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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Grace for Distressing Days (2 Timothy 2:1-7, 2o-23; 3:1)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

          We are praying for wisdom and revelation – for individuals, as we each live as disciples and for HillSong Church as the body of Christ.  I believe God answers this prayer, but in order to receive that answer, we must be positioned toward God, listening, waiting, and ready to receive what God gives us.
          Last week we said we believe God has and continues to issue a specific call to us - HillSong church.  This prayer for wisdom and revelation comes in the context of an identity God has already given us.
We are to be a sanctuary – safe space that welcomes all people into the love of God.  We are to encourage discipleship so that people meet the Spirit of God here.  When we meet God in Christ, we become new creations.  As new creations, we are sent into the world to bear witness to the salvation we have in the crucified, risen Lord.  The key words for our church are Safe-New-Sent. 
          Within this model of church, what does God speak today? And when God speaks, can we hear what is said?

          There is noise that fills our ears and makes it hard to hear.  In 2nd Timothy 3, we see a gauntlet of challenges that would throw us off track before we even begin our quest to find God’s word for us.  I mentioned last week that our enemies are Satan, sin, and death.  Satan is the tempter who would lead us to rebel against God by choosing our way instead of God’s way.  In doing that, we put ourselves in God’s role, that of ultimate decision maker and standard setter.  Satan tempts and our own tendency to sin make us vulnerable to the temptation. 
When, under the influence of the evil one, we set ourselves up as the ones who determine ultimate meaning, we have entered into idolatry.  This comes by way of pride, Satan’s and our own.  The way of God is life.  God is God of the living.  Any other way is the way of death.  Thus the forces that oppose God and oppose us in living out the purpose God has for us are Satan, sin, and death.
This morning, the second member of that malevolent trio, “sin” comes into focus. The opening to the 3rd chapter of 2 Timothy says in the last days, distressing times will come.  Why? 
The chapter goes on to list 18 examples of destructive behavior.  This way of living is characteristic of the end times.  We are given 18 ways a person can turn away from God.  Our Father loves each of us unconditionally and eternally.  Here are 18 ways to tell God we’re not interested in the love he offers or in being involved with him at all.  Sin runs amuck in the last days.
Are we in the last days?
          I think so.  Sit down to watch a football game with someone under 10 years old.  See how frequently you have to mute the commercials because they are inappropriate.  Keep a tally of the stories of rape, extortion, tax evasion, mass shootings, terrorism, and poverty that are the content of any night’s evening news.  Go through in your mind the number of times someone in the last month has frustrated, hurt, insulted, or deceived you. And, consider those times you harmed others with words of condescension, dismissal, or shame. 
The degradation of humanity in rebellion against God is an obstacle to our design of seeking God, receiving God’s instruction, and following God’s path.  This obstacle, the tendency humans have to stand on pride, live in idolatry and reject God is everywhere and we cannot be a safe place where people are made new, and we cannot receive God’s revelation until we understand how we stay faithful in these end times.
Allow me to clarify my understandin of phrases like “the end times” or “the final days.” This is the period between Jesus’ resurrection, and the second coming of Christ.  It begins in Acts 2 and lasts until Jesus returns.   We don’t know the length last days will be, but we know we’re in the middle of it.
Yet in this midst of this turbulent time, our church is called to seek and serve God.  How do we do that?  We endeavor to bring the blessings of God to one another and to people outside the church. 
The blessings of God begin with salvation through faith in the resurrected Messiah.  We know many will initially reject that Gospel.  So we offer love through programs that promote education to those who can get it, help with rent to those who have trouble paying, fix houses for those who can’t do it alone, provide community and friendship for the lonely, and offer hospitality to those who come to us for reasons other than a thirst for truth.  We promote human flourishing. 
As we pray, listen, and wait for God to act, in our lives, we (1) strive for excellence in all that we do.  As we make excellence our standard, we (2) lean on God’s grace.  As 2nd Timothy 2:1 says, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
That’s it.  We strive for excellence knowing our success is dependent upon God’s help and knowing God gives that help in abundance.  Our “no” to the forces of our age that would have us set ourselves up as gods and make our own sensual appetites our ultimate goal is to say “yes” to human flourishing.  We look around us and says, “How can I and how can we help make things good just the world was good when God first made it?”  How can we be God’s agents of redemption? 
Several pictures come from 2nd Timothy 2 to help us get this.
