Becoming a Mature Follower of Christ

Pastor Sherry’s Message for 7/24/2022

Scriptures: Hosea 1:2-10; Ps 85; Colossians 3:1-11; Lk 11:1-13

As I looked through my former sermons this week, I discovered that I had preached on the Hosea passage in 2016, and on Luke 11 in 2019. So, I believed the Lord was calling me to tackle the Epistle lesson with you today. It wasn’t until the passage was read this morning that I realized I had messed up. The passage appointed for today was Colossians 2:6-19. I am a highly intuitive person, focused on the “Big Picture” and not much given to details, so I mistakenly addressed the passage appointed for next Sunday, Colossians 3:1-11. I apologize. Perhaps the Lord meant for someone to focus on chapter 3 instead of the last half of chapter 2 today.

Colossians is one of Paul’s 4 pastoral letters (including Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) written from prison in Ephesus.

Apparently, Paul never met in person with the church in Colosse (75-100 mi east of Ephesus). It had instead been planted by a disciple of his named Epaphrus. We could say that Paul was like a spiritual grandfather to this church.

His focus in this letter is becoming a mature believer in Christ. Many folks in Colosse had become as sick of the immoral excesses of paganism as we have of what we see/hear happening in DC, NYC, LA, Chicago, etc. They were initially attracted to the high ethical standards offered by the Jewish faith. They looked at the Torah and were impressed with laws that said don’t do this or that, don’t taste this or that, or don’t handle this or that.

They saw these laws as a means of escaping the soul-killing, vapid, immoral world of paganism. It was as though they thought, Maybe keeping these rules will help us live a better life; and Perhaps keeping these rules will help us improve our spiritual lives.

But Paul tells them this way of thinking is an illusion, a dead-end. First of all, none of us can keep these rules perfectly. So we end up trading what Bishop. N.T. Wright calls, “a worldly self-indulgence of a sensual kind for a worldly self-indulgence of a spiritual kind” (Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, N.T. Wright, Westminister John Knox Press, 2002, p.174.)

We reduce our faith to keeping a set of earthly rules, and avoid developing the deep relationship God desires with us. Additionally, contrary to popular thought, rule-keeping doesn’t lead to holiness. Holiness requires that we die to self. Rule-keeping keeps our focus on ourselves. Holiness requires that we die to self and are raised to live for God. The Good News is that by being in Christ, we have the supernatural assistance of the Holy Spirit—if we ask for it—to help us live out our lives at a higher moral standard. It’s not a matter of trying harder in our own strength, but rather of cooperating with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul admonishes us to (verses 1-2) Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. And in verse 5, he adds Put to death therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. In verses 8-9, he adds to the list of behaviors to avoid, including anger, rage, wickedness, blasphemy, dirty talk, and lying. This is like putting aside an old set of tattered and soiled clothes and taking up and putting on your very best. In the 1st century church, folks being baptized showed up in their old clothes, were immersed in the waters of baptism, and then dressed in new, white garments, symbolizing their new status as followers of Christ Jesus.

If it’s not just rule-keeping, how do we proceed? We have to know what needs to be changed in order to cooperate with changing it.

Let’s look first at the main categories of sins that Paul lists here:

1. Sexual misbehavior–This one is tough because our culture today—like that of ancient Corinth or Colosse, is overly sexualized. Much of American advertising makes sexual appeals. It doesn’t take too many clicks on the internet before you stumble onto pornographic images. (I worry about what our children are being exposed to at too young an age.) But Paul means everything from sexual intercourse outside of marriage (fornication), to adultery, and even including sexual fantasies. Paul calls these behaviors idolatry because, as in all pagan worship, they require that you give your allegiance to something of this world rather than to our holy and supernatural Trinitarian God.

2. The 2nd category Paul cites are sins involving unedifying speech. This includes everything from angry, malicious speech to gossip, slander, and lying. Wouldn’t Paul have a fit over the way folks lie in Washington DC? When I taught Psychology at the community college in Gainesville, I heard my students punctuate their sentences with the “f” word. Reminding them that they were there to get a higher education, I challenged them to try to elevate their vocabulary by replacing that word with something more dignified. To my delight, they got the concept and did cuss much less in class.

Both sexual and verbal sins can tear a community apart. Years ago, before I went to seminary, I had a pastor with whom I was very close. He was like an older brother in the Lord. We met about once a month for breakfast, to talk over the Bible study I was leading and other leadership concerns of our church. I later discovered he had been fired by our bishop for having an affair with another woman in our congregation. He and I had met just the day before this took place. He had told me he had 3 things to tell me, but ran out of time to tell me the last. When I learned what had happened, I figured he was too ashamed to confess he had compromised his calling. His family was humiliated. We had a booming college ministry at the time. They were so disappointed in him that they said we were all hypocrites and left the church. Other adults left as well, and for the same reason. Our community was hurt by this one man’s sexual sin.

