Grace

Why Stop?

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (NLT)

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.

“On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do.

“Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.”


Is the idea of a Holy Sabbath day even important anymore?

After all, we Christians certainly have shifted the meaning of “Sabbath” a lot, going so far as to change the day. When Moses gave the people of Israel this commandment—the fourth of ten commandments and the last one specifically defining how we are to relate to God—they were thinking of Saturday. With a few exceptions, those of us who call ourselves Christians think of Sunday when we think of the Sabbath.

The reason for the shift in days is obvious. Jesus’ resurrection happened on a Sunday, and as more and more non-Jews came to follow Christ, Sunday became the logical day of worship for us. The Israelites spent the Sabbath day remembering how God saved them from slavery; we remember how Jesus Christ, God among us, saves all of humanity from sin and death.

In recent decades, European and North American Christians have shifted seismically in how serious we are about Sunday as the Sabbath. In my own lifetime lived in the Southeast United States, I have seen Sunday move from being a quiet day when most stores and restaurants were closed to a day when pretty much everything is open, Chick-fil-A and a few other retailers being notable exceptions. Ball teams even hold practices and games on Sunday mornings, something that would have been unthinkable or even unconscionable in the South 30 years ago.

The Sabbath of Others

About ten years ago, I asked a very bright young adult in my congregation why churches have such a hard time getting people under the age of 30 into worship. He looked at me wryly and asked a question:

“What are you going to do after church is over?”

“Well,” I said, “We will probably go out and get some lunch.”

“Who do you think cooked the lunch, cleaned the tables and got the restaurant ready?”

Duh. Of course. Who is most likely to be working on Sunday mornings? Young people just starting out in the labor force.

Those of you who go out to lunch after worship may not like me saying this, but we Christians who care about reaching teenagers and young adults are shooting ourselves in the foot every time we eat out on Sunday. The same principle applies any time we take up an activity that may impact working people’s ability to worship.

We’ve still not answered our first question, however: Is the idea of the Sabbath important? If you take the Bible seriously, it’s hard not to say yes.

S-T-O-P

Through the law, God established some underlying behaviors and principles that simply are good for us—we follow them and prosper in our relationship with God, or we ignore them and slip into confusion and misery.

God’s idea of the Sabbath can be summed up in one short word: “Stop.” I’m not talking about stopping and freezing like a statue. The Sabbath is more of a contemplative stop.

If you’ve ever read any survival books, you may have learned that stop is not just a word, it’s an acronym: S-T-O-P. When lost in the wilderness, this acronym defines a pattern you should follow. First, the “S,” which stands for—you guessed it—stop. Second, you think, going over where you’ve been and what has happened since you began your journey.

Third, you observe: Are you on a trail? Are you near water? Can you hear road sounds? Is night coming soon? What are you carrying?

Fourth, you plan what to do next. In one of my survival books, there’s a picture of a hunter who got lost, panicked and froze to death in the snowy woods. When would-be rescuers found him, he was next to a pile of dry brush, a box of dry matches in his pocket. Obviously, he didn’t S-T-O-P.

God offers us a Sabbath so we don’t go through life running in panic like a lost hunter. We stop to be with him. We think of him in prayer, worship and fellowship. We observe the tools God has given us, in particular his holy word, and where we are in our Christian journey. And then we plan how to move forward.

And yes, as part of our Sabbath, we go to church on Sunday. We S-T-O-P together. After all, there’s far less danger of getting lost as a group. And even if we do find ourselves a little lost, it’s so much easier to get back on the right path as a group.

The Habit of Worship

There is a basic principle regarding worship attendance that has been repeated for years. I cannot find who first came up with it, but after leading churches for 15 years as a pastor, it sounds right to me.

If you miss church three weeks in a row, there’s about an 80 percent chance your worship attendance will become very irregular. To get back to your original attendance pattern, you have to make the decision to show up for worship at least three weeks in a row.