First, verse 3.  “No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.”  God is that officer and we live for God’s pleasure.  Through prayer, the support of our church community, and the constant empowering Holy Spirit at work in us, we don’t get bogged down by those 18 signs of distress in chapter 3.  We live with resurrection in view.  That’s our focus.  We live to please our commander.  And our commander’s greatest commands are that we love God above all else and love our neighbor with an extensive loves that speaks through acts of compassion.
The next picture comes in chapter 2, verse 5.  It says, “in the case of the athlete, no one is crowned without competing, according to the rules.”  Two words jump out.  First we have to compete.  Being a disciple is work.  We cooperate with the Spirit in trying to live compassionately, and generously.  Yes our success is Spirit-dependent, but we do our part.  We commit to compassionate God-love the way a great champion commits to performing at high levels in her sport.
We compete and the second word related to this athlete metaphor is we do it by the rules.  We do things God’s way.  Our ethic is as important as our result.  We love with integrity.  This is why we need to constantly pray for wisdom, by the way.  The balance of extreme compassion and extreme integrity is impossible for humans but doable when we act in God’s power.
The third picture comes in 2:6.  “It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the share of the crops.”  Effort is required to be strong in the grace that we have in Christ and strive for excellence in all things.  Our work does not save us.  Jesus does that.  But our effort to live as God would have us live and love as God commands us to love indicates how highly we value the life to which God calls us.  Worship, prayer, individual devotions, commitment to compassion in our daily lives, responsible living in our habits, family, and jobs, kindness, and generosity – these make up our work as disciples. 
That’s three pictures of living in grace while striving for excellence – the focused soldier, the competitive, committed athlete, and the diligent farmer.  For the fourth is in 2 Timothy 2:20-21.  There true disciples are compared to golden utensils, the household’s very best.  In a world that is dying, we belong God.  This means our lives have purpose – to point people to God.  Nothing matters more so we live in such a way that we are witnesses.  Whether out activity is religious or the stuff everyday life, we do what do properly and in kindness and generosity so that even in banal things we point people to the Lord.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.”  If our striving for excellence in life and in discipleship draws an observer’s attention to God to the point that the observer then glorifies God, that observer is in the process of turning to God and himself becoming a disciple. 
Give attention to these pictures, metaphors that show what it is like to be a committed follower of Jesus in world hell bent on rejecting Him.  The focused soldier, the competitive athlete, the diligent farmer, shining golden vessel: this is the disciple. 
When we live into these images we are ready to accept God’s invitation to join Him as co-creators.  Through us, God enables people to flourish, to live the abundant life Jesus promised.
When God first created the universe, God’s intent was for human beings to be singled out among all God made.  God intended that we humans be in relationship with Him and do the types of things He did. 
God invited Adam into the creation process by giving him the responsibility of naming the animals (Genesis 2:19).  It says, God sat and waited to see what the man would name each animal.  Before sin came into the world, God gave humans work to do – the work of naming.  When the world is redeemed, God will again give us creative work.  God made us to be productive and creative.  Our striving for excellence is a way we live in anticipation of Jesus’ return.    
One day, in the Kingdom of Heaven, we will exercise our God-given, creativity.  Today’s prayer for wisdom and revelation is a reach toward human flourishing that can only happen in relationship to God. 
Now, if I were having a tough time in life and I heard this talk about excellence, I’d think, “Wow!  That sounds like a lot.  I barely make it from day to day. I can’t think about creativity or flourishing.”  That’s alright, if that is where you are today.    
God knows.  If doing your best is making it through today, then make it through today leaning on God.  The word is not “be strong in all the power you possess.”  We are all weak.  We are all broken.  The word is “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
That’s where we end – with God’s grace.  God’s grace is enough.  If I commit 1000 sins today, God’s grace is enough and I will be forgiven.  I need to stop all those sins, but until I stop, God will forgive.  If I never stop, God still loves me. 
If every day is a struggle for someone, God’s grace is enough to get her through. 
If someone appears to win in everything she does, take a closer look.  She hurts too and is as grace-dependent as you or me.  And I believe she and you and I have the potential to flourish.  We do when we learn to be strong in grace and live in Christ
Imagine what flourishing would look like in your life.  Pray and ask God to show you a picture of how God wants you to be a co-creator with Him.  Ask for help in getting past all the snares listed in 2nd Timothy 3.  Imagine being strong in His grace and living a life of rich creativity and full, joyful flourishing in relationships with God and with people.  Pray for these things as we respond to God’s grace.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Seek Wisdom and Revelation

Seek Wisdom and Revelation (Ephesians 1:15-23)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

        Are all churches the same?
        Or …
        Is each church unique?

