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02-14 - He Set His Face

          This week, some portions of the Christian Community will observe a forty-day period called Lent.  Originally, this forty-day period, nearly eight weeks, was referred to in Latin as Quadragesima and was a period symbolic of Jesus forty-day fast in the wilderness.  Centuries later this time was remained Lenz, meaning the “spring season.”  Regardless of its name, Lent has been a time in which many Christians engage in practices of fasting and self-denial, most simply avoiding indulgent desserts and sweets. As a rule, Baptists do not observe Lent. In fact, some of the early Baptist-minded people took to eating sausage to make the beginning of Lent as a symbolic manner of breaking with the Roman Catholic Church.   When I was a child and Lent would come, my parents would ask, “What are you giving up for Lent this year?”  I would say, “School.”  I was told to pick something else. 

Baptists generally follow the “regulative principle of worship” that says we should practice only what is explicitly commanded in the New Testament.  When it comes to fasting and self-denial Jesus commands that we do it in secret much like we talked about last week when it comes to giving.  Jesus said of fasting, “16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).  So, if you wish to observe some form of fasting over the next forty-days, feel free to do so, just do it in secret.

Having review the history of Lent as originally symbolic of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, is there something we might do over the next forty-days that is commanded in Scripture?  If we look back to Jesus’ wilderness experience, we find some advice from Jesus.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’  Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:1-4). Jesus’ answer was built upon the words of the Hebrew Bible in Deuteronomy 8:3 “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  Jesus’ teaching is clear.  Jesus wanted us to know the word of God, the story of God.  If we want to do something spiritually profound over the next forty-days, we will gain infinitely more from reading God’s word than from foregoing a slice or two of our favorite pie.

In that vein, I thought we could spend our time over the next eight weeks looking at Jesus’ words as he came to seek and conclude his public ministry.  The Gospel of Luke provides for us a turning point for Jesus and thus a starting point for us.  Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke, verse 51, says, “51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).  In the King James Version of the Bible, this passage reads, “51 And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 KJV).  Today, I think the King James Version gives us the best insight. 

Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  What does this mean?  Jesus had been to Jerusalem before this moment in his ministry.  What did it mean then that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem?”  In the Old Testament, to set one’s face was often the word given by God to His prophets. We find in the book of Jeremiah the prophesy was given to the city of Jerusalem.  In Chapter 21, verses 9-10 we read, “He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes out and defects to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be as a prize to him. 10 For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good,” says the Lord” (Jeremiah 21:9-10 (NKJV)).  In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophetic phrase, “set My face,” appears 13 times in the form of a judgment.  It would seem then that when Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, Jesus was acting upon a divine command as though he had been dispatched to Jerusalem with fierce determination. Luke conveys that Jesus understood that a day of reckoning and judgment was to come in Jerusalem.  As we will see in a moment, it appears Jesus disciples believed that the time for God’s power against those who would oppose Jesus had come.

          Picking up again with our New Testament reading today, “51 Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, 52 and sent messengers before His face.  And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him.  53 But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem54 And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:51-54)

          Jesus and the Twelve were on a journey, a journey that would end in Jerusalem.  It was a journey in which Jesus was sent by God to render judgment on Jerusalem.  For a brief moment on this journey, the group was nearing the lands of the Samaritans.  The Jews and Samaritans despised one another.  Nevertheless, Jesus sent two or more of His twelve disciples ahead into the next village, a Samaritan village, to seek a place to stay. As we read, when the villagers found out that a group of Jews, and a Jewish prophet no less sought shelter, the villagers rejected Jesus disciples request for shelter and food.  Luke added that the rejection was “because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem.”  These Samaritan villagers believed that Jesus was only a prophet for the Jews and that Jesus only interest would be in Jerusalem.  These villagers believed, without hearing from him, that Jesus had nothing to offer them and so they rejected Jesus.  Not much has changed in 2,000 years.  Most people who reject Jesus today do so without ever hearing from him.  They reject Jesus through the message brought to them by Jesus disciples.  We need to think about that for a moment.  People reject Jesus not because of what he says or might say to them.  People reject Jesus because of what Jesus’ disciples said to them.  The moment Jesus’ disciples went into that Samaritan village, they were the closest thing to Jesus those people ever met.  The villagers rejected the disciples and thus Jesus.  For the next person you meet, you might be the closest thing to Jesus they have ever met. What a terribly frightening and wonderful opportunity each encounter presents.  Knowing God’s Word and imitating Jesus then becomes a necessity not a nicety.

