Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Day Is It?

In just under an hour (in my time zone) we will enter a new year. This is a big deal according to the attention given Times Square (and other places). Closer to my home, Hershey (PA) drops a "kiss." Dillsburg (also PA) has a pickle. You get the idea. According to our culture, New Year's Day is the big holiday for this week. It's the book-end to this "holiday season."

In the Church Year it is still Christmas, a day that is so important that it takes eight days (Octave) to give it proper due. And tomorrow is not so much New Year's Day as the celebration of Mary as Theotokos – the "God-bearer." This is one way the Church exalts and gives explicit witness to the truth that Jesus Christ is fully Man and fully God. Mary gave birth to the God who entered our world to be with us. Jesus came as God because He had always been God: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus came as Man because He was born of a human woman – the Theotokos – chosen to bear "very God of very God, one in being with the Father."

Time is, in one sense, quite artificial. It will not endure. Another year is.... another year in which we wait for the consummation of all God has promised. It is okay to celebrate another year and to pray for God's blessings in coming days. But the basis for trusting in such a thing is the real meaning of Christmas – that God came into our world to save us, born of a woman.

So yet again, while "the world" says "Happy New Year," I join the Church in saying one more time: Merry Christmas!


Holidays are a break in the routine, which can be a good and refreshing thing. Often there is more "down time," and I assume many of us spend extra time with extended family.

I also find that a break in the routine can be destructive to prayer. Those of us who pray the Liturgy practice "ordered" prayer – and a break in routine is quite antithetical to ordered prayer.

Add to that a malevolent "spirit of Christmas" that is obsessed with materialism and other self-indulgences which seems to permeate the atmosphere even when one tries to avoid it, and so the holidays can result in an all-out war against holy days.

One solution is so obvious: keep the order, even when other daily routines are broken. It seems so simple.... but that malevolent spirit fights such a sensible decision.

I need mercy – the very thing that Jesus brings. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holy Days

As we live in this Octave of Christmas, may our Lord's grace and peace fill each of your lives. And may these days truly be holy days as we open ourselves for the Spirit of Jesus to fill us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Getting What We Want

Luke 1:5-25

Christmas in our culture is a time when people are invited to focus on their desires. "What do you want for Christmas?" is a repeated question. Usually the answer is something material. The world tries to convince us that getting some "thing" is crucial to our happiness.

It’s not unusual for most people to have a list of things they would like. Christians are called to have desires which are rooted in our relationship with Jesus: to be more like him, for our children to know him, and to see his kingdom extend more and more into our world.

One reason the Bible is a timeless book is that it tells the stories of people, and people aren't all that different when it comes down to our basic needs and desires. We all want to belong and to be secure. We are most comfortable in a family situation where there are people to receive our love and give love in return. We want to feel that there is some meaning in our existence and purpose in what we do.

As Luke sets the stage for what we call the Christmas story, he introduces us to two people who have lived most of their adult lives with unfulfilled desire. Zechariah and Elizabeth were both well along in years, but they had no children. There are some couples in our culture today who take great pains not to have children, but that is an attitude that would have been unknown in the Bible's world of eastern culture. Children were security in a couple's old age. They were a blessing from God –– like a divine stamp of approval upon the marriage.

Then there are the natural feelings that usually exist between a husband and wife. I can still remember the excitement I felt as a hoping and then expectant father because there was going to be a new person coming into the world who would be a combination of me and my wife –– the woman I loved. Our first child was, to me, a tangible expression of the union that Libby and I have in our relationship.

I remember some worried and disappointing days, too. Libby and I have a fertility problem and it took over a year for her to conceive Jeremy. We both consider him a special gift from God to us because since then we have not been able to have other biological children. (But that opened the door for our Katie, another gift from God, who came to us a different way.) It's probably impossible for those who have had no fertility problems of their own, nor been close to those who do, to truly identify with the ones who are infertile for one reason or another. You look at those who so easily conceive and find it hard to share the joy because of your own disillusionment and jealousy. You fight a special kind of pain when you hear of all the women who have abortions –– those not wanting a child and yet conceiving –– when you want one so badly and it doesn't happen. So you wonder if God is at all fair and if he really cares about the desires of your heart.

I guess Zechariah and Elizabeth had some intense feelings like that. I'm sure they had prayed countless times –– like Hannah, Samuel's mother –– but nothing had happened. I do not know if they were still praying for children at this stage in their lives. It does not seem that Zechariah was expecting God to do with him and Elizabeth what had happened with Abraham and Sarah. By this time in their lives it seems that they had resigned themselves to their seemingly allotted roles.

At the point of time in this story Zechariah had something else on which to focus. Zechariah was a descendent of Aaron, which means he automatically served as a priest, as did all other descendants. This also meant there were too many priests. To give all a chance for service, they were divided into twenty-four sections. Except for special seasons of the year, an ordinary priest like Zechariah was only able to serve one week, twice a year. For those who loved their priestly service (and we can assume Zechariah did because of his character –– upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly, v6) it was the highlight of their lives.

This particular occasion was especially unique. A priest was allowed to offer the incense only once in his lifetime. This time the lot had fallen to Zechariah. On the day of this special honor, Zechariah was standing there in service as representative of the people. One of the things he would have been doing is praying for the spiritual redemption of Israel, as the assembled worshippers were praying outside (v10). All of the faithful had their hearts set on that time when God would fulfill his promises to David and bring glory to Israel.

Suddenly Zechariah was aware of the presence of someone else in the holy place with him. An angel was there with this message, your prayer has been heard (v.13). The question I want to ask is, what prayer? The angel goes on to say that Elizabeth is going to have a son, so it would seem that their prayer for children has finally gotten a response. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the prayer for children was anywhere current; Zechariah had been praying with and for the people that God would fulfill Israel's promised destiny. That's the prayer that is being answered in this context (and let's remember that Luke is setting the stage for Jesus as that fulfillment), but in the answering of that prayer God is using this faithful man and woman to bring it about and is granting their personal heart's desire all at the same time. That brings up the one thing I want you to hear today: God gives us our heart's desire when it coincides with his activity.

We should be careful to see something here. Zechariah and Elizabeth did not just want a child. Yes, they wanted a child, but along with that –– or even more than that –– they desired that God would have his rightful place in their hearts. It was because of this that their desire for a child was also given. One day in the future, the one to whom their son was a forerunner said these words, But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). Zechariah and Elizabeth had already learned this lesson through their relationship with God.

For the sake of balance, though, I want to add some qualifiers to this subject of our desires and God's giving. From this story of Zechariah we can discern two important factors: First, for God to be the motivation behind our desires being granted, he must be given his rightful place in our hearts. Second, once God has been given rightful place, the thing we desire must be subjected to his desire for us. So, there needs to be a sober assessment both of who God is and of the thing that is the desire of our heart.

In the book of James we are told that we may not receive the things for which we ask because we ask selfishly (Jam 4:1-3). In other words, we can think only of ourselves and not about God or other people. It's so easy for us to presume that because we want something, God wants us to have it. Maybe we seldom take the time to sense what the Holy Spirit would say about it. I'll just add that if we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit in that way, then we are giving God his rightful place in our lives.

There's one other factor in this matter of God giving us our heart's desire, and it's something I find very frightening. The Scriptures tell us that sometimes God lets us have the desire of our hearts even when we do not give him his rightful place as Lord and when the thing we desire is not in our best interest. But instead of our desire ending up in blessing, it turns out to be a curse. Sometimes God allows that to happen to remind us who he is and how we only make things hard on ourselves when we demand our own way.

