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July 23, 2017
The Christian’s Response to Persecution
1 Peter 3:13-22
July 23, 2017
New Hope Church
Our passage from 1 Peter speaks of persecution and the correct response to persecution. But the author is not writing about just any persecution or just any response to persecution. The author is specifically addressing persecution that we suffer for being a Christian and the correct response of Christians to that persecution. In doing so he expresses some thoughts about persecution, gives us instructions, and finally offers up examples for inspiration.
General Thoughts Regarding Persecution of Christians
In general we tend to think that the best defense to persecution is simply living a life that is beyond reproach. We tend to think that if we live an upright life that we can float above the pettiness that always exists among people and it will be easy to avoid persecution. That thought isn’t unlike the mistaken idea that if we just treat people fairly and demonstrate love they will do the same in return. Unfortunately, in this world, in either case, there are no such promises. In fact, the truth is that often it is those who are most righteous that suffer the most persecution.
Over and over in scripture and through our own real-world experiences we come to understand that the ways of the world are not compatible with Christianity. This is one of the reasons a righteous life lived is not sure protections from persecution and may even provoke persecution. When everyone else is doing what is wrong and you, alone, are the voice exhorting for truth, the most likely outcome is that there will be attempts to silence your voice and discredit you or even destroy you.
This is one of the reasons that it is always wise to pick your battles carefully, wage them with the guidance of the Spirit and know when to walk away. (or “shake the dust from your shoes” as Paul says.)
People are persecuted for all sorts of reasons but Christians are often persecuted simply because they are Christians. They are persecuted for righteousness sake. It seems counter-intuitive but it is true and we need to be prepared to respond.
Instructions for a Christian Response
The author tells us that if one does suffer because one is a Christian that one, as a Christian, must respond a certain way:
Peter tells us that one must be unafraid.
“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hears sanctify Christ as Lord.”
What do your persecutors fear? They fear death more than anything else. If you belong to Christ, death the worst fear has been removed. If your persecutors cannot kill you, you have nothing to fear.
Peter tells us that one must be ready.
“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”
You must always be able to articulate what you believe and who believe and why. Your defense must contain the Gospel.
Peter tells us that one must be constructive, not destructive.
“...yet [give your accounting] with gentleness and reverence.”
Destructive talk and actions never win anyone over to Christ.
Peter tells us that one must be good.
“Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”
Even if you do not succeed in winning anyone over, you, at the very least cause embarrassment and self-reflection when the persecutor is found out or realizes what has happened or may even shame the opposition out of their misrepresentations.
Be unafraid, ready, constructive and good. This list is easier said than done when the persecution begins. Peter knows this so he offers up inspiration – one figure from the Old Testament and one figure from the New Testament.
Examples for Inspiration
The first figure for inspiration from the Old Testament is Noah. Noah built the ark as an act of obedience to God. Noah was righteous and those who were not righteous, tormented and ridiculed him while he built the ark. In the end, after the destructive flood, only eight remained.
The second figure for inspiration, from the New Testament is Christ. The author reminds us that Christ was guiltless in every sense of the word, yet he too suffered at the hands of those who would persecute him.
I’m sure that both of these figures have been examples and inspiration to those suffering for righteousness sake throughout the centuries and even up to today. In fact, there are those suffering right now, brothers and sisters in Christ who we never hear about.
Let me offer up some modern day examples for inspiration:
Nigeria Twelve worshipers in Asso Village were killed at Easter Vigil by a Faluni herdsman who was incited by tension escalated by the political leaders who flame religious tension and do not provide security for Christians. The priest who buried the Christians said, “Since 2011 Kaduna [town] has been the site of ongoing attacks by Muslim Fulani herdsmen on mainly Christian farmers. Between 2011 and 2016, hundreds of people were killed in such attacks and thousands lost their homes and livelihoods.” Yet the Christians persist and continue to meet and worship.
Sri Lanka There are several reports of the local police turning the other way and even encouraging acts against Christian groups.
A pastor and three church members from Kings Revival Evangelical Church were attacked by Buddhists on March 26th. The Police declined to investigate the beatings.
On March 25th a mob of 50 disrupted a Christian worship service at the Christian Fellowship International Ministry. Police responded by chastising the worshipers for “breaching the peace” and ordered the pastor to the police station for questioning.
In January a group tried to shut down the Shalom Christian Centre. They were told by government officials that though no legal action could be taken against the church, the villagers could create problems for the pastor and congregants so as to drive them out of the village.
