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02-20 - The Very Words of Jesus

          The last couple of weeks we used a Greek word, koinonia, to describe the intimate sharing of your lives with Jesus Christ and with each other.

Today, I would like us to look at a Latin expression to focus our thoughts on Jesus as the center of our koinonia, fellowship, with God.  The Latin expression is ipsissima verba.  Even if you are not familiar with phrase in Latin, I am certain everyone is familiar with what the meaning of the phrase.  Ipsissima verba, translates into English as “the very words.” Ipsissima verba then refers to the exact wording of a conversation.  Every so often, when my children were young, I found myself speaking ipsissima verb, when I would say, “Because I said so!”  Those were the very words my father spoke to me years earlier.

Today, I would like us to spend some time today with the ipsissima verba of Jesus Christ as he taught his disciples.  Sometimes when reading the Bible, I catch myself not giving due reverence for Jesus’ words.  I take for granted that we have Jesus’ words and I forget that these words are words of the Son of God.  I forget how blessed we are to have books that we can read or listen to and draw in what God sent His Son to share with us.  The words of Jesus were not preserved so that Jesus could become a subject to be studied.  Instead, Jesus’ words have been preserved that we could become united with God and one another here on earth in the here and now and for all eternity.  Ipsissima verba, the very words, of Christ are life giving.

As we come to look at Jesus’ words today, we will gather them in from the Gospel of Matthew primarily from what Matthew recorded in Chapter 5 through 7 of his Gospel account.  We now call those chapters the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount is about 2,000 words, which is a little shorter than our weekly sermons.  Up until the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ only recorded sermon in the Gospel of Matthew was nine words long, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  In those nine words of Jesus, only one word was an action word for the hearer.  Jesus’ word of action was “Repent.”  Oh, how people mock that word in the modern world.  Repent today carries a sense of judgment and condemnation.  Jesus’ word, “Repent,” has been used by many as a weapon to verbally assault those perceived as sinners before an angry God.

What was and is the reality of Jesus’ word, ‘Repent?”  As Jesus used the word, “Repent,’ it meant “change your mind for the better.”  When people first heard Jesus say, “Repent,” they might have been tempted to ask, “Change my mind for the better you say?  What is the better thing than what I am doing?” Jesus gave them the answer, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’”  Jesus’ first sermon of just nine words consisted of a one-word call for action and eight words giving the reason to answer that call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

The very words of Jesus were not to condemn those hearing the words.  The very words of Jesus were intended to help bring them into the kingdom. The implication of Jesus’ call was that those hearing his words were close to the kingdom of God but at great risk of walking right past the gate leading to that kingdom they so desired. 

Let’s look at why Jesus understood those hearing his words were at risk.  The ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, to those who would listen were these, “13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).  Jesus’ call to the people to change their thinking makes sense.  Jesus was saying that those hearing his words needed to change their thinking because they were about to walk past the narrow gate that leads to life.  Jesus was saying to those hearing his words, that they, with the encouragement of others, had helped them find the wide gate and broad road, but that road is going nowhere good for them.  Jesus was saying to his listeners they needed to change roads.  Repent, change your thinking, get off the road that you are on and enter through that small gate to that narrow road that leads to life.

These 43 words of Jesus, “13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14), came the end of the Sermon on the Mount.  And much of what Jesus had to say in that sermon was drawing out in that sermon was the difference between being on the broad road on being on the narrow road.

The broad road had rules and laws to follow.  The people Jesus spoke with understood rules.  We understand the concept of “rules of the road” as well.  We know in the United States, you drive on the righthand side of the road, you signal your intentions, you maintain a safe distance, etc.  We follow the rules of the road whether operating a vehicle on the roadway or a shopping cart in the supermarket.  We share an understanding with Jesus’ first listeners that the road has rules that are for the good of those traveling that road.  But here is the thing to keep in mind, as good as people thought the broad road was with its rules was, Jesus very words said to his listeners that the broad road did not lead to life but to destruction. There was instead a better path to follow.

Let’s look at a bit of the ipsissima verba of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount calling people to life on the narrow road, that better path.

Jesus said, 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’” (Matthew 5:21). Jesus was acknowledging what people knew and had been told.  The rules of the broad road said, “You shall not murder.”  People thought, if I have not plunged a knife into someone else on the broad road, I have met the rules of the road and I stand good and proper before my fellow travelers and most importantly, before God.

And with that thought, we remember Jesus’ first sermon with its action word, “Repent,” have a change of mind.  Jesus acknowledged his followers mindset about murder as they traveled the road and called for a change of heart saying, “22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22).  The narrow road to life, the kingdom of heaven, was different.  The road to life was not about right rules, it was about righteousness.  The narrow road, the pathway to God, requires a heart that foregoes choosing anger and malice toward others.  Instead, of choosing anger, in righteousness choose reconciliation.  Instead of choosing malice, in righteousness choose peace.  In ipsissima verba, in the very words, of Jesus, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary” (Matthew 5:25a).  To hear Jesus words and act in accordance with them is to follow the narrow road of righteousness for the kingdom of God is righteousness.  It is a road that is about turning your back on anger, offense, malice, and murder so that you can pursue reconciliation and peace.

Repent, have that change in mind, that the kingdom of heaven is near and it is found by the small gate leading to the narrow road. Do you get the sense of the change Jesus was saying was required of those seeking God?  For on the wide gate and broad road to destruction and narrow the road to God.  Jesus then gave another example of the differences between the roads.  Jesus said, “27 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’”  Again, the rule of the road on the broad road was stated.  People knew the rule that they must not break their vow to their spouse and have sexual relations with another person.”  On the narrow road of righteousness, Jesus said, “28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).  In righteousness, we honor the institution of marriage created by God and our own marriages when we are fully faithful.  That means we are faithful in thought, faithful in speech, and faithful in action. Living righteously is a response of our entire being to live faithfully to God’s words for in that faithful living we have life.

Let’s look at one final ipsissima verba example.  Jesus said, “33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King” (Matthew 5:33-35).

Jesus again approached setting the healthy conditions of righteousness.  “Again, you have heard that…”  Jesus was making clear he knew what his disciples had been taught about oaths. He was aware that people then (and people today) take oaths of honesty.  Oaths are elaborate and seek to establish an understanding from the oath taker of the importance of speaking truthfully.  There was an is often associated with an oath a penalty for failing to speak truthfully.  Oaths seek to establish that whatever is said from that point forward will be the truth.

          Jesus says though there is righteous way to life.  “34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:34, 37).   Jesus was saying the mark of righteousness was not marked by being truthful only when you are under an oath.  Righteousness is present when you always speak the truth and that you speak that truth as simply as “Yes’ or “No.”  In righteousness, you do not try to equivocate or shade your reply.  Be as simple and as direct as possible.  For speech can become a source, a toehold, for the devil.  Do not allow more to come from you than ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’

Righteousness, walking the narrow road, then is living a life in which even the toeholds of sin are kept out of one’s life.  One commentary put the morality check people perform to assess what they are about to do by asking themselves one of three questions:

The morality of caution: “Can I get hurt?”  The approach is to use a personal cost-benefit analysis.  If there is a cost to me by what I am about to do that I know may not be right?  Can I take some actions to minimize my risks?  If I can keep from hurting myself, then I will do it.

The morality of concern: “Can I hurt others?”  This is a cost-benefit analysis that includes the other person.  I may conclude others will be hurt but then I am deciding for them what is hurt and how much can they handle for what I want.  If I can accept their hurt, then I will do what I am contemplating.

The morality of personal relationship: “Can this hurt our relationship?”  There is still some essence of a cost-benefit discussion where the person is considering the potential for pain in their life and the life of others but it is not righteousness.

For those on the narrow road, Jesus was saying the proper question to ask yourself is, “Is this a righteous thought and righteous speech and righteous action?  Will may thoughts, words, and actions preserve what God has created and bring reconciliation and peace to myself and others?”  When we can answer yes to those questions then we are on the right road, the narrow road to life.

The ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, again were these, “13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

We are all here today because we have expressed a desire to change our minds.  We know that the broad road at times is filled with anger, malice, untruthfulness, personal ambitions, and calculations about harmful behaviors.  We know that broad road is not the pathway to life. We know that intellectually, emotionally, intuitively, and spiritually.  We want to know where the small gate and narrow road is to walk with God. We do not want to guess at it.  We are all here today because each of us can say, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, repent, change your minds and follow me.” To follow Jesus on that narrow road to life, we must know the ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus.

One time in Jesus’ ministry, a great many of his disciples left him never to return.  The very words of Jesus were challenging, and these followers decided the path on the broad road was easier even if it led to destruction.

When Jesus saw these people leave, Jesus turned to his apostles and asked, “67 ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’  68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:67-69).

We are here today because we believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God come to speak words to us that bring us to enter the small gate and walk in righteousness upon the narrow road to life.  I want to encourage you to read the words of Jesus and be refreshed and emboldened for life. Amen and Amen.

02-13 - Fellowship with Each Other

          Last week we started a conversation about a concern coming to the Apostle Paul from the church that he planted in Corinth.  The concern was that the believers in that church were divided and not getting along. Paul concluded the primary source of their problem was a spiritual one.  Namely, that the members of that church had wavered in their fellowship with God through Jesus Christ and, as a result, the relationship between the believers faltered.

          Paul used a Greek word for fellowship.  He used koinonia, meaning a close sharing and caring relationship.  Paul encouraged the members of the church in Corinth to be united in fellowship with God because of the work done by Jesus Christ on the cross. 

Paul also encouraged the members of the church to remember Jesus through the sharing of the bread and cup of communion for communion is an intimate fellowship with God through Jesus Christ and is an ideal expression of fellowship between believers.  In communion, we see Christ in God and God in Christ.  In communion, we see Christ in us and us in Christ.  In communion, we see we are united one to the other through Christ.  Communion, the sharing of the Lord’s Supper, is a key moment of the Christian experience and gives us a visual expression of koinonia, an intimate fellowship and act of sharing between believers.

We need fellowship between believers.  We always have we always will need it.  It is with communion in mind that I want to share with you some words I wrote about eleven years ago about communion.  My wife found a copy of my remarks a few weeks ago and believe these words are still true today.  The day I shared them was June 11, 2011, to be precise.  The occasion was Sunday morning at the beginning of the worship service at the Latham church.  The prior Sunday we had celebrated the Lord’s Supper in worship as we had done so for many years.  Unbeknownst to the congregation, the individual who prepared the bread for the communion service was ill with a severe intestinal flu.  Much of the bread used in the communion had become contaminated with the virus.  The days following that Sunday most in the congregation became ill, some so seriously ill that they required hospitalization.  This is part of what I said that day:

“This last week many in the congregation experienced illness that source of which seems inescapably linked to last week's worship service. In some way an unseen virus entered our midst and infected the people we love.  Most people have recovered from the virus and have regained their physical strength.

While the virus was unpleasant it did last only a few days and we need to guard against future outbreaks. More importantly, however, we need to guard against an even more deadly unseen virus. That is the virus of fear. This is a virus that is brought to our minds by Satan himself. He wants us to be fearful of getting sick again. He wants us to be fearful of being in the presence of one another. He wants us to fear common meals and the joy of sharing the Lord's Supper. Satan would use this virus to accomplish his goals and keep us apart. He would use the virus of fear to try and stop our efforts to reach out to the community.   

The antidote to the virus of fear also cannot be seen but it is far stronger than fear. It is faith. Faith itself cannot be seen, weighed, or directly measured. But it can become manifest when we trust in God. For when we trust in God, we are fearless. We know there are illnesses in the world, but we are not persuaded by the fear they can create because our faith overpowers that fear.  So today we move forward unwilling to give one inch of ground to the enemy of God.  We will celebrate the advancement of this congregation in knowledge, holiness, and compassion.”

          We did battle with a virus eleven years ago and we have been doing battle for two years with another virus for these past 2 years.  Both viruses are serious, but neither is as near as deadly than virus of fear and anxiousness among those who believe in Christ.

          Our New Testament reading today, from the Book of Acts, gave us a glimpse into the overpowering strength of Christians to combat fear and replace it with fellowship.  Luke wrote, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

          The early church had reason to fear.  Their leader, Jesus, had been crucified.  Yes, he had been raised from the dead but there was reason to fear similar treatment for his followers.  The Apostles, Peter and John, had been arrested.  We would read in Chapter 4 of the Book of Acts that, “1 The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day” (Acts 4:1-3). Sadly, being arrested for leading a worship service is not just something from the past.   Arrests still happen, even in Canada, where pastors were arrested for offering in-person worship services for their congregations.

          At this same time, the early church was getting formed, there was a man named Saul who was inciting people to persecute the followers of Jesus.  Saul’s behavior led to the death by stoning of a follower of Jesus named Stephen.

          The followers of Jesus had good reason to be fearful of gathering and being known as Christians and yet that fear was overpowered by a behavior known as koinonia, fellowship.  We need to let that sink in for a moment.  So great was the love these first Christians had for God that they could only make that love make sense on earth by expressing love toward other believers.  Luke said, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship [koinonia]” (Acts 2:42).  Despite the fear, the earliest Christians gathered in devotion toward God and each other.  The gathering of Christians from the church of Jerusalem was not some occasional event by a few of the leaders or those who were thought to be in a pastoral role. Luke used words such as, “Everyone,” “All the believers,” “Anyone,” and “Every day,” to describe the scope and frequency of these gatherings.  Faith was overpowering fear and anxiousness.  Faith in Christ was drawing people together as though there was an irresistible attraction. Luke used words such as “common,” and “together,” to express the unity that came when they placed faith in Christ and not fear in what might be or may be the response from those who were opposed to Christ.

          What did these early Christians do when they were together?  How did koinonia express itself by their conduct?  Luke used the words that these early Christians listened to “apostles’ teachings,” “broke bread,” “sold possessions,” “gave to those in need,” and they “praised God.”  Fellowship was not just a single act; it was an entire lifestyle of actions. Fellowship was not simply exchanging Sunday morning pleasantries.  Fellowship was fearlessly spending every day working to find ways to connect with other Christians for any form of encouraging, grace filled, and uplifting behavior.

          What was the resulting feeling that the early Christians received from devoting themselves to koinonia?  Luke used such words as, “awe,” “glad hearts,” “sincere hearts,” and “joy.”  These words were all positive and encouraging words that expressed a lightness far removed from fear and disagreements.  Koinonia, is a spiritual gift from God, given to the followers of Jesus Christ.

          When we start talking about spiritual gifts some people start tuning out because too often the conversation about spiritual matters gets so vague or so weird that people are not sure what anyone means anymore. Recognizing the risk of us not understanding spiritual gifts, I want to offer a simple clarifying illustration using a natural gift that we do understand.  Several years ago, a friend gave Becky and me a gift of five of his paintings.  He was an accomplished artist and so we were happy to have those paintings and hang them on the walls of our house.  If you know me well, you would know how much I dislike putting nail holes in the walls of my house.  So, putting five holes meant I really liked these paintings.  But these gifts, as beautiful as they are, do not do anything. They are passive.  The do not generate any pleasure on their own because they just hang on the walls.  Becky, I, or someone else must look at the paintings before the value of those gifts can be received as we enjoy them.  If these painting given to us as a gift were instead packed away in our basement where no one would look at them, then the gift would have no value.

          Spiritual gifts follow a similar pattern in life. If we are given a spiritual gift, its value is not realized until it is put to use.  If we receive a spiritual gift and simple bury it by never using it, then we take the value out of the gift.  A spiritual gift, like a natural gift, must be exercised or used as intended for its value and usefulness to be received.

