June 3, 1990
Now Concerning Spiritual Gifts
(1 Corinthians 12:1-11)
Celebrations are important. Birthdays. Graduations. Weddings. Anniversaries. Each plays an important part in our family life. But you can’t live an entire life celebrating special occasions. Authentic life is lived day-in and day-out. The church of Jesus Christ fleshes out its existence one day at a time. It is made up of ordinary, common people like you and me who need the daily help of the Lord to actualize His dreams for each of us, separately and together.
That’s why the Apostle Paul writes so frankly about life lived in community, stating, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed” (1 Corinthians 12:1). He knows that you and I need to be equipped not just for the celebrative moments but for everyday living. He takes this opportunity to address both the individual uniqueness and potential of each of us and the unity within which that God-given potential is to be realized.
Paul is answering questions addressed to him by some believers at Corinth. He has dealt with the matter of meat offered to idols. He has answered the questions of how women should dress in worship. He has shared meaningful thoughts about the Lord’s Supper as a family reunion to be celebrated in a way in which we understand what it is all about and we participate worthily.
Now he shifts his attention to the matter of spiritual ecstasy and the fact that some of the Corinthian Christians were priding themselves in the fact that they spoke in tongues and had other very dramatic spiritual experiences. These were proud people, arrogant in the way in which they saw their own experience as normative, superior to the experience and action of other Christians in that community.
Paul uses this as an opportunity to teach in practical terms what is going to have to happen if the dreams Jesus has for His church are to become reality. Spiritual gifts, in all of their diversity, are to be operative within the Christian community.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are those skills or abilities which the Holy Spirit gives which will enable you to make a complementary contribution to the family of God.
There are varieties of spiritual gifts which are given by the Holy Spirit for the common good of the church.
Paul puts it in these terms: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). Laced throughout this statement of spiritual gifts is a quiet but firm articulation of the Trinity.
The most significant emphasis of this passage is the fact that although there is one Holy Spirit and an emphatic call to unity in Christ, this unity is enhanced by diversity.
Unfortunately there is a built-in tendency in most human institutions to seek unity in conformity. Rather than encouraging each person’s uniqueness, it is often discouraged. This quest for uniformity can subtly turn into a baptism of an authoritarian approach to leadership.
Most of us know that societies run more efficiently when they are run by a dictator and where conformity is put as its highest premium. But even as secular society becomes lifeless when totalitarian regimes stifle creativity, so does the church which values conformity to the neglect of God-given gifts.
Gordon Cosby, the pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., founded that church on two pragmatic biblical principles. Principle One: There is no gift the church needs that God has not given to one of its members. Principle Two: The work of the church is to encourage the members in the discovery and use of these gifts.
Think through the implications of these two principles. If there is no gift which our church needs that God has not given to one of our members, it means there is nothing that God would want to do here that cannot be done. It’s important, though, that we discover what our gifts are so that we can then be the people God would have us be.
It means that if Jesus Christ were to stand in front of this congregation now and assess what gifts He’s given to every one of us, He would see not only enormous potential for you as an individual but potential for this church in terms of its life and ministry that goes far beyond the most visionary dreams of the most creative thinker here. There is just no limit to what we could be if we really begin to maximize the spiritual gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has equipped us to carry out our tasks. His tools are spiritual gifts. Paul states, “I do not want you to be uninformed.” Unfortunately, we too often are ignorant of His provisions. These spiritual gifts are not means for our own personal benefit. We are gifted by God’s Holy Spirit for the sake of the whole body of Christ. Your spiritual gift or gifts function right along with that of another’s.
Imagine if our local hospital had an entire medical staff made up of brain surgeons, two hundred of them. They happened to be the finest brain surgeons in the world, functioning out of that excellent physical facility. Needless to say, brain surgeons are some of the most well-prepared, skilled, gifted professionals. Just imagine how severely minimalized its effectivess as a hospital would be in this community if all it had on its staff were brain surgeons. A variety of gifts are needed. You think of anything that can go wrong with the human body and then build a medical staff around all of those various specializations. No one set of individual gifts is adequate in providing for the holistic health of the community.
The same thing could be said about an orchestra. Diversity is the key to a well-functioning orchestra. As a youngster I played the trombone. I was never very good at it, but I loved the instrument then and I love it now. There may be an occasion on which seventy-six trombones would be appropriate for the music played — but that is more the exception than the rule.
The finest orchestras have a brass section, a woodwind section, a string section, and a percussion section. Each of these has a variety of instruments. Not all of them play at the same time. Not all of them make sounds equally loud. Not all of them are the same size.
An orchestra, to be a great orchestra, needs an enormous amount of diversity. My preoccupation with the trombone, if projected throughout the musical world, would produce a very dull musical diet.
One of my very favorite preachers is Charles Swindoll of the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton. On one occasion he was teaching about spiritual gifts and the importance of a variety of gifts functioning in a way which produces unified ministry. He referred to his own youth when he played in the Houston, Texas, Youth Symphony. I believe he said that he played the oboe, which put him in the middle of the woodwind section, next to one of the two piccolo players.
Being a practical joker, he had found a fishing cork of perfect size to fit into the end of a piccolo. On one occasion, when they had a major concert, he thought he would have a little fun. While his seatmate, the piccolo player who also doubled as a flautist, was playing the flute, he reached down and popped this cork into the end of the piccolo. He imagined that he’d be playing a little private joke on his friend, forgetting that the next time the piccolo was to be played was during John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever.
