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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Personal Evangelism in 2017

In 2008, I began the year at HillSong preaching about something very specific: evangelism.  I challenged myself and everyone in the church to wrestle with this question.  How many times have I shared the Gospel or developed a relationship with an unchurched person with the intention of sharing my faith in the past month?  The answer will be one indicator of how we are living as Christ’s followers commissioned to share his love with a lost and hurting world (Matthew 28:16-20).  We are each called to discipleship and to evangelism.  Here’s a less ‘churchy’ way of saying it.
·        Each one of us is called to follow Jesus. 
·        Each one of us is called by God to invite people we know who are not Christians to turn to Jesus and to give their lives to Him. 

Of course in our church we have often emphasized evangelism since 2008.  That’s not the last time we discussed it.  I bring it up today simply because the approach we employed that year is the right one for now.  Today it is again the time to ask am I living evangelistically.  Are we, as a church family, actively sharing our faith and inviting people to church?
People in the world are hurting and they’re looking for hope and looking for answers in all the wrong places.  As followers of Jesus, we know that faith in Him is what everyone needs.  Our church needs to grow, and the world around us needs the gospel God has given us to share.  So here are today’s questions. 
·        In the next six months with whom will I share Jesus? 
·        Who will I lift up in prayer? 
·        To whom will I reach out with the Gospel? 
·        Who is a non-Christian I intentionally befriend because I know God has called me to love that person? 
·        What is my personal evangelism strategy for the next six months?

At the Ash Wednesday worship service, we were invited to look and see all that God is doing to make things right in the world.  Our church spiritual discipline for Lent will be to notice, write down, and celebrate the ways God is at work around us.
In addition, this, another Lenten practice for HillSong Church for 2017 must be invitation.  Invite people who aren’t in a church family right now to come be a part of HillSong.  And note how you do this.  Be intentional about finding an evangelism approach that fits your personality, your skills, your spiritual gifting, and your situation in life. That’s our assignment for Lent 2017.  Know your personal evangelism strategy.  Write it down.  Spend time this week prayerfully thinking about how Jesus will speak through your life from now until Easter Sunday (4-16-17).  Begin writing your own personal evangelism strategy, and begin this week putting that strategy into practice.
That’s two spiritual practices for Lent 2017: Celebrating God’s good works and sharing the Gospel with people outside God’s church.  Spend the next two months engaged in this practices, celebration and evangelism.  And pray for our church.  Pray that all who worship at HillSong embrace these spiritual practices.  Through our efforts to partner with God, we will get to be a part of the wonderful ways He is bringing the Kingdom to fruition.  We’ll see God at work right in our church’s daily and weekly life.

And please share your ideas with me.  You can comment on one of the blog posts or get in touch with me through twitter (@revtennant), Facebook, or email ( 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Holiness: An Invitation to Cooperation