Paul presents the problem (these two very popular sin-groups) and their solution. In verse 10, he writes [since you have put on your new self]…which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…. Remember back to the 80’s and 90’s when people would ask, WWJD? What would Jesus do? It was a great slogan because it reminded us to stop and think before acting/speaking. It encouraged us to think about how Jesus might view our actions or our speech. Would He say, Well done, good and faithful servant? Or would He want us to, Go and sin no more? Again, as Bishop N.T. Wright says, “Being a Christian means learning to think harder, not to leave your brain behind in the quest for new experiences. Thinking straight and knowing the truth are part of what it means to be a truly human being, the sort of human being the gospel is meant to create. (Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, pp. 179-180.) We think harder because we are not just considering what we want to do, but also what the Lord would desire of us. We know the truth because Scripture reveals it. Immoral behavior and malicious speech may feel good at first, but the truth is that they leave a bad aftertaste. Our consciences bother us. Then the Holy Spirit compels us to make amends, which humble and perhaps embarrass us further. In the long run, it is simply easier for us to train ourselves to avoid the behaviors Paul lists.

This is another way of saying we are growing in spiritual maturity. Consider these definitions of Christian maturity:

(1) Chuck Swindoll—One of the marks of maturity is the ability to disagree without becoming disagreeable.

(2) Fred Cook—Maturity is the ability to do a job whether supervised or not; finish it once started; carry money without spending it; and …bear an injustice without wanting to get even. If Cook is correct, his definition is quite an indictment of our current culture, isn’t it? We are trying to get along with a huge number of spiritually immature persons.

(3) John McNaughton—Maturity begins to grow when you can sense your concern for others outweighing your concern for yourself.

(4) Anonymous—Maturity is moving from a soft skin-tough heart to a tough skin-soft heart (This one requires some pondering).

When we are followers of Jesus Christ, trying to think like Jesus and live in ways that please Him, we might come to say like John Newton🡪 I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” (Chuck Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, Word Publishing, 1998, p.370.)

The Apostle Paul wanted the Colossian Church—and us—to grow in spiritual maturity. This is not an easy task. It involves self-denial. It can and often does involve pain. The devotional, Today in the Word, printed a story years ago (1987) about how a mother eagle encourages her chicks to leave the nest:

Though many of us have seen pictures of a huge eagle’s nest high in the branches of a tree or in the crag of a cliff, few of us have gotten a glimpse inside. When a mother eagle builds her nest she starts with thorns, broken branches, sharp rocks, and a number of other items that seem entirely unsuitable for the project. But then she lines the nest with a thick padding of wool, feathers, and fur from animals she has killed, making it soft and comfortable for the eggs. By the time the growing birds reach flying age, the comfort of the nest and the luxury of free meals make them quite reluctant to leave. That’s when the mother eagle begins “stirring up the nest.” With her strong talons she begins pulling up the thick carpet of fur and feathers, bringing the sharp rocks and branches to the surface. As more of the bedding gets plucked up, the nest becomes more uncomfortable for the young eagles. Eventually, this and other urgings prompt the growing eagles to leave their once-comfortable abode and move on to more mature behavior.

It’s not easy to mature spiritually, but we can attain it—or at least move toward it—by cooperating with the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Like the mother eagle, He can and does comfort us when we are afflicted (hungry, lonely, tired, etc); but also like her, He can and does afflict us when we get too comfortable. This side of heaven, we don’t attain perfection. Nevertheless, we want to be like John Newton, the former captain of a British slave ship, who repented, came to Christ, and was ordained. He is also the one who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace”. Remember he said, I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was…. Hopefully, day by day, we are making progress in becoming more and more like Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

©️2022 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams

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The Watchman’s Challenge

Pastor Sherry’s message for July 17, 2022

Scriptures: Amos 8:1-12; Ps 52; Col 1:15-28; Lk 10:38-42

Last week, I encouraged us to become like “watchmen” on the walls surrounding our country. By this I meant “Prayer Warriors” for the USA. We looked at Amos, chapter 7, and recognized how America—like ancient Israel—is out of alignment with the Lord. Amos’ image, given to him by God, was that of a plumb line. It is a simple device (a string with a weight at the end will do) to help insure a straight vertical line for a wall, or for hanging wallpaper. I’ve seen cabinet installers use laser beams to ensure they set the cabinets in straight; the laser is a new form of plumb line.) The prophet was telling the Northern Kingdom that they were out of plumb with God. Citing a number of examples, we could see where our country, too, is currently out of plumb with God.

This week, in Amos 8:1-12, God gives His prophet the image of ripe fruit. Ripe fruit is fruit taken at its peak. Prior to ripening, it is too sour or too hard to eat. By the same token, you don’t want to let ripe fruit sit around for very long. It gets mushy, brown, or soggy—it spoils; it also attracts fruit flies. God is saying to Israel that “the time is ripe” for them.

Either they change their sinful ways and return to sincere worship of God; or God will no longer spare them. This was God’s final image of warning to them in the book of Amos.

