Years ago, when our kids were younger, I spent entirely too many hours one evening putting together a basketball goal in our garage. The reason this hour max project took so many additional hours was a small round metal object included in the assembly kit. At first, and even second glance, this, maybe 2 inch, piece seemed totally superfluous. So, I did what you do when you don’t know what to do with an unneeded piece, I quickly found a place where the object almost fit and crammed it in until it didn’t fall out. I gave little consideration that it might be of importance – I soon, however, discovered that it was of great importance. As I finished the project I found it would not stand alone. I was pretty sure that this was not right – I had seen enough inspirational basketball movies to know that something was wrong. As I analyzed this conundrum I recognized the problem. It needed of a small, 2 inch round metal piece at the base of the post. Embarrassingly, it took me a few moments before I remembered that I actually already had small round piece of metal that was crammed into another slot. I disassembled the entire project and reassembled it with every piece, including the small round metal piece in its appropriate spot, the goal stood tall, just like in Space Jam.
Sometimes we are not as smart as we think we are, sometimes we are not as wise as we want to be, sometimes we are not as discerning as we need to be, sometimes we are not as confident as we could be, sometimes we are not as patient about seeking answers as we are called to be. Sometimes we disregard a useless piece that is actually critical to our mission.
Our gospel passage this week is a difficult read. It is especially troublesome when we consider the fact that this was the last official teaching moment that Jesus spent just with his followers. It was of urgent importance.
In 1517, an obscure German monk named Martin Luther challenged 95 theology points that made up the prominent Christian thought. The one we are most aware of is his insistence that our salvation comes through faith, not faith in our works but faith in the works of Jesus Christ. His premise was based on the Apotle Paul’s writing to the Ephesians
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.’
We owe Martin Luther and his brave contemporaries for taking the risky stand and insisting the religious institution recognize this. However, we must also realize that Luther had a small round piece of metal he did not know what to do with still laying on the floor of his study. The next verse is a light from the window reflecting on the metal piece, constantly blinding Luther as he continued to work.
‘For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’
Martin Luther was convinced that any teachings, especially the book of James and its emphasis on doing good, that did not blatantly proclaim salvation by grace did not belong anywhere near the ‘gospel’ writings of the apostle Paul that he said…
‘St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.’
― Martin Luther
Luther erred in that he felt that the ‘gospel’ is just about eternal salvation. However, the true gospel is is found in everything about Jesus, for that matter, everything about God – it is all essential to understanding the gospel, the good news. This truth is the missing piece that keeps us standing upright, it turns us away from a totally selfish Christianity that leads our focus to self and our own agendas.
Later, another German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke to the small round piece of metal on Martin Luther’s floor, saying.
‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.’
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letting me start with the basic premise of this message, let’s take a moment to begin to grasp the basic point of what I am going to be saying this morning.
Our deliverance from a hopeless filled void of eternity is in the person and work of Jesus Christ, we have nothing to do with it except that we recognize truth and embrace it with our whole being. Being a good person does not give us an out on eternal hopelessness because we are unable to be that good, only Jesus could.
However, the gospel is not just a truth about us, it is not just about the exit door from eternal hopelessness and despair. The gospel truth is about being in a place of eternal hope and what that creates in our very existence here and for eternity.
We were created, not just to find the escape, but to mercifully bind up the wounds, to compassionately address the needs, to show the way through our words, our actions, our very being. It is about doing good, the same good we hope others will do for us. This aspect of the gospel call is not for eternity, it is for now, it is what happens when we have the greatest investment possibly, this life of the Son of God, invested totally in each of us.
Mother Theresa said it succinctly and correctly, ‘The best gift we have been given is to feel alive while we are alive.
This week, as I struggled with our gospel passage God brought me back to Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus. The believers in the city of Ephesus had a small round metal piece problem. In Ephesians chapter 1, Paul says:
‘I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the boundless greatness of His power toward us who believe.’ (NASB)
Now, how could they, how can we, not love a passage like this? Inheritance, boundless greatness, riches, power…those are promises that can grow a church!
