Love

Children, You Are Conquerors

1 John 5:1-8 (NLT)

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

And Jesus Christ was revealed as God’s Son by his baptism in water and by shedding his blood on the cross—not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit, who is truth, confirms it with his testimony. So we have these three witnesses— the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and all three agree.


This is the fifth 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.


Before I went into professional ministry, my family attended Forest Park United Methodist Church in Georgia, and most Sundays we had a habit of eating afterward at a nearby Wendy’s. A lot of the church members ate there, as did other people we knew from the community.

One fellow we saw regularly was an older man named Steve. He and I volunteered at the same youth center. Steve and his wife attended what I thought of as a fundamentalist church.

Steve liked my son Charlie, who enjoyed talking about Bible stories even at the age of six. Steve always had some kind of Bible question for Charlie to see what the little guy would say.

One Sunday, Steve walked over to Charlie, held up his big black Bible and asked, “Charlie, what’s this book about?”

Charlie swallowed a bite of chicken nugget, studied Steve’s Bible cover for a second, and said, “Love.”

Steve pursed his lips and raised one eyebrow. “No, it’s obedience. Obedience!” He then walked away to order his lunch.

Charlie looked at me quizzically. “It’s okay, son,” I told him. “You’re both right.”

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIf you’re paying any attention at all to our text today, you can see why this story came to mind. Two threads that have been dancing around each other in the letter of 1 John, love and obedience, twist together as one. Scripturally, they really cannot exist without each other.

The easiest way to understand what I’m saying is to imagine one without the other, although it really doesn’t take much imagination. Most of us at some point have tried to live as if one can exist without the other.

Love Alone

Love can be a good feeling, of course. It is good to love and be loved.

John has reminded us already in his letter that love is an action. Love is what we do. But love without obedience to shape our actions can quickly dissolve into something meaningless.

A husband might tell his wife, “I’ll always love you, but to be happy I’m leaving you.” Even if he’s telling the truth about how he feels, the effectiveness of his love has been destroyed by his wrongful action, his unwillingness to be obedient to the marriage covenant God asks us to live under.

Or maybe we love someone who lives a lifestyle clearly opposed to God’s will. As Christians, if we say “I love that person too much to speak the truth,” our failure to declare God’s will is a betrayal of whatever love we may be feeling. We have chosen to leave someone we love in a state we believe might ultimately separate that person from God for all eternity.

James, the earthly brother of Jesus, understood this: “My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.” (James 5:19-20)

Obedience Alone

Obedience simply means that we listen to God’s guidance, particularly his guidance in Scripture, and align our behaviors with God’s will.

Obedience without love becomes something rigid and repulsive. Obedience without love is actually disobedience, because God is love, and love is the major part of his plan for salvation.

Religious obedience without love usually ends up being expressed as some form of legalism. Jesus spent a lot of time going after the legalist Pharisees for emphasizing rules while ignoring love.

Matthew 23:27 comes to mind: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.”

WWJD

I hesitate to boil all this down to what is now a Christian cliché, but “What would Jesus do?” was a pretty good notion back in the 1990s. The question can be applied to most situations, particularly if we’re willing to study the Bible with some seriousness.

The Bible is, of course, the ultimate source for understanding God’s will. Even when God’s will seems to be revealed to us in other ways—in prayer, in visions, or in holy gatherings, for example—those ideas have to be tested against what we find in the Bible.

In the Bible, we see Jesus was perfectly loving, and our best lessons are drawn from Jesus in action. Jesus was very welcoming to all who were drawn to him. He also was quick to say to forgiven sinners, “Go and sin no more.”

To War

John, having twisted these threads of love and obedience together, switches somewhat shockingly to the language of battle and conquest, as if he has fashioned a whip instead of a string. We have to remember the highly metaphorical nature of how he speaks. His churches had no worldly power, and were happy to get through the day without being persecuted.

He did, however, have great faith in the power of love and obedience working in tandem. He was saying that when we combine the two, we achieve something ultimately more powerful than swords, guns or even atom bombs.

Evil will be fully defeated by God’s obedient people working in the world in loving ways. Again, John’s language is startling. It is as if each of us, standing with God and filled with God’s love, has the individual potential to finish the job.

We conquer primarily by evangelizing, telling the world the truth about the God who loves us so much he would die for us, about the God we should seek to emulate in every moment of our lives.

Those of you in Life Groups will talk more this week about what it means to evangelize, to tell others of the Good News about Jesus Christ. Approach this lesson with both love and obedience in your hearts, and the Holy Spirit will lead you.

 

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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.

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?”

 

Gloria Party 2

Acts 2:43-47
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


Stay with me on the subject of tithing, and the party’s potential will only increase.

Last week, we looked to the Old Testament for guidance regarding God’s intent for tithing. In Deuteronomy, we found something out of sync with modern notions about tithing.