Leviticus 19
February 19, 2017

          Compliment or criticism? He’s holier than thou.  If you’re saying that about someone are you building him up?  It’s a critique.  Not a one of us would want to be called ‘holier than thou.’  Yet, I suggest that in our effort to see more of God and to know God better, in our lives, we must strive to be holy.
          One of my parenting tasks is to help my kids with grammar and writing homework, so I have to note something about this well-worn phrase, holier than thou.  The word ‘thou’ is archaic and it means you.  The word ‘holier’ is in a comparative form: holy, then the comparative ‘holier,’ and the superlative ‘holiest.’  Holier than thou is a phrase steeped in competition.  He’s not just holy.  He’s holier than you!
          No wonder it’s used as a put-down.  Holy becomes a synonym for ‘better.’  He’s holier than thou.  He’s better than you.  O no he’s not! ­ We think.  We never stop ponder what makes someone better than someone else.  We just resist the idea that one person is better at being a person than another person; we don’t like to think someone else is better at humanity than we are. 
          Holier than thou.  We say it out of the side of our mouths, a euphemism for cocky.  He’s so full himself, so holier than thou.  He thinks his stuff doesn’t stink.
          We’re so resistant to spiritual or moral comparisons, and yet much in our worldview is comparison-based.  We value competition.  Think about your own view.  Do you see the world through a cooperation-tinted lens or a competition-tinted lens?  In order for one to get ahead, does another necessarily fall behind?  Let that question settle.  Are you more prone to competition or to cooperation?  Let the question simmer as it pertains to how you move through life.
          Is it enough that the Tar Heels are having a really good basketball season?  Or, is it only truly successful if they are not only good, but better than Wake Forest?  Or N.C. State?  Or especially Duke?  Competition is admired in sports and it should be.  I want my favorite team to be highly competitive.  What I am asking us to consider is how this cooperation-competition dynamic spills over into life and into our thoughts about God and our own identity in Christ. 
          In the campaign of 2016, Donald Trump gave a specific compliment to Ted Cruz.  He said of Cruz, “He’s fighter.”  Later, Trump said the same thing of Hilary Clinton.  “I know this about her,” he said, “She’s a fighter.”  In both cases, he said it with admiration.  He appreciates that tough, competitive spirit.  So did Barak Obama.  So do most Americans.  Toughness; competitiveness; we see these as admirable qualities, except when we are dealing with holiness.
          Holiness is a title reserved for the pope.  To be extra reverent, we say ‘the holy Bible.’  But people, who are supposed to be competitive in all things, are suddenly expected to be humble and self-effacing when it comes to holiness.  The great irony is the Bible really doesn’t commend us to be great champions in sports or politics. 
From the Proverbs to the Parables, the Bible commends deference. Put others ahead of yourself.  Don’t brag.  Take the least significant place at the table.  These are paraphrases of actual teachings from scripture – the Bible we call “holy.”  In life, we are to put other ahead of ourselves.  We’re not told by God to be “winners.”  It’s strange that we say the Bible is authoritative in our lives.  But some things we highly value, toughness & competitiveness, are not Biblical values. 
But you know what is?  We just read it in the holy Bible; but not just the Bible!  This is the Torah, the law on which the rest of scripture stands.  Here at the center of Torah we read this command, Leviticus 19:2.  “You shall be holy.  For I, the Lord your God am holy.” God did not say this to the Pope.  This is not an inner-trinity conversation, Father-God speaking to God-the-Son.  This is to every one of God’s people.  This is to you and me.  We must be holy, for the Lord our God is holy. 
