Persistent Hope

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25

Persistent Hope

This passage from the oracle of Isaiah has become so familiar to some of us that we fail to realize its significance. Here, God through Isaiah pulls back the curtain of time and enables us to peek into eternity. What we see looks strange and phantasmagorical to us—a bizarre, dream like glimpse into a reality where things just don’t work the way we expect. And yet it also depicts the direction—if not the destination—of God’s redemptive work in us and throughout all of creation.

My friend Mindi sums it up like this: 

Isaiah 65:17-25 contains the prophet’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the ways of this world no longer have a hold on us. The prophet envisions a time when everyone enjoys what they have worked for, where the struggle of this world disappears and untimely death is no more. This vision is of peace and prosperity, of hope for all, where there is no domination, despair, and exile.

This vision is often too much for us to hope for, and yet it remains the persistent hope and activity of our transforming God. 

Part the First

Unlike Isaiah’s vision [Isaiah 65:17], we are all too aware of “the former things”—those systems and processes that have influenced and frequently impeded progress. In churches as in life, we are often stymied by claims that “we’ve never done it that way before” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” or “Such-and-such did it that way.” In life as in churches, we often carry our past wounds into the present and the future, often stunted by the pain of grudges and the impossibility of reconciliation and forgiveness in past relationships.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
(Isaiah 65:17 NRSV)

Part the Second

Similarly [Isaiah 65:18], the idea of newness and change generally creates not gladness or joy, but fear and trepidation. We face a future—and even a present!—that feels uncertain to us. The world doesn’t work the way it used to. The old rules of life no longer produce predictable results. And so most of us struggle to sort out how to live a good life or embody our faith in this new reality. 

Yet God speaks through Isaiah:

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” (Isaiah 65:18 NRSV)

Part the Third

Our world is filled with grief and sorrow [Isaiah 65:19b]; with lives tragically cut short [Isaiah 65:20a]; with people working their whole lives only to have nothing to show for it, or working hour after unending hour at a series of jobs and still not earning enough for their family to eat and survive [Isaiah 65:22a]. We are afraid for the world our children are inheriting [Isaiah 65:23a].

And to all these things, God says “no more!”

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19b NRSV)

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (Isaiah 65:20a NRSV)

“They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.” (Isaiah 65:22a NRSV)

“They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”
(Isaiah 65:23a NRSV)

The Reversal of Fortunes

The gladness and joy of this vision comes about because in it we catch a glimpse of God’s future when these injustices and fears and pains will be eradicated from the human experience.

Where there are now those who die before living a full life, Isaiah imagines a day when someone even 100 years old is considered an adolescent. [Isaiah 65:20]

Where now far too many do not receive fair compensation for the labors they perform, Isaiah imagines a day when everyone gets what they have worked for. [Isaiah 65:21, 22b]

Where now we fear for the world of our children’s future, Isaiah imagines a day of blessing and wholeness and security that will permeate not just their experience, but the experience of generations to come. [Isaiah 65:23]

Hard Work

What Isaiah anticipates 2500 years ago continues to be the impossible dream of today. 

But what stands out to me is not the content—it is not a matter of what Isaiah describes God doing. What stands out to me is that nowhere in the scriptures is it suggested that these transformations of ourselves and of the created order will be easy. 

If anything, we should expect they be hard. In last week’s reading from Haggai, this transformation was described in earthquake-like terms:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations” (Haggai 2:6–7a NRSV)

The book of Revelation—in peeking behind the curtain some years later—envisions the Lord God of Hosts (or more literally, “Yahweh, commander of armies”) waging war on the forces of darkness as God brings about the imagined world Isaiah suggests. Jesus—our front-line general in this conflict—is depicted as a military leader through whom God will achieve victory. In chapter 19 of Revelation we read:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”” (Revelation 19:11–16 NRSV)

Nowhere in the bible is it suggested that these changes will come about with a snap of God’s fingers. Everywhere we look, we see difficult language describing how God will make these things so—throughout history, and through those among us who partner with God.

It will not be a simple matter for all of creation to be transformed according to God’s desires. ……Just as it is not easy for our individual hearts to be transformed into Christ-likeness. 

Where Are We?

Which brings us to another point…… Isaiah describes what God is doing. But where are we in all this? If we imagine that cosmic battle illustrated in Revelation, whose side are we on? What are we doing to advance the cause of Christ? 

If we want to be on God’s side, then we will be working towards the fulfillment of God’s priorities. We will be working to achieve God’s vision of peace and wholeness.