The story I use as an illustration of this horrible reality is found in Numbers 11. We are there given the account of the Israelites grumbling about the manna they had eaten for so long. They wanted some diversity in their menu. They complained so much and so gave in to their stomach's desire for meat that God blew a huge flock of quail into their camp. They had their meat –– but along with it God sent sickness. Writing about the incident years later, the Psalmist said (106:14,15):

In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wasteland they put God to the test.
So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease upon them

The wording of the King James translation is even more haunting: And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.

If you stop to think about it, humanity can be divided into those who desire what God wants and those who have their own desires regardless of God. That was Eve's down-fall in the garden, and she persuaded Adam of the same. We've all had the same problem ever since. The terrible thing is that God will let us have our own way and wishes if we persist hard and long enough.

But there's good news. God also has a desire for us. That's why we can want to know him and want good things instead of the selfish things that will only leave us broken and bitter. God had worked a great thing in Zechariah and Elizabeth, but it wasn't for their sakes alone. God was setting up the ultimate deliverance from our own selfish desires.

I'm sure that Zechariah didn't understand all of that. He wasn't even sure he believed what he'd heard. The angel had to give him a tangible sign, and it wasn't pleasant. We might think about that if we're ever tempted to ask God for a tangible sign to increase our faith. We might get it, and it might not be easy.

During Advent we are invited to remember the things God did in the earthly preparation for his Son's appearing. I want your to remember three particular things from this initial story.

First, we can get an overall awareness that God is working his purpose out. He is involved in our world in fulfilling his promises.

The second thing is that God works in the lives of people like you and me to accomplish his intentions. Zechariah and Elizabeth were normal flesh and blood people with desires and frustrations just like we all have.

Finally, when we submit our desires to God and give him his place in our lives, we can find the ultimate desire of our heart satisfied. It may be that God will give us the thing we've wanted. It may be that it will never come. But if it doesn't, and God is the true lover of our souls, then we will someday come to the realization that our desires have been met after all. Let's never lose sight of the fact that above everything else about us, God is wanting to remake our character to be like his own. He wants that to be our first desire, too.

Other desires will come and go. Some will be good ones and others not so good, because we are that kind of people in that kind of world. Sometimes these desires will be fulfilled in our lives; other times they will not. In the coming and going, though, let's not lose sight of what God is doing in our world –– what he has done in the lives of people like Zechariah and Elizabeth and what he is wanting to do in us. Sometimes it will be through the desires we already have. Sometimes it will be through new desires God gives us.

Maybe you are struggling today with unfulfilled desires. Whatever our desires, I hope you've gotten a glimpse of the God who can give us our desires or change them or give us the grace to live with them. But whatever it is, let's first of all be people like Zechariah and Elizabeth in their commitment to allow God to be God in the realities of life. That's where we'll find our desires being fulfilled.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thoughts on a Snowy Day

Snow on a December Saturday offers more time for reading, reflection and writing. Editorial pieces from two of my regular periodicals have occupied some of my thoughts. One begins with this observation: “The two most enjoyable activities of mankind are gossip and metaphysics –– people like to talk about other people, and they like to talk about how the world works.” The other quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: “Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas.”

From those complementary quips each editor goes in his own direction. One gives tribute to the passing of a man whose social circles cause me to think of how small my world is, while the other focuses on the huge societal shift in which reading substantive material is being displaced by entertainment, sound-bites and bottom-of-the-screen tickers.

So much of “life” in our culture is surface. Our obsessions are comfort, convenience and personal security –– one way to understand what St. John calls “worldliness” in his first letter. The focus of attention is appearance, both physical attractiveness and material opulence. Again, this is what Christian Faith warns against as the kind of worldliness that separates us from God.

How do we keep our bearings in this world? The “formula” is so simple.... and so hard: Be still and know that I am God. It is hard for us to be still; the pace of life around us is “hurry.” It is hard for us to find quiet; we are surrounded with noise.

If our routines are so harried that we are usually only reacting to the stimuli around us, how are we to know how to respond? In an ever-increasingly complex world, how are we to know what to think and how to choose our actions unless we (and by this I especially mean people who say they are committed to Jesus Christ) are taking the time to open ourselves to the wisdom of God and to live in the Spirit (instead of “the flesh”)?

I hardly watch TV but I (cannot help but) notice the “trash” magazines that clutter the check-out lanes in supermarkets –– the ones whose covers are full of immodest women and whose captions are consumed with bodies and affairs. I think about the inexcusable amount of money that is paid to the people who are at the top of our entertainment scale: actors, singers and sports players, while many in such things as human services and food production can barely make a living.

Our American society has not had to face a total crisis of security since the first half of the twentieth century. I cannot imagine today’s city-dwellers voluntarily ordering themselves in a soup line as they did during the Great Depression. I cannot imagine the total population complying with things like gas rationing as they did during World War II. I fear that the spiritual strength for internal restraint has so eroded that we are only one major crisis away from anarchy.

Spiritual life is not just “warm-fuzzies” when we go to church (if it is that at all!). Spiritual life is entering into the Spirit of God so that we know who we are as image-of-God beings.... as people who face every day a hostile (fallen) environment.... as people who are invited to so follow the One who came into our world to reveal Father-God that we become like Him.... and in so doing, live distinctive lives as we face the varied circumstances of life.

These are some of my thoughts on a snowy day.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Unwanted Gift?

Another seasonal sermon from my archives:

Luke 14:15-24

One of the inevitables at Christmas is unwanted gifts. From the stereotypical ugly tie to who knows what, many people will be given gifts this Christmas that they really do not want. Most department and discount stores have come to expect this. The service desk expands from one counter to maybe a dozen tables which take over a whole area of the store to give extra help for returns and exchanges.

I distinctly remember one gift I received when I was maybe thirteen years old that I thought was an insult to my years. One of my uncles was a widower and usually ate Sunday dinner with us. As I remember it, he must have noticed that I liked model cars (at that period of my life), and so on this particular Christmas he gave me a car.

The trouble with this car was that it was not a model. It was made of formed plastic and had snap-on axles with wheels. It was the kind of toy car that four-year-old boys like to push around on the floor while making motor noises with their lips. Now remember, I was thirteen.

I had a cousin who would have been just the right age for that car, so I thought my uncle had gotten our presents confused. That was my immediate reply when I opened the car from its gift-wrap: "Oh, you got my present confused with Eddie's."

My mother about keeled over with embarrassment. She understood what I did not, that my uncle only saw me liking little cars; he did not understand the difference between a model and a toy. All I knew was that I was stuck with an unwanted gift. This passage from Luke is about another unwanted gift, but it's more serious than a toy car. This gift is something from God.

What we actually have here is another story-parable which Jesus gave while He Himself was at meal. He had already said something about the attitude of guests at special meals, and about the motive of the host. One of the guests at this meal where Jesus was had the insight to see that Jesus was telling of values in God's kingdom, and his reply to Jesus causes the conversation to turn to the kingdom in an explicit way.

In keeping with the overall theme, Jesus compares the kingdom to a great banquet. In Jesus' time and society when someone gave a banquet, a person would send an invitation telling the day but not the exact time. On the announced day, the host would send servants to those who had accepted the invitation to tell them the time had come. It was an insult to accept the invitation beforehand and then not go once the time came. But that is what happened in Jesus' story –– the banquet was an unwanted gift.

