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Monday, August 26, 2019

A Glimpse of Heaven (Revelation 7:9-10)

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Sunday, April 28, 2013
A version of this sermon was originally preached at HillSong on April 28, 2013 under the title “God in New Faces.”

            It was my third year, time for my classmates and I to think about life after seminary.  We were training to be pastors, chaplains, missionaries.  Where would we end up?
            I was sheltered, a suburban kid who grew up watching MTV and going to hang out at the Mall. For me, a night on the town meant driving to the Roanoke Civic Center to see professional wrestling.  Ric Flair was in his heyday.  In seminary, as I read the Bible, God shredded my sheltered, play-it-safe life. 
I knew God wanted me to preach and a lead church.  But what kind of church (beyond just whatever church would hire someone really young with limited experience) would call me?  Pastors find their calling in different ways.  For me, it was a direct, uncomfortable encounter with scripture.  The words of Revelation 7:9 burrowed into me.
“There was a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 
Every tribe and people and language; it was fall 1995.  Almost everyone I knew was just like me - white, American, middle class, suburban.  That was my entire world. 
Imprisoned for his faith in Jesus, John was carried to Heaven in a vision.  There he saw people from every language, tribe, and nation, all together, praising Jesus.  I only knew one small subset of one tribe speaking one language in one nation.  My knowledge of the people of God was pathetically small.  That meant my knowledge of God was woefully impoverished.  How could I be a pastor and lead a church, knowing so little?  How could I even follow Jesus?
I had to serve a church where there were more than just white people.  I needed diversity.  God led me to Greenbrier Baptist in Arlington, Virginia.  There’s not a more diverse community anywhere than what you’ll find in Arlington.
I had been at that church about 1 month, when the Promise Keepers rally came to the national mall.  The ministry attracted 100’s of thousands of men to our nation’s capital for worship.  Our church took a couple of refugees from Sudan.  They had been persecuted and forced to flee their country because they were Christians.  Like me, they had only been in DC about a month. Here they were, free to worship God with thousands of others.  We also had about 10 guys from the Spanish congregation at Greenbrier.  Two Africans, ten Hispanics and two whites guys – my Dad and me.   
Over and over, for 9 years pastoring in Arlington, I had experiences like that.  I met God in the faces of white American, black Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans.  I met God in Gypsies, Romany people.  I met God in a community of Sudanese refugees, and the young Ethiopian woman who attended our church.  I met God in the Pakistani man who gave me a copy of the Qur’an.   Each new encounter was like seeing another side of God’s indescribable beauty.  I realized I personally would never enjoy God in this way if I had met God in just one culture.  I needed that diversity of people to expand my appreciation of who God is. 
All those experiences came after I sat in my seminary classroom a few minutes before class and happened to read Revelation 7:9.   Every tribe and people and language.  The arc of my life changed by the reading the Bible that day and then reacting to what I read.  I have gotten many things wrong over my life and career in ministry.  I have made my share of mistakes.  But one thing I did right was listen to God that day as I read Revelation 7 and waited for class to start.  God told me to seek out people from tribes different than my own.  I am so thankful I did that.
Seeing more of God is one of two primary reasons I press for the church to be racially and ethnically diverse.  Most churches are mono-culture.  Many of these mono-culture churches are great churches.  But I believe God is calling our church to be so diverse that no single culture is the dominant one.  God is calling us to be a church that embodies the vision cast in Revelation 7.  We want people to meet God in God’s fullness here, among us.  That can only happen if we are fully committed to diversity.
We have to celebrate numerous cultures.  We have traditionally been a church of white people.  I say that without any criticism.  It’s not a negative thing.  It just is.  However, going forward, to see God, know God, and celebrate God, we have to understand the way Chinese culture works and Mexican culture, and the numerous expressions of African American culture; we have to allow these various cultural expressions of faith sometimes be the ones guiding how we come together.  If you find us worshiping God or fellowshipping in a way that feels strange to you, step into it.  Embrace it.  What feels odd to you might feel comfortable to your black sister in Christ or your Mexican brother in Christ. 