This is not, of course, something we can do on our own. Author Dallas Willard has written that “The greatest temptation to evil that humanity ever suffers is the temptation to make a ‘Jerusalem’ happen by human means” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.380). What he means is that we try to use our own power and ability to bring about the reign of Christ in the world. But doing this—whether through our attempts to legislate morality, to establish a “Christian nation,” or whatever—it always winds up “eliminating truth, or mercy, or both.” 

This is not God’s way. These are not God’s weapons. 

God’s way and weapon is love. It is relationship. It is invitation. 

It is impossible to advance the cause of Christ while utilizing the powers of this world. Only the power of the Kingdom of God as known and expressed through Jesus will bring about the vision of Isaiah, and John, and even of you and I today. 

This hope of transformation has persisted throughout the centuries and millennia because God has written it on our hearts. Because it is an intrinsic part of God’s redemptive plan—not just in this life, but for all of eternity. Because ultimately, this life here and now is a training ground for our eternal work and existence with God. No matter our biological age, we are now children and adolescents whom our Divine Parent wishes to train, and in whom our Divine Parent wants to instill certain priorities and values and lessons. This is boot camp, preparing for the day when we can be set loose in God’s universe and empowered to “reign with him,” as the scriptures imagine.

This future reality is what gives meaning and purpose to it all. 

And for those of us who place our trust in the One True God, we realize that there is nothing that will prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled. There is no way that the enemy can derail this vision of life as God intends it to be lived. There are no obstacles that keep us from the love of Christ, and the fullness of Kingdom life that begins now with our “rebirth”, and continues, unabated by death, into the eternal future with our loving God.

There is a reason for this persistent hope. And that reason is God. The very God who loves you, who has committed an eternity of resources to develop you into who you are created to be, and who will never—NEVER!—give up. As Eugene Peterson was said to sum up the gospel message:

God loves you.
God is on your side.
God is coming after you.
And God is relentless.

He Comes

Scripture: Revelation 1:4-8

Reign of Christ

Greetings!

No, I wasn’t actually saying “hi!” I was telling you what our scripture lesson was about this week.

These greetings are very much framed with references to God—the one “who is and who was and who is to come” (cf. v.4, 8)—but they are in reality wholly focused on Jesus.

That’s probably why the Lectionary places this reading here on what is traditionally called “Christ the King Sunday.” This Holy Day—perhaps today more often referred to as “The Reign of Christ”—is a relatively recent addition to our Christian calendar, added just under 100 years ago. It takes place on the last day of the Christian calendar year—(remember that the Christian calendar begins with Advent). Christ the King is a day for celebrating and remembering what it means that the Reign of Christ—the Kingdom of God—has already begun and stretches towards fulfillment.

For followers of Jesus, the reminder that Christ alone is Lord is always appropriate. But since the lordship of Christ factors heavily into the traditional themes of Advent, it is doubly appropriate here and now.

This text from Revelation is part of the lectionary schedule that pairs the Sunday scriptures with the Christian calendar. And for our celebration of the Reign of Christ, I’m not sure there’s a better text available.

Trinity

The language that John uses here is permeated with trinitarian language, which helps us see Jesus in context of the Trinity. 

First up is “the timeless and eternal one ‘who is and who was and who is to come’,” the Being who frames the whole passage in vv.4 and 8……

Then is invoked “the sevenfold Spirit or perfect presence” of v.4……

And finally we encounter the Risen Christ—the third person of this Trinity (this unity of community)—who (as I said) is the real focus of this brief passage.

Within these brief verses of greeting, blessing, and teaching, we find the whole of the Gospel proclaimed through three statements about Jesus.

Who Is Jesus?

The first of these is found in the first half of v.5, and it answers the question: “Who is Jesus?”:

“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5a NRSV)

 

Who is Jesus? Jesus is first “the faithful witness.”

Now, I’ve got to tell you—I went into this sermon with my teaching hat on. I performed complex search analytics, translated from multiple languages, and read countless commentaries. I wanted to have astute, educated, thoroughly-researched answers and explanations.

I went into this sermon with my teaching hat on, and God knocked it off.

God knocked it off because I didn’t need any of that. As a redeemed disciple of Jesus, I am the gospel story. Just as are you.

Jesus is called “the faithful witness.” And to what is he witnessing?

to God’s love

to God’s nature and being

to God’s purposes

But especially to the nearness of God’s Kingdom. It won’t take many more years before before this Greek word for witness and testimony gains an added meaning—to die for one’s beliefs. It is, in fact, Jesus’s witnessing to the nearness of God’s Kingdom that runs him afoul of the authorities, and ultimately leads to his death…… to his martyrdom on account of what he believed.

 

Who is Jesus? John (in Revelation) also tells us that Jesus is also “the firstborn of the dead.”

