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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Baptism Sunday!!

We had baptism Sunday. One new member was baptized and two others (who had previously been baptized) shared their testimonies. It was an awesome service.

Below is the sermon I gave.

What Makes a Person? (John 4:7-30)

Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC

Sunday, March 27, 2011

3rd Sunday of Lent, 3rd week in Church-wide emphasis

When we think of Kobe Bryant, what do we think of? Basketball Player. Some may remember his legal trouble from a few years ago.

Roy Williams: basketball coach. That’s very different than basketball player. And he’s not just any coach. He’s the Tar Heels Coach.

Justin Bieber: teen idol, pop star. Many of you are saying “Jusin who?” But the teens know exactly who he is.

Barak Obama: President. Depending on your politics, good thoughts may come to mind, or angry, disgusted thoughts. Everyone would agree he is our current president and from there the opinions go their separate ways.

What makes a person? Is there more to Kobe than scoring 35 points, or more to Roy Williams than leading a team? Is there more to Mr. Obama? Is there more to Justin Bieber than … well, … anyway.

What person? What defines someone? What defines me? My sermons? My wife or kids? What defines you?

Methodist scholar William Willimon says in baptism, the church defines a person (Peculiar Speech, p.7). The baptism shows that the individual is washed clean of sin, spiritually gifted, chosen by God, called by God, and named by God.

Baptism is an expression of what God has done in Jesus Christ in the life of a specific individual. Here’s the gospel in general terms : Jesus is God in human flesh. He came because God loves us, but sin separates us from God. So, in Jesus, God came, forgave our sins, died our death, rose, and invites us to resurrection. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and acknowledges Him as Lord is saved from sin, preserved for eternal life.

Then it gets specific. It’s not everyone. It’s Alexis. Brandon. Rob. In my baptism, Jesus died for me. In his baptism, Brandon acknowledges that Jesus forgives his sins. In her baptism, Alexis proclaims that her hope of eternal life is in what Jesus did for her.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says, raised a Hindu, he spent several years reading the Bible and reading books by authors like Chuck Colson and C.S. Lewis before Christianity became his own. He’s very much an intellectual. He understood Christianity. But in a movie about the crucifixion and he saw the actor portraying Christ on the cross. It sunk in. He said, Jesus was on that cross because of Bobby Jindal’s sins (Christianity Today, March 2011, p.51).

The baptized individual was first baptized in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Jesus washes each one who comes to him in faith. We are washed clean of sin, spiritually gifted, chosen by God, called by God, and named by God.

Willimon says, “When you join the rotary club, you get a handshake and a lapel pin. When you join the church, we throw you in the water, and half drown you” (Peculiar Speech, p.32). On a more serious note, he says, “Baptism represents a radical break – the one baptized has left the powerful cultural context of her former life and entered a new life in new surroundings and a new community” (p.58). In baptism, we enter a lifestyle that does not come naturally; rather it is a “submission into a project greater than our own lives” (p.65). Jesus is the one who does it. The literal trip to the pool is recognition of what Jesus has done in the heart of the one being baptized.

The story of the Samaritan woman shows the baptism journey, from separation to joining the family of God. The story begins with brokenness.

Drawing water from a well is tiring, hard word. Most students of ancient culture assume groups of women would do this in the early morning when the day was still cool. It was a social time, a way of starting the day as a part of community, a group of people sharing life together.

One woman wasn’t part of that. She came alone, with the noon time sun beating down on her. Maybe she had come earlier also and now she had need of more water so she came again. Maybe she wasn’t a social outcast at all. Then again, maybe she was. John leaves it for us readers to decide.

The gospel does tell us she was a Samaritan woman in a Samaritan town. And Jews did not share things with Samaritans. This parenthetical notation hints at what other writings openly state. Jews hated Samaritans and vice versa and everyone in both cultures knew it. Furthermore, in both cultures, men alone, did not speak with women alone in public.

This is how far Jesus was from this woman. They were a solitary Jewish man and a solitary Samaritan woman at the well when people did go to the well – the hottest time of day. This is the longest single conversation Jesus has in the gospel. Why? Jesus came to demolish the hateful rules humans devise to separate and keep certain individuals down, in the dust.

Jesus and the woman did not discuss baptism but they talked about water. Jesus offered living water. She would never thirst again. Eternal life would burst forth in her. Jesus pours out his life for all who will drink; for all who will see him as who he is – God, savior, Lord.

The woman couldn’t see everything about Jesus – no one in John did. She saw enough to say, “Sir, give me this water.” She asked for what Jesus offered. She listened as he spoke because he, a Jewish man simply speaking to her an outcast Samaritan woman was unusual. She listened and said, “I see that you are a prophet.” Eventually, she ran to the village, the people who left her to go to the well alone. She wasn’t avoiding them anymore. She evangelized. She said, “Come and see. Could this man be the Messiah?”

The woman was in the process of being baptized in the Spirit. As an overarching theme that includes Spirit baptism, water baptism, and new life in Christ, Baptism assumes that people are broken. She had had five husbands, most likely had no children in a culture where a woman’s worth was tied to the sons she bore, and now depended on a man who was not her husband for all her needs. She was broken.

We are broken. We are unmarried. We are divorced. Our spouses have died. We are orphans. We have children who do not come to faith in Jesus. We have children who are diseased. We are unhealthy. We have parents who have Alzheimer’s disease. We have parents we’ve been mad at for 20 years. What does baptism assume about the world? Baptism assumes the people in the world are broken and in desperate need of Jesus.

