February 24, 2009
February 23, 2009
February 21, 2009
Years ago, my brothers and I spent ten days in the Adirondack Mountains, in what is known as the High Peaks region. We climbed mountains, mountains fairly similar in size and temperament to the mountains found in the Holy Land. It is hard work. After climbing uphill for several hours you are exhausted. And you don't have to climb Everest to experience danger. Mountain paths are often extremely narrow with a cliff above you on one side and cliff below you on the other. One wrong step can cost your life, even in New York state. And due to human limitations and the immense challenges a mountain presents you sometimes have to go to great lengths to accomplish a relatively short distance. Switchbacks often take you miles out of your way. Sometimes you can look over your head and see the summit right there, but you are hours or even days from achieving it.
Sometimes mountains are simply too big a project to climb in a single day and so sometimes real mountain climbers—not weekend warriors like my brothers and me—but the technical climbers who really know what they are doing, find themselves on the face of a cliff with daylight failing them and they are forced to tie themselves off in a bag and just hang from the side of the cliff, nothing between them and valley floor other than a thousand of feet of air. And there they remain suspended awaiting the return of the light of day. I would imagine that makes for some pretty long nights. An internationally renowned mountain climber was asked how he managed to sleep suspended in air like that. His response was classic. He said, “I sleep like a baby. I lie awake crying all night long.” Have you ever felt that way, when all your support systems have been taking away and you find yourself just hanging on waiting for some light to shine again?Mountain Climbing is physically demanding. A climber must be strong. Climbing is risky business A climber must be courageous. The work is tedious and the progress is slow. A climber must be determined.
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus takes Peter, James and John and together they climb a mountain. Bible scholars don't know what mountain, or how high it was or any of that but any rock worthy of the name presents its difficulties. So the four of them climb a mountain together. And when they get to the summit they are greeted by Moses and Elijah. And that is an interesting pair to be there at the summit. Scholars point out that Moses represents the Law and Elijah the prophets and that is true and good and helpful. But there is something else that is usually overlooked. Moses and Elijah also climbed a mountain and each of them was met by the Lord's Presence on the mountain.
Why did Moses climb his mountain? He wasn't looking for a challenge. He already had a challenge. He went up the mountain seeking help. God had given him an assignment, “Lead my people.” But it didn't take Moses long to figure out that he simply did not have the strength, the courage or the determination that the job required. Moses needed God's help and so he goes up the mountain to get it. Here is the conversation Moses had with God. We are reading in Exodus chapter 33.12:
Moses said to the LORD, "You have been telling me, 'Lead these people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, 'I know you by name and you have found favor with me.' If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people." The LORD replied, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." Then Moses said to him, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" And the LORD said to Moses, "I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name." Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory."
And so Moses went to the mountain because He was overwhelmed. He was called to lead God's people and he had already discovered that the task was beyond his own abilities. And Moses says to God, I'm not going forward unless your Divine Presence comes with us. Moses went mountain climbing because He was seeking God's promised Presence there.
Why did Elijah climb the mountain? He wasn't seeking a challenge either. In fact, Elijah was up to his neck in challenge. He had tried everything he could to lead God's people back from their wicked ways and he had failed. Elijah was at the end of his rope. Elijah climbed his mountain looking for God's help too. And like Moses Elijah found God's Presence on the mountain and he found the strength to go and complete his calling. It's worth looking at the passage again: “Elijah got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (and God spoke in that still small voice)
God called Moses to the monumental task of leading God's people into the promised land. It was more than a man—even a great man—could accomplish. God called Elijah to preach and prophecy to a nation that had turned away from God and towards evil. It was an impossible task for any human being to accomplish. And so they went to the mountain where they found God's Presence, where they received from Him the power—the strength, the courage and the determination they needed to complete their assignment. What about Peter, James and John? What are they doing up on that mountain? Well, they too have been called. God has called each of them to a task. Look at what happened just before this Transfiguration passage.
