Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Eve Homily: Emergency!

John 1-5, 14

This time of year always makes me think about the way we celebrated Christmas when was a kid, and some of the gifts my parents gave me.

In the early 70s my favorite television show was called Emergency!. Those of us of a particular vintage will know this one as an action show where the main characters were two paramedics who rushed around Los Angeles saving people’s lives and looking heroic as they did it. I can still remember their names—Gage and DeSoto—and even the number of their rescue vehicle: Squad 51. One of the doctors in the show was played by Bobby Troup—he’s the guy who wrote the song, ‘Route 66.’ You can’t get this kind of detail just anywhere.

The whole concept of paramedics was new back then. Before these specially trained professionals became a regular part of local services, ambulances simply responded to calls, threw the injured person in the back of a station wagon, and took them to a hospital. The paramedics changed all that, along with the advent of the 911 or 999 emergency phone numbers.

Anytime you see ‘para’ in front of a word, it means ‘beside’ or ‘beyond’ or ‘alongside’. Paramedics worked beyond the reach of a hospital, alongside the care someone would get once they could be stabilized in the field. Countless lives have been saved by these men and women who go out to the injured or sick, and give life-saving treatment right where people need it most.

When I was 10, though, I didn’t know anything about the details. I just loved watching the TV show—for Christmas that year my parents gave me an Emergency lunchbox with a matching thermos. Somehow that lunchbox connected me to these guys swooping in and rescuing people in need.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Where Matthew and Luke explain the details of Jesus’ birth story, John explains the meaning behind Jesus’ birth and ministry. In John’s gospel there are no wise men, no shepherds, no baby in a manger. In John’s gospel you see why all of this happened.

John starts his gospel story by talking about The Word, the Logos, the ultimate truth about everyone and everything. He starts his gospel by teaching us that the Word—the one we know as Jesus Messiah—the Word has been there all along—he was the source of all things seen and unseen.

And then he throws in the kicker. In verse 14 John adds the part of the story that lets us know this isn’t like any other story.

Not everyone got it at first, but then again, not everyone recognizes greatness, even when it’s right in from of them.

Last week the Times of London ran a story on the first reaction by the BBC to some rock bands who went on to greatness.

‘Unconvincing derivative distortion’ was how they described Led Zeppelin when they auditioned to play for the BBC. That was roughly my mom’s reaction, too. But unless I’m wrong they went on to make some pretty good records.

When one young man tried out to perform they dismissed him as ‘a singer devoid of personality.’ That was David Bowie. Can you imagine a singer with a more unique series of personalities than Bowie? Maybe he hadn’t settled into Ziggy Stardust just yet.

Even the Rolling Stones didn’t make it through the audition stage the first time. Hard to imagine.

People have been responding to Jesus the same way since the very beginning, misunderstanding who he was—missing the point about what he offered.

So what’s the point of the Christmas story?

The coming of the Messiah as God’s answer to our 911/999 call. Like the emergency services we count on to save our lives and homes and to protect us from dangers, God comes to us. He offers us what we need to live and thrive and serve in his name.

The whole idea of God coming in human form has always tested my ability to get it at first—to understand what it means when the Scriptures teach us that:

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’

How often do we stop to think about what that means?

Alan and Blyden met almost 50 years ago in grade school in my hometown, Burbank, California. They were close friends all through high school, but didn’t have a lot of contact after that. Two years ago Alan was diagnosed with kidney disease, and got the news that he would die without a transplant.

Blyden, who lived in Utah with his family, heard about it through a friend, and after he visited his old friend he made a huge decision. He gave one of his kidneys to be transplanted into his friend—his gift made it possible for his friend to have a second chance on life, all because of this gift.

When he was asked why he did it, Blyden said ‘We just get one chance to live our lives and do good things. If this will give Alan his life back, then I’m going to do it.

Alan struggled to comprehend what his friend wanted to do for him. He said: ‘Thank you seems so inadequate.’

It’s a great story of friendship—of generosity and selflessness. These two guys who met in the 5th grade ended up being a part of each other’s lives forever.

The main point of the story is pretty simple: In order to save his friend, Blyden had to give something up—he had to enter into his friend’s life in a sacrificial way. He responded to his friend’s emergency by doing something beyond what anyone ever expected.

That’s what we see in the coming of Jesus.

That’s what we celebrate in the birth of the Messiah.

Sometimes, in order to save someone, you have to enter in, like a transplanted life-giving organ, in order to make it happen.

Christmas is one of those seasons in the year when we celebrate and reflect on something that’s really beyond our ability to understand. This miracle, though—this supernatural event—is God’s response to our need for reconciliation and restoration.

This is God’s answer to our emergency call, and my prayer for all of us is that we can accept the amazing gift being offered to us.

If you’re hearing this for the first time, then make this Christmas the year you accept the gift of Jesus Christ in your own life.

If you‘ve heard this story a thousand times before, but it’s making sense to you for the first time or in a new way, make this Christmas celebration personal as you commit yourself to Christ’s Kingdom.

Mostly, wherever you are in your journey of faith, don’t let another Christmas go by without seeing the Christ Child as the answer to your needs—the place where the hopes and fears of all the years are met.

May God bless you and keep you as we remember the birth of his son. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2009

This Thing That Has Happened

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 2:8-15

I’ve been watching and reading a lot about the Copenhagen Conference this past week.

When it ended a few days ago most of the headlines read something like: ‘Climate conference ends in discord.’

After getting leaders from all over the world to gather for a conversation about climate change, the end result seemed pretty disappointing. Whatever any of us might believe about the issue itself, it wasn’t exactly encouraging to see the way the nations of the world got together for a discussion. The results ranged from hyper-bureaucratic legalese on one hand, to a shouting match on the other.

This morning I want to read you an account of a different gathering, with an entirely different impact on the world.

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

The shepherds would have been aware of the promises God made to his people. Promises for a Messiah who would come and make things right—make things just—restore the Shalom God intended from the beginning. They would have known that they didn’t deserve God’s grace, but they hoped for it anyway.

In the Old Testament we learn a lot about the way God responds to our sin and rebellion—we learn a lot that we tend to forget when we only read the New Testament books. Maybe that makes sense. We don’t really like words like wrath and judgment, and yet they’re an important part of how God interacts with his people.

It would be a mistake to say that wrath and judgment are the only way God deals with his children—that would be a distorted picture of the God we see in the Scriptures. But we also give an incomplete picture of God when we leave his judgment out.

As we worked through Paul’s letter to the Romans this past fall we learned something about God’s wrath. We didn’t see God throwing lightning bolts or causing floods or wiping people out with his ‘terrible swift sword.’

The wrath Paul talks about shows God taking a step back and letting things play out as we think we want them. He allows us to have what we think we want, and by doing that we create our own misery. God’s wrath, when we think about it that way, comes when he pulls back—when he makes himself remote from us.

That’s why the Christmas miracle matters so much. At Christmas we celebrate the way God enters into our lives through the birth of this one, single baby. We remember that this baby grew up to love and teach and serve and die for us—all of that was done here, on earth, close to us. The birth of Jesus is the opposite of wrath, because it represents the gift of Emmanuel, of God coming to be with us.

But why did he come?

That’s what made me think of the Copenhagen conference this week. Saving the earth is one thing, and there’s no doubt that important work has to be done to create a healthier balance between natural resources and human industry.

Saving the earth is one thing, but saving the world is another.

The gift of the Messiah offers healing and peace and restoration not just to the earth, not just to people, but to every level of God’s creation.

We talked earlier this year about how the Atonement—God’s work of reconciliation through Christ—the Atonement offers reconciliation for the relationships we have with God, with ourselves, with each other and with the earth.

That means that the gift of the Christ-child—the birth of Jesus Messiah—all of what we do at Christmas is a celebration of God’s reconciling work at all levels—it’s a celebration of what God has done not just to save the earth, but to save the world.

This past week Americans celebrated the anniversary of the ratification of the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Passed in December of 1865, the 13th Amendment made slavery illegal anywhere in the United States. Here’s how the text of the amendment reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

This was a huge step forward for the United States, which hadn’t been all that united on the subject for years. At the end of a complicated and bloody Civil War, a war fought over national unity, to preserve a system of government that was still feeling its way, and also over the issue of slavery—at the end of that war the American states approved a law that made it illegal to own another person—to treat them as property.

But it’s the little clause in the middle that we don’t notice quite as much. Even after the amendment was passed, it was possible to force convicted criminals into hard labor for a period of time—that’s still the law today.

There’s a huge difference between that and what God offers to us through the Messiah. The US made slavery illegal, unless you committed a crime, while God offers freedom and forgiveness and reconciliation and a fresh start, even though we’ve all committed sins—we’ve all done things that put a wedge between us and God.

