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.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sexual Honor In Marriage

This is sermon #16 from First Corinthians. I would develop some things further today, but the practicality what I said long ago still applies.

1 Corinthians 7:1-7


This sermon is for husbands and wives. I do not often focus a sermon so narrowly, but I do so this time for two reasons. The first is that this passage is about husbands and wives. The second is that husbands and wives today need to hear what God's Word says about a subject that is so relevant, as we saw in the last passage, in an X-rated world.

This passage of Scripture has been abused off and on in the church for 2000 years, so much so that some people think spiritual Christians see the human sexual relationship as some second-class, almost evil, activity –– as if sexual intercourse itself was part of the Fall.

The way the NIV translates the first verse does not help things, either. You see, the punctuation we so take for granted in our written texts was not part of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. We supply that as part of the translation, and translation relies a great deal on interpretation.

The first phrase of this passage tells us Paul is responding to something the Corinthians had written: Now for the matters you wrote about.... Then comes the next thing, which literally says, It is good for a man not to touch a woman. What it means is, "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."

Now one translation question is this (and it comes down to the interpretation of the whole passage): is Paul speaking here, or is he quoting something the Corinthians have said to him in their letter? I think the best translation would be: Now for the matters you wrote about: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."

To put the whole thing in context, there were some Christian wives at Corinth who applied the concept of being "spiritual" in an extreme way –– so extreme that they were not having sexual relations with their husbands. Sex was part of this temporal world, they said, and spiritual people do not need such. The husbands, in turn, were going to the temple prostitutes (the subject of the preceding paragraph).

Understood this way, the whole passage makes more sense. And even more, understood this way, Paul is correcting a view of sexuality that some in the church have tried to hang on him for all these years. It is important that we grasp this. It is good for us that the Corinthians had this problem, for it caused Paul to give us a Christian view of the sexual relationship of Christian husbands and wives. That is very important for us as we live in a culture that makes sexuality such a big thing. What is the Christian response? God's answer to our sexuality is marriage.

First, though, I need to give a few qualifiers. Marriage is not merely a license for sexual pleasure. Neither is the mere fact of a marriage a guarantee of a good sex life. If the act of marriage was an entrance into a magic world where everyone was satisfied and happy, there would be no affairs. We would not hear songs on the radio with words like,

Oh, it's sad to belong to someone else

when the right one comes along.

What should marriage be? What does it imply, sexually speaking? Can long-term marriage work any more? Can a person have a great sex life over the years with the same spouse? Are these questions that Christians should be asking? Does God care about the sex life of a husband and wife?

Let's try to get some perspective. The Bible tells us that God created humans as a special category: So God created Man in his own image (Gen. 1:27). And the same verse says God created us sexually: male and female he created them. That sexuality was given expression before the Fall: God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number' (Gen. 1:28). It was after that creation of male and female, and the command to procreate, that God's assessment is given: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Gen. 1:31).

Yes, the Fall changed things. Sin coming into our world caused relational breakdown. I do not know all it means, but part of the curse on Eve was: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you (Gen. 3:16b). I think that is why women have been given the short end of things throughout history; but because it is part of the curse, I think it is something that Jesus has undone through his death, and part of extending his kingdom means husband and wife mutuality.

Now let's get back to Paul and his words to the Corinthians about husbands and wives. In short, he says there is to be full sexuality in marriage. Specifically, he says that three different ways –– each with increasing implication. The first is v2: Each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. The second is in v3: The husband should give to his wife her due, likewise the wife.... to her husband. The third is in v4: The wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does.

The language here is totally sexual. In v2, "have his/her own" is biblical usage for sexual relations (Ex. 2:1; Deut. 28:30; Isa. 13:16). And the words, "each should" means that Paul thinks marriage is the usual thing for people in the Christian community, and not the exception.

Why get married? One reason is for the sexual relationship. In my pre-marital counseling I tell young men and women that if the desire to give physical pleasure to the other is not part of their reason for marriage, they should not get married. Paul says such pleasure is a married person's "duty."

Now this doesn't mean it is something over which you grit your teeth and endure. The old story of a mother telling her daughter on her wedding day to "just bear it" is not a Christian view of sexuality and marriage. It is, instead, an affirmation that marriage means a sexual relationship. Jesus said, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh (Mk 10:7,8a). And what is the reason? They are male and female. Sexual.

Sex is good. God made it that way. Read the Scriptures. The wisdom writer said in Proverbs, ...rejoice in the wife of your youth...may her breasts satisfy you always... may you ever be captivated by her love (5: 18,19). That sounds like physical pleasure to me. It is sexual excitement continuing throughout the marriage.

