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Sermon: Stories, Our Story

stories

“Our Story”
Luke 15:11-32

11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.[a]’

22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

 

I. Introduction

For the last several weeks we have been talking about the importance of stories. Each person here has a story that began even before you were born and which is still being written. These personal stories are important to us, particularly when we have a chance to tell them to other people. Our stories convey more that information about our lives; they also provide a picture of our character, our dreams, our relationships, and how we view ourselves. But no story is formed or told in isolation. Our individual stories intertwine in places, and where they intersect new stories develop. It is important for us to recall our individual and communal stories, so that we can remember where we come from and dream about our future. But sometimes, we get so wrapped up in our own small stories, that we forget there is a much greater narrative that has been unfolding all around us that includes us all – the story of God and his kingdom.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he gave the people around him glimpses of this bigger story, through the miracles that he worked and the challenging words that he spoke to them. And every now and then, he used parables to illustrate and explain these pieces of God’s story that he was showing to them.

So far, we have heard Jesus speak about praying with perseverance to receive an answer from God. We have learned about the difference between paying lip service to God’s commands and true faithfulness to them. And then we heard a series of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God; how to identify it around us, how it is spreading throughout the world, how valuable the kingdom really is, and how we can enter into the kingdom. Through these parables, Jesus has painted a picture of who God is, what his kingdom looks like, and how we can become citizens.

Today, we are going to finish this series by looking at the final piece of the puzzle. We know that we have our own stories as individuals and as a group, and we know the story of God and his kingdom. But where do our stories fit within His? What part do we play in God’s bigger narrative? What character represents us in the tale?

 

II. Lost Things

At the beginning of Luke 15, we find that Jesus has been doing the unthinkable. He has been visiting, teaching, and even eating with sinners. And he has been doing so publicly. This is something no self-respecting Rabbi would do, and the Pharisees were worried it was making them all look bad. They considered this just one more reason that Jesus was a threat. You see, they had somehow forgotten that faithfulness to God required more of them than avoidance of sin. They were called to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” so that they might enjoy God’s blessings and become a light to the nations. But somewhere along the way the religious leaders had traded justice, mercy, and humility had been traded for power, self-centeredness, and pride. In doing so, they also forgot the call of God to seek out those who were far apart from God, and point them toward him. Known sinners were considered second-class citizens. They were unclean, which made them untouchable.

Jesus had already told them that he hadn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Luke 5:32). But they still didn’t seem to get it. Those people who were broken and far away from God were the very ones these religious leaders were supposed to love. But they had forgotten the heart of the Law in their pursuit of outward adherence to it. So, Jesus once again sat down to tell a series of parables describing the worth of one who is lost.

He spoke first of a shepherd who, upon learning that one of his sheep was lost, left the entire flock to go searching for it in the wilderness. And when he found it, he carried it home and then called together all his friends to celebrate that he had found his lost sheep. And then he talked about a woman who had ten coins, then lost one of them. When she discovered its absence, she searched high and low, not stopping in her pursuit until she found the lost coin. Then she called her neighbors to tell them the good news, so that they could celebrate with her.

If the people listening to Jesus could imagine the urgent desperation of a lost sheep or coin, and if they could envision the join of finding what was lost, why couldn’t they picture what it must be like for God, when one of his lost children is found and brought home to him? But they couldn’t see it. They couldn’t get past their prejudice, and they couldn’t remember what it was like to be alone in the wilderness. They couldn’t picture themselves as last things, and they couldn’t picture those who were lost as valuable and worthy of pursuit. So, Jesus told them a third parable; this one about a father and his sons.

[Read Luke 15:11-16]

  1. The second (younger) son.

The first character we learn about in this story is the younger son. He is impetuous and impatient, ready to leave his father’s house and experience all the excitement he believes life on the outside can offer. So, he approaches his father and demands his inheritance. His father consents, and he takes what is given, leaves home, and then squanders it all seeking worldly pleasures, without responsibility.

Before long his money runs out, and so do his options. He is in a foreign land and a famine has hit, making it even harder to find food. Though he is able to find work with a farmer, his desperation is made clear when we read that he was taking care of pigs, which were unclean animals, and dreaming of eating the food he was giving to them, because nobody was offering him anything to eat. He was totally neglected, destitute, and without hope. He has run away from the protection of his father’s home, has turned away from everything he has been taught to do, and has gotten himself into a terrible situation that he doesn’t have the ability to overcome on his own.

Have you ever felt completely stuck? Have your circumstances ever gotten so bad that you couldn’t see a way out? Have you ever been exhausted with how things are and hungry for something to change, but didn’t know how to make that happen? How did it make you feel? Were you scared? Were you heartsick? Have you ever just looked around you and declared that you are done, that you just can’t take it anymore? If you have ever experienced a season of hopelessness, you are not alone.

The Bible tells us that we have all been stuck like this at some point. And that feeling of being stuck began with our first parents. So, it should come as no surprise to us that the second son represents each one of us here this morning, at some point in our lives. Even those of us who were born and raised in the church have been guilty of taking liberties with God’s promises and have squandered them through disobedient living. The Bible says that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standards of holiness; we have all been disobedient at one time or another. Through our disobedience we damaged our relationship with God to the extent that we became slaves to sin and were unable to please God on our own. In other words, because we are sinners, we have all gotten ourselves into a situation that we have no power to overcome on our own. We need help. We need a Savior. But sometimes we don’t see our need until our situation is so dire that we have exhausted every other option; until we are starving and alone, like the second son, some of can’t admit the seriousness of our situation.

Fortunately, God offers each of us an opportunity to see our reality for what it is. He enables us to catch glimpses of our dilemma through his prevenient grace, and he prompts us to look toward him for our help. In the parable, Jesus said that the second son “came to his senses”.

[Read Luke 15:17-19]

In other words, the second son became aware of how bad his situation was and recognized that he couldn’t fix it. Even more profoundly, he realized that he had a father at home who loved him and who even took good care of his hired servants, so that they didn’t have any needs. But it is one thing to have an epiphany, a moment of clarity, and another thing entirely to act on it. His remembrance of his father’s kindness and his recognition of his own disobedience would have meant nothing, if he had simply allowed them to pass without acting. But the story says that he did act, by deciding to seek out his father and repent of his sins.

Just like the second son, we each have an opportunity to not only recognize our perilous situation, but to do something about it. The Bible says that when we confess our sins to God, he is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all wickedness (1 John 1:9), and if we openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved (Romans 10:9). Repentance is confession and belief. These are action words. And while it’s true that we can’t do anything to earn our salvation, and like the second son are incapable of fixing the mess we are in, we are invited to respond to God’s offer of free grace, through acceptance, confession, and belief.

Now, the second son had made up his mind to do something about his situation. He had a plan, and had decided to act on it. Up to this point, we might assume that this lost or prodigal son is the main character in the story. Don’t we often think of ourselves that way, too? How often do we view the things around us as though we are the central character? How often do we form opinions, make judgments, or take actions with self-interest as our primary motivation? But we quickly learn in the next section that this story, like the entire Bible, is really less about humanity than it is about God, who in this case is represented by the father.

[Read Luke 15:20-24]

  1. The Father (the main character).

We learn three things about the father from this passage. First, Jesus said that while the son was still far away, his father saw him coming. If you have ever felt like you have walked too far away from God to ever find your way back to him, then verse 20 is for you. The reason the father in this story was able to see his son coming from far off is because he was still there waiting and looking for his return. The father had never lost hope that his son would return to him, and he was actively scanning the horizon in hopes that he would catch a glimpse of his beloved. In the same way, the whole Bible tells the story of our Heavenly Father, who has laid out the welcome mat for his children and who continually scans the horizon, waiting for our return to his household. He will never grow weary of searching for us, and he will never lose hope that we will return to him. Every moment that you have spent wandering in the wilderness apart from God, he has spent preparing a welcome for your return.

The second thing we learn from this passage is that the Father forgives completely. When he saw his son in the distance, the father didn’t start grumbling to himself about all ways he had been a disappointment. He didn’t start making a list of wrongs to toss in his son’s face. He didn’t start planning retribution. What did he do? Jesus said that he threw off all his inhibitions and ran – he didn’t walk, he ran – to embrace his son and kiss his face. It didn’t matter to him what had happened before, it didn’t matter that his son had squandered his inheritance, it didn’t matter that he had lived a reckless life. All that mattered was that his son was home again, safe and sound, and the father couldn’t wait to hold him in his arms.

The son came prepared to repent of his sins and ask for a place as a servant in his father’s house. But after confessing what he had done and proclaiming his unworthiness to be called a son, the father interrupted him by telling his servants to cloth him like a prince and to call together the entire family to celebrate his return. The son was hoping to find a place as a servant in his father’s house, but the father’s response was to welcome him as his child.

Friends, this is exactly how our Heavenly Father responds to us, when we turn to him in faith, through Jesus blood. It doesn’t matter what we have done, what inheritance we have squandered, what life we have led; when we turn to him in confession and faith, he welcomes us into his household as a child of the King. He clothes us in righteousness, and gives us a new share in his inheritance, along with a place in his kingdom today and every day. This is the great God we serve. And this is why we give him all glory and honor and praise. Once we were lost, but now we are found, through faith in his son Jesus. All our sins are forgotten. They have been left on the cross, and we have been given new life in the Spirit. Amen!

The third thing we learn about the Father, is that he loves to party. Now, there are plenty of people in the world who find this hard to believe. In fact, I’d say we have largely forgotten this inside the church, too. Because when I look around at most Christians, the last thing I think is “there goes a person that loves to party”. Nevertheless, the Bible uses a lot of party analogies to talk about God’s response to one of his children coming home. And this parable is no different. The father immediately tells his servants to prepare a feast, so the family can celebrate his son’s safe return.

Have you ever thought about salvation that way before? Have you ever looked at your own life and thought you were worth celebrating? The Bible says that all the angels in heaven rejoice, when even one sinner comes to repentance. That means each one of us is worth so much to God that he wants to celebrate when we return to him.

You may be going through a tough time in your life right now, and you may not be in the party mood. But when your Father in Heaven looks down on you, he sees someone who is valuable and loveable and wonderfully made in his own image. You may be smudged, you may be wounded, and you might be lost. But in the midst off all our brokenness, he has reached down from heaven through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to pull us back from the brink and bring us home again. When you come to him through faith in Jesus, he clothes you with robes of righteousness, he forgets your sins, and he celebrates you as his beloved child. God is throwing parties in heaven, with all the angels, every time one of his little ones crosses over from death to life, through repentance and faith in his Son.

Which brings us to the final character in this parable of the lost son.

[Read Luke 15:25-32]

  1. The first (oldest) son.

This passage tells the story of the first son. His is the oldest, the most responsible, the one who has lived by his father’s rules and been a productive member of the household. And when he finds out that his father has thrown a big party for his troublemaking brother, it makes him angry. He doesn’t understand how his father can be so quick to forgive. I mean, he doesn’t even see the second son as his brother; his father has to remind him that they are from the same family. He can’t find it in his heart to forget what his brother has done, and so he doesn’t want to join the party. His brother’s return isn’t good news to him, and he isn’t willing to celebrate his return.

The first son represented Pharisees in Jesus’ telling of the story, and now he also represents the church. He was the first child to receive his father’s promised inheritance, just as Israel was the first to receive God’s promises in the Old Testament, and now the church is recipient of all God’s promises through Jesus and the Spirit. The first son has been loyal to his father’s commands, but he has become filled with spiritual pride, because of his position in the family, and he is lacking in grace and forgiveness.

The Pharisees refused to have anything to do with those who were obvious sinners. They put on a show of having it all together and obeying the letter of the Law, while on the inside they were wasting away from spiritual pride and neglect. They had forgotten God’s call to be a people of the light, who reach into dark places to point people toward God. They were quick to hand out judgment and slow to forgive. We, in the church, are often guilty of being like the Pharisees. We so easily forget our own sins and bury them deep beneath a veneer of obedient living in public, while they secretly eat away at us from the inside in private. We forget that we are called to live as witness in the world, not as strangers apart from it. And when lost children finally make their way home to become our brothers and sisters, through Christ’s blood, we treat them with contempt. We refuse to celebrate, and because we refuse to celebrate, we refuse to participate in the work of reconciliation that God is working in the world to bring lost sinners back to himself.

When we act like the first son, we accept our own place in the Father’s house with pride, but secretly begrudge the adoption of our sisters and brothers.

 

III. Application

I asked earlier, which character in this parable most represents who we are in God’s story? We have all been like the second son, at some point. But who do you identify with today?

Maybe you still identify more with the younger son. Even if you have repented of your sins and asked Jesus become Lord in your life, and even if you have been welcomed into the family of God and clothed in white robes of new birth, you might still, at times, feel like a wandering child, stuck in circumstances that are out of your control.

Terrible situations aren’t just reserved for those who are living apart from God. Christians, experience all kinds of difficulty in life. We deal with all of the same pressures and difficult decisions and life disasters as everyone else. And sometimes, our situations can lead us to despair, even when we know we have a Father in Heaven who loves us, just as the second son in Jesus’ parable knew he had a father at home, who loved him.

Maybe you find yourself struggling to understand your current circumstances, or maybe you don’t see a clear way forward. Maybe you are struggling to live into your role as a child of the King. Maybe you just feel stuck. If this is you, then there is only one way to get unstuck, and that’s to turn to your Father who loves you, repent of your disobedience, and ask him to send his Spirit of adoption on you in fresh and powerful ways, through Jesus Christ. Only he can lead you up out of your despair and give you reason to celebrate.

Maybe you identify more with the oldest son. Maybe you have gotten so comfortable in your position as a child of God that you have forgotten what it is like to be on the outside. Maybe your own joy at being saved has turned into spiritual pride and you have lost compassion for those who are hurting.

The best way to find out if this is you is to search your own heart. Do you look for ways to partner with God to reach the lost, or are you too busy pointing a finger at our culture to offer a helping hand? Do you get excited when someone new comes to faith in Jesus, or do you find yourself whispering about the sins they are still learning to throw aside as they grow? Are you friends with anyone who isn’t a professing Christian? It’s hard to have compassion for people we never see. Do you truly want to see the Church of Jesus Christ grow, or would you rather keep things the way they are?

If you identify more with the first son, maybe it’s time to ask God to give you a heart that is broken for the lost. Maybe its time to stop enjoying your privilege as a member of God’s household, and start living as a loving child of the King. Maybe you need to join in the celebration for those who go from lost to found.

 

IV. Inspiration

Whichever character you identify with this morning, and whatever burdens you carried with you into this place, our Heavenly Father is inviting you to turn it over to him today. He is scanning the horizon, looking for you to return to him and confess your attempts to do everything on your own. He is waiting to greet you with open arms, to cloth you with his own peace and righteousness, and to welcome you home.

God welcomes all sinners into his presence, through faith in Jesus. What would it look like if more of us resembled the Father in our response to those who have strayed from him? What would it look like if we trusted him enough to turn over every aspect of our lives to his control, and then take our place in his household, not as prideful heirs, but as grateful daughters and sons?

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that, even when we strayed from you, you never stopped searching for us. Rather, you sent your Son Jesus into the world to provide a way for us to return back to you. We thank you for welcoming us as your own children, through faith in Jesus, his death and resurrection. And we ask you to cloth us with your righteousness, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Would you show us how to become children who don’t take your grace for granted and develop spiritual pride, but who remember your great mercy, and extend it to others as forgiveness? We love you Father! And we ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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These Are (Not) Your Pastor’s Secrets

honest-abe

I do a lot of reading – some of it intellectual, some of it not so much. That means I also take in a fair number of articles from blogs and online magazines. I am particularly interested in anything to do with pastoral leadership and the church.

I certainly don’t agree with everything I read, but I believe there is something to be learned from most things I engage with, so I tend to give authors the benefit of the doubt.

But I read an article this morning that rubbed me the wrong way, and I want to respond to it. It is about the supposed secrets that pastors (like myself) hold close to our hearts. The author listed 11 secrets that pastors supposedly have. Here is the short list, though you can read the author’s commentary here.