But, now look at this passage from another, just as legitimate perspective:
‘I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can see something of the future God has called you to share. I want you to realize that God has been made rich because we who belong to Christ have been given to God! I pray that you will begin to understand how incredibly great God’s power is to help those who believe him.’ (TLB)
Did you hear that, ‘Godhas been made rich,not us but God, because we who belong to Christ have been given to him’? Let’s look back at the first translation,, a translation that is probably similar to your own Bibles – Look, there, on the floor, is our important piece, there it is in the first translation, it is saying the same thing as the second translation – ‘the riches of the glory of His inheritance IN the saints’
There it is – the word IN. It is lying there on the floor, completely dismissed, easy to step on it, its presence neven recognized. In this two letters, this small word, we can understand what has confused the church for centuries. These two letters ‘I’ and ’N’, this one word, ‘IN.’
I know a man spends a majority of his time watching the stock market on the computer screen, the television screen, in newspapers, and anywhere else he can find out the latest market news. He does this because he is invested in the market and has, in fact, placed all all of his funds in one stock. Everyday he continually looks at what he has invested his valuable resources ‘IN’. When that stock takes a nose dive, when that business experiences a financial disaster, he never considers trading that stock for another – He is invested ‘IN’ that stock, he believes in the work of that company, his hope is in that field, he has calculated that his most valuable resources are best placed with this institution. He has decided that his greatest assets will be most powerful when invested IN this stock.
So we see Jesus, speaking to his followers for the last teaching moment before his arrest. This is not one of his large hungry crowds that we saw earlier in his ministry, teaching a group of nonbelievers….this is a moment with this crowd of probably around 120 people, mostly those who would also be with Jesus after the resurrection. It is here, with this group of those who are already followers of Jesus, that he is explaining God’s entire investment strategy. Jesus is sharing that God has invested his all, his most valued asset, in them, in us. There is not plan B, this is where he has placed everything of true worth. This is to who he gave creation and this is who he gave Jesus.
Jesus message about sheep is not about salvation it is about life here on earth, it is about the abundance Christ desires that we live in. It is about lives that reflect God’s investment, it is about us recognizing that our relationship with God is not one sided, it is not just us escaping eternal hopelessness – No, it is about our participation and work to multiply God’s resource by us meeting our suffering world and seeking to do what Jesus did, striving to meet the needs with compassion and mercy, attempting to make our lives worthy of the most valuable investment that has been made in us. It is about how we interact, it is about how we treat others, it is about how we choose to love all, it is about how we vote, it is about how we spend, it is about how we walk with others, it is about our burdens in the face of injustice and oppression, it is about treating all people as the beloved created by God the creator.
God’s investment is Jesus, and his stock is you and me.
God is watching how his investment feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, inviting the stranger in, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner. He is seeing how our very presence is a proclamation of the God who has invested his all in us. He is seeing how these followers do not even realize that they are doing it, how they love without his push or prompting, how they care and show mercy without God saying screaming threats.
We are God’s INvestment plan. A plan that takes those who have INvested everthing they have, Invested everything that they are in God. A plan that leads him to pour all of his worth into these Invested individuals, into us, who have placed their hope, our hope, their eternity and our eternity, and their now and our now, in the same INvestment the God has chosen. A plan to see ‘his will be done on earth as it already is in Heaven.’
A plan to do, a plan to be, even when we do not realize that we are doing and being. A plan that will leave us asking, ‘WHEN DID I DO THAT?’ A plan that send us out to be his hands, his feet.
So, what does this mean in practical terms. As Paul closed out his first letter to the believers in Thessalonica he said, “I really do not need to tell you what to do, you already know that.’ And they did, and we do. It is the same thing that we have been told since the beginning. The prophet Micah was on the same path as the apostle Paul when he said to the wayward and struggling believers,
‘God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, to all people, be compassionate and loyal in your love…oh, and don’t be arrogant, don’t take yourself too seriously— instead take God seriously.’
What do we do with this, how can we be the highest preforming investment in God’s singular portfolio?
First we seek to know God, not our self centered view of God, but God. A type of understating that trumps all other views. A recognition that is allowed to change everything in our life, our agendas, our judgement, our doubts, our fears, our faith, our relationship with God. A transformed mindset that is permitted to alter us to the very core.
Second, look at life and evaluate all your values, your views, you judgements, your condemnation, your religious practices, your stances, your everything and ask yourself, ‘Is this increasing the value of God’s investment in me?’
