Wrestling with God

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Over the past month we have been looking at God’s rescue plan for both humanity and God’s good but fallen creation. We have seen that God’s eternal plan included calling his people Israel to bring God’s healing love and justice to all peoples but that Israel became part of the problem because they were every bit as flawed as the rest of humanity. In today’s OT lesson, we see a very early story from God’s rescue plan in which God continues to demonstrate his covenant faithfulness to his people Israel by wrestling with Jacob, and this notion of wrestling with God is what I want to look at briefly this morning.

If you know anything at all about Jacob, today’s story should not particularly surprise you. Jacob’s name means “he deceives” and a quick survey of the events of Jacob’s life indicate that his name was well deserved. All through his life, Jacob had attempted to take matters into his own hands, relying on his cleverness and deceit to gain what he wanted. He had deceived his own father, Isaac, at the end of his father’s life to gain Isaac’s blessing that should have rightfully gone to his older brother, Esau. This, predictably, resulted in Esau’s vow to kill Jacob to gain revenge. And so Jacob fled to his mother’s relatives, where he ended up working for one of those relatives, Laban. Jacob did so to win Laban’s daughter, Rachel, whom Jacob loved dearly. But Laban deceived Jacob in the process only to have Jacob return the favor as Jacob sought to take his family and return to his home. Jacob is forced to flee his father-in-law, who pursues him because of this deceit and intends to do him harm. As he is headed home, Jacob learns that his brother Esau is coming out to meet him from the opposite direction (presumably to kill him as Jacob reasonably believes). Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard spot! This is the larger context for today’s story. You can’t make this stuff up and the intrigue of soap operas pales in comparison to this real life drama that Jacob has largely created for himself.

No wonder Jacob spends the night wrestling with God. After all, why would someone like Jacob have any real use for God in the first place, despite Jacob’s previous profession of faith and despite the fact that God had promised to bless Jacob early on in his life? He had used his own gifts and skills to get what he wanted and had generally been wildly successful—until now. In wrestling with God, Jacob had to decide for himself who was going to be in control of his life. Was Jacob going to allow God to be in charge of his life and thus enjoy the blessings and benefits of that, or was Jacob determined to be the master of his own soul and destiny? One thing is for certain. God was not going to give Jacob the blessing he wanted until Jacob consented to let God be God.

And we can relate to Jacob, can’t we? After all, we are very much like him in many ways. We may not be the kind of egregious deceiver that Jacob was, at least early in his career (even though we often deceive ourselves into thinking we actually are in control of things in our lives). But like Jacob, many of us surely want to be in charge rather than to defer to God’s leadership, especially when we are not quite sure if God has our best interests at heart or knows as well as we do about what we need or want.

So, for example, we scurry about and put all our efforts into building a nest egg to ensure our financial future. We pride ourselves in being self-made individuals and make big plans for ourselves and others. We seek to acquire power in our relationships so that we can better influence, pressure, or cajole others into seeing things our way, and we don’t much care if they benefit in the process. And then as with Jacob, the bottom drops out. Death or disease strike or our plans collapse due to our own shortsightedness or by things that are simply out of our control. Suddenly we realize that we are not as clever or as good as we thought and our money proves to be of little value to us. It is precisely in these desperate moments that we also, like Jacob, typically begin to wrestle with God over who really is in charge of our lives.

I am not suggesting that we should not plan for our future or work hard in the present to pursue our personal and professional goals. Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager suggests that we would be foolish not to do these things (cf. Luke 16.1-14). But it seems inherent in our fallen human nature that we would much prefer to be the master of our destiny rather than allow God to be, and that really is utterly foolish and self-deceiving.

This, of course, is one of the reasons why we find this story of Jacob wrestling with God in Scripture. God could not use his people Israel to be agents of his healing redemption if they would not cooperate and allow him to be their God. Consequently, this was a critical point in the narrative of God’s rescue plan. Would Jacob allow God to be God and submit to God’s rule in his life so that God could use Jacob and his descendants to be a blessing for others or would Jacob insist on doing things his way, and thus be no different from those whom Jacob and Israel were supposed to help God redeem? Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who generally trusted God and allowed God to demonstrate his trustworthiness regarding his promises to Abraham, Jacob had largely taken matters into his own hands and the chickens were about to come home to roost. Jacob had to learn to trust God and so he had to wrestle with God to learn that God was big enough to handle all the problems of life and all of Jacob’s wants and needs.

Likewise with us. We invariably seek other gods to follow—money, power, prestige, sex, status, ourselves and our self-help, to name just a few. The list is virtually endless. But as Jacob discovered when the bottom was about to fall out for him, these false gods cannot deliver in the clutch and we too must spend time wrestling with God to learn for ourselves whether he is a God big enough to handle our problems and needs.