          God gave Christians the spiritual gift of fellowship [koinonia], an active sharing of life, with him through Jesus Christ. We must actively receive Jesus for God’s gift to be realized.  Otherwise, God’s gift will mean nothing to us, and our lives are unchanged.

          Once we receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are enabled with the spiritual gift of koinonia, fellowship, only this time for living life with other believers.  But here again, we must actively and deliberately use that gift with other believers for the gift to be realized.  Fellowship is not a spectators’ sport.  We must use the gift.  Fellowship requires that we be actively engaged with one another in specific activities in order to reap the many benefits God intends.  What are those activities that enable the spiritual gift of fellowship?  Luke mentioned five enabling activities.

  • First is membership.  Fellowship is for people who have become members of the church.  Fellowship is a blessing for those who gather in the name of Christ. Fellowship is a Christian-to-Christian experience and is there for members of the Church to receive.
  • Second is actively participating together in the development of our spiritual character. The early Christians “42a devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” and “47 praising God.”  We enable the spiritual gift of fellowship when we begin our time together seeking God’s presence and end it with praising him for our time together. If God is not involved in what we do, then it is not fellowship.
  • Third is engaging everyone in fellowship; not just a few.  I am not sure how many people recognize the unusual blessing God has given this church.  This church is blessed to have six generations in its membership.  From youngest to the most senior among us we have the Gen Alpha, iGen or Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation.  We are blessed with the vibrancy and playfulness of youth, the idealism of emerging adults, the steadiness of those experienced in life, and wisdom only possible through years of living.  Most churches may only have two or three generations of people, we are blessed with six and can enjoy the fullness that God intends for us.
  • Fourth is engaging in breaking the bread, a phrase carrying the double meaning of participating in the Lord’s Supper as well as enjoying a good meal together. Enjoying either meal is a time of recognizing we are alike.  We all have the need to be refreshed with nourishment for our bodies and for our souls. A good meal brings about laughter and conversation and tears down the walls of misunderstanding.
  • Fifth is caring for the physical needs of others in the fellowship.  The early Christians sold property and their homes to provide comfort to each other.  The principle in play was the more we care for our own, the more credible our testimony becomes to others about our faith in Jesus and the love of God for all.

These five activities marked the early church and gave definition to the word koinonia. These activities led to a people who were joyful, glad in heart, sincere in heart, and in awe of what God did and was doing.  We too have such fellowship and joy.  Our pathway to enjoy even greater fellowship is to pursue our fellowship with God to the utmost with love and devotion.  For wherever love abounds and the virus of fear cannot stay.

I am glad you are here today that we may be in fellowship with each other.  Let us all be devoted to God through Jesus Christ and to one another that we can enjoy the spiritual blessing of fellowship reserved by God for us.  Let us pray.

02-06 - Fellowship with God

          Despite what some on social media may say or what the news may suggest, we live in marvelous age that people of the past could only but imagine. 

From a purely material perspective, we have adequate shelter against the elements.  We have an abundance of food and water.  We have things which transport us, services that care for us, and things that entertain us.

          From the intellectual perspective, we have schools, colleges, universities, and online institutions all complete with literally millions of books and articles.

          From the spiritual perspective, we have a buffet of belief systems ranging from religions, crystals, stars, books, and self-help philosophies with which we can safely choose.

          Yet, despite our abundance of things, knowledge, and spiritual offerings many people are dissatisfied with life.  Instead of fulfillment, there is loneliness.  Instead of peace, there is distress.  Instead of calm assurance about the future, there is timidity and anxiousness in this life and about the next.

          The anxiousness and lack of peace is translating into more aggressive behavior not just among adults but among our children.  A teacher in a local high school shared with me some observations about the aggressive behavior of children.  The teacher shared that the number of fights per day in the school is much higher this year than ever before.  The principals and teachers believe that the children are bringing the stress of our new COVID home and social lifestyles into the schools where it is then offloaded.

          We now live in an age of outrage.  The outrage on nearly every topic has begun to shift the central focus of lives from what we hold in common to what we hold in our differences.  How we differ is becoming more important than how we are similar.

          What is the antidote for this growing separation?  I would like to suggest the antidote is found in a change of heart expressed by the ancient Greeks in a single word, koinonia.

          Koinonia is defined simply as fellowship.  It is the close association between persons, emphasizing what is common between them and by extension, participation, and sharing, contributing, and gifting in one another as an outcome of such close relationship.  The word koinonia in its various forms is used over 40 times in the New Testament.  I would like us to take some time over the next couple of weeks to come to know what the Bible intends for us to understand about fellowship.

          We begin today with the perhaps the highest order of koinonia, fellowship, expressed in our Scripture reading by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth.  Paul had established the church of Corinth on his second missionary trip.  Corinth was generally a wealthy city with a melting pot of cultures, philosophies, lifestyles, and religious beliefs.  I offer that description not just for the historical setting of Paul’s words but to see that our society differs from Corinth perhaps only in scale.  Paul was now away from the Corinth on his third missionary trip when unsettling news reached Paul.  The people of the Corinth church were beginning to separate and divide into different camps and groupings.

          Let’s look at Paul’s opening words from his first letter to the Corinthians.  “I always thank my God for you [the followers of Jesus in Corinth] because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He [God] will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship [koinonia] with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9).

          Let’ start with Paul’s last word here.  “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship [koinonia] with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).  Paul made clear to the Corinthians that God acted on their behalf.  How so?  God was the one who called each member of the church to come into fellowship, koinonia, with his Son, Jesus.  Humanity’s embrace of God begins when they accept fellowship, that close association and sharing, with Jesus.

          Jesus was and is essential for the relationship with God.  Why is that so?  God is holy. God is without sin.  God is divine.  We are not holy.  We do sin. We are human.  Jesus is holy.  Jesus is without sin.  Jesus is divine and human.  Jesus who is one sent by God to serve as a bridge between God and us, between the holy and the sinner, the divine and the human.  Through Jesus we can receive from God and be forgiven our sins and brought into holiness.  Jesus explained the relationship between sinner and God this way, “22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:22-23).

Sometimes the Bible can be a little hard to follow because of its reliance on pronouns.  If we added a few names and more descriptive words to what Jesus said and reduce a the number of times you, we, and they were used, Jesus words, actually a prayer, might sound more like, “22 I, Jesus, have given those who fellowship with me the glory that you, God, gave me, that my friends may be one with me as God and I are one— 23 I in fellowship with my followers and God in me —so that my followers may be brought to complete unity with God, Me, and each other” (John 17:22-23).

The unity of God, Jesus, and the believer is the central theme of the gospel.  This unity, this sharing and close association, is the highest form of koinonia, fellowship.  Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians was that “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship [koinonia] with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).  It did not matter what the person’s standing was in life, the common action was God calling and each member responding to a fellowship with Jesus. Paul would later write, “28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Fellowship with God and Jesus meant fellowship with each other regardless of any other social, racial, economic, political, or I suppose we could add today, vaccination status, that humanity wanted to construct.  The divine-human fellowship was and still is the vision of satisfaction, fulfillment, peace, and assurance.  God knows humanity desperately needs fellowship with him and each other. 

          But there was a problem in Corinth.  Paul wrote, “11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:11).  There was a problem with the fellowship between believers in Jesus Christ.  The koinonia, the fellowship between believers, perhaps the second highest level of fellowship, was fractured among the believers in Corinth.  Those in the church of Corinth, instead of enjoying satisfaction, fulfillment, peace, and assurance were beset with dissatisfaction, loneliness, distress, and anxiousness.

          Paul concluded that a breakdown in fellowship between believers was not caused by some personality differences among a few people but was caused by a spiritual issue.  Meaning, the breakdown between people was a symptom of a breakdown in the highest order of fellowship, koinonia, with the person of Jesus Christ.