What does that mean? That means that because Jesus has been raised from the dead, we will be too. Because Jesus experienced life so abundant it could not be constrained by the confines of time and space, we too can truly live in excess of this life’s limitations. Addressing this same reality in 1Corinthians 15 starting in v.20, Paul speaks of the resurrection almost like it is contagious. Just like Adam was Patient Zero for the sin that infected and enslaved us, Christ proves to be a new kind of contagion that alters our DNA and renders us immune from the death caused by sin.

 

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.”

Now, anyone who has read the book of Revelation and understood even a fraction of it can tell that John would never claim that Jesus controlled or caused the actions of the rulers of his world. 

From the rest of Revelation, it is pretty obvious that this phrase is intended to communicate the supremacy of Jesus over and against all the other rulers or kings of the world. As preacher Tom Long has written:

“Naming Christ as ‘the ruler of the kings’ also assures the reader that no earthly power, regardless of how toxic, can ultimately loosen the grasp of Christ upon his followers.”

Or, I might add, prevent the victory of Christ from being fulfilled in creation.

What Has Jesus Done?

That is who Jesus is. What has Jesus done?

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father” (Revelation 1:5b–6 NRSV).

Now maybe this is just my brain looking for a pattern where there isn’t one, but I notice a certain sequentiality to these things Jesus has done.

Jesus loved us. I could quote verses all over the place about this, from fan favorites like John 3:16 to less well-known verses like Ephesians 5:2. But for all my love and respect for the bible—words are words unless they are lived out. If you’ve experienced Jesus’s love, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, then I’d sure like to tell you about how I’ve been loved and you are too. 

Jesus loved us enough to free us. We are freed from the tyranny of sin and death. We are freed from the cycles of violence that consume us. We are freed from our destined-to-fail do-it-myself attitude. We are freed to become: and not just to become enlightened, or to become better, or to become saved.

We are freed to become a kingdom—we are made to be a kingdom, to stick closer to John’s words here. Our passport no longer bears the seal of the United States of America or any other earthly power—for that is no longer where our citizenship lies. We are “citizens of heaven,” to use the language of Philippians 3:20. Or to return to Jesus: we are citizens of that Kingdom of God that even then was already and still now is not yet. Confessing Jesus alone as our Lord and King and Ruler, we bear no other allegiance.

Thus loved, freed, and drawn into belonging, Christ empowers us for service. Virtually all of Jesus teaching was about the Kingdom of God. And virtually everything he demonstrated about how we live in it and access it is centered around service. In John 13, for example, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and commands them to do the same into perpetuity. When he’s done, Jesus asks them if they understood what he did. They (of course) do not, so Jesus lays it out even more directly:

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master…” (John 13:14–16a NRSV)

If Jesus is Lord and Master, and his path was one of service, we cannot dare expect that ours will be one of power and might. We will serve, as Jesus served, or else Jesus and his Kingdom is not in us at all.

Jesus Is Coming Back

Following this confession of who Jesus is and what he has done, John continues with a statement about Jesus’s return—his “second coming,” to use a common expression:

“Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. 

So it is to be. Amen.” (Revelation 1:7 NRSV)

See, this is the last part of our Gospel hope. We know that things aren’t right around us. We know that things aren’t right within us. And God has given us a pretty good idea about where things are going to end up—about what God intends for creation. It involves a lot of reconciling the balance of justice—lifting up the downtrodden, restoring those on the margins to the center, reestablishing those who slipped through the cracks—that kind of stuff. 

But for everyone who has been oppressed, there has been an oppressor

For each that is poor, there is one ravaged by greed

For anyone who has been displaced, someone else has conquered

See, John reminds us that Jesus’s return will not be experienced in the same way by everyone. He says that “on [Jesus’s] account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” Justice will be painful for those on the wrong side of it.

This Revelation hope of Jesus’s return is only hopeful if you’ve actually taken Jesus seriously enough:

to take up your cross and follow him…… 

to believe that the first will be last and the last will be first…… 

to know that the world will only know that we are Christ’s disciples by our L-O-V-E……love.

Which means…. we’ve got to live out self-sacrificing love too.

I love the way Peter Wallace sums this up:

“So, how [Wallace asks] do we live under the reign of Christ the King? How do we operate as priests who serve God? Consider this: We reflect within our everyday spheres John’s threefold description of Christ:

(1) we follow Christ’s example as a faithful witness,

(2) we seek ardently to understand his will for us, to deny ourselves, and take up our crosses and serve others sacrificially; and

(3) we make it our life’s goal to bring others into his reign of love and praise, which will last forever.”

“Christ [Wallace continues] is not a tyrant; he is a lover. He is not a power-mad despot we are forced to serve or else; he is a servant witness. And he calls us to be the same sort of loving and serving witnesses to others. 