Judging from the book of Hebrews, irregular attendance has long been a problem for Christians. In the tenth chapter, the author writes this:

Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

Ironically, when you miss worship, you’re also missing a lot of the good work that happens on the Sabbath. God may have told us to take the day off, but it doesn’t mean he’s taking the day off.

We meet God in worship to be changed into the holy creation he intended us to be. We meet God at church to be healed spiritually, emotionally and even physically. We meet God on Sunday so the week to come can be lived fully in God’s light, be it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday.

Once we’ve considered the importance of the Sabbath, I suppose we’re left with some additional questions. What happens if I miss the Sunday when God intended everything to change for me, my spouse or my children? What do I lose if I fail to stop on the Sabbath where God waited for me?

We should never let the frenzy of work and play separate us from the gifts God offers us when we stop.

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Children, Seek Perfect Love

1 John 4:7-21 (NLT)

This is the fourth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Here in the fourth chapter of 1 John, the author builds toward an idea that John Wesley found very important, the notion that we can “move toward perfection.” A modern way of saying this might be, “More and more each day, we can grow in our ability to love.”

I think today it is best if we simply follow the path the author has laid down for us, a path toward perfect love. I’ll try to ensure at each milepost we understand what John is telling us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Absent a context, the opening words of today’s Scripture can seem like a trite assertion. Yeah, Christian love—we hear that phrase over and over. Don’t forget what John’s church has been through, however. There have been sharp disputes, and after such conflict it is not hard for good people to fall into bitterness and anger, emotions that will hang on long after trouble has ended.

A people forced to fight for what they believe usually need healing once the struggle ends. Even among those who have stood together, trust may have eroded. In Ephesus, the ones who turned away from the truth about Jesus Christ had once been trusted members of the churches in Ephesus, pledged at their baptisms to the same concepts as those who remained faithful.

Let’s also remember what we’ve already learned from the author. Love is an action! When I imagine these people heeding their leader’s words about loving each other, I see them traveling house to house, worshiping together, serving the world side by side, and getting back to the basic business of being in church.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

Now we’re really back to basics! First, we hear the core gospel message, an echo of John 3:16. Also, we hear that God first loves us before we love him. It has to be that way. If God were not constantly using love to penetrate the dark cloud of sin surrounding this world, we would not even be able to know on our own he exists. And through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the cloud is being driven back!

That appropriate response to God’s gift, our obedience to his will, is best expressed as love. And we also hear the beginnings of where John is taking us. God is love, God lives in us, and that love inside us is a dynamic experience. It will grow toward “full expression.”

And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.

This is an expansion on the idea of God living in us once we declare Jesus Lord and Savior. It also is clear evidence John thinks in terms of a Trinitarian God. It is true the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but the idea of God working as Father, Son and Holy Spirit comes up repeatedly, and particularly in John’s writings.

God works in us as the Holy Spirit. John is able to attest to having seen God at work in the world in flesh, as Jesus Christ. We cannot say we have seen God in the flesh, but we are reminded we can have just as direct an experience of God—more direct, in fact, if having God in us, whispering to our spirits, is a closer relationship than having God stand before us in the flesh.

I think we do have a closer, deeper experience! We are a blessed people, we who know God in the post-Pentecost era!

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.

We live in God and we move toward perfection. This is not an arrogant, obnoxious declaration that “we are perfect.” The word in a Wesleyan sense simply means it is possible to love others with the intensity Jesus showed when he went to the cross to die for the whole world.

As we move closer to perfect love, there also is great reward. Love drives out fear! In particular, we have no reason to fear God’s judgment, and that should mean our little fears are driven away, too. Most of those fears are rooted in a negative view of death, but Christians trust there is nothing beyond death but acceptance and bliss for all eternity.

I have actually been told by church people that it’s not wise for me to remind people they are going to die, but I decline to heed that advice. Unless Christ returns beforehand, I’m going to die, you’re going to die. People of faith, hear me: So what?