          In today’s New Testament story, we read that, “54 And when His disciples James and John saw this [the rejection of Jesus], they [James and John] said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them [the Samaritan villagers], just as Elijah did?’” (Luke 9:54).  Now there are a couple of judgmental Christians for you!  James and John, as Jesus would call them, the Sons of Thunder, were outraged that at this moment in time, the Samaritans would dare to reject Jesus.  There must be judgment upon them for the time of judgment had come.  James and John understood Jesus’ focus had changed from teaching, preaching, and preparing for the final act which they believed would be the restoration of the throne of David over all Israel.

          We see that to James and John’s offer of judgment upon the Samaritan villagers, Jesus rebuked them, and said, “‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. 56 For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village” (Luke 9:55-56). Jesus was on a divinely inspired commission to bring a message to the city of Jerusalem.  It was a prophetic message meaning there was an opportunity in the present for people to choose life and avoid judgment in the future. It was and is a message of hope not destruction of people’s lives.  Although Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem for this final encounter, He never wavered from his commission to bring the good news of the kingdom.

          We also read today from Luke, Chapter 10, that after this encounter with the Samaritan village, “The Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. Then He [Jesus] said to them, ‘The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves. Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road. But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. And heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.’ 12 But I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day for Sodom than for that city” (Luke 10:1-12 (NKJV)).

          Jesus sent 70 disciples them “two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). There we are again, the face of Jesus reads prominently.  Jesus had his face set on Jerusalem and Jesus sent the 70 disciples into the Jewish villages “before His face.”  The 70 were to express the presence, the face of Jesus, to the villagers ahead of Jesus arrival.  Those villagers who rejected the message of Christ, the promise of the coming kingdom of God, would fair no better than the inhabitants of Sodom who were utterly destroyed by the judgment of God.

          Luke made clear the tension and urgency of Jesus’ ministry had been heightened.  Discipleship in Jesus was not confined to just following Jesus.  Discipleship now meant following and presenting the face of Jesus to others.  The need to choose salvation sooner rather than later was now imperative.  The outline of church with Twelve apostles and 70 commissioned disciples was also now beginning to take some shape.  The ministry of Jesus was beginning ahead of the final act and all of it was being done before the face of Jesus.

          The ministry that Jesus commissioned was one that started with prayer. Jesus said, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2).  Our ministry must begin with prayer.

The ministry of Jesus is about love, not conquest, “Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3).  Our ministry must be about love.

The face of Jesus is not about buy allegiance as some kings did. Jesus face was about bidding of peace. “Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road. But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house’” (Luke 10:4-5).  Our ministry must be about peace.

The ministry of Jesus is one that expects rejection but even in rejection reminds those who rejected Jesus that they did not reject a person but the kingdom of God.  “10 But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you’” (Luke 10:10-11). Our ministry must be about proclaiming the good news even after we are rejected.

          We are heirs to this same mission and the same call to be the face of Jesus to others.  Over the next several weeks, will be walking along side Jesus as he heads towards Jerusalem. I hope that in doing so we might know his face better and his ministry that he has commissioned us to carry out. It is going to be an extraordinary journey of discover as we come to know that the kingdom of God is here. Amen and Amen.

02-07 - Silent Authority

          In case you missed the announcements on television, today is Super Bowl Sunday. Many people across the country will be absorbed watching the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers square off in the title match.  The Super Bowl is an event full of anticipation, emotion, and noise.  Many years ago, after the Dallas Cowboys had won the Super Bowl, then head coach, Tom Landry, made this observation. "The overwhelming emotion--in a few days, among the players on the Dallas Cowboys football team--was how empty that goal was. There must be something more." 