When we grasp that calling, our lives become sources and avenues of praise for ‘the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’ Amen.” (in Feasting, 331)

And Amen.

The Not-So-Subtle Work of God

 

Scripture: Psalm 50:1-6

 

 

 

Transfiguration: Mark 8-9

It happened before they even knew what was going on.

Things with Jesus had been strange for a few days–ever since Jesus got weird with Peter. There’d been some amazing things happening: thousands fed miraculously, a blind man healed. And then, in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus circled the wagons (as he was wont to do when he wanted to ask hard questions or offer some mysterious teaching).

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27–30 NRSV)

But this time it seemed neither. “Who do people say I am?” he asked. It was a strange question, coming from Jesus. For someone who cared so much about people, Jesus never seemed to care much what they thought of him.

Not knowing where he was going with this, they tried to answer his question: “Some think John the Baptist, others Elijah, or one of the prophets.” But then Jesus made it personal: “Who do you say I am?”

Of course, before anyone else had the chance to say anything, Simon Peter’s enthusiasm burst out: “You are the Christ.” Given the way Jesus responded, it seemed to be the right answer, so to speak. Because that’s when Jesus started getting all hush hush about him being the Messiah (–that’s what “christ” means, after all).

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31–33 NRSV)

But that’s also when Jesus started getting pretty explicit about what was to come, saying he was going to suffer, face persecution from the religious establishment, and ultimately be killed and rise again.

But then Peter’s enthusiasm got the better of him……again. I think he stopped listening at “be killed,” assuming he got any further than “suffering.” Peter pulled Jesus aside and told him that Jesus has it all wrong–that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The intensity of Jesus’ rebuke hit all twelve disciples. He addressed Peter as though Peter were Satan himself, and said that Peter had lost sight of God’s values.

Peter wilted, of course. You couldn’t look at him and not think he must have gotten whiplash being jerked from such a height to such depth.

After that, the disciples were all a bit wary of Jesus. And not much happened until several days later when everything changed forever.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus…Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4, 7-8 NRSV)

Jesus was going out, and with him he took only Peter, James, and John. That part wasn’t all that strange, really. They made up the inner circle, so to speak.

Jesus had lots of disciples–hundreds of men and women mentioned in the scriptures.

But there was a smaller circle of 70 that got commissioned to go out two by two and perform miracles and preach the Kingdom of God.

Of that 70, there was a smaller group known as the Twelve. These were what we think of as the disciples, proper.

But then there was still an inner circle within the Twelve, made up of these three. They were Jesus’ most trusted confidants. They were closest in the most pivotal or sensitive moments of Jesus life.

And this thing that happened…… well, I’d say it fits that bill.

Like many times before, Jesus seemed to be going to pray. And when he went out to pray, Jesus often went into the country, and he climbed up to a high place. For virtually the whole of human existence–despite culture or geography or religion–humans have felt that high places were holy places.

But instead of just praying like the disciples expected, something otherworldly happened.

Jesus’ appearance changed dramatically. It was so extraordinary that it’s hard to describe. His clothes looked so white it was difficult to look at them. There was a sparkly radiance, like the sunlight being reflected by a shard of glass. And before the disciples came to terms with this sudden transformation, they realized they were not alone. Two other human figures appeared–as if out of the ether. Somehow the disciples knew them to be Moses and Elijah–but how can this be? they’ve been dead for ages! The three of them talked–Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—-and for how long? no one could tell. It seemed over before anyone came to terms with it starting.

It took some time, but the disciples slowly understood what had happened. This not-so-subtle transformation of their Rabbi Jesus was a kind of revealing or unveiling (that’s what “apocalypse” means, by the way). In this moment, the curtain of eternity temporarily pulled back and they saw Jesus for who he is: the Beloved Son of God.

We today, of course, know that the Beloved Son of God will return. Immanuel–God with us–will one day return and bring about the full transformation of all things according to God’s loving desires.

Like the transfiguration of Jesus before his disciples, the transformation of all of creation is not a subtle thing that God is doing. As another translation of Psalm 50 puts v.3: “Our God will come, and He will not enter on a whisper” (VOICE).

In order to help us imagine it, Isaiah 42:14 tells us that God is like a woman giving birth, “crying out” and “gasping and panting” “like a woman in labor” (NRSV). As someone who’s been in the room three times while a woman gave birth, I’d say “crying out, gasping, and panting” is an understatement–and that’s with modern medicine smoothing the way as best as it can.

I can’t even imagine what it must have been like 2000 years ago, when child-bearing was incredibly dangerous for both mother and child. It is estimated that at that time almost 1 in every 50 childbirths resulted in the death of the mother. Around a third of newborns did not live a month, with more than 50% dying before they reached ten years of age.

