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Monday, January 30, 2012

Football and Sabbath

Can I watch football on the Sabbath? Is that an "ok" Sabbath activity? This question is important because in America, millions attend church, but the number that invests time in the NFL is probably 10 times higher.

In the comments section of a recent blog post, I wrote that simply watching football is not in and of itself a good Sabbath activity. I am a huge football fan. There is a part of me that would enjoy watching the 1:00 game, the 4:30 game, the 7:00PM wrap-up show, and then the 8:30PM game. I could be quite happy with pizza, chips, soda, and 12 hours of football. That would be lazy and slothful. That would be self-indulgent. That would be a gorging on junk food and the junk for the mind (endless commercials advertising beer, cars, big screen TV, etc). The advertising, both the products and the tasteless irrelevant methods used to push them, along is enough to say watching that much TV is not Sabbath.

I want to pick up on a really good but unresolved conversation I had with a church member at the backdoor on Sunday after worship. He made the case the Sabbath rest should have a measure of self-indulgence. For him and me, watching football is a relaxing, self-indulgent activity. I was uncomfortable affirming football watching as Sabbath time. Our conversation sort of shifted, and then he said, "I don't get it." He didn't understand the idea of Sabbath. I appreciate his admission. I have to admit that while I think I get it, that is I think I know what Sabbath is supposed to be, I am having trouble consistently keeping Sabbath.

Keep in mind these principles:
(1) Our Sabbath activity should honor God
(2) Our Sabbath-keeping should seek God
(3) Sabbath is a good time to share the Gospel (the starting point for most of Paul's preaching on Jesus was in the Synagogue on Sabbath).
(4) Sabbath should be unique. There should be something about how we keep Sabbath that is only done on Sabbath.
(5) Sabbath should anticipate eternity. We should do things we could imagine doing in Heaven.
(6) Our Sabbath should be done in community whether with one other or 100 others.
(7) Our Sabbath has to include worship (which is usually done when we go to church). It's not only worship, but that is a part of it.

Now, can settling with my favorite snack for a game meet the above criteria? Yes. But I must not neglect my family so I can watch the game. Yesterday, Sunday, the day I take Sabbath, I was reclining watching basketball. My 5-year-old son watched some of the game with me. Then he got bored. Then he got interested again. And bored again. This vacillation happened for a while until finally, I went outside with him and my 2-year-old daughter. We tossed football, wrote on the sidewalk in chalk, and ended up walking to a friends' house. If I had barked at him, "Leave me alone! I am watching the game," I would have missed the whole idea of Sabbath.

So watching should be done in a good spirit, with behavior that honors God.

It should also be communal. Maybe watching the game happens with friends and a meal is a part of the rest. Yes, in that scenario, football would be involved. But it would be a part of the activity with the bigger focus being on rest and relationship. The rest and relationship (and worship) would not be sacrificed for the football, but the football might be diminished in importance for the sake of the relationships. In that scenario, football could certainly be a part of Sabbath.

A month ago, I was fortunate to take my 9-year-old son to a UNC men's basketball game. It was a Sunday evening, and it was a very special time. The day included time with family. He and I visited someone in the hospital. And then capped off the day with the game. Nothing was hurried. No schedule (other than 11AM worship and 7PM opening tip) dictated what we had to do. We have had a serendipitous surprise - the Hospital has an outdoor labrynth. I had not noticed it was finished. After our visit and before the game, we walked the labrynth. Walking labrynths is a very spiritual, meditative activity.

In this post, I am trying not to be too specific. The principles above I have called criteria are not rules. I think the biggest disputes Jesus got into over Sabbath involved the over-imposition of rules. I am not authorized to impose a new set of Sabbath rules and I don't want to be in dispute with my Master. Can we watch football on Sabbath? Depends on how we do it. And that's true of many activities.

Maybe on your Sabbath you go to church, you go to lunch and spend a few wonderful hours with friends and before bed, you engage in special quiet Sabbath prayers. Between your time with friends and your nighttime prayers, you spend 4 intense hours watching football alone, screaming at your TV. Did you keep Sabbath that day? Probably, yes. I think so. Maybe what tells is at the end of that day, are you rested and feeling close to God? Was God honored? We want to be filled with God's presence.

My friend was thinking on Sabbath it is good to be self-indulgent. I think we get more rest and greater blessing if we are God-indulgent. That is, God can do more for us in the way of blessing and rest than we can for ourselves. So God has to be in the center of our Sabbath time whether it is spent watching football, visiting friends for conversation, going on long walks, or in more spiritual activities like praying with lit candles, walking labrynths, and reading classic devotional books.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Life Begins with Sabbath Rest

In the reading I have done on Sabbath, I frequently came across an idea I had never considered. Several authors and Bible scholars made this same point. The idea is that creation points to the 7th day, the Sabbath. God wasn’t just making the heavens and the earth on a whim. God wasn’t in his eternal glory, bored, and he thought, “I know! I’ll create a universe.” There was more purpose to it, so the idea goes. Sabbath is a key.

Consider the movement in the creation account: day one, separate light from darkness. Day two, God created the sky (the “dome”). Day three, God makes dry land and plant life. Day four, the sun and moon were created. Day five, it was sea creatures and birds.

Now up to this point, God reflects on each act of creation. God saw that it was “good.” But, there is more to it on day five. On day five, God has direct interaction with the living beings He has made. “21 God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth”(Genesis 1:21-22). God spoke to his creation and gave them responsibility. The animals (sea animals and birds) were to be fruitful and multiple.

Things changed even more dramatically on the fifth day. God made land animals; then God’s masterpiece. 26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the [ak]sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the [al]sky and over every living thing that [am]moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28).

God may have related to some animals through instruction, “be fruitful and multiply,” but it went much deeper with these he made in his image. Humans were also to be fruitful and multiply, which means procreation, and humans were to manage as God’s stewards. God blessed humans. That essentially communicates that God created conditions so that it would go well with human beings if they did things God’s way. Blessing is a component of covenant. Blessing means life is good.

Blessing also comes with responsibility. Humans were to fill and subdue the earth in a way that recognized the goodness of God’s creation and the wonder of God’s glory. When God saw all that was done and humans had the blessing and the commands God had given, God saw that it was better than good. It was “very good” (1:31).

Thus it appears that creation reaches its climax when men and women are made and given their divine marching orders to manage the earth. But this is only the sixth day and there are seven days. Creation is driven to the seventh day, the one day God “hallowed” (NRSV), or “made holy” (Genesis 2:3). When all the conditions were ready, by God’s creation, and God saw that the world was as He thought it should be, then God felt confident in rest. He could stop creating. He could leave humans in charge. He could rest and enjoy what He had made.

Sabbath is what God had in mind when God created. Creation leads to Sabbath. The first day of life, once created, for Humans was the seventh day, the Sabbath. Life for human beings began with Sabbath rest. In our keeping of Sabbath, can we recreate those Eden conditions where all we need is provided in fruit trees planted by God and streams that run as God directs them and there is no danger and nothing to fear? No!

Life in our time is full of pitfalls, some in nature, more in civilization. The fall of Adam and Eve and every human that has ever sinned has drawn away from God’s Sabbath intention. So what good today is Sabbath-keeping, if it simply amounts to a dim reminder of what was lost?

Sabbath-keeping remembers Eden, the perfection God created. Sabbath-keeping reminds us that God is good and God wants good for us. And Sabbath-keeping, when focused on Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit calls us forward. Our life (our human origins) did not simply begin with Sabbath rest. We have ahead of us an eternity in God’s new heaven and new earth. When we set time apart as Sabbath time, time for worship, community, and rest, we anticipate the eternal joy we will have in the unending presence of God. That eternity will be filled with love, togetherness, worship, feasting, and peace. What was at the beginning, the goal of creation, Sabbath, will be forever. So, in Sabbath-keeping, we remember, we look ahead, and we celebrate God.

Sabbath, Origins, and Eternity (Genesis 1:26-2:3)

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The sense of holiness in time is expressed in the manner in which the Sabbath is celebrated. … On that day … symbols are superfluous. The Sabbath itself is the symbol.”[i] Our church is in the middle of a 4-week examination of Sabbath, a Jewish idea. Of course Christianity is a descendant of Judaism, and Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. We as a church of mostly gentile Christ worshipers are seeking to understand how Sabbath-keeping should be done in our lives, where our worship is on Sunday, not the Sabbath day which is the seventh day, Saturday.

