Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

The Lord's Prayer


“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

One could almost place a heading over Matthew 6 using Jesus own words, “Beware of a practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”  This section of the Sermon on the Mount has to do with public piety, and falls quite nicely into four categories: Alms Giving (charity to the poor), Prayer, Fasting, and Stewardship. 

Throughout the Sermon Jesus keeps wandering back and forth between second person plural and second person singular in his teaching, so that even the phrases addressed to the individual must be understood in the context of the community of faith.  Alms giving by the community must be done without flourish just as alms giving by the individual must be.  And that giving must take precedence over any desire on the part of the community to build a lasting legacy (do not lay up for yourselves riches on earth).  And the teaching on Prayer (the section printed above) and the teaching on fasting are sandwiched in between the two teachings on money. 

Jesus gives us three examples of prayer, not one.  The first two are negative examples – sort of “what not to do”.  Jesus finishes his discussion on prayer with a rabbinic commentary on his own teaching. 

The first negative example is “Don’t pray as the hypocrites (meaning Jewish hypocrites).”  Here, Jesus is chiefly, I think, referring to the Pharisees he so often rails against.  Clearly, though, he is talking about a public show of piety by publicly devout people whose religion is only in effect when a crowd is present.  Things don’t change so much.  As the church aged, this type of piety raised its demonic head in the form of eloquent Christian leaders who badly needed a platform to pray from.

The second negative example is a pagan example.  “Heaping up empty phrases” was how the Greeks kept the gods alive.  I think of the riot at Ephesus where a group of secularists gets the crowd so agitated that they begin to yell, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”  (Acts 19)  It is really doubtful that these people had any real belief that the goddess Diana (Artemis) really had any power over their lives.  But the social order was such that if you wanted to “be” anyone in Ephesus in the first century, you offered gifts to idols. 

Finally Jesus gives a positive example.  It is clear that the distinction Jesus is drawing is between building the Kingdom of God, on the one hand, and venerating an idol or self-aggrandizement on the other.  And he places all of these in a very public or community context. 

If Jesus intended The Lord’s Prayer to be recited by the masses (which I personally doubt), why would he juxtapose it with “do not heap up empty [read: rote] phrases?”  However, as a catechism, The Lord’s Prayer is outstanding!  Each phrase offers me a different way of approaching God in prayer in community:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  
(Boldly address the holiness of God)
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
(Boldly address the sovereignty of God)
Give us this day our daily bread,
(Boldly approach God with your needs)
and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
(Boldly seek forgiveness after boldly forgiving others)
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
(Boldly invoke God’s protection and deliverance)

This then is the way we should pray in our communities.  This is a far cry from the focus of most prayer during gathered worship!  The challenge Jesus issues us is to take the model of prayer back to our churches and pray like this.

At the end, Jesus adds this very important bit of rabbinic wisdom, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” 

Why would he comment on the fourth of five statements on prayer and not comment on all the others?  Because this is the one on which our ability to come boldly and corporately depends.  If we are harboring un-forgiveness in our relationships within the Body, all the rest of our prayer becomes a sham.    

Jon

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Called to Trust


Preface
The State of New Hampshire has a debt of 11 Billion, 147 Million dollars as of yesterday.  Today that number is higher.  That is a state debt of over $8,400 per living human being in New Hampshire.  The US National Debt, as of yesterday at 9:25 am, was 14 Trillion, 185 Billion, 974 Million.  By 10:25 we had added another 48 Million to that number.  And today at 9:25 am it had risen 1 Billion, 152 Million dollars higher.  Each and every one of the 311 Million people in the United States today owes, via the Federal Government’s spending, roughly $45,600.   So, if there are four people in your household, you can clear your part of the National Debt by simply writing a check to the US Treasury for $182,400. 

Are you worried yet?

There are 81,701,523 identifiable family units in the United States.  So far, in 2011, there have been 1,646,934 bankruptcies declared and 1,049,369 foreclosures.  We are on track to produce over 10,000,000 bankruptcies and over 6,000,000 foreclosures in 2011 alone.  That is to say that 13% of the people in this country will lose their home this year. 

Are you worried yet? 

Let’s look at some other statistics.  The top ten causes of death in the United States in 2010 were Heart disease, followed by Cancer, Stroke, Chronic lower respiratory disease, Accidents, Diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Influenza & Pneumonia, Kidney disease, "Blood poisoning”.  However, while about 600,000 of us died of heart disease in 2010, there were about 1,200,000 abortions, making the elective termination of life the number one killer in America. 

