Have You Moved?

This is a question that I could answer ‘yes’ to many times.  While we did not change church families too often (my Dad being the pastor), we did move house quite often, so much so that I cannot recall how many homes I have now called ‘home.’  But on last count I attended six different public schools (in two different nations), three different high schools (in three different towns/cities), one college and two universities.  And since then, I continue the life as a nomad, now into my third locale with wife and family.  So yes, I have moved, and got quite good at it!  In fact I now have little patience when helping others move who don’t know how it is to be done.  Ever heard of boxes?

But the question put to the congregation recently (actually four congregations as we enjoyed a joint service together) was not ‘have you moved house?’  It was really ‘has your soul moved?’  As Christians we are led by the Spirit of God: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” Galatians 5:25 (NIV).  As we are led by the Spirit of God, we should expect to see change in our character: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV).  Now sometimes this strikes Christians as being somehow either unrealistic, or unfair.  “We can’t expect people to be perfect.”  “We should accept people just as they are.”  “People cannot change, nor should we ask them to.”  That kind of thing.  True enough, we accept people just as they are, but we should be asking ourselves, and each other if we are really watching out for one another, ‘have we moved?’  Have we seen a change in character?  Is it evident to others, so evident it is like fruit on a tree, easily visible, and attractive not to mention life giving?

Yes we accept people as they are, but we can no more be led by the Spirit of God and remain the same, than the Israelites could be led by the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night and remain in Egypt* (see the book of Exodus!).  If we are led, we are moving.  If we are not moving, it is not because God has stopped leading us, it is because we have stopped following. Perhaps we like Egypt too much. Perhaps we have found a comfy spot in the wilderness short of the promised land and have decided to settle in the desert. Perhaps we mistakenly thought we were being baptized in the Jordan, with the promised land just over there easily within reach, when really we were baptized back in the Nile, with quite the journey ahead of us.

There is a Spirit-led journey ahead of each of us.  And I don’t believe any of us ever really reach the ‘promised land’ of Christ-like character in this lifetime.  But the question is not “have you arrived?”  The Lord knows I have not.  My wife knows too.  And so do those who need my help moving and who have not packed properly, as previously mentioned.  The question is ‘have you moved?’ Are you different now than you were ten years ago?  Five years ago?

Whatever your answer is, I know what mine needs to be:  Let’s get moving!

(adapted from a sermon preached August 2011)
*I have vague memories of reading a similar line of thought somewhere, but I can’t remember the who’s or where’s of it, so thank you to whoever was responsible for this thought!

Sermon Bit: Why Did a Man Die?

In our recent sermon series we have been considering ethics and have concluded that Christian ethics consists of the following:

  1. Walking with God the Son.  We are not a people who just follow rules in our ethics, but a people who think through ethics creatively with ‘God tuned hearts,’ as Jesus did.  He inspires us to attain to a righteousness that ‘surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.’
  2. Kneeling at the throne of God the Father. We are not a people who just follow rules in our ethics, but a people who are inspired by the glory and holiness of God.  Ethics is not just a rational endeavour, but a relational one.  Rather than merely being focused on not breaking rules, we are focused on not breaking God’s heart.
  3. Being led by God the Holy Spirit.  We are not a people who just follow rules in our ethics, but a people who are being transformed in our character.  Indeed a person with solid character does not need rules!
I don’t normally tune into American news, but one night recently I did looking to get an American perspective on the economy (not that I have any stocks to be concerned about!).  Instead I got a new perspective on something else.A story came on about a group of white youths in Mississippi who set out to rough up the first black man they came across.  Before too long they found a victim, beat him up and then fled.  The last white youth to flee decided to take it a step further and ran over the black man with his truck.  CNN showed the horrific video shot by security cameras, capturing the man’s last moments of life.  To quote the CNN, James Craig Anderson died ‘just because he was black.’

Did a man die recently just because he was black?

Had the white youth in this story been walking with Jesus, a man would still be alive.  A righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees, does not hate.  We follow the One who picked up his cross, who told us to pick up ours and follow Him.  We walk with the One who was nailed to his cross for us, all of us, people of every colour, from every nation.

Had the white youth been spending time before God’s throne contemplating His holiness and glory and grace, a man would still be alive.  With God there is no partiality.  He created us, in rich diversity, and in His image he created us.  If the fear of God is in us, how dare we hate someone created in His image?

Had the white youth been led by and kept in step with the Spirit, a man would still be alive.  The evidence of the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (see Galatians 5:22,23).  People with this kind of character don’t intentionally drive over other people.

A black man died, yes because he was black, but also because a white youth needed and needs Jesus.  Christian ethics goes hand-and-hand with evangelism!

Not so common anymore are signs that declare “Jesus is the answer.”  I can remember one of my colleagues snidely asking “what’s the question?”  The question is:  What do we do about racism?  What do we do about pornography?  What do we do about marital unfaithfulness?  What do we do about addictions?  What do we do about fraud?  What do we do about prostitution?  What do we do about gangs?  What do we do about societies where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?  What do we do about totalitarian regimes fraught with corruption?  What do we do about democracies fraught with scandals?  What do we do?  We go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us (Matthew 28:19,20).  In the Great Commission, Jesus himself teaches us that evangelism and ethics go hand in hand.