Are we supposed to keep Sabbath? If so why? And how are we to do it? I believe we are. Sabbath is command and more than command, it is gift. Heschel, one of the preeminent scholars of Sabbath believes it is holier as something given by God than ancient festivals, than law, than any other gift. “The Sabbath is all holiness,” he says.[ii] But don’t take his word for it, or mine.

Genesis 2:3: “God blessed the seventh day and [made it holy], because on that day God rested from all the work he had done in creation.” To that point, God had been intentional in his order and in the product as he made the world. He created all and with each act of creation Genesis says, “God saw that it was good.”

Then, God made human beings. Men and women were created in the image of God. Men and women were blessed and told to fill the earth through procreation and to subdue the earth as God’s regents on the earth. When God had made human beings and clearly blessed human beings then he was done. Once humans had been given their responsibility to manage God’s creation and enjoy God’s creation, then God saw that it was not just good, but “very good.”

Creation reached its climax on the seventh day. God had made such a perfect world; He did not need to do any more. There was nothing else to be created. God did not need to micromanage what had been made. All was right. The world was in a state of peace. Better still, the world was in a state of shalom. Creation reached its goal on the seventh day and God established the seventh day as a holy day.

Thus we see that Sabbath comes from God. Sabbath comes from the very beginning. And Sabbath is central in God’s vision for us, for creation. As far as we can tell, Jesus and the Apostle Paul both were Sabbath-observant Jews. Jesus did not reject Sabbath, only the abuse of it. Paul did not do away with Sabbath. He objected to the idea that Sabbath-keeping in accordance with the cumbersome rules Jesus opposed was more important for salvation than faith in Jesus. Paul did much of his most effective evangelizing on Sabbath days in the house of worship, the synagogue. God started Sabbath. Jesus, God in the flesh, kept Sabbath and taught the truth on Sabbath, and Paul shared Jesus on Sabbath.

In our own Sabbath observance, as we live our Christianity in a fast-paced, computer age, we see that whatever we do must honor God and seek Him. If we are thinking of ways we can keep Sabbath time, whether it is Saturday, Sunday, or another time, we must set aside a particular time to honor God in a unique, Sabbath way, and we must seek him and share the good news of His salvation.

Last week, in introducing this block of discussion on Sabbath, I said that Jesus gives us a new day, a new rhythm, and rest. Someone turned in to me a very wise note reminding me that God has always been merciful, and that from the very beginning God gave Sabbath rest as a gift. I appreciated that feedback immensely. Building on that, I must say that the New Testament God is not a kinder, gentler replacement for the harsh Old Testament God. God is God and always has been. First John chapter says God is love. God has always been love. In the Old Testament God’s hatred of sin is painfully clear. God hates sin just as much today, and sin is punished, in time in this life, and in eternity in Hell.

I do think Jesus brought something new in God coming in human flesh. I do think Jesus ushered in a new way of knowing God and being in relationship with God. But what I appreciate about what was written on the note was the suggestion that as much Jesus is new, Jesus is a return to the original. The new rhythm Jesus brings is the rhythm God originally intended for human beings in the creation.

Now, we’ve said Sabbath is from God, comes at the beginning, and for that reason is central in God’s vision for us and for creation, which belongs to Him and comes from Him. Because of the centrality of it, we must keep Sabbath and in doing so we must honor God, seek God, and share the good news of salvation. In looking a bit longer at Genesis 1 & 2, what can we learn about this gift of Sabbath rest that God has always intended for us to enjoy?

It is a day set apart, different from other days. I am in two of the small groups discussing Sabbath and I have posed the question, which you might think about now. As you grew up, if your family treated Sunday as Sabbath, then how was Sunday different? In some cases, people said other than attending church, Sunday was like any other day. In other families, Sunday was different. There were activities or prohibited activities that set Sunday apart.

In my own case, I remember, ironically, that when I was in high school, Sunday was the only day I worked. Monday through Friday was school and football. Saturday was church youth group activities. Sunday night was also church youth group. And Sundays from noon until 5, I was a bus boy at a restaurant. I had no Sabbath time. And my relationship with God suffered for that. I had a relationship with God, for sure. But it was not what it could have been because I wasn’t giving God all of me, and I wasn’t honoring God as I could if I had set time aside to do so.

Setting time apart for God is an act of faith. We admit that our activity doesn’t keep the universe going. God is the sustainer, not us. It is trust. We trust that if God could rest and things would be ok, then we can rest. To refuse to take Sabbath is ultimately hubris.

Well, our world is more complicated than when God created in the beginning. That was a simpler time. Please! God is bigger than all that is around us. God is more important the things that fill our lives.

In keeping a Sabbath that is focused on God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – we experience the wholeness, the rest, the peace that in Hebrew is called Shalom and we have Shalom in a way that only can be known on Sabbath.

Thus in addition to practicing Sabbath so that God is honored, sought, and shared, our Sabbath must be unique. Whatever activities we pursue – worship, a walk in the woods, a special time of prayer, the simple enjoyment of nature – it should be unique, only done quite that way on Sabbath. Yes, we worship at other times, and we walk in the woods and pray and enjoy nature and slow our pace and light candles – we do all those things at many times during the week. But there should be a uniqueness that announces we are entering Sabbath time.

The notion of Sabbath, a time set apart that Christians celebrate with a focus on the Father, on Jesus, and in communion with the Holy Spirit, began in our origins. When we keep Sabbath we are directed to and prepared for our eternity. Sabbath is where Genesis 1 & 2 meets Revelation 21 & 22, the very beginning and very end of the Bible. Genesis describes the origin and Revelation, after the final victory of Jesus and final judgment of all describes the destination.

In Revelation 21-22, we read about the New Jerusalem and the New Heaven and New Earth where the perfect city is juxtaposed with the perfect garden and perfection in nature. It is where we are headed. Scholar Walter Bruegemann writes that Sabbath is the affirmation that God is at work to bring creation to His purpose and that Sabbath, and I would add the shalom we have in Christ when we keep Sabbath, is the goal of life.[iii] His comments are on Genesis 1, but they lead to the conclusion in Revelation 21-22.

The same directional arc of history is seen in Romans 8. Paul writes,

The creations waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but of the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until know, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (v.19-23).

Paul is talking about freedom from sin.. He’s not talking about Sabbath.

The freedom he mentions was present on the original seventh day in Genesis 2 before sin came and that freedom, which like peace and love and blessing and wholeness is a part of Shalom, is where the redeemed in Jesus are headed in eternity. In Sabbath keeping we get a little glimpse of Heaven, what it might be like. Why? We are closer to God, and we relinquish control of our well-being to God; he determines our wellness.

Our Sabbath points to a life lived in good relationships. Meeting Jesus in Sabbath changes who we are in this world as we wait for our redemption. So our Sabbath-keeping must be communal, with others, and must anticipate where we are headed when our earthly life is up.

In Sabbath practices, we enjoy nature; we worship and pray; and we do it with other people. Slow-cooked meals for large group are a Sabbath possibility. Even if the group is small, a group is good. Sabbath is not a time for fasting or solitude. It is a time to honor God and seek and share God; it is a unique and we should approach it as such. No other time is what Sabbath time is: time for relationship – us with God and with one another. We won’t be alone in Heaven and we should not be alone on Sabbath. From our origins when God created, to life with Jesus, to life now, lived in the Holy Spirit, to eternity in the New Jerusalem, we are called God, and our best experience with God includes that which he makes holy, the Sabbath.


[i]Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1951), p.82

[ii]Ibid, p.82.

[iii]Bruegemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis (John Knox Press, Atlanta), p.38.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What to Think about Israel? An Email from My Friend

I received the following Email from my friend:

Really need some insight and perspective ....
Concerning the modern day Israel and it's place in Biblical prophecy. I unfortunately have two very strict evangelical in-laws who believe ( I think falsely) in strict belief of the divine nature of the modern day Israel and modern Jews. My studies are conflict with their views. I am told I am in violation God's will because I do not agree with this and that anything said in a critical nature towards the actions and or concern for the state of Israel's "goodness" are met with rebukes and prayers to "turn from evil" from these "false beliefs".

