Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Real Santa Claus

Over one thousand seven hundred years ago, a frail old man stepped out of the Roman dungeons of Asia Minor and squinted in the brightness of the natural sunlight of which he had been deprived for the past eight years. Despite the torture he had endured, his bones broken, set, healed, and broken again and again over the years, he had never wavered in his faith; even though the authorities repeatedly promised him that he would be released if only he would recognize the divinity of the Emperor and sacrifice incense to his name.

Many had given up hope of ever seeing or hearing from him again, but as the Emperor Diocletian's terrible reign came to an end, the old man slowly made his way out into the free, open air on that early May morning in the year 305. The news traveled fast and a cry went up in his home town… Nicholas is alive!

This frail man, beloved by his people but aged beyond his years by the brutal treatment he suffered, soon returned to pastor his church in Myra, modern day Turkey where his gentleness and kindness with children was only matched by his humble generosity. He had been born to a rich merchant family of Greek Christians many years before, and as a young man, heeded Christ’s call to go sell everything he had, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Him.

And as the bishop of Myra he cared deeply for those in the city who struggled to make ends meet. In one famous episode, a destitute Father had three daughters who were approaching the age at which most Roman girls got married, but he was unable to scrape together enough to provide a dowry for them. In an age when women had few prospects for employment and a father had the power of life or death over his children, it seemed their only future would be to resort to prostitution or be sold into slavery to settle their father’s debt. In a culture which cared little about the worth of women in society, Nicholas was deeply moved to help these women who were precious in God’s sight.

So, to spare the father the embarrassment of receiving charity and to avoid praise himself, Nicholas went under cover of darkness and threw a bag of gold in the window opening of their house to provide a dowry for the eldest daughter to get married. After she married, and when it came time for the second daughter to be married, he did it again. And when the third daughter came of age, he threw another bag of gold in the window. This time being caught by the father of the three daughters, he swore the man to secrecy regarding what he had done (which obviously didn’t work because his fame soon spread, even in his own lifetime).

On another occasion three innocent men had been condemned to death on the orders of the crooked governor Eustathius. Standing between the executioner’s sword and the men about to die, he publicly challenged the jurors who had taken bribes to find the men guilty and the governor himself. The governor seethed with rage and wanted Nicholas’ head, but the crowds stood up for their beloved bishop and Eustathius was afraid to touch him.

Towards the end of a life marked by a simple desire to reflect Christ’s holy love in the lives around him, Nicholas was summoned for one last service. A priest named Arius had begun teaching that Jesus wasn’t who he claimed, that he was neither fully God nor fully human but something in between, a created being like us. The new Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 and invited all the bishops of the world to gather and hash it out. Many, like Nicholas, had suffered under the terrible persecutions of Emperor Diocletian for their faith and no power on Earth was going to dissuade them from staying true to the ancient faith as they had received it.

A staunch defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, a rumor has persisted through the centuries that Nicholas lost his temper and punched Arius in the face at the Council and spent a night cooling off in jail for it. This may or may not be true, but what we do know is that this tough-as-nails bishop was willing to die for what he believed to be true. He pastored his flock with love and care, he defended the innocent, and had compassion on the most destitute. And most of all it’s his humble generosity and kindness which has inspired millions to be a little kinder, a little more gracious to one another for 17 centuries.

He’s remembered each Christmas as Santa Claus, a commercialized, jolly old elf with an unhealthy addiction to milk and cookies. But as a man devoted to Christ, he would want us to remember what this season is all about: that God loved this world and everyone in it so much that He took on flesh, walked among us, taught us to love as He loves, died for us, and conquered death through His bodily resurrection so that we may be freed from sin and death ourselves.

So as we celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day on Dec. 06 at the beginning of this Christmas season, take a little bit of time to honor the real St. Nick by sharing a little bit of the same gracious, humble, generous love that he tried to embody and remember Who it was that was ultimately the source of his enduring strength and grace.

#StNick #SantaClaus #StNicholas #StNicholasDay #Christmas

"St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents From Death," by Ilya Repin (1888)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Approaches to Reading the Bible: Divine Reading

Example Text: John 3:1-21

Why This Practice?
The spiritual discipline of “divine reading” is a centuries’ old practice with roots in the early Church(1) that is meant to be a slow, careful way of reading scripture designed to help you not just skim or even just remember the text, but to absorb it. Its purpose is to elevate your understanding of the written Word from “head knowledge” to “heart knowledge,” by focusing your attention on your relationship with God during your daily devotions. This is a discipline. And just as an athlete who wants to train for a marathon needs to be intentional about what they eat at every meal and how they train every day, as a disciple of Jesus you must be intentional about your daily diet of scripture and your regular training regimen of prayer, fasting, acts of service, corporate worship, fellowship with fellow believers, and participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Don’t rush this practice. This exercise should take 15-20 minutes per chunk of text. Begin by praying that the Holy Spirit would guide and enlighten you as you read scripture. 

1. Read“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.” - 2 Tim. 3:16-17 (NLT)
Read the passage slowly. Get a sense of what it is saying. Read it a second time, again slowly. Pick out any words that strike you as significant, or that are relevant and important – either to what the author is trying to say, or to your current situation.

2. Reflect (Meditate) - “But [the righteous] delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.” - Psalm 1:2 (NLT)
Read the passage a third time, slowly. Savor it, like a bite of delicious food. Pause and reflect on those phrases that stood out to you.
    • Why is this phrase important to what the author is trying to say?
    • Why does it speak to you?
    • Is there some place in your life where you feel God’s Word has been absent?
    • Is there a circumstance you’re going through that calls for God’s guidance?
    • Is there a part of you/your thoughts/your actions that you have closed off to God’s instruction?
    • Is this passage calling you to repent of something you are doing or that you are neglecting to do?
    • How should your thoughts, actions, and behaviors change in response to what God is telling you?

3) Respond (Pray)“Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” - 1 Thess. 5:17-18 (NLT)
Read the passage a fourth time. Consider what God is trying to say to you, and respond to Him. Pray. If this passage is leading you to repent of something, confess that thing to God and declare your intention to change. If this passage is encouraging you in some way, thank God for that encouragement. If this passage is challenging you to do something, pray for strength to meet that challenge. If this passage brings to mind the needs of others, pray for them, declare your intention to share God’s love with them in some way, and pray for opportunities to do so.

4) Remain (Contemplate)“...As Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out...” 1 Kings 19:11-13 (NLT)
Now, just rest in the presence of God. If you need to, set an alarm for 5 minutes or more. This might be uncomfortable at first, and it should be. Technology, busy schedules, and the constant pressure to surround ourselves with friends means that we often forget the value of solitude and we miss God speaking to us through silence, because we drown Him out in all the noise.
Finally, journal what God has taught you through this experience and thank Him. Write down a plan for consistently applying what God has shown you.