Before we go on with this theme, there is something else to keep in mind. When dealing with Gospel accounts, there are three stages to consider. Stage 1 is what the story or teaching meant in its original setting with Jesus. Stage 2 is how the gospel writer adapts and uses the story or teaching. Stage 3 is how the story or teaching is applied on a more universal level. We tend to look for Stage 3 truth to help us with our own living, but we cannot truly understand Stage 3 unless we first have some understanding of Stage 1 and Stage 2.

The Stage 1 meaning of this parable has to do with God's invitation to Israel. Now that God has sent Jesus to tell them it is time to embrace His kingdom, Israel isn't responding. The result is going to be that God turns to Gentiles and other outsiders to find people who will fill His kingdom. There's more here, though, than a lesson on God going outside of Israel and a good illustration of bad interpretation. The implications of not wanting God's gift are for us.

What is it that makes a gift undesirable? Gifts that we receive at Christmas are either too big or too little, not the right style or color, or maybe we already have one like it. Whatever the specific reason might be that we would not want a gift, the underlying reason is that we do not need it. We have other options. One big reason I didn't care about the toy car was all the other things I had. If I had no other toys –– no hopes for any other gifts –– that car might have been the most wonderful gift in the world, even for a thirteen year old.

Let's apply that to the setting Jesus gives in the story. The reason the people who were originally invited did not come is that missing a banquet was no big deal to them. The host in this story had evidently not done what Jesus had recommended in the previous story. He had not originally invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. He had invited people who had resources much like his own. One man had bought a field. Another had five yoke of oxen which were new. These were not people who were anxious about their next meal. They were likely people who could, themselves, give a banquet.

This is a story, among other things, about people who have options. And people with options can afford to be more finicky than the person with little or no options. Offer a rather nice gift to a person who has the means to choose and buy what he likes and the chances are you may give an unwanted gift. On the other hand, offer a humble gift to a person who has nothing and it will be gratefully accepted.

That is why the host in this story turned to the people who were down and out. He had prepared a banquet. He wanted his house full of people enjoying his hospitality. And if his own circle of acquaintances would not come, then he would turn to people who would.

I have already said that part of the application here is understanding that God turned to people outside of Israel in a special way when most of the Jews would not accept the gift of His kingdom. But the application does not end there; what God was doing to Israel as a collective people He also does to us as individuals.

Just as God invited all of Israel to join in His Messianic kingdom banquet, He invites all of us to His kingdom table. And just as Israel thought she had no need of what God was offering through Jesus, there are many people today who treat God's invitation as an unwanted gift. Stage 1 is being continued in Stage 3.

Maybe you right away think of a neighbor or someone you work with who does not go to church, someone who is profane, someone who is a womanizer or some other notable sin. If that is what we think of here when the idea of rejecting Jesus as God's gift comes up, then we are not staying in the context of Stage 1. In Stage 1 it was the religious people who thought they did not need what God was doing. In Stage 3 we need to be careful that we do not do the same thing. Just as the Jewish people in Jesus' day thought God accepted them as they were, so we have people today who are products of the church who think they are really good enough. People who are outwardly moral.... people who have been through the church's rites of initiation.... people who are respected in the community.... people who have been elected to church offices.... The list could go on.

The dangerous thing about these people –– and some of us could be among them –– is that they think they have spiritual options. All of us are used to having options. We have options in the way we relate to the material world. We can decide whether to eat out today or fix the meal at home. Most of us had options of what to wear to church today. We have options of what we will do this afternoon. Maybe you never seriously think about it, but we have options as to what job to work and what state to live in. We live in a culture bombarded with options.

That does something to the way we see ourselves spiritually. We think we have options. If a person does not like the way it is at one church, he can go to another. (It would be interesting to see if people think God's requirements change from church to church.) But when it comes to our salvation.... when it comes to being accepted by God, we do not have options. God gave His greatest gift –– the One we celebrate at Christmas –– and in giving Jesus provided the one way that we can have salvation.

I guess there is no one who is seriously involved in a Christian church who would disagree with that on the cognitive level. But when it gets to living out what it means to accept Jesus Christ as one's Savior, the consensus falls away. God's gift is for people who know they have sins which need forgiveness. It is not for people who think they are already pretty good, and for whom the Christian faith is merely a good option.

This story is a warning to people who are too proud to openly repent. This story is a warning to people who are self-sufficient. It is a warning to people who think they are good enough and so do not need redemption. It is a warning to people who will not admit their need of healing so long as everything looks good on the outside.

The warning is that God has no mercy on people who think they have spiritual options. People who think they are spiritually full have little reason to accept the invitation to God's banquet table. People who think they are good enough have little reason to openly and humbly accept the gift of God's Son.

Jesus says here that those who say no to the dinner will not taste it. Those who are excluded from the banquet have only themselves to thank. God will not drag the unwilling into it against their will. Jesus makes two things very clear: First, no one can enter the kingdom without the invitation of God. Second, no one can remain outside but by his own deliberate choice.

The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear what happens to people who treat God's great gift with contempt –– whose response to Jesus Christ is like that of an unwanted gift at Christmas:

Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:28-29,31).

The people who are most likely to truly find the kingdom are those who know that life doesn't offer any other good options. God's gift does not come to us like a toy car to a boy who has other toys. The kingdom is not something we can return for a different model or style that we might like a little better.

I invite you to think again what it means for you that God gave us the gift of His Son. Is your response to Him one of convenience, as though you had other options? God wants us all at His banquet table, but He wants us on His terms. Do you treat God's Son as an unwanted gift?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

He Came To Die

I am taking a break from the First Corinthians series until the other side of Advent and Christmas. In the meantime I am posting some of my Advent-Christmas sermons written over a decade ago.

He Came To Die
Luke 13:31-35

In Advent we begin to think especially about the way God came into our world in the life of Jesus. Advent is a time to celebrate the hope of Life. It is a time of forgiveness and hope and peace. It is a time of wonder and excitement and joy.

There is another dimension, though, to the Advent – Christmas season that is often overlooked. Along with a message of life, the coming of Jesus was a promise of death. More than anything else, Jesus Christ came into our world to die.

Among other things, the Bible is a book about life and death. It speaks plainly about physical life and death, and of course it speaks directly about spiritual life and death. Those themes are not absent in the unfolding life of the One whose coming we are about to celebrate.

At first there was only life. There was God, and He is Life. With creation, we are told that from the beginning everything was good. The human creation was very good. It knew only life, physical and spiritual. God was in His beautiful world in a special way. The man and woman walked with Him and talked with Him. There was no death.

All of that changed when the man and woman disobeyed God. They sinned, and with sin death entered the world. Writing about that event Paul would later say, Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned... (Rom.5:12). The story of our world had become one of life and death instead of only life.

The drama began to unfold immediately. First there was a provision for life. God gave the man and woman animal skins for a clothing, and some see in that a shedding of blood for their sins. God also gave a promise: A seed from the woman would come to crush the head of the serpent who had tempted the man and woman in their disobedience.

Eve might have thought God's promise was coming quickly when the two boys were born. Instead of life, though, they gave a disturbing picture of death which follows us yet today. Cain, in his anger, killed Abel, and people are still killing people. We need the peace that Advent promises.

Cain killed Abel because Abel told the truth about God. God does not accept just any kind of worship; His worshippers must come His way. Cain did not like that, and he was the first of many people to kill one of God's prophets. Abel was, in a sense, the first prophet to be killed for standing for God's ways. The story of life and death was well under way.

How were people to understand this story of life and death? The tendency is for most people to act like Cain, thinking any sincere approach to God is good enough and resisting –– and even hating –– anyone who would say anything differently. How could God's ways be understood by people in whom God's life had been extinguished by spiritual death?