Are you worried yet?

And we haven’t even talked about Global Warming, Earthquakes and other natural disasters that last year claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, unpredictable regime change in Egypt, Tunisia, Libia, Yemen, Bahrain, and possibly Saudi Arabia and Jordan.  And if those things don’t make you worry, think closer to home. 

Church attendance throughout the US has dwindled to below 25 percent – only 13 percent of New Hampshire attends church at all; believers in God are considered anachronistic in our culture at best, irrelevant by most, and despised by many because religion seems to be at the root of so many of the world’s problems and disputes.  And here on Concord Heights, it is difficult to get more than 20 people to care about worshipping God at the same time.

Are you worried yet?

Because if you aren’t the Internet can help you to worry.  The next time you have a little ache or pain, just log onto www.webmd.com and you will be treated to the full and terrifying diagnoses of what might be wrong with you.

Now that I’ve got you worried (and I suspect, raised your blood pressure a few points), let’s pray and then see what God’s Word has to say about all of this.

(PRAY)

Turn with me to Matthew 6, beginning at verse 25, and let’s stand for the reading of the Gospel:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
            “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
(Matthew 6:25-34 ESV)

Jesus is in the middle of the most famous sermon in history, what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  Beginning at Matthew 5:1 he has explained the core teaching of the Mosaic Law.  He has talked about Christian social responsibility, about faith, about prayer.  He has given us a pattern for how to pray and what it means to live in a relationship of blessing with God and with our neighbor.   In a few short paragraphs he has systematically addressed each of the Ten Commandments and what the heart of the law is – what it would look like to really follow the law from the heart and not just from cold obedience. 

He has brought us near to the throne of God, and laid before us some pretty huge questions about what it means to really walk with God.  And over the past several weeks we have laid down the gauntlet of what are the non-negotiables of the Christian Life.  We have said that we are Called Together into Community, Called from Birth, Called to Follow, Called to Bless, Called to Freedom, Called to Life, and Called to Obey.  And after all that, Jesus knows it is all more than a little overwhelming to us. 

So he put what may seem like a parenthesis into his sermon, because he can see that the whole discussion is making us worry about whether we can do what he has said, and that we’re already worried about so many other priorities.  How are we going to DO this?

Our Anxiety is driving us.  Jesus knows this.  And so another non-negotiable of the Christian life is that we are Called to Trust.  That may seem like a no-brainer.  Of course we’re called to trust.  Isn’t that what faith is about?  But if our anxiety is driving us, we can’t trust properly.  Our anxiety is the elephant in the room at every gathering.  Our anxiety is the elephant in the room when we are at prayer.  Our anxiety is the elephant in the room, diverting our attention from the object of our worship to so very many things.  Did you ever notice how in most churches the prayer time is 100% about people’s illnesses, when corporate prayer ought to have as its first object the worship and adoration of God. 

Our Anxiety is driving us. 

That is why, here in Matthew 6, Jesus lays out for us first The Cause of Anxiety and then The Cure for Anxiety.  

The Cause of Anxiety (Provision and Recognition)
There are really two major things that seem to drive our anxiety as it drives us.  The first has to do with Provision, and the second with Recognition.  Jesus said,

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious (there’s that word “anxious”) about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Since you got up this morning, how many of you asked yourself any of these questions: 
            What will I eat this morning?
            What will I drink this morning?
            Hmm…
            What will I wear this morning?
When most of us in Concord, NH ask these questions, we’re really asking a question of choice.  Will I eat this or that?  Will I have coffee or tea?  Will I wear the blue outfit or the brown one?  Remember that, for 90% of the world’s population, these are questions of survival, not choice.  Most people, when they ask these questions are really asking,
            WILL I eat this morning?
            WILL I drink this morning?
            WILL I have clothing to put on my body this morning?

Our view of these daily questions is so skewed!  When I get up every morning I go online (something I have come to completely take for granted) and check my bank balance.  That’s what I worry about. 

What Jesus is talking about here is that first level of provision: near-term provision.  Immediate provision.  What, in the Lord’s Prayer he called “our daily bread.”  The thing Satan wants you and me to obsess about is to run over and over in our mind, like a dog worrying a bone, the phrase, “there might not be enough tomorrow.”  If he can get us doing that effectively, we will focus all our concern on these basic life questions over and over. 

Jesus is not saying that you don’t need to attend to these things.  But he is saying to put them in their proper place. 