A quick aside: this is not a wholesale rejection of competitiveness.  In your work, you may have to compete for grants.  Compete hard!  I want the scientists who get the grants to be scientists who worship HillSong.  Compete hard in the interview for the job.  Strive excellence in the things you do in life.  Strive to be an excellent parent, an outstanding friend, the best student you can be, a quality, trustworthy employee.  Be a leader in the workforce.  If you coach a basketball team, strive to win every game.  Compete in life. 
However, when it comes to our primary calling, the Bible is directing us to view life through a cooperative prism, not a competitive one.  We don’t need others to fail for us to succeed.  In fact, the Biblical picture of holiness painted in Leviticus 19 is inherently cooperative.  It’s not something we fight for.  We join with one another in a mutually beneficial effort for the good of society. 
Leviticus 19 appears to be a re-working of the 10 commandments.  There’s the insistence on Sabbath-observance.  There the prohibitions against coveting, lying, and stealing.  There’s the rejection of idolatry.  This is a helpful way of understanding Leviticus 19, but note this.  The emphasis here is on relationships with people.  Our obedience to God’s absolute command is seen in how we relate cooperatively with people.  Samuel Ballentine writes, “the importance of how one lives in relationships with others in the human community is equal to, if not even greater than, the requirement of [faithfulness] to God.  … Ethical behavior is not merely the necessary consequence of love for God; it is the fundamental prerequisite that establishes the authenticity of that love.”[i]
In other words, we know we are striving to obey God’s command to “be holy” when we cooperate with other people for their good according to the guidelines given in the Bible.  
Let’s go through it and see this cooperation woven throughout the commandments.
Leviticus 19:3, “You shall revere your mother and father.”  We know we are striving for holiness when we honor our parents.  And honoring our parents is a matter of cooperation within the family. 
Verse 4, “Do not turn to idols.”  In ancient cultures, idol worship involved looking at a statue, endowing that statue with qualities reserved for God, and then serving and worshiping the statue.  This practice was the root cause of the destruction of society.  When we give what belongs to God – our worship and devotion – to something that is not God, then our social orientation is so off kilter the damage ripples throughout society. 
In ancient times it was statues – literal idols.  Today, our idolatry is seen when we give the loyalty and the allegiance that is exclusively God’s to someone or something else: a political party, a value like consumerism or patriotism, or a country.  “Do not turn to idols,” Leviticus says.  God should be our center and our all-in-all. 
Verses 9-10: don’t harvest everything!  This made sense for the agricultural society in which these commands were originally given.  Land-owning farmers who worked hard to maximize the productivity of the land were told point-blank not to harvest everything.  Leave some of it for hungry people.  Cooperate with those people who don’t own land and might starve without your help.
In today’s contex, this command might be worded don’t hoard.  Don’t keep everything. Why not?
Remember the overarching command in verse 2 – “Be holy.”    The only reason God gives us is “I am the Lord,” and this phrase is repeated in verse 4, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 25, 28, 30, 31, 34, & 37.  In 2017, when we read Leviticus 19:9-10, it sounds like this.  “When you receive your paycheck, don’t keep it all.  Take some of that money and share it with someone who is struggling.  No, that person with whom you share it didn’t work for it.  You did it.  So why in the world should you share it?  What the heck?  Why?”
“I am the Lord.”  It’s the only reason given. 
