Your Shackles Have Names

John Dobbs moved to Monroe, Louisiana, just a couple of months before I moved to New York almost 10 years ago. We have stayed in touch through the years and I’m constantly encouraged by his friendship and love for Christ and His church. I hope you’ll be encouraged by his thoughts as we continue the 2017 Summer Blog Tour.

Faith Unshackled 01

Who am I to do such a thing?

I’m not good enough.

I don’t have what it takes.

Someone else would do it better.

When you have visions of great things you’d like to do for God, are your visions followed with thoughts like those above? If so, you are not alone. Those are the kinds of statements made by some of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, just before God used them to do incredible works. Men like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah were normal people of faith being unshackled to do amazing things empowered by an awesome God.

I believe it is one of the tasks of faith to name the shackles that bind us and keep us from the things we would like to do for God. In naming them, we identify the reality and pry apart the grip they have on our lives. What is keeping you from doing something for God that you have dreamed of but never taken steps toward?

EXCUSES If you are like me you get defensive when someone identifies your perfectly good reasons as ‘excuses’. We need to be honest with ourselves. Are we making up excuses so that we do not have to experience the potential of failure as we try to do something great for God?

I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child. – Jeremiah 1:6

SHAME Maybe we think that if we try – and fail – in service to God that this is somehow a terrible thing. Jeremiah preached for forty years without a single recorded positive response to his messages. He struggled, but he didn’t quit trying.

I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. – Isaiah 6:5

SIN The biggest shackle of all. We feel unqualified because we wrestle with sin – and maybe one ‘besetting sin’ – that just won’t go away. As we attempt to glorify God in our lives how easy it would be for someone to point out our flaws. They could paint us as a hypocrite. Sin takes feelings of shame and rationalizing excuses and forms a weapon that destroys our hearts.

Who am I … What am I supposed to say? – Exodus 4:11,13

I encourage us all today to stop letting our shackles keep us from an exciting journey of faith. Yes, we need to name our shackles and identify them as weapons – weapons our enemy is using to diminish our work for God.

No weapon fashioned against you will succeed, and you may condemn every tongue that disputes with you. This is the heritage of the Lord’s servants,  whose righteousness comes from me, says the Lord. – Isaiah 54:17

Read again the powerful armor God has provided every Christian to withstand the weapons of the enemy in Ephesians 6:10-18. Remind yourself of the power of the cross and the assurance of the resurrection to defeat sin and give you new life. Ultimately everything we do for God is not controlled by our hands. He uses us in ways we couldn’t have guessed. His surprises keep us attentive as we walk by faith. We will begin to notice that we are not, by our efforts, directing God’s work. When we walk by faith we are falling into His works in such a way that the old excuses, shame, and sin are remnants of the shackled life that is now free.

Be mindful that no one does this perfectly. Don’t ever let a failure keep you from taking the next step with God. He’s never used anyone who wasn’t a failure in some respect or another. Remember that you do not have to see the end of the story, you just need to walk in the story.

We live by faith and not by sight. – 2 Corinthians 5:7

sound-waves 01a

10 - John Dobbs picJohn Dobbs is the minister of the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, Louisiana (http://facoc.org). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter (@johndobbs, @facoc) and Instagram (@bigpoppa1130). Weekly sermons can be heard at http://forsythechurch.podbean.com/ (or on Forsythe’s podcast on iTunes). Even with all of that social media, there’s a special place in his heart for his blog located at http://johndobbs.com. Happily married to Maggy for 30 years with two children and two grandchildren.

Where Does My Help Come From?

Psalm 8 and Psalm 121 both open by recognizing God as Creator. In Psalm 8 the author considers the majesty of the night sky, the moon and stars. In Psalm 121 the psalmist gazes at the mountain tops and praises God as the Maker of heaven and earth.

The psalms then diverge as they consider a human response to the power, majesty and beauty of God.

PSALMS

The author of Psalm 8 focuses upon humility. “God, since you you created the great heavenly bodies, why do you even think about us? We’re so small and insignificant.” The author describes the relationship between God and humanity in terms of power and authority. The remainder of the psalm continues in this vein as the writer compares humans to angels and animals before closing by praising God once more.