The second level of provision we ask about all the time has to do with next season.  It is in verse 26:  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 

Again, he isn’t saying you shouldn’t save money and resources for a rainy day.  But the Enemy of your Soul wants you to make worrying about your savings your life’s pursuit.   “What if there isn’t enough next fall?”  What will I do then, we say over and over.  We become obsessed with something we cannot fundamentally control.  Yes, we can do what is prudent and wise.  But all our efforts at protecting our future and our children’s future can be completely short-circuited by any or all of the things we mentioned at the beginning of this message.  The game changer could come at any moment.  Will you spend your life worrying about the game changer, or will you spend your life trusting?

And finally, Jesus says, we are anxious about the end.  My Grandmother was in her 87th year when she started feeling poorly one day.  Mom took her to the doctor, and when the report came back that she had late-stage leukemia that would surely take her within three months, she leaned back in her rocking chair and said, “Huh.  I always wondered what would get me.  Now I know.”

“which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”

It was said that the billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes was so concerned about what might kill him that he created a completely sterile environment to live in and sequestered himself away from all human contact for the last ten years of his life.  Do you know… he died anyway?  It was probably the worry that killed him.

The final cause of our anxiety has to do with what people think of us.  This is a whole other category of worry, and Jesus presents it to us because it is another way in which we limit our ability to trust God.  And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”  (little recognition of God)

Americans spend about 22 Billion dollars every year on cosmetics.  Tonight when they roll out the red carpet at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles there is something you can be sure of is true about every actor, actress, director, producer, lighting designer and key grip that walks into the room: all of them want recognition.  All of them want a little bit of glory.  And while we all know that everyone wants to be recognized in some way, Jesus juxtaposes our desire for recognition with our limited recognition of God.  He says, “if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you?”  And then he says, “O you of little faith.”  What he means is that God has recognized you.  But have you recognized God?

And because we have obsessed about receiving recognition, we can’t give proper recognition to God.  That is what he calls having little faith. 

Our anxiety is driving us.

The cure for Anxiety:
What’s the cure for all this?  What will make us free to trust?  We believe it is what we are fundamentally called to do.  But how can we do it if we keep obsessing about tomorrow, about next season, about the end of life, about being recognized?
 
Train yourself to ask A New Question
The basic cure for our anxiety is every time we begin to ask the obsession questions, to rather ask “What will build the Kingdom, and how is righteousness served” in this situation?”

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”

Everyone asks those questions.  What God wants to free you from is bondage to them.  They are entirely self-motivated.  If you are ever going to be free to answer the Call to Trust, you’re going to have to begin to think outside of yourself.  And that starts with asking a New Question.  “What will build the Kingdom?  How is righteousness served?”  Those are questions that get you out of yourself.

Asking A New Question helps you develop A New Quest.  “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Now, all of a sudden, because I’m seeking God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, I’m free to trust him for all the rest.  I have stopped asking what will happen to me tomorrow, next fall, at the end of life, and I’ve started to ask how can I serve God, and that leads me to a place I could never have gotten to asking all other questions.

Did you know that worry and anxiety can never exist in the present?  They only exist and they feed off of the future.  What might happen.  That’s what you worry about.  You can’t worry about what IS happening.  And what has already happened, good or bad, is history and it can no longer cause you anxiety.

To live in the present is to experience God’s Presence.  You can only really live now.  Jesus concludes,  
            “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
(Matthew 6:25-34 ESV)

You see, it isn’t that there isn’t anything to worry about.  And don’t let Bobby McFarren’s famous line become scripture to you, “Don’t worry… be happy.”  That’s not reality either.  But God is calling you today to Trust him.  And that means Asking a New Question and seeking a New Quest.  You’ll never be sorry if you do. 

Amen.



Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Ministry of Righteousness


Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
(2 Corinthians 3:1-3 ESV)

The Job Market
Anyone who has been in the job market at all has had to navigate the whole uncomfortable question of who to ask for letters of recommendation, especially when they have left, or are leaving, one job to move on to another.  Do you ask a co-worker?  Your supervisor?  The head honcho?  Or maybe things didn’t go so well at this job and you need to go out and find character references or go back to a previous (and more successful) job to find a good (read: complimentary) reference.

Apostle for Hire
If the Christians at Corinth are any indication of Paul’s work, I wouldn’t hire him.  Here is a group of people who had an inflated view of their own giftedness at the same time they were tolerating gross immorality in their fellowship.  They were deeply divided too, and had devolved into partisanship and some sort of leader worship.  And yet Paul calls them his letter of reference. 

