God, we desire to sing a new song to you, to sing along with all the peoples of the earth.
We desire to bless you God, to bless your name; to tell of your salvation everyday.
Our desire is to declare your glory among all the nations, to shout of your marvelous works among all the peoples.
God, you are great, and you are to be praised in a great way; you are to be revered above all gods.
The gods of the peoples are idols, but you, O God, made the heavens.
God, honor and majesty are before you; strength and beauty are in your sanctuary.
We ascribe to you O’ God, we call out to all the families of the peoples – ‘ascribe to God all the glory and strength’.
We ascribe to you the glory due your name. We will worship you God in holy splendor; we will tremble before you, as will all the earth.
We call to the nations, “The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. God will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and all the peoples with his truth.
Eleven words and my focus was set. Eleven words that showed up in the middle of our I Thessalonians passage that wrapped the message of the entire reading, and most of the book, into one thing – sincere lives that are genuinely noticed.
And, in those 11 words one of those words pulled me in by the collar and yelled at me ‘LOOK AT THIS!’
The word is exēchētai. We only see this word, in this form, used in this verse.
In most of our translations, this word is transcribed as our word ‘SOUND’ or ‘SOUNDED’
and in this particular greek word means ‘TO SOUND FORTH’.
The basic meaning can be referring to the volume or level of the sound itself, such as ‘It is loud,’ however, more often, it is used to described something that is that is very clear and precise – ‘Oh, that was really understandable’. It is not referring to words or speaking, it is in fact our sound. It is the sound of our life that reveals our hearts. It is the sound of our life that comes across clean and precise to which the world can say, ‘Oh, I get it.’ It is the sound that is heard long before words are spoken or actions are undertaken.
Much like a parade – you stand at your location as the participants walk, drive, or roll by. While you stand there looking at what is in front of you, you are always aware that there is a marching band in the parade and it is coming your way. You are unable to see it but you hear it, and then, after the band passes by, the sound lingers, and you continue to hear it even after it is once again out of sight.
In the instance of the Thessalonians, that sound that you are aware of before and even after – sounds like God
Silence my soul, these trees are prayers. I asked the tree, “Tell me about God;” then it blossomed.
The believers in Thessalonica had blossomed, they had an amazing sound. Their words, and more importantly, their actions of joy in the midst of persecution, hospitality to all persons, their unity even in disagreement, and their passion in serving God and serving all others. It was a sound that could not be dismissed – it came before them and stuck around after they left. People were surprised, the Apostle Paul was amazed.
One of the regrettable circumstances of the modern evangelical movement is that words have taken priority over all else, more than actions of kindness and love, and presence – words, whether personal or scripted, have become the sound. Without the sound of God, there is little that we hear that lasts. Apart from God, our awkward or powerful words, our charm or pushy speech, all eventually fall short.
‘For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven,’
I Thessalonians 1:8-10a (NRSV)
Or, listen to vivid account from the paraphrase, The Message:
‘Do you know that all over the provinces of both Macedonia and Achaia believers look up to you? The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message! People come up and tell us how you received us with open arms, how you deserted the dead idols of your old life so you could embrace and serve God, the true God. They marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son,’
I Thessalonians 1:8-10a (MSG)
‘Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word’. Imagine being told that, imagine your day to day life being described in that manner. ‘Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word’. ‘Your are bringing the sound of God wherever you go.’
Surely they were beaming when they read Paul’s letter.
Paul is telling the believers in Thessalonica that God’s truth is being ‘Sounded’ by the them, sounded through words but even more through their presence, it was their sound. Their sound had created a life of its own. Their sound was attractive – their actions were contagious, their words were credible.
Paul tells the believers that they are doing his job, they are doing what he came to do. All the more amazing is that Paul is finding his own story now not being told to him instead of by him. Anything Paul tells the people, the listeners have already heard. Paul is obsolete, they are telling HIM the truth.
Paul precedes his praise by giving an explanation of how the Spirit has done this work among the Thessalonians. We often view the work of the Spirit as being entirely ‘other worldly’, that the Spirit overtakes us and does what we have been unable or unwilling to do on our own. We see it as magical and apart from ourself – almost as if we are receiving a reboot and better software is downloaded into us to make us work better.
Paul points out pertinent elements to the Thessalonians transformation.
‘And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joyinspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.’
I Thessalonians 1:6-7
‘Became imitators of us and of the Lord’ -The people, entrenched in their life habits, beliefs, religious practices, view of God or gods, did not really know where to start, the Spirit pointed to Paul and his companions and to God. They watched and learned from their examples.
‘In spite’ – even though they were persecuted and their faith could endanger their lives, they still found a way to express truth in a subtle and quieter manner. They found ways to ‘sound’ like Jesus, even though their ‘sound’ often had to remain silent. Their sound was amazingly effective.
‘Received’ – receiving the Spirit was a choice, in choosing they were aware that there would surely be things that they would have to reject, ways and practices of their lives that were not able to share space with the Spirit. They ‘received’ without any guarantees of what they would look like in the future.
‘With joy inspired’ – This choice a ‘choice’ that could upend their ways of life, it could make enemies out of friends, it could threaten vocations, reputation, and position. They chose regardless, this was their state of mind, they made a choice out of joy.