“There must be something more.”  These are profound words reflecting that the cheers of the adoring fans fed, for a while, the self-worth of the players.  And when those cheers stopped, as cheering fans always stop, emptiness invades and fills the space left behind with the thought, “There must be something more.”  We experience that feeling in our desire for significance in other settings than just the Super Bowl.  When the recurring monotony of work or the stillness of sitting at home because of COVID becomes the focus of our lives, we are compelled to believe, “There must be something more.”  The good news for all of us is that there is something more, something infinitely more satisfying, and profoundly more rewarding than the applause of any person. That something is peace, and it is not a thing, it is a person in the name of Jesus Christ.  He is that “someone” more that each one of us needs.

          In our New Testament reading today, Jesus brings us to a new understanding of our personal search for significance.  Jesus understood our intense human desire for someone to notice us, to desire our company, to enjoy our presence, and even applaud us.  The desire to be noticed and receive attention comes at an early age. Babies learn early that if they cry someone will eventually come and tend to their needs.  That learned behavior does not go away with age.  Children who do not receive sufficient attention from their parents for doing good things may resort to excessive or inappropriate behavior to gather negative attention from a parent.  For many, this behavior response for attention goes on into adulthood.

          Jesus, positioned on the mountainside, was teaching his disciples and the crowd about the principles of Godly behavior and of whose attention matter most in life.  Was it God’s attention or the attention of those who one day might cheer for us? Jesus began with these words, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” We might at first be confused about this teaching because Jesus cautions against showing forth good works and yet if we read a few verses earlier, we would have heard Jesus tell his listeners, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”   Is there a contradiction here between showing your works and not showing your works? The simple answer is “No.”  In the first case, Jesus said show forth the light of God through works.  Jesus was cautioning his followers against the temptation to be being timid in exercising faith.  In this second charge to beware about practicing righteousness before others, Jesus was cautioning against becoming the center of the showing in giving to others. The two cautions combined then sum up to, “Show when tempted to hide; hide when tempted to show.” Therefore, when Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”   Jesus was addressing the motivation for our actions not suggesting or providing justification for inaction.  Jesus message was consistent, His followers must be people of properly motivated action.

        Jesus continued in verse 2, “Thus, when you give to the needy [Note well Jesus did not say, “if you give to the needy.”  He said “when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”  Giving to those in need requires right motivation for it to be honored of God. Some, as Jesus points out, gave in a manner so that everyone was aware they were about to give.  He described their giving as though they were making a trumpet call.

It is interesting to note here that in the Temple of Jerusalem, against the wall of the Court of Women were thirteen chests, or 'trumpets,' for charitable contributions.  The chests were narrow at the mouth and wide at the bottom, shaped like trumpets.  People would put money offerings into these chests.   In the Gospel of Luke, we read, that when the Temple was crowded, “many rich people threw in large amounts.”  Think about that for a moment.  Instead of putting or placing coins into this trumpet shaped receptacle, you throw large numbers of coins into that trumpet.  Do you think there would be a difference in the sound?  Throwing the coins into that metal trumpet, I am sure one would make a sound like thunder.  So, giving to the “sound of a trumpet” was not just an expression, it was what people did in a manner of speaking.  The motivation of the givers was to make sure everyone knew they were making a large contribution so that they could be praised.

Now I suspect that most of us are saying, “Pastor, I got that covered.  I send my tithe in the mail by check or I quietly place my offering in the plate at the rear of the sanctuary.  I do not try to get others to give me applause.”  I would say to you that’s good; but how did you do with the next part of Jesus’ teaching.  Let’s look at verse 3.  “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  That seems like a tall order to do something without letting yourself know you are doing it.  Therefore, Jesus was speaking metaphorically, not literally, and he was continuing to speak about motivation.  Jesus was saying, “While perhaps you are not giving to the needy for the applause of others, neither are you to give and quietly congratulate yourself.  Do not give and then say to yourself with a straight face, ‘What a great person I am!’”  “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Giving to the needy should done for God and not for your own applause.  Jesus finished this point that when you give to the needy do so in secret, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Jesus’ call upon his disciples was that they must be properly motivated and give in the secrecy of one’s heart.