And it is not just from the man's point of view. Read the Song of Solomon. The woman in that Bible lesson knew what sexual passion was. I often point out in pre-marital counseling that it is the woman who is endowed with a sexual organ that has no other purpose than physical pleasure.

What Paul says in v4 may cause a bit of consternation in our day of self rights and independence: in marriage, a person does not own his or her own body. Another thing I tell couples in pre-marital counseling is that they are giving their lives away. If you are not ready for that –– if you do not love or trust that other person that much –– you are are not ready for marriage.

There is a reason for that. It is such a level of love and trust that makes sex work over the long-run of a committed marriage. Sex in marriage is a special gift. You are giving to one other special person what you cannot really give to another. Marriage is giving yourself away. Sex is a celebration of giving yourself away to someone you love and trust that much. Sex is a celebration of receiving abandoned pleasure from someone who loves and trusts you that much. When you give your body away like that, there is no shame –– it's like recapturing a bit of Eden. When you can trust to give your body away like that, there is no greater earthly exhilaration.

I hope you are hearing some implications, but just to be sure I will be specific. Sex in marriage is not a matter of demanding what is due you or giving what is expected and required by the very concept of marriage. Sex is not just physical acts of pleasure. A husband will not be satisfied by a wife who is passive and "lets him." A wife will not be satisfied by a husband who thinks good sex is a matter of pressing a few magic buttons at just the right time.

Satisfying sex is knowing a sense of fullness and happiness inside after the physical part is over. A pop song from years back that said something good was, "after the loving, I'm still in love with you." There is a fulfillment that comes when a husband and wife have given and received in ways that trust and self-worth are enhanced.

Have you ever thought that a spouse's opinion can be either the most exhilarating or the most crushing thing in the world? Husbands, we have the power to make our wives feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. Wives, you can make your husbands feel as though he is God's special gift to the world. It is out of that kind of relationship that great sex happens –– not because it is the goal, but because the sexual relationship is best when it is a celebration of life between a husband and wife who are totally given to each other.

How can that happen? I am going to focus my comments even more narrowly. Husbands, if we want our marriages to be so good that we are not enticed by this X-rated world, there are things we can do to help our wives love us like perhaps we never thought possible.

(The same is true for wives, but I would prefer a good wife to tell other wives what to do –– or wives can make their own applications, which is better than making an expectation list for their husbands from what I say.)

Someone has said the best four-letter word for sex is "talk." That is where I would ask husbands to begin. A grunt or two during supper is not enough for a husband to give a wife. Some husbands operate under the assumption once expressed by Archie Bunker to Edith: "I told you once that I loved you, and if I ever change my mind I'll let you know." It is not enough to only "show" your love by all the things you do. Tell her.

Sexuality is one part of a relationship, and relationships need people relating to one another. A wife needs real conversation. She thrives when she sees her husband simply enjoying her presence. A wife needs to hear thankfulness for the small things. How often do husbands take for granted the meals and the laundry which are so faithfully done? Yes, we each have our jobs to do, but no one likes to be treated with presumption –– as if she'll always be there. The way things are today, she might not be if someone else notices and you do not.

Another key to relationships is time. It takes time to talk, and most of us need to plan for quality time. Leftovers is not enough, even if it happens that way (and it probably won't). I have recently been trying to "date" again –– plan a meal out every week or two, drive to her work-place once a week for Libby's lunch break, send love notes and buy special cards to let her know how special she is to love me so much. Libby and I try to have an overnight away every couple of months or so; she can forget other demands more easily if she's away from them.

Relationships mean learning about the other person. People like to feel important, and wives need to feel like the most important person in the world in the eyes of their husbands. Don't buy your wife only what you would like for her to have; find out what she likes and get it for her. Think of her feelings and hopes –– and you can do that only if you have learned who she is on the inside.

Husbands need to learn some things about female physiology. We men have one sexual hormone to drive us on our way; women have several hormones that are on sometimes and off sometimes. If men's hormones worked like women's, we would have a week when our beards would grow like crazy, and then suddenly quit for a few weeks. When a wife says she does not feel good, believe her and know her well enough to know even without asking what you can do for her to make her feel loved.

Don't wait for an anniversary or a birthday. Do something special for your wife, and then tell her, "it's just because you are so wonderful, and I love you." Watch a TV show she likes with her, and then let her tell you what she likes about it.

There is one thing I have found to help me keep this in perspective, and to keep me motivated in my marriage relationship: I think about what my wife has done--she has given her life to me.... she trusts me.... she gives me the gift of herself (the most precious thing she can give), and only asks that I treat such a gift with the reverence it deserves.