I think there is a tension here that the church today needs to come to grips with.  No, we shouldn’t allow stuff like this to go on.  But we who lead are shepherds to some very human sheep, and we’re human too.  Part of the reason so many pastors and leaders have “fallen” is because it is not a standard of grace from which they have fallen, but a standard of law.  The pressure on pastors and their families over the whole course of the modern Evangelical Movement has been intolerable, and we are reaping the results. 

So it is kind of heartwarming to hear Paul say that he has a letter of reference in the form of the Corinthians that was written by his Supervisor (Christ) “on human hearts” with the pen of the Holy Spirit, and delivered to the Boss (God the Father).  Sure, if you compare this commendation to the one in Philippians (…you are our joy and crown!) it isn’t nearly as glowing.  The reason is that Paul has felt the need to remind them that they are his letter of reference, and he doesn’t want to see that letter discredited.

Interview with the Boss 
In the wonderful movie Joe vs. The Volcano there is an awesome scene (follow this link to see it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Am7qO66kZR4) in which Tom Hank’s Boss is having a one-sided conversation on the phone with someone named Harry about a prospective new hire.  The question when thinking about any career move is competence.  This one element is either the most freeing or most limiting part of a career search. 

Even though the Corinthians haven’t exactly produced the fruit Paul had hoped, he has an amazing amount of confidence in his competency: 
            Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(2 Corinthians 3:4-6 ESV)

The Job: Undersecretary, Ministry of Righteousness
And so Paul is quite secure that he can not only “get the job,” but that he can “do the job.”  (“Harry, I’m not arguing that wit you!”) And what is the job?  It is to bring about work of the Ministry of Righteousness.  Later on in 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul calls himself an Ambassador.  His ambassadorship has changed since he came to know Christ.  He used to work for what he calls the Ministry of Death:

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

This sounds like a resounding condemnation of the Ten Commandments, and of Moses’ ministry in general.  But actually it is only the Ministry of Death because of the way the people of God received it.  Remember that Paul has already identified the gospel as “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1:23).  The Ministry of Righteousness is only effective for those who will receive Jesus.  Yes, Christ crucified is Death to those who are perishing!  But, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Christ is speaking to you today: Are you still living in the Dominion of Darkness?  As an ambassador for Christ, let me invite you into the Kingdom of Light.  God is making his appeal to you right now.  Come.

Jon     

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Breathing God's Word


Let my cry come before you, O LORD;
                        give me understanding according to your word!
            Let my plea come before you;
                        deliver me according to your word.
            My lips will pour forth praise,
                        for you teach me your statutes.
            My tongue will sing of your word,
                        for all your commandments are right.
            Let your hand be ready to help me,
                        for I have chosen your precepts.
            I long for your salvation, O LORD,
                        and your law is my delight.
            Let my soul live and praise you,
                        and let your rules help me.
            I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant,
                        for I do not forget your commandments.
 (Psalm 119:169-176 ESV)

I hope you won’t think I’m tinkering with the Scriptures, but I just noticed something about Psalm 119.  I have long known that the Psalm is an Acrostic Psalm, that is, every stanza is titled with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is also said that every verse mentions God’s word, his law, his judgments, etc, except one verse (and I’ve forgotten which of the 176 verses that one is).   But look at what happens if you take the “reply” lines out of one of the stanzas of the Psalm:

Let my cry come before you, O LORD;
            Let my plea come before you.
            My lips will pour forth praise [and]
            My tongue will sing of your word.
            Let your hand be ready to help me [for]
            I long for your salvation, O LORD.
            Let my soul live and praise you [for]
            I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant.

This is the prayer of the Psalmist.  In the same way Psalm 136 bears the repeated response “his steadfast love endures forever,” Psalm 119 seems to use the repeated “breathing” in and out of love for God’s ways to amplify his prayer. 

This particular stanza is the one that ends the whole poem.  I always liked the psalm, but taking the reply lines out makes the heart-cry of the Psalmist sing.   I “get” him now.  The first four lines are four ways he approaches God: a cry (a shout), a plea (a bowing down and a moan), praise (spoken), and song (sung).  The second four lines are the content of those prayers.  He asks God for physical rescue or (let your hand be ready to help me), and for spiritual rescue (let my soul live).  

The times I have cried out to God like this have always been times of great stress or anguish of soul.  After all he has written, as fervently as he has prayed, the only thing he can really conclude is that he doesn’t know how to seek God.  God must seek him.   When the pressure is really on, there are times I feel all the theology goes right out of my head and there is very little I “know,” except that I know God.  And it is at those times I am especially aware that I did not seek him.  He sought and found me. 