Christian ethics is not an exercise in thinking philosophically about right and wrong, it is a matter of life and death for millions.  Evangelism is not about comparing worldviews to see which might bring us the greatest sense of inner peace or whatever we think religion should do for us.  Evangelism is about partnering with God who is bringing about a complete transformation of the world as He brings His kingdom.  And it happens in the transformation of each disciple.

The day is coming, it is described in Revelation, when we will be walking with Jesus, we will be  before the throne, we will be led by The Spirit.  And “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV)  And we reach forward to that future, not just striving toward it, but grasping hold of it and bringing it back to our time and place.  We start  living it now, calling and inviting others to do likewise.

Evangelism is not “smile, Jesus loves you,” but, and I do mean this in a positive sense, “Jesus loves you, now get a life!.”  Get the life God wants for you, get the life that beings blessings to others, not curses, get the life that brings joy to others, not suffering, get the life that brings life to others, not death.

It is time for a renewed confidence that evangelism is important, crucial indeed, yes because it impacts a person’s eternal destiny,but also that it is in fact life changing.  People are dying because other people need Jesus!  How the history of the world would have been different if so many of the shady characters of history (including those who would call themselves Christian by the way), had responded to Jesus and taken Christian ethics seriously.  How the history of the world can and will be different as we reach out with the Good News of Jesus Christ!

We are at that point in the summer when we start seeing “Back to School” signs around and about.  For many of us, September almost feels like a fresh start.  Are you ready to make a fresh start, to take Christian ethics seriously this coming year?  Are you committed to walking with Jesus?  Committed to spending time before the throne of our Heavenly Father? Committed to following the leading of the Spirit?  Are you ready to go, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded?

(from a sermon preached August 14, 2011)

Sermon Bit: Can Today’s Christian Learn Anything from the Old Testament Rules?

We have a rule in our home. No running in the house! I admit with some pride that I am very good at keeping this rule. In fact I can keep this rule for months even beyond the confines of our home. Our boys, well not so much. Boys will be boys, and we have boys who are great at being boys. But they do not aspire to greatness when it comes to the rules, esecially not that rule.

It is not an arbitrary rule. It is not a rule I created so that I could practice projecting my voice whenever the rule is broken. Though plenty of practice I do get. Rather this is a rule with a purpose. It is there to ensure our neighbours in the downstairs apartment don’t move out. They are as quiet as church mice. In comparison the boys in full tilt sound like a herd of elephants. Now just imagine if I didn’t keep the rule! You see the rule is not just a rule. It is an expression of value.

When it comes to the Bible, I find that there are many who don’t like the Old Testament, harbouring the sentiment “too many rules – and not rules relevant to me. We’d rather have Jesus and know God through the New Testament.”. But would Jesus be impressed with that attitude? Certainly we tend to like being the centre of attention, but would Jesus be comfortable with us discarding the Old Testament so that we can focus solely on Him?

Let us turn again to the Sermon on the Mount and those examples Jesus gives on righteouness that surpasses that of the Pharisees. Some might conclude that Jesus is turning us away from the Old Testament and its traditions when in Matthew five he says repeatedly “you have heard it said, but I say . . .”. But is he? Instead of murder, deal with anger. Instead of lawsuits, reconcile. Instead of looking for legal loopholes to get out of a marriage, get into it. Instead of special oaths, now just be honest always. Look more closely and it becomes clear that Jesus is not turning us away from the rules of the Old Testament at all, but from a wooden understanding of them. He is turning us from a righteousness like that of the Pharisees with its obsession with knowing and keeping the rules, and turning us toward a surpassing righteousness that is obsessed instead with knowing and pleasing God the Father. Same rules, different outcome.

Far from turning us away from the Old Testament, Jesus sends us deeper into the Old Testament, so that we may know God better, learning His values, His heart. Perhaps a paraphrase will help: “You have heard it said, ‘keep the Old Testament rules given about murder, oaths, divorce etc. and the things God does not want you to do’, but I say ‘from the Old Testament rules, realize the heart, desire, and values of the One who gave you them and be the kind of people He wants you to be’. It goes much deeper than mere obedience. And it goes much deeper into the Old Testament.

Furthermore, Jesus also includes in his examples one that shows a misunderstanding of Old Testament law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Matthew 5:43 (ESV). To say that tradition missed a crucial teaching of the Old Testament is an understatement. In fact the Old Testament teaches that God has a plan to reach all nations through Israel (see Genesis 12:1-3), which includes their enemies! Furthermore the main point of the book of Jonah is that God loves our enemies! Jesus is not taking us away from the Old Testament, but to a better understanding of it when he says “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Matthew 5:44,45 (ESV). We don’t love our enemies to become sons, we love to show that we are sons, that there is a family resemblence to God our Father. In other words we love our enemies just as He loves our enemies. And we know He does because the Old Testament teaches us that He does.

So in conclusion. For us to say that we love Jesus and the New Testament, but have no time for the Old Testament, well, if we are following Jesus, he himself leads us to reconsider the importance of the it. God has not changed. He reveals Himself in both Testaments. Even though we do not “keep” the Old Testament code as Christians, we seek to emulate and please our Heavenly Father, and those “old” rules give us a great glimpse into His heart and how we can do just that.

(adapted from a sermon July 2011)