Understand that Mexican, Chinese, black, and other people of color have adjusted their expectations to white cultural practices for a long time.  For us to be a truly diverse community, we white people have to be just as willing to give up our expectations sometimes.  It can’t be everyone is welcome to come do things the way we white Christians have always done them.  It has to be we all come together in humility, friendship, love, and faith in Jesus.  We all get our turn planning and leading.  This might be applied in the style of music or preaching, the kinds of food at our meals, or the pace of our social gathering.  Each culture present gets an equal voice in how we do ministry and how we live together as a family of God.  We become something new, something different from any earthly entity. 
Seeing more of God is one reason for making diversity a priority in the church.  The church’s witness is a second reason we promote diversity so that we are all empowered participants in church life.  When we talk about our witness, we literally mean what we have seen and experienced.  We have seen that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  We have experienced salvation, rescue from sin and death.  Because of Jesus, we are not alienated from God by our sins, but rather, with our sins washed away, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God.  As Psalm 34:8 says, we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.
Our testimony is the word we speak based on what we have witnessed.  We testify that the world is fallen, dying in sin.  Racism and institutions perpetuating a white, male hierarchy are societal manifestations of sin.  Sin brings death and eternal alienation from God. Our church testifies to the specific ways the Gospel offers an alternative to the dark-realities of sin where we live. 
When we talk about diversity and racial unity, we’re speaking out of our God-inspired Gospel witness.  We should not seek diversity for diversity’s sake.  Plenty of secular organizations do that. We seek diversity because the Kingdom of heaven, as seen in Revelation 7:9; is the most diverse place in the universe. We want people to find rescue from sin and to get a glimpse of the goodness of Heaven. As Revelation shows, diversity is one indicator of heaven’s goodness.
What we offer is a radical alternative to the violence and hatred produced by prejudice and racism.  Recall the events in Charlottesville two years ago.  Neo-Nazis paraded around protesting the removal of a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee.  Counter protestors confronted the New-Nazis.  The result was the death of a young woman.
Recall the incidents right here in our own town.  In protests around the University of North Carolina’s removal the Civil War statue “Silent Sam,” there have been minor acts of violence though nothing as dramatic as in Charlottesville.  In both places, whether the violence was a car ramming a crowd, or a fist in the face, one fact cannot be avoided.  In the American Civil War, the slaves were black and plantation owners were white.  Many black people still feel they have to carry the shame of that heritage and it hurts to hear white people today defend it.  We can’t escape the racial nature of this conflict which so often turns violent.
The last examples are Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.  In Texas, the killer, an American terrorist, targets Hispanics, ranting about an invasion.  That includes our brothers and sisters in Christ who are Mexican.  That includes people whose families go back several generations living in America.  They are targeted because they aren’t white enough to be true Americans in the mind of this evil killer. 
Charlottesville, El Paso, Texas, the killing of members of a black church in a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina several years ago – these a few of the way too many examples of brokenness in our land.  In every case, the sin is based in racism, fear, and hatred.  To respond to such evil, the church has to offer good news about racial diversity based in welcome, hope, and love.
Our testimony as followers of Jesus has to be based on what we’ve witnessed.  There is something better – a kingdom in which people from every nation, tribe, and language are joined together in love for each other and desire to praise Jesus.  By developing a multiethnic church that’s more concerned about the eternal Kingdom of God than any earthly nation, we point to something better.  We create an environment in which we celebrate one another uniqueness and learn about the love of God in the ways we love one another.  We help others who visit our church see the way out of the brokenness around us and the way into the beloved Kingdom of God.  We say to the world, “this is what God’s kingdom is like.” 
We exist as a church to help people find their way to God – all people.  One of the many ways we do that is to intentionally celebrate our diversity and to work to make sure diversity is a core principle in our congregation.