The 13th amendment was a little like the Copenhagen conference. It offered limited solutions to a problem that was a lot bigger than that. The 13th Amendment made exceptions, and it didn’t do anything about racism or hatred or even about the everyday injustices that make people feel as though they’re still enslaved. Even if Copenhagen had accomplished everything its planners had dreamed, it still would have only given us tools for saving the earth.

It wouldn’t have saved the world. It wouldn’t have healed broken relationships and transformed the culture or offered hope and meaning for a life beyond this one.

That’s what Jesus came to do. The Jesus we celebrate at Christmas heals our relationships and offers real hope for a hurting world.

When those shepherds met the angel of the Lord out there in the fields, remember what the angel said:

‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people.’

And after the rest of the promise was made and a heavenly choir sang the first true Christmas carol: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all people on whom his favor rests.’

When all of that was done, remember what the shepherds did?

They looked at each other and said: ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.’

What could you see or experience this Christmas that would make you respond the same way? What song could you hear or Scripture could you read or vision could you have—what would make you say, as if it were all unfolding for the first time, ‘Let’s go and see this thing that has happened’?

My prayer for all of us, as we make this final turn and head into the homestretch before Christmas—my prayer for us is that we can get a sense of just how huge a thing God accomplished in that tiny baby 2000 years ago.

The truth is there in one of the Christmas hymns we sing each year.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Whatever it means or ends up meaning for us to say that Christ came to save the world, somehow that promise is offered to all people in all places. ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met’ in the Christ child.

If that’s news to you then find one of us and ask us to share the rest of the story with you.

If you’ve heard that a thousand times but it’s starting to get under your skin, don’t let another year go by without doing something about it.

The angels that spoke with those frightened shepherds are still singing that same song. Only now we get to sing it with them.

Let’s stand and sing together: ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Point of All This

The Third Sunday of Advent

John 3:16

The Telegraph newspaper ran a story about what kids in the UK know about Christmas. The news wasn’t so good.

When asked what gifts the Three Wise Men brought to the baby Jesus, these were some of the responses:

A boy from Manchester said: ‘The wise men brought coconut oil, which is made from coconuts, some sweets…and gold.’

A kid from Merseyside said: ‘The wise men brought Jesus presents of gold, frankincense, myrrh and silver…but I would have given him a Liverpool shirt.’

A six-year-old said: ‘I don’t know what the three wise men brought Jesus, but I would have given him a tin of biscuits. I think Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have all liked a biscuit.’

When asked what animals were present at the birth of Jesus, one boy said: ‘There were sheep, horses and a crocodile outside the stable.’

When asked who the Angel Gabriel was, one girl said he was ‘big white fairy who helped Mary and Joseph take care of the baby…kind of like a doctor.’

Then they got to the big questions.

When asked who Jesus was, a five-year-old said he ‘was a king and wore a crown even though he was a baby. It was a really small crown.’

One kid said that Jesus was Mary and God’s little boy,’ while another just said that ‘Jesus was a mystery man.’

The cappers were the responses to the question: ‘Why do we celebrate Christmas?’

A seven-year old said: ‘We celebrate Christmas because Santa comes and gives us lots and lots of presents.’

Now I don’t want to be too hard on these kids, and their responses are worth a few laughs. But if we’re honest we’ll admit that it’s hard to keep from losing focus on the true meaning of Christmas. As we shop and eat and drink and give and receive and travel—it’s hard to keep our eyes fixed on what we’re celebrating at this time of year.

It’s hard to avoid missing the point of Christmas.

Our passage today might be the most familiar text in the entire New Testament: John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

In Eugene Peterson’s translation called The Message, he writes the passage like this:

‘This is how much God loved the world. He gave his son, his one and only son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.’

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

When we get lost in the busy-ness of Christmas it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening here—to miss the point. The British equivalent phrase for missing the point is ‘to lose the plot,’ and that might be closer to the truth here.

The plot of the story runs like this: God made us to enjoy an intimate relationship with him, and to live in close connection with each other. But sin has damaged relationships at all levels, and God has created ways for us to be restored and renewed and welcomed back into his presence.

The climax of the plot is the redemptive work of Jesus the Messiah—his ministry of healing, his death for our sin, and his resurrection to prove that he had power over all places and all things, even death.

The beginning of that climactic chapter—of this crucial point in the plot—all of that begins with the birth of the Christ child.

Our text might seem like a strange one for the Christmas season. There’s no manger, no animals or crocodiles outside the stable, no Mary and Joseph.

But this one verse is the point behind everything in the Christmas story. This one verse gives us the meaning behind the action in the drama of salvation we experience in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

This one verse is the point of everything, everywhere, and for everyone.

Since we’ve already started talking about the elements of drama here, let’s get deeper into this passage. As a true English major language geek I’ll say that there are four verbs in this passage that matter. But more than just describing the action in the passage, these four verbs drive the plot of the story, and help us understand the true meaning of Christmas:

‘He gave his one and only son…’

‘That whoever believes…’

‘Will not perish but will have eternal life’…they’ll live.

But the most important of the four action words in our passage is the first one:

‘For God so loved the world…’ God loved the world just so…God loved the world so much.

He loved us so much that no expense was too high to pay.

He loved us so completely that no gesture was too grand to make.

His love for his people was so deep and wide and high that no sacrifice ever seemed too painful if it helped to communicate the purity and perfection of his love.

Brennan Manning tells a story about a friend of his that gets at the point here. He writes:

A few years ago, “the day before Christmas, Richard Ballenger’s mother in South Carolina was busy wrapping packages and asked her young son to shine her shoes. Soon, with the proud smile that only a seven-year-old can muster, he presented the shoes for inspection. His mother was so pleased that she gave him a quarter.

On Christmas morning as she put on the shoes to go to church, she noticed a lump in one shoe. She took it off and found the quarter wrapped in paper. Written in the paper in a child’s scrawl were the words:

‘I done it for love.’

We learn something pretty important about Christmas in John 3:16, in this passage that people can recite even if they haven’t been in a church in years.

Through the birth of the baby Messiah—through his life and ministry, his arrest and beating and death and resurrection—in each one of these plot twists in the story, God is there, looking at us and saying: ‘I did this for love.’

The point of all this business about Christmas is that God loved us so much that he wasn’t about to let us go through this life or any other life without him. As we continue thinking about Jesus and cultivating a sense of waiting, of expectation for the coming of the Messiah, never forget that the point of Christmas is to be reminded of God’s complete and perfect love for you—for all of us.

You won’t get a better gift this year or any year. May God bless you with a sense of his presence and love this Christmas season.

Let’s pray together.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Burden of a Promise Kept

The Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers."

This is one of the great songs in the Bible. It comes in an action-packed first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It starts with a priest named Zechariah, going through the motions of leading a worship service in the temple. The angel of the Lord appears to him—right there in the temple—and tells him he’s going to be a father. He seems surprised, and the angel gets peeved and makes him mute until the baby is born—never say that God doesn’t know exactly how to get our attention.

After Zechariah the angel visits a girl who must have been about 15 years old or so. He tells her that God has noticed her faithfulness, and that he has a job for her. She’s going to be the mother of the Messiah God had promised to his covenant people—everything they had hoped for over centuries was going to get started right there in her body.

Her reaction is priceless. She may have been a 15 year old in the 1st century, but she knew how things worked. She said to the angel: ‘How can this be, since I’m a virgin?’ I can imagine the angel smiling and thinking that God had picked someone with just the right amount of chutzpah for the job. He says to her: ‘don’t worry—we’ll take care of that part.’

Then Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, one of her relatives, who happens to be the pregnant wife of Zechariah the Silent Preacher. They swap their amazing, miraculous stories, and then Elizabeth gives Mary this word from God: ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’

By the time we get to our text, Mary knows not only that the promises God made to his covenant people are going to come true, but that she is going to play a starring role.

How do you think you would respond to that?

This is one of the classic readings for the Advent season, but it’s always stuck out to me as strange. Mary comes off sounding unreal, un-human—like a saint. She sounds like a heavenly being instead of like a teenage girl who just got the shock of her life.

Over this Advent season I’ve been rethinking this passage. I posed a question in Facebook the other day that went like this: ‘John D’Elia is rethinking Mary's Song in Luke 1:46-55. Is she rejoicing or terrified?’ You wouldn’t believe the reaction.

People leaned one way or the other. Some caught where I was going with it and talked about how terrified she must have been. Others defended her sort of other-worldly courage—the traditional view of her. Lots of people rode the fence and said it was equal parts of both (every four years when the press talks about swing voters or undecideds, that’s who they’re talking about). Some of the moms said fairly strongly that no man could ever understand this passage.