But that’s all pretty subjective.  At those times when I’m burdened in my soul it isn’t the knowledge of God I’m likely to forget, it is the objective – his Word – that goes with the trash.   And the Psalmist knows this in spades.  Look at what happens when we look at the reply lines only:

            Give me understanding according to your word!
            Deliver me according to your word.
            [for you] Teach me your statutes.
            [for] All your commandments are right.
            [for] I have chosen your precepts.
            [and] Your law is my delight.
            [and] Let your rules help me.
            [for] I do not forget your commandments.

That’s why I called it “breathing.”  With every breath I take I need to remind myself to remember his word. 

Years ago, when was in college, I memorized Philippians and 1 John.  I still have the little verse cards I made up so I could carve these letters up into small enough chunks to stuff into my head.   All these years, every time I go for a long walk alone, I still wrestle with spending part of the time reviewing those letters.  It isn’t that I don’t want to remember God’s word.  But there are so many other things that are a delight to me, especially walking in nature.  I become easily distracted.  Call it Attention Deficit Disorder if you like.  I think I’m pretty normal, though.  That’s why the Psalmist needs to remind himself as he does.

So breathe IN God’s Word today and your need of it!  Then breathe OUT your cries to God, your pleas, your praises, and your songs to him.  It will keep your life in balance like nothing else can.

Jon

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shalom


I was glad when they said to me,
                        “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
            Our feet have been standing
                        within your gates, O Jerusalem!

            Jerusalem—built as a city
                        that is bound firmly together,
            to which the tribes go up,
                        the tribes of the LORD,
            as was decreed for Israel,
                        to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
            There thrones for judgment were set,
                        the thrones of the house of David.

            Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
                        “May they be secure who love you!
            Peace be within your walls
                        and security within your towers!”
            For my brothers and companions' sake
                        I will say, “Peace be within you!”
            For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
                        I will seek your good.
 (Psalm 122 ESV)

A friend of mine at church commented during coffee hour on Sunday that in the Old Testament God presents himself as the God of War and Vengeance.  In the New Testament he is the God of Love.  I was uncomfortable with what she was saying, both because I don’t believe in Dispensationalism (the theology that says God acts differently in different eras), and because I believe that, taken as a whole, the Old Testament revelation presents a much stronger case for a God who is constantly holding out the way of peace to his people than of a God of conquest and war.

The Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), thought to have been sung on “going up” to Mt. Zion for the three major pilgrim festivals of the Jewish calendar, present good evidence as we consider God’s ways.  Psalm 120:6-7 says, “Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!”  If you adopt the way of peace, you will get opposition.  It may even cost you your life.  Psalm 121 talks about God as a protector of Israel, but in terms of him being Israel’s “shade”, one who keeps her away from the harmful effects of the sub-tropical sun. 

Here in Psalm 122, God talks about going up to the Temple and about judgment.  But look at how judgment is framed here.   Judgment – God’s righteousness – is decreed from Mt. Zion; from Jerusalem.  And what is the standard of that judgment?  First, it is to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” and specifically to pray for security for those who dwell within the walls and towers of Jerusalem.   Second, it is to speak peace.  “For my brothers and companions' sake I will say, “Peace be within you!”  For my brothers and companions’ sake.  The motive of peace must be other-minded.   And Third, it is to seek peace, For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.”  The motive of seeking peace clearly is not purely for the safety of those huddled inside of Jerusalem.  It is “for the sake of the house of the Lord.”  The writer of this Psalm has as great a concern for the honor of God as he does for his own safety or that of his companions.  And yet he doesn’t say, “I will defend your house to the death!”  To him, defending God’s house IS praying for peace, speaking peace, and seeking peace.  It is active and it is proactive.  Nothing will do more to raise up God’s name than these three activities. 

Shalom,

Jon

Monday, February 21, 2011

Comfort


            Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
            For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-11 ESV)

When I think of God’s comfort I don’t generally think I’m talking about the same thing Paul is here.  I look at the affliction he faced when he was in Asia, and it immediately takes me to Acts 19.  Which affliction is Paul talking about?  What burden was he bearing that was so overwhelming he almost despaired of his life? 