This perspective of our relationship with God contains merit. It promotes the virtues of humility and reverence before God. It can remind us that God has given humanity the responsibility of overseeing and caring for creation. God is the Creator and we are its stewards.

Yet there are risks if we depend upon Psalm 8 as our primary prism for relating to God. God’s great power and authority can overwhelm us. Our humility and reverence for God contains the potential that we come to see God as distant and unapproachable. God is maintaining the universe and He’s entrusted us to maintain our piece of earth. He’ll do His thing and He expects us to do ours. Who are we to bother God?

stargazing 02

The author of Psalm 121 takes a different tack. When he looks at the mountaintops and the sky beyond them he too praises God as Creator. However, the next words out of his mouth don’t dwell upon the distance between God and humanity. This psalmist regards creation as emphasising how qualified the Creator is to help his creation.

The Creator will help, not just in big ways, but in smaller troubles we face also. As he lists God’s care for humanity be begins with the line, “He will not let your foot slip“. Of course he can protect you from lions, he can smooth over that workplace conflict, and he can strengthen your marriage, but he’ll also not let your foot slip. In the face of grandeur, God cares about us scraping a knee, spraining an ankle, breaking a hip, or falling off a cliff.  “He will not let your foot slip

Of course, the very premise that we need to call out for help assumes that we will encounter troubles in our lives. This psalm doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free life. It teaches us that God is always with us. He who watches over you will not slumber.

This psalm reminds us that none of our problems and worries are too small for a great God.

Snake River - OClair

Psalm 8 contains an important lesson about God. Humility and reverence before God need to be part of our faith. But we shouldn’t camp out in Psalm 8 as though it’s the end of the story. Our faith needs to grow to a place where we look at the majesty of God and praise Him because he cares about us. In all our relative weakness, He loves us, individually.

sound-waves 01a

After preaching on this topic, I heard this song on the radio as I drove home immediately afterwards. I think it’s a great summary and I’m sure the artists had psalms like these in mind when they wrote it.

 

Increase our Faith(fulness)

The second stop on the 2017 Summer Blog Tour is in Timothy Archer’s Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts. Enjoy the read as Tim reminds us of Jesus intention when he talked about faith.

Faith Unshackled 01

It was one of those moments. Jesus challenged his disciples to show forgiveness to others, even if it means forgiving them seven times in one day. The disciples saw the challenge and responded: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5)

I’m not entirely sure what they hoped to get from Jesus, but I suspect they recognized the gap between Jesus’ teachings and their own abilities.

So Jesus responded by saying that faith doesn’t have to be huge; even a tiny amount can move mountains.

Then he told them a parable:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’ Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”  (Luke 17:6-10)

I think he was saying, “You don’t need more faith; you need more faithfulness.”

In other words, theirs wasn’t a head problem. It wasn’t an intellectual need. It wasn’t even a lack of commitment. What they needed to do was put their faith into action. Or, more specifically, put their faith into obedience.

Hebrews 11 is the great chapter on faith. We read about Abel, Enoc, Noah, Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Jacob, and the rest. In almost every case, when we read about their faith, we read about something they did. We see their faith in their faithfulness.

Faith is more than an emotion. It’s more than an intellectual exercise. It’s something that you can observe. Faith is belief in action. Faith is being willing to listen to God and follow his lead, no matter what.

Faith leads to action. I can believe that a man is a doctor, yet still have no faith in him. But if I do have faith in a doctor, then I will follow his instructions. It is no special credit to me if I do what the doctor tells me to do; it is merely a symbol of the faith that I have in him.

If you’d like to have greater faith, then I believe the key is to take what faith you have and put it into action. Find ways to serve others. Tell people about what God is doing in this world. Meet needs and better your community.

Because you may not need more faith at all; you might just need a bit more faithfulness.

sound-waves 01a02 Tim Archer - pic

Timothy Archer has coordinated the Spanish-speaking Ministries for Hope For Life / Herald of Truth Ministries since 2006.  Tim’s latest book, Church Inside Out, helps churches motivate their members to be actively ministering to the community around them. You can follow Tim’s personal blog at: http://www.timothyarcher.com/kitchen/.