Any conclusion we come to about how Mary felt has to include the fear she must have experienced when the angel Gabriel told her what was in store for her. At the very least it would be a scandal for a young girl to be pregnant in a hyper-traditional, rules-based culture. At the very least she had to be afraid of that. The rest of the story, if it turned out to be true, would have been even more overwhelming.

The point here isn’t to tear down our image of Mary—to make her seem weak or pathetic. Let’s remember here that God chose her, and that we don’t believe God uses us like puppets. She must have had some strength, some powerful faith, some special qualities that God could call for this special task of special tasks.

When I talk about the sheer terror Mary must have felt, it’s as an introduction to our text this morning—it’s a way of creating context for this amazing song we read every Advent season.

Mary knew the promises of God—she was a part of a community that existed in constant waiting for the Messiah to appear—she lived her life faithfully, day by day, struggling to be a reflection of the God she believed in. In her own way, as a young woman who lived in a culture that didn’t give much weight to the opinions or hopes of young women, Mary lived at the very core of the Jewish faith tradition.

She knew God’s promises and believed that he would make good on each and every one of them. She just never thought she was the one God would choose to use in fulfilling those promises. It’s one thing to believe God will do what he promised to do, it’s another to find out you’re playing the lead in the show.

But this shouldn’t surprise us as we think back on other stories in the Bible. God had a habit of calling people who didn’t feel ready to do the job he had for them, and they didn’t always respond so well.

God sends an angel to Jacob and Jacob picks a fight with him—wrestles with him all night.

Moses, probably the most important character in the entire Old Testament—the one God chose to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt, and the one God used to communicate the 10 Commandments to the Hebrews—when God called Moses do you remember what he said? ‘Please God, not me, I wouldn’t be very good at this at all. I know—you can send my brother Aaron—he seems like a smart guy.’

Even Jesus—and I know this might be shocking to say—even Jesus, when he was waiting to be arrested at the end of his earthly life—even Jesus asked if there was a Plan B. He prayed: ‘Father, if you’re willing, take this cup from me.’

When Mary finally absorbs what God has in mind for her, she doesn’t wrestle with God like Jacob did. She doesn’t try to weasel out of it like Moses did. She doesn’t even ask for the cup to go to someone else.

Mary praises God. Mary sees herself in the plan that God has for her people and the world. Mary remembers who she is and whose she is and says to God: ‘Let’s get on with it.’

But here’s the follow up question to Mary’s willingness to serve: Let’s get on with what? What was the Messiah supposed to do?

The Messiah came to reconcile us to God himself. To begin the process of bringing God’s peace and justice to every part of his creation. The Messiah came to show that God loved his people more than they could ever imagine. The Messiah came to keep God’s promises.

Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Seminary, tells the story of shopping in a local mall one Christmas Eve. He was walking through a department store, hearing ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’ playing on the shop sound system. He looked all around at the people scrambling for gifts they couldn’t pay for—trying to buy happiness that wasn’t for sale, and asked himself: Are the hopes and fears of all these people really met—fully satisfied—in the Christ Child tonight?

Mary believed they would be. She knew the promises and trusted the one who made them. When it came time for her to play her part in the plan God had for his creation, she might have been terrified, but she stepped into the ring and trusted that God was in control.

There’s a lesson for us here as we prepare for Christmas—as we get into this season of remembering how to expect the Messiah in each of our lives. Mary’s story might be unique, but it plays out in different ways in each one of our lives.

God has promises on the table, and he has a part for each of us in bringing those promises to life here, now, in this place and in places we may never even know about.

God has a call on each one of our lives, and there isn’t a single thing about that call that’s dependent on us feeling ready—on us feeling able or competent. The deal isn’t sealed when we get enough training or pray enough or read the entire Bible. The deal is sealed when we respond like this teenage girl who just realized her life was about to change forever.

We begin to understand the Christmas story when we get past our own fear. When we hear God’s call and respond by saying:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my soul rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.’

In modern English that prayer might sound like this:

Praise God! I might be scared out of my mind, but I’m going to trust the God who saves me, the one who doesn’t care about the things I’ve done in my past—who isn’t keeping an impossible list of requirements—who isn’t lurking around waiting to drop a hammer on me when I make a mistake. ---

So what does that teach us about how we can respond when God calls us to faith and service?

We can learn a few things from a teenage girl in a backwater town in an occupied country.

Just like Mary, our response has three parts:

First, we praise God as the maker and keeper of promises.

Next, we see ourselves in the plan that God has for his people and his world.

And finally, we remember who we are and whose we are and we say to God: ‘Let’s get on with it.’

God has promises on the table. God has promises made and promises fulfilled on this Table. When Jesus asked for the cup to pass him by he also said, in the same breath, ‘yet not my will, but yours be done.’ He took that cup, and now he passes it on to us.

If you’re ever wondering what in the world God wants from you—if you’re ever struggling to know how you should respond to God when he calls your name, it can be reduced to that single sentence that Jesus said to his Father, and that we say each week in the Lord’s Prayer.

Not my will, but yours be done.

As we come to Communion during this Advent season, we remember the way a young girl responded to God’s call on her life, and the way her son did the same. We remember the sacrifice that brought us all to this place today, and the promise that Christ will return to finish what he started.

As we come to the Table, ask God to show you something new this Christmas season. Tell him you’re ready to play your part in his plan. Then be prepared to say the most important sentence you can ever say in your lifetime:

Not my will, Lord, but yours be done.

Come to the Table.

Let’s pray together.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Sermon, St. Paul's Cathedral

(The American community in London hosts a service of worship at St. Paul's Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day each year. It was my privilege and honor to give the sermon for the service today.)

First Thessalonians 5:12-22

Happy Thanksgiving!

For many Americans this is the favorite holiday of all: No presents to buy—it’s not a day that suffers from being too commercialized. It has all the best food and most of the best sports (if they would play just one baseball game on Thanksgiving Day it would be the most perfect holiday ever).

Now this is the part of the service where the preacher usually tells some kind of turkey-related joke. I confess that I started looking for a good joke months ago, but never found one that would work for today.

I did, though, discover that there are a lot of sayings or phrases out there that use the word turkey in them. In the States, when you’re having a serious conversation about something we say you’re ‘talking turkey’.

Here in Britain when someone chooses to accept a situation that isn’t going to go well for them we say it’s ‘like turkeys voting for an early Christmas’.

A ‘turkey shoot’ is a way to describe an easy victory, while going ‘cold turkey’ describes the very difficult process of shaking an addiction or habit.

For those of us who grew up watching American crime shows, we can all remember watching police officers chasing suspects through alleys and around corners—the officer would climb fences and jump over walls in pursuit of the suspect—we knew that in TV-speak he was called the ‘perp’—and the chase would end when the officer drew his pistol and aimed it at the perp and said: ‘Freeze, turkey.’

Well, there are a lot of frozen turkeys giving their all for us today, and we’ll all be thankful for that later on today. (I told you there weren’t any good turkey jokes this year.)

Last month an 81-year-old Australian man confirmed one of the classic stereotypes about men. He got up one morning and got into his car to go and buy himself a newspaper. Along the way he got turned around and ended up hopelessly lost, almost 400 miles out of his way. When he finally stopped, a policeman asked him how he’d allowed himself to get so far off course, and the man simply said that he liked driving, and that he had a full tank of gas.

Now we all know the real answer here, right? He didn’t want to stop and ask for directions—I’ll pause as the wives glare at the husbands here today. He didn’t ask for directions and in the end found himself almost 400 miles away from home—a long way from where he was supposed to be.

Our text today comes near the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. It reads:

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

This passage is about a lot of things. It’s focused on the life of Christian churches—about how the early communities built around the Christian faith could grow and thrive and hold together. But the teachings in this passage aren’t limited to the house churches of the 1st century.

Our text has a lot to teach us today about learning to live and work together in healthy ways—about being productive and honorable and generous as we press on with the tasks that get us out of bed each morning. There’s a strong message here about what it means to live and work in community—about the ways we interact personally and professionally.

There’s also a lesson here about learning from challenges, or even mistakes—about being disciplined in the way that we work and serve and love. There’s some very practical advice in this passage that fits with what we’re celebrating today—that helps us see thankfulness as an important part of our lives.

Thanksgiving is one of those rare holidays that asks us to reflect on our own lives—to look around and take stock of what we can be thankful for. It’s a holiday that calls each one of us to do something that might not be a normal part of our lives, no matter what our faith tradition might be. Thanksgiving Day is a reminder to each one of us that thankfulness is important—being grateful to each other, and also being grateful to God for his blessings in our lives.

When George Washington declared the first National Day of Thanksgiving on this date in 1789, he said it was ‘the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits.’

That’s why we’re here today. That’s what we gather to remember and celebrate on this special day.