I invite you to confront the reality of your deaths boldly and without fear. I’m not asking you to invite death. Life in this world can be just as wonderful as it is painful, and it’s worth experiencing in full! But you will live this life so much better if you let your love grow, in the process becoming more fearless each day.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.

Yes, John closes us out today with something like a test. It is a test many of us are going to fail from time to time, for we can become angry at fellow believers, at times even hating them. When we fail in such ways, we can at least feel confident our loving Savior will give us another chance. His grace is abundant and magnificent.

Anger, particularly anger with our fellow church members, is a signal we need to get back to basics. It may be that some legitimate dispute needs to be resolved—let’s never forget the model for dispute resolution Jesus gave us in Matthew 18:15-17. (There are some important concepts related to forgiveness right after those verses, too.) But to cope with our anger, we also need to be more intentional about loving God in worship and in prayer, and we need to immerse ourselves in God’s holy word.

In all those actions, we encounter God’s love, we are healed, and our love moves toward perfection.

The Last Episode

1 John 2:28-3:3 (NRSV)

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.


As in several other places in the New Testament, a reader can discover what seems to be a tension between ideas in 1 John.

First, the author is emphatic that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the path to salvation. In chapter 1, verses 7 through 9, he writes, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But later in the letter—just beyond our reading for today—the tone changes, as if those who are in Christ cannot sin. “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. … Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”

The two ideas pull at each other, but the tension is there to keep heresies from developing. If we forget salvation is an act of grace, an unmerited gift from God, we can start thinking we somehow earn our salvation on our own, and we begin to live like Pharisees. But at the same time, when people do not make a conscious effort to stop sinning, we can cheapen Christ’s sacrifice, saying to ourselves as we sin, “It’s okay—Jesus will forgive me.”

I think all of this is easier to process when we consider our text today. The author of 1 John is inviting us to live as if we know how our story ends. Why? Because we actually do know how our story ends.

If you’re standing on a train track, and you hear a whistle and feel a vibration under your feet, what do you do? You get off the track.

If you’re crawling out of a dark cave and you see a beam of light, what do you do? You crawl toward the light.

If you know your boss is going to walk through the door at any moment, what do you do? You work like you’ve been working hard all day. (That’s actually an extreme paraphrase of one of Jesus’ parables; see Matthew 24:45-51.)

If you genuinely believe you’re going to see Jesus face-to-face one day, what do you do? You put aside sin, those things displeasing to him. You certainly put aside those things that are recurring; if you keep reading 1 John, you’ll see the author seems particularly concerned about repetitive patterns of sin.

We know how to handle situations when the end result is clear. We change our behaviors so we are aligned with future circumstances.

Here’s what we don’t want to do. We don’t want to live like the people who are oblivious about the end result. I’ll give you an example: We don’t want to be like the characters on “Seinfeld.”

Most of you who are regulars know I have a deep affinity for “Star Trek,” and I’ve promised to limit my references to that show. But what many of you don’t know is that I also love “Seinfeld.” In particular, I think the show’s final, two-part episode in 1998 was deeply theological, whether or not the writer Larry David intended it to be.

For nine seasons, the characters on the show went about their lives without ever considering the consequences of their actions. Jerry, George and Kramer wrecked women’s lives with abandon; the toxic glue on cheapskate George’s discount wedding invitations killed his fiancée, for crying out loud! Elaine was just as adept at ruining the lives of men around her.

There also was the constant lying and deceit, whether it was Jerry trying to avoid visiting his parents at Del Boca Vista in Florida or the whole group trying to get soup from the soup Nazi. And those of us who watched the series throughout loved every minute of it. As long as we’re watching fiction, it’s amusing to see people living their lives as if there is no ultimate end in view, particularly when they are so hilariously sarcastic about everything.

It was the theologian in me, however, that made me think the final episode was brilliant.