 

The Light of Faith

The first guest article in the 2017 Summer Blog Tour comes from Jennifer Rundlett. Jennifer, the founder of God thru the Arts Ministries, maintains a presence in the community with her active lecture and concert series highlighting the spiritual connections throughout the arts. Author of My Dancing Day: Reflections of the Incarnation in Art and Music, and The Joyful Sound: Reflections on the Life of Christ in Art and Music she regularly posts devotional blogs on God thru the Arts at http://www.jrundlett.wordpress.com

Faith Unshackled 01

We all can get burned out from time to time…

and our once full throated song can become a half-hearted tune that we push through as we become absent minded about the glorious light of our faith.

How can we cope with these times of the “doldrums” in our walk with God?

How can we encourage the sweet wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through us to re-kindle our inner fire?

Our faith is a precious treasure, a gift that should be nurtured in the best of times, so we might thrive, but also so we might navigate the storms ahead without losing our way.

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you O God. ~ Psalm 42:1

#1_Claude_Monet_-_Rouen_Cathedral,_Facade_(Morning_effect)

Rouen Cathedral: Facade Morning Effect, 1892-1894 Claude Monet, oil on canvas, Museum Folkway Essen Germany.

This week, as I was considering the images of our faith, I was attracted to Claude Monet’s series of paintings on the Rouen Cathedral.

Monet was the founder of the 19th century French Impressionism movement. He was controversial for his time because he became fascinated with capturing on canvas the effects of light on one subject. To do this, he left the sanctuary of his studio and went directly to the outdoors to experience the changing effects natural light would have on a particular scene.

The National Gallery of Art describes this series of paintings as Monet’s desire to capture the “effects of light and weather” and he does this by painting the facade of this church some 30 times over many months as he rented rooms across from the Cathedral in late January of 1892 and stayed until spring.

Monet describes:
To me the motif itself is an insignificant factor…What I wanted to reproduce is what exists between the motif and me. 

A15573.jpg

Claude Monet (French, 1840 – 1926), Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, 1894, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C.

This got me thinking about how many ways we use the word light to represent our faith and how our understanding of it can change over our lifetime.

  • Light represents seeing
  • It can also symbolize hope
  • A knowledge of a great truth…something that defines us and gives us purpose.
  • Our understanding of Light, gives us an impression of God.
  • Our attention to the light can fill us up until we overflow
  • Experiencing the warmth of God’s light tells us we are loved by our creator.

What do you think of when you talk about God’s light?

A15353.jpg

Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight, 1894, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C.

When I look at these paintings, I’m impressed and inspired by the thought of his devotion to capture the beauty of the light day after day.

Like Monet, I believe, that often what it takes to thrive in our spirituality is to stop-look-and listen- every day.

I want to encourage you to commit to a regular time of devotion to our Lord. Here are just a few ideas of things I have discovered along the way that rejuvenated my devotional time:

  • Rise early: Easier said than done, but try going to bed earlier so you can set your clock an hour earlier to spend time in prayer and devotion with our Lord. If the tasks of your day keep rushing in, make a quick to do list, then set it aside. It will be there when you are done and your time in prayer will help you remain in God’s peace as you enter your day.
  • A special place: whether it is in your home or office, create a special devotional space and fill it with items that will help you look forward to your quiet time with God. Perhaps you will light a candle or maybe you will have your special mug and favorite blend of coffee, these things can heighten your senses and help you relax allowing you to become more present as you attend to God’s voice.
  • Keep a prayer journal: I have always struggled with maintaining regular prayer practice, until I started writing my prayers. Now it is more of a conversation. I allow myself to write in a free form flowing in and out of prayer and regularly making note of where I noticed God in my day. You can also jot down Bible scriptures or favorite quotes. I’m always amazed at how writing something down helps me to hardwire the passage and meditate on a personal meaning for me.
  • Amazon Wish List: Start a wish list on amazon of all the books you would like to read. Anytime you hear about a book from a friend on Facebook or Twitter you can automatically add it to your list. Goodreads and Spotify are also wonderful social networks that can help you find recommendations for books and music to keep your devotional time fresh and inspiring.
  • Silence: Resolve to ask God questions and follow it by a period of silence…you will be amazed at how God will speak to your heart and open your eyes to new insights, discoveries and people all around you.