Now the giving that Jesus talked about was most easily understood in the context of giving money.  But giving to meet the needs of others extends beyond just financial needs.  There are many people who have their financial needs met but are in great need of things money cannot buy such as friendship and comfort.  There are many people who need wisdom and counsel as well as love and affirmation.  None of these needs will be met through the offering plate.  These needs can only be met through human contact.  The onset of COVID-19 has made the need for human contact greater with each passing day.  It does not seem possible by just about 1 year ago we were talking about a two-week national pause to “flatten the curve.”  We all did that.  We separated for a two-weeks which became four-weeks, which has become months.  In those months, the nation has seen the following explosion of needs:

Sleeping difficulties – 36% increase

Eating disorders – 32% increase

Alcohol and substance abuse – 12% increase

Anxiety, stress, suicidal ideations, domestic violence, frustration, and hopelessness have all risen. The neediness of the world has increased by every measure in the past 11 months and, the end is not in sight.  How will we respond to the needy?

To understand our response, it would be good for us to go back to that mountainside and learn from our Lord, Savior, and teacher.  Jesus spoke about and demonstrated with his life that giving to the needy was an act of mercy.  Now mercy is not to be confused with kindness.  Kindness is doing good for people.  We send flowers to someone who needs cheering up and it is said that is kind, and it is.  We hold a door open for someone and we are being kind.  In kindness, we sacrifice a bit of our money or a few moments of our time for the benefit of others.  We should be known as people who practice kindness.  But Jesus came to give mercy not kindness.  I do not mean to say Jesus was an unkind person.  I mean to say what I said, “Jesus came to gave mercy not kindness” and called his followers to do likewise.  In our Old Testament reading today from Hosea, God said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  What then is mercy that God desires, and Jesus gave?

To act in mercy is to give to someone the very thing they desperately need and that they cannot provide for themselves.  You give someone what they need most that they have no way of obtaining for themselves.  Jesus gave mercy.  He did so not for the applause of others and he did not give to applaud himself.  He gave mercy according to the will of God. For each person on that mountainside and for each person here today and all those in between, Jesus gave.  He gave His life that all those who would profess Him as Lord before man would be made new.  The old would be wiped away, the sins of the past forgiven, and a new eternal life would be born again with God.  The people on the hillside and the people here desperately needed forgiveness and they could not grant forgiveness on their own.  To be forgiven is a gift of mercy to the needy.

We cannot replicate what Jesus did, but we can imitate what Jesus did. We can act with mercy and be forgiving of offenses committed against us.  We pray this every week, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The Apostle Paul said it this way, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Be merciful toward others and forgive them in the same way you have received mercy from God with your own forgiveness.  We can be merciful and forgive those who have offended us.  This is an act of mercy given to the needy.

We can imitate Jesus by granting mercy to those who need compassion, company, counseling, and consoling.  We have the capacity to be merciful to those made needy through COVID and reach out to them with our presence.  We can share the hope in Christ that we have, the mercy we received, and help others come to faith.  Nothing could be more important than to be an instrument of ushering another person to eternal life. 

We can extend mercy and help those in need to get connected or reconnected to the body of Christ, His church.  Becoming connected to the body of Christ is to break loneliness and hopelessness and give life meaning and purpose beyond simply existing for another day.  To be part of the Christian church is to be part of a continuous living body that is more than 2,000 years old.  Helping people find meaning is to extend mercy because you will have introduced them to the something more that they need.

In a few moments, I will stand before the cross and we will take the bread and cup as symbols of His gift to us.   The cross, the bread, and the cup make no noise on their own or together.  Yet they are symbols of a quiet thunder that captures our attention that we are in the presence of God and that His gift of grace and mercy is available to us.  It is the ultimate moment of being aware that “there is something more.”  Let us rejoice in the mercy we have received, and the call God has placed on our lives to share with those who are in need.  Amen and Amen.

01-31 - Devote Yourselves in Prayer

          We are continuing to look at Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. As we discussed earlier, this letter was probably the only written part of the New Testament many members of this church ever received. 

Think about that for a moment in context as though you were Paul.  There are a group of people who had followed Judaism, angelology, or paganism who heard someone, other than Paul, preach the message of salvation through Christ and they accepted Jesus.  Now, you have a chance to send them a short letter of fewer than 2,000 words.  For perspective that is about 3 typed pages. In those three pages, you want to encourage these people in what it means to be a Christian, what to do and what not to do, and how to become who they claim to be.  What would you put into those precious few words?  It is a difficult challenge.