Again, I think this is a very relevant message for us in America today. Like with the Northern Kingdom, many Americans don’t worship the One, True God anymore. And some who do are only going through the motions: God condemned the Israelites for thinking about their businesses while at worship. What do we think about while here in church together? Are we focused on the Lord, or on what we’ll have for lunch after? What we might do later?

The Israelites were infamous at that time for corrupt business practices: Skimping on the quantity—providing less of what was wanted for the same or a larger price; inflating the price; cheating with dishonest scales (and other measures); and buying the poor (with silver or for a pair of sandals.) We tend not to think of ourselves as buying the poor, but what about engaging in sex trafficking, buying the sexual use of someone’s body. And while we no longer have debtors’ prisons, we do have a staggering number of homeless persons who cannot afford to live in today’s economy. It appears as though a surprising number of folks in America don’t realize that God sees all and knows all, and intends to hold them (us) accountable. In vv.7-10, God reminds Israel (and us) The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.” The Pride of Jacob is a poetic name for the yet to come Jesus (as predicted by Amos around 750 BC). God is swearing by His Son, Jesus, that He will not forget their corrupt deeds (He sees and remembers all evil acts). If the Father makes a vow based on His Son, is there any question that He means to abide by it? No!

I have heard people joke about going to hell: they say they intend to party with all their friends who they think will be there too. YIKES! This is no joking matter! Humans in hell will not be partying! They will be eternally separated from God, as well as from any of their godly friends and relatives. Worse yet, they will experience unending, everlasting torment at the hand of demons who hate God and God’s people. This is not something to aspire to, even glibly.

Amos ends the passage with predictions of what is to come in the end times (the 7 year Great Tribulation): (1) There will be massive earthquakes. (2) Sunlight will be limited to ½ a day. (3) Those who rejoice now will be weeping then, in mourning, wishing they had chosen to follow Jesus while there was yet time. (4) And there will be a famine of hearing God’s Word.

Back then, God sent no more prophets, after Malachi, to declare His word for the 400 years remaining before Jesus’ birth and the appearance of John the Baptist. It appears that even now the Lord has lifted His hand of protection from us, so that we are already experiencing …an increase of evil (as predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24:12).

If this alarms you, be at peace as our remaining Scriptures today are all very encouraging.

A. Our Psalm 52 describes King David’s fearless confidence in God when he was attacked by an arrogant and wicked enemy king. In vv.1-4, he declares there is no reason for evil ones to boast as God will bring them down. John Lawrence, in his book Down to Earth, reports how a city of wicked and sacrilegious people dared God to show Himself:

“On December 25, 1908—Jesus’ Birthday–a newspaper published in Messina, Sicily, printed a parody against God, daring Him to make Himself known by sending an earthquake. Three days later, on December 28, the city and its surrounding district was devastated by a terrible quake that killed 84,000 people.” (Cited in Today in the Word, October, 1997, p. 25). This foolish city went too far. They incurred the wrath of God. We can only hope that God separated out the scoffers and blasphemers for judgment and spared the righteous. At any rate, He clearly remembered their arrogance and their unbelief.

King David goes on to assert (vv.6-7) that the righteous will be ultimately vindicated–which David was, again and again. And those of us who love Jesus will be too. Verses 8-9 conclude with David asserting that he will trust in the Lord—an encouragement for us to do likewise.

B. In Colossians 1:15-28, Paul makes his case for the supremacy of Christ. Why should the believer trust in Jesus? Because Jesus…(1) created all things; (2) is set apart from and is superior to all created things; (3) holds all of creation together (Science has discovered that all human and animal connective tissue has at its heart a substance called lamina. This substance appears in cell bodies in it the shape of a cross. Literally, the Cross of Christ holds our bodies together. (4) He is the head of His body, the Church; and (5) because God had Jesus reconcile all things to the Father. (6) Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Father now looks at those of us who love His Son through the eyes of Christ. He forgives us our failings. He offers us grace, love, and mercy.

C. Our Gospel lesson (Luke 10:38-42) records Jesus’ interactions with Mary and Martha. God bless her, Martha is focused on the task of creating a meal for our Lord. Mary, her sister, has abandoned the task to deepen her relationship with Jesus. Jesus reassures Martha that she is not to worry, while affirming Mary’s focus on Him and His teaching. This is a lesson for each of us, too, isn’t it? We don’t want to be invested in doing things for God without spending time investing in our relationship with Him daily.

God’s judgment is coming for America, just as it did for ancient Israel. But we still have time to get right with our Lord: First, we can trust in Him…as a God who protects and defends those who love Him; because of Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross for our sakes; and because He desires a deep relationship with each one of us.

Last week, I encouraged us to stand as watchmen (and watchwomen), praying daily for our country to turn back to God.