I simply cannot imagine the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma these mothers endured. And Isaiah says to us that God is like this.

God is like this because God is working to birth a future into existence……a future that Jesus and the bible call the Kingdom of God. Today’s psalm talks about this not-so-subtle transformation of all things as being characterized by God’s justice, people of all sorts being drawn to God, and the recognition that Yahweh is the only and true God.

Later in the New Testament, Jesus says this Kingdom is incubating in us (Luke 17:21 MLS). We, as his followers and disciples, are the womb where this transformation is gestating. This isn’t going to be easy for us either–this birthing of God’s kingdom into the world. And if we’re going to do it, it is going to require some not-so-subtle transformation of our own lives as well.

Someone once said that a church is a community where we practice living in the Kingdom of God. There’s something to that, I think. If we cannot learn to do it alongside other people who are supposedly learning to do it too, how are we going to do it alongside people with a different set of priorities and convictions?

Subtle Goals?

But sometimes I wonder if we undermine all of this by convincing ourselves that the change–the transformation–God intends is a subtle paradigm shift. Our emphasis on “achievable goals” means that each generation reaches only slightly forward of where we are. If we believe any progress is possible among the church or in the world, we think in terms of being a little bit bigger, a little more wealthy, a little more knowledgable, a little better production, a few more people “served,” and so on.

But today’s psalm reminds me that God doesn’t really do subtle. If you doubt me, look at virtually any interaction Jesus had with anyone: there are no subtle actions; there are no subtle insinuations; there is only direct engagement about the radically transforming work of God.

If we’re going to be honest, we know that we don’t look much like the Jesus we’re supposed to be embodying. That goes for us as individuals, but also as the church.

And while I am fully aware that we are a bunch of sinners who have no hope aside from the hope we find in Jesus, I wonder if we’re just not thinking big enough.

If God is about not-so-subtle transformation, maybe we should be too.

If God is bringing about dramatic changes, maybe we should be dreaming in more dramatic terms.

As much as we’re using our imaginations this morning, I don’t think I’m imagining anything. I think God has big hopes and dreams for each one of you–and for our church–and achieving them is as simple as opening ourselves up for God to do the work in us.

But in order for that to happen:

We’ve got to realize that a band-aid won’t do when major surgery is needed.

We can’t expect that afterward our life will remain essentially the same.

We’ve got to realize that with great power comes great responsibility, and if you’ve been liberated by Christ, it’s for a purpose that’s bigger than you.

If we’re going to be part of birthing God’s Kingdom into this world, it’s going to change us in some not-so-subtle ways. But that transformation will bring about a greater fulfillment and love than anything we can ever know.

And it takes a not-so-subtle commitment to our not-so-subtle God. What do you think? Are we up to it?

 

Six Characteristics of a Praise-Worthy Church

 

1Corinthians 1:1-9

 

“6 Characteristics of a Praise-Worthy Church”

There may be no book of the Bible more relevant today for the church of Jesus Christ in these United States than Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

That’s a big statement, but I mean it. The church at Corinth is where we find ourselves in the United States today. Their struggles are our struggles; their failings are our failings. But I also believe that their strengths are our strengths too. Listen to this—this is a description of the Corinthian church written by an author around thirty years ago. The author begins talking about how populous Christianity has become and then says:

It was full of cliques, each following a different personality. Many Christians were very snobbish: at fellowship meals the rich kept to themselves, and the poor were left alone. There was very little church discipline: a lot of laxity was allowed, both in morals and in doctrine—an all-too-common combination. They were unwilling to submit to authority of any kind and the integrity of Paul’s own apostleship was frequently questioned. There was a distinct lack of humility and consideration for others, some being prepared to take fellow-Christians to court and others celebrating their new-found freedom in Christ without the slightest regard for the less robust consciences of fellow believers. In general, they were very keen on the more dramatic gifts of the Spirit and were short on love rooted in the truth.

(David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians, in “The Bible Speaks today,” ed. John R. W. Stott, IVP, p.19).

Any of that sound familiar?

Though Christians make up over 70% of our population, the American church has been infiltrated by cancerous schisms that undermine what is common to us all: the gospel of Jesus Christ. (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/)

Though we follow the Jesus who breaks the chains that divide and destroy us, Sunday morning remains “the most segregated hour of the week,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed many years ago. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/6367/most-segregated-hour.aspx)

Differing economics continue to divide churches from communities, as well as within churches.