The Scriptures are a record of the steps God took both to teach people His ways and bring them to new life. And throughout all that God said and did, themes and patterns of life and death continued to recur. The theme of life and death was foundational to Israel's worship and salvation in the Old Testament. The symbolic death of a lamb was Israel's salvation when God brought them out of Egypt. That Passover theme continued throughout the Old Testament into the New Testament.

The entire book of Leviticus is based on blood sacrifice. In one place God told the people, The life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life (Lev. 17:11).

Hundreds of years went by and Israel continued the blood sacrifice. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem which replaced the Tabernacle, they celebrated the day with sacrifices of 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats (1 Kings 8:63).

But sacrificial blood on the altar was not the only blood shed in the Old Testament. The reaction of sinful people to God's truth brought the same pattern begun by Cain and Abel. By the time the kingdom was divided and in its final stages, Jerusalem was getting the reputation as a prophet killer.

Of the evil king Manasseh it was said, he shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end (2 Kings 21:16). Josephus, the Jewish historian of almost 2000 years ago, said of Manasseh, "He spared not even the prophets, some of whom he slaughtered daily, so that Jerusalem ran with blood" (Antiquities 10.3,1&38). Zechariah the prophet was killed in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 24:20ff). Then there are the tales from the prophet Jeremiah –– of Uriah killed by King Jehoiakim (26:20-23) and of the attempt on Jeremiah himself (38:4-6). Legend has it that Isaiah was also killed in Jerusalem. So Jerusalem was the place of blood sacrifice –– legitimate and illegitimate.

The New Testament did not change that. The writer to the Hebrews uses the Old Testament sacrificial system to show what God had done once for all through the death of Christ, and how it was in continuity with all that God had done in the Old Testament. In fact, the ninth chapter of Hebrews is like a New Testament Leviticus when it says, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

The theme recurs in the New Testament over and over again. Peter explicitly said it in his first letter: For you know it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1:18,19).

And John, in his Revelation, says the Lamb is a central focus of worship in heaven (5:9):

And they sang a new song:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood
you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation

The book of Revelation also clearly says that God's faithful people will continue to physically suffer and die right up to the end. And at the end, God will consign those who have continued in their spiritual death to that state forever. So from beginning to end, the Bible is a book about life and death both physically and spiritually.

Christian faith is built on the belief that Jesus Christ is at the center of everything connected with life and death. In our preparation of Advent and with the coming of the Christmas message of life and hope and peace, we do not forget that Jesus came to die.

It was something Jesus never forgot. John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel that John the baptizer spoke of Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). Jesus was baptized under that shadow. It was at the heart of His temptation in the wilderness. He struggled with it in the garden on the night of His betrayal.

The previous four chapters of Luke are in the overall context of Jesus going to His death. Back in 9:51 Luke said, As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. All that happens from that point is, for Jesus, under the larger shadow of death.

In this passage Luke reports that some people came to Jesus with the news that Herod was wanting to kill Him. Three things come through in what Jesus said. It should not surprise us that what He says falls within the parameters of everything else the Bible says about life and death.

First of all, a threat is not going to stop Jesus from His work. He came to die, and He knows it. He had been doing His ministry under the shadow of death from the beginning. The New Testament language of sacrifice is not just flowery speech. When God promised Eve a Deliverer it was not purely mythological. When God gave the Israelites the Passover, He was acting within character; the true Lamb was yet to come. And when John tells of the Lamb being worshipped in heaven, he is telling of something that is real.

If there was any doubt of that, the second thing should erase it. The language disguises all that Jesus meant, although it is easier for us now that we can look back and see the significance of the third day (v.32). That phrase, along with the words, I will reach my goal, combine to speak of the culmination of all that God had been doing for thousands of years to bring the perfect sacrifice for sin. Jesus knows that Herod will not kill him; He must die in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the symbolic sacrifices had always been done. The drama that God had been building in that city for all those years had to be resolved there.

The third thing is the interplay between Jesus and Jerusalem. Jesus was not only to be killed in Jerusalem, He was to be killed through Jerusalem. What had been true for all the years would happen again: Jerusalem would turn on the One God had sent to save her. As she had killed other prophets, she would cry out for Jesus to be crucified.

Still, knowing those very people would cry for His death, Jesus affirms His love. He wanted to "mother" the ones who would yet kill Him, and He looked to the day when the effect of His death would be known. The passage ends on what sounds very much like an Advent saying: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Such is the hope that is ours. The Lamb has been slain. The blood has been shed. The debt of sin has been canceled. God's justice has been fulfilled. All of this... because Jesus went to Jerusalem.

The one reason we can give ourselves to this time of Advent is because Jesus came into our world to go to Jerusalem. As we prepare to rejoice in the birth of God's Son, let's not forget that more than any other thing, He came to die.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Knowledge Is Not Enough

This is sermon #20 from my First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Back in the 80's Lawrence Kasdan produced a movie which captured an almost mythic place among people of my generation. The Big Chill was about a group of "thirtysomething" people who had been friends in college, and were now reunited at the funeral of one of the group who had committed suicide. They stay together for the weekend and spend part of the time examining their lives.

One of the fellows writes for People magazine and another is a featured actor in a TV weekly drama. The writer had earlier done an article on the actor and had taken advantage of the friendship to get a revealing story. During the weekend the two get into a discussion in which the writer tries to excuse his actions. The actor then asks, "Why is it what you just said strikes me as a mess of rationalization?" Whereupon the writer answers, "Don't knock rationalization; where would we be without it? I don't know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations."

The writer could have been from Corinth. The Corinthians, you may remember, had written Paul a letter to which our 1 Corinthians is an answer. The letter from the Corinth Christians was full of rationalizations that tried to legitimize sub-Christian living. A few of their rationalizations went this way:

–– I belong to Paul/Apollos/Cephas (1:12)
–– All things are lawful for me (6:12)
–– Food for the stomach and the stomach for food (6:13)
–– It is good for a man not to touch a woman (7:1)
–– All of us possess knowledge (8:1)

Paul has, in turn, reminded them they are not ordinary people; they are people of the cross. The cross represents a wisdom the world does not understand. The world does not see beyond itself, but Christians know this world is not all there is.

One thing wrong with the Corinthians is their inability (or refusal) to connect what they know about Christ with a different way of living in the world. Paul has to confront them with being spiritual babies. He uses words like "carnal" and "fleshly" to describe them –– words that mean they are living as if they do not have the Holy Spirit. They are accepting immorality, they are tolerating Christians taking each other to court, they are trying to build a false spirituality that caters much more to self effort and self promotion than it does to actually following Jesus.

As chapter 8 begins Paul deals with yet another subject where the Corinthians are rationalizing Christian behavior. This time it is in the area of old relationships that had their basis in sinful identity. The specific situation is one that we have trouble identifying with today. The Corinthian world recognized many different gods. Christians call it idolatry because we believe in only one God, but that is not how the Corinthian culture saw it.

The worship of these so-called gods involved activity both directed toward the perceived deity as well as fellowship among the worshippers. This was accomplished by cooking meat dedicated to the "god." The smoke would ascend as incense and then the people would eat together the cooked meat.

The Christians at Corinth were arguing that it was alright for them to continue to go to those feasts. Maybe the food was that good. More likely there were still emotional ties –– friends and even family were still worshipping the false gods.... rituals and patterns that were familiar and "felt good." Their former way of life was woven into their consciousness. Paul knew they were only fooling themselves to say it didn't matter to return to the old hang-outs for merely a bite to eat. Rationalizing.