          Paul said, “10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.  12 What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul”; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas (or Peter)’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’  13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?’” (1 Corinthians 1:10, 12-13).

Paul was bluntly reminding the Corinthians that the unity that had, the peace they enjoyed, came through Christ alone.  It was God working through Jesus that brought each member of the Church into unity with God and because God did that for each person, each person was brought into unity with each other.  The Corinthians had taken their eyes off the person, the work, and fellowship with Jesus Christ.  As a result, their unity with each other began to fall apart.  Personal preferences or personal backgrounds which had been given over to the unity with Christ began to reemerge and those differences came to be seen as important.  The loss of focus polarized the church.  The koinonia, the fellowship with Jesus had weakened and as a result the fellowship between members of the church was in tatters.

          Paul’s words reveal to us that koinonia, is a spiritual partnership or fellowship of believers.  It is not to be something loose or at arm’s length. This fellowship involves is an active engagement with God and other believers.  It is much more than mere attendance at church meetings or for church suppers.   If we truly recognize the value that God Himself has placed on this partnership with Him through Christ, then our response should be shown in the sincerity of our love for the Lord and each other.

          What was Paul’s remedy for this situation?  Paul concluded the folks at Corinth needed to reconnect with the power and unity of Christ. Paul wrote, “17 Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:17-18).

          Paul reminding people of the basic truths of their faith.  The cross, both awful and wonderful, both to be feared and to be loved, was man at his worst and God at his best.  It was through the cross that koinonia, fellowship between the Holy God and the sinner was possible.  For God sees the sinner through the cleansing power of the cross. Jesus on the cross took the sins of those of the Corinthian church and in exchange, Jesus gave those same members his own record of sinlessness.  Jesus’ death on the cross put an end to the sins of those in the Corinth church.  We might visualize this form of koinonia as the vertical post of the cross, connecting God and humanity.  Because the relationship with God was right, the relationship with other believers could be made right.  We might visualize this form of koinonia in the horizontal beam of the cross.  Paul wanted the people to remember the truth that the power of the cross brought about fellowship with God and each other.

But Paul was not done with reminders of koinonia.  Paul continued later in his letter that the fellowship with Jesus could be experienced over and again.  Paul said, “16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ?  17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

          Paul was reminding the Corinthians that fellowship with God through Jesus Christ and each other, could be experienced with the full senses every time they took of the bread and cup.

          Paul’s words about koinonia apply to us as well.  If we want to experience satisfaction and fulfillment in our lives, we must ensure our fellowship with Jesus is firm.  We should contemplate that the cross is not a piece of jewelry or a decorative ornament.  The cross is how we have been saved.  The cross is how we have a sinless record before God.  The cross is how we have fellowship with God through Jesus.  We can see that every time we look at the cross.

Likewise, if we want to experience peace and assurance in our lives, we can come to the Lord’s table and take the bit of bread.  We can experience the bread with our senses and be reminded that it is Jesus feeds us and strengths us.  We can also take the cup and experience Jesus as he changes us, renews us, and refreshes us.

          Let us enjoy today koinonia as we come to prepare ourselves to renew our close association with Jesus and each other at the table he has prepared for us. Amen and Amen.

01-30 - Glorify God

          A man was nearing the end of a long and eventful week.  He was tired but there was so much more to be done.  His week had started with such joy and celebration.  Singing had filled the air around him.  The man and his closest friends had gathered for dinner.  As they ate dinner that evening, the man told his friends that he was going to die – and very soon.  His friends were in shock.  The man’s friends wondered why he would say that he was going to die and how did he know? 

          The man continued and said, “God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.”  (John 13:32) The man of course was Jesus Christ.  The friends he surrounded himself with were Eleven of his Twelve disciples, the Twelfth disciple, Judas, had left to betray Jesus.  The meal they shared was the Passover Seder.  It was meant to be a time of joy and celebration, retelling the story of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. The story retold during the meal hinted at the hope that God would send the Messiah.  It was the Messiah that was addressing this small group.  Jesus knew within the next few hours he would be arrested, tried, sentenced, crucified, he would die, and he would be buried.  The words he spoke to his disciples would be critical to survival of their faith in the face of what by all appearances would be a defeat of everything Jesus had done.  The words that Jesus spoke are words that we need to hear in this world that is so much opposed to the message of the gospel.

          Jesus’ words to his disciples, his friends, were difficult to hear.  Jesus had shared with them his inner most thoughts about what lay ahead for him.  Jesus said, “27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28).  Jesus was troubled by the pending cruelty of the cross.  Jesus was distressed that Judas would betray him, that Peter would deny him, and all other disciples would desert him at the moment of his arrest.  Despite all that disappointment and pain, Jesus asked a question that may be on the minds of his disciples, “Shall I pray to God to spare me all of that agony?” Jesus said he would not do so.  Jesus made it clear that he came to earth for this purpose, to voluntarily give up his life, as an atonement for the sins of man, including those of you and me.  Jesus’ prayer then would not for his own release from pain but a prayer that he would remain faithful to God’s purposes and to bring glorify his Father’s name.

Instead of walking away from the coming storm and agony Jesus walked right into it.  Jesus submitted himself to God and now he was glorified because of it and so too was God. Jesus was affirming that his nature and that of God’s are one.  God and Jesus are separate beings with separate wills and yet Jesus’ thoughts, words, and actions exactly express those of his Father.  In doing what God wanted, Jesus glorified the Father.

What does that phrase, “The Father is glorified” mean?  John here is using a Greek word for glorify that means that these actions reflect very great honor onto God because they reveal his intimate and intrinsic nature.  The greatness of God, the magnificence of God, is manifest, that is made visible to all who can see, and they are perfect.  Nothing can be added, and nothing can be taken away.  Jesus was saying that through his decision to voluntarily give his life as an atonement, God will be honored because God would accomplish a great act through Jesus obedient death.  The act we now call atonement. 

Atonement is the act of bringing reconciling sinners with a Holy God. Atonement is the single act that brings us into the presence of the one true holy God through the love sacrifice of Jesus, his Son.  Atonement is a word allows, “At-one-ment”, unity with the Father.  God took the initiative to bring us to him but not that he needs us.  God took the initiative to bring us to him because we need Him.  It cost God the life of his Son to do that.  We cannot imagine doing what God did and so we find it difficult to understand why God atoned for our sins and in this way. It’s okay, we do not have to understand God’s ways, but we should respect and honor his ways.  We should praise God for His work through Jesus on our behalf.  When we do, we glorify God’s name.

Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that he was called to glorify God and God would glorify him.  Jesus, having told his disciples what was to become of him, taught his intimate friends that they must love one another as he has loved them.  He called on them to follow in his pathways for he is the truth, the life, and way.  He promised them a comforter and helper, the Holy Spirit, to remind them of his commands to them.  He encouraged to see themselves as connected to himself as though they were branches to the vine.  He urged them to do as he has done so that they may remain in him and he in them. And he told them that when they did the things that he asked them to do, the world would hate them for it, but that they should recognize that the true hated of the world was not directed at them but focused on Jesus and God who sent him.  We should not forget that point as we share the Gospel.  Jesus told them to do those things they had seen him do for others.  Perhaps we could see his teaching as an instruction in WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do.”

          Having shared his inner most thoughts with his friends, Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).  Jesus was asking God to strengthen his will and spirit to remain perfectly aligned to God’s will that through his ordeal of arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial Jesus would show the inherent qualities and character of holiness.  Jesus wanted God to become visible through those events but not for the sake of glorifying himself but that people would glorify God.

How then was Jesus to accomplish this mission of glorifying God, let’s look at verses 2 and 3. “For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:2-3). The first thing these verses tells us is that God gave Jesus authority over all the people of the world. 

There is no one who shall not be present themselves to Christ.  Paul tells us, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-10). All will bow to the authority of Jesus. 