So that you became an example to all the believers – this is self explanatory, their joyful choice permitted them to not only become a visual image for others to follow, but it also gave credence to their words – to believers and non believers.
Paul also addresses the foundational factor in their witness as he says,
‘Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.’
I Thessalonians 1:5b
The Thessalonians had not listened to Paul and his companions because of their eloquence or their charisma, it was not because of their status or their position, it was not because of the orchestrated emotion of the moment, nor was it due to a fear of the consequences. They listened, and they followed, because they could see the ‘sound’ of these men’s lives.
Their real, raw, and vulnerable sound.
Based on their experience with Paul and his companions, the believers chose to listen, they chose to follow, they chose to receive the Spirit, they mindfully chose to imitate these who genuinely pointed to God. Their imitation of Paul landed them at the feet of God in the flesh, Jesus, who they then followed – much like the disciples of John the baptizer who ultimately followed Jesus.
We must recognize this process of trusting before listening and then listening before following took an extended period of time. Paul speaks of the delicate balance practiced in order to not be a burden to the church. Paul made a choice to trust the intentional work of the Spirit, regardless of how long it took. Paul made a choice of personal vulnerability permitting the believers to hear his honest sound. The Thessalonians soon hungered to have the same sound.
One other dynamic must be noticed in this story. A culminating lesson for all believers, for all of us. The sound of the Thessalonians was not due to one individual, or even a small group of individuals, it was the result of all the individuals who together were the church at Thessalonica. Their combined sounds became the sound of the church at Thesslonica.
Michael Joseph Brown, President of Payne Theological Seminary, sums it up by saying.
‘If anything, [I Thessalonians] is about relationship and imitation. Paul makes this clear from the beginning. He says, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution, you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit”. The apostle reminds us indirectly that human beings can only experience the fullness of their humanity when they are in deep, trusting relationship with one another. Even more, this relationship has more depth when it is experienced along with God. In addition, imitation becomes an outgrowth of this strong relationship.’
Michael Joseph Brown
This huge impression made by the Thessalonian church on other believers and non-believers alike, was as much about the whole as it was the individual. Those watching the sound of the individual believers at Thessalonica, which then became the sound of the church at Thessalonica was a sound that could not be dismissed. People noticed the Thessalonians by their real, raw, and vulnerable sound.
The outsiders saw the new sound that the Spirit created. In the midst of the believer’s trials – the community saw the Thessalonians at their most vulnerable – they saw that this sound could not be mitigated, even as politicians and the religious establishment sought to turn their sound off. Even inner disagreement of the church did not quiet their sound, in fact, the manner in which they worked through those disagreements made their sound even stronger.
It is the questions all churches must ask, it is the question we must ask.
Does our actual sound match the definition we have given to our sound?
Do we seek, search, and stand on truth?
Are we actively searching for truth in all aspects of our life, in the way we live, in the way we respond to the world around us, in the way of our politics, in our presence, in our sound?
Do we meet the world with the embrace of Jesus?
Are we committed to seeing all humans as humans created by the same God who loves us all? Are we ready to embrace, without judgement and agenda, those who are of a different skin color, different religion, different nationality, those of a different political persuasion, those who are LGTBQI, the rejected, the despised, the alienated, those who make us uncomfortable?
Do we trust the affirming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of others?
Are we committed to letting the Spirit decided the work that need to be done in each life or are we stuck with our own judgments and own ideas and agenda for other people, do we trust the change the Spirit wants to work in them and each of us?
What is the real, raw, and vulnerable sound of Grace Fellowship?
At 2:45pm, on a cold day mid December 2001, I stood with other parents on the ramp to Mrs. Cook’s pre K class at Monroe elementary school. We were waiting until the bell would ring and our children would be match up with us and released. As we stood waiting, we visited. Most conversation, including mine on that day, did not end once the door opened and the matching process began. As my child was match with me and released she ran to me with an undeniable sound that could not be ignored. I know this because I attempted to ignore the sound in order to finish my conversation. Her sound was persistent however, and eventually the teacher’s aid got my attention and summoned me to take notice of my child’s sound. The aide had a sound of her own which was communicated by the look on her face. I took notice of Hannah’s sound. Santa Clause had visited the class that day and Hannah, as promised in her sound, was about to bust by her need to share all that she had learned about Santa and Mrs. Clause, about the reindeer and life at the North Pole, about the fact that Santa was trying to lose weight because he had not been eating right or exercising, although Christmas Eve did always manage to take a few pounds off him which delighted Mrs. Clause who was in much better shape and didn’t eat as much sugar, however, the most important thing, the thing that probably had the most influence on the sound of my daughter was that Santa Clause needed to quit eating so many cookies, it was very repetitive, and also not very healthy. So, ironically, the children had suggested that they might leave pizza instead, an idea that seemed to greatly please Santa. The sound of Hannah continued through Christmas Eve when we, in fact put out the much more healthy pepperoni pizza than the unhealthy sugar cookies, and then through Christmas morning when Hannah glowed at the note from Santa thanking her for remembering the pizza instead of the cookies.
