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Monday, January 6, 2014

Entering God's Story

The Story of God, The Story of Us (2 Timothy 3:1-5, 12-17)

What do you have in common with a fundamentalist, a Universalist, a Catholic, a Greek Orthodox, a mainline Methodist, a Pentecostal, a reformed Jew, and even a religion scholar who is also an atheist?  What do you share with each one and with me and with the person sitting right next to you?  The Bible!  Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses significantly alter the story of scripture to the point that while their respective teachings have some rooting in the Bible story, the changes either in translation or in the details of the story are significant enough that we really would not include those groups when we identify who reads and recognizes the same Bible we do.  Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, each in different ways, have changed the story.  Other groups including Hindus and Buddhists live in a completely different story.  But Jews, Christians, and people in our part of the world, the west, have been culturally shaped by the Bible. 
Of course Jews do not see the New Testament as scripture except for those Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  Still, they attest to the authority of the Old Testament and we Christians do too.  There may be some sects that only attribute authority to the first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  We also see those books as word of God. 
The Bible is a constant.  Secular scholars may relegate it to ancient literature that is to be parsed and studied, critiqued and questioned, whereas devout Christ followers see it as the word of life.  Both read the same text.  The literalist who rejects critical scholarship might demand we only read the King James Version, while some very committed Christ followers embrace critical scholarship as a way of understanding God’s word.  When the two argue with one another, their meeting point, even though it is a meeting to fight, is the Bible. 
Every person in the world and certainly every person in Christianity, no matter the flavor or packaging of that particular expression of Christianity must deal with scripture.  At HillSong we begin each year asking the entire church to join hearts and minds as we study one topic.  During January and February of 2012, our topic was Sabbath.  In 2013, last year, it was evangelism.  For the first two months, every sermon and every small group focused on evangelism.
Now, we are in a new year – 2014.  Our church is full of life.  People over and over tell us they feel welcomed and loved when they come.  New people visit us nearly every week; most weeks, we have several guests.  We are heavily into local missions.  We send teams to Ethiopia every year.  We support missionaries in our state and overseas.  In 2014, we are exploring adding several new missions to our already existing commitments.[i]  We have a growing children’s ministry. 
What is our foundation?  What do we stand on and when we fall, what catches us?  Not the Bible!  The answer is God – primarily as we meet God in the Holy Spirit.  One of the gifts God has given to help us know God is His Word. 
The Bible is not to be exalted – only God is exalted.  Some Baptists, especially conservatives, are guilty of glorifying the Bible.  Our relationship is with God.  The Bible helps.  Our savior is God as he is revealed in Jesus.  The Bible tells about Him.  Our life is in the Holy Spirit with the Spirit in us.  The Bible instructs us on how to position and posture our lives so that we are open to the Spirit.  We need the Bible. 
We are going to spend 8 weeks immersed in the story of the Bible.  As we do, we will see how God’s word shapes us in our daily. Our entry point is 2 Timothy 3:1. 

2 Timothy 3:1-5 (CEV)
You can be certain that in the last days there will be some very hard times. People will love only themselves and money. They will be proud, stuck-up, rude, and disobedient to their parents. They will also be ungrateful, godless, heartless, and hateful. Their words will be cruel, and they will have no self-control or pity. These people will hate everything that is good. They will be sneaky, reckless, and puffed up with pride. Instead of loving God, they will love pleasure. Even though they will make a show of being religious, their religion won’t be real. Don’t have anything to do with such people.