In short, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George find themselves far from home, in a small town that actually has what most of us consider normal values. Fictional Latham, Mass., has even gone so far as to enshrine the need to help each other in the law, requiring people to come to the aid of someone in trouble.

Seeing a very overweight man being robbed, the Seinfeld Four choose to film the event rather than helping him or calling for help. They make fun of the victim the whole time, as they’ve always been prone to do. They end up under arrest for not providing aid, and being the first people put on trial under the law, the courtroom scene turns into a spectacle.

People they have victimized over the years arrive to testify against them. Jerry stole an elderly lady’s marble rye; she’s there, and she’s still angry. The Bubble Boy explains how they nearly killed him during an argument over Trivial Pursuit. (Moors! Moops!) Teri Hatcher shows up, and that’s all a pastor can say about her character.

An old girlfriend tells how George fled an apartment fire by pushing children and an elderly woman out of the way. There are references to uromycitisis poisoning, the puffy shirt, cockfighting, and how Jerry was “all the time mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking. Now it is Abu’s time to mock!”

And of course, they are all found guilty. The series ends with them in prison. The Seinfeld universe, as weird as it was, is put right in the last episode, with goodness affirmed and badness condemned.

As complicated as he can seem, the author of 1 John is telling us how the same principle plays out in real life. We have a last episode coming. It is already written. We know whom we see when we arrive in it. The good will be affirmed, even rewarded, and the bad will be condemned.

As people who already know the story, we are called to live our lives accordingly, no matter how much we might think we are entitled to that marble rye.


The featured image is Joos van Cleve’s “Final Judgment,” circa 1520.

Joyous Gentiles

Romans 15:7-13 (NLT)

Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote:

“For this, I will praise you among the Gentiles;
   I will sing praises to your name.”
And in another place it is written,

“Rejoice with his people,
   you Gentiles.”
And yet again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.
   Praise him, all you people of the earth.”
And in another place Isaiah said,

“The heir to David’s throne will come,
   and he will rule over the Gentiles.
They will place their hope on him.”


I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Let’s focus on Paul’s concept of the Gentiles, the word for people not of Jewish descent.

The Bible as a whole is a very Jewish story. While God is the creator of all people and things, what we now call the Old Testament is told very much from a Jewish perspective, a viewpoint that continues into the New Testament.

By the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abraham and his descendants are quickly established in the biblical narrative as God’s Chosen People, the ones who desire, seek and finally possess the Promised Land.

Non-Jews are merely supporting actors on the stage, people who rise and fall depending on their interaction with the main characters. And yet, there are clues all along regarding how God loves all of creation, and how God’s close relationship with the Jews leads to salvation globally.

As I’ve already noted earlier in this Romans series, we can see the broadness of God’s plan in the first promise made to the man eventually called Abraham.  God tells him to go toward Canaan. There will be blessings for those who bless you, God says, and there will be curses for those who curse your venture. But most importantly for our meditation today, the father of the Jews is told “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

In our text today, Paul quotes from the Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah to demonstrate how the plan for the Jews was designed to become a plan for all people.

Our problem in understanding this plan has been a problem of time. God’s plan plays out over thousands of years, and individually, we are just mist, curling into a brief shape and then vanishing.

For the Jews, it is easy to get lost in the idea of being special, set apart as an example of holy living before God. They can become so focused on their unique relationship with God that they forget the whole purpose of their existence, to be a light to all the world so that salvation may spread.

For Christian Gentiles, it is easy for us to forget that our Savior is a very Jewish carpenter, a descendant of Abraham. Often this forgetfulness can express itself simply as disinterest in the Old Testament, but the effects also can be much, much worse. Some of history’s most horrific acts of madness have occurred when people calling themselves Christians have seen the Jews as enemies, persecuting and killing them.

Paul offers us a broader way to see Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is the bridge allowing the promise of salvation to be exported from the Jews to the Gentiles.

