Sunday, June 24, 2012

Following Jesus: We Are Loved

(A sermon based on Luke 3:21-22 & 6:20-26. Second in a series...)

Brennan Manning told the story of a woman who came to see him at a retreat he was leading. She told him of a life of mental anguish and spiritual suffering because of the long-term sexual abuse by a relative that she had endured as a child. He advised her to repeat the following to herself every morning: “I am Abba’s beloved child.” Her later testimony was that the practice had helped to heal her spirit.

We all have our hurts and wounds; some are deeper and more painful than others. We all need help and healing.

I have told you before of my morning routine. I get a cup of coffee and head to our home study to read Scripture and pray, a process that ends with my writing of the daily prayer that many of you receive via email or Facebook. Then, I go outside to walk a prayer path made up of a series of sets of three pavers, two small ones then one large one. With each step I say one word of the first part of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord. Jesus. Christ. Son. Of. God. Have. Mercy.” When my saying of the word “Mercy” coincides with my standing on a large paver, I stop. The first time they coincide, I raise my hands to heaven and say, “Praise you! Thank you! Praise you!” I then resume my walk until they coincide again; this time I wrap my arms around myself and say three times, “I am Abba’s beloved child.” I start walking again until the third coincidence when I drop my hands toward the ground and give every aspect of my day—those I can anticipate and those I can’t—to the Lord. I then repeat the whole process two more times.

I find the entire experience very meaningful but I must say that I have found the part where I tell myself that I am Abba’s beloved child, where I imagine my heavenly Father wrapping his arms around me and whispering in my ear that he loves me, the most meaningful.

When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer, he heard his Father’s voice say, “You are my beloved Son.” It was as if the Father put his arms around his Son and affirmed that great love; it was as if the Father whispered “I love you” in the Son’s ear.

So what kind of life did being God’s beloved child mean for Jesus? Naturally, it meant the same kind of life that we parents try to secure and insure for our beloved children: a life of ease, of comfort, and of safety, right? The Father satisfied all of Jesus’ yearnings and granted all of his wishes, just like we parents do today, right?

No, not hardly.

Jesus once described his life in this way: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). His life involved deprivation, rejection, and, finally, crucifixion. Jesus was God’s beloved child and so he reflected and lived out the nature of God’s love and life in the way he displayed his love and lived his life.

But don’t you think that Jesus was blessed, that he was happy, living as God’s beloved child? Don’t you think that he was blessed, that he was happy, living God’s kind of life and sharing God’s kind of love? Don’t you think that he was blessed, that he was happy, living in costly and sacrificial ways if that’s what it took to be God’s child?

We too are God’s beloved children. We are loved and claimed by God and God wants his children to live his kind of life, the life that is the best kind of life, in the world.

What kind of life does that mean for us? How will we live if we live as the beloved and happy children of God? What will our lives be like if we follow Jesus in his way of being a beloved child of God? Jesus described such a life when he said to his disciples,

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

To live as God’s beloved children is to live out the truth that God is about the business of turning things upside down and inside out; it is to live out the truth that God is about the business of doing for people what they cannot do for themselves; it is to live out the truth that God is about the business of the eternal.

Notice that Jesus uses both present and future language. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” But also, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” and “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” The poor will be blessed then but they are already blessed now. The rich are burdened now by what they have and they will be burdened then by what they do not have.

Why should we—why do we—live as if what we say is not at all valuable in eternity is most valuable here and now? It’s funny how we ascribe ultimate value here to things that we say will have no value there, as if somehow the things that will have value in eternity—trust in, joy in, fellowship with, life with Jesus—don’t have as much value here as our stuff, our prestige, our reputation, and our power do.

“Blessed are you who are poor.” Why? Perhaps the most important of the many reasons is that they realize their need and they are able to accept help.

“Woe to you who are rich.” Why? Perhaps the most important of the many reasons is that they do not realize their need and are not able to accept help.

Think of the Parable of the Two Sons. In the end, the one who had nothing experienced having his father fling his arms around him and throw him a party but the one who had everything experienced having his father trying desperately to explain to him what he had always had because he was in the father’s house.

We tend to thank God for our stuff but it’s God we need, not the stuff.

We thank God best when we don’t have much stuff because it’s God we need, not the stuff.

Hear now a modern parable.