You know there’s a passage there where suddenly the piccolo become? the center of that stirring number. Swindoll relates how there were only two piccolo players in that orchestra. One was not very good, so his seatmate was to carry the day in that tremendous flurry of piccolo music which came at such an important part. He graphically describes the disruption when the piccolo player went to play his arpeggios only to find that the piccolo didn’t work. It was too late then to explain the cork and make the apology.
I doubt that many of us would single out the piccolo as the most significant instrument in an orchestra. However there are moments in which it is front and center. Swindoll had destroyed one of those moments. As a result, he had hampered the total effectiveness of the orchestra.
Never forget that God has assigned specific gifts to each of us. Yours may seem modest compared to someone else’s. Yours is essential to the welfare of the body. Varieties function to the glory of God for the “common good” of the church. Don’t minimize your gift. Don’t wish you had someone else’s gift.
Some of us are plagued with the spiritual disease called jealousy. We want what someone else has. We are not content with what we’ve been given. Instead of maximizing the gifts which God has given us, we waste our time bitter and resentful that someone else has something we don’t have.
There are various places in the New Testament that listed some of the spiritual gifts. Paul lists nine in our present passage in 1 Corinthians 12.
One is “the utterance of wisdom.” This is the power of knowing and communicating the deep things of God to others. The president of my alma mater at Wheaton College, V. Raymond Edmond, had this gift. He was able to communicate the deep things of God in a way which led me in the right paths.
Two is the “utterance of knowledge.” This tends to be the capacity to put the wisdom into practice. It’s a most practical gift.
Three is “faith.” This is not saving faith. Every believer in Christ has that. This is the special capacity to claim spiritual victories from God. Church history is marked by persons like George Mueller who, in faith, built orphanages, depending on God to supply the resources. Hudson Taylor built a great missionary enterprise to China.
Four is “healing.” Whether this is a gift of one in the medical profession or the gift of one who facilitates spiritual healing, or the one who spiritually is enabled by God to minister physical healing — it is a gift. Not all of us have it.
Five is “the working of miracles.” This may have referred to exorcism — there are demons. Some have the particular gift of giving deliverance in the name of Jesus Christ to those formerly held captive by Satan.
Six is the gift of “prophecy.” It does involve, in some cases, predicting the future in foretelling. Most specifically, it is the “forthtelling” of the Gospel. It was prophetic ministry that Nathan had when he called David to repentance. It is a prophetic word when God’s grace is declared in a way that people come to saving faith in the Savior.
Seven is the gift of “distinguishing between spirits.” Some have the ability to distinguish between what is of God and what is of Satan.
Eight is the gift of “tongues.” Some tongues are ecstatic religious utterances in an unknown language that simply minister to the inner being. Some utterances have meaning for others if there is someone there to interpret. This brings us to nine, the gift of “interpreting of tongues.” I could go on and take other passages of Scripture and list the many gifts.
People want to know how they can discover their gifts. In short, read over these biblical lists. Experiment. Pray. Talk this over with Christian friends. Ask them what they think your gifts are. For God’s sake, don’t covet the spiritual gifts of another. Just keep working. I’ll guarantee that God will bless you and build up His kingdom in the process.
Jesus Christ looks you in the eyes. He knows the ambiguities of your life, your good and your bad points. He wants to embrace you with His grace. He wants to alert you to the spiritual gifts He’s given to you that will enable you to enrich the life of this community as the varieties of gifts are brought together in a oneness focusing on the Person and work of Jesus Christ. (JAH)
June 10, 1990
(2 Corinthians 13:5-14)
During the past several months via the lectionary, we as a church have been reading bits and pieces of the Apostle Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthian Church. Obviously, Paul had great love for this church. At the same time, they pushed him near exasperation.
On the one hand, they occasionally show great faithfulness to the gospel. On the other hand, these same sometimes faithful Corinthians fall into the sin of party strife, legalism, and misinterpretation of the Lord’s Supper, to name a few instances.
Paul’s contrasting feelings can be read in nearly every chapter in both Corinthian epistles. One images parents of teenage young persons as having these same constant emotional upheavals. In a sense, the church at Corinth could be likened to a teenage church.
Our passage today chronologically is Paul’s last written testament to these beloved people. One hears in these words tenderness, comfort, and above all challenge. Many of us, in our own communities, have just experienced a series of graduation exercises. They may have been high school or university commencements, but each points to a terminal point to this particular level of education.
Students, who to this moment have been under the direction of their teachers and mentors, are now about to strike out into the world solely on their own. No more structured exams or papers. No more research or deadlines for term papers. The students have been taken as far as their respective schools and teachers can take them. Now it is up to them to apply their learning directly to the world they will now and forever encounter alone.
Much of this idea of commencement can be directly transferred to Paul’s words to his beloved people at Corinth. He even begins this passage with the words in verse 5, “Examine yourselves … test yourselves.”
These are fitting words, for Paul knows that now his relationship with this church has begun a new phase. The new phase is one in which he will no longer have direct supervision over the congregation. Rather, now it is the church’s task to put into practice the many things of the gospel Paul has tried to impart.
An odd thing about this text is that Paul’s exhortation for the Corinthian testing is not so much for a final grade as it is to “find out that we have not failed.” This is the mark of a great teacher. The student’s ability to grasp that which has been taught and apply it to daily situations is a key to successful teaching. A good teacher, like a good parent, is successful to the extent that the teacher or parent “works themselves out of a job.”
Paul is not overly concerned, however, with how his teaching stands up, but rather wants his church to, as verse 7 puts it, “do what is right.” By doing what is right, Paul means this church will continue to struggle with finding the truth and when the truth is found, then the people will do the truth.