(1) Adapted from the practice developed by Benedict of Nursia, itself rooted in the practices of the early Church Fathers Origen, Augustine, Ambrose, Hilary of Portiers, and the Desert Fathers; and guided by the instruction the Apostle Paul laid out in Romans 10:8-10 (NRSV), “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Discipline of Fasting

Below is the manuscript for the sermon I delivered on Feb. 23, 2020 ahead of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene.

Text: Ezra 8:21-23 (NRSV):
21 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. 22 For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

A Family On the Move
For our family, there is rarely any experience more stressful than preparing for a trip back to Iowa to visit our parents. The kids are always excited about the prospect of staying in motels, of visiting with Grandma and Grandpa, of going out to eat at restaurants, and of taking a break from school. But for Marcia and me, a trip is a major logistical operation. There are bags to be packed, snacks to be bought, vehicles to be vacuumed and checked, and then there’s all the negotiation that goes with trying to figure out how to split our time between two families who live in the same town, so that one family doesn’t feel like we’ve spent more time with the other family than with them.

Then, once we’re on the road, we have to figure out where people want to eat and there’s always someone who suddenly has never liked the place we just picked, even though they begged for us to go there last week. And of course we have to make sure the dog doesn’t run off when everyone gets out for a bathroom or food break, and each time we stop, every single child wants me to buy them some little trinket or piece of candy. In fact, I’ve gotten so good at saying, “Put it back!” It all comes out as one word now, “Pudditback! Pudditback!” And that’s if everything goes perfectly!

On top of all that, there’s the added risk of a blown tire, or engine trouble, or those big Midwestern storms, or all the motels being full because of some conference, or roving bands of Nebraskan marauders. OK, maybe that last one isn’t as big of a risk, but the point is that there is always plenty of uncertainty involved in just going to visit Grandma and Grandpa, and usually by the end of the trip, we’re more exhausted than when we began. We end up needing a vacation from the vacation!

The Slow Fulfillment of God's Promises
Things weren’t any easier – or safer – for people on the move in the ancient world, and Ezra the scribe, the writer of our passage this morning, knew that. But Ezra was a man “on a mission from God”  like Jake & Elwood Blues in "The Blues Brothers." Ezra 7:6 tells us he was a priest and “skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.”(1)

Because of his devotion to God and to teaching the Law of Moses, he poured over the scrolls of the Torah and the Prophets night and day, and over and over he read in them how even though Israel and Judah had been judged to be unfaithful, and so had been sent into exile, with the city of Jerusalem and its glorious Temple destroyed by the Babylonians; God had not forgotten His people, and He promised to restore the repentant to the land, and the Temple with it.

Nearly 30 years after the Temple’s destruction, this promise had begun to be fulfilled, when the Persian King Cyrus, who had conquered the Babylonians, issued a decree that the Jews could return to the city and the Temple could be rebuilt.(2) Ezra 4 relates how soon waves of returning families entered the land, but the plan to rebuild the Temple and the city was frustrated by those already there; people who had been transplanted by the Assyrians even before the Babylonians came to power in an effort to maintain control over their conquered territories.(3) They were worried about losing their lands and their favored position within the Empire, and so wrote to their governors and to Cyrus’ successors saying that in the past Jerusalem had been a hotbed of sedition and revolution, and that it didn’t deserve to be rebuilt.

Despite these struggles, for the next 40 years, small groups of people continued to trickle into the land from Babylonia, and Ezra. 5:2-17 describes how they, being inspired by their leaders and the words of the prophets, began building again. This worried the governor of the province. He thought this nonsense about rebuilding the Temple had been ended once and for all! But God was still at work in his people. They still had a mission. And as they continued, he wrote to the Persian King Darius to ask whether they had the authority to do so.

Darius’ ministers discovered an old scroll in his libraries containing the decree of Cyrus, and so Darius added his own – not only was the Temple to be built, but all expenses would be paid from the Royal Treasury!(4) Those who tried to thwart God’s work would now have to pay taxes to see it accomplished! And if they refused, the decree ordered that the supporting beam would be ripped from their house and they would be impaled on it. Those Persian kings didn’t mess around!

Ezra 6:14-15 then relates how the Temple was completed during the reign of Darius and the people celebrated the Passover for the first time in the new Temple, “for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the King of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.”

Another 50 years passed and Ezra the scribe and priest, was living in Babylonia, studying the history of God’s work among his people; when he received his mission from God through King Artaxerxes. It was finally time for priests an Levites to return to the Temple, so that sacrifices could be offered once again, and this time Ezra would go with them – to teach the people about who their God was, what He desired, and what His character was like. But the road was dangerous.

I joked about Nebraskan marauders earlier, but in the ancient world, bands of raiders attacking caravans was no joke! There was no Highway Patrol, no State Police, no Sheriff’s Deputies to maintain law and order. And Ezra’s caravan was carrying a ton of wealth. All the furnishings of the Temple, which had been captured by Nebuchadnezzar over 100 years before, would have to be carted and carried over 1,600 miles. And such a large group, with their wives and little ones with them, would be moving slowly, kicking up huge clouds of dust by day with dozens of glowing fires by night. They would be easy pickings for bands looking to slaughter the men, capture the women and children for slaves, and carry off one of the largest treasures in the Ancient Near East.

Fasting to Prepare for the Journey
So, Ezra knew he needed protection. But as our passage this morning makes clear (5), he also knew, that if he were really going to teach the people about God’s saving work over the centuries, if he was really going to convince them that God loved them and cared for them, he would have to trust God and not in the armies of the Persian King. He certainly could have asked for an armed escort, and I’m sure the King would have given it! But then his people and the Persians themselves would have claimed it was the grace of the Persian King and not the providence of the Living God which protected them.

Verses 21 and 23 tell us in Ezra’s own words, “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions… So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.”

Ezra wasn’t fasting because he doubted that God would care for him – especially as it was clear from the writings of the prophets and from his peoples’ own history that God had providentially moved to bring them back safely to their own land. And it wasn’t to “convince” God to help protect his caravan either; as if God were some mercenary who required people to deny food to their bellies before He would protect them.

Instead, Ezra called the people to a communal fast because their own hearts needed to prepare for the journey back to the land of their ancestors. They had lived in a foreign land for so long, under foreign influence, and though they may have read about the way God desired to be worshiped in His Tempe, none had ever seen it first hand. Imagine that, none of them had ever offered a Temple sacrifice, or set up the complex schedules and duty rosters required for its maintenance, and now they were being expected to lead it! It was this need to prepare, this need to ready their hearts to participate in God’s mission that I want to focus on this morning.