This week, I challenge us to pray daily for America. We want to do this because we love the USA. We want to do this because prayer– and the ballot box–are the only means we have for encouraging a national return to Christ. Consider this story from Stuart Strachan, Jr., about Babe Ruth, the great professional baseball player from 1914—1935. For those not familiar with “the Babe,” he hit 714 home runs in his career, and was responsible for bringing another 2, 214 runners in to score. He also contributed to a phenomenal 12 World’s Series wins:

Most of us have heard of Babe Ruth, but have you ever heard of Babe Pinelli? Pinelli was an umpire in Major League Baseball who once called The Great Bambino (Ruth) out on strikes. When the crowd began booing in disapproval of the call, Babe turned to the umpire and said “There’s 40,000 people here who know that the last pitch was a ball.” The coaches and players braced for a swift ejection, but instead, Pinelli responded coolly, “Maybe so, Babe, but mine is the only opinion that counts.”

In life it’s easy to get caught up in the opinions of others, but in the end, it’s not our scoffers or critics by whom we will be judged. The Only Opinion That Matters is God’s.

God may be ready to “lower the boom” on America. Whether His judgment comes tomorrow or 5 or 20 years from now, we should not be afraid. Instead, we are to be faithful until Christ returns. Instead, we need to function as praying watchmen as we wait and watch to see what God does.

©️2022 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams

Semantic Spin Revisited

Pastor Sherry’s message for June 6, 2021

Scriptures 1 Sam 8:1-20; Ps 138; 2 Cor 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Three years ago, when these Scripture passages appeared in the Lectionary, I preached about “Semantic Spin,” and the distinction the media and politicians were making at that time between a “spy” and an “informant.” I referred to that as a real life example of defining something one way to deflect criticism, when in truth it is actually the opposite.  Despite the 9th Commandment, which prohibits lying–or bearing false witness against another—isn’t it all too frequent that we find our politicians, media, business leaders, educators, and neighbors, spinning lies to in an attempt to manipulate our cooperation/compliance/agreement?  Some notable examples recently include: 

​​1. Critical Race Theory—now embedded in our school curricula, government, military, and corporations—and touted as truth, it defines human history as a struggle between oppressors, usually white, against everyone else.  This is Marxism with a new spin.  Rather than breeding a spirit of unity in our country, it actually promotes racial division and hatred.

​​2. We were told the Group “Black Lives Matter” exists to encourage and strengthen black families; but it is actually a front for funding and fomenting civil unrest and hatred toward America.

​​3. We were told Covid-19 did not originate in a Chinese Virology Lab, so as not to offend the Chinese Communist government. But now a significant amount of evidence supports the conclusion that it was manufactured by the Chinese and escaped containment.

​​4. The power elites advocate that, contrary to science and to God’s order, there is no such thing as two genders.  Kindergarteners in some school districts are being taught this as truth.   They are also recommending that kids as young as 8YO should be allowed to opt for sex ​change surgeries and authorized to use powerful sex change hormones.

​​5. President Biden’s proposed Budget for 2022 resumes federal funding for abortions because they are considered by some as a women’s health issue.  What about the health of the unborn baby?

6. 1 year ago, segregation was immoral, but now we are going to segregate those who have declined taking the Covid vaccine from these who have taken it. If we begin this sort of discrimination, what might be next? Will we segregate those with Hepatitis-C, with TB, or with HIV-Aids?

Radical influences in our culture would like us to set human will above human nature or even common sense, let alone good theology.

My favorite news commentator often ends his show by stating that his program is “the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and group think.”  These four are all good things to oppose and are currently rampant in our culture.

​Our Scriptures today provide two further examples of Semantic Spin, and how God responds to it:

1 Sam 8:1-20àThe Israelites are unhappy. The Prophet Samuel has reached retirement age, so the question has arisen as to who should replace him. Like Eli’s sons before him, Samuels’ two sons did not walk in the ways of the Lord. They were either not believers at all, or they knew better–but lacked integrity–and sold their influence to the highest bidder. The people did not want these two young men to lead them. Up until this point, there had been no king in Israel. God had appointed a prophet (or a judge) who was to hear from God what He wanted, then convey God’s will to the people. So rather than ask the prophet to inquire of God who God wanted to lead them, they ask for a king. Notice, Samuel could have inquired of the Lord but he didn’t. And now the people have an excuse they spin to justify getting a king: A reliable prophet has not been assigned us.

So, we’d like to be like all the other countries of the known world, and have a king.  What they really mean—but don’t say—is that we want to do things our way rather than be led by the Lord.

​In verse 9, God tells Samuel not to take it personally—God knows they are actually rejecting Him, not Samuel—but to warn them what having a king might mean for them.  God has a special house, the Tabernacle, but they will have to build another special house for the king, a palace.  This will cost them money, which means they will be taxed.  A king will want to have his own army, which will result in higher taxes.  And their sons will be conscripted into the army, while their daughters will serve as palace maids, artisans, and possibly wives and concubines.  Samuel warns them in verses13+àHe [a king] will take the best of your fields and vineyards and give them to his attendants….He will take the best of your menservants, maidservants, cattle and donkeys….He will take a 10thof your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

​Nevertheless, despite all these arguments against it, the people still demand a human king.  What were they thinking? God is not fooled!  They can spin it however they want, but they are rejecting God’s leadership.