This day is celebrated throughout Christendom as Trinity Sunday. All the texts for today, from the lectionary, allude to the doctrine of the Trinity — that God is revealed to humankind in three distinct persons. As any student of Christian history knows, this doctrine has generated a great deal of controversy. In fact, in this passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul makes his most explicit reference to the Trinity in any of his many epistles.
One important thing to note about Paul’s use of his concluding trinitarian benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” is not for any exclusive theological purpose. It is, rather, a more pragmatic reminder that all the faithful are and do is a result of what God has already done for God’s people in Christ.
Trinity Sunday, therefore, is more a celebration of the mystery of God than an occasion of divisive theological debate, as interesting as this may be. We celebrate God’s grace as God’s people, whether or not we fully grasp its divine mystery. Surely, the mystery has grasped us! (DM)
June 17, 1990
The Disciples’ Commission
The text for today from Matthew’s Gospel serves as the disciples’ commission. A commission is the authorization to perform certain duties. The disciples’ commission was first offered by Jesus to twelve of His disciples. What we have from the lips of Jesus are the responsibilities and duties that disciples have. It sounds like job descriptions for doctors, undertakers, quarantine officers, and exorcists to me. What relevance do these commands have for modern day disciples of Christ?
I. Have Compassion
Notice in the opening section of the text for today what Matthew discloses about Jesus: “As he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with compassion for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
Many years ago a farmer was driving his tractor and wagon along a muddy, rutty road and got stuck. Try as he did, he could not get the wagon out of the mud. A man came along and offered his help and together they managed to get the wagon out of the muddy ruts. Once they had the wagon safely out of the mud, the farmer turned to his helper and said, “If you ever get your wagon stuck in the mud, call me. I’ll come and help you get it out. If we can’t get it out, I’ll sit with you on your wagon.” That is compassion!
II. Heal the Sick
Some of the deepest pain I have felt has been emotional. There have been times when I experienced rejection. Other times I have felt excruciating loneliness. During those painful times, I found two or three people who would hear my pain, listen to my hurt. They were in no hurry to solve things for me. They just listened, and I could see in their eyes that they ached with me, that they cared about me, that they loved me. They sat with me on my wagon. I was given strength and encouragement by them and through their compassion I was healed.
III. Raise the Dead
Since literally raising the dead happens seldom and rarely is something you and I are able to do, Jesus’ commission has broader application than giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to someone who has stopped breathing. There are lots of people walking around with death in them and they need to get the death out of them. Here is how disciples of Christ can raise the dead.
Many years ago the wife of a deacon died. The family’s pastor was very important to them and the family was important to the pastor. The pastor went to visit this man the day his wife died. He tried to think of what to say. Thinking of nothing he made the visit anyway. Even when he saw the man crumpled in grief, the pastor had nothing to say so he sat down on the sofa with the man and sat there for about forty-five minutes, sometimes with his arm around the man, sometimes sobbing with him, but all in silence. Then he left.
The pastor was startled a couple of years later to hear this man say that the most helpful thing that happened to him at the time of the death of his wife and his dealing with his loss was his pastor coming to sit with him. It was the pastor’s way of raising the dead — not the dead woman but the man who had death in him and needed to get the death out of himself so he could rise to new life.
IV. Cleanse the Lepers
“Unclean! Unclean!” announced the first-century leper if anyone got within sight or sound of him. The disciples’ commission includes the command, “Cleanse the lepers.” The lepers represent all the people who are outcast, pushed to the periphery of life. No one is pushed to the brink of life in our culture like a person who has AIDS.
Our love and acceptance of people with AIDS can remove the stigma of “unclean” from people who have AIDS and their families. We also will be helping to establish the importance and value of human relationships regardless of individual situations in life. Our efforts in maintaining relationships will help conquer the problems of segregation, ostracism, isolation, and desolation.
A major part of our mission as the community of faith and part of the body of Christ is to accept, love, and care for people on the periphery. Thus we fulfill the disciples’ commission that instructs, “Cleanse the lepers.”
V. Drive Out the Demons
An evil or unclean spirit is any attitude that blocks our openness to the love and grace of God. Evil is that which obstructs God. People today are haunted by evil spirits. Worry, anxiety, insecurity, resentment, depression, inordinate self-concern are examples of attitudes or spirits that imprison people, keep them from being themselves, and won’t allow them to contemplate what it means to be loved by God.
Jesus had compassion and the people flocked to Him. He ministered to their needs, then He turned to His disciples and commissioned them to do the things He had done.
That commission has come to a new generation. As children of God and disciples of Christ, this is our commission: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and drive out demons.” May this commission be fulfilled in our lives today. (HWR)
June 24, 1990
Jesus instructed His disciples in the reality of public disclosure. He told them that a pupil is not greater than his teacher, that they were accountable to God for their lives, and that relationship with Him is disclosed publicly.
I. Pupil and Teacher
What is the meaning of this riddle, “No pupil is greater than his teacher”? No disciple can expect to receive a better reception than his teacher received.
We can anticipate that the religious establishment will reject us and the outcasts will reach out to us because a disciple of Christ can expect to receive the same response and reaction that Jesus received. No disciple is greater than his teacher.
II. Accountability to God
Jesus said that if people had any worries or anxieties in life, they would be wise to focus their energy toward God, to whom they had to give an account of life. Although many other things are threatening and frightening in life, utmost attention and priority needs to be given to the One who has utmost authority. While persecutors can destroy our lives, they cannot destroy our vision.
Jesus’ way of putting it was they cannot destroy our souls. The soul is the essence of who we are — your personalities, what people know and think about you when you aren’t around, that’s your soul. We are living beings created in such a way that body and soul cannot be separated. Someone may destroy our lives but they cannot destroy our influence. Life is a gift given by God to us. We manage our lives and are answerable to God for the kind of managers we are.