Diversity helps us see more of God.  I believe God has given me this vision for a diverse church.  I pray you will embrace this vision too and we as a church will work to make our church a place where people come and get a glimpse of the Heavenly gathering of God’s family. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

More Going on than Meets the Eye (Psalm 82)

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Sunday, August 18, 2019

          “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (82:1).  What about this verse catches your attention?  Discussing it this week with a Christian I trust, one potential issue became apparent to me.  How much do we really know about the unseen, the spiritual realm that exists all around us but outside our three dimensional universe and outside our powers of observation and measurement? 
          “In the midst of the gods [lower case ‘g’], God [capital ‘G’] holds judgment.”  The Christian with whom I spoke, someone I trust, said, “Whatever that verse means, it cannot mean there are other gods.  There is only one God.”  His worldview demands a fierce commitment to monotheism.  There is only one God.  I agree.
          So what do we do with Psalm 82:1 and other passages that indicate an entire governing system of supernatural beings that exist outside our ability to see?  One scholar I read writes that the Psalmist in Psalm 82 “conjures a mythic heavenly court.”[i]  Calling this writing mythology, the scholar indicates it is poetic way of discussing the problem of evil.  How can evil exist when God is all powerful and all good?  Psalm 82 doesn’t refer to a literal heavenly council because, as my Christian friend said, there’s no such thing.  But is my friend and is this scholar correct?  The book of Job, chapter 1 & 2, refer to a divine council.  So does 1 Kings 22.  Furthermore, Deuteronomy 32, Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 23, and Daniel chapters 7-12 are just a few of the numerous Old Testament passages that indicate an entire unseen world of activity.  Creatures whether we call them angels, demons, gods with a lower ‘g’, or by some other title interact with God and each other.  What happens in that realm directly affects us. 
          Such a statement runs against the grain of our conventional thinking at three levels.  First, in our world of airplanes, space travel, and the internet, we have trouble taking seriously talk of an unseen spiritual realm.  But, the very Bible we claim is an ultimate authority for truth, ethics, and morality in our lives was written in a time that knew nothing of the World Wide Web or telescopes or rocket ships.  So there’s the distance of history; thousands of years of history. 
          The second tension is one of worldview.  The ancients had no trouble talking about demons and gods and spiritual beings.  It wasn’t belief.  That supernatural world was assumed by all ancient peoples.  With each scientific discovery over the past two millennia, belief in the spiritual is pushed further and further into the realm of superstition.  How do we, with a scientific worldview, take seriously scriptures written by people with a pre-modern worldview?
          Assuming by faith we resolve the first two tensions, the third one rears its head.  The writers of Psalm 82 and the entire Old Testament and the entire New Testament were ancient Jews.  They held ancient assumptions.  Even when they held tightly to theiir monotheistic faith – belief in 1 God – they existed in a world that assumed multiple gods and they were a product of that world.  We are Christians in the 21st century.  We are products of our world.  Like my friend, we are tempted to say, ‘no, there’s no divine council; just one God.’  We might not know why this is so important to believe, but we know it is, so we are committed to this position.
          How do we resolve the tensions of history, of worldview, and of our own religious assumptions?  How do we get past the tension so we can do a deep dive into the Bible passage?  How do we get to the point that we can, as followers of Jesus, open Psalm 82 and hear God speak into our lives as we read it?
          We need to name the tension and understand it.  The ancient writers have different assumptions than we modern readers.  There’s no reason to shy away from this tension.  Identify it and accept.
Then, we find handholds.  What are the core issues that ancient writers and modern readers can both relate to?  In the case of Psalm 82, the handhold is in verse 2-4.  This is the common ground. 
In these verses, God is angry with the gods for failing to give justice to the weak and the orphaned.  Whether the term “gods” actually refers to earthly princes, kings, and rulers, or to demonic spirits that malevolently influence earthly tyrants, the result is the same.  God is furious when people who have power in society do nothing to help people who are powerless.  Remember, middle class Americans are rich compared with 90% of the people around the world.  When the rich exploit the poor in order to hoard privilege, God judges the rich.