We see the transition happen in Jesus’ ministry. Mostly his ministry is a very Jewish one, reflecting the Jewish perspective on Gentiles. Just look at Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus calls Gentiles “dogs.” In the story, he does ultimately point out the power of faith and hint at the unexpected grace to come, but the rude reference comes as a shock.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verse 20, we see Jesus transition from Jewish Messiah to global Christ. Here, Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of the people. Greeks—to a Jew, just a particular kind of Gentile—ask to see Jesus.

The odd thing about the telling of this story is we don’t know if the Greeks ever spoke to Jesus. The whole point of the story is that Jesus sees deep meaning in their arrival. Gentiles are seeking him, and now it is time to die for the sins of all people, Jew or Gentile. If you keep reading in John, it is clear Jesus’ mind is set on the cross once those Greeks ask to see him.

Christians, you know how the story continues. Jesus goes to the cross and dies. And then, glory of glories, there is the resurrection.

Word spreads, and spreads, and spreads, and here we are today, in Ten Mile, Tennessee, on the other side of the planet, worshiping Jesus Christ. Mostly we are the descendants of a bunch of Gentiles, knowing we have eternal life because of a promise made to and through the Jews thousands of years ago.

I guess we’re just a bunch of lucky dogs!


The featured image is “We Would See Jesus,” James Tissot, circa 1885.

The Merciful Sovereign

Romans 9:14-29 (NLT)

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose,
   and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
   I will now call my people.
And I will love those
   whom I did not love before.”

And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
   ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
   ‘children of the living God.’”
And concerning Israel, Isaiah the prophet cried out,

“Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore,
   only a remnant will be saved.
For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth
   quickly and with finality.”
And Isaiah said the same thing in another place:

“If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
   had not spared a few of our children,
we would have been wiped out like Sodom,
   destroyed like Gomorrah.”


Sometimes the Bible forces us to think until it hurts. Paul is doing that to us in Romans today.

If that bothers you, sorry. If that doesn’t bother you, congratulations—you may be on the verge of getting a glimpse of God’s mind via Paul’s writings.

This particular passage for centuries has caused the church to think until it hurts. Differences of opinion regarding how to read it and related passages have pushed Christians into two camps. One would be the Christians who believe God predestines who gets to experience eternal life. The other camp would be Christians who believe choosing or rejecting Jesus ultimately makes the difference, although these people also emphasize that our ability to choose is a gift from God.

People in the first group are called Calvinists; they include denominations like Presbyterians, certain kinds of Baptists, and just about any church with the word “Reformed” in its name.

People in the second group are called Arminians. Methodists would be among the Arminians. I don’t have time to get into a lot of church history today, but with the internet, the history of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians is easy to find.

You may recall from last week’s sermon that Paul has been talking about the twins Jacob and Esau. Both were in the direct lineage of Abraham, but only one, Jacob, was a part of the promise intended to bless the whole world. If you look at the story in Genesis, you can see that even before they were born, God had a preference for Jacob and what sounds like an intense dislike of Esau.

In today’s text, Paul gives another example, this one found in Exodus. There you will find the story of Moses confronting the leader of Egypt, the Pharaoh. And in that story, you’ll notice a puzzling pattern.

Sometimes Pharaoh heard Moses’ warnings and “hardened his heart” against God’s plan on his own. Other times, God directly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in order that the mighty story of the plagues and the escape by the Israelites from Egypt could play out in full and to the glory of God. When you read the story closely, Pharaoh looks like a chess pawn, something to be used and discarded according to God’s purposes.

Paul also resorts to an analogy, one common to Jewish tradition. God is like a potter, Paul says. He makes his individual creations however he wants, and he uses his creations however he wants. One pot may be for art, and the other may be fashioned as a garbage container.

As we noted last week, from a human perspective, God’s preference for one person over another or one group of people over another can seem unfair. Paul’s answer to this protest is pretty straightforward—in fact, his answer is the main point of this text.