1. Our greatest fear is irrelevance.
2. We are mama’s boys.
3. She or he sees you when you’re sleeping.
4. We think about quitting a lot.
5. We envy people who can be themselves.
6. We are often spiritually starving.
7. We are sinful, no different than you.
8. We are lonely, because it’s hard to trust.
9. Ministry is a hard job.
10. We are more sensitive than you probably think.
11. We care about you more than you can imagine.

 

Three big problems with this list

There are three problems with this list that I want to acknowledge right off the bat.

First, the article was written by someone who left ministry (for good, in his own words). He is an ex-pastor, meaning that there is something that compelled him to quit ministry. There may be any number of reasons for this, and I certainly don’t fault him for that. More people need to have the courage to leave ministry if it isn’t a good fit, for whatever reason. But what this means is that we are getting the viewpoint of someone who apparently didn’t have a great experience with ministry (or he would still be doing it). It should, therefore, not be viewed as normative for pastors. In full disclosure, the author did say that some people who responded to his informal poll said his article didn’t match their experience, but he went on to claim that most responded favorably to the list.

Second, there is no mention of pastoral ministry as a calling by God to his work. There should be a deep and profound sense in all pastors that they can do nothing else but answer that call. The author talks about being raised and cultivated to be a pastor, but he never mentions a sense of being personally called to it. I find this troubling as well, because the significant agreement he received from friends in ministry suggests that many pastors view ministry as a career, rather than a calling.

Third, I have a deep conviction that we are living in one of the most fearful societies in history. People walk around constantly worried about what could happen or what might not happen, and we spend untold fortunes in attempts to guard ourselves against our fears (e.g., loss of health, loss of property, loss of work, loss of life).

But the message of the Bible, from cover to cover, is this: don’t be afraid; just believe. The truth of scripture drives out fear by showing us a God who cares deeply about our well-being and has made himself available to us, through Jesus and the cross. If we are living in fear as Christians, then it means we aren’t truly surrendered to God. And if we are harboring secret fears, then we are in even worse shape, because it resembles something else that likes to hide in our hearts – sin.

In this article, the secrets that are mentioned all seem to stem from one fear or another; a fear of being irrelevant, weak, boring, incapable, fake, unspiritual, sinful, betrayed, thought lazy, abused, or uncaring.

Again, I don’t fault the author for his views, but I also don’t accept them as normative for pastors. In fact, I reject them unilaterally in my own experience. So, I thought I would offer my very open responses to each of these 11 secrets.

 

These are your pastor’s public declarations

1. My only fear is unfaithfulness. I do not fear irrelevance, because the gospel is always relevant. I do not fear persecution, because Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted on account of him. I do not fear job loss or becoming overburdened or underpaid or anything else associated with my vocation as a pastor. And I do not fear that the Word I proclaim will be thought superfluous, because I believe that Word has the power to save, in this age and every age to come, and God has promised that his Word will not return void.

2. I am not a mama’s boy (but I do love my mama). We are living in a generation of dwindling manhood. We live in a comfortable society where people no longer need to prove themselves as providers and protectors, and the cultural image of manhood seems to be the ability to produce offspring with one or many women. Men are seen as lazy, immature, macho, and stupid. Men who don’t see eye-to-eye with that image often swing the other way toward almost effeminate personalities. Neither recognizes the characteristics of a Godly man, which are radical dependence upon God, obedience to his Word, courage in the face of great struggles, and a will to overcome for the sake of the gospel. Incidentally, these are also characteristics of godly women. We need men and women of strong character in our pulpits. If the norm is for pastors to be self-identified moma’s boys and girls, then perhaps they need to mature a bit before accepting the charge to shepherd God’s people.

3. I see you when you are under conviction. Yes, I see people when they are sleeping. But I don’t preach in order to entertain. And I don’t derive my energy or enthusiasm from the crowd; I trust the Spirit to give unction to my words. I preach, because the gospel has the power to confront sin and transform lives. So, when I look at the congregation, what I notice more are the faces of those to whom God is clearly speaking. And when I see those looks of conviction or relief, I silently give thanks to God that he is still in the business of transforming hearts and reconciling us to himself.

4. I never think about quitting. If, as a pastor, you are thinking about quitting a lot, then you should quit. God does not want or need half-hearted leaders in the church. I have never experienced more joy in the work I have been given to do, than I experience as a pastor. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to serve, and I cannot imagine doing anything else. That is true on my best days and on my worst.

5. I strive to always be authentically me. I reject the notion that I must become someone or something I am not, in order to faithfully lead God’s people. I am open and honest about both my triumphs and defeats, my joys and my frustrations. I am genuine in both my compassion and my callousness. I am the same person in my home as I am in the church, for better or worse. Because of this, I am not worried about being found out as a fraud, and I have learned to trust in the Spirit’s strength, where I am weak.

6. I am spiritually full. Now, that doesn’t mean I am spiritually perfect, or that I have it all together. I am growing, just like everyone else who seeks to follow Jesus daily. And I make mistakes. And I go through dry spells where I don’t spend enough time with God in the Bible and prayer. But I am spiritually full, nonetheless, because I am learning to depend more fully on God for everything I am and everything I have, each and every day. I have never felt closer to Jesus than I am right now. And that is true, even on days when I am struggling.

7. I am a sinner, saved by grace. Yes, I am the chief of sinners, and I depend daily on God’s mercy and forgiveness. I still struggle with temptation and I even sometimes fall into sin. But by the grace of God, this happens less and less often. I am learning to turn over my temptations to God before I sin, and he has been faithful to give me the strength to overcome. I am proceeding forward in my sanctification, through the power of the Spirit working in my life. I am no longer under the guilt or power of sin, and though I still wage skirmishes on occasion, the war has been won, and Jesus is enthroned in my heart. I can identify with all sinners, because I am one, not because I am regularly engaged in sin.

8. I am not lonely, because God is with me and I maintain close, trusting relationships. I am learning the art of solitude, and have discovered that in those moments alone God whispers to my heart and reminds me who I am to him. And while I spend lots of time alone, I also cultivate close relationships with friends and family. Even when I am alone I am not lonely, because I know that I love and am loved. And I believe in giving my trust, even when it may be abused.

9. I agree that ministry is a tough job. It is the toughest job I have ever had. And if it was just a job, the compensation wouldn’t be worth the sacrifice. But ministry isn’t just a job; it is a calling. When it gets tough, I have to rely more on Jesus to get me through. Praise God that ministry isn’t something I can do under my own power.

10. I am more sensitive to the spiritual than you probably think. I have come to realize that criticism and hate are seldom about something I have said or done, and are more often about a deeper spiritual struggle in the other person’s life. I have asked God to give me his kingdom vision, so that I will see people and situations as he does. When he allows me to catch glimpses of what’s going on beneath the surface of a troubling encounter with someone else, it most often breaks my heart with compassion. We all have a deep need for Jesus (myself, most of all). And when I remain mindful of that one truth, I find that I am less sensitive to criticism.

11. I care about you exactly as much as it appears. When I say that I love you, it is because I love you. When I challenge you to deeper obedience, it is because I love you. When I question your absence, it is because I love you. When I disagree with your lifestyle or motivations, it is because I love you. When I encourage you to trust God fully, it is because I love you. When I show up at your events and those of your family, it is because I love you. When I visit you at home or in the hospital, it is because I love you. When I spend time on my knees in prayer, weeping over your with tears of joy and tears of pain, it is because I love you. I am your pastor, because I love you. And I love you, because Jesus first loved me and gave me his heart to love you as he does.

I have never been more privileged to do anything in life, than I have been to serve as a pastor. It is a humble calling, to which I will gladly sacrifice every day from this day forward. And I thank God that he is willing to use a broken vessel like me for his kingdom work.

I have no secrets as a pastor. I am what you see. My prayer is that when you look at me, you will see past my obvious flaws to the one who lives inside of me.

Jesus must become greater; I must become less.

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Sermon: Stories, Dinner Time

stories

“Dinner Time”
Matthew 22:1-14

22 Jesus also told them other parables. He said, 2 “The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son. 3 When the banquet was ready, he sent his servants to notify those who were invited. But they all refused to come!

4 “So he sent other servants to tell them, ‘The feast has been prepared. The bulls and fattened cattle have been killed, and everything is ready. Come to the banquet!’ 5 But the guests he had invited ignored them and went their own way, one to his farm, another to his business. 6 Others seized his messengers and insulted them and killed them.

7 “The king was furious, and he sent out his army to destroy the murderers and burn their town. 8 And he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, and the guests I invited aren’t worthy of the honor. 9 Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.’ 10 So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to meet the guests, he noticed a man who wasn’t wearing the proper clothes for a wedding. 12 ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how is it that you are here without wedding clothes?’ But the man had no reply. 13 Then the king said to his aides, ‘Bind his hands and feet and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

 

I. Introduction

It was the early 90s, and I was a sophomore or junior in high school. I was heavily involved in the music programs of the school. I played trumpet in the concert and jazz bands, and baritone in the marching band. I started out singing with the concert choir, and was asked to join a smaller group called the Chamber Singers that sang some more difficult arrangements. I also played football, briefly, and had been involved in soccer for years prior to entering high school. So, even by my sophomore or junior year I was pretty used to competition. I knew that I had to practice, if I wanted to hone my skills and abilities. I knew that I had to show up to class and extra-curricular meetings if I wanted to stay part of the group. And I knew that, when the big game or concert day arrived, I had to show up prepared mentally and physically, if I wanted to do my best.

So there was absolutely no excuse for what happened that day. I had been to countless concerts already, and knew exactly what I needed to bring with me on the road. Our school choirs were heading to the state competition, which was a big deal for us. We packed up our gear, loaded the buses, and headed out of town. I have always had a tendency to wait until the very last minute to pack, though. Sarah can tell you I still typically pack in the fifteen or so minutes before we leave on a trip, unless I am going overseas. And this day was no exception. I had quickly thrown all my clothes into a garment bag, zipped it up, and rushed out the door in a hurry. I didn’t take time to double-check and make sure that I had everything I needed.

When we arrived at the competition, our teachers sent the guys to go get dressed. I was joking around with my friends, not paying much attention as I put on my tuxedo, until I got near the end of the process. I had my jacket and pants, my belt, my cummerbund, and my tie. I even remembered a white undershirt, which is something, considering I forgot that even on my wedding day. I looked in the mirror to make sure my tie was straight and my hair was perfectly spiked down the part (this was the 90’s folks), and then reached for my socks and shoes. And that’s when I realized that I should have taken more time to pack.

In all the hustle and bustle and procrastination, I had forgotten to pack a pair of black socks. All I had were my very white tube socks I had worn on the bus. Now, this might not ordinarily be a problem. But I had two things going against me that are peculiar to choir competitions. One, my tuxedo was a cheap, untailored, generic-sized uniform intended for long use by as many students as possible. It fit me, but only sort-of. The legs were a little short and exposed my socks. This wouldn’t be a big deal, I suppose, since we sing in a big group and sort of blend together. Except that, secondly, choirs in competition stand on risers on a stage, which effectively places our legs and feet at eye level, and we made something of a show out of walking on and off those risers.

I knew I was in trouble. There was no way I could hide my mistake. I asked every guy in the choir if they had an extra pair of socks. But let’s face it; this was a bunch of teenagers. We were lucky someone hadn’t forgotten their pants. Nobody brought extra anything. I didn’t have a choice other than to either wear my white tube socks, with a black tux, or go without them. I can still remember how embarrassed I was to walk on stage, with my white ankles advertising to the crowd that I was not prepared. I hadn’t dressed properly for the occasion. And, as a result, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

 

II. We all show up unprepared, from time to time

Your experiences might not be as humiliating as my own (and believe me, this is just one of many), but I would venture to guess that most of us here have – at one time or another – shown up to something unprepared. Maybe you didn’t study for the big test, or you were out of shape for the athletic competition, or you were either under or overdressed for the occasion. Whatever it is, I’m guessing you have experienced that uncomfortable feeling of knowing that you are out of place, and it’s because you neglected to prepare properly. Sometimes being unprepared is just really awkward. But other times it can have a serious penalty. For example, my short time in the military taught me that showing up unprepared for an inspection or muster can have disastrous consequences for the unprepared person and their entire platoon.

For the last few weeks, we have been taking a look at some of Jesus’ parables; stories that he used to illustrate what he was teaching his followers. In several of the parables we haven’t covered, Jesus spoke about the importance of being prepared, particularly about the coming judgment. But he also talked about being prepared as it relates to the kingdom of God.

 

III. How can we enter the kingdom of God?

So far, we have seen that Jesus used a number of parables to describe the reality of the kingdom. He told his disciples what signs to look for, so they could identify the kingdom, even as they wait for it to fully arrive. He told them how the kingdom is slowly permeating every part of the world, in every time and place, until there will be nothing left that isn’t touched by it. And then he used parables to describe how valuable the kingdom is; so valuable, in fact, that it is worth trading everything we have to obtain. So, we know that the kingdom has come, but not yet fully, and is spreading throughout the world. We know the signs to look for, so we can recognize God’s kingdom activity. And we recognize that the kingdom is of the very highest value, worth giving up everything else to pursue. This leaves us with one final question: How do we enter this kingdom? Jesus answered this unasked question with another parable in Matthew 22.

[Read Matthew 22:1-14]

On the surface, this story illustrates the history of the nation of Israel. The king represents God the Father, who called Israel out of Egypt and named them as his chosen people. They were set apart from the other nations and intended to be a light to the world that demonstrated the goodness and greatness of God. They were given a special place in the Father’s household, and even though they were unfaithful over and over again, God fulfilled his promise to them that a savior would come from the house of David.

God had been preparing them for Jesus for centuries, through the prophets. He had been foreshadowing the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. He had given them all the markers they would need to identify the Messiah when he came. But, just like the people in Jesus’ parable, they still weren’t prepared to receive an invitation to become citizens of the kingdom. God’s people rejected and abused the prophets, even killing some of them, like John the Baptist. They became distracted by material wealth and earthly success, and they failed to heed God’s call to celebrate his Son, when he arrived among them.

Friends, how often has the church fallen into the same trap as the nation of Israel? How often have we allowed ourselves to become distracted by the pressures and desires of this life? How often have we abused those who carry the message of the gospel that demands us to fully love God and others, through surrender of self? How often have we failed to accept God’s invitation to join him in his kingdom work? How often have we failed to recognize the King’s Son and honor him in our daily lives?

As I read this parable and consider all that Israel missed about God’s activity, even though it was right in front of them, I wonder what we might have missed from him, too, in our complacency. And I wonder if we shouldn’t be more concerned than we are about the consequences for being unprepared to receive his invitation. As the parable continued Jesus said that the people’s mistreatment of his servants and unwillingness to accept his invitation to the feast angered the king so much that he sent out his army to destroy those murderers and burn their towns. Their unfaithfulness was rewarded with disaster, because they did not recognize and honor the king’s servants or his son.

But there is a second half to the story.

Because the king’s chosen people did not receive his invitation with joy, he commanded his servants to go out into the streets and invite everyone they found – good or bad, righteous or unrighteous – to come to the feast. Here is where the story took shape beneath the surface. The unasked question was how does one enter the kingdom of God? Jesus’ answer was to say that all have been invited, but only those who come prepared will be allowed to remain. Let’s talk a bit more about those two ideas.

  1. First, God has issued an open invitation to the kingdom. In theology, we call this universal atonement. When Jesus willingly died on the cross, even though he was innocent, he took the penalty for our sin upon himself and turned away God’s wrath. In doing so, he not only removed the guilt of our sin, but also overcame it’s power over us. When we place our trust in him we receive God’s forgiveness for our disobedience and our relationship with him changes. The Bible says that we become adopted daughters and sons of God and heirs to all of his promises, which include the kingdom. Atonement literally means to make us at one with God, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we say that the atonement is universal, we simply mean that Christ’s sacrifice was made for all humanity. There is no one who stands outside of God’s love; he willingly offers his grace and forgiveness to everyone who will receive them by faith in Jesus. It is an invitation to the whole world to enter into the kingdom and become God’s children. You don’t have to come from a certain family; you don’t have to have special credentials. There is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s invitation. It is freely given to everyone.