Well, no American holiday is complete without some reference to one of the most important American philosophers of all. Someone who each year manages to articulate our feelings and focus our attention on the true meanings behind most of our special days. Of course you all know that I’m talking about … Charlie Brown. In the States, for most of the last 50 years or so, there has been a Charlie Brown special produced and televised on each major holiday.

Who can forget ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’, with the classic menu of two slices of buttered toast, some pretzel sticks, a handful of popcorn, and some jelly beans.

There were more of these programs:

A Charlie Brown Christmas

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown

It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown

Or maybe the classic: It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown

There are others.

You’re in Love, Charlie Brown

You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown

And finally, for those of us nearing or looking back on middle age:

You Don’t Look 40, Charlie Brown

In 1983, the gang from Peanuts traveled to Europe and visited some of the battle sites from the First and Second World Wars. They saw and talked about the horrors of war and the sacrifices of those who had to fight. That story was told in one of the most reflective specials in the series. The title was: ‘What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?’

As we pause to be thankful and to reflect and celebrate this week—we can ask ourselves the same question that gave the title to that Charlie Brown special:

What have we learned in the past year?

It’s been quite a year. When we last saw each other there were many people in this gathering who were unsure—unsure about their jobs, unsure about their savings and families, even unsure of where they might be living in a few weeks or months. When we met here last year the banking crisis had gathered up so much momentum that all of us—and millions of others around the world—all of us were wondering just how far the collapse would take us.

Many of us saw friends move away too soon as casualties of the financial crisis. People in this room today took demotions or transfers they didn’t want—they had to scramble to live in the same houses or keep their kids in the same schools. Some people had to move back to the States and still haven’t found new jobs.

It’s been quite a year.

And so Charlie Brown’s question is a good one: What have we learned?

Maybe one thing we’ve learned is that every once in a while, it’s a good idea to stop and ask for directions. Otherwise we run the risk of ending up far from where we meant to go—we end up lost, with no clear way back home.

Certainly we’ve learned the hard way that we’re far more connected than we ever imagined, so Paul’s teaching on what it means to live in community can offer us some lessons as well. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians can help us as we look back on the past year.

What can we learn from our passage of Scripture today?

Some of what we learn is personal—it’s about how we think and what we value and how we want to be. Some of what we learn is personal, and some of what we learn is more public—it’s about how we work and make decisions that impact other people.

On the personal side, Paul instructs his readers to keep their eyes fixed on God no matter what happens. Paul’s readers were people who had heard the Christian gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation through the Cross of Jesus and thrown their whole weight on it—given their whole lives to it. Now they were trying to figure out how they could demonstrate that faith as they lived each day.

‘Be joyful always’, Paul says. That doesn’t mean walking around with silly grins on our faces. Being joyful is being willing to trust that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he said he would do.

Paul continues, saying: ‘Pray continually’. That’s about sharing our deepest thoughts with God—and also about waiting around to listen for an answer.

Then Paul says we should ‘Give thanks in all circumstances.’ Challenging times make it difficult to experience the joy that springs from feeling thankful, but forgetting to be thankful altogether doesn’t really work either. Challenging times, more than any other, remind us that thankfulness is a discipline and not a feeling—it’s something we have to remember to do, even when we don’t feel like it. Especially when we don’t feel like it.

Things over the last few years may or may not have gone differently if we’d practiced joy…or constant prayer…or if we’d disciplined ourselves to be thankful in all circumstances. Maybe we can debate whether or not the world would have been a better place if more of us spent more time being joyful and praying and being thankful. I can live with that.

What isn’t really up for debate is this: The world would be in much better shape—many of the people in this room today would have had a much better year if we’d followed the advice in the second part of our text.

Test everything.
Hold on to the good.
Avoid every kind of evil.

What do you think about that? Whether you think of yourself as a Christian or a person of faith or not, it’s good advice, isn’t it?

Whether you think Jesus was a crazy man or a wise teacher or the Lord and Savior of the universe, we can agree that learning to be joyful, to acknowledging a power beyond ourselves, and developing the discipline of thankfulness—we can agree that these are good things, right?

Beyond that though, and in light of what we’ve learned about business practices and banking strategies—and also about being borrowers and customers—in light of what we understand now about how we got into this mess—in light of all that, we can agree that there’s something important for all of us to take away from this ancient Christian text as we celebrate Thanksgiving.

Test everything.
Hold on to the good.
Avoid every kind of evil.

In our personal lives and professional behavior, this is more than just good advice. This is a call to faithful living. This is a challenge to be honorable and decent in every area of our lives. This is a call to integrity and discernment and wisdom, and if we answer that call it will quite simply change the way the world works.

On this Thanksgiving Day, as we consider just how much there is in our lives to make us truly thankful, this is an important lesson for us to remember.

As we celebrate a holiday that has become synonymous with overloaded tables and overstuffed guests, let’s not forget where we were a year ago today.

Maybe the question isn’t: ‘what have we learned?’ Maybe we just need to be reminded that it’s wise to stop sometimes and ask for direction. Maybe the best question for all of us to ask as we celebrate Thanksgiving is this:

‘What can we still learn?’

That’s where we come back to this strange little text, tucked away at the end of a letter in the Christian Bible.

Be joyful always.
Pray continually.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Test everything.
Hold on to the good.
Avoid every kind of evil.

May God bless you and keep you…and have a very Happy Thanksgiving.


Monday, November 23, 2009

So What?

(This message is the last of a series on Romans titled "Based on a Promise, Called for a Purpose.")

Romans 12:1

As we wrap up our brief journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, it’s helpful to be reminded of what he was trying to accomplish by writing to them:

The letter to the Romans was written to convince the Gentile Christians in Rome that God could be trusted because he kept his promises to his Jewish covenant people.

It was also a reminder to the Jewish people that they hadn’t left their old faith behind for a new one, but that Christ was the completion of the faith they’d held all along.

The substance of Paul’s case is that we were made to have a close relationship with God—that we were made for that kind of closeness and intimacy with him. We were meant to live that way, but it all got complicated by our sin. For our purposes today and in this series, sin is anything—anything at all—that gets in the way of the relationship we were meant to have with God.

But God doesn’t leave us hanging. If you trace the history of the human relationship to God you see that God has always provided a way—no matter what we do to mess it up—God has always provided a way for us to come back to him—that’s the point of the Old Testament Law and the prophets and the promise of a Messiah.

God always provides a way back to him, no matter what we’ve said or done or even believed before this moment.

Romans 12:1

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

So what about our passage today?

This is another of Paul’s ‘greatest hits’ collection—a passage that we memorize and recite, sometimes without allowing it to speak to us in context. In preaching classes we use this passage as an example of something that should happen in every sermon—the shift from what our message is to what we should do about it—from the indicative to the imperative (for those of you who are taking notes). This is about the ‘So What?’ question.

This is a rich sentence—it’s a text we could have built a series around all on its own. Let’s look at it phrase by phrase.

‘Therefore I urge you’: Right there we have some actual proof that whatever Paul is about to say, it’s connected somehow to what has come before. You can’t start a something new with a ‘therefore’, because there’s nothing there to build on.

When Paul starts this new section, he’s building on some stories and teachings that he’s already shared with his Roman readers.

Creation, a way of forgiveness, keeping of his promises, the sacrifice of his son, and the invitation to life in the Spirit—life the way it was meant to be. It’s a good list.

But Paul doesn’t stop with just a list of things he’s already said. Those events—those acts of God—each one of them is an example of a quality in God’s character—they represent something about God that matters—that should matter to us. Listen to the next line:

‘In view of God’s mercy…’ In view of all these things God has done—in view of God’s overwhelming love, his mercy toward us.

It’s important here for us to explore the word ‘mercy’ for a moment. What is mercy? Maybe the best way to start to respond to that is to think about the counterpart to mercy—what’s the other side of the coin?

It would be easy to think that the opposite of mercy is cruelty, and in some ways that would be true. We talk about cruelty as the absence of mercy—of being merciless. I can see how we would think of cruelty as the opposite of mercy.

But that’s not what Paul means in this letter.

Paul has been working from a particular point of view from the very start of his letter to the Romans. God’s relationship to his Jewish covenant people is always a part of the evidence Paul is gathering to make his case—it’s never far from his mind as he tries to convince the Roman Christians that God can be trusted. In Paul’s understanding of who God is, the opposite of mercy isn’t cruelty.

The opposite of mercy is justice. That’s worth a little explaining.

The legal framework that holds biblical Judaism together is fairly simple. It’s about getting what you deserve. When Paul says: ‘In view of God’s mercy…’, what he’s really saying is this:

Since God loved you so much that he didn’t give you what you deserve—that he loved you so much that he gave you far more than you ever dreamed or imagined you could have…

And that’s when he moves to the next part of the text—when he makes the transition from the indicative to the imperative—the ‘So What?’ part of the text.