God is sovereign. As Creator, God has a kingship no human could ever match. Being all-powerful, God can do anything he wants. Being all-knowing, God can see his creation from the beginning to the end of time, and on into eternity.

The message is designed to humble us, particularly those of us who have an inflated sense of self-importance. Who are we, compared to God? If we truly understand who God is, we sin when we look at God and say, “Unfair!”

Instead, we should be driven toward an attitude of submission, to a desire to simply serve God in whatever way we were made to serve. I’m reminded of John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

We essentially are praying, “I submit to being whatever kind of pottery you need me to be.” It is a sobering prayer. But let me take a few more minutes to remind myself, and you, why I am glad to be a Methodist. For we do take this message of God’s sovereignty and ultimately find great joy in it.

We do this by looking at Paul’s words in a much larger context. Yes, God seems to have a preference for one person over another or one group of people over another. At a minimum, he seems to have such preferences during critical moments in history, those times when he directly propels forward the Great Promise, the blessing designed for all families on earth.

We know, however, that God is a most merciful sovereign. In human kings, mercy has always been seen as a powerful virtue, although often a missing virtue. In God the King of Creation, mercy is perfect. The great merciful sovereign pours out grace on his subjects in ways no earthly king ever could.

The best example, of course, is the king coming among us as Jesus Christ, teaching us about the power of love and then, in an act of love, dying on the cross for our sins. Once again, we are reminded of that great verse from the Gospel of John. Here is John 3:16 in the New Living Translation:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

If the Great Sovereign were not somehow giving us a choice, I don’t think these words in John would be possible. Also, I don’t think Paul would have written earlier and later in Romans of the need to spread the Good News about the cross. When I return from vacation in a couple of weeks, we’re going to hear a lot from Paul about the importance of spreading the Good News.

Why involve humans in sharing the message if choosing Christ is irrelevant? Why all the talk in the gospels, Romans and elsewhere about the importance of faith if the decision regarding who is saved is fixed from the start?

I will admit, I cannot fully explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful God who “elects” and “chooses” people throughout much of Scripture also gives us the freedom to say yes or no to him. I try not to resort to the word “mystery” too often, but it likely applies here. We are, after all, talking about how the mind of God works, and I do not see how a human mind, or even millions of human minds working together, can fully understand the mind of God.

I do know, however, that the mind of God is a loving mind, and that Christ’s death and resurrection express that love fully. We are blessed to have such a king.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter and Spirit

Romans 7:1-6 (NLT)

Now, dear brothers and sisters—you who are familiar with the law—don’t you know that the law applies only while a person is living? For example, when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. When we were controlled by our old nature, sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced a harvest of sinful deeds, resulting in death. But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.


Paul begins with an illustration from marriage to demonstrate that even before Christ, the law of Moses, the law given to the Jewish people, had power only in this life.

Spiritually, as he has said before in Romans, we die to our old lives when we “die with Christ” by believing in his death on the cross and his resurrection. Therefore, the Jewish law has no power over us.

As Christians, I’m sure you care about the cross and the resurrection. But frankly, I suspect most of you haven’t thought much about how God’s grace undoes the power of the Jewish law. Life under the Jewish law is foreign to most of our experiences.

As Christians far removed from the Jewish experience, consider the matter this way: What is the basis for how we live? A good Jew would have simply answered, “The law given to Moses tells us how to live.” We need a similarly clear answer.

Instead of the letter of the law, Paul says, we are called to live in the Spirit who inspired the law. Behind the law there were universal principles that existed before the law—the law can be thought of as an expression of those principles.

Jesus spent a lot of time trying to teach the principles behind the law. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is a good example. Again and again, Jesus told his listeners, “You have heard that it was said,” a reference to the letter of the law. He would then go on, “But I say … .” And what followed was a statement pointing to the principle.

You have heard that it was said, do not murder. But I say, don’t even be angry.

You have heard that it was said, do not commit adultery. But I say, don’t even look at a woman with lust.