Reverence –– it's not only for God –– is also for that special one God brings into your life. And let me just mention one thing that is grossly irreverent: husbands who belittle their wives. You have heard it or seen it. A look that says her idea is absurd, or actually speaking of any weakness she has in front of others. So often it is to make the husband look good (smarter, in better shape or whatever) in contrast to his wife, when in fact a man doing that to his wife causes him to look like a clod.

Do you know what comes out of a relationship where there is caring and reverence? Passionate love. A love that cares.... a love that wants to be reciprocal. It's a love that nothing in an X-rated world can match.

But what about marriages that are not that way? First of all, do all you can to take them in that direction. But this world is not ideal. Not everyone will have this kind of marriage. Does that mean one is then free to look elsewhere for it? If a wife or husband does not give to the other all that the one hopes, is that justification for sexual looseness? You know the answer.

As wonderful as marital sex can be, that is not our ultimate fulfillment. God has given us an incredible gift with marriage and sexual relationships. But it is that –– a gift from God, and the gift cannot be more important than the Giver. When we try to do that, the gift is no longer a gift –– it is something stolen, and that brings fear and guilt and emptiness.

Later in this chapter Paul will give some godly instructions for when it doesn't happen ideally. But for today, the word is for those who are married and wanting to make it work. We need to know God has given us our sexuality to help us celebrate life and love and the gift of one to another. There are things we need to do to keep it real and alive, but the God who has given us such a gift wants to be in our lives helping us love in a way that our marriage will be all that he wants it to be. Husband and wife, are you doing your part? It can happen this very day.

Do you know how? Maybe some of you need to go home and find a private place to apologize. Some of you may need to be vulnerable enough to say that you have hurt for a long time over something that was said or done, but that along with the hurt you also ache for a love and closeness that is not there right now. Others may need to say to their spouse, "I want to love you this way, but I don't know how. Will you help me?" In some situations, neither husband or wife will know how, but you know you want it to be better. Come talk to me or one of the other pastoral staff. If we can't help, we will find someone who can.

I do not need to elaborate on the sad condition of many marriages in our society. God has something better than that for his people who are married. Can you believe it? Can you believe your marriage can be a joyful refuge from all the sexual frustration and immorality in our world? It can be, because God has designed it that way. Ask him to make it gloriously true for you.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Thinking About Death

Our culture does all it can to avoid death issues. Christians have hope in the face of death, but even "popular Christianity" seems too often to go for the fluff.

Death has been part of my consciousness for years. In my formative days I heard preaching described as "a dying man talking to dying people," and that shaped my approach to declaring the Scriptures for three decades.

This morning's Office of Readings has a wonderful selection from St. Ambrose, the Church Father from the fourth century:

The Lord allowed death to enter this world so that sin might come to an end. But he gave us the resurrection of the dead so that our nature might not end, and the resurrection was to enable our nature to continue for ever.

"Death" in this context is a passover to be made by all mankind. You must keep facing it with perseverance. It is a passover from corruption, from mortality to immortality, from rough seas to a calm harbor. The word "death" must not trouble us; the blessings that come from a safe journey should bring us joy. What is death but the burial of sin and the resurrection of goodness?
Here is a saying you can depend on: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him (2 Tim 2:11,12)

Think about it!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Christians in an X-rated World

This is sermon #15 from my long-ago First Corinthians series. It was written, if you can imagine, before the Internet was such a common presence in our homes. If the battle for sexual purity was intense when I wrote this about 20 years ago (and it was), then how much more today. Satan has a highway from hell that comes straight into our computers if we open the gate. Please don't do it!

1 Corinthians 6:12-20


This is not a subject I gladly come to in a sermon. One of the advantages, though, of preaching through a book of the Bible is that one takes what comes; there is little chance of riding a favorite hobby horse, nor, if one is honest, avoiding some of the hard things we read in the Scriptures.

The next several sermons will focus on some facet of sexuality. That is good, because we need a word from God about our sexuality. We are sexual. We are male and female, and that affects the way we think and act with one another in this world. We are all the more affected because this world is fallen, and the fall has distorted our sexuality. We need a word from God.

At the same time, this is a hard subject to address. It can be depressing. It can be disgusting. It is hard for me to know when I have said enough or too much. Some of you may have opposite opinions, some thinking I did say too much while others feel the need for even more explicitness.

We live in our own Corinth today. Corinth was an X-rated world when Paul wrote this. William Barclay quotes an early Greek, Demosthenes, saying:

“We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day to day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes." So long as a man supported his wife and family there was no shame whatsoever in extra-marital affairs.