On Saturday, March 4, 1933, Americans were nearing the end of the Great Depression. This had been brutal period of almost four years as the nation experienced upwards of a quarter of the population unemployed while many had lost everything. It was a truly depressing and fearful time for society. This newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt, stood on the east portico of the capital building facing Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Roosevelt’s hand rested on his family 1686 Dutch Bible – opened to I Corinthians 13. After Chief Justice Hughes administered the oath of office, Roosevelt remained at the podium to address the American pubic in what is considered, by many experts to be the best of all presidential inauguration speeches.
‘In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.’
Roosevelt was calling the people to a same mindedness, to a determination of will with a unified goal of bringing the United States back from the brink. The President knew that the nation could not survive if division prevailed, fear controlled, and hatred ruled.
The remainder of the speech frankly outlined the problems and difficult solutions, but it was actually his introductory words that have stuck with us even to today.
‘So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’
Later, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, suggested that the famous phrase was adapted from a 1851 journal entry of Henry David Thoreau in which he had written,
‘Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.’
In these words, Thoreau, followed by Roosevelt put their finger on the root cause of the problems the nation faced, and the problems our nation still faces – fear. The fear of poverty, the fear of war, the fear of famine, the fear of inadequate healthcare, the fear of not getting more than others, the fear of those that look different than us, the fear of those who live differently than us, the fear of those who worship differently than us, the fear of those who speak differently than us, the fear of those that come from other countries, those that have a different pigmentation, those that those who have a diet different than us, that drive differently than us, those that dress differently than us, those who values and beliefs are different than us, we fear sickness and death, we fear different political systems, we fear the unknown.
Fear divides us, fear depletes us, fear consumes us, fear paralyzes us, fear pushes us onto the wrong path, fear leads us to run back to our fantasy of past, fear erases our memories, fear capitalizes on our doubts, fear pits us against each other, fear keeps us from noticing others, fear keep us from truth, fear causes us to hate, to react, to label, fear leads us to lay aside the example of Jesus, fear leads us to forget the sacrifice the Son.
Fear perilously puts us at high risk.
Christ came to conquer fear.
Fear seeks to stop life.
Christ came to give life.
God invited Moses to join him on Mount Sinai to discuss life, primarily how to live life. The talk is referred to as the ‘Law’, but the word ‘Law’ does not translate well – our idea of ‘Law’ elicits a response of ‘how do I get around this?’ or a ‘let’s look for the loopholes?’, but this ‘Law’ was, and is, a gift. The discussion wasn’t a ‘get your life in order’ talk or a ‘get these people in line’ lecture but a constructive and positive, ‘this is how to live in this creation’ given by the creator himself. An exclusive discussion between Moses and God the creator – giving the ‘how’ to live in his creation. It was obvious to Moses, and probably all humans, that up to this point, they have failed miserably at their attempts to figure it out on their own. It was a gift to be invited to this discussion with the creator, Moses knew this, the people he was leading did not.
Moses sat with God on Mount Sinai as the two were discussing life. Not in metaphysical way, but in a ‘Here is how you do it’, way for a humanity that really had no idea how to do anything except to survive. See, God was moving the people to a ‘Get up and walk in peace,’ way of life.
While the 2 sat up on the mountain, down below the people returned to fear. They had spent their entire lives justifiably living in fear, their parents and grandparents had known no other existence, it was passed down generation to generation without a second thought. Now, free and delivered from slavery, when they could no longer visually see their human leader Moses, they automatically to their fear.
Fear is often the most comfortable place to which we can run.
Fear is always the quickest path back to chaos, disorder, and whatever else defines the opposite of peace.
There truly is ‘nothing to fear but fear itself.’
God interrupted their conversation to let Moses know what was going on at the bottom of the mountain.
‘You’ve been gone for forty days, Moses,’ God said, ‘in your absence, the people have returned to fear and all the emotions and actions that accompany fear. They have taken the gold which was given to them by the fearful Egyptians and wasted it on the gods of the Egyptians. Aaron has molded a calf out of the gold – since that is what they knew in Egypt. In looking at the golden calf they began to talk about their old, comfortable gods they had in slavery, the gods they could see, – Aaron recognized the mistake and declared that they were to worship the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but it was too late, the damage was done. They were back in fear mode, they had returned to worshipping a false god. This has avalanched into a full fledged orgy.’
God was disgusted, he was done with the people, Moses managed to talk God back from destruction. Moses reminded God that they people were immature, they were not accustomed to freedom, that they had no clue about the peace God had for them, Moses reminded God that these were his people…..and yes, he probably told God that the people ‘are idiots, an ignorance that only God cure.’
Moses went down, the people did not get to receive God’s gift of ‘how to have peace and life’ – but they would later, when they were a little less ‘idiot’ inclined.
For now, though, the people needed to be pulled back from the brink of disaster, the people needed their leader to help them deal with their very comfortable fear.
Moses came down the mountain surely uttering many words of disgust.
The only thing that can unite a divided group of people isan irrational fear that throws all truth out the window. People of faith quickly forget the ‘why’ of their faith and exchange it for truth for fear, fear then unifies – it exchanges their same minded unity for mindless mob minded division and chaos.
Fear urgently brings chaos – chaos perverts our recognition of value, it diminishes rationale and distorts hope, it fogs our view of God. It prompts us to throw away the gold of God’s deliverance, it leads us to devaluing of God’s creation and his created – respect, honor, and dignity are replaced with disrespect, hatred, impulsiveness, and ultimately, lasciviousness and wantonness.
