how they are to live.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? – Deuteronomy 10:12–13 NIV

What Kingdom Are You Building?

Let’s try a little eye-opening activity…

Look on Facebook at your previous five posts (or think about your previous 5 conversations with friends). 

Pay close attention to what you said, or shared with others, and then answer these questions:

  • What kingdom am I building with my posts? An earthly kingdom, or Christ’s Kingdom?
  • Were my comments an attack on others made in the image of God, whom Christ died for?
  • Since I am an ambassador of Christ, do people see his likeness in the way I talk to, or about others?

A few verses for your consideration:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. – Jas 3:9–10 NIV

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. – Mt 7:1–2 NIV

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. – 1 Jn 4:20–21 NIV

…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. – 2 Co 5:19–20 NIV

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – Jn 13:34–35 NIV

“I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. Lk 12:8–9 NIV

You either represent Christ in your actions, or the world in your actions. All the time. In every interaction you have. May we all represent our Savior well.

Finding Unity in Diversity

Most congregations don’t understand unity. We understand uniformity, but not unity. This is why we have so many church buildings, each full of people who are largely the same with very little difference. If you like this music, go to that church. If you like this translation of the Bible, go to that other church. Most congregations understand uniformity, but not unity.

The Apostle Paul sought unity in the church through diversity, a very different approach than we usually see today. Romans 14 speaks a great deal about how Christians find unity in their mission through Christ while still embracing different practices and beliefs! Though the setting is a bit different in Romans, the application is much needed in the American church today.

 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 

Romans 14:2–4 NIV

Notice that Paul does not attempt to get everyone to see things the same way. Rather he reminds them that they all belong to Christ and will all be judged by God. It is not your job, nor my job to judge others (v. 13). Instead, Paul reminds the believers that everything they do should be focused on peace and building each other up (v. 19). And to further clarify that Paul expects the practices of the church to be diverse, he reminds people that wrong to feel pressured into doing things against their beliefs.

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. 

Romans 14:22–23 NIV

So how does this apply to today? As we come back together in our places of worship (as East Side has already done) we will have some that think we should have stayed open the entire time, and others that still don’t think it’s safe to meet in public. And Paul would say this is fine. And neither group should condemn or pressure the other. Wear a mask or not? Same answer. Join a peaceful protest? Same answer. Voting? Same answer.

There is room for difference of opinion in the Kingdom of God. There is room for difference of practice in the Church of Jesus. But there is no room for disunity, accusing, arguing, fighting, and disfellowshipping over these differences. Those don’t come from faith, but from sin (v.23).

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”

Romans 14:19 NIV

Peace in a Chaotic World

This morning we turn our attention to Psalm 37. Though our situation differs from David, the wisdom of his psalm is needed today.

In this psalm, David laments the actions of wicked people who oppose him and his kingdom. David admonishes righteous behavior and trust in Yahweh for deliverance. It’s clear from the text that David and “the righteous” with him are deeply concerned about the “wicked” and “wrongdoers” prospering. This is David’s pressing issue.

And yet the wisdom of the Spirit that David records is the same wisdom our world needs today.

Do not fret…” 37:1
“Trust in the LORD and do good;….” 37:3
“Commit your ways to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this…” 37:5
“Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret…” 37:7
“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it only leads to evil.” 37:8

Do you catch that last one? Fret/worry only leads to evil? Notice how David is encouraging us to have a quiet spirit? Yes his situation is different from ours, but the needed prescription is the same. When we choose fret and worry over trust in God, evil results.

Most people are displaying everything but a quiet spirit right now. As a nation we are simultaneously worried, angry, anxious, exhausted, and frustrated. The news media certainly doesn’t help.

I visited a news website today (which I never do) and learned from highlighted headlines that I should be very worried. If not about Coronavirus, then the upcoming election. If not about politics, then national safety because a foreign country may or may not have a new leader. And if there is a new leader, who knows who it will be and how bad it might get? And if you are at home and not concerned with politics at all, keep worrying! Someone shot at a house somewhere recently, so you should worry about your safety in your own home.

And all this was from less than a minute on this news website.

My encouragement to you, is the same as that of David through this psalm: pursue a quiet spirit and trust in God to save. Whatever worry, anxiety, or “fret” that comes from this life is nothing compared to the peace that is found by placing out trust, and hope in God. This is the prescription that our world desperately needs.

I close with the final verses of Psalm 37 as an encouragement for the week ahead.

Consider the blameless, observe the upright;
a future awaits those who seek peace.
But all sinners will be destroyed;
there will be no future for the wicked.

The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD;
he is their stronghold in time of trouble.
The LORD helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.

Psalm 37:37-40 NIV

May we choose peace, and take our refuge in God alone. Shalom.