Even as part of the law, a joyous celebration was key to the tithe, along with a deep concern for the people in society lacking resources. Tithing created an atmosphere of abundance, driven by a general belief that God’s people working together in harmony could create a glimpse of heaven on earth.

I briefly spoke about what a modern tithing community could look like. Mostly, I gave you some numbers to consider. At Luminary, we easily would be working with an extra $240,000 a year. With our fixed operating costs currently covered, pretty much all of that would go toward ministries.

I invited you to imagine what would be different about our church if we were to achieve such community-wide levels of commitment. I got some great feedback during worship at Luminary today about what people saw as possibilities, all ministry-related.

I tend to see things in relation to what I call Matthew 25 ministries. Down deep in that chapter, starting at the 31st verse, we see a scene of judgment, where we learn Christ assesses the hearts of his followers based on how they have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers, the sick, and the imprisoned—basically, the people of Jesus’ day living on the margins of society, just barely hanging on to life. This scene certainly seems to be the starting point for ministry in any culture.

First, if we were a tithing community, I see some of the things we already do being done in a bigger, much more effective way. Why could our food closet and our Wednesday night community meal not morph into a full-time feeding ministry, a place where all, rich or poor, could find physical and spiritual sustenance together?

In a tithing church, our clothing and furniture ministries could be so much more, operating in the heart of Ten Mile and Meigs County rather than up here on the hill. And our outreach to people in the community who feel like strangers, for one reason or another cut off from circles of friends and families, could be more organized and effective.

Here’s another one: Why just an annual one-day health fair? Why not a regularly accessible health clinic somewhere in the Ten Mile area?

Within a couple of years I think we would certainly finish this building, debt-free, and perhaps build new ones or refurbish old ones, all with expanded ministries in mind. Our second floor would quickly become a place of community for all ages. Our presence could be truly in the community rather than just in this one location. And I’ve not even begun to describe ministries our community probably needs but we don’t offer. (See, you’ve not even given the money, and I already have it spent.)

The picture I see is starting to look a lot like the church in our Acts text, and all we’ve done so far is discuss the effect of tithing. The early Christians quickly put tithing in their rear-view mirrors. They were living the kingdom of heaven on earth, if only briefly. Tithing wasn’t enough of a commitment, in their minds. Yes, Christ freed them from the law. He freed them to go further in areas tied to love of each other.

They were so excited about salvation through Christ that they began to practice a kind of holy communism, something very different from the political communism we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries. Modern communism is imposed by the dictates of tyrants; the early church’s communal life was inspired by the feeling of solidarity the Holy Spirit brings to a group. And again, it all played out like a party, one where everyone’s needs were met.

I get excited thinking of what one local church committed to tithing could do. I get giddy thinking of all of Christ’s church returning to a commitment to joyous tithing, the kind designed to celebrate our Savior and ensure no one is left out.

Imagine churches linked together from community to community—oh, wait, we’re the United Methodist Church, we already have that going for us. Now imagine us working with real tithing power, families tithing into ministry-minded local churches and local churches tithing toward our broader operations globally.

We would still have a stewardship issue, of course, but instead of scraping by, our main task would be ensuring the abundance is not wasted on fraud or luxuries that don’t benefit our Matthew 25-type ministries. Using our abundance to pursue vision and mission is a much more exciting task than begging our way through the year, wishing we could do more.

Tithing even impacts politics, but in a way where normally divergent interest groups find common ground. If you’re a Christian political conservative and you don’t like big government, tithe. The arguments in favor of big government will go away as churches deal with most social needs faster than government ever can.

If you’re a Christian political liberal, tithe, and lead the stewardship effort by bearing the standard for the outcasts of the world, ensuring ministries happen according to Matthew 25 principles.

Why ask others to do what we can do ourselves? We have the power to feed, clothe and heal the people around us, no election needed. And the word of salvation through Christ will spread.


I have to acknowledge that many people don’t know how to respond to a sermon like this because they are overwhelmed by debt. How do you tithe when you’re struggling to pay your debt service each month? There are several good Christian programs that can help people bring their debt under control and begin to handle their finances in a godly way. Any good pastor should be able to help someone find such a program.

 

Simple Act of Faith

In this Lenten season, we’ll call this “Back to Basics Day.” Let’s begin by considering exactly what Abram (later to be called Abraham) gave up when he listened to God and moved toward an unspecified land.

This initial call in Genesis 12:1-4 is written in a rather matter-of-fact tone, but the risk must have seemed huge for an aging man. He had property and people around him, including slaves, the mark of a comfortable, wealthy man. We don’t know how long Abram had been in Haran—we only know his father Terah had moved the family from far-away Ur some time earlier—but as the family had been able to grow their wealth while there, we can assume life in Haran had been good to them.