On January 5th, police declined to prosecute when a mob destroyed the House of Christ Church and threatened is member with violence if they did not leave the village.
Sudan Three weeks after an elder was killed in an attack on the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical church, a mob with police on April 24 ransacked the living quarters of the compound guard and arrested his family. After being detained the wife and children were released on to return to their home and find all of their belongings destroyed. Three weeks earlier on April 3, 20 men with knives and other weapons arrived the Evangelical School of Sudan where they beat several women, and asked the police to arrest all of the men. Christians from a nearby church rushed to the school to help. Two of those church members were stabbed and one died from his wounds leaving behind a wife and two young children. A local Muslim interest is trying to take over the school and orchestrated the attack, with the blessing of the local political authorities as an action of intimidation.
Uganda A pastor in eastern Uganda is without his home, farm and church building after extremists rampaged through his property on March 27. A band of men shouting jihadist slogans invaded Christopher James Kalaja's land in Nakabale village, cutting down trees on his farm and pulling down the church building. The pastor “took off for his life” and reported the incident to the the local authorities who did nothing even though the pastor was able to name two of the gang leaders. Kalaja, who has been leading the Agape Sanctuary International Church for ten years, said that a similar attack took place in 2008. At that time, the suspects were summoned to police headquarters and the leaders apologized for trespassing. “Things normalized that time,” the pastor said, “But this time around they are out to kill me.”
These examples come from “The Suffering Church” report from the July/August issue of Touchstone. If because Buddhist and Muslims are mentioned you think that I or the author are specifically singling them out or advocating condemnation of those groups I want to assure you that this is not the case. I, nor Touchstone is targeting any particular religion, these just happen to be the most recent incidents reported. Persecution can even come from others who call themselves Christian.
In the United States we have not seen anything of this magnitude nor have any of us experienced anything quite like this but there is definitely a tone being set and those who oppose Christians are making inroads through educational, political and judicial areas that will if our culture is not careful only escalate and grow.
Christ is Not Just an Inspiration
Now, after that not particularly cheerful news, allow me to end with a truth that we nor any Christian the world over, persecuted or not, never tire of hearing.
Christ does serve as an inspiration for those being persecuted for he was killed solely for speaking the truth and threatening those who did not like it. He did suffer for doing good and as Peter tells us, “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”
But Peter reminds us that Christ was much more than an inspiration. He is also our resurrected savior. Christ didn’t just die as a brave example, he died for a cause and the cause was the rescue and the freedom of all believers from the bondage of death and the suffering of earthly persecution. His resurrection and presence in heaven, where he is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers made subject to him is more than an inspiration. It is a future promise that we hold tightly to with all our faith and hope while we wait out our days in this world and look forward to the next.
We pray that all those persecuted, and we, if it comes to that, will hold fast to the teachings from 1Peter:
Be unafraid, the worst fate cannot touch you.
Be ready, your defense must include the gospel.
Be constructive, for destruction wins no hearts.
Be good, because we are called to be obedient and to be an example for others even if in the end our goodness only causes their shame and causes the misrepresentations to cease.
But most of all we hold on to the truth: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
The Personal Part
Psalm 66: 8-20
July 16, 2017
New Hope Church
One Man’s Story
The excerpt from Psalm 66 is very different than the psalms as I usually think of them. The psalms to me are often loud; full of praise and full of anguish; full of cries and full of shouts. When I think of the psalms I think of big emotions, mountains singing, stars praising, people shouting with gladness or weeping in anguish and calling for God’s justice. But even though this psalm does begin with joyful words of praise, the excerpt we are reading, which begins with verse 8 is quiet and conversational. One feels that the psalmist has come to a place where he is thoughtful and deep and has had the good sense to be still and quiet enough to feel the touch of God. This is the personal part of the psalm.
The psalmist begins with an invitation. He says, join me if you will, let’s remember to bless and praise our God! He has preserved us, “he has kept us among the living”. He not only alludes to their escape from Egypt but also alludes to other perilous moments in the life of the nation.
The psalmist reminds those to whom he is speaking that that they have suffered alienation, duress, affliction and burdens. He reminds those to whom he is speaking of where they have been (a bad place) and of where they are now, where God has brought them (a good place) a place of spaciousness which can also be translated as a place of freedom or a place of abundance. I’ll go with all three and declare that the new place is far better than the old place!