        I believe the latter.  Each church has an identity. The church building factors in this identity, but it is the people who comprise the congregation that set a particular church’s culture and define an individual faith community’s character. Today we begin a 7-week project.  We will seek the specific call of God for HillSong.
        Our core identity is built on three principles.  We believe church is to be a safe place where people meet Jesus and are made new, and upon being made new are then sent into the world in Jesus’ name.  Remember those three words – Safe, New, Sent.
        We constantly strive for spiritual and emotional safety because Jesus was safe for the most vulnerable of people.  Those with diseases and disabilities were viewed as people under God’s curse.  They were called unclean.  They were pushed to the far margins of society, denied participation in the community.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, shepherds, and leather workers – these were all outsiders.  Shepherds and tanners were unclean because of the nature of their professions, even though both werere needed by society.
        Others were unclean and unacceptable because of their sins.  Everyone - the sick, the sinners and the outcasts – all were welcomed and loved by Jesus. 
If he was safe for people, then his body, his church should be a safe place.  We are to be a community where it is safe to explore Christianity.  It should be OK if someone doesn’t know the words to “Amazing Grace.”  This is a safe place to not know.  This is a safe place to cry. Emotional pain, can break a person.  This is a safe place to be broken.  This is a safe place to ask questions and acknowledge doubts.  Or to propose new ideas. 
        We are far from perfect in this.  Maybe you have had an experience where you felt this church was not safe for you.  Maybe you have felt I was not a safe person to approach or to speak with openly.  We have to constantly strive to be a safe place.
        The second word, New, is about meeting Jesus.  This is the part of our construct that is out of our control.  We cannot make anyone new.  We can set conditions so that people may meet the Holy Spirit in this place.  But actually being made new is something the Holy Spirit does in us.  This is God acting at God’s initiative, on God’s timetable.  Our worship, our groups, and the entire atmosphere is intended to help people meet God.  God will take care of the new birth, the transformation.  We try to foster the setting in which this can happen.
        Third, having found welcome and refuge in the family of God, and having met Jesus and become new creations as a result of the encounter, we are sent into the world to announce that Jesus is Lord and that all people can have life in His name.  We are sent each week to be witnesses in the communities of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham, Raleigh, and Hillsboro.  Some are sent from here on trips to faraway places.  Some receive the commissioning prayer as they move out of our town.  In those cases, we say goodbye with our arms open in love, not knowing when we’ll see them again. 
We all need a safe place because sin dictates that there is brokenness in the lives of every one of us.  We all need to become new creations in Christ.  And everyone who is His is then sent to give testimony to His salvation.

The third portion of this vision for church – “Sent” – is a joy, but our enemies, Satan, sin, and death can use the greatest gifts of God against us.  Read Luke chapter 4.  The devil tried to tempt Jesus by quoting something beautiful, passages of scripture.  Look at Mark chapter 10.  Two of the inner of circle of disciples, James and John, let sin – their own lust for power – take their eyes off of Jesus and His mission.  Read the Gospel accounts of Peter’s denial of Jesus.  His fear of death led him down a path in which he not only abandoned the Lord.  He denied Jesus, his rabbi.  Satan, sin, and death; these enemies of God conspire to attack the Almighty by hurting us. 
Midway through 2014 up through this past summer, we did the “sending prayer,” a lot.  Well over a dozen people who were core HillSong members, people who made our ministries run, moved on.  Each time, we laid on hands and joyfully expressed our love and tearfully said our goodbyes.  And we held tightly to our vision of Safe-New-Sent.  However, by Easter of this year, a spiritual enemy was speaking loudly to my spirit.
“Hey Pastor Rob!  You’ve lost a lot of people.”
My response.  This is part of our vision.  We know will say goodbye.  We are in a place where people come, stay for a few years, get a degree and then move one.  We as a congregation embrace that.  We thank God we can walk with people for a few years, love them and be a home for them while they are here and then send them on with our blessing.  That is who we are.
My enemy’s response.  “Keep telling yourself that, Pastor Rob.  You can’t sustain a vision like that.  It won’t hold up.”
I said back, listen, this church has maintained this reality long before I came.  I just put words together to describe God’s work here.
My enemy: “Sure.  But now you’re here and you’re a hindrance.  Take a look around.  You’re not getting new people to fill in the void left by those who’ve moved away.  And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, not everyone who is leaving is a recent graduate.  You’re losing people hand over fist.  Churches all over America are in decline and you are no different.”