The Purpose of Lent
In a few short days, the Christian season of Lent begins. It is a 40 day season of preparation, of mourning, of repentance before we celebrate Easter. Its roots are in the individual, biblical fasts of Moses and Jesus, but also the communal fasts we find in places like our passage this morning. And it begins with Ash Wednesday, a day of prayer where traditionally ashes are placed on the forehead as an act of repentance and a declaration of our hope in the saving grace of Christ. The practice itself goes back to OT times as well, where we read about prophets like Jeremiah and kings like David sitting in sackcloth and ashes as they mourn.

For many of you, this practice might seem really odd. At the very least, you might be wondering why we are engaging in a practice that seems so antiquated. For some, the practice might seem too ritualistic, too “religious,” and didn’t Jesus do away with empty religion? And finally, for others, you might be questioning the value of a communal fast – where the whole church comes together to fast and pray; after all, didn’t Jesus command us to pray and fast in secret? These are all important concerns that I want us to address this morning as we prepare for this season, but first I should note that each of these assumptions are based on a misunderstanding of what God actually expects of us when we fast and pray, and why we do it in the first place.

As I mentioned before, when Ezra fasted, it wasn’t because he was trying to bargain with God or earn his favor, it was to prepare the hearts of his people for the journey ahead. But this isn’t the only reason for fasting that we find in scripture.

Often we find passages where it was combined with the wearing of uncomfortable and plain sackcloth and sitting in ashes, as a sign of deep personal heartbreak. Today, we aren’t nearly given to such public displays of emotion. Often when people grieve, they are expected to get over it in a few weeks as people try to force normalcy on those whose wounds and sense of loss are still fresh. But people are by nature expressive people. Often, when we bottle up our emotions, they end up bursting out in other, unhealthy ways anyway. For ancient peoples, fasting while wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes for a set time was seen as a healthy way of expressing grief.

We see an example of this in Neh. 1:1-4, where Nehemiah himself writes,
“...While I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, ‘O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned.’”
Just like with Ezra, Nehemiah’s fast is rooted in trust in “the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love” with his people; and just like Ezra, he is motivated by a deep desire to see God’s will done. But this time, his fasting is brought on by a deep sense of heartbreak at the plight of his people, and a recognition that the Jews in Babylonia have sinned by neglecting their hard pressed brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Notice that even though he hasn’t specifically done anything wrong or consciously rebelled against God, he still realizes that he is still part of a neglectful people and nation, and so he repents for the part he has played in their sin.

In the same way, on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we also confess the sins of our people, of the nation of which we are a part. We may not have personally stolen or murdered or committed adultery. But we live in a nation enthralled by pornography and lust, where millions of women are forced into sexual slavery, where people freeze to death in the cold, where children die of hunger, where the unborn are aborted by the millions. We have plenty to mourn for and to repent over.

Reasons to Fast: Repentance
And this brings us to the second major reason for fasting found in scripture. It moves our hearts toward repentance, so that we may be saved. In Jonah 3, we read how God sent the prophet to the people of Ninevah to warn them of their impending destruction. He didn’t promise them He would relent if they repented, but in vv. 5-10 we read, “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’ When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

The King issued the decree that all the people would fast and mourn together, and it moved their hearts to repentance. And because of that repentance, God Himself was moved to graciously relent and spare them the destruction they had deserved.

Again, it wasn’t some supernatural bargain. Justice cannot be bargained. It was grace. Grace ushered in through repentance and a change of heart. This is why we read in Joel 2:12-13,
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
     rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing.”

God’s grace isn’t earned through fasting, weeping, or mourning. And if we do these things without true repentance of the heart they mean nothing. Our “hearts must be rent” and cracked open, so that God’s grace can be poured in and transformation can begin.

Reasons to Fast: Interceding for Others
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “But I don’t have anything to repent for, or to mourn over. I am forgiven by Christ’s grace the moment I believe and confess my sin. Why should I fast?” And you would be absolutely right! You are forgiven the moment you repent and confess your sin to Him, believing that His grace alone is sufficient to save you. But life isn’t all about us. Faith isn’t all abut our individual salvation either. We are still called to love, to care for, and to intercede for others. And we find fasting utilized for this last purpose in scripture as well. In Ps. 35:11-14, we read,
“Malicious witnesses rise up;
    they ask me about things I do not know.
They repay me evil for good;
    my soul is forlorn.
But as for me, when they were sick,
    I wore sackcloth;
    I afflicted myself with fasting.
I prayed with head bowed on my bosom,
as though I grieved for a friend or a brother;
I went about as one who laments for a mother,
    bowed down and in mourning.”
Here, the Psalmist is making his case before God that he has lived righteously, even though he has been mocked and abused by his friends. He has interceded for his enemies when they were sick, even though they only wished evil for him. The psalmist was able to do this, and we are able to do this, because when we push aside our own hunger to feed ourselves, we can more readily see the needs of others. The gesture might not be reciprocated, but that’s not the point. The point isn’t about what we get in return. The point is that when we deny ourselves, we follow Christ’s example and are better able to empathize with the needs of others as He has called us to do.

Reasons to Fast: It Humbles Our Hearts
And this brings us to the last major reason for fasting found in scripture: it is a means of humbling ourselves before God and others. In Ps. 69:9-12, the songwriter proclaims,
“It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
    the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
When I humbled my soul with fasting,
    they insulted me for doing so.
When I made sackcloth my clothing,
    I became a byword to them.
I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate,
    and the drunkards make songs about me.”
This passage is also quoted when Jesus makes a whip and drives the money changers out of the Temple, but notice the last part of the verse: “When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.”

Fasting in true humility before God and others is as counter-cultural today as it was when that Psalm was written. In fact, in an increasingly secular culture, fasting can seem downright crazy. But let’s be honest, the Gospel is nuts. The idea that God could love us so much He would take on flesh and die for us is nuts. But it’s true. And not only is fasting a counter-cultural testimony to that fact, it is also a witness to the transforming work that God is doing in the life of the one who fasts and prays. The problem is that it can backfire when fasting is disingenuously used as a means of communicating false humility or self-righteousness.

This is why Jesus says in Mat. 6:16-18,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus isn’t just telling his disciples not to make a scene or to keep their faith private. After all, what is driving the money-changers out of the Temple if not making scene? What is eating with tax collectors and sinners if not making a scene? What is dying on a cross, if not making a scene? And if fasting and prayer were only private affairs, then the early Christians would have no ground for meeting together to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” as in Acts. 2:42. And the writer of Hebrews wouldn’t have instructed his audience in Heb. 10:25 not to, “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.” And if corporate fasting as a whole church was just an Old Testament practice, we wouldn’t read in Acts 13:2-3 and 14:23 about how fasting and prayer was part of the regular practice of the Church at Antioch.