So the connection point with the Psalm in our day and time is the way we who have privilege either walk alongside the poor, the refugee, the minority, and help them; or, we use our power and privilege to keep ourselves well-fed and to keep the poor down.  As Jesus shows in Matthew 25, how we relate to the most vulnerable people in society is tied to how God relates to us. 
In Psalm 82, the narrator is the speaker in verse 1, announcing God as God holds court in the heavenly council.  In verses 2-4, God speaks to those He has entrusted to inforce justice, but who have failed to do so.  In verse 5, the narrator speaks of the ignorance of those God has judged.  Verses 6-7 give us God’s verdict.  “You shall die.”  Whatever is meant by calling these at the council ‘gods,’ they are completely subservient to the God of Abraham, the God we see in the New Testament.  That God, the only one truly called Almighty, has the power to obliterate these other beings. 
Psalm 82:8, the final verse, changes perspective.  In this verse the narrator again speaks, this time in prayer to God.  “Rise up, O God.  Judge the earth.”  Thus we see the tension resolved as we connect to God where God has expressed the highest value: justice for the poor and for the disadvantaged.  God expected his divine council to administer justice.  God expects us to work for justice and advocate for the poor.
Knowing that, we can read Psalm 82 as a word from God for us and we can live a word-informed faith.  We do this as Christians.  Even though the Psalms come from the people of Israel, the promises to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  So our starting point is to give our lives to Jesus.
On this point, know what is being said and what is not being said.  This is not a call to church membership.  Of course we want people to join the church.  But being aware of the unseen spiritual world and navigating that reality as God-worshippers is not dependent upon church membership. 
Neither is it a matter of becoming a Christian.  Yes, we must confess our sins and receive forgiveness and receive Jesus as our Savior.  That is necessary and everyone who does not turn to Christ is cut off from God in sin.  But becoming a Christian is just a partial step. 
We go all the way into the word-informed faith when we give our lives completely to Jesus.  He is master of our lives, every relationship we are in, every bit of our time, and everywhere we go.  We fully surrender our wills to his.
Once we have given our lives to Jesus, we then align ourselves with God.  We value what God values.  In the case of Psalm 82 that would be justice for the poor.  If we were reading 1 Corinthians 13, we’d commit to self-giving love.  If we were in the Sermon on the Mount, we’d explore what it means to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.  We scour the scriptures to see how God administers the world and to see God’s desire for how human life is to be lived.  And then, that’s how we live.
Having given our lives to Jesus and having aligned our lives with God’s values, in order to live a word-informed faith, we then commit to two spiritual disciplines.  We commit to prayer without ceasing.  In all the places of our lives, we pray.  Of course, this doesn’t mean stopping the company board meeting to hold a prayer service.  That would get your fired.  However, it does mean as you go through that board meeting, in your mind, you’re reaching to God.  Ask God to help you do your work with excellence.  Ask God to help you show His love to your coworkers.  Ask God to help you maintain your integrity as you work.  This spirit of prayer is constant and it colors who we are in all the places of life.
The other spiritual discipline is worship.  Be committed to weekly worship with the church, either here or in another church. We sing, we pray, we turn our eyes toward heaven, and our hearts toward God.  We believe the Holy Spirit is here helping us worship and receiving the worship we offer.  This belief is the start of our acknowledgement that God is beyond our understanding.  But God is also present, loving us and acting for our good. 
We know there is more here than meets the eye, and because we are children of God in Christ, that is a good thing. 
If you have never given your life to Christ, you can.  Today, turn to Him for new life.  If you are terrified by the thought of demons or evil spirits, you can receive assurance from God right now.  And if you long to see the poor lifted up, be encouraged.  What matters to you matters to God.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

"Blessed Slaves" (Isaiah 1:10-20; Luke 12:32-40)

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Sunday, August 11, 2019

Slavery is evil.  One human or set of humans expresses cruel mastery over another set of humans.  How can slaves ever, in any circumstance, be called “blessed?”  Yet, the New Testament, from Luke to Paul’s letters, consistently likens the most devoted and most blessed followers of God as slaves of Jesus. Today’s sermon title demands an explanation.  Blessed Slaves?