What is interesting to me is that the psalmist seems to have little interest in reminding those to whom he is speaking of how they found themselves in such a bad place to begin with. He leaves unspoken the fact that it was simply the consequences of their own sin left to play out through providence that left them alienated, under duress, afflicted and full of burdens. He leaves out the fact that it was their own disobedience that gave them trouble. That fact is left tactfully unspoken even though surely the psalmist and those who listen to them must understand this. The psalmist is not interested in hashing out the old sins and reviewing the bondage that those sins brought. Instead, the psalmist is interested in focusing on the deliverance and where he is now; where the people are now. They have been delivered by God from the old place!
It is also interesting that beyond the invitation to join him in his praise, the psalmist makes no demands on those to whom he is speaking. He tells them what he is going to do. He says, “I am going to make burnt offerings” I will tell you what God has done for me. God has answered my prayers, God has sustained me and God has preserved me. The psalmist words give us the sense that while he was suffering he must have prayed in desperation and promised that he would thank God with offerings once the time of suffering was over. How often do we pray in desperation and once the fear has passed our fervency drops and our thanksgiving lacks the same energy. This is not the case with this psalmist!
Then the psalmist says something that isn’t really so much a didactic statement as much as a statement of introspection. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” It is as though the psalmist has realized what it is that Jesus taught later in the New Testament: Our prayers must be in Jesus’ name. We must pray with a right motivation, with right thoughts and right intention. Our prayers must conform to God’s will. Even when as the psalmists sometimes do, we are asking for intervention or justice and we feel broken, angry and want vengeance, our prayers must reflect a mindset that God controls that justice and that he will work all things according to his grander plan.
As you read this psalm there is a sense that the psalmist realizes all of this and that he is sharing this thought but not demanding anything of anyone else. He says, “But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.”
These words are personal. They are not a command to anyone else just an invitation issued by someone who knows who he is, knows where he has been and is now grateful for where he currently stands. The psalmist has spent time in introspection and is sharing his thoughts.
You are probably thinking, “That’s really nice.” So, lets bridge the ancient with today.
The Value of Introspection
First of all all there is tremendous value in introspection and I don’t think we take the time to consider ourselves and our relationship with God enough. We may fleetingly consider our role in the world and then move on but how often do we really take a long stretch of time and shut off the world around us and ask the questions that make us see reality. It is hard to do in this 21st century. It is very hard to find people who stop and think introspectively on their own on a regular basis. It is very hard to find people who self-examine. We live in a culture that is always pushing us to be faster, better, happier, and busier. How often do we meet people who quietly ask themselves, where did I come from, where am I now and where am I going?
If people do ask themselves these questions they limit the questions scope to the world and answer the question in relation to their physical self, or their bank account, but rarely do they take the time to be deeply introspective and put God and the realm of God in that conversation. Rarer still are those who do the introspection and act on it. The psalmist does though and we are better for it.
You know what is interesting to me? Often, those who take the time to be most introspective are those with the least. Sometimes when we have a life that is too easy or too perfect we don’t bother to be introspective. Worldly need is sometimes the tool that God uses to make us see that we have spiritual need. Trouble often hones our relationship with God. Times of trouble, force us to rely on something greater. If we have no trouble, we lose the skill of introspection and our relationship with the one who is almighty suffers. We see ourselves in relation to everything in the world except the one person that counts.
God has planted deep strength in us – more than we are often aware of – and we don’t know how to reach into that strength because we don’t take the time to be introspective and see ourselves primarily in terms of our relationship with God.
There is value in introspection.
The Value in Sharing
There is value is sharing what we learn when we take the time to be introspective. There is value in speaking out loud, sharing out loud and as the psalmist does, inviting.
When we speak of our relationship with God and we speak of where we have been and where we are going it elevates the interest of those who do not know God and who have never spent a moment of their life in communion with God. Sharing how God has moved in your plane of existence is sharing the gospel.
When we speak of our relationship with God and we speak of where we have been and where we are going, it builds our own confidence. We no longer think fast, quick and only see what is on the surface. We see what is underneath and that is often richer and more truthful. Trouble is cyclic and when the next round comes we have more courage and more coping skills because we have spoken of God’s care out loud. Speaking of God’s work out loud is like setting it in concrete.
