Total Pageviews

Friday, July 20, 2018

Fumbling Pride

In the sermons this summer, we have been looking at the 8th century BC prophet Hosea to hear the Word of the Lord.  However, last week, we took a break from Hosea to read 1 Timothy as we ordained new elders and thought about church leadership.
            Today, as we return to the fiery words of the prophet, a lonely voice for God amid a society turned away from God, I want to briefly think back to 1 Timothy and the idea of church.  The church is a family, and hopefully we are engaged participants in the life of this family. 
The church goers I have seen who receive the greatest blessing from church are those who develop deep, lifelong friendships with the people they worship alongside each Sunday.  In those relationships, we grow as disciples.  We serve together, giving our very best in terms of time, talent, and energy to the life of the church. 
As we serve in the church, we locate our lives within the church.  And we see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  In the church, we realize we are not of the world around us.  The church is not just one more institution in a society full of institutions competing individuals’ time and loyalty.  The church is the body of Christ in the world.  In the church, we know, we’re bound for and bound to the Kingdom of God. 
We’re not cut-off.  We stay fully engaged in the world, showing people love and grace.  We know we are sent by God to announce his rescue mission.  Jesus is the Savior.  The church is the gathering of his disciples.
In the 8th century BC, the nation of Israel was meant to be a gathering of God worshipers.  The world would look to Israel, see God’s holiness, repent of sin, and come to Israel seeking God.  The problem is when the world looked to Israel, God’s holiness was not seen.  Israel lived as just one more kingdom vying for power, forming ill-fated alliances, and rising and falling based upon the deaths of common people who gave their lives on behalf of monarchs who didn’t want to dirty their own hands.
They went through the motions of worship, and at the same time, they aligned with nations that were utterly opposed to the ways of God.  It happens in our day and time too.  Famous pastors and supposedly Christian leaders align themselves with political figures who show open disregard for the ethics found in scripture.  Pastors today find themselves praised not for their forceful proclamation of the stories in the Bible, but for their words about this candidate or that one.  Many high profile Christians today have forfeited their witness as badly as kings and priests did in Hosea’s day.  Many churches today fail as courageous witnesses when their “gospel” is eerily similar to the platform of either of America’s major political parties.
We who are in Christ are called to be something else.  We are to be a light on the hill shining on something the world hasn’t seen – the city of God, a city unlike any on earth.  Israel was called to be holy.  So are we.  In Israel’s constant flirtation with other religions, in her exploitation of the needy, and in her repeated acts of fornication she was profane and she fumbled her responsibility to point the world to God. 
What does God think when His people try so hard to be worldly instead of faithful?  The opening of chapter 4 sets the table for God’s response: “Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel, for the Lord has an indictment against [you].”  Hosea then develops this theme of indictment. 
Chapter 5, verse 5: “Israel’s pride testifies against him.”  
Pride.  Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Most Americans claim to be Christian and most Christians says they believe what the Bible says.  If we believe it – Hosea 5:5 & Proverbs 16:18 – then we need to be careful about pride!  And yet pride in our country is expected of all Americans.  If you aren’t proud and don’t tear up during the National Anthem, you aren’t patriotic enough! 
But we say we believe the Bible and Hosea and Proverbs, two Biblical books, say pride indicts us and leads to destruction!  How do we reconcile this?
We feel the need to insist how much better America is than other places and other peoples, even when we haven’t visited other places and don’t know other peoples.  “They wish they were like us,” we say. “They wish they were here.”  Maybe some in other countries do; certainly not all.  What if we celebrated that America is strong and we love our country.  Would that be enough?  Do we have to puff out our chests and insist that “America is the most powerful nation in the world”? 
Is that so important? In the days of the Hosea, Assyria was the most powerful nation, and they were not in step with God’s vision for creation.  In the days of Jesus, the most powerful nation was Rome, and Rome glorified itself, not God.  I love America.  Every citizen should.  We should all contribute to the thriving of all people in America.  But Jesus, not America, should define us.  I pray for America to be blessed and God to be glorified.    
Of 8th century BC Israel, Hosea said, “with their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the Lord, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them” (5:6).  Why?  God never turns back an earnest seeker.  Why would Hosea say God rejected Israel?  The people had circumcised bodies.  They sacrificed animals. They performed all the religious rites.  However, their hearts were indifferent to God.  They used God for their own purposes.  We are to submit our purposes to God’s will and then live by God’s command.  We are to be of use to God, not vice versa.
Hosea 5:7 says that because the people dealt faithlessly with God, they bore illegitimate children.  What came from that faithless society was something other than the holiness God intends for us, God’s image bearers.  We also yield unholy, ungodly fruit when we live for our own desires without regard for God. 
Upon reading Hosea 5:7, “they have broken faith with the Lord … they have begotten alien children,” each one of us has to ask, ‘Have I broken faith with the Lord?’  ‘Is my life producing God’s holiness?’  Or, is my life profane?  This goes beyond morality.  A lot of people who have very little to do with Jesus live what appear to be moral lives.  But they are not lives submitted to Christ. 
The Apostle Paul captured this tension well in Galatians.  There he contrasts what our lives produce when we are motived by our own appetites and cravings verses what comes out of our lives when the Holy Spirit pours through us.  Galatians 5:
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy,[e] drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