You have heard that it was said, there’s an easy way to get a divorce. But I say, marriage is to be taken with lifelong, serious commitment.

You have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say, you must love your enemies!

These and other sayings reveal principles about how the heart should work when aligned with God. Remember how Jesus spoke of the law when asked to define its most important part.

His answer rooted the law in love. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Also, love your neighbor as yourself.

“The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments,” Jesus said.

Let me tell you a little secret. In some ways, it is harder to live as an expression of God’s grace and love than it is to live by executing a set of laws. When you’re grace-minded, there often is no checklist to work from, no clear way to say, “Yup, got everything right today.”

Imagine a stereotypical “helping the poor” scene, a homeless man holding out a cup. Is putting money in the cup good or bad? To really know, you have to love the homeless person enough to know his backstory.

By giving him money, are we helping him eat, or are we feeding an addiction? Is he simply needing a quick financial boost back to a normal life, or is he cyclically impoverished? What actions might we take other than dropping a little change in the cup?

Under grace, the homeless man before us becomes a call to a relationship.

If we take such matters seriously, we find ourselves driven to pray for guidance, and we will spend a lot more time studying the New Testament for lessons of love applied. We test what we think we hear from God by examining his revelations to the early church, and where we find alignment between answered prayer and revelation, we know we have received clear guidance.

We also have to acknowledge that when we don’t pray and study, we can do a lot of damage. Through a youth ministry I worked in nearly 20 years ago, I knew a man who had come to Christ in his 40’s. He went to a different church than mine. The particular church he attended emphasized the importance of speaking in tongues, noting correctly that the ability to speak in tongues was New Testament evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

He had a problem, though. He prayed and went to church Sunday after Sunday, but he could never speak in tongues. He was an earnest Christian; this man truly loved the Lord and was thankful for his salvation. But one day, the leaders of his church pulled him aside and said that because he could not speak in tongues, they doubted whether he really knew Christ.

He called me that evening, weeping. Fortunately, Paul had dealt with this issue in another letter, the one we call First Corinthians. In its 12th and 13th chapters, Paul acknowledged tongues as being a gift from the Holy Spirit, but he placed them among a variety of gifts. Prophecy, counsel, special knowledge, faith, healing and miracles are just some of them.

He also put those gifts in their place relative to love. “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”

My friend’s church leaders had read the part about tongues and taken it very seriously, but they failed to read on. They failed to show love to a man who really, really needed it. When he understood what Paul had said about speaking in tongues and the primary importance of love, he seemed restored, and went looking for another church.

Paul is also encouraging us at this point in Romans. As we grow in our ability to love God, align ourselves with God, and love the people around us, our actions begin to make a difference for Christ’s kingdom. Good deeds happen, the kind of deeds that move people from lives of sin, brokenness and death to lives that never end. Through our Holy Spirit-inspired good deeds, people move from anxiety and sadness toward the constant experience of God’s joyful presence.

In the coming weeks, we’ll spend a lot of time exploring what Paul has to say about life lived in the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, let’s look at every situation we encounter and ask God, “How do you call me to show love here?”

 

Sinning After Salvation

Romans 6:1-14 (NLT)

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace.


I suppose I should give up theft, as Paul says we should not keep on sinning. But I’m stealing this morning from a great preacher named Martin Lloyd-Jones, who in the 1960’s gave us a very useful analogy to help us understand what Paul is saying in today’s text. I want us to meditate awhile on the image Lloyd-Jones offers.

Imagine two fields separated by high rock walls, typical of fields in Lloyd-Jones’ Wales. Or, for our context, we could say “separated by barbed wire,” as that is what surrounds most of our fields here in Tennessee. The point is, you are born in one field and you cannot get out on your own.

In that field, you have a master, Satan, and feeling obligated to respond to Satan’s voice, you sin. Of course you do. You were born in his field, and you really know nothing else.