There is an incredible amount of blowback on pastors and churches who attempt to speak about moral issues, and God have mercy on any pastor who teaches against what someone learned on the History Channel or what they think they were taught 30 years ago as a child in Sunday School. Such actions typically lead to personal attacks and smear campaigns as their authority (or any authority) is challenged.

Humility and consideration for others are qualities that are no longer associated with those practicing the Way of Jesus. Quite the opposite: we are seen as arrogant, self-righteous, and self-involved—unconcerned with the plight of anyone but ourselves.

Christians attack other Christians with a ferocity that is unmatched by unbelievers, while the faith of each is considered such an individual affair that no concern for community or building up of one another is even considered.

We have become very big on our displays of self importance and very weak on demonstrating love rooted in truth.

Welcome to the Roman Empire, citizens. This is Corinth.

 

And yet somehow—proving (in my book) once and for all that Paul really does have a pastor’s heart deep down inside somewhere—he also looks at the Corinthian Christians and sees the foundation of a tremendous church, a great church, the best church.

Because he (like any good pastor) truly loves this church, Paul is able to see it through the eyes of Christ. And after the description I read a moment ago, this might feel jarring—but it’s true. Despite the massive failings, self-sabotage, and undermining of the message of Jesus Christ that is going on at Corinth, there are six characteristics that they already exhibit that can save it. Six characteristics of a praise-worthy church that the church of Corinth—and these United States—needs to live into in the coming months and years.

(these start in v.4)

1. Rooted in grace

First: the church is rooted in grace.

This is the first and most important of these characteristics. As Christians, the grace of God available to us because of Jesus Christ is to be the cornerstone of everything we are and of all that we do.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of the grace we have received, nothing we try will succeed.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of how that grace has changed us, no one will hear.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of why we need God’s grace, we won’t just fail to be a praise-worthy church—we will fail to be a church at all, regardless of what is on our sign or in the phone book.

The church of Jesus Christ is rooted in grace—grace is at the heart of the gospel, so grace must be at the heart of who we are.

2. Is mature

Second: A praise-worthy church is mature.

This is a place where our American church fails—we are (to use Paul’s language) like 30-year-olds who are still drinking milk out of sippy cups and bottles. We never matured. We never grew up. But the Christian life is something that matures.

For too long, churches and pastors in this country have thought our job was to “get people saved.” Everything we did—missionary work, evangelistic outreach, worship songs, emotionally manipulative sermons, alter calls—everything was focused on getting someone to say a prayer, get baptized, and join the church. After that, they were SOL.

We didn’t expect their growth; we only cared about church growth—statistics.

We didn’t watch for the endowment of gifts or their expression.

We wanted the credit for their name ending up in the Book of Life, and once it was there we moved on to some other poor soul.

No wonder so many became restless with the bottle-fed milk of spiritual immaturity that we were forcing on them.

No wonder those who remained began to think worship and church was all about meeting their own needs.

No wonder the church has little voice of consequence in the public arena.

If we do not nurture and grow our Christian faith—if the Christian churches of this nation cannot ditch the bottles and diapers—then no one will take us seriously enough to consider that we might have something of importance to offer.

3. Embodies its giftedness

Third: a praise-worthy church embodies its gifts.

Did you know in Greek the word for gift is connected to the word for grace? These spiritual gifts are “graces.” I find that really ties all this together.

The gifts we are given are graces that we are expected to share in community—we are to embody them for the benefit of others.

Think of the Parable of the Talents. That’s weird, y’all. God gets all harsh on the dude who plays it safe. It’s the polar opposite of how most of us live out our faith. But if there’s one thing that’s clear it’s the moral of the parable: God wants us to use the talents we are given.

Later on in Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul stresses that we are gifted uniquely so our unique gifts may be shared to edify the community of faith. That is their primary purpose. When we insist on only using our gifts outside the church, or when we do not pursue the necessary discernment, prayer, and conversation to discover what our gifts actually are, we handicap God’s community, God’s mission, and God’s kingdom.

One further reminder here: Paul is not speaking to individuals but to a church—a community. No individual will “be enriched in every way” and “not lacking any spiritual gift.” It’s just not possible for an individual person. But it is more than possible for this to be the case within a group who are sharing their graces with one another—this is the way God designed us and this thing called “church” to work.”

4. Is oriented/motivated by Christ’s return

Fourth: a praise-worthy church is oriented to and motivated by Christ’s return.

The return of Christ is a polarizing thing among Christians. For many, having a proper understanding of an “end times” timeline is fundamental to salvation—at least that’s what I’ve learned the many times I was told I wasn’t saved because I didn’t believe the right things.

But, you know? I just don’t see too many Christians motivated to action by this though. Their complicated manipulations of the biblical text don’t just lack an appropriate regard for context—they also fail to help people live more like their Savior Jesus.

