Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"No Barriers" a sermon based on Luke 9:28-43, II Cor. 3:7-4:6 given on Feb. 14

Jim and I have a saying in our house, “No Barriers.” We use it in many different contexts. Neither of us like barriers, but they are there. And after a lifetime of building up barriers, some of them are hard to remove. Some barriers are stubborn, and we keep running into them. Fear erects barriers. We put barriers into place because we think we are protecting ourselves. Adam and Eve made coverings for themselves and hid from God because they were afraid. But the barriers didn’t help. They weren’t protected. And yet we still do the same thing.
It takes commitment, trust, honesty, and hard work to remove barriers. It takes love. Love overcomes barriers. Love removes barriers. Why? Because as the apostle John says, perfect love casts out fear. God’s is perfect love. When we can tap into that love, and love becomes stronger than our fears, barriers are removed.
In the children’s message, I shared that Jesus is the best Valentine. Jesus is the Valentine sent by the Father to show us his great love for us. And Jesus’s sacrifice of love for us removes the barriers erected between ourselves and God. In our Corinthians passage today, we have the removal of barriers. Jesus removes the barrier of sin. Jesus removed the barrier of curses that were erected because of the failure to keep the Law. To keep God’s commandments brings blessing, but to break God’s commandments brings curses—negative consequences. The Israelites couldn’t free themselves from the curse of the Law, but elsewhere Paul says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” In removing the curse of the law, Jesus opens us up to the blessings that were promised to Abraham.
We read in Corinthians that the barrier between us and God’s glory has been removed in Christ Jesus. We are familiar with the fact that when Christ was crucified, the curtain in the temple that divided the inner court from the holy of holies was torn in two. With that barrier removed, everyone could see into the most holy place. It symbolized the direct access that anyone has to God through Christ Jesus. When the people saw God’s glory on Moses’s face when he came down from Mt. Sinai, they were afraid because they had broken God’s laws. The presence of God meant God’s judgment. They were afraid and would not come near the tent of meeting when God’s glory filled it. They couldn’t stand in God’s holy presence like we talked about last week. For Moses to veil himself was an act of mercy. But when we repent, when we turn to the Lord, we can witness God’s glory because of Christ. Now, God’s glory doesn’t mean judgment for us but redemption. God’s presence means our salvation.
Paul says that another barrier that is removed in Christ is in our understanding of the Scriptures. Because of Christ, we have the Holy Spirit living inside us who brings clarity to hearing of the Word and applies it to our hearts. The Holy Spirit is our teacher. I’m sure, like me, you’ve had the experience of reading a passage of Scripture, and it just didn’t make sense, and then you reread it later, maybe even years later, and it couldn’t be any clearer. That’s the Holy Spirit illuminating God’s Word.
In addition to being Valentine’s Day, today is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday, and our gospel reading was that incident of Jesus being glorified on the mountaintop in the presence of Peter, James, and John. Paul writes “Now all of us with unveiled faces, seeing as in a mirror, the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit not only illuminates the Scriptures to us, but transfigures us with the same glory as Jesus into the image of Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes us more Christlike.
When Moses reflected God’s glory, he had to put a veil over his face because the people were afraid. Now we are called to reflect God’s glory boldly. We aren’t supposed to cover it up. There will be people who don’t get it because their eyes have been blinded, but as we go out into the world, we are to shine brightly, reflecting and revealing Jesus to those around us. And we must live in such a way that we do not erect barriers between God and others, for those barriers have been removed in Christ. Instead we are called to help others see that those barriers are removed, and continue working on tearing down the barriers between each other that we have rebuilt. May the love of Christ in us be greater than our fears.