Now that the open invitation has been extended, though, we have to make a choice about how we will respond. We can either reject the invitation, or accept it. But if we accept it, we must come prepared for the occasion, as Jesus’ parable indicates.

  1. In other words, we must come properly dressed. In the story, the king saw a man who was not wearing clothes that were appropriate for a wedding banquet, and because he was not prepared the king threw him out. It is one thing to accept God’s invitation to the kingdom and come to the gates, but in order to enter those gates we must be properly clothed. But what does that mean?

Revelation 22:14 says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life. (NLT)” The proper attire for entering the kingdom is a white robe, which symbolizes holiness. But these robes didn’t start out white; we saw earlier in Revelation 7:14 that they were made white by washing them in the blood of the Lamb.

Christ’s atonement was universal, and God’s invitation to the kingdom has been made to all people, but there is only one way to enter the kingdom gates, and that is by trusting in Jesus alone for our salvation. When we repent of our sins and follow him by faith, he removes our guilt and clothes us with righteousness. There is no other way to enter the kingdom of God.

 

IV. Application (You)

So, what does that mean for us here today? Friends, we are here to proclaim the good news that God has issued an open invitation to the kingdom, through the blood of his only Son, Jesus. There is nothing you or I can do to earn this. It doesn’t matter if we have been in church every Sunday, since birth. It doesn’t matter if we have read the Bible cover to cover and done everything in our power to obey what it says. It doesn’t matter if our parents or siblings or friends are good Christian people. It doesn’t matter if we know all the right answers in Sunday School or can sing all 300 verses of Just As I Am. None of that matters, if we don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If you have never personally asked him to forgive you for your sins and come into your life to take his rightful place as your King, then you will always be standing on the outside of his kingdom gates.

So many people have heard and responded to God’s invitation, but have only done so half-heartedly. They come to church and sit in the pews, they go through all the motions that will show they are good Christians, because it is advantageous to do so, but they have never been clothed with the righteousness that only comes from a personal relationship with Jesus. And because they have only responded to God half-heartedly, when it is no longer advantageous to appear Christian, they leave the church in droves. We are seeing evidence of this now through statistics showing significant changes to the number of people who claim Christianity as their religion in America. Jesus talked about this with his parable of the wheat and tares, where he said there will be those among the church who are not truly a part of God’s people. Though they appear to be kingdom citizens, they are really only standing at its gates, awaiting the judgment that will see them cast out and separated from God’s people and his kingdom for eternity. Don’t make the mistake of having all the appearance of being a Christian, when the thing that counts is actually knowing Christ.

I realize that many, if not most, of us here have, at some point, asked Jesus to come into our lives and make us clean. We have professed him as Lord and trusted him alone to save us from sin and death. And by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus, we have been reborn into the family of God as citizens of his kingdom. I know that I have. I confessed Jesus as Lord when I was five years old at The Federated Church in East Springfield, PA, during a service where we heard from missionaries about the work they were doing in Africa; much like what we just heard this morning.

But since inviting Jesus to come in and make us clean, some people here have been sort of hanging out by the gates of the kingdom. You’ve never taken steps further in, and you’ve never grown in spiritual maturity. You might be technically inside the kingdom’s walls, but just barely. Maybe you feel like a fraud, or you just don’t know where to go from here. Maybe you are still struggling with temptation or sin, and you just don’t understand why you haven’t broken free from its grip yet. If this is you, I’m here to tell you this morning that God has promised you so much more than a life of just getting by. He has promised you a full and abundant life, in Jesus. And to prove it, he has given us the Holy Spirit to all who believe. He dwells in you, and if you turn your worries and temptations and feelings of inadequacy over to him, he will take those burdens and transform them into joy. He will take your weakness, and give you his strength to overcome anything you face.

Some of you need to surrender your concerns to God this morning and ask the Spirit to walk you hand-in-hand away from the kingdom gates and toward the throne of the King. Some of you need to take a leap of faith and trust God to lead you out of temptation and sin, and help you produce a harvest of righteousness in your life. Some of you just need to ask God to help you take the next baby step in your journey of faith.

As long as we are heading in the right direction, with the Spirit as our guide, we will always be found prepared and in the proper attire for fellowship with the King. But if we hang out at the gate too long, we may eventually find that we are heading in the wrong direction, entirely.

Jesus concluded his parable by saying the man who was found without the proper wedding attire was thrown out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Consider this: what good does a freshly washed, white robe do us, if we just go and get it all dirty again? We may enter the gate of the kingdom through Jesus and his blood. But we maintain a right relationship with God, and kingdom citizenship, through obedience that leads to holiness. True faith will always produce spiritual fruit in our lives. We all fall short, at times, of God’s desires for us, and we know that he forgives us, even when he rebukes us. But willfully continuing in sinful behavior, once forgiven, makes a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice and declares to God that our allegiance lies elsewhere. Continue in this pattern for too long, and he may cast you out of the kingdom as one who is no longer dressed appropriately for dinner with the King.

Friends, God is still sending out his servants, the Church, with an open invitation to all people to join in the wedding feast of his Son. The invitation is there to accept, but please do so whole-heartedly. Don’t waste your life standing at the gates, when he has promised you an abundant life in Jesus. Pursue him as your first priority, so that you won’t be found unprepared and underdressed, when you meet him face-to-face.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that you sent your Son, Jesus to die – not just for a few – but for all people. We thank you that the invitation to enter your kingdom through him is freely offered to all of us; we only need to respond in faith. For those who haven’t yet been cleansed by faith, we ask your mercy. And for those who are hanging out by the gates, afraid or unwilling to take steps forward, we ask for your Spirit to come in power. Set us free for joyful obedience, and make us into the transformed people you desire, so that we might become your servants who carry your invitation faithfully and passionately to the world around us. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Stories, Buried Treasure

stories

“Stories: Buried Treasure”
Matthew 13:44-46

I. Introduction

Have you ever wanted something so badly that it became an obsession? Has anything ever captured your attention so much that it was continually in your thoughts, and you couldn’t let it go until you had it?

I remember as a kid having a small obsession with the cartoon Voltron. It is a show about heroes from space, who operated giant robots that looked like lions. They would battle against evil forces to protect their home, and when things got too tough for them as individuals, they would band together and their lions would join together to become a huge robot warrior, with a giant sword. The first time I watched that show, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. So, I began watching it every Saturday without fail, and dream of what it would be like to drive one of the robots.

It wasn’t long before commercials started advertising toys to go with the show, and when I discovered I could buy all five separate lions and join them together to make the warrior, I just knew I had to have them. And the more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became with them. The only problem was that my parents said no to buying it. We weren’t anywhere near Christmas or my birthday, which comes in early January, and it was too expensive to just buy on a whim. My only option, then, was to use my hard saved allowance of $1 a week to buy these toys the next time we were at a toy store.

Finally, the day came to visit Toys ‘R Us. My parents asked me if I was sure I wanted to spend so much of my money on this one thing, and I assured them I did. So, I emptied my Crayola Crayon bank, took it to the store and spent every dime to satisfy my obsession. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything else that had more value to me than Voltron. And though I later experienced buyers’ remorse, at the moment of purchase I was willing to spend everything I had worked to save to get it.

 

II. We all make value judgments

We each make value judgments on a daily basis. We all place higher value on certain things in our lives, even to the extent that we are willing to sacrifice to attain those things. But, how do we know if they are the right things, or even good things? If we are paying attention at all to the world around us, we can easily see that people have placed incredible value on all sorts of questionable things.

Some people are willing to trade everything for success. We might define success in any number of ways, but most people today equate success with economic achievement. We have talked before about how our society treats “busy-ness” as a virtue. This is particularly true if our constant activity brings us financial gain or a leg-up in business. We praise those who work long hours and often spending weeks away from family to increase their business ventures around the world. We applaud those who can successfully navigate the cutthroat politics of Wall Street and make the difficult decisions necessary to survive in a global market and come out on top. We invest in companies that show success in minimizing costs and improving profits, even when those come at the cost of employee families through layoffs or stressful work conditions. And we admire those who retire to mansions, because they have achieved the American dream, even though it may have cost them family, true friendships, peace of mind, or spiritual and physical health. Some people are willing to sacrifice anything to succeed in life, according to the world’s standards. Most of us, though, are just willing to give up most things for a more modest sort of success.

Some people are willing to trade everything for a high – a feeling of momentary excitement. When the promise of success seems too fleeting, or too difficult to attain, or when the troubles of life start to take their toll, many people in our society turn to whatever will give them a temporary feeling of being larger-than-life. How else can we explain the fact that we still have a drug and alcohol abuse epidemic in our country, even when we know about the dangers, and even among the most financially secure populations?

But drugs and alcohol aren’t the only high that people seek out on a regular basis. Millions of men and women gamble their life savings away every day in the hopes of striking it rich in the lottery, at the casino, or in online gambling. Even when the chances of winning are so low, many are willing to risk their family’s present needs and future hopes for the intense thrill they get just before they scratch off those cards, see that final numbered ball, or lay down their hand of cards. It makes them feel alive for a moment, and that feeling is worth any risk. People turn to these things for a momentary escape from a reality that is less than appealing.

Others turn to the pursuit of unhealthy relationships and sex for that feeling of escape from reality and a sense of belonging. The desire to be loved by other people is so compelling that many people sacrifice their families, their careers, and their self-worth for the tiniest sliver of intimacy they think they will receive from a one-night-stand or an affair. And when maintaining real relationships becomes too much work, people retreat into the dark recesses of the Internet to seek out easier gratification without commitment, through pornography. Sexual purity is viewed as a repressive idea, both inside and outside the church, and even kids in our country are addicted to porn and engaged in risky sexual behavior.

Even more people are willing to trade everything for a different sort of escape, through entertainment. A couple of years ago Hollywood put out a funny little movie called Warm Bodies that didn’t receive much press, probably because it is a zombie love story. The idea is ludicrous, of course, but Sarah and I took a chance and went to see it when it opened around Valentine’s Day. It is a wonderfully clever social commentary, and I have long considered writing a series of blog posts about the theology inherent in the film. One of the highlights comes near the beginning, when the main character, who is himself a zombie, delivers a monologue about how wonderful it must have been in the days before the apocalypse, when people were still people, rather than mindless shuffling creatures and were able to have lively interactions with one another. As the voiceover continues, the camera dissolves into a past scene at the airport, where hundred of people sat next to one another or passed each other in the concourse; all of them with their heads bowed low over their mobile phones, most of them with headphones blocking out the world, and none of them engaged in conversation. The image was funny, but also frighteningly real. We don’t need an apocalypse to turn us all into zombies; our iPhones have already done that.

Now, there are people who will argue and say that nobody is willing to sacrifice truly important things for entertainment. I’ve got two concrete examples that will challenge that assumption, one for the kids and one for the adults: Minecraft and NFL Football. You already know what I mean, don’t you? Some of the kids in our church (mine included) will make all sorts of crazy trades to get just five more minutes on Minecraft. And some of the adults in this room would literally throw someone else under a bus, if it got them a pair of Colts tickets. The average family in America trades all sorts of possible valuable pursuits to spend their evenings on a couch absorbed in television shows, focused on phones or tablets, or playing games on a console.

I confess that I have really struggled with this myself. I grew up in the beginnings of the video game generation and became a teenager during the earliest days of the Internet, and found both to be exciting and easy distractions from the difficulties of life. It is no joke to say that I was addicted to games for a number of years before God broke their hold on me, and I still wrestle with maintaining a healthy balance in the time I spend off and online. The desire to escape into an imaginary world is a huge temptation that can lead to a wasted life. And while some entertainment is a good and healthy thing, we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that few of us consume our diversions in a balanced way. It is simply too easy, in an always-connected world, to elevate our own entertainment to the highest-level priority. The truth is that people will go to almost any lengths, in order to be entertained.

Some people are willing to trade everything for a sense of security and a life without risks. We sometimes call these people prudent, because their lives appear to be filled with restraint and self-control. But more often the lives of those who seek security as their highest priority are filled the regret of past loss and a fear of the future. We often see this expressed as excessive worry or attempts to control every detail of life and legislate the behavior of other people. It manifests as a tendency to avoid contact with the outside world and seek safety with those who look and act just like us. A desire for security is one of the biggest hindrances to the spread of the Gospel, and yet many churches are mired in their immovable desire to preserve what they have, rather than risk any loss.

We could go on and on, but I think the point has been made clear: people are often willing to give up absolutely everything for whatever it is they consider to be the highest priority. Christians are no different from other people in this. So the questions we must ask, as followers of Jesus, are these: What do we value most? What are we willing to trade anything to get? What will we protect at all costs? If you aren’t sure of the answers for yourself, consider for a moment what things you spend your free time doing. What activities are you willing to sacrifice time with your family to pursue? What things consume your thoughts or even keep you up at night with worry? What things have you blocked off in your schedule as immovable? What things are you willing to miss church for? These things are your priorities. And I’ll bet some of these priorities are so important to you, that you would be willing to trade almost anything for them.

 

III. Jesus said some things are worth sacrificing anything to attain

You might be surprised to hear that the Bible doesn’t condemn the idea that some things are worth sacrificing anything to attain. Some priorities are actually worth pursuing at any cost. But, the scriptures do challenge us to reconsider what things are truly worth the sacrifice.

Last week we discussed two of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God found in the first part of Matthew 13. Jesus used stories about a mustard seed and yeast to illustrate to his disciples how they could identify the kingdom and the manner by which it spreads. We defined the kingdom as God’s sovereign and redemptive activity in the world. It can’t be found in a specific location. It is visible wherever God makes his presence known; particularly in lives transformed through an encounter with Jesus that leads to forgiven people, who pursue holiness and pour out the sacrificial love of God on other people. The kingdom has come already, but not yet fully, and we are living in an age of expectation as we wait for Christ to return. Like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God starts small in the hearts of people, and then grows into a flowering tree that gives life to all that encounter it. And, like yeast, the kingdom of God is steadily working its way into every time and every place. It pushes back against the darkness, wherever that darkness is found, and will continue to do so until God completes the good work that he has begun and judges to humanity.

But it doesn’t do us any good to be able to identify the kingdom or understand how it spreads, if we don’t also understand its true worth. How does it benefit us to know these things, if we don’t value the kingdom of God enough to pursue it as a prize? Continuing on, in Matthew 13:44-46, Jesus began to paint a picture of just how valuable the kingdom really is.

44 “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.

45 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. 46 When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!

These parables tell us two more important things about the kingdom of God that Christians everywhere need to take to heart in order to get our priorities straight and follow Jesus faithfully.

 

1. First, the kingdom is something to be sought after.

In both of these parables, Jesus described the main subject as actively looking for something. How do we know this? He discovers the hidden treasure in the first, and discovers the pearl in the second. Any scientist or adventurer can tell you that discoveries don’t just happen to people; they aren’t passive events. Rather, people make discoveries when they are in motion. While they are often made in unexpected places, discoveries are always made when someone is seeking something, whether it’s knowledge, a solution to a problem, a new territory, or a specific goal.

Likewise, the riches of the kingdom of God are only discoverable when we are actively looking for them. We might its treasures in unlikely places, but we will never find it at all if we aren’t looking to begin with. Unfortunately, the church is filled with more passive Christians than explorers; more spectators than athletes. We are too easily contented with those initial glimpses of the kingdom that we may have found when we met Jesus and sit back to wait for more to come to us, and as a consequence we miss out on the full riches he offers to those who actively pursue him as their top priority. Like the people in these parables, Jesus is calling each of us to actively pursue the kingdom, as though we are running toward a prize.

 

2. The second thing these parables tell us is that the kingdom is so valuable, that it is worth any price.

In the first story, Jesus referred to the kingdom as a treasure; in the second, he said it was like a priceless pearl. The value of a thing depends entirely upon what someone will pay for it. If you aren’t willing to pay much for something, then it is of little value to you. But, if you are willing to pay a fortune for something, then it holds tremendous value for you. Both of the men in these stories sold everything they had in order to purchase what they had discovered. They held nothing back in reserve, because nothing else could equal the value of what they had found. Jesus said this is the view we should have of the kingdom. It is so valuable that, when we discover its riches, we should be willing to trade everything else we have in order to obtain it.

