Sunday, January 30, 2011

Christ, Our Healer

Today's Scripture reading is Acts 9:32-43.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Great Escapes

The texts for this week's message are Joshua 2 and Acts 9:23-31

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Christ--Rock of Offense, Is. 8:1-15, Matthew 3

The past couple of weeks in the adult discussion Sunday school class we’ve been talking about our role as Grace Dispensers. As believers it’s our job to live out God’s grace and pass it along. It goes along with our vision statement that the session adopted that you can read about in the newsletter when you pick it up from your boxes. Our statement is “Living Christ’s Kingdom Now”. Part of living out Christ’s Kingdom is showing others what that kingdom is like—a kingdom of grace. In Sunday school we talked about how the message of grace is obscured and even obliterated by those who attack opponents while standing for a supposedly righteous cause. Larry gave the example that grace doesn’t come across so well when people hear things like, “I won’t have anything to do with you, but if you totally change then I will accept you.” I thought of a traveling preacher who used to come to our college campus and tell everyone they were going to hell for such things as wearing make-up or having a tattoo, but even if he had been addressing serious sin issues, the message would have been hard to hear. The grace of Jesus says, “Come to Me as you are, and I will transform you.” Too often what makes the gospel offensive to the world is not the gospel, but Christians.
However, the gospel in itself is still offensive. Christ Himself is offensive. Even God’s unconditional grace is offensive. Even God’s message of grace, “Come to Me as you are, and I will transform you,” is a challenge to us. It says we are not in control, and that there is something flawed about us that needs changing and only God can change it. God’s grace is a stumbling-block. Every person when confronted by the truth of who Jesus Christ is faces as Henry Blackaby calls it in Experiencing God, a crisis of belief. I observed it in the life of my own father, who was put off by offensive Christians. The grace-filled way seemed to easy for him, especially in light of the fact that he treated others far better than he was often treated. But at some point, he realized he couldn’t be good enough on his own. However that crisis of belief came about, my dad embraced the way of grace—the way of Jesus.
But crisis of belief is not a one-time thing. Even those of us who embraced Jesus long ago are continuously challenged as we realize more of who Jesus is and more of who we are. In the Sunday School class as we’ve looked at grace we’ve been reminded that grace calls us to love people who are extremely difficult to love and to do so seemingly at cost to ourselves. We’ve been confronted with our own legalistic tendencies. We want to hold onto our idea of fairness and want to see people “get what they deserve,” forgetting that we ourselves have been spared from that very thing. Crisis of belief almost always comes back to the truth that we cannot save ourselves; we must totally rely on God. God is with us. He is Immanuel. He is reality. God commands us, “Be still—stop trying to resist Me and take matters into your own hands.” Don’t be afraid—If God is for us, what can anyone or anything do to us?” The Kingdom of God is truly an upside-down kingdom.
Our Scripture passages today tell us of the offensiveness of Christ and His gospel.
Our gospel reading includes what is normally an advent text—John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. John the Baptist’s message of the upside-down kingdom of heaven is offensive. It’s very clear. John doesn’t attack or point out things that he’s sees the people doing. He gets to the very core of their being. All must repent, and if it is not evident that they need to repent then they must bear fruit worthy of repentance. Each of us must discover that need for repentance. He wants the religious leaders to know that they aren’t any better than anyone else. He calls them “brood of vipers.” In other words, he calls them “children of the snake.” They would have known that John is associating them as offspring of the serpent that started the Fall. Claiming a godly heritage in Abraham does nothing for them. It doesn’t get them any closer to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus will later tell them that they are of their father, the devil. John goes on to preach of Jesus—the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the One who will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Certainly, John’s preaching would not only have been considered offensive by those hearing it, but also by us today. If John were preaching on the street corner, most people would quickly avoid him. And yet Jesus will say of John that “of men born of women, none is greater than John the Baptist.” John doesn’t put himself above those to whom he is preaching. When Jesus comes to be baptized, John doesn’t want to do it. He is the one who should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus doesn’t need to repent of anything. But Jesus must fulfill all righteousness, of which His baptism is a part.
I’ve been reading Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Luther points out again and again that we cannot bear fruit worthy of salvation, we can only bear fruit worthy of repentance. And Luther agrees with the gospel of Matthew that righteousness is an absolute requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Partial righteousness is no righteousness. The only way we can enter the kingdom of heaven is to rely on the One who has fulfilled all righteousness—Jesus Christ. And that reliance is shown in our repentance. We die to self and are raised to life with Christ. Baptism is a demonstration of this truth.
The crisis of belief in our Isaiah 8 passage was that there was no way that King Ahaz and his armies could defeat the invading alliance of Israel and Syria. Ahaz needed to be still and rely on God. God would actually raise up another enemy, Assyria, to defeat the alliance and spare Judah. But it was going to cost Judah because of their unfaithfulness and disbelief. They didn’t trust Yahweh. But God was faithful despite their faithlessness. The promise is the “zeal of the Lord will accomplish this.”
It’s true in our own lives. We fail to live the grace filled life. It’s impossible for us in our own strength. When we are surrendered, it is Jesus working His grace through us that allows us to love the unlovely, to love our enemies, to not be defensive, to act kindly towards others and to do good. It is God who is passionate about our salvation and our transformation into the likeness of Christ. It is in the midst of crisis that God reveals Himself as Immanuel. We are to fear God alone with a fear based on the holiness of God. When we realize that we absolutely cannot come close to God’s holiness, God becomes our sanctuary and our scandalon—our stumbling block and rock of offense. When we stumble over the holiness of God and fall into God’s arms, God becomes our sanctuary, our refuge, our safe place. We may have to be broken in order to be healed, like a doctor who has to re-break a bone in order to set it properly so that it will be strong and useful once it heals. Or we can allow the holiness of God to trip us up so that we are ensnared by our own self-made traps, never discovering the way of escape that God has provided in Jesus Christ. We fall and are crushed because we refuse to fall into God’s arms. Jesus puts it in reference to Himself as the chief cornerstone in Matthew 21:44 this way, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush Him.” Regardless, the truth of who Jesus is cannot be ignored. We can’t avoid the Rock of offense by walking around it. We must stumble and face our crisis or be crushed.
The gospel is offensive to everyone. It challenges the core of our being. When we present the gospel to others, we must be careful not to water it down so that it becomes unoffensive, for then it is not the gospel. On the other hand, we must be careful that we are not the offenders by placing ourselves above those with whom we are communicating or by living in such a way that contradicts the transforming power of the gospel. Both of these are means of obscuring the gospel. Thirdly, we must not inoculate ourselves against the gospel, but allow our own souls to be offended so that we will be transformed into Christ’s image and citizens worthy of His Kingdom.
I want to end this morning with a video about God’s offensive work in our lives. We crave it and yet resist it all at once. When we give in to God and allow God to have His way with us, then God can transform our lives into something incredibly beautiful—the very person He intended us to be from the beginning.