Fear urgently ushers in chaos.
Fear is a favorite tool of politicians, religious leaders, your friends on facebook, the pundits on your favorite cable network, the guy next door, and sometimes even those living in your house.
Fear is the easiest, and most used, tool in Satan’s toolbox, it is the quickest and most efficient way to divide and conquer. It destroys nations, organizations, relationships, families, individuals, and churches.
The only tool of Jesus – was love that accepts and embraces. Love brings about peace and order.
While fear places us in the category of ‘High Risk’ – peace and order place us in a place of patience, love, faith, hope, and unity.
Peace and order permit us to be of the same mind in what genuinely unifies us. They pave the way for us to be agents of calm, confidence, trust, and hope. They pave the way for others to catch a true hint of Jesus.
This is what is the apostle Paul was addressing in the church of Philippi. He had surmised that the church was at high risk. Two, hardworking, long proven, workers in the church are divided. The issue, for Paul, was that this division would threaten the entire church, they were at high risk of choosing sides, of dividing up, of losing their mind – their ‘same mindedness’. We are not told what has caused these two individuals to split, only that they have also lost their same mindedness, we don’t need to know, we just know the solution – ‘be of the same mind.’
Two very different mindedness options, two extreme opposites states of life, same mindedness and mob mindedness. One is guided by the common belief held in the heart and the mind – the other is guided by selfish agendas, raw emotions, disregard for others, vitriol, hatred, and a settling into hopelessness.
Same mindedness reminds us that we are actually attempting to head toward the same goal even when we are set on different avenues of getting there. We can peaceably disagree when we are of the same mind.
The destructive impact of the absence of same mindedness among the two warring individuals in the faith community of Philippi was that it could move the group of believers into mob mindedness. Taking sides, fighting over stances, adopting the negative feelings of the original two were the exact things that would lead the entire faith community to fear – fear that my side will lose, pride that I am right even if this is not really my fight or my concern, fear that doesn’t need a rationale reason.
Paul speaks of ‘having the same mind’ often in his letter to his friends in Philippi. It can, at times, even sound somewhat cult like, an attempt to make everyone think the same and an effort to hinder the actual thinking of each individual.
As Mitch led our Tuesday Night Bible Project, he illustrated this ‘same mind’ concept in a manner that really allows us, in our time to understand. He shared that on an American football team, each team has 11 players on the field during play. Off the field, each of these players assuredly have different opinions, disagreements, life practices, background, etc, than each other. However, once they are on the field, in the playing of the game, they have the same mind – to get the ball, or keep the other team from getting the ball, across the goal line. To be effective, they can give their opinions to a point, but, eventually, one person will have to make the call and the others, to be successful, will work together to move the ball down the field. If personal selfish, ‘non-same minded’ agendas interrupt, or if disagreements emerge, the game will be lost. This is same mindedness.
Paul, as he speaks of having the same mind is speaking to, and about, having the same goal line. In chapter 3, verse 15, he calls on those who are mature. This word mature is not speaking to an accomplished and completed believer, one who is perfect, but, instead to those who are on the field, permitting the righteousness of Christ to transform them. It is not a haughty or arrogant position, but a state of ‘becoming’.
Paul explains, ‘I have not already obtained this nor have I already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’
Much like the coach’s half time speech to the team about working and striving together, not addressing their decisions and opinions – that – will take place after the game, the coach is talking about now, as the team returns back to the field, the team same mindedness.
Same mind – get the ball down the field. Same mind – keep the other team from getting the ball down the field.
Paul then coaches the Philippians, and us, in practices aimed at strengthening ‘same mindedness’ as he says –
‘Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
(Based on Psalm 23, Isaiah 25:9, and Philippians 4:8 )
Please Join Me In Prayer
You, Lord, are our shepherd; we shall not want. You make us to lie down in green pastures: you lead us beside the still waters. You restore our soul: you lead us on, and to, the paths of your righteousness.
Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil: for you are with us; your rod and your staff comfort us.
You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies: you anoint our heads with oil; our cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives: and we will dwell in your house for ever.
You, Father, call on us to think about whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever excellence we find, and anything worthy of praise that we may encounter.
You, God, are who we have waited for, so that you will save us. You are the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in your salvation.
Based on King David’s Prayer of Humility – I Chronicles 17:16-27
Lord God, you have done so much for us and our families. And we don’t understand why. Besides all that you have given, God, you have given us hope for the future. Lord God, you have given us a place of honor. What more can we say? You have done so much for us. We are only your servant. You know that but we often forget.
Lord, you have done this wonderful thing for us simply because you wanted to. There is no one like you, Lord. There is no God except you. We have heard of the other gods, there is no comparison! For your people you have done wonderful things. You took them out of Egypt and surprised them with deliverance and freedom. You then gave them the way to live free, you then painted a picture of freedom through the human live of your Son. Your power was seen by all the nations. You made them a people and went in front of them as you gave them a land. You were their God long before any of us recognized, or accepted, that you are God.
Lord, through you son, you have included us into your fold. You made this promise to us. We know that you will keep your promise forever. We know that through that, you will be honored among the nations. We are your servant. Please let us be strong and continue to serve you.