There once were two sets of parents, each of whom had a child, one a daughter and the other a son. The son’s parents were financially successful and so he had everything he needed and more; when he was small he had all the latest toys, when he was a pre-teen he had all the latest games and gadgets, and when he was a teenager he had the newest and best car. Given that he had the time and the means, he pretty much did whatever he wanted to do and he had little or no time for his parents. They longed to put their arms around him and hug him and tell him they loved him, but he was too busy enjoying his life with his stuff and making plans for how he could get the education and career that would insure that he could have even better stuff as an adult.

The daughter had little to call her own. Her very basic needs were met by her hard-working parents but they could afford to give her little of the best things in life. When she was little she had some toys but nothing expensive; she didn’t have a cell phone when she was 13 and the only electronic games she played were at her friends’ houses; she still didn’t have a car when she left for her need-based scholarship funded college years. All through her growing-up years, her home life involved dinner at the table with her parents and siblings, playing board games with her family, and quite often just sitting around, talking. Every day, many times a day, she gladly received and gratefully accepted the hugs and kisses and words of loving affirmation offered to her by her mother and father.

You are God’s beloved child; you are God’s beloved daughter or son.

Here is God’s love.

Can you receive it?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Following Jesus: We Call Him “Lord”

(A sermon based on Luke 6:46-49; this is the first in a summer series on "Following Jesus.")

Jesus asked his disciples, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”

It’s a very good question.

Over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about what it can mean for us to follow Jesus. I hope that we will give much thoughtful and prayerful consideration to what it might mean for First Baptist Church as a body and for each one of us as disciples if we ask the Holy Spirit to help us to understand what our Bibles tell us about who Jesus is and who we might be if we follow Jesus. I furthermore hope that we will ask God to give us faith and strength to act on what we discover.

Let me confess right up front that there are some things about this I don’t know and so I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you everything there is to know about who Jesus is. I can’t tell you what your particular following of Jesus should look like. I can’t tell you exactly what way this church will go as we attempt to find and follow the way of Jesus for us.

Let me also lay on the table right up front some important pieces of my perspective; think of them as my assumptions. Piece #1: we all want to follow and obey Jesus. Piece #2: some of us take such following and obedience more seriously than others and there are lots of reasons for that. Piece #3: we all have a long way to go. Piece #4: we will never obey and follow Jesus fully. Piece #5: we can make a lot of progress. Piece #6: following Jesus is the way to have a full and abundant life, to have the life that God made us to have.

With all of that in mind, let’s return to Jesus’ question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”

We do call him “Lord,” don’t we? What do we mean when we call him “Lord”? We mean that Jesus is the ruler not only of the universe but of our lives—and frankly it is easier for us to affirm the first part of that statement than the second part. After all, we can say “Jesus is Lord of the universe” without thinking about the effect of that truth on our lives; we can’t say “Jesus is Lord of my life”—really say it, now—and think about anything else other than the effect of that truth on our lives.

After all, we know more about Jesus being Lord than those disciples listening to him on that day knew. They knew that he was something special; they knew that he was a most insightful rabbi who seemed to embody grace and truth in a way that gave him a special authority. We know that he is the Son of God who came to take away the sin of the world and that he is the resurrected and ascended Lord. As Paul put it, “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are saying that he is the ruler of our lives; we are saying that his life is the determinant for how we are to live our lives; we are saying that his way and his way alone suffices as the model and standard for our lives. We are saying that wherever he leads we will go. We are saying that his way of obeying God is the only way of obeying God that God approves and will in the end vindicate. We are saying that given the choice between his way and other ways, we will choose, by God’s grace and with the help of the Holy Spirit, his way. We are saying that we will not regard his way, difficult and challenging though it may be, as optional, but will instead commit ourselves to persevering in the pursuit of that way until the very end. We are saying that we will do the prayerful and thoughtful work of discerning his way so that we can follow his way. We are saying that we will settle for no less than making progress each day in finding and following his way.

Of course, we are also acknowledging that we will do all of that as the people that we are, not as some kind of supermen and superwomen who are not subject to the foibles and failings of those who live in real bodies in the real world in real relationships with real people.

Still, we are appropriately haunted by the words of 1 John: “By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (2:5b-6).

So, since we do acknowledge Jesus as Lord, why do we not do what he tells us?

We don’t because we think it’s too hard to live like that.

The truth is, though, that it’s too hard not to, because living like that is the only path to real life.

And that’s what we’ll be talking about for the next few weeks…

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Servants

(A Deacon Ordination sermon based on 2 Kings 5:1-27 and delivered on June 10, 2012)

It is a tale of two servants, one a young girl and the other a grown man.

She was a servant to the wife of a leprous Syrian general; he was a servant to a prophet of the Lord. They both served but they served in very different circumstances. They both served but they served with very different motives. They both served but they served with very different results.