Now Abram was to pack his family and possessions and make a journey that ultimately would prove to be more than 500 miles, about the same distance as the drive from Kingsport, Tenn., to Jacksonville, Fla. Except they had no cars. For them, it was a dangerous month-long one-way trip, assuming the animals in their caravan were in good shape. A return visit to Haran or the true family homeplace, Ur, might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, perhaps when someone needed a bride of proper bloodlines.

And yet, Abram went, without question, without comment. He would have questions later, but not in this initial act of faith, this huge, trusting leap toward God.

It’s easy to get caught up in what Abram did rather than focusing on the importance of what was simply in his heart. The Apostle Paul uses Abram in the fourth chapter of Romans to illustrate that it’s the trust that saves us, not any work we do. When God sees we trust him, he goes ahead and calls us righteous, even though we don’t deserve it. Paul made clear he was talking about the God we know best through Jesus Christ, the one who made all things and then restored all things to holiness despite sin.

All we have to do is believe the God who promised all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abram ultimately walked among us as Jesus Christ, working great mysteries on the cross so we do not have to die forever. I know, I just leaped across hundreds of pages of Scripture to make that connection, but it’s the connection the Bible, Old and New Testaments, strives to make. Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of that initial, broad promise offered to Abram, a promise grand enough to set a very comfortable man and his people to packing.

So, we’re invited to a simple act of faith. But at the same time, we’re also called to remember that it’s so simple it can be confusing, particularly for the uninitiated. When we’ve turned away from God and are caught up in sin, we feel like we’re trapped in that Harry Potter hedge maze, the one where the turns and dead-ends seem endless and the roots and branches grab at us. We have to figure the maze out, right? To survive, we have to beat back what entangles us, right?

Wrong. All we really have to do is look up and say, “Lord Jesus, I believe you can pluck me out of this.”

In the third chapter of John’s gospel, we see the Pharisee Nicodemus desperately wanting to follow Jesus, but at the same time struggling in his rigid, legalistic mind with how to do so. Accept what is from above, Jesus told him. Trust God. Trust God’s love for his creation.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” Jesus said. And then came the real kicker, particularly for a legalist striving to make himself righteous: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What, God doesn’t seek to punish us first? I don’t have to clean up my act to accept God’s gift of salvation?

We have Nicodemus types around us, perhaps even among us. They want to make that first step toward God much more difficult than it is, trying to resolve personal angst and the global problem of evil in one fell swoop. Often, they expect a requirement to crawl at least halfway back toward the one they’ve offended before being accepted.

As Christians, our job is to keep simple what can be misunderstood as complicated. The God of Abraham, the God who walked among us and died for our sins, loves us. He’s been reaching down to humanity for thousands of years and continues to do so today.

Sure, once we accept God’s offer, there’s more to do. It’s only natural that we want a developing, continuing relationship with the one who gives us eternal life in place of death. We pray, we study, we joyfully respond to his simple requests, the first being, “Go and tell others.”

That initial act of accepting God’s outstretched hand remains simple, however.

Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.

Were You There?

One of my favorite hymns is “Were You There.” It is slow and somber, re-telling the story of the crucifixion. It is one of those hymns you are mostly likely to sing in the vicinity of Good Friday.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? When they nailed him to the tree? When they pierced him in the side? When the sun refused to shine? When they laid him in the tomb? Were you there?

Of course, none of us who sings this song today was actually there as a physical witness. But our sins were there, Christ dying for them before they had even been committed. And in gratitude, our minds can go there, reliving the story through worship, remembering what has been done for us.

Whenever we enter worship, we have the opportunity to be there at the cross, and in the same service skip to the resurrection, experiencing the glory and the life-giving power of God.

As we near the end of summer, I am struck by how much so many have missed. Worship went on, but many of Christ’s beloved friends were not there—and I don’t think normal vacation cycles account for a lot of the absences.

Were you there when the risen Jesus walked beside us on the beach and on the road to Emmaus? Music and stories made those walks possible for two Sundays.

Were you there when we worshiped Christ in the parking lot, and then walked with our Lord among the neighborhoods around us? That Sunday, I saw Jesus in a teenage boy who was willing to pray with a lonely, frightened woman.

Were you there when the risen Savior helped us grow in Christian love, guiding us in how we speak to one another, how we care for one another, and how we are to be healed? Those Sundays, it was good to get to know his half-brother James, too.

Were you there when we opened our hearts and wallets for flood victims and Buffalo Mountain Camp? Jesus smiled broadly on those Sundays.

Were you there when God’s Spirit filled the bread and juice during communion, and then us? I would have hated to miss that special gift from Jesus.

Were you there when we sent the little ones out and talked about sex?

Were you there when a boy bravely stood before the congregation and admitted his deep loneliness one year after the death of his mother? Were you there to be the body of Christ and show that boy he is not alone?

If you’ve been missing worship, I don’t ask these questions to stir guilt. I ask them so you’ll remember that Christ is with us every Sunday, rain or shine, heat or cold.

Jesus loves you. He calls you home to worship, promising he’ll be there.