Before we move on, we need to clarify what this means. We need to make a distinction here between salvation and the kingdom. God has freely offered all people forgiveness for their sin, through faith in Jesus Christ, his death, and his resurrection. There is nothing you or I can ever give to purchase this gift for ourselves. It is the free gift of God to all who believe. Jesus is the only one who could pay the price, and he has already done so on our behalf. But freedom from the guilt of sin is just the beginning of the riches of the kingdom. It is the seed from which the tree grows and branches out. The fullness of God’s kingdom isn’t just forgiveness of sins; it is new life in Christ. And for the joy of knowing Christ fully, we must be willing to sacrifice anything. God’s forgiveness is a free gift of grace; but in order to know Christ fully and experience all the blessings of the kingdom, we must be willing to sacrifice everything, including our lives.

Talking about all of the things that had been his highest priorities in life the Apostle Paul said it like this, in Philippians 3:7-11:

“I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead! (NLT)”

We should consider all other things worthless, compared to the joy of knowing Christ as Lord. Jesus has made perfectly clear that the kingdom of God, which can only be experienced through him, is the single thing worth sacrificing everything else to pursue. Nothing else commands this price – not family, not success, not happiness, not security, nor any other thing in this life. Only God will satisfy the desires of our hearts, and only when we live as citizens of his kingdom will we ever experience the fulfillment of God’s promises.

 

IV. Application

If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that most of us get our priorities out of order on occasion. Even worse, many of us regularly treat other things as more important than seeking after Jesus and his kingdom promises. We often substitute lesser things of temporary consequence for greater things of eternal value. Friends, God is not satisfied with playing second chair in our lives. He isn’t interested in riding in the passenger’s seat.

But how do we change the way we have done things in the past? What does it mean to actively seek the kingdom? And what does it really mean to say that we are willing to pay any price?

Actively seeking the kingdom means making Jesus our highest priority. If we really believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and if we truly want to follow him as Lord, then he must become our first priority, not just some of the time, all the time. He must become greater; we must become less. This means spending regular time with him in prayer, asking him to guide our steps and order our days. It means showing up regularly to worship Jesus with the community of faith as a celebration for all that he has done, and to seek out his desires for us together. It means turning our backs to things that try to pull our attention away from living obediently to God’s commands. It means throwing out the destructive habits of our sinful past, and embracing his new life for the future. Friends, making Jesus our highest priority means saying “yes” to him every day, and saying “no” to everything else that tries to get in the way. But if Jesus is going to be our first priority that necessarily means everything else has to come second.

In Matthew 6:33, Jesus told his disciples to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” and God would take care of all their needs. He will take care of our families, our finances, our work, our desires, and all of those other things that occupy our thoughts. If we put Jesus first, we can trust God to provide for us, just like a father provides for his children.

Finally, being willing to pay any price for the kingdom means handing over everything to God, in complete surrender. When we sacrifice everything to pursue something other than the kingdom, we might eventually get what we desire. But once we have it, we will find that it cannot satisfy. We will always want something more. Not so, if we give everything to gain the kingdom.

We each struggle with holding onto control of something in our lives. For some of us it’s our work, for some relationships, for others our finances, and for many our families, specifically our children. We hold onto control over things, when we fear their loss. But fear is a product of the kingdom of darkness. The kingdom of God drives out fear wherever they meet. And the price of God’s kingdom is total surrender to Jesus as Lord and King. That thing you fear losing? Jesus says to cast that burden on him. His yoke is easy; his burden is light (Matt. 11:29). And his kingdom is eternal.

What would it look like for us to treat the kingdom of God as though it is the most valuable thing in our lives? What would it take for us to become willing to sacrifice everything to obtain it?

God isn’t calling most of us to literally give up everything we have to follow him today, but he is calling us to become prepared to do so. There may come a day when that very thing is asked of us, and we won’t be ready if we don’t prepare our hearts for it now. I believe what God wants from us today is a re-ordering of priorities. There is freedom to be gained, when we give up control of our lives to Jesus. And there is a great storehouse of treasures to be found, when we seek first the kingdom of God. What are you prepared to surrender to Jesus this morning to obtain its true riches?

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that you have promised us a place in your kingdom and an inheritance in your household, through Jesus’ blood. We thank you that, in our greatest our of need, you sent your Son to die on a cross for our sin and freed us from guilt and death. Father, we ask now that you would help us to become a people who seek your kingdom and union with Christ above all other things. Would you help us to make these our first priority, surrendering all other things to you. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Stories, A Little Goes a Long Way

stories

“A Little Goes a Long Way”
Matthew 13:31-33

Parable of the Mustard Seed

31 Here is another illustration Jesus used: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.”

Parable of the Yeast

33 Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”

 

I. Introduction

Sarah can tell you that I know my way around the kitchen pretty well. I like to eat well, so I learned to cook at an early age. When I began working in business, I found that cooking was a stress reliever for me. I enjoyed making new things, and there was something calming for me about the task of cutting vegetables at the end of a long day. I learned how to use spices in a way that doesn’t require precise measuring, but which blends flavors. I figured out some shortcuts for getting things done more quickly in the kitchen. Over time, my enthusiasm for cooking has waned a bit, but I still enjoy the ability to whip up new recipes from ingredients on-hand, or make special meals for family on their birthdays or special occasions. I have also been able to use the kitchen skills I picked up over the years to serve in the church. The last year we lived in Kentucky I served as a cook for our church’s weekly meal ministry to the poor, where we routinely prepared meals for between 200 and 400 individuals each Saturday. All this is to say that the ability to cook has served me pretty well over the years, and I am glad I picked it up, even though I don’t do it as often these days.

Unlike cooking, though, I never really developed any ability for baking. Maybe it’s because baking requires such precision, or maybe it’s because I don’t typically eat many sweets or bread. Whatever the reason, I have just never had a whole lot of success when it comes to baking cookies, cakes, or bread from scratch.

If you are wondering what in the world the point of all this is, let me cut to the chase. When I am good at something, I am more willing to spend time working on it. Since I had an affinity for cooking, I was willing to devote time to improving my skills. But, when it comes to baking, I have tended to take shortcuts or rely on other people. This has made me lazy, when it comes to baking, and laziness almost always backfires at some point.

When Sarah had only been married a couple of years, she had a brief period of time where she had some pretty strict dietary restrictions. One of the biggest challenges was that she couldn’t eat anything with iodine in it, so anything made with regular table salt (also called iodized salt) was off the menu, including pretty much all breads. I ultimately wound up borrowing a bread maker to make homemade bread for her during that short period, but before putting in the extra effort out of love for my wife I tried the lazy man’s approach. I went to the store, bought some frozen bread dough that didn’t have iodine in it, and planned to toss it in the oven and bake it that evening.

The only problem with my plan occurred when I unloaded the car and didn’t notice that the roll of frozen dough had slipped out of the grocery bag, and wedged itself under my driver’s seat. I’m sure you can see where this is going now. It was summer, which means it was hot outside, and I left that dough under the car seat all afternoon and evening. And the next day, when I opened the car door, I was greeted with the overwhelmingly sour smell of yeast. And then it hit me. What did I do with the dough I bought yesterday?

When I looked in the backseat, the source of the smell was easy to spot. Because of the heat, our car had acted like an oven. The dough had split its fragile container and swelled to easily six times its original size, and then had baked onto the metal underbelly of the car seat. That is that last time I bought frozen dough at the store.

I’ll never forget the lesson learned that day about the power of a tiny bit of yeast to expand in incredible ways, when given the right environment. So when I read these parables of Jesus where he described the Kingdom of God as a tiny seed growing into a magnificent tree, or a small bit of yeast leavening a full measure of dough, I think about that roll of unbaked bread in our car. The underlying idea these analogies point to is that, once it takes a foothold in the world, God’s Kingdom expands quickly and forcefully. What starts small in the hearts of people quickly grows into a towering tree, and when the kingdom touches the edges a life or community, it soon permeates the whole.

 

II. We all have trouble seeing the kingdom of God, sometimes

It’s an inspiring notion, isn’t it, this idea that the kingdom has come and is quickly taking over the world? Theologians refer to this as the in-breaking kingdom. This new reality that we live in, since the Incarnation, where the God’s justice and mercy have come to earth, but not yet fully. But, if I’m really honest, there are a lot of days when I look around me and can’t see the kingdom of God clearly, because the brokenness of the world is looming so large. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see the kingdom of God in this or that situation? Does it bother you that we still see so much brokenness and evil in the world, when we know that Christ has already won the victory against darkness and sin? Or do you wonder why it is taking so long for Jesus to return and establish his kingdom forever? These are tough questions, and many of us struggle with them at times. The solution to these things is patience – trusting that God is in control and will complete the work he has started, in his time. But let’s be honest, most of us aren’t very patient. So, well-meaning Christians have often come up with other ways to answer these questions.

One of the ways Christians have sometimes dealt with the waiting is to give apocalyptic predictions and warnings that speculate about the future. To many, Revelation has become a message of impending disaster, instead of a love letter from God to the church. It is filled with the hope of his promise to never leave us or forsake us, but instead to bring his justice on the earth and welcome the faithful into his new creation, but we often read it as a roadmap for the end of the world, filled with fear and foretelling of doom. This response to the reality of God’s in-breaking kingdom focuses too much on the future kingdom, and in doing so distorts our view of the hope that we have in Christ, and ignores the activity of God in the present.

A second way that Christians have often responded to this period of waiting is to minimize reflections about our future hope and concentrate on the present activity of the Church. This view of the in-breaking kingdom says that the primary role of Christians is to transform culture here and now, because this is the New Creation. Our hope is in what we can do now through our freedom in Christ, not in some unforeseen eternity. But this view focuses too much on the present manifestation of the kingdom, and misses out on God’s promised future, when all things will be made right and the faithful will live with him in glorified bodies for eternity in a new heaven and new earth.

The problem is the same with both of these extreme responses to the reality of God’s in-breaking kingdom, and this period of waiting, when the kingdom has come already, but not yet fully. The problem, is that they both seek to find the kingdom “over there” somewhere, when Jesus has told us it is all around us, pervading every time and place, and pointing us from this moment toward eternity. We all have trouble seeing the kingdom of God from time to time. But we too often look for it “over there”, when it has already broken in all around us.

 

III. What is the Kingdom, and How does it Spread?

We aren’t alone in wondering about the kingdom of God, or why we sometimes find it so difficult to identify; the disciples wondered about these as well, and also struggled to understand the relationship of God’s work in their present and his promises for the future. In Matthew 13, Jesus taught his disciples using a string of back-to-back parables. And all of these stories had one thing in common. In one way or another, they were all about the kingdom of God. It seems there was still plenty of confusion about what exactly Jesus was trying to accomplish. In the previous chapters, we learn about Jesus traveling the countryside, healing illnesses of every sort, and teaching along the way. But he was just healing ordinary illnesses. No, he was healing the things that were impossible to cure; things like leprosy, paralysis, and demon possession. And he wasn’t just teaching the way that other rabbis were. He was challenging the religious leaders’ interpretations of things central to their faith, like fasting, Sabbath keeping, and what it means to be a true disciple. Jesus had even sent out his disciples, giving them the power to do all these same things and instructions to share the good news of repentance and belief to the surrounding towns.

Word of Jesus’ unusual behavior was starting to get around. He was upsetting the status quo, and beginning to make powerful people angry. He was even being accused of using the power of demons to accomplish his miracles. It should come as no surprise then that his family came to fetch him at the end of Matthew, chapter 12 and bring him back home before he got into any more trouble. His actions were making them look bad, and they were concerned about what would happen if he continued on his chosen path. His response to their inquiries about him was to redefine what family looks like, saying those who do the will of God are his true mother, brothers, and sisters.

We often move past this section as though his seemingly impassive redefinition of family is all that matters, but I think there is more going on there. In fact, I get the sense that, although he didn’t show much emotion at the time, Jesus was bothered by his family’s visit. After all he had been doing and saying, they still didn’t appear to understand. Even though Jesus had been demonstrating what the kingdom of God on earth looks like, the people around him couldn’t quite seem to see it. This must have bothered him, because the very next passage, from chapter 13 says that Jesus left the home later that day and went to the lake to be alone.

When people saw him, they began to gather around him, waiting to hear another word from this perplexing teacher. And since they didn’t seem to understand his actions or what he had been saying, he once again resorted to parables, to help explain this new reality that his followers were struggling to understand. In the middle of this teaching moment, Jesus told these two short stories about a mustard seed and some yeast. Now, there are a whole host of questions these two parables don’t attempt to answer. But there are two things in particular that these stories should cause us to consider.

1) First, what do we mean when we say “the kingdom of God”?

The kingdom is not a location. You can’t find it with a map. It isn’t located “over there”. The church has done a terrible job of conveying the reality of God’s kingdom, because we have made it seem like the only goal of the Christian life is going to heaven. We haven’t talked enough about the New Creation and resurrection. And we haven’t talked enough about the kingdom of God having already come, with the ability to awaken new life in its citizens and push back against the darkness. When we think of the kingdom in purely physical terms, as a place apart from this world, we risk missing out on what God is doing all around us.

Here is a better definition: The kingdom of God is God’s sovereign and redemptive activity in the world, in all times and all places. Like any kingdom, it is the place where the King dwells. Right now, we glimpse this in pieces, but one day God’s presence will overwhelm and remake the world. Then all things will life and work according to the will of our Father in Heaven.

Since the kingdom is the presence of God in our midst, it brings life and rest from the weariness of the world. Jesus described this with the image of the mustard tree, which provides a place for birds to nest in its branches. It may have small origins, like acts of love and mercy, but it eventually grows into something truly substantial, just as the small mustard seed eventually becomes a towering tree. Jesus had been demonstrating this to the people by healing diseases, casting out demons, and preaching a message of peace with God through repentance. And in Matthew 10, Jesus had told the crowds that there is rest for the weary, when they cast their burdens on him. The kingdom is life giving, because it resurrects what is dead in us, giving us new life in the Spirit, and it carries the hope and promise of eternal life with God, through Jesus’ blood.

The kingdom is everywhere, because God is everywhere. But we can’t always see it, because it is breaking in through God’s redemptive work in the lives of ordinary people, which takes time and patience, and a long view of love and justice. But everywhere we see lives transformed by an encounter with Jesus and everywhere we see his love poured out through the Church, we are catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom breaking in. Now, we see things darkly, as through a glass, but one day we will see clearly what God has been doing in our midst.

That is the kingdom. There is no perfect way to describe it, but if we ask God to give us his perspective, I believe we can see it for ourselves.

2) The second thing these parables lead us to consider is how the kingdom grows and spreads throughout the world.

Jesus used the nature of yeast to illustrate this point. Just like yeast, we must provide the proper environment for growth. But when we do, the kingdom has the power to expand in incredible ways. We aren’t just talking growth in size, though. This isn’t really an illustration about the kingdom growing bigger; rather, Jesus was indicating that the kingdom is steadily becoming pervasive. It permeates every part of life in every time and place that God’s people stand as a witness to God’s presence. We do this, first and foremost, by inviting the presence of the Spirit into our lives and churches, setting up outposts for kingdom expansion. Then we assist with the kingdom’s expansion when we go out into the world to share with the world why the gospel is, in fact, good news.

 

IV. Application

Jesus shared these parables with his disciples to explain to them that the kingdom of God is something which starts small, but blossoms into a life-giving refuge for those who seek it, and that it spreads like yeast until it touches every part of our lives with God’s grace. This helps us understand a bit more about what the kingdom looks like and how it spreads, but even armed with that information, we are still left with our initial questions. Why do we have difficulty identifying the kingdom around us? We know what to look for, so why don’t we always see it?