Jesus’ point is that we must examine our intent when we fast. Intent is everything. If we are not fasting for the right reasons, it can actually be dangerous to our faith! But, instead of abandoning the practice of fasting and praying together as a church, we should utilize the occasion of a regular season of fasting like Lent as an opportunity to examine our intent and the depths of our hearts, to see where we need to be humbled, where we need to repent, where we need to mourn, and where we need to intercede on the behalf of others.

An Invitation to Fast Together
This is why we will be celebrating Ash Wednesday this week, and why I invite you to fast together with me during the season of Lent. It isn’t an obligation. It isn’t a bargain. It isn’t a means of earning God’s favor. It is so that we can carve out space and time in our busy lives to reflect on God’s mercy and on our own need for a Savior, our own need for repentance, our own need for mourning. And it is also a recognition that there are many out there who don’t yet realize that they need Christ in their lives. They are wandering, hurting, and lost. And so we pray and fast, and receive the ashes for them too, in the hope that they will receive and be transformed by the loving grace of Jesus Christ. Thank you.

(1) Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quoted is from the NRSV.
(2) Ezra 1:2-4.
(3) Ezra 4:4-5.
(4) Ezra 6:8.
(5) Ezra 8:21-23.

Delivered Feb. 23, 2020 at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Significance of the Incarnation

A Christmas Eve Reflection.

The Technological Drive for Perfection
Ever since I was a little boy, I have always been fascinated by the steady march forward of technology. I used to love going to the school library and picking up a copy of Popular Mechanics to see what new gadget, or computer, or AI system was being developed. I would play with electronics kits and build my own radios. Even when I was in the Army, flying drones, it was like being a kid again. I mean, not only did I get to play with robots, but they were flying robots! How cool is that?! And in my short lifetime, technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, unimaginable to previous generations.

From facial recognition technology to global climate modeling, and from GPS to automated manufacturing; machines are able to do incredibly complicated work with an efficiency and within tolerances unmatched by any human being. In fact I learned this week that our most accurate atomic clock, the strontium optical lattice clock, is so accurate that it is able to measure subtle dilations of time itself as the clock is placed closer or farther away from the mass at the center of the Earth. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, when you put your hand over your head, because it’s further away from the center of the Earth, it actually travels through time a tiny bit faster than your feet! It’s such an impossibly tiny change, that we don’t perceive it at all. But this clock does! It can literally measure how time itself stretches and crunches when acted upon by gravity.

That’s nuts, right? In another age, if I had said such things, people would assume I was crazy. Heck, you might be wondering about my sanity right now! But that’s how far science and technology have advanced. We are able to measure and create with such precision, and yet almost all scientists agree that our knowledge of the Cosmos and our ability to shape our surroundings through technology has only barely scratched the surface.

The Purpose For Which We Were Created
And yet, with all these technological marvels and scientific advancements, we are still a species consumed by war, slaves to our own appetites, ever on the brink of being destroyed by our own hatred and lust. There is a sharp contrast between the perfection humanity strives for through creativity and ingenuity, and the imperfection we see in our nature. We develop technology in the hope that it will make our lives better, yet we find that it often brings as many problems as it solves. As perfect as we seem to be able to make machines, they cannot fix what’s really broken in the world. They can’t fix us. In fact, nothing we do can. And we’ve tried just about everything. We’ve tried putting our trust in governments, in political parties, in philosophies, in technology, in relationships, in wealth, and in pleasure. And they have all failed to get to the root of the problem because the root of the problem is at the very core of our being.

When we read the opening passages in Genesis, we find that this wasn’t always so. As God said in Gen. 1:27, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”1 And in v. 31, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

God created us with perfection in mind, His own perfection, the perfection of the Son. This is most beautifully stated in the great statement on the Incarnation from our reading in John 1 tonight,
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Everything that is good, everything that is beautiful, and everything that is loving in the world was created through the Son. Christ Himself is the creative Word of God, and whenever we try to recreate perfection, whether it is through art, or poetry, or music, or philosophy, or religious expression; we do it because deep in our hearts we are being called upon by the Holy Spirit to fulfill that great purpose for which we were created: which is to reflect Christ’s perfect love in our hearts and in every area of our lives.

Christ’s Anticipating and Perfecting Grace
But when sin entered the world, it corrupted us. It corrupted our bodies – bringing death into our lives; it corrupted our hearts – the deepest seat of our longing and desire; and it even corrupted our reason – our very ability to perceive the character and nature of God through His Creation. We were no longer able to perceive Him or the virtues He created for us to possess through reason alone, and every attempt on our part to grasp who He truly is, to grasp perfection itself, falls short.

This is why the Word became flesh and lived among us, so that by His illuminating light which pierces every darkness, we might see His glory, believe in Him and be filled with His grace which brings us the truth we have failed to grasp on our own. This is why the Incarnation, the moment when the Word became flesh, is so important to the Christian faith. It is through the Incarnation of Christ that our wills and our reason are restored, so that we may perceive the goodness of God, and being moved by the Holy Spirit, answer His call to repent and be saved.

As Titus 2:11-13 tells us, “11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

When we repent, receiving His grace by faith and turning away from our selfish desires and all the things which distort the Image of God in us, He begins that great work of healing us and restoring that reflection in us. He restores the ability and the call to perfectly reflect His love.

As the Apostle John later wrote in his first letter, 1 John 4:16-19, “16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.”

And the best, most perfect example of God’s love was most fully revealed to us over 2,000 years ago; when a virgin mother laid her infant son in a feeding trough on a cold winter’s night in a tiny village, nestled in the center of a backwater province of the Roman Empire. It’s this moment that we celebrate tonight through our songs and worship; and it is His death on the cross and His bodily resurrection to free us from sin and death that we proclaim as we partake in the Lord’s Supper together.

(1) All quoted scripture is from the NRSV, unless otherwise noted.

First Delivered on Dec. 24, 2019 - Cortez Church of the Nazarene, Cortez, CO.
#Incarnation #ChristmasEve #Grace #Love

Sunday, November 24, 2019

What Does "Morality" Even Mean?

Below is the manuscript of a sermon first delivered at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene on Nov. 24, 2019.

Text: Col. 1:9-23 (ESV):
9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
A Clash of Worldviews
In our passage this morning, Paul is speaking to the faithful in the church at the Greek colony of Colossae, now in modern day Turkey. Many of these believers came from a pagan background. They didn’t grow up with the benefit of stories about God’s providence or saving work through Israel. They weren’t raised on the Ten Commandments or the guiding words of the Prophets. Many weren’t instructed in the wisdom of the Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, and most were not taught to pray in the model of the Psalms.