The second point brought out in this Scripture was that Jesus can give eternal life to each person.  Eternal life is available for each of us but to receive it requires submission to Christ.  For those who believe in Jesus as the son of God, and their Lord and Savior, the man who died for them, comes the joy of knowing the true God now and for all eternity. Whether we accept what Jesus did for us or reject the thought he did so, we are told that each person will bow before Jesus.  Some will bow before him as see him as they have known him, Savior and Lord.  Others will bow before him and see him as their eternal Judge. 

Jesus finished this part of his prayer by again reflecting on the glory of God.  He says in verses 4 and 5, “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:4-5). Jesus' mission on earth was accomplished by showing the very nature of God and now Jesus earnestly sought to return to the Father and to the glory he had before the world even began.

How do we apply this text to our lives?  What can we gain out of it to live our life in the here and now?  There are two things that we should discuss.  The first is that Jesus came to bring us eternal life.  We are different from God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, each of whom has always existed, even before the world.  We, however, were born into this world.  We have a beginning to our life.  Jesus did not come to change the way we started, but he did come to change the way we are to live.  He came to reveal God to us, to have us know God and to call us into a relationship with God.  The knowledge of God here is not some abstract knowledge but one of joy!  I know God!  Therefore, I have peace in my life.  The relationship requires that we gladly accept his love and his intimate fellowship. When we accept Christ, it is just a beginning.  It is a very important new beginning, which Jesus describes as a new birth.  We are born into a new life that is different from the one we were living.   Our lives from that moment are free and eternal. 

This brings us to the second point of the text. If we are free and we are saved and we are eternal and Christ is in us and we are in Christ, what is our mission in life to be?  What is the overarching way to our life?  Perhaps it is to live our life by the wristband, WWJD.  It is a good place for new Christians to start but there may be something deeper than that.  Everything that Jesus thought, said, and did was to bring glory to God.  Perhaps then, our text is telling us that we should live our lives as through we were wearing a wristband with the letters, WIGG – “Will It Glorify God?”  We could look at those letters, WIGG, and assess our thoughts, our words, and our actions.  Will what I am thinking, saying, or doing glorify God?  It is a question that can stop us in our tracks.  Will it glorify God when I speak harshly to another person, particularly if they are a fellow believer?  No. For the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 145:8).  Will it glorify God if I hold onto past hurts so that that I can retell them to others?  No.  For after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10). Will it glorify God imagine or chose to believe ill of another?  No. The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip.  (Psalm 37:30-31) Will it glorify God when I complain that I last while others are first?  No. For the last will be first and the first last (Matthew 20:16).  For these situations, the answers are easy.  We cannot glorify God when we act like the world. 

This may be why the world has such a dislike for Christianity.  We invite people to come and know Christ, be saved, and live at peace with one another in love and yet we ourselves do not live in that manner.  So what are we to do?  Deep down, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I living a life that glorifies God?” Wherever we are not, there is sin that we must have cleansed from our lives.  John tells us in 1 John 1:8-9, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Wherever sin is present, glorification of God cannot occur.  We can start this instant and ask God to cleanse of that sin and live freed to live our life to the glory of God.  The apostle Paul tells us, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  WIGG - “Will it glorify God?”  If our actions will Glorify God, reveal God in us, then we should think it, speak it, and do it.  If not, then we should cast it aside.  Now that is WJD, “What Jesus Did!”  Let’s glorify God today.  Amen and Amen. 

01-23 - Worship - Calmness

          I want us to begin our time today coming to recognize that in our short lives we have been given an opportunity to come to know a very big picture. Pictures, paintings, and the like draw us and help us to understand how things work together.  God, in his grace as the ultimate artist, has given us an opportunity to see a big picture of peacefulness and calmness, if we are willing to see it.

An artist seeking to present to us the big picture, working with paints, has at his or her disposal a canvas upon which to create.  The artist has paints of differing colors and thicknesses and brushes of differing widths that can be used to apply the paint to the canvas.  The artist engages in a creative process to bring forward the desired image using those canvas, paints, and brushes.  Those watching an artist create may struggle to see the image that artist desires to shape.  In the beginning, the artist’s work may seem a bit chaotic or choppy.  But to the artist, every brush stroke is as important and necessary.  The artist has a goal, an objective, to bring forward something of lasting value to those who would take the time to see it.  If those watching the artist do so for only a moment or two, they never fully appreciate the vision the artist is creating.  They only see fragmented segments of the vision. 

Sometimes, I think we shape our view of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in a similar manner. We take in a bit of Scripture, a touch or two of music, and mix it together with a few moments from a sermon and then we are on our way believing we have the picture in hand.  Then when in our living when we feel an urgent need-to-know God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, we have only the fragments we picked up here and there.  We do not have clear picture or the big picture.  When this occurs, we become anxious, unsettled, irritated, jealous, disappointed in others, and fearful.  Though we claim to be people of faith, we become indistinguishable from the world full of people who have no faith, who have no vision of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  We become disappointed in what faith we do have.  I have encountered many people who are disappointed in their faith.  They continually want to know why the fragments of they possess do not give them a proper picture.  Some, in their disappointment, have even chosen to walk away from their faith. 

God wants our faith to have meaning and that our faith has the capacity to see us through life.  God wants us to spend time in his presence so that we can see the bigger picture and have a faith that sustains us.

It is for this reason, that we have spoken the last few weeks about worship of God.  We have explored the goals and consequences of worship. We talked a bit about the elements of worship, the tools that help us see the bigger picture only made possible to see through the lens of worship.  When we consistently gather for worship and engage in it, we will come to see the picture God wants us to see and have the peace and calm he desires for us.  We just need to spend enough time with God, the ultimate artist, to see the picture of peace and calmness that He is revealing to us. Seeing God’s masterpiece of calmness requires time in worship.

I think it is fair to say that calmness is lacking these days.  If you do not believe me, pick the cable news network of your choice, and see if you can find calmness.  I doubt you will.  Instead, you will find angry people yelling at one another or smaller and smaller grievances, political leaders threatening one another, and growing violence in many cities.  In many ways the world has become stormy with everyone doing what was right in his own eyes.  I believe the lack of calmness is a reflection of the lack of worship of God through Jesus Christ.

Jesus, God’s masterpiece of calmness, understood the storminess of this world and the tension between living in this world and not being part of this world.  Jesus repeatedly demonstrated to his disciples the calmness found in God necessary to navigating that storminess and tension. 

Consider the scene painted by our Scripture reading today.  One time, “23 Jesus got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping” (Matthew 8:23-24). Let’s pause there just for a moment and consider the overall canvas before we look at any pieces within it. Jesus and his disciples were in one boat travelling across the Sea of Galilee.  A violent wind whipped up churning the waves ever larger.  So large were these waves that wave after wave came over the gunnels of the boat causing the boat to take on water.  The disciples were awake and working hard to manage the ship in the storm sweeping over them.  Meanwhile, Jesus was curled up comfortably sleeping completely unaffected by the winds and waves.  The contrast in this scene could not be starker and it was not accidental.  The account of this scene is found in the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Each account drew a sharp contrast between the disciples struggling against the violent storm and Jesus portrayed as though he was sleeping peacefully in green pastures and beside still waters.

At this moment of contrast, the artistry of God’s Word shows Jesus’ disciples in the world and Jesus apart from it.  The artistry of this contrast is found elsewhere in the Gospels.  One time Jesus came to village.  There a woman named Martha opened her home to Jesus and his disciples.  Martha had a sister Mary.  Mary chose to sit at Jesus feet listening to him speak and enjoying the calmness of Jesus’ presence.  Meanwhile, Martha was distracted by all the preparations she felt were necessary for the meal.  Martha in her distractedness, in her labors, and perhaps in a full sweat from cooking became upset with Mary and her calmness.  Martha approached Jesus demanding that Jesus order Mary to join Martha. Martha wanted Jesus to end Mary’s calmness and join Martha in her distractedness.  Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen calmness with him over the distractedness of the world and that Mary’s calmness at the feet of Jesus would not be taken from her.  Jesus made it clear that invitations to move from the calmness of his presence into the storms of the world are to be declined.