Third, give the Holy Spirit free reign in your life. Hold nothing back, let the Spirit clean out you closets and every corner of your life. Let the Spirit sweep out hatred, and anything that you have forgotten is there, everything that is devaluing God’s investment in you.
Fourth, Know God, Follow God, Know God More, Follow God More – in the life where God has placed you, be His investment in you, to the point that you will ask, ‘When Did I Do That?’
5. Important Note: All four of these points are dependent on each other. We cannot do any of these without the willingness and opening of our humanity and, at the same time we cannot do any of these apart from the freedom of the Holy Spirit to work in our life. We are not puppets and the Holy Spirit is not a magician changing us apart from our work or willingness. Christ identified the Holy Spirit as being a helper, a helper can only help when we are willing to be helped and are willing to be the active participant in this help. This word helper, also found in Genesis 2 when God says that he is going to create a ‘suitable helpter’ for Adam – a helper comes along side, a helper prompts and sometimes pushes but nothing is possible if we are not open and willing – willing to do the difficult word and make the necessary sacrifices.
So, we close with this question: What are the current returns on God’s INvestment in you?
Audrey Hepburn note to composer Henry Mancini, 1961
I have just seen our picture – BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S – this time with your score. A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality. Your music has lifted us all up and sent us soaring. Everything we cannot say with words or show with action you have expressed for us. You have done this with so much imagination, fun and beauty. You are the hippest of cats – and the most sensitive of composers!
Thank you, dear Hank. Lots of love, Audrey
We seldom forget the impact of a well said word of encouragement, a well written note of affirmation, or even the simplest nod of approval – such moments can lift us up, they can carry us through, they spur us on – they lift our spirits and send us sailing through the good times and the horrible times, in our times of doubt and in our times of greatest confidence.
I frequently think of the apostle Paul’s opening words to the church at Philippi – ‘Every time I think of you I am filled with Joy!’ I cannot imagine the thoughts that must have gone through the minds of those who heard these words.
Or, in Paul’s opening affirmation to the church at Thessalonica as he wrote, ‘We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering your faith, labor of love, and steadfastness hope. We know that God has chosen you. You received God’s truth with joy in the midst of persecution and bad times, and you became an example to all the believers in your community and beyond. God’s truth has been seen and heard in every place your faith has become known – I have people telling me they already know what I have to say because they have heard it from you, and even more, they have seen it in your life – I am so inspired by you!’
Even more encouraging is Paul’s final words to the Thessalonianhs, ‘We don’t really need to write anything else to you, you know what I will say – the day of the Lord will arrive without warning and you need to always be ready. So, we leave you with this (again you already know this) – encourage and build up each other, – which you are already doing. Respect and esteem the attitude, spirit, and work of those who are working hard. Be at peace among yourselves. Guide the lazy, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil, but always do good to one another and, for that matter, to everyone. Rejoice always, pray constantly, and, now in your situation I know this is tough, always give thanks in whatever is happening. Don’t ignore or dismiss what the Spirit is doing. Remember truth and test everything to make sure it is not lies or darkness; hang on to what is good and turn away from what is evil.’
To encourage and build each other up is a necessity, not just in our faith, but in life. We need each other, in bad but also in the good times. It is in its absence that the sufferings of Jesus on the cross were so abominable – He was all alone, going through the most horrific moment that has ever been experienced by any human, the physical pain, the emotional humiliation of the false accusations that put him there, the spiritual unbearable weight of the sins of all mankind, and the loneliness, separation, and isolation in that moment.
That is why it had to be God’s son on the cross, not just because he was the only pure and spotless one, nor was it just because he alone was righteous and holy, it was because only he could take our journey of separation and isolation, our journey that could only be done alone.
There were only 2 times when our earthly human element of time impacted our timeless God, the first was the creation and the second was giving Jesus from his birth to the empty grave. An agonizing wait and an unimaginably sacrificial act. For Jesus was a part of a community, a community that built him up, encouraged him through, and loved him fully – this community was first the Godhead and then an earthly community, an extended family, of humans. He too, in the same way as us, suffered greatly without the encouragement of those communities.
Today, we look at an example of this encouragement and building up each other spoken of by Paul to the church at Thessalonica. It is not an example from Jesus words to his followers or his moments with those closest to him, nor is it from the apostles letters and travels to lift up the believers. Instead, it comes from the book of Judges and ultimately culminates with a hammer, a tent peg, and a woman willing to do what needed to be done in order to build up those who were in the greatest need of encouragement, deliverance, and hope.