And what was the rationalization? A reality that no Christian would contest –– and Paul doesn't. The Corinthians said (v4), "we know there's no such thing as other gods, so why is it wrong to eat the meat?" The idea was that if idols are not real gods, then why should it matter if a Christian goes to the pagan temple to enjoy the food and festivities? They also said (v8), "food is merely food, and God doesn't care what we eat."

What do we say when other Christians show an understanding of truth but then apply it in a wrong way? Has it ever occurred to you that such is possible? You see, it's not good enough to know a certain Bible teaching or to understand a certain doctrine. Knowledge apart form appropriate application is useless. In the Old Testament Israel said God was the only true God; they knew in their minds that was true. On the other hand, the pagan people around them had more appealing religious practices. They had temple prostitutes who could make a man feel good. The compromise Israel opted for was to say the right things about God, but do what their pagan neighbors were doing. And it was compromise. Rationalization. What we do cannot escape the implication of what we believe. So for the Corinthians back then –– and for us today –– how we relate to this world and how we behave from day to day affects our faith (or shows the lack of it).

There is one big issue at stake here, along with two sub-implications that, together, form a second big issue for Christians living in a pagan environment. The first big issue is individualism. Individualism is a problem in the church today. Individualism in the context of Christian identity is a self-centered faith. And it shouldn't be surprising that self-centeredness is in the church –– look at our culture. Newsweek had an article about the trend of baby boomers coming back to religion. They look at churches from the perspective of shopping: they look for close, off-street parking, modern facilities, and an entertaining program. For them, faith itself is validated by its ability to make one "feel good." And many churches are growing by offering just that –– the parts of Christianity that make one feel good, with nothing being said about sin, personal responsibility and obedience.

One thing that made the Corinthians feel good was this word here in chapter 8: know-ledge. To simplify it and bring it to our day, it was enough to mentally possess the facts about who Jesus was and what he had done. One could then delve deeper and deeper into philosophical theology so that the further one went with profound speculations on Jesus and angels and Old Testament allegory, the more prestige such a person gained. Each person was free to develop alone. But speculations on Jesus and angels, profound or not, does not necessarily give one a relationship with God and his people.

Spiritual independence takes us in the wrong direction. Thinking we know something special.... thinking we know more than others only makes us proud. Spiritual independence and pride alienates us from God and other people –– just the opposite of what true Christian faith is supposed to do. So the word here –– the word to the Corinthians in their situation and the word to us –– the word to Christians trying to find their way in a pagan world, is that love is more important than knowledge. That is the second big thing here.

It's not that knowledge is of no value. The Corinthians, in fact, had come to recognize some important truths. Of course those "gods" were not real. Of course God's main concern with us is not what we eat. But... what does the Christian do with that knowledge? The Corinthian answer is to use knowledge for self-convenience; God's word through Paul is to let love work in your life instead of practicing an independent, self-centered knowledge –– a rationalization that uses truth to make life convenient for you.

What is it, then, that love does? In what way does love counter this individualistic approach to religious knowledge? Well, first of all, love validates knowledge. Love is what makes knowledge worthwhile. Love is how Christian knowledge is applied. That is the general truth –– the foundation on which a true life application can be made. It is stated in vs2,3: Anyone who claims to "know" does not yet have necessary knowledge; but if anyone loves, this one truly "knows."

This means a focus on knowledge only shows someone who doesn't even know enough to be on the right track. It is the person who loves who shows knowledge of Christ and his ways. The person who loves doesn't need to talk about profound things to convince others of spirituality; love is the validation of knowing Christ.

Now there are two ways Paul applied this to the Corinthians' specific situation. The first is in v7 where he acknowledges the difference between reality and perceived reality. Yes, it's true that Christians know there are no other gods –– but that is not what the pagans think. And so what do the pagan people think if they see Christians entering into the activities that are specifically connected with pagan ways? Well, they certainly do not see Christian truth. They do not see Christian distinctiveness. They are prevented from seeing their error if Christians are justifying it by their participation. Love will not do that to unbelievers.

The second thing that love considers are Christian believers who are new or weak and immature. In v9,10 Paul projects the likelihood that another Christian who does not have as much "knowledge" will see the all-knowing self-centered Christian individual participating in something that does not seem right. But if the immature person says, "Well, if he or she is such a strong Christian and can do that, it must be okay," and then follows the example –– but deep down thinks it's wrong, then one Christian has tempted another to sin. And the text says such sin could "destroy" that weak believer, meaning it could result in spiritual death all over again so the person is lost to Christ. Love does not do that to fellow Christians. Christian knowledge is never an excuse to rationalize our behavior for our own convenience.

To make the matter clear, Paul ends this chapter by saying he would give up his right to eat meat altogether if the choice was between his tastes and appetite compared to people who might connect his eating with idolatry. That is love. That is following Jesus. Jesus gave up his rights as God's Son and died for us when he had committed no wrong. Paul is following Jesus –– willing to give up a right that could be perfectly legitimated by using knowledge. But Paul is not willing to put his individual knowledge above the good of others and the call to follow Jesus. Love does not rationalize. Love reminds us that sometimes Christian knowledge is not enough.

Now that's the principle in this chapter, but how is it applied in our day and culture? We do not have temple parties with tasty meat that's been offered to some bogus god. I hesitate to dogmatically say this Corinthian situation corresponds to exactly this or that today. We have the principle, and the Spirit can apply it to each of us in different situations.

I will, however, be a bit bold and mention three possible contexts to help you think about how this truth could work today. The first is language. The world has its own way of talking. It is often crude; it is often loose with its references to God. Knowledge and rationalization might say, "Those are just words; they're mere things we use to express emotions –– everyone says them. God knows I love him. Besides, Jesus has died for all my sins." The bigger question, though, might be the witness you are giving if you say things the way the world around us does. Who are you siding with if you flippantly say "oh my God" the way so many people do who never think of God as they say it? Whose side does it appear you are on if you use the same four-letter expletives profane people use?

Another context might be music. I'm thinking particularly of young people now. You can rationalize and say you just like the music –– that you ignore the words, but whose side does it appear you are on, what do non-Christian friends think if you listen to AC/DC, Megadeath and such stuff? Should Christian young people go to concerts, dances or parties where that kind of music is the focus of the activity? I'll not answer that for you, but it deserves an honest answer before God.

The last present-day context I will suggest is perhaps the one I think comes closest to the context here in Corinthians. It's the subject of alcohol. Knowledge says the Bible does not teach total abstinence. Knowledge says the issue is not what one drinks, but rather its inordinate use. But what is the perceived reality? It doesn't take much observation to see how alcohol is used (abused) in our culture. The places and activities broadly associated with drinking are not so unlike the things that went on in Corinth at the temple feasts. So what does love say? What does love say about going out and drinking one with the boys –– even if you do not get drunk? Whose side will the unbeliever think you are on? What does love say about drinking in public where a weak Christian –– perhaps one who has struggled with alcohol –– will see you?

Whatever your reaction was to these things, let me ask you one question –– was your response based on knowledge or love? Do you most want to rationalize –– or obey our Lord, who modeled laying aside rights and said that the disciple would be like the master?

You see, as Christians, it's not what we know; it's who we love. Christian knowledge isn't enough. A juicy rationalization can always get around mere knowledge. Our Lord calls us to love. Others trust us to be Christians. Whose side are you on?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent Is Not Christmas

Advent is not another word for Christmas!