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. ~ Isaiah 26:3

Solitude is the practice of being absent from people and things to attend to God. Silence is the practice of quieting every inner and outer voice to attend to God.” ~ Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality p. 161

Like Monet, let us attend to the light of our faith so that we might notice all the beauty and all the little details of His divine love in our lives.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry we do not lose heart…For God, who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. ~ 2 Corinthians 4: 1, 6

sound-waves 01a

Jennifer’s latest book is The Joyful Sound: Reflections on the Life of Christ in Art and Music. This book is filled with beautifully written devotionals that will move you through the life of Christ, awakening your senses and your faith. Enhanced by poetry, musical selections, devotional prayers, and journaling suggestions, this book will rejuvenate your private prayer, Bible class discussion, and enhance your journey of spiritual formation.

You can purchase the book HERE (Use Blog Tour Discount code: 4SRV37GX to receive $8.00 off.)

“Jennifer Rundlett invites us to experience the stories of Jesus through the arts, and provides a rich resource and guide for visualizing, embracing, and hearing those stories in fresh and new ways. If you want to feel the stories of Jesus anew, practice the exercises in this book and learn to sing a new song.”
—JOHN MARK HICKS, professor of theology Lipscomb University and author of Come to the Table.

Don’t Domesticate Your Faith

Over the next couple of months this blog will be hosting a series of posts by guest bloggers as we again participate in our annual Summer Blog Tour. I hope you follow along, check out each author’s personal blog, and find ways to unshackle your faith.  You can download previous blog tours here.

Faith Unshackled 01In 2017 my church has adopted the theme “Faith Unshackled”. Intentionally ambiguous, this theme could be interpreted and applied in different ways. Inherent to the concept is the possibility that our faith may be shackled, restricted or limited.

Before I can decide if my faith languishes below God’s intention for me, I must understand the possibilities.

The word faith simply means to trust someone else. When that someone else is God, then the things we trust him with can be big things. But sometimes the things God wants us to trust him with are bigger than we’re ready to risk.

Jesus understood the dynamic nature of our faith in God. Our faith grows over time. As we establish a track record with God, our capacity to trust him with bigger areas and issues in our lives grows. Because faith does not grow along a straight line, the fragility of our faith means that some days we gladly trust God with everything, and then at other days we wonder if we can trust him with anything.

I know Jesus understands this phenomena because he witnessed it in his closest disciples.

In Matthew 17 a group of disciples attempted to cast out a demon… and failed. They approach Jesus seeking insight into why their efforts failed. Jesus responds with a well-known statement that I’m not sure encourages his disciples that they only need a little faith, or scolds them for not having even the smallest amount of faith.

“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”   Matthew 17:20

In the chapter prior, Jesus had given his disciples a big, enormous, radical faith challenge:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25

Both of these challenges from Jesus describe faith leading to radical outcomes. Yet so often we limit our faith to praying that Sister Jones’ kidney stone will pass quickly. In this process we reduce faith that was intended to be bold, radical and world-changing, and we domesticate it. We reduce faith to something manageable. Rather than inspiring courage, innovation and adventures for God, we transform it into a safety net in case of emergencies and kidney stones. Of course God cares about kidney stones and the suffering of his children, but the possibilities of faith extend much further.

In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus sends his disciples to the ends of the earth. He reminds them of his supreme power and promises his presence wherever they go. Then he watches to see their faith in action.

Today, I write about this moment that took place 2000 years ago on the shores of Galilee, from a time and country never imagined all those years ago. My existence and love for Christ demonstrate the power of those disciples’ faith.

As my church explores what it means for us to live with Unshackled Faith, I have encouraged us not to leave our faith chained to the pew. We must demonstrate our faith in God to those around us.

This may mean involving oneself in church ministries such as our community garden, or apartment cookouts. Unshackled Faith could also mean hosting a cookout and inviting church members we’ve never eaten with before, just because we’re committed to following Christ together. Or maybe we’re finding ways to bring unchurched and churched friends together in non-threatening social settings. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting us to launch a new ministry or add our energy to an existing one.

We all have our comfort zones. The thing is, comfort zones don’t require faith.