It is the story of two exceptionally strong women, who, in today’s vernacular would probably be referred to as beasts – not because of their appearance or presentation. Beast, because in a society that dismissed women, these women did all that needed to be done, in faith and action to listen and act on the words from God, to encourage and build up a leader to go to battle against an oppressive and warring neighbor, with a people against their fiercest enemy.
It is also a tale of a man who was not afraid to depend on his community to build him up and encourage him along in the times when he knew he could not succeed without his community.
Let’s begin with a little context, after the death of Joshua who lead the Israelites into the promised land, the leadership fell to individuals called Judges who would literally the judge of disputes among the people and they would lead the people when leadership was needed. The first three judges reigned for approximately 138 combined years after the death of Joshua – Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, all were men. By the time the fourth judge was in the position of authority, a woman named Deborah, the Israelites had turned from God who was in the process of correcting them through the brutal oppression and attacks from Canaan King Jabin and his sadistic military leader Sisera.
Then, the moment God was waiting for, it is the moment that God still waits for, the moment when we, as humans, realize that our hope and deliverance is not in our selves, it is not in our rulers, it is not in our institutions, it is not in our power, it is in God – it is in God alone. It was at that moment, as it is always in that moment, God set into motion the plan that was already in place – God heard and God acted.
God began with Deborah, the prophetess and judge. The wife of a man whose surname was Lappidoth; a name that meant lightning and a torch. Not only was Deborah’s surname defining her as power and light, she was also a faithful follower of God, a woman whose confidence was in God, a human who was chosen to speak for God, a beloved who was willing to be used by God.
‘Speak this to the leader Barak’, God instructs Deborah.
So, Deborah does as Deborah always does, she obeys God and speaks to Barak. ‘God, the God of Israel, commands you: Go to Mount Tabor and prepare for battle. Gather ten thousand fighters. I’ll take care of getting Sisera the commander of Jabin’s army, to the Kishon River with all his chariots and troops. I WILL make sure you win the battle.’
Barak said to Deborah, ‘If you go with me, I’ll go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
Deborah said, ‘Of course I’ll go with you. But you need to know now that there’ll be no glory, nor public acclaim for you. Instead, God will use a woman to take get rid of the commander Sisera.”
Sometimes we can see more in what is not said than in what is actually said.
I have never heard this passage preached, and quite honestly I have never preached this passage without labeling Barak as a coward. Usually, our own biases, insecurities, and prejudices keep us from seeing truth that is right in front of us. Most of the time we let our own closed minds keep us from opening up amazing gems that are right in front of our nose. Instead of this story depicting a slam on gender, it is not really a story of gender at all, nor is it really about the manly action of going to war. It is in fact a story of the need of all of us to be ready to permit someone else to be the light that God leads us with, a directional sign that leads us to the path and keeps us on course.
This is a story of encouragement and building another up, it is an unique visual of what it looks like to be the encourager and the builder, however, it also reveals the need to permit God to strengthen us through all that he sends our direction.
When Paul spoke to the church at Thesslonica, to the Hebrews, and at Corinth, he applauded them for the fact that they been ‘imitators of Paul and his companions’, he encouraged the Hebrews to ‘imitate those who were following Jesus.’ He was not telling them to follow humans instead of Jesus, but, he was pointing them to those who could build them up and encourage them to actually follow Christ. It was and is a first step of many steps for a believer.
When John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus and told his disciples ‘that is who I have been telling you about, that is the one I have been building you up to follow, that is the one I am encouraging you to trust.’ Then, as the John’s disciples left to follow Jesus, John was not offended, he may have been lonely but he knew this was the whole reason they had been ‘imitating’ him, so that they could then imitate and follow Jesus.
Barak was not a coward, he was a man who knew his limitations, his weakness, in light of what he saw in Deborah. He saw her presence before God, her ability to listen and hear God – he knew that for Deborah, God was truly God. This was new to him as his generation had turned their backs on God.
As I said, it is often what we do not see, what he do not hear in scripture that teaches us the most. We do not see any further doubt or hesitancy, Barak obeyed, he just needed to be built up, he knew he was going to need the encouragement in the dark times to come. To Barak it was not about himself, it was not about acclaim, fame, or position. It was about God’s plan in response to the cries from the people, the people that included Barak.