Over the last few weeks, we have spoken about some of instructions and topics Paul put in his letter.  Paul said to his readers that they were now “in Christ,” and that their lives needed to be “rooted in Christ.”  Paul described his readers as having died and being raised into new life.  Paul called on his readers to set their hearts on Christ and their minds toward heaven. 

          All of these topics were important and major objectives for those who claimed Christ to understand that they may grow into mature Christians.  Paul’s letter was almost over.  There is a bit more space before he must stop writing.  What then must he include to make his one and only letter to this church complete?  Not surprising, Paul turned to the subject of prayer.

          Prayer.  What is prayer?  The most basic definition of prayer is “talking to God.”  Prayer is not meditation or passive reflection; it is direct address to God.  It is the communication of the human soul with the Lord who created the soul.  Prayer is the primary way for the believer in Jesus Christ to communicate his or her emotions and desires with God and to fellowship with God.  Prayer can be audible or silent, private or public, formal or informal.  And so, Paul began his final major topic this way, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).

Devote yourselves to prayer” (Colossians 4:2a).  The Greek verb Paul used for “devote” was plural, meaning devotion to prayer was expected to be an activity of the entire church, not just a few prayer warriors.  Where Paul said, “Devote yourselves in prayer,” we might say, “You must pray together.”

What prayer might Paul have wanted the church to pray together?  I think it is likely the prayer Paul had in mind was the prayer he offered for the church earlier in the letter.  In Chapter 1 of the letter to the Colossians, Paul said, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:9b-12).

Let’s look at Paul’s prayer for the church at Colossae as a model our own prayers and prayers for our church.  Paul said, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all wisdom and understand that the Spirit gives” (Colossians 1:9b).  Paul and his associates (We) were joined together collectively speaking to God and asking God to intervene in the life of the members of the church and the church itself.  This is the first important point of prayer.  In prayer, we are talking with God.  Conversing with God is an acknowledgment that God exists and that we desire a relationship with him.  In our conversation with God, we acknowledge that God can do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves.  And so, in our conversation with God, we ask God to intervene in our life and bring about something we know or are not certain will happen on its own.  Let’s think about this perspective that we are asking God to intervene with a couple of examples.

I think it is fair to say that we would all welcome warm spring days to come sooner rather than later.  Now if we have a conversation with God about the coming of spring, we do not say, “God, we ask that You intervene and grant that when the grass of our lawns awaken this spring that You would make the grass green.”  We do not pray for the grass to display its green color because God’s intervention is not needed.  God made the grass green and by its very nature, when the grass returns from dormancy, the grass will be green.  Grass does not have a will to seek to be anything other than grass and so grass has no choice but to abide by its nature.

But humanity is different from grass. Humanity has a free will with desires of the heart, the mind, the eyes, and all our other senses.  Recognizing that we have a free will, Paul prayed that God would intervene and send the Holy Spirit to church at Colossae and give wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God’s will.  Why?  So that having come to possess wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God’s will, the members of the church at Colossae would voluntarily make God’s will their own.  This is the essence of becoming like Christ. 

Jesus had a will of his own and in a prayer just before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus said to God, “Not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36b).  Jesus had the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God and conformed his free will to God’s as a sign of love for God.  Paul’s prayer to the church of Colossae was that God would intervene and give its members the wherewithal to make their will that of God.  Paul made this prayer, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,” (Colossians 4:9b) because Paul understood that absent the continued intervention of God the transformation of the church and its members was not possible.    It was not possible for the church in Colossae to follow God’s will without God’s intervention and it is not possible for us to follow God’s will without God’s intervention. 

Let me share with you some statistics about how we express our will through a study on the behaviors of New Yorkers.  A survey from 2014 found that New Yorkers chose to spend their time in the following ways each day:

Sleeping – 8 hours 33 minutes

Working – 7 hours 31 minutes

Leisure – 5 hours and 23 minutes

Television – 2 hours 48 minutes

Commuting – 58 minutes

Grooming – 43 minutes

Housework – 32 minutes

Reading – 21 minutes

Thinking – 18 minutes

Religion – 9 minutes

It would seem that we have a long way to go before we could say we are involved in continual prayer asking God to intervene in our life so that we can understand God’s will.  We need to accept that absent God’s intervention, we will not individually nor in the collective, act like Jesus and follow God’s will.  We, then, individually and collectively must be in continual prayer for God to “fill us with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives.”