As we return to contrast in painting of the storm on the boat from the Gospel of Matthew, we remember that “23 Jesus got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him [Jesus], saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’” (Matthew 8:23-25). 

The disciples, experienced upon the Sea of Galilee, saw that their situation was grave.  The waves were overtaking the boat to such an extent that the boat would surely sink, and they would drown.  There was certainly despair in the voices of the disciples as they believed the storm would overtake them but, and we might miss this, there was hopefulness in the voices as well because they said, “Lord, save us!”  This expression, “Lord, save us!” expressed that the disciples believed that even though they were in a severe storm, that Jesus could nevertheless save their lives.  The disciples were anxious, fearful, and feeling trapped in the storm and yet they were inviting Jesus to extend his calmness to them.

Jesus awoke to the cries of hope and disaster from his disciples.  Jesus was able to hear them just fine over the sound of the furious storm.  What was Jesus’ response? “26 Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’” (Matthew 8:26a).  Jesus did not join the disciples in their anxiousness and did not immediately extend his calmness to them.  Instead, Jesus asked them about their little faith.  The phrase “little faith” here was appropriate.  If the disciples had strong faith, they would not have panicked. If the disciples had no faith, they would not have thought to say, “Lord, save us!”  The disciples had a little faith, a faith consisting of a mixture of a hopeful confidence and doubt.  I suspect many of us would describe ourselves as having a faith that at times is confident and at other times is marked by doubt.

In the scene being painted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke we would read that Jesus stood among his fearful disciples and Jesus “rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm” (Matthew 8:26b).  The calmness of Jesus went out from him and quieted the nature and the people around him. The winds were quiet.  The waves were gentle.  The rain had stopped.  The disciples stopped talking about dying and returned to thoughts about living.  The perfect calmness of Jesus was present.

God, the artist, of this scene had painted a magnificent contrast between the storms of life that can drown us and the calmness of Jesus that saves us.  But to see that magnificent painting, we had to wait and be with God long enough for him to complete it.  God had painted this scene once before in the Book of Psalms, Psalm 107.  God inspired the psalmist to write, “23 Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.  24 They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.  25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.  26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away.  27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end.  28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.  29 He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.  30 [And] They were glad when it grew calm” (Psalm 107:23-32).  We all just had to wait for God’s timing to reveal that the bigger picture that peacefulness and calmness of the Psalm would be found in the person of Jesus Christ.

The artistry of God is unmistakable.  In the storms of life, our courage will often melt away.  We will find ourselves at our wits’ end.  We will come to cry out and God will bring us out of our distress and into the calmness of his presence.  But we need to be prepared in faith beforehand.  We need to see the bigger picture.  How are we to do that?

In Psalm 107, God inspired the psalmist to give us the appropriate response to living in the calmness of God.  The psalmist wrote, “30 They were glad when it grew calm, and he [God] guided them to their desired haven.  31 Let them [who called out in faith] give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind.  32 Let them [who called out in faith] exalt him [God] in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders” (Psalm 107:30-32).  God was inviting those who expressed faith in him, however, fleeting, or small to be glad for the calmness that he extends and to come together in worship.

Friends, I do not need to tell you that we live in a world that is often fraught with storminess, messiness, chaos, and disappointment.  At times it might even feel like the storms of life are winning and we may drown.  The pictures painted today from the Old Testament psalm and the Gospel accounts of the storm upon the Sea of Galilee are very much the same.  Storms exist but so too does peacefulness and calmness. The peacefulness and calmness of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is extended to us through and in worship. For in worship, we come to understand the bigger picture God is painting with both the bright and dark colors.  It is in worship that see the artistry of God at work in our lives and in the lives of others.  It is in worship that we can express with even a little faith that we need God to still the storms that surround us.  It is in worship that we see Jesus as the savior who will keep us from drowning.  It is in worship that we are repaired from the storms of life. 

I am glad you are here for worship.  I pray that the peacefulness and calmness of Christ has extended over each of us and that we, standing in stark contrast to a stormy world around us, can extend peace and calmness of Christ to others.  Amen and Amen.

01-16 - Worship - It Changes Us

          Worship.  What is worship?  Some church folks, particularly in churches formed after 1980, equate worship with contemporary praise songs.  Often times, in those contemporary churches, the time spent on other than praise music comes under a label of something other than worship.

          For some church folks, particularly among the Lutheran, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic churches, worship tends to be a solemn event occurring in a space considered sacred. In that sacred space, a repetition of ancient sayings is employed, along with songs, homilies, with the pinnacle moment occurring in the sharing in Holy Communion.

          Then, of course, there is us, the Baptists.  In a typical Baptist setting, worship tends to be relatively simple and centers around the sermon.  In most Baptist churches the music consists of traditional hymns, accompanied by a pianist and perhaps an organist.  The primary purpose of music in a Baptist service is to prepare the listener to hear the sermon.

          Worship has become a varied set of practices.  Although they vary by tradition, we should not see one method of worship as more proper than another or the differing activities in the collective as a confused mess.  Regardless of the way we the practically expression of worship we follow, the purpose of worship remains the same.  We worship to meet the goal of placing ourselves before God. 

Our goal is to place ourselves before God that He would hear us in a public way acknowledge Him by our singing, by our praying, and by our silence.  We want to acknowledge that God is amid all that is happening in this world today, in the present moment. 

Our goal of placing ourselves before God that we can be heard and that we can hear Him.  We sing, we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we read and listen to passages from the Bible, and we listen to, and we are even willing to suffer through, sermons, messages, or homilies.  We do these things because we believe that in doing so God will speak to us as the final authority for life and living.  We believe in the written word of God, the Bible, that “Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us” (2 Timothy 3:16-17: MSG).

To be heard by God and to hear God, to know and be known by God, these are our goals in worship. I learned Quaker theologian once wrote, “Goals have consequences.”  Think about that for a moment.  The goals we choose have consequences to our lives as we pursue these goals.  What then are the consequences of placing ourselves before God to hear and be heard by Him?

I think our reading today from the Gospel of Luke might be helpful in opening the door to our understanding of the consequences of hearing God and being heard by God.  Let’s read that passage again.  As we do, I invite you to visualize the scene being unfolded before us.  In the Gospel of Luke, we would read, “11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he [Jesus] was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy [an infectious skin disease] met him [Jesus]. They [lepers] stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’  14 When he [Jesus] saw them [the ten lepers], he [Jesus] said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they [lepers] went, they [lepers] were cleansed [healed].  15 One of them [lepers], when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He [The changed man] threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.  17 Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he [Jesus] said to him [the changed man], ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’” (Luke 17:11-19).

          Jesus, as was his habit, was traveling the countryside.  Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for his final time; a time in which he would be arrested, tried, and crucified.  On his way to Jerusalem, he approached a nameless village.  Outside the hospitality of the village were ten homeless men.  They were made homeless by an infectious and incurable skin disease called leprosy.  As Jesus approached, the ten men stood some distance from Jesus and together called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.”

          Somehow, these men, isolated from community, came to know something about Jesus and the presence of God within him.  They called out in reverence for the authority of God within Jesus and said to him, “Jesus, Master.”  The collective goal of these men was to place themselves before God.  Having placed themselves before God, the ten offered their humble prayer, “Have pity on us!”  “Have mercy on us!”  This was the worship service of ten lepers.  There was, of course, no music, no offering, and no sermon, but it was worship.  The had the goal to place themselves before God and praying.

          Jesus would later share the simplicity of this scene later through a parable.  In that parable, instead of a leper placing himself before God, Jesus substituted another outcast from community, a tax collector. He contrasted the worship offered by that outcast from the community with the worship offered by a Pharisee, a respected and admired member of the community.  Jesus told their story this way.

          10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  14 “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 19:10-14).