Immediately before Jesus takes the disciples up the mountain Jesus has this interaction with the disciples. He asks the disciples who they say he is. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. And you will remember that Peter's immediately argues with Jesus. It begins in Mark 8.31, “[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Now pay attention because here is the task that the disciples and the rest of the crowd receive from God. “ Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Jesus speaks to both the disciples and everybody else who happens to be standing around. He places a challenge before them. He calls them to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the gospel. And as his own example makes clear, he is not speaking metaphorically. Jesus, for the sake of the gospel, is headed to Jerusalem where he will lose his life in order to save it...for all of our sakes. Like Moses and like Elijah the disciples are called to lead God's people into relationship with God through their own devotion to the gospel. Did Jesus call these particular disciples because they possessed the strength, the courage and the determination to accomplish the task? I don't think so. In fact, they would abandon Jesus at his greatest moment of need. Jesus takes the disciples mountain climbing and at the top of the mountain they are introduced to God's own supernatural Presence-Jesus illuminated before their eyes—and all of creation with Him.
When God revealed his presence to Moses it was veiled in thick dark clouds and Moses was only allowed to see a shadowy silhouette. When God revealed his presence to Elijah it was surrounded by a terrible wind and an earthquake and a fire and all that Elijah was able to discern was a small still voice. Moses and Elijah only got little glimpses of God's glorious presence but when Peter and James and John reach the summit and God reveals his Glory on the Mount of Transfiguration it is not in darkness and terror. It is in brilliant light. And it is not in a shadowy silhouette. God's Presence is revealed in all its glory in Jesus Christ out of whom beams supernatural light. Here is the fulfillment of the promise to Moses and Elijah that God himself would lead His people. Here is the Glory of God revealed in all its fullness. The light that shines forth from Jesus is so intense that the entire mountain is illuminated by it. And when God speaks he no longer whispers. He speaks out loud and clear and says, “This is my Son—listen to Him.” This is the one Moses and Elijah asked for. This is the One who the whole world has been crying out for. Here is divine Strength, Courage, and Fortitude made incarnate in order to complete God's kingdom. God makes good on his promise to Moses and Elijah and they are present for Christ's unveiling. God makes good to his people Israel as the disciples witness Christ's glory. And God makes good to all of creation on his promise to redeem it. All God's promises are yes, and amen in his Son Jesus Christ.
Life is full of challenges, full of mountains to climb. We are facing tough economic times. Some of us are losing jobs or facing shrinking investments. Some of us are facing some pretty intense health problems. We may very well lose our lives. Our church is in a major fight over 'the gospel' and there may be consequences for us for standing for the truth of the Scriptures. Sometimes we sleep like babies. We lie awake all night crying. There are lots of mountains to climb—but there is one challenge that rises above all the rest: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Christian, Jesus challenges you to the greatest ascend the greatest summit in life. He calls you to surrender. He calls you to abandon yourself to faith in Him. He is Lord and Savior. It is a tremendous challenge but if you will accept it...if you will climb the mountain of faith with Jesus you will find God's Presence, his awesome Power, his unlimited Courage, and his relentless Determination illuminating your life. And from that mountaintop all the other mountains will look inconsequential. Once you have abandoned your life to Jesus and surrendered your life to God's amazing grace somehow all of life's challenges become manageable. Jesus is able to make molehills out of even the biggest mountains.
Mountain Climbing is physically demanding. A climber must be strong. Climbing is risky business. A climber must be courageous. The work is tedious and the progress is slow. A climber must be determined. But a climber need not manufacture it out of his own broken heart. Come to the Mount of Transfiguration. Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior and let the Presence of God carry you through.
February 20, 2009
February 19, 2009
February 16, 2009
PITTSBURGH'S BIBLE BELT RIVALS SOUTH'S, SCHOLARS SAY
Western Pennsylvania has been the epicenter of splits within two Protestant denominations because local clerics took exception to the more liberal positions of their churches. Church schisms here reflect an upsurge of conservative religion, an expert contends.
To read the entire article, click here: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/cityregion/s_611801.html
For the most comprehensive coverage of local news and sports in western
Pennsylvania, visit http://www.pghtrib.com
February 15, 2009
Mike Tomlin, Steelers head coach, talks about his faith
By: Art StricklinOriginal article can be found here, http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?Id=29752.
TAMPA, Fla. (BP)--Since becoming head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers two years ago, Mike Tomlin has talked often of his appreciation and respect for former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who first brought him into the NFL as an assistant coach.