The general she served was named Naaman; he was a very successful and powerful man in Syria. There was only one thing—he had leprosy, a skin disease that caused him to have to be isolated from his larger community.

One day this young girl, who served as a slave because she had been stolen away in a raid from her home in Israel, shared the word of the Lord with her mistress: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

Here are some things worth noting about the young girl’s service.

First, it was anonymous. We never learn her name; she is just a young servant girl from Israel serving in Syria. True, her story has come down to us through the centuries but we cannot call her by name. No doubt she also labored in anonymity in her own time and context.

Second, it was coerced. She did not want to be a servant; indeed, no one would want to be taken into service in the way that she was. She has been stolen away from her country, her town, her friends, and her family by a marauding army. Then, she had been forced to serve the very ones who had taken her and who no doubt had killed many of her loved ones. It is hard to imagine that she was anything other than miserable in her circumstances, even if they were, because of the stature of those she served, comfortable.

Third, it was gracious. Even though she was a prisoner and even though she was a slave, this young girl offered a gracious word to her captors; she spoke out of a desire that her master be healed and in so doing she pointed him to the God of Israel.

Fourth, it was costly. It cost the girl her pride—these were her owners she was helping, after all; it cost her desire for revenge—she could have just watched Naaman live in isolation until he withered away and died; and it cost her grace and mercy—because such is what that kind of action requires.

Naaman did go to Israel and, after some adventures in travel, he ended up at the house of the prophet Elisha, who told him to go dip himself seven times in the Jordan River and he would be healed. After some pouting about it, Naaman finally did as Elisha instructed him and as a result of his submission was healed. The general was naturally very pleased and he offered to give Elisha a gift in appreciation but the prophet refused, even after further urging by Naaman.

That’s where our second servant, this one Elisha’s servant, comes into the story. Here are some things worth noting about his service.

First, it was credited. We know that this servant’s name was Gehazi, and because we know his name, it is a name that goes down not only in history but also in infamy.

Second, it was selfish. Gehazi decided to get something for himself out of the situation with Naaman. While Elisha had refused the general’s gift, Gehazi pursued him to get something for himself. Perhaps he was motivated by ill feelings toward the Syrians as well, since he said, “My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” Regardless, Gehazi wanted to get something for himself out of the situation.

Third, it was dishonest. Gehazi used his position, his master’s name, and a concocted need (“My master has sent me to say, ‘Two members of a company of prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim; please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing”) to get some things for himself. He lied about his master and he lied about a need, all out of selfish motives.

Fourth, it was costly. Elisha confronted Gehazi when he returned and said, “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendants forever.” So Gehazi’s service—or rather his misuse of his service—cost him a lot. When he tried to play by the rules of the world he got the disease of the world on him.

The word “deacon” means “servant.” You who are being ordained, you are being installed, and you are being confirmed as deacons are being ordained, installed, and confirmed as servants. Always keep that word uppermost in your thinking when you think about your role. You are called to serve and for no other reason.

Also keep in mind this tale of two servants that we have experienced today.

Be willing to have your service cost you something. Service costs something but let your service cost you what it should cost a Christian servant, namely, your pride, your arrogance, your insistence on your own way, and your sub-Christian motives. Do not let it cost you your witness to Christ or your growth in Christ because you let your self-centered motives get in the way.

Be willing to be anonymous. True, we are today setting you apart by name and it is you in particular that we are setting apart to serve. But often the best service we render is done in secret with no one but the Lord knowing about it. Be willing to serve that way.

Be willing to serve where you are, even if where you are is a difficult place. You won’t be carried off into slavery but you may well find yourself in circumstances that you’d like to escape. But those circumstances just may be the ones that provide you with the best opportunity to serve someone else. Service rendered when you really see no reason to serve may be the most meaningful service of all.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

We’re So Glad We’re a Part of the Family of God

(A sermon based on Romans 8:12-17 for Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012)

Family life is something of a dance; it’s more of an art than it is a science. When you are part of a family you experience the good times and the bad, the happy and the sad, the easy and the trying—and you experience it all together, as a family.

There is a sense in which when we speak of God as Trinity we speak of God as an eternal family. While God as Trinity, God as three-in-one and one-in-three, is a mystery with which we have to live— precisely because it is intended to be a mystery—I am nonetheless comfortable saying this: to speak of God as Trinity, of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is to say that God has always had as God’s essence the reality of relationship. God is, after all, love, and one way we can think about that reality is to think about the three persons of the one God being in an eternal loving relationship with each other within the one God.