III. Public Declaration
The reception we receive as disciples of Christ and the account of life we give to God all are part of our public record. Like it or not public disclosure is a real part of our lives. Each day we disclose publicly what our priorities are, to whom or what we are committed, and how genuine our promises are. It is not nearly so much what we say as how we live that discloses where our loyalties lie.
When Matthew wrote his gospel the followers of Christ were experiencing persecution. They were under fire and they confessed Christ at the risk of their lives. They were tempted to deny Him in order to escape punishment.
I cannot read this passage without thinking of Peter. What about Peter’s denial? Peter rejected Jesus publicly. Does that mean that Jesus rejected Peter before God? If a person makes one mistake, albeit a very serious mistake, is that it as far as God is concerned? Is this what Jesus meant when He said if someone denied Him publicly He would deny that person?
Once again the public disclosure is more than a verbal statement. Matthew’s purpose in writing is to warn the church of his day against the denial of Christ under pressure, trial, and persecution, so he says nothing about Peter’s restoration and speaks only of his concern about people, the church, rejecting Christ.
IV. Contemporary Threats to the Church
Matthew was concerned about threats to the church and followers of Christ in the last half of the first century. What are the threats to the church in the last decade of the twentieth century?
Nothing attacks the body of Christ like complacency. Complacent people see the church as a religious cafeteria where they pick and choose what they want and don’t bother with anything else. Complacency has no commitment. It destroys by corrupting enthusiams and commitment with increasing amounts of indifference. The motto of complacency is, “It doesn’t matter!”
The culture’s yardstick of success is a second threat to the church. In our culture our tendency is to spell success M-O-N-E-Y. With a towel and a pitcher of water Jesus said ministry is to be done; that is quite different than the way culture approaches things.
Developing a club mentality is a third threat to the church. We live in areas where people have about the same income as we, about the same amount of education, and similar values. Then we develop a congregation that has these things in common and call it a church.
Hypocrisy is a fourth threat to the church. Occasionally someone attacks the church by saying that it is full of hypocrites. But the church is full of hypocrites only on Easter and Christmas. We need continually to work to narrow the gap between our promise and our performance.
What can we do to combat these threats to the body of Christ? Let geese teach us. Geese fly in a V formation. Studies have been done that reveal that by flying in a V formation wind resistance is reduced by 71 percent. When the lead goose tires, it drops back and another goose moves to the head of the formation.
Honking is done by the geese in the back to encourage the geese in the front. If one goose becomes injured and falls, two geese drop with it to help; if it lands, the two stay with it through the night, huddle around it to keep it warm until it is able to go again. Then they catch up with the flock. If it is unable to go, they stay with it until it dies and then catch up with the flock. How descriptive of the body of Christ and what it needs.
The lives we live are public disclosures of who we are and to whom or to what we are committed. No matter what efforts we make at trying to cover or hide who we are, there is nothing covered that will not be uncovered. Regardless of how private we attempt to keep our lives, our very living is itself a public disclosure.
Does our disclosure reveal a public declaraction of our commitment to Christ or does it reveal a public rejection of the love and grace of God? What public disclosure is your life making? (HWR)
July 1, 1990
Limping, Not Staggering
This seems the time to admit it — I like wrestling. Not the real kind, mind you — Graeco-Roman, Olympic Free Style, or Sumo. I like the other kind, the kind you see on late night TV.
Yes, I know it’s silly but we are not always rational in our tastes or behavior, are we? Yes, I know it’s all make believe. So is Dorothy, Toto, and even Oz himself — that old humbug — but I watch that every time it comes on, too. Yes, I know TV wrestling is more choreography than sport — but that very fact makes me appreciate the true athleticism of these behemoths.
The thing I like most about TV wrestling, however, is its clarity. Viewers always know, if only by the roar of the crowd, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, who to pull for and who to boo.
There is clarity in the wrestling world, and a gradual justice, too — the good guys always ultimately shame the bad guys (usually in some pay-per-view extravaganza my wife won’t let me pay to watch!). Such clarity and justice is nice to see, if only because there is so little of either anywhere else, and especially in the real world.
It’s a pretty confusing world we live in. Can we tell, absolutely, who is the good guy and who is the bad? And don’t we, all of us, sometime at least, long for some clarity? Don’t we wish that God or God’s Word would make some simple sense of it?
Don’t look for too much help in this passage of scripture. It’s pretty confusing here, too. There’s not much clarity in this wrestling match; not much justice, either. And for the life of us, we can’t tell for sure who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.
Esau seems a decent enough fellow all in all. Slow-witted maybe, but who can fault him for being mad? Jacob steals him blind twice — once when Esau was weak with hunger, the other time by tricking a blind old man, their father Isaac, into giving Jacob the blessing instead of Esau.
What about Laban? Okay, so he’s an idolater — but does that give Jacob any right to steal the idols and almost everything else that he could get his mitts on? And that when Laban is not only his uncle but one who can listen and obey the word of God (Genesis 31:24).
And then there’s Jacob — the man who would be father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Frederick Buechner (Peculiar Treasures) notes that he was, for whatever else he might have been, a crook, a “second story man from way back.” And no gentleman, either. He sends all of his goods ahead of him into the final confrontation with Esau, as either bribe or buffer, before he knew that reconciliation with Esau was possible.
And yet it is Jacob, this somewhat cowardly crook, that God meets and blesses — blesses after He wrestles with him, blesses after He throws his hip out of socket. You remember the story.