What does baptism assume about the way the world should be? Jesus knew the conventions of the day. Men with his background dare not speak to women of her background in public. Why did Jesus so flagrantly violate propriety? Jesus did not come to live in the world, but to change the world. He started a conversation about water for one reason; he wanted to give her living water. He wanted her to be saved from sin, saved from a life of rejection. He wanted her to enter the community of the baptized.

When the woman goes off to the village to tell everyone the Messiah is right there among them in Sychar, Jesus says to disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. … Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4:34a, 35b). He wanted to rewrite that woman’s life story and he wants to rewrite ours, yours and mine. In baptism, Jesus begins a new narrative, and we are invited to enter the story he’s preparing for us. What does Baptism assume about the way the world should be? Baptism assumes that we are broken, but brokenness is not meant to be our story. There is another story we should be living.

What does baptism make possible? First, baptism makes the new story possible. Do we define the Samaritan woman as a ‘Samaritan’ or as a woman or as one who failed at marriage five times and now goes to the well alone every day? Not any more. Now, she is the one who talked with Jesus. It is to her Jesus said, “God is looking for true worshipers who worship in him spirit and in truth.” Now, she is the one who evangelized an entire village with an excitement not often seen in people who have been in church so long they take God for granted. Baptism makes a new story possible.

Baptism also makes a witness possible. The new story is only good news when it is told. She said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”

Alexis says, “Let me tell you about the day I was baptized at HillSong. More importantly, let me tell you what Jesus did in me that led to my baptism.”

I say, “Let me tell you about everything my Dad and Mom and Grandparents and Sunday school teachers taught me in 1978, 1979, 1980. It all came together in the compassion a counselor showed me at the Detroit Baptist Camp in the Summer of 1981. Let me tell how somehow in my 11-year-old mind, I knew that camp counselor was being used by Jesus to call me to himself.” And you tell your story. Baptism gives us a testimony.

What does Baptism make impossible? Who could possibly be farther from God than an outcast Samaritan woman? How about an intellectual writer raised in abusive fundamentalism by oppressive, hateful preachers that him to doubt the existence of God? Or, an Egyptian, an Islamic intellectual? Jesus reached that Samaritan woman by violating conventions and talking to her. Jesus reached the Christian author Philip Yancey in spite of the fact that Yancey’s biggest doubts about God came from his childhood church experiences. Jesus reached Mark Gabriel in Egypt when a Christian pharmacist slipped him a copy of the New Testament and Gabriel read the whole thing in a night. He was imprisoned and almost by his own father, but Gabriel renounced Islam, accepted Christ and escaped Egypt. And he had no missionary or pastor leading, just the Word and the Holy Spirit.

What does Baptism make impossible? Baptism and the stories around baptism – people being born again – show that it is impossible for us to be out of God’s reach. Someone can choose to reject Jesus. We this often in the Gospel of John, highlighted with the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. But, we are never out of Jesus’ reach. Even after Peter was arrested in his own depression for denying Jesus, the resurrected Lord reached out to him. Baptism shows the extent to which God will reach for us in our brokenness. It is impossible to be out of his reach.

What new culture does Baptism create? Baptism creates the born-again culture. Throughout out Paul’s letters we find references to putting on the new self; clothing one’s self with Christ; in Christ we are new Creations. This is the movement from lonely Samaritan woman at the well to “Sir, give me this water.” From “I have no husband” to “Could this be the Messiah.”

My movement from cultural Christianity that has more to do with where I grew up than what I believe; from that to Jesus is mine, and I am his. I am not defined by the name “Tennant” or the state of Michigan or my English heritage. I am defined by Jesus on the cross, Jesus resurrected, leaving the empty tomb behind.

You are not divorced; failure at marriage; dying of disease; beleaguered parent of a wayward child. Those realities may be aspects of your life but you aren’t defined by them. You are child of God. You are one of the baptized, those washed and made clean of sin. You are a new creation.

The verse to hold on to as we close is a part of the Samaritan woman’s testimony to us. In John 4:15, she says, “Sir give me this water of eternal life.” That is our prayer as we go.

If you have never been through the water baptism, step out today. Today, receive Jesus for the first time. Ask him into your life, and His Spirit will come and wash you clean and make you new. Let today be the day everything changes as in Christ you are born again. Say, “Lord Jesus, I need this Living water. Lord Jesus, I want to be defined this way: I am a child of God.”

If you have been baptized, this is your prayer. Many are baptized, but continue living the old life, settling for water and things and pleasures and security and answers that do not satisfy. So today, my fellow baptized one, step out. Pray, “Lord Jesus, I need living water. I don’t want to be defined by my role in the family or my job title or the church where I have my membership. I want to be defined this way: I am a child of God.”

Pray this way continually – every day of life. God will give us a story to tell and when we tell it we are witnesses and through our witness, the Holy Spirit draws people to Jesus into the community of the Baptized.


Monday, March 28, 2011

A Recent Experience on Rural Highway 62, headed South

I was driving with my second grade son down the two-lane road to a Cub Scout Camp-out, our first camp-out. As we tooled along, we noted a car off the road, on the left side, smashed head on into a telephone pole and sitting in the ditch angled up, about 45 degrees. The passenger side was way up in the air.

As we breezed by, a voice in my head said, "the tail lights in the car were on." I wondered, was anyone still in the car. Then I said to my 8-year-old in the back seat, "We have to go back."

"But, We'll be late for camp."

"Son, it doesn't matter. When someone is in trouble, the right thing is to help them."

Now, I am no noble hero. Here's what went through my mind.