The good news, of course, is that when we do wrestle with God in this way we will find him to be entirely adequate. We see this illustrated powerfully in today’s Gospel lesson when Jesus fed the 5,000. Just as God fed his desperate and fearful people in the wilderness with manna, and just as he feeds us today in the sacrament of Holy Communion, God is big enough to handle our needs and gracious enough to meet us where we are to use what we offer him.

We see this latter point also illustrated in the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus took the meager resources of his disciples, blessed and broke those resources, and then told his disciples to distribute the food to the masses. The result was that there were basketfuls of food left over and everyone had their needs satisfied, even the disciples who likely wondered how there could be enough to feed everyone, let alone themselves, after they gave up all their food to Jesus!

And, of course, this is just one of many examples that Scripture provides us. We read of many instances where Jesus healed those who by faith had decided to follow him because he had what they desperately wanted or needed. But the most powerful example of God’s ability to provide for our deepest needs is Jesus’ death and resurrection in which God condemned sin in the flesh, bore our rightful punishment himself so that our alienation and exile from him could be ended forever, and then gave us a glimpse of his promised New Creation, which is the eternal inheritance and destiny for those who are in Christ Jesus. This isn’t our inheritance because we are such good and swell people. We are not. It is ours because of who God is and because of his love and faithfulness. He wants all of us to live and we do that by putting our whole hope and trust in God and ordering our lives accordingly.

But being the broken people we are, this is not easy for us to accept or do. We still want to deceive ourselves and think we really have it together or are in control of things. But Jesus tells us that if we are to follow him, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross each day. In other words, Jesus insists that we let God be God by imitating him instead of trying to take his place and making up our own self-serving rules as we do.

Interestingly, even when we do decide that Jesus is worth following, our wrestling with him will continue. But it will be a different kind of wrestling. We will be wrestling to kill all that is within us that remains hostile to Jesus’ rule. We will also be wrestling with what it means and looks like to live a faithful life so that we bring Jesus honor and glory and become truly human in the process. But this kind of wrestling is worth our time and effort because it will eventually help us to grow up to be mature Christians, fully formed in the image of Christ—all with the Spirit’s help, of course.

Since it seems inevitable that we will be wrestling with God in one form or another, what can we do to help get us in shape? First and most importantly, we must get to know God and learn how he interacts with his people to transform us. This means we need to learn the narrative of God’s rescue plan intimately. We do that via regular Bible study and prayer. Once we have learned that God is big enough for us and start wrestling to live faithful lives, we must consider what it means to follow Jesus. This will inevitably lead us into a life of service to others so that Jesus can use us to bring his love to bear on those around us who desperately need it. We don’t do this on our own. We do this with fellow believers and powered by the Spirit’s help. I am not talking about saving the world. I am talking about using your gifts in ways that help Jesus bring about his Kingdom on earth as in heaven and our marching orders will be constantly changing in that regard. So too must we. This is hard work but if you are looking for meaning and purpose in your life and if you want to practice what it is going to be like living in the New Creation, this life of self-giving love and service is the only ticket. And as we reflect on all this, we come to realize that despite how hard it is to wrestle with God, it is worth it because we end up cooperating with the Creator of this vast universe and his project to redeem us and his world. This, of course, means that we have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Outside In or Inside Out?

1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” 6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” 9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” 14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16] 17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

–Mark 7.1-23 (NIV)

In today’s lesson we miss the importance of Jesus declaring all foods clean if we don’t understand the historical context in which he made this pronouncement. In first century Israel, the memory of Jewish martyrs who had died at the hands of pagans rather than violate Israel’s food laws was still fresh in Israel’s collective mind. For Jesus to essentially say that they needn’t have died for this would have been highly provocative, to say the least. No wonder Jesus did not fully explain himself until he and his disciples were by themselves.

But Jesus is making a critical point to us. We humans tend to want to base our right standing before God on what we do, on how well we follow the rules. Thus the earlier clash in today’s lesson with the Pharisees. Jesus, of course, knows better. It is not how well we follow the rules that determine our right standing before God because that all pales in comparison to what comes out of us.

For you see, God created humans to be his image bearers and our sin has defiled that image. It makes us selfish and self-centered, proud and arrogant, especially if we are successful in “following the rules.” Notice that the list of vices Jesus recites has the collective effect of dehumanizing us and others. They also serve to ensure that God’s justice is not fulfilled as he intended so that all humans are cared for and have their real and wholesome needs met (greed et al. are not wholesome needs). Neither will his peace reign.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting rules are not important–the are because they help us recognize what is good and bad. But we should never elevate rules to become gods in their own perverse way. Rules are to help us combat that which is in us that defile us, no more, no less. They aren’t our savior. Jesus is. And because what comes out of the heart seems to be sadly part of our fallen DNA, there is no way we can ever hope to fix these things on our own. Certainly rules cannot fix us. We can only do so by the help of the Spirit living in us and by following Jesus. In other words, we must look to Jesus to see how God intends for us to really live life and then rely on his Spirit to help us get there. Given that we are fallen creatures we will never achieve perfection in these mortal bodies, but we are always working toward the completion of our humanity and the more we are able to act like Jesus the more human we will be.