But what is the consequence of knowing God’s will?  Why would we want that for ourselves and our church?  Paul explained in verse 10 of Chapter 1, that with God’s intervention asked for through prayer then “10 You may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way” (Colossians 1:4).

Whether we are conscious of it or not, humans seek to define a legacy for ourselves.  Our legacy is how we want to be known and how we wish to be remembered. Some people want their legacy to be felt long after their death.  You can see examples of the desire for a long lasting legacy by looking at the pyramids of Egypt, the granite monuments in your local cemetery, and trust funds established in memory of the founder.  Paul’s model prayer, the one he prayed for the church at Colossae, includes an understanding of legacy.  He prayed that the church would know God’s will so that it could be said about that church that “They lived a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.” 

Paul’s words would make for an interesting message on a church sign as an expression of the mission of the church. I did a study one time about mission statements for churches.  Some of those statements were quite short, “Making Disciples.”  Other statements were long, “Turning the hearts of youth and families to God and each other. Developing our God-given potential in order to win in every area of our lives. Advancing the Kingdom of God, first throughout our circles of influence, then the nations abroad.” Not one of them said, “Living a life worthy of the Lord and pleasing him in every way.”  Yet, that is God’s word and desire.  And we will not live a life worthy of the Lord unless God intervenes because we ask him to do so.  Paul prayed this prayer for his friends in Colossae and instructed them to pray this continually. It was necessary for them and it is necessary for us to pray continually that we our legacy will be “They lived a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way” (Colossians 1:10).

In living a worthy life, Paul said the church would know they life was worthy by “bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10b).  The church must bear fruit.  There must be action in response to the acquiring knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God’s will, otherwise such wonderful insight is wasted.  As our earlier statistics as to how New Yorkers spend their time suggested, we prefer entertainment to prayer.  We generally prefer everything else to God and bearing fruit.  Marva J. Dawn is an American Christian theologian, author, musician and educator, borrowing from the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues that “Television has habituated its watchers to a low information-action ratio, that people are accustomed to ‘learning’ good ideas (even from sermons) and then doing nothing about them.”  The test of faith is whether we ask for God’s intervention through prayer and then accept and follow through the wisdom he sends to us.  We can know if we passed this test of faith if there is fruit in our life and the life of our church that is pleasing to God.

But Paul understood that good works would not win over some people to Christ.  The culture of Paul’s day, including the culture in Colossae was antagonistic, and even hostile, to both faith and good works of the church.  Does that sound familiar?  Christians then (and now) were met with resistance and adversity. Therefore, they needed God to intervene not to silence the hostility but instead to strengthen the church “with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11).  God is not going to change the situation surrounding the church by making the meanness, arrogance, viciousness, and indifference of the world simply go away. If God has not done that since Adam and Eve first sinned it seems unlikely God will do it today.  Instead, God strengthens his chosen people to endure and have patience until the day he sets everything right again.  In the meantime, God uses his people to be instruments through which the world can experience the presence of God and ask why? In their asking, God’s people can then share the news that God has shared with them.  That is God’s plan.  There is no alternative plan.  As God’s chosen people we need to be in continual prayer to ask for the strength and power to endure and be patient in the work of God’s plan.

Finally, Paul prayed that the church at Colossae would be a giving church not in the sense of finances but a church “giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12).  Why did Paul pray the church would be joyful to God?  There is only one reason.  Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s intervention into the world.  The Apostle John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:1,14, 17b).  “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” (John 3:16).  Jesus came that the church members at Colossae and us could know God, receive God, and have eternal life.  This life we are living in this moment, however glorious it may be, is not the end of the story.  There is more life to come only in that life, “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).  Knowing our identity and our destiny should be the source of great comfort.  In our comfort, we should be joyful and thankful for God’s ultimate intervention in our life by sending Jesus Christ.

Paul’s message was simple.  “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).  Let’s do this together that we may know God’s will, live a life worthy of the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work, have great patience, and be joyful.  Amen and Amen.

01-24 - Things Above

          One of the most powerful desires that humans have is to be consistent with themselves. Behavioral psychologist, Dr. Robert Cialdini wrote, “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.”[1]  The point being made is that we want to live a life that is consistent between our present and our past.  While we may make incremental changes in our life over time, we will do so in such a way as to avoid the appearance of being inconsistent with our past life.  We will maintain a sense of consistency in our life, that is, unless we reach a turning point.