While our own biases interpret Deborah’s words as a belittling of Barak because of a negative mindset towards her own gender, we, through our filters, read it as a challenge to his manhood. However, we do not see this in his reaction, it is just information regarding the plan, information that will guide him in trusting Jael as she tells him to come into her house to see what she has accomplished.
Barak needed the same thing that Paul told the Thessalonians they needed – building up and encouragement. They were to be that and to accept that.
Even if it was from those culturally considered to be ‘less than’ himself.
So, it was a woman named Jael, a woman that we only know as a ‘wife’, a woman who was considered an ally of Sisera, a woman who was not part of the oppressed people, a woman who was not even an Isrealites nor a Jew. A woman who did what had to be done, a woman who, somehow, knew what God was calling her to do. A woman who knew how to swing a hammer, a talent that sustained her at the right time and in the right place.
So, as we close, we return to the apostle Paul’s words to the believers at Thessalonica, we return to the words of Paul to us.
‘I don’t really need to write anything else to you, you know what I will say – the day of the Lord will arrive without warning and you need to always be ready. So, we leave you with this (again you already know this) – encourage and build up each other, – which you are already doing. Respect and esteem the attitude, spirit, and work of those who are working hard. Be at peace among yourselves. Guide the lazy, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil, but always do good to one another and, for that matter, to everyone. Rejoice always, pray constantly, and, now in your situation I know this is tough, always give thanks in whatever is happening. Don’t ignore or dismiss what the Spirit is doing. Remember truth and test everything to make sure it is not lies or darkness; hang on to what is good and turn away from what is evil.’
We are in scary and bizarre times. We are now approaching eight full months since we went entirely online for our Sunday worship. At that time I am sure most of thought that we would be back together by summer, we are way beyond summer. We had a surge in Covid cases then a decrease now we are hitting record numbers again and predictions of a surge of infections that we cannot fathom. We have seen racial unrest and a major ‘Love your neighbor’ reckoning that should have been dealt with, by the church, decades, if not centuries, ago. We have craziness in our politics and now an election just two days away that has many feeling anxious and afraid. We have seen domestic terrorist groups come out of the woodwork, unapologetic white supremacy no longer hiding behind masks and hoods, and people of color continue to be killed. We have seen confusion at our borders leaving thousands of refugees in danger while border officials attempt to adapt to constantly changing rules and processing record numbers of families and children with as much dignity and humanity as is possible under the circumstances. This morning we have faces on our screens that have dealt with trees and branches falling due to ice build up, power outages that have gone on for days, and neighbors depending on their fireplaces for heat and to cook, not to mention our homeless looking for a safe and somewhat warm place to take shelter. In additions to those faces, we also are able to see those living in the southwest who have immediate family members fighting dangerous fires while leaving family at home with concerns of their own fires. We also hear of the hurricane devastation to our south for a region that is still recovering from the last weather disaster.
And so, in these times, on this morning, we gather. We gather to seek and search for truth in a time when deceit has become acceptable and expected. We gather to look for light in a time when darkness has become comfortable. We gather to worship a God who does not desire us to live in fear, in exhaustion, in frustration, in hopelessness.
The most frequently used group of words in the combined Old and New Testaments are the words –
and the word ‘Fear’. These words in various forms are found 365 times. One for each day of the year. One for every day to remind us that God does not desire that we live in fear. One for every day that we are overwhelmed, out of control, or simply not in control of our situation, the behavior of others and our surroundings. One for every fearful situation, every tragedy, every failure, every loss, every emotional roller coaster, every time living in this world is more difficult than the day before. One for every single day that God desires us to live in peace, regardless of the situation and emotions.
This is not a ‘just don’t be fearful’ grouping of words, we know that would be a waste of words. Sometimes ‘just don’t be afraid’ combinations of words are beyond impossible.