Their outlook on life, what they considered important, and what was expected of them was shaped by an entirely different worldview. Though the Greeks believed in gods and goddesses, often these deities couldn’t be trusted. They rarely acted in a purely benevolent way for the good of human beings. In fact, when the gods interacted with humans, it was often the result of a spilling over of some divine family squabble. I’m sure you all have heard of some of the Greek gods and goddesses, but I doubt many here realize just how truly awful they were! For example, Zeus’ wife Hera was renowned for her profound jealousy with regards to her constantly cheating husband, the so-called “king of the gods.”

In one story, Zeus impregnates a goddess named Leto and Hera curses the land of any people who give her shelter in her wanderings as she seeks a place to give birth. In another, he rapes a nymph named Callisto and in her fury, Hera doesn’t punish or confront Zeus; instead she turns Callisto into a bear so that she is hunted and killed by the goddess Artemis.(1) There are lots of these stories and I won’t go into them all here, but the point is, these are the gods the Greeks worshiped! They made sacrifices to them and gave them offerings and praise, as if they were worthy of worship!

The truth is, these terrible gods were just reflections of the Greeks themselves. In a way, they were embodiments of self-worship and the idols the Greeks worshiped were just images created to represent and validate their own selfish desires. For the Greeks, “goodness” was whatever they wanted it to be, and they created myths and legends to give legitimacy to their own sins.

A Culture Correction
It is this twisted sense of morality and way of life which Paul is seeking to correct in his letter to the Colossians. The believers at Colossae, being new to the good news of the Gospel, had heard of Christ’s forgiveness and grace, but they were adding elements of their old pagan ideas into their new faith. They had been forgiven of their sins when they first believed, but their minds still saw the world the way their unbelieving neighbors around them did.

So, when Paul opens his letter to the Colossians, he doesn’t just open with, “You’re doing it wrong!” Even though he’d probably be justified by saying that, he knows that a confrontational tone will just shut them off to the truth he is trying to teach them. After all, if I walked up to one of you and just opened up with, “Hey, I need to tell you what an awful person you’re being...” You probably wouldn’t want to see me again, would you?

Instead, Paul understands that it is more important to communicate compassion first. He wants the Colossians to know that he loves them and what he desires is for them is all the goodness and graciousness that God has to offer. This is why he begins in v. 9 by saying,

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”(2)

From the day Paul first heard that the believers at Colossae had come to Christ, he began praying for them, and he hasn’t stopped! Their well-being and their growth is constantly on his mind, and so he “does not cease to pray” for them. And what does he pray for? He prays that they would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” He qualifies this walk, what the early Christians called “the Way” as being marked by the knowledge of God, by strength, by power, by endurance, and patience, and joy, and thanksgiving and he roots these qualities in God the Father, who through the Holy Spirit, brings them out in the lives of the believers so that we may share in the inheritance promised to us through Christ as adopted sons and daughters of God.

There’s a lot to take in, in this handful of verses, but the central point is that the believers are being called to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” But who decides what that looks like? I think we can agree that most people want to live a “good” life, and we generally think of ourselves as “good people,” but who decides what “goodness” is?

Naturally, if you’re sitting in one of these pews this morning, your default answer will probably be, “God!” And you would be right, that certainly is a good Sunday School answer. It’s a safe answer. But in our culture, we have many different ideas about who God is, what He’s like, and what His idea of “goodness” really is.

Even among Christians, you’ll find a myriad of different answers. For some, smoking and drinking are fine within the freedom which Christ brings. For others, these acts are stumbling blocks which separate us from God and each other and they’ll cite 1 Cor. 8:9 in support of their position.

Or the issue might revolve around piercings and tattoos. I’ll always remember when I was in High School and I asked my pastor what he thought about pierced ears, because I was thinking of piercing mine. He was horrified and asked why I would even think of doing such a thing! For him, the idea was unfathomable. His answer was pretty harsh and being the rebellious teenager that I was, I got mine pierced anyway. They were even gauged up! Maybe if he had answered in a more compassionate way, I would have considered a different course. The holes where the piercings were have since long closed up, but I will always remember that conversation.

Some will say that consuming lustful images are no big deal, or even that they provide a healthy outlet for pent up urges, and they’ll cite Jesus’ words in Mat. 7:15 in support, saying, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” While others will quote Jesus’ words in the previous chapter, saying “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”(3)(4)

Or, some will cite Deu. 10:19, “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” as a call to open our homes and our lives to immigrants seeking a better life; while others will note the necessity of laws and governments for maintaining secure and just societies, and will cite Rom. 13:4 in support.

The Danger of Blind Spots
It isn’t my intention to weigh in on these issues, but to note that these questions about what is moral or immoral, good or bad, righteous or evil extend into every sphere of life: the personal, the familial, the social, the economic, the political, the philosophical. And there are so many answers offered up by so many different authorities, that many simply give up on the idea of objective “goodness” altogether. Many have opted to understand the world and humanity within it materialistically, as being shaped by the chance pressures of natural selection alone. I have several atheist friends who would tell me that “goodness” is just that which is advantageous to the survival to the species. We define goodness for ourselves. There is no objective morality. And what we define as “moral behavior” is simply defined by the majority of any culture in consensus.

This isn’t a new idea. In many ways, it is a call-back to the morality of the ancient Greek culture which forms the backdrop of our passage this morning. Just as the Greek gods were simply reflections of Greek culture, and the behavior of these gods was no better than the men who worshiped them; so also, if we define our own morality, what we call “good” will just be an excuse to continue to do what we are already doing. And when our own culture, our own behavior is the pinnacle of goodness, it causes us to look at our forebears as if they were savages, while we hold the “enlightened truth;” and it carries with it the unfortunate result that future ages will consider us barbarians in turn.

The problem is that each culture carries with it certain blind spots, which make it impossible to see the whole picture accurately and which make it impossible to develop a truly objective morality. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to making certain mistakes.”(5)

To understand just how easily blind spots can be missed, I want you all to try an experiment I learned in flight training. In your bulletins there is an extra sheet of scratch paper for notes. I want you to take that paper and make a + and then about 2 1/2 inches to the right of the +, make a large dot. Now, cover your left eye and look at the + with your right. Then move the paper to about 6-10 inches from your face. If you need to, move it slowly further away or closer to your eye. At some point you’ll notice the dot disappear! That represents the spot in the back of your eye where your optic nerve connects to the eyeball and creates a literal blind spot in your vision. But so that you aren’t constantly distracted by it, your brain fills in the missing information and you never notice it! Every single person born with working eyes has this blind spot, but most of you have probably never noticed it before. Some of you may have lived for decades without realizing that there is a big ole hole in your vision, because you are accustomed to seeing the world around it. This also means none of you has ever really seen the world for what it is; instead your mind has filled in your field of vision with what it thinks should be there.