Call 9-1-1 as you drive away. But then what? The 9-1-1 operator will want to know where exactly was the accident? Well, I don't know. Somewhere on 62. I wasn't even sure of what direction I was headed. West? And I would have had to explain to the 9-1-1 operator why I drove away from the scene. And, hello! We're going to the cub scouts' event. What do cub scouts and boy scouts do? They help! So, I have to teach my son how to be a scout. Other scout dads might pass this way en route to the camp. I do not want to hear how they stopped as we drove off. One more thing - hello! I am a pastor. Pastors are supposed to help!

Seriously, all those thoughts ran through my mind as we turned the car around in a 15-second span. And I really did not know if anyone was in the car on the side of the road or not. But, I was going back for a guilty conscience, I was going back out of fear for my own reputation, and above all, I was going back to help for the sake of teaching my son the right thing. I did have compassion. I really did. But, it wasn't only compassion that worked in my mind and convinced me to go back.

We turned around and headed back to site of the accident. By the time we arrived 6-8 other cars had passed. There was barely any shoulder to speak of. As I said, it was a rural route, two-lane road. I was extremely worried that another car might hit my son, but he wanted to get out. So I told him to stay back and I would walk to the scene of the accident.

The moment we opened our doors, we heard horrible screaming from the car that was wedged into the telephone pole. When I got to the scene several people were shouting encouragement to the two girls in the car. I would guess their ages to be in the 17-23 range. The passenger was in the process of crawling out. Several people helped. They carried to a grassy area on the other side of the street.

One man remained. He and I looked nervously up at the electric lines connected to the now smashed telephone pole. It was leaning. The car wedged into it was leaning. He went to the driver's side. The young driver was screaming and crying. She had blood dripping from where her head had rammed into the steering wheel. She was not pinned.

He said, "I need you to crawl out the passenger side. You're not pinned, but we cannot open your door." This took some convincing but finally she pulled herself together to begin climbing toward the passenger side, up and out of the car. I ran over and sort of caught her as she fell out of the car. I lifted her, bloody head resting against my chest, and the man quickly lifted her feet. We carried her across and laid her in the grass next to her friend.

I sat beside the girl holding her hand, and several of the women who were nearby began encouraging both women. They continued to be in shock, continued to wail. I imagine of now dozen stopped cars that many people had called 9-1-1. Within a 5-minute span at least three fire trucks and four ambulances converged on the scene. Those combined with the sheriff's and state policemen amounted to a small army of rescue people.

When the EMT's took over at the woman's side and I moved away, I went back to where my son was. He wanted to leave but I told him I had to give the police a statement. My son was scared, but he told me had been praying to God for the women when he watched the other man and me carry the driver across the road. My son telling me of his prayers was a powerful moment for me.

As he and I stood and watched the scene, my adrenalin shut down, and my body began shaking. During all the action, I really didn't feel any nerves. I was just afraid the telephone pole would give way and the power lines would come crashing down. But that never happened. Afterward, standing with my son, I felt very weak, very overwhelmed. Later that night, a sharp backache set, probably from carrying the woman from the car.

It's amazing how life turns and circles around. When I was a young boy, we would greet my dad at the door each day when he came home from work. We would run and jump on him and shout "Daddy's home." One day, he was late. Hours late.

Near bed time, we heard the car pull in. I met him in the garage. His business suit had blood all over it. He said with a strange, cracking voice, "I tried. I tried, but I couldn't do anything."

Driving home, he saw a man get hit by a mac truck on the expressway. The truck driver stopped and immediately called for assistance. My dad pulled the large blanket from his trunk and rushed to the injured man. Dad covered him with the blanket and tried to encourage him. He stayed until paramedics came and took the man away. The man was probably dead by the time he made it to the hospital. It was the first time I had ever seen my father (Superman in my 8-year-old eyes) cry. The memory is emblazoned on my soul. I wonder if last Friday's events will have the same impact on my boy. I hope so.

And, I pray for the two women E______ and A____. We did managed to get their names and call their mom.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I am Embarrassed as I look to God

I am a pastor, and at the moment, an embarrassed pastor. I want to state from the beginning that I messed up. And I have to stand before God and admit that I failed to represent Jesus well.

Monday, a church member came in with great concern that our church is not growing. She sees another church in our area that's only been around less than 10 years. They probably number in the 1000's. They've started a couple of satellite and are looking to open another one. Some of our members, have left our congregation to attend this hot, new church. While this church is one of the hottest things around, we average 120-140 in weekly attendance. That's about the same number we've averaged for 5 years.

I was actually thrilled with our conversation. She wants us to do the things this other, fast-growing church is doing. She wants to see that kind of excitement in our body.

I happen to think a lot of exciting things are happening at HillSong: mission trips, children & teens growing in the faith, new families becoming a part of our ministry, local mission projects. But, as we have many grad students in our body, we see a lot of transition. The incoming new folks don't outnumber the outgoing folks (90% of whom leave because they are leaving the area). The result is our numbers pretty much stay the same, and the woman who came to my office interpreted this as a failure on the part of our church (and maybe on my part as the pastor).

I like our conversation because it shows her passion for seeing the church grow and the lost come to Jesus. It does put some pressure on me but that comes with the job.

Tuesday - a different member came in to tell me about a personality conflict between two people in the church. Of course in the long run, our conversation was ineffective because neither of the participants in the personality clash were present. This concerned member and I were third and fourth parties. But everyone involved, the two conflicting members, the concerned one who came to me, and of course me are high-level leaders in the church. Our discussion was good, but in the end all I am left with is the knowledge that two of our leaders are at each other, and one won't talk to me and the other isn't aware of a problem.

This kind of tension exists for all pastors everywhere, it is just that it is near the forefront at the moment. It will either be dealt with or subside, but right now it's on my mind.