We gotta have a king…is a semantic spin on disobedience.  It’s a “no confidence vote” for God—we don’t trust The One who is the same today, yesterday, and forever—so we want to place our trust in a human, fallible, possibly self-focused leader.  REALLY?  YIKES!  They will get a king but at considerable cost.  Accepting semantic spin is ultimately expensive.

​In our Gospel lesson, Mark 3:20-35, Jesus is teaching in Capernaum, 30 miles from Nazareth.  He’s been so swamped by ministry at this point that He has ducked into a home to get a meal (probably Peter and Andrew’s house). But the teachers of the Law have followed Him, to accuse Him:  This time they claim He is doing His miraculous work by the power of Satan.  Good gracious!  Think of this:  They are saying the 2ndPerson of the Trinity, who stands before them, is doing work inspired by the Father (Person 1), through the power of the Holy Spirit (Person 3)—and they are claiming He is instead drawing on the power of Satan.  Even Satanists will tell you their power comes from the Devil.   What an insulting charge! What an outrageous spin!

​But Jesus responds to them calmly and logically.  Essentially, He says, I am casting Satan out of people; why would Satan want Me to work contrary to his goals?  He asserts in verses 23-26àHow can Satan drive out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.  And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.  Then He warns them—I am doing what I do by the power of the Holy Spirit.  If you call what I do a work of Satan, you have blasphemed/falsely accused both the Holy Spirit and Me, two persons of the Trinity.  This is not smart. This is in fact an unforgivable sin because it credits the Work of God to Satan; and it indicates a heart already taken over by Satan.  Again, semantic spin is very expensive!

​Now He’s really said it, hasn’t He?  The crowd is murmuring, no doubt speculating how long Jesus has before the power elites arrest Him.  Some gossip, or perhaps even some well-meaning person, runs the 30 miles to Nazareth to get Mary, James and Jude to rescue Jesus before He is arrested.  No doubt they cry, He’s talking crazy!  He’s making them mad!  They’ll arrest Him for sure!  You better go see about Him!  Afterall, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, has already been arrested and jailed.  His family knows what tends to happen to religious zealots.  They’ve suggested Jesus is crazy, but He is just honestly challenging the illogical arguments of the teachers of the Law.  He’s being defined as out of His mind—semantic spin–

but He’s actually exercising His power as God to define what is true.

Nevertheless, Mary and her grown sons rush to rescue Him. When Jesus is told that His family has arrived, He responds in an unexpected way. We/they would have expected Him to go greet them. Instead, Heredefines the concept of family: Verse 33àWho are my mother and my brothers? Verse 34àWhoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother. He is saying the spirit-ties of those who believe in Him actually form a closer relationship to Him than blood ties do. Haven’t you found that this is so? I share much more in common with the Body of Christ than I do with my blood kin who do not accept Jesus as Lord. I can and do love them; but there is not the same meeting of the mind and heartwith them that I enjoy with my fellow-believers. We have heard, “Blood is thicker than water.” But here Jesus is saying that the waters of Baptism are supernaturally “thicker than the blood of family.”

So, let’s return to the business of “semantic spin revisited.”

There’s a lot of this going around in our culture today. We need to know God’s Word to discern the truth. We need to call upon the Holy Spirit to pare away fiction or lies from the truth. We can ask the Holy Spirit for spiritual gifts of wisdom and discernment. He can and will help us identify—and resist–lying, pomposity, smugness, and group-think.

​​

Let’s pray: Gracious Lord, please lead, guide and direct us. Help us not to be taken in by those whose motives are to tear down another and advance their own cause. Help us to discern truth and to recognize semantic spin. The enemy tried so many times to accost you with lies, Lord Jesus. We appear to be similarly bombarded with lies today. Reveal to us the truth in every political and governmental situation. Bring integrity and truth-telling back into the halls and agencies of our national and state governments. Rule and overrule the hearts of anyone who is corrupt or who is advancing an evil plot. Bring all lies and corruption out into the light of Christ, we pray in His all-powerful name. AMEN

©️2021 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams

The Problem With Freedom

Pastor Sherry’s message from March 7, 2021

Scriptures: Ex 20:1-17; Ps 19; 1 Cor 1:18-25; Jn 2:13-22

Remember when the Berlin Wall came down?  (Some of us remember when it was put up.)  What a historic day!  Communism appeared to be collapsing all over Eastern Europe.  On Christmas Day of 1989, the Romanian president was captured and executed.  Romanians were delirious with their newfound freedom.  However, since no one had been left in charge of the country, first joy, then turmoil reigned.  Western news correspondents found one woman who spoke English and asked her opinion of the chaos.  She stated correctly, “We have freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it.” (“Christian Century”, Mar. 15, 2000).  In her country, it appeared that freedom led to anarchy—at least for a time.