To get there, we turn to the prophet Isaiah who spoke to the southern kings of the Israelite people ruling in Judah, in Jerusalem, in the late 8th and early 7th centuries BC.  In Isaiah 1:2, God says, “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth for the Lord has spoken.  I reared up children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.”
God expects God’s people to behave in a certain way.  The 10 Commandments lead us to revere God and only God, to acknowledge God as Lord, and honor and respect our fellow human beings.  In the Sermon on the Mount and his other teachings, Jesus illustrates and amplifies God’s expectations.  We are to turn the other cheek in conflicts.  We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  We are to go the extra mile in helping other people thrive in life.
Helping others and glorifying God is what Jesus has in mind in Luke 12:31 when he says, “Strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things [all that we need] will be given to [us].”  The picture Jesus paints is of a relationship of absolute trust.  If we devote our lives to worship and helping other people, instead of ensuring our own survival and advancement, God will make sure we survive and flourish.  We have to trust God and help others.  
God expects His people to live in this way.  Anyone who puts their trust in Jesus are included among people of God.  Originally, God chose the people of Israel to be God’s chosen ones.  Again, Isaiah 1:2: “I reared up children and brought them up.”  God’s vision was to reveal Himself and His ways for human life to His chosen ones, the ancient Hebrew people.  Through their worship of Him and relationships with each other, God would be revealed to the world.
In Jesus, all the promises to Israel and expectations of Israel were fulfilled.  Thus, all people who come to God through faith in Jesus become a part of the people of God.  Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not fear, little flock.”  Referring to them as his sheep is the affectionate way He says, you are mine and I am yours.  That invitation to relational intimacy extends to all who come to faith in him and follow Him as His disciples.  We are the little flock he says need not fear. 
In Isaiah 1:10-15, God laments that His chosen ones have turned from Him by worshipping idols.  Calling Israel, “Sodom and Gomorrah,” city names synonymous with unrestrained evil, God rejects Israel’s worship.  “I have had enough of burnt offerings.  … I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. … Your festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me.  When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you.  Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.”  It would be like God getting so angry at us He tells us, no more praise songs.  No more sermons.  Stop taking communion and stop baptizing new believers.  The institutional sinfulness was so great, the community’s worship became meaningless. 
Hearing the prophet’s poetic utterance of God’s frustrated anger with His chosen people, we must get to the heart of the specific nature of their sin.  What is it?  What did Israel do, or fail to do?  Is it a sin we are failing to do as well?  Is it something God expects us to do, and we’re not doing it?  We pick up Isaiah’s depiction of God’s voice in verse 16.
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good.”  OK.  How?  We know this involves repentance, turning from sin and turning to God.  How is Israel to stop rejecting God and begin living the identity God has given them as His chosen people?  How do we turn from our evil to God’s good?
Verse 17 offers a straightforward answer.  “Seek justice.  Rescue the oppressed.  Defend the orphan.  Plead for the widow.”  Two major conclusions jump out from Isaiah 1:17.  First, God defines justice as those with power and resources working in society to protect and advance those who lack power and resources.  That’s Biblical justice.  The second conclusion is this: the call for justice applies to all people.  The story arc of the entire Old Testament and the entire Bible shows that God’s compassion reaches beyond just the chosen people and extends to all the nations of the earth.
All cultures have widows and orphans, the poor, the disabled, and others with distinct social disadvantages.  In our country today, this might include people with learning disabilities or physical disabilities.  It certainly includes immigrants and refugees.  We’re talking about children from divorced families, addicts, and victims of domestic abuse.  We’re talking about everyone being detained at the U.S.-Mexican border. 
God is not concerned about American policy.  God looks into the hearts of His people – the followers of Jesus.  Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah.  Isaiah 1:17 is painfully clear.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice.  Rescue the oppressed – Hondurans fleeing for their lives from criminal warlords their government cannot control.  Defend the orphan.  Plead for the widow.   God looks into the hearts of His followers to see if we will live as our Lord lived, or if we will relegate Jesus to Sunday mornings as we live the rest of our lives futilely attempting to maintain our own comfort while disregarding the pain of the people God wants us to help and love. 