The culture seems to start “the holidays” earlier and earlier each year with music and decorations. At its best it’s about a nice sentimental feeling. At its worst –– all the commercialization –– it’s about money.

Christians in the free-church tradition do not help very much. While their celebration is quite sincere (and often elaborate and wonderful), it misses at least three things. First, it misses being in rhythm with the greater history of Christian Faith (a loss that is incomprehensible until it begins to be understood). Second, it misses the spiritual power (and benefit) of patiently waiting. Third, it blends –– even though unintentionally –– into the spirit of the age as the world rushes into its own forms of “celebration.”

The irony is that many ecclesial communities today which are outside the Church Year of the liturgical tradition have “discovered Advent” –– or at least they have discovered the word. Some mark the four Sundays of Advent and have candles with the right colors.... even as traditional Christmas songs fill the services along with cantatas and larger extravaganzas. But as soon as December 26 comes it’s over; Christmas, which has just begun in the Church Year, is non-existent. A few free-church congregations might remember to sing We Three Kings on Epiphany if they even notice the day (but my guess it is not very many).

Advent is meant to be a time of preparation.... a time to reflect on God’s promises which are yet to be fulfilled.... a time to think about just how badly we need to be saved.... a time to be still and know that I am God.

As the world tries to revel in circumstantial happiness.... as many Christians rush the season.... can we remember that Advent is not another word for Christmas?!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Virgins (and Others) In A Passing World

This is sermon #19 from my First Corinthians series of two decades ago. I skipped over #18 because my understanding of the topic (divorce) has shifted substantially since I wrote it.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24;29-40


We sometimes use the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees" to describe a condition in which people get so bogged down with the details that they lose sight of the big picture or the overall purpose of all their concerns. Unfortunately, such a thing happens among Christians as much as anyone. That is one way to understand what Paul was dealing with in this seventh chapter, and it is also one way to understand things that happen in churches today.

With these verses we come to the undergirding thought behind everything else Paul is saying in this section. The issue is not really sex, marriage and singleness. Those just happened to be some of the particular things that were the focus of the Corinthian attention. To use the opening quotation, the issues of marriage and singleness were the "trees." Paul's concern was for the church to see "trees" in relation to "forest."

And what is the "forest" that is supposed to give us our context? What makes Christian thinking and understanding different from everything else? What is the crux of our faith? How does our faith in Christ affect life in the day to day world? What does it mean in our families, jobs and hobbies that we are Christians? How does being a Christian affect our buying, our involvement in our communities, and anything else one can think of?

One way to answer that is to think of what it does not mean. Christians are not people who approach life merely with a set of different rules. Having a distinctive approach to particular issues is not what sets us apart. Our faith is not based on what we are and what we do in this world.

For the Corinthians that meant it did not matter if they were married or not. They did not need to concern themselves with so-called rules of spirituality that morally or religiously elevated singleness above marriage or chastity above the marriage bed. Rather, if you are married, be the best married believer you can be. If you are single, take all the more delight in your relationship with Christ each day. If you are divorced, believe that Christ can heal the brokenness and still make your life beautiful.

But the application does not end there; it is much broader. The concern is not certain issues at all. Paul himself broadens it with his examples of circumcision and slavery (v18f). What does circumcision have to do with being a good Christian? Nothing. What if a person is a slave? Can he be a good Christian? By all means. Little issues of this world (the "trees") do not change the greater reality (the "forest").

Paul's examples here do not speak so powerfully to us today. Circumcision is not an everyday topic in the church now –– it has lost any religious significance it once may have had. Slavery is not a social reality for us any longer. What are the issues we get hung up on today (because the principle is still the same)?

The things that seem to occupy our concerns are jobs, education, family, housing, possessions and such things. We label people that way. "Well, he's a Ph.D. –– how can I relate to him?" "Oh, I'm just a clerk at work." "You know the people in her family never really measured up." "They live in a rented row house." "He buys all his clothes at Brooks Bros." Is that really what counts?

The world says those are, indeed, some of the things that count (one way or the other). The message is clearly there: People who own their homes are more successful that those who rent. A man with a graduate degree and a powerful position is more important than a delivery truck driver. The woman in a natural fiber business suit in her office is due more respect than a woman in polyester pants with a couple of kids hanging on her in K-Mart.

Could it be that we in the church believe such distinctions are connected in some explicit way with God's blessing? Or worse yet, do we buy into the world's value system? Do certain things or social conditions make us better or worse, fulfilled or empty in spirit? Is "upward mobility" part of the gospel? Does being a Christian automatically mean a good marriage, perfect children, a nice house and a growing appreciation for refined culture? If a person with a broken past comes into the church, is he or she sentenced to forever play "catch up" toward those whose lives have been spared some of the stigma? Is that what is important?

If we are honest, are those not the kinds of things that often fill our minds? How to look good to others. How to pay for the kids' college education. Whether or not the daughter's marriage will make it. And underneath it all is the idea that those are the things that make us better people.

In the context of this Corinthian letter, the assumption was that if they avoided the relationship of marriage they would be better people. According to their thought, virgins made better Christians. The issue has changed for us, but we have our own particularities by which we judge each other's status.

Think about this –– everyone on earth can be labeled. Each one of us can be categorized in some way. But what is behind the categories? What does our social distinctives accomplish? On what is social status based? What does it promise, and more importantly, what does such a thing actually deliver? What is it that actually deserves the focus of our time or energy or money or worry?

In the context of the Corinthians, is it good or bad to be a virgin? Is maintaining that particular identity going to make someone a better Christian? (I hope you understand I do not ask that in a moral sense; the issue here is sociological standing.) Or to shift again to our own day, is it good or bad to be a professional person compared to a blue-collar worker? Is one going to be a better Christian than the other? I hope you know the answer is "of course not."

But how can we say that? By the world's standards such things make all the difference in the world. One can afford to have more and better than the other. Does that not matter at all? If not, why do we try so hard to better ourselves? Why do we try to pave the way for our children to get a good education? Why do we buy things we enjoy? Is it good to do those things, or is it bad? How should we, as Christians, think about those questions? Or should we think very much about such at all?

Putting the "should" aside for a moment, let me just say it is certainly easy for us to think about things like that. Those are the issues which can consume us, even if we are Christians. We can spiritualize almost anything.

When I was a Christian teenager I spent time figuring that listening to the Lettermen would be more spiritual than listening to the Beatles –– even if the Lettermen did a Beatles' song! We can list the good things to spend money on and contrast that with a list of the not so good. Within the context of the church we can categorize people who have achieved certain accomplishments compared to those who have not (i.e., those who have stayed in their original marriage as opposed to those who have not).

It is about at that point that our rules and our categories begin to define what it means to be a Christian. And at that point we no longer see the forest for the trees. The issues of everyday life –– legitimate things, yes –– swallow up everything else. We end up destroying the very thing we are trying to protect –– a faith that frees us from such limiting, worldly thinking.

Paul tells the Corinthians why that is so. It is because of what is so important. It is because of the very nature of the forest itself, in contrast to the issue of each tree. And what is the "forest" in this context? Well, to try to extend this metaphor, it is to realize that the trees we see each day are not part of the forest we need to be most concerned with. If that helps you, fine. If not, let's drop the metaphor and get on with the actual truth that is here.

Actually it is not anything you probably do not already know. It is stated plainly in v31: For this world in its present form is passing away. But it is one thing to merely read this in the Bible and give a nod to it, and something else entirely to understand what it means and how it is true.