          The behavior of the lepers and that of the tax collector are remarkably similar.  They both stood at a distance.  They both placed themselves before God.  They both humbly prayed the same prayer, “Have mercy.”  The lepers and the tax collector had the goal of worshipping God.

          Well, what was the result of the worship by the lepers?  What was the consequence of pursuing their goal of placing themselves before God through Jesus Christ? 

Luke wrote that Jesus saw the lepers.  The first consequence of pursuing a goal of worshipping of God is that the worshipper reveals themselves to God and is fully seen by God for who they are.  In the scene with the lepers, Jesus saw the lepers and their humility before him.  In the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee, the tax collector was seen by God and his humility before him.  The Pharisee was seen by God and his arrogance before him.  Having a goal to worship God carries with it the consequence that we will be seen by him either for our humility or our arrogance.  We must then exercise care in our worship that whatever form it takes, be it contemporary style, liturgical style, or even as we Baptist do, to worship in humility. 

          Luke said the first response in the lepers’ moment of worship was that Jesus saw the lepers.  Jesus did not so much see a collection of men with sickness of their body, but Jesus saw a collection of men healthy in their humble worship of God. In seeing these worshippers and listening to their voices of praise and pray, Jesus heard them.  The first consequence of worshipping God is that we open ourselves to God.

          Luke said the second consequence of worshipping God followed quickly thereafter.  The worshippers heard God.  In this case, the voice of God was expressed through the words of Jesus who said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14).  A consequence of the goal of worship is that God speaks to worshippers.  But the consequence of hearing God speak is that the worshipper is expected to follow what God said.  We should note well that Jesus spoke and told this group of humble worshippers to “Go, show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14).  Jesus did not say you are healed.  Instead, Jesus told the men to go to the priest.  At that time, the way one must prove themselves cleansed of leprosy was to have a priest confirm that healing.  It was not until the men followed what Jesus said did the healing of their bodies occur.   Luke wrote, “And as they [lepers] went, they [lepers] were cleansed [healed]” (Luke 17:14b).  Said another way, as the worshippers acted in faith and did as God instructed, then the healing took place.

          The lepers entered worship as a way of God hearing them.  God, through Jesus, heard them.  God, through Jesus, spoke to the lepers.  The worshippers were expected to follow God’s word and they did. In following God’s word, the lepers were cleansed or healed.  The consequence of the goal of worship was that the lepers were no longer lepers, they were outwardly changed men.

           But. You know there is always a ‘but.’ But not all the lepers embraced the full goal of worship and not all accepted the consequence of worship which is to be changed within.  Let’s see what happened. 

Luke said, “15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:15-16).  One of the ten now former lepers was changed but more than just the restoration of his skin.  When this tenth man saw that his skin had been healed, he allowed God to also change to the core of his being.  This tenth man instead of running from Jesus, returned to Jesus.  Why?  Because the tenth man wanted to worship God for what God had done within him through worship. 

True worship of God, whatever its form, changes the worshipper and creates a desire for greater worship of God.  Not only does worship create a desire for more worship but it creates a desire for a deeper worship, a worship that brings them ever closer to God.  When this tenth man first worshipped, he did so from a distance.  When he returned to worship, the tenth man “threw himself at Jesus’ feet,” to worship him.  Worship of God changes the worshipper and makes the worshipper desire the closest possible relationship with God and one that expressed without any sense of embarrassment.

          Worship is a powerful spiritual experience that changes the worshipper.  The tenth man returned to Jesus to be heard by God and to hear God. This man was not disappointed. Jesus said to him, “19 ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’ (Luke 17:19).  This tenth man heard God and was told to continue to move forward in faith.

          Worship.  What is worship?  We worship to meet the goal of placing ourselves before God. Our goal is to place ourselves before God that He would hear us as we in a public way acknowledge Him by our singing, by our praying, and by our silence.  We want to acknowledge that God is amid all that is happening in this world today, in the present moment.  Our goal is to place ourselves before God that we could hear Him through His Word. These are the goals of worship, but Goals have consequences.

In our goal of worship, we face the real consequence of being changed.  In being changed, we desire to worship God not just more but more intimately.  Through deeper worship of God will we hear God more clearly than ever and know that our life is to be lived in faith.  The more we hear God, the quieter our soul becomes.  We are not unsettled and anxious.

It was by faith that the leper was healed.  It was by faith the healed man was tasked by Jesus to live by.  We are no different from the leper.  We need to make as a chief goal of our life to worship God, humbly. We need to accept the consequences of worship.  Namely, that we will be seen by God, heard by him, that we will hear him, we will be changed because of hearing God, and that in our continued worship of God he will ask us to live evermore by faith.

I am glad we are here together in worship.  I pray that together we will fully enjoy the consequences of worshipping God.  Amen and Amen. 

01-09 - Worship - It Matters

Today is the second Sunday of the month of January.  You all knew that.  What many may not know is that in many eastern orthodox Christian churches today is the day to celebrate Jesus’ baptism.  In many western churches, today is the day to celebrate the Epiphany, that is the day that celebrates God incarnate, meaning made flesh, in Jesus Christ.  This day is often associated with the day the magi came to visit Jesus and so in some churches today is called Three King’s Day or Little Christmas.

In case you did not know, we, Baptists, like to be different. Other than Easter and Christmas, we tend to avoid acknowledging religious feasts, special days, or much of anything else.  While respecting that Baptist distinctive, I nevertheless believe starting our time today with the visitation of the Magi would be profitable to us.

But in keeping with the Baptist traditions, I would like us to look at the Magi in a slightly different way that may be more relatable to us. Let’s look at a couple of passages about the magi from the Gospel of Matthew.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2).  The magi came from well outside Judea, travelled many miles, for one purpose, worship the child, Jesus.  The Greek word Matthew used for worship was προσκυνέω, proskyneō, which means to kiss the hand in reverence, or to fall on one’s knees and touch the ground with great reverence or kneel in the presence of God.  Matthew would use the word, proskyneō, 13 times in his gospel account of Jesus, 3 times more often than any other gospel writer.

Matthew’s desire was that his readers would come to see that Jesus was and is worthy of worship.  Jesus was worthy to be adored by the magi even as a newborn simply because he was born by God’s command.  And so, the magi endured the difficulty of hundreds of miles of travel so that they could worship Jesus in person.

Not long after the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, the magi were on their way to Bethlehem.  Matthew wrote, “9 After they (the Magi) had heard the king (Herod), they went on their way, and the star they (the Magi) had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they (the Magi) saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they (the Magi) saw the child with his mother Mary, and they (the Magi) bowed down and worshiped him (Jesus)” (Matthew 2:9-11).  The Magi were overwhelmed with joy that after long last they could worship Jesus. Worship was the Magi’s purpose. Worship was their driving force, and engaging in worship brought the Magi joy.

The Magi in many ways represent the first Christian church of Jesus Christ.  A Christian Church is a gathering of people dedicated to the primary purpose of engaging in the worship of God through Jesus Christ.  What do we know about this first congregation, we will call them the First Congregation of the Magi?  The First Congregation of the Magi consisted of only a few members but the commitment level among the members of the First Congregation of the Magi was very high. The members of the congregation volunteered to be part of that church.  No one forced them to get out of bed and journey together.  The members of the First Congregation of the Magi got together because they wanted to do so and each member of the congregation was necessary and an encouragement to the other members.  The First Congregation of the Magi were generous givers.  In fact, they gave more money for the celebration of Jesus coming into this world than any other group.  The congregation was united in and by worship, and in and through worship the members of the First Congregation of the Magi found overwhelming joy. 

That is what I see in the Magi and I find that we are not much different than the First Congregation of the Magi.  We are small.  The commitment level is high.  Our congregation is formed of volunteers.  We give more money than most to support missions and the celebration of Jesus coming into the world.  We come to be united in worship.  But a key question remains open in our comparison with the First Congregation of the Magi.  “Are we joyful as the First Congregation of the Magi was when and because we worship Jesus?”  Matthew was pointing out that when worship is done for the right reasons then joy comes to us.  The relationship between worship, joy, and inner peace was an important theme for Matthew’s story of Jesus.