To say one person is holier than another, as in ‘holier than thou’ makes no sense.  It’s an absurd notion.  Holiness is not comparative at all, when we understand it Biblically.  One cannot be holy as God commands us to be holy alone.  The only way we can obey this command of God is in relationships of cooperation with others.  We have to cooperate in our worship community to exalt God and only God.  Together we reject idolatry by rejecting idols.
Together we honor our parents.  This is true in our own families but also in our church family, where we honor those who are elders among us.  We honor them for the work they do in the life of the church today.  Our elderly are as active as anyone.  Second, we honor them for the wisdom they’ve acquired over years.  It’s a cooperative effort in which we all experience blessing.
Together we honor everyone in the community by recognizing that the paychecks our hard work produces are a means of cooperation.  When seen this way, we realize we aren’t giving to charity when we share our money so others can eat, be clothed, be educated, and have housing.  The sharing of money contributes to helping everyone in the community join God in holiness.
Verse 17 couldn’t be clearer.  “You shall not hate in our heart anyone of your kin.”  Based on the life and teaching of Jesus, we know our “kin” is the human family.  We are not to hate anyone, period.  That is followed up with something that might be familiar to New Testament readers.  Leviticus 19:18.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
We Christians are tempted to think of ourselves as New Testament people who no longer practice the system of worship described in Leviticus.  We don’t do animal sacrifice.  However, as New Testament people, we would readily submit to the authority of the books in the NT, including First Peter.  First Peter 2:9 says, to us, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
That verse colors our reading of Leviticus 19.  No, we don’t undertake the sacrificial system of worship prescribed in Leviticus because Jesus was the sufficient sacrifice, once and for all.  Our worship involves singing praise to the one true God.  It does not involve sacrifices.  After the cross, that’s no longer necessary.  However, the values of Leviticus, especially the holiness commanded in chapter 19, are formative for anyone who would be a God-worshiper.
Leviticus 19:17 says, “You shall not hate anyone of your kin.” How do I accomplish “holiness?” 
How can I be holy as the Lord my God is holy? Don’t hate anybody and love your neighbor.  Who is my neighbor?  The person who needs my help.  Why would I love him?  God’s answer comes at the end of verse 18.  We do it because God says to us, “I am the Lord.”
And to drive the point home, in Leviticus 19:34, God says, ‘you shall love the alien who resides among you as you love yourself.’  That’s it.  When we meet immigrants, people from other places, our first and only response to them must be as Christ-followers, people of God, a holy people.  It doesn’t matter where they are from.  It matters who we are.  Who are we?  We are a holy people (First Peter 2:9).  Because of that, what drives us is love.  We love the alien who travels to our home town.  Why?  God says, you do it because I am the Lord.
Every message this year at our church has been driven by a desire to know God.  From Leviticus 19, it is clear God wants us to know Him.  He loves us so much, he gives us guidance for every aspect of life.  God doesn’t want us confused.  God wants us to be assured of His love for us and our place in His Kingdom. 
This week, our task is to strive for holiness; not to be holier than thou, but rather to be holy alongside thou.  We do this and we will see God. 
Our starting point is love.  Who is hurting?  Who has deep need?  Who is the neighbor in our path we are called to stop and help?  There is so much noise in America right now, and most of it competitive in a damaging way that will leave us all defeated.  This week, let’s raise a different sound.  Let’s make some noise for cooperation – cooperation rooted in the holy love described in Leviticus and demonstrated in the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. 
Let’s go from here as holy witnesses who use everything we have to help people find their way into the Kingdom of God.