Even worse, basing morality on the consensus of the masses can and has been used to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history. The most ardent followers of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin considered what they were doing to be moral, and they believed that anyone who opposed them was inherently evil and inferior. If our understanding of goodness and morality is based upon natural selection or cultural proclivities alone, then who has the authority to say they were wrong? In order for morality to actually guide us, it must call us to something higher than ourselves, to a way of life that is better than what we would normally choose. This means its source can’t come from within in us, because as Rom. 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Anchoring Our Understanding of Morality
Among those Greeks who recognized just how terrible the pagan gods were, philosophy became the answer. They may not have fully known why, but their hearts knew that they were meant for something more than to be incidental playthings of the gods. Still, because they were products of a corrupted world, they missed the mark in their attempt to find the answers in nature. They understood that true morality could not originate in the consensus of the fallible majority alone, but they failed to realize that their ability to perceive nature through reason was itself clouded by sinful desire.

Among the believers in Colossae, this meant many had begun to embrace a system of beliefs called “Gnosticism,” that held that all matter was evil and only the spirit was good. For them, the idea that Christ incarnated in the flesh meant that He either must have been less worthy of worship than the angels or that He was really a spirit which had the illusion of flesh and blood. And so it appears from Paul’s letter that some of them had begun to renounce the world, embrace austere fasting and abstinence in order to deny the body, and even worship angels!(6)

Paul warns the church about these practices in ch. 2:8-10, when he says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”

Paul understood the shortcomings of paganism, materialism, and gnosticism and he understood that our basis for understanding “goodness” for developing morality must be anchored firmly in something outside of ourselves, outside of our perception of nature, even outside of our assumptions of what is pleasing to God.

The only way we can possibly “be filled with he knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that we may lead lives worthy of the Lord,” as vv. 9-10 say, is if God revealed Himself to us directly, cutting through the cultural clutter and our clouded perceptions, by literally literally taking on flesh and walking among us.

This is what Paul means, when he says in vv. 13-20,
“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Though God the Son had taken on flesh and walked among us, He was no less worthy of worship or our imitation than when the universe itself was created through Him. Paul calls Him “the firstborn of all creation,” and this could easily be misinterpreted as meaning He was created first, before the rest of creation. But John 1 and the Nicene Creed make it clear that God the Son was never created, being eternally begotten of the Father. Instead here, Paul is using the term “firstborn” to help his audience understand Christ’s status in relation to the Father. In the ancient world, the firstborn son had certain legal rights of inheritance that no one else had, and God the Son has a special claim to Creation and us by virtue of His relationship to the Father.

It is literally by Christ’s grace alone that the fundamental forces which hold the universe together are even able to exist. Grace is the glue which binds everything together. Even more importantly, grace illuminates the Cosmos with meaning. And just as Christ is the source of the Cosmos itself, He is also the source of the new beginning, the new creation. Just as He is the firstborn of Creation, He is the firstborn from the dead because He was the first to rise glorified from the dead. And because He rose, we have the assurance that we will rise too. As the firstborn from the dead, the firstborn of the New Creation itself, He is the head of the family of God, the body of Christ, the Church and there is no other authority in heaven or on earth which can compete with Him. We have no other source for understanding that elusive term, “goodness.” Christ’s example as communicated faithfully in the gospels is the only objective good, the only means by which any action or system of thought may be judged moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or bad.

The Fullness of the Good News
That’s certainly great news! But it’s in the next verses that the fullness of the Gospel is explained to the new believers at Colossae as Paul says in vv. 21-23,
“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
Christ didn’t just die on a cross to “cover our sins,” as some might claim. He didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf so that we can continue to wallow in our moral failures. He died so that we might be transformed, made “holy and blameless and above reproach” according to the only morality that matters – His own example. This transformation isn’t accomplished by our own efforts, but by His grace alone. As Paul says elsewhere in 1 Thess. 5:23-24, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”

But this is only if we “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that [we] have heard.” He doesn’t force us, and contrary to what some may teach, we can indeed walk away from the free gift of salvation and sanctification if we so choose. But the good news is that Christ is faithful, His example is sure, and in a world of constantly spinning moral compasses, His goodness will never, ever change.

(1) Cartwright, Mark. “Hera” in Ancient History Encyclopedia. Web. Published Sep. 10, 2012.
(2) If not otherwise noted, all passages are ESV.
(3) Mat. 6:22-24.
(4) I take the latter position that they are indeed harmful, but that is a sermon for another time.
(5) Lewis, C.S. “Introduction” in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 4.
(6) “Annotations,” in The Wesley Study Bible. Ed. by Joel B. Green. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 1447.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Resiliency Rooted in Hope

Below is the manuscript of a sermon first delivered at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene on Jun. 16, 2019

Text: Rom. 5:1-5 (ESV):

5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
A Ride Through the Mountains
This weekend, as my family and I headed back through the mountains from District Assembly in Denver, we happened to pass a bike race with athletes peddling through the steep twists and turns leading to Wolf Creek Pass and I couldn’t help but marvel at the determination and fortitude which these bikers possessed. As they pushed up the grueling, miles-long climb to over 10,000 ft. we would watch as they slowly shoved one pedal down, and then the other. They weren’t looking around at the cars as they passed, or even at the beautiful scenery which greeted them with every turn. Their eyes were forward, their shoulders down, and they just pushed on.

This reminded me of a time when I was a little boy, probably no more than Samson’s age, out on a ride with my Grandpa. My Grandpa was an athlete all his life, and competed in 100 mile bike rides up to the year he died at the age of 76, even completing the grueling 400+ mile RAGBRAI race across Iowa. Bicycling was a lifelong passion for him, and I asked him one time how he could compete over such amazing distances. I mean, the task of traveling hundreds of miles on your own power is mind-boggling! Surely you have to plan out your rest stops, your calorie-intake, make sure you have enough water and emergency supplies, while also communicating with your support driver so that you have the help that you need, if you need it. The logistics, planning, training, and expense required made me wonder how anyone could commit to such a daunting task.

But as I asked the question, I remember clearly him stopping and as I pulled up level with him on my own bike, he looked at me and said with a smile, “It’s simple really, you just get on your bike and start peddling.”

Live Isn't Always a Bike Ride
That’s an encouraging story, isn’t it? Sometimes we are tempted to look at life like a bike race or a footrace and assume it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Paul himself repeatedly uses athletic metaphors and imagery, suggesting life is a race that is worth it if we just don’t quit.(1) And while that is certainly true, what do we do when we do feel like quitting? When we feel like the tasks that are in front of us are insurmountable. What do we do when life seems less like a nice, bicycle race through the mountains, with a concrete goal in mind; and instead seems more like a juggling-contest, where more and more balls are piled onto our arms to try and juggle at once, with no clear-cut end game or goal?

That’s a reality I know many of us face today. Our schedules get busier and busier and our lives get lonelier and lonelier. For the first time in our history, more people live in cities than in the country,(2) yet more and more people also live alone than ever before.(3) Economic pressures and the desire for opportunity cause many to uproot from the places where their extended families live, and they often find themselves paradoxically isolated in a crowd of other lonely individuals. And for many, the idea that they must meet all the expectations thrown at them and face the pressure to succeed without any help from others becomes too much for them to bear.

The most recent statistics tell us that depression is the leading health crisis of our time with over 17 million US adults reporting at least one major depressive episode a year.(4) Depression increases the risks of a host of other health problems, and for some, it leads to the ultimate despair: suicide. Suicide isn’t a topic we like to think of often, and the extent of the current suicide epidemic is rarely reported in the media. In the most recent statistics from 2017, over 47,000 men, women, and children lost their lives to suicide; and that’s the highest rate in well over 30 years!(5) I want you to think about that for a second. That’s a medium-sized city lost to suicide every year. That’s 129 people per day. And of those, 22 per day are veterans. Veterans make up just under 8% of the population, but over 17% of suicides.(6)

If a foreign power wiped out a city on U.S. soil, you can bet we’d certainly hear about it in the news! If a terrorist attack wiped out tens of thousands of people, we would remember it for generations! But that is exactly what is happening. An enemy has infiltrated our cities, our communities, even our families; and yet most of us continue with our lives completely unaware of the extent of the problem. This is because the enemy is inside of us. So many of us become our own worst enemies, because we hold on to the unrealistic expectations and hopes which the world feeds us.

The Hope Expressed in Romans
The world expects us to be materially successful, independent, happy consumers with all the best status symbols money can buy. But thankfully, that isn’t what God expects of us, because God knows a much more lasting and meaningful hope can be ours, if we are just willing to accept it. That is the point from which our passage launches this morning. In the previous chapters, Paul laid out the groundwork for justification by grace through faith in the new covenant in Christ, and not through works of the law of the old covenant of Moses. In these chapters he gives the “how” and the “why” of salvation, with David and Abraham being examples of those who lived by faith before. But he doesn’t stop with the theoretical.

He now moves into the concrete to describe exactly what salvation looks like in the life of the believer. He begins with the assumption that his readers have already been justified in Christ. They have understood why they needed to be saved, and accepted the free gift of salvation. But like so many of us, they were probably wondering, “OK, what now?” After all, all of life isn’t just making that initial confession of faith, though we as Evangelicals sometimes seem to stop right there. I don’t want you to misunderstand me. It is absolutely essential that you receive Jesus if you haven’t already done so. He is our only hope for forgiveness of the sins which we have all committed, so that we can be redeemed and restored, and spend an eternity with Him.

But life is more than just the beginning and the end. It is more than just initial justification and the hope of heaven. There is a long space in between, and for most of us, that long space is going to include decades of struggle. For some, that struggle is going to include going through a divorce while trying to raise kids, or it’s going to include coping with a loved one’s drug addiction, or a friend’s suicide, or the loss of a job, or mounting medical bills, and housing and transportation costs. For many, that struggle might seem like you’re stuck in the mud, going no where, or that you’re sliding down the impossibly high hill you’re trying to climb.

It’s to Christians in the midst of that struggle that Paul is now speaking. He begins in v. 1 by speaking of the “peace of God,” which newly justified believers are party to. Though we were once enemies of God, by receiving His free gift of grace, we are enemies no longer. This free gift is accessed through Jesus Christ alone. The Greek word Paul uses for “accessed” begins to paint a picture for us, of  a royal court where no one can see the king except through invitation and by exceptional merit.(7) Except that we don’t possess that merit ourselves, as outlaws and enemies of the realm, there is no way we would have been granted audience with the king. But Christ has vouched for us by his own merit and brokered a peace treaty. Now we stand firmly before the king, in the confidence that comes with a warm invitation, as ambassadors to a once hostile, but now friendly, power.(8)

But “peace” in scripture means more than just the end of hostilities. It is rooted in the Hebrew concept of “shalom,” or “wholeness, well-being, and abundant life.”(9) It is what Christ means when he says in Jn. 10:10b, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly.” In Jewish and Christian gatherings today, it is still used as a greeting. How many of you grew up in a more traditional church, where you “passed the peace?” or where in the liturgy, the pastor said, “Peace be with you,” and everyone responded, “And also with you?” This greeting is an implied prayer. It is saying to our neighbor, our brother or sister who may be struggling, “I’m praying the best for you. I’m praying that you find healing, and wholeness, and well-being in the grace of Our Lord.” Believe it or not, and this sort of floored me when I found out, it’s even the root of the greeting in English, “Hello,” which comes from the Old Saxon word, “Haelen” meaning “wholeness be yours” or “healing go with you.”(10)

Rejoicing In Our Suffering
By proclaiming and trusting the peace with God which we have in faith, we are expressing the prayer and the hope that wholeness will be ours, and having this hope, we are able to rejoice; even in the midst of our suffering. Now that’s a hard concept to swallow, isn’t it? We have all experienced times where we don’t feel like rejoicing at all. And I don’t think Paul is saying God intends for us to fake it here. If you are mourning, mourn! If you are angry, tell God that you’re angry! There’s no point in hiding it, and if we try, it just eats us up inside.

But that isn’t the end of the story. We aren’t expected to just vent our frustrations and struggles to God and move on like nothing happened. Instead, God gives us the tools to meet our frustrations head on, openly and honestly, in the hope that by doing so we will be changed and better able to weather future storms in the process. This is what Paul means in vv. 3-4, when he says, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”(11) I do not believe God causes our suffering, but He does give us the tools to find purpose in suffering.

This purpose is rooted in peace and propelled by hope. When we suffer, instead of freaking out or shutting down or fleeing, God is calling us to meet our challenges head on, and doing that requires a plan and frank honesty with ourselves.  There is no shame in this honesty, because as Paul says in v. 5, that honesty and openness to admitting that we are struggling opens us to hoping in a bright future with Him.

A Plan For Building Resiliency
When I was an NCO in the Army, and I would conduct resiliency training for my Soldiers, I broke it down for them in three steps:

When struggling with a series of seemingly insurmountable task, first order your priorities and goals. For people with a strictly materialistic mindset, this probably revolves around professional success, financial security, and physical health. But for disciples of Jesus, our goals need to reflect the things which Jesus cared about. This means that, first and foremost, they must be rooted in love. In Mat. 22:36-40, Jesus tells us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with everything we are and to love each other as much as we love ourselves. And v. 5 of our passage this morning makes it clear that we have any hope at all because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts, for us to experience ourselves and pour out into the lives of others. This means that, when we sit down and map out our personal goals, they should be specifically crafted as means for more fully loving God and each other.