That was the moral climate in which the Corinthian Christians lived. That was the attitude Paul was calling to holiness.

We live in our own Corinth. I remember going quite regularly to one of the local drug-stores when I was about thirteen to browse through the monthly issues of Playboy and Cavalier. That caused no little struggle when I surrendered to Jesus, and later, even in my marriage. Back then it was nude women in mostly demure positions with a wisp of fabric strategically placed so that the genitals were concealed. That was over 25 years ago.

Today one can go into a store that sells "adult magazines" and be confronted with myriads of titles, some of which cannot be repeated in public by decent people. Inside these magazines today you will find full male and female nudity. And they do not stop with mere nudity; there are simulated sex scenes of men with women and women with women, portraying manual and oral fondling of genitals. Such magazines are openly displayed in many small towns in our country.

And not just magazines –– one can also rent videos that do not stop at simulation. These videos offer any kind of sexual variation the fallen mind can concoct: straight, lesbian, oral, anal, and all kinds of combinations. And the reason those things are available is because people (many and all kinds of people) rent them. Some people who go to church look at such regularly.

I talked with a Christian psychological counselor. He told me that he sees little difference in the lives of professing Christians who come to him compared to non-Christians. People who come to see him are sleeping around outside of marriage, feeding on pornography, and getting involved in extra-marital and homosexual affairs. He told me of a ten-year-old boy who is already sexually active.

There are phone numbers where a person can call and either get a recording of a woman detailing what she would do if she were there or a live conversation willing to lead in any fantasy the caller wants to pursue. I read of two boys, thirteen and fourteen, and an eleven-year-old girl who called one of those numbers. Following the phone call the boys forced the girl to do all the things they had just heard.

Young people today are afraid to admit they are virgins –– if they are! Virginity is jokingly called the horrible disease that comes with a simple cure. Sex is used to sell any and everything in magazine ads and on TV. Calvin Klein jeans advertisements have half-nude men and women in suggestive poses, and I do not mention this one brand because it stands alone. Everywhere we look our culture is obsessed and reeling with sexual immorality. That is what Paul is talking about here in I Corinthians 6.

In v13 we find the body is not meant for sexual immorality and in v18 flee from sexual immorality. The Greek word is porneia, which means prostitution or any other sexual wrong. It's the basis for our word, pornography. I am sorry for being so explicit about the kinds of things that are around us today, but if I merely talk about sexual immorality in a general kind of way, many would not know how stark and pervasive it is, and some who do (among whom are our youth) would yawn and tune out one more predictable morality lecture.

There are two reasons why this sermon is necessary. The first is that sexuality is so powerful. Don't think those advertisers do not know what they are doing. There is something about sex that grabs our attention and holds it. Don't think the people who produce and market pornography do not know that once a person gets hooked, he or she wants more and more. Don't think, young person, that you are the exception –– that you can be alone with a girl or boy friend in a compromising situation and not be tempted beyond your ability to say no. Don't think, married man or woman, that you can feed that fantasy of another person and come out unscathed. And let's not any of us think we can uncritically absorb the stuff that comes at us through the media without our moral fibre breaking down. We live in Corinth! Ours is an X-rated world.

Sexuality is even more powerful because of the lies that we use to rationalize wrong behaviors. That was one thing Paul recognized in the Corinthians. One was the line of argument in v13: food for the stomach and the stomach for food. The Greek view of life at that time regarded sexual activity as just as natural, necessary and justifiable as eating and drinking. Sexual abstinence was regarded as unnatural and even harmful. "If it feels good, do it."

That line of thought obviously has not died. Some secular psychologists and sociologists today try to say that sexual suppression causes mental illness and social inhibitions with resulting frustration, and even violence. Don't you think it is odd that we have far more frustration and violence today when sexual freedom runs rampant than a hundred years ago in what is today sneeringly called "Victorian prudishness?"

Another lie Paul had to deal with was a perversion of the gospel. He starts his comments in v12 with something the Corinthians were saying to justify their immorality: everything is permissible for me. Is a Christian free to do any and everything? Does Christian profession and baptism mean you can sleep around and feed on pornography and yet get by with it? Paul asked the same question of the Romans: Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? His answer was, "By no means! How can people who have died to sin continue to live in it?"

Another variation of the Corinthians' rationalizing was the idea that what they did with their bodies did not matter. The body was temporal anyway, and what mattered was what was on the inside. It took Paul to remind them that what is on the inside is seen by what happens on the outside. Those who have hearts for God in the inside act like it on the outside.

New lies come up –– things that Paul does not explicitly mention (but you might be surprised at how much is here for those who are willing to see!). One subject today that is rife with lies is “freedom.” The foundation of "pro-choice" is that we should be free to do with our bodies whatever we choose. Of course it is mostly connected with women and abortion, but it goes beyond that. "It's my body" and "reproductive freedom" means she is free to sleep around with whomever without reaping the full fruit of the action. For the homosexual, "freedom" means the right to have sex apart from the laws of nature (which by the way are consistent with the moral laws of the Creator). Such thinking does not want to consider what "freedom" would mean for the man who desires young children.

Whatever else our culture might call these things, God's Word calls it porneia –– a prostitution of what God meant when he created sexuality. The problem is that when human culture rejects God's truth, there is no truth. That is yet another lie: there is no absolute right or wrong. The culture tries to say that sex is the same as love. Men say to women, "If you love me you'll do it." Women do it hoping desperately that along with the heat of passion they will get a bit of tenderness and true care. Men and women keep doing it, believing that more is better. We judge each other by our bodies, believing the lie that a perfect body will give perfect satisfaction, and that physical satisfaction is the most important thing in the world. We are told the excitement can’t last with the same old person; it is assumed that “looking” certainly won’t hurt anything. The goal is “safe sex,” and that only means a condom. We never hear anything about sex that is wrong. All such attitudes are what the Bible calls porniea –– sexual immorality.

I read a cartoon that was far more pointed than funny. A boy was asking his grandfather, “Gee Granddad, your generation didn’t have all these social diseases. What did you wear to have safe sex?” The grandfather’s wise reply was, “A wedding ring.”

There is a reason why sexual practices are getting worse and worse. It is because people are trying to find satisfaction through the physical sensation of sex. Sex that is cut off from a committed and lasting relationship is doomed to hurt and frustration. When physical sex is all you have, you have nothing when it is over. People who live for “now” find that it doesn’t last.

This is not to say that sex cannot be wonderful. If not, it could not have the power it does. When we come to the next section in this Corinthian letter we find human sexuality as God meant it to be. Yet even before that, we need to know who we are. It is when we know and believe the truth about ourselves and God that things like human sexuality begin to fall into the right place.

The first thing we need to know is that our bodies are not our own (v19b). None of us had anything to do with being here. God is behind every conception as well as our particular characteristics. Speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David wrote:

For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful, I know full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place.

When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

your eyes saw my unformed body.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be (Psa 139:13–16).

Not only is God our Creator, he is our Redeemer. He bought us with the blood of his Son, so Paul says you were bought at a price (v20a). The reason God did this was so his Spirit would be free to live inside us. This is our hope of fulfillment –– a hope realized: your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.... (v19).

It matters what we do with these bodies of ours. We cannot use our bodies for immorality without it affecting our inner person. The people Paul was writing to were going to prostitutes for physical gratification. It was an accepted part of their culture (culture is never an excuse for illicit behavior). Prostitution was part of pagan temple worship. Prostitutes were readily available, and the Corinthian Christians easily could have said, “everyone does it.”

For us today the issue is greater than one dimension of immorality. This word porneia means any prostitution of sexuality –– any use of sexuality other than what God has intended and sanctioned. It means that sleeping around before marriage is a prostitution of sexuality. It means filling your mind with images of people misusing sexuality so that your desires are both warped and inflamed is a prostitution of sexuality. Christians are not to behave that way.

Why? Because if we are Christians we belong to Jesus. Our bodies belong to Jesus, and what we do belongs to Jesus. When we sin these ways we are sinning against a body that belongs to Jesus. We cannot embrace sexual immorality and Jesus at the same time. Those who try to do so find that God is serious about this.

God hates sexual immorality. Do you believe this? When you see the seductive scenes on TV, does something in you say this would make you happy? When you see the sensual magazines on the rack, can you remember there is a coiled snake ready to strike? When a passing encounter seems so inviting, are you tempted to see how far it might go?

God wants people who will honor him in every way. The final word here is: honor God with your body. Is that your covenant? God’s way is for our eyes to see only what the Holy Spirit wants us to see. God’s way is for your body to be held only by the one with whom you make a life-long commitment. God’s way is not to use your body except in those ways that honor the Lord who died to make you holy.

Hear these words as J. B. Phillips captured them:

The calling of God is not to impurity, but to the most thorough purity, and anyone who makes light of the matter is not making light of a man’s ruling but of God’s command. It is not for nothing that the Spirit God gives us is called the Holy Spirit (1Thess 4).

As you live in an X-rated world, remember who you are.

Site Meter