When our daughter Grace was very young, she was convinced there was a monster in her room. Every night I would look under the bed, behind the door, in the dresser drawers only for her to eventually figure out that the monster was in her closet. So, I began looking in there as well – thanks to a Pixar animated movie where a furry looking blue monster with hhis annoying yet funny eyeball friend were able to not be seen hiding in closets by adults, an adult looking in the closet was a total waste of time. There was no way for this adult, me, to sooth this fear from a child who was the only one capable of seeing the monster. Finally, I realized that I was incapable of removing this scary monster from her bedroom and probably the entire house, but, I was capable of removing the ultra scary impact of this monster hiding in the closet. So, we installed a latch at the top of the closet doors which made it impossible for the monster to get out at night. So, after that, every night I would simply latch the monster lock and she could go to sleep in the same room with a monster in the closet.
God is not removing the scary things, we live in a world where we all have the choice to be scary, to be deceitful, to be hateful, to be racists, to be all the things that can hide in our closets – however, God give us truth, he gives us light, which, in turn, gives us hope and peace. God gives us the latch to take away the need to Be Afraid in the midst of our scary situations.
Jesus, in our gospel passage, and Micah in our Old Testament passage, for this week, are both addressing this truth. They are warning the people of who they listen to and who they follow.
“Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray” cried the prophet Micah, “those who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”
Micah, a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, was calling the people back to God before disaster hit, at the same time false prophets appointed by the politicians in conjunction with the religious leaders were telling the people ‘Everything is fine’ and the people were choosing to listen to the easy message. All the while, Micah knew that the only way to avoid the oncoming very scary situation was only avoidable if they listen and turned to God. The people, much like people today, didn’t want to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable, so they listened to the voices that were soothing, those who were not going to cost them anything, those who were not going to call for a sacrifice of any kind.
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;” Jesus later proclaimed, “therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Matthew 23:2-4, 11-12
Jesus, just two days from his arrest that would lead to the cross, was preparing his followers for another oncoming tragedy, the cross and their ultimate persecution. His warning was also about who they listened to, they could listen to the politicians and religious leaders or they could remember the words spoken and lived out in the life of Jesus. While Jesus was being called a radical liberal threat, the political and religious leaders were familiar to the people,, they were comfortable. Jesus was pointing out the hypocrisy and deceit coming from the leaders’ mouths.
Jesus and Micah both were calling the people to seek truth and to step into the light. It remains our calling today.
“O send out your light and your truth;” the Psalmist begs God, “let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
“We constantly give thanks to God for this” the apostle Paul says later to the believers in Thessalonica, “that when you received the word” (Remember that ‘the Word’- Logon/Logos (root), a word that has been spoken by God/Jesus and implied through the life of Jesus-how he lived consistently – it is the truth) Paul continues “ when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
I Thessalonians 2:13
’What it really is – God’s word’ – Truth – Paul is calling the believers to live a life of differentiation, to separate lies from truth. To not become comfortable with the darkness.
When we speak of ‘Truth’ and ‘Light’ we often designate the both to religious or holy things, but truth is for all things, all times, every area of our life. Truth and Light are timeless. Our bibles give us God’s Words and his workings, it provides us with a real life portrait of this spoken and lived out word in the life of God’s son. That Word, verbal and lived out, are to give us the wisdom and the tools to seek, search, and find, Truth and Light.
Biblical scholar Peter Enns puts it this way, “When we allow the Bible to determine our expectations, we see that Wisdom, not answers, is the Bible’s true subject matter.”
See, God gives wisdom to differentiate truth from lies, wisdom to differentiate darkness from light. Truth does not always give us specific answers, because questions change over generations, but truth, and light, leads us to the wisdom to find the answer. This is why God was so pleased when King Solomon, who could ask for anything he wanted, asked for wisdom. God knew that wisdom could give him the ability to differentiate between truth and lies, between light and darkness.
Now, wisdom only takes us as far as our use of wisdom is permitted to lead. Solomon chose to step away from the wisdom he had been given and soon was unaware of the lies and darkness that he was choosing.
Oddly, in a time where we have access to facts and figures, it is also a time when we are least determined to search and find truth, it is a time when light is at our fingertips but we have become satisfied with darkness. We settle for the information that comes from the source we have chosen because it appears to align most with our own viewpoints, we are fed our own choice of news by the algorithms that match our data, and we angrily defend our stance based on truth that has not been truly vetted by us. We get angry and hostile when other views are expressed which is what happens when we have not verified truth for ourself. A recent study has found that this is a problem across the spectrum, young people, elementary age through college and young adults are ill prepared to find truth, instead they, like us, are settling for the lies and the darkness
Truth works in tandem with Light. One leads to the other and then back again. Light differentiates between truth and lies – Truth leads us to a life in the light. Truth leads us to light, light leads us to truth. Truth leads us to light out of the darkness, light leads us to truth out of the lies.