1) First, I believe we miss the evidence of God’s kingdom, because we are looking in the wrong place. I mentioned earlier that there are two extremes at play among Christians: those that look only to the future, and those that look only to the present for answers. I believe we need to ask God to broaden our vision. We should ask him to remind us of our future hope purchased for us by Jesus, while remembering that the good news is also for the present. We are called to live fully as citizens of this kingdom, which has already come, but not yet fully. When we embrace the truth that God has called us to live as his children in the present world, we find opportunities to expand his kingdom to those who are living far apart from him. And when we place our hope in the promises of God, we can love sacrificially now, because we know that our future is bright.

2) The second reason we can’t often see evidence of God’s kingdom is because we haven’t invited God to first establish his kingdom in us. In order for a seed to grow into a tree it must first be planted. And in order for yeast to spread throughout the dough, it has to be added to the mix. Until a person has received the forgiveness for sin that God offers us through Jesus, and begins trusting him as their Lord and Savior, they do not belong to the kingdom of God and will not see it’s presence in the world. Until we invite the King to take his rightful place on the throne in our lives, we will always be standing just outside the kingdom gates, unaware of the riches contained within.

When we look for the evidence of God’s kingdom both in our present situations and his promised future – not just “over there” somewhere – and when we have asked God to establish his kingdom in our hearts, I believe he gives us a new perspective. He allows us to see that anywhere acts of loving-kindness, self-sacrifice, mercy, justice, obedience, and worship in Jesus’ name are happening, we are witnessing God’s kingdom breaking steadily and forcefully into our world

I don’t know about you, but with all of the crazy stuff going on in the world today, more than anything else I need to see that God is still working to make things new. But we will never be able to discern how God is working in our community or our nation or our world, until we see people and situations the way God sees them. And that can’t ever happen unless we invite Jesus to take complete control of our lives. Until we fully surrender to him and ask the Spirit to fill us with his presence, I think we will have a tendency to be more like the people who surrounded Jesus, observing his miracles and his teaching, but never recognizing the presence of God’s kingdom in our midst.

Let’s seek God together this morning in prayer, and ask him to show us his kingdom for what it is.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we are so grateful that you sent your Son, Jesus, to die upon a cross for our sins. We thank you that, by receiving him as our Lord and Savior, we are set free from the power of sin and the fear of death. Father, would you help us to live as citizens of your kingdom. Would you help us to see all that you are doing around us in the world? Would you show us how we can participate in your kingdom work today, even while we wait for your promises for our future to be fulfilled. And would you show us, even now, those things in our lives that we have not yet submitted fully to you. We love you, Jesus! And it’s in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

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The Facebook Detox Challenge

facebook-wallpaper

Hello, my name is Isaac, and I am a Facebook addict.

I don’t say this to make light of people who struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. I don’t say it because I think it is a cool catch-phrase. I say this as a true realization that I have a real problem: my compulsive need to check Facebook is interfering with my goals in life and is robbing me of happiness.

Why am I picking on Facebook, and not, say Twitter or Instagram or the Web in general? Because, no other online service has become such a routine part of my day. In this increasingly “connected” world, I find I can no longer maintain a healthy balance between the time I spend on and off of Facebook. While I occasionally engage in other social media, like Twitter, Facebook is the only social tool that captures my attention and distracts me from life on an increasing basis.

I recently went through the oddly painful process of whittling down my Facebook friends list, in order to cut back on the negativity I was seeing in my news feed. I “unfriended” anyone with whom I had not had a real connection in at least the past year. If you remain on my friends list, it is because we have had at least one Facebook interaction, message, email, phone call, or face-to-face conversation in the last year.

This was a last ditch effort to try to reclaim a balance in my Facebook usage, but, alas, it hasn’t solved the underlying problem — me.

I realize many people can check their Facebook once a week, or even less frequently, and be fine with it. I cannot. For whatever reason, it has become an albatross to me.

I do still see some tremendous value in the platform, particularly as a pastor, who wants to remain connected with the people in my church and community, as well as colleagues and friends from other places. It is also a useful tool for advertising happenings at my church (Union United Methodist).

For these reasons, I don’t want to quit the service entirely. But my unmetered access is mitigating these positive attributes for me, personally. So, I am proposing another solution – a Facebook detox, if you will. Others may have come up with something similar. I don’t know, because I honestly didn’t look. So, here’s my plan.

 

The Challenge – Phase 1

The biggest tradeoff I have made in the name of social media is spending less time reading real books. I am still an avid reader, and am generally working my way through several books at a time. For example, I am currently reading a biography of John Wesley, the science fiction novel Dune, by Frank Herbert, the fantasy novel The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan, and just finished Manage Your Day-to-Day, by the fine folks at 99U.

The problem is that it now takes me significantly longer to read through books than it used to, because I am more often wasting time on Facebook or reading articles I find linked there. And even while I am actively reading real books, I often feel the urge to put them down and take a quick peak at my News Feed.

To top it off, I’ve noticed that it has become increasingly difficult for me to concentrate on the “meatier” books that I believe will enrich my life, such as good theology, research books for my PhD thesis, and classic literature. Perhaps I have gotten too used to social media soundbites, or maybe it is a combination of that plus the over-sensational and under-delivering drivel that often masquerades as news or long form articles. Whatever the cause, the more time I spend reading online material, the harder it becomes for me to engage with material of a higher quality that adds value to my day.

So, Part 1 of the Facebook Detox Challenge will be to correct the impact it has had on the written materials I consume (Look for Part 2 in a future post). Here’s how it will work.

I propose to remain logged out of Facebook until such time as I have read 5 books, one from each of the following categories:

  1. Devotional Works – a book, whether ancient or modern, which reflects deeply on the Christian life and/or scripture.
  2. Professional Development – In my case, as a pastor, this means a book on preaching, teaching, Biblical exegesis, leadership, etc.
  3. Topical Research – in my case, this will need to be focused on my PhD research, but for others who want to take up the challenge, it could be any topic you find interesting and about which you would like to learn more (e.g., history, physics, astronomy, medicine, etc.)
  4. Literature – classic literature or poetry.
  5. Fiction – because God has given us wonderful imaginations, and we all need to dream.

Upon finishing a book from each category, I will allow myself to resume logging in as a normal user and see if my relationship with Facebook has changed. If not, I will repeat the process.

**Exceptions:**Because I do use Facebook for my work, I need to make some exceptions to the no-log-in rule. If you are in a similar situation, you might adjust this list to suit your particular scenario.

a) During my detox period, I will occasionally post articles or other status updates from a third-party app (I prefer Buffer), because I want my people to see it.

b) I will still log in weekly to post worship or event related information to my organization’s Facebook wall, because I don’t have someone who can do that for me at this time.

c) I will respond to Facebook Messenger messages, because that is the primary means some people use to reach me. However, for this last one, I will use the app, so that I don’t have to log into Facebook proper.

You may have already gained mastery over your social media usage. But if, like me, you are struggling to maintain balance in your use of Facebook (or some other platform), I want to encourage you to try a detox for yourself.

I’m beginning mine today.

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Sermon: Stories, Actions Speak Louder

stories

“Stories: Actions Speak Louder”
Matthew 21:28-44

Parable of the Two Sons

28 “But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. 30 Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go.

31 “Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.”

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. 32 For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.

Parable of the Evil Farmers

33 “Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. 34 At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. 35 But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same.

37 “Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ 39 So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him.

40 “When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?”

41 The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”

42 Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures?

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing,
and it is wonderful to see.’

43 I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. 44 Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”

 

I. Introduction

Sarah and I met in college, when we were both very young (she was 18 and I was 21). As I think I’ve mentioned before, I had been working for an astrophysicist (that’s a rocket scientist) writing software to control the hardware systems we used to conduct research on objects in space. That all sounds really impressive, I’m sure. After I had been there a little less than a year, we hired Sarah to work as assistant to the professor in charge and to write grant proposals. We became quick friends, and both share a storehouse of funny stories we could tell about our coworkers there. They were an interesting bunch.

I sort of fell into my role there, when the professor, who also taught physics, discovered I had written programs for my graphing calculator to automatically solve all of the advanced equations we were learning in class. Not only did he allow me to use those programs on my tests, ensuring that I got a great grade, but he also offered me a job. And during my time there, he continued to challenge me with unusual problems to solve, and entrusted me with responsibilities that would ultimately influence the outcomes of many research projects.

Just having the opportunity to work on such creative pursuits and get paid for it was thanks enough. But one year, our boss surprised us with an incredible gift to express his thanks for our work. He submitted mine and Sarah’s names to the National Science Foundation for an award that recognizes the contributions of students to science. That spring, we each received the NSF Student Fellowship Award, which is something I will always treasure.

But there was one slight problem with the award process. You see, our boss told us that there was a special dinner coming up to which we were invited. He asked each of us to attend, made sure we were aware of the dress code, and then even reminded us about it later. But he didn’t tell us that the whole purpose of the dinner was to give us the awards. I told him that I would be there, thinking it was just a regular dinner–and then I promptly forgot about it.

The day of the awards dinner came and went, and I never once thought about it. Needless to say, my boss wasn’t too pleased when I didn’t show. He had wanted to bless me with something special, but I hadn’t followed through on my commitment to be present that day, and as a consequence, neither one of us enjoyed the event in the way that he had intended.

 

II. We are all guilty of paying lip service to our commitments

My guess is that all of us have at one time or another made a commitment to something and then failed to follow through on it. It may have been an unintentional oversight–maybe we were overly committed and simply forgot–or it may have been intentional, and we had no intention of following through from the beginning. Accidentally failing to follow through on most commitments will have little long-term effect on our lives, though there certainly are exceptions. The fact of the matter is that our society is so busy, that it is common for people to miss things. Other than a brief sense of mild annoyance, most of us probably don’t get too concerned when someone else doesn’t show up, and we expect others to forgive us quickly when the fault is ours–at least when we have a good excuse.

But committing to something and then intentionally choosing not to follow through can have more significant consequences, particularly from a spiritual standpoint. At the very least, it calls our integrity into question. We are told in the Bible that we should let our yes be yes and let our no be know. We are to neither swear by things that we had no hand in creating, nor should we work to explain our every answer. And Christians, above all others, should keep their word, so far as it is in our power to do so. We may fear the repercussions of saying no to someone, but any outcome we are likely to face is far better than breaching our own integrity.

When we knowingly agree to something, but have no intention of following through, it is called “paying lip service” to that commitment. When we become comfortable with paying lip service to things that are seemingly inconsequential, it becomes easier to do so with things of eternal significance as well. If we continue to willingly dabble in attitudes and behaviors that are contrary to God’s best for us, they have a way of dragging us on into deeper levels of disobedience.

In truth, we are all guilty of paying lip service to the demands of the gospel, at times. We do this when we declare on Sunday morning that we are followers of Jesus, but stop short of full commitment and obedience on Monday through Saturday, or when the path God is leading us down becomes uncomfortable or violates our personal preferences. We do this when we claim that Jesus is Lord in our lives, but then refuse to give him control over our decisions and actions. We do this when we put on the outward trappings of faithfulness, but don’t allow God to transform our hearts.

 

III. Actions speak louder than words

At the beginning of Matthew 21, we read about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and find out that he encountered a lot of people with a half-hearted commitment to following God. We learn from the Gospel of John that Jesus had been performing many public miracles, and the people were starting to believe that he could be the promised Messiah. This made the religious leaders nervous, because they couldn’t control Jesus and he was challenging their authority with the people. When he raised Lazarus from the dead in Bethany, before returning to Jerusalem, it sealed the deal for many of the people who had been watching him. He must be God’s chosen one, they thought. So, it is no surprise that the people welcomed him to the city like a king. But we find out later that the crowds were paying lip service to any commitment to Jesus, and they all deserted him, when he was arrested later in the week.

Next, Jesus went into the Temple courts and drove out the vendors and money changers who were taking advantage of people who had come there to offer sacrifices as the Law demanded. They had taken something central to the worship of holy God, and turned it into a means for gaining profit. After clearing the Temple, Jesus began to perform many miracles in the sight of all the people there. But the religious leaders were more concerned with the children shouting praise to his name than they were with the manifest presence of God’s power. It seems that, even in the Temple, people were claiming to follow God, without letting him transform their hearts.

Later that evening, Jesus and his disciples went to Bethany where they were staying for the night, and when they returned to Jerusalem the next morning, Jesus spotted a fig tree and went over to it to see if it had any fruit that he could eat. This is one of the few times when we see Jesus’ frustration with Israel bubble to the surface, and you can tell that he was still thinking about the events of the previous day. When he found that the fig tree was empty, he cursed it and caused its branches to wither. When asked about it he talked to the disciples about the power of faithful prayer to produce any result, but the deeper meaning behind this passage compares the fig tree to the religious leaders at the Temple. Neither bore fruit, so both were doomed to wither and die.

As if to drive the point home, when Jesus returned to the Temple to teach that day, he was confronted once again by the religious leaders, who had heard his words and witnessed his miracles over and over again. Though they claimed to be followers of God, devoted to his commandments, they could not see him clearly standing there before him. So, they questioned Jesus, asking him by what authority he was saying and doing all these things. But, instead of answering their questions directly, Jesus told them two interconnected parables.

 

Parable 1 – Actions speak louder than words [Read Matthew 21:28-32]

This first parable talks about what it means to pay lip service to our commitment to God. But before we talk about, there is something important we should note. Jesus wasn’t directing this story at people in general; it was intended for God’s people specifically. He talked about the relationship between a father and his sons, which is a relationship reserved for those who belong to God. This relationship belongs to all those who have been adopted as daughters and sons of God through faith in Jesus. So, although Jesus was directing this parable at the religious leaders of his day, it now properly applies to those of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior. In other words, his words are directed at the church. And that is important for us to understand going forward.

In the story, the farmer’s oldest son is at first disobedient. When his father said to go and work in the fields, he simply refused, choosing to follow his own desires. But before the day was out he had a change of heart, and chose to become obedient to his father’s commands. He went into the field and worked as he had been instructed. The first son represents those who were once living far apart from God’s kingdom, but who had allowed the good news to transform them into followers of Jesus. They rejected God at the beginning, choosing to live in sin, but when they encountered John the Baptist (and then Jesus) they received their words as true and began walking in obedience.

The second son in the story had all the appearance of an obedient son on the surface. When his father came to him and instructed him to work in the fields, he immediately committed to doing his father’s will. But he was only paying lip service to that commitment. Though he appeared to be obedient, he never actually did what his father commanded. This second son represented the chief priests and Pharisees, who had all the outward trappings of faithfulness, but whose hearts were hardened. They spoke often of doing God’s will, enforcing it on others and condemning those who strayed, but inside they were wasting away, because they had never developed a love for God or the people under their care. They had not repented of their own sins, even though they readily pointed out the sins of others. And while they claimed to be God’s willing servants, they weren’t truly following his will.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself which son you most resemble in this story? Have you wondered if you would be considered an obedient child in this scenario? The truth is that we all start out in the same place. The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of righteousness. In the beginning, we are all like the first son. Our father has told us what he expects of us, but we have rejected his word. So, if we all start out in the same place, what determines which son we become in the story?

If you are a follower of Jesus this morning, then at some point you have changed your mind. You have turned away from a life of disobedience and chosen to believe that God’s ways are higher than your ways. You have received his free gift of grace for yourself and are no longer bound by guilt and sin. You have entered into a relationship with God as his child, and you can now call him Father. What separates the first son in the story from the second isn’t belief. Both sons knew their father and heard his voice. The difference between them is that the first son ultimately followed his father’s instructions, while the second son did not. The difference was not in their belief; the difference was what that belief produced in them. The first son was faithful, but the second son was unfaithful.

Jesus went on to tell a second parable, which illustrated the consequences of becoming like the second son.

 

Parable 2 – The result of unfaithfulness [Read Matthew 21:33-44]

This parable was an indictment of the religious leaders of Israel, who had been given the blessing and responsibility of caring for the souls of his flock, but who had time and again abused and even killed God’s messengers. They had grown hungry for power and influence to the point that any expression of God’s wisdom and power that didn’t originate with them was seen as threatening. And the implications for this are brutal and clear, as Jesus used the parable to predict what these same leaders would soon do to him, the Landowner’s Son.