Jesus at the Heart

Calling…it’s something we all question and want to know. I know that in the 28 years that I’ve known Jesus, I’ve questioned my calling a thousand times or more. The simple answer is: our calling is Jesus Christ—to live by Him, in Him and for Him. So what does that mean?
That’s where my specific calling as Minister of Word and Sacrament comes in. It is my calling to peach Christ and Christ crucified.
In our Revelation Bible study, we’ve been looking at heavenly worship. The sole focus of heavenly worship is Jesus. Everything revolves around and reflects Him, including the faces of the angels. In heaven, there is no more “me”. Everyone and everything is focused on Christ. The elders cast their crowns at His feet. The songs are all in praise of and to Him. Our study asked us how we might make our earthly worship more heavenly. With Jesus at the center of our worship, we can’t go wrong. When I graduated from seminary, our baccalaureate speaker was the Rev. John Wood, who admonished us to make sure that every sermon has something of Jesus in it. And every service should have in it somewhere something that says, “This is the Father. This is the Son. Here is the Holy Spirit. This is the relationship that God wants to have with you.”
There is an unfortunate trend today which promotes a “Christless Christianity.” We become so focused on the next best thing, the newest, hottest programs, desiring to be welcoming, and not wanting to offend that we present a Jesus that is too safe. We want Jesus to be our friend, but forget that He is our Savior. Jim and I went to a lecture a few weeks ago on this very topic. Jesus becomes an add-on instead of our Redeemer. We end up hearing sermons that except for the mention of Jesus name, we could hear at any self-help seminar or humanitarian gathering. It is reflected in our hymnbook, where almost all references to the blood of Jesus have been taken out. It is a theology of glory—bigger and better, as opposed to a theology of the cross—self-denial and sacrifice in exchange for Christ and His life.
But the gospel is offensive. It has and always will be offensive to every human culture, although God has provided ways in every culture through which we can connect to the gospel. Jesus is called a “scandalon”—a Rock of Offense. The blood of Jesus is offensive because it means our sins are worthy of death. The theology of the cross challenges our self-seeking. The cross means we have to die. We don’t want to admit we are that bad and that bad off. The human heart resists that God’s mercy at the cross is also God’s judgment on sin and religion (in the sense of humans trying to get to God versus God coming down to us).
But if we come to the Stumbling Stone and accept the gift that Jesus offers, we realize that the gospel is tremendous news. We don’t have to “do more and try harder.” Instead, we can rejoice, “Look what God has done!”
This is what I strive to say week by week. I know there are weeks when I fail miserably and am aware that I will have to give an account to God for what I preach and teach. But when we can say, “Look what God has done,” we are swept away into God’s new world. Salvation is the transference from one kingdom (the kingdom of the world) into another one (the kingdom of God). Corporate worship is an opportunity for us to realize in which kingdom we truly live and leave the world behind, at least for an hour or so. I hope that as Grace Presbyterian Church we can find more ways to celebrate how God is transforming us.
Jesus is relevant to our lives everyday. In fact, He’s MORE than that. Jesus is the source of our ability to live lives that are pleasing to God. Jesus is the source of our life! Christ is our Transformer—often this occurs bit by bit more than huge dramatic changes, although He does that too. My job is to lead you to a deep intimacy with the Trinity—to introduce you to God and help God to become real to you. My focus is on discipleship, Christian education. Jesus called us to make disciples. Discipleship is hard work. It costs us. Not everyone wants to be a disciple. That’s between God and individuals, but my primary concern is with those who do, whether they are just coming to know Jesus or have been walking with Him for decades.
On the other hand, I was not called to the entertainment business. Nor am I called to use the pulpit for self-promotion. The apostle Paul wrote in II Cor. 4:5, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus Christ.”
May God forgive me if I make Jesus boring, for He most certainly is not!

Celebrating the Lord's Supper

Our Book of Order says, “Prayer is at the heart of worship” (W-2.1001), but while prayer is at the heart of worship, Reformed worship centers around Word and Sacrament. “The Reformed tradition has emphasized the importance of the Lord’s Day as the time for hearing the Word and celebrating the Sacraments in the expectation of encountering the risen Lord, and for responding in prayer and service. Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action. Through the Sacraments God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God and marks them for service” (W-1.3011a.(2), W-1.3033(2)).
Two General Assemblies ago, a paper came out asking us to place more emphasis on the Sacraments in worship. We were encouraged to give prominent places to table and font and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper more often, even as often as weekly, which was already provided for in our constitution (W-2.4009). The previously referenced section also states that the Lord’s Supper “is to be celebrated regularly and frequently enough to be recognized as integral to the Service for the Lord’s Day.” Some Presbyterian churches do celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week. Others celebrate it only once a quarter. Our session has voted to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every month plus a couple of extra times a year for special services.
While the Sacraments are joyful celebrations, they are also solemn occasions in the sense that they are serious. Although the Lord’s Table is open to all baptized believers, not all baptized believers have to partake of the Lord’s Supper. If we truly understand that Christ nourishes us spiritually with Himself in this meal and that Christ also unites us with all the saints in this meal, then it will be something we desire. Jesus Himself said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is My flesh. Truly I say to you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life within you. Those who eat my flesh and drink My blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. For My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink. Those who eat My flesh and drink My blood abide in Me, and I in them” (see John 6:35-58).
This is not to say we understand how Christ does this, for it is a great mystery. However, if Communion has gotten stale for you, then instead of taking the elements, as they come by, serve the person next to you and use this time in the service to contemplate what Christ means to you. No one will judge you if you choose not to partake. In fact, it is better not to. The Scriptures admonish us, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (I Cor. 11:27-29). Paul earlier states that “discerning the body” means checking our relationship to our fellow believers, our attitude toward the church of God as well as our relationship with Jesus.

Something to think about: Do you come to worship expecting to encounter Jesus? Why or why not?