Elie Wiesel has pictured Jacob, alone on the night of the fateful match as the text says in verse 22, in a moment of profound self-examination:
Early childhood memories, early quarrels with his older brother, early triumphs followed by remorse, early loves, early and late disappointments: so many events led up to the encounter he had just had with his uncle Laban and the one he would have tomorrow with his brother Esau. Jacob was worried. Understandably so. Tomorrow he might die. (Messengers of God)
Wrestling with himself, wrestling with his life, he found himself wrestling with God.
From the start and to the end Jacob was a wrestler. But there was no real clarity to the matches, and no real justice, either. All of his matches end in what appears to be a draw. There were great victories coupled with terrible defeats, good times and bad, some of it by turns, some of it all at once. Great wealth, then famine and loss; twelve sons, but his favorite of them lost to him for so long; and family squabbles enough to make him regret being the son of the son of promise.
And if his wrestling match with life was a draw, so was his match with God there by the Jabbok. After a silent, night-long struggle, just before the new dawn, the combatants declare a truce. And Jacob, though blessed with a new name, comes out with a new limp. Jacob emerges from the struggle wounded, marked; still walking, but uneasily. A new man, with new horizons, but forever limping to chase them.
His limp was a constant reminder of his match with God, of how he had striven with the God who strives. The limp, along with the blessing and the new name, was proof, too, both that God’s choosing has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with grace, and that nobody comes away from a match with God unscathed.
One thinks of Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, his own feet sore from so much wandering, so much limping here and there in search of the land God had promised him. Limping, but as the scripture says, “stagger(ing) not at the promises of God” (Romans 4:20). He limped, but he did not fall under the weight of God’s future.
And neither did Jacob. He limped through the rest of his life, reminded with each step of the way he had walked to meet God, and of the way God had met him.
It’s often hard to tell the good guys from the bad — except on late night TV. And God sometimes doesn’t help matters, taking a crook like Jacob and making him the father of Israel. Yet maybe a story such as this reminds us that nations are made, and souls are saved, less on account of who we are and what we do, than on account of who God is and what God does; that grace alters our would-be walk into a could-be walk; that even a limp, in step or spirit, may be a sign of God’s grace. (TS)
July 8, 1990
Swifter, Higher, Farther
Every four years we are witness to a world communion, of sorts.
They gather together again, the youth of our world, the strongest of body, the most competitive of spirit, the fleetest of foot. They gather together to throw themselves against one another, against gravity and the clock, to throw themselves against their own limitations of age and ego and injury and to strive for gold and silver and bronze necklaces, which, like the laurels placed upon the heads of ancient victors, are far more valuable for the precious accomplishment they represent than for the precious metal of which they are cast.
They gather together to renew an ancient ritual, and on television we see them, from 160 nations or so, athletes of every bulk and build, of every political and creedal stripe; a rainbow in fashion and face, and yet for all their differences they gather for a single purpose: to compete, to be swifter, fly higher, go farther. That one commonality – competition — and the attending fellowship and respect binds them together in spite of their other differences, at least for those two weeks.
We are there with them somehow, worrying about them, straining with them, crying with them sometimes, for they carry with them our best hopes and images of ourselves.
There is perhaps no other moment among all possible moments that can compare to the moment when beautiful youth mount the pedestal, bend at the waist to be garnished with gold at the neck, while a flag, any flag, rises majestically and the music of an entire people fills our hearing. When they win, we win.
And when they lose, or get lost somewhere along the way, we too lose.
At our best we can be swift of foot and swift to heal; we can fly high through the air, can fly high on the wings of hope and cooperation; we can run far, and show great stamina for goodness’ sake. And we can sing with joy and pride for the best of the human condition.
But there is the other, darker side of us, too; a side which is weak at least, and evil more than we like to admit, that part of us that can be swift to attack and devour, can fly high and go far to hurt and maim and alienate and ruin. Sometimes our targets are others; sometimes our targets are ourselves.
There is in us a bent to self-destruction. Our daughter, Bethany, in trying to understand why her grandmother and aunt and uncle smoke, says, “Maybe they don’t know that it is bad for them.”
But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Over and over again we all of us choose to do and be and celebrate those things which ultimately destroy us. As nations, as individuals, we stockpile new weapons and nurse old grudges, feed our resentments and rehash our angers, and drive ourselves away from one another even when one another is the best stuff God has given to us for this life of ours.
We rage at ourselves and at each other and there remains this tension, this polarity between our best wishes and our worst tempers. We walk now in the darkness, now in the light. We can be our own best friends and our own worst enemies.
Doesn’t that ring true to you? It sure does to me.
In theological language, this polarity of human existence is defined as simul justus et peccator. That was Luther’s line and it means “at once saints and sinners.” Simultaneously, blessed and a mess. Hung in the gap between our best and our worst, our oughts and our do’s. Another great theologian, Hank Williams Jr., said it this way: “We’re somewhere between raising hell and amazing grace.”
And didn’t Paul say it, too? In this passage which is so startlingly personal that some scholars blush before it, Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. I do not do the things I most want to do, but instead do the very things I hate. The very fact that I know that what I do is wrong convinces me that I believe the law to be right. But sin dwells in me, and is stronger than my best self. I can will what is right, but I do not do it. Instead, I do the evil I do not want to do. And while I delight in my soul in the law of God, I perceive that there is in my body a different law, fighting against the law that my soul approves and making me a captive to the law of sin. Wretched man that I am!”