My God, you spoke to us, your servants. Your promise enables us to be bold among the nations, not because of our achievements but because of who you are, for you are God. You are God, and your promises come from who your are. Through your mercy, you have been kind and blessed us. You promise alone is all the evidence we need of your grace. Lord, your blessing is a blessing forever.
The apostle Paul is an interesting study one that is still very pertinent to each of us two thousand years later. He is responsible for at least thirteen of the books in the Bible, most of the New Testament epistles are ascribed to him, however, it is in is life and journey that we see even greater correlations between his life and our lives.
He is a an extremely unlikely prospect in our eyes, and ill suited, to become a leader in the New Testament church that he becomes – yet he does. He seems to be among the last people who would be chosen by God to extend God’s truth of love and mercy – yet he was. Paul seemed to be going in a strange direction to grow the church – yet it was the exact direction, and the exact place, where God was waiting to focus this one man’s truth seeking journey.
His resume was impressive, full of all the credentials Jewish religious leaders ascribed to but seldom achieved. Credentials that opened most any door to him by the time he was in his mid twenties. He was just 27 years old when we first meet him, he was already a Pharisee, he was holding the coats of those hurling the stones at Stephen. Then, by the very next year he was on an official mission of the religious institution to take care of the Jesus problem – to stop the growing underground followers of Christ.
The followers of Christ feared Paul very early on their faith movement. He was on no one’s radar to become their leader – yet he was God’s choice and he would become a passionate leader of the Christians.
He had all the credentials and accomplishments one would imagine for a person on the fast track to authority and power. He laid out his resume as he was communicating with the church at Philippi.
‘If anyone has reason to be confident in their own abilities and accomplishments, I assure you that I have more: I was circumcised on the eighth day after birth, I am a member of the people of Israel and of the tribe of Benjamin, I am a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the obeying and known the law, I was a Pharisee; and I had zeal, enough zeal that I was made a persecutor of the church of Jesus; and mostly if you are looking at my life as to being righteousness under the law, I am blameless.’
Paul’s determination and genuinely sincere passion had thrust him before the eyes of the religious institution as well as the regional Roman governing authorities. He was a young man, just short of 30 years old, as he traveled to Damascus to pursue his passion, to stop what would become known as Christianity.
The thing about Paul is that for him, all of his accomplishments were not about gaining power just for power’s sake, nor were they about achieving more accolades and bullet points for his resume. What he did, he did out of a sincere pursuit of truth, and ridding Judaism of those people and teachings that would dilute the truth and harm their faith was at the top of his list. He believed what he fought for, – there was a genuineness at the core of his being.
This answers the first question – Why did God choose Paul? God was looking for a purity in passion, a person who recognized the value and necessity of truth, one that had an unstoppable pursuit of truth, and a human to whom a truth formed challenge to his faith and politics would not cause them to abandon their journey. A person that, when finding truth, would see it as the next step, not a roadblock that had to be avoided and dismissed or plowed through. He did not respond with hostility or defensiveness when truth made him uncomfortable about his religious or political stances. In that time, when politics often dictated to faith, when the religion and governmental leaders used and abused each other, a time when to hold one political stance you had to conform your faith to that stance – it that time, he let his faith be his guide.
God looks for individuals who will not be threatened when their perceptions and beliefs are challenged and when change is essential. God is looking for those who recognize that they have much further to travel in their faith journey.
As Paul traveled to Damascus, it was in his passionate quest to maintain a purity of doctrine. This ‘Jesus’ movement, in his mind, was perverting truth and therefore would diminish the Jews’ preparation for the coming Messiah.
Jesus was the last person he expected to encounter on the road – but – Jesus was the exact person he expected to encounter on that road. He had been looking for Jesus his entire life, but it was not until this day, blinded by the light, he saw the Messiah that he had been seeking. It was Jesus, this was the truth that he had been seeking, and this was the Messiah his faith had led him to with for with all his might.
This was not a bump in the road, it was not a halt to his journey, it was not a controversial challenge, it was actually his next step. He had found the one he was looking for, he was surely surprised to discover it was Jesus – but it was Jesus.
If Paul had been any less passionate in his pursuit of truth, when he was blinded he would have scoffed at the idea of going to Damascus, there were renown experts and physicians back in Jerusalem to restore his sight. If Paul had been motivated to stop Christianity more than he was devoted to finding the truth – he would have never agreed to go to the house of a nobody named Ananias. If he had been primarily set on pleasing the religious institution and in keeping his good name before the Roman political establishment – he would not have asked for help from a follower of Jesus.
But he was a true seeker of truth – and he knew that he had blindly found that truth exactly where it was waiting for him. In this blindness, he was beginning to see.
Why did God choose Paul, because Paul was the one who was looking for God. Notice that God did not alter the direction that Paul was going, he still sent him on to Damascus, his original destination, however, now he saw things differently, now he saw the truth that didn’t match up with his mission, his mission changed but his journey had just gotten on the right course.
Blindness didn’t halt Paul’s mission, it just refined it, it filled in the gaps, he was beginning to see better than he had ever seen before. He was not going to stop this new Jesus movement, he was going to be a part of this movement.