It could have been the overwhelming manifestation of God’s Spirit experienced by the disciples when he first arrived in Ephesus (Acts 19:1ff).  Is that a burden?  You try to manage a group of 12 people who have all just discovered that they are the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit!  Or maybe it was the overwhelming burden of preaching for three months.  We’re not talking about someone who preached on Sunday and played golf when he wasn’t doing sermon prep.  This man preached daily, probably at great length, for ninety days straight.   When it became clear that the Synagogue was no longer a welcoming place, he moved his daily discourse to a  nearby public building called the Hall of Tyrannus.  He preached there daily for another two years.  That’s 790 days straight of preaching.  That’d be enough to kill anyone.   Or was it the burden of being so well known that people came with pieces of cloth to touch to Paul and take back to sick people in hopes they would be cured.  Finally, it could have been the burden of knowing Paul was the cause of a great civil disturbance (the Riot in Acts 19:28-31). 

Whatever the affliction was, the comfort of God was there with Paul in a very powerful way.  I think maybe this is what Paul is talking about in Philippians when he says, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content. I know how to abound and I know how to be abased.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.  I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-12)

There is also a great deal of comfort that comes from knowing someone else is “in this” with you.   Note that while Paul is writing to a church with whom he has a considerable beef because of some of their licentious practices, he never doubts that they too have been experiencing tribulation.  They too are suffering.  They too badly need the comfort of the Holy Spirit far more than they need the “manifestations” of the Holy Spirit. 

I’d love to be able to snap my fingers and see all my problems suddenly disappear.  But God doesn’t work that way.  He lets me know by his actions that he is “in this with me.”  He lets me know that his Spirit will be there both literally and in the form of people to walk the road together with me, and that is a great comfort.

Jon

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Called to Obey


CALLED TO OBEY

INTRODUCTION
Last week I gave you an assignment.  Do you all remember what it was?  My point in asking isn’t to in any way embarrass you.  I just don’t want Immanuel Community Church to be one of the places in American life where you won’t find the Word of God.  If you didn’t bring a Bible with you Don offered you one as you came in.  You’re welcome to use those Bibles any week you want, but I like to occasionally highlight something that jumps out at me in my own copy, and that’s why I think it is more effective to have your own Bible with you.

When my children were small I occasionally had to tell them not to do something.  Their response was always, “Why?”  And my retort – which I now and forever repent of – was always, “I’m the Daddy, that’s why.”  Even a 2 year old wants to know why they’re being told to do something.  I was making an assumption.  My assumption was that just because this child was growing up in the Colegrove house, they would instantly appreciate my position as head of that house.  What I didn’t realize was that by saying it that way I was treating sons and daughters as if they were slaves. 

The House of Slavery explains nothing.  It doesn’t have to.  Obedience is never invited in the House of Slavery.  Compliance is insisted upon, and the punishment for disobedience is always severe.  That is where the children of Jacob had found themselves after over 200 years of having the regime in power tell them, “I’m the Daddy, that’s why.”

Not so in the House of Freedom.  In just 17 verses in Exodus 20 where God lays out the core of his Law, the law you must live by if you want to live in the house of Freedom.  The problem with how I was taught the Ten Commandments is that no one ever told me that, in Exodus 20, just as in Leviticus 19 and other places where God lays down the law, you will find the most remarkable and unexpected explanation. 

Before we can appreciate the explanation, let’s look at what it is God is telling us to do.

The Commandments break down, more or less evenly into three sections: Worship, Morality, and Ethics.  If this were a train, Worship would be the engine, Morality would be the passenger cars, and Ethics would be the Caboose.  They are all important.  Without the Engine, the train isn’t going anywhere.  Without Morality there will chaos in the passenger compartments, and without Ethics – the red tail lamps at the end of the train warning others on the track that another train is ahead -- society will break down into a series of lawless, hopeless train wrecks.

Worship
Let’s look at the four Commandments that have to do with worship. 

Separation
Commandment 1, in verse 3, is about Separation.   “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Another translation says, “You shall have no other gods beside me.”  I think that’s a little clearer.  Every square foot of the Middle East had its own regional god or goddess.  Sometimes there were many gods worshipped in an area.  So the idea that they were to worship in singularity and not ally themselves with the gods of the people where they were going is absolutely unique.   In Deuteronomy 6 God puts it this way, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  God is one.  Worship God singularly.  There is no need to go looking for power anywhere else.   While this is a word for all Israel, it is a word for each believer.  The only way a people can worship god with all the heart, soul, and might is when each individual does it first.

Genuflection
Commandment 2, in verse 4 is about a word you probably don’t know if you didn’t grow up Roman Catholic.  But it is a good word: Genuflection.  The word means literally to “bow the knee”.  And isn’t that what true worship is?  But more than that, this commandment is about worship in community.

