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Showing posts with label Love. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Love. Show all posts

Monday, July 22, 2019

Glory in the Heavens


Introduction
When I think of July, I think of fireworks.  Most people probably don't think of Christmas in July.  But it's not a bad idea.  December is such a busy month and the holiday season is so commercialized; the true meaning of Christmas can get lost amidst all the hype and Christmas lights. So today, let's keep our thoughts firmly focused on the Christ Christmas celebrates. 

Slides – Luke 2:6-15
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Pointing People to God
Listen to that...  Do you hear it?  Silence is never really silent, is it?  There's always some sound in the background.  People coughing and shuffling their feet; the sound of the air conditioner running.  I wonder what sounds the shepherds heard that night as they were watching their sheep in the dead of the night outside Bethlehem. A fire crackling or sheep noises.  You only hear those kinds of sounds if you're quiet and paying attention. And so it was for the shepherds that night in Bethlehem when an angel appeared among them.  It was quiet and they were listening for any sounds that seemed out of the ordinary--a wild animal or some other danger.  That made the approach of the angel all that more obvious as the glory of God shown around them.  They came to point people to Jesus.

Jesus came to point people to God.   For years, God had sent signs to point people to God, but they were always missed or ignored. We’re usually too busy or self-absorbed to notice; and so God came Himself in the person of Jesus.  God really didn't want us to miss Him this time.  So God also sent angels to point the shepherds to the baby Jesus lying in a manger in Bethlehem.

The Angels
The angels came to point people to Jesus.  I have never seen an angel, let alone a whole host of them as the Christmas story describes. Have you? I've heard stories of other who've seen angels.  And the Bible tells many stories of their appearance.  The book of Hebrews in the New Testament advises that we should always be kind to strangers, because you never know if it might be an angel in disguise.  I have never seen and angel (at least that I was aware of).  However, I have seen many other glorious wonders in Heaven that have pointed me toward Jesus and God.

Fireworks
Many people have seen fireworks blasting away in the sky this month.  Did you?  Do you remember the first time you saw fireworks?  I do.  What a glorious sight to see the colorful, sparkling lights fanning out like giant fiery hydrangeas in the sky!  To a young child, these are fascinating and captivating and beautiful.  As an adult, now more aware of the meaning of the Fourth of July as the celebration of our nation’s independence, the fireworks are even more magnificent because they represent to me how God set our nation free from the tyranny of Great Britain, against all odds.  And I can see God’s hand at work in the development of our nation as I remember how many have sacrificed throughout the years.

Lightning
But there is another light show in the sky that points me to God—lightening.  Many are afraid of thunderstorms.  I was too when I was a young child.  To help, my mom would take me out on our screened-in front porch and hold me while we watched the storm together.  It is one of my fondest early memories—sitting in my mother’s lap in a rocking chair and her soothing voice, feeling the hot summer air quickly cooled by the wet rain falling as a misty breeze filtered through the screens.  And up in the sky, you can see the lightning flicker across the clouds away in the distance, like fire flickering in a giant, Japanese lantern floating across the sky.  And the deep rolling of the thunder that speaks of a tremendous underlying power in this world.  How glorious!  If there is a Creator who made it all, how glorious and beautiful and powerful must He be.

Stars
Do you ever go out at night, in the quiet, and just stare up at the stars?  I admit, I used to do it a lot more than I do now.  There is too much to distract me these days.  But as a child, we didn’t have air conditioning in our home and it was quite hot in the house by evening.  So, I often stayed outside in the summer for as long as I could.  And up in the sky you can see the same stars the shepherds saw in Bethlehem.  Throughout the ages, people have speculated as to what are these mysterious lights in the night sky.  Some have thought them to be gods or the spirits of their ancestors.  In modern times, science has shown they are giant balls of burning gas thousands of times a big as the earth and trillions of miles away.  The closest stars are around 4 light years away (i.e. it would take 4 years to get to them if you could travel at the speed of light).  The farthest stars are 5 billion light years away!  And there are about a billion trillion stars in the universe!  Some think science has disproved the existence of God.  But I look up at the glorious  stars in the heavens and see that God is more magnificent than we ever realized before!

Birds
I see living things in the heavens that point me to God too.  For instance, what a glorious thing it is to see a flock of pelicans soaring across the waves over the ocean.  How graceful they are—flying in perfect formation, making minute adjustments to the wind, barely needing to flap their wings, spotting a school of fish swimming in the water below, and then circling around to dive at breakneck speed and splash into the water to catch their meal.  We sometimes refer to an unintelligent person as a “bird-brain”.  That's ironic because with all our human intelligence and ingenuity, we only figured out how to fly relatively recently.  And now that we’ve had a little over a hundred years to practice, we still don’t even come close to the grace and beauty of a bird in flight.  If God created the birds that soar above, He is truly magnificent indeed.

People
And yet, He created people too.  And look at us!  We are amazing!  Of all the creatures in God’s green earth, we are unique and special!  There is no other animal like us.  The closest, scientists say, are chimpanzees.  And, yes, they are amazing too.  But there is no animal who can talk like us, write words on paper (and now type on a computer screen).  There is no animal that has looked at a bird and dreamed of being able to fly and then figured out how to do it.  There is no animal who has looked up at the stars in the night sky and wanted to go there and then built a rocket-ship to fly to the moon.  Some say that humans acquired these abilities by chance.  I say that makes no sense; I say the hand of God must have been involved for people to be so incredibly different from all the other creatures on the planet and to have learned all that we have and gained mastery of all others animals. 

Romans 1:20 All these things—fireworks, lightning, stars birds, people (and many more) point me to God.  It is absolutely true what Romans 1:20 says, “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”

If we just look around, the evidence it there.  The existence and nature of God should be obvious to anyone who is honestly searching for answers.

Jesus
But the glory of Christmas is that God didn't want to leave anything to chance.  Yes, we should know about God just by looking at all the glorious things He made.  But God wants to be absolutely sure you know Him.  And if you want a job done right, you do it yourself.  So God came Himself in the flesh.  Jesus is God. 

Matthew 1:23 - “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!  She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
John 1:1 - "In the beginning the Word already existed.  The Word was with God, and the Word was God." [Jesus is the Word.]
Hebrews 1:3 - "The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God..."
Colossians 1:15 - "Christ is the visible image of the invisible God."

Jesus is God.  He was God when the whole world was created.  He designed the birds and the clouds, and lightning and thunder.  He flung the stars across the universe with a word.  And He created you and me.   And yet, mysteriously, Jesus is also human.  He was human in every aspect: born as a baby, had to learn how to walk, grew up in a village, went to school, dealt with bullies and chores and being hungry and hot in the summertime and cold in the winter.  He knew about the yearnings of an adolescent heart, that wants to find their one true love and get married.  But Jesus, God in human flesh, came to our world for a special purpose.  He came to show us what God is like, how God loves us beyond all measure.  We are God’s one true love.  And He was willing to die for us.  And He did die for us on the cross at Calvary.

When we look at Jesus, we see God--the most perfect representation and proof of God.  We see God’s incredible love—to leave the glory of heaven to come live in our broken world and ultimately to die for us on a cross, to pay the price of our sin.  And now everything that could be done to point you back to God has been done.  All that’s left is a choice—your choice. 

Will you choose to follow God through Jesus Christ?
Or will you choose to continue to follow something or someone else?
I pray you choose Jesus.


Monday, May 13, 2019

"You've Sinned, but I Still Love You" - Things You Can't Say in Church (but you should)

Introduction
This is the third in a series called, “Things you can’t say in church (but you should).”  And I want to emphasis that last part in parenthesis “(but you should)”.  You see, some people think you can’t say certain things in church, but these are things you absolutely should say, you must say, if you are to be the Church that Jesus Christ established.

You see Church is a funny thing.  On the one hand, the Church was established by Jesus Christ in the Bible as the gathering of all who believe in Him, who are wholeheartedly committed to the great commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ throughout the entire world.  On the other hand, church is also a cultural phenomenon…  White, southern church culture…

Many in the world today are sick and tired of the church, by which they are (not necessarily) talking about the Church Jesus Christ established in the New Testament; they are usually talking about the church culture that (often) has little or nothing to do with the Church Jesus Christ established.  There are often a lot of weeds mixed in with the wheat of the Church and it can be really hard to tell the difference. 

I’ve mentioned two things already that some people think you can’t say in church, but you really should—“I’m broken,” and “I’m on fire!”  I want to add one more today.  Some people think you can’t say, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  Some people think you can’t say that in church, but you really should.  I think you absolutely must, because it is an essential part of being the Church Jesus Christ established in the New Testament.  It follows the example of Christ.

Luke 15:1-7
1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!
So Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!
Explain
The religious leaders of Jesus day didn’t like that Jesus quite often hung around with people they deemed sinners.  They believed sin was like a contagious disease, that just being in the presence of a sinner you could catch the disease of sin.  Jesus, who was the Son of God, tells a parable (actually three parable, because the whole the chapter is) about how God sent him to save a world full of sinners.  Jesus came to save the people the religious leaders deemed sinners who were unworthy and that no respectable person would associate with.  Jesus even came to save the religious leaders who are sinners too (but are blind because think they aren’t sinners).  The point of all this for our purposes today is this:  Jesus came to save sinners because He loves us. You see, Jesus was basically saying to the whole world, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you!”  

You migt think it strange in the parable that the shepherd would leave the 99 good sheep to search after just one sheep.  But Jesus is saying we are all sheep who have strayed off the path of righteousness.  If the shepherd (Jesus) didn't come and find us, there would be no 99 good sheep.  Every sheep has wandered off the path at some point, and the shepherd brought them back.  How hypocritical, then, for the 99 to complain if the shepherd goes off searching for another lost sheep.

Everything Jesus said and did—including how he died on the cross—was a way of saying, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you!”  Romans 5:8 sums it up for us, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”

But many people today think you can’t say that in church, but you absolutely should; you must if we are to be the Church Jesus Christ wants us to be. 

Why Do People Think You Can’t Say It?
Some people today are just like the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus day.  They think going to church is all about being a good, respectable person and following all the rules.  They always try to do the right thing (even if doing the right thing is sometimes more about keeping up appearances than pleasing God) Furthermore, they often confuse God’s rules for holy living with what society says is the right way to live.  So they can often do some very terrible things—segregation, neglecting the poor, etc.—all in the name of being a good person who follows the rules.  So they think you can’t say, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  They don’t love people who have sinned.  They’re ok with being judgmental and pointing out how people sin, but they don’t love sinners (they may say it with their lips, but they don’t really love them in their heart).  There have always been self-righteous judgmental people in church—all the way back to Jesus time.  And Jesus came and pointed those Pharisees out.  He told them, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  Unfortunately, the religious leaders didn't want to hear that and so they crucified him.

But because the church throughout history has so often been full of self-righteous, judgmental people, we’ve come to a place today where there are so many people in our world (and even in the church) who err in a whole different way.  There are many who have concluded that you can’t even say, “You’ve sinned” anymore.  There are so many people who say, “The Bible says ‘judge not, lest ye be judged.’”  And so they’ve concluded that Jesus doesn’t even want us to tell people they’ve sin (because that would be judging).  A lot of people say nowadays, Jesus just wants us to love people (and leave the whole part about sin out).

And so it’s come to a place where the world we live in just says you should welcome everyone and just accept them for who they are.  We’re not allowed to tell people, “You’ve sinned” anymore.  And we see all kinds of behaviors accepted by our culture that the Bible deems unacceptable and even repulsive to God.  Is that how Jesus treated people? (pause…)

How Jesus Loved People
There should be no doubt that Jesus loved people.  He proved his love by dying for us on the cross; not because we deserved it, but because we desperately needed it and Jesus loved us.  So his example is worth following.  Here’s how Jesus loved people.  He loved people enough to go be with sinners-even eat with them.  He did this, even though it put him at odds with the self-righteous religious leaders.  He was willing to leave 99 “good” sheep to go find the one foolish sheep that got himself lost.  At the same time, he never pretended the sinners he sought were not lost, were not sinners.  For example, once a woman was caught in the very act of adultery.  They dragged her int the city square and asked Jesus, "The Law of Moses says we should stone her.  What do you say?"  Jesus said, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone."  Then he stopped and began writing in the dirt.  We don't know what he wrote, the Bible doesn't say.  Some have speculated he began writing out all the sins the people in the crowd had committed.  At any rate, everyone in the crowd began to drop their stones and walk away.  When everyone was gone, Jesus asked, "Woman, has no one condemned you?"  "No, my Lord," she said. "Then neither do I.  Go and sin no more."  (John 8)

Recently, the local news showed some surveillance video of a vigilant school bus driver who saved a child from a terrible accident.  The bus had stopped to let a child off and the video shows the bus doors opening and the child is about to run down the steps out the door.  But the bus driver suddenly slammed the doors shut and grabbed the child's shoulder and yanked him away from the door just as a speeding car wooshed by the bus doors.  Apparently, the car driver got impatient with the bus driver and sped around the right side of the bus just as the doors of the bus were about to open.  If the bus driver had not been paying attention and stopped the child, the child would have certainly been killed or terribly maimed.  What would you have done?  I think we would have all screamed and reached out to stop the child if we were in that situation.  That is, in a sense, what we are doing when we tell someone they've sinned (or their about to sin).

The Bible teaches us that sin is terrible.  It destroys your life.  It destroys other people’s lives.  It destroys the world.  And God hates sin, so it destroys a sinners relationship with God, who is the source of life and love and peace and hope.  To refuse to tell someone, “You’ve sinned” is not much different from refusing to scream, “Watch out! You’re about to walk out in front of a speeding car!”  It’s actually worse, because the consequences of sin are eternal.  So if we truly do love someone, we must say, “You’ve sinned.”  To do otherwise is not loving at all, but terrible and hateful.

At the same time, we must never forget the last part of the statement:  “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  We must never forget we’ve all sinned.  We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.  You’ve sinned.  I’ve sinned. And your sins are no worse than mine.  I have no reason to think myself better than you and you’ve no reason to think yourself better than me or anyone else. 

Conclusion
So don’t ever neglect to say, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  That’s who were are—the Church—and that’s what we say and how we live.  It’s not optional.  It’s what Jesus does for us and what we are called to do for the world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Fruit of the Spirit - Love


The Fruit of the Spirit – Galatians 5:22-23
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

Introduction
            The famed list of spiritual virtues from Galatians 5:22-23 are known to Christians as “The Fruits of The Spirit”.  I going to spend some time each week considering each of these spiritual fruits.  Actually, you might notice Paul calls these the Fruit of the Spirit , not fruits; he uses the singular form, not plural. I don't know if he did that on purpose, but I do know that all of these virtues together make up a single fruit that the Spirit produces in us. It is not that one person gets patience and another gets love and another gets self-control. No, the Holy Spirit develops all of these in each follower of Christ. Some people are better at on than the other, but all are accessible to every individual if we allow the Spirit to produce them in us.
As we go through this series of blogs, I challenge you to memorize the list of virtues known as the fruit of the Spirit.  That way you will now the characteristics you should develop as you follow Christ.  And really, it is not that difficult.  If you can remember the ingredients of a Big Mac—two all-beef patties, special sauce,lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun (a jingle with 15 words)—you should be able to learn a learn the list of 9 the spiritual fruits of a Christian. Too young to have learned the Big Mac jingle?  Ok.  If you can remember the words to the Kiki challenge song by Drake (“In My Feelings”), which is a chorus of 60 words, then surely you can memorize the 9 fruits of the Spirit!
As Christians cooperate with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit develops these fruits within us more and more.  It’s important to remember, we do not make these fruits grow. Only God can make them grow.  Just as a 5-year-old child cannot close his eyes, grit his teeth, and will his body to transform into a 16-year-old, neither can we will ourselves to grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control—no matter how hard we clench our teeth and concentrate.  The growth of these spiritual fruits—just like the growth of the human body or the growth of a fruit tree—is the work of God.  However, there are many things we can do to nurture that growth—to cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work and create an environment where the most growth is possible.  This is also something I want to address in the weeks ahead.  So contemplate, as we go along, how you could open your heart and life to God in such a way that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control take root and grow more and more in your life.
Let's begin today with the first and most important of all spiritual fruits—love.

Love - 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
            As a pastor, I have the privilege of uniting many couples in holy matrimony.  One of the most common scriptures to read at a wedding is 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  It is known as the love passage as it shares St. Paul’s famous description of Christian love.
4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. 
If you’ve ever attended a wedding, you’ve probably heard those words.  They are a great reminder to the newlyweds what it means to love, honor, and cherish each other as they begin their life together as husband and wife.  
St. Paul’s description of love is so common at weddings, people might not know the passage was not originally intended for that occasion. Paul wrote those splendid words that tell the qualities of love—not for weddings, but—for a church of people that were struggling to get along. The Christians in the Corinthian church were fighting over who was in charge, who was more important, and who had the most impressive spiritual gifts.  Paul wrote his famous words about love to implore a deeply divided church to simply love one another.  Paul wanted the Corinthians to stop arguing with each other and jockeying for power and competing to see who is most important person in the church. 
God calls us all to love one another and “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

Love is Essential
Love is the most important of the fruits of the spirit for “…love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) and, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)  Love is what makes us relevant.  Ideas and philosophies and even people come into and go out of fashion as quickly as the Kiki Challenge, but love last forever.  Biblical love (the divine love of God) is the one thing that never goes out of fashion.  Love makes all other things either relevant or irrelevant. When love is present something else is relevant.  When love is absent, people will quickly lose interest because it will soon become irrelevant.
            Love is the very presence of God.  1 John 4:7-12 sums it up.  "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only
Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.
            Love is essential to the Christian journey. It saves us, it sends us, and seals us to one another. As we serve together as a church and as we represent Christ to the world, I pray love will guide all that we do.  Jesus said love would be the defining virtue in all his followers that proves to the world that we are His disciples.  In John 13:35, Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Creating a Garden Where Love Can Grow
Well, now we have a description of love and how important it is. But how do we help it grow in our lives? We have to prepare the garden of our heart.
Now I'm not a very good gardener. I'm good at building things, but not so good at growing things. I can build a good garden to start with, but it's everything that happens after that gives me trouble. You see, to build a garden, you start by making a place. You clear away the grass or weeds, you till up the soil to make it soft, you plant the seeds and water them. Maybe you put down some fertilizer. And I'm usually good to spend a day or a weekend working on a gardening "project." But I quickly lose interest or get busy with family or work and I don't spend the time I should tending the garden. That's why I do better at building projects like carpentry, because I can work on them for a few hours, and then set them aside and come back to them in a month or so and pick right back p where I let off.
Unfortunately, you can't set a garden aside for a month. It takes constant attention and nurturing. You need to check it everyday to pull up weeds, make sure it's getting enough water (but not too much), and maybe get rid of any pests and bugs that are invading. If you forget about the garden for even a few days (which is what I tend to do), it will quickly run into trouble or be overrun by weeds and eat up by devouring bugs.
Well, what about our spiritual fruit garden? What do we have to do to help nurture the fruit the Holy Spirit wants to produce with in us? It is much like tending a physical garden. To start with, you have to clear out some things in your life so there is room for love to grow. Do you have hatred in your heart? Bitterness? Are you harboring any grudges? These are things you must get rid of or else love will have no room to grow.
One of the things I see so much these days that keeps real love from growing is the impossible and unrealistic fantasy of a love relationship. People have an idealized (idolized really) fantasy of what it is to be in "love". And it hinders the growth of real love. And I often see people who grow older--maybe late into their twenties or thirties or maybe even later and they still haven't married. And for them they want to be married so badly that they make an idol out of marriage. They often make foolish choices or compromise their values all for the sake of the dream of being married. Idolatry is a sin and our idols always let us down and get us into trouble. And it's not until you tear down your idol (or your fantasy) and you clear out space in the garden of your heart, that there is room for real, genuine, fruitful love to grow.
Just like in a real garden, you have to break up and soften the soil of your heart so the Holy Spirit can plant some seeds of love. Have you asked the Holy Spirit to plant seeds of love if your heart? He will if you ask Him. Then, what can you do to water and fertilize the love He is trying to grow within your heart? How can you show love to others through the things you say, the ways you behave, and the things you do?
Now, you have created the perfect environment for growth, but love is not the only thing that will want to grow there.  Now, the Devil will constantly be encouraging weeds to grow in your life. These are things that will distract you, use up your spare resources of time and energy and money. Left unchecked, these weeds will grow up and choke out the love that is starting to grow in your life. How do you take time to watch over your spiritual garden and pull up any weeds that grow alongside your spiritual fruit, stealing vital nutrients from the soil? Do you pray for God to show you those things that are leading you astray or just distracting you from His will for your life? Do you listen and rip them out when He reveals something?

Invitation
            I want to close with a word of encouragement.  If you ever feel guilty, like you ought to be more loving or patient or whatever, give yourself a break.  Jesus came to set us free from sin and guilt and shame.  It's not your job to change yourself; that's the work of the Holy Spirit.  Be patient with yourself.  The Holy Spirit will do the hard work, the supernatural work of making you more like Jesus.  Your job is just to cooperate.  Do the things the Spirit shows you.  Open yourself up to spiritual growth and nurture what the Spirit is doing in you and leave it at that.  It takes time to grow, so cut yourself some slack.
            I invite you and challenge you ask God to plant the seeds of more spiritual fruit in your life.  Ask Him also to show you what you must tear out of your life to make room for the spiritual garden He wants to grow within you.  Ask Him to show you how you need to break up and soften the soil of your heart and how you can nurture and guard the spiritual fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We will look at each one and some of the spiritual practices that help garden your spirit in the weeks ahead.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Freedom!

Introduction
            One of the great and classic movies about freedom is Braveheart, which chronicles William Wallace's epic struggle to help Scotland win independence from the British in the 11th century.  In his rousing (yet fictional) speech before the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace inspires his rag tag army to tell their enemies, "...They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!"
            On 1775, the American patriot, Patrick Henry, gave another rousing speech in favor of the fight for freedom, where he said, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
            A couple months ago, I was privileged to travel to San Antonio, Texas where I visited the Alamo, known as the cradle of Texas liberty.  It was at the Alamo that a handful of Texas patriots held off the vastly larger Mexican army for 13 days before they gave their lives in service of Texas liberty.  Texas went on to win independence from Mexico and was a free country for nine years before becoming a state in our American Union.  From those Texas patriots who gave their life for liberty, the expression "Remember the Alamo!" lives on today as a call to free men to stand up and fight, whatever the cost, for freedom.
            It is always inspiring to remember those who have thought it so important to sacrifice for freedom--especially during this time of year when we celebrate the independence of our free United States of America.  Freedom is the paramount theme of our nation.  However, freedom is not originally an American idea.  Freedom was instilled in us by our Creator and freedom has been sought by people throughout the ages because it is part of the human soul. 
            The truest form of freedom was won by Christ, the Son of the Living God on the cross at Calvary.  It was, indeed, the freedom won by Christ that inspired our American forefathers to imagine a country where people were endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
            Over the next five blog post, I will share my thoughts on the Christian idea of freedom based on a reading of Paul's Letter to the Galatians.  For my first installment, let us read Galatians 1:6-10.

Galatians 1:6-10
6 I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News 7 but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.
8 Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. 9 I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed.
10 Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.
 
The Galatians and Freedom
            Have you heard of the Celts?  We usually think of Irish or Scottish people when we think of the Celtic culture, but the Celts were a great civilization that spread throughout ancient Europe.  Some of the Celts in that empire invaded what is now modern-day Turkey.  These Celts settled down in Turkey and became the Galatians.  The Galatians were Pagans.  They did not believe in the One True God of the Bible.  They believed in many different Pagan gods.  So suppose they believed there was one god who was in charge of rain, and one over the harvest and another over fertility, and another over war, and so on and so forth.  And the ancient Galatians believed they had to perform so many different religious rituals and sacrifices to appease and gain the favor of the various gods for different seasons of life.  Can you imagine what a headache that would be?  And all this was further complicated by the belief that all the gods didn't get along and they didn't necessarily like human beings!
              And along comes the Apostle Paul with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Paul preaches to the Galatians:  "All these so called gods you've been worshiping are not gods at all.  There is only One True God; and He is all powerful and all knowing.  He created everything and is over it all.  And furthermore, this One universal God cares about you so much, He came down to earth (as Jesus the Christ) to live as one of us.  And He died on the cross to ransom us from our sins and set us free from the penalty of death that was a consequence of our sins.  On the third day, Jesus rose from the grave and is alive again!  He has defeated death and we can rise to new life too if we trust in Jesus!" 
            And so this was really great news to the Galatians.  Jesus set them free from all the tedious rules and regulations of their pagan religions and the fear of the gods, as well as setting them free from sin and death!  And they received the Good News.  They put their faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.  They willingly and wholeheartedly became Christians.  And the Apostle Paul joyously helped them establish a church--a community of Christian believers who work together to worship Christ and build each other up in the faith and go out and spread the Good News to all they can.
            However, there was a problem.  At this early stage in the Christian era, most Christians in the world were still Jews.  You see, Jesus was a Jew and all his disciples were Jews.  Even the apostle Paul was a Jew.  These people followed the Jewish religion--the rules and ceremonies, festivals, and traditions of the Old Testament Jewish religion.  And so many of the earliest Christians mistakenly thought new converts to the Christian faith must also start following the Jewish religion.  They must follow the Old Testament customs, ceremonies, festivals, and especially they must be circumcised (because circumcision was the hallmark trait of all devout Jews). 
            After Paul left the Galatians to go to another province to preach the Good News about Christ, some of these "Jewish" Christians came to the Galatians and began teaching, "You must be circumcised and start following the Jewish religion or else you're not a real follower of Christ and you will not have eternal life.  And the Galatians, being new to the Gospel and new to the whole concept the One True God, started to believe they must indeed become Jews in order to really be Christians.
            This is a big deal, because it goes down to the very core of our Christian faith.  Are we saved by living the right way or are we saved by faith in Jesus Christ?  Are we justified by a religion or by trusting in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross?  The Apostle Paul taught it was only by faith in Jesus Christ.  The Jewish Christians (known as Judaizers) said it was by faith in Jesus and following the Jewish religion.  Which is it?
             So, Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians to show the Galatians (and us) that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone.  No religion, no ceremony, no rule, no sacrifice, no extra action other than trusting in Jesus Christ is necessary to receive the grace and forgiveness and salvation of God.  Furthermore, Paul argues, if you are trusting in any other requirement, it actually nullifies the salvation we receive by faith in Christ.  Christ came to set us free of the impossible burden of trying to earn God's love.  God loves us as a completely free gift when we trust in Christ alone.  If we ever try to do anything to earn salvation, we cannot receive it. 

So What?  Who Cares? What difference does it make to us today?
            Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”  (John 8:36)  Jesus came to set us free from “the rules” of religion.  In fact, Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship.  You see, Jesus came to the most religious people of his day (the Jewish Pharisees and Sadducees) and told them, you must repent of your sin and turn to God.  Now that was a surprising claim (from these religious leaders perspectives).  The Pharisees and Sadducees were the holiest, most devoutly religious people of Jesus day.  To tell them they were sinners who needed to repent and turn to God sounded ludicrous.  No one was more religious than them. 
            However, Jesus taught that following the rules is not enough.  Even if you could follow them perfectly, you still have a broken relationship with God.  Following the rules is not the issue.  A broken relationship with God is the issue.  Jesus came to heal that broken relationship.  When we have faith in Jesus, the relationship is restored.  People who devoutly follow all the religious rules are often the ones who struggle the most to have faith in Christ to restore their relationship with God.  You see, deeply religious people are often very good people who do what God says and so they may feel God owes them and should be good to them as a reward for their good behavior.  But God doesn't owe us anything and love is freely given, not earned.  A love relationship is built on love and trust, not rules and regulations and rituals and religion.
            Jesus said the first and second greatest commandments are these:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as your self.  He said all the religious laws of the Old Testament and all of what the prophets said hangs on these two relational commandments.  They sum up all the religious rules.  They are the heart of the matter.
            Religion and rules are easy, but relationships are messy.  Religion is black and white, but relationships are made up of a thousand million shades of beautiful colors.  Jesus came to set us free from religion so we can enjoy the full beauty of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, people often want to leave the less spontaneous and beautiful possibilities of a relationship with the One True and Living God and go back to the confined, black and white (and more predictable) chains of religion.  "A living relationship with God is too complicate," many people complain.  "Just tell me the rules I need follow and I'll do that."
            It will never do.  There is no life in religion.  There is no salvation in rules and ceremonies.  Jesus set us free from all that.  Shall we then go back and enslave ourselves to religions now that we've been set free.  Never!  "Give me liberty or give me death!'
            Trying to live by religious rules is also hopeless because we confuse our culture with our Christianity.  Our culture is the social rules and traditions of the American people.  America was founded on Christian principles and many folks have lived by them for so long they often equate our American way of life with Christianity itself.  The line between what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Christian is fuzzy and many don't know the difference; they think to be one is to be the other and this is not necessarily true.  Still, people believe "good people" must dress a certain way, look a certain, act a certain way, eat certain food, talk a certain way in order to be good in God's eyes.  Yet this is all very confusing because the rules change according to where you live in this great country.  What is acceptable in New York is different from what is acceptable in Georgia.  And as someone who's lived in Georgia almost all my life--though in many different parts--I can tell you the rules are slightly different in middle Georgia than they are in Northwest Georgia and that's different from Northeast Georgia or coastal Georgia!  The rules can even be different depending on the social class or generation to which you belong. 
            Today, many so called "Christians" equate social justice with Christianity.  They say you have to do good and fight for those who are oppressed and help the needy and that this is what real Christianity is at it's heart.  And we should help those in need, but we must be careful that our charity does not become a religion divorced from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ or else it is merely a means to make us feel good about ourselves and earn the favor of "god" in whatever form we imagine god to be (for it certainly is then no longer the God Jesus showed us).  There are many non-Christian charitable organizations in the world that do good.  What makes Christians unique is we feel God has loved us so much--even though we don't deserve it--that we in turn are compelled to love our neighbor as God loves us. 

An Important Question
            As we begin a journey to understand Christian freedom, Galatians challenges us with an important question.  Are you following a different “gospel” than the Gospel of Christ?  We must never forget:  Faith in Christ alone is the only thing that can save you.´ Or as the Apostle Paul puts it in Galatians 5:6 – “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”  So, we will look at this over the next few weeks—the freedom we have through faith in Jesus Christ.  Do you want to know what real freedom is?  Do you want to truly be free?  Our freedom in Christ is so much deeper than fireworks or the fourth of July.  It goes far, far deeper than even America—“the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  Join me for this journey through Galatians and learn about true freedom—something worth dying for, something Christ already died for so that you I could be free indeed.