This tortured conversation kept arising no matter how many times I drove it down to the depths.  I share all my struggles with my wife.  She heard me and almost in passing dropped a wisdom bomb on me.  She said, “Well, I have been in a Bible study that prays the words of Ephesians 1.  Why don’t you have our elders pray that scripture.”  So, I did.  Imagine that.  A Christ-follower has anxieties, comes to understand those anxieties are possibly a form of spiritual attack, and so that Christ-follower prays and asks others to pray.
If you think I am overspiritualizing concerns that can be explained along sociological lines and if I am guilty of seeing devils behind every problem, it makes no difference.  We are a praying community.  No matter what the source of the threat is one of our responses is to pray with great expectation.  Praying demands that we wait, listen (in the spirit), and live expectantly.  We wait on God, listen to God, and expect God to respond. 
The Apostle Paul did this.  In Ephesians 1, he says, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him.” God wants HillSong to come together and ask for wisdom and revelation in our lives as individuals and collectively as the body of Christ.  God is calling us to pray for these things. 
Paul had a profound sense that God would give these things.  In verse 18 he speaks of our hearts being enlightened so that we know the hope of the resurrected Lord and the inheritance he gives us and his power at work in us.  He believed God would give the wisdom and revelation he sought.

To close out chapter 1 he says,
20 God[f] put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

That is us, the body of Christ.  When Paul writes the “fullness of him,” he means the Holy Spirit fills us – the church. 
So, our elders, and Heather, Nathan and I, prayed, listened, and expected in preparation for this season we now enter.  For the next 7 weeks, as a church family we will together pray for wisdom and revelation.
I conclude this morning by sharing a bit of wisdom God has given me and some specific things God has shown me.  Revelation is what God unveils, knowledge, truth, and reality that we cannot discover no matter how hard we try.  Divine wisdom and revelation are things God gives not things we earn.
I already mentioned one bit of wisdom.  When I was struggling spiritually, God, by way of my wife, led me to pray.  A second wisdom God has given is something that has helped me throughout my life at HillSong – the act of listening.  In more ways than I can count, God spoke to me when I chose to listen to people.  I pass that wisdom along.  If someone is talking with you or at you, take a moment to fully listen.  Listen and in your spirit, pray.  No matter type of interaction it is, I think God speaks in it, but most of the time we only hear what he has to say if we are listening.
So the wisdom is pray and listen.  What is the revelation?
What has God shown me?  Recall the national recession of 2008-2012.  In that time frame our church added an associate pastor and a youth pastor.  We also added a partnership with the Care Point for at risk kids in Kombolcha, Ethiopia.  Recall that from 2014 to 2015 nearly 30 people followed God’s call to other places.  HillSong lost that many people but we really didn’t lose anyone. 
We said goodbye knowing this is part of who we are as a church.  We had the privilege of loving each family and sending them with God’s blessing.  Moreover in that time, our church maintained the Ethiopia partnership, grew our Saturday tutoring ministry here in Chapel Hill, had one of our biggest Vacation Bible Schools yet, and explored partnerships in the Dominican Republic and in Quebec. 
The devil would love for us to focus on the losses – loss of money from 2008-2012; loss of people from 2014-2015.  When I heeded the wisdom to pray and when I listened, God showed me that God has been at work in our church family the entire time.  God has involved our church in God’s work around the world.  God does not depend on how much money we have or how many people are here. 
God expects us to know Him through the crucified and risen Christ.  God expects us to be responsive to the Holy Spirit.  And as we respond to the Spirit, God shows us Himself and leads us in the life God wants us to live.  And that life is where we experience the greatest happiness, deepest meaning, and lasting joy. 
We’re going to end with prayer.
As music plays, listen to the Holy Spirit.  After we’ve listened then pray for revelation.  Ask God to show you what God wants you to see and ask God to help you see it.  This can be revelation for your life or for our church.  First listen, then ask for revelation and wisdom. 
If you want to you can come and pray at the steps.  We will have people at the front and back ready to pray with you.  We enter into a time of prayer knowing that this is a season of seeking.  Over the next several weeks we will explore different scriptures constantly seeking God’s wisdom and revelation.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Review of 'Life on the Edge' by McFadden and Al-Khalili