            “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

When a community comes together to worship it is only natural that they will want to have some focal point.  The early Christian church worshipped in the round, with a simple table in the center on which was nothing more than bread and wine.  They understood that they were invoking the presence of Christ, not just as guest at the table, but as the one who convenes the meal and the one who, in some mysterious way serves it to each and every believer.  But as time went on, and the church grew, the table was pushed against a wall and the people gathered facing the table.  The focal point became more and more ornate, as great murals and iconography on the walls behind and above the table more and more obscured the very simple thing that was being celebrated. 

If we are to worship in singularity, we must also worship in community, and that means worshipping a real presence rather than a carved idol.  If the key to the first commandment is that I must do this or we can’t; the key to the second commandment is that we must do this or I won’t.  The tone must be set by the whole community, or individual worshippers will begin to believe, wrongly, that there is some power in the altar or in the priest that isn’t present in the meal itself.

Proclamation
Commandment 3, beginning at verse 7 is about Proclamation
            “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
            This is worship in witness.  Now, the command here is formed in the negative, but the idea is that when you step out the door of the church and away from community, you will continue to worship God actively in every arena of your life.   I think most of us have probably been taught that “taking the name of the Lord in vain” is the same thing as swearing.  To “take the name of the Lord” is to own his name.  It is to so fully associate yourself with the name of Jehovah God so that even your most casual acquaintance knows this is the name by which you live.  To take the name of the Lord in vain is to do so verbally, but not actively.   This is to speak the words but deny the power.  The greatest proclamation God has in the world comes from lives utterly changed because they took the name of the Holy One of God, because they took the name of Christ.  

Application
So we are to worship God in Separation, in Genuflection, and in Proclamation.  There is also a specific Application God gives us to help us with all the rest.   It is at verse 8:
            Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

This isn’t God trying to stop you from doing something.  This is God making you an offer.  If your boss at work was to tell you on a given Wednesday, right in the middle of the work week, to take the day off with pay, you’d do it, right?  And my guess is you’d be singing the praises of that boss all day.  Everywhere you went that day you’d probably mention it, “My boss gave me the day off – for no reason!” 

Now what would you think of your boss if he gave you a day off every week, just because he thought it was good for you?  I don’t mean that your boss would be asking you to move those hours somewhere else in your week so you were working 10 hours a day in 4 days rather than 8 hours a day in 5 days.  I mean that the boss just concludes that you will be a better, more grateful worker if he surprises you every week with a day off.  My guess is that your productivity on the other four days of the week would shoot up, and you’d probably get so much more done!  Also, your loyalty to that boss would be such that you’d probably never want to leave that job.

Well, long before there was any thought in the world of a Weekend, God came to the same conclusion.  He worked six days and then rested.  It would be healthy for his people to do the same.  Notice that it is the Christian Church that decided the Sabbath was not to be just a day of rest but rather a day of worship and service.  That’s not in the commandment.  In fact, most observant Jews today worship on Friday really before the Sabbath begins, just as evening approaches.  They set the Sabbath itself aside for rest, for the home study of Torah.     

Isn’t it strange that the application God gives us for worship is to give us the day off?  I don’t know about you, but knowing that makes me want to take the day off with him, with my whole heart.

Worship in Separation, Genuflection, Proclamation, and Application.  Do these simple things, God says, and you will build a strong relationship with me.

MORALITY
The next three commands, have to move much more quickly here, have to do with Morality.  Look at the way God frames this.  He begins with Family Morality. 

Family Morality
Commandment 5 says,
            Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”
            Now there is no discussion here of what you should do if Mom and Dad were abusive, didn’t take care of you, or simply abandoned you.  Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City says that wisdom is knowing what to do in the 80% of life where the rules don’t apply.  But here God is telling us where family morality begins.  If the previous generation didn’t honor their father and mother, you should begin by living in such a way that the next generation will.  The great families I have known all practiced the simple habit of honor. 
            My son recently told us that he and his wife Alice have a long-range plan in mind: Since Alice’s parents are about 10 years older than Jama and me, Tim and Alice are planning on moving to Washington, DC at the point at which her parents will need the help of extended family around them, and then move back to wherever Jama and I are when our time comes.  Beth hasn’t yet established a family matrix of her own, and yet I’m quite sure her plans will also include honoring father and mother when the time comes. 
            As I quoted two weeks ago, “Love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice.”  And to build a strong family is to be other minded. 

Community Morality
After Family Morality comes Community Morality. 
            “You shall not murder.”
            Leviticus says “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And in Mark 12:31 Jesus says there is no greater commandment than to Love God and Love your neighbor.
            There are lots of ways to murder a person, not all of them physical. 