In contrast, a praise-worthy church is one that orients its mission toward Christ’s return. Their focus on the coming of Christ leads them to deeper and more passionate engagement, as they sense an urgency in the work that has been entrusted to us. Genuine belief that Jesus is coming back drives such a church into more and more radical displays of grace and love as we enact God’s justice here on earth—the justice that lifts up the lowest and least of our world, remembering that “just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”

5. Has a sustaining spirituality

Number 5: a praise-worthy church has a sustaining spirituality.

More than ever before, Christians are burning themselves out and destroying their faith communities in the process. Churches, to be honest, bear a big part of the blame for this—it has been we who manipulate and guilt-trip people into overcommitting, serving far outside their giftedness and calling, and (all the while) expecting more than ever before.

I have known many Christians who flat refuse to join a church as a matter of self-care. Their experience of joining a church involves guilt-laden commitments, a burden on their family’s schedule, and a host of other unhealthy realities. So they self-censor these things from their lives by never joining.

I have known countless others who aren’t even sure they’re Christians anymore. They have witnessed selfishness, divisive behaviors, greed, and hypocrisy to the point that they have become disillusioned, unsure that there even is a God if even God’s own people can’t do better than this.

In both groups, these people have become burned out or they’ve been burned as others flame out. Involved are people who were never taught that Christian spirituality is one that sustains, not drains. The model for our lives is to be Jesus, yet Jesus has no problem repeatedly taking retreats and times of prayer to balance out those public engagements and challenging experiences. This pattern is seen over and over in his ministry, yet we as his followers are overcommitted, stressed beyond belief, and running on fumes.

The praise-worthy church knows its members can’t burn a candle at both ends for long—that is not the way of Jesus, and it is not to be our way. Our way is a way of embodied and sustaining spirituality that nurtures, heals, and unites.

6. Correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice 

Sixthly and lastly, a praise-worthy church correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice.

While I know from a broader reading of 1Corinthians that this is a sixth and vital characteristic of a praise-worthy church, I admit it is a bit of a stretch here. But when Paul says in v.9 that “God…has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” this is considerably more involved than being Facebook friends.

If God has called us into “fellowship” with Jesus, God has called us to be co-laborers with Christ, participating fully with him in the advancement of God’s agenda of grace and love. That agenda—that mission—involves being in active pursuit of the same justice Jesus pursued:

justice for those on the margins of society

those who are sick—and who are preyed upon because of illness

those who fall between the cracks of bureaucracy

those who do not have enough

those who are without hope

those who are victims of themselves or others

those whose only way out they can see is in a body bag

and those for whom everything is just that much harder.

When the Bible says “justice,” it isn’t talking about the kind of elementary school fairness where everybody gets a candy bar. It’s talking about upsetting the entire system—taking food from the rich kids and giving to the ones who only get peanut butter sandwiches, punishing the bully and encouraging the bullied, nurturing students instead of boosting test scores.

The testimony of the Bible is that God loves an underdog. And if we are going to be a praise-worthy church, we’re going to get pretty raucous in pursuit of God’s kind of justice too.

Love

The funny thing about all of this—when we really think about it—is that it all comes down to love. Everything has a way of doing that, when we talk about God. In fact, while I was writing this sermon my oldest daughter wanted to help. So I had her get out her Bible and read the verses a few times to herself, I told her to listen really, really hard for what God might be trying to tell us. Listen for what God might want someone else to hear. After a few minutes of uncanny quiet and still, she replied: “Dad, I think I heard God, and what he wants us to hear is “I love you.”

The grace in which we are rooted is on account of God’s love.

Our spiritual maturity grows because God loves us enough to engage us in friendship.

We embody our gifts because we have been loved by God and know the responsibility we have in passing that love on to others.

The Incarnation of Jesus came about because of love, as will the Return of Christ our King.

Our sustaining spirituality was modeled by the Jesus who loves us so, and who continues to be our friend.

And God’s justice is intrinsically rooted in the love God has for us. I made the claim some time back that it is actually God’s mercy—what some translations call God’s “lovingkindness” that drives God’s pursuit of justice for the lowest and least in our world.

If you hear nothing else this morning, hear this: The voice of God, echoing in your innermost being: “I love you.”

Sheep Betrayed

Jeremiah 23:1-6

“Sheep Betrayed”

Jeremiah–here in the 23rd chapter–catches a glimpse of God’s future. It’s a powerful vision for ancient Israel, but it is also a powerful vision for us today.