Here then is both bad and good news. The bad news is that we are hopelessly broken and beyond self-repair. If we remain in that state we will also remain alienated from God and hostile toward him (and he us because God cannot countenance evil in any form). But God knows this and has implemented his rescue plan for us, a plan that has culminated in Jesus of Nazareth and the gift of his Holy Spirit. We follow Jesus to the best of our ability and with the Spirit’s help so that we can start to become the fully human creatures God created us to be. As long as our hearts remain perverse, we can never hope to be those fully human creatures.

But we have real and powerful help in the form of the Spirit living in us. He will help transform us into the very image of Christ, not all at once and certainly not painlessly. Yet we have our eyes on the prize when we are Christ’s. We know there is now no condemnation for us because Jesus himself has borne our condemnation and he is working in us to shape us into his own image so that we can be God’s image-bearer to others. This goal makes our struggles worth the effort because we look forward to the day of New Creation in which we will learn fully what it is to be human and to love as completely we are loved.

CT: John Stott has Died

From Christianity Today online.

“An evangelical is a plain, ordinary Christian,” John Stott told Christianity Today in an October 2006 interview. From his conversion at Rugby secondary school in 1938 to his death in 2011 at 90 years old, Stott exemplified how extraordinary plain, ordinary Christianity can be. He was not known as an original thinker, nor did he seek to be. He always turned to the Bible for understanding, and his unforgettable gift was to penetrate and explain the Scriptures. As editor Kenneth Kantzer wrote in CT’s pages in 1981, “When I hear him expound a text, invariably I exclaim to myself, ‘That’s exactly what it means! Why didn’t I see it before?’”

Read the whole thing.

John Stott Goes to be With the Lord

Received via email this morning.

We are sure that you would wish to be among the first to know that yesterday at 3.15pm (UK time), John Stott went to be with the Lord. Close family and friends were with him during the morning, and they listened together with him to selections from Handel’s Messiah, including “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, and read through 2 Timothy. He died very peacefully during the afternoon. He had become very weak and weary in recent months and we thank God for a merciful and peaceful ending to his earthly pilgrimage.

John Stott reached the great age of 90 in April this year. During his lifetime, he became known worldwide for the clarity, faithfulness and relevance of his writing and preaching, combined with extraordinary integrity and humility. A man of remarkable global vision and strategic insight, he was instrumental in the establishment of many thriving Christian agencies. Countless people around the world can testify to the personal encouragement they have received from ‘Uncle John’. His ministry took him to every corner of the globe, whilst all the time remaining pastor and eventually Rector Emeritus of just one church – All Souls, Langham Place, London.

As the Founder and Honorary President of the Langham Partnership International, he will be remembered as a tireless advocate and friend of the churches in the majority world, demonstrating his concern for their well-being through the provision of literature, the support of younger leaders, faculty development of evangelical seminaries, and the training of pastors and preachers.

In honour of his memory,a memorial web site has been set up in thankful recognition of all that John Stott did to serve the church and to further the cause of God’s Kingdom. The site contains many biographical details of John Stott’s life, ministry and writing,  photographs, a remembrance book, and ways in which you can respond to the event. This website will also publish, in due course, details of memorial services in different parts of the world.  We are sure you will appreciate visiting this site, www.johnstottmemorial.org

Please join us in praying that the Lord, who has now called his good and faithful servant John home to his rest and reward, may continue to bless with increasing fruitfulness all the ministries that have sprung from his vision and leadership.

Thank you.
Chris Wright (International Director Langham Partnership)

There is more here and here.

John Stott, C.A.D.

The Rev’d Dr. John R.W. Stott died today at age 90. The Anglican world has lost a giant and evangelical Anglicans like myself have lost a brilliant teacher. You might wonder what the C.A.D. stands for in the post’s title. I will let Dr. Stott explain:

One of the most searching tests to apply to any religion concerns its attitude to death. And measured by this test much so-called Christianity is found wanting in its black clothes, its mournful chants and its requiem masses. Of course dying can be very unpleasant, and bereavement can bring bitter sorrow. But death itself has been overthrown, and ‘blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’ (Rev. 14:13). The proper epitaph to write for a Christian believer is not a dismal and uncertain petition, ‘R.I.P.’ (requiescat in pace, ‘may he rest in peace’), but a joyful and certain affirmation ‘C.A.D.’ (‘Christ abolished death’).