[i] S.Ballentine (2002), Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Leviticus, John Knox Press (Louisville), p.161.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

God, the Maker of Worlds (Psalm 16)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

            In the Fantastic Four super hero comic books, one of the enemies of the Fantastic Four is Galactus, an alien so large, he travels through the universe consuming planets.  When they made the Fantastic Four into movies, in one of the films, another alien, the Silver Surfer, came to earth to warn us of Galactus’ approach and intention of eating our planet, and all of us.  The Surfer told the Fantastic Four, “It is called Galactus, ‘Destroyer of worlds.’”
            What kind of Greek trip am on that I would read Psalm 16 and think of Marvel comics and the Fantastic Four?  It’s not the first thought I had in my reading of Psalm 16.  In fact, I’ve been reading that Psalm over and over for almost a month now.  I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, what about that?  What about Psalm 16 and Galactus and the ‘Destroyer of worlds?’
It is actually something a great Bible scholar said about the Psalms and what Israel was doing when they sang the Psalms in worship and what God did through the Psalms in the heart of Israel and in us when we worship through reading, praying, singing, and most importantly believing the Psalms.  In his brief commentary Abiding Astonishment, Walter Brueggemann wrote the Psalms “intend … to unmake, deconstruct, and unmask … worlds which seduce and endanger Israel.”[i]
In this sense then, the real God, not the Marvel Comics Galactus, is the ‘Destroyer of Worlds.’  God destroys worlds – threats, ideologies, lies, false theologies, idolatries, fears, seductions.  The Psalms reiterate again and again that God is faithful and is Almighty.  No threat will come to Israel that possesses more power than God.  Foreign invaders like Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Rome will hurt Israel, but only because God permits it.  And those injuries always come in conjunction with Israel turning away from God, turning to false God, trusting in unwise alliances, and exploiting the poor.  Unfaithfulness and exploitation always, always accompany the arrival of a foreign power in Israel’s history.
God is never off the scene.  God sometimes moves to the background to allow Israel to live with the pain that comes with her sins.  But God is always present to destroy the invader and ideological and political worlds that threaten God’s order.  God is a destroyer of worlds. 
What’s true of what God does for and in Israel is also true for the rest of human society.  First through the creation mandate to scatter over the earth, then through the priestly mandate to Israel to be a Holy nation that draws lost and sinful humanity back to God, then through Israel’s prophets who imagine a future in which all kingdoms of the earth find their fulfillment in the worship of God, and finally in the Great Commission to make all of the world followers of Jesus, the words of the Psalms ring true for the church.  God is a destroyer of worlds, the forces that would seduce, threaten, and ultimately kill the church. 
What are some of those forces?  What draws our attention away from the Gospel?  What tries to tell us who we are, when we know our identities are based on who we are in Christ? 
Some voices insist we must advocate on behalf of refugees.  Their lives are fluttering in the wind and we in the wealthy west must open our hearts and our arms and homes.  It’s matter of valuing lives.  Yet, the same voices will not permit space for the unborn when the conversation switches to crisis pregnancies or unwanted pregnancies.  Then, we can’t talk about the baby’s life, only the woman’s choice.
Some voices insist that we get very specific in damning certain sins, like homosexuality.  We must declare it an evil that threatens our way of life.  And this insistence ignores completely the way Jesus welcomed people – all people, and gave extra love to those who needed most, people rejected in society.  The voices insisting this righteous condemnation ignores the truth that the Holy Spirit is leading the church to love all people and welcome all people.
Conversely, there are voices that are just as loud that demand that all relationships be affirmed by the church.  A Christian baker or photographer sees his work as a kind of ministry.  But then these voices tell him, he has to serve a same-sex wedding.  His reading of scripture tells him that’s against God’s will.  Those voices aren’t interested in his reading of scripture.  He either has to go against what he thinks God is telling him in the Bible and bake the cake for the same-sex marriage; or he has to give up the business he loves and believes is a ministry. 
What forces draw our attention away from who God tells us who we are in Christ?
Some voices insists that our primary identity involves the country of our citizenship, instead of our belief that we are subjects in an eternal kingdom.  As citizens our top concern should be for border security.  We know our calling to go out; ‘go into the all world baptizing and making disciples.’  It’s hard to remember our call when so many voices vie for our attention and compete to tell us who we are.