Jeremiah–bless his heart–is trying to stave off disaster. As we read elsewhere in his oracle, Jeremiah has realized that God’s people are no longer taking refuge in God. On account of their special status as descendants of Abraham, they believe God will protect them no matter what. So they manipulate the politics of the region, and their religion turns into a cultural phenomenon. They still do the right things, of course–they go to their version of church, appear to be living a moral life, and generally follow the rules. But those things have nothing to do with being a faithful follower of the One True God–at least, they’re not the things that God places a very high value on.

What does God value the most? Well, we can see that in the previous chapter of Jeremiah, chapter 22, verses 3-5 (ESV):

Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people. But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.

It couldn’t be much clearer: do these things and good things happen; do those and bad things happen. And what does God require here?

First, to “do justice and righteousness”–which I hope by now I have taught you means to pursue the rights of those whose rights have been taken away. Throughout the bible (as in these verses from Jeremiah 22), these words are applied to women, children, orphans, widows, foreign nationals, illegal immigrants, the poor, and others who were most vulnerable to the powerful of the world.

Second, to “deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed”–again, God requires that we stand up for victims against the people and structures that do them harm.

Third, to “do no wrong or violence…nor shed innocent blood”–All that we do, our actions and our inactions, everything has the potential of harming others, and God has repeatedly demonstrated concern for all of humanity (cf. 2Peter 3:9 usw.). Jesus challenges us in Matthew 6 to realize the homicidal power of even our words, which through anger or selfishness may slaughter the innocent and bring God’s righteous judgement on our own heads.

What does the Lord require? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God, as another prophet summed it up (Micah 6:3).

Jeremiah, with God’s aid, hopes to help the Israelites see that they are lemmings running towards a cliff to meet their doom. Their leaders–their “shepherds”–have only their own best interests in mind. And so they wield fear and vague threats of violence that destroy and scatter the people. They know that people divided against themselves cannot stand against tyrannical leadership (cf. Mark 3:24).

But Jeremiah’s people cannot hear his voice. They are too afraid. They are too divided. The sheep have been betrayed by their shepherds. Those who have responsibility for the well-being of the sheep are only interested in manipulating their fears for their own gain.

Hope

Now while the chronology of Jeremiah is difficult to sort out in places, it seems this passage comes at a time when hope is lost, when their chances of averting the consequences that await them are slim to none. The people will be conquered. Jerusalem will fall. Life will change forever.

And so into this desperation is breathed a merciful breath of hope by our ever-compassionate and forgiving God. It won’t always be this way. A new day will come. New shepherds will arise. There will be healing, restoration, gathering, and protection. Fear will be no more. There will only be love.

Today

We still live in a world where shepherds destroy and scatter those they are called to lead.

We still live in a world where leaders waste little compassion and care for the ones they are elected to serve and whose safety they are tasked to ensure.

We still live in a world where many are dispersed……many are displaced……many are afraid……and many are missing.

And in our own nation, I think there are more aware of this right now than in ages.

 

What does that mean for us, as followers of Jesus?

What does that mean for “children of the light,” for those who have been redeemed by the resurrection work of the Christ?

On thing is for certain–it means that this word of hope–spoken thousands of years ago by God to Jeremiah and Israel–continues to be our encouragement and our vision. It means our world needs to know that the kind of redemptive work God is interested in doing involves gathering those on the margins, bringing about reconciliation and healing, providing compassionate leadership, and abolishing everything that brings about fear.

The mission of God is not to “infiltrate and extract,” whisking away the few who are sufficiently pure and self-righteous. Instead, the mission of God is to so completely transform the created order that fear, war, and violence cannot even be conceived of. God’s mission is for love to heal the world.

Good News?…or Terrible?

This mission–and the way that Jesus participates in it–is what the bible calls the good news–the gospel. And it is good news, at least for those who are broken and victims of sin.

But there’s a reason that Christ’s return is described as “terrible” as well:

His return is most decidedly not good news for those who, like the divisive shepherd-leaders of Jeremiah’s day, manipulate those around them for their own selfish gain.

Christ’s return is not good news for those leaders who profit from violence.

Christ’s return is not good news for everyone who participates–actively or passively (see Obadiah)–in the oppression of other people.

But you know, I’m not too worried about the folks for whom Christ’s return will be terrible. I pray for them, to be sure, but I try to follow Jesus–and in talking about his life and ministry Jesus said “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12 ESV). Like Christ my savior, I’m interested in the sick. And like God his–and my–Father, my concern and my attention will be focused on the margins.

“The days are coming,” Jeremiah tells us, when the world will be different, when the shepherds of our churches and our nations will be compassionate, unifying, healing, just, and on the side of the victims.

The day is also coming, when our leader will be our redeemer, Christ the King, who will reign forever and ever. To Him be the glory and the honor and the praise. Amen.