‘Present your bodies as living sacrifices.’ Well. That doesn’t sound very pleasant at all. Who in their right mind would choose to offer themselves to be a living sacrifice? Think about that for a moment.

Julie and I have been watching an American TV comedy called ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ The other night one of the characters, who’s a bit of a stickler for language, was trying to argue for the difference between the words ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively.’ This seemed perfectly reasonable to me, as a confirmed language geek—things that are literal should actually happen, and things that a figurative can simply be examples. Another character, who didn’t share our hero’s grammar values, responded, and I quote, saying: ‘I literally want to pull your head off right now.’

Paul isn’t literally saying that churches should start offering human sacrifices. Paul would have argued, as the Protestants did 1500 years later, that Christ’s sacrifice was a once and for all kind of thing. We don’t need to repeat that sacrifice, we just need to remember it and what it means. That’s a brief summary of literally thousands of pages of Reformation theology right there.

So what does it mean then, this business about presenting your bodies as living sacrifices?

To me this is one of the most important ‘So Whats’ in the entire New Testament.

This is a call to each of us to make our lives available to God for the purposes of spreading his Kingdom.

This is about taking all that we have and all that we are and bringing it before God to see what he might do with it and through it.

There’s no mystery here. It’s not a coincidence that we’re talking about this passage as we prepare to commit our pledges to God’s work. But it’s not just about money. This is about how much of our lives we’re willing to offer in response to God’s mercy toward us.

David Landsborough was a 2nd generation medical missionary in Taiwan. His father had started the first medical school in the region—it’s still there—and David went back to serve there when he’d been trained as a doctor. During his service there a young boy came in with an infection on his leg that was resistant to all the medicines they had. A skin graft was the only option, but no one was willing to be the donor. Dr Landsborough’s wife Jean, who was also a doctor, volunteered and gave enough of her own skin to provide several grafts for the boy. It was through her that this little boy’s life was saved. Incidentally, he grew up to be the minister of one of the largest churches in Taiwan, and served as the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church there.

‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice…’

Paul ends this verse with an important description of what it means when we give our lives as an offering to God. He says: ‘This is your spiritual act of service/worship’

I love it that these two words can be interchangeable in the Bible—service and worship. One writer simply said that the person ‘who has been reconciled and renewed carries out the worship of God through the Spirit by presenting his or her whole being’ in service to God’s Kingdom…‘it leads to the surrender of the whole life, which is spiritual worship.’

So what are we supposed to do…really?

The point of Paul’s letter is that God can be trusted to keep his promises because he’s kept the promises he’s already made. Let’s be clear about exactly what Paul is saying here.

Because God never gave us what we deserved—because he loved us so much that he gave us far more than we could ever deserve on our own—because Jesus Christ offered himself as a living sacrifice for us…

In view of God’s mercy, the call is on us to commit our lives—everything about our lives—to God, as a thankful response for what he’s already done for us.

This faith of ours—part of it is a collection of beliefs we pass down from generation to generation. It’s a list of creeds that help us understand what it is we believe and who it is we believe in.

But this faith of ours is more than just what we believe—it’s really about the relationship we have with the one we believe in.

The point here is that we live in relationship to a God who has already held up his end of things. ‘In view of God’s mercy’ is a reminder to us that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has done something amazing already.

The call on us is to respond. We do that by making our lives available to the work of the Kingdom of God. We do that when we share our time and talent—we do that when we commit to the financial support of a local church.

As we move into a time of prayer and commitment as we receive your pledges, I invite you to reflect on God’s mercy in your own life—where God has shown you love in ways you never imagined—think on God’s mercy, and how you’ll respond to it.

In the very first message of this series on Romans we talked about our lives being based on a promise, and called for a purpose. That title for the series was always pointed at the text we read this morning. Our lives are built on a foundation of the promises of mercy that God has kept—that he’s fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The purpose we’re called to is to share our lives in Christ’s name to glorify God and to share his message with the world. That’s our spiritual act of worship and service.

As we move into Thanksgiving this week and the Advent season next Sunday, I invite you to remember that Jesus Christ is the source of our thankfulness and holiday celebration—that he is the fulfillment of every promise, known and unknown—and that his call on our lives is simple: He simply asks for everything.

Let’s pray together.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Better than Conquest

(This message is part of a series on Romans titled "Based on a Promise, Called for a Purpose.")

Romans 8:31-39

I saw in the news that Ellis Island closed 55 years ago this past week, on Nov 12 1954. Ellis Island was the main gateway for immigrants to the US for more than 60 years, and during that time more than 20 million people entered America through its gates. One of them was my grandmother. She moved here from Italy with two young sons to rejoin my grandfather who was working here. They were just one family in the waves of immigration from Europe and other places in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Immigration is controversial both here and in the US, I know, but on balance I think it’s had an enormously positive impact on American culture. If we’re honest we know that few if any of us come from Native American families, and of course now a lot of us are living and working in still another country not our own.

How we enter a new place—how we make a life in a new culture—is important for us not only in relation to our nationality, but also to our identity as Christians.

31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written:

"For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, it’s helpful to be reminded of what he was trying to accomplish:

The letter to the Romans was written to convince the Gentile Christians in Rome that God could be trusted because he kept his promises to his Jewish covenant people.

It was also a reminder to the Jewish people that they hadn’t left their old faith behind for a new one, but that Christ was the completion of the faith they’d held all along.

The substance of Paul’s case is that we were made to have a close relationship with God—that we were made for that kind of closeness and intimacy with him. We were meant to live that way, but it all got complicated by our sin. For our purposes today and in this series, sin is anything—anything at all—that gets in the way of the relationship we were meant to have with God.

But God doesn’t leave us hanging. If you trace the history of the human relationship to God you see that God has always provided a way—no matter what we do to mess it up—God has always provided a way for us to come back to him—that’s the point of the Old Testament Law and the prophets and the promise of a Messiah.

God always provides a way back to him, no matter what we’ve said or done or even believed before this moment.

So what about our passage today?

Paul starts with a list of rhetorical questions—we looked at the first one of these last week. After his radical statement: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” After that, Paul asks some questions:

What do we say in response to all that God has done?

If God is for us, who can be against us?

If God didn’t spare his own son, is there any limit to his generosity and love toward us?

If that’s true, then who can accuse God of anything?

If God is God and we’re not, then who is in a position to judge us?

And if that’s true, and Christ died for us and continues to pray for us, then we see this amazing promise:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

This is like those situations where we go in with a lot of questions, but someone has thought of them already and provided us with answers.

We’re called to engage the culture as redeemed people with a message of good news. If you think about that you’ll come up with a ton of questions, but in this passage Paul offers us answers that work about what we’re called to do—about who we’re supposed to be.

Paul asks: “Shall trouble or hardship or nakedness or danger or sword keep us from the love of Christ?”

That’s a pretty comprehensive list, isn’t it? Hardship, trouble, any form of shame (that’s what ‘nakedness’ would have meant to Paul’s readers), or even violence.

Will any of those keep us from experiencing the blessings of being in the presence of God?

Paul answers with a flat “NO.” Why? Because we’re ‘more than conquerors through him who loved us.’

When we come to Christ in faith we re-enter our own world, our own culture, but not as an invading army. This time we come more as immigrants, coming in to make new lives for ourselves and influence the lives of our neighbors.

That may seem like we’re being a lot less than conquerors, but in the values of Christ’s kingdom it’s a lot more than that.

Being a Christian in this world is more than just moving into a new territory and settling in. It’s about bringing change to the culture in Christ’s name. It’s more than coming in as an occupying force, like the Germans in France or Holland during WWII.

Acting as conquering invaders is clearly not what Paul is suggesting for us as Christians in the world.

Here’s the point: We aren’t called to conquer or even to win—this isn’t about having power or authority or privilege. This is about the call Christ makes on our lives to live differently because of what he’s done for us.

We’re called to be more than conquerors—we’re called to be agents of transformation.

That’s something entirely different—something sacrificial and life-changing. In the end the call to be more than conquerors is the call to be Christ-like—to live as models of the reconciling renewing restoring work of Christ himself.

How do we reshape ourselves into that kind of church? How do we become people like that, both individually and as a community of faith?

It’s risky, just as it is for immigrants to a new nation and culture—we won’t always be accepted—we might not even be accepted very often at all.

But whether or not people accept the message of the gospel is really God’s business. Most of us wouldn’t dream of taking the credit for the way the gospel spreads and takes root. Why would we take the blame if we’ve been faithful in living it and sharing it?