—From “The Message of 2 Timothy” (The Bible Speaks Today series: London and Downers Grove: IVP, 1973), p. 39.

Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share your Master’s happiness (Matthew 25.23) as you await your new resurrection body.

One Effect of Hardened Hearts

45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. 47 Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50 because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

–Mark 6.45-52 (NIV)

In this day and age of Enlightenment hangover where many dismiss stories like this as myth and fantasy, it is easy to miss one of Mark’s major themes–the debilitating effect of our hard human hearts. Jesus had just fed the 5,000 and retired by himself to pray. John tells us that after feeding the 5,000 the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king, but that Jesus slipped away so that they could not. So clearly this was a crisis moment for Jesus because he went into prayer, a consistent motif in Mark’s gospel.

In feeding the 5,000 Jesus demonstrated that he was indeed Lord over all creation and the promised shepherd who would (and could) feed God’s tired and bedraggled sheep–in this case, literally. But the 12 disciples did not get it. They saw what Jesus had done with the 5,000 but it didn’t register. Now they see him walking on water and they are terrified. They apparently could not fathom the idea that Jesus really was (and is) Lord over all creation and mistake him for a ghost instead. When we mistake Jesus for a ghost it is a convenient way to keep him at arm’s length and dismiss him as irrelevant to our modern lives.

Yet with typical patience, our Lord tells his not-too-perceptive followers to not be afraid. He does likewise for us in the midst of our storms if we will let him. And then Mark says the most remarkable thing. He tells us the disciples did not understand because their hearts were hardened.

Things apparently haven’t changed much from Jesus’ day to ours. We still deny Jesus his lordship even though there are many “signs” offered us, both in Scripture and among his people. Sure, we are much more sophisticated about our hard hearts today. We claim our Enlightenment heritage with its paradigm of reason as arbiter of all and its baseless faith in the inevitable progress of humanity (think Star Trek if you don’t understand this notion). But when unspeakable evil rears its ugly head as it did most recently in Norway, the proponents of the Enlightenment paradigm are left without an answer (or they will actually try to blame Christianity as some are doing with the case of the Norwegian mass murderer).

But this begs the real issue. If human progress is so inevitable, why do we still have evil in the world? Why are things not getting better on that front?

And this gets us back to Mark’s point about hard hearts. When we harden our hearts with our pride and hubris and false paradigms, the natural consequence is to blind us to the reality of things. We think we are too suave, too sophisticated, too knowledgeable for God’s Gospel. But then disaster strikes us and we are reminded that in the final analysis, we are essentially powerless to control our lives and the events surrounding us. Jesus asked, “Who can add a single minute to his life by worrying?” Indeed.

Neither will it do to fall back on the old Romantic notion that we should act “authentically” or follow our hearts. Why? Because as Jesus reminded us, it is not what we put into our bodies that is the problem. It is what comes out of us, out of our hearts (our entire being) that is the problem.

Of course, if our hearts are hardened we will scoff at this and ask who is Jesus that we should defer to his authority? Fair enough. But if he is who he claims he is, then only a fool or one with a hardened heart that blinds him or her to Jesus’ authority will ignore what Jesus has to say about the human condition and about what constitutes real life and living.

That is our challenge. Our hard hearts have alienated us from our very life Source. Our hard hearts make us proud and want to be gods when in fact we are nothing but badly broken mortals. But there is hope, real hope. His name is Jesus, God become human, and he offers us real life if we will but humble (deny) ourselves (i.e., acknowledge we have hard hearts and no good answers to fix them), take up our cross each day, and follow him. Doing so will not be easy but then again taking our medicine when we are physically ill is sometimes unpleasant.

But we won’t have to do this alone because Jesus has promised to come and live in us in the person of his Spirit to help us and with the Spirit’s help, our hearts can become hearts of flesh, real human hearts, and we can become the humans God created us to be, his very image-bearers in this world to bring his healing love to his fallen creatures and creation.

As you think on these things, consider how you have reacted to what I just wrote. If the concept irritates you, chances are you are dealing with a hard heart that doesn’t want to acknowledge God is God and you are not. It may be an affront to your “self-made person” image and that never feels good.

But if you acknowledge that the human condition is not fixable by self-help, you are well on your way to learning what it is to have a real relationship with God through Jesus. Yeah, your heart may always be hardened but nothing is too difficult for God to overcome. After all, he raised Jesus from the dead so he surely can fix your hardened heart. You will know he has done so when you give him thanks for the gift of life he has offered you in Jesus and this will make you want to love and serve him by going out into his world and bringing his great love to bear on others to the extent you are able. As you do, you will be amazed at just how great it is to have a truly human heart, a heart powered and led by the Spirit of the one who fed the 5,000 and walked on the Sea of Galilee, and who continues to capture the hearts and minds people everywhere today, our hard hearts notwithstanding.