Again, to begin with the issues Paul is addressing, what is marriage and what is virginity? Both are things that are connected with our status in this world, and neither will one day mean anything. Just think how much time and energy we give to things that will not matter a hundred years from now.

That is not to say possessions and accomplishments and relationships in the here and now are wrong, or even not important. It is to say that Christians have the glorious opportunity to be free from the level of concern that consumes most people in the world. Pouring our energy into worrying about the things that label us on earth just isn't worth it! Let's see why.

Do you remember the point in chapters 1 and 2 of this letter? Christians are people who recognize a different wisdom. Losing can be winning. Death can mean life. We are not people who believe the world's billboard with the "good life." We look at another billboard that advertises weakness, defeat and death. We are people of the cross.

Now we are explicitly told why this is so. The billboard showing the world of the "good life" is not true. It is a mirage, and it is passing away. Everything that happens to us in this life must be tempered with that. In vs 29-31 there is a list of things that happen to us on earth. We marry. We are happy sometimes. We mourn sometimes. We purchase things. But none of those things are ultimate reality. We cannot totally possess the things we buy. The situation that makes us happy or sad will pass. Even marriage will not follow us into eternity. So why allow those things to be the reason for our existence?

It is not that the Bible is forbidding any association with those things. The first five verses of this chapter affirm the binding nature of marriage for those who do marry in this world. Neither is feeling sadness or happiness wrong. In another place Christians are exhorted, Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). It's just that Christians need to live in the consciousness of a greater reality. Things that are so big to non-believers are mere passing trifles to people who see who Jesus is and what he has done.

And what has Jesus done? We know he has died and has risen, but perhaps we do not fully understand how in doing so Jesus has passed judgment on the present form of the world. The resurrection promises a new existence, and it is the one that will abide. As Christians, we are called to live out of a new realization, a realization that things of this world do not determine our identity and destiny. Christ does.

Once we see the truth of that, we cannot look on this world and the things it offers and the things it promotes the same way. It is like someone who is terminally ill. Once a person knows the end is near, the amount of time left is lived with a new perspective. He sees, hears and values in a new way.

Another illustration of a totally different nature is a person who tells a joke. He alone knows the punch line, and because he knows it, it shapes the telling of the whole joke. Through the resurrection of Christ, Christians know the divine "punch line" (which in this case is no joke, but a vivid reality!); we see clearly how the story comes out, and so shape our lives accordingly.

This change of perspective isn't something that can be faked. One can try to mimmic the Christian life by following rules, but the essence of Christian faith is truly seeing the world as passing and a greater existence ordered by Christ following. Such an understanding cuts through the things that matter and the things that do not.

Yet that does not mean that a Christian does not live in the here and now. Christians eat, live in houses, marry, buy, go to school and get jobs just like everyone else. The one difference is that we know that those things do not determine who we are.

The great truth of 1 Corinthians 7 is that the gospel transcends the world's standards and issues. Another particular point here is the principle of "staying as you are" (v17, 20,24,26). This is not a command that you cannot change your situation after becoming a Christian. Instead, it is a freeing word, emphasizing that one does not have to do or not do anything in terms of social convention to be a good Christian.

Using these issues of chapter 7, if a person was married when she became a Christian, she can be a good married Christian; there is no need to feel as though the marriage must be dissolved. If a person was not married when he became a Christian, there is no need to feel compelled to marry; he can be a good single Christian. Those kinds of things do not affect spirituality. They won't change one's relationship with Christ; they are not the kinds of things that will be so terribly important in a hundred years as far as the person is concerned.

Can we dare go into this week with that kind of faith? The larger issue here is that we not be worriers (v32f). So much of what we fret about in this life, so much of what we think is important, so much of how we judge others in the church just isn't relevant to Christian identity.

Christians belong to Jesus Christ. Christians are travelers through a world that is passing away. Yes, we live like others. Some marry; some remain virgins. We sorrow, we rejoice, we buy, we use the world –– but those things do not make us who we are. We do not need to lose sight of the forest because of the trees.

Does Jesus care if you are a Ph.D. or a high-school dropout? Does it matter if you rent or own? Does it make any difference if you are single or married? Ultimately, the answer is no, God can transform your life apart from the world's categories. The issue of the gospel is just this: do you believe it?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christians, Rise Up!

Slowly (I wish this had been done years ago) but surely a unified Christian witness (consistent with the historic, orthodox Faith) has been given for life and moral issues. Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant leaders have joined together in a joint statement that is long overdue and crucial to today's social erosion. I encourage everyone to visit the site for the Manhattan Declaration. Read the document. Think about what is being said here. Pray for this. Consider adding your name in support. It is past time for a unified witness to Christian Truth for the issues which are so under attack today. Christians, Rise Up!

Friday, November 20, 2009


This is sermon #17 from First Corinthians. I am acutely aware of the different context in which this was written compared to my current awareness. There is a huge contrast between Catholic options for singleness compared to narrower traditions. Yet the practical issues I dealt with two decades ago are very much with us today, and the issues of chastity and healthy friendship among singles is more crucial than ever.

1 Corinthians 7:7-9; 25-28


It has hit me all over again just how different the world we live in is compared to the world of almost 2000 years ago. Paul was trying to correct a church that devalued marriage, a church that thought sexuality stood in the way of spirituality, and a church that was trying to make a moral virtue out of a priority of singleness.

Today, the opposite is true in many if not most churches. Many Evangelical churches will not consider hiring a pastor who is not married, and even apart from the pastorate, singles have a hard time finding their place in churches that are so geared toward couples and families.

Singles are viewed with skepticism: how do they fit in? They create an odd number, and so present a problem socially (after all, a biblical church follows the Noah's Ark Syndrome –– two by two). They are also seen as freer, and so more available, than a married person, which means they can be presumed upon –– "Oh, Sue can do that," with the understanding that because she is single she doesn't have anything to do in the evenings or on weekends. Then, too, there is the "yet" focus: "oh, he's not married yet," which means that he hasn't arrived, that he will only be "whole" after he marries.

Singleness was handled differently back in the Bible's time. There were social conventions we can hardly imagine today in our culture: dowries, marriages arranged by parents or other guardians, polygamy.... There was no "dating" as we know it today. Women had little or no choice as to whether they would marry or even who they would marry. Singleness was the exception, and most often occurred because of being widowed.

In this chapter, Paul is trying to correct a warped view of marriage and sex that the Corinthian Christians had. He starts by saying that marriage is normal, and in marriage there is to be full and mutual sexuality (vs1-5). He says he wishes everyone had his gift, which was singleness (v7). Then he addresses several particular situations.

The first is the issue of being widowed (vs8,9). Should widowers and widows remarry? Next he looks at the subject of divorce (vs10-16), which we will come back to later. Then (vs25-28) he considers younger people who are likely bethrothed (i.e., formal arrangements have been made, but the marriage has not yet been consummated). Should they go ahead and marry? Would that be "unspiritual?"

Now I mention all of that to make the point that the issue of singleness is in a far different context for us than it was for Paul as he wrote to the Corinthians. That does not mean there is nothing here for us, but it does mean we have to make some transferences and applications; we cannot merely pull a few phrases out of 1 Corinthians 7 and think we have “the” Christian position on singleness.

I want us to consider three things about singleness. The first two are specifically connected to what Paul has written here; the third is a practical question that naturally rises out of this issue.

The first thing, then, is a principle that Paul asks the Corinthians to consider: "Stay as you are." He says that explicitly in vs 17, 20, 24, and 26. I'll come back to this in another sermon, but it affects singleness.