I’ve done a very rough run through of just some of the issues that have dominated the headlines in the past couple of years, right up to today.  I believe we have a call from God to care for all lives – refugees, the unborn, persecuted persons in other countries, disadvantaged persons in our own community.  We are called to love these individuals and help them know Jesus as their Savior and thrive as his disciples.  We are called to love and welcome people who are confused about their own sexuality or who openly claim a sexual identity that is outside the parameters of what’s allowed in scripture.  The church must be in the mercy-giving business.  If condemnation is to come, let it come directly from God to the individual.  We’re to be mercy, love, and grace-givers.  And because theology is so complicated, I think we have to create space for people to have different beliefs on issues, but still feel at home among us.
The grand issue is calling.  We are called to the cross – to confess and then leave our sins there.  We are call to receive forgiveness and new life.  All these issues and many I have not mentioned turn into idolatries that seduce and endanger us.  God is the destroyer of the worlds that would come about if we forfeited our unity in Christ for the sake of commitment to issues instead of commitment to Him as Lord.  We’re not to be an issue-driven church.  We’re to be a Kingdom-driven church.  We love refugees and speak for the unborn, and we love and welcome straight people and gay people because love is a core Kingdom value intrinsic to who we are. 
Through the Psalms, through the church, through the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, God destroys some worlds to make room for the world God is constructing, creating.  There’s one line that has daily drawn me back to Psalm 16.  “In your presence, there is fullness of joy.” 
I look to God and say it over and I over.  I sit down to pray and begin with silence.  I try to shut out the noise of the latest rally or protest, the latest outcry or accusation that leaps off the new website.  I get my mind as quiet as I can before God, praying for the Spirit to fill the void.  After a minute or two, I then begin filling the quiet with that phrase, “In your presence, there is fullness of joy.”  I need to remember that God is present and what it means because God is present.
Reaching for that palpable sense of God’s presence, I then proceed into prayer and Bible reading and then into the day.  This yearning for God to be present and make sense of the world that seems to be devolving toward chaos is what led me to the whole idea of the ice berg.  If you haven’t been here, I’ve proposed that our mission in worship has been to seek more and more of God the way we might see more and more of the iceberg beneath the surface of the water.
This not escapism, an attempt to pretend the world’s problems don’t exist.  They do and we Christians must be a witness in the midst of the conversation.  But whether it is the refugee crisis, the abortion question, the conversation over sexual ethics, or something else, we do not come it as people of a particular stance.  We see as if we are standing in the Kingdom already.  We see it in the light of who God is.  Saying that, I do not give an answer as to what view the church holds in any specific case.  Rather, I insist that we who are in Christ view each issue through a prism of love, grace, and mercy. 
The debates over each of these issues that have produced such division turns the issues themselves into idolatries, but we will not be seduced into walking to our own destruction.  We are followers of Jesus who know God is present and thus we keep our attention on him.  We look to the Holy Spirit to know how to think, act, and speak.  And we keep looking back to the Spirit knowing the Spirit is dynamic, always on the move, leading us onto new paths. 
The Psalm itself gives markers both of God’s presence and of who we are because God is present.  In these markers we see the worlds God destroys.  We also see what God makes – a world of beautiful relationships; a world run by love.
The first marker is verse 2 – “I say to the Lord, you are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”  A few weeks ago, I came across a quote that is going to be part of my self-understanding going forward.  My life makes no sense apart from God.  Either I do good and help people because I yield to God love in me and allow God to direct my life, or I rebel against God’s love and thus I live selfishly.  Either way, the only way to understand a Christ-follower is in terms of his or her relationship with God.  Similarly, the only good in our lives is the good God brings into our lives.  Other pleasures will turn out to be relatively harmless forgeries or life-destroying seductions.  We are aligned with God when we can truly say the good in our lives comes from him.
The second marker is verse 5 – “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.”  Originally this may have be sung by Levites or referred to Levites.  In ancient Israel they were the one group not allotted land.  They were assigned to oversee worship, so their food and their provision was mandated in the commandments.  When society was obedient, they provided; thus, God was their portion.
The verse speaks to us to remind us that in addition to giving us all that is good in our lives, God meets our needs.  It’s basic to the Lord’s Prayer.  “Give us this day, our daily bread.”  Through the disappointments and triumphs, life’s wins and losses, God is always present.  God works in our pleasure and our pain, always making us new and preparing us for the eternal Kingdom.
That leads to the third marker of God’s world-making in Psalm 16 and it comes in verses 10-11.  “You, O God, do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.  You show me the path of life.  In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  God gives us good things and our lives make no sense apart from him.  God is our portion, provider of all we need.  And, God’s future for us is rescue from death; rescue to eternal life.
The word Sheol and the concept of the pit are both Old Testament descriptions of death and separation from God.  The idea I’ve been trying to present is that God rescues us by destroying divisions and temptations that separate us from Him.  God destroys those worlds without him in our lives that would arise as we follow those temptations.  Where verse 10 says God does not let His faithful one fall into the Pit, we see a Messianic prediction.  God will rescue the Messiah and we believe that rescue comes when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is resurrected.
First Corinthians 15 says Jesus is the “last Adam,” the “life-giving Spirit.”  As he was resurrected, so will we be.  As his disciples, we have resurrection and eternal life ahead of us.  It’s all promised in this Psalm: all the good in our lives, all our needs met, and rescue from death.  “In God’s presence, there truly is fullness of joy.”
So, we unite in God.  Plenty of ideas and movements, forces of evil afoot and on the move, are jockeying to divide us and destroy us.  The Holy Spirit is drawing us together in Christ because that’s what God does.  We’ve talked about how God is big and relational.  We’ve talked about how God goes out His way for poor and downtrodden people.  We’ve talked about God loves riches and powerful people and they can see that when they see their own brokenness.  Today we see that God is a maker of worlds.  God prepare us for life in a world where love what drives relationships.  We can be active in this world, helping people, participating in causes, and raising our voices.  But whatever we do, our eyes are on God and we step out at God’s prompting, as God clears the path ahead.

[i] W. Brueggemann (1991), Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity, and the Making of History, Westminster/John Knox Press (Louisville), p.26.