         Martin Luther expressed similar sentiments following the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s.  The German people were so happy to be out from under   the then oppressive rules of the Catholic Church that they initially went hog wild.  Believing God’s grace was free, they felt they could do as they liked.  Luther himself visited a number of communities near Wittenburg and concluded, “Alas, what wretchedness I beheld.  We have perfected the fine art of abusing liberty.”  Hoping to reign in the worst of the excesses, he set about writing his Large and Small catechisms.

         We can all think of similar cases, can’t we?  How about the young man or woman whose folks raised them very strictly, then sent them off to college?  You, like me, probably saw some of them lose their minds, once the clamps were removed (drugs, sex, etc).  We often see similar behaviors from persons leaving unhappy marriages  (partying, drug use, multiple hook ups, etc.). 

         You see, freedom doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want.

Lasting freedom is much more disciplined than that.  Lasting freedom says, “What I want or need is important, but so is what others want or need.”  It’s not aggressiveà”Only what I need or want counts,” something we saw a lot of in the riots last summer, when peoples’ property was destroyed and some lives lost.  And it’s also not passiveà”Only what you need or want counts.”  This is where people take no action to protect their rights.  They naively allow someone stronger, or more charismatic/glib, or having more money and influence to determine what happens.

         Our Scriptures today impart to us how our God perceives we should respond to our freedoms:

                Exodus 20:1-17 demonstrates that we cannot manage well without a moral code.  The Israelites have been freed from slavery for about a month. 1st, they worried about escaping Egypt alive.  After God took care of them by parting the Red Sea and eradicating the pursuing Egyptian army,they then became concerned about having enough food and water in the wilderness. By the time of Exodus 20, it had become clear that they didn’t know how to behave.  While Moses was up on the mountain, receiving God’s Law, the people took the wealth with which they had left Egypt to make a golden calf to worship! They abused Moses’ leadership andthey were disrespectful to and untrusting of God.  God knew they needed some rules to live by and He provided them.

         We call these the 10 Commandments:  They are a God-given moral code for us.  The 1st four have to do with how we treat or regard God:

         1st, verse 3 No idolatry.  This meansno polytheism or multiple gods.  But it also implies noaethismàPsalm 53:1àthe fool has said in his heart, “there is no God.”  They [the fools who deny god’s existence] are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is no one who does good.

         2nd, verse 4 No idolsThis one comes with consequences:  punishment to the 3rd and 4th generations of those who reject God;but blessings and rewards to the 1000’s of generations of those who love God and obey Him.

         3rd, verse 7 Do not take God’s name in vainWe see and hear cursing all the time which involves God’s name, don’t we?  Many people punctuate their speech with curses—and don’t know or care how they offend God.

         4th, verses 8-11 Keep the Sabbath holyOur culture also violates this one frequently.  But those of us who are believers know we need to take a day of rest, 1 per each 7 days to honor God.

         The next 6 all have to do with how we treat others:

         5th, verse 12 Honor your father and mother  Our God-given moral code toward others begins in our homes.  As I have shared several times, my folks were both active alcoholics whom I did not respect.   I have since wondered how much of the trouble in my life arose from my teenaged disrespect of them.

         6th, verse13 Do not kill (aimed at individuals, not nations).

         7th, verse 14 Do not commit adultery.

         8th, verse 15 Do not steal.

         9th. verse 16 Do not lie.

         10th,verse 17 Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.  There was a time I had to not watch HGTV.  I found I was coveting the home improvements people enjoyed on those programs.  They create an appetite for more and better in us that we have to consciously decide not to pursue.

         The 10 Commandments are the guardrails on the highway of life.  They are not meant to restrict us as much as to keep us safe.  My son owns a Corvette.  These high performance cars sit very low to the ground.  My daughter has recently built a house at the back of a cow pasture.  To get to it, one must drive down a ¼ mile driveway consisting of two deep ruts in the grass—sometimes waiting for curious but unconcerned cows to move out of the way.  My son cannot drive his Corvette to see his sister.   Corvettes are not meant for off-road treking and neither are we!

         Using a different metaphor,  J. Vernon McGee says the 10 Commandments are like our bathroom mirror.  They help us see the dirt on our faces.  Fortunately, we have a sink just below the mirror in which to wash away the dirt.  God’s Law is like that mirror.  It reveals our sinfulness, but instead of a sink, we have Jesus to then forgive us for our sins.

         The ancient Hebrews would not have used either of these metaphors—expensive cars or mirrors, but neither did they regard the 10 Commandments as restrictive.  Instead, they viewed them as a gift which kept human ruthlessness at bay; which help us manage our freedoms well; and which convict us of where and when we fall short.