From the beginning of human history, God has sought to enlarge God’s family, to bring more people into God’s family. God created us human beings with the ability to relate to God; you and I have that ability. Even when we refuse God’s magnificently magnanimous offer to include us in God’s family, God never stops making the offer to include us and to make that inclusion possible.

It is so grace-filled as to be completely mind-boggling.

“Here is your family,” Almighty God, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit says to us. “Come home. I will adopt you. You can come live with us and we will come live with you.”

How does this adoption language strike you? “You have received a spirit of adoption,” Paul said (v. 15). We were not born into God’s family; we are brought into it, we are adopted into it.

We tend to draw a distinction in our thinking between “biological” and “adopted” children. So, we say that if a couple becomes pregnant through the customary method or some variation of it, the resulting child is their biological child. But if a couple or individual takes someone else’s biological child into their home and gives that child legal standing in their family, then that child is their adopted child.

I would suggest, though, that all children who really feel deep in their hearts that they are their parents’ children, who really know way down deep that they are their parents’ beloved children, are in fact adopted children, whether they are technically biological or legally adopted.

I was talking once with an elderly man about one of his sons and that son’s children. The grandfather, who had taken a strong role in raising those children, shook his head as he said to me, “My son produced three children and he doesn’t have $50 invested in any of them.” That was his way of saying that his son had never really received or treated his biological children as his real children, as children whom he received as a gift and a responsibility and to whom he gave himself as freely and fully as he could. The money he didn’t invest represented the self he didn’t invest.

Not all people who produce offspring really become parents and not all offspring who are produced really become children. All parents have to make an intentional decision as to whether or not they are going to receive and accept fully their offspring as their children. In effect, once a baby comes into the world and into a household, and really all along through that child’s life, her parents must make the intentional and purposeful decision that this will really and truly be their child and they will really and truly be her parents.

It’s a spiritual thing, really. It’s one thing to have biological children; it’s another thing entirely to pour your spirit, your love, everything that you are capable of pouring, into that relationship.

God has made and continues to make the decision to pour God’s self into us and to allow us to pour ourselves into God’s family. God in God’s very nature is a family—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—and that family is united in an eternal dance of love. God in God’s grace adopts us into that family—and if you think about it you’ll realize that is the only way that we could come into the family of God.

That we get to share in the dance is grace beyond grace.

But we do because God pours God’s Spirit into us; that Spirit makes us part of the family of God and when you get the Spirit you get all of God, you get all of the family. When you are really part of a family, when you are fully adopted into that family, when the spirit of that family is in you, you can live with great confidence and assurance no matter what is going on.

Being in the family of God gives us the privilege of eternal life now and in the future: “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (v. 13). Being in God’s family means that you have real and full life here and now and everlasting life there and then.

Being in the family of God gives us direction and purpose: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (v. 14). When our children were teenagers and were going out and about I would tell them, “Remember that you are a Ruffin.” I wanted the spirit of our family to guide them. The very Spirit of God guides us; let’s be sensitive to its direction.

Being in the family of God gives us the knowledge that we belong and so we need not be afraid: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (v. 15a). We don’t, thank God, practice any longer the institution of slavery in our land, but we know enough about it to know that when it was practiced a slave was property that could be discarded. We are God’s adopted and beloved children and we live in the confidence that we belong to and with God and will always belong to and with God.

Being in the family of God gives us the ability to call on God as Father: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (vv. 15b-16). The Spirit tells and reminds us that we are part of God’s family and that, being the perfectly loving parent, God can be called on with trust and confidence.

Being in the family of God gives us a heritage to anticipate: “And if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (v. 17a). Children, when they have good parents, want to be like those parents when they grow up. We want to be in the image of God when we become fully mature. As God’s children, we are slowly but surely growing up into who we are meant to be until one day, thanks to the grace of God, the work of the Spirit, and the death and resurrection of the Son, we will be everything we are meant to be!

Being in the family of God gives purpose to our struggles: “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (v. 17b). Jesus suffered because the world was not what it should have been and because people lived so far from God and thus could not abide the ways of God that were seen in Jesus; he suffered because he knew that God would vindicate the way that he was living but that there would be a price to pay along the way. We long for what we will be, for what Creation will be, and for what God’s family will be when we are all we should be and when all is as it should be. Meanwhile, we keep growing, waiting, serving, loving and, yes, we keep hurting.

As amazing as it is, the fact is that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit include us in their family. Aren’t you glad we’re a part of the family of God?