His warning to them at the end of the story was clear. If God’s people are unfaithful with what he has given them, and continue down the road of disobedience–if they continue to pay lip service to their faith–his kingdom will depart from them, and he will give it to someone else, who will produce the proper fruit.

 

IV. Application

What does this mean for us today? Friends, though Jesus directed these parables to the religious leaders of his day, we would do well to hear them as a warning to the church in our day. Through Jesus Christ, we are now the spiritual Israel, God’s chosen people, and we have been given the responsibility and privilege to produce fruit according to the riches of the gospel. But make no mistake, we are not simply invited to bear fruit, we are commanded to do so. Where we do not, we have ceased to be the obedient church, and have instead become like the second son, who proclaimed his commitment to the father’s will, without any intention of doing it.

Following Jesus is not a spectator sport. It is not enough to come to church on Sunday and learn about him. It is not enough even to believe what the Bible says about him. True faith, genuine belief, requires more of us than just knowing about Jesus; it requires a relationship with him that is founded upon a deep and abiding trust and confidence in him as our Lord and Savior. And that kind of faith doesn’t exist without the accompanying obedience to his commands. “If you love me,” Jesus said. “Then keep my commandments.” If we would become faithful sons and daughters of the King, Christ calls us to radical obedience to his commands to love God and love one another. We do this by actively obeying all of his instructions in scripture, and by confronting the wickedness of this present age with the good news that Jesus Christ died on the cross to set people free from the guilt and bondage of sin, and was raised again in victory over death.

Like all of you, I have watched the church in America lose its witness to our culture. We have become far too adept at pointing out the sins of those who are living far apart from God and need him desperately, and far too hesitant to repent of our own sin. We have grown silent in the face of growing evil of every kind, when God has called us to proclaim his justice and mercy loudly on the streets. Frankly, I think the church became comfortable with its influence in our society at one time, and we have been struggling ever since to hold on to that power, through compromise.

This same compromise is present in our individual lives, as well, when we choose to follow the wisdom of the world and reject the clear and life-altering wisdom of scripture. We have allowed ourselves to become people who go to church, when Jesus Christ has called us to be the church. Obedience is an active pursuit, but we have too often become passive in our faith. And as a result, we are no longer bearing the proper fruit.

This hit home for me personally in the last week as God has convicted me of remaining silent for far too long about issues of extreme importance that we face as a church and as a nation. I have failed to talk publicly with you about the human rights atrocity we know as abortion. I haven’t talked about it, because, frankly, I get too emotional. I get physically ill, when I think about what our culture is doing to the most vulnerable in our society in the name of convenience and freedom of personal choice. News headlines this week have been particularly difficult to read and talk about, but God calls us to embody a faith that doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. We have been set free from sin and fear through Jesus Christ, and we are called now to proclaim the good news with confidence and power in the very face of evil of every kind. And this is just one of many areas where I have been silent, and the church has been silent with me.

I believe that God is calling the church in our country to repentance and belief, and that he will use the challenges of our time to strengthen the true church, and to prune her branches, so that we might begin to once again produce a fruitful harvest of saints in the church, who willingly lay down their lives for the sake of the world. But the only way this will ever happen is if we fall on our knees in prayer.

Last week we talked about praying like it matters. If you remember, we committed together to begin praying with more frequency, more focus, and more faith that God is powerful enough to answer our prayers and loves us enough to do so. If we want to become truly faithful in our obedience to God, I believe we have to begin with prayer. First and foremost, we should be praying for God to send his Spirit upon us as individuals and as a church, to convict us and to empower us for mission and ministry to our community.

But I don’t think it stops there. Friends, I believe it is time for each of us to take a more active role in following Jesus. Now, I’m not saying that we aren’t following him at all. I know that many of you are seeking daily to become more like him. I’m only suggesting that, if we are comfortable with our lives as they are, then we aren’t yet following him fully. He will always lead us out of our comfort zones and into places where we have no choice but to become completely dependent upon him. And only when we commit to following him into those unknown places will we ever receive the richest blessings that he wants to give us.

I believe that God has more planned for each one of us than we can possibly imagine. He wants to make us holy and loving and compassionate. He wants us to live lives that are so different from the world that people can’t help but want what we have. He wants us to produce a harvest of righteousness, both in our own lives and in the lives of those we meet, as we introduce them to Jesus, and invite them into the family. And it all starts when we invite Jesus to completely wreck our lives.

Are you ready to take the next step in your journey with Jesus? Are you ready to surrender that thing you have been holding onto so tightly? Are you ready to ask God to make you fully obedient to his word? Are you ready to see the unknown places that Jesus will lead you, if you let him? Are you ready to trust him fully and completely with your worries, your relationships, your finances, your health, or whatever it is that you have been afraid to let go of? If so, I want to invite you to pray this prayer with me.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die on a cross for our disobedience. We confess that, even though you have offered us freedom from sin, we don’t always follow your commands. Father, we repent of our unfaithfulness as individuals and as a church, and we ask that you would send your Spirit on us now to cleanse us from any sin that remains in us, and make us holy as you are holy.

And Father, we are tired of treating our faith like a spectator sport. We are tired of paying lip service to our commitment to following you. So, we ask that you would transform our hearts this morning. Would you set them on fire with your love? Would you teach us how to become a people of prayer? Would you show us how to reach our community with the good news? And would you give us the courage and the strength to act in the face of great evil, to proclaim your kingdom come?

Thank you, Jesus, for your faithfulness. Thank you for your church. Thank you for all the saints who have believed you and proved it with their lives. Thank you, that you are making all things new. Thanks you for rescuing us. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for leading us. We love you, Jesus! And we commit our lives to you from this day forward. Amen.

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Sermon: Stories, Pray Like it Matters

stories

“Stories: Pray Like it Matters”
Luke 11:5-13

 

I. Introduction

Have you ever heard a really great story, one that you were still thinking about long after the telling? What is it that makes certain tales stand out to you? Is it the characters, the plot, action, romance, mystery?

My favorite stories tend to be the ones I read. More than any other medium, books have a way of really capturing my imagination. And while I have read many, many books over the years, I can still recall with vivid detail the small handful of books that tell my favorite stories. In my first weeks here in Brazil, I told the kids in the Children’s Sermon about my all-time favorite book, Ender’s Game. I found a copy of this book when I was a teenager in a used bookstore somewhere near Augusta Georgia. I liked the spaceship on the cover, so I thought I would give it a try. Within minutes, I was captivated. Ender’s Game is the story of a young boy, an unwanted child, who was born with the sole hope that he might have the necessary personality and abilities to lead a fleet of human soldiers in a war against an alien adversary that had attacked and nearly destroyed humanity a couple of generations before. Throughout the book we follow Ender as he overcomes obstacles placed in his path, learns to form lasting friendships with the most unlikely group of misfits, grows into the great warrior and commander he was born to be, and then wrestles with the implications of what he has done. Hollywood made a movie adaptation a couple of years ago, but the movie doesn’t do it justice at all; to get the real story, you have to read the book.

I can recite the details of all my favorite stories with excruciating accuracy, and I’m sure you can too. Even when the parts start to become a bit fuzzy for me, I find myself returning to them again and again to refresh my memory, both of the story and the feelings of being drawn into it. Over the years a pattern has emerged among my favorite books, and with each successive reading I find deeper layers to the story that I didn’t see on the first or even second reading. My favorites are typically filled with some action, but the characters tend to struggle with the weight of their actions. The characters are often young, unsuspecting, or seemingly weak at first glance, but through adversity develop a strong will and character that carries them over seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I prefer main characters who are overwhelmingly good, loyal, and honest, and act accordingly, even though they may have character flaws, as well. I enjoy stories where the protagonist sacrifices willingly for those who can’t help themselves, who wrestle with the moral implications of their choices, and who stand bravely in the face of powerful adversaries, even when they know it will likely lead to their death.

Maybe this is why the narrative books of the Old Testament resonate with me so significantly. Books like Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Samuel, Judges, and the like are filled with flawed characters who stand up in the face of overwhelming challenges and overcome, through their faith in God. I find it easy to read myself into these stories, not as a conquering hero, but as the flawed underdog, who trusts God to transform my weakness into strength, when and where it really matters. And as I live out the story of my own life, I find encouragement, hope, and even guidance from the stories that have become part of me in the telling.

 

II. We All Tell Stories

The truth is, we all have stories to tell. Some of the people in this room could no doubt spin tales about their lives that would curl our hair with excitement or fear. Others of us may think our stories are bland or boring, as though the everyday challenges of life aren’t exhilarating enough. Some of you may be looking for a new story to tell, because the ones you have already aren’t satisfying.

Sometimes we use stories to tell about our past. Sometimes we tell them purely for fun. And sometimes, our stories appear to be one thing on the surface, but are meant to convey a deeper meaning. Though the way we tell them has changed over the centuries, people of all generations and all cultures have been bound in some way to the stories they have told and retold. Today, we get most of them through books, television, the movies, or games. In Biblical times, and for most of human history, stories were told to family and friends around a shared meal or an evening fire. This was particularly important for oral cultures, like those of the Old Testament, because it was in those times that storytellers passed down the history of their ancestors to the next generation. In fact, this is the way the Old Testament scriptures were passed down until the time when they were written on scrolls.

Like other Rabbis, Jesus told stories to his disciples pretty frequently to illustrate the lessons he was teaching. We call these stories parables, and while we are familiar with some of them, there are others that rarely turn up in a sermon or Bible study. Some of Jesus’ parables are very straight forward, while others have many layers of depth. All of them are important for helping us to understand how we can faithfully follow in the way that leads to eternal life. So, for the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at Jesus’ parables. Some will be familiar; others might not be. But with the telling of each of these parables, we are invited to insert ourselves into the story, asking which character we would be, and how we would respond if we were in their shoes.

 

III. Praying Like it Matters

Luke, chapter 11 begins with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. His initial response was to offer a short model prayer for them to follow. Today, we commonly call this the Lord’s Prayer, and churches around the world still recite it in their worship services each week. The Lord’s Prayer begins with a proclamation of God’s holiness and a desire to see his kingdom and will done on earth, as it is done in heaven. The prayer then asks God to provide for the everyday needs of the one who is praying. It asks God to forgive the sins of the penitent, as a parallel to the forgiveness we are each called to offer others. And finally, the prayer asks God for his protection against the temptation to fall into further sin. This is a wonderful pattern for us to follow in our own prayers. We could spend weeks studying these few verses; in fact many books have been written about them already. But the deeper meaning of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples is lost, if we are satisfied with just learning about the content of prayer and stop reading at verse 4. You see, there is more to come in verse 5 and beyond.

After giving his disciples a model for the substance of faithful prayer, Jesus then told them a parable, in order to better illustrate not what they should pray about, but how they should go about praying:

5 Then, teaching them more about prayer, he used this story: “Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, 6 ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’ 7 And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’ 8 But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.

9 “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? 12 Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! 13 So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (NLT)

 

This parable illustrates four principles about prayer that I would like for us to briefly discuss this morning.

  1. First, we should be praying fervently (with a passionate intensity). In the passage we read this morning from Acts, chapter 12 we heard about the Apostle Peter, who was imprisoned by Agrippa for preaching the gospel. Agrippa had just recently put James, the brother of John, to death and when he saw how much the crowds loved it, he planned to put Peter on trial publicly, presumably so he could be found guilty and publicly executed as well. But things didn’t go as Agrippa planned, because, as we are told in verse 5, the church began praying fervently for Peter while he was in prison. They had gathered to pray passionately for Peter’s safety. This was of primary importance to the church. It really mattered to them.

We see this same fervency in Jesus’ parable. The one who knocks on his neighbor’s door does so, because he is passionate about showing his guests the proper hospitality. It is of primary importance, because it will affect his reputation. When I picture this in my mind, I see someone pounding on the door in a near panic, not just lightly tapping on it lazily. This person is desperate for the person on the other side of the door to answer and provide help.

The first principle of prayer is that we should be passionate. In other words, we should actually care about the things we lift up to God. If we don’t care, then why should we expect a response? How many times have you been asked to pray for something, and sort of half-heartedly said a quick prayer, then promptly forgot about it? Now contrast that with something really important to you. When you pray for something about which you are passionate, what does it look like? Do you just say a few words and then forget about it, or do you fall on your knees and cry out to God in desperation? This is how we should bring all of our requests to God; not as a bored list of things we would sort of like to see happen, but as sincere and passionate requests for God’s intervention in our lives and the lives of those we love.

  1. The second principle this parable teaches is that we should be praying shamelessly. We should care less about what people will think of us than we do about making our requests known to God. In Jesus’ parable, he used a word (αναιδειαν) in verse 8 to describe the behavior of the one knocking as “lacking respect, or self-respect; or carelessness about the opinion of others.” The man was neither concerned about the impropriety of waking up a neighbor in the middle of the night, nor was he concerned with what the other neighbors would think about him for doing so. He simply knew that he needed help, and would do anything to get it.

How often does our prayer life suffer, because we are simply too ashamed to tell God and others what we need? When was the last time you asked a friend to pray for you about a specific struggle in your life, and not one of the sanitized ones that we come up with, like “I am struggling with my devotional time”. And when was the last time you voiced your real concerns to God out loud, even though they might be embarrassing or hurtful? Why have we become so ashamed to ask God for what we need, as though he doesn’t already know everything about us? And why are we so ashamed to ask others to pray for us?

The funny thing is that this is a bigger problem with people who have been in church their whole lives, than it is with those new to the faith. I hear all the time from those who work with youth or new converts about the rawness of the requests they receive for prayer. People who are so desperate for God’s love and forgiveness that they don’t care who knows about their worst vices, if it means those people will pray for and with them. Jesus’ parable shows us that we should all approach God in prayer as those who are unashamed, just desperate for him to hear us.

  1. The third principle of prayer is that we should be praying persistently. In Daniel, chapter 10 we read about a time when the prophet Daniel had a troubling vision about the future. He began fasting and praying for understanding, but for three weeks he didn’t receive and answer. Then, at the end of that time an Angel appeared to him. The angel told Daniel that God had sent him to answer Daniel’s request the moment he had begun to pray, but that he had been delayed by spiritual warfare. But Daniel had persisted in his prayer until he received an answer, and the angel was able to overcome his adversary with the help of the Archangel Michael, and bring his long-awaited message.

There are countless stories of miracles occurring all over the world, when God’s people have dedicated themselves to prayer for a specific movement of God’s Spirit. And though we don’t fully understand spiritual warfare or why God responds to prayer as he does, we are called to be persistent, and not to give up.

Now, if you want a more contemporary example of what persistent prayer looks like, just watch any Mom with young children, who is trying to have a discussion with another adult. As soon as any Mom begins to have a conversation, it’s like a beacon turns on that attracts her children, like moths to a flame. They will show up out of nowhere with an urgent request for something; they need to go potty, they want a snack, somebody pushed them, they have a booboo, they can’t find their socks, their shoes, their shirt, their favorite toy. And they don’t just ask for what they need once, do they Moms? No, they start asking over and over and over and over [breathe] and over and over and over. We laugh about it, because it is true.

Now Moms, I need you to be honest with me. How many of you, when your child turns into the Questionator, do you simply say, “yes” to whatever they want, because you know they won’t stop asking otherwise?

Now, Jesus was not suggesting in his parable that God just says “yes” to our requests, because he doesn’t want to be annoyed. What he was saying is that we should be persistent in asking God about the things we need, because it demonstrates how passionate we are about them. And there is real power in giving ourselves completely to seeking God in prayer, not because persistent prayer is somehow magical, but because we are transformed through the process. Friends, prayer is less about getting things we desire than it is about inviting God to transform us through conversation with him. But for that transformation to take place, we must learn to persist in our prayers, even (and maybe especially) when it seems like they aren’t being answered. We shouldn’t give up, until God has clearly answered us, or until he has allowed us to see things from a different perspective.

We have the assurance that, when we persist in our prayer, we will receive an answer. In verses 9 and 10, Jesus said, “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

  1. Fourth, and finally, Jesus’ parable shows us that we should be praying confidently. He does this by first reminding the disciples that they are children of God, and that their heavenly Father loves them. No loving earthly father would give his child less than what was asked for, even though all earthly fathers are sinful. How much more then will our heavenly Father, who we have already proclaimed holy and good in our prayer, give us what it is that we truly need, when we ask him?