Fox News: Tomb of St. Philip the Apostle Discovered in Turkey

Pretty cool.

Italian professor Francesco D’Andria said archeologists found the tomb of the biblical figure — one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus — while working on the ruins of a newly-unearthed church, Turkish news agency Anadolu reported Wednesday.

Check it out.

Cooperating with God

6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.  13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.

–Acts 16.6-14 (NIV)

In today’s passage we get a clear example of what it means to do God’s will. Too often I think we pray for God’s will to be done in our lives (at least those of us who are interested in having a real relationship with God) and then we sit back and wait for God to do all the work. But as Luke makes clear to us in this passage, that’s not how it works (no pun intended). God expects us to do our part and to be actively involved with him as his creatures who are faithful in our obedience to his good and perfect will.

In the example above, pay attention to the role of humans and God in bringing the Gospel to people. From the very beginning of creation God has chosen to use human beings as agents of redemption. He created humans to be his stewards and image-bearers to his good creation but we blew it when we decided to make ourselves God’s equals and have been paying the price ever since. In today’s lesson we see God using human agency to bring his Gospel to those who had not heard it. Note carefully that it is God who opened Lydia’s heart to hear the Good News but it was Paul who delivered the message.

This is a perfect example of how we are to cooperate with God. By all accounts, Paul was not a particularly effective or gifted preacher (see, e.g., Acts 20.7-12). But that misses the point. Paul was obedient to Christ’s call to him to bring the Good News to the Gentiles and God brought those whom he called to a faith in Christ. This, of course, required Paul to be obedient to his Lord and that likely would not have happened had Paul not put his whole hope and trust in Jesus. Otherwise, how can we explain the horrific sufferings Paul endured for the sake of the Name–unless we are simply willing to dismiss him as a lunatic?

What we immediately notice is that when we decide to put our whole hope and trust in God’s will, it takes a huge burden off our backs. We are no longer responsible for producing results. That is God’s job, not ours and we gladly turn that task over to him. We simply have to be willing to bring Jesus’ love to bear on folks in our lives who desperately need it and we must realize that will be costly. Of course to do this, we must spend some regular time discerning God’s will for us and we do that primarily through the classic Christian disciplines of prayer and regular Bible reading and study, all with the help of the Spirit who has been given us and who lives in us.

And none of this is restricted to “churchy” stuff like preaching. No matter what we are called to do in this life, God asks us to trust him and obey him, no matter how hard or fantastic his call may seem to us. I cannot imagine that before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul ever thought he would be hoofing it all over the Roman empire on behalf of Jesus! Neither can I believe that Paul’s hopes and dreams ever consisted of suffering the way he did for Jesus, at least before Paul met the Lord. Likewise with us.

If your life lacks meaning and purpose, do yourself a favor and have a serious conversation with the Lord so that you can get yourself on track. The first thing you must do is to trust him, to understand that God knows infinitely better than you do about what you need to be doing with your life. But you cannot trust someone you do not know and so you will need to do what is necessary to develop your relationship with Christ. A great place to start is to hook up with other Christians and let them point you in the right direction. What you will discover is this. When you submit to Jesus’ authority in our lives, you allow him to show you how to live with meaning, purpose, and power. It is the power of self-denial, humble service, and cross-bearing, just the way our Lord did and commanded us to do.

If you shrink for his call to you, you have already declared you do not trust him and that will never be to your good. But when you say yes to Jesus’ command to you to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him, you will discover what it means to live abundantly, even when the world looks at you and sneers at you for going against the grain. You are never promised a life of comfort here on this earth. You are simply promised life as God intends for you to live and that cannot be a bad thing–ever.

A Real Antidote for Fear

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The past three weeks we have looked at Paul’s explanation of God’s eternal plan to rescue his fallen creation and creatures from the consequences of our slavery to sin and the alienation it has caused, both between God and humans and among humans ourselves. We have seen that God did this, in part, by giving the Law to Israel—the people God called to be an integral part of his rescue plan but who were as deeply flawed as the rest of humanity—to expose sin for what it is and then ultimately deal with the terrible consequences of sin by becoming human so that he could condemn sin in the flesh once and for all and give us a real hope and chance to live in a new and restored relationship with him. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

We have also seen that God gives us his Spirit to live in us to transform us into the image of Jesus so that we can be truly human and the creatures God created us to be so that we will be prepared to assume our rightful place in God’s promised New Creation as his faithful stewards and rulers, just as God intended for us in the first place before the Fall. But as Paul reminded us in last week’s lesson, New Creation is not here yet in its fullness and we still live in God’s fallen world. We are still confronted with evil and brokenness of all kinds that can make us afraid and fall into hopelessness and despair. Consequently, Paul reminded us to keep our eyes on the prize of New Creation, especially in the midst of our suffering, because doing so will help provide us with real hope so that we can persevere in our trials and overcome them. Today I want to wrap up this series of sermons on Romans 8 by looking at Paul’s concluding exhortations and reminders to us as we try to live faithfully in God’s good but fallen world. In doing so, we will find a real antidote to the fear we all feel from time to time, even as recipients of God’s great gifts of grace and the Spirit.