Marital Morality
And finally, Marital Morality
            “You shall not commit adultery.
            As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”

Family Morality, Community Morality, Marital Morality.  If you practice these simple things, God says, you will build strong families.

ETHICS
The final three commands are about Ethics.  Here, God starts with the practical. 

Ethics of the Hand
            “You shall not steal,” he says.  Because of the context of what follows, the words, “from your neighbor” are implied here and understood.  “You shall not steal from your neighbor.”
            In Leviticus when God presents this same command he adds: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.
            In the smallest form, this is the reason why for years most churches have had food drives.  We collect canned goods – the gleanings of our harvest – and gather them together and offer them to the poor. 
            I want to tell you about someone who has applied this same principle to their business.  The people who own Northwood Garage, down on Rt. 4 where I live, have quietly let the pastors in town know that if we are aware of someone who needs a set of tires that will pass inspection, they will offer them free and mount them without question on the car of someone we send to them.  I don’t know whether these people are Christians or not.  But there is no question they have applied this ethic to their business.  So I can tell you that if you are looking for an honest, efficient, and knowledgeable mechanic, go to Northwood Garage.  This is someone you can trust because this is someone who has applied God’s Ethics to his business.
            This is Ethics of the HAND – doing with your hand what is Godly in society.

Ethics of the Mouth
The Ninth Command, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” is Ethics of the MOUTH.  In Leviticus the author adds that we should not lie to one another.  Let what you say to and about the people around you be true and gracious.  This will prevent gossip and slander of all kinds and will go a long way to giving you a fair and balanced understanding of the people and the world around you.

Ethics of the Heart
Finally, Ethics of the HEART
            “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.”
            This is the hardest one to get right because it is the only one that no one else sees.  James understands this when he writes, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  (James 4:1-3 ESV)
            God knows that wanting something you cannot have or haven’t earned will eat at your heart like a cancer until either it comes out in violence or kills you from the inside.

Conclusion
There it is, the core of God’s Law.  WORSHIP, MORALITY, ETHICS.  But even having a firm grasp on Worship, Morality, and Ethics can still leave you in the House of Slavery because, as I said at the outset, the difference between the House of Slavery and the House of Freedom is in the explanation.  We are Called to Freedom, and so we have to understand why we do these things. 

Here is God’s explanation of why.  You will find it throughout the reading from Leviticus 19 that was our Old Testament reading this morning, and you’ll also find it prominently here as the preface to Exodus 20.  God says,  “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the House of Slavery.”

This is not God saying, “I’m the Daddy, that’s why.”  It may sound that way at first.  “I am the Lord.”  “I’m the Daddy.”  Right?  But then he reminds us of something he wants us to reflect on.  It was he who “brought you out.”  Why does God want us to observe his commands?  Because he brought us out. 

The best moments I’ve ever had with God were always moments in which he either rescued me (usually from myself), or delivered me from some sin, or got me out of some kind of jam I was in.  When you were a small child do you remember either of your parents ever going to bat for you?  I do.  When I was in the third grade I was treated unjustly and embarrassed by one of the sixth grade teachers in front of a lunchroom full of my peers.   My father was the principal of another of the grammar schools in town, so when my mother wrote a letter to the principal of my school insisting I receive an apology, I’m sure she and Dad wondered if there would be political repercussions that could affect his career.  It made me feel so good that my parents had stood up for me that way.

God had written ten letters to Pharaoh on behalf of the people of Israel.  Water turned to blood, infestations of frogs, then of gnats, then flies, their livestock got sick and died, their people had boils on their bodies, there was thunder and hail, locusts, darkness, and then finally, the death of every first-born son in Egypt.  In all of these things God was saying to Pharaoh, “I’m the Daddy of Israel.”  “I am the Lord of these people.”  Ten plagues.  Ten letters to Pharaoh to redress wrongs.  Ten commands to Israel to set the bar for what is right.

What has God brought YOU out of?  Who was the master over you before you met the Lord?  Has God freed you from some enslavement?  If you are a Christian today you know that he has.  If you doubt his love or his ability to do what he says, I implore you to give him a try.  He wants to be your father.  He wants to lead you out of the House of Bondage and into his own house – the House of Freedom.   And if you already live in the House of Freedom but are still living like you were a slave, God has laid out for you ten ways you can claim what is rightfully yours as a child of the House of Freedom.    You are Called to Obey because you are now free to obey as a child of Freedom Himself.

Let’s Pray.