Now, here’s the great miracle. Through Christ, God comes along and plucks you up from one field, setting you down in the adjacent field, the field God controls. Satan, who for many good reasons is terrified of God, will not move from one field to another to regain control over you. You are free!

You also are new to this field. In terms of behavior, all you really know for sure is life in the old field, a life of sin. Now, Satan won’t cross into the new field to get you, but he knows you. You were born in his field. He trained you to his commands.

And, being the kind of determined fallen angel who never wants to let go, Satan calls out commands over the divide between your old life and your new life, hoping you will obey. You are in a new field, but you find yourself committing some of the same sins that were part of your old life.

“Ah, I hate that,” you say to yourself, cringing in the after-effects of your sin. “Why do I do that? I’m in this beautiful new field!”

Or to quote something we’re going to hear Paul say in the seventh chapter of Romans: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

This is our situation as Christians. We accept Christ, we know we are accepted, and yet, we continue to defy, at least from time to time, the one who has gone to such great lengths to rescue us from sin.

Here’s another analogy for those of us who grew up rural: You can scrub the pig up all nice and shiny for the county fair, but if you don’t watch the chubby porker closely, he’ll wallow in the mud the first chance he gets. It’s what the pig is used to doing. (For those of you not from the country, the verb is pronounced “waller.”)

The solution to the problem, or at least the beginning of the solution, is to hear again what I said earlier: You are free!

Satan no longer has a hold on you, thanks be to Jesus Christ and the cross on which Christ died. You don’t have to listen to Satan’s voice. You can tune Satan out, with no repercussions.

Yes, you really have the power! People are often shocked to learn that the devil cannot make you do it, whatever “it” may be.

When Satan issues his old commands, it’s okay to put your hands over your ears and say, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m not listening I’m not listening I’m not listening … .”

Look around you. Look at the glory of your new field. There is a new voice in this new field. It’s … it’s strange, at first. In a worldly sense, the old voice could sound wise and even beautiful, but it kept hurting you, right?

Would any of you disagree that the old voice kept leading us down paths of sin, and that ultimately, sin hurts, even if it initially seems like a good idea?

The new voice is different, though. The voice of Christ calls us to peace. The voice of Christ tells us, “Fear not,” while the old voice ran his field on fear—fear of not measuring up, fear of finishing last, fear of running out, fear of aging, fear of loss, fear after fear after fear.

The voice of Christ calls us toward a kind of beauty that is otherworldly, that never fades. Everything the old voice offered you looks cheap and dangerous compared to what we are offered in this new field.

Oh, it just struck me—some of you considering what I’m saying today may still be in the old field. Guess what, even from there you can hear Christ calling you to a better place, a better way of living now. All you have to do is call out, “Save me!” and you’ll be lifted into the new field.

Once we’re in the new field, we have to do something very important. We have to move away from the old field, away from the divide. Run from your old owner. Run deeper into the new field so it’s harder to hear his voice.

Recovering addicts and reformed criminals know exactly what I’m talking about. What’s the first big rule when you start a new life? Avoid the people who are part of your old life. Through your old friends, you will hear Satan’s voice calling you back. Stay away from anything that may be a conduit for Satan’s old call.

Eventually, you may be strong enough to run and jump in the new field and call over the divide, telling the others the way out of the field of sin. “Hear a different voice!” you’ll cry out.

I had a friend several years ago who worked with people who struggled with the same kinds of addictions she had once suffered. She estimated a person needed to be clean of a particular sin at least ten years before trying to help people with similar sins. The siren call of Satan is too strong early on, she said, despite the fact we are free.

There is more to the Christian life than simply running from Satan’s voice. It’s important you know that. Oh, there is so much more. This is a rich, beautiful field, one we explore with great excitement now and for all eternity.

There are ideas and experiences here to give us great joy. That is what we will talk about next week: how to explore the field, how to move deeper into it, how to truly experience our new home.

Until then, stay away from the fence.