Paul’s words, Luther’s words, they are the words of every Christian who has felt himself or herself caught in the gaps, who has known the difference between “should” and “do,” who has seen in the mirror the face of one for whom Christ has died, and at the same time the face of one who helped kill Him. And with Paul we ask, “Who will deliver (us) from this body doomed to death?”
There is a wonderful grace here, for even at our worst, God has given His best. We may do a soul’s dance of joy and hope, for thanks be unto God, it is Christ who delivers us, who gives us food for our journey through this dark gap, until we come to the light at last. (TS)
July 15, 1990
Freedom in the Spirit
President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the U.S. Congress on January 6, 1941 on the state of the war in Europe. Like most speeches and sermons, much of what he said was forgotten by the audience. Yet what he said at the end of that address almost a half century ago still rings true.
Roosevelt stated that he anticipated “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” He delineated them: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
Warren Wiersbe wrote that Romans 8 is the Christian’s “Declaration of Freedom,” because we find joy in the Freedom that comes because of our union with Christ. The Scripture focus relates to us a sense in which we find Freedom in the Spirit of Christ.
I. The Spirit Gives Us Freedom to Live (v. 9-11)
I like the title of Chuck Swindoll’s book, Living Beyond the Daily Grind. Life unfolds for us as we live in the Spirit. There towers before us the human grind of daily, mundane activities as little problems pile into Mt. Everest proportions, and doubts overwhelm our beliefs. However, when we step back to look at the wall-size map of life, we get the overall picture of life lived to the fullest, because the Spirit controls.
Life can be defined as the period of an individual’s existence between birth and death where characteristically the person breathes, functions, thinks, grows, maintains oneself, etc. In other words, the blood pumps, the heart beats, the mind thinks, the lungs inhale and exhale at correct intervals, the eyes see, the voice speaks, the hair grows, the fingers feel, and so on.
Death stops all of that from happening normally. I’ve preached at many funerals, and the corpses are dressed nicely. Their hair’s combed, ties on straight, and all that, but not one corpse has dressed himself, combed his hair, straightened his tic He can’t. All life function has ceased.
Spiritually the Spirit of God brings life to dead spirits. The Holy Spirit brings Christ’s resurrection spirit into contact with us. There is breathing, His blood begins to spiritually pulsate through our veins, our hearts start beating. We begin to see light instead of darkness, and our spiritual minds begin to function. When the Spirit comes, life occurs!
II. The Spirit Gives Us Freedom to Live in Christ-Likeness (v. 12-13)
This new freedom to live carries with it the marks of Christ-likeness. It’s an attitude and a presence. I now want to live on a high moral and ethical plane, because I am governed by an even higher spiritual dimension. My aspirations are on the things of the Spirit, not on the things of the flesh. The materialistic selfish ambition pulls me downward. The things of the Spirit pull me upward or Godward.
When the right attitude is cultivated, there will be an unconscious sense of rest in the Spirit, because the conscious effort has been made to rightly serve God. That happens because I have one deep supreme desire in life — that I may be like Jesus. It is the Spirit that draws me to Him. It is the Spirit that reveals Him to me. I will see His compassion, His love, His forgiveness, His joy, His perspective; and I shall be drawn irresistibly to Him.
I must give Him my will that I might be like Him, though I am encased in this frail, weak body of clay. It may crumble, but nothing can destroy the inner desire to be like Him. My life is yielded to Him. Then, and only then, can I be made “perfect” in Him. Only in that yieldedness can life have meaning and substance, growth and maturity; hope and trust.
When we stop focusing on Christ-likeness we become “sloppy in our play.” Stuart Briscoe tells about his son who played on the high school basketball team. One day his son came from practice so exhausted that he went straight to bed. When his dad saw him the next morning he asked his son why he was so out of shape halfway through the season. The reply was that the team was in great shape, but the coach said they had won so many games so easily that they were becoming casual and sloppy in their play. His concern was unless they got their act together they would be beaten by teams far inferior.
We may be great Christian players but Satan, who is inferior, can beat us at the game of life if we aren’t careful to live in the power of the Spirit.
III. The Spirit Gives Us Freedom to Live in Christ-likeness with a Sense of Belonging (v. 14-17)
Words and phrases like “children of God,” “sons of God,” “heirs,” “joint heirs,” indicate that we belong to God. He adopts us into His family when we offer our lives to Him.
William Barclay points out that to the Romans to whom Paul is writing, the idea of adoption was a serious and complicated step. Four consequences of adoption included: (1) The adopted person lost all rights in his old family, but gained all the rights of the new family. (2) He became heir to his new father’s estate. Even if other male children were born afterwards, real blood relations, it did not negate his rights. (3) Legally all debts were cancelled. The adopted person was regarded as a new person entering a new life which had no past. (4) The adopted person legally was literally and absolutely the son of his new father.
Paul relates this concept to our adoption into the family of God. We literally in every way belong to God. Our sin debt has been cancelled. His home is our home. We now can call the infinite God “Abba,” — Father. (DGK)
July 22, 1990
Never Pick Raspberries From a Burning Bush
Like many elderly people, Moses felt he had earned a quiet retirement away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and the pressure and politics of the court life. He had been faithful to his family and his shepherding career and was now a serene eighty-year-old.
There was no reason in the world why he should look forward to anything but restful days and leisurely hours doing what he wanted to do with the time that he had left in life. He had put in his time, and younger men could now take over. He was actually thinking of retiring to Florida.
Whatever hopes Moses had entertained of being the leader of his people in his youth, he had now long abandoned them. It is true there was a short time when he thought he was destined for the leadership of Israel. He recalled his early days when he had seen an Egyptian mercilessly beating a Hebrew, and so he killed the Egyptian.