The real fear is that somehow God won’t be with us as we do his work—that we’ll be abandoned as we face a hostile culture and even friends and family who don’t want to hear us talking about God, or about Jesus, or just try bringing up the Holy Spirit in some places.

The fear is that we’ll be left alone in our work as disciples of Jesus Christ.

That’s where that final, wonderful, amazing, life-changing promise comes in:

Paul says: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.”

That promise is one of the great excuse-killers in the entire Bible. It doesn’t just appear there, disconnected from anything else. It comes as a part of the call to all of us to be living models of the gospel—to be agents of reconciliation—to live our lives as forgiven sinners who’ve been adopted into God’s family and given full inheritance rights.

This last promise is Paul’s way of cutting the legs out from all the excuses we use to avoid being the people God calls us to be.

Let’s see, “death nor life”: so even dying is no excuse, and neither is how busy we are in our lives.

Angels and demons can’t stop us—neither can pretending that angels and demons don’t exist.

“Present or future?” All the stuff we’re doing—and this church has some of the busiest people I’ve ever known—all the stuff we’re doing and all the plans we’ve made for next week and next summer and next year. None of that is an excuse.

“Nor any powers”, Paul says. That means that terrorism can’t stop us—neither can Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or evolution or someone who smirks or rolls their eyes at you when they see you reading a Bible.

The rest of the list covers just about everything else we might use as excuses for giving up. “Height nor depth nor anything else in all creation…” None of it can separate us from God’s love as we live out the message he gave to us. Nothing.

OK, now that’s a long string of tough talk, but it’s important for us to remember what it means. God will never leave us, no power can prevent us, nothing can stop us, from being the people God made us to be: more than just conquerors and bullies—but people who live the gospel and share it in meaningful ways with their families and friends and neighbors and strangers.

This is better than conquest. It’s better than looking good or feeling important. It’s better than acting like we’re better than other people or piling up possessions for ourselves.

It’s better than throwing our weight and money around and calling it mission work.

This is about being a part of a relationship that will change everyone and everything and every place in the world. Being more than conquerors means learning new ways to interact with people who haven’t heard or don’t believe the good news of Jesus Christ.

In the new Presbyterian study catechism that we’ll be using in our confirmation class, one of the questions reads:

How should I treat non-Christians and people of other religions?

Listen to this response:

“As much as I can, I should meet friendship with friendship, hostility with kindness, generosity with gratitude, persecution with forbearance, truth with agreement, and error with truth. I should express my faith with humility and devotion as the occasion requires, whether silently or openly, boldly or meekly, by word or by deed. I should avoid compromising the truth on the one hand and being narrow-minded on the other.”

Now catch this part…

“In short, I should always welcome and accept these others in a way that honors and reflects the Lord’s welcome and acceptance of me.”

Friends that’s what it looks like to be "more than conquerors," and that’s my prayer not only for our commitment to missions in this church, but also for the way we live each day as disciples of Jesus Christ.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Different Perspective

(This message is part of a series on Romans titled "Based on a Promise, Called for a Purpose.")

Romans 8:28-32

In a conversation recently someone said to me ‘the exception proves the rule’, and that got me thinking… That saying makes absolutely no sense at all. If it’s a rule there aren’t exceptions, and if there are exceptions there really can’t be a rule. So I looked up the saying and here’s what I found out.

The origin of the phrase is actually from 16th-century English law. It was originally written ‘Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis’, which of course we all know means ‘Exception confirms the rule in cases without exceptions.’ In clear English it means that posting an exception to a rule is a reminder that at other times the rule exists.

There are all kinds of sayings or quotes that have come down to us that either don’t make sense or aren’t exactly faithful to the way they were originally written.

‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ comes to mind. Has that ever actually happened? Not really, so we can’t take it at face value. Where did that one come from? The most likely origin, according to one source, is that in London in the 17th century, heavy rain used to fill the streets and carry along dead animals—mostly cats and dogs—and so the saying came out of that.

There’s ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, ‘Make no bones about it’, and ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat.’ (I think that people who make up sayings don’t like cats all that much.)

How about this one: ‘That’s the best thing since sliced bread.’ Really? Better than airplanes or computers or iPods or even Pop-Tarts? Better than heart transplants or antibiotics or the cure for polio? Would we really give up all those things if it meant we had to run a knife through a loaf of bread for ourselves? For Pete’s sake. There’s another one—who’s Pete?

It’s also common sometimes to hear misquoted Bible verses, or sayings that people think are Bible verses but really aren’t.

‘God works in mysterious ways’ is one of the most common. People cite it as a Bible verse, but it’s actually from an 18th century English poet named William Cowper.

A more damaging one is this: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ Really? What about the rest of us? Does God ignore the needs of those who find themselves powerless sometimes? What does that mean for the millions of people in 12-step programs? The first step is the admission that we’re powerless in the face of our addictions.

You can tell these make me a little cranky.

Our text this morning includes a passage that has been misread and misquoted for centuries.

28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

As we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, it’s helpful to be reminded of what he was trying to accomplish:

The letter to the Romans was written to convince the Gentile Christians in Rome that God could be trusted because he kept his promises to his Jewish covenant people.

It was also a reminder to the Jewish people that they hadn’t left their old faith behind for a new one, but that Christ was the completion of the faith they’d held all along.

The substance of Paul’s case is that we were made to have a close relationship with God—that we were made for that kind of closeness—we were meant to live that way, but it all got complicated by our sin. For our purposes today and in this series, sin is anything—anything at all—that gets in the way of the relationship we were meant to have with God.

But God doesn’t leave us hanging. If you trace the history of the human relationship to God you see that God has always provided a way—no matter what we do to mess it up—God has always provided a way for us to come back to him—that’s the point of the Old Testament Law and the prophets and the promise of a Messiah.

God always provides a way back to him, no matter what we’ve said or done or even believed before this moment.

So what about our passage today? How has it been misunderstood?

I have to say that when we started this series on Paul’s letter to the Romans, I was looking forward to this precise passage, but I’m not now—it’s really one of Paul’s ‘greatest hits’ in Scripture—most people who have read this letter will know Romans 8:28 and quote it often.

And maybe that’s where the problem is.

So many people know this passage that it feels pretty daunting to say anything new about it. How do we make this text come alive one more time as we work our way through this important letter?

But the real reason this text is hard is that it’s been twisted and abused over the years—it’s been made to mean something that God or Paul never intended, and so that’s why it’s so important that we look at it again.

How has this passage been abused? Let me ask that a different way: How many of us have had this verse recited to us when we’ve suffered a tragedy or some other kind of loss? How many of us have had someone share this text with us as a way of trying to get us to stop feeling something genuine like grief or anger or sadness.

You know how this happens. Someone suffers a loss and a friend comes up and says: ‘All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.’

I have to tell you that that drives me crazy.

First, it makes it sound as though we should be glad or happy or free of sadness no matter what happens. If it’s all going to work out for good then why be a killjoy? Why spoil the party by actually having authentic feelings about something? ‘All things work together for good,’ don’t they?

The second problem with that quote is that it makes it sound as though our ability to squelch our feelings is directly related somehow to how much we love God. Do you see that in there? ‘All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.’ The logic there means that if things don’t seem to be working out for good in your life, then you must not love the Lord—or love the Lord enough.

That just makes me nauseous.

Most importantly, though, the way this passage too often gets quoted is a corruption of the way it was actually written. Please, tell me you can hear the difference between these two:

‘All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.’


‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’

One of these is a lie—a simpering, shorthand, cheeseball way of reducing Scripture to a lame version of ‘All’s well that ends well.’

One of these is a lie, but the other is a revolutionary expression of hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ himself.

Hearing the difference between these two is the difference between seeing the Christian faith as a wimpy, unrealistic escape —the real definition of the ‘opium of the people’.

Hearing the difference between these two is the difference between seeing Jesus Christ as a nice guy we can model our lives around, and seeing him as the one true transformational source of hope for every person and place in the world.

One of these is a waste of time. The other is a call to a deeper level of discipleship than we ever thought was possible.

‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’

Romans 8:28 isn’t a call to some Pollyanna refusal to acknowledge problems or evil in the world. It’s an expression of faith that no matter what happens, God is working to find some redemptive purpose in it—in other words, we are not alone. One writer described it as the belief that ‘our confidence is sure precisely because our future is not in our hands and does not depend on our own faithfulness or ability’ to be perfect. As with every argument in this entire letter, the point is found in coming to God in faith, struggles and all, brokenness and all.

But Paul doesn’t leave it there. In the next section he asks a rhetorical question and then answers it with a reminder of what God has done to bring us back to him—he answers the
question by telling us the lengths God has gone—and will go to—to place us back into his family.

What do we say about this?

What do we say to a God who doesn’t promise us a pain-free life, but promises to work for good within everything that happens.

What do we say to a God who doesn’t just say things.

What do we say to a God who goes so far to demonstrate his love for us that he doesn’t even spare his own son?

We say three things:

We say we want to know this God. That’s why we offer opportunities for people at all ages to grow and learn and become mature in their faith.

We say we want to worship this God. That’s why we don’t stop at just knowing about God—we come together to offer our praises and prayers—to sing and listen and challenge ourselves to draw near to God himself.

We say we want to serve in this God’s name. If our faith stays inward then it hasn’t grown into maturity yet. Knowing about God and worshipping faithfully are the starting place for serving each other and strangers and the whole world in the name of Jesus Christ.

Notice that none of this is about putting our faith in a list of doctrines and then forgetting all about them. This is a different perspective on what it means to be a Christian.

This is about building a relationship with God and with each other and with the rest of the world. Remember that through the entire letter to the Romans Paul has been saying that all of this comes to us when we come to God in faith.

John Ortberg describes it this way:

‘Faith is not simply holding beliefs. Many people, when they consider faith, think ‘I believe that God exists,’ or ‘Scripture is accurate,’ or ‘love is the greatest virtue.’ But at its core, faith is not simply the belief in a statement; it puts trust in a person. We think we want certainty, but we don’t. What we really want is trust. Trust is better than certainty because it honors the freedom of persons and makes possible the kind of growth and intimacy that certainty alone could never produce.’

That trust is the key. Believing that God wants the best for us and that he’ll work to bring it about no matter what else happens to us—believing that is the beginning of trust, and the beginning of an amazing, life-changing, world-altering relationship.

And the best part is that there are no exceptions to God’s rule—we’re all included. The good news for us this morning is this: God helps those—he offers himself to those—who come to him in faith.

Let’s pray.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Saints and Other Failures

(This message is part of a series on Romans titled "Based on a Promise, Called for a Purpose.")

Romans 8:12-17

In honor of All Saints’ Day…

This holiday dates back to the 7th century as a celebration of all saints, known and unknown, so I thought we’d talk about saints for a moment.

Over the centuries saints have been seen as helpers or assistants in the Christian life of average believers. They were seen as close to God because of any miracles they might have done, but still human and worthy of following as examples.

The requirements for becoming a saint were exemplary lives and the performing of miracles. The Catholic Church takes nominations, then sends a commission out to research the life of the candidate. The commission builds a case for sainthood and presents it to the Vatican. That’s where the fun begins.

The last stage is a trial, where the commission presents its case, and someone called a promotor justitiae argues the other side. We know that person better as the Devil’s Advocate. The Devil’s Advocate (or, the DA) tries to oppose every aspect of the case for sainthood by every lawful tactic. If the candidate survives, then eventually they’re canonized as a saint.

Catholic or not, most of us are aware of the idea of a patron saint. That’s a saint who has some historical connection with a group or type of person.

There are patron saints for actors, animals and archers. For cab drivers, clothworkers and cooks. For fathers, firefighters and fishermen. For lawyers and leatherworkers and lovers.

There are patron saints for headache sufferers, heart patients, and those who suffer from intestinal ailments (Erasmus, a 3rd century Italian bishop, who earned the honor because of the gruesome way he was martyred.).

Gabriel, the angel with the loud horn, is the patron saint of broadcasters.

Benedict is the patron saint of speleologists, which I had to look up. Speleologists are people who study caves—I’m not sure why they need their own saint… You won’t get this kind of information anywhere else.

Joseph of Copertino was said to rise up off the ground and even fly when the Spirit moved him, so now he’s the patron saint of astronauts.

Matthew, who was a tax collector before becoming one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, is the patron saint of bankers and accountants.

Every one of these women and men became saints because they had demonstrated some extreme level of faithfulness. They’d accomplished some great task, or done some great miracle. They came to represent the ideal for what we should do and how we should live.

But at some point each one of these saints had to earn their way into sainthood. They had to meet some standard and be judged by their brothers and sisters to see if they were worthy.

I hope you can see how different that is from what we’ve been learning in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The whole point of this for Paul—the thing that drove the growth of the Christian faith and even inspired the Reformation 1500 years later—the point of the gospel is that we don’t have to earn it at all.

Forgiveness for our sins, and restoration to life in the presence of God—all of that is a free gift that we receive when we come before Christ in faith.

12Therefore, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." 16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. 17Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Just to recap the theme of our journey through Romans:

The letter to the Romans was written to convince the Gentile Christians in Rome that God could be trusted because he kept his promises to his Jewish covenant people.

It was also a reminder to the Jewish people that they hadn’t left their old faith behind for a new one, but that Christ was the completion of the faith they’d held all along.

The substance of Paul’s case is the relationship we were made to have with God, and the way that relationship is complicated by sin.

If you trace the history of the human relationship to God you see that God has always provided a way for us to come back to him—that’s the point of the Old Testament Law.

Paul talks about the difference between life in the flesh and life led by the Spirit. One writer describes it like this:

“Life pursued according to the flesh is the life influenced by rebellion and idolatry, in which the entire perspective of the person is turned on him- or herself, and the person becomes the center of all values.

Life in the Spirit, on the other hand, is life set free from bondage to self and sin…It is life in bondage to God, which freely acknowledges his lordship through Jesus Christ. The power of Christ’s lordship has broken the enslaving power of self-worship and sin, and set the person free to enjoy a new relationship with God—that new relationship is as a child—a son or daughter—rather than a rebel.”

I love the part of our text that talks about being God’s children—being made heirs—being made to feel part of the family. It’s still more than I can comprehend that God calls us into a relationship with him where we can be close to him—where we can rest in his presence—where we can call out to him, Abba, Father.

The real translation of Abba is ‘Daddy’, a term of closeness and affection and safety.

What does it mean to be welcomed into God’s family?

“To be led by God’s Spirit means to have changed our future from life to death, to have changed our relationship to God from rebellion to obedience, and to have changed our status from enemy to beloved child.”

Another way of looking at this, and in honor of All Saints’ Day, is that we’re all saints now, just by coming to Christ in faith.

We’re all saints now, not by anything we’ve done to earn it, but through the grace of God only.

That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ—that’s the essence of the Christian faith.

That’s what we remember as we come to the Table in Communion.

Christ’s sacrifice on the cross means that we’re forgiven, that we’re welcomed into God’s family with full inheritance privileges, and that wherever we are or wherever we go, we have a home where we’re loved and where we belong.

Our ‘hymn out of season’ today is a usually sung on Good Friday, as we reflect on the pain and suffering of Christ’s sacrifice for us. We sing it now as a way of preparing our hearts to celebrate Communion today.

Please stand and let’s sing together: ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


(The piece below was published in the current issue of American in Britain, a magazine for the American expat community. The series on Romans continues next week)

The calendar tells me that this is the season to be thankful. Kids are back in school, the air is a bit crisper, and the leaves are clogging up the drains near our flat. That can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is coming. ‘Tis the season to be thankful.


So much has happened in the last year or so. The economy (in a stunning understatement) has struggled, conflicts around the world have dragged on with tragic losses, and we’ve seen the ways that partisanship in both Britain and America can stifle progress across a wide range of issues.

Sometimes it’s hard to feel thankful.

First off, before I write anything else about this, let me be very clear. Being thankful doesn’t mean we close our eyes to the problems around us that need solving. Being thankful doesn’t mean that we fail to hear the cries for help and mercy in our midst and around the world. I say that because too many people equate faith with a lack of awareness or realism. Too many people will assume that to believe in a God with a plan, or a world with a purpose, is to be ignorant somehow of what is really happening around us.

I don’t think that’s true.

Challenging times make it difficult to experience the joy that springs from feeling thankful, but rejecting thankfulness altogether isn’t exactly a helpful response. Challenging times, more than any other, remind us that thankfulness is a discipline and not a feeling. Uh-oh. I know I’ve said a bad word there, so since it’s out of the bag already I’ll say it again.

Thankfulness is a discipline.

Thankfulness is a discipline that takes practice to fully enjoy. It’s not dependent upon a feeling that blows through us whenever it wants to, like some Romantic inspiration, only to go away until it magically reappears. Thankfulness is something that we practice—something we train ourselves to do as a regular part of healthy, hopeful living. In other words, thankfulness is our responsibility to learn and to develop and to share.

John Calvin may be the least popular theologian of the Protestant Reformation, but 2009 is the 500th anniversary of his birth and so I’ve been reading more of his writing. He wrote:

“The contemplation of God’s goodness in his creation will lead us to thankfulness and trust.”