In other words, we must begin praying with the confidence that God can and will answer our prayers. How do I know that we aren’t already doing this? Because we still continually act surprised when God shows up and does what we ask in Jesus’ name. What would it look like, if we were to instead offer up our requests to God with the confidence of children asking our Father for help, and trusting him to provide it?

 

IV. Application

When I read this parable and consider the deeper meaning it conveys, I am left with one very distinct and powerful conviction. I just can’t shake it off, and I’m afraid that if we don’t do something to address it soon, we will lose significant ground in the battle for the souls of people living in our community.

My conviction is this: we simply don’t take prayer seriously enough as Christians. And I am the worst offender. Too often, I rush through my prayer time, because I have things to do. Too often, I withhold my real needs from those who would pray with me in faith, or leave them unvoiced to God, because of my shame. Too often, I say a prayer with little or no passion, because it just isn’t really all that important to me. Too often, I simply fail to pray with confidence that God is not only powerful enough to do all that we ask, but that he is loving enough to do so. And I suspect I am not alone in this.

It isn’t too late, though. I believe there are some simple things we can begin doing today, both as individuals and as a community, which will transform us into the prayerful people that God desires us to be. They all start with the same letter, so they will be easy to remember.

  1. The first is frequency. We don’t need to schedule more lengthy prayer times. We don’t need to develop more eloquent prayers. We just need to pray more often. There is no substitute for spending time in conversation with the God of the universe. He has granted us access to his throne, through Jesus Christ and his sacrifice, and we make light of that gift when we fail to use it.
  2. The second is focus. We are, perhaps, the most distracted culture in history. We are always on the go, always connected, and always busy. God calls us to sacrifice the tyranny of the urgent for the peace that can only come through Jesus Christ. When we surrender our business to him, as children of the King, he will give us the peace of mind and spirit that we need to focus on him and his kingdom in prayer.
  3. And finally, is faith. We must begin to pray with faith, or we sacrifice all of its power. Faithful prayer has two dimensions, though.

First, for our prayers to become effective, we must have faith in Jesus Christ alone as our savior. We must trust that his sacrifice for our sins was sufficient to purchase our forgiveness, and that his resurrection was sufficient to secure our freedom from sin and death. And we must receive God’s free gift of grace through faith. Only then are we counted among the children of the King, and only then are we able to call on God as our Father. And second, we must begin praying with faith that God is powerful enough to meet our needs and loving enough that he will.

In the last verse of this parable Jesus said that the one who asks will be given the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who enables us to receive God’s grace through faith in Jesus. He is the one who empowers us to resist temptation and obey God’s commands. And Romans 8 tells us that the Spirit helps us in our weakness and groans on our behalf, when we do not have the words to pray for what we need.

It seems to me, then, that if we truly desire to become the church that God desires us to be, we should begin by asking our heavenly Father to send us his Spirit. We should ask him passionately, without shame, persistently, and with the confidence that he will answer our prayer. And when the Spirit falls afresh upon us in answer to our prayers, may we act in His power to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a world that is desperate for him, and may we learn to live our lives one day at a time on our knees.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you are a God who hears the prayers of your children, and who is powerful enough and loving enough to answer us in our need. Where we have failed to be the prayerful people you desire, we ask your forgiveness. When we pray without sincerity and faith, we ask for your presence to lead us into faithful obedience. Heavenly Father, we ask now, as your people gathered in the name of your Son Jesus, who gave his all as a sacrifice for our sin, that you would pour out your Holy Spirit upon us. Would you fill us with your indwelling presence and transform us into the prayerful people you desire, who pursue justice, who love mercy, and who walk humbly with You, all the days of our lives. We ask all of this now, believing you to answer our prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you forever. Amen.

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Sermon: Never Run Dry

never-run-dry

“Never Run Dry”
1 Kings 17:1-16

Now Elijah, who was from Tishbe in Gilead, told King Ahab, “As surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives—the God I serve—there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word!”

2 Then the Lord said to Elijah, 3 “Go to the east and hide by Kerith Brook, near where it enters the Jordan River. 4 Drink from the brook and eat what the ravens bring you, for I have commanded them to bring you food.”

5 So Elijah did as the Lord told him and camped beside Kerith Brook, east of the Jordan. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat each morning and evening, and he drank from the brook. 7 But after a while the brook dried up, for there was no rainfall anywhere in the land.

8 Then the Lord said to Elijah, 9 “Go and live in the village of Zarephath, near the city of Sidon. I have instructed a widow there to feed you.”

10 So he went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the gates of the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks, and he asked her, “Would you please bring me a little water in a cup?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called to her, “Bring me a bite of bread, too.”

12 But she said, “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die.”

13 But Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and do just what you’ve said, but make a little bread for me first. Then use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!”

15 So she did as Elijah said, and she and Elijah and her family continued to eat for many days. 16 There was always enough flour and olive oil left in the containers, just as the Lord had promised through Elijah.

 

I. Introduction

In the chapters leading up to 1 Kings 17, we learn that the Israelites have been living in some very troubled times. Even though God had specifically warned King Solomon against idolatry, he allowed his heart to be swayed by his foreign wives, and had begun to worship their gods. He even constructed altars to some of these gods, so that his wives could make sacrifices to them, and this was detestable to God. Because of his idolatry, God promised him that Israel would become divided, with part of the kingdom taken away from his descendants. When Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, become king he committed further evil acts and began to harshly persecute his own people. This led to a revolt, as the northern tribes of Israel rebelled against the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and made Jeroboam their new king. God’s chosen people were divided in two (the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah) just as God had promised, and were never again rejoined.

But division was just the beginning of their problems, because both kingdoms were ruled by wicked men. Rehoboam continued to reign in the southern kingdom of Judah until his death, but before he died he led the people into even greater levels of idolatrous worship. Rehoboam’s son, Abijah, continued in his father’s footsteps and led the people to turn their backs on God. But because of King David’s faithfulness, God continued to allow his family to rule the southern kingdom. Finally, after Abijah died, his son Asa took over and changed things around. Asa followed God with a pure heart. He banished foreign idols and temple prostitutes and led the people to worship God. Even though he didn’t fully rid Judah of pagan idols in his lifetime, he enjoyed a long reign as king, and the Bible says that he remained faithful to the Lord throughout his life. This brought relative prosperity and peace to the southern kingdom.

The story of the northern kingdom is much more bleak. After the revolt, Jeroboam became king of Israel. But he was afraid that when the people went south to make sacrifices at the temple, they would pledge their loyalty to the kings from David’s line. Out of fear, he constructed golden idols at both the northern and southern edges of his territory and advised the people that it was too much trouble to make the pilgrimage south to the temple. He convinced them instead to worship and make sacrifices to the false gods he had built for them. Jeroboam appointed priests, who were not from the tribe of Levi, to oversee the pagan worship. And he committed the greatest evil when he began to worship and make sacrifices to the idols himself soon after. Following Jeroboam’s apostasy, God sent a prophet to tell him that another king would rise up and kill his entire family line as a consequence for his evil actions.

From this point on, the northern kingdom of Israel spiraled down hill. They had one terrible king after another. Jeroboam’s son Nadab became king after him, and continued to follow in his father’s footsteps. God’s prophecy was fulfilled when Baasha assassinated Nadab and then killed all of Jeroboam’s relatives. Then Baasha and all the kings who succeeded him in the northern kingdom of Israel continued to turn their backs on God, and we are told that each one became more evil than their predecessors.

 

II. Our Situation Hasn’t Changed

Two main observations jump out at me from the background of 1 Kings. First, anyone who thinks the Bible is boring must be reading a different version than I am. The whole story of scripture is one of intrigue, excitement, victory, defeat, and above all the love of God for his rebellious people. When I read the Bible as a Christian, I find myself right in the middle of the narrative, as another of God’s rebellious children, rescued by his magnificent grace, through Jesus Christ, and promised a return to the Father’s household and a glorious inheritance. Each one of us is invited to see ourselves as a vital part of the story of God and his people, and when we do the scriptures come alive for us, as they show us how great our need is for Jesus, and how good and powerful is our God. It makes me wonder why so many of us look at reading the Bible as a chore, instead of an adventure.

A second observation is that the story of 1 Kings seems awfully similar to the ones we read in our newspapers and watch on television today. We are constantly inundated with news of war and famine and evil of every kind, often perpetrated by wicked leaders against their own people. In our own country, any illusions we might have had that we are a Christian nation have been torn down, as we have witnessed increased violence in schools, extensive racism, the burning of churches, rampant hedonism, and legislation that opposes the teaching of scripture.

Even within the walls of our churches there is strong disagreement about what it means to live out the biblical commandments to love God and love others, and what a faithful witness to the good news of Jesus Christ really looks like. This leads to distrust and misunderstandings between and among denominations, clergy, and laity. So that, even in our places of worship, we often find tension with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I don’t know about all of you, but I come from a long line of worriers. So, when things start going all crazy in the news, in our country, and in the church, I could find it very easy to get worked up and start to worry about my family’s future and the future of the church. Do you ever find yourself wrestling with uncertainty about the future? Do you ever find yourself unsettled, because you just don’t know what to expect next? Do you sit on the edge of your seat, wondering what awful news or event is going to happen next?

I think most of us wrestle at some point with questions about the future. And many of us struggle to trust God fully, when things around us seem to be falling apart. How should we respond to a society that seems more and more opposed to God? How can we move forward confidently in our mission, when there is infighting in the church? What are we to do, when the world seems like it is completely out of control? What will become of us and our families?

 

III. God Provides for His People

The prophet Elijah knew a thing or two about what it means to live during uncertain times, in a culture that had turned its back on God. When he stepped onto the scene in 1 Kings, chapter 16, things had gotten just about as bad as they could get for Israel. They were really and truly falling apart. Ahab had ascended the throne in the northern kingdom, and the Bible tells us that he was more vile than all the evil kings who had come before him. The scripture describes his heart corruption in this way in verse 31: “And as though it were not enough to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam, he married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and he began to bow down in worship of Baal.” Now, probably most of you recognize the name Baal. This is one of the most despised of the false gods in the Old Testament, and the same idol the Israelites had turned to over and over again throughout their history. This time, it so angered God that he called up Elijah, and told him to go to king Ahab with a warning and a promise of misfortune.

Baal was a god of the harvest, and prayers to him were thought to bring rains to water the crops. So Elijah was instructed to tell Ahab that God would cause a long drought to occur, where neither rain nor dew would fall, to demonstrate how powerless Baal was, and how great God is.

As you can imagine, this sort of message didn’t sit well with the king or Elijah’s neighbors. So, after delivering his message, 1 Kings 17 says that God sent him into hiding. Now, I don’t want us to miss what is going on here. It would be so easy to just skip over verse 2 and get on with the story, but I think we need to stop and reflect on something before moving on.

Consider this: Elijah was in a hostile land, carrying a counter-cultural message that challenged the authority of the ruling powers and promised adversity to those around him, as a penalty for their sins. Does this sound familiar to anyone? It should, because the church has been delivering a similar message for two thousand years. Elijah’s life was in danger, because he was challenging the status quo and could easily have been killed for doing so. If God’s message to the prevailing culture was shocking enough that an Old Testament prophet had to go into hiding, should we be all that surprised when we meet with opposition to God’s message of repentance and belief in our culture today? Yet we are surprised and even frustrated, when the world rejects the good news, and acts in ways that are contrary to the truth revealed in scripture.

Maybe a better question to ask is this: why aren’t we encountering more serious opposition than we are? Is it because our culture is simply ignoring the message, or is it more likely because we are failing to deliver God’s message as he intended it, where it is most needed?

Elijah faithfully carried God’s message to Ahab, and then went into hiding. As a consequence, his future became very uncertain, very quickly. He was surrounded by the enemies of God, who were searching everywhere for him, and a long drought was about to destroy the land and its crops, leading to famine. Elijah was homeless, he didn’t have a job, there was no 401K to fall back on, and his future was looking pretty bleak. He could have given up in this situation. He could have simply called it quits and turned in his staff. But he chose instead to trust in God, for better or worse.

The rest of the story is pretty fascinating. Elijah did as God had commanded him, and went to hide beside a brook near the Jordan River, where he had a constant source of water. Then God commanded ravens to bring him food every morning and evening, so that all of Elijah’s needs were met. But we all know that, when there isn’t any rain for a lengthy period of time, rivers and brooks eventually dry up.

Now, I might have gotten a little bit annoyed if God had led me out into the wilderness to hide in an oasis, only to have that oasis dry up. In fact, I might be inclined to start worrying long before the last trickle of water stopped running. I might even be tempted to accuse God of putting me in a dire situation, only to later abandon me. But we don’t have any indication that Elijah experienced doubt or worry or anger when his situation changed. Instead, when the water dried up, he waited to hear from the Lord, and then he acted quickly to do what he was commanded. He set off to an unfamiliar town to find an unspecified widow, because God told him that she would feed him there. We know the rest of the story. Elijah found the widow, but she reported to him that she had only a little flour and oil left to make bread, then she and her son would starve, without any hope for help. Elijah asked her to trust God and make him some bread first, and when she did, God worked a miracle, so that her flour and oil never ran out, and she was able to feed herself, her son, and Elijah until the famine ended.

At any point throughout this long ordeal, Elijah could have decided that his circumstances were simply too much to bear. He could have looked for human solutions to his problems. Or he could have refused to go where God commanded him to go or do what God commanded him to do. But he chose, instead, to trust in the Lord to provide him with everything he needed and to direct his path. And all along the way, God proved to Elijah and to us that he is faithful and can be trusted.

 

IV. Application

So, what are we to take away from this story, friends? Why does it matter to us today, when we are so far removed in time and space from the northern kingdom of Israel and its problems? Though our circumstances have changed, we are still living in uncertain times, surrounded by culture that is hostile to the good news of Jesus Christ that calls all sinners to repentance and belief. And like Elijah, we are each invited to respond to our current situation in two ways.

The first invitation is to bear witness to the glory of God, his truth, and what he has done for us through Jesus, even in the face of adversity. Now, bearing witness doesn’t mean screaming in the faces of our neighbors, pointing our fingers, and condemning a world far away from God for not acting like Christians. It doesn’t mean causing unnecessary offense or acting offended. But it does mean loving our neighbors enough to share with them the good news that God offers forgiveness and freedom to anyone who receives his grace and places their trust in Jesus. It means loving others enough that we challenge the status quo, even when it results in persecution. It means allowing God to transform us by his Spirit, so that we become his image bearers to the world. Bearing witness means taking up our cross daily and losing our lives, so that we might truly live.

And the second invitation is to put our full trust and confidence in God alone to meet all of our needs, and then continue to trust him with our lives, even when things look bleak. When things get shaky around us, when our future seems uncertain, the temptation is to adopt a scarcity mentality. We want to protect and hold on to what we have out of fear that, at the end of the day, there won’t be enough for tomorrow. We try to control of every aspect of our lives, as though we can manage it all on our own. Even when we want to trust God, many of us find it difficult to surrender certain areas of our lives to him fully. Do you struggle to give God complete control over any of these areas? Your work? Your relationships? Your finances? Your family (Moms, this means your children)? If you are struggling with uncertainty, worry, or fear this morning over any of these things, then I have good news for you, because God offers you freedom from fear, when you surrender your control to him. Friends, we were not created to get by under our own power, and as Christians, we must learn to live in the power of God’s Spirit, cultivating a deep trust in God to carry us through times of famine and times of plenty alike.

But how do we do this? How do we answer the invitation to bear witness to the good news and trust God to supply all of our needs? What steps can we take to develop a deep and abiding confidence in God?