In a simple sentence which we might miss if we read too quickly, Jesus, in Luke 12, indicates how we live out the Isaiah 1:17 instruction to pursue justice.  Pay very close attention to the sequence of statements.
First in Luke 12:32 Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock.”  One of the biggest the fears in America is we who are white giving up our power and our positions and our privilege.  If we share it by helping black and brown people have opportunities for graduate degrees, professional jobs, and positions of leadership, we will lose our hold on those privileges.  If we let all these refugees in, terrorists will sneak in with them and the ones who aren’t terrorists will take all our jobs.  Institutional racism is based in fear.  If “they” – “they” representing whatever is not “me” – if they come in, what will happen to me.  But Jesus says straight up, “fear not.”  There’s no place for fear in faith.  Fear not. 
Next he says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  There’s no better place or condition of existence than the kingdom of God.  Jesus flatly states, God wants to give us this kingdom.  God happily invites us into His kingdom.  We don’t pursue happiness, not after we’ve decided to follow Jesus.  We live generously and work to help people around us flourish.  God gives happiness a gift.  What we receive as a gift from God is far better than any happiness we might earn.
First, do not fear.  Second, God wants to give you the kingdom.  Third, “Sell your possessions and give alms.”  He doesn’t say, “Sell all your possessions,” although some might need to do that to be fully sold-out for Jesus.  Sell some and share – give alms so that others might be blessed.  This is voluntary. 
What exactly does Jesus mean when he says “give alms?”  The Greek word translated “alms” actually means sympathy.  We have sympathy when we see another person’s pain.  So to give alms is to see another’s suffering and to do our best to help alleviate their suffering. 
When you meet a hungry person, buy him a meal, and sit with him as he eats and hear his story.  When you do this, you’re giving alms.  You’re trying to alleviate his immediate pain, hunger, and his deeper, bigger emotional pain, loneliness and rejection.  When we try to attack unjust systems at the societal level, things like institutional, generational racism, and white supremacy, we are giving alms but in a different way.  We are striving for the justice God defined in Isaiah 1:17 at the systemic level.  In both ways we align our lives with Jesus.
His promise in Luke 12 brings us back to the beginning, the premise with which I opened this messaged entitled “Blessed slaves.”  Verse 37 – “Blessed are those slaves [read “Jesus followers,” us] who the Master [Jesus] finds alert when he comes.”  When we are alert, we are living in his grace, giving alms, alleviating the suffering of those around us, and sharing the good news of Jesus.  When we share hope by following Jesus and loving others, we are alert in the way Jesus means it in Luke 12:37.  “Blessed are those slaves who the master finds alert when he comes [and Jesus is coming]; truly I tell you, he will … have them sit down, and he will serve them.”
Wait.  What?  We follow Jesus, worship God and love each other, and help the poor, and Jesus catches us doing this (become he comes at an unpredictable hour) and he says, “OK, everyone, around the table.”  Obediently, we sit down.  And he comes along and takes our drink orders? He brings out our salads?  He, the Master and Lord of the universe, asks if we want the steak, chicken, or fish, and then brings what we requested?  From Isaiah 1:19 to Luke 12:37, yes, that’s what Jesus is saying.
Note that in Luke 12:46, in graphic, bloody, and violent terms, Jesus depicts what happens to his people who are not doing what He said to do, not giving alms, not trusting God.  Judgment.  Violent, final, judgment.  Similar judgment is indicated at the end of the Isaiah reading.  I won’t go into the judgment part.  You look that up. 
My concern is those blessed slaves – us.  We belong to Jesus.  When we work for justice by extending ourselves to help the poor and powerless, we are living Biblically as today’s readings and 100 other Bible verses show.  And Jesus has something for us.  A privileged seat as honored guests at the king’s table.