            The subtitle of this book is ‘The Coming Age of Quantum Biology.’  It is a book about science and I am particularly weak in my understanding of science.  Beyond that general disclaimer about me as a reader of science books, “Life on the Edge” is about the quantum realm and how it relates to biology.  The quantum realm is not fully understood, but where it is fully integrated in the conversation is physics, not biology.  I told a friend, a retire professor of biology at a major university, that I was reading a book on quantum biology.  A skeptical expression came over his face.  “Quantum biology?”  He asked.  My feeble efforts to summarize the book were unconvincing to him.
            So, that’s a couple of disclaimers.  I don’t understand science.  And I really don’t understand quantum science.  A third disclaimer is that I am a Christian pastor – a theist.  The authors make passing allusions to scripture.  There book is a science book, not a theology book.  But they cannot resist making theological assertions. 
            The first example comes on page 27.  They identify that prior to advancements in scientific knowledge, ancient people held that some kind of “vital force” or “spirit” animated nonliving things to make them alive.  “Vital forces” are terms the authors use.  Why they don’t just say “God,” I don’t know.  But that’s fine.  Here is what caught my eye on page 27.  They say, “We will [not] be claiming any kind of force, spirit, or magic ingredient animates life.  Our story is much more interesting than that.”  What?  I have heard scientists say that the only knowledge that is real knowledge is scientifically acquired knowledge.  This is the first time that beyond knowledge, I hear scientists claim expertise in the area of what is interesting. 
            So, just to summarize.  The authors assert that what they will discuss in their book, quantum theory as it relates to biology, is “much more interesting” than any type of theological contemplation.  And then they go on for over 300 pages of failure.  Because at the end, all they offer is a series of speculations that have not been proven nor gained widespread acceptance.  They say at the beginning, “It is worth remembering that even in this age of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, nothing living has ever been made by humans entirely from nonliving materials” (27). 
            The authors name as the biggest question in science as the question of how inert atoms and molecules found in rocks are transformed every day into running, jumping … living stuff.  That is the big question.  They also say, it has not happened, not by human efforts.  It has happened either by natural selection, a random process with no intentionality.  Or, it has happened by God’s intervention.  But real scientists aren’t allowed to point to God.
            By the way, I agree with that.  Once God is named as a cause, then something is happening and describing this happening is beyond what science is equipped to do.  Once God is an effective participant in the story, the story is beyond science.  Why that leads scientists to disregard God as if God doesn’t exist, I don’t know.  When they do that, they put all their trust, their faith if you will, in the scientific process of acquiring knowledge and understanding.  Natural Selection is the biologist’s god, not to be questioned, doubted, or challenged.  There is no question that cannot be answered by appealing to the evolutionary process that stands on the random process of natural selection.
            I am no young earth creationist.  I accept the evidence of a universe that is billions and billions of years old and the planet earth that is 4.5 billion years old.  I accept that living things are descended from common, simpler ancestors.  I have many scientist friends who over and over tell me this narrative is rock solid and the ground on which much of science stands.  My only problem with it all is when I hear a biologist describe it.  I find it very unconvincing. 
            The authors of “Life on the Edge” took their crack at describing the very beginning of life on earth in chapter 9.  What they share there is a narrative chalk-full of guesses and faith statements.  However, because that faith resides in a scientific milieu, it is not named and branded as such.  One thing that is clear to me after reading that chapter, something the authors would not want me to think, is this.  Life cannot happen without intention.  No undirected process will bring a nonliving thing to life, not even at the microscopic level, not even if we explain the event in terms of the quantum realm.  The authors are proposing just the opposite of what I just wrote.  But, I read the chapter closely.  There is no way, unless there is some evidence these two expert biologists do know, that life can come about through natural selection.  Natural selection is a survival process.  Prior to the first living thing being the first living thing, who or what is trying to survive.  And of course they end the chapter by saying everything they have just said is “highly speculative” (p.288).

            In the end, I find the book at many points difficult.  But that is my problem.  I have trouble understanding science most of the time.  The book is very interesting.  I might even say it is compelling.  But it is not convincing.  I cannot imagine a scientist, especially a biologist, reading this and thinking they’d want to consider the possibilities of quantum biology.  I am nonscientist, so I might be thoroughly misreading at that level.  At my level, I don’t find any of the ideas presented powerful enough to sway my thinking.  I am glad I read the book and I might recommend it to others.  But I nothing in my mind is affected by the argument made here.