In today’s lesson, Paul offers us much-need encouragement for our prayer lives. Paul was no head-in-the-clouds dreamer. He knew what Christians are up against. He knew that we all need strengthening because there are some nasty enemies out there who hate us and want to destroy us, and who are quite capable of doing so if we don’t have God’s help. After all, Paul had faced unrelenting persecution. He had feared for his very life. He had been stoned and left for dead. He had experienced beatings and floggings that apparently left him disfigured and hideous to look at (cf. Galatians 4.13-14). Paul knew firsthand that we need a robust prayer life so that we can count on God’s help and protection when things go desperately wrong for us.

And we can relate to this, even though none of us here have suffered as mightily as Paul did for Jesus’ sake. We can relate because each one of us are afflicted with our own sufferings as Christians and this can make us very afraid and lead us to despair so that we are tempted to throw up our hands and quit. As I pointed out last week, you cannot love God and others without suffering in this fallen world. For example, we pray for loved ones who are sick but they don’t seem to get better. We work hard to bring the love of Christ to bear on the poor and the hungry but nothing seems to improve. We face the scorn and abuse of enemies and pray for them, asking God to forgive them and turn their hearts, but nothing seems to happen. Instead, we must continue to bear their ongoing abuse with charity and grace, even when we might prefer to lash back at them. We look at the world around us and don’t see much improvement in the human condition. Just this past week we read about the horrifying events in Norway and wonder how God can allow unspeakable evil like this to continue. All this can have a debilitating effect on us and on our prayers. What do we pray for? Why should we pray? Does praying do any good at all?

When we get to this point in our lives, as each of us inevitably will, Paul has encouraging words for us today. He reminds us to tap into a strength and power that is not our own—the power of the Spirit living in us. Yes indeed, Paul says, continue to pray because prayer is your lifeline to God. Even when you don’t know what to say, you’ve got the Spirit in you praying on your behalf through wordless groans. God hears those groaning prayers and answers them according to his good will and purposes. This, of course, presumes God’s good will and purposes for us are far superior to our own perceived wants and needs.

Consequently, Paul goes on to remind us that because we are God’s, God works through all the things and events of our life for our good—even our sufferings and the evil that confronts us, even in spite of our fallen nature and brokenness, even in the mistakes we make in our lives. God is at work in our lives because God loves us and wants to help us continue to live like Jesus so that we will be ready to live in God’s promised New Creation. This is what Paul means when he speaks of our glorification and this is why God gives us his Spirit to live in us.

Paul might put it to us this way. Why do you let fear have its way with you? You are God’s and by his grace and sovereign will alone. He has dealt with evil decisively on the cross of Jesus and raised him from the dead to give you a preview of coming attractions and to confirm for you that he has in fact dealt with evil. When the New Creation comes, you will see this to be true in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. Hold onto that hope because it has the power to sustain you even in the worst of your trials.

And remember that God has not left you alone to deal with the brokenness and evil of his good but fallen creation. You have his Spirit in you to guide, heal, and transform you into the very image of Jesus so that you will be ready to claim your prize when God raises you from the dead. He will help you in your weakness, not least by praying for you when you cannot find the words yourself, so don’t lose hope and don’t be afraid. God is in charge and you need not look any further than your own relationship with God as proof of this. You wouldn’t be a Christian if it weren’t by God’s call and grace to you. And think about it. If God did raise Jesus from the dead, which he did, is there anything too difficult for God? Are your sufferings too difficult for him to handle? Given all that I’ve written to you, do you really think God does not love you?

Paul finishes his encouragement with perhaps the most gracious and encouraging words in the entire NT. He started chapter 8 by telling us there is no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus because Jesus has condemned sin in the flesh by bearing the terrible consequences of sin himself. Paul now ends the chapter with the same reminder. Hear him again. Who will condemn us if God has not? Why should we let our sufferings and trials lead us into despair and hopelessness? God gave himself for us in a terrible and costly act to end our alienation and exile from him and he’s got a glorious future planned for us in his New Creation. Do you think that he is going to allow anything to separate you from his love, other than your own willful and intentional rejection of that love offered to you in Christ? No, not even death itself can separate you from the love of God. God has dealt decisively with death in Jesus’ resurrection. So why would you be afraid? It’s not about you. It’s about God’s mind-blowing love for you and his demonstrated power to deliver on his promises! And if that weren’t enough, don’t forget you have Jesus praying for you right now, along with the Spirit. God is truly for you!

