Joy in the Lord

Friday morning, I drove down to South Charleston, Ohio.  It’s a little town between Dayton and Columbus with a good-sized EPC church which was hosting our presbytery meeting.  Everything went fine until I pulled off the interstate and stopped at the sign to turn onto the state highway for the last nine miles of the trip.  When I stopped, there was a loud “clunk”; when I started driving again—well, I didn’t start.  I tried, but the car seemed to think it was in neutral.  I found that if I put it into first gear, it would engage; I then discovered that I could work my way up one gear at a time until it was back in fourth gear.  Then I made it into town and stopped at the light, and I had to do it all over again.  Instead of an automatic transmission, I had a stick shift without a clutch.

There wasn’t any place in South Charleston that could work on it, so I had it towed to a shop in Springfield, about twelve miles away.  They looked it over and told me they could probably have it fixed by Wednesday.  Obviously, I couldn’t stay that long, so I hitched a ride home with the folks from the downtown church.  I’m not sure how I’ll get back down there to pick it up, but I presume by God’s grace we’ll figure something out.

As you can imagine, the presbytery meeting didn’t hold my full attention.  During the closing worship service, I was trying to focus, but I was also trying to figure out how I was getting home, and if I’d have to wait until Saturday to do it.  Still, in the middle of my own little whirlwind, something the preacher said started me thinking about joy, and about this sermon and this passage.

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What We Cannot Keep

(1 Chronicles 29:6-9Acts 2:42-47Acts 4:32-37)

At various places throughout the Acts of the Apostles, Luke scatters brief progress reports on the church.  I included one of them in our reading last week, verses 12-16 of chapter 5.  By my count, there are nine of them, and they get shorter as the book goes along.  They serve to show us how the message and ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ are spreading across the Roman world.  The first few go beyond that to give us snapshots of the life of the church so that when Luke says in Acts 16:5, just to pick one, that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers,” we understand what that really means.  It’s not just that their attendance was up, it’s that they were living boldly in the way that we see here in Acts 2 and Acts 4.

That’s important, because it’s easy to talk about a strong church, or a Spirit-filled church, without having any real idea what that means; and since nature abhors a vacuum, that void of understanding will fill quickly with worldly ideas of strength and goodness.  What’s a strong church?  One that has a lot of members and a lot of money.  What’s a Spirit-filled church?  I don’t know, but those people seem to be nice, moral people, so I guess they must be Spirit-filled.  But this is not what God has in mind.  If you want to know if a person or a church is filled by the Holy Spirit, look at the fruit—how are they living, what are they producing, what qualities characterize their way of life?

What we see in Acts 2 and 4 is a church that has chosen its world, and it isn’t this one.  Everything they have in this world, they’ve placed at the disposal of the world to come.  They had one common goal, and so as Acts 4:32 tells us, “They were one in heart and mind”—or, better, in heart and soul.  This doesn’t mean they never disagreed, or even that they never fought; we know they fought.  Disagreement and conflict are inevitable—and more, they’re often necessary for growth.  Because we’re all limited, we need our different perspectives in order to make good decisions.  Real unity isn’t just superficial agreement, it’s something deeper.Read more

Steadfast

(2 Kings 6:8-23Acts 5:12-42)

I imagine all of you know that this Tuesday is Election Day; and I trust that all of you of voting age will go out and vote.  I put that insert in your bulletins because we do need to vote wisely, as a matter of prayer; I also put it in because I found that website to be long on information and short on telling you what to do.  But understand this in light of 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:  “The appointed time has grown very short.  From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.  For the present form of this world is passing away.”  As John Piper says, “so it is with voting.  We should do it.  But only as if we were not doing it.”

I don’t tell you to go out and vote because your vote matters.  I do believe it matters to you, but on the larger scale, it probably doesn’t.  I’m not telling you to go out and vote because we the people are the real source of authority in this nation.  In human political terms, that’s purely theoretical anymore—the country is too big, power is too centralized, and most people are too far from the centers of power.  We’re ruled, not governed, by an elite, and it’s hard to see how that realistically could be any different.  And in theological terms, Godis the source of all authority; he raises up and brings down whom he will.  We should vote, but not because we think it will do anything important.  As Piper says, and as Paul would have said, we should vote as though we were not voting.