When we speak of our relationship with God and we speak of where we have been and where we are going it encourages fellow believers. That is exactly what the psalmist is doing here in this psalm. He is saying, “this is what I know and I want to tell you. I have been in a bad place and I know that God has brought me into a good place. If God has done this for you, join me in praise. If you are in a bad place then let me extend my hand to you, and encourage you and help you to see that it is our Lord and Savior who will bring you into a good place too. If we have been blessed and God has taken care of us we have a grave obligation to help others and walk along with them while God reveals what he can do.
This psalm excerpt today is a reminder to us that we need to take time to be introspective, to be quiet and to think more honestly and more deeply about our own journey. It is a reminder that we need to stop worrying about how the world sees us and instead worry about how God sees us. It is a reminder that in every trouble and concern that we have, God is there. Every time God responds to bring us to a place of “spaciousness”, there is a residue of faith, hope, strength and power that is left in us and it is that residue that we can call on when we face difficulties. God wants us to face challenges with open eyes and firm confidence and we can only do that if all the cards are on the table and we view ourselves and our relationship with him honestly.
We are also called to share and invite, to be in relationship with others. We are called to encourage those who cannot see their way out of trouble so that once they too are in that better place we might praise God together so that in the end we may all sing, “But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.”
July 2, 2017
New Hope Church
The last time we looked at the book of Acts we read the story of Stephen the first martyr. There was a man in that story, Saul, a pharisee, who supported the killing of Stephen and even held the cloaks of those who participated in the stoning. We of course know that this Saul, through a conversion of the mind and heart became a Christian, the apostle, the most prolific writer of the New Testament, Paul.
Today, our story jumps ahead about twenty years and we find Paul in the midst of a great missionary push. Paul is a talented and intelligent man and he possesses two qualities that are important to have in order to succeed in his mission – Paul is tenacious and Paul is a “bridge” builder. It is these two qualities that I would like to focus on today because they are qualities that we should keep in our minds as we set out to do the will of God on this earth.
Paul has been called to appear and present his message to the leading magisterial body in Athens. This is not an unusual event for Paul. He is known for attracting attention and having to give an account of himself and his message to the rulers wherever he goes. For Paul, this is a typical event and I am sure that while his work was of a serious nature that at some point, whenever he entered a new area he probably made bets with his cohorts – “How long do you think it will be until I’m dragged into court, or appear before the city council, or questioned by the authorities.”
Ancient descriptions of Athens describe the city as lively and educated, a city of art and architecture. The marketplace was full of vendors from all over and has been described as being lined with idols. Paul must have taken all of this in as he sized up the city and her people.
This is where “bridge building” comes in. Paul was a master of watching and listening and figuring people out. He tried to match the tone and style of his message to meet the needs of those with whom he spoke so that he could be effective. He watched to see what was the most pressing need of those he spoke and what they valued so that he might understand them better. In this way he built a bridge between the Gospel message and the recipients.
As he sized up the Athenians and Athens he saw these things:
They were intelligent and educated.
They thought well of themselves and felt superior yet prided themselves on being open minded.
They adhered to different philosophical ideas with the predominant groups being the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans were materialists who felt that all life was just made up of matter. One lived and died and had no existence after death. They believed in various gods but felt that the gods were indifferent towards humans. The Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists and felt that there was a divine spark that gave all things in nature life and that after death what remained was just the divine spark. The stoics prided themselves on their self-sufficiency, ethical behavior and reason.
Paul soaked up all of this before he met with magisterial body and he altered his tone to sound more like them and altered his message to meet them where they were and lead them back over the bridge to the gospel and his way of thinking. Paul was talented and Paul planned carefully, but there was no doubt that Athens would be a tough sell.
1. Paul begins by showing that he has observed them and gives them a compliment:
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’
2. Then, he introduces God and appeals to the Epicureans by telling them who made all the matter that they are interested in and the Stoics by telling them who the spark of life came from. He is trying to show that they have some common questions:
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
3. Paul appeals to their intellect, their reasoning, their curiosity - Remember, these are people who pride themselves on their intellectual curiosity and their philosophical outlook:
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
4. At this point Paul must have assessed his audience and decided that now was the time to talk of repentance and resurrection. Remember, this is not an idea that is part of the Epicurean or Stoic philosophy so this is risky because this is nonsense to the Athenians. Paul forges ahead:
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
So, Paul by this time had grown used to getting one of two results. He would either be persecuted, arrested, stoned, left for dead, and thrown out of town, or large crowds would hear him, convert and a new church would begin. He was used to dramatic results and no matter if he was met with success or failure he was tenacious and continued onward. However, in this case it seems that the response was lukewarm.