          Now, a turning point in our life, is one of those moments where for reasons of physical, emotional, or spiritual activity we make a sudden and abrupt break from our past.  I think the first time I was aware of the idea of a turning point was in high school. A friend of mine was a good solid, clean cut student.  One day he sustained an injury to his knee.  His injury slowed him down and he could not do all the things he had been doing before being injured.  He would require surgery.  After a short period of recovery following his surgery, he was expected to be able to resume all the activities he did formerly.  He would return to being fully consistent with who he was before his injury. Because of surgery, my friend was given narcotics to alleviate the post-surgical pain.  My friend was never the same.  He changed in so many ways, most notably with a compelling desire to use drugs, cocaine primarily.  With that change, came a different way of acting, dressing, hairstyle, language, associates, and ambitions.  I now realize my friend, influenced by drugs, had gone through a turning point.  My friend’s former life was done, and he was on a new life.  We remained friendly but we were never close friends again.

          I use this illustration as a way of casting in our minds the idea of a turning point in our life in which the former things are abandoned in favor of new things.  A turning point represents a dramatic shift that alters virtually everything about one’s life, whether that is for the good or the bad.  Our Scripture reading today from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae began with a discussion of a turning point in the life for the members of that church.  It was a turning point from worldliness and towards God.

Paul wrote, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2).

          Paul’s words began with a reminder that his readers had just passed through a turning point.  Paul said, “Since, then you have been raised in Christ.”  The radical change had been made.  His readers had been raised.  There is a sense that his readers had been born again, this time spiritually in Christ. They had accepted Christ as their Lord. This is something new, something that at that time no one ever heard about before.  Paul’s readers had practiced Judaism, Angelology (the worship of angels), paganism, or emperor worship and all the symbols and people who they had shared those practices with were still present in their lives.  But Paul’s readers had changed. Paul’s point was a call for his readers to forget all that they had done in the past because they had been raised to new life in Christ. 

To know how to live that new life, Paul said his readers must do two things.  First, they must “Set their hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).  To set your heart on something is to put all your emotional energy and desire into a particular aim and resolve to let nothing stop you.  To have your heart set on something means that you believe this and only this aim will satisfy your inner longing.   Paul’s charge was to make Christ and his will the love of your life.

          The second thing Paul said his readers must do is to “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  To set your mind on one thing and not another is to give the full weight of your thoughts and contemplations to understanding the one and not the other. Paul called on his readers to engage their minds and acquire the mind of Christ.  Paul made a similar appeal in his letter to the Romans when he wrote, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).  Paul’s point was that since you have passed through this turning point, know the mind of Christ so that you can then know God’s will for your life.  Paul’s call was that his readers to put their full mind into knowing God’s will.

          Paul’s readers had spiritually gone through a turning point and Paul was instructing them that now their emotional and intellectual beings must be focused on the things above not the things of earth.  We say something similar every Sunday in the Lord’s prayer.  “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are asking and praying that the things, the passions of the heart and mind that abound and are evident in heaven will replace the things found on earth.

          Paul had laid out the two things followers of Christ must do; set your heart and mind on things above.  Now why is that so?  Paul made this dramatic and shocking statement.  “For you died” (Colossians 3:3a).  There are few statements in life that cause us to stop in our tracks then when we receive notification that someone has died.  You answer the phone and the person on the other end says, “There just is no good way to tell you this but ‘so and so’ died this morning.”  At that instant, your active relationship with that person is over and it becomes the point at which nothing can be changed.  The personality, passions, and purposes of that person abruptly ceased and cannot be resumed.  There is no more dramatic turning point for the human body than death.  Paul was saying to his readers, “You died when you accepted Christ.  Your relationship with who you were is over.  The personality, passions, and purposes of that person have ceased and cannot be resumed.” “For you died” (Colossians 3:3a).  Paul’s words are jarring, and I believe he intended them to be so.