Lovers of money?  That sounds awfully familiar.  Disobedient to parents?  How would you assess the relational climate in families, generally speaking, in the United States as the year 2014 begins?  The volume of people seeking professional counselors to help them function as family is enough testimony to show we have problems.  I don’t say that as a condemnation of therapists.  I studied counseling.  I have been to counseling.  I merely point it out to show that what was written nearly 2000 years ago in the Bible, in 2nd Timothy 3 is more fitting now than perhaps at any time in history. 
People will be proud, stuck, and rude, and they will be ungrateful, heartless, godless, and hateful, verses 2 and 3 say.  What an awesome way to open a new year, citing how much decay exists in human relationships in our culture.  Well, we’re not going to end this morning with this bad news, but again, it is worth pointing out that there are many messes in the lives people living the affluent American life.  Under God’s guidance, Paul wrote words in the mid first century that speak to the everyday problems we face.
Have you been on the receiving end of cruel words?  He mentions that.  Have you seen people out of control?  I’d classify school shootings, terrorism, and rising suicide statistics as signs of s world out of control.  In our daily life do we meet people who love pleasure more than they love God?  I do.  And Paul wrote that we would.
Please note; I am attributing 2nd Timothy to Paul.  Most critical scholars do not believe he is the author.  The letter has vocabulary not seen in his other letters.  That and other indicators suggest the letter was more likely written several decades after Paul died.  My own guess is that Paul originally wrote multiple letters to Timothy and to churches led by Timothy.  As the years passed, these letters were shared from one community to another, pages were lost, found, and lost again.  And eventually, someone, a later author, with a different writing style than Paul’s compiled what he possessed and attributed authorship to the apostle.  He did this because he was reworking something he knew Paul wrote.
My guess is not a scientific one, but I have read the arguments against Paul’s authorship and while they have merit, in the end they are speculative arguments.  Either way, I firmly believe this letter is the inspired word of God that addressed issues in late first century Christianity.  And formed by the eternal wisdom of God, the letter speaks directly to life in early 21st century American Christianity.
Chapter 3 begins mentioning “the last days.”  Are we in the end times?  Of course.  Are we nearing the final judgment?  Absolutely.  Does that mean it will happen in our lifetimes?  In the Bible, Jesus commands us to not even think about that.  It is not for us to know when and we should not guess.  The period called “the last days,” runs from the coming of Holy Spirit in Acts 2 until Jesus returns in bodily form.  We don’t know how long the period of “last days,” or “end times” will be. 
We are commanded to be ready and this means we live in faith with our eyes turned always to Jesus.  We live as his followers in a world that is indifferent to his commands.  In this life, we are different, set apart from the main stream of society because we know Jesus is the King.  Even as we willingly submit to the laws of the land and participate in our democracy, we live as subjects, living to serve our master, the Lord Jesus. 
Often Christians want to be in good standing with God, but they do not want their faith to make them different from their peers at work or in social relationships.  We want to fit in with the crowd.  That is not possible.  True Christ followers will stand out.  This is not for the sake of being different.  We are not odd for the sake of being unique.  But, our loyalty to Jesus means that his ways and not money or popularity or personal desire are what determine who we are, what we choose, and how we live.
Three resources give us the power and the stamina to be Christ followers in a world that has turned its back on God.  You may have friends who would never admit they are hostile toward God.  They are just not into the whole “God thing,” or church is not for them.  They might even be offended if they thought they were categorized as God’s opposition.  But indifference is not an option.  One is for God or against God.  How do we stand, joyfully, for Jesus and with Jesus, loving the lost but also recognizing them as alienate from God because of their lack of a relationship with Christ?  How do we live as people of faith who acknowledge the King of Kings?
The main resource we must rely on God the Spirit.  Then we have the church.  In the church, together with other Christ followers, we appeal to the Spirit and we go to the third resource, the Bible.  In Bible study groups, in tandem with the pastor, in mentoring relationships, under the guidance of the Spirit, we read together.   We also read the Bible alone, as individuals.  Both are equally needed – group reading and individual reading.  Spirit-Church-Bible; each works in coordination with the others to help Christ followers live in obedience, show love and compassion, and spread the gospel to people who do not know Jesus. 
Paul’s wording of what I have described is in 2 Timothy 3, starting in verse 10.
12 Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others. 13 But evil people who pretend to be what they are not will become worse than ever, as they fool others and are fooled themselves.
14 Keep on being faithful to what you were taught and to what you believed. After all, you know who taught you these things. 15 Since childhood, you have known the Holy Scriptures that are able to make you wise enough to have faith in Christ Jesus and be saved. 16 Everything in the Scriptures is God’s Word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live. 17 The Scriptures train God’s servants to do all kinds of good deeds.

He locates Timothy’s faith education in the community; the individual believer “belongs to Jesus Christ,” and was taught “since childhood.” And he makes plain the value of the Bible.  Everything in it is God’s word. 
We should not get tripped up on what this does not mean.  I have heard people say “if one verse of scripture contains error,” throw it all out.  And that would hold true if the error called into question God’s reality or God’s sovereignty.  If the Bible contains any mistakes about who God is or how we get to know God, then it is worthless. 
But scoffers will take the premise of inerrancy and then note that minor facts in the resurrection accounts of the four gospels might seem irreconcilable and they shout, “See!  See!  It is an inconsistency.  Thus the Bible is flawed!  If the smallest ancillary detail is off, throw it all in the trash.”  Nervous Christians who read everything with a literalist mindset, even passages clearly meant to be symbolic, then do literary gymnastics to try to force perfect harmonization instead of meeting God in the stories. 
God’s word is without error in showing us who God is and who we are.  None of the minor manuscript discrepancies or the numbering of angels at the empty tomb discredit the Bible’s authority.  These facts simply testify that this book is comprised of written testimony from human witnesses trying to communicate what God has done.  As Paul says, everything in it is God’s word.
God’s word teaches us what we need to know.  God’s word corrects us when we are wrong so we don’t stay on the wrong path.  But it is not only negative.  God’s word shows us how to live.  And when we live by the word, we end up living good lives, lives in which we help people by loving them, empowering them, and introducing them to Jesus.  When we live in the Bible, our lives become expressions of the God the Bible is describing.
So, at HillSong church, we begin 2014 in the Bible.  We enter the new year by diving into the depths of God’s word. 
As we go through the next 8 weeks exploring the contours of the hundreds of human witnesses who come together to tell the story of God and us, I am going to offer ways of getting into scripture.  I will do this in sermons, in my newsletter articles, and on my blog. 
The first pathway I recommend is scripture memorization.  There are 51 and ½ weeks left in 2014.  Determine today that you will memorize a verse every 2 weeks so that on December 31st, you will have memorized 25 or so verses. 

Start with 2 Timothy 1:10:
 “Christ our Savior defeated death and brought us the good news.  It shines like a light and offers life that never end.”

          This week, read the Bible.  Enter God’s story.  Get into it so much that your life speaks the Gospel.

[i] I am thinking specifically of Ben Smith’s campus mission and of Project Esperanza.  

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