When our power went out this past Tuesday we didn’t think much of it, however as the week progressed, the darkness and the cold began to take its toll. We had assumed that we were pretty tough, but as the numbers on our thermostat began to decrease, and we had to live in darkness and without Netflix day after day, night after night, we began to recognize a truth – we are not so tough. Solitaire and carrying branches can only keep your attention so long. So, on Friday afternoon, when we first experienced power of light and heat and hot water….and Netflix, we were reenergized, we suddenly had the ability to carry more limbs and play more solitaire. We could see as we walked down the hall, we could feel the tips of our fingers again, and home was home once again. Now, it went out again after two hours, but those moments in the light were amazing! We did get it back that evening, when we, once again, realized that we are actually super tough.
Look at the difference – Darkness divides, Light unifies
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
I John 1:5-7
Light or Darkness, it’s Your Choice
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”
Four Questions to Ask Yourself in All Your Searches for Light and Truth.
Is it in harmony with God’s baseline to Love God and Love Others? Or, does it conflict with that baseline? Is this going to enhance and grow my love for God and others? Does it lead me to ‘Love my Neighbor” does it lead me to “Love all my neighbors?’
Does it hold back the darkness, or does it seem to have dark shadows itself” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse recently said, “When you find hypocrisy in the daylight look for evil in the shadows.”
Is it consistent with God’s word? Remembering that God’s word is the words spoken by God, [which is not the same as the things that humans say God means] Also, God’s word is the transparent life lived by God in the person of Jesus Christ. Is it consistent with the life lived by Jesus?
Will it lead me to have attitudes and actions that will guide me to a life that positively impacts others? Will it lead me to lead others to truth and light?
‘A Relationship with God.’ It is a vernacular of much of the Christian community and finds its roots in the fairly recent history. Abbie and Billy just sang of it in the Sandra McCracken song,
I cannot see him, But oh how I love him. I cannot see him, but I believe, I know he walks with me. I believe, that he walks with me.
Merle Haggard sang of it as well,
And the voice i hear falling on my ear, The son of god discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me. And he tells me i am his own. And the joy we share, As we tarry there, none other has ever known.
A relationship with God is a tough thing to quantify. He is unseen, seldom heard, He seems absent in our difficult days and no where to be found in the midst of our loneliness. Moses expressed the same frustrations. It is in the life of Moses, that we see a most intriguing relationship with God. In fact, our passage tells us, there has never been a prophet with a similar relationship since.
Our Deuteronomy passage this week brings us the the death of Moses. The story of Moses is significant from the moment of Moses’ birth all the way until his death. It is the tale of learning to trust and follow God. A tale of a human who was willing to take off his shoes.
His life begins with the bold and risky moves of three woman who deliver the deliverer of a people. Incidentally, this is also the tale of the first female primary protagonists in scripture.
Moses’ life plays a major role in the three main religions on the planet earth – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In addition, most of the other Middle Eastern religions pay some sort of homage to Moses.
Moses spends the first decades of his life living as entitled royalty only to then be rejected by everyone. He, a man who was craving anonymity, was called to be a voice advocating for the oppressed. He is a key character in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and a core element in God’s promise of a people and a land. He is central to the establishment of the religion of Judaism. And, Moses removes his shoes.
The final encounter between God and Moses takes place on Mount Nebo with a view of the promised land. God kept a promise to Moses – a promise to show him the promise land. Moses stood there with God looking out over the land of the land of the Canaanites promised to the Israelites. It was a front row to seat to a land he would never enter. This was also an affirmation of the character of God. Moses, near the end of the journey, tired and exhausted by the complaints of the people, had acted in a disobedient way. A maverick, disobedient, exhausted leader would have been a disaster in leading the people into the promised land. It was time for Moses to rest, it was time for a new leader. ‘I am the Lord, I will be gracious and I will show mercy’ God had promised Moses. As Moses looked out over the promised land, God was acting out of that grace and mercy. Moses was done, he had done all that his calling required, it was time to pass the torch. God in his grace and mercy permitted Moses rest.