32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.”
The magisterial body listened politely and said, “You can come back and tell us more some time,” which could range from meaning, “You have peaked my interest and so I will allow you to tell me more because I find you vaguely entertaining” to “I am going to politely dismiss you because I think you are full of nonsense.” Paul wasn’t used to this.
What you are not told in this reading today, (you have to read a bit more) there actually were two people who were affected by Paul’s message and chose to follow Christ. So, while this is not a dramatic response it is a positive response.
Was Paul successful? I don’t know. Scholars debate this. Some say that if only one individual heard and believed that Paul was a success while others point toward the lukewarm reaction and pick apart Paul’s approach. But the truth is that we just don’t really know because the writer gave us no assessment. Who knows how many changes we bring or how we alter the thinking of another. Sometimes those changes are not apparent and take time to sink in. This is something we need to keep in mind for ourselves. Unless we know the definitive end of a story we cannot proclaim victory or defeat.
Have you ever been in a situation where you gave a message and it appeared that no one heard or wanted to hear you? You may have felt utterly defeated and then, years later, someone approaches you to tell you that you were right or they acted on what you had said and you just didn’t know it? Unless we know the definitive end of a story it is wise for us to carry on and show some tenacity.
In fact, tenacious Paul moved on to Corinth and of course we know that a large church grew out of his trip to Corinth.
In my own opinion, I believe Paul did well. I heard a quote last week that summarized the bridge building that Paul tried to do wherever he went.
“Community is bringing the high and the low together to tell the same story.”
That is what Paul attempted to do everywhere he went. He never acted as though others were too ignorant to be bothered with and he never dismissed others as too elitist or arrogant. He did not speak so that others could see how much he knew but instead spoke out of love. He was always asking the questions:
If we are going to be religious, why not be religious about something that is real?
If we are going to give our worship, why not worship that which is great and good and true?
If we want to be raised up, why not turn to the real source of all help?
Paul cared enough to steer people away from that which was counterfeit and toward that which was alive.
Was Paul perfect? Absolutely not, but he knew that in order to be effective he had to embrace what he was given and work with it and he did.
As we end today we are reminded that while we are not all called to travel and carry out great mission work throughout the world we are all called to do the work of God and share the gospel. We should all find Paul’s story to be an encouragement. Paul did not give up and neither should we. Sometimes a lukewarm reaction is more frustrating than a flat our rejection, but, you never really know what work is going on in the minds of those who you come into contact with.
As well, we should always have “bridge building” in the back of our mind. We are called to help create a community in Christ and we should make every effort to speak the language of those to whom we are called to share the gospel. We truly should desire and make every attempt to bring the high and the low together to share the same story and sing the same song and if we are not particularly skilled in this area we can be just as affective by supporting those who do have those particular skills.
June 25, 2017
New Hope Church
Setting the Scene
Before we jump into our scripture I need to set scene. Jesus has just said something to the disciples that is quite dramatic. The disciples who have come to know him, love him and depend on him, and they have just been told by Jesus that:
I am going away.
You can’t go with me.
Oh, and by the way, one of you is a betrayer.
You will fail me.
The disciples are utterly devastated and confused. “How can this be?” they say in stunned amazement. Everything appears to be collapsing around them and it makes them feel afraid.
So, let me ask you, do you ever feel as though things are collapsing around you and you feel fearful? This collapse and feeling of collapse is nothing new. Listen to this paragraph written in 1952 and tell me we can’t all relate:
“There is a world so full of troubled, alarmed, desperate folk, with disquieting, even disastrous possibilities always crowding in upon them and hardly to be held off; with their lives cut so narrowly that there is never an inch of margin, so that tugging hard, they can barely get the end of things to come together. And they are growing older, or illness threatens, or a sudden unforeseeable change in taste and fashion has reduced the value and the appeal of the goods that they produce and of the work that they can do; or make shipwreck – the thing is endless. In troops the troubles that beset men and women all around us come flocking and jostling into the mind. Moreover, there are the fears that clutch at us with their cold hands. They may never come true, never grow into actual realities, may be only nightmares; but in the dark, to some minds, they are frightening beyond describing.”