Your Favourite Things in 2016

‘Tis the season to review my blog posts. To give a second life to the more interesting ones written this year. And get a few more clicks to make this my most successful blogging year yet. [Thanks to you.]

picture-3I just

I saw another Christian site’s Top 10 and their Top 3 all had Trump in the headline. I promise my list is Trump free… except for that one with the small “t” trump. So here we go:

 

1. The Gospel Inside Out

A guest post from Brandon Fredenburg as part of the 2016 Summer Blog Tour. Download an ebook containing Brandon’s article and others on the theme “Inside Out” HERE.

“When Jesus omits “and the day of our God’s vengeance” (Isa 61:2b) and rehearses God’s blessing of a foreign widow and an enemy general, he turns the gospel of God his hearers expect inside out. “He isn’t just our God and he blesses our enemies,” Jesus reveals. Their reaction, like their “God,” is one of deadly vengeance.”.

 

2. Worship: When Words trump Silence

“While I’ve spent most of the last 20 years worshiping without instrumental accompaniment, I’ve never found silence to be a very good teacher. Arguments over how we should interpret silence seem largely ironic.” .

 

3. Reviving a Marriage Inside-Out

A guest post from Richard May as part of the 2016 Summer Blog Tour. Together with his wife, JeannaLynn, they run WGHJ Ministries. I encourage you to check out their website and blog for practical marriage advice.

“The years that our marriage was a disaster, each of us believed that a change in behavior or attitude of the other person was the key to our happier future.  At some points we could have said that the change in the other person was the key to our future relationship status. We were thinking Outside-In. We nearly divorced.”.

 

4. A Tale of Two Christmases

“Family is important. God wants us to live within loving families. Traditions, myths, songs, and movies encourage people and provide shared experiences and values. But for Christians, Christmas first and foremost is about reminding ourselves that God loves us immeasurably. Sometimes family reminds us of this truth. Sometimes family causes us to question this truth.” .

 

5. 5 Steps for Effectively Preaching With Notes

A little preacher geekiness escaping in this light-hearted article that mirrors the numerous articles encouraging preachers to preach without notes.

“With your manuscript in front of you now you can speak clearly to your congregation. The presence of your notes doesn’t eliminate the option of speaking from the heart as the Holy Spirit moves you throughout the sermon. The notes serve as a compass to keep you on track.” .

 

6. Father to the Fatherless

Contains links to as many Church of Christ affiliated ministries to parentless children as I could find.

“In Psalm 68:5 God identifies himself as “Father to the fatherless”. The name “Father” is often attributed to God throughout Scripture. While it’s true that he is the Father, or Originator, of all humanity, God makes the point that the name is more than a description of origin. He is Father because it’s a role he willfully adopts.” .

 

7. We All Have a God Box

“Cleopas listened with amazement when the women returned from the tomb and said they’d found it empty. He pondered the message of the angels who told the women that Jesus was alive. But after John and Peter went to the tomb and came back empty handed, Cleopas gave up.” .

 

8. God Bless You

“If you attend a church service near you, you’ll likely hear the word “blessed” about 27 times, with a particular concentration as the offering plate is about to be passed.We use the word “bless” in a wide variety of settings with quite a larger range of meaning. Despite the common usage, if you’re like me you struggle to articulate the biblical meaning of the word.” .

 

9. What if… God Isn’t Like That?

“Too many Christians travel through life convinced of their UNrighteous rather than confident of our righteousness. We fear that if we invited God to examine us according to our righteousness that he’d see only sin and darkness.” .

 

10. How to Rewrite the Bible

“What I have in mind when I speak of rewriting the Bible really isn’t as heretical as it sounds. Rather it’s a challenge to recognise that the Bible’s stories become our stories and each time they do we have an opportunity to write our own ending.”

A Tale of Two Christmases

I hear many Christians declaring that we need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because “He’s the Reason for the Season“. Yet, this year, when Christmas fell on Sunday, many churches chose to emphasise their Saturday Christmas Eve Service and some went so far as to cancel their Sunday morning service so that their members could spend time with family.

This state of affairs highlights a reality that many people recognise, but have trouble explaining. There are two distinct holidays both called Christmas.

christmas-fireplace-01One holiday places family front and center and close behind is materialism and credit card debt. This holiday has many cultural and family traditions relating to which movies we watch in December, which music we play, and which food we eat. It’s not a bad holiday, in fact, it’s a great experience and an important part of our children’s formative years. It’s warm, it’s rustic and comforting, and hopefully it’s full of love.

So many songs promote this Christmas celebration from, I’ll Be Home for Christmas to Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bells. The romance of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire seems comforting no matter if you live in Florida or Australia and never see snow, or eat chestnuts for Christmas.

Likewise, the list of Christmas moves is extensive. Here’s a list of 50 with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe being as religious as it gets. From classics including A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life to modern classics such as Elf, and Home Alone many families have their own movie play list at this time of year.

The other holiday is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a celebration of God becoming human: the Incarnation. The Incarnation is also a story of love. A story of God’s love toward us. In John 3:16-17 Jesus himself described what happened at his birth. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

christmas-nativity-02

The Christian celebration requires worship. It has its own set of sacred carols, but not so many movies. The Christian holiday has also been romanticised. It focuses upon the cute scenes of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals. If that’s the totality of the Christian story then it’s no wonder so many have bought into an alternative narrative.

From a Christian perspective the Incarnation of Jesus should prompt people to contemplate questions about the Trinity and the nature of the Godhead. We should ponder the relationship between God and humanity. The miraculous advent of Jesus gives a greater depth of meaning to subsequent events surrounding his death and resurrection.

Additionally, the Biblical account of Jesus birth provokes us to consider complex social topics including the relationship between Christ and political powers, the tragedy of violence, and the plight of refugees. We also contemplate the titles given Jesus and how he is “God with us”, the “Prince of Peace”,  and “Saviour”. None of these discussions have cute answers.

Because both of these holidays, the secular and the Christian, are each called Christmas and because they overlap and many people celebrate both…  it’s easy to mistake one for the other.

Family is important. God wants us to live within loving families. Traditions, myths, songs, and movies encourage people and provide shared experiences and values. But for Christians, Christmas first and foremost is about reminding ourselves that God loves us immeasurably. Sometimes family reminds us of this truth. Sometimes family causes us to question this truth.

And sometimes, the secular holiday pulls us away from our Christian celebration. For some of us having the picture perfect Christmas dinner, or ensuring the  children have time to open their gifts and play with them, take a higher priority than worshiping our Saviour.

I’m not writing this post to beat anyone up, but to emphasise how easy it is to lose focus on the miracle of the Word becoming Flesh. We don’t keep Christ in Christmas because we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We keep Christ in Christmas by allowing ourselves to dwell upon the Power, Wisdom, Humility and Love found in that manger. We keep Christ in Christmas through worship. And we keep Christ in Christmas by keeping our lives centered upon God and reflecting God to others, because the birth of Christ makes a difference in our lives.

Power & Humility

I preached yesterday on the contrast between Power and Humility. Specifically, I pondered how Jesus could fully embody both simultaneously.

Much of Jesus birth narrative places him at odds with the political powers of his day.

Augustus Caesar was the most powerful man in the world at the time of Christ’s birth. After the death of Julius Caesar, Augustus had defeated the armies of all his rivals. He had only to sign an edict and people like Joseph and Mary would travel from one end of their country to another, just to be counted.

“Augustus proclaimed that he had brought justice and peace to the whole world. He declared that his father, Julius Caesar, was a god, therefore he was a ‘son of god’. Augustus, people said, was the ‘saviour’ of the world. He was its king, its ‘lord’. And over time people increasingly worshiped him as a god.” (Wright, Luke for Everyone, 22-23)

Then Luke’s gospel tells us that angels broke into the earthly sky proclaiming to shepherds that that “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Later, Jesus would be called the “Son of God” but the angels announce that he is Savior and Lord. Augustus is not.

Herod The GreatMatthew’s account focuses upon Herod, the non-Jewish king of Judea. Hearing from traveling magi that they sought a newborn king, Herod becomes enraged. When his plot to identify the child fails, Matthew describes the slaughter of children in Bethlehem as Herod sought to eliminate all rivals to his throne.

Jesus flees to Egypt as a political refugee.

At the same time, Luke tells us that the evidence a rival to Caesar has been born can be found in “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” If not for the angels, no one would have noticed this family in Bethlehem that night. Such was Jesus humble entrance.

Luke previously laid the groundwork for this contrast when he included Mary’s song in his gospel. Mary had no pretensions of grandeur as she praised God for noticing “the humble state of his servant.” She goes on to celebrate how God “has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

Jesus challenged the existing power structures of the world from conception. He came to humanity with all the power of the Godhead, yet practiced humility and exalted the humble.

When our society combines power with humility it is most often expressed as the powerful demanding humility from the powerless. “Know your place.” “Don’t get too big for your britches.” “Leave this to the experts.” The powerful can demand humility from everyone except themselves. And when the people without power rise up to claim some of that power for themselves, more often than not we find ourselves in a situation abounding in conflict and violence.

power-fistOur society equates power with force, with violence, with coercion, with the biggest guns, the biggest muscles, the most money and influence. Power it seems doesn’t require wisdom, because even when foolish actions are taken that person, that organization, that nation, still has power. And power doesn’t need humility, because humility is weakness.

We face the temptation at this point to rail against power as an evil force, yet God is all-powerful. Like wealth, power has no intrinsic value as either good or evil. The person exercising power determines its character.

On the other side of the equation humility also creates temptations:

  1. The temptation to sugar coat abuse and discrimination as humility.
  2. The temptation to accept false humility as true humility both in ourselves and others.
  3. The temptation to equate powerlessness with humility.

Jesus expression of humility didn’t make him powerless and passive. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he refused to allow outside forces to distract him from his mission. He expressed himself assertively and directly challenged those who opposed him. Jesus was humble, but never powerless.

Living humbly means that those of us with power have a responsibility not just to use our power for the benefit of others, but to share that power with those who have little or none. Many people willingly hand over money to assist those in need. But this act of benevolence does nothing to change the power structure that created the inequality. This natural urge to cling to power makes the example of Jesus truly revolutionary. Philippians 2 frames the entire existence of the human Jesus as an emptying of power and an empowering of humanity.

Jesus came to the powerless, to the sick, an poor, and he reflected God by healing them, by forgiving them, and by giving them hope. Jesus left the throne room of heaven to allow humanity the opportunity to become fellow heirs with him. Jesus empowers his followers with the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. Jesus empowers his followers by creating a church that welcomes each person regardless of the way society describes and segregates them.

Ultimately Jesus empowers each person by emphasising the basis of all humility. Each person is made in the image of God. Each person is a child of God, and is precious to God. Each person has access to God and all power comes from Him. All gifts, talents, abilities and blessings come from Him. We give up our power and exercise humility as we share this message and embody it in our relationships with all.

We all have power in some sphere of our lives. The question we must answer is whether we use it to exalt ourselves, or others?

An Off and On Faith

The recent U.S. election campaign that seemed to run for about 6 years sadly did a great job of illustrating what Christianity looks like to many people.

The campaign focused almost exclusively on the problems the candidates saw in the country, in the world, and most of all, in the other person. Too often the church communicates a similarly negative message. In fact, many Christians combine the two messages and seek to create legislation that mirrors their beliefs about morality.

I have no problem with Christians condemning certain behaviours. I believe God does this also.

I do have a problem with this message drowning out the more important messages of the Christian faith.

The biggest problem those outside of Christ face is not that Christians criticise their sexual ethics. Their biggest problem isn’t that they drink too much alcohol. Their biggest problem isn’t racism. Their biggest problem is that they reject Jesus. That’s the problem that Christians need to speak up about.

Another point many Christians seem to neglect is that the parts of the Bible condemning sexual immorality, lying, theft, gossip, slander, anger, and violence are usually written to Christians, not pagans.

angry-man-pointing

When Christians point the finger at other segments of society, rather than ourselves, we communicate that we don’t face those issues. This is why Christians are so often called hypocrites. Rather than growing our own spiritual maturity, we’ve spent too much time and effort pointing out the flaws of others. Just as a negative election cycle failed to generate much enthusiasm, so negative churches will fail to share the Gospel.

I was excited to find in Ephesians 4:17-5:2 how Paul encourages the church not just to put off sinful behaviour, but also to put on godly attitudes and behaviour. Look at these snapshots:

  • Put off your old self… put on the new self, created to be like God…
  • Put off falsehood… put on speaking truthfully to your neighbour.
  • Put off stealing… put on working to share with others.
  • Put off unwholesome talk… put on building others up.
  • Put off bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice… put on kindness, compassion, forgiveness…

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Christianity is an off and on faith. It inspires us to put off one set of behaviours and attitudes in order to put on another.

As a follower of Jesus, I want to be known for the things I’ve put on. I want to be truthful, generous, encouraging, kind, compassionate and forgiving. I want to hold others to those godly expectations also.

Most of all, I want to walk in the way of love.

Something has gone terribly wrong when the world only hears half the message and the half they hear is terribly off putting.

I’ll give the final word to the apostle Paul. I love how in Romans 8 he takes the negative commandments from the 10 Commandments and reframes them in a positive way. We don’t have to tell people what NOT to do. We can tell them instead to “love their neighbour” and that takes care of everything.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet, and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Romans 13:8-9

 

The Church Isn’t a Corporate Ladder

I’ve been preaching through Ephesians and stressing a movement in the letter between chapters 3 & 4. In the first three chapters Paul dwells on the believers understanding of God. He describes God. He describes God’s vision for the church. He reminds the disciples what God, through Christ, has done for them.

In chapter 4 the letter transitions to discussing more practical issues for the church to implement. In the first part of the chapter the emphasis is on unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.  But unity doesn’t mean uniformity and the chapter moves to describing differences among members of the body.

corporate-ladderVerse 11 contains a list of apparent roles or positions within the church:

  • Apostles;
  • Prophets;
  • Evangelists;
  • Pastors; and
  • Teachers.

We need to clearly grasp that this verse doesn’t describe a career path. Too often I feel there’s an expectation that people work their way up this ladder and that becoming an elder or deacon is a perk of congregational longevity. Rather, Paul here outlines the functions the early church needed to become mature. The gifts and roles listed here are not comprehensive and all served a function in equipping the church and promoting unity and peace.

Apostles were witnesses to the resurrection: since the resurrection is the foundation of the church, the testimony of those who had seen the risen Jesus was the first Christian preaching. Early Christian prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, guiding and directing the church especially in the time before the New Testament was written. Evangelists announced to the surprised world that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead, and was both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. Pastors looked after the young churches ; teachers developed and trained the understanding of the first churches.
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (2004, p49)

The images of unity in Ephesians 4 explain why at Lawson Rd we make a big deal when people place membership in the local congregation. It’s exciting when people respond to the calling of Christ in baptism and a commitment to live for God, but Scripture consistently describes new converts participating in local congregations committed to each other. It’s possible that God’s given someone the gift of teaching described here, but when people don’t commit to the other Christians they worship with, they leave uncertainty about their commitment to unity.

Or on the other side, placing membership in a local church lets the elders, deacons, pastors and teachers know the person wants to be equipped by them. It’s difficult to challenge people to grow in Godly maturity when the leaders don’t know clearly who they’re leading. In 1 Peter 5:2 elders are told, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” Who is the flock under their care? It’s not defined, but membership is way of knowing whether a person is under the care of Lawson Rd elders, or leaders at another local congregation.

While there’s nothing specific in this passage distinguishing between the local church and the universal church, we need to remember that this letter is written to a local congregation, so the teaching it contains is to be applied in that context unless otherwise noted.  The call for unity applies to the Ephesian church and the various tensions they experience to divide. The spiritual gifts and leadership roles listed here apply to the local church. Life as a Christian is not about having the right birth certificate, being baptised in the right way, at the right place or by the right person. It’s about living as healthy part of the body of Christ.

While some church leaders (such as Paul) traveled from congregation to congregation, in general, the leaders at one congregation did not have responsibility for the Godly growth of another congregation. Their task of equipping God’s people for works of service relates to those who are part of that church family.

My last blog post asked, “Who benefits from your faith?” or  “Who were you saved for?” This week the text builds on that thought. God has gifted you for the work of equipping others so that the unified body of Christ may be built up. Are you exercising your gifts and talents for the benefit of others?