Now that statement has one major leap of faith in it—the belief that God’s goodness is something we can see around us. It’s a leap of faith, I know, but I believe it to be true. Say what you will about the bad news we hear every day—on balance this life still offers far more beauty and wonder than anything on the other side of the ledger. As much as it might pain us to say it, Calvin is 100% right here. When we allow ourselves to think—to contemplate—on the parts of our lives we know to be good, the end result is thankfulness and trust.

Calvin’s point is that thankfulness is the product of knowing—or struggling to believe—that God loves the world and everything in it. Calvin would boldly say that faith like that makes it possible for us to live through our times of struggle:

“Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge.”

What are you thankful for this season?

As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, with all the food and fellowship (and sports) that it represents, how can we discipline ourselves to think about God’s goodness in our lives? Believing that takes practice—it requires us to take some big and small steps of faith to connect the blessings in our lives to their source. It takes practice, but it makes all the difference in the way that we approach every single day.

My prayer for you—and for me—this season is that our awareness of God will lead to gratitude of mind, patience in adversity, and as much freedom from worry about the future as we can muster.

From our church to all of you, may God bless you with a tangible sense of gratitude during this holiday season.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Just in Time

(This message is part of a series on Romans titled "Based on a Promise, Called for a Purpose.")

Romans 5:1-11

On Monday night Ian and I watched the new BBC series called ‘Life’. It’s the latest from David Attenborough—it took 4 years to shoot all the footage and edit it into 10 episodes. The show was amazing. The focus was on the different ways animals survive in their environments. There were penguins and cheetahs and monkeys—all of the staples of a good nature program.

There was a great sequence where some bottleneck dolphins showed how they catch fish that swim faster than they do. They herd them into shallow water, then one dolphin swims a circle around the fish, kicking up a circle of mud in the water. The fish panic and start to jump out of the circle, only to jump right into the mouths of the hungry dolphins.

We were inspired by the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog of Costa Rica. This tiny little creature, about the size of a thumbnail, produces a litter of 5 or 6 tadpoles. But in their part of the forest, the ponds dry up before the tadpoles grow into frogs, so the mother will put a tadpole on her back and start to climb one of the trees where bromeliad plants store pools of water.

She carries the tadpoles up one at a time—each into their own little pool. It’s the equivalent of a human mother carrying a baby to the top of the Empire State Building. She does it six times, then revisits each tadpole to bring it food until it’s ready to face the world on its own. For each litter, this tiny frog climbs more than a half of a mile—barely an inch at a time.

But the mother of the year award goes to The Giant Octopus. She lays thousands of eggs, then covers them for protection and to pass on nutrition. She never moves during the entire time the eggs are getting ready to hatch. She doesn’t eat or take on anything for herself. By the time the eggs begin to hatch, the Giant Octopus dies—she gives her life to make it possible for her children to live.

It’s a truly amazing example of the lengths a loving parent will go to in order to ensure life—to protect and nurture her children.

1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! 10For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

As we begin it will help to remember the point of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Romans was written to convince one group of people that God could be trusted because of his faithfulness to another group of people.

Let me say that another way:

The letter to the Romans was written to convince the Gentile Christians in Rome that God could be trusted because he kept his promises to his Jewish covenant people.

Over the past few weeks we’ve talked about the meaning of the Christian life. We’ve seen in Paul’s letter to the Romans that our faith is based on a promise, and that in our discipleship we’ve been called for a purpose—to live in close relationship to God, and to share the message of the gospel with the world around us.

The next week we talked about our need for forgiveness, and the way we learn to live the message of the gospel with boldness and passion. We stop being ashamed of the gospel when we accept the fact that the gospel isn’t ashamed of us.

On Communion Sunday we learned that God offers signs of his presence and love all around us—that he’ll never lose sight of us or stop loving us. There is no shortage of ways we can find ourselves lost, but nothing we’ve ever said or done or even believed before this moment can separate us from the one who made us and loves us.

And then last week we were reminded that we are people who’ve been bought with a price, and that learning to live that way changes everything, from our earning and spending to our parenting and the way we live in relationships—from how we value others to how we define what our own lives mean.

Living as people who’ve been redeemed through Christ’s sacrifice changes everything about us.

And so that brings us to our text this morning. I said on our first Sunday in Romans that a lot of people have favorite parts of this letter. Our text is one of the more popular passages—I remember learning it in my youth group about 30 years ago. Paul is still making his argument here that God can be trusted because he’s already proven himself to be faithful to his promises.

What he’s really describing are the lengths God will go to in order to give us life—how far he’ll go to protect and nurture each one of us.

Paul begins with a reminder that our reconciliation to God is based on faith alone, and not on anything we’ve done to earn it. ‘Since we have been justified through faith,’ Paul says, ‘we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

I’ve said before that I think this is one of the hardest things for us to grasp. We have to earn just about every other thing that matters to us, and when we come to God and he offers us this amazing free gift, it’s as if we don’t speak the language.

In the Reformation this was one of the key sticking points between Martin Luther and the Roman Church. In Luther’s eyes the established church had created a false sense for individual believers—a sense that they had to earn their forgiveness—to earn their salvation. But that didn’t mean he thought that people didn’t need forgiveness. Luther’s views grew out of a pretty clear understanding of human brokenness, something we can see clearly in our passage this morning.

Paul has three words to describe the state of humanity in this part of his letter, and none of them are very pretty. He calls us:

‘Powerless’: Weak, incapacitated by illness, impotent, paralyzed by the inability to act.

‘Ungodly: Guilty of outrage, giving divine honors to the creature instead of the creator, distorting the relationship between God and his people.

‘Sinners’: Sin in this sense is what we do and also who or what we choose to serve. This is Paul’s catch-all term for people who have allowed something to get in the way of their link with God.

But all this ‘bad news’ of our condition is followed by the ‘good news’ of Christ’s work on the cross—what Paul calls a demonstration of God’s own love for us.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The good news comes after Paul’s description of our need for it, but the point if you read it carefully is that God accomplished his redeeming work before we even knew we needed it. God didn’t schedule a meeting to talk about the problem of sin—he did something amazing—something sacrificial—to solve the problem.

In the musical ‘My Fair Lady’, Eliza Doolittle is tired of listening to her young suitor talk about all the things he wants to do. One of the classic songs in the play is called ‘Show Me’, where Eliza sings:

"Don't talk of stars, burning above; If you're in love, Show me! Tell me not dreams, filled with desire. If you're on fire, Show me!"

Maybe the point of all this is that God isn’t just talk. The God we worship is a God of action—the one who has acted decisively to bring all of his creation back to himself.

There’s no need for us to look up at God and demand a sign—to say ‘show me’—because he’s already shown us how far he will go to bring us close again. What Paul’s really describing are the lengths God will go to in order to give us life—how far he’ll go to protect and nurture each one of us.

While we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Before we even knew we had a problem, God was already working to provide a solution through Jesus Messiah.

God demonstrated his own love for us, just in time.

What does that mean for us? How do we respond to this gift of forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration?

We celebrate our forgiveness together in fellowship. That may be the single most important difference between Christian fellowship and any other gathering of people. We come together knowing we’ve been forgiven and restored and reconciled.

We worship as a community. As we sing these songs and offer these prayers—even the ones that might not be as familiar to us—we join with people across boundaries and cultures and even across time, as we praise God for the ways he loves us.

We welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives to shape us into the people God made us to be. This is really the key of discipleship—the ways we grow in our personal knowledge and experience of Jesus Christ, and also the ways we grow together here and in Bible studies and in meaningful conversation.

Finally, we reach out in mission to a world that is desperate for this message, whether it knows it or not. We reach out in service to our neighbors not as people who are superior in any way, but as powerless, ungodly sinners who have been forgiven through God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice.

We reach out because God first reached out to us. What God asks of us is that we let go of anything that holds us back.

John Ortberg, in his book Faith & Doubt (which is on your reading list in the bulletin)—Ortberg describes God’s call to faith like this:

“What are you to let go of? Anything that will keep you from God.

Let go of relationships if they dishonor God.
Let go of your attachment to money.
Let go of your power; be a servant.
Let go of your addiction. Admit it. Get help.
Let go of that habit.
Let go of that grudge.
Let go of your ego, your pride, your possessions, your reputation, your disobedience.

God comes, and he asks us to let go.”

What do you have to let go of today?

What keeps you from experiencing the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness this morning?

What prevents you from getting to know the one who was willing to die to get to know you?

What keeps you from accepting the one who was willing to put you on his back and climb a tree and take you to a place where you can thrive?

The good news is that it’s never too late. The good news is that the one who made us and redeemed us and loves us in spite of ourselves, even Jesus Christ himself, wants to live in you and through you.

He took the first step, before we even knew we needed him, but the next step is up to us.

Let’s pray together.