He knew that it was wrong to do nothing when another was attacked, and so he did something about this injustice. In a barbaric day, when an eye for an eye was an advanced code, he killed the Egyptian.
The next day he discovered that what he did was known by many others, and the Hebrews not only disapproved this act, but Pharaoh, more than disapproving, sought now to kill Moses. Being a young man who would rather run than die, he headed for the hills as fast as he could, and he landed in Midian where he married and settled down to his shepherding and had a fine family and a long, honorable, uneventful career. Now he was old and life had been good to him, and he looked forward to spending the rest of his days in peace and quiet.
Into Moses’ quiet life there burned one day a bush. God spoke to Moses and told him He was concerned with the affliction of the 600,000 Hebrew people at the hands of the Egyptians. Moses was delighted that God was concerned. God said that He heard their cry and knew of their long-sufferings and He was now going to deliver them from their oppression. Moses could hardly believe his ears, for this was what had outraged him forty years ago and was the cause of his killing the Egyptian in the first place. Why, he nearly “jumped for joy.”
Then it was that God told Moses the rest of His plan: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth My people, out of Egypt.” Moses didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He thought God must have a terrific sense of humor. Was God serious? Me! An eighty-year-old shepherd who once did try to defend the Hebrews, but who ended up alienating them? Me? Why I haven’t been in the big city for forty years. I’m over the hill.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”, he said to God. I couldn’t possibly do a thing like that. I don’t want to do a thing like that. It is too dangerous. Pharaoh will have me killed before you could say “Jack Robinson.” I may be eighty but I’m not ready to die. This would be plain suicide. Besides, I am out of touch with what has been going on there. Who am I but a small shepherd?
Exodus 3 tells us that God was not impressed with this response to His call to service and His answer was plain and simple to Moses. “I will be with you.” In answer to Moses’ protests God promised His presence.
Moses wasn’t persuaded. He asked God, “Who are you, anyway? If … and that’s a big if … If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them? I don’t know? After all, there are many gods.”
God answered, “I am who I am … say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’.”
Moses asked for information about the mystery of God, but actually this information was not now given to him. Instead, God made known His demand of lordship, summoned Moses to obey His will, and assured him that he would know who God is by what He brings to pass. In other words, in answer to the question of “Who are You, God?”, God answered that he would find out in the events that would take place in the future, beginning with the Exodus and up to the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.
God had some good answers for Moses, but Moses was just beginning to warm up on the questions.
“But … they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’.” In other words, what proof can you give me to show to them that You are real and that I am not some kind of “kook”?
In answer to this concern, God had him cast a rod on the ground and it became a serpent. Unimpressed by that, God then had Moses put his hand in his shirt and he brought it out leprous. Still hard to convince, God then promises that if he will pour some water from the Nile on the dry ground, He will see to it that it becomes blood.
Now, all of these miraculous events should have been enough to get Moses going. He had asked some good questions. First, who am I? Then, Who are You? Now, who will believe me? God answered by saying, “You are someone who I will be with! I am a God Who acts in the events of the world! I will see to it that they believe you.”
Moses still had two more excuses. “I am not eloquent, … I am slow of speech and of tongue.” If You expect me to stir up the Hebrews and excite them about moving out of Egypt, then You have got the wrong boy. I am not too good on my feet. I never have been and I am not now. I never had a Dale Carnegie course, and my voice quivers, and speaking in crowds makes me nervous.
God’s answer to Moses was simple, clear and to the point. “Who has made man’s mouth?” It was a good point. If God can make a man with a mouth, certainly he can help a man as he speaks.
Moses was beginning to get exasperated in his conversation with God, for God simply was not listening to him. God was refusing to take “No” for an answer. So he finally said: thanks but no thanks. “Oh, my Lord, send I pray, some other person.” I just don’t want to go alone.
The Scripture at this point seems to indicate a mutual exasperation, for God, in a sense, then demoted Moses and said, O.K. I’ll send an associate with you. “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well … You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth.”
What does this man Moses need to be convinced? He was a hard man to reach. God appeared in a burning bush, and he reacted with a “business as usual” approach to life. “Very pretty, Lord. All that fire and stuff. A burning bush! What’s on TV tonight?”
Moses was like a spiritual bull in a china shop, for he just blundered ahead with his own agenda and completely ignored that God Himself was trying to give him a message.
God had to tell him, don’t come near, don’t look at Me, take off your shoes, “For the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He was such a clod. Kids today would call him a nerd. He was spiritually insensitive to what was going on around him.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning must have had him in mind in her long novel in verse called Aurora Leigh:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common hush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit ’round and pluck raspberries.”
Moses saw the burning bush. Moses heard God talking to him. Moses heard God demanding leadership from him. Moses heard God demanding that he be obedient to His will. Moses walked up to the flaming bush, admired it, and plucked a raspberry.
Actually, Moses is my kind of guy. I run from God all the time, and I find it comforting to see that God dealt patiently with him. Moses’ reasons are not new to us, for they are our reasons for not doing God’s will. We run from God asking, who am I that you should ask me to do this? Who am I but a nobody? Why should I stick my neck out on this issue in order to help someone? Or, why should I teach this class? Why should I go calling on the sick and lonely? Send the minister.
Or we turn to God and say to His face, “Who are You? Who are You to ask this of me? How dare you suggest such a thing? Don’t you know who I am?”
Or, we are afraid that no one will believe us. We are afraid of what our friends or family will say or do if we do glorify God in our daily tasks or our pocketbooks. We don’t care if people do think we are nuts when we say that our favorite team should be ranked number one in the nation, but we do care if they think we are nuts for helping our fellow man. We can be fanatic sport fans, but we shrink from enthusiasm for our Christian faith.