Now, that might seem defeatist, and even pointless.  If my vote won’t change anything, why should I vote?  Well, because that’s what God has given you to do.  Because what matters isn’t what you can make of it or what the human system will make of it, but what God is going to make of it—and that, only he knows.  And because you can vote as though you were not voting, because you don’t have to think it’s crucial, because you know that government isn’t all that and a bag of chips.  Vote without discouragement, because however the election goes, it’s all in God’s plan.  As Piper puts it, “In the short run, Christians lose.  In the long run, we win.”  We’ve seen the back of the book, remember?Read more

Fearless

(Daniel 3:13-18Acts 4:1-31)

Eight years ago, in the summer of 2006, I horrified a group of my colleagues.  We were delegates to General Synod, which is the Reformed Church’s equivalent to the Presbyterian General Assembly.  A number of us were out for a walk one night, and I made the statement—in response to what, I don’t recall—that the job of the pastor is to be crucified for the congregation.  You would have thought I’d set off a bomb.

It wasn’t that they thought I had delusions of grandeur; they knew me well enough to know that I didn’t think of myself (or any of them) as some sort of messiah.  Rather, they reacted to it as a highly uncomfortable view of pastoral ministry.  I didn’t disagree, but I don’t see any way around it if you’re going to be faithful to Scripture.  Jesus says, as we read a few weeks ago, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”  Paul makes clear in 1 Timothy that Christian leadership is about modeling and imitation; the basic principle is one which he states concisely in 1 Corinthians 11:1:  “Follow my pattern of life as I follow the pattern of Christ.”  We can’t learn to live like Christ just by reading about it, even though the book we read was written by God.  We need to see it lived out, which is why God didn’t just give us his word, he also gave us his people.

The first job of those of us called to be elders and deacons for the church—including pastors, as we are called teaching elders—is to be models of the life of Jesus.  Yes, we’re all most imperfect models, but we need to be committed to that purpose; and part of our calling is to model the right way to respond when we do sin and fall short of the measure of Christ.  We are humble sinners saved only by grace who need grace from the Lord and from his church, just as much as anyone is, and we need to show by our lives what it means to live openly and honestly in that way.  Beyond that, if we want to lead the church to be faithful to Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow him, we need to do that ourselves.  To lead the church on the road to the cross, we have to walk that road in our own lives, on our own two feet.Read more

Bearing Witness

(Isaiah 66:18-22Acts 3)

There is a story about an encounter between Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, and the pope.  I don’t know if it actually happened, but it does fit with the time in which he lived.  As the story has it, after making some display of the church’s wealth to Aquinas, the pope said, “Thomas, you can see the church no longer has to say ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”  Aquinas responded, “True, holy father; but neither can she now say to the lame man, ‘Rise up and walk!’”

Now, as I said, I don’t know for sure that this conversation happened, or that it happened in just that way.  I do know this:  it’s believable because both statements are true.  For all the wars fought by the popes, the Roman hierarchy was wealthy, and its wealth was growing.  We have a rich heritage of great artworks and beautiful buildings that were paid for by the blood, toil, tears and sweat of the peasants of Europe.  But for all the church’s silver and gold, it lacked spiritual power.

That should have been a sign that something was badly wrong; but it took the explosion of the Reformation a few centuries later to get the point across.  As we see in Acts, when God builds the church, he does it by the power of his Holy Spirit, not by the power of the sword or the purse; and as we began to see last week, when this happens, the results look very different from anything the world expects.Read more

The Spirit on the Move

(Joel 2:28-29Acts 2:1-42)

We’ve been spending the last number of weeks talking about revival.  We’ve seen that it’s God’s work, not ours, and that we’re utterly dependent on him—that only God can bring the dead to life, and that’s exactly what he’s on about doing.  We took some time to read the end of the story so that we know where it’s going, which is the total renewal of creation:  all things (including us) will be made entirely new.  We’ve been reminded that everything we have is God’s, and he calls us to spend all of it—our time, our money, our talents and skills—in his service.  Where we might use our lives to pile up temporary treasure in this world which is passing away, he gives us the opportunity to use them instead to store up treasure in the next, which is eternal.

With all of that said, we need more—we need to go beyond the limits of our own experience and see what revival looks like.  That’s why we’re going to spend the next several weeks in the first part of the book of Acts, which records the first mass movement of the Spirit of God in human history.  When the Holy Spirit goes to work on a large scale in the full power of God, what happens?Read more

Priorities

(Exodus 16:13-202 Corinthians 8:1-15)

Kaleb’s experience illustrates a couple aspects of the reality Paul’s talking about in 2 Corinthians 8.  First, he reminds us that God provides for his children, and in fact that everything we have is God’s provision.  Yes, none of the extra money they received simply appeared miraculously out of nowhere; it could all be tracked to where it came from and why.  But God was in command of all those events; he set each in its proper place and time to meet Kaleb and Ashlea’s needs at that point.