And then there's my home life. My wife and kids are awesome. They are my absolute joy. The only problem is we are in a season of life where sleep is in short supply. I won't go into the details, but most nights, my wife and I are awakened sometime between midnight and 3AM. And then, I am again awakened between 4:45 and 5:30AM. That's the norm.

Millions of parents deal with the sleep loss I am describing here and we are adoptive parents so this is totally of our own making. Still, it renders me tired much of the time.

All of what I've described above leads me to Wednesday. I am driving with my 4-year-old son. We're going about 50mph in a 45 zone. A car comes zooming up on us, really tailgating. And I get mad. So I slow down. About 46mph, the guy zooms by and makes a gesture as he does. Now I am steamed.

Then the guy has to stop at the stop light. And within 3 seconds, I am beside him at the stop light. He makes another gesture. So I roll my window down and begin speaking forcefully (maybe I was yelling, but I don't think so). Repeatedly, I look him in the eye and I say, "Roll your window down." I am sure I have an extremely angry look in my eyes. The guy and his passenger, both men about 55 or so, occasionally look at me in disgust and then look ahead. I know they were uncomfortable.

Finally after an interminable time and me shouting "Roll your window down" about 50 times, the light turns green and we go. At my turn, the other driver and I part ways. And then I hear a 4-year-old voice say, "Why roll window down, Dad?" I respond about how the other driver did something wrong. But, I can feel the Holy Spirit creeping in saying, "Rob, did you represent Jesus well, just now?"

Obviously I did not. I sinned in my anger, in my actions, and in my words. To God, I have to honestly say, "I am sorry that I, a disciple of Jesus, behaved in that way." I am feeling some stress this week. I am very tired and this is at the start of my sermon-research day. And none of that is an excuse for me to be screaming at another driver. What did I teach my son? What did I, a representative of Jesus, model for the world?

In stressful moments when we are tired, we reveal our true selves. I want to be someone who points others to Jesus. Sometimes I succeed. This morning I failed.

I pray for the man in the other car and his passenger. I pray that they would see Jesus today.

I pray for my son. I pray God would help me teach my son how to handle conflict and stress the way Jesus handles conflict and stress.

And I pray for myself. I pray that God would help me grow from this moment. I pray that God would replace the old sinful self with a new creation and that I would die to self and not feel self-righteous anger that turns into sinful rage.

I also pray that God would fill me with grace and love and wisdom and knowledge. I probably won't see those guys who were in the other car again. But I will see the church members I mentioned earlier, along with about 120 others who will worship at our church this Sunday. I need to share with them the word of God and today I begin working on what I will say. I pray God will inspire me so that the sermon I offer contributes to the spiritual growth of all who hear it.

That's my confession.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Transforming Church

Church: Where God does More than We can Imagine (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

2nd Sunday of Lent, 2nd Sunday of Church-wide emphasis

Indeed, in the present climate of mistrust of institutions, many people who yearn for a more meaningful and fulfilling life would regard the church as an unlikely place to go for guidance.
Hugh Mackay (Australian psychologist, social researcher)

My mind is my own church.
Thomas Paine (18th century author, intellectual)

I don't have to go to church. The church is within me and the experience is my own. It's my life experience.
Mariel Hemingway

Anyone who is to find Christ must first find the church. How could anyone know where Christ is and what faith is in him unless he knew where his believers are?
Martin Luther

What do we say about church? What do we think? What do we believe?

Church is a place, an address, 201 Culbreth Road. Church is an institution, and mostly when people in the world reference the Church, they mean the Catholic Church. But, that’s not the case for people deeply embedded in the American Evangelical Church culture.

In that world, life revolves around the church, and the church is the building where a particular congregation carries on its life as a body of people who worship Jesus. “I just dropped kids off at the church.” “Honey, could you swing by the church and turn in our reservation forms for Wednesday night supper?” “Hey, are you going to Pancake breakfast up at the church.”

What do we mean when we say the church? More importantly, what does the Bible say about the church? The Bible says a lot, but this morning we will focus in on one letter, Ephesians. The message there shows just what is possible when a church is not an institution or a location or a building, but rather a gathering of people who are united in their belief and brotherhood in Jesus Christ. When Jesus is who binds us together and we together live in His name, God does among us more than we can ask or imagine.

We read in Ephesians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … he destined us for adoption as his children” (1:3, 5).

8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:8-10).

“The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (4:11-13).

In Ephesians, we see God in action. He destined us. We are created in Christ Jesus. Christ gave spiritual gifts. God has put all things under Christ (1:22). God is in all places at once – here as we worship, walking through painful recovery in Haiti, standing with the hurting in Japan.

Furthermore, this very present, omnipresent God is especially interested in people who gather in Jesus’ name. It says in Ephesians 1:23 that the church is the body of Christ and the fullness of Christ even as he fills all people. When we talk about church and specifically about church as it is described in Ephesians, we see God at work. What does Church assume about the world? Church assumes God is at work in the world, working with people and within people. God is at work here, among us, His church.

The church assumes God is at work among Christ followers. What does the church assume about the way the world should be? From Ephesians 2:

13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

The church assumes people should be united. In first century Christianity, the most significant division Jew-Gentile. The earliest Christians were Jewish and they wondered could someone truly worship God if they were uncircumcised and were Gentile? The answer in Ephesians is yes, they can. Because of Jesus, that divide over circumcision was bridged.

Jesus bridges schisms between people today too. The most painful split in our country’s history has been between black and white, people of African descent and people of European descent. We are involved in two projects that are attempting to, in the power of Jesus Christ, overcome that historic split just as the first century church overcame the Jewish-Gentile split.