On this day, on this road, this man who sought truth, was blinded by God in order that he could see. On this day, on this journey, Paul eyes could no longer see any truth in the things he had accepted through his religion and in his politics. Suddenly, he began to notice the earthly afflictions of his people, he began to experience the incongruency of the collusion between his religious institution and the Romans politicians, he saw the contrast between those teachings and his God who he now saw.
About 3 decades after Paul met Jesus on that road to Damascus, he writes a letter to his dear friends, the believers in Philippi. In this letter we see Paul reminding the believers of his achievements as well as the proof of his faithful to God that has been evidenced in his life.
‘Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.’
Paul is not calling his Jewish faith as rubbish, nor is he saying that his achievements and accomplishments were a waste of time – instead, he is proclaiming that it is not about him, it is about Christ. While there was a time when he thought his acts of persecution done for the cause of stopping the Jesus movement were holy, now he realizes that it was not, now he is grateful that his search for truth changed that pursuit. Looking ahead he says,
‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.”
Let’s look at a few basic from the example of Paul, basics that are very pertinent to us.
Paul was chosen by God because he was willingly available to God. He was not only a truth seeker, but he when he discovered truth he permitted it to make the changes and refinements that needed to be made in order to continue to be usable.
Paul’s pursuit of truth resulted in truth being applied to every area of his life, regardless of the risk. When he met Jesus on the road, this discovered truth became the filter that guided his life and his passions. With this he was able to see how the practices of his religious institution and the impact of his politics were not aligned with truth. As he began to see the suffering of an oppressed people, his eyes were opened to the inconsistencies of the message of God and the message of religion and politics. Honoring truth over his earthly pursuits, opinions, views, politics, and religion caused him to lose friends, power, position, security, and more. This loss, however how hurtful it must have been, was nothing in comparison to the truth he found in Jesus Christ.
Paul genuinely felt that following Christ was a natural next step in his faith, and truth, journey. It seemed to be the most honest way. As we saw in our look at Romans 9-11, he was genuinely shocked and disappointed that his own people, the Jews, had rejected Jesus. In the end, he admitted that he did not understand that rejection and, at the same time the choseness of the Jews, he knew that all that God had done in the Jewish history was from God for this people and that God would still keep his promises to the Jews even though it was an almost overwhelming mystery to Paul.
Paul lived in the ‘in-between.’
Paul considers himself to be living in a state of in-between-ness. He is trapped or suspended in the middle of a journey. The longing for arrival is strong, but what he has in front of him is the journey. The arche (beginning) of this journey is Paul’s Judaic background, the telos (goal/aim/end) is his new Christian identity. Paul clearly shows his deep embeddedness in a Jewish tradition. He is from a Benjamite tribe, his is a Pharisee, he is passionately zealous about his Judaic identity, and so on. He describes himself as the best of the best. Abandoning this Jewish identity should be unthinkable to him. To be clear, it is not his Jewishness that he considers as “rubbish”- it is the idea that he can be considered blameless, that he has achieved his goal, that he has arrived, that is what is rubbish. He says that he has not reached the goal of being perfect. In other words, Paul argues that he has not achieved the telos, the goal, the end, the perfection. Paul seems to understand himself and his life as an ongoing process – His existence is in between “what lies behind” and “what lies ahead”. Paul’s outlook is that to know Christ is to to realize that no one has arrived yet. Everyone is on a journey, in the process of making.
Paul continued to be a seeker of truth until his death. He continued to face the challenges of his journey with genuine consideration, he continued to give that truth the freedom to confront every area of this life. On this earth, he knew his journey would not ever end.
May we allow this holy journey of Paul, a journey to know Jesus more every day, may that journey be an example to us in our journey as we work out our salvation.
While the Hebrews sat through the nine plagues – they had to have had a thought, at least a time or two, “What the heck?!” In a time span of 2 or 3 months up to a year max, the people had endured, along with the Egyptians, water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness – honestly, it sounds a little like our last 6 months, although ‘what the heck’ is assuredly the ‘G’ version of many of our comments.
As we consider the plight of the Hebrews during this time, we have to keep a couple of things in mind.
1. The Hebrews were slaves, subservients, and oppressed by the Egyptians.
2. The Hebrews were foreigners in the land of Egypt and treated as such. Even though they knew of no other home, they were still ‘away from their home.’
3. The Hebrews knew very little of their God. They were immersed in the gods of Egypt. To them, their God was a very distant being. Primarily, they knew enough about God to cry out to him when they had no one, and no where else, to cry out to.
4. Even before ‘The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them’ (Exodus 2:23-25). God had already heard and answered their cries, Moses, the answer to their cries, was already living in the Pharoah’s palace.
The Hebrews had suffered their own afflictions during the first nine plagues, plus more placed on them by a vindictive Pharoah, but they were spared the tenth plague, the plague of death. Following this plague, the Egyptians were ready for the Hebrews to leave.
The Hebrews had to have been in a state of wide eyes and wide open mouths as they left Egypt. The wonder of leaving, the wonder of freedom, the wonder of deliverance had to have been overwhelming and unfathomable. They looked ahead with excitement and back in shock.
Their eyes got a little wider, soon they were on the run. Pharoah was after them and they were in need of God again.
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
God heard their cries and rescued them by parting the waters. Then they were hungry
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” they screamed. “We are hungry,” they complained.
God gave them food…for every day. Then they were thirsty,
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
And, God gave them water.
Then, they had to battle Amalek and his people.
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
And God gave Moses his staff, the staff that had turned the water, and now, he gave the people the mission of helping Moses hold up the staff during the battle.
God gave them victory.
God took a people who did not know him, therefore could not trust him, and he grew them up. He heard their cries, his rescue of them was in place before they recognized their need, he strengthened them in struggle, and along that way he introduced himself.
He taught little by little as they were ready to hear, ready to receive, ready to apply.
He did this as the lessons were appropriate, as the people were ready to hear. He said things through Moses like:
“If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.”
When our oldest son, Caleb, was around 3 years old, one afternoon he purposely threw a toy at his sister Grace, hitting her on the head. It hurt and as she was crying Caleb was asked if there is anything he wanted to say to his sister. Without a moments thought he looked at Grace and said, ‘Catch the ball next time Grace.’ We realized that question was probably not going to work with him so we switched the question to ‘Was that a good choice?’
It is a very simple question for a little person who was just learning about choices. Over the years since, we have asked that question in progressively more complex forms, as he grew in his maturity enough to consider the nuanced complexities. Those increasingly difficult questions were finalized a couple of weeks ago, when I, on the final time I would ask that question with any authority, asked ‘Do you take this woman….’
He was ready for that question, he was ready to answer.
God is working this way with the Hebrews, accepting them where they are and growing them up. They will not always be successful, they will not always listen, they will not always follow, regardless, God still starts where they are.
It all begins with us being honest before God, it is that same honesty through out our life that permits God to continue leading with us from where we are taking us where he needs us to be next.
Oddly, it was the honesty of the Hebrews before God that produced their complaining. They had no pretense before God, their complaining was truly honest.
That complaining place soon, after they learn and grow, will not be an honest place, however, right now, right there, it was.
Soon, they will understand their choices and God will begin asking, “Is that a good choice?”
Later, complaining is not going to be a good choice because it will not longer come from a place of honesty. The complaining will instead come from laziness, from self inflicted ignorance, from disobedience. It will no longer be honest.
But for now it is honest, for now this was an honest place for them to be, for now it was exactly where God was able to meet them.
This is the grace we spoke of last week, it is God’s ‘patience through the complaining’, it is a ‘multiple chances’ mindset, it is a ‘as long as you can be pursued, I will pursue’ determination of God, it is the honest state of the character and nature of God. It flows through God’s love and bathes us in his mercy as long as we are willing to be in the tub.
Thousands of years later, during the week of the cross, Jesus is in the Temple square teaching his followers and other interested bystanders. This was not an unusual situation, it was a very typical ordinary sight. After all, it was a very Holy Week. It was the week that many Jewish pilgrims would make their way to Jerusalem for the week long festival of Pesach, or Passover, commemorating the Jewish deliverance from bondage in Egypt.
The streets, and the Temple Square, were packed. Rabbis would be in the different areas of the square teaching there followers and others, just as Jesus was doing. However, the presence of Jesus was of particular interest on this day to everyone, including the High Priests and other religious leaders.
These leaders in Jerusalem, as opposed to the Pharisees and others leaders that we have seen conflict with Jesus up to this point, these leaders had a much more powerful responsibilities and authority. It would not have been uncommon for them to be listening to the various lectures being given by the teachers and rabbis, checking for accuracy and attempting to weed out any false teaching and heretics. They also had actually authority and power to confront and remove heretics if needed, in extreme cases they had the authority to discipline or turn over to the Roman government for punishment.
On this day, Jesus was teaching, and there was a lot of interest.
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The leaders asked Jesus.
Jesus heard their question, it was not a bad or inappropriate question to be asking, it was their job. The problem, however, was their heart. Jesus knew that this was not an honest question, they, in asking, were not being genuine. Their goal was not about authority, their goal was to discredit Jesus’ actions and words. Jesus answered their hearts instead of their words.
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
Jesus, in looking at their dishonest hearts, knew that they wanted to get rid of this ‘Jesus Problem.’ He had entered the city to the cheers of the people, and when these leaders had requested that he calm the people down before they get out of control, Jesus’ response had been,
“If I quiet them then the rocks will start to scream and shake.”
Jesus was a problem, the leaders were hoping to squelch the problem right now. However, now their dishonesty was seen by Jesus. They had known that Jesus would ascribe his authority to the Father, and would back it up scripturally – however, they had also known that the crowd would be easy to manipulate. If the leaders could fashion their words just right, they could easily appear to be the ‘real spiritual authority’ to these ‘mindless’ followers of Jesus. The leaders, like many political and religious leaders before and after them, felt certain that a few key vague words and ambiguous accusations would easily manipulate the crowd. Which, by the end of the week, they did.
Now, however, Jesus saw their dishonesty, he answered their hearts not their manipulative words.
Jesus asked again “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The leaders huddled up. The usual deceitful tactics of calling Jesus a ‘liberal’ or saying that he ‘was not really Jewish’ were not going to work, at least not now. Jesus, in front of the crowd, had placed the leaders in a corner where their dishonesty was on display
This crowd still loved John the Baptizer and to say he was not from God would make the crowd upset. If they said that John’s authority was from God, they would be affirming the authority of Jesus.
It was a lose-lose situation. Either way, they were not going to walk away winners, and either way, they were going to walk away in a mess of trouble.
Finally, they dishonestly said, “We don’t know.”
To this, Jesus responds with a parable of two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One of the sons says that he will work but does not, the other says that he will not work but does.
One had dishonestly said ‘yes’, the other had honestly answered ‘no’. The dishonest son was not pursuable, he had no intention to work, so he used deceptive words to hide his heart. The other had no intention to work, was honest about it, and then, was open to change. He was pursuable. He worked in the vineyard.
Jesus was comparing the religious leaders to the dishonest son. They knew God, they had the avenue to read the prophets, they had the ability to recognize Jesus. In accepting their roles as leaders they had said that they would look for the Messiah, now, when it was time to do the hard work, they rolled over and went back to sleep.
It was an odd comparison, the crowds probably didn’t realize what was happening except that it was uncomfortable, but these leaders did. They had made the choice to not be pursuable by God, so they rolled back over and looked for an easier way to rid themself of this ‘Jesus problem’.
God had listened to the hearts of the freed Hebrews as they entered the unknown and learned to relate to an unfamiliar God. God listened to the hearts of the religious leaders in the Temple Square. God listens to our hearts.
Midway between the Hebrews deliverance and the moment of Jesus in the temple, we have another applicable moment. Isaiah and Jeremiah were working to bring the people back to God before the destruction and exile took place. God called the religious practices of the people phony, he called their personal faith insincere, he called the religious establishment corrupt and in collusion with the politicians. He called them dishonest.
God listens to our hearts; God responds to the cries, our questions, our struggles; God takes our hearts where they are and, with our honesty, takes us to where we are ready to be. This is the outflow of love that carries God’s grace.
The constant question for us is –
What is your heart honestly screaming out to God?
In our epistle reading this week we returned to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The church at Philippi had a special place in Paul’s heart, he had a special affinity for the the folks at Philippi. I will be honest, the manner in which he writes to this group has always been difficult for me to justify. He tells the church that they are to have the same love, the same mind, that they are to always agree – but then, at the same time he says to them ‘Work out your own salvation.’ It would seem that he was saying be the same and, recognize your personal individuality. He is calling the church to do two opposing things at the same time.
Be the same, and be different.
Aristotelian thought was very common at the time, it emphasized the importance of the whole, of the group. The processing of this train of thought was that the health of the group is more important that the views of the individual. So, if you thought differently than your group you were to acquiesce, to just accept the group think and rid yourself of your thoughts and views. This meant that if you had a problem with the thinking or actions of the group it was best to go along, if you struggled with something the group had made a definitive decision on you were to go along and not ever let the group know of your struggle, if you were to feel a need to stick with your views, if you needed to share about your struggles, if you couldn’t agree entirely with the group, you needed to leave the group if you couldn’t change.
This thought process has been mastered by the church, especially since the American evangelical movement begin in the 1940s. It was also having a potentially devastating impact on the church at Philippi. We will learn in chapter four that there is a battle going on within the church between two individuals. The rest of the church is being forced to take a side, to agree with one or the other of these disgruntled individuals. It was not permissible to be objective, you could only love both sides if it was conditional and at a distance.
So, Paul said ‘be of the same mind, be of the same love, agree.’
How was this a solution? It would seem to affirm their Aristotelian leanings! I was still struggling with this as I woke up this morning.
Then, we found that our Presidential campaign sign had been removed from our yard overnight. As we went out to look, we saw that everyone who was supporting the same candidate as us was also missing their campaign signs. Our street is a political anomaly for Oklahoma, our yard signs consistently support the ultimate loser of the race.
In many ways, Norman as a whole has that reputation. We are, at least, more diverse as a population than most of the state.
That is not to say we don’t disagree. This past year this has become obvious as a group has made a very strong backdoor effort to take control and change our city codes, our education system, and more. This group has used the word ‘unite’ for their identity. However, as they have progressed their ‘unite’ has not been very unifying. As I considered our missing sign, the evidence that it was a problem for someone that our opinion was different that their opinion, God brought Paul’s plea to the Philippians to my mind and my heart. Paul was not saying they all had to be the same, but that the core of their thinking, the strength of their love, their fellowship, their mercy, their compassion was to be the same regardless of their own particular journey of salvation. Christ was their center, their journey was guided by him. It would not always look the same however.
When our political agenda, our economic strategies, our income, our education, our money, our poverty, our individual journeys begins to divide us within our faith – when we easily accept someone called a ‘liberal’ as bad, a ‘radical’ as too extreme, oddly, both of these words were used to describe Jesus, when we quickly accept, we have left Jesus for the group.
The church is called to called to be a place where individuals can be honest with each other and honest before God. Not judged or condemmed. The church is called to be a place where everyone is permitted their honest struggles and questions. If people cannot be honest the church can never encourage each person in their salvation journey.
Paul, said that if we can grasp this Godly form of unity, of honesty, we will show your love for each other. You will be united in your goals and in the way you think.You will not let selfishness or pride be your guide. You will be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. You will not be interested only in your own life, but you will care about the lives of others too.
It is a picture of a people who love God and others, all others. It is a people who are honest before God.