  1. It begins with a personal relationship with Jesus. Trust begins with relationship. It isn’t enough to know about Jesus, we have to really know him, if we ever hope to turn our burden’s over to him. You may have been attending church your whole life and tried to follow every command of scripture to the letter, but if you have never personally asked Jesus to take his rightful place as King in your life, then you’ll never experience the peace he has to offer. A person cannot bear witness to something he or she has not seen personally, and a person cannot trust someone he or she does not know. But the Bible promises us that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, he will save you from your sin and receive you into his family as a daughter or son, who knows and is known by God, and who can trust your heavenly Father to provide everything you need in this life and the next.
  2. Second, we must become people who hunger and thirst for the Word. In Psalm 119 David said, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, Lord, according to your laws.” The Word of God, in whom we put our hope, is Jesus Christ, and the written word of scripture points us to him. Remember how we said it isn’t possible to trust someone we don’t know? Once we have received God’s forgiveness, through faith, we come to know Jesus more intimately by reading and meditating on God’s word. I was saddened to read the results of a recent Pew research study, which found that only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week, and 1 in 5 said they never read the Bible at all. How can we ever hope to develop confidence in God, if we never listen to what he has to say? We must do better than this, if we hope to give a faithful witness and develop a deep trust in Him.
  3. Third, we must ask God to give us a kingdom perspective. We have talked about this quite a bit recently, so let me just touch on it briefly. When we pray and ask God to show us things from his perspective, we have an opportunity to evaluate our circumstances differently. Through God’s eyes we can see people and situations for what they are, and gain confidence that God’s promises are true, and that we will receive eternal blessings that far outweigh our momentary suffering, if we will just continue to trust in him.
  4. Finally, we must surrender control our everyday circumstances, and let God occupy the throne in our lives. There is no way around this. Half-hearted measures simply won’t do. If we want to develop the deep and abiding faith in God that will help us to respond to our present circumstances with a faithful witness and trust him fully to supply our needs, we must give him control of everything in our lives. And we must learn to live in the power of the Spirit, who alone can transform our hearts into fully devoted followers of Jesus. There is freedom in surrender, but he will not force us to make that choice.

What do you think our families would look like if we were each to begin living as though our every need could only be supplied by God? What if we were to become truly dependent upon him, like a child depends on his or her parents? What about our church, our city, or our country? What if we began to listen for and trust God completely in every situation, instead of trusting in our own knowledge and abilities to carry us through?

We are living in a broken world. This fact has become more obvious lately, but it has always been true. And there has only ever been one solution for our brokenness. When we turn to God and trust him fully to provide everything we need, I believe he will always answer that prayer by giving us of himself. So that, whatever challenges we face today or in the future, we will never need to fear what tomorrow brings, because God is with us.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Will you pray with me? Heavenly Father, thank you for loving us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die for us on a cross, so that we might be set free from the guilt of sin and its power over us. We thank you that, through Christ’s resurrection, you have purchased for us freedom from the fear of death, so that we can stand firmly in the face of any opposition and proclaim with confidence the good news of salvation. Father, would you please send your Spirit upon us gathered here? Help us to surrender our lives more fully to you. Transform our hearts, so that we might become radically depend upon you for everything we have and everything we are. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Rooted

rooted

“Rooted”
Jeremiah 17:5-8

5 This is what the Lord says:
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.
7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
8 They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”

 

I. Introduction

We have a friend in Kentucky who used to work for an organization that does environmental training. He often traveled to schools to teach children about conservation and good stewardship of God’s creation. A couple of years ago, he was involved in a project to plant new trees and he called us up asking if we would like a sapling he had left-over, to put in a big open space in our back yard. Thinking this would look great in a few years, we invited him to bring it over and we purchased some mulch and other things we would need to get the tree started off well. We took care to plant the little red maple sapling deep enough, we watered it, and we surrounded its base with mulch. We even gave the tree a name. We called it Bob, after a family joke about how we keep naming pets Bob, when we can’t think of anything else.

Now, we gave Bob the tree a great start that should have ended up in a beautiful tree a few years down the road. Unfortunately, after that initial effort to plant the tree, we really never gave Bob much of a further thought, until we noticed it wasn’t growing. We didn’t water it, even though the summer was hot and dry. We didn’t give it any plant food, even though we were unsure of our soil quality in that part of the yard. We didn’t consider sheltering it from the elements, or checking the mulch, or tying it to a post for support. We may have been careful as we planted the tree, but we did not cultivate habits to tend for its ongoing care, and as a result, Bob the tree never put down strong roots.

As the cooler weather of fall rolled in, I remember Sarah walking out with me to look at our little red maple. It looked exactly the same as when we had planted it. It had not grown and it had never developed healthy leaves. We sort of sadly joked that we should rename Bob the tree something more fitting, like Bob the twig. As if to drive this point home, a few days later we went outside to find our kids playing with the neighbor children. They had gathered a bunch of slender sticks that had fallen from our healthy trees in during a recent storm, and they stuck these sticks in the ground all over the yard. Then one of the kids said, “Look! We planted more Bobs!”

 

II. Sometimes We Have Shallow Roots

I sometimes wonder how many of us, if we were to take an honest look at our own spiritual lives, would find that we have more in common with a twig than we do with a towering maple. How many of us got a great start as disciples of Jesus, but failed to put down good roots that give us the strength to withstand a drought or heavy winds? Have you ever felt like your growth in grace has been stunted? Do you find yourself struggling to endure the deserts and storms of life?

Most of us start of pretty well in our journey of faith, once we meet Jesus and invite him to become Lord of our lives. Maybe we got a healthy dose of fertilizer from our family and friends to encourage us along the way. Perhaps at the beginning we started feasting on scriptural food and got some great nourishment for our souls. Maybe we came to church to receive a weekly dose of living water to keep our leaves green and petals flowering. We might even have begun to participate in activities that help us to begin bearing spiritual fruit. But even though Christians start off growing rapidly, many times, when that initial rush wears off, we start to fall back into our old habits of living. We try to maintain control over our spiritual growth as though we ourselves are the Gardener, and we stop caring for ourselves with those practices that act like fertilizer and water to our souls. We fail to allow ourselves to be firmly planted by God, where he wants us, permitting him to establish deep roots in our lives that anchor us to him. And when something in life unexpectedly shakes us, we find that our roots are shallow and weak, and they can’t hold us up fully. When that happens we start to come undone and we risk losing our grip on the fertile ground of our faith.

Have you ever felt trapped by your circumstances? Have you ever wondered if God really hears your prayers for help? Or have you simply stopped praying? Have you ever asked yourself, how did I get to this point in the first place? Or wondered what am I to do now? Do you find yourself consumed with worry or fear or anger? These may be signs that your roots don’t run as deep as you thought. And they should make each of us pause to ask how we can develop stronger roots that will not fail us when times get tough.

 

III. How to Become Rooted

We read in the Old Testament that Israel was a nation that lived through seasons of famine and seasons of plenty. They enjoyed moments of peace, but spent most of their existence at war, buffeted on all sides by hostile nations. When they were faithful to God’s commands they prospered, but when they took their eyes off of him they suffered. Since calling them out of captivity in Egypt, God had promised them that he would bless them, if they would worship and follow him alone. But he also warned them that they would be cursed if they turned to worship idols and disobeyed his commands.

God periodically sent his prophets into the mix to remind Israel of these promises and to call them back to purity and the right worship of God. Like the other prophets, Jeremiah spoke as a mouthpiece of God, urging the people back to faithfulness. And in the passage this morning from chapter 17 he spoke both curses and blessings over God’s people. His words still stand for us today as a warning and a promise of hope. They offer an answer to our question: how can we be sure that our roots are strong? But they begin by telling us why our roots are sometimes so weak. Let’s take a few moments this morning to step through this passage, and hear what promises God makes to us today.

Verse 5 begins very bluntly by telling us that God’s people are cursed when we turn away from the Lord and put trust in human strength, instead. This warning reaches all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when Adam turned away from God and placed his trust in his own ability to rule over creation. He wanted to be “like God” in knowledge and power, forgetting that he was already made in God’s image to live completely dependent upon God’s knowledge and strength.

This desire for independence from God, trusting in our own strength, has plagued humanity ever since the Fall. And we see it manifest over and over again in Israel’s history. When Moses led the people out of captivity in Egypt and into the wilderness, they complained that they were better off when they were slaves, because they knew where their next meal would come from. When Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the Law, the people became scared and constructed their own gods out of gold, because they couldn’t see the One True God, and they believed their false gods could help them. When the Israelites sent spies into the Promised Land, who returned to tell tales of giants, the people turned away from God, not trusting in his strength. And this pattern went on and on and on. And though God proved his faithfulness and power in every situation they faced, still Israel continued to look to the strength of people and ignore the strength of God.

I wonder if we in the church are much different than Israel was? It is easy to give praise to God and trust him when things are going well. But what about when our lives start to fall apart? Do we run to God with open arms, like a child running to his father for protection, or do we hide from him, like Adam and Eve in the garden? Have you ever wondered why people turn to destructive habits when things are already going badly, instead of asking for help? Are we any different, when we wait until we hit rock bottom to fall on our knees and ask the God of universe for his aid?

I have heard many times over this advice given to people in times of distress: just follow your heart. But Jeremiah 17:9 says that the heart is deceitful above all things. When we follow our hearts, distorted by sin, we will only find further heartache. But when we seek God first, and ask him to replace our hearts of stone with new hearts of flesh we are able to see our situations clearly for what they are and learn to trust in God alone for our deliverance.

Scripture, history, and our own experience testify to the fact that when we trust in ourselves we will ultimate fail. No matter how much they love us, when we trust in other people we will eventually be let down. But God never fails and he always comes through for us, when we trust him to do so. But here’s the kicker: you cannot trust fully in God and trust in the flesh at the same time. When you place faith in one, you must turn away from the other.

Verse 6 goes on to tell us that the result of misplaced trust is that we put up dwelling places in the wilderness, in parched lands. In other words, when we turn away from God and begin relying on our own abilities, we are settling for a life that cannot satisfy. Jeremiah describes the person who chooses to trust in their own strength as a bush in the wastelands, surrounded by salted earth. Now, anyone who has ever grown crops can tell you that you cannot grow anything good in land that has been salted. In fact, throughout history, one of the penalties conquering kings would level against their enemies was to salt the land, to ensure that no one could return to live there again. The only things that can survive in such a place are scraggly weeds that hang on, but just by a thread. They struggle to maintain life, and they cease to flourish. And even when the blessing of rain comes, they aren’t able to receive it properly, because their roots are weak.

When we begin to trust in our own strength to make it through life, we become like these scraggly bushes and weeds. We may technically survive, but we never really flourish, and we lose the ability to recognize true prosperity (by God’s standards) when it comes to us. It’s as though we are always living in a desert. This is the warning Jeremiah gave to Israel. Continue to trust in yourselves and your own abilities, and you will become like a ragged bush in the wilderness.

But there is good news, as well. Jeremiah told Israel if they would turn back to God and place their hope and trust in him, God would turn their curses into blessings.

In verse 7, Jeremiah said the one who trusts completely in God is blessed. Again, one cannot trust God and the flesh at the same time; they are mutually exclusive. So this necessarily means that the ones who trust in God cease to trust in themselves. In other words, they have no backup plan. If they are going to succeed in life and weather its storms, it will have to be because God has given them what they need to do so. There is no other option, no fallback position, and no Plan B. To borrow a term from the game of poker, those who choose to fully trust in God have gone “all in”. They have held nothing in reserve for a later play.

This can be a scary thought for most of us today, right? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good about leaving all the details of my life up to someone else. I like to have some control. But God calls us to relinquish our control and trust that he is willing and able to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. This is the true essence of faith. And it is absolutely necessary if we would become people who thrive, instead of people who just sort of get by in life.

Jeremiah promises in verse 8 that when we turn to God and place our confidence in him, we become like a tree planted by water that sends out deep roots and thrives, even in adversity. When take care to ensure that we are firmly established in our faith, trusting God alone for all we have and all we are, and engaging in those practices that nourish our souls, we not only recognize and receive God’s blessings when he sends them, but we weather the droughts and storms of life with confidence and peace, knowing that God is still in control.

But God must truly be in control, if we hope to flourish. The word for planted here is in the passive tense, which means that the tree – that would be you and I – is on the receiving end of the action. We cannot plant ourselves; instead, we require a planter. We cannot achieve for ourselves the righteousness that God requires of those who would enter the kingdom of heaven. For that we need Jesus. And all the spiritual disciplines in the world will not give us what we need to succeed in life, if we do not trust in God to apply them to our hearts and minds through the transforming power of his Spirit. Like Bob the tree, we are not equipped to survive on our own. We need constant nourishment and care if we hope to grow and thrive.

 

IV. Application

Friends, it all boils down to this: when we trust God completely with our lives, the Bible tells us we will be nourished regularly by the living water of Jesus, our roots will grow deep and strong in faith, we will have no reason to fear hard times, because all times with God are filled with the plenty of his presence, and we will not fail to bear fruit, even in the toughest times of spiritual “drought”, because his Spirit lives within us. The only questions that remain are these: do you desire to grow deep spiritual roots in your life, and if so, what does it take?

The desire must be your own, but the work belongs to God. All we have to do is surrender to him. There are three things we must receive in order to begin trusting God to establish strong roots in us today.

First, we must receive God’s free gift of grace offered to us through Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s grace is something we cannot earn; we are recipients of God’s gift, just like the tree that is willingly planted. This does not mean we don’t have responsibilities. Once God has planted us, we are expected to bear fruit (Ephesians 2:1-10), but even this is only possible when the Spirit lives within us. Friends, we can never grow strong spiritual roots that will help us weather the droughts and storms of life, until we have first received God’s gracious pardon for our sins and new birth into his family.

Second, we must receive and embrace our new identity as God’s children. Just as a gardener cares for his or her garden, our heavenly Father carefully tends to his children. When we receive and embrace our new identities in Christ, as children of the King, we begin to see how much he values us and trust that he will take care of our needs.

Finally, we must rely upon God for everything we have, everything we are, and everything we will ever be. Nothing less than complete dependence upon God will do. Half measures will not get us where we need to go, and self-reliance will always lead to failure and disappointment.

 

V. Seeing the Possibilities

Several years ago we had another tree in our back yard that had stopped flowering. It had been there for more than a decade, but that summer was very hot and we had a drought. In fact, our whole yard sort of died, and took several seasons to fully recovery. That tree never did flower again. So we cut it down to make room for a shed and left just a small stump. When it came time to move here last summer, I decided it was time to remove the stump, to make the yard nicer for the next family to move in. I didn’t have a chain saw handy, so I set out with an axe, a shovel, and a pry bar. It was hot and sunny that day, and after working steadily to cut through the roots for almost an hour I still couldn’t get the stump to move. With the last bit of energy I could muster I jammed the pry bar against the stump and put my full weight on it. I poured everything I had into this one effort and finally hear the taproot pop – and then I nearly had a stroke. Sarah came rushing out into the yard a few minutes later looking for me, because she couldn’t see me through the window anymore and got worried. I was laying completely exhausted in the yard. I couldn’t move. It had taken everything in me to pull out this one small stump.

You see, before we cut it down, this tree had been nourished for years by good soil and plenty of rain. In that time, it had put down deep and strong roots. So, when the drought came the year we cut it down, the root system had already been fully established as an anchor that was not easily broken. I wonder sometimes if I gave up on that tree too soon. Would it have eventually flowered again if I had taken time to care for it properly? What about us? How often do we give up on God too soon when we hit a snag in life, and turn to our own abilities to sustain us during the droughts and storms, instead of trusting him to establish the strong roots we need to persevere? What would our families and our church look like if each one of us were to decide instead to become firmly rooted in our faith, by trusting fully in Jesus Christ?

Let me leave you with a final question to consider this morning, as we turn to God in prayer. Have you allowed God to plant you in the fertile soil of faith, or are you just working and working to dig yourself a hole to lie in? One path leads to blessings, while the other leads to a curse. Which path will you choose this morning?

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have not left us to wander through the difficulties of life on our own, but that you have promised to always be with us. We confess that we have not always rested in your presence, and as a result, our roots have gotten weak. We ask that you would come now and renew us. Would you strengthen us, and guide us to a place of total dependence on you for all that we have and all that we are? Help us to become more grounded in our faith, more reliant on your word, and more desperate for your presence in our lives. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

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