One project is local – Restoration Carrboro-Chapel Hill. The basic mission is to do home repair for lower income people, primarily widows, in the Historic North side neighborhood located behind Mama Dipps Restaurant on Rosemary Street. We are intentional about reaching out to historically black churches and historically white churches. Both traditions are represented on the steering committee. Both have sent volunteers who have given a lot time to the project. Both have contributed money. You can participate in this effort that does good works in Jesus’ name and intentionally joins believers across denomination and racial lines. Pray that God would bring in more and more churches, including Asian and Hispanic churches. And pray that God would expand our financial base and volunteer base. We did one project in 2010 and hope to do 2 or 3 in 2011. Ultimately we’d like to do 5-6 projects a year. Give. You can give directly to this work; just put your contribution in an envelope and write Restoration Carrboro-Chapel Hill on it. And volunteer. We need painters, handy men, and willing labor. See me or call the church office during the week to express your interest.

A second project that involves expressing the love of Jesus across racial lines is international. Over 50 kids at the care point in Kombolcha, Ethiopia are sponsored by HillSong families. Sponsorship involves giving $37 a month, writing letters to the sponsor child, and praying for him. You can sign up to sponsor a child today. See my wife. And you can volunteer to go to Kombolcha in Ethiopia for about 10 days in Spring of 2012. The trip will be a blessing to the 300 kids cared for in Kombolcha. And it will make a tremendous impact as our people return changed having seen more of Jesus by seeing more of the world. I hope at least 12 HillSong people go on this trip.

What does the church assume about the way the world should be? We should be united in Christ. In Ephesians, the issue was uniting Jews and Gentiles. Today, the concept of unity in Jesus is the same; one of the issues is uniting us across racial lines – African, Caucasian, Asian, and all others.

What does the church make possible? It makes this unity among varied people possible. What else? What does the church that is founded on Jesus and stands on Jesus and relies on Jesus and calls others to turn from sin and come to Jesus – what does this church make possible?

Ephesians 3:10 says, “Through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Astounding! What God does among us here informs cosmic beings, angels and heavenly councils about God. What do you or I have to teach an angel? Ephesians 3:10 is very specific. Through the church, the wisdom of God is made known in the heavenly places. How can that be?

We turn to Ephesians 6:12. The early church was assailed by people, Judaizers, who wanted to impose religious legalism. The church was also persecuted by pagans who rejected monotheism and demanded worship of the emperor. The church cannot worship the emperor. We worship God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ. We cannot be legalistic. We are a community of grace. When Paul looked on these attacks on the church, he saw something spiritual going on. “For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.”

Participating in projects like the ones I listed, we fight against racism and hunger and in doing that, we, the church reveal the wisdom of God in the heavenly places. God has chosen the church as his way of battling evil and bringing love to men and women. The church, where Jesus is Lord and the Spirit speaks, makes it possible for people to know the things of God.

What does the church make impossible?

14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

17Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.

22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (

The church makes it impossible to remain spiritually stagnant. We must no longer be children, tossed and to fro. We must grow up in everyway into him who is our head, Jesus. There are two choices; we are either growing in Christ, or sin is growing in us.

I know there people who spend their entire lives in individual churches, and you meet them in their 70’s, and they don’t seem to have the love of Christ in them at all. They seem mean and bitter, or worldly, no different than one who has never set foot in a church. And they’ve come to worship, Sunday School classes and other church activities all their lives. This type of life appears spiritually stagnant. In actuality, I would call that life a dying life, a life in which sin and darkness have overpowered faith. Just getting into a local church and remaining there, never growing, for 70 or so years is impossible. If that church is truly following after Jesus, the participants there have to either mature in Christ, or shrink away and refuse to clothe themselves with the new self as it says in Ephesians 4:24. In spiritual life in the church, there is no straight line. One is drawing closer and closer to Jesus. Or sin, subtly, insidiously grows in that person’s heart and actions.

Church assumes God is at work.

Church assumes we should be united in Christ.

Church makes it possible to know the mysteries of God because Ephesians 3 states explicitly that God has chosen to reveal truth to the world and even to the cosmos through the church on earth.

Church makes is impossible to remain as we are.

What new culture is created by the church? The transformational community. In the transformational community, we come and meet God. In the transformation community, we die to self, we give away our time, we give away our money, we befriend others we would avoid outside that community, we put others first, we love those we previously did not care about, we love our enemies, and we see dying as gain because we know in death we enter the resurrection.

I pray today you will prayerfully consider what part you would play in the transformational community – the community where we are “created according to the likeness of God” (4:24).

Some are in the community for a long time and never grow in faith, which means they are dying in sin even as they appear as a Christian.

Others are dying to self, and being filled with Christ. These are not the same as they were a few years ago, or even 6 months. They are changed, transformed, new creations.

There are numerous ways that transformed Christ-followers in the church live and numerous things they do. I have mentioned two – a local project, Restoration Carrboro-Chapel, and an international one, child sponsorship and a mission trip to spend time with orphans in Kombolcha, Ethiopia. I hope everyone here will inquire about these two projects. If God is calling you in another direction, listen when he calls, and move.

Don’t resist the call of the God or life-changing invasion of His Spirit into your spirit. Be a part of something that is beyond what we could ask or imagine. Be a part of the church, the transformational community where human beings meet God.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Word of God creating a New Culture

Every year at our church, we do a 7-week church wide emphasis. This year our church-wide emphasis is on the culture of follow Jesus Christ, and the new culture Jesus creates. During the church-wide emphasis, all of our small groups focus on the same subject as the Sunday morning Sermon. We don't do this during the Sundays of Lent but this year, we are.

For more on the culture-making idea, check out Andy Crouch's website:

Here is the sermon text from March 13, 2011:

The Word (John 1:1-18), Sunday, March 13, 2011

First Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Church-wide Emphasis on Culture Making

What are we referring to when we say “the word?”