One practical application is that people who are not married should not rush out to find the first seemingly appropriate person they can marry. God wants to guide those who belong to him, and that includes working in the lives of Christian young people to lead them to the right spouse –– if marriage is part of what God has for a person.

If I could, I would have every teen read Shadow of the Almighty, part of the journal of the martyred missionary Jim Elliot, edited by his wife, Elisabeth. He once wrote:

No one warns young people to follow Adam's example. He waited till God saw his need. Then God made Adam sleep, prepared for his mate, and brought her to him. We need more of this "being asleep" in the will of God. Then we can receive what He brings us in His own time, if at all. Instead we are set as bloodhounds after a partner, considering everyone we see until our minds are so concerned with the sex problem that we can talk of nothing else when bull session time comes around. It is true that a fellow cannot ignore women –– but he can think of them as he ought –– as sisters, not as sparring partners.

I do not think we teach our young people as strongly as we should the principle of waiting on God and trusting him to lead us to the right things so clearly that we know it is from him. And that should be especially so of marriage; nothing else in this world changes and affects us the way the person we marry does. Paul says: stay as you are until God changes the situation.

A second thing that is here is the gift of singleness. We do not lift that up in the Evangelical tradition very often (in contrast to the Catholic Church). It could more easily be inferred that we believe there is a curse of singleness instead of a gift.

How often in the church do single people feel as though something must be wrong with them? To go back to some of the opening thoughts, we in the church do much of our thinking and planning with couples as the common denominator of our thinking. We think in terms of twos. It is only in recent years that churches have begun to realize that when you hire a pastor, you do not get the spouse to double the work for free.

Of course no one would say it so crudely, but can it be we think something must be "wrong" with an adult who is not married, or a least making tracks to be married? Can a single person really be happy living alone, or at least not knowing the intimacy of the marriage relationship?

Without belaboring the point, the Bible is clear that there is a gift of singleness. Paul at least refers to it in v7: I wish that all people were as I am. But each one has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Jesus also spoke of the gift of celibacy (Mtt. 19:11,12).

Yes, it is hard for some of us to imagine life apart from a marriage partner. I would not function too well outside of marriage unless God changed me, but not everyone is like that. And while differences are hard for us humans, can we in the church not accept the fact that not everyone needs a marriage relationship? And for those who do not need it, can we not see them as gifted in ways we who are married are not, so that they have a conscious contribution to make to the church instead of being a deprived class of people who are problems at banquet times?

Now I know I am generalizing a lot. I am spreading a lot of paint with a broad brush, and I do not do that to incriminate any one person. I say all of this to exaggerate what singles can so easily feel in any church. It is so easy to gravitate toward a couple perspective without thinking about it.

We need to think intentionally about the gift of singleness. We in the church need to lift it up as a wonderful option for those whom God calls to singleness –– without making them feel as if they are incomplete or have missed out on a major part of life. The truth is that singles are just different in some ways.

Singles can be free to serve in ways that couples and families are not. A single can pick up and move for a year of voluntary or missions service in a way that others cannot. Singles are free not to be distracted as often as people who are committed to marriage and parental relationships. Singles can have a financial freedom others of us do not have; they can spend their money taking only God into account, while a husband or wife needs to consider the other, and perhaps children.

Singles can have an understanding of friendship that alludes one who is married. Sometimes sex gets in the way of friendship, and singles have the freedom of avoiding that (if they can escape the sex-craze of our culture). Singles can be free to develop personally in ways that a married person could envy; the time the married person puts into sustaining a relationship is time the single can put into reading or traveling or taking educational classes. And all of that can contribute to a greater opportunity for service in the kingdom of God. The church should be saying that such an option is a good one.

On the other hand, singles are no different than anyone else. They are people who need to be loved. They need to be seen as important. They need to be hugged. They need to be included in things –– not because they are single, but because they are each individual people who have something to contribute. (If you think about it, no one would want to be included or excluded on the basis of their marital status. I hope people include me because of who I am, and not because I am married. And likewise, the single person's singleness should be no big deal; it is the person he or she is.) The freedoms that singles have do them no good if other people do not freely affirm the good things those freedoms give –– the freedoms that come from the gift of singleness.

A third thing we need to consider is the people who are single, but do not have the “gift of singleness.” This is not a category the Bible explicitly deals with. Our culture is different, and without arranged marriages and without polygamy and other common things of 2000 years ago, we have people who are single who desperately want to be married. They are lonely. They ache for physical affection. Almost everything they see becomes a reminder of what they are personally missing. What does 1 Corinthians 7 say to them?

I'm not sure it says anything explicitly to them. It is another problem, but it invariably rises to the surface when the issue of singleness comes up. I would say, though, the problem is not just theirs; in the church, it is ours. We need to be teaching the proper context for sexuality and to be helping singles live chaste lives in healthy friendships.

It is hard to imagine what singleness means for someone who craves marriage, but we in the church need to try to understand –– and to help ease the pain. But even as I say that, I need to say one thing to the single who is unhappy: you need to be vulnerable to someone you trust. You see, it is almost impossible for people to help if they do not know. At the same time, we in the church who are married –– or those who have the gift of singleness –– need to know all we can so those who are struggling do not have to spell out every detail. As I have thought about it, I see four areas where we can have sensitivity toward the single who doesn't want to be.

First is the realization that there is a big difference between loneliness and being alone. People who are lonely can be dysfunctional. They are unable to take advantage of some of the benefits of being alone. Loneliness is crippling. Loneliness is a state of mind, and a single can feel horribly lonely in the middle of a crowd. It has to do with a sense of not belonging, of deprived intimacy. Lonely people need love.

A second thing is vulnerability. Single people without the gift of singleness keenly feel the need for others. They do not have an immediate advisor when the car breaks down or the plumbing goes crazy. They do not have corporate wisdom for financial decisions where major spending or investing is necessary. They are aware when they are sick that no one special may be there to pamper them or provide crucial care. Each thing that happens is a reminder of what they want but do not have, and it can be self-depreciating.

A third thing is awkwardness. Social functions are more of a threat than a pleasant escape from aloneness. How do you act if you are one single with three couples, especially when being with happily married couples only reminds you of what you so badly want for yourself? And then there is the opposite sex. Can the single be friendly with a married person of the opposite sex, or might something be taken wrongly? And how about a person of the opposite sex who isn't married? Is it a set up? Is he or she thinking what you are thinking? Could this be something? Should I even be thinking this? How can you help but think of it if that is what you desire? It is awkward.

A fourth thing is the danger of bitterness that comes when what the single wants so much does not come for him or her when it is happening to those all around. Bitterness can come when it seems that no one is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the non-choice single –– when events and conversation always revolve around couple-type things. Bitterness is a danger when the single is always thought of when a job needs to be done (since they have so much more free time, you know), but once the job is done it is back to usual.

Now the reason I say all of this is not to depress singles who do not have the gift, but to impress on the rest of us some of what is at stake for us to be caring and loving to everyone in the church community. It is one thing to blithely say, "Be content; trust God for your life." It is something else to feel lonely and frustrated and think no one in the church understands or cares.

Of course we can trust God, but he has put us in the church to trust together –– to help each other and encourage each other. I know these words about singles will not answer all questions, but I hope they they help us be more sensitive.... more sensitive to promote the gift of singleness and recognize those who have it, and more sensitive toward those who struggle with their singleness. When all is said and done, we all are fellow strugglers on this journey of faith.

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