Until this week's Super Bowl XLIII between the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, Tomlin had never had the international platform to follow his mentor Dungy and speak about his faith in Jesus Christ. But that's exactly what he did before hundreds of reporters in Tampa.
"First and foremost, I want people to know who I am and what the most important thing is in my life, my relationship with Jesus Christ," Tomlin said in response to a Baptist Press question about his personal faith.
"Football is what we do; faith is who we are all the time."
Tomlin, who attends Pittsburgh's Allegheny Center Alliance Church, was mentored by Dungy, who hired him as a defensive backs coach with Tampa Bay before Dungy moved on to Indianapolis.
When then-Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher retired, Tomlin was ready for the promotion, stemming from his time with Dungy, leading men onto the football field and leading men's hearts off the field.
"I want to lead with a servant's heart," Tomlin stated to media members who will be covering Sunday's Super Bowl.
"The biggest thing I learned from Tony Dungy was an unyielding belief in his message of faith," Tomlin recalled. "It was displayed all the time with him. He was extremely consistent and that's what I want to take to maximize my faith."
Tomlin's first expression of his faith during Super Bowl week came as no surprise to Steelers assistant coaches and players who have heard the same spiritual passion in private.
"It's a great blessing when a man of God is leading your team," defensive end Nick Eason said. "It's like a godly father in the household."
Tomlin said he is glad to share his faith in sport's brightest media spotlight, noting, "We embrace and appreciate this platform."
Amos Jones, the Steelers' assistant special teams coach, was baptized on the same day with his dad, Sam, at West End Baptist Church in Aliceville, Ala., where his mother still attends.
Having a Christian head coach has made a big difference to the team and has contributed to the Steelers' Super Bowl run, Jones said.
"I think his [Tomlin's] faith in the Lord is a blessing," the Jones said. "It's just a peace of mind knowing that he has everybody's best interest at heart.
"Mike and I share the same faith and it's amazing how many times something he might say to the team in the locker room could have a spiritual meaning."
Like most coaches, Jones has held plenty of jobs in his lengthy career in both college and NFL ranks, but he has always had the Lord as his one constant.
"I have always been blessed by the Lord. When I didn't have a job, He provided one. He gave me this job and allowed me to go to the Super Bowl. It's been a blessing," Jones said.
In the often hard-hitting world of the NFL, Jones said his wife Stacey has reminded him to see God's hand everywhere.
"She sits in the stands and can see the defensive backs praying together on the sideline. She sees Troy Polamalu, encouraging and praying with people."
Linebackers coach Keith Butler sat in the stands during Tuesday's media day silently watching the frenzied interaction between players and hoards of reporters.
"This isn't life-or-death pressure," Butler said of Super Bowl week. "It's not like life or death in eternity without God.
"Is this game important? Yes. Is it the most important thing? Not even close."
Art Stricklin, a Baptist Press sports correspondent based in Dallas, is in Tampa covering activities leading up to Sunday's Super Bowl.
Copyright (c) 2009 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press. Visit www.bpnews.net. BP News -- witness the difference! Covering the critical issues that shape your life, work and ministry. BP News is a ministry of Baptist Press, the daily news service of Southern Baptists.
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A sermon on 2 Kings 5.1-16 by Fr. Scott Homer
Leprosy comes up twice in our readings this morning. Naaman the Aramean general is a leper and is healed by God in our Old Testament reading and Jesus heals a leper in our Gospel reading. Leprosy is mentioned often in the Scriptures. It is not clear to modern scholars what exactly it the disease was because the symptoms described differ from case to case but two things are clear: 1. The leprosy mentioned in the Bible was probably not Hansen's Disease and 2. It was some sort of very contagious skin disorder that was, in most cases, incurable. And because it was incurable the Bible remembers the stories of God healing lepers because they represent extreme examples of God's salvation—not perhaps as dramatic as raising the dead to life but amazing acts of God.