When I hear the phrase word of God, I think of the Bible. The entire Bible. Is that what we mean?

The word of God – are we talking about scripture? On Ash Wednesday service I suggested that disciples of Jesus Christ all agree we should read the Bible because it is authoritative in our lives. We should read it, listen, and live by what it says. But, when we say the word do we mean the Bible, Genesis to Revelation?

Or, referring to the word as Christians, do we mean the Gospel?

In the outstanding study guide Heather has written for our church-wide emphasis, she quoted Anglican scholar N.T. Wright. He says the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) give the story of the life of Jesus Christ. Gospel is the proclamation of the saving work of Jesus.

Is that the word of God? In that phrase are we talking about the details of the life of Jesus? Or more specifically, are we talking about the saving work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection?

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Here ‘Word’ does not refer to the scriptures and Word does not refer to something Jesus did; his saving work on behalf of people. In John 1:1, Word means Jesus. Word is capitalized, as if a person’s name in the New Revised Standard Version, the Homan Christian Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New King James Version; and the NIV. Bible translators who disagree often are unanimous on this even though in Greek word, ‘logos,’ is not capitalized. Scholars of all different stripes know who John means. The word is Jesus.

Yet, that does not mean we look at Word as simply another name for him. Word does mean Jesus. The word of God is the Bible. And the Bible does introduce the Gospel. Bible-Gospel-Jesus each speaks when we listen to the Word. So, everyone who can get there hands on a Bible can hear the Gospel and meet Jesus.

The Word changed history. For people who believe it, the word changes the future. No person anywhere is able to live as if the word never happened. The Word creates a culture – a way of being human and of being human in relation others, in relation to society, and to creation. To see how, we put five questions to the Word.

First, what does the Word assume about the world? It assumes that the world is lost, far from God, and unable to make its back to God.

Jesus said to a crowd that gathered for dinner in Zacchaeus’ home that he, Jesus, came to seek out and save the lost (Luke 19:10). He purpose was finding and saving the lost because the lost need to be saved.

The writer of John says, he wrote the fourth Gospel so that through reading we come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and through believing have life in Jesus’ name (John 20:31). Without Jesus, life is not possible. We are sinners cutoff from God. Only in hearing the story and believing in Jesus can we move from death to life.

One morning Jesus was slipped away from the group for pre-dawn time alone with God. Mobs of people led by his new disciple, Peter, found him. They were diseased people, tired and desperate and full of pain that blinded them to the fact that Jesus had healed late into the previous night and now needed solitude. The crowd couldn’t see how they were intruding, either on Jesus or on the home of Peter’s Mother-in-law where the healings took place. All they could see was Jesus as the only hope they had for anything.

Did he get mad? No. He said to Peter, “Let us go on to neighboring towns so that I might preach the message their also; for that is what I came to do” (Mark 1:38).

Jesus came to seek out and save. The gospel was written so readers would believe in Jesus and be saved. Jesus came to preach to people the Gospel of forgiveness of sins. What does the Word assume about the world? The Word assumes that the world is hopelessly sinful and the only salvation from eternal death comes from Jesus.

What does the Word assume about the way the world should be?

To all who believed, John 1:12 tells us, Jesus gave power to be sons and daughters of God.

We know John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

We listen as Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32).

The word assumes that we should be sons and daughters of God who have the freedom of Christ as we spend eternity with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Victims of abuse needs to hear this. Abuse happens because we are lost in sin. When a husband strikes a wife it is abuse. When orphans go hungry it is abuse. When preachers thunder about certain people groups, how they are hell-bound; that is spiritual abuse. When governments manipulate the poor in their country or in other countries and cater to wealthy business men it is absolutely abuse.

If in your life, you have felt victimized or abused, or if you have been riled with passion on behalf of an individual who has been abused, then hear what the Word assumes about the way the world should be. This includes the way your life should be. The Word assumes you should be a child of God who as a relationship of spiritual intimacy with God. The Word assumes God desires for you to be with Him for eternity. The Word wants you to be free.

With that in mind, what does the Word make possible?

The Word comes before all that is; before the earth, before human culture, before the Bible, and before all that we see. In our text this morning, John 1, verse 3, we read, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” The Word makes existence possible.

The word is also the source of life. We read this earlier, John 1:4. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Elsewhere in scripture we see that the Son of God – Jesus – is the totality. Colossians says, “He himself is before all things and in Him all things hold together” (1:17).

The word makes life possible. The Word makes existence possible. And in John 1:12, from today’s reading, “To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God.” The Word makes relationship with God possible, and not just any relationship. It is a family relationship.

What does the Word of God render impossible?

Again look at John’s prologue, the Gospel of John, 1:1-18. The light of the Word shines in the darkness and darkness cannot overcome it. The Word makes it impossible for sin to claim victory over the human heart. The Word makes it impossible for Satan to impose His will on humanity. Evil does not win. Sin has been vanquished. Death will be no more.

Some may live with the mistaken notion that God and Satan are polar opposites, two sides of the same coin, rivals. Lies all. Not only is God completely superior to Satan, the two aren’t even comparable. What’s more, Satan has already been defeated. When Jesus died on the cross, Satan was snuffed out.

I recently read of a missionary couple that several years ago was serving in another country in a rain forest climate. Where they lived, anacondas – snakes that exceed 6 feet in length – roam freely. One day, an anaconda came right into their kitchen. The wife, as wives sometimes do, went to ask her husband to take of this unfortunate intrusion. Only she couldn’t ask him because he already had run out the front door. She quickly followed. They found a villager, explained the problem, and he went in with a machete.