In other words, Paul is reminding us to practice the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Our faith reminds us that there is now no condemnation for those of us in Christ Jesus and we know this to be true even if we cannot “prove” it. Our hope reminds us of the promised New Creation when we will be raised from the dead to live in God’s new world where there will be no more evil or suffering and where we will finally learn in full what it means to be human. In the New Creation, we will continue to do the very things we have been practicing here and now as we struggle to live faithful lives with the Spirit’s help. In other words, we will know how to love fully even as we have been fully loved. Love of God expressed through humble service to others in ways that are healthy and healing is the key to living in God’s current and New Creation.

So what are we to do with this? How can we use what Paul tells us so that we have a real antidote to the fear that sometimes afflicts us? In the first place, we pray and we do so continuously, both for ourselves and for others. When we wonder if our praying or faithful living makes a difference, we must consciously remind ourselves that the Spirit is at work in us, praying on our behalf, especially in the midst of our suffering, and that God is always working for us, even when circumstances seem to suggest otherwise. Second, we must keep our eyes on the prize of God’s New Creation. One of the best ways we can do that is to focus continually on Jesus’ resurrection and all that it promises because the Resurrection is a preview of coming attractions. Last, we gather with other faithful Christians so that through the Spirit we can encourage each other with God’s word and love on each other. We remind each other that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s great love for us, especially when we see each other enduring a particularly difficult trial. In a word, we must practice intentionality so that we recall God’s great promises to us and then trust that the Spirit will use our discipline to help sustain and heal us as is best for us. This won’t be easy at first. But as with any habit, good or bad, the more we practice being intentional about recalling God’s love for us in Christ, the Presence of the Spirit in us, and the hope of New Creation, the easier it gets.

There’s more, of course, but this will suffice for the moment. This week, resolve to begin a habit of intentionally recalling God’s great love for you. Better yet do it with a partner so that the Spirit can use you both to sustain and transform you. When you start doing that habitually, you can have real confidence that you will be more than conquerors through Christ who loves you. And when, by the Spirit’s help, this becomes a reality for you, you will soon discover that your fear has gone and no longer separates you from God’s great love for you. This, of course, means that you really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Being Called by Our Name

 1 But now, this is what the LORD says—
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;

–Isaiah 43.1-3 (NIV)

The verses above are from a responsive prayer in the Common Worship morning office. I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of the truth in these verses a lot because it is easy to become discouraged and afraid. Consequently, I have memorized these short verses and would encourage you to do likewise. Repeat them when it hits the fan because they remind us to keep a proper perspective of life. Imagine that. The God of this vast universe calls us by our name, tells us we are his, and thereby assures us we are never forgotten, even when it sometimes feels like that we are. Who cannot love a God like this?

When God Runs the Show

1 They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2 When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” 8 For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10 And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. 11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12 The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13 He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. 14 Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15 When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17 Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

–Mark 5.1-17 (NIV)

Bishop Tom Wright likes to ask the question, “What would it look like if God were running the world?” We catch a glimpse of it in today’s lesson. Jesus is confronted by a demoniac and we note his reaction to the man. Mark paints a desperate picture of this poor fellow. Half-crazed, feral, tortured, and living in isolation because people are afraid of him. We instinctively their reaction because if you have ever been in the presence of a truly psychotic person, it can make you afraid because all predictability of behavior vanishes. But Jesus isn’t afraid. Instead, Jesus heals him. Jesus shows us a consistent concern for those who are the most oppressed and it is especially poignant in this story because Mark tells us that the demons possessing the man were working very hard to eradicate God’s image in him completely, thus turning him into something less than human and quite devilish. If you care at all about humans, you cannot help but be both troubled and touched by this story.

But in the process of healing the demoniac, a herd of pigs is destroyed, likely a massive economic catastrophe for its owners, and we note carefully the reaction of those in the area when they learned that Jesus had healed this demoniac.

They are afraid and they ask Jesus to leave them.

We can’t really blame them because all they really saw was a herd of pigs destroyed and the resulting economic catastrophe that had come upon them. Notice that when they saw  the healed man they didn’t say, “Wow, this is remarkable! You are healed and in your right mind. Thanks be to God! We don’t need to be afraid of you anymore. Good for you (and good for us)! Thanks be to God!”

No, all they saw was their own loss and how Jesus’ healing of the demoniac ostensibly affected them in a negative way. Apparently in this case when people saw what it looks like when God is running the show, they weren’t too impressed. They were only worried about its impact on them.

I suspect things haven’t changed too much between then and now. Sure, most of us like to say that we would be all for God coming down and running the show, but if the life of Jesus is a valid indicator–and surely it is since he was God become human–then the fact of the matter is we are likely to be lukewarm about God’s rule, depending on how it impacts us. Mark tells us that the healed demoniac wanted to follow Jesus but that Jesus would not allow him to do so. Clearly the demoniac was impressed when seeing the results of God’s rule. But he was in the distinct minority. The rest of his fellow citizens were less than impressed, partly because they couldn’t fully comprehend what had just happened and partly because of the economic loss they suffered.

And this is where the rubber hits the road for each of us. What do we value the most, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom or our own self interests (notice the interesting assumption behind the statement that the two can’t possibly be consistent)? When God finally puts to right all that is wrong with his fallen creation and creatures, we who are in Christ will get to enjoy God’s peace, freedom, and justice. Sounds good until we consider that we might be part of the current injustice that besets God’s creation and creatures, and consequently we might have to give up some of our share of the pie. Then we aren’t so interested any more in the coming of God’s kingdom.

So in this story we see all the messiness of life and some of the difficulty of trying to live faithfully to bring God’s love and kingdom to bear on others. It won’t always be so easy and we will not always be very popular when we are Kingdom workers. That is precisely when we will have to decide what constitutes “life” and what “real living” is all about. Is it about having a real relationship with the Source and Author of all life or is about amassing wealth, power, and prestige? To help you reflect on this, ask yourself what will be around in a million years. What will be around in a billion years? It likely won’t be the things that many value the most in life (money, sex, power, etc.). So which horse is really worth backing?

This, in part, is why it is a hard thing to follow Jesus. We have to lose so much of what we think is important–our power, wealth, pride, and self-reliance. We have to acknowledge that we really don’t have much control over much that goes on this life, despite our delusional thinking and frenetic efforts to the contrary. Only God is eternal and only God gives life and can raise us from the dead to live in his New Creation. The next time you see examples of what it looks like if God were running the world, how will you react? However you do will give you keen insight into the state of your relationship with God and how abundant your life really is.

How God’s Kingdom Comes

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

–Acts 14.15b-17 (NIV)

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

–Mark 4.30-32 (NIV)

In today’s lesson we get an insight into how the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) works. It comes on us gradually but surely and we have an opportunity to be part of its breaking in.

This is to our benefit, of course, that God has chosen to introduce his rule (his kingdom) gradually and primarily through human agency. Since God cannot and will not tolerate evil, and since evil in any form (including our wayward rebelliousness) will be destroyed when it comes into direct contract with God, God has demonstrated his great love and mercy for us by dealing with evil on the cross and then using those whom he calls to help him bring about his rule on earth as in heaven until he returns again to consummate his redemptive work in the New Creation.

That is why the “great and terrible Day of the Lord” will be so great and terrible. When Christ returns in great power and glory to finish his redemptive work, evil will be totally consumed and dealt with in an awful way. And of course when we are cut off from the Source and Author of all life, there can be nothing left but death, real and permanent death. But God does not want his creatures to be destroyed. He wants us to turn back to him and acknowledge him to be our God so that we might enjoy his peace and experience true happiness and life. What great grace and what a great opportunity for all of us, especially those whom God calls to be his kingdom workers!

Therefore, we who choose to put our hope and trust in Jesus have work to do. He calls us to help him and equips us for the work by giving us his Spirit to transform us and shape our character to be consistent with his. But because we are finite, fallible, and mortal, our work will necessarily be incomplete and gradual. We often bring Christ’s love to bear on people one person at a time so that just like the mustard seed, God uses us to bring in his kingdom to those who need it the most, even when we get it wrong on occasion.

As Christians we can often get discouraged by all this because it appears to us sometimes that our work is for naught, that nothing around us is changing. But as Jesus reminds us today, we must resist the temptation to think this way. We have to trust God and take him at his word that he is using us to help him bring about his kingdom and that he has dealt with evil decisively on the cross. We have to remember his great mercy for his broken and sinful creatures. We must keep in mind that he is patient with us and gives us countless opportunities to turn back to him rather than to ourselves or other false gods. And we must always remember that even though the in-breaking of the kingdom is slow and gradual, it is coming. God does use our work to help him bring forth his kingdom on earth as in heaven.

All this gives us reason to hope for our future and to find meaning and purpose for living right here and now. God is going to redeem his fallen creation and creatures and in his infinite wisdom has called humans to help him in that task. If you are struggling to find hope and purpose for living, think on these things as you consider how God in Christ is bringing forth his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Say yes to his gracious invitation to you to have life and to join in on this great work of healing and redemption.

Be prepared to meet massive opposition and possible suffering as you begin the work. But also realize that when you do encounter opposition and suffering for the kingdom’s sake, the world, which is implacably opposed to God’s kingdom, is actually validating your work. Accordingly, ask the Spirit, God’s very Presence living in you, to strengthen you to do the work he calls you to do and give thanks for the wondrous opportunity you have been given in Christ.