And besides, I have so few abilities, and the ones I do have are not very well developed. Certainly, God would not want me to do something I can’t do or might mess up. I get so nervous.
Then, of course, I know many other people who could do a better job. I am not eloquent. Look at all the ten-talent people in our church. Let them do it.
Ask me to do something, Lord, anything, and immediately, like Moses, I can give you five good reasons for doing what I want and not what You want. Ask me to sacrifice for You, Lord, and — like Moses — I can give You five good reasons why it just isn’t possible at this time. But please try again next year and maybe I’ll be in better shape. In the meantime, don’t remind me of all the people who are dying — physically and spiritually.
Ask me to help someone in need and I, like Moses, can think of five good reasons why I can’t. I have my own responsibilities to take care of, you know. I’ve got house payments, car payments, college payments, boat payments and vacation payments. You name it, Lord, and I’ve got at least five good reasons for not doing it.
Yes, I’ll go where You want me to go, Dear Lord,
Real service is what I desire,
I’ll say what You want me to say, Dear Lord,
But don’t ask me to sing in the choir.
I’ll say what You want me to say, Dear Lord,
I like to see things come to pass.
But don’t ask me to teach girls and boys, Dear Lord,
I’d rather stay in the class.
I’ll do what You want me to do, Dear Lord,
I’ll yearn for the Kingdom to thrive,
I’ll give You my nickels and dimes, Dear Lord,
But please don’t ask me to tithe.
Yes, I’ll go where You want me to go, Dear Lord,
I’ll say what You want me to say.
But I’m busy now with myself, Dear Lord,
I’ll help You … some other day.
I would guess that there is a little bit of Moses in all of us. (CTH)
July 29, 1990
God is at Work
I am acquainted with the administrator of our local hospital. One day as we chatted together he stated that his company had made the decision to build a new hospital. He laid out the architectural plans on the desk and I caught his enthusiasm. As time elapsed the first spadeful of dirt was turned and construction began on schedule.
It was fascinating to watch as the bulldozers and other large machinery began to clear and level the site. The framers came along with the bricklayers and the city watched as the wood and brick became the shell.
The administrator saw the open spaces and beams as patient’s rooms, as labs, operating rooms, the nursery, birthing areas, the administration department and emergency unit. He had a vision of the work. The day came when the brick and mortar, wood and nails became the hospital building where people came to have broken arms and legs set, a place for babies to be born, gall bladders removed, and hearts repaired.
God is at work constructing you and me. He sees what we can become as we are yielded to Him. The Lord stands ready to mold and make us His house of worship.
I. God is at Work on Our Behalf (v. 26-27)
God is concerned about the trials of His people. Both Mark (7:34) and John (11:33, 38) tell us of the deep emotion Jesus had on behalf of people. Today Jesus is not physically present with us, but He has given us His Holy Spirit to dwell with us. This Scripture reveals that His Spirit “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” This demonstrates the intense empathy He has with us.
It is more than emotion, more than empathy; it is intercession so that we might be led into the will of God. In spite of our burdens God will give us the strength to be successful! He looks at the longings and aspirations which well up from the spiritual depths inside of us and releases them from the imprisoned dwelling to freedom of life and expression.
Norman Bartlett relates a story about a painting of a stalwart, rugged and weather-beaten fisherman, and a little girl of six or seven years of age. The painting shows a fog coming in the distance. The child has hands on two oars, but it obviously is the fisherman — pulling on those same oars with all his might and strength — that is moving them to shore.
The Holy Spirit prays through us, inspiring our thoughts, and quickening our consciousness of God’s presence. How thankful we ought to be for such divine construction!
II. God is at Work with a Purpose (v. 28-29)
The Holy Spirit offers us the plan of God. He wants us to envision His purpose through His supernatural guidance.
The Israelites were directed with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Adam and Eve talked with God in the Garden of Eden. The disciples spoke and walked with Christ face to face. The Holy Spirit now enlightens the hearts and minds of believers to enable them to embrace the person of Jesus Christ and His ideals. Our purpose is to be godly. Holiness becomes our lifestyle.
What does that mean? We will not crave evil. We will not touch anything that smacks of idolatry. We will refuse to practice immorality. We will guard against cynicism and negativeness. We will stay as far away from sin as possible. Holiness unto the Lord becomes literally our watchword and song.
III. God is at Work for our Ultimate Salvation (v. 30)
William Barclay explains to us that Paul never meant this passage to be an “expression of theology or philosophy.” He sees it rather as an “almost lyrical expression of Christian experience.”
As we contemplate salvation, we understand that God is the author and finisher of our faith. We did nothing to bring about Christ’s entrance into the world, nor His decision to go to the cross, nor the power that brought about the resurrection. We did not produce the story; we only received the truth.
As one writer said, “Love works within our hearts.” Conviction of sin came; and then repentance and forgiveness. We did not achieve any of it in our own strength. It came from God.
Salvation has always been in the mind and heart of God from the beginning of eternity — and beyond. You and I were on Christ’s mind on the old rugged cross. Our salvation was under construction even then.
God is at work and we are His project. (DGK)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: John A. Huffman, Jr., Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA; David Mosser, Pastor of First United Methodist Church, Georgetown, TX; Howard W. Roberts, Pastor of Broadview Baptist Church, Temple Hills, MD; Thomas Steagald, Pastor of Highlands United Methodist Church, Highlands, NC; Derl G. Keefer, Pastor of Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI; and C. Thomas Hilton, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Pompano Beach, FL.
June 3, 1990