A few moments later he emerged smiling, severed snake head in hand. The deed was done, he proclaimed. But then he warned them. The snake’s body doesn’t know it is dead yet. It’s blood, flowing through the 5½ feet that remained, would cause the body to thrash around for a couple of hours.[i]

Satan is like that headless, dead snake. He’s thrashing around, making a mess, not completely aware that he is dead and has been since Jesus came. The Word makes darkness impossible. The Word makes victory for Satan and annihilation by sin impossible.

The Word assumes the world is lost. The Word assumes we people should be in relationship with God. The Word made flesh, Jesus, makes that relationship possible. The Word makes Satan’s chances at victory impossible.

What new culture is created by the Word?

I believe the answer to this final question is church! I don’t mean HillSong Church or Mount Carmel Baptist Church or any other specific individual church. I don’t mean a denomination like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I don’t mean a wider communion, like the Baptist World Alliance or the World Wide Anglican Communion.

The church is the new culture created by the Word. Church means all believers everywhere. Some have called this the church universal or the invisible church. It includes all who truly receive Jesus as Savior and acknowledge Him as Lord; all who worship Jesus and are baptized in his name and in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit. The church created by the Word, with Jesus as its head, includes Orthodox, Protestants, Catholics, Coptics, and us – Evangelicals. The church is seen at work in the world, when the poor are fed, the lost hear the Gospel the captives are released, people love one another in Jesus’ name, and God is worshiped in Spirit and in truth.

Some may say the culture created by the Word is the Kingdom of God. I decided not to answer the question that way because the Kingdom has always existed. Jesus did not come to establish the Kingdom but to reveal it. We live in the Kingdom when we follow Jesus. We come to the Kingdom by way of Jesus and usually we meet Jesus in the church (either literally in a building like ours, or when the church goes out in the world to share Jesus).

The Kingdom is our destination. The Church is the cultural worldview created in us when we live in the Word and the Spirit of Christ resides in us.

To conclude then, I go back to Jesus-Bible-Gospel. To live in the cultural word created by the Word, receive Jesus, worship Jesus, and follow Jesus. To know how to do all of that, read the Bible, starting with the four gospels. Read and be filled with the words of the four gospels. To share the culture of the Word, be prepared to share the Gospel with unchurched people when the opportunity comes.

God loves us. Jesus died for us, to take away our sins. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and adopted as sons and daughters of God.

As we share, we remember who the Word is and what the Word does. And, we invite others into the world the Word creates. So we have our culture, a way of living, the culture of the Word.


[i] Carolyn Arends, “Satan’s a Goner, Christianity Today, February 2011, p.54.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Specific Mountain-Moving Prayer

In my previous post, I talked about praying the impossible.

In the article linked below, there is a story of a young women, very young, who needs to have a different life than one she is forced to live. I hope one of my readers will pray for this woman every day of Lent.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pray the Impossible - A different kind of Ash Wednesday Message

Most Christians agree that the Bible is authoritative. We bicker with each other about the proper interpretation of scripture, but I don’t run into many believers who reject the Bible. Arguments are about what the Bible says. Most agree that the Bible should be read and applied in life.

With that in mind, I step into an activity we agree on – the reading of scripture. I turn to 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.” Also, Matthew 6:5, “And whenever you pray …” I won’t even finish the verse. Jesus assumes his followers will pray. He doesn’t instruct them to pray; of course they pray! He teaches how.

We turn to Matthew 17, where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you if you have faith the size of a mustard seed , you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (vs.20-21). I don’t know if I like that verse. As a pastor, how do I preach that? I have no practical examples from my own life. I’ve never moved a mountain. Typically, I want to admire mountains and maybe climb them, if the climb doesn’t require equipment or technical expertise. Move a mountain?

Really though, Jesus isn’t telling Peter or you or me to move mountains. He never moved one. He’s talking about prayer and impossibility. When we believe in prayer, nothing is impossible.

Remember, regardless of any theological disputes we might come up with, we all agree that the Bible is important. In the Bible, Paul says pray without ceasing, Jesus assumes we will do just that, and then Jesus says when we do it with mustard seed-sized faith, nothing is too big; nothing is impossible. Mustard seed-sized prayers have mountain moving results.

These verses are a small sampling of what the Bible has to tell us about prayer.

Prayer is a normal activity in Christian life. Adherents of other faiths are equally committed to prayer. Devout Muslims pray 5 times a day. Buddhists, Hindus, and Mormons each in very different forms pray. Everything Christians know about prayer is rooted in Judaism and today devout Jews are steadfast pray-ers. And within Christianity, there are countless forms of prayer.

So what can we say prayer assumes about the world? I approach this question as an Evangelical Christian. I cannot answer for someone in any other faith. I would not attempt to give a Catholic answer, or an Orthodox answer, or a Coptic answer. I am trained as a Baptist pastor, and that training and two decades of service in Baptist churches heavily influences how I talk about prayer.

What does prayer assume about the world? It assumes that human beings need help that we cannot provide for ourselves; help that nature will not provide; help that will not come on its own, over time. The idea that we pray operates on the assumption that right now, there are messes that will only be cleaned up when we talk to God and hear from God. Prayer assumes we need to communicate with God.

Remember, the Bible, which Christians acknowledge as word from God, says we are to pray without ceasing, and when we do so with seed-tiny faith, mountains are moved.

If prayer assumes the world – humanity – needs to talk to God and hear from God in order to survive, then what does prayer assume about the way the world should be?

Bad things happen – war; disease; disasters; economic collapse. When the cataclysmic occurs, either in the life of an individual or in a society or in many societies around the globe, prayer assumes we should talk to God, and we should do with the unfaltering belief that God will hear us. Not only will God hear us, but God is all powerful and is able to give the help we need.