Apart from God, our lives issues forth profane words, ideas, and relationships, all utterly cut off from the holiness God commands for us.  God doesn’t like it.  God is more invested in us than we in Him.  The pain God experiences when we reject Him is greater than the hurt we feel apart from Him.  Hosea reveals how God reacts to our disobedience and disregard of Him. This is chapter 5, verses 12-14.
12 Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim,
    and like rottenness to the house of Judah.
13 When Ephraim saw his sickness,
    and Judah his wound,
then Ephraim went to Assyria,
    and sent to the great king.[a]
But he is not able to cure you
    or heal your wound.
14 For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
    and like a young lion to the house of Judah.
I myself will tear and go away;
    I will carry off, and no one shall rescue.
When you got up to come to church this morning, did you expect to hear God say, “I am like maggots and rottenness?”  Maggots swarm over piles of putrid, stinking mess.  God swarms the person who dares abandon him and turns away from him.  This nasty imagery is unappetizing, but to say less would dilute the message of the prophet. God is disgusted when people reject Him and His call, and Hosea wants his readers to feel that disgust.  God loves us.  When we swat that love back at God with the strength of a tennis pro’s forehand, God doesn’t go away.  God stays.  And then, we reek with the stench of God-rejecters. 
Hosea then shifts images, from maggots to the lion.  “I will tear,” God says.  God will ravage the faithless congregation that plays at worshiping Him all the while trying to please the culture around it.  Like prey in the wilderness, God chews us up when we turn from him.

We are to live within our American culture.  But, in that culture, we are to be salt, seasoning the culture with the flavor of Heaven.  Where our culture expects cutthroat competition, we are to offer cooperation with an eye toward the thriving of everyone.  Where our culture calls for vengeance in disputes, whether verbal or violent, as people of heaven we give forgiveness and mercy.  Where our culture exalts the mighty and powerful, we are to, as Colossians 3 says, “clothe [ourselves] with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and love” (v.12, 14).
Those values differ greatly from the bravado and power-posturing so valued in our culture.  Compassion.  Kindness.  Humility.  Meekness.  Love.  We can’t aspire to live out these ideas unless we are filled with the Spirit of the risen Christ.  Oriented toward our culture we are turned away from God, and God ruins us and rips us apart. 
Hosea casts God in an active role – causing rot, tearing us in pieces; But, I think the best way to receive Hosea’s words, especially in light of all we know about Jesus, is as imagery.  We rip ourselves apart trying to divide our loyalty between personal success, political stances, and Jesus, and other things. 
The final verse of Hosea 5 sums up our situation.  God says
I will return again to my place
    until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
    In their distress they will beg my favor

All the ways Hosea displays the anger of God lead to the point where we come begging God for another chance.  And here’s the good news!  God gives that second chance, every time.
We are the church family.  We recognize the devastating effects of our sins.  Like Israel in Hosea’s day, we come to God on our knees.  There’s no pride, only humble confession.  When we see how bad life is apart from God and how far our sins have moved us away from God, then we turn to Him and ask forgiveness.  He gives it in abundance, gently, in love. We plead for a second change.  He gives it, over and over.  As we see in the life of Jesus, the core of the Gospel and over and over in the words of the prophet Hosea, God takes us back in love, cleans us up, and sets us up once again to live in joy as His people. 
Decide what you want. Pray for the world.  Pray for the nation.   Pray for your town.  Pray for your church.  Pray for your own life.  Set your mind and heart on the love God has for you. 

Merciful Rain

In 2008, I preached this sermon from Hosea 6.  Now 10 years later, we are once again looking at the prophet Hosea.  I thought I'd re-post this because I think it is an effective presentation of how the 21st church can live the truth in the words of this prophet from the 8th century BC.

The next post will always be a message from Hosea.  It's one I wrote this week, but have decided not to preach this Sunday.  It's not bad, but I don't think it is the right message for our church this week.  Still, it might bless someone, so I'm posting the text.

Merciful Rain (Hosea 6:1-6; Matthew 9:12; 12:7)
Sunday, July 20, 2008

            Here’s what happened: Matthew was at work as a tax collector.  He probably did what every tax collector did.  He’d take a little more than required and pocket the difference.  His work was not popular, but it was profitable.  He was hated for taking from his own people, the Jews. 
            So, one day, he was at work at his dishonest lucrative job.  That’s when Jesus came.  Everyone had heard about Jesus.  Demons melted in fear before him.  Diseased people came to him and were healed.  Teachers of the law were confounded by his wisdom and confronted by the fire of truth within Him that revealed their own hypocrisy.  His genius seemed beyond the scholars, yet he taught in word pictures that everyday men could relate to.  His stories were about fishing and farming. 
            Now, here He was, standing at Matthew’s table.  “Follow me.”  Two simple words said so much.  Two words; Matthew’s who world blew up!  “Follow me.”  Matthew stood, left the table and the piles of money, and followed.  His heart must have beaten a mile a minute.  It wanted to explode out of his chest.  “Follow me.”  Matthew knew everything was changed, and life would never again be the same. 
            Somewhere in that first walk at Jesus’ side, Matthew worked up the courage to ask Jesus if they could have a party.  He was new to the whole disciple thing.  He’d just been cheating peasants out of their last pennies a few moments ago.  He didn’t know if disciples were allowed to party.  He didn’t know the master loves parties.  I wonder if he was surprised when Jesus said, “Heck yeah!  I’m up for a party.”
            Matthew invited everybody he knew which turned out to be a problem.  The people he knew were other dishonest tax collectors, and a few women who had been rejected by their husbands and rejected by their families and rejected by the synagogue.  In fact, the only people who spent any time with these women were the men who paid to sleep with them.  The women did this work so they would have money for food and shelter.  It’s the only work they could get.  Do you see the problem with the tax collectors and prostitutes at Matthew’s party?  If you do, you’re like the Pharisees.  Jesus had no problem laughing and fellowshipping with these people.  He loved them.  The Pharisees were disgusted by them and they told Jesus as much.
            That’s when he said it.  Jesus looked at the Pharisees and said, “Go and learn what this means.  ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”  Then Jesus said, “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”[i]  Jesus said it, and Matthew, who had been a disciple for all of an afternoon, remembered. 
            Later on, Jesus got the Pharisees bent out of shape again.  This time, his disciples were harvesting grain on the Sabbath.  Sabbath is extremely important, but, the Pharisees didn’t understand that the Sabbath was a gift God gave us, not a restriction He imposed on us.  It is a command to keep the Sabbath holy, but it is for man’s good.  Hungry men need to eat, even on the Sabbath. 
            So, the disciples picked grain and the Pharisees fell apart and made accusations.  Jesus looked at them and said, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”[ii]  Matthew remembered.  He remembered the first time when Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means.”  He remembered the second time, “If you had known what this means.”  Years later, after the resurrection, after years of service, as an old man, when he sat to write the gospel, Matthew remembered.  Jesus desires mercy, not sacrifice. 

            There’s more to this story than meets the eye.  In saying, ‘[God] desires mercy, not sacrifice,’ Jesus places the prophets in the center of his theology of torah.  Jesus locates his understanding of how the law of God is to be lived out in the words of Israel’s prophets, specifically Hosea.  This phrase that exposed the coldness and restrictiveness of the Pharisees’ hearts and burrowed into Matthew’s soul is a quote.  Jesus spoke Hosea’s words.

            Imagine a church in a small town led by a pastor and few elders who had big dreams.  The church was 75 years old.  The original members knew beyond a doubt that God had led them to plant this church in this remote area.  The surrounding counties grew, but it would always be a rural place.  The people were ok with that because ‘small’ and ‘big’ were inconsequential words to them.  Their identity was in the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.  Their mission was to share His gospel with the people in their community whether the number was in the 100’s or the 100’s of thousands. 
Early on, it was a church that prayed for people who were in the hospital.  They prayed for people when a tornado destroyed the barn or a fire left them homeless.  The prayers were accompanied by action – baking, taking people in, visiting, helping people find new jobs, rebuilding what had been lost.  The church never became very big doing that work, but the whole county knew that the Spirit of Jesus breathed in these humble people.  
Years went by, and the pastor retired.  More years passed and another pastor came and another.  Those original members aged, and died.  Some of their children moved away.  The founding vision, evangelical and zealous, was still written on plaques on the church walls, but the church lost steam and declined.  Now though, there was a new pastor and new elders and big dreams. 
There was also a new factory in town – a big one.  The owner was a multimillionaire.  His business practices were similar to those of the tax collectors in Jesus’ day.  He used people, cheated when he knew he could, and made money hand over fist.
  The town was small enough that the ambitious pastor and the unscrupulous factory owner crossed paths.  Of course the pastor invited the man to church.  The pastor had big plans for the church to become a big deal.  He felt he needed this heavy-hitter along with the other important people in town in his church.  They struck up a friendship and in time the rich man began attending services – sporadically.  He had no conviction of the heart.  Nothing in his personal or professional life changed.  But before long, he was chair of elders at the church.
The church got bigger.  More people came because they were excited to see the new building the rich man had donated.  It included a gym and a weight room.  The pastor was proud of all that was happening.  He swelled and his chest puffed as he looked in the mirror.  Almost half the people in the town came to his church.  He was careful to never cross his benefactor.  If there ever came up in meetings conflict, he always looked to the factory owner before he did anything else.  He never took a stance in opposition to the factory owner’s point of view.  The relationship was symbiotic and both men benefited. 
Wouldn’t that fiery prophet from the Old Testament, Hosea, have something to say were he to venture to this town and see this church?  Hosea was the prophet God told to marry a prostitute.  He was commanded by God to enter into a relationship with a woman knowing from the start she would cheat on him.  And of course it happened.  But, we miss the point of Hosea’s words if we get bogged down in the absurdity of marrying a whore.  Sometimes Bible readers open to Hosea 1, and read verse 2 “Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom,” and they think, ‘wow!  It says whoredom in the Bible.  This must be interesting.’
It’s fine that it’s interesting.  More importantly, Hosea wrote in a groundbreaking way, being the first to associate Israel’s worship of Assyrian fertility gods with the sin of adultery.[iii]  Hosea, much more than the prophets before him, used marriage as a metaphor when he spoke of the relationship God had with Israel.  God was the proper husband and would provide for all of Israel’s needs.  Israel, for her part, was to accept the standards of behavior laid upon [her] in the covenant relationship.[iv]  She was to live according to the ethics and righteousness taught by Moses, and she was to depend on God for all things and worship Him only.  She did not need to cozy up to the Assyrians. 
The pastor did not need to kowtow to the big businessman.  Sure, it provided a fancy new worship center.  But what else?  Compromised preaching?  A chairman of elders who blatantly disregarded God’s call for ethics and God’s concern for the poor and God’s condemnation of greed?  A pastor who forfeited his authority so that he’d have a good reputation and a nice salary?  The first sin Hosea condemned in Israel was spiritual unfaithfulness. 
The second was pride.  How often does pride creep into what we are doing even though it is universally condemned throughout the Bible?  Don’t we have a fine facility?  Haven’t we done so much to help people who need it? 
Think of the pastor in the fictitious church preaching to 1000 people every week.  Think of him beaming as the masses hang on his every word.  Hosea says in chapter 5, “Israel’s pride testifies against him.  They have dealt faithlessly with the Lord.  Now the new moon will devour them along with their fields.” [v]
The third sin was a fruitless alliance.  Israel thought salvation could be found in joining forces with Assyria.  When that fell through and appeasing the Assyrians led to being dominated by the Assyrians, the Israelites thought they could find salvation in an alliance with their old enemies – the Egyptians.  That failed to stop the oncoming train, and the leaders of Israel – supposedly the men who would represent God in the world – ended up in exile.  The Assyrian exile was brief.  The Babylonian exile lasted 50 years.  The Pharisees in Jesus’ day sought alliance with a corrupted king – Herod.  He was a co-conspirator in framing Jesus and getting Jesus executed.  Forty years later, it was for naught.  The security the Pharisees sought in ousting Jesus went up in smoke as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and leveled the temple, razing it to the ground.  The pastor of the imagined church in our story formed an alliance with a crook.  He got a big building, a big check, but he was an impotent leader, and his soul rotted to the core. 
Spiritual Adultery – Pride – Fruitless dependence on people instead of God; these are the things Hosea colorfully condemned in his forceful prophecy.  We are not Israelites in the 8th century BC.  We do not live in Jesus’ day.  We are a real church, not a made up one.  We though are tempted to worship people, things, and institutions other than Jesus.  We might not think we do that, but sometimes we give the loyalty that belongs to him to other things.  We are tempted to pride.  Sometimes we burst with it and there’s no room for gracious humility before God.  Sometimes we put trust in banks, loans, wealthy donors, property, and other things.  None can deliver as God can.  Jesus believed that the words Hosea spoke 750 years before he was born were still speaking when he lived.  Those words still speak today.  Is there an answer?  Is there a way out when we fall into the sins of spiritual adultery, pride, and putting our trust in men and things instead of God?
“Come; let us return to the Lord.”  If you’re ever in search of a simple example of repentance, read Hosea 6:1a.  “Come; let us return to the Lord.”  Hosea spoke with force against the problems that spiritually undermined God’s people – Israel in 750BC and us today: worshipping other gods/spiritual adultery; pride; fruitless dependence on people instead of God.  These patterns of sin lead to destruction, but there’s a solution.  Repentance; come; let us return to the Lord.  Some in Israel heard Hosea’s prophecy, felt the pull of God’s Spirit in their hearts, and uttered these words.  They were convicted.  If we listen to a prophet in the right way, with humble hearts and open ears, we too will fall under conviction.  It’s like the hand of God grabs hold of out hearts and holds them tightly because He loves and doesn’t want to give us up to our sins. 
Make no mistake, God was angry.  When the people sing their song of repentance, they compare the Lord to rain.  “He will come to us like showers, like spring rains that water the earth.”[vi]  Any seeker who has been starved for love, for purpose, and for meaning in life knows the refreshment in finding Jesus and finding wholeness in Him.  He said in the Gospel of John that he gives living water and when we drink of his spirit, living water pours forth from us[vii] to refresh those around us with peace, compassion, joy, and generosity.  The Lord is unquestionably a rain that cleans us and makes us new.  He does this when we turn to him.
Hosea records the people responding in repentance and calling out to God, a spring rain shower.  God uses other images to describe himself and his anger toward them in the previous chapter.  “Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim, and like rottenness to the house of Judah.”  “I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah.  I, myself will tear and go away; I shall carry off and no one shall rescue.”  I am pretty sure if I made a multiple choice test of Biblical metaphors used to describe God and passed it out to everyone here, and the choices were ‘God is like an eagle, or a dove, or a lion, or a bunch of maggots, no one here would check off maggots.  God was mad. 
If we want to turn away from him and worship the dollar or in pride worship ourselves or put our trust in our government for safety and purpose instead of trusting Him, He’s rottenness to us.  He’s an angry lion that mauls and devours us. 
Still, the people who repented were right.  God gets angry, but God is a spring rain.  In spite of us and in spite of himself, he continually loves his people.  “What shall I do with you Ephraim?  What shall I do with you O Judah?”  Hosea records God’s anger, the people’s repentance, and God’s agony.  Justice says destroy, but God’s heart of love is bigger than his anger.  When the people repent, he may let them hurt, but God will not give them up.  When we sin, we do suffer pain as a result.  But, God does not give us up.  The dramatic twists and turns of the relationship of God and His people take us to the high point of Hosea’s prophecy in chapter 6.  This is the verse that inspired Jesus in his dealings with legalistic Pharisees.  This is the verse that reminds us that our Sunday worship becomes significant in our Monday – Friday conduct.
“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings.”  The sacrifices and burnt offerings were the central part of worship services in Israel, but God did not want it if the people giving it turned around and did evil to each other the rest of the week.  God did not want elaborate worship rituals from a people that mistreated the poor, disregarded God’s ways, and chased after false gods. 
When we understand that, and our worship is full of mercy that speaks through our daily lives, our big dreams are not for large building and massive crowds. Our big dreams are for the people the church will help.  Our big dreams are about worshipping God with genuine hearts whether it is with a professional worship band or old hymnals and an out of tune piano.  Our big dreams are for transformed lives whether 5 people or 1000. Our big dreams would lead us to call the factory owner to repentance, not make him an elder just for the sake of so we can get his tithe. 
“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.”  God wants our worship songs and our Sunday morning offering of music, word, money, and prayer to lead us to become a community of love in action; to be known for the way we show what God is all about as we take care of hurting people.  Commitment to social justice and abounding compassion become what matters to us. 
Jesus exercised interpretation as he often did in quoting Hosea.  When Pharisees wanted to condemn sinners, forgetting of course that we are all sinners, Jesus responded to them saying “Go and learn what this means.  ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  When Pharisees tried to intimidate Jesus’ disciples by using the law as a blunt object to bludgeon them, Jesus responded, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Hosea’s words understood and expressed by Jesus, bring us to a moment of truth. Disciples hear Jesus and they are convicted to love and give mercy to people.  Pharisees hear Jesus and are proud that they know Him and they look down on those who are lost.  Are we Disciples or Pharisees?  Do we show mercy or are we indifferent toward God and condemning toward one another?

[invite worship team up]

I don’t know what’s in your heart in this moment.  I know that there have been times this year, when I have had to repent, because I wasn’t looking to God.  I had my back to Him and I was wrapped up in my own pride.  I had to say, in my heart, “Come; return to the Lord.”  I had to pray for God’s merciful rain to fall on me.  And it did.  God didn’t say to me, Rob, you’re a preacher.  You know better!  No, God said to me, Welcome home my blessed, beloved one.   And I fell into His arms. 

I don’t know if you are in that place.  But if you are, come this morning to the arms of God.  It could be you’ve wandered.  You’ve been hostile.  You just ignored God.  If could be, you’ve avoided.  You know God is calling and you’re running the other way as fast as possible.  It could be you’ve given in to temptation.  We are a transforming church when our members are willing to let down all facades and come to God in confession and repentance.  When we do that, people stream to us because they know they’ll be washed in God’s raining mercy.  So, if you need to, don’t wait.  Come today

[i] Matthew 9:12
[ii] Matthew 12:7
[iii] Gowan, Donald (1998), Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death & Resurrection of Israel, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.44.
[iv] Gowan, p.45.
[v] Hosea 5:5a, 7a, 7c.
[vi] Hosea 6:3
[vii] John 4:10, 13-14

Thursday, July 19, 2018


I just finished reading through Leviticus.  Some Christians see this Old Testament book as part of the Bible that go mostly unread.  Since Christ came, we don’t practice ritual sacrifice in worship. People would be appalled if upon entering the church they heard the pathetic sounds of cows and sheep about to fall under the priest’s knife.  No modern horror movie is bloodier or more macabre than worship in Israel in the day Leviticus was written.
            Most American Christians don’t observe kosher food laws.  And we don’t settle legal disputes according to the prescriptions in Leviticus.  What does this seemingly antiquated OT work have to say to Christians today?  It is part of the collect we call ‘word of God,’ Holy Spirit-inspired writings.
            It would be impossible to identify all the ways God speaks to our lives in the pages of Leviticus.  But here are a few thoughts to hold in mind.  First, Jesus did not overturn the truth and divine assertions we find in Leviticus.  Jesus doesn’t undo the word found there, or replace it.  He fulfills it.  All the hopes, dreams, and ideals intended in Levitical law reaches his fulfillment in life, teachings, and salvation of Jesus Christ. 
            Second, in Leviticus, we see the baseline truth upon which we build our faith.  Leviticus 18:5: “I am the Lord your God.  You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live.”  What follows is a series of “You shall’s” relating to modesty, appropriate and inappropriate sexual expression, and religious fidelity.  The chapter ends with “I am the Lord your God.”  Then chapter 19 opens with “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (v.2).  Throughout that chapter, the reason given for each command is this: “I am the Lord your God.”
            The instruction of 19:2, “be holy,” carries the same sense as Jesus’ injunction in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.  “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (5:48).  This underpins the promise of 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  Our highest calling as followers of Jesus, the fulfiller of the Law, is holiness.
            Of course we may read through Leviticus and find some of the laws to be not to our liking.  Within the arc of the salvation that runs from Genesis to Revelation, much of the Old Testament practices are no longer normative for us as they were originally fixed in a culture different from modern cultures.  However, anytime history leads us to live in ways other than what is explicit in the Bible, we have to remain tethered to the call to holiness.  In our cultural practices, in our moral code, in our relationships, and in our ethics, we are called to be holy as our God is holy.  If we cannot support our life choices with easily seen Biblical precedents or principles, we need to change our life choices.  Yes, cultural expressions have changed throughout human history.  No, we cannot discard the divine call to holiness mandated in both testaments of the Bible.
            Thus each person must ask himself or herself, “Is the life I am living one that enables me to ‘lean in’ to God’s holiness?”  If it is not, I need to make different choices.  The standard is holiness.  If I why this is, God’s only answer is, “I am the Lord your God.”  No more need be said. 
I can probe the divine mind with my questions, and God would rather we be engaged, even in a tense engagement with Him, than we be automatons.  You or I can go to God with tears or with shouts or with shaking fists.  We can challenge God, rage at God, and rush at God with all our hottest, heaviest emotions.  God can take it and God will love us.  He may not answer all our questions, but God will always love us.  And whether or not we get the answers we seek, we are called to obedience and more strongly, we are called to holiness.  Why?  God is the Lord our God. 
As Christians wrestle with 21st century cultural issues and shifting moralities, our baseline is the teaching expressed in Leviticus and perfected in Jesus.  We are to be holy as the Lord our God is holy.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Fight the Good Fight (1 Timothy 1:18-20; 3:1-7)

“Fight the Good Fight” (1 Timothy 1:18-20; 3:1-7)
Sunday, July 15, 2018
New Elder Installation/Ordination

Dirty money; Matthew became rich by overtaxing his fellow Jews.  Smelly, stinky hands; Peter and Andrew, James and John, the sets of fishing brothers handle fish all day.  Dark, dangerous ideas; Simon the Zealot was a part of the revolutionary movement intent on throwing Rome out of Israel by violence.  These and others were the first followers of Jesus, each one called by Jesus.  This rogue’s gallery is who Jesus sought out to make up the community around him.
After the resurrection and ascension, with Jesus departed, gone in body but present in the Holy Spirit, who were the leaders of the early church?  There were those disciples I mentioned; also, among the early church leaders was an expert in debating scripture, an indefatigable worker, and a capable tent-maker: Paul of Tarsus.  There was a man born of a Greek father and Jewish Mother: Timothy.  And, a man of religion who understood the heart of the word of God as much as others overemphasized the letter of the law: the great encourager, Barnabas.
What marvelous diversity we see in the skill-sets, personalities, and temperaments of the men and women who comprised the early church.  We don’t want to overlook the sage Priscilla, advisor to preachers; or the tailor and fabric maker Tabitha.  Or, the woman Paul called his compatriot and “prominent among the apostles,” Junia (Rom. 16:7). 
In the tradition of the early church, we recognize the gifts of women and men.  We ordain as elders women and men.  And, standing upon the foundation established by the Holy Spirit, we see among us a variety of people who are called to serve in elder ministry.  Today we install as elders, a doctor who specializes in treating infants, a nutritionist who comes from the UNC School of public health, and a scientist who studied chemistry at UNC.  They have been ordained and served previously and today join the active elder board.  Along with them we ordain two new elders, one a yoga instructor, dancer, and current school of public health student and the other a science fiction fan and expert in HVAC systems.  
These to be ordained are different from each other.  They are men and women, of different ages, with different skill-sets, varying ideas, unique life experiences, diverse personalities, and each with their own story about how God brought them to this day on which they commit to three years of service as active elders overseeing the ministry of HillSong Church.
Paul writes in 1 Timothy that he’s giving the instructions he has written in that letter so that the church may “fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience” (1:18b-19a).  The church in our 21st American cultural climate is in a fight, a fight for truth, for freedom from destructive temptations, and for identity.  This is why Paul not only wants us to fight, but to do so with a clean conscience.  How we bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is as important as the Gospel we share.  As a church we must be gentle and generous, stubbornly committed to the word of God, stubbornly committed to the way of Christ, but also open to welcome all, especially those not yet on the way of Christ. 
To succeed in being a church that leads the lost to Jesus and helps people grow as his disciples, we need our leadership to be sound and committed.  Paul touches on this both in his first letter to Timothy and in his letter to Titus.  Leadership was and is essential in the church.
The first Christian leaders, Peter, Paul, Timothy, and the rest, had a strong sense of calling.  And I believe these who stand as our elders today have that same sense.  They are committed to excellence in their work in the Monday-Friday world, whatever that work is, and they are just as committed to their role as leaders in discerning God’s wisdom in our church.  That discernment is one way we fight the good fight. 
We battle division and contentious rhetoric, with generous, hospitable welcome, showering people who come to us with loving, gentle words.  We reject divisive nationalism and instead insist that we are family here.  We come from different parts of America and different countries of the world, but here we live in an eternal family, brothers and sisters in Christ.  We know that hatred and evil are on the loose, wreaking havoc in the world.  But we also know our church has been set here by God to be a lighthouse shining God’s light so all can see God’s truth.  Our church is a safe harbor, welcoming people in from the devastating storms of life, and helping them make their way into the grace-filled arms of Jesus.  Making sure our church does this work – that’s what you sign up for when you accept the call to serve as an elder. 
All of us are called to Christ, called to salvation, and called to discipleship.  Living as disciples, we know that each and every one of us is called to ministry in some form as well as to living our lives as witnesses.  For many weeks now, you have heard on Sunday mornings that we need volunteers in hospitality ministry, as front door greeters, and in children’s Sunday school.  Each one of us can listen for God’s call and when it comes, we answer.  Your church needs you to be God’s agent in helping our ministries thrive.  Our elders have the special task of overseeing the entire church to make sure we’re all living into the calling God has for us. 
Paul writes, “I am writing these instructions to you so that … you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (3:15).  The phrase “how to behave” has nothing to do with culturally bound mores such as how we dress or style of music.  Particular cultures have expectations about hats and foods and greeting customs and modes of conversation.  We see our church family as a blending of cultures that welcomes and doesn’t get bent out of shape when people behave in different ways, as long as we are all respectful of each other and loving toward one another.  We know Paul’s phrase “how one ought to behave” is about our hearts.  What is in our hearts? 
With the new elders our board, our leaders know that hearts full of love and grace will behave in a way worthy of the household of God.  And that is what we are, the household of God.
This may be your first time worshiping with us, or maybe you’ve been coming only a short time.  We’re glad you’re here.  You too are called to salvation and to discipleship.  That means you can find today how you can be part of the ministry of this church.  As Hong Zhou, our minister for Chinese ministries has said, and I am paraphrasing here, serving God in the church is the most meaningful and wonderful gift you can give to God, to the church, and to yourself.  As we go through the service of ordination this morning, I encourage everyone to pray and think about the specific ways God is calling you to serve in the church and in your life.