Arthur John Gossip 1952
So there you have it. This paragraph could have been written in any age. We all have a fear of collapse and in this story Jesus responds to that fear and tells the disciples to not be afraid, to develop a gallantry of spirit and how to do so. All of what Jesus says hinges on the word “believe”.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Real, active belief is the key to calming the trouble mind. Belief not just consideration leads to peace. Belief is is trusting and following Christ. Belief is knowing the way not just guessing the way.
Jesus gives them reassurance that they will not be permanently separated:
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place I am going.”
Everyone hearing this probably calmed down a bit. It was a relief to find that Jesus was permanently separating himself from them. Jesus tells them, “I’m going alone to my Father’s house and there I will prepare a room for you! I will come back at another time and take you back with me. But of course disciples, you already know the way. You won’t have to wait for my return. ” This of course is wonderful news and the sting of Jesus’ taking leave is dissipated! The disciples realize that Jesus is only going to prepare the way for them so that they might join him.
But Thomas isn’t clear about this at all. He is hung up on the fact that Jesus said, “You know the way to the place I am going.” Thomas isn’t sure that he does. For us it would be as though your friend tells you the name of the place where you are supposed to go but doesn’t give you an address or directions and you phone is dead. Thomas wants some clarity so he asks:
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
“I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
This is good news but confusing news. Jesus assures the disciples that if they know him and follow him that they will know his Father who is God. But more importantly, he tells them the way to their destination; He is the way. And let’s be clear and honest here. You cannot gloss over the fact that Jesus is saying he is the only way. “No one will find the way unless they follow me.” Jesus is not saying that there are a whole bunch of different ways that will take you to the same location. There are not many paths to God. This is very different than what our culture today would like you to believe and it is very different than what we would like to lull ourselves into believing. It sounds so modern and nice to tell people that it doesn’t matter what they believe as long as they believe in something. But it isn’t true and it is dangerous. I have even seen pastors hold up a map of Lexington and point to Lexington and say, “This is like God. Look at all of the roads that lead to God. All of these roads are very different but they all bring you to the same place. All religions are really the same.”
This is absolutely the opposite of what Jesus is saying. He does not say, “There are lots of of ways to God. There is no truth. Life is relative. Everybody ends up with the father any way they choose to go.” No. Jesus is exclusive. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I have a better map example. There is a little wedge of Kentucky in the western part of the state that is completely cut off from the main of Kentucky by the Mississippi River. This was caused by a shift of the river during the earthquakes around 1812. The result is “bubbleland” or “the bend”. The population of this acreage is 17. What is interesting is that there is only one way to access this area and it is by traveling one road, State Road 22 North, out of Tennessee. That’s it. There is no other way. There are no roads from Kentucky. There are no bridges over the river. There is only one way to get “in”. This is what Jesus is saying. There may be many roads but there is only one that leads to God and that is through him.
The disciples consider this for a moment and now it is Philip who is confused. Philip asks:
“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
“Have I been with you all this time Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can yous say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own;; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me be because of the works themselves.”
Jesus repeats himself. He is one with the Father. He is God. If they know Jesus, they already know the Father and they know God. Jesus is saying to them, “Hey, you’re looking at him!” He then refers them back to that word, believe. He says, even if you are having trouble believing this difficult concept and believing my word, just look at my works. These are things that you can see with your own eyes. If you cannot believe my word, believe my works for now.
You can imagine the disciples mulling all of this over --somewhat confused, somewhat comforted, somewhat inspired. Jesus goes on to encourage and empower them to live that more gallant life even when he is not there:
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
These are powerful words for the disciples. Jesus is telling the disciples that they will have the ability to do great works on his behalf. This is so that others whom they will come in contact with will also believe. (There is that word again!) He is saying, if other people do not believe your words they will believe your works.
Finally, Jesus says something that Christians misuse.
“If in my name you ask me for anything. I will do it.”
This verse has become a bit of a problem. It is the reason we often end our prayers with the phrase, “in Jesus’ name.” Many Christians treat this as a magical phrase though and this is wrong. Some believe that if you do not end your prayer with that phrase that God will ignore it. Others believe that if you end your prayer with that phrase that Jesus will just grant you everything you ask for. Both are wrong.
The phrase, “In Jesus name,” is just a phrase that shows our submission and obedience to a sovereign God. Our prayers are answered because we are praying with the right motivation, we are pursuing our prayers by the right means and the result of our prayers are in accordance with that which is approved and ordained by God. When we say “in Jesus’ name” we know that without God’s presence and sovereignty our desires, our wishes, our hopes, our prayers, our works are worth absolutely nothing.