Prayer does not assume that in an ideal world there is no suffering. Suffering leads some to pray and others to give up on prayer. Assuming how the world should be, prayer is the central action in the divine-human relationship. Today millions pray. In assuming how the world should be, prayer assumes people would pray in faith, which for the most part they don’t right now. Some do, but most have very little spiritual acumen when they bow their heads.

What does prayer assume about the world? That people need to be in conversation with God.

What does prayer assume about the way the world should be? People should pray in faith – belief that is so strong it defies common sense. That mountain cannot move from here to there. Jesus says it can.

A third question: what does prayer make possible? In Mark chapter 9, the disciples, minus Peter, James, and John, failed to overcome a demon that inflicted terrible epileptic seizures on a boy. The nine disciples were overwhelmed by the possessing spirit. Then Jesus came along and won the victory over the devil’s minion. Why? He said, “This kind only comes out through prayer” (Mark 9:29).

In my own life, I remember flying across the Atlantic Ocean, remembering a great task I had ahead of me. I wept because I was overwhelmed with the work ahead. I felt completely unprepared, totally unqualified. But, I knew the task was mine and mine alone. But, not mine alone! From my pitiful “woe-is-me” thoughts, I moved into prayer. I was calmed by the reality that God would walk with and help along the way. It doesn’t mean the work hasn’t been hard. It has. Prayer made it possible for me to be relax as I anticipated the work and then to succeed at those points when the work was too much for me.

I think you and I together could brainstorm 100 other things prayer makes possible. I would sum it up this way. Prayer makes it possible for us to hear the voice of God, to live in the power of God, and experience the helping presence of God in all the moments of life.

It that’s a rough synopsis of what prayer makes possible, what does prayer make impossible? Once we have understood a little bit about prayer and entered a life of prayer, it is impossible to say something is impossible. Rejecting the impossible doesn’t mean we get whatever we want. God is not Santa Claus. God is not a credit card with no limits and no requirement of payment.

Jesus does not say, “Ask and your heart’s desire will be given to you.” He says, “Ask, and it will be given to you.” What is “it?” A few verses later, he clarifies. “If you who are evil know how to give good things (like a fish) to your hungry children, how much will the Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask” (7:11).

Prayer makes it impossible for us to not ask. We can choose to ignore God, but we cannot say, “God you ignored me in my need.” God sees us and is ready to meet our needs and meet us in the dead center of our worst with the depths of his limitless love. Prayer makes it impossible to say, “God has forgotten me.” Prayer makes it impossible to say “There’s nothing I can do.” There is always something we can do. We can pray.

Then, the final question is what culture does prayer create? My fellow Bible-reading Christ followers, I want to answer this final question in two ways.

First, prayer creates a shared culture among us. We are different in how we would approach difficult life challenges than we would be if prayer was not an option. One of us may be hit so hard by catastrophe, he simply cannot pray in the moment. However, the body of Christ, the church, comes around that wounded one and prays for him. That phrase means we lift his name and his burden up to God. It also means that we pray in his place until he is able to join them and pray for himself. Until his wounding is healed enough for him to go God, we go to God on his behalf and in his stead. So, prayer creates a culture of connectedness – between people and God, and also individuals with one another.

Second, prayer creates a culture of the possible. Christians enter into scenarios human logic disregards. We’ve never done that. We can’t do that. That can’t happen. In a culture where we believe prayer is real because God is real, we don’t say those things. We dare believe that when we pray for imprisoned Christ-followers in North Korea, our prayers make a difference. When we go before God on behalf of the suffering people of Haiti, our prayer somehow helps. We go to our knees and pray for women who are completely oppressed in Iran, and we believe it makes a difference that we prayed.

Believing that, we know we can do something about the biggest problems in the world. And knowing we can do something means when we don’t pray, that makes a difference too. Failure to pray is failure to participate with God in a way God has made for us.

The season of Lent involves the practice of spiritual disciplines. Believers fast, sacrificing some food or activity. Sisters and brothers in Christ do season-specific individual devotions as signs of their desire to turn back to God. Lent is a season of repenting. I encourage these practices. Give something up for Lent if it helps you focus on Jesus. Repent of your sins and receive forgiveness. Spiritual discipline, including prayer, is the way to live as one follows Jesus.

As we think about the culture of prayer, I believe this year, God is calling us to more than the personal prayers and individualistic spiritual devotion. I think individual practices are part of the call, but I believe specifically in Spring of 2011, God is calling us to mustard seed-sized prayer that yields mountainous results. We are going to together pray the impossible.

In any type of prayer, we have meaningful experiences in specific identification. Exactly what “impossible prayers” will we pray in 2011? I suggest going before God in prayer in the following areas.

- Prayer for Political Upheaval in Northern Africa and the Middle East

- Prayer for Orphan Care

- Prayer for Victims of Disasters

- Prayer for the Persecuted Church

- Prayer for Missionaries known to our churches

- Prayer for persons battling Addiction

- Prayer for Women (in situations of trafficking and in countries like Afganistan)

- Prayer for Water (in places like India, Yemen, and Haiti where water is scarce)

It is entirely appropriate to pray for God to be at work in our individual lives. Equally, it is important to pray for God to bring the redemption of Jesus in our families, in our churches, in our communities, and in our nation. All those prayers matter. But tonight, in the spirit of the culture of praying the impossible, pray for the world and dare to believe that in ways we don’t understand, our prayers matter to God. Make a priority prayer and pray beyond your circle of familiarity. Pray for one of the circumstances listed above. Pray for it every single day from now till Easter. As a part of your Lenten discipline, move mountains. Pray the impossible.