To grasp the calling of Moses we must see it through the filter of Christ.
As believers in Jesus Christ we cannot dismiss the significance of the role played by Moses in our own faith. God gifts the law to the Israelites through Moses. You may have noticed that in our readings this morning we had two that sounded almost identical – that is because the words of our Matthew passage were actually the words from God given to Moses from our Leviticus passage.
Word that we know as the greatest commandments, words that are the summation of the law, words that Jesus said to silence the antagonists.
‘You SHALL love your neighbor as yourself.’
A message that humanity still struggles to grasp even today
At Moses’ death, a brief and concise obituary is given,
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.
The relationship between God and Moses is described as being unmatched and face to face. Their’s was truly a discourse, the two would discuss, God would instruct, they would talk each other back in moments of greatest frustration with the people, Moses even confronted God with the promises God had made – it was a back and forth that we can only imagine was God’s intention for the garden.
Possibly, more than ever, the ‘face to face’ description holds our interest even more in this time of pandemic, political fear and unrest. We may be living in a time that has more in common with the days of Moses than ever before. The question lies in the hebrew words
panim el panim – literally means face to face
These Hebrew words describe people talking and interacting literally ‘face to face’. They are words that mean exactly what they say…face to face. These two spent as much as a month and a half, just the two of them, sitting arguing, debating, listening, encouraging, confronting, comforting. It was intimate, they were both fully present and fully invested. But, how could Moses be panim el panim with God? A human is incapable of handling a face to face with God. For 6 months we have struggled with the how of panim el panim – an previously ordinary action that threatens life. God and Moses had to figure it out just as we have had to figure it all out. It was a burden but they did it, we don’t really know how, but they did, and it worked, – theirs’ was a very unique relationship for a very unique time and situation, as is ours. Working together to figure out the mechanics of a panim el panim when the very act of panim el panim was is always a challenge but God uses it to strengthen our relationships.
Moses was called to unify a divided people so that they could be a functioning people ready for the difficult transition to freedom. God’s plan called for a unified people – a unity that God would use to break the hardened Pharaoh. God’s calling of Moses was in the midst of Moses ordinary daily routine, a moment just like all other moments, however, this moment would become a holy and defining. It was a moment that could only begin when Moses removed his shoes.
Moses said, “I must go over and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that Moses was approaching the bush, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no closer! Remove the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Then God introduced himself to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
In those few words of introduction the limitations and restrictions to be overcome are given, the recognition of God as the ‘I Am’, the holy nature, and most importantly the invitation to enter into the relationship.
‘Remove the shoes Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.’
Moses was not a religiously educated human, nor were the people religiously savvy. There was little known about God other than the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. They were a people holding onto a centuries old promise. Taking off shoes was huge. Being on holy ground was mysterious. A bush was burning that did not burn up, an angel and now he was being spoken to by God. Moses remained, shoeless, vulnerable, not invisible, hands over his face, on holy ground.
This was the origin of the genuine relationship between God and Moses. Moses accepted this relationship as he removed his shoes. “Take off your shoes Moses. You are standing on Holy Ground.”
Thousands of years after Moses took off his shoes, another man named Martin Luther King stood on the holy ground of the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the the evening of April 3, 1968 and King unknowingly was about to preach the final sermon of his life, for the next day he would be assassinated by a gunman. As he spoke he harkened to that moment of Moses on Mount Nebo as God showed him the Promised Land. King preached
‘We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity. It’s alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’
God’s call to deliver the oppressed did not end with Moses, nor did it end with Martin Luther King. It was the call Jesus gave to his apostles, it remains God’s call on us today. It is verbal call to us from God, it is the post ascension work of the apostles and all those who have come before us. It is the call to us to follow God and imitate his work of grace and mercy in a world that has forgotten to love others, a world that has failed to bring justice to the oppressed, to reveal hope to a hopeless world.
The command remains the same for us that was given to Moses.
‘Remove your shoes, you are on holy ground.”
Our holy ground is our homes, our work, our front yards, it is at the grocery store and the restaurant, it is on the road and it is in the voting booth, it is in our churches, it is across town, across the nation, across the oceans, all over the world – wherever and however we are panim el panim in the midst of life.
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.
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.