Our prayers should not be clogged up with what we want for our benefit on earth but instead be directed to God’s outcome.
C.S. Lewis wrote:
“If your aim is earth alone, you will lost it but if your aim for heaven you will get earth into the bargain.”
Our true home is not here. If we understand this and we understand how to find our true home, and understand that Jesus is the way, and we believe his word and his works, we stop playing the games of this world and look toward the room that has been prepared. This is what settles us and brings us peace when everything appears to be collapsing.
At our conference last week our friend from Labrador reminded everyone of the story of John Wesley and the Moravians. Wesley was with his group and they were on a ship with a group of Moravians. A huge storm blew up and they all began to pray because they were certainly facing death. Wesley’s group was panicked and praying for God to save their bodies while the Moravians prayed calmly asking for courage as they faced their joyful journey to their true home which they felt they would see soon. In the end, they all survived the storm but Wesley was bothered by this contrast of attitudes and he went to speak to the Moravians who told him that this earth is not their final destination. Wesley came to see this later and came to see that this peace and security is a result of belief.
All of these thoughts are tied up in the Gospel. If we believe and we know that Jesus is the way we should be compelled to share the gospel both with our words and actions. Many of us are afraid of being obnoxious or rude but we don’t have to be. We can be compelling, we can ask questions, we can show concern, we can talk about the Gospel in our own life. The Gospel can be delivered with care, honesty and gentleness.
I’ll leave you with a few final words from GK Chesterton who understood that Jesus was the way. He wrote these words in his journal on Christmas Day in regard to the Gospel:
It is a track of feet in the snow.
A lantern showing the path
A door set to open.
Believe, and follow Jesus.
A Psalm Like Borax
June 11, 2017
New Hope Church
We have a shelf in our laundry room that is filled with all sorts of specific cleansers and polishes that one might only buy once every ten years or so: Special silver polishes, orange cleaner for leather, cabinet cleaners, all fall into this category. Then there are those items that one buys more frequently but are for very specific uses such as toilet bowl cleaner or Windex. Last, there are a few items that one buys frequently and have many different uses. The first that come to my mind is Borax, which is a multi-purpose work horse. I use Borax when I do laundry, I use it to remove stains from old pottery and serving bowls, I have used it when skinning a squirrel, and to remove soot from a rug. When I don’t know how to clean something I will often try Borax. Borax is my go to versatile cleaning solution and it is immensely useful in many situations!
Psalm 31 is like Borax among the psalms. While most of the psalms have some specificity, Psalm 31 does not. Most are written with an historical event or a specific trouble in mind, but Psalm 31 does not. Instead, 31 is a general purpose psalm that seems to speak to us when we are not sure where else to turn. This does not mean that Psalm 31 is not important! Psalm 31, though “general purpose” is not trivial. It is tried and true, it is reliable and it is powerful. Jesus’ last words on the cross were from Psalm 31. “Father into your hand I commit my spirit.” If this is the psalm that came to the mind of Jesus at the moment of his death, it should be a psalm that we are familiar with and use as well.
Like many of the psalms, Psalm 31 goes back and forth like a give and take, or a plea and a statement of confidence.
The psalmist pleads, “Be a rock for me, a fortress”… and then says with confidence, “You are indeed my rock and my fortress!”
The psalmist pleads, “Take me out of the net”… and then says with confidence, “You redeemed me!”
A Healthy Prayer Life
This give and take, back and forth, plea and return to confidence is part of a healthy prayer life. When we pray we are making our case before God, making our plea and at the same time when we pray we should also be reminding ourselves of how God has answered our prayers in the past. A healthy prayer life is a give and take, a plea and a confidence, and it is a question and an answer. This is what makes the psalms a healthy accompaniment to prayer. Prayer cannot and should not simply be a list of our wants and needs. Prayer is a time where we communicate with God, we remember God, we listen for God and we enjoy his presence. We all want to hear God speak to us when we pray, we want him to give us answers but we forget that this means there has to be communication, a remembrance of what he has done and a sense that he is present.