Let's look at the Old Testament lesson. The story is set in the ancient
The story of Naaman and Elisha is remarkable because it is a story about God healing a pagan. It is one of the very early examples of God acting mightily in the life of a non-Jew and of course after he is healed Naaman becomes a believer in the one true God. And that ought to remind us of what Jesus and his disciples are doing in the New Testament era. They go around from place to place healing people, and through those healings they are telling people that the
Naaman knows how to make things happen. He is a mover and shaker. He is the General in Charge of the Aramean Army and Aramea is one of the most powerful nations in the world at that time. Naaman is the king's right hand man—number two in the kingdom—one of the most powerful men in the world. Naaman is a huge success story. He has amassed a fortune. He has power and influence over thousands of men. His name is known and feared. This guy has achieved just about everything a man can hope to achieve. Naaman knows how to make things happen. He has it all…or he would if it were not for the fact that he suffers from this incurable ailment. Naaman is a leper. He suffers from a terrible skin disease. It is so terrible in fact that governments of the day forced lepers to live apart, quarantined from the rest of society. In
But Naaman doesn't seem to get it. He still seems to think that he can force a healing by his own efforts. He gets a letter from his king to use as leverage with the king of
We may know great success in life. We may enjoy great wealth, have the respect and admiration of kings, and wield vast power and influence over the affairs of men but all of that is of no consequence to God. The great man and the common man alike are at God's mercy when we are afflicted by our sins or oppressed by the circumstances of life beyond our control. Only God's grace and mercy can cure us and God's grace and mercy are not for sale, can not be won by force and will not yield to our influence. How can we obtain healing? What is required of us? Simple obedience to the Word of God, nothing more.
Naaman then is a sort of Everyman. He represents the human condition. We can all see in Naaman the problem we ourselves face. We chase after success. We amass fortunes. We fight for fame and influence and we are always seduced into believing that our efforts will result in secure lives, lives free from hardship, loss and disease. We think we will know health, joy and comfort as the fruits of our intelligence and our natural gifts and our labor. But Naaman reminds us that no matter how well off we may be, no matter how much power we may exercise in the lives of others, there are afflictions that we simply can not buy our way out of, or bully into submission or cause to pass us by. Ronald Reagan suffered from Alzheimers despite having been the most powerful man in the world. Howard Hughes suffered insanity despite being the wealthiest man in the world. Power and money saves no one.
Naaman finds the one true God of the universe in the last place he would have expected to find him, not where Naaman was strong, not where he was successful but at the very point of his greatest weakness. He comes into the presence of the one true God at the place in his life where he is unable to make anything happen—and at the one place where he is forced to bow to someone else's authority. Naaman knows God at the point in his life where he is powerless.
That is the fact for all of us. We want God to admire us for our competency but God is more interested in our ineptitude. We want to meet God in the celebrations of life but God is more ready to meet us in our moments of despair. We want to be big, important, powerful but God is really looking for us to become humble and obedient, to move back from having to be the center of attention and allow Jesus to take center stage.
Elisha is a poor Isrealite—one of the people Naaman threatens to conquer. According to world standards Elisha should be bowing and scraping before this great general but he does the opposite. He will not even grant Naaman an audience. He sends a servant out with a dismissive message to go and wash himself seven times in the
God does not make hard terms with us. He is not asking anything of us that is difficult. What makes our relationship with Him difficult is our pride. God insists upon being God. He will not step down off his throne and allow us to demand our own way. We can, like Naaman, be competent, powerful, and wealthy but it will avail us nothing in our relationship with God. God is not interested in any of that. God wants a submissive heart. He wants us to be willing to listen to his word, when necessary to swallow our pride, and a willingness to do what he asks us to do. We never fully learn this lesson. Some of us never get it at all. But our healing, our happiness and our long term security depend upon learning to live with Jesus as our Lord and Master.
Bottom line is: Humility is one of the cardinal virtues and pride is one of the cardinal vices. This is an extraordinarily difficult teaching in our culture because our culture is devoted to pride and personal power. We love our autonomy. We demand our own way in everything, but it is a destructive lifestyle. It holds us apart from God and prevents us from receiving God's healing. Naaman listened to reason. He dropped his pride, at least long enough to go and wash himself in the
Jesus has come to set us free. In chapter 28 of the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me." "That," as Sandy Millar says, "is quite a lot of authority." Jesus has the power to set us free. And it is his desire to set us free. In our Gospel reading this morning the leper says to Jesus, "If you are willing you can heal to me." And Jesus responds, "I am willing…" Jesus has the power to heal us. It is his desire to heal us. We ought to let him. Amen.
February 14, 2009
A Sermon on Mark 1.21-28 by Fr. Scott Homer
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just a word from Jesus is all it takes to set us free. He has not come with flowery language and persuasive arguments. He has come with divine power and authority and there is no power in the universe that can stand against him. When Jesus commands healing in our life we experience healing.
You really can't look at a passage like this without being confronted with some pretty uncomfortable stuff. Over the course of these three paragraphs we are told that there are evil spirits that possess people and they apparently are intelligent and have personalities. And they are able to speak out and to make decisions. We are also told that Jesus speaks with authority. Now what exactly that means we are not told but authority is something that makes most of us uneasy. Jesus we are told has authority unlike the teachers of the law AND he has the authority to command the demons to leave and they leave.
Evil is an unfortunate reality in this world. It is a very real and ugly part of reality. This is the first lesson we can derive from our reading this morning. Even in the midst of the congregation evil spirits work to destroy lives, wreck homes, distort the truth and lead people away from the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. We see the power of evil operating in our lives wherever we see dishonesty, anger and manipulation. It is made manifest in addictive behaviors, in broken relationships and in disease. We see it working in unaddressed poverty, in acts of war and in the abuse and neglect of our young and our elderly. And make no mistake about it. Evil is essentially a moral problem. Moral failures are the primary expression of the power of evil in our lives. You may hear people saying that God does not care what you do with your body. Don't believe them. It is a lie. God is supremely moral and righteousness is what he seeks from us.
The second lesson this morning is that evil is right here in our midst. Jesus goes to the synagogue to teach, and that makes sense doesn't it? The Son of God, God's promise fulfilled, wants to share the good news with God's people. Well, religious people meet in religious places and so Jesus goes to the synagogues but please note, that it is not just God's voice that is present and heard in the religious places. The voice of God's enemies are also found there. In fact, God's enemies are always most active in communities that are devoted to God because people devoted to God are the greatest threat to the enemy and so that is where he spends his time—working to defeat the people of God.
We, as a faith community, must be alert to the enemy in our midst…and I do not mean that we need to be searching it out in the lives of our neighbor. I mean we need to be searching it out in our own lives. To the extent that we leave it unattended it will be a destructive force for the church. It will be a means of limiting God's work among us. It will be demonstrated in division and discord—gossip designed to damage reputations, factions that include some people while excluding others. We must be alert to the enemy in our midst, in our very own lives, and be conscientious about bringing Jesus into our midst and asking him to cast the evil out.
We all have areas in our lives where evil reigns. I don't care if you are the Archbishop of
If you can not identify with what I am talking about perhaps you can try an experiment. Jesus told us to love God with all your heart, all your mind and all your spirit and love our neighbor as ourselves. Do that for one full twenty-four hour period. Be absolutely like Jesus for 24 hours and observe how you are doing. Look for the little self-centered thoughts that cause you to ignore God's work. Pay attention to the ways that you prefer what you want over what other people want. What you will be observing is evil exerting its power in your life and you will be unable to overcome it.
If there is a force in our life that is more powerful than we are, what can we do? How can we possibly hope to overcome it? The truth is that we can not. In fact, no human power can. We are powerless to stop it, period. This gentleman in the synagogue is not in charge. He is a victim. In those areas of our lives where evil has a foothold we are not in charge. We too are victims and it is not until we acknowledge that fact that any healing can occur because it is only in acknowledging our complete and utter inability to correct our failure that we may become willing to allow Jesus charge over our lives. You see, as long as you hold on to a shred of hope that you can find some way of solving the riddle yourself you will not surrender to Jesus' power.
I think it is interesting to note that when the Gospels speak of evil spirits, the evil spirits are always fully aware of who Jesus is even if the people are not. It is only the human beings who seem confused by the identity of Jesus. The demons and unclean spirits are always clear, "Jesus is the Holy One of God." They recognize him as the enemy and they fear Him because they know that He holds all authority. They are always wanting Jesus to go away and leave them alone because as long as Jesus is held at a distance and as long as he does not speak the evil spirits are able to do their damage in the world. They are free to continue wrecking people's lives but once they have been confronted by Jesus they are forced to flee. And all Jesus ever does is speak a word of rebuke to them. They must respond to His rebuke, like it or not, because Jesus is the Son of God and He holds all authority.
The hope for us does not lie in our abilities. The evil spirits are not impressed by our talent, our genius or our determination. They may play with us, allow us to believe that we are in charge but it is just an illusion, just another means of manipulating us and using us. Our hope does not lie in our own abilities. Our hope lies in the power and authority of Jesus Christ and it is by being in His presence that we are healed. It is in allowing Him to speak int o our lives and our situations that we know freedom. Jesus is both willing and able to overcome the power of darkness in our lives. That is why he came. That is what He came to do—to heal us and restore us to righteousness before His Father.
The great failing of religious people in Jesus' day was that they did not welcome Him into their midst. They refused to embrace his words. They would not allow him to rule over their land. They would not love Him in their own hearts. The people who did welcome Jesus experienced healing and came to know God's salvation but most refused and it was not until after Jesus' crucifixion, death and resurrection that they realized who it was who had been in their midst. We are always in danger of making the same mistake.
Welcome Jesus. Listen to what he is saying to you. Acknowledge and accept his authority over your life. It is rightfully his. His Father has already granted it to him…but Jesus, in his incredible humility, still awaits permission to take the throne in your life. It is the one thing that you can do to gain victory in life. You can begin to accept Jesus' authority to tell you what to do. You can welcome his authority to govern your daily activities. You can step down from the throne, take off your crown and hand them over to their rightful owner.
Just a word from Jesus is all it takes to set us free. He has not come with flowery language and persuasive arguments. He has come with divine power and authority and there is no power in the universe that can stand against him. When Jesus commands healing in our life we experience healing. Amen.
A sermon in John 15 by Fr. Scott Homer
Happy Valentines Day! It was originally a pagan holiday which was later renamed for Christian martyrs named Valentine. Traditionally it has been a day on which lovers exchanged handwritten notes avowing their undying love for one another. In the nineteenth century a few industrious folks started printing and selling Valentine's Day cards and today there are more cards sent for Valentines Day than any day other than Christmas. The estimate is that over one billion cards are sent worldwide.
Valentine's day is devoted to love and so tonight want to take a look at love—what our culture has told us about it—what God has told us about it—how we can know we are receiving it and how we can know that we are giving it. When Scott Jessel sent out the musical agenda for tonight I had not decided on what I was going to say and so he just jokingly put on the plan "Love American Style." and so that provides us with a place to start.
When I think about "Love American Style" here are some images that come to mind: I get images of men on one knee holding a bouquet in one hand and a ring in the other and a starry eyed girl saying, "Yes, yes, of course I will marry you! I love you desperately!" I get images of Cupid striking someone with his magic arrow and them falling head over heals in love with whoever happens to be in front of them at the moment; images of passion on the beach as the surf engulfs the couple in their embrace; or of a sultry dance in a crowded ballroom, two people consumed with passion for one another and oblivious to everyone else in the room; images of beautiful people desperately pursuing each other and finding perfect joy and perfect fulfillment in their embrace.
We have all grown up with these images; Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neil; Tom Cruise and Kelli McGinnis; Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—Hollywood has been selling this model of love for at least three or four generations now. And I do not want you to walk out of here tonight thinking that I am opposed to romantic love. I have been smitten by it myself. But there is a downside to the "Romantic Love" thing. Not because there is something wrong with romantic love in itself but because romantic love is incomplete love at least as our culture understands it; because at the root of romantic love is the false idea that if we could only be with our beloved we would be complete, completely fulfilled. Romantic love acknowledges the empty place that exists in each of our hearts. It recognizes that we are incomplete in ourselves but it makes the mistake of thinking that the hole can be filled by another human being. It can't.
There is another love that is more complete. It will sustain us forever. It is a bigger love, a more all consuming love, a love that can fill the hole in our hearts not just for a little while but forever. There is another love—a love that transcends romantic love.
God loves us with a perfect love. The famous passage in John 3.16 says, "God loved the world so much that He gave his only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have life everlasting." We may get glimpses of love in romance but we can never find a perfect expression of love anywhere other than on the cross of Christ. It is in Christ's passion—his death and his resurrection—that we see God's perfect love for us. God's love is sacrificial love. God's love is forgiving and merciful love. God's love is wholly devoted to doing what is best for the beloved. No price is too great. We can only see perfect love in God. Human beings simply can not imitate it. But we can "Abide" in God's presence and we can learn from his example and when we abide with God we can actually act in truly loving ways, sometimes.
I met Jim and Mary Lou Beers about eight or nine years ago. They were speakers at a retreat I was attending in Parma, Ohio. Jim and Mary Lou were the speakers there. They had been married some forty years. And they had struggled for much of their married life. There was always financial hardship. Jim was not a good provider. Mary Lou worked hard to care for all her husband's wants and needs and sometimes she felt overworked and underpaid. At one point in their marriage lawyers and social workers had recommended to her that she divorce Jim for her and the four children's sake but when she prayed about it God never blessed the idea. And so she struggled on. Now it is not what you think. Jim didn't have a drinking problem. He wasn't lazy. Jim was a quadriplegic—paralyzed from the neck down. He could not even speak. He had been a good worker—a salesman—but one morning he left for work complaining of a headache and a half an hour later he was being rushed to a hospital with a massive stroke. He was twenty-nine years old and Mary Lou was six months pregnant with their fourth child. So, for the next thirty-six years Mary Lou and Jim suffered hardship. Mary Lou cared for Jim and the four children alone with virtually no money. You see, because she was married she was ineligible for public assistance. But somehow, through an amazing series of miracles and the aid of caring Christian friends Jim and Mary Lou lived a blessed life, a life full of joy, and a life they knew to be filled with love. Jim died about two years ago. His was a heroic life. And Mary Lou grieves his death in the same way and with the same intensity that she might have had he been a star athlete or a bank president.
Mary Lou and Jim truly loved one another. And they were able to sustain that love because they were both deply in love with Jesus. And this is a different kind of love—it is a love that is not so much about what we feel towards somebody who is beautiful and perfect, who knows how to light our fire, who brings us joy through the ways they meet our needs. This love is devoted to someone when they are not very attractive, when the passion is a distant memory, when our needs are not being met.
Earlier we listened to Jesus talking to his disciples about love. (John Chapter 15) And if we are listening to his words and we are trying to apply them to our lives then we are his disciples too and he is speaking to us. First Jesus talks about our relationship to Him and to God the Father and He makes it clear that our success in this life depends upon that relationship. He says, "Abide in me." So it is living in relationship with Jesus that we know relationship with God the Father and when we are in relationship with the Father and the Son, when we abiding in them, we are able to bear fruit. We are able to really love one another, and to show the world that true love is a reality for those who abide with God. And he says something in the midst of his words that is really quite surprising. He says, "This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you." And then he defines what He means by love. He says, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." The most perfect model of love is someone willingly sacrificing their own life to save the life of someone else. This is our touchstone. This is the principle upon which we can measure our love for others. Are we losing our own life for their benefit?
Someone truly loves you not when they insist that you become something other than who you are. (Why can't you be more like your sister?) It is not true love when you must first do something that brings them joy. (I would really love you if you would do what I ask). It is not true love when we are loved for the way we look or the way we dress or the way we walk. Love is not a bargaining chip we use to get what we want from someone else. If we are withholding our love until we get something—it is not love it is self-centeredness. True love is sacrificing for someone else's welfare, in order that someone else gets what they want and need. Husbands and wives—boyfriends and girlfriends—neighbors and friends: Do you love one another? You do if you are giving up your rights. You do if you are finding ways to serve them. You do if you are shaping your life's goals around requiring less of them and offering more of yourself, striving to put them first and yourself last.
This is the love, in its perfect form, that God has for us. Can you imagine the Creator of all that ever was and all that will ever be, the Master of the entire universe, all knowing, all powerful God sacrificing himself for a human being? It is absurd. When has a President of the United States ever given up his dinner to feed a homeless person? When has a king ever cut a construction worker's grass? And yet, that is the good news—that God Almighty has come down from heaven and sacrificed himself to save you.
My dad has just embarked on an act of love for his great grandchildren. He has set up investment accounts for both of them. The plan is that instead of buying a bunch of toys they will break or that will be lost amongst all the other toys and instead of sending them to Chuckie Cheese for another party Great Grandpa will deposit a sum of money into their investment account and with compound interest the kids should see a pretty substantial sum of money in that account when they get to be adults. Now the kids may very well misunderstand. When they don't get the toy they had hoped for, or when Grandpa won't give them twenty bucks to throw into vending machines they may make the mistake of believing that Grandpa doesn't really love them or care about them. But he does care. He cares so much, in fact, that he is devoted to making sure that their long term future is guaranteed. He recognizes that the momentary pleasure derived from the cheap toy or the momentary thrill will not be of much lasting value but later on, when something really important comes along the kids will have the means to enjoy it.
I think this is also what our Father's love is about. He is not so concerned about how prosperous we are. He doesn't see much lasting value in satisfying our passions and our desires right here and right now. He recognizes that we are looking at a very bleak future if we continue to insist on life on our terms. And so God has given us a greater gift. He has sent his Son to open the way to eternal life and he is designing our days to help lead us into a strong relationship with his Son Jesus. Sometimes that means denying us something here and now. Sometimes that means actually preventing from getting what we want right now. But God has promised that at the end of the day we will receive a greater gift than we can even imagine.
Valentines Day is about love and love is a lot more than a fiery attraction to another human being. St Augustine said that "love is desiring the best for another human being." And that is what God does. He desires the best and is seeking out the best for each one of us. We can trust him. We can rest in his promises. And we can spend the rest of our lives knowing that "getting what we need" is not about us grabbing it or wrestling it away from someone else or manipulating to get it. God has prepared it for you. He is giving it to you and all we need to do is to abide in Jesus. And since we do not need to care for our own needs we are free to care for the needs of those around us. We are free to truly love them, to do what is best for them, and to sacrifice to help them.
Happy Valentines Day. I hope you will have a blessed time with your beloved for the remainder of the day. I hope that together you will rest in God's love for you and celebrate in the blessings that He is showering upon you and will teach other to trust in the promises He has made to you. In Jesus' name. Amen
February 12, 2009
Anglicans Reaffirm Uniqueness of Christ
The Church of England reaffirmed its commitment to sharing with people of all faiths and of none the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only savior.
A motion passed by the General Synod – the legislative body of the Church of England – commits bishops to drawing up new guidelines on the uniqueness of Christ in multi-faith Britain and to offering examples of good practice "in sharing the Gospel of salvation through Christ alone" with people of other faiths and of none.
The motion, approved Wednesday, was put forward by lay member Paul Eddy, who said the motion was not about targeting one particular faith group.
"It is talking about sharing Jesus Christ with people of o! ther faiths and of none, including in this country loads of people who are atheists [and] for whom we need examples of good practice."
The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, said Christians had an obligation to witness the transforming love of Christ to all people.
"We should not target anyone but no one is excluded either," he said.
Andrew Dow, a vicar in Cheltenham, warned against putting bishops through "a sort of theological or doctrinal Ofsted."
"Of course we would love to know what they think. But why just them? This is something for the whole church – laity, clergy and bishops – to wrestle with afresh."
Dow told the Synod that the Church needed to recover its confidence in Jesus as the only savior. "We need to recover our nerve. We need to refute the lie that to be evangelistic is to be a religious bigot or fundamentalist fanatic."
He urged Anglicans to be more explicit about their desire t! o convert people to the faith. "The dreaded 'C' word, we! 're te rrified of it. But why? It only means turning and both Jesus and Paul used the word to describe the very DNA of their ministries."
Other Synod members spoke of the difficulties Christians were facing in speaking publicly about their faith in Jesus.
Representing the black-majority churches in Synod, New Testament Assembly minister the Rev. Nezlin Sterling said the church was being marginalized at a "rapid rate" in multi-faith Britain.
"Why should we as Christians have to walk on egg shells to preserve community cohesion [and] accommodate everyone else, when the world around us is becoming more aggressive to Christianity and the mere mention of the word Jesus Christ is an offense to so many with whom we are seeking a working relationship?"
Sterling urged the Church not to compromise on its mission to proclaim Christ for fear of being labelled politically incorrect.
"Every person in my mind is a potential convert," she said.
The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, spoke of the responsibility of Christians to proclaim Christ but stressed sensitivity.
"Because Christ is unique we owe it to our nation that nobody in this land should not hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, should not be invited to share within it, but we do it with great respect."
February 11, 2009
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