Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Almighty and the Dollar

“All that we call human history--money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery--[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.”

-John 18:36 (HCSB)

The “chi ro” (first two letters of the Greek word “Cristos” meaning Christ) was likely already an ancient Christian symbol when Constantine “adopted” it early in the 4th century.  But it was at the Battle of Milvian Bridge where the symbol gained its fame and will forever be linked to the Emperor. According to historical documents, Constantine saw this symbol in a vision prior to his battle with Maximus for the control of the entire Roman Empire (east and west).  He saw it as a sign from God and indeed he defeated his rival.  And just like that….under Constantine’s rule….Christianity in the Roman Empire….was now legal.  But it didn’t stop there.  Constantine, who may or may not have been a Christian himself, made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  For the first time, the Church was institutionalized.  For the first time, the Church became intertwined with the State.  For the first time, it became financially rewarding to be part of the Church.  It can be argued and debated that Constantine was responsible for putting Christianity “on the map”.  But one thing’s for sure.  The next 1,300 years would be one long continuous saga and struggle regarding state “ownership” of the Church.  Perhaps no one, including Constantine himself, could have foreseen the implications of his actions.  Obviously, during Constantine’s time,  few stopped to consider Jesus’ words in passages such as Mark 12:13 – 17 and John 18:36.  If Christian leaders, at that time, would have taken these passages to heart….perhaps they would not have walked down Constantine’s red carpet so briskly.  Today, evangelical Christians often bemoan the separation of church and state.  But as the saying goes…”be careful what you ask for….”.  History shows us that a healthy arm’s length distance between the Church and the State is actually a good thing.  And is consistent with Jesus’ teachings.

[Read Mark 12:13 – 17 below]

Before we dive into the scripture for today, a little background is necessary.  Without it, we can’t fully appreciate the gravity of what is happening in these four verses. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, Palestine was part of a province of the Roman Empire.  Typically, when the Empire conquered an area, it tolerated its culture and, sensitive to that, would support a ruler who had “roots” in that region.  In Palestine and surrounding areas, that was Herod the Great....until his death in about 4 BC. Herod committed numerous atrocities during his reign, but he was tolerated by the Jewish community due mainly to his lavish construction projects (including expansion of the Temple).  Prior to his death, Herod divided his kingdom among his three sons….and that’s when the wheels started to fall off for Palestine.  Archelaus, the son rewarded with Palestine, was such a disastrous ruler that Rome had to forcibly remove him from power and govern Palestine directly from the "mother ship".   The military was used and a Roman governor assumed command of the region….making Palestine, for the most part, a police state.  The first thing the governor did was impose a series of taxes (ground, poll, income) to help pay for all the additional support/oversight from Rome.  Without a doubt, these new taxes enraged the Jews who felt the Roman Empire tightening its grip around their way of life. From their perspective, a complete overreach of “federal” power.  Many, in our own country, feel the same way today.

So it is within this setting, that we find ourselves in Mark 12.

At the beginning of our scripture, we are introduced to Pharisees and Herodians (supporters of Herod).  Based on what you now know, you can bet these two groups were bitter enemies.  And yet they had joined forces and set their sights on a common enemy – Jesus of Nazareth.  Scripture tells us that they were sent (v. 13) so we know that their confrontation was a planned one.  Part of their plan of attack was to be subtle…and seductive….and we see this in their compliments of Jesus (v. 14). They join in asking what they believe is the ultimate “trap question” (v. 14 – 15).  Answer one way, and Jesus risks the alienation of his own people and followers.  Answer another way, and the authorities could have had him arrested for being a revolutionary.  However….Jesus saw right through them…and he let them know it (v. 15b).  Jesus asks for a coin….a denarius to be exact.  And it is notable that Jesus himself did not have a coin in his possession.

Before we look closer at Jesus’ remarkable response….a little background about ancient coinage and what it symbolized in the Roman Empire.  Coins were a sign of power and wherever a coin was circulated it was assumed that the area was under the control of the person emblazoned on the coin. The particular coin that Jesus held would have had an image of Tiberius Caesar on it.  It may even have had the words “pontifex maximus”  which basically meant “high priest of the Roman nation”. In effect, the coin itself would have declared the Emperor’s divinity.  Can you imagine the outrage of one of our coins showing the image of a sitting president and declaring his/her divinity over the United States?  Now you understand the rage of the Jews a little better can’t you?

Jesus’ response to the trap question is nothing short of brilliant.  But not just because he eludes the Pharisees (once again) but because it lays down a principal that we Christians can live by.  By asking “who’s image and inscription is this?” (v. 16) Jesus recognized that the coin had Caesar’s name on it…so in a sense…it already belonged to him.  When Jesus said “give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar” (v. 17a) he was simply saying…”pay the monetary taxes without anger because you are just giving back what the Emperor already owns.  Money is the State’s domain.  And after all…it’s only money”.

But then Jesus says to “give to God what is God’s”.  (v.  17b) What did Jesus mean?  Ever wonder what “things” Jesus was talking about?  Some believe this passage is about tithing…giving to the church.  But I think the meaning is much deeper….and perhaps Jesus’ question in v. 16 gives us an important clue.  I think Jesus was talking about us….you and me.  We belong to God.  Just as those ancient Roman coins bore an image of Caesar….we bear the image of God.  We’ve known that to be true….all the way back to Genesis 1:27 (So God created man in His own image…..).  And according to Jesus, we’re to give ourselves over to God.  We’re already His….and much more precious to Him than money.

Why is this such an important lesson today?  Because this scripture reminds us that we can have peace in a world in which we feel like we’re losing our grip on control.  A quick run through CNN, Fox News and Drudge Report will be convincing enough that the world…our nation…. is in chaos. Runaway deficit spending.  Healthcare mandates.  IRS scandals.  Byzantine regulations.  Corruption at the highest levels.  Government overreach.  Bureaucracy.   Gridlock.   It seems like every day brings a new crisis.  Now that you understand history a little better….the environment during Jesus’ ministry… can at least rest assured that none of what we’re experiencing today is anything new.
It’s easy to feel helpless.  Hopeless.  Out of control.  But that’s not the attitude Jesus wants us to have. The State is going to do….what the State is going to do.  But we belong to God.  The State will have its domain….and Jesus recognizes this to be so…..but, try as it might…it will never own us….because we are made in the image of God and we are to give back to God the things that belong to God.

Mark 12:13-17
13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Him to trap Him by what He said.[a] 14 When they came, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know You are truthful and defer to no one, for You don’t show partiality[b] but teach truthfully the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay, or should we not pay?”
But knowing their hypocrisy, He said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.” 16 So they brought one. “Whose image and inscription is this?” He asked them.
“Caesar’s,” they said.
17 Then Jesus told them, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Friends in Low Places

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy….like art….it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.
                                                                                                 C.S. Lewis

 A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.

                                                                                                 Proverbs 17:17 (NIV)

A couple of weeks ago, I flew to Tampa, Florida where I met up with a group of close friends for our annual "guys weekend"....a yearly event that has become tradition....and maybe even legendary. be sure...when seven guys get together -  who've known each other since high school and college -  things can get pretty crazy and spontaneous.  And spontaneity creates memories.  So we spend a ridiculous amount of time laughing about what happened on the last trip...and somewhere in all the "material" gets generated for the next trip.  And the cycle just repeats itself.  But underneath all the laughs and hysteria, there's a current of something more serious.   Without really looking or even paying attention....time has put its unique seal on our friendships.  After all....only time can serve up the hard stuff.    High school.  College.  Marriage.  Kids.  Divorce.  And loss.  Loss of  Even substance abuse and life-threatening illnesses have made their unwelcome introductions.  And now, as we slip (unwillingly at times) into middle-age, the thought has crept into our minds that there will come a day when one of us will be gone.  Before its said and done, this group of friends will have gone through it all....together. 

I couldn't help but ponder this institution called "friendship".    And naturally, as a pastor, I turned to scripture for answers to my questions.  What is the biblical model of friendship?  Does the Bible really address friendship at all?  Are there threads of truth about friendship that we find in scripture?  From my research, I picked two stories from the Old Testament as well as material on friendship from the Apostle Paul and Jesus himself. 

Story of Naomi and Ruth.  Naomi's family moves from Canaan to Moab due to famine in the Promised Land.  The family settles into life in their new territory and her sons married Moabite women….something that was frowned upon in Jewish culture. Tragically, Naomi loses her husband and her two sons.  She was barren, childless and in a foreign land.  Almost completely alone.  Almost.  She encourages her two daughters-in-law (Ruth and Orpah) to return to their homeland and their gods.  To understand the gravity of what Naomi was demanding, one must place themselves in that time.  All alone, Naomi's prospects would have been dim.  In order to keep from literally starving to death, she would have had to rely on the benevolence of strangers and outsiders...for the rest of her life.  There was no safety net in a modern-day sense.  Orpah complies with Naomi's request but Ruth refuses...and in Ruth 1:16 - 17 we read the famous passage where Ruth professes her loyalty.  She decides to stay by Naomi's side to Bethlehem.  She must have had much courage considering Ruth knew she would be an outcast there. 

Story of Job and his  friends.  The Book of Job is an amazing piece of literature.  Ancient as it is (over 2,500 years old) its complexity reads like poetry...or perhaps a Shakespearian play.  Throughout its 42 chapters, the author was trying to answer two big questions:  “Why does God permit evil and suffering?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  In the story, Job was considered blameless and upright.  God “challenges” or dares Satan to "mess with Job" because God believes that Job will remain true to Him no matter what.  Next, a series of messengers tell Job that he has lost his family, livestock and crops.  Still Job does not curse God.  Then Satan inflicts a series of physical ailments that torture Job.  With boils, rashes and infections ravaging his body, Job cuts himself with shards of clay to distract his mind from the pain.  But despite his horrific condition, he still does not curse God.  Three of his friends come to see him and sit with him in silence for seven days while he mourns.  In ancient Jewish tradition, friends and family would sit, in silence, with mourners until the mourner himself broke the silence.  Job finally speaks and and then a dialogue/debate ensues as to the root cause of Job’s predicament.  His friends were loyal to a fault, but instead of sharing God’s grace with Job, his friends try to lecture and rationalize why something bad might happen to Job.  Even though his friends hurt him deeply, they are still his friends and at the end of the story we find them reconciled. 

 Apostle Paul and his friends.  Without his friends, Paul’s ministry may have been radically different.  I think we often get this image of Paul as a loner....traversing the Mediterranean, making tents and preaching the gospel like a street preacher.  But historical evidence paints a very different picture.  The Apostle was probably supported by a traveling road crew of well as a growing network of friends in each city he visited.  Without people there is no ministry.  And Paul obviously relied heavily on other people as he mentions nearly 40 different friends throughout his letters.....with many of those ancient "shout outs" in Romans 16:3 - 16.  Certainly, his relationships with Timothy and Priscilla and Aquila are great examples of his close friendships.  Paul loved people, was interested in them...prayed for and supported them.  From his writings, Paul appeared to be the kind of friend we would like to have. 

Jesus and friendship.  Christians get insight into what Jesus thought about friendship through his sayings, parables and love for sharing a meal.  Just like we enjoy sharing  meal with our friends, so did Jesus.  But he went a step further.  He shared meals with everyone….whether they were his closest disciples or outcasts of society.  His love for meals especially shines through  in Luke.  One commentator wrote: “In Luke, Jesus was either going to a meal, leaving a meal or at a meal.  No wonder the Pharisees accused him of being a drunk and glutton”.  In a parable Jesus presents in Luke 11:5 – 8, Jesus tells the story of a friend who goes to someone’s house at midnight and asks for bread.  Although the main point of the parable is about the need for persistent prayer, it should not be lost or overlooked that the friend pounding on the door at midnight is not asking for bread for himself but for a friend that has traveled long and is hungry.  The obvious lesson is that our prayers should be persistent and about others….not ourselves. No surprise.  With Jesus, it was never about himself.  Above all, Jesus tells us outright that friendship is to be cherished.  Consider John 15:13:

 13 No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.

So....what is the message...the threads of truth we find running throughout these examples? 

Sacrifice.  Obviously, Jesus is the ultimate model of sacrifice.  His disciples were his friends and he died for them….as he did for all of humanity.  Jesus even says, with no shortage of clarity, that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for his friends.  Although we may never be called to lay down our lives for friends, the message from Jesus is clear:  We are to put our friends ahead of ourselves. 

Prayer.  Jesus’ parable about the man knocking on the door at midnight is about the persistence of prayer.  Not prayer for ourselves….but prayer for others….as shown by the actions of the man in the parable.

Loyalty.  Perhaps the greatest lesson about friendship in the Bible.  When Job had lost everything, his friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar were there by his seven days of silence.  When Naomi was left alone without a husband or children, it was Ruth that refused to leave her.  When Paul was weary from this travels and discouragement, it was Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila that lifted his spirits.  When Jesus’ heart was heavy, struggling with the unavoidable crucifixion….his disciples were there to share a final meal with him.

True friends are the ones that are with you in the low places.                              

One of the best modern-day stories about friendship is the collegiate friendship that developed between C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien (author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings).  Without that friendship, C.S. Lewis could have very well remained an atheist.  Because of Tolkien however, Lewis would come to know God and accept Jesus Christ as his Savior.  Lewis, of course, would then go on to become one of the greatest theologians of our time…producing classics such as Mere Christianity and Chronicles of Narnia.   Friends can and do make a difference.

Our true friends are the ones who will make sacrifices for us….who will pray for us….who will be right by our sides during the darkest of times.  Our prayer should not be that we will have such friends….but rather that we will be that kind of friend to someone else.   

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Grace in the Darkest of Places

Sermon delivered on April 28, 2013

It’s not often that I venture into political waters during a sermon.  But as I prepare for this week’s message, the trial of Kermit Gosnell is in full swing.  Dr. Gosnell, a Philadelphia physician, is accused of killing as many as seven babies who were alive after botched abortions…using a procedure whereby the baby’s spinal cord is snipped.  The clinic has been referred to as a House of Horrors.  As if abortion (and possibly murder) weren’t bad enough, the court case has illuminated a systematic failure of oversight by a number of agencies including the Pennsylvania Department of Health, PPFA, National Abortion Federation and local hospitals who took care of abortion patients (would-be mothers) seeking emergency treatment after late-term abortions.  Many of the details coming to light in the case are much too graphic to use in a sermon or even on this blog.  The entire story is a shocking reminder of what humanity capable of when a person, or group of people, is completely devoid of any consciousness or conviction by the Holy Spirit. 

 And as if the Gosnell trial wasn’t bad enough…..coincidentally, during the trial, President Barrack Obama became the first sitting president to address Planned Parenthood when Obama spoke at Planned Parenthood’s national conference this week.

If you don’t already know, Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of abortions in the United States.  Typically, Parenthood will deliver about 25% of the abortions in a given year.  In their latest report (2011) 333,964 abortions were done at Planned Parenthood clinics.  So it is, at the very least, more than a little disturbing that a sitting President would align himself (so eagerly) with such a group.  And by far the most disturbing moment of the President’s speech was the very end when he said “God bless you, Planned Parenthood”. 


 In 2 Peter 2:10 – 16, Peter describes the characteristics of such “teachers”…or in this case “leader”.  Prideful (want to run things their way), interested in popularity and personal gain, willfully ignorant (blind to what the Bible teaches), fancy speech (use elaborate words), arrogant and leads others astray. 

How are Christians to respond to such “heresy”?  Heresy, by the way, is defined as the word of God falsely and deliberately twisted to fit the world view of one committing heresy.  I struggle to call Obama’s statement anything other than out right heresy.  And I struggle to understand how I, as a Christian, should respond.  Should I stop paying taxes?  Stop praying for our leader?  Respond with violence?  Condemn others?   Hard to believe, but the answer to all of those questions is “no”.  In 2 Peter 3:14 – 18, Peter admonishes his readers to focus on Christ and not to expect peace in this world.  He also urges believers to rely on God’s grace.  It is Grace, not hate or rebellion or condemnation, that has the power to change and transform lives. 

Push Back the Darkness

Sermon delivered on May 12, 2013

After my ordination ceremony, there was a reception to celebrate the occasion.  Cake, punch and lots of hand-shaking.  As I'm milling about...making sure to thank all who have supported me and been a part of this ministry journey (thus far) I was chatting with someone when they asked....almost nonchalantly...."so, why did you decide to go into the ministry anyway?"  For some reason, the question stopped me in my tracks.  I don't remember who the person was.....and I don't even remember what I said in return.  I suppose I gave one of those "pat", canned responses that sounded more "corporate" and predictable than anything else.  But I know one thing....I went home that night thinking of nothing but that question. 

And as I thought more about that question, I tried to clear my head, reach from the heart and actually say out loud the first thing that came to my mind in response to that question.  When I did this exercise, three words bubbled up:  "push back darkness”.  I guess at the end of the day, I want to be in ministry so that what I can to push back the darkness.  A darkness that can only be pushed back with light. When I probed that a little further, I came to a conclusion that my desire to push back the darkness is simply a Christian's desire to be relevant.  To make a difference.  To live a life that has meaning.  And guess what?  I'm not the only one.  After only a few short years in ministry, there is one thing that I am absolutely sure that everyone is searching for relevance.  Young/old.  Black/white.  Male/female.  Believer/unbeliever.  All are searching for relevance.  For me….that can only be explained by the fact that a loving God places that desire within us.  Whether we want it or not.  Whether we recognize it or not.

As I thought through all of this I was reminded of a movie called October Sky.  In that movie, a group of teenage boys, growing up in the poor and impoverished coal country of West Virginia, have a dream of creating a home-made rocket that could be launched and take flight.  The boys spent hours and hours building a rocket....almost to the point of being an obsession....much to the chagrin of their families and friends in their coal-mining community.....where boys graduated from high school and went to work in the mines until they retired…or died…whichever came first. But these boys had bigger aspirations.  And they had at least one cheerleader....their young science teacher who encouraged them to push ahead and not give up on their dream.  Amidst all the discouragement, she was there as a lone voice of support.  Tragically, the teacher was diagnosed with leukemia....and there's a scene where the boys visit her in the hospital.  Even lying in her hospital bed….terminally-ill with cancer, the teacher thought not about herself....but about her students who were preparing a rocket that would compete in the national science fair.  One of the students asked her....."why do you care so much about this rocket?"  And she replied...."because if you succeed then I’ll feel like my life mattered.  That it meant something bigger than just me."  Perhaps that young, dying teacher spoke for all of she sought to push back the darkness in her world.  To share and pass on a light to those around her.

It's interesting to note that October Sky was based on a true story and that several of those students went on to become engineers and were instrumental in the space exploration programs of the 1960s that put a man on the moon.

Almost 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote about this same need to share light….through what is widely-considered his most intensely personal letter - 2 Corinthians.    Paul wrote this letter while in Ephesus in about 56 A.D. after one of his missionary journeys to Corinth where he started a church.  In this letter, Paul was writing back to the fledgling church in the great City of Corinth - arguably the most important, strategic and influential city in Greece.  This southern-most city was built on an isthmus and as such, it has sea ports on both sides.  It didn't take long for Corinth to become the most important commercial city in the Mediterranean region.  However, with such wealth and transience, came much corruption.  Corinth was renowned throughout the region as a "party town".  In fact "to corinthianize" was a common phrase that was often associated with debauchery.  Corinth was home to the temple of Aphrodite (goddess of love) on the hill of the Acropolis.  At night, as many as 1,000 temple prostitutes would descend upon the town to practice their trade.  Amidst all this grandeur and immorality, Paul was trying to encourage his feeble house church to share their light and push back the darkness.  One can only imagine how irrelevant the small, fledgling church in Corinth must have felt.

 In 2 Corinthians 4:1 - 12, we find Paul lifting up this new congregation.  He encourages them to simply share their hearts, to avoid relying on tricks and gimmicks for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And he also reminded them that some would remain blind to this light because of their own choices....and that no matter what they did, as believers, those folks would never “see”.  Knowing that, I would imagine that Paul wrote those words with a broken and heavy heart. 

 In 2 Corinthians 4:6, Paul makes a beautiful illustration….a way to explain this sharing of light….by comparing it to the creation event in Genesis.  Just as the world was formless and empty before God added light, so too is the sinner’s heart before it accepts the light of the Holy Spirit.  Then in verse 7, Paul uses a metaphor that is very unique – “jars of clay”.  Paul’s audience would have understood a jar of clay to be a cheap, rinky-dink container commonly used to hold a candle in the window at night.  For ancient families, it might have been the only light in their one- or two-room houses.  Paul’s point was….it’s the light that’s most important….not the container holding it.  In other words….for us…it’s the message that is of eternal importance….not the messenger.  Paul was himself amazed at the irony that God entrusted such frail creatures with the greatest truth ever revealed – the Gospel.

 What can we learn from Paul’s teaching so that we give light a chance to be seen?

 Stop fretting over the fate of the world.  During my ordination ceremony, Brother Philip Price (who delivered the sermon) reminded the congregation that Jesus was born into a “mess” perhaps even more so than the mess we live in today.  Paul’s fledgling little church survived and even thrived…in the midst of the most affluent and immoral city in the Mediterranean region.   As bad as things seem today, we are certainly more advantaged than those earliest believers. In many ways, there are reasons to be hopeful that the light of Christians will continue to push back darkness.

 Stop focusing on our own abilities and limitations.  Paul never let himself get too discouraged.  He saw himself as a steward of the Gospel….and giving up was not an option.  In verses eight and nine of our passage Paul writes, “We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed.”  And perhaps most importantly, Paul lets us know that we’re not accountable for the results….only the effort.  He writes that some will never come to accept the light despite our best efforts.  Our charge is to simply share the light and let God take care of the rest.

Stop doing church as we know it.  Well I guess that sounds surprising coming from a Protestant, evangelical pastor.  Part of Paul’s message was “if you have the light of the Gospel, go to where the darkness is”.  That is our charge as believers.  I’ve heard it said that the church needs to open its doors wider to the world.  Well perhaps we need to knock out a few walls while we are at it.  If our faith is limited to only show up for worship service each Sunday, what good is that?  What is to be gained by only sharing a light in a place that is already well-lit?

 In our search for meaning and relevance, we find it in 2 Corinthians.  Be a light and push back the darkness.

Change of Heart

Sermon delivered on April 7, 2013

Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.

                                                           -Richard Stearns

Why should we not…instead of the paltry offerings we make, do something that will    prove that we are really in earnest in claiming to be followers of him who, though he was rich, for our sake became poor?”

                                                                                    -Lottie Moon

In preparing for this week’s sermon, I did some research into the lives of Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong.  Being a life-long Southern Baptist, I was certainly familiar with their names....the stacks of offering envelopes bearing their names and gracing sanctuaries during Easter and Christmas.  But I confess that, up until now, I was only vaguely familiar with their lives. 

Annie Armstrong (born in Baltimore, Maryland) was a tireless, outspoken, strong-willed leader and was one of the major reasons behind the success of the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU).  She was known to be a prolific letter-writer…which would come in handy in her push for social justice for the poor and oppressed.  Annie accepted Christ at 20 years old and was deeply impacted by the impoverished state of people in industrialized Baltimore – home to poor immigrants and African-Americans.  In later years, it was Annie Armstrong that would suggest that Christmas missions offerings and prayer be dedicated to another like-mind Christian woman – Lottie Moon.

Lottie Moon – born 20 years before Annie Armstrong - died in 1912 at the age of 72.  Affluent, well-educated and only 4 feet 3 inches tall….just like Annie, Lottie was outspoken and strong-willed.  During a time when it was unheard-of for women to enter the mission field, Lottie’s younger sister became a missionary in China.  At age 33, Lottie followed her sister’s path.  However, she was constantly frustrated at the insistence of the SBC that she (like other women) be relegated to classroom teaching instead of being permitted to evangelize alongside her male counterparts.  Like Annie, she was a determined, persistent writer and she used her pen to convince SBC leadership to put her directly in the mission field.  She got her wish, but at first she thought of the Chinese as “heathen” and, to underscore that point, she kept her American clothes as a form of separation between her and them.  Over time, though, her heart was changed and she came to love and respect the Chinese people to whom she ministered…..deeply moved by the overwhelming physical and spiritual needs surrounding her.  When missionary salaries were cut, she shared everything she had to help the poor and starving.  In 1912…the year she died, Lottie weighed only 50 lbs.  She died on a ship going back home for a much-deserved furlough and rest. 

Since 1988, Lottie Moon Christmas offering has raised an astonishing $1.5 billion and finances over half of the annual missions budget for SBC. 

These women had so much in common.  Both were devout Christian women.  Both from well-off Christian families.  Both head-strong, determined and disciplined writers.  But perhaps the most important thing they had in common was the change of heart both women experienced….brought on by the Holy Spirit…using their life experiences as catalysts.

Luke, in his Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts, makes reference to the Holy Spirit over 40 times!  And Acts 2:36 – 47 tells of a time when the Holy Spirit moved in a tremendous way to change the hearts of literally thousands who were in Jerusalem to witness the birth of the first Christian church under Peter’s leadership. 

The Holy Spirit is alive (or at least can be) today just as it was almost 2,000 years ago.  In Acts 2:37, Luke writes that “they were cut to the heart” by the Holy Spirit.  Our prayer should be that our hearts are broken.  Only then will we respond in a way that leads to transformation.

A Church Is Born

Sermon delivered on May 19, 2013

In Jewish culture, our “Pentecost” is called the “Festival of Weeks” or “Day of First Fruit”.  It was one of three major Jewish pilgrimage festivals (Passover and Tents/Booths were others).  In ancient times, all males who lived within a certain radius of Jerusalem were required to make a pilgrimage to these festivals.  The fact that so many took these pilgrimages helps explain why there were throngs of people in the city of Jerusalem during these festivals. 

The Festival of Weeks was probably the most attend in Jerusalem – even more so that Passover.  The Festival of Weeks took place during a time of year when the weather was warmer, dryer and more suitable for travel.  And since the festival started after the harvest of first fruits, food was plentiful….making the atmosphere celebratory. 

Christians “adopted” the time period around the Festival of Weeks and made it a Pentecost celebration.  And since the first Pentecost celebration happened at such an early date, it is sometimes referred to as the “birthday of the Church”.  The term “Pente” means “50” referring to the time between the crucifixion and descent of the Holy Spirit upon the church.  As recorded in scripture, Jesus (in a bodily resurrected form) continued to appear and counsel the disciples for 40 days after the resurrection.  The Gospel of Luke tells of a very real ascent of the resurrected Jesus after 40 days.  And 10 days later, as also recorded in scripture, the Holy Spirit descended upon the early church during what was to be later regarded as the first recorded sermon (by Peter) of the early Church.  The scriptural account is very detailed, noting there were 109 in attendance including the mother of Jesus.  But as fascinating as the worship service at Pentecost is, I want to step back from that scene just a little bit….to a time that set the stage of the birthday of the Church.  This scene takes place in Acts 1:1 – 12

The Book of Acts, written by Luke, is actually a continuation of the Gospel of Luke.   In fact, Luke reminds Theopholis (whom Luke addresses in verse one) of that fact from the very start.   The biggest difference between the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts, is that Luke tends to be about Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry on earth, whereas Acts tends to be about the Holy Spirit’s ministry on earth.  

There has been much speculation as to who “Theopholis” really was.  Since the name means “lover of God”, some have speculated that the name was symbolic of all believers (at that time called “Followers of the Way” as the term “Christian” was not being used yet).  More than likely, however, Theopholis was a real person since it was very customary during that time to address specific individuals in letters or writings.  It’s quite possible that Theopholis was a patron of Luke and assisted Luke (financially) in his ministry.

Early in this passage of Acts, the risen Jesus instructs the disciples to wait in Jerusalem and not do anything.  This must have been incredibly difficult for the disciples.  Human beings, in general, aren’t very fond of waiting.  “We want it now.”  So to see the risen Jesus and not be able to act on it must have aggravated the disciples to no end.  Fortunately….the wait would not be long….as they would only have to wait for ten days. 

But there was a reason why he wanted the disciples to “stay put”.  The Holy Spirit would be introduced as the first Pentecost worship service and the risen Christ did not want his disciples (now apostles) to miss it. 

Well….the disciples were a curious bunch.  We know this, because in verse six we find the disciples trying to guess what the “big surprise” was going to be.  The first guess was right off their wish list…..a restoration of Israel and rebuke of the Roman Empire.  They still didn’t get it.  Still didn’t completely understand what Jesus was all about.  Jesus reminds them, with no lack of clarity, that knowing that information was “above their pay grade”.  However, he did tell them that they would be a “witness” which means to “share the gospel with others”.  It is interesting that the risen Jesus mentions “Samaria” in verse eight….a signal that the gospel would be intended for everyone…not just the Jews. 

After he sets the disciples straight, Jesus starts his ascension.  Scripture tells us that two men (angels) accompanied Jesus as he was taken into the clouds.  The disciples’’ necks must have been straining as they gazed upward because one of the angels asked why they were looking up. I can almost picture one of the angels asking (in my best New York City accent):  “What you looking at?”  The angels promptly let the disciples know that Jesus would be coming back the same way he left. 

This passage in chapter one lays the foundation for arguably the most important event in the life of the Church and the lessons we can take away from this part of Scripture are many:

The promise will come.  Just like John in his Gospel (John 14:6), Luke reminds us that His promises are kept.  While we may not know why or what we wait for sometimes, we can rest assured that God has a plan and his promises will not falter.

Being baptized with the Holy Spirit is the heart of a healthy, functioning church.   For generations, Christians have differed as to what it means to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit”.  Is it a supernatural event?  Of course it is.  But being baptized in the Holy Spirit is a personal event….not a corporate one.  And whether it’s a visible, charismatic expression….or a private moment between an individual and the Holy Spirit… thing is for sure….nothing can happen until folks are convicted, touched and moved by the Holy Spirit….in whatever way the Holy Spirit is revealed in each person’s heart. 

Stop looking up and get to work.  Through the years, there has been an on again/off again fascination with end times and all thing apocalyptic.  But this passage is a healthy reminder that the Holy Spirit is not interested in our obsession about things to come.  Jesus explicitly told the disciples that (in effect) it was “none of their business”.  And the angels deliver a message that basically says “stop looking up here and start looking around you”.  The Holy Spirit baptized people in the early church so that they would have power and strength that could be used right away….not in the future.  The time for the Church is always now.

Toward the end of Acts chapter 2, Luke describes the environment of the early Church.  Verses 45 – 47 read:

45 They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46 Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved.
This is the end game of what God did leading up to Pentecost.  This is the purpose of the church.  This is why we exist.  Jesus did not “pour himself out to us” only to have us save those blessings for the end time.  He poured himself out so that we can, in turn, pour ourselves out….starting right now. 

In Need of a Heart Transplant

Sermon delivered on June 2, 2013

During the previous century, modern medicine evolved to the point where doctors can perform organ transplants.  Some transplants - such as kidneys transplants are now even fairly common.....but heart transplants are a different story.  The first heart transplant was performed in South Africa in the 1960's....but progress was slow after that.  The first successful pediatric heart transplant didn't come until 1984. The biggest problem with heart transplants is the tendency for the body to reject the new organ.  Instinctively, the body fights the new heart….even though having the new organ makes the difference between life and death.  The body simply does not want that new heart.  Transplant recipients must take a litany of drugs, throughout their lifetime, to prevent the body from rejecting their new heart.

In much the same way, we reject God.  Deep down, we know God can be the difference between life (light) and Death (darkness) but we tend toward rejecting God anyway.  We’re born sinners so it’s what we do.  So how do prepare ourselves to accept God?  Well….seems that a heart transplant (at least the spiritual kind) is the answer (speaking of).  Let’s turn to Mark 2:18 - 22 and learn more.

In the 2nd chapter of Mark we find Jesus ministering in Capernaum....probably out of Peter's house.  Scripture tells us that there were so many people following Jesus that the crowd was spilling out into the street.  You may recognize this scene as the same one in which the paralytic is lowered down to Jesus through the roof. 

Also in this chapter, there are five stories of conflict with the Pharisees...arguments about the authority of Jesus.   In one such story, the Pharisees (a word that means the "separated ones") are criticizing Jesus for his actions such as dining with "sinners" (tax collectors, etc.).  Since Pharisees advocated strict adherence to Mosaic Law, a question was asked about fasting because the Pharisees noticed that Jesus and his disciples were not fasting "properly".  According to Mosaic Law, fasting was required annually on the Day of Atonement.  However, Pharisees saw it as a sign of piety to fast on Mondays and Thursdays as well.  Needless to say, Jesus and the disciples were not "following the rules".  In response to the Pharisees’ angst, Jesus shared three quick parables.  Two of those stories are closely related and can be found in Mark 2:21 - 22.  In those two short parables, Jesus used the illustration of "patches" and "wineskins" as a simple way for Jesus to address the Pharisees. 

In Jesus' day, patching an old garment with a new patch never worked.  The reason was that the new patch was when it did get finally get wet, the patch shrunk, pulled away from the older fabric and literally tore the garment apart.  In fact, the garment would be in worse shape than it was before. 

Also….In those times, wine was kept in wineskins as there were no bottles of any kind.  New wineskins had a certain amount of elasticity and could stretch which made them a good match for new wine while it was fermenting and producing gases.  However, old wineskins became harder and less yielding and were only appropriate for mature (fully-fermented) wine. 

Through these two parables, Jesus was saying the following:

His radical message could not simply be a patch for an old system as it would tear it apart.  His new teachings were impossible to integrate with old teachings.  His radical message and purpose could not be "held" in an old container that could not stretch and change.  An old container would burst.

What can be learned from this passage of Scripture?

The Holy Spirit wants to give us a new heart.  Our new heart is like the new wineskin or the new garment.  We need that new heart to accept the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit wants us to stretch and change.  We must be willing to changed and grow if we want to fully accept the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit wants to show off this new heart to the world. Just before these two parables in Mark, Jesus is seen dining with sinners.  (Mark 2:15 - 17).  When asked why he was doing that, Jesus said he came for sinners and not the righteousness.  If we are to be like Jesus, shouldn't we show this new heart (wineskin, garment) to a world that desperately needs to see it?

When we accept the Holy Spirit, we are no longer our "old selves".  We receive a new heart (wineskin/garment) capable of living out the will of the Holy Spirit.