Think for a moment about friendships and relationships. They don’t last long if one person is all about lists and pleas and wants. I have experienced a relationship like that. It isn’t good for either party. The “friend” I am thinking of was another mom who wanted to spend time with me and my family almost exclusively. But it wasn’t long before every thing that we did had to be geared toward her needs and what would be advantageous for her children. She would ask many favors. If I came through and did as she asked I stayed in her good favor, but if everything was not exactly the way she wanted it to be or I would not do exactly what she asked she would become angry. She never remembered all of the times that I did take care of her and her family. I realized there was never a time when there was a healthy give and take. There was always an agenda There really was no friendship and the relationship was profoundly unhealthy for both of us. I felt used and drained and while I have no idea how she felt, I cannot imagine that she felt good.
Now, I admit that this is a weak analogy. It is weak because I’m a flawed human and so this relationship wore me down and wrung me out. Enough so that the relationship had to end. God on the other hand is strong and can handle any bad behavior and dysfunction quite well without feeling strain, but still if our relationship with God is like this – one sided-- it cannot be good for us and cannot be healthy and our prayer life cannot be leveraged.
The Plan for the Day
So now your probably wondering what I mean by “leveraged prayer”. If you remember, back in February I put together a five week class on Friday mornings called “Leveraged Prayer”. Some of you astutely asked what I meant by that. I explained that leveraged prayer was prayer that yielded the greatest spiritual and practical benefit. Due to lack of interest we didn’t have the class so I filed the lessons away to be used at a later date. Today is that date! I”m pulling part of one of those lessons out of deep storage and I am going to do something a little bit different with this sermon. Instead of looking in detail at Psalm 31, I want to tell you how you can use this psalm and all psalms in your prayer life and build that give and take, communicative relationship.
So, what give us that strong, healthy, leveraged prayer life? A strong and healthy prayer life must go hand in hand with two things. The first is God’s word and the second is silence. The psalms are a perfect resource to help us in our prayer life because they are tried and true (remember, they are the same psalms that Jesus prayed), they are both prayer and God’s word and they provide natural spaces for silence. All of the psalms provide us with richer prayer life. Psalm 31 however, is both a good starting point and a “go to” Psalm when we don’t know where else to turn or where to begin.
Prayer and God’s Word
First, Prayer is not something that should be isolated from the word of God. After all, if we want God to speak why would we divorce our prayer from his word? The psalms are vital and are an important partner to prayer. They are prayers, songs and poetry that have stood the test of time. They are meaningful words. The psalms are also God’s word and can and do speak to us. Who, when faced with trouble cannot relate to Psalm 31 and other psalms like 31? As I said before, these words even passed through the lips of Jesus at his death. When we are troubled this Psalm reminds us of God’s faithfulness and perhaps we can even hear him in his word.
Prayer and Silence
Second, we must be silent to hear God yet we forget to give him silence. Being silent is indispensable if we really want to hear God. Again, what makes the Psalms so wonderful in prayer is that they give us natural pauses and moments of silence between thoughts. One may choose to stop for silence after every verse or phrase. One may wait for the breaks that are provided with the word Selah. Selah is that word that you see every so often interspersed throughout the psalms. Scholars debate it’s meaning. Most believe that it is a signal to stop reading and have a moment of musical interlude. This may be the case but I would like to think that it is a reminder to pause and be silent.
Silence makes us feel uncomfortable but we shouldn’t feel this way. Silence is not God’s absence but the manifestation of his presence. Silence removes noise which leaves space for God to come in and fill the room.
We all want a prayer life that is leveraged and reflective of a relationship with God which means that we want him to speak and God does speak if we are willing to be close to his word and allow for the silence which allows his voice to be heard.
You have heard me say that I pray better here in our sanctuary than anywhere. I think I have even said that God seems to hear me more clearly and his answers come more readily when I pray here. But, honestly? I think the truth is that it is more likely that I just pray better here where there are no distractions. I can read God’s word out loud and then take long moments of silence without distraction or interruption. I don’t believe that there is something different about this room, but I do believe that the conditions that this room creates are quite different than what we normally are faced with when we pray.
I will mention as well that general worship in the 21st century concerns me. Worship often becomes loud and filled with words, actions and noise and while all the noise often creates an emotional high, there is little room left for God.
The psalms are a gift. The psalms are indispensable so we should use them. We want to leverage our prayer by building a relationship with God through prayer. To do that we must use God’s word and allow silence so that we might hear him. When we do not know where to begin we should also remember that Psalm 31 is our “go to”, “multi-use” psalm. It is powerful psalm that speaks to us in so many ways. It is where we arrive when we don’t know where we are going. Psalm 31...like Borax.