          Can you imagine making a phone call to a friend after you accepted Christ that goes like this.  The conversation begins as your friend answers the phone, “Hello.”  You reply, “Hey John, its George.”  “George, what’s up?”  “John, there just is no good way to tell you this but I died this morning.” John, stunned by the news, says tentatively, “What do you mean you died this morning?  Are you alright?”  You reply, “I died this morning when I accepted Christ Jesus as my Lord.  I am more than alright.  I was raised from the dead and now my heart and mind are set on Christ.  My personality, passions, and purposes will be his and not mine.  I am more than alright.  In fact, I would like you to die and join me in new life.”

          That would be one strange conversation but essentially that is what Paul wants us to understand.  To accept Christ is to die and be raised into a new life in Christ.  We see this death and resurrection in the act of baptism. When we are baptized by immersion, we are making that public proclamation that we died and now we are alive in Christ.  Baptism by choice is the symbol of a turning point moment in life and a symbol of our independence from our old life.  We are now free to be radically inconsistent with our past and adopt new and always changing patterns in a new life.

          Paul said, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:3-11). 

After announcing the death of his readers, Paul reminds his readers of the things that are earthly that died with them.  Such earthly things include sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lying, and being divisive toward people who are not like you.  Some or all these things were part of the life and history of member of the church and now that they were dead their active relationship with these things was over and should not be resuscitated or resurrected. There are two keys points here. When we come through a turning point and our old ways are dead, then they are dead always.  We must not act a new way in church and the old way when we are out of church.  We cannot be divided by living as a new person and trying to live the life of a dead person.  Second, and very encouraging, is the reality that none of these earthly behaviors disqualifies us from a life in Christ.  Having been sexual immoral, impure, lustful, possessing evil desires, being greedy, or angry, malicious, slanderous, or being a lar or being divisive disqualify us from being in a permanent active relationship with Christ in the present and forever.  The spiritual turning point, a spiritual death and rebirth, in Christ was intended specifically for sinners.  Jesus said, “31 Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’” (Matthew 5:31-32).

Paul then continued that after laying to rest all of the earthly things, “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:12-17).  The behaviors that Paul cited here are the product of a new life.

          In emergency medical response, there are some telltale indicates that responders hope to see to indicate “signs of life.”  The top three are consciousness, breathing, and pulse.  There are lesser signs, of course, but these are the top three.  By analogy, Paul’s point was there ought to be signs of life in the Christian whose heart and mind are set on things above.  When someone comes upon a Christian, they ought to see and experience compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Those attributes reflect a consciousness, a sign that the life of the Christian is in Christ and Christ is in them. Moreover, when someone comes upon a Christian, they ought to find forgiveness expressed as an outgrow or consequence of having been forgiven by God.  Forgiveness is the breath of God coming into our body and exhaled to others. Forgiveness is a sign of continued repetitive life that should be to the Christian just as respiration must be found in the body itself.  Finally, when someone comes upon a Christian, they ought to find the virtue of love, which binds all things together in perfect unity.  To a Christian, the love of Christ expressed through the shedding of his blood is what unites us to him and to one another.  The blood of Christian is what gives and sustains life. There is not a part of our human body that is not sustained by our blood and so it is with the Christian.  There is not a part of us that is not sustained by the love of Christ.  Paul’s list are the signs of life in Christ.

Are their signs that you have died and signs that you have been raised again? Or is there a confusing mixture of death and life?  Do we sometimes feel like we are alive in Christ and are compassionate, loving, and forgiving?  These are the times we are keeping our minds and hearts focused on Christ.  These are signs we have gone through a turning point in our life.  These are the signs of life that we have been raised again into a new life.  This is the good news of life.  When our life is so mark by Christ, then our hearts will be satisfied.  If this is where you are today, then you must continue to press on toward the prize. Do not give up and do not turn back. Press on.  If this is not where you are today, turn around, God is behind you waiting for you.  Turn and worship Him.  In worship we receive the guidance we need through God’s Word, we become more aware of others, the need for prayers, and worship presents us the opportunity to set our hearts and minds on the things above and truly be alive in Christ.  Let us all give thanks that we are alive in Christ. Amen and Amen

[1] Cialdini PhD, Robert B. (2009-05-28). Influence (Collins Business Essentials) (pp. 57-58). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition

01-10 - Supremacy of Christ

01-03 - In Christ

12-27 - What Is Truth