The fact is, God most often works through other people to accomplish his purposes, even when they’re completely unaware of it.  As we see in Paul, he provides for our needs through other people, and provides for the needs of others through us.  This is simply how he chooses to operate.  I don’t know all his reasons for working this way, but at least in part, it’s a matter of taking us seriously and treating us with respect.

When God uses us to take care of other people, it makes our actions and our lives meaningful.  He could easily do everything directly, all by himself—but then what would we have to do?  What would we matter?  He makes us instruments of his blessing so that we can see that our lives are important.  He does it in ways that are completely apart from our own plans—like that woman who ended up blessing Kaleb by accident—to help us see that everything we do, even the smallest thing, has consequences which ripple out far beyond and outside anything we could ever predict, or even understand.Read more

Choose Your World

(Deuteronomy 30:11-20Psalm 49:7-20Mark 8:34-38)

Or as Jedi Master Yoda said, “Do.  Or do not.  There is no ‘try’.”  For anything important, anything that really matters, anything that’s truly a challenge, either you abandon yourself to it and you give it all you have, or you’d best walk away and go somewhere else.  Otherwise, “squish like grape.”  There’s no three ways about it.

This is truest when it comes to following God.  That’s why God is very clear—we see it in Moses, and we see it in Jesus—that either you’re striving to follow him with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength, or else you’re not following him at all.  Granted, even at our best, the execution is never entirely there; but the intent and the desire and the commitment have to be.  Obedience that wants to make an exception at any point isn’t obedience at all.Read more

Citizens and Mercenaries

(Malachi 3:13-15Luke 16:9-17)

I’m not sure if it’s common knowledge these days, but Switzerland has long been known for its neutrality.  It stayed out of both world wars of the last century, neither attacking anyone nor suffering invasion.  Its neutrality was established by treaty among the principal military powers of Europe—specifically, the Treaty of Paris of 1815 that ended the Napoleonic Wars.

You also might know that the Pope’s bodyguards are Swiss.  I’m not sure if that was widely known in this country or if I just learned it from reading Richard Scarry growing up.  I know that’s where my mental image of the Swiss Guard came from (see above).  Right along with the Queen’s Guard in their big bearskin hats, you had the Swiss Guard in Rome dressed up like a bunch of clowns.  Knowing as I did that Switzerland was neutral, I figured they were a joke.

You can imagine my surprise when I found out that for over two centuries, Swiss mercenaries were the elite soldiers of Europe.  The beginning of the end came in 1515 when Swiss troops suffered their first defeat since the 1200s, and the leaders of the Swiss Confederacy realized that there were major downsides to all that warfare.  For one thing, after so many battles, other nations were learning to copy their tactics, and some of them were getting pretty good.  For another, while exporting their people had brought a lot of money back into Switzerland, it had also put the country at risk.  That wasn’t clear as long as they were winning, but once they lost a battle, the risk became obvious.  Switzerland declared itself neutral and outlawed mercenary service, allowing only those troops serving in the French army and the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.Read more

Blessed Are the Generous

(Malachi 3:6-122 Corinthians 9:6-15)

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenberg, Germany in 1637.  He was also the only pastor in Eilenberg, Germany in 1637.  I don’t know what happened to the rest of them, but I have my suspicions.  You see, this was during the Thirty Years’ War, and in 1637 Eilenberg was attacked three different times.  When the armies left, they were replaced by desperate refugees.  Disease was common, food wasn’t, and Rinkart’s journal tells us that in 1637, he conducted over 4500 funerals, sometimes as many as 50 in a day.  Death and chaos ruled, and each day seemed to bring some fresh disaster.  But out of that terrible time, Martin Rinkart wrote these words:

Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices;
Who, from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

During Napoleon’s reign in France,a man named Charnet offended the emperor—unintentionally—and was thrown in jail to rot.  As time passed, Charnet became bitter and lost faith in God, finally scratching on the wall of his cell, “All things come by chance.”

But there was a little space for sunlight to enter his cell, and for a little while each day a sunbeam cast a small pool of light on the floor; and one morning, to his amazement, in that small patch of ground he saw a tiny green blade poking out of the packed dirt floor, fighting its way into that precious sunlight.  Suddenly, he had a companion, even if only a plant, and his heart lifted; he shared his tiny water ration with the little plant and did everything he could to encourage it to grow.  Under his devoted care, it did grow, until one day it put out a beautiful little purple-and-white flower.  Once again, Charnet found himself thinking about God, but thinking very different thoughts; he saw that however much we may pound down this earth, the glory and beauty of God still breaks through, and so he scratched out his previous words and wrote instead, “He who made all things is God.”Read more