The second step is to triage your struggles. When we are depressed, or anxious, or simply overwhelmed with everything we are trying to juggle; it can all seem like one, big impossibly-high mountain that we have to climb. But it might be helpful to break down your tasks into more easily manageable chunks, and treat the ones which are either most urgent or will have the biggest impact. This is what triage means.

In the early years of battlefield medicine, medics struggled to treat the wounds of all the soldiers lying on the battlefield. Many who could have made a full recovery instead bled out before help arrived. And care was often priorities for officers or nobles, while the common man suffered needlessly. But as casualties mounted with technological advances, and field hospitals were flooded with hundreds of thousands of wounded Soldiers, a systematic way of treating them needed to be developed. This was realized by Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, a French field surgeon, during the Napoleanic Wars, who began to treat Soldiers by the seriousness of their wounds and their treatability; irrespective of rank, social status, or nationality.(12)

And this is what we need to do with the challenges which if left unaddressed can wound us so deeply. We break them into smaller chunks, and tackle the ones which are either the most essential to our well-being and mission, or are in the deepest trouble first. This means we may not achieve a solution to every problem right when we would want to, but at least we are making real progress which hopefully relieves some of the stress and brings a measure of confidence to our lives.

The third step in this resilience-building process is observing the cycles which contribute to our struggles. This is especially difficult in Western cultures where we tend to think in linear terms. History builds on itself, and a big part of our theology is the belief that it is all moving toward an eventual goal: the settling of all debts and the restoration of all creation to God. This is certainly true of our salvation history, but equally true is that within lives, families, and generations we often experience cycles where past decisions and actions lead to consequences which make those same decisions and actions more likely in the future.

This cyclical view of time is much more common in the East, but it is reflected in scripture too. Ecc. 3:1-8 tells us,
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”

And Deu. 5:9 says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Now, I do not believe this refers to God passing judgment on children for the sins of their fathers. After all, God also says in Exo. 34:6-7, that He extends his steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who remain loyal to Him. Instead, I believe it refers to the natural consequence of sin. Sin, by its selfish, short-sighted nature, naturally breaks relationships and wounds individuals. And these wounds are often carried on to the people around us. In fact, recent studies have demonstrated that violence in communities manifests in clusters, just like the outbreak of physical disease.(13) Violence leads to violence, sin leads to sin, wounds lead to wounds. And these are often carried out into whole family and social systems and across generations. When we realize this, we can begin to discern the causes of the problem cycles in our lives, and directly address (or “triage”) those causes instead of just always trying to treat the symptoms.

The third and final step requires us to take an honest look at how we contribute to the problems and struggles we are facing. It’s natural to look for the causes of our hurts in others. But real transformation has to happen inside of us before it can be seen in our circumstances. The biggest obstacle to this is often our own sense of shame. Especially if our struggle is one which is cyclical, and which we have struggled with for years, it can sometimes lead us to fear that we are failures, that we can never find victory, and so we ignore our own place in the center of the struggle while despair mounts under the surface.

It’s to that fear that Paul speaks in our passage this morning, when he says in v. 5, “Hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” We have no shame before God, because He has already forgiven us of our failures and coming to terms with them is the necessary first step toward receiving His grace in the first place. God loves us so much that He is happy to meet us and welcome us to Him just as we are, even with our sins, faults, and shortcomings. But He also loves so much that He doesn’t leave us the way He found us.(14)

And it is in that hope, that He will change us and transform us, bring us wholeness and restoration, that we are able to find freedom from fear and shame. This hope isn’t simply wishful thinking. It is rooted in the fact that the God who has promised it is a God who keeps His promises. We know this, because He has done so in the past. His care for His people throughout the Old Testament is testimony to this fact, and as Paul says here, the love which He has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit is testimony to it as well.

So as you go out to meet whatever challenges and struggles you may face this week, in that in-between-space after salvation, but before the final realization of our hope;(15) remember that God has promised you the tools and the resources to meet them. The ability to meet our challenges, to endure and even rejoice in the midst of suffering is rooted in the peace, the shalom, which only He can provide and which we are promised at the moment of justification; is honed and refined through the building of our character as we grow in sanctification; and is driven by the hope and promise of our glorification in Christ.

I hope the above steps help you in a real, practical way through the midst of that process. But I also want to encourage you to do one more thing. I considered listing it as a separate step, but it is essential through all of them: Pray. Pray continuously. Carve out time to pray in the morning and before you go to bed. Pray in the car. Pray with friends. Pray at church, and at home, and at work. Seriously, set a daily alarm on your phone if you have to. If we do not pray, if we do not keep that essential line of communication open with God, we will not find the discipline to follow these steps through in obedience. It’s true that God’s grace alone is the source of our sanctification, but it does not exempt us from obedience to His commands. And essential to this obedience is our prayer life.

So with that, I pray that the fullness of God’s peace goes with you all, and I pray that He gives you the strength and the tools you need to meet your struggles and grow in the process. Thank you.

(1) 1 Cor. 9:24-27.
(2) Ritchie, Hanna & Max Roser. “Urbanization." Our World in Data. Web. Retrieved Jun. 15, 2019.
(3) Fry, Richard. “The Share of Americans Living Without A Partner Has Increased, Especially Among Young Adults." Pew Research Center. Web. Written Oct. 11, 2017.
(4) National Institute of Mental Health. “Major Depression.” Web. Retrieved Jun. 15, 2019.
(5) American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide Statistics.” Web. Retrieved Jun. 15, 2019.
(6) U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. “Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans, 2001-2014.” Office of Suicide Prevention. Written Aug. 03, 2016.
(7) Cragg, Gerald R. “Romans” in the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, 452. Ed. by George . Buttrick, et al. Nashville, TN: Addington-Cokesbury Press, 1952.
(8) Greathouse, William M. and George Lyons. “Romans 1-8” in New Beacon Bible Commentary, 153. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) All scripture quotes are from the ESV.
(12) P.N. Skandalakis, P. Lainas, J.E. Skandalakis, P. Mirilas, "'To Afford the Wounded Speedy Assistance': Dominique Jean Larrey and Napoleon", World Journal of Surgery 30:8:1392-9. Aug. 2006.
(13) National Public Radio. “Researchers Begin to Look at Gun Violence as Public Health Issue,” on All Things Considered. Broadcast Jan. 07, 2017.
(14) Greathouse, “Romans 1-8,” 154.
(15) cf. Greathouse, “Romans 1-8,” 151.