The specific passage is Genesis 12:3: I will bless those that bless (Israel) and I will curse those that curse (Israel). (paraphrase) is routinely thrown in my face. What is your take on how so many Christian's interpret this to mean complete blind devotion to Israel, regardless of her actions, influence on and unfettered support by the US government to the modern state of Israel.

I understand what the old testament stories say about Israel, but it is my understanding that the new covenant makes all born again Christian's God's "chosen" people...that today, the Church is the new Israel. I seem to think that most of the truths in the Gospel should supercede anything in the OT...shouldn't they?

I have tried to cross reference in studies and found that in what I have read it is closest to what is said in Galatians 3:8.

But I also understand and have conflict with what my in-laws say as well, because it is taught so heavily in most modern churches and I have only recently changed my mind from this perspective. If you watch a lot of TV as they do, it is the dominant belief in that mainstream Christianity world. Even so, this later belief now causes an uncomfortable visceral reaction in me for some reason because I am more aware that the modern Israel Government does not practice anything resembling true Judaism that honors God. I cannot see how anyone who is not in God's will can be "blessed". IMO, modern Israel, like many nations, is a heathen nation. Totally secular and devoid of God. Not the Israel of the Bible who held strict adherence to Torah.

So anyway..I'm asking if you can give your perspective on what our role is to modern Israel. Let me be clear that I certainly believe we are to bless all men and Jews by loving them, and giving to one another, and anyone else who wishes to "Voluntarily" support Israel in a way they see fit. Key word.."Voluntarily". But I do not wish to be lumped in with "anti christ" to suggest that those that do not wish to have "force" used to do so are out of God's will.

Your thoughts?


And, my response:
I agree with you that modern Israel is not carrying on the responsibilities laid on Israel by God in Exodus and throughtout the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy). There are many passages in the prophets that talk about God withdrawing blessing if Israel fails to keep covenant, and I think Israel as a whole has failed to keep up its end of the covenant. I think the Apostle Paul calls Jews who reject Jesus as Messiah the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9). In 2nd Peter, you see a pretty harsh invective against false teachers (2 Peter chapter 2), and those false teachers were possible Jews who insisted torah-observance was more important in salvation than Christ. So, the Old Testament warns against Israel failing to keep covenant and the New Testament warns strongly against Jews or anyone else rejecting Jesus.

Romans chapter 9-11 for many people are the definitive chapters on how Christians should view Israel. Unfortunately, there are countless opinions on how to read and apply Romans 9-11.

My take is Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior and salvation comes through him. In studying the gospel, I am not called, either by scripture or by the Holy Spirit to form an opinion on Israel. Israel's eternal fate and the eternal destiny of individual Jews is God's business. I would say the same thing about faithful people who are humble and earnestly, honestly seeking God but have either never heard of Jesus, have only been taught that Christians are enemies from America, or have been taught Christianity by abusive people. In those three scenarios, I think God has mercy for the humble who earnestly, honestly seek Him. I think the only way to Heaven is through Jesus. But I refuse to make definitive statements about the eternal destiny of people. I don't think it's my job to identify who goes to Hell. I think Hell is real, but God gets to say who goes there, not me.

My job is to love with the compassion that Jesus showed. Christians get caught up in talk of Israel or talk of AntiChrist (or abortion or other issues) because that's easier than dealing with the reality of their own sin and their own selfish attitudes.

Read Luke 13:1-5. People wanted Jesus to engage in theological speculation, but he wouldn't play that game. He told those who wanted to sit around and make definitive judgments that they needed to spend more time repenting of their own sins. I doubt that any scriptural proof I could offer will make much headway with your in-laws because their agenda is not faith. It is being right. They are sure they're on the side of those who go to Heaven. They're in the right. So they don't need to repent and they do not need to check their views, regardless of facts that might be presented. It's very much like politics which you follow a lot more closely than me.

The way for the humble, the legitimate truth seekers is faith. And faith requires equal attention paid to Scriptures and to the present, continuous voice of the Holy Spirit. To hear the Holy Spirit, we need to shut out the noise (especially of most TV preachers and much of what is in the media). We need to prayerfully quiet our minds and let God speak. I think in doing this, we hear the scriptures and what they have to say in our circumstances. But if what I think I am hearing doesn't jive with compassion, then it is most likely not from God.

Long answer, maybe not helpful. But, I am not overly concerned with Israel from an eschatological (= end times) standpoint. A bigger sadness is how many in Israel do not recognize the love of God revealed in Jesus. And much of that failure to recognize is due to the hatred express by people in Jesus' name (think Crusads, Pogroms, Holocaust). The biggest enemy of evangelism, from about 300AD to present, has been hatred expressed by people who claim to follow Jesus.

Pray for your in-laws. You never know when the Holy Spirit will grip a heart and make a person see as Jesus says. I am praying the Holy Spirit will do that to me today.

- Rob

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why Practice Sabbath? To Receive From Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)

People are busy, working hard, in some cases over-scheduled, and in most cases tired. God doesn’t intend this. Certainly God wants us to give our best. With God’s spirit empowering us, we can be more than we could on our own strength. In all our roles, we honor God by striving for excellence. But in our striving, God does not want us to wear ourselves out to the point that we are constantly in a states of exhaustion, reaching for a recovery that doesn’t seem to come before we have to give and give and give again. Our lives are not to be an endless strain.

We need rest as a regular part of life, and we need a new rhythm and a new understanding of time. In the language of the New Testament, there were two words that are both translated into English “time.” The Greek word ‘kronos,’can mean time, and so can the Greek work ‘kairos.’ ‘Kronos,’is measurable time, days, months, years. It is sequential. From ‘Kronos,’we get the English word ‘chronology.’ This is really how we most commonly think of time. ‘Kairos,’ means the appropriateness of time. In our worldview, when is a baby born? Is the baby born on the day the doctor declared to be the “due date?” No! The baby comes when it is time. We think of death the same way. Someone passes, and we say, well, it was his time.

Kronos measures time. I am just about 42 years old. My life is probably close to half-way over. Kairos identifies seasons. A man’s wife dies. They were married 45 years. He enters a season of grief. When Kairos and Kronos are talked about in sermons, usually kairos is seen as something holy. Jesus came to earth in the “fullness of time.” Kronos is seen as something more mundane. In our recognition that people are tired because life in 21st century America is frenetic and the pressure to succeed comes from all sides, we need to claim the holiness of kronos time. God is not only God of seasons and monumental moments. God is also God of today, this hour, this minute. God is not only God of Epiphany and Lent, and Easter and Pentecost. God is also God of Facebook and the calendar. We do not live at the mercy and pleasure of our schedules. We live at the mercy and pleasure of the living God.

What is more difficult, going without checking email and going along without texting, or going along without prayer? Which do we miss? How we answer, when answering honestly and not giving the churchy answer, reveals the rhythm of our lives. I think most of us need a new rhythm. Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book called The Sabbath writes, “There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusively and endlessly precious” (p.8).[i] As a response to the harried rat race lived by so many of us, the life-draining pace that we run that slowly kills us, Heschel presents the Sabbath. He says, “The Sabbath is entirely independent of the month. … Its date is not determined by any even in nature … but by the act of creation. … The meaning of Sabbath is to celebrate time. … Thus we try to become attuned to holiness in time” (p.10).

The baby is napping – and as all parents of young children know, those naps are crucial. The preschooler needs to be picked up from school. The 4thgrader has a dentist’s appointment. Mom has the flu. Dad has a meeting in another town. OK seriously, holiness time? Come on!

The truth is nothing we will say in sermons or in small groups will take away from the stress we all face. It chews at us and forces us to make decisions. That’s just life. But, even in life, real life, we can regularly enter the Sabbath which God gives. And doing so will change our lives, even the harried moments.

So we admit, yes, we’re tired. We admit, yes, God had given his people a gift – Sabbath rest. And we believe that in Christ we are God’s people. So then, how are we, as Christians, to understand holiness in time? How do we discover a new rhythm, one in which life is paced by regular Sabbath keeping? I think the beginning of the answer is found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 11-12, where Jesus gives three things. Everything in life for a Christ-follower is defined by Him; and everything in the Bible is read through the lens of the Gospel.

So it is with Jesus we start. He says, “To what will I compare this generation [meaning the people around him who refused to listen to his offer of salvation and forgiveness of sins]? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for your, and you did not dance’” (11:16-17a). Here was God in human flesh bringing new wine, good news, a new life in which people could be freed from sin and guided into a lasting, joy-filled relationship with God, and those around him utterly rejected the offer.

Jesus’coming was a divine declaration that time had changed! The time of God bringing wrath and punishment on the people for the nation’s sins had passed. Jesus brought a new day, a day of mercy and grace. Just pause and consider those qualities. How much do mercy and grace play into your daily interactions with people? On the other hand, at the workplace, in relationships, how often do you see retribution, petty jealousy, self-centeredness? Do we live our lives in the new day Jesus inaugurated, drinking the new wine he poured? Or do we remain in the state of fallen humanity, treating others as competitors to be beaten out? Are we fallen Cains killing the Abels alongside us, and being killed? Jesus brought in a new time.

Along with it, Jesus brought a new rhythm. In the new time, the gifts of God are just that, gifts God gave and gives to bless us. The people around Jesus took the gifts and warped them into a set of rules that beat men and women down into submission, completely defeated, unable to keep rules God never intended in the first place.

In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples were in a grain field. It was the Sabbath Day. The hungry disciples plucked the heads of grain and began to eat, but the act of plucking qualified as “work,” and the rules committee forbade such activity on God’s Sabbath! “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” (12:2).

Note, Jesus did not just ignore the complaint, and he did not trivialize it. This was an important moment for people then and for people now. I think Jesus gives us three things related to time. The first two we have mentioned. Jesus gives a new day. The second we see in this controversy over grain harvesting. Jesus gives a new rhythm. He did not get into the minutia. That’s work! No it’s not. It is too! Is not! Jesus does not play that game. He takes the conversation to a higher level. He says that God desires mercy more than sacrifice, and he lays the claim to be Lord (master) of the Sabbath (12:7, 8).

This argument with Pharisees happened as the disciples and the Pharisees and others were walking to the Synagogue for Sabbath worship. A disfigured man was there, and, the Pharisees still refused to dance to Jesus’ music. Still stinging from the argument over harvesting and his claim to be Lord, they saw an opportunity. In a blatant attempt to catch Jesus in Sabbath violation, the rule makers asked, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath.” In the old rhythm, we ask what are the rules and how do we keep them or how do we get around them. The second thing Jesus gives us related to time and the holiness of time is a new rhythm.

The man’s hand is completely withered. “Is it lawful to heal?” What a heartless thought! What a terrible thing to ask! Jesus said, it is lawful to do good, and healing someone who hurts is a good thing. In the new rhythm of Jesus, we seek the good. The key in all of this is Jesus. If the disciples are with the Lord of the Sabbath, they can do what he allows. He allowed them to fill their hungry bellies. If the injured man or the one with a broken heart comes to the Lord of the Sabbath and the Lord of the Sabbath heals, then healing was the right thing because the Lord of the Sabbath says doing good is better than doing nothing.

Jesus gives three things. He gives a new day. He gives a new rhythm, one that can only be felt when we are with Him, filled with His Holy Spirit.

The third gift is one for us to remember and live into as we spend 4 weeks talking Sabbath, and hopefully a lifetime keeping Sabbath. Lauren Winner,[ii]a divinity school professor, an Episcopalian, and a Jewish person who has put her complete trust in Jesus Christ points out that in recent years, a return to Sabbath keeping has come into fashion, but the new popularized Sabbath is a distortion.

Sabbath has experienced revived popularity because it is might contribute to productivity: the rested worker is more effective 6 days a week than the dog-tired worker that puts in seven. A second motivation people find in Sabbath is idolatry with self as the object of worship. Of course people wouldn’t say it that way. But consider how Sabbath is presented: take a day off; treat yourself; have a bubble bath; enjoy the spa. Nothing wrong with any of this, but it isn’t Sabbath. The object of honor and glory is not God, not when my form of worship is finding a way to make myself relaxed and feeling good. Nor is God being exalted when the purpose of my rest is to be a better me Monday through Friday. Again, this is not a critique of the relationship between work and rest and productivity. I simply reject the notion that Sabbath rest is truly Sabbath rest if it is done for the sake of optimal performance.

In fact, Sabbath is not about performance at all. Sabbath is not about relaxation per se. Sabbath is about God, and we Christians believe God was perfectly revealed in the incarnation, Jesus Christ. He gives a new day. He gives a new rhythm in which good is sought over rule keeping. And he give rest. “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (11:28).

The new day, the new rhythm, the blessed rest from heavy, life-taking burdens is restrictive. It’s not for everyone, but only for those who come to Jesus. Of course, all are invited to come – Jew and Gentile, Sinner and Saint, you and me and the neighbor you cannot stand and the dictator who keeps his people under heel. All are invited to lay down their burdens, receive forgiveness of sin, and come to Jesus.

This happens in kairos, the appointed, appropriate time when a person first believes and gives her life to Christ. This is her time of salvation, the moment everything changes. Coming to Jesus also happens regularly in kronos time, when, week after week, no matter how we feel, everything else in life stops, including us, and we come to Him in worship and prayer. We give Him and our relationship with Him 100% attention and shut out all else.

In upcoming messages and small groups we will talk about specific ways Sabbath keeping can happen and we will mentions some ideas about what would not be good for Sabbath keeping. This morning though, I just want us to focus on three actions. (1) We come – uninterrupted and diligently locking out any distraction so that Jesus gets 100% of us. (2) He gives – He gives rest; if we are hungry he give permission to harvest grains; if we are hurting, he gives cures, healing. (1) We come. (2) He gives. And (3), we receive what He offers without trying to influence Him. Instead of trying to get what we want or what we think we need, we come open, we come broken, and we come tired. And Jesus gives out of His wisdom and love. Starting with that, we know God is in control and we aren’t, and that’s good thing. We are on the way to keeping Sabbath in appropriate time so that our relationship with God is right all the time. Everything falls in place. It doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It falls into place. As Jesus plays his flute, we dance in time, to his rhythm.

If you feel confused, simply relax your heart, and come to Jesus. Take His yoke upon you and learn from Him for He is gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your soul. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Begin your Sabbath. Come to Him.


[i]Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, 1951).

[ii] Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, p.6-7, 10-11.

Abundant Life

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Do we believe it?Do we believe he was truly the son of God, God in human flesh? Do we believe he came? Do we believe we are among the “they” whom he promised abundant life? Do trust the abundance he offers?

I throw out this flurry of questions because life is full of stuff. Sometimes it is expensive stuff like the latest smart phone or electronic gadget. Sometimes it is a lot of stuff, like the numerous half flat yard-sale purchases basketballs in my garage. Sometimes our stuff has long since ceased meaning anything, but we chafe at the thought of throwing things out. We don’t consider the possibility that we might be fulfilled with less.

If it isn’t stuff, it is experience. We want to be thrilled. We want to be soothed. We want to be relaxed. We want to be stimulated. So gourmet chefs cook for us, chiropractors bend and contort us, acupuncturists stick us, pharmacists numb us, trainers work us, tour guides amuse and inform us, therapists listen to us, and (some) preachers talk (or yell) at us.

There is nothing wrong with experiences. Stuff is not inherently sinful. But sometimes people make choices like an object or a process or an activity is absolutely essential for the happiest possible life. Without the thing or the memory or the anticipation, we are less than we could be. Jesus gets tacked onto the life we want to live. He certainly is not the heart of life. He is relegated to a small part in the lives of so many who would identify themselves as His followers.

Jesus did not come to fit into our lives. He came to be the master of our lives, and He came, why? That we might have abundant life. He defines what abundance is. There is competition for definition. Other voices – temptation, our own sinful nature, the consumerism of our age, Satan – will try to tell us what abundance is. Who will we trust?

Here is Jesus, speaking in John 10.
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Consider all that Jesus promises – pasture, abundance, salvation, relationship. Consider that work of the thieves and robbers: they deceive the sheep (we are the sheep). They steal, kill, and destroy. They flee when danger comes. Jesus lays his life down for us.

When considering Sabbath, turn off the TV (and PC and Smart Phone and IPOD, I-Pad, and I-Touch). Put your keys and wallet in the desk drawer to be left there. Ignore the phone when it rings.

Now, am I suggesting we sit and do nothing? Not exactly. I am suggesting that when we set aside time for Sabbath-keeping, whether it is a half-day or an entire day, we begin by asking Jesus to fill us. Ask Him to help us understand and receive the abundance He gives. A number of activities might open us to Him – walking; a laughter-filled family meal; an intimate meal with a spouse and intimacy following; throwing Frisbee on the lawn; gathering around the fireplace for time together; time in the garden. These are just examples, but for the most part, they are quiet and simple. The stimulus is limited because we want to make space for God.

Of course making space for God is not all there is to Sabbath, but it is all I’ll cover here. I think we would be wonderfully blessed if we emptied ourselves and simplified things during Sabbath. And once emptied and pared down, we ask Jesus to show us the abundance. I think we’ll be surprised and maybe overwhelmed with what He does. What He has to give is better than anything we can find, even on Google. Google has a ton of websites, but only Jesus gives abundant life. So carve out time for Sabbath, and seek His abundance, and trust Him enough to wait for it.

Good News of Great Joy

Good News of Great Joy Several years ago, I was listening to a renowned preacher recount a story of an occasion in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. He saw someone he recognized, someone he believed to be a fellow preacher. This renowned pastor of a church of 1000’s was correct. This other person in the waiting room was also clergy, and he said he was excited because he thought they could“fellowship in the Lord.”

I don’t entirely know what he meant. I don’t know what “fellowship in the Lord” looks like while one is waiting for the dentist to drill away. But I think he wanted to share the joy of Jesus with a brother in Christ. But, then the famous pastor, in recounting the story, said, “I smelled a rat.”

I smelled a rat! What a thing to say, especially in reference to a colleague! The famous preacher meant that the other pastor was not in fact a true Christian. He had in mind what a follower of Jesus is and he felt this person who was clergy was not actually a Christ-follower. His description of someone who is a pastor, but in his estimation is not a Christian, is “rat.”

I don’t know if the famous pastor was correct or not. I don’t know if the person he met truly was a Christian or was not a true believer. What I know is this: people who don’t have Jesus are lost. Jesus did not call lost people “rats.” Rats are something to be exterminated with traps and poison. Jesus called lost people “sheep.” He said the shepherd (Jesus himself, John 10:11) leaves the 99 sheep (those already saved, Luke 15:4) in search of the lost one. Rats? O no, lost people are not rats, but those who desperately need the reality of Jesus in their lives. Jesus said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

Christians are sometimes tempted to see those outside the church as lost sinners who have a fiery Hell ahead of them. We’re glad we get to go to heaven. Are we ever secretly satisfied that someone “out there” (outside our church walls) will get their just desserts in Hell someday? Or, are we so petrified of the horrors of Hell that we dread the fate of those separated from Jesus, especially our unsaved friends?

Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, evangelism, is a calling for every Christian. To call the lost “rats” and to snicker at their demise is completely foreign to the Gospel. Jesus wept at the reality that people were alienated from God (Luke 19:41-44). He grieved over the condition of the souls of men and women.

We do well to share his grief, but that doesn’t mean evangelism (sharing Jesus) is a fear-based work that is done to save souls by the skin of their teeth. I don’t believe we are called to Hell-avoidance, fear-based evangelism. Yes, we grieve for people who don’t know Jesus, but at the same time, we rejoice in Him. We rejoice in our relationship with God in Jesus. And we rejoice in seeing others come to Know Jesus.

Joy is a word that should be tied to how we practice evangelism. “The will be more joy in heaven” over the salvation of the lost. The coming of Jesus was for the sake of the salvation of the world. The angel said the night of Christ’s birth,“I bring good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). When we share the gospel, it should be joyful work, not scary, uncomfortable, confrontational work we’d rather avoid.

In 2012, one of our emphases will be evangelism. But this isn’t the work of passing out tracts or accosting people and threatening them with Hell, telling them, turn or burn! This is joy-work. We will spend the year searching for that joy that heavenly joy that comes when a lost person is saved. In this search, I will write newsletter columns about “Evangelism as Joy-work.” As we go, I pray that you and I together will discover the joy of sharing Jesus.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ecclesiastes 4 - Community

God, You, and Me (Ecclesiastes 4:7-12), January 15, 2012

I had a pronounced sense of Christian community – maybe my first experience of Christian community as I understand it – in 1994. I went to visit my college roommate who was in his second year as a missionary in Bolivia. The flight was an overnight flight. I got off the plane exhausted, but it was time for church, so we went. My Spanish was awful. I didn’t understand a thing. Yet, I knew I could trust the words the congregation spoke and sang with full emotion and commitment to God. Because of the Holy Spirit, I was connected to those around me and I was allowed me to rest in the joy of Christian community and fellowship even though the words were mostly foreign to me.

An author/pastor, one I thoroughly trust, describes Ecclesiastes as a type of introduction to the New Testament. He says, Ecclesiastes “empties us of the inner noise that we [thought was] religion and the cluttered piety we [thought was] faith. [Ecclesiastes] throws out the accumulated religious junk and banishes fraud that has paraded as faith. Placing [the] well-orchestrated ‘no!’ [of Ecclesiastes] as a preference to the New Testament provides a pastoral clearing of the air of distractions.”[i] Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, telling the story of Jesus, and the rest of the New Testament, written in an Easter age, respond to the bleak “no!” of Ecclesiastes with the victorious “yes!” of resurrection.

With Ecclesiastes setting the stage for the good news of the coming of Jesus, Ecclesiastes 4 specifically introduces the necessity of community, like welcome and acceptance I felt in Bolivia. As is the case with Ecclesiastes throughout, the table is set in a negative light. “Again I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ they ask. ... This is also vanity and unhappy business” (4:7-8).

I immediately thought of the movie The Bucket List. Jack Nicholson portrays a wealthy business man who has cancer. In the hospital, going through chemo, he meets Morgan Freeman’s character, a blue-collar man, a mechanic. Freeman’s character also has cancer. The two couldn’t be more different, but they share a burden. They’re dying. So, they come up with the idea of the bucket list – things to do before one kicks the bucket.

After their adventures that range from sky-diving to driving race cars, they part, each going back to his own life. The mechanic returns to his wife and kids and grandkids. They enjoy a Thanksgiving-type feast. The colors of the scenes are in soft tones –browns, tans, orange, and golden. The characters are laughing richly, and sitting in theater, I felt the warmth. The wealthy business man is in his plush apartment. In one scene he has a couple of girls, probably not 25 years-old, attracted not to him but to his extravagances. As he ponders his life, he is filled with melancholy. In the background one of the girls says, “I don’t know what’s wrong. He’s usually so much fun.” In another scene, he’s alone. The colors, depicting his penthouse at night are black, gray, and dim. They scream cold, weary. He struggles to get the packaging open on the overly expensive meal he’s purchased. He’ll eat with only the company of the expensive things he’s bought to fill his life. The packaging finally rips open and spills out Broken, he is reduced to weeping, with no one there to wipe his tears. For whom am I toiling? This is also vanity. He could shout Ecclesiastes as his own life conclusion, “This is useless, a miserable way to live” (4:8, Good News Translation).

It makes me think of the man in Jesus’ parable. This rich man stored up his holdings and then acquired so much, he had to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Right at the moment he would retire in wealth and ease, he died and someone else came along and enjoyed all he has saved (Luke 12:20). I also think of another of Jesus’ parables, also about a rich man. In this one, the rich man is condemned to Hell, and while it’s not explicitly stated that he is damned for being rich, the implication and only feasible conclusion is the man is separated from God because he didn’t share his riches with an extremely poor man. “In your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here [with Abraham] and you are in agony” (Luke 16:24).

In these parables, Jesus is not flatly condemning wealth. He had wealthy followers, and he benefited from their opulence. And that is the point – what are riches for? What is life for? Whatever God gives – material possessions, talent, a mind for science, experiences, musical ability, a servant’s heart – it is to be shared. Life is to be lived in community, in relationship to other people. God is a relational God. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be extroverted, has to be the life of the party. There is room for all personality-types in God’s family and one is not better than the other. Boisterous Peter has his place, but so too do those in the background, the quiet ones like Andrew and Phillip. We are made for relationship. Ecclesiastes condemns the notion of the lonely miser, the rich person who keeps to herself and refuses to let people into her life. We are made for community.

Ecclesiastes 4 is comprised of “better than”statements. “Two are better than one.” The preacher goes through the reasons for his advocacy of partnership. In business, two will accomplish more and have a better chance for a better yield or prophet. In travel, they help one another if injury happens or there is an accident. Two keep one another warm – this is a practical teaching which made sense on cold desert nights where there were no heated hotel rooms to welcome the road-weary sojourner. Two have each other’s backs if bandits attack. Clearly and two are better than one, and life is better when it is shared.

My first experience of community within the Christian family was a small evangelical Bolivian church. By worshipping God and welcoming me, they invited me, a gringo into their fellowship. In the singing and the exaltation of God, I was not “other.” I was one of them. But, I am wrong in saying that was my first time receiving the invitation to community. The first time, I was visiting a church in the rural farming country of the Lower Peninsula Michigan. I had been a ministry intern there that summer, the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I learned about ministry and about farming. Then at Christmas, I went back to visit. I didn’t know those people that well, but they welcomed me like a son. They even had Christmas presents. They made sure I was fully a part of their family gathering even though I was not a relation. In their eyes, I was their son, their brother, in Christ.
That was not the first time ... I remember my baptism in 1981. I was 11 and our family was Baptist, but all our extended family was Lutheran or Methodist. Up in the baptismal pool which felt very high up in the air to me at 11 years old, I could see the entire congregation of a couple 100 people. One entire row was full of Tennants, Galvins, and Biscombs – my people! I was surrounded by my church family. And the family in which I was raised had come, leaving their Lutheran and Methodist churches for one Sunday to come be a part: God’s people together to celebrate.
I experienced the community of saints before that in 1973, and I didn’t even know it. I was three, my dad was in the army, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and my mom was pregnant. The pregnancy was in grave danger. It would likely be a baby that had severe problems. The army doctors told my parents an abortion might be a good idea. My parents stopped talking to army doctors and started talking to army chaplains who prayed. My brother was born healthy and is fine today. The entire drama played out with my parents, thus me, surrounded by people who follow Jesus and put their trust in Him – the community of faith.
Two are better than one ... a three-fold chord is not easily broken. AMEN, shouts Jesus!
Even before I was born ... my parents met at Wayne State University in Detroit, and where? Did they meet in a night club? Did they meet at a dance? At protest rally of some sort? They met on the lawn of the Wesley Foundation. It was the mid 60’s. They were not experimenting with drugs. They were not exploring this new idea of“free love,” which was and is sex without responsibility or concern for the consequences. They went where Christian college students gathered to be together, the Wesley Foundation. They went because two are better than one, true relationship with God in Jesus Christ can only be had in community, and the craziness of the drug culture that so many people say defines the 1960’s is vanity, empty, useless, spitting into the wind.
A lot of people did not come from a Christian background. That's OK. I've shared bits of my story. Every one’s story is unique. One story is not better than another. I simply lay this out because I am grateful that my entire understanding of life, of reality, and of God is born in community, not my own, solitary experience. If someone tries to practice Christianity alone – just me and God – “For whom he is toiling” in his religious endeavors?
If one claims he doesn’t need church to follow Jesus, how can he follow Jesus’ two great commands – to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love neighbor as the self? Our love of God is seen in our love of one another and in our worship of Him. We cannot be who God wants us to be unless we are growing together. Just me and God – it doesn’t fit the picture of faith that we see in the New Testament.
The most known of Jesus' parables, the Prodigal Son, ended with a party. The story of Zaccheus the short tax collector turning from greed to discipleship ends with a grand dinner as Zacchaeus’ house. When Jesus called Matthew to leave his very prophet tax-collecting business and embrace the hard life of discipleship, Matthew celebrated by throwing a huge party.
Ecclesiastes shows the futility of a lonely life. The gospels show the joy of life lived with others – people to laugh with, cry with, and people that celebrate good the things of God together. In our church, we try to extend the New Testament parties into our time. We enjoy fellowship dinners whenever we have communion. Our small groups are intimate, inviting, and warm. Our Sunday morning includes together time in the hallway, with coffee, sometimes treats, and always laughter.
Some Sunday morning, when everything is over, just watch this room. I usually stand at the backdoor and shake hands with people as they leave. Most of the time, people don't leave. They stick around to talk, exchange hugs, and be together. One of the ways we please God is to enjoy one another. Just me and God - that's faith Jesus doesn't recognize. Following him, we follow him into a familt that is called church.more than half the group sticks around to talk, exchange hugs – just be together. I really believe one of things we do that is most pleasing to God is that we enjoy being together. Just me and God – that’s faith Jesus wouldn’t recognize. Following Him, we follow Him into a family that is called church.
Here’s what he said, some of Jesus’ final words before the arrest and crucifixion. This is from John’s Gospel.
John 15
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
John 17
1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed ...
13“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by[d]the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. 20“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
With the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we reject the solitarly life that shuts out others. Following Jesus' lead, we rejoice in the joy of shared life. He wasn't just punching tickets to Heaven. He was establishing a Kingdom. He is sending us to the lost, lonely, frustrated world around us. In God – Father, Son-Jesus, and Holy Spirit, we are saved, and we are called to invited others into the Kingdom, into fellowship, into the joy of Jesus; a joy only fully known when we are together. You, me and Jesus together – that works! That is the life we are called to live.
i]Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (1980), Wm. B, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mi, p,188.

Ecclesiastes 2

Purpose and Joy (Ecclesiastes 2:1-17)

The word for the year at HillSong is “Joy.” In a few weeks, we will do a church-wide emphasis on Sabbath. All the sermons and all the small groups will for four weeks focus on Sabbath. One of the ends of the practice of Sabbath-keeping is a joy-filled life.

Another major point of concentration at HillSong in 2012 will be evangelism. We are going to preach about it, write about it, and practice it. I hope 90% of us begin living evangelistically. I hope Chapel Hill will know that people at HillSong love Jesus and love helping those outside the church come to faith in Jesus. Our evangelistic bent is only possible when we do evangelism in joy, filled with joy, and with a concern for the joy of the other person whether the other is a Christ-follower or not.

Also in 2012, we will continue to preach and develop our philosophy of ministry. Our community is a safe place where we meet God and are transformed by the encounter, made new as it were. Then, newly born in Christ, we are sent out in His name. That’s HillSong –Safe/New/Sent. It’s safe to come wounded and move from wounding and pain to joy and refreshment because Jesus understands our pain and meets us in it. It’s safe to go out, sent by Him, not because the world out there is safe but because he goes with us. Our coming and our going is in joy.I cannot wait for Lent and Easter.

We’ll spend a lot of time in the New Testament book of Hebrews. I am truly looking forward to many ministries we’ll have. But the point is not to shout about all the cool things they’re doing at HillSong. The point is that our efforts help people – you and me and all who come – know God, and enter God’s joy.

Last year we began with this verse, John 1:12, “To all who received him [Jesus] ... he gave the power to become children of God.” The greatest blessing children of God have is not happiness. Happiness comes and goes. Watching the Sugar bowl, I was happy when Michigan won. That happiness lasted 12 hours or so. The blessing visited upon children of God is joy – a joy that never ends. Children of God have rough moments; I had a few this weeks. But even dark days do not erase the joy that we have – it lasts. Joy from God in Jesus Christ outlasts all other feelings, losses, and disappointments. This year, 2012 at HillSong church, the word is joy.

So why the heck are we beginning with three messages from the most forlorn depressing book in scripture, Ecclesiastes? One of the ways I try to approach studying a book of the Bible whether it is Genesis or Psalms or Amos, or Matthew, Romans, or Revelation is imagination. I pretend that this book, whatever book we’re studying, is the only Bible I have. So if the study is on the prophet Jeremiah, I read Jeremiah as if all I will ever learn about God comes from Jeremiah. It’s just an exercise and in due course I read Jeremiah in relation to other books of the Bible. Ultimately it has to fit the big story.

Ecclesiastes is one book where I do not do that exercise, at least not for long. Depression hangs over Ecclesiastes. It is captured well in The Message. As you know there are many English versions of scripture. I usually read The New Revised Standard Version, which has strengths and weaknesses. I am going to read a bit the same passage from The Message because it vividly depicts what the Speaker is saying in Ecclesiastes.

I said to myself, "Let's go for it—experiment with pleasure, have a good time!" But there was nothing to it, nothing but smoke. What do I think of the fun-filled life? Insane! Inane! My verdict on the pursuit of happiness? Who needs it? With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster, I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life. Then I took a good look at everything I'd done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing. 12-14 And then I took a hard look at what's smart and what's stupid. What's left to do after you've been king? That's a hard act to follow. You just do what you can, and that's it. But I did see that it's better to be smart than stupid, just as light is better than darkness. Even so, though the smart ones see where they're going and the stupid ones grope in the dark, they're all the same in the end. One fate for all—and that's it. 15-16 When I realized that my fate's the same as the fool's, I had to ask myself, "So why bother being wise?" It's all smoke, nothing but smoke. The smart and the stupid both disappear out of sight. In a day or two they're both forgotten. Yes, both the smart and the stupid die, and that's it. 17 I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It's smoke—and spitting into the wind.

Please, if you’re going to spend much time in Ecclesiastes, have a thumb in the Gospels, the portions about resurrection. Ecclesiastes is scripture, words inspired by God. But, I think Ecclesiastes is only good news when it is held up as a contrast. By itself, Ecclesiastes shows a crucial truth. The pleasures of life cannot bring lasting joy.

The speaker says, “I will test pleasure.” So, he tries drinking. Obviously someone of means, he can probably import exotic wines and liquors few people would ever taste, but it all leads to the same place. Drink enough and you’re drunk. The cheap stuff whinos drink by bottles covered by paper sacks gets the same result. Get drunk enough, and a nasty hangover follows. Get drunk enough often enough and then you can’t stop. No, wine didn’t work.

The speaker says, “I bought male and female slaves. I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.” This person had no morals and no restrictions. Slaves and concubines – it’s offensive and dehumanizing. How can this be the Bible. Be careful!

We must be careful when reading scripture lest we miss the fact that it is a mirror, especially the brutal passages like Ecclesiastes 2. How many millions in American secretly spend hours destroying their lives on porn-sites? Is it any less dehumanizing because it’s done in the secret of a room that’s completely dark save for the pictures on the computer monitor? Those pictures are of real people – people made in the image of God. Millions of people, millions of church goers, millions of supposed Christ-followers stare at the people in those pictures who are naked, some one’s daughter, for the sake of a thrill. We aren’t better than the speaker in Ecclesiastes. We are the speaker in Ecclesiastes.

He spoke of alcohol, of business, of sex. He saw other people as vehicles, objects that existed to give him pleasure. In the end, what words did he use to describe his pursuit? Different translations render it differently – meaningless, vanity, useless. In The Message the pursuit of pleasure through carnal stimulations is likened to spitting in the wind. Who lives this way? Who thinks this leads to happiness? Based on the number of people in recovery programs and based on the sales of antidepressants and based on divorce statistics and suicide rates, millions of 21st century Americans –our friends, our neighbors, our family members, us. Ecclesiastes wasn’t written by King Solomon or some super wise person in 5th century BC writing in Solomon’s name. Ecclesiastes was written by someone late last year who chased happiness over and over and over and finally discovered it’s a futile pursuit. Meaningless, useless, vanity – the word I think fits is empty.

As we step into 2012, we come to the chilling reality that so much of what fills our time and occupies us in the end leaves us empty. We cannot stop there! We as a community of people who believe that it is a historical reality that Jesus rose from the grave must say more. We believe the resurrection has meaning and implications, so when we dive into the despairing emptiness of Ecclesiastes which is just a depiction of the despairing emptiness of the lives of the people all around us, we have to respond. As church, we have to respond. As Christ-followers, we have to say more!

Our response is the with-God life. Simply put, the with-God life is one where God is involved in everything. The way we get with God is to put our faith in Jesus. We acknowledge our sinfulness and his love and forgiveness and his deity. His death on the cross covers our sins, and we acknowledge and believe it and say it. We ask His Holy Spirit to enter our hearts, and we give him our lives. How does this negate the emptiness? All roads of pleasure seeking, when pleasure seeking ignores and occurs in human terms without regard for others, lead to emptiness and death. How does life with God in Jesus Christ lead somewhere else?

It is eternal. Paul, writing about this life in 1stCorinthians 15, talks about immortality and imperishability, and he mocks the emptiness. “Where O death is your sting?” By going all-in with Jesus, our sinful selves die with him, but we join him in the resurrection, and one resurrected cannot die again. Life with Jesus begins when we receive Him and put our faith in Him, and it never ends even when our bodies die.

Furthermore, it is a joy-filled life.Some Christians act like following Jesus is all work, all drudgery, and they try to root out anything that might be fun or winsome or spontaneous. That would just stink. That’s an eternity of sober doldrums, unlike the actual promises of Jesus. He said, “I have said thing these things [about being connected to him] so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” Recall Heather’s message on Ecclesiastes last week. She told of the pain of a mother whose 18-year-old son died. What could be a greater tragedy?

And yet, in that story, Heather said, quoting C.S. Lewis,“God speaks through laughter but shouts through pain.” And the truth is, we might miss his voice in the laughter if we never heard him shout. Again, neither I nor, Lewis, nor the preacher in Ecclesiastes is saying that God causes painful times – but that he allows us to dwell in them for a season with the purpose of experiencing His greater joy!

Our response to the Preacher’s mournful emptiness in Ecclesiastes is not a yawn-producing, staid Christianity that conforms to a simplistic formula we’d read on an outdated Bible tract. Our response is a faith in a living God who came as a man who experienced real pain, but turned it to resurrection, exchanging ashes for beauty. Our response is faith in that man, Jesus, which leads us into the with-Godlife.

The with-God life takes over every element of our lives; our parenting, our work (be it marketing, teaching, garbage collecting, nursing, or whatever); our play (at the restaurant, watching the game, enjoying our friends and our children). In all arenas, we live with God, living in the joy of Jesus.

This morning, Amy Brown refuses the bleakness of the Ecclesiastes Preacher’s vision. She refuses emptiness and instead responds to God’s call by coming to be ordained into deacon service. Being a deacon is not glamorous. It is night-time meetings, crunching budget numbers, discussing how to maintain our building so that the building can be used by God; it is getting down in the dirt to pull weeds so that the property that is used by God is a beautiful maintained, orderly place. Her simple, “Yes, I’ll serve,” is a “No, I won’t satisfy myself with meaningless things that do not satisfy.” To serve in the community of faith is a step toward purpose and joy.

We all respond with a resounding no to the Speaker’s vanity. We won’t buy into our culture’s sensual attempts at pleasure any more than we would stand in the face a gale force wind and spit. No, not us. We respond to the cries of “Vanity, all is vanity,” by saying it is not vanity when we gather and raise our voices in songs of praise to God. Our worship is joined by angels and untold heavenly beings. With unseen spiritual forces lifting us we declare God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s beauty, and God’s amazing grace.

Service, worship, and so many other things that we do as a people who believe in Jesus –it all comes together to paint another picture, an alternative. The Speaker-Preacher of Ecclesiastes was true and appropriate in bemoaning the emptiness of temporal solutions to human longing. We are equally right in saying in Jesus, there is full, lasting, perfect satisfaction for all who wonder, all who hurt, and all who know how broken then are.

We declare the with-God Gospel alternative to death, and finally, we make it our purpose to draw others in because we know so many people who think happiness is in the bottom of a bottle of Miller Genuine Draught; we weekly talk to friends who are sure happiness will come when the enormous, high-definition, 3D television is hooked to the wall and the stereo surround sound. We can too easily list people we love who are certain all will be right in their lives once they go on that beach vacation.

Empty! And this is people we know and love. We want them to be full, like we are full when we worship, when we service, when we gather in Jesus’ name. We want to share the truth that life is not made up of a few thrills and a lot of grief. True life comes in the joy of Jesus that transcends; the joy that transforms our grief.

No, it is not vanity. It is joy, in Jesus’ Name.


Christmas Day Sermon

For the Christmas Day message, I am going to share my heart as a pastor, as a person, as a Christ-follower in a very personal way. Often in sermons, I criticize much of 21stcentury upper middle class American life. I criticize the patriotism that sees America as more favored than other people. God loves Koreans, Chinese, Libyans, Mexicans, and everyone else as much as Americans. I criticize American consumerism. We buy too much stuff; consume too high a percentage of the world’s resources. American consumerism and materialism is sinfully unjust. In these ways and others, I am critical.

And yet, I love America. I love being an American. I am fortunate enough to travel overseas, and when I do, I go as a representative of the United States. I do so proudly. I feel a sense of mission; it’s like one of the things I must do in an international airport is represent America well. I don’t always succeed. But it is in my mind.

I especially love American Christmas. I know many of my critiques are especially on display at Christmas time. I heard and radio announcer who was doing a read for a jewelry store say, “Whether you are spending $50 or $50,000 ...” and I didn’t another word. $50,000 for a Christmas gift?? Insane! I say that, I love this morning, coming from the bedroom to the Christmas tree and seeing that Santa has come. I love it.

I love coming to the church and singing these hymns, true worship songs that put the birth of Jesus into story set to music. I love Christmas parties. We had several school Thanksgiving and Christmas events for our boys. I love Christmas lights on people’s homes. Our family drives around night after night to see how the town is lit up, acknowledging that this time of year is special. I wouldn’t trade Christmas in North Carolina in the United States for anything.

What I have discovered this year at Christmas is that all the preaching I have done in my time at HillSong has come back to me. Every spiritual challenge has been thrown upon me in this festive time of feasts, time off from work and school, hustle and bustle, and holiday cheer.

I have repeatedly said we can honor God and worship Him and represent Him in the world by doing our normal tasks with excellence. A simple example is a baker who is also a passionately devoted follower of Jesus honors God by baking good bread. His work is an offering. Similarly in our relationships, we strive for excellence. I want to be a great husband and dad, friend and neighbor for the sake of glorifying God. That has been a wonderfully difficult and rewarding challenge and I am acutely aware of how better I need to be –especially as a husband and dad and pastor.

Another mantra of mine, from this pulpit, is that we are called by Jesus himself to share the good news of salvation and forgiveness of sins. All Christians are called to tell about Jesus. Just a couple of weeks ago, UNC student came in asking what she would need to do to be baptized. As she and I walked through the building, I talked about forgiveness and new life in Christ. It was awesome, but, I don’t do enough of that. I have to improve in answering Jesus’ call to evangelism.

Beyond evangelism and beyond praising God by doing the daily thing of work and personal life with excellence, there other ways my own preaching has come back to me this Christmas. But I won’t go into more detail because the important thing is not for you to hear my confession. The important thing is that upon hearing my own story, you get serious about your own relationship with God. Where do you need to improve?

Do you know why I have become so aware of all I have mentioned? I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about evangelism every Christmas. Each year at this time, I don’t pause and think, “Rob, are you practicing what you preach?” This year though, I can’t think of much else. It is intensified in the joy I feel when I am getting things right and in my disappointment when I fail miserably. Why this year I am so concerned about becoming a better Christ-follower?

It’s the scripture – Psalm 97. The Psalms are the worship book in scripture, so this Advent, as a church, we’ve been praying the Psalms as a worshiping body and hopefully as individuals. Psalm 97 is one of the enthronement Psalms. Most Psalms are laments or praises. Some are categorized as Royal Psalms. The smallest category is the enthronement Psalm. Enthronement Psalms are sung only to God, acknowledging God. The Royal Psalms apply to Jesus, but originally they also applied to Israelite Kings. Enthronement Psalms are only for, to, and about God. When we sing an Enthronement Psalm with Jesus in mind, we’re saying Jesus is God.

We’re also saying Jesus is king, an un-American idea. I began my confession this morning saying how much I love the American Christmas traditions in which I have been raised. When Christmas comes around, I am flooded by happy memories.

As a follower of Jesus, I cannot think of his birth and think of carols and nativity scenes. Those things are wonderful, but the birth of Jesus is first and foremost the story of God come to earth. The eternal one stepped out of the limitless beauty of Heaven and the unbound power and majesty of divinity. God stepped out of godhood and into the fragile, perilous form of a human baby. God put on humanity in its rawest forms.

What did the wise men say when they came to see the baby Jesus? “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2)? They said “King of the Jews,” but they, Persians, knew this king was a king beyond Israel. They dropped everything in their lives because they knew from gazing at the star and studying the ancient Hebrew texts that this king was like no other. Yes, he was a Jew. Yes, they were Persians living in what today we call Iran. It did not matter. They would drop everything and come to him because was not just a king, but the king.

Today, we know how the story went from there. Jesus grew into a man who embraced children when more respectable people would say, “children should be seen and not heard.” Jesus was a teacher who paused to listen to and heal blind roadside beggars when more important people said the beggars should be silent. Jesus was a revolutionary who defeated evil itself by dying on a cross. And he was and is a King who rules with the power of love instead of the power of the sword or gun.

The way we Americans became a nation was by throwing off the yoke of king in a bloody revolution. We declared ourselves independent, fought, and today have a representative democracy. The idea of a king in America today is absurd.

Yet, in reading Psalm 97, I have felt more than ever, that the birth of Jesus, the season of Christmas, is a reminded that I am first and foremost a child of God. Being an American comes after that. As a child of God, born again in Jesus Christ, I am called to take on the yoke of a king.

My work as a writer of sermons and visitor to hospitals and spiritual counselor and church administrator is to be done at the pleasure of the king. My life as a husband, a dad, a son, a brother, a neighbor, a sports fan, a Carolinian – it is to be lived at the pleasure of the king. At any point, should the king command a change, it is to be made. At any point, should the king interrupt my daily life, I welcome the interruption. At all points, I am mindful that God is always present and I am always to love others as He has loved me and to act as he would have me act.

Of course, I am telling you my intent. There are moments when I succeed. In many others, I come up short. The UNC student I mentioned earlier who came in confessed to some pretty significant sins as she and I walked through the building. Right at the moment she was pouring her heart out, we were in this room, and I was able to point up to the cross and explain that Jesus covers our sins and we are forgiven. Right now, as I tell you my intent to live every moment of life in service to the king and I acknowledge how frequently I come up short, I turn myself to the cross. I am reminded that I am washed in grace.

I am also aware of what Jesus said. A moment ago, I recalled that America threw off the yoke of a king. As Christ-followers we take on the yoke of King Jesus. Do you know what a yoke is? It is a large, heavy wooden brace that connect two oxen together. Then the farmer can come behind and drive the oxen wherever he wants them to go. When we take on the yoke of Jesus, we are enslaved to God. We go wherever King Jesus directs us.

The good news is Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”(Mt. 11:28-30). The heavy yoke laid on oxen means heavy work is ahead. The yoke of King Jesus brings rest and revives the soul.

It’s a paradox. The more love we give, the more we have. The more we die to self and give ourselves to Christ, the more life we have. And the closing verses of Psalm 97 become our Christmas confession and our everyday reality.

“Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name” (97:11-12)!

The call I have felt to be a better dad and to be better in evangelism and to do it all for the sake of bringing glory to God is invitation to take on Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden. It is the reality that my life is lived in absolute slavery with Jesus as my master, and at the same time there is no freedom like the freedom one has when yoked with Him. To do more is to have more rest. It cannot be understood except by those who know the baby in the manger is the eternal King of all Kings.

Christmas is His day. Every day is His. I am thankful for what a blessing it is to know that, and I am thankful God has, this year, called me to live in that reality.