What else did Matthew have to say about worship and joy?  The next scene of worship, proskyneō, that Matthew described occurs in Chapter 4 of the gospel bearing his name.  Jesus was in the wilderness engaged in spiritual battle with the devil himself. Matthew wrote, “8 Again, the devil took him (Jesus) to a very high mountain and showed him (Jesus) all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 ‘All this I (Satan) will give you (Jesus),’ he said, ‘if you (Jesus) will bow down and worship me (Satan).’  10 Jesus said to him (Satan), ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4:9-10).

The interaction between Jesus and Matthew revealed some important things to us about worship and joy.  First, we can worship anyone or anything.  In Jesus’ case, Satan knew Jesus worshipped his father, God.  Satan offered Jesus the world if Jesus would switch the object of his worship from God to Satan.  So, worship can be applied to anyone or anything.  Jesus was free to worship God or Satan.  And so, we are free to worship whatever or whomever we want.

The second thing we learn from the exchange between Jesus and Satan is that while worship is to be offered freely, worship must be reserved to God alone.  Jesus said, “It is written,” meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, we would find the words or thoughts, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him” (Matthew 4:10).  Jesus was quoting the words found in Deuteronomy 6:13 which reads, “13 Fear the Lord your God, serve him only” (Deuteronomy 6:13).  Worship in Deuteronomy is coupled with fear in the sense that worshipping other than God would not yield joy but leave us disquieted even fearful.

We see this interplay between worship something other than God and an absence of joy or inner peace at the very first instance of worship in the Bible.  We see this interplay through the life of Cain.  Cain and his brother Abel worshipped God by each giving an offering. Abel’s offering was well prepared and generous.  Cain’s offering to God was done out of a sense of obligation, not out of a desire to be with God.  Cain’s offering was meager.  God honored Abel’s offering but did not honor Cain’s offering.  The reaction of Cain to his worship of God is telling.  “So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:5b). Cain did not want to worship God and so Cain deprived himself of joy.  Instead of joy, Cain’s emotions became sour.  Cain chose to take his sourness and express it as anger.  God’s Word is telling us that there is no joy and no inner peace when we choose to worship something or someone other than God.  In worshipping other than God there is sourness and anger.

I have a couple of cousins who are atheists and genuinely hate Christians.  I used to receive their daily thoughts on Facebook but eventually had to stop seeing what they posted because their words were vile, angry, self-centered, and judgmental.  Other than an occasional posting about their dogs, they are unable to express any sense of joy or inner peace.  They are sour and angry people.  There was no worship of God in their life.

God does not want us to be sour and angry.  We know this because God did not want Cain to live in a state of unsettledness.  God took the initiative and approached Cain about his lack of inner peace.  “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’” (Genesis 4:6-7).  God wanted Cain in his presence and to have the joy Abel had.  God wants us to be in his presence and to be joyful about being with him.  He wants that so much for us that God willingly comes to us when we are feeling low, or sour, or angry and God invites us to have a change of heart by coming into his presence.

In Jesus’ encounter with the devil, we come to understand that we are free to worship anything or anyone we want.  We can worship God or Satan or nature or objects.  The list is endless.  But that same encounter between Jesus and the devil shows us that only the worship of God brings joy and peace into our life.  The worship of other than God brings fear, sourness, and anger into our life.

Jesus knew that to worship Satan would not only change him for the worse, doing so would also deprive humanity of coming into the presence of God through the worship of Jesus.  It was God who initiated the redemption of Cain to have a life of joy in the presence of God and to worship him.  It was God who initiated the redemption of all humanity to have a life of joy in the presence of God by sending his Son Jesus to lead the way.  Jesus rejected the worship of Satan and began his public ministry.  As Jesus’ became more known, people began to recognize the presence of God within Jesus, God with us, and the people began to worship God through Jesus.

Matthew shared that there were those people who worshipped Jesus as they sought redemption for themselves or their loved ones from the ravages of disease and even death.

  • A leper came to Jesus and worshipped him and asked Jesus to make him clean (Matthew 8:2).
  • A leader of the synagogue came to Jesus and worshipped him asking that his daughter be restored to life (Matthew 9:18).
  • A Canaanite woman came to Jesus and worshipped him asking that her daughter be healed of a demonic spirit (Matthew 15:25).

Each of these people desired to be in the presence of God and found that worshipping Jesus brought them to the throne of God.  They worshipped believing that do so would restore their joy.  What happened?  The leper worshipped God through Jesus, was healed, and his joy restored.  The father worshipped God through Jesus, his little girl was raised from the dead, and the father’s joy restored.  The mother worshipped God through Jesus, the girl was cleansed of the demonic spirit, and the mother’s joy was restored.  Worship and joy are coupled together.

Matthew highlighted the pairing of worship and joy in the beginning of the story of Jesus with the Magi.  Matthew showed that connection through the gospel and now Matthew would show it again in the final chapter of the gospel.

We know the story well.  Jesus was arrested and crucified upon the cross.  To Jesus disciples everything had gone dark.  The sense of being connected to God had disappeared.  There was fear and agony.  There was no joy.  The disciples not only lived each day in a seemingly endless grief, but they lived each day thinking about living each day in grief.  Then the women disciples of Jesus went to the hard cold tomb where Jesus’ body was placed to give care to his body one final time.

Matthew said that when the women arrived at the tomb, they encountered an angel who told the women Jesus had risen from the dead.  Matthew wrote, “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:8-9). 

The women arrived at Jesus’ tomb saddened and feeling very much outside the presence of God.  Then the received news from an angel, Jesus had risen from the dead.  Their emotions changed from sadness to fear caused by the appearance of an angel and joy that perhaps there was more to the story of Jesus. In the mixture of feelings, the women ran from the tomb to find the other disciples and in their running from the tomb so they encountered the living Jesus himself, God with us. Matthew tells us the women had one universal response to being in Jesus’ presence again, they worshipped him.  The women literally threw themselves at Jesus’ feet and did not want to let go.  The women were engaged in worship of Jesus and in doing so all despair was gone. In worship, all fear of these women was gone.  In worship, all the emotions of these women had been transformed into one remaining emotion, joy.

Now the women, and we, can hold onto our despair, our fears, our sourness, and our anger if we want.  God will not force us to receive joy.  We can even come to a time of worship and keep our hearts closed, our arms folded to our chests, and our minds upon the tasks that we might need to do, or our attention on the latest ding from our smartphones.  We can do that and walk away from this sanctuary as empty as when we came into it.  We can prevent joy from coming into our lives.

Or we can open our hearts, our minds, and our hands to worship God.  Genuine and unashamed worship of God makes us available to God in a way nothing else can do. Worship of God expresses our love of God and our desire for God to fill us with his presence.  Having God’s presence in us displaces or pushes out the lesser spirits we must contend with daily.  The lesser spirits of discouragement, sourness, anger, despair, grief, and fear cannot stand in God’s presence.  Those lesser and dark human spirits must flee in the face of God’s presence.  As those lesser spirits flee, God fills that space with joy.  When we have joy, we have inner peace.

The choice is ours.  The Magi made a choice and worshiped Jesus and were overjoyed. Jesus remained faithful in the worship of God and had joy.  The leper, the distraught father, and panic-stricken mother all seeking joy found it in the worship of Jesus.  The women who went to the tomb made the choice to worship Jesus.  They gain the presence of God and forever lost their fear. Cain held onto his lesser human spirits of anger and sourness and lost his joy forever.

I am glad you are here and that together we came to worship God. I pray that we all will leave this place with joy and seek God’s presence at every opportunity that we may worship him and preserve inner peace in our lives.  Amen and Amen.