               Psalm 19 was written by King David to…

                 1. Praise God as the God of creation, Elohim (plural form of El, indicating the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit);

                 2. And praise Him for His Commandments.

David knew full well what happened when someone, including himself, violated God’s Law.  In the Bathsheba incident, he had coveted the wife of his “might man,” Urriah.  He had an adulterous affair with her, then ordered Urriah to the front of a battle, effectively murdering him.  And he committed a lie of omission to then act as though he had done no wrong.  After he acknowledged his wrong-doings, he also knew the grief and sorrow these violations caused both him and those they loved.  God said the sword would never leave his house.  One of his sons raped a daughter by another mother.  That daughter’s brother then killed the rapist.  Another son attempted to steal his throne from him, and so on.  David paid mightily for his sins with Bathsheba!  By the time he wrote this psalm, he clearly saw the 10 Commandments  as the guardrails on the highway of his life.

               In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, Paul is talking about how the Cross divides humankind into 2 categories:  saved vs. unsaved.  To those who are perishing, the lost, the Gospel of Christ appears foolish, a folktale, an unbelievable myth. I have certainly encountered scoffers, mockers, and unbelievers. They have made their choice and we Christ-followers know it is a misguided one.  But to those of us who believe, the Cross demonstrates the supreme power of God over sin and all the works of the evil one, and  over death.

         Paul also divides people into two other groups:  Jews and Gentiles (Greeks).  Essentially, he says the Jews lost out because they denied the Messiahship, the Lordship of Christ. During Jesus’ time among them, they were given many signs/miracles, but they disbelieved them or explained them away.  Their religious beliefs had largely become rituals only, empty forms lacking a personal relationship with God and a Holy Spirit inspired view of Scripture.  So, instead of looking to see how Jesus fulfilled their Scriptures, they asked for more signs in today’s Gospel, John 2:13-22

Nevertheless, Jesus did give them one more sign, the “sign of Jonah”(Matt 12:38-40) Just as Jonah was trapped for 3 days in the belly of the fish, Jesus lay in the tomb 3 days before being resurrected.

         Paul is writing to Corinthians, those who dwelt around and in the Greek city of Corinth.  The Greeks were big believers in the power of human philosophy, or human wisdom, to raise humanity to a higher level of functioning.  They sought the truth, but through human intellect. Someone has humorously defined philosophy as, “A blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there.”  Not a very reassuring definition is it?

We think we’re very smart, but we can and do justify whatever we want to try to defend.  The truth is that the wisdom of God far surpasses ours.    Or, as Paul writes, (v.25) For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

         So, the problem with freedom is that we humans tend to take it too far.  We need limits; we need boundaries to keep us safe.  God has provided these boundaries in the 10 Commandments and the rest of His Law.  In them, He has taught us how to live in regard to Him and to others.  In them. He has taught us how to enjoy freedom free of chaos.

Like David and Paul, let’s praise Him for His life-giving wisdom and His life-saving boundaries.

©2021 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams

The Primacy of Love

Pastor Sherry’s Message for October 25, 2020

Scriptures: Matt. 22:34-46; Deut 34:1-12; Ps 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thes. 2:1-8

You hear a lot of talk today about people who claim they are spiritual but are not really interested in committing to Jesus. I hear this from the young people who spend 30-60 days at Honey Lake Clinic. They come in admitting they have tried everything they know to help themselves overcome their addictions, or their hopeless depressions, or their paralyzing anxieties. Through the testimonies and examples of staff, we tend to be able to convince them that Jesus loves them and is able to heal them. Where we have less success is in persuading them to join a body of believers–to support their newfound faith–when they return home. You see, they can believe Jesus loves them, but they doubt they will experience love from His body, the Church.

They look around at us and say, “Hypocrites!”   Unfortunately, they see us as judgmental, critical of them and of their lifestyles.  Sometimes I think they are so sure we will reject them that they reject us first.  While we may be able to win them over to our God because He loves them and wants to heal & bless them—even though they cannot see Him, we do much less well at talking them into getting involved with other followers of Christ—who they can see.

Remember last week I encouraged us to pray for those political persons we find ourselves hating or at least severely disliking.  This is tough to do, isn’t it?  It’s not our natural inclination. We’d rather hold onto our resentments and our anger.  This is exactly what nonbelievers hold against us.  I have shared with you before that G.K. Chesterton, the noted British writer, said 100 years ago, Jesus…tells us to love our neighbors.  Elsewhere the Bible tells us Jesus said we should love our enemies.  This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.

So, how exactly do we go about loving the seeminglyunlovable?  Those who have offended us or harmed us?  Our lessons today speak to this point:

First of all, Jesus instructs us on the primacy of love in Matthew 22:34-46The Pharisees are now colluding with the Sadducees to try to trap Jesus.  This is like a coalition of conservative Republicans and Green New Deal Democrats, a very unlikely coalition.  An expert in the Law asks Jesus (v.36), Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?  Now bear in mind they taught there were as many as 613 commandments, the original 10 plus others.  Hoping to trip Him up, the Pharisee is saying “What’s the most important one?  Give me the bottom line.  What’s our takeaway?  Come on, Man, let’s cut to the chase (and bear in mind that we will make a huge deal of the ones You omit!)   

So Jesus, who is great at getting to the bottom line, says two things matter most in this life.   Citing Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, Jesus ties them together as the greatest commandment.  Deuteronomy 6:5àLove the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  And Leviticus 19:18àlove your neighbor as yourself.  We tend to believe these two laws were created by Christ, but God the Father set them out early on in the Torah.

Then Jesus politely shuts them up by tossing them a riddle from Psalm 110:  If the Messiah is David’s son (descendant), how can He also be David’s master?  This is for them an unanswerable question, somewhat like, Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  From this side of the Cross, we know the answer is “Jesus is Lord of all,” including King David.  What the observing crowd understands is that Jesus has bested them—again–at their own game.

 As Christ followers, we are to love God above all things, and love our neighbors—even the ones we don’t like– as ourselves.  This means we are to begin with a healthy love for ourselves.  I’m not talking about an arrogant or narcissistic self-love, nor do I mean a self-love so self-effacing as to appear we hate or loath ourselves.  As they say in Live Oak, Florida, “You can’t get back from where you ain’t been! “  We have to love ourselves in order to be able to love others.  Jesus is saying, we are to love God and others because God the Father has commanded us to do so.  We are to love God and others because Jesus seconded the motion. 

Finally, we are to love God and others because this is what wins the world to Christ!  Remember in world-wide plagues in the late 100’s and late 200’s, the Church grew because Christians remained to help nurse those who were sick, while other religious and political leaders headed to the hills to save themselves.  Christians also rescued infants abandoned on the city trash-heaps and raised them.  Their pagan neighbors were so impressed by the selfless love involved in both actions that they decided to become Christ-followers themselves.

Now, let’s look at our other Scripture lessons to see if there are hints as to how we demonstrate the primacy of love:

Deuteronomy 43:1-12  describes the death of Moses, at 120 years old.

Some scholars say this final chapter ought to be the first chapter of Joshua.  We know that Moses wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—the Torah (Law); but how could he write this last chapter describing his own death?  Perhaps Moses was being prophetic?  Or maybe his successor, Joshua—who was not there—recorded what God told him about the event.  Afterall, verse 9 says Joshua was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid hands on him.

Verse 6 tells us, He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is.  Who is the HE who accomplished the burial?  God.   God the Father probably had His angels perform it, while He presided—what a funeral!   Some scholars say, He [Moses] died by a kiss of God.  The Israelites then honored Moses by grieving for him for 30 days.

Why did God see to his burial?   Verse 10 tells us, Since then [until Jesus], no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.

Because Moses loved God and served God, our God was with him until the end of his life and appears to have ushered him into the one beyond.  I believe that If we love and serve Him with this kind of dedication, He will welcome us too into eternity with open arms!

            Psalm 90:1-6, 13-1 7 tells us that grasping the concept of eternity is really beyond the capacity of our earthly intellect.  Seriously, think about it for long and it will give you a headache.  Same result if we try to understand how God always was, is now, and will be forever.  Moses wrote this Psalm in about 1400 BC.

Now, having shepherded the children of Israel out of Egypt (1-2 million of them), and learning from God that none of them (except Joshua and Caleb) would enter the Promised Land—due to lack of trust in God to help them conquer the tribes living there—I think it is safe to say that Moses attended a lot of funerals!

He has, as a result, written a Psalm of death.  He lived to be 120, and yet he refers to how brief life is:  He says our lives are like a watch in the night (v.4);  like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered (vv.5-6).  Then he compares our lifespans with God’s: (V.2) …from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.  Literally, in the Hebrew, that means, from vanishing point to vanishing point; from east to west or from the past into the future.  In other words,

                                   [1] Before time was, God is;

                                    [2] When time shall be no more, God still is.

                                    [3] God never was;

                                    [4] There is never a time when God will be;

                                    [5] God simply is (I am who I am).

So, in light of God’s eternity, Moses asks God to (v.12) Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  Moses is urging us to remember that we are mortal, and that we make our days count by demonstrating/living out God’s love to others.

            1 Thessalonians 2:1-8àWe make our days count by sharing the Gospel with others.  Sometimes we do this with our words.  But, perhaps more powerfully, we do this by our actions.   Paul says he did not come to the Thessalonians out of self-serving motives, or to earn money.  He did not minister among them to gather prestige, honor, or position.  He came to them out of his love for Christ and Christ’s love for them.  That’s how we make our days count.

We do what God has put before us to do, out of love for Christ and for His people.

God’s View of what’s crucial in this life ought to be ours, right?

The upcoming election next week is certainly very important. However, it is not as important as loving God and loving others.  This week, let’s try to be aware of being a good example of a Christian.  If non-believers were